Classic Movie Review: Cleo, From 5 to 7 (1962)


Title: Cleo, From 5 to 7
Release Date: April 11, 1962
Director: Agnès Varda
Production Company: Ciné Tamaris | Rome Paris Films
Summary/Review:

Watching lots of New Wave, New Hollywood, and other 60s art films, I’m seeing a pattern of movies that glorify the renegade man. Over and over these men defy convention, yes, but are also obnoxious, abusive, and sexually aggressive – in short, dudebros.  So it’s refreshing to see a New Wave-style film by a woman director that focus on a woman lead character who spends much of the film interacting with other women.

Cleo (Corinne Marchand) is a rising pop singer who is waiting for the results of a medical test which will tell her if she has cancer or not.  Over a two-hour period (close to the film’s 90-minute run time), Cleo visits a tarot card reader, goes shopping with her maid, has a brief visit from her lover, rehearses with her composer and lyricist, meets her friend Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck), and finally goes to a park where she encounters a soldier on leave from the Algerian conflict, Antonie (Antoine Bourseiller).  Antoine agrees to accompany her to the doctor if she will see him off at the railway station.

Cleo is depicted as being somewhat vain, but a recurring theme is “beauty is life,” reflecting how people are conditioned to value a woman for her beauty. Cleo’s meanderings through the film are given poignancy by the fact that she is facing her mortality.  The movie is also a great time capsule of Paris in the early 1960s.  I was particularly impressed by an extended scene in a taxi cab that simply showed the view of the city’s winding streets at a radio news report speaks about Algeria and other current events.  The whole movie is beautifully composed as a film and features top-notch acting all around.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
Title: The Bluest Eye
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2007 [originally published in 1970]
Summary/Review:

I first encountered Toni Morrison in college where I read her novels for three or four different courses (including a senior seminar focusing entirely on Zora Neal Hurston, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison) and she quickly became one of my of favorite authors.  I first read The Bluest Eye in the summertime, not for a course, and found it a most emotionally devastating novel.  I’m not alone if feeling strong emotions about The Bluest Eye.  A friend in college said after she read the description of Pecola’s rape, told sympathetically from her father’s point of view,  that she threw the book across the room.

Pecola is young Black girl in Lorain, Ohio in 1941 from a poor and unstable family.  Her father Cholly Breedlove is an alcoholic while her mother Pauline is distant and more invested in the cleanliness and order of the rich white family where she works as a housekeeper than her own family.  Pecola is dark-skinned and even among the African American community she is considered “ugly” and is mocked and shunned.  Pecola in turn idealizes whiteness and dreams of getting blue eyes.

When we first meet Pecola she is staying with a foster family because Cholly burned their house down.  The MacTeer family, working class but stable, offer a contrast the Breedloves. They have two daughters around the same age as Pecola, Claudia and Freida.  The youngest of the girls, Claudia, is a narrator for parts of the novel (alternating with a third-person omniscient narrator) and offers a child’s perspective on many unsettling incidents.  Claudia is also the only person to show any compassion to Pecola.

The Bluest Eye is not an easy book to read, although it is an important book because it deals with real problems. The cruelty of people and the deep scars of racism that lead to internalized hatred are too prevalent to ignore.  The audiobook is especially powerful read by Toni Morrison herself.  She makes the excerpts from Dick & Jane stories at the start of each chapter sound chilling.

Favorite Passages:

“So when I think of autumn, I think of somebody with hands who does not want me to die.”

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: A Raisin in the Sun (1961)


Title: A Raisin in the Sun
Release Date: May 29, 1961
Director: Daniel Petrie
Production Company: Columbia Pictures
Summary/Review:

The Younger family share a small apartment on Chicago’s South Side that provides the setting for most of this film that explores the tensions within this family and the effects of institutional racism on them.  The central conflict of the story is how to spend a $10,000 life insurance payment.  The elderly mother and grandmother, Lena (Claudia McNeil), wants to fulfill her late husband’s dream of buying a 3-bedroom house with a yard.  Her daughter-in-law, Ruth (Ruby Dee), shares this dream, especially since she’s learned that she’s pregnant with a second child. Lena’s son Walter Lee (Sidney Poitier) has a different dream of purchasing a liquor store with two colleagues in hopes of earning the family’s way into prosperity.  Lena’s daughter Beneatha (Diana Sands) is attending medical school and hopes to become a doctor.

