Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

BonnieClyde

Directed by: Arthur Penn

Written by: David Newman and Robert Benton

Starring: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard

“Some day, they’ll go down together / They’ll bury them side by side / To a few, it’ll be grief / To the law, a relief / But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.” — Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker, reading her poem

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There are plenty of ways to analyze Bonnie and Clyde. We could talk about its lasting effect on cinema, and how the true crime drama made violence and sex more prevalent in Hollywood films. I could dig deep into the final sequence, which to that point was one of the bloodiest scenes in movie history. If I was interested, I might even discuss its impact on fashion in the late 1960s.

But there’s only one thing I want to talk about, and that’s how this movie won one of the least-deserved Academy Awards of all time.

Bonnie and Clyde is full of solid — but by no means legendary — acting performances. Warren Beatty shines as the devastatingly handsome Clyde, and Faye Dunaway expresses a remarkable inner conflict in her portrayal of Bonnie. Gene Hackman is solid if not necessarily memorable, and a surprising Gene Wilder appearance (his first film!) is absolutely delightful.

But there’s one character that doesn’t fit. One character that makes the scenes she’s in particularly unbearable. One character I would do anything to travel back in time and ask David Newman and Robert Benton to rewrite: Blanche.

Blanche is played by Estelle Parsons,  who somehow walked away with an Oscar for best supporting actress for this role. Parsons is an actress who went on to have a long and successful film, TV and Broadway career following this 1967 film. And I by no means want to rag on her for the rest of this blog — it’s not her fault that she was cast as one of the worst characters I’ve ever seen in film.

Blanche screams. That’s it. That’s what she does. Really, she shrieks, in an ear-shattering tone that over the course of nearly two hours can easily cause a migraine.

Storywise, Blanche is married to Gene Hackman’s Buck Barrow, the brother of Clyde. She gets pulled into the Barrow gang against her will, and is along for the ride as they go on their violent crime spree. And that could very well be an interesting character, but it seems the writers didn’t know how to craft a dissenting gang member without making her yell at the top of her lungs every single time a gun is fired (which in this movie, is quite often).

In real life, Blanche was one of the few members of the Barrow gang to survive. And the real Blanche wasn’t too happy with her portrayal in the film, saying: “That movie made me look like a screaming horse’s ass.”

It’s true. That’s exactly what Bonnie and Clyde does.

When I found out that Parsons won the Oscar, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. It’s not necessarily that Parsons is a bad actress, but there’s just not a lot of difficult acting being done with Blanche. Scream, run and cry. Scream, run and cry. That’s all there is to it. If that’s what it took to win an Academy Award in 1967, well, I’m sure glad the standards have changed since then.

That being said, anyone interested in the transformation of cinema in the second half of the 20th century should sit down and watch Bonnie and Clyde. Just have the volume control at the ready, or shrieking Blanche will blow out your eardrums.

Aliens (1986)

Aliens

Directed by: James Cameron

Written by: James Cameron and David Giler

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn

“That’s it, man. Game over, man. Game over! What the fuck are we gonna do now? What are we gonna do?” — Bill Paxton as Private Hudson

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I really wanted to like this movie, damn it.

Even in 2017, the hype was undeniable. James Cameron, fresh off his legacy-launching job at the helm of The Terminator, was directing the sequel to arguably the best science fiction film of the 20th century. Everyone I’ve talked to about Aliens has heaped praise upon it. I went into this movie expecting it to be bigger and scarier than the original.

But it’s just bigger. And more annoying.

The original Alien thrives by putting a small crew in a claustrophobic hellhole from which there is no escape. It works because the smaller cast makes each character actually take on a life — whereas Aliens brings an entire squad of marines into the picture, for the sole purpose of being able to have more kill sequences without running out of human ammo. But I just can’t bring myself to care about any of those characters. In fact, they’re not even characters —  they’re just pawns being sent out to be destroyed en masse.

This movie is aggravatingly predictable across the board. In the first film, Ian Holm plays a traitorous android whose sole mission is to get the “perfect organism” back to the company, with the rest of the crew ID’d as expendable. In the sequel, we have Bishop, an android who from the start Ripley distrusts and despises loudly and openly. But of course James Cameron isn’t going to play the same villain trick again, and there’s a sense that Bishop has to do something to redeem the viewers’ negative impressions of androids (which of course he does).

Paul Reiser with his charming baby blues plays Burke, the new company man. Let’s not forget that this is the same company that sold out the crew in the first film in order to get the alien back to Earth and study it. But don’t worry! Everything is different now, and Burke assures Ripley that he wants to help destroy these creatures at all costs, which no sane viewer can buy for even a millisecond.

This all sets up a suicide mission in which the characters plunge down onto a space colony that has been torn apart by the xenomorph aliens. Everyone’s dead. Well, except for Newt, the young girl who has somehow survived while hiding among the wreckage, just waiting for Ripley to show up. Ripley takes on a motherly role for the child, and the dynamic between the two is one of the real enjoyable aspects of Aliens. Sigourney Weaver received an Oscar nod for best actress, and I have to believe that the scenes between her and the young actress Carrie Henn are a big reason for the nomination.

