REVIEW: “To Kill A Mockingbird”

Classic Movie SpotlightMOCKINGConsidered an American movie classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of the best films to come out of the 1960’s and features what many consider to be Gregory Peck’s finest performance. It was nominated for eight Oscars, a winner of three, and was listed in The National Film Registry in 1995. In many ways “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a time capsule. Each time I watch it I’m transported back to a time that in many ways was kinder and gentler but not without its own open wounds. What’s most impressive is that it manages to do this without ever feeling unimportant or dated. It feels just as powerful and relevent now as it did when I first saw it.

The movie is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee about the small town of Maycomb, Alabama during the 1930’s. Gregory Peck plays Atticus Finch, a town lawyer and a single father of two young children. Atticus is asked to represent Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man who is accused of beating and raping a white woman. Atticus believes in the judicial process and believes Tom to be innocent. But even before the trial, many in the town have already judged Tom to be guilty and tensions soon reach the boiling point.

Peck won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance and many have said it was because of the striking similarity between him and his Atticus character. Atticus is a true man of character and integrity. He stands up for what’s right and tries to instill that same principle in his children. But while the trial and the fallout is a key part of the story, it’s not the main part. The movie’s bigger focus is on Atticus’ children, his son Jem (Phillip Alford) and his daughter Scout (Mary Badham). We first see them in all their innocence, from their imaginative playtime to their light-hearted mischief. Jem and Scout just live their life with a care-free child-like approach that I was really, really drawn into. Perhaps the wonderful portrayal of their innocence helps make what comes later so much more powerful.

At its core, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is about the loss of innocence. Eventually things unfold through the eyes of the children that reveals to them the darker and more troubling aspects to the world they live in. As the town begins to react to the alleged rape and the tensions leading up to the trial date rise, the kids see things that leave them confused and often times scared. The way director Robert Mulligan switches his camera to the children as they’re watching these harsh and disturbing things unfold is beautifully executed yet so heart-breaking. But yet it’s true and authentic. Unfortunately, as kids we’ve all had those moments. Moments when we realized that the world wasn’t just about tire swings and ice cream. Moments that we see the dark side of society and the people around us. But that’s also when the light shines the brightest and for these kids, their father Atticus was certainly a shining light.

There are several other smaller but equally enthralling side stories and side characters in the movie. Jem and Scout make friends with a young boy named Dill (John Megna) who comes to visit his Aunt Rachel each summer. I loved Dill and the three have some great scenes together including their investigations into Boo Radley, a mysterious crazy man who is believed to only come out of his creepy broken-down house after dark. Robert Duvall plays Boo in what was his big screen debut. I also loved Jack K. Anderson’s performance as Bob Ewell, the slimy and disgraceful father of the rape victim. He’s a despicable man and his vitriol hatred makes him an easy character to dislike. Everyone is well cast and the performances are spot-on.

I also loved the way the film visually captured the 1930’s Depression-era South. By the end of the film you really feel as though you know Jem and Scout’s neighborhood as if it were your own. The subtle things such as porch swings, school attire, and southern accents all give the movie such a homey and believable feel. But the movie doesn’t shy away from the deep racial divide and clear bigotry that was a problem at that time. It shows a warped and broken social structure that put personal hatred above justice and makes no apologies. We see this in not only the story itself but also in the striking visual details as well.

 I think my only real issue with “To Kill a Mockingbird” was with the courtroom scene. Now don’t misunderstand me, it was a great extended scene. But it felt to me like something was missing. With a couple of exceptions, there wasn’t a lot of emotion or intensity. It also seemed as though everything moved and flowed perfectly with nothing to buck the plans of the defense or the prosecution. Now I understand that the courtroom scene itself wasn’t intended to be the centerpiece of the picture. But I really felt it could have had a little more “pop”. That said, Peck was fantastic in the scene and his questioning of Bob Ewell and Tom Robinson were fantastic moments in the film.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” does so many things right that it’s easy to overlook the small faults. Peck certainly deserved his Oscar as he is brilliant playing, as many believe, himself. Atticus Finch really touched me especially as a father trying but failing to shield his kids from the sick side of the world they live in. That father/children relationship really, really worked for me. But the movie also had so many other components that resonated with me and that’s another reason it’s so good. It’s a multifaceted story that’s told with a great visual and technical style and that isn’t ashamed to address the deep-rooted problems of that day. It’s been called “timeless” and I have to agree. It never gets old and it still has the same effect on me today as it always has.



