Classic Movie Review: The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948)


Title: The Treasure of Sierra Madre
Release Date: January 6, 1948
Director: John Huston
Production Company: Warner Bros. – First National
Summary/Review:

This movie is technically a Western but it also functions as a psychological drama and a study of masculinity.  Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are a pair of American drifters, working odd jobs and panhandling on the streets of Tampico, Mexico.  They meet an old man, Howard (Walter Huston), who tells them of the possibilities (and dangers) of prospecting for gold in the Sierra Madre mountains.

The trio put together an expedition and face the physical trials of hiking into the remote mountains and extracting the gold, as well as outside threats from bandits and another American, Cody (Bruce Bennett), who tries to elbow his way into joining their team.  But the greatest threat is greed, which most strongly affects Dobbs who goes mad with the paranoia that the others are after his gold. Dobbs is clearly a deeply-flawed character from the start despite being the main protagonist, and Bogart accurately stated “I play the worst shit you ever saw!”

The three leads are all excellent in their roles.  Bogart carries off the performance of a man constantly teetering on the brink of madness well. Huston does a great job as the goofy, old prospector but also makes it clear that Howard is also acting, quietly manipulating the behavior of his companions.  Holt plays more of the straight man and his acting may be overlooked, but he provides an important balance to Bogart and Huston. He plays a character clearly with a moral compass, and yet he’s still willing to go along with the plan to assassinate Cody.  I’d be interested in seeing Holt’s other movies (apparently he starred almost exclusively in Westerns).

The movie feels very modern to me.  I’m surprised (and pleased) that it hasn’t been remade recently by someone like the Cohen Brothers, but it definitely would not feel dated. The only part of the movie that doesn’t really work is a subplot where Howard helps a community of indios save the life of a child and then is seen reclining in a hammock being fanned by young women. It smacks of colonialist fantasy.

Otherwise though, the movie is gripping as it both lays out an adventure and deconstructs masculinity.  The movie is full of iconic moments that feel familiar from their parodies in movies like Blazing Saddles and City Slickers. I actually cheered when it got to this part with Alfonso Bedoya as Gold Hat after hearing this line (mis)quoted all these years:

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)


Title: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Release Date: May 23, 1984
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Summary/Review:

Even as a child, The Temple of Doom failed to live up to its predecessor.  Sure there parts I liked that still stand up, mainly the action set pieces of jumping out of an airplane in an inflatable raft and the mine cart race.  The ick factor is strong in this movie from a meal of insects and monkey brains to a cave full of live insects to a man’s beating heart being ripped from his body.  I’m less squeamish as an adult but still feel these scenes are gratuitous.

As a kid, I liked Indy’s sidekick Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan).  With the perspective of an adult, I see he’s another example of “80’s Movie Kid” – the cute but precocious wisecracking kids who reached their nadir with Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.  Short Round isn’t overly obnoxious, and gets a few good laugh lines, but it’s distressing how much of his character is rooted in racial stereotypes.  The depiction of Indian people and the Hindu religion in this movie is even more insulting.

While Raiders offered Marion Ravenwood, a woman capable of being an adventured on par with Indiana Jones, The Temple of Doom features Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) as a nightclub singer completely unprepared for trekking the wilderness and fighting for magical stones.  Arguments can be made for whether this is sexist or just a realistic depiction of a “fish out of water,” but the thing that troubles me is that Indiana Jones basically abducts her from the nightclub and takes her on the airplane.  There is no reason within the movie’s own logic for Willie to be on this adventure and she has every right to do much more than whine and complain about her mistreatment.

One aspect of this movie I’d completely forgotten about was the part where Indy is put in a trance and forced to serve Mola Ram (Amrish Puri).  It’s telling that a talented but stubborn actor like Harrison Ford seems to be mailing it in during these scenes, as if he’s frustrated with the lazy storytelling.  Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is an ugly film in many ways and it hasn’t aged well.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)


Title: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Release Date: June 12, 1981
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Summary/Review:

When I was a kid growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, my family frequently saw movies at the State Cinema, a second-run movie theater that charged only $1-2 for a ticket to see a movie a few months after it had been released (a big savings on the scandalous $5 ticket prices at first-run theater).  Too be clear, this was not an arthouse theater showing movies that were many years old, all of the movies at the State were movies released in the past year.

The one exception was Raiders of the Lost Ark, which for some reason the State kept bringing back again and again for years after it’s 1981 release.  And we went to see it a lot! It’s almost certainly the movie I’ve watched on the big screen the most times.  And yet, without any intention of doing so, I hadn’t watched it in a loooong time.  The last time I remember watching the movie was 25 years ago when I was in college, and since I’d taken several archaeology classes was a bit snobbish about it to.

