Movie Review: The Naked Gun (1988)

Title: The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!
Release Date: December 2, 1988
Director: David Zucker
Production Company: Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker

After watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, my son chose to watch this 80s spoof of police dramas next. As the opening credits popped on the screen he said “Wait! What’s O.J. Simpson doing in this?” It struck me that he’s never lived in a world where Simpson was just a popular retired athlete turned actor. I had to wonder if a 12 y.o. would “get” parodies of 80s police shows and current events he has never seen.  He seemed to enjoy the part where Frank Drebin urinates while wearing a live mic, as well as a part I totally forgotten about where Drebin is on a ledge and inadvertently fondles some nude sculptures.

And then, when the movie was approaching it’s final act, he declared that he was bored and turned it off.  I tried to convince him to turn it on again for the baseball scenes to no avail, so I had to watch those on my own.  The sequence of gags about baseball seem to hold up the best, perhaps because baseball is so timeless.  Reggie Jackson, not Simpson, is the real MVP when it comes to retired athletes acting.  I also love a scene where Drebin commandeers a car to chase a villain and it ends up being a student driver.  John Houseman is hilarious as the instructor calmly teaching the student how to conduct a car chase and to flip the bird at sexist truck driver.

I didn’t remember this movie as well as I thought I did.  I think most of the jokes hold up or are stupid enough to at least get a chuckle.  I have to confess that I never realized that the Angels game is filmed at Dodgers Stadium until now which was a result of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker having to agree to the demands of Major League Baseball and the Los Angeles Dodgers not wanting to participate rather than just another gag.

The Naked Gun is no masterpiece, but it still has some good laughs and a startling collection of 1980s actors and cameos. It’s still worth a watch, especially if you like baseball, but maybe not if your 12 years old.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

Title: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Release Date: June 11, 1986
Director: John Hughes
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

My 12 y.o. wanted to watch this movie which was a surprise since he rarely wants to watch movies at all, much less teen classics from the 80s.  Some things you notice when you’re watching a movie for the first time in decades with your children: 1. there’s a lot more profanity than I remembered, and 2. Ferris is really a jerk and deserves to suffer SOME consequences for his misbehavior.  Maybe not so much for skipping school, but  for how he mistreats his friends and family.  At least Cameron calls him out on it.

The story, should you not be aware of it or have forgotten, is that Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) pretends to be sick in order to skip school for the 9th time in his senior year in high school (we need 8 prequels to learn what he did on those days!). He picks up his chronically-depressed and hypochondriac friend Cameron (Alan Ruck), who is also absent from school. Ferris basically steals Cameron’s father’s antique sportscar (Cameron has some good suggestions of renting a car or hiring a limo, something these kids had the means to do).  They pick up Ferris’ girlfriend, Sloane (Mia Sara), from school on the excuse that her grandmother died.

The trio drive to Chicago for the geekiest day of truancy ever.  Impossibly, they are able to to visit Sears Tower and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, dine at a fancy restaurant, attend a Cubs game, visit the Art Institute of Chicago, and then see the Von Steuben Parade, which Ferris famously crashes to lead a sing-a-long and dance of joyous Chicagoans (and since I visited Chicago in 2018, I recognized exactly where those parade scenes were shot).  Meanwhile, the school principal Ed Rooney (played by real-life sex offender Jeffrey Jones), creepily tries to track down Ferris, going so far as to break into the Bueller’s home.  Simultaneously, Ferris’ younger sister, Jeanie (Jennifer Grey), angered at her parents’ favoritism toward Ferris, also tries to bust him for faking illness.

The movie works because of the generally wholesome activities the lead trio engage in on their trip to Chicago, a steady series of gags, and all-around great performances from the cast and great chemistry among the leads.  But as I noted above, Ferris is not a hero, but more of an agent of chaos.  The real protagonists of this movie, or at least the ones who change the most, are Cameron and Jeanie.  Cameron finally reaches a breaking point where he’s able to stand up for himself to Ferris, which leads him to gain the confidence to stand up to his neglectful father.  And by the way, watching is this as a parent makes me wonder just how monstrous this father is.  Meanwhile, Jeanie is able to exorcise her jealousy and righteous rage at Ferris and attempt to just take control of her own destiny.  This, of course, means that everything works out just perfectly for Ferris, the little twerp.