The movie’s strongest moments come through effects and makeup, and there are some truly dazzling sequences. The xenomorphs remain terrifying, and now that there’s an entire horde of them, chaos and violence follows wherever they roam. And that can be a whole lot of fun, don’t get me wrong.

But I can’t excuse the lazy storyline that just doesn’t have enough emotional bite to captivate me. There was a phenomenal sequel that could have been made here. Cameron just didn’t make it.

The French Connection (1971)

French

Directed by: William Friedkin

Written by: Ernest Tidyman (screenplay); Robin Moore (based on the book by)

Starring: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey

I absolutely love this film — and I feel a little guilty about that.

There are so many great things about this classic Best Picture winner, but it’s hard to watch this movie from 46 years ago and not see some of the culturally problematic layers.

But first, the good stuff: The most famous scene of this movie is the frenetic car chase that features Gene Hackman as Detective Popeye Doyle (one of the all-time great character names). If The French Connection doesn’t really sound like your cup of tea, you need to at least watch this scene, as Doyle speeds through the streets of New York, trying to keep pace with an elevated subway train on which a French assassin is trying to escape. The fact that this was filmed in 1971 completely blows my mind, and the trivia behind the filming itself is even crazier.

According to IMDB, the filmmakers shot the scene without getting the proper permits from the city. So although the NYPD did help them with traffic control, there were parts caught on camera where civilian drivers make their way into the path of the speeding car. According to Hackman, one of the cars that he slams into was that of a resident of the neighborhood who was just pulling out onto the street.

Aside from the car chase you have a pretty classic cop movie in which New York City takes on a role as one of the main characters. It’s one of those films that makes you want to take a trip and see the sights that you’re watching in front of you. Roy Scheider adds a needed balance as the good cop to Hackman’s bad cop, and Fernando Rey knocks it out of the park as the cunning French baddie.

So how does this movie make me uncomfortable? First there’s Popeye Doyle, who, despite having an amazing name, continually shows himself to be a racist, sexist character. Actor Peter Boyle actually turned down the role because of the character’s unsavory tendencies. Obviously racism and sexism are nothing new to films, but  because Doyle receives so little pushback from any other characters, the movie comes off as lacking some self-awareness.

There’s not a single female character worth noting in this movie. In fact, there might only be two women, and they’re both sexualized in some way. And when Doyle and his partner go looking for drugs on the street, they go to the black neighborhood bars and rough the patrons up. And while those scenes are unfortunately realistic of what police work was like in the 1970s, it’s not easy to watch nearly 50 years later while realizing we haven’t evolved past that behavior much at all.

That said, The French Connection has landed somewhere in the list of my top 100 movies of all time. I hate that I have to apologize for parts of it, but what director William Friedkin was able to put together is a thrilling police drama that films like The Departed and shows like The Wire obviously draw inspiration from. It’s a classic for a reason.

Speed (1994)

SpeedArt

Directed by: Jan de Bont

Written by: Graham Yost

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Sandra Bullock

Spoiler Warning

Thank god for Keanu Reeves. I saw Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure when I was 9 years old, and I was convinced that it was the greatest movie ever made. But ever since I have been admittedly lax in keeping up with Mr. Reeves’ career (other than grabbing a VHS copy of The Matrix at a garage sale a few years back).

So I’m proud to say I have finally seen what may be the pinnacle of Keanu. Speed isn’t a flawless film, no. And it’s definitely not the best film in which Keanu Reeves has starred. But when a friend of yours does an impersonation of Keanu at a bar, Officer Jack Traven is the character they’re channeling. The buzzed-haired LAPD cop trapped on a bus that can’t go below 50 mph who delivers a continuous flow of eyeroll-worthy lines. Just take this exchange from the opening scene of the movie, when an elevator in a downtown L.A. skyscraper is wired to blow at any second:

Cop: Anything that will keep this elevator from falling?

Keanu: Yeah. The basement.

That’s just flawless screenwriting, Graham Yost. Bravo.

This movie made $121 million at the U.S. box office in 1994 (when the average ticket price was just $4.08). It was a summer sensation, and rightfully so. I mean, a metro bus jumps over a huge gap in the downtown freeway. That same bus eventually has an explosive collision with a 747 on the LAX runway — and there’s still 25 minutes left to go in the movie after that. Dennis Hopper gets decapitated on the top of a subway car!

It just doesn’t let up.

I watched this movie with a huge grin on my face. It was the perfect amount of cheesy action and laughable dialogue. I found myself talking at the screen multiple times, even yelling “Oh noooooo,” when the first bus driver is shot.

Don’t make the mistake I did in waiting more than 20 years to watch this Keanu Reeves tour de force. It’s seriously fun the whole way through, and I can’t recommend it enough for some summer laughs.