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My Favorite Movies – Sounder (1972)

17 May

By Tanner Smith

I didn’t grow up with Sounder like I did with Old Yeller–probably an unfair comparison, since “Sounder” isn’t necessarily a boy-and-his-dog story, but I’ll get to that. I had always heard of it as a kid, but I never actually sat down and watched it until I was 22.

And I loved it. I think I would’ve loved it as a kid too. It’s truly fantastic. I now own it as part of a collection of 12 classic family films–the other 11 seem generic by comparison.

Strangely, even though the movie is named after the dog, Sounder himself is the least interesting element of the movie. (I never read the book the film was based on, so maybe he played a bigger part there.) That’s because Sounder, the film, is more about this family of black sharecroppers trying to survive in 1933 Louisiana. The family is starving, so the father (Paul Winfield) steals a ham. Then he’s taken away to prison, and so the boy, David Lee (Kevin Hooks), has to go out and look for him. The mother (Cicely Tyson) and her children have to look after the crop so they can survive. David Lee learns about opportunities outside of the farm, but he isn’t ready to leave his family for them. And so on. It’s great seeing how these characters live in this environment, and it’s done with astonishing realism.

And it does feel real, in the sense that it’s not just a nonstop parade of horrible misery–it knows when to saw the joyous moments too, such as when characters get together to play a game of baseball, and those scenes feel real too. And the emotions that are felt, especially near the end, when the father talks to his son about his choices in life, are spot-on and brilliantly acted.

My favorite scene: The aforementioned father-son moment near the end is wonderful and reminded me of a similar scene in “Old Yeller” (another comparison), but my personal favorite scene is one that lays down the theme of the whole film–it’s a classroom scene set midway through the film, as a student tells a story about how he saved his sister from drowning even though he himself couldn’t swim and no one believes his story except David Lee. Why? Because David Lee knew the kid had to do it, just like the family knew they had to keep going through the tough times.

Random side-note: “Sounder” is the only G-rated movie I know of in which a character uses the word “peckerwood.” I know MPAA ratings were weird back then (there’s no way “True Grit” and “Planet of the Apes” would get G ratings today–hell, their remakes are PG-13!), but that made me laugh! I mean, “what the hell” and “damn it,” I knew you could get away with, but “peckerwood”?! Wow.

Sounder (1972)

23 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As I begin my review of this wonderful film called “Sounder,” I would like to talk about my favorite scene. It’s late in the film, as its pre-teenage hero, David Lee (Kevin Hooks), visits a school where one of the class tells a story about how he saved his sister from drowning in a creek. The other students think he’s lying; they know he can’t swim. The boy insists the story is true. But David Lee believes, and he speaks for him. He believes the boy had to jump into the water even though he couldn’t swim was because he had to, in order to save his sister from drowning. It’s just like how he, his mother (Cicely Tyson), and his two younger, smaller siblings had to look after the crops after his father (Paul Winfield) has been sent away to serve a one-year hard labor sentence. No one believed they could do it, but they did. Why? Because they had to; otherwise, they wouldn’t survive. After putting it that way, the rest of the class applauds him.

The film is set in the mid-1930s, during the Great Depression, filled with ordinary people doing what they could with what they had. And for a family of poor black sharecroppers in Louisiana, who are the central characters in “Sounder,” they had to work harder, even in the midst of family crises. This is the ethical center of the film: ordinary people faced with needs and rising to the occasion. It’s somewhat easy to root for heroes who have superpowers, lead armies, give big speeches, etc. But it’s so much easier to root for central characters who are not meant for great purposes other than looking out for each other and doing what they can to make their situations better, while also searching for and finding that special feeling within themselves to keep going.

“Sounder” is a slice-of-life film that focuses on such characters. In rural Louisiana, a family of black sharecroppers go through a crisis they have to push themselves out of somehow, and the film shows how they all grow in the process. The oldest son, David Lee, comes of age; his mother is more determined than before; and his father, having served a jail sentence (this is for stealing food for the family early in the film), has valuable advice for David Lee after his return home. The film is about truth and development, centered on real, fully-realized characters who love and try to help each other. As a result, it becomes one of the most moving, effective family films I’ve ever seen—I take it back; maybe not just “family” films, but films in general.

The film is episodic in its storytelling, showing us time after time in a series of events that make up the ethical center. The closest thing that happens on an action level is a sequence in which David Lee and his hunting dog, Sounder, set off on a journey to find the prison camp his father was sent to. He doesn’t have any luck when he gets there, but he does come across a black school where he attends a class and is taken in for a couple of nights by the friendly schoolteacher, who invites him to live with her while he attends her school. It’s here where that scene I mentioned in the first paragraph comes into place.

Another favorite scene comes near the end. The payoff is very effective in a simply moving way. David Lee’s father finally comes home, and David Lee never wants to be without him again, so he doesn’t want to leave to go to the school. But his father insists that he should. Angry and sad, David Lee runs away. But his father catches up to him and gives him a speech about how he shouldn’t get too used to this place; otherwise, he won’t leave and his future will be aimless. It’s a very realistic moment between father and son, and the father’s words are perfectly chosen.