Almost 35 years after its release, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is still very funny and doesn’t feel dated.  Sure, there are boxy cars and big hair, but it doesn’t scream “EIGHTIES!” as much as John Hughes’ other movies. I do wonder what this movie would be like if Ferris had a cell phone, though, considering his ability to use technology to his advantage. More importantly, it doesn’t have the inappropriate moments that make one cringe at the sexual misconduct and racism that you find in 16 Candles and The Breakfast Club.  I also appreciate the directorial style, such as viewing Cameron debating himself about joining Ferris through his car window, or how Ferris running home at the end is directed like a Chuck Jones/Tex Avery cartoon, complete with zany sound effects and music cues.

If you liked it when you’re young, watch it with your (older) kids.  They may just enjoy it as well.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Title: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Release Date: August 27, 1958
Director: Richard Brooks
Production Company:  Avon Productions

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a family drama set in a Mississippi mansion adapted from the play by Tennessee Williams. It features loathsome characters being horrible to one another.  I ended up watching it pieces over a period of four days, not because it is a bad movie, but all those bad feelings made it a hard movie to watch.

The action is centered around the birthday party for cotton tycoon Big Daddy Pollitt (Burl Ives).  He has received a clean bill of health, but early in the film his doctor admits to other family members that he as actually dying of cancer and he lied to Big Daddy and Big Mama (Judith Andersen). Big Daddy’s younger son Brick (Paul Newman) has broken his ankle and has isolated himself from the family in a bedroom where he steadily drinks the night away.  His estranged wife Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor), navigates between the party and Brick’s room.  Meanwhile, Brick’s older brother Gooper (Jack Carson) and his wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood) and their awful children are trying to kiss up to Big Daddy in order to ensure a good inheritance.

It’s revealed that Maggie and Brick have not had a sexual relationship for some time and Brick’s alcoholism picked up after the suicide of his best friend from his football playing days, Skipper. Brick’s biggest issue is that he’s repressed his homosexual feelings toward Skipper, but thanks to the Hays Code, you have to read the lines between the lines to get what’s happening. In the final act, Brick and Big Daddy hash out some long-time issues in a cathartic argument.  Ironically, this was the most palatable part of the movie for me although Williams objected to the substantial changes made from his script.

The movie is very much staged like a play with long scenes in a single location.  Brick is often centered in the foreground, quietly drinking while a family member rants in the background.  His silence says more than their wordiness.  Newman, Taylor, and Ives all put in excellent performances.  But, whoa Nelly, I don’t think I’m going to want to watch this one again any time soon.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Island in the Sun (1957)

Title: Island in the Sun
Release Date: June 12, 1957
Director: Robert Rossen
Production Company: Darryl F. Zanuck Productions

Island in the Sun is a film with a large ensemble cast set on the fictional Caribbean island of Santa Marta that is groundbreaking-for-the-time in its attempt to deal with issues of inequality due to colonialism and racism.  Unfortunately it’s also a bit of a bloated mess.

The main plot, if there really is one, deals with Maxwell Fleury (James Mason, cast on type as a super-creepy dude), the son of a plantation owner with an inferiority complex who decides to run for office against David Boyeur (Harry Belafonte), a politician who is a man of the people.  The election sets the colonial planter caste directly against the descendants of enslaved Africans and Indians on the island. In a pivotal scene at a public meeting, Boyeur calls of Fleury for his privilege and attempts at cultural appropriation that is a stand-out performance for Belafonte (Belafonte also sings in this movie, which is a treat).