The majority of the movie takes place in the cramped two-bedroom apartment shared by five people, which would be challenging in the best of times. The movie takes advantage of the sense of confinement to highlight the family’s struggles.  A Raisin in the Sun is adapted from a play of the same name by Lorraine Hansberry and many of the actors from the 1959 Broadway production return for the film, and the movie has a theatrical feel to it.  I particularly like the opening scene in which the youngest member of the family, Travis (Stephen Perry), reluctantly wakes up for school and the family (and their neighbors) compete to use the single bathroom.  It feels very relatable.

In addition to the family’s interior conflict, greater social issues are shown to affect the family.  Beaneatha grows a relationship with a classmate from Nigeria, Joseph Asagai (Ivan Dixon), who helps her connect with her African heritage.  Joseph is contrasted with George Murchison (Louis Gossett, Jr.), Beneatha’s suitor whose is prosperous and denies his African roots and the effects of racism.  Meanwhile, when Mama purchases her dream house, a representative of the all-white neighborhood attempts to buy the house from the Youngers to prevent racial integration.  This character is played by John Fiedler, who sounds very familiar because he is also the voice of Piglet in the Winnie the Pooh movies, which is very disconcerting.

A Raisin in the Sun veers into melodrama at times, but it features terrific acting performances by all its leads.  It is also significant for featuring an almost all-Black cast (except Fiedler) and screenwriter in 1961. I do wonder what the movie would be like with a Black director like the original play was directed by Lloyd Richards.  I was surprised that Daniel Petrie would go on to direct Fort Apache, The Bronx, a notorious movie that depicts white cops fighting against “savage” Black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers.

 

Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: BoJack Horseman (2020)


Title: BoJack Horseman
Release Dates: 2020
Season: 6b
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

BoJack Horseman reaches it’s series finale in a melancholy place.  This is on brand for BoJack Horseman, but it could’ve gone to a much darker place.  After all, BoJack could have killed himself and we came close to seeing that story.  A happy ending would’ve felt artificial, so the middle ground between the extremes that is depicted here is the right decision.

In the first half of season 6, BoJack went to rehab and begins to show steady progress.  In the second half opener, BoJack has settled in to teaching acting at Wesleyan University and is actually doing a good job of it.  But as much as we are pulling for BoJack, he has done some horrible things in his life that he has yet to grapple with.  In fact, his friends spend an episode making a list of the bad things he’s done on a white board.  His culpability in the death of Sarah Lynn ultimately comes out in public and leads him to rock bottom.

The penultimate episode “The View From Halfway Down” is the season’s experimental episode in the form of a near-death experiment where BoJack attends a dinner party with several characters who have already died including his mother, Sarah Lynn, and Herb Kazzaz.  It serves as both a reckoning for BoJack and a culmination of everything that has come before in the the tv series.

BoJack survives, of course, and the final episode ties off some loose ends.  BoJack’s story is clearly not over and he will likely face ups and downs in his future.  But BoJack Horseman, the series, is over because there are no longer any reason for the five main characters to be together.  Each of BoJack’s friends from the past six seasons have moved on, and more or less, are in a better place.  Mr. Peanutbutter continues to have tv success and seems to have overcome some of the neediness that has lead him to serial matrimony.  Todd has created a childcare center and moved into a house of his own with Maude.  Princess Carolyn’s hard work has paid off with success in career and life.  And Diane, while still struggling with depression, becomes a successful young adult book author and finds happiness with Guy.

The payoff of this series rewards having watched all six series and growing to care for the characters.  And now it would seem worthwhile to go back and rewatch the whole thing to catch the throughlines that brought us to this finale, as well as all the background gags.

Related Posts:

Classic Movie Review: Breathless (1960)


Title: Breathless
Release Date: March 16, 1960
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Production Company: Les Films Impéria | Les Productions Georges de Beauregard  | Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC)
Summary/Review:

There was a big deal about a remake of “Breathless” with Richard Gere, that I remember seeing scenes from as a kid.  There’s also the song by Jerry Lee Lewis. But I honestly had no idea to expect from this alleged French New Wave masterpiece. Alas, it’s another movie from the Sixties which tries to glamorize the life of an obnoxious, sexually aggressive, and criminal dudebro (dude-frère?).  In this case, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) steals a car in Marseilles, kills a police officer who chases him, and uses his American girlfriend, Patricia (Jean Seberg), to shield him from the police.  It’s very self-indulgent and frankly kind of boring.  The movie is recognized for its innovation in cinematography and broad influence, but I just don’t care enough to muster up any thoughts on what this movie does right, because it was so dull and awful.