One thing that we movie fans can be happy about is the large number of great actors in the business today. When putting together this list of five great modern-day actors I couldn’t help but feel bad about leaving guys off who certainly deserve to be on. But such is a testament to the great amount of talent out there. It’s hard to balance incredible individual performances with bodies of work, but I’ve tried to factor in both. So as hard as it was, here they are. As always, I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these 5 modern-day actors are absolutely phenomenal.


Bale has come a long way from being the young 14-year old boy in “Empire of the Sun”. At 38 years of age he has amassed an impressive resume of performances that range from straight-forward action pictures to gritty, emotional dramas. After “Empire of the Sun”, Bale received a lot of attention for his role as a serial killer in 1999’s “American Psycho”. From there he established himself as a quality action movie star in films like “Reign of Fire” and “Equilibrium”. In 2005 his career skyrocketed after being cast as Bruce Wayne in “Batman Begins”, director Christopher Nolan’s fantastic reboot of the Batman series. The role opened up doors for Bale to work with some great directors such as Terrence Malick in “The New World” and Werner Herzog in “Rescue Dawn”. After working with Nolan again in “The Prestige”, he worked opposite Russell Crowe in the underappreciated remake “3:10 to Yuma”. That led to Bale’s biggest film yet, “The Dark Knight”, the second installment in Nolan’s Batman trilogy. After two more action pictures, Bale starred in David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” a movie that earned him his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Bale is set to star in the final Batman movie of the Dark Knight trilogy this year and I can’t wait to see what else.


Clooney started his career in television and first gained notoriety on the show E.R. But it was Quintin Tarentino and Robert Rodriguez who brought Clooney to the attention of moviegoers in the vampire action flick “From Dusk to Dawn”. After roles in the mediocre romantic comedy “One Fine Day” and the equally mediocre  action thriller “The Peacemaker”, Clooney starred in a film that could have ended many careers, Joel Schumaker’s horrible “Batman and Robin”.  But Clooney’s career began to take form thanks to some well-received roles in films such as “Three Kings”, “Solaris”, and his first collaboration with the Coen Brothers “O’ Brother Where Art Thou?”. “O’ Brother” showed Clooney wasn’t afraid to show his fantastic sense of humor. He would later star is such fun and quirky films as “Leatherheads”, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”, “Burn After Reading”, and “The Men Who Stare at Goats”. But Clooney also established himself as a force behind the camera in the heavy, political-driven “Good Night and Good Luck”. He also saw himself garnering more critical acclaim that catapulted him into superstardom. He won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in 2005’s “Syriana”. He was nominated for Best Actor Oscars in the wonderful films “Michael Clayton”, “Up in the Air”, and “The Descendents”. Clooney is a bona-fide Hollywood superstar but it’s one of the rare cases where it’s for good reason. He’s a powerful actor who can command the screen and you can expect a quality performance every time.


DiCaprio has been making quality films since he was a kid. In fact it was only recently that I saw him as the brilliant adult actor that he has become. He first captured attention for his remarkable performance as a mentally challenged boy in 1993’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”. He was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and it was here that DiCaprio was recognized as much more than just a child actor. He starred in several other films but it may have been James Cameron’s “Titantic” that really put his name on the map. After working with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks in “Catch Me If You Can”, DiCaprio starred in a film that would launch a fantastic actor/director relationship. “The Gangs of New York” marked his first film with Director Martin Scorsese. The duo followed it with “The Aviator” and “The Departed” each earning DiCaprio critical praise. He would receive his third Oscar nomination for “Blood Diamond” and then teamed up again with Kate Winslet in “Revolutionary Road”. He then got back with Scorsese to make the underrated psychological thriller “Shutter Island” which was followed by the starring role in Christopher Nolan’s phenomenal “Inception”. 2012 looks to be an even better year for DiCaprio. He has two intriguing films coming out, “The Great Gatsby” and Quintin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”. What’s amazing is that DiCaprio is still only 37-years old. It’s fun to imagine what he still has in store for us.