While the story of the election may have been enough for a compelling drama, there are several parallel subplots running through the movie as well:

  • Fleury is insanely jealous of his wife Sylvia (Patricia Owens) possibly having an affair with military veteran Hilary Carson (Michael Rennie).
  • Boyeur has a romance with a prosperous white woman, Mavis Norman (Joan Fontaine).
  • Boyeur’s friend Margot Seaton (Dorothy Dandridge) has a romance with aide to the governor Denis Archer (John Justin).
  • Fleury’s younger sister Jocelyn (Joan Collins) has a romance with visiting aristocrat Euan Templeton (Stephen Boyd)

The movie shines when Belafonte and Dandridge are on the screen, and devolves into soap opera melodrama when it focuses on the Fleury family.  Unfortunately, there’s more of the latter than the former.  I suspect that director Robert Rossen – who had been blacklisted by Hollywood earlier in the decade – intended to make a bolder social drama but ended up having to emphasize the Fleury family drama.  Of course, due to the level of racism in the United States, the movie ended up being very controversial despite it seeming very anodyne today.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Wild Strawberries (1957)

Title: Wild Strawberries
Release Date: December 26, 1957
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Production Company: AB Svensk Filmindustri

The Nordic countries are generally ranked among the happiest nations on Earth, but the movies are depressing AF.  Well, this is actually only the second Ingmar Bergman film I’ve watched (I saw The Seventh Seal long ago), so maybe this is a rush to judgement.

Wild Strawberries is about the elderly and misanthropic physician Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) taking a journey to receive an honorary medal for 50 years of service.  Accompanying him on the road trip is his daughter-in-law Marianne Borg (Ingrid Thulin) who is estranged from her husband and makes it clear early on that she doesn’t like Isak much.  Along the journey they pick up three young hitchhikers, two men and a woman named Sara (Bibi Andersson), whose exuberance is a contrast to Isak and Marianne and others they encounter on their journey.  These include a vitriolic married couple who crash their car and Isak’s cold and unsentimental mother (Naima Wifstrand).

The journey is interspersed with Isak’s dreams and flashbacks to his youth. He’s particularly nostalgic for his childhood sweetheart Sara (also played by  Bibi Andersson), who ended up marrying his brother.  Both the journey and the dreams and visions help Isak confront what he’s lost in his past, his present loneliness, and mortality.  He also forms a bond with Marianne and the hitchhiker Sara. For all the grim realism of the film, it surprisingly has a happy ending. The movie is well-filmed and well-acted and worth a rewatch for a deeper analysis.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Paths of Glory (1957)

Title: Paths of Glory
Release Date: December 25, 1957
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Production Company: Bryna Productions

Paths of Glory is the earliest major motion picture directed by Stanley Kubrick.  Released just over a decade after World War II when Hollywood was still releasing heroic war movies, Paths of Glory is stunning in not only being anti-war but in depicting the military leadership as incompetent and cruelly cynical. Now this is set in World War I in the French Army, so there’s some distance from the American World War II movies, but all the actors are Americans with clearly American accents (except the Generals who affect something like a British accent).

Kirk Douglass portrays Colonel Dax, commanding officer of the 701st Infantry Regiment caught between the gloomy low morale of the troops who see no point in losing their lives to maybe gain a few meters of land, and the Generals who consider a 55% casualty rate acceptable.  When an attack on  German position called the Anthill fails, Brigadier General Paul Mireau (George Macready) wants troops shot for cowardice, and eventually settles on having one man arbitrarily selected from each of the divisions to be executed as an example.  Dax acts as the defense attorney for the three men in the farcical court martial that ensues.

I don’t like all of Kubrick’s films I’ve seen, but I’m always impressed with the things that Kubrick does in his movies.  The film is crisp and clear for a movie from 60+ years.  He makes good use of excess space, setting the small trial in a colossal ballroom much like Jack Torrance would later be seen writing in an oversize hotel lobby.  And there are great tracking shots of Dax walking through the trenches and the condemned men walking to the firing squad.  The depiction of the battle is a startling scene of war that’s not only impressive for its time but impressive for any time.