Rating: **

Book Review: When the Irish Invaded Canada by Christopher Klein


Author: Christopher Klein
Title: When the Irish Invaded Canada: The Incredible True Story of the Civil War Veterans Who Fought for Ireland’s Freedom
Publication Info: Doubleday (2019)
Summary/Review:

Several years back I first heard about how Irish revolutionaries attempted to invade Canada from the United States and thought to myself “That would make a good movie!”  But I never knew the details until I read this history book.

The invasions, known as the Fenian Raids, occurred from 1866 to 1871 with attempts by Irish Republicans to cross the border from Maine to New Brunswick, Vermont and northern New York to Quebec, Buffalo to Ontario, and the Dakota Territory into Manitoba.  The purpose of these raids was to capture territory of the United Kingdom in hopes of drawing supporters to the cause and perhaps even exchanging Canada for Ireland’s independence.

Klein sets the stage for the Fenian Raids by establishing the 19th-century perspective that Americans had on borders.  The practice of filibustering, private military expeditions across borders, was well known at the time, especially with Mexico.  The United States and Canada also had many border conflicts and Manifest Destiny looked north as well as west, with many Americans assuming that all or parts of Canada would one day become the United States.  Finally, there was resentment against Great Britain for tacitly supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War which made it possible that some people within government might turn a blind eye to incursions across the Canadian border.

Ireland had suffered the potato blight and Great Hunger of the 1840s and 1850s which caused the death of over a million and the emigration of at least a million more.  The survivors within Ireland used the cavalier indifference of the British to their starvation as impetus to revive the fight for independence.  The Young Ireland movement of the 1840s was succeeded by the secret society of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.  With so many Irish immigrants in the United States, it became a place where Irish Republicans could raise money and organize freely.  The Fenian Brotherhood was founded in New York City in 1858 where they established headquarters and a government-in-exile.

Or I should say, two headquarters, because much like Irish Republican movements throughout history, the Fenian Brotherhood was divided by infighting.  One of the contentious issues was whether to invade Canada or to focus solely and supporting an uprising in Ireland.  Klein notes that both Fenian branches would succumb to popular pressure and support raids in to Canada at different times.

Irish-born soldiers made up a large proportion of the men who fought on the front lines on both sides of the Civil War.  Some of them specifically enlisted in order to gain the military experience they could then use to fight for Ireland’s liberation, and in the early raids, the officers and troops were predominately Civil War veterans.  The Irish invaders had success early on at the Battle of Ridgeway, across the Niagara River from Buffalo, on June 2, 1866 where they defeated reservists and militias from Toronto and Hamilton.  This proved to be the only victory in the cause for Irish independence in-between  the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the Irish War of Independence in 1919.

The raids more typically were a comedy of errors. The Fenian Brotherhood faced as much trouble with the United States government enforcing the Neutrality Act as they did with British and Canadian military forces.  But hubris and lack of organization were their biggest obstacles.  Again and again, the Fenians gathered together a small band to strike into Canada with the optimistic belief that once they start fighting people would flock to their cause, and they’d even gain support from French Canadians and the American government.  On one of the last raids with the supposed goal of linking up with the Métis in Manitoba, the Fenians not only failed to make any allies but they also didn’t even manage to cross the border.

One of the great ironies is that Fenian Raids did help bring independence to a country, but not for Ireland.  There was division among the provinces of Canada before the raids, but the fear of invasion lead many people to support Canadian Confederation in 1867. The Fenian Raids also played their part in the longer struggle for Irish independence, especially the key role of Irish Americans as fundraisers and organizers which persists to this day. Klein’s book takes an historical curiosity and fleshes out a story of a campaign that consumed decades of the lives of many Irish Republicans. He demonstrates how invading Canada seemed a plausible and compelling idea as well as showing why it ultimately failed.  And yes, this would still make a great movie.