Daniel Day-Lewis would probably be #1 on this list if he had a bigger body of work to talk about. On the flip side of that, his limited body of work contains some of the greatest performances in modern cinema. Day-Lewis isn’t an actor who constantly stays busy and he’s very selective in choosing his roles.  Another reason Day-Lewis is so good as that he immerses himself into each role. He’s known to stay in his character both on and off-screen throughout the entire shoot and his comfort levels with his characters are evident. Day-Lewis started his acting career in theatre and television but quickly gained attention on the big screen. His most recognized early film work was in 1985’s “A Room with a View”. But it was 1989’s “My Left Foot” that really brought him critical acclaim and eventually the Academy Award for Best Actor. In 1992 he starred in Michael Mann’s amazing adaptation of “The Last of the Mohicans”. Quality performances followed in movies such as “The Age of Innocence”, “The Boxer”, and “In the Name of the Father”, a film that earned another Best Actor Oscar nomination. After taking a few years off, Day-Lewis returned for his memorable performance in Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”, a performance that earned him yet another Best Actor Oscar nomination. But it was his work in 2007’s “There Will Be Blood” that won just about every acting award available including his second Best Actor Oscar. His performance as Daniel Plainview is mesmerizing and I have no problem calling it one of my favorite performances in movie history. Up next for Day-Lewis is the role of Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”. I can only imagine what Day-Lewis will bring to the character and he’s one actor I can’t miss.


Russell Crowe could be seen as a rugged “man’s man” actor. He’s starred in an assortment of gritty period films and crime dramas. But Crowe has also showed a sharp range and an intense dedication to putting everything into his characters. Crowe is a far cry from the “pretty boy” image that many actors embrace. He brings a natural and authentic quality to his performances and that’s a big reason why he’s able to excel in such a wide variety of movies. His acting career started in Australia but he soon shifted to American films. He starred as the villain opposite Denzel Washington in the goofy sci-fi action flick “Virtuosity”. But the quality of his films quickly rose with “L.A. Confidential”, a critical success that gave Crowe’s career a boost. After several smaller roles, Crowe starred alongside Al Pacino in Michael Mann’s “The Insider”. He received high marks for his performance and even received his first Oscar nomination. But it was his work in 2000’s “Gladiator” that brought him to the forefront of motion pictures. He won the Best Actor Oscar in what is one of my personal favorite films. The following year Crowe starred in “A Beautiful Mind”, a remarkable movie that was drastically different from “Gladiator”. He received another Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance that he should have won. In 2003 he starred in “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”, a gripping historical epic that didn’t garner him an Oscar nomination but it certainly should have. Crowe’s range was again made evident through a run of high quality movies including the boxing film “Cinderella Man” , a fantastic western “3:10 to Yuma”, a crime drama “American Gangster”, a spy picture “Body of Lies”, and a political thriller “State of Play”. In 2010 Crowe made his fifth film with director Ridley Scott, “Robin Hood”. And while I found it to be a another strong film from Crowe, it was received with mixed reviews. Crowe is currently working on two films, “Broken City” and “Superman: Man of Steel”. At age 47, Crowe still has a lot of good movies to make. He’s a natural talent that can carry the movie and whenever I see his name attached, I’m automatically interested.

See an actor that I missed. Disagree with my choices? Leave a comment and share your five favorite modern-day actors.