Simply put, “Sounder” is an excellent film with a simple yet affectionate story of growth, love, and hope. The acting is great, especially from Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson (she brings a lot of subtlety to her role as a nervous but determined mother); the emotions and themes are mature and well-presented; and it’s a film for the whole family to see. Kids can get much out of it, adults can get even more, and all will see that this is a truly wonderful piece of work.

The Last House on the Left (1972)

6 Feb

last house 72 01

Smith’s Verdict: **
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Warning: This review contains many spoilers (but it is an older movie).

“The Last House on the Left” was the feature debut for director Wes Craven, who would go on to be best known for horror films such as “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (and its sixth sequel, “New Nightmare”), the “Scream” movies, and “Red Eye.” I know he’s a smart filmmaker with a lot of interesting ideas to put into the mix of his films, and to be fair to “The Last House on the Left,” I think I kind of understand the reasoning behind most of the choices made for it. Let me explain…

There are many strange elements to this film, all of which are very distracting in comparison to some disturbing, brutal scenes of sex and violence. The soundtrack contains a lot of cheesy, upbeat music, including a theme song for the film’s antagonists and a melancholy (“foreboding”) theme song for their victims that features the central lyric “and the road leads to nowhere.” The unnerving scenes of uncomfortable flirtation and upcoming torture are constantly intercut with quirky scenes in which parents prepare a surprise birthday party for their daughter who happens to be in danger during all this. And even more distracting is the central rape-and-murder sequence interlaced with scenes involving two bumbling police officers who look and act like they belong in a completely different movie.

I suppose the reasoning for this choice in music is what was going on at the time, when you would tune in to TV and radio and hear stories about Vietnam and then switch the dial to chirpy folk music to calm yourself down. I think Craven was trying to satirize that probability through this film. But to me, it didn’t work at all and it kept losing my attention. Maybe back then, it worked. But now, it’s extremely dated.

The film’s tone constantly shifts in the first hour of the film, from horrifying terror to quirky comedy. I know we need some comic relief after some of the scariest of moments, but this is just too much. It’s sloppily handled and has no clever way of seguing from one to the other. Am I being too harsh? Probably, but I never got a laugh from these clowns.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself. “The Last House on the Left” is about two young women, Mari and Phyllis, who go out for a night on the town and meet a strange young man their age who might supply them with pot. But quickly, they’re trapped in a motel room with the young man, two escaped convicts, and their whorish girlfriend, who torture them and kidnap them. (This happens along with Mari’s parents preparing the birthday party.)

The following morning, the brutes stash the girls in the trunk of the car, which breaks down during their “pleasant” drive in the middle of the woods. From that point on, they take the girls further into the woods and go on to violently rape and murder them. It’s extremely violent and very depraved in its execution. The visceral thrills are well deserved, especially since the scene is well acted, very disturbing, and quite scary in that you don’t know what these people will do to these poor young women. What’s especially heartbreaking is that all of this is happening just across the street from Mari’s house and she tries to find a way to escape that far, even trying to talk the weakest of the killers (the young man) into helping her, but it just won’t happen. And when Phyllis tries to escape, you root for her to escape and are saddened to find out what happens to her when the killers catch up to her, just as she almost makes it to the highway. It’s crude and startling, but it’s very effective.

But the big problem here is that it constantly loses its horror; this whole sequence is intercut along with a lot of the material involving the two cops.

One of the most interesting and refreshing things about the film is that the young man, one of the killers, is as unsettled about his companions’ crimes as we are. He has nightmares that night about what they’ve done (with Mari tauntingly chanting his name) and even in the beginning, he believed things were going too far. But the kid is also mentally unstable and is constantly convinced by the two older men to go along with the plan. When the kid finally steps up and tries to put a stop to all the mayhem, it’s especially tragic that he can’t allow himself to. One of the best scenes in the film is when the ringleader of the group, Krug (David Hess), is held at gunpoint by the kid and Krug manages to talk him into pointing the gun at himself and “blowing his brains out.”

Only the last twenty minutes remain consistently unnerving and violent. The killers find themselves spending the night in the home of Mari’s parents. The parents find out who these strange people are when they discover blood stains on their clothing and one of the men wearing Mari’s locket. They decide to take revenge and singlehandedly kill them all in ways that are shockingly more dangerous and violent than the killers’ previous actions. The father attacks with a chainsaw and sets traps around the house (one of which involves electrocution), while the mother does something to one of them that I’m not even going to describe here. A psychologically disturbing scene that gets into the minds of the parents before they carry out their revenge is a dream sequence in which they smash one of the killers’ front teeth out with a hammer and chisel. This climax is horrific but it’s fascinating in that you can see the lengths that the parents are willing to go through to avenge their daughter’s death.

But need I also mention that the curtain-call ending credits feature the same cheesy, upbeat music as well? That’s right; just when we’re supposed to feel something after a gruesome series of murders and ask ourselves questions of how we as people would handle a similar situation, it’s immediately ruined. Something else I should bring up is the advertising for this film—it originally released a trailer with a reassurance, “To Avoid Fainting, Keep Repeating, It’s Only a Movie…Only a Movie…Only a Movie…” I can’t imagine anyone, even back when the film was released, mistaking this for anything else, especially if you show them the scenes involving the two cops.

NOTE: Okay fine, I laughed once, at a scene in which the bumbling cops encounter a woman driving a chicken truck and try to hitch a ride. I might as well admit it.