Favorite Passages:

The Canadian plan offered several scenarios that could result in Ireland’s independence. An attack could divert British army troops from Ireland, increasing the chances of a successful IRB uprising. It could perhaps even trigger a war between Great Britain and the United States, which had cast its land-hungry eyes northward after having expanded west and south in the prior three decades. Under another scenario, the Fenians could seize Canada and trade the colony back to the British in return for Ireland. In essence, a geopolitical kidnapping of Canada, with its ransom being Ireland’s independence. Even the plan’s proponents understood that the chances of success weren’t in their favor. But the odds would be against the Irish no matter what they did. A slim chance is all Ireland ever faced when challenging the British over the past seven centuries. The likelihood of failure might have been high, but it was guaranteed if they did nothing at all.

Recommended books:

  • The Great Dan: A Biography of Daniel O’Connell by Charles Chenevix Trench
  • The Man Who Made Ireland: The Life and Death of Michael Collins by Tim Pat Coogan
  • The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966-1996 and the Search for Peace by Tim Pat Coogan
  • Biting At the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair by Padraig O’Malley

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: La Dolce Vita (1960)


Title: La Dolce Vita
Release Date: February 5, 1960
Director: Federico Fellini
Production Company: Riama Film | Pathé Consortium Cinéma | Gray Films
Summary/Review:

As I’ve been going through the Classic Movies project, there have been movies I haven’t enjoyed but always got a sense of why they’re considered classics.  That is until a got to La Dolce Vita, a movie I struggled to watch because it seems to me to be a 3-hour slog of self-indulgence built around a character with no redeeming qualities.  That character is Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), a celebrity gossip writer living “the sweet life” rubbing shoulders with the cafe society, all the while being amoral, lecherous, and abusive.

The movie does not have a traditional plot but is more of a series of vignettes from Marcello’s life. Some critics break it down into a significant series of seven nights and seven dawns, while others say the numerology is not important.  For me, it was a challenge to just see Marcello being awful again and again.

In these vignettes, we see Marcello:

  • meet a wealthy woman, Maddalenna (Anouk Aimee), and take her to the flooded apartment of a prostitute where they presumably make love.
  • discover that his girlfriend Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) has attempted suicide and drive her to hospital, and then attempt to call Maddalenna.
  • welcome the famed Swedish actress who has made it big in Hollywood, Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) and follow her as she climbs the dome of St. Peter’s and has a party.  Eventually the two end up in the Trevi Fountain, when the “magic” is broken by the sunrise.  (The scenes of Sylvia wandering the narrow streets of Rome with a stray kitten on her head are some of my favorite in the movie).
  • cover the media circus around an alleged sighting of the Madonna by two children, that ends with people trampled to death.
  • attend a party at the home of his intellectual friend, Steiner (Alain Cuny), and have a philosophical conversation.
  • take his father (Annibale Ninchi) out nightclubbing and have him go home with a dancer (only to seemingly suffer a heart attack).
  • attend another party thrown by aristocrats at a castle where he meets Maddalenna again.  She speaks to him from another room through an echo chamber and he all but promises to marry her as she makes out with another man.
  • gets in a fight in the car with Emma, hits her, and abandons her on a roadside.
  • gets called in when Steiner murders his children and kills himself and his to notify Steiner’s wife as his photographer friends swarm around.
  • goes to yet another party where he tries to turn it into an “orgy” and humiliates some drunken women.

Rome has changed quite a bit in the 15 years since Rome, Open City, and much of this movie is filmed in newly constructed, modernist apartment blocks and public buildings.  The rubble of the war is replaced by the rubble of construction sites.  A theme of the movie is clearly the hollowness of modernity and the excess of the post war boom.  Cinematically, La Dolce Vita is full of ingenious shots and great moments.  I just wish it didn’t require spending so much time with such awful people.

The good news is that I have this extremely catchy tune, “Patricia,” stuck in my head.

 

Rating: **1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending February 8


Anthropocene Reviewed :: Works of Art by Agnes Martin and Hiroyuki Doi

It’s not often that visual art can be made so poignant in an audio medium.

LeVar Burton Reads :: “Tidelne” by Elizabeth Baer

This postapocalyptic story of a bottle robot and a orphan boy made me weep.