So I watched this movie with somewhat fresh eyes.  There are a lot of things I liked as a kid that I’ve discovered have not held up well and are very problematic. Thankfully, Raiders of the Lost Ark is not one of them. It does have it flaws in cultural competence, no doubt, but avoids a lot of the stereotypes present in Hollywood films.  For example, there are a lot of Egyptian characters in the film – some are good, some are evil, most are in the background but none of them come across as the “evil Muslim terrorist” trope common in movies made after Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Probably the strangest thing in this movie is that the most prominent “Egyptian” character in this movie, Sallah, is played by a Welsh actor, John Rhys-Davies.  I never cottoned on to this as a kid, but Sallah’s accent actually sounds pretty Welsh.  It’s unfortunate that an Arabic actor was not cast for the part, and especially so since Rhys-Davies has become a prominent Islamophobe in recent decades, but his performance is respectful and very entertaining.

I’m also impressed by Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, who is a clever and capable character at a time when most women were not (the big exception is Princess Leia in the Star Wars movies).  She really is the equal of Indiana Jones as an adventurer and intellect.  In retrospect, it’s disappointing that Karen Allen didn’t get her own Marion Ravenwood spinoff movie in the 1980s.

Harrison Ford’s performance reminds me of why he’s so deserving of his acclaim as one of the great actors of our time. He is subtle in his gestures in a way that conveys a lot of emotion and humor.  And unlike Han Solo, his Indiana Jones is extremely confident without being arrogant, and shows his vulnerability at times.

The action set pieces and special effects which were so revolutionary at the time seem to hold up well (I’m sure there are some people who can pick them apart, but they work for me).  Lots of Nazis get punched, which remains satisfying.  As a kid, I was affected by the horror elements of the movie (such as the faces melting when the ark is opened) but I’d completely forgotten one of the most terrifying scenes when Marion gets caught in chamber of skeletons who are shrieking for some reason.

The depiction of archaeology is still rubbish – they are clearly treasure hunters who actually destroy a number of antiquities in the process of acquiring the Ark of the Covenant.  But then again “Raiders” is right there in the title, so you are warned.

Despite its flaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark is still an all-time classic and I can’t give it any less than five stars.

Rating: *****

Podcasts of the Week Ending November 30


More or Less :: The world’s busiest shipping lanes

Have you ever wondered about shipping lanes?  Me neither.  But it turns out the management that goes into making them work smoothly is quite fascinating.

Lost at the Smithsonian :: The Original Muppets

Jim Henson’s Muppets redefined puppetry and the possibilities of television entertainment.  The Smithsonian holds 30 early Muppets that help the story of Henson and his colleagues.  Includes an interview by Aasif Mandvi with Frank Oz!

Hit Parade :: Rolling in God’s Royal Uptown Road Edition

Chris Molanphy expertly and entertainingly breaks down the trends in hit songs that charted in the 2010s.  The episode made me oddly nostalgic for the decade that hasn’t even ended yet.  Although, after having it broken down, I think I liked the hit music from the first half of the decade better than the second half.


Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Monthly Mixtape – November 2019


Happy Thanksgiving!  I’m always thankful for good music, so here’s a few new songs from the past month!

We also have 1 month left in the year and the decade!  Let me know your favorite songs of 2019 and the 2010s in the comments!

Kills Birds :: “Volcano”

Dom La Nena :: Oiseau Sauvage

 


Previous Mixtapes:

Classic Movie Review: Rope (1948)


Title: Rope
Release Date: August 26, 1948
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Transatlantic Pictures
Summary/Review:

Rope is famous for being a story told in real-time, shot in long takes, and edited to appear as if it was filmed in one take.  The technical accomplishment serves the film well as the suspense build in this story of two young men who murder their Harvard classmate as an experiment of their intellectual superiority.  The victim, David Kentley (Dick Hogan), is choked to death in the opening scene of the film by Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger), who then place his body in an antique chest. Dall and Granger are suitably loathsome and arrogant in their performance (if this movie was made today they’d probably be MRA/Incel types).

While Brandon exults in the murder and the party he’s planned to hold with David’s body in the chest, Philip in anxious about getting caught and becomes increasingly erratic.  The guests for the party are David’s father Mr. Kentley (Cedric Hardwicke), hid aunt Mrs. Atwater (Constance Collier), and his fiancee Janet Walker (Joan Chandler).  Brandon also invites their friend and Janet’s ex-boyfriend Kenneth Lawrence (Douglas Dick) as part of plot to get Janet and Kenneth back together now that David is out of the picture. Also in attendance is the housekeeper Mrs. Wilson performed with a scene-stealing ebullience by Edith Evanson.