REVIEW : “No Country for Old Men”

Joel and Ethan Coen have established themselves as some of the best filmmakers in the business. Their wide creative range and unique storytelling style has given us great films from several genres. Yet there are several common threads woven throughout a Coen brothers picture and one of the greatest compliments I can give them is that you know a Coen brothers movie when you see it. “No Country for Old Men” is my personal favorite of all of their films and that’s saying a lot. Winner of four Oscars including Best Picture, “No Country for Old Men” examines several themes that the brothers frequently explore while incorporating their familiar quirkiness, dark humor, and gritty violence. But the film is also unlike any of the Coen’s other work and that uniqueness gives it its own special voice.

Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, “No Country for Old Men” stays pretty faithful to the book. It could be called a crime thriller or even a modern-day western. It’s rugged look and tone gives this modern tale of violence an almost old west feel. But that plays to one fascinating subtext to the film. It is a movie about the evolution of violence and the moral callousness at its root. It says “things aren’t like the used to be” but from a more broken and defeated point of view. But there is much more to the film than that. It’s also a story of choices and consequences, old versus new, and chance versus fate. I’m being rather vague on all of these but let’s just say the ideas are interwoven throughout the movie.

Set in West Texas during the early 1980’s, the story opens with Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbling across a drug deal gone wrong while hunting one day. Among the blood-soaked bodies and bullet-riddled pickup trucks, he finds a lone but wounded survivor begging for water. Having no water Llewelyn leaves him. Before leaving he finds another body with a satchel full of money. Faced with the first of many key decisions that drive the story, he grabs the satchel and leaves the scene. Several ill-advised decisions later, Llewelyn finds himself on the run from the Mexican cartel and more notably a psychopathic hired hitman named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Tommy Lee Jones plays Ed Tom Bell, a small town Texas sheriff following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He and his deputy find the busted drug deal and Llewelyn’s abandoned truck and start trying to put the pieces together. The rest of the story focuses on the triangle of Llewelyn, Chigurh, and Sheriff Bell. And even though they share practically no screen time together, their lives slowly become intricately connected.

As with every Coen brothers film the casting is impeccable. Almost every performance is pitch-perfect and there is rarely a moment where the characters feel false. Josh Brolin not only looks the part of Llewelyn Moss but his flawless accent, the delivery of his lines, and west Texas mannerisms nail his character. He is perfectly complimented by a subtle and reserved performance by Kelly Macdonald who plays his wife Carla Jean. She’s simple but sweet and you are drawn to her as she’s drawn into Llewelyn’s situation. I also loved Tommy Lee Jones’ work as Ed Tom Bell. He’s the perfect choice for a small town Texas sheriff and I was enthralled with how he flawlessly embodied his character. Even Woody Harrelson has a small but great role as a rival hired gun looking for the missing drug money. But the best performance may be from Javier Bardem (who captured the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role). He may sport the worst haircut in film history but he’s also one of the most chilling and brutal villains on film . Even with his amoral propensity for violence, he’s fascinating to watch and the film’s best moments are when he’s on-screen.

“No Country for Old Men” is also a technical gem. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, a long-time Coen collaborator, uses his camera to create a dark and dirty world but one grounded in a true sense of realism. The sparse, dusty landscapes provide the perfect canvas for the Coens to create their violent world. The action scenes are ferocious but even in their brutality they never seem gratuitous. Instead they feel perfectly in context. I also loved the Coen’s use of sound, or in many instances their lack of it. Many scenes feature no background music instead relying on natural ambience. Several intense scenes feature no music or dialogue yet it’s the silence that really thickens the tension. While the Coen’s can sometimes be a little, for lack of a better word, wild with their filmmaking, every thing here feels a little more tightly structured and controlled.

The Coens have made many good films and they have a style that’s undeniable. You may like or dislike their approach to filmmaking but you have to respect it. Their unique vision is stamped all over this film. The violence is startling, the pacing is perfect, and there is just the right amount of dark comedy. You’ll wince in one scene and laugh out loud in the next one. “No Country for Old Men” is a brilliantly written adaptation and a beautifully crafted film. It’s one of those movies that features several scenes that will always stick with me. It’s also helped by some truly searing performances led by Bardem’s memorable work. I understand that this film may not appeal to everyone but for me this is a masterpiece. It’s a lesson in expert filmmaking and cinematic creativity. It’s also a movie I can watch over and over and never grow tired of it. Yes, it’s one of my favorite movies of all time. There, I said it!




