Movie Review – The Birds

The Birds (1963)
Written by Daphne du Maurier & Evan Hunter
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The Birds is unlike any Hitchcock film I have ever seen. Three years after shocking audiences with Psycho, a film that is also slightly off from most of the director’s work but still sharing some psychological traits, we get this straight up man versus nature horror film. The first half is very slow, almost a comedy-drama, and every once in a while, we get a hint that something is off. Then the second half hits, and the film slides into total chaos. What we get is what I see as a reasonably angry film that expresses some of Hitchcock’s misanthropy in horrifying and comedically absurd ways.

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Movie Review – Nomadland

Nomadland (2020)
Written & Directed by Chloe Zhao

It’s tempting to single out 2020 as an exceptionally rough year, but I argue that life for millions of people has been a generational cycle of struggle for as long as anyone can remember. The United States is caught in a cycle of economic recessions that batter people working in the industrial & service industries worse and worse. Writer Jessica Bruder detailed the American subculture of older workers who live in a perpetual state of migration, taking rough menial seasonal labor while living out of RVs and vans. This community first gained prominence in the wake of the 2008 recession, which saw swaths of homeowners losing their homes due to inhumane business practices. Her book details these people’s tragedies and triumphs breaking their backs to make ends meet and keep traveling up the road to the next spot. Most importantly, it highlights how American corporations have made this migrant labor a key component in their business model. 

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Movie Review – Doctor Zhivago

Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Written by Robert Bolt
Directed by David Lean

Coming off the meteoric success of Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean desired to make a film more romantic & relationship-centered, a counter to Lawrence’s epic war themes. However, Hollywood now saw him as a filmmaker of sprawling bombastic movies. Doctor Zhivago, based on the worldwide bestseller by Boris Pasternak. Originally, Omar Sharif signed on with the expectation of playing Pasha, while Lean wanted Peter O’Toole as the lead again. O’Toole opted out, and so Lean asked Sharif to play the lead part. On December 22, 1965, just in time for Christmas, Doctor Zhivago was released in theaters and became one of the highest-grossing movies of all-time.

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Movie Review – Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Written by Robert Bolt & Michael Wilson
Directed by David Lean

In the 19th century, Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle gave a series of lectures positing the great man theory. This belief is that history is simply the impact of a series of great men who were highly influential and better than the ordinary person. This was attributed to some innate superiority or divine providence. This has become a well-deserved point of contention in modern history discourse as it’s become clear that white men did a very efficient job of suppressing the accounts and perspective of women, black people, and other non-white, LGBTQ+ people that lived alongside them. T.E. Lawrence was definitely seen as a great man, but David Lean’s controversial film about the historical figure explores that the myths and stories did not match the reality.

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Movie Review – The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson
Directed by David Lean

Of all David Lean’s films, this remains my absolute favorite and rewatching it many years since the last viewing, I saw so much more than I ever have before. I think The Bridge on the River Kwai actually serves as a perfect allegory for the incoming Biden presidency and the unity message of Liberals towards Leftists and Progressives in America. While the film is set during World War II, we aren’t in the middle of the action. Instead, the narrative has two prominent locations: a Japanese POW camp and the Club Med-like hospital and Allied base of operations in Ceylon. We never see massive battleships or armed soldiers moving en masse across hills and fields. These are people broken by war, yet some are still unable to see the madness in their actions and cling to the procedures.

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Movie Review – Oliver Twist (1948)

Oliver Twist (1948)
Written by David Lean & Stanley Haynes
Directed by David Lean

David Lean’s second attempt at adapting Charles Dickens is even better, in my opinion. This time around, instead of relying on other screenwriters, Lean and Stanley Haynes worked out the script together and managed to keep most of the story’s high points. Lean was audacious enough to add to the story with two critical bits at the beginning and end that work beautifully and are some of the best scenes of the entire film. Even more so than Great Expectations, we find the director leaning into noir-ish Gothic production design and lighting, which leads to an incredibly memorable viewing experience.

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Movie Review – Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations (1946)
Written by David Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Cecil McGivern, Ronald Neame, and Kay Walsh
Directed by David Lean

The success of Brief Encounter rocketed David Lean into a level of acclaim that would only grow for the remainder of his career. His next projects would be adaptations of two classic Charles Dickens novels, starting with Great Expectations. The idea to adapt the story to the screen came after Lean saw a stage production that abbreviated the text and turned it into a digestible narrative while cutting away subplots. It took a couple of years of drafts, explaining the writing credits until Lean was satisfied with the final product. On Boxing Day (December 26) 1946, Great Expectations premiered in the U.K.

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Movie Review – Brief Encounter

Brief Encounter (1945)
Written by Noël Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, and Ronald Neame
Directed by David Lean

David Lean was born into the Quaker faith in 1908 in the pastoral environs of Surrey, England. While in school, Lean was deemed too dreamy and not up to snuff with the level of academics he was expected to master. At age 18, he entered into an apprenticeship under his father’s accountancy firm. At age ten, Lean had been given a Brownie box camera, and this event was looked back at by the director as one of the most formative experiences in his life. The next formative moment came when at age 15, Lean’s father left his family. Lean would follow suit with his first wife and child. He would remarry five additional times, and friends claimed he slept with around 1,000 women in his lifetime. 