If there’s one great flaw for this movie is that it lacks any subtlety.  The generals are basically mustache-twirling villains while the condemned men are woeful villains.  Only Colonel Dax is allowed to have any complexity as a character.  Oddly, the most humanist scene of the movie comes at the end and doesn’t appear to have much to do with the rest of the story. A German woman (Christiane Harlan, the future spouse of Kubrick) captured by the French is forced to perform to the soldiers in a tavern, and they jeer her at first, but then as the song becomes familiar, they start to sing along, many of them weeping.  It’s a heartbreaking moment of shared humanity in an inhumane setting

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Us (2019)

Release Date: March 22, 2019
Director: Jordan Peele
Production Company: Monkeypaw Productions | Perfect World Pictures

Following on the success of Get Out, writer/director Jordan Peele returns with another film of sheer terror.  The movie begins in 1986 when a young girl named Adelaide (Madison Curry) wanders away from her father at a seaside amusement park in Santa Cruz. Entering a decrepit fun house, she encounters a girl who looks just like her.  The experience traumatizes her, leaving her unable to talk, and only through taking up ballet is she able to express herself again.

In the present day, the adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) goes on vacation to a summer home near Santa Cruz with her family: goofball husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), moody teenage daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and shy and sensitive son, Jason (Evan Alex).  Meeting up with friends at the same beach in Santa Cruz stirs up memories of her traumatic past causing Adelaide to become increasingly anxious. As she reveals her childhood trauma to Gabe, the power in the summer home is cut, and Jason announces “There’s a family in the driveway.”  That family turns out to be terrifying doppelgängers of Adelaides family known as the Tethered who invade the house and begin attacking the family.

That’s all I’m going to offer by way of summary as the movie is best enjoyed unspoiled. What’s brilliant about Us is that everything that is introduced early in the movie, even stray pop cultural references, becomes relevant later in the movie. There are no stray details. While dealing with creepy twins bearing sharpened shears is scary enough, the movie also works on multiple metaphorical levels.  The Tethered represent our subconscious selves that we hide in order to live in civilization.  From a societal perspective, the Tethered also represent how when some people lead lives of privilege at the expense of the suffering of hidden, Other people. Even the title has multiple meanings as the Tethered are literally “us” to Adelaide and her family, but it can also represent the initials of the United States. One of the more terrifying lines in the movie is when Adelaide’s doppelgänger Red responds to the question of who they are by hissing “We’re Americans!”

Nyong’o puts in a terrific dual performance as Adelaide and Red.  Alex is also remarkable as Jason and his alter-ego Pluto. Elizabeth Moss gets special recognition for a scene in which she makes putting on lip gloss incredibly creepy.  Us also includes one of the greatest musical soundtrack cues in history with N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police.” I highly recommend checking this movie out, just don’t watch it late at night, and leave the lights on!

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Funny Face (1957)

Title: Funny Face
Release Date: February 13, 1957
Director: Stanley Donen
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

The challenge for me with musicals is setting aside my logical brain and just enjoying the song and dance. Funny Face, for example, asks me to believe that Audrey Hepburn has a funny face when she is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful people of all time.  The movie is an odd one, with some startlingly feminist tones for 1957, although these are often undercut. Similarly it recognizes an emerging counterculture but mostly to make it a butt of jokes.

Funny Face can’t be faulted for its great sense of style. The movie uses bold colors and dramatic film techniques to great effect, and incorporates mid-century design into the background of its New York scenes versus the old world charms of its Paris settings. The music is entertaining, largely George and Ira Gershwin tunes composed for a 1927 Broadway musical called Funny Face that had an entirely different plot. Hepburn draws on her dance training performing several numbers, including a Bohemian dance in a Paris cafe, and we even get to hear her sing (unlike My Fair Lady, which was unfair to Hepburn’s lovely voice).

Kay Thompson, the author of the Eloise books, steals the show as the bombastic fashion magazine publisher Maggie Prescott. The trope of the domineering fashion magazine publisher followed by a gaggle of women editors is very familiar, did it start with this movie? On a photoshoot to a Greenwich Village philosophy book shop, Maggie and her crew harass the book seller Jo Stockton (Hepburn) and trash the store. Photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) takes a liking to Jo and stays to help her clean up. (He also kisses her without consent because apparently Fred Astaire always has to be creepy).