Review: “A Separation”

“A Separation” is the 2012 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film and the first win for a movie from Iran. Written, produced, and directed by Asghar Fahadi, “A Separation” is a carefully structured and nuanced story that is at times painful and tragic but always mesmerizing. Set in modern-day Iran, the film is a devastating look at divorce through the cultural lens of a very complex country. Fahadi uses an almost methodical approach to storytelling yet his film is brimming with intensity and true human emotions. It touches on a reality of life that transcends any political or cultural barrier while also offering some thought-provoking insight into the religious laws and social structure of that part of the world.

“A Separation” opens with a well conceived scene that sets the stage for larger story. The scene shows Nader and Simin petitioning a judge for a divorce after 14 years of marriage. Simin is spearheading the separation because she wants to leave the country due to its current state of affairs. She is concerned with how it will effect the future of their 11-year-old daughter Termeh. Nader has no desire to leave mainly because he takes care of his father who is in the advance stages of Alzheimer’s. The judge rules their complaints to be petty and not warranting a divorce. With no divorce granted Simin still moves out leaving Nader to take care of his father and Termeh.

It’s here where we begin to see the many layers of Fahadi’s story. He examines a variety of social issues while offering a subtle but clear critique of Iranian culture. Yet nothing here feels forced or contrived. He looks at these things through the eyes of his characters in a true and organic way. Plus we learn more about the characters as they’re faced with things such as elderly care, school pressure, and rigid orthodoxy. But the biggest dissection of the characters comes through an intense court battle between Nader and a caretaker he hired to look after his father. It’s here that we see each character struggle with a variety of difficult choices and moral quandaries. It becomes a true character study that reveals a side of people that we can recognize as wrong while also understanding the root cause of their moral compromises. This is where the story could have evolved into a convoluted and self-indulgent mess. But Fahadi’s razor-sharp screenplay never misses a step and the film moves with a fluid yet painful grace.

While Fahadi takes his characters through various moral gray areas, he never labels one the hero and one the villain. There are no white or blacks hats in this story. In fact, one of the most compelling things about the film is trying to figure out who to sympathize with between Nader and Simin. I was constantly going back and both between them as things unfolded. But that’s just another reflection of the tremendous screenplay. Fahadi engages the audience and encourages them to make their own conclusions about his characters. And while his story does examine social and cultural issues, “A Separation” is a film about a divorce that’s happening right before our eyes. But as I was watching this husband and wife I realized that the heart of this story was young Termeh. Like a tennis ball she is bounced back and forth in the background of the film until everything reaches it’s breaking point. She’s simply heart-breaking.

Another reason the movie works so well are the performances. Everyone across the board is fantastic and no one buckles under the weighty material. The performances flow perfectly together with such ease. They nicely handle a script that can sometimes pack more intensity in an on-screen conversation than most action films. I remember several scenes that had me on the edge of my seat just by its searing dialogue. But while the story is very well written, there is one problem I had. There’s a pivotal moment close to the end of the film where key information is revealed in what feels like the most convenient way imaginable. It’s the only time in the entire film where something didn’t feel authentic.

“A Separation” is a fantastic movie that does more to prove the broad range of global talent in filmmaking. It’s a fascinating look at the cultural inner-workings of a complex society yet the main thrust of the story goes well beyond that. It examines the horrible effects of divorce by looking at it through a very clear lens. Fahadi doesn’t try to take sides even if it appears so at first. Instead he exposes what drives some people to end their marriage. It’s an honest and often times crushing picture but one that is incredibly well crafted. It does have a minor hiccup or two but these minor flaws do nothing to spoil what a fine accomplishment this is. “A Separation” should cause the serious viewer to think and to ask ourselves questions. For me, that’s just a reflection on how good this movie is.