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Movie Review – A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story (1983)
Written by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown, and Bob Clark
Directed by Bob Clark

A Christmas Story is a great little holiday comedy about childhood but also one of the most disgustingly overhyped pieces of Americana in recent years. The TBS 24-hour marathon of the film definitely didn’t help things and has honestly led to the oversaturation of the picture. It’s a look back at the Depression Era Midwest and dramatizes Jean Shepherd’s memories of his childhood. The film is done in a series of vignettes that make it easy to consume by casual viewers or kids whose attention spans might wan after too long. But it definitely doesn’t deserve as much licensed merchandise or a Broadway musical based on the picture.

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Movie Review – Traffic

Traffic (2000)
Written by Stephen Gaghan
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh’s career has been one of the most eclectic and prolific of most modern directors. It was a slow burn, though. His directorial debut, sex, lies, and videotape, was a massive breakthrough in 1989. However, for all his promise, it led to a decade of commercial failures and an embrace of independent filmmaking and experimentation. It was 1998’s Out of Sight that changed things and led to his reemergence as a mainstream film director. Soderbergh never lost sight of those formative experimental years, and Traffic served as a bridge between more conventional filmmaking and the director’s insistence on playing with form and presentation.

Traffic is a film based on a BBC mini-series that follows three separate but intersecting plots centered around the War on Drugs in the United States & Mexico. In Tijuana, we follow police officer Javier Rodriguez (Benicio del Toro), who is brought into General Salazar’s inner circle, a high-ranking official that wants to take down the Obregón brothers who head the local cartel. Rodriguez and his partner become further intertwined with Mexico’s corruption, quickly realizing every side is out to have a piece of the drug trade and is only interested in eliminating the competition.

In the Midwest, we meet conservative judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is appointed to head the President’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. It becomes clear to Wakefield from his predecessor and longtime staff members that the War on Drugs is unwinnable, but he keeps moving forward with the transition. Meanwhile, his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) has become involved in drugs, her latest vice being freebasing cocaine. She and her boyfriend (Topher Grace) hole up in a cheap motel room where they spend the day blasting their minds with drugs. When her addiction comes to light Wakefield and his wife (Amy Irving) struggle with the best way to help their daughter.

The final plotline centers on Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who’s husband is arrested by the DEA for his role as a drug trafficker. Meanwhile, DEA agents Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Castro (Luis Guzman) are leading the investigation on Ayala’s operations, which also involves surveilling his wife. Helena finds herself becoming financially desperate. People whom her husband owes come around making threats, and she finds herself reaching the edge. Gordon and Castro get their hands on a significant witness against Ayala, Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), whose testimony makes him a valued asset of the US government and the cartels’ target.

Soderbergh bit off so much with this film and does an excellent job developing each plot thread, allowing light crossing over but making sure each story has its own complete arc. One technique he uses to help the audience is by using three different color correction techniques for each story. Rodriguez’s sun-bleached Mexico story is shown in an overexposed sepia, Wakefield & his daughter’s journey through addiction is presented in a stark, cold blue. The California storyline looks the most conventional, with colors just slightly oversaturated. Soderbergh was an early adopter of digital filmmaking, and it shows here as those first cameras could show a lot of grain & distortion in the video. This was a detractor in some pictures, but here it helps with the cinema verite style that Soderberg was going for, a semi-documentary atmosphere with handheld camera work.

The best thing about Traffic is how Soderbergh presents the War on Drugs as an unwinnable conflict. Wakefield delivers a speech in the third act about how we are asked to go to war with our own children, and that understanding and offers of help will do more to curb the desire for drugs. The film does an excellent job of showcasing how overly complicated and pointless the mission to wipe out drugs is. It’s pointed out early in the movie that the cartels would have no power if the demand in the white suburbs of America weren’t there. The very law enforcement that claims to be fighting the spread of drugs regularly turns out to be on cartels’ payrolls.

The way Soderbergh delivers this message is not through the characters didactically spouting platitudes (I’m looking in your direction, Aaron Sorkin!). He keeps that documentarian style that distances his own views from the characters and never editorializes things. A few moments, particularly with the Wakefield character, come close to that, though, but the director manages to avoid going over that cliff into a movie of the week.

Traffic’s biggest problem is the scope of its story and how, even with a three hour running time, so many characters are still relatively undeveloped. I have to think that the original television version could do this, but you lose that in a feature film. Caroline is a non-character for most of the movie, just a drug-addicted teenager with minimal other defining characteristics. I also think Helena deserved some more development because we see her story arc rushed along to make her the head of her husband’s operations without really seeing her struggle along the way. Traffic certainly still holds up, one of those movies that created an aesthetic for the 2000s that is even mimicked today.