Avery convinces Maggie that Jo would be the perfect fresh face for their magazine’s new campaign,  since she has “character, spirit, and “intelligence.”  He convinces Jo to take the job since it would give her the opportunity to go to Paris and hear the lectures of the philosopher Professor Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair).  And so they go to Paris where there is singing, dancing, high fashion, and comic hi-jinks abound.  And, of course, romance flourishes because Hepburn must always be paired with men 30 years her senior for some reason.

Again, the logical brain must be disconnected, but once that’s done, there’s a lot to enjoy in this cheerful fluff of a film.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Wrong Man

Title: The Wrong Man
Release Date: December 22, 1956
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Warner Bros.

Alfred Hitchcock introduces this film in a prologue where he notes that it is a rare occasion where he’s making a thriller based on a true-life story.  Hitchcock always is fascinated with telling “wrong man” stories, so it’s not a surprise that the case of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero’s false accusation for armed robbery in 1951 in New York City would appeal to him.

The story begins with Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), a musician who performs in a night club, needing to work out the family finances to pay for dental work for his wife, Rose (Vera Miles). He goes to a life insurance company office to borrow against Rose’s policy, and the staff there identify him as the same man who robbed the office on two other occasions.  The police take in Manny and the staff at two local stores also identify him as the robber.

Manny is arrested and held in jail overnight before being arraigned the next day.  Once bail is posted by some relatives, it’s up to Manny and Rose to find witnesses who can provide alibis for the dates of the crimes.  The stress and guilt of the ordeal leads to Rose suffering a mental breakdown.

Despite Hitchcock’s introduction, the movie is not a thriller or even really suspenseful.  The strengths of the movie are its depictions of the mundane procedures of being processed through the criminal justice system.  Fonda is perfectly cast as the every man (and with such an innocent face, how can anyone think he’s guilty?) bewildered by experiencing all these things for the first time, and holding on to hope that his innocence will win the day.

The film provides a happy ending, although the real Balestrero family continued to suffer mental and financial distress.  Most disturbing is that we are still having “Wrong Man” stories to this very day, often with tragic endings. Words utter in the film – “you fit the profile” – are chilling similar to the words used to justify police killings of innocent Black and brown men in recent years.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Searchers (1956)

Title: The Searchers
Release Date: May 16, 1956
Director: John Ford
Production Company: C.V. Whitney Pictures

Cinematically, The Searchers is a beautiful film, shot in the scenic Monument Valley and featuring shots of the landscape and lead characters framed by a doorway as the opening and closing scenes.  Conversely, the subject matter of The Searchers is one of the ugliest things I’ve seen in a movie.

In 1868, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his family home in Texas (despite being filmed in Monument Valley which is in Arizona & Utah) three years after the Civil War ended, but still wearing his traitor’s uniform. Ethan is dismissive of the family’s adopted child, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), because he is 1/8 Comanche.  Soon afterwards, a Comanche tribe attacks the family homestead, killing the adults and abducting Ethan’s niece and Martin’s adopted sister Debbie (Lana Wood as a child, and Natalie Wood later in the movie).

The better part of the movie is Ethan and Martin spending five years searching for Debbie.  Ethan continues to mistreat Martin, and I could make a litany of the racist depictions in this movie, the worst among them being when Martin “accidentally” buys a Comanche wife, which is played for laughs.  The villain of the movie is Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon), who likes like a German man with shoe polish on his face, because the actor who plays him was in fact born in Germany.  Worst of all, Ethan’s goal in this obsessive, years-long quest is not to rescue Debbie, but to kill her because he believes she’s better off being dead after being raped by the Comanche.

This is a very ugly movie and I found it very difficult to watch.  Critics like Roger Ebert grant a generous interpretation that John Ford and John Wayne were deliberately portraying Ethan as an evil and racist man. There is a lot of plausibility in those intentions. But audiences then and even some now see Wayne as a hero and ideal representation of what Makes America Great. I think The Searchers is far too easy to be taken at face value, and in that it stands as a representation of the ugliest parts of the American character.

Rating: **