Decoder Ring :: The Stowe-Byron Controversy

Long before Twitter, Harriet Beecher Stowe drew out the cancel culture for spreading the (most likely true) story of Lord Byron’s incestuous relationship.

99% Invisible :: Missing the Bus

Forget about autonomous cars and the hyperloop.  The best way of moving people around in big numbers is already here: the bus.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Classic Movie Review: The Apartment (1960)


Title: The Apartment
Release Date: June 30, 1960
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: The Mirisch Company
Summary/Review:

C. C. “Bud” Baxter is an insurance clerk in a giant New York City corporation whose Upper West side apartment has become a trysting place for senior executives and their extramarital partners.  Unable to return home, Bud stays late at work and wonders the street at night in hopes that he’ll gain favor and a promotion.

At last he’s called to the office of personnel director, Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray, seeming even slimier than the murderer he played in Double Indemnity), and given a promotion and a private office. The catch is that Sheldrake wants in on using the apartment for his own affair.  Despite having a reputation as a Lothario with his neighbors, Bud doesn’t have a dating life of his own, but does have a crush on the elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine).  In a sad twist, Bud learns that Fran is Sheldrake’s mistress.

There’s a shocking incident about halfway through this film that makes it darker than the pure comedy it appears to be.  But it ends up being a transformative event for the lead characters. This movie must’ve been risque in 1960 since Bud’s neighbors all but say “the nonstop fucking in your apartment is too loud!” Today, the movie is shocking in the casual sexism on display as women employees of the company are treated as targets for sexual conquest by the male executives.

Of course, Bud is presented as the “good guy” in contrast to the sleezeball executives.  Nevertheless, he helps prop up the system by covering for their infidelities and even Sheldrake’s lies to Fran.  Thus the conclusion of this movie is terrific when Bud finally chooses to be a mensch. And the final scene – “Shut up and deal!” – is perfect.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The 400 Blows (1959)


Title: The 400 Blows
Release Date: 4 May 1959
Director: François Truffaut
Production Company: Les Films du Carrosse
Summary/Review:

The title of The 400 Blows comes from a French idiom that most close in meaning “to raise hell” in English.  It is one of earliest movies in the French New Wave movement, when young filmmakers discarded the conventions of classical film-making for experimental filming and editing techniques, documentary-style realism, and subject matter of a more personal nature.

The 400 Blows is the story of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a young teenage Parisian boy based somewhat on director  François Truffaut own childhood.  Antoine is presented as a troublemaker, but his offenses – passing around a pin-up photo in class, scribbling a poem on a wall, and skipping school for a day out with a friend – seem mild compared with the draconian response from authority figures.  He has a love for the author Balzac (and makes a shrine to him that he comically sets fire to by mistake) but when he writes an essay inspired by Balzac he’s accused of plagiarism rather than homage by his teacher (Guy Decomble).

Antoine’s mother (Claire Maurier) is strict and short-tempered with him much of the time. His father is a bit more easygoing, but doesn’t connect well with Antoine.  Neither are around much, leaving Antoine and his friend Rene (Patrick Auffay) to their own devices.  If anything, this movie depicts Antoine as a resourceful and resilient teenager, but with no adult willing or able to recognize his talents. He ultimately drops out of school, runs away, and takes up petty thievery.  When he fails to pawn a typewriter stolen from his father’s office, he is caught while trying to return it, and sent to juvenile detention center.

The plot of this movie could have been used for an After School Special, but without melodrama and moralism, it is a gritty depiction of real-life situations. Truffaut does a great job depicting the working class reality of post-War Paris, from the worn-out school room to Antoine’s cramped apartment (so small that when Antoine lays out his bed for the night, it blocks the entry door).  All the characters are flawed, none above judgement, but they also all can by sympathized with.

The movie feels bleak, but it’s not without hope.  Antoine’s joy in going to the movies is a particular detail that shows the autobiographical detail of how Truffaut found his way out of his troubled youth.  The last scene of the movie offers a moment of joy and release, while the fear of what comes next still ominously present.  I guess if you want to find out, Truffaut and Léaud made 4 more films over 20 years, continuing Antoine’s story, although I also think this movie can stand on its own with an ambiguous ending.

Rating: ***1/2