The final guest is Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart), a publisher, who was the housemaster at the prep school Brandon, Philip, David, and Kenneth all attended.  It was Cadell who introduced the intellectual ideas of the “art of murder” in philosophical conversations. Brandon believes Cadell will be impressed by what they’ve done.  The conversations at the party about the right of “superiors” to murder “inferiors” is especially chilling since this film was made shortly after the Holocaust (although it is based on a play from the 1920s).

As the party proceeds, the guests are largely put off by Brandon and Philip’s boorish behavior and worried about David’s absence.  Cadell grows suspicious, leading to the climax of the film. This movie is deeply suspenseful and well-acted in addition to its technical accomplishments.  The dialogue seems a little stiff and perhaps to reliant on stage-play conventions.  This is a good movie, but with its thoroughly devastating depiction of evil, it is not a movie that will make one feel good.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast (1946)


Title: La Belle et la Bêt)
Release Date: October 29, 1946
Director: Jean Cocteau
Production Company: DisCina
Summary/Review:

In post-war France, escapist fantasy was the goal in this adaptation of the 1757 story Beauty and the Beast. Belle (Josette Day) works hard to support her widower father (Marcel André) as he falls into debt. She receives only insult from her vain sisters (Mila Parély, Nane Germon) and no support from her ne’er-do-well brother (Michel Auclair).  Her brother’s friend Avenant (Jean Marais) proposes marriage, but Belle is devoted to staying with her father.

While traveling in hopes of settling his debts, Belle’s father stumbles upon a mysterious castle and when he plucks a rose for Belle, he is condemned to death by The Beast (also Jean Marais).  Belle takes her father’s place as a prisoner in Beast’s castle and slowly begins to appreciate him. The castle is super eerie with human arms holding the candelabras and the eyes of the statuary moving. Belle and the Beast appear to move as if choreographed in a dance, and in once scene Belle glides down a corridor past blowing curtains (a scene that must’ve inspired 1000 music videos).  The design of the Beast’s castle and costume were very obviously inspirational to the animators of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

The tone of this adaptation is very eerie, party psychological horror, part avant-guard art piece. And the clear sexual undertones of the movie are very unsettling.  It’s worth a watch for a well-directed and artistic take on a familiar tale.

Rating: ***

Learn to Curl 🥌


Last night I attended a Learn to Curl event sponsored by the North End Curling Club at Steriti Memorial Rink in Boston. I’ve long been curious about trying curling but until this year I was only aware of curling clubs in the distant Boston suburbs that seemed to much a hassle to get to, so I was pleased to find an opportunity accessible by the MBTA.

Curling is a sport that originated five centuries ago in Scotland but is most popular as a pastime and a competitive sport in Canada.  Americans like myself are most familiar with curling from the Winter Olympics, especially after the USA Men’s team took the gold medal in 2018.

The North End Curling Club volunteers were friendly and split us into groups of 4 to learn the basics.  The most important rules we learned off the bat are 1) do not run on the ice (even if you’re sweeping, because if you need to run the stone is going fast enough), and 2) do not walk backward.  Being very protective of my noggin, I took these rules to heart.

The joke about curling is that it is not a very athletic pursuit, but it is more strenuous than it looks, or so my leg muscles are telling me today.  Basically, the process of throwing a stone is not unlike doing a bunch of lunges.  On ice.  While pushing a ~40 pound weight.

I found throwing challenging because each part of the body is doing something different all at the same time and I struggled to make sure I could remember all of them!

  • the dominant foot (in my case, the right foot)is seated in the hack which is used to give something solid to push of from.  Once you push off you drag that leg behind while trying to avoid letting your knee hit the ice which causes you to slow down and (ouch!) hurts
  • the other leg (my left) is bent at a 90 degree angle with the foot placed on top of a slider.  You have to be careful not to step on the slider while fully upright lest you slip and crack your skull. Competitive curlers actually have the slider built into the sole of their shoe.
  • the dominant hand holds the handle of the stone and the skip will instruct you whether to turn it toward 2 o’clock or 10 o’clock position depending on which direction they want the stone to curl.  Right before your release the stone you turn the handle to 12 o’clock to initiate the curl.
  • the other hand holds a stabilizer.  Competitive curlers hold their broom sticks but at our lesson we had a device made of pvc pipes.
  • your body is positioned to align itself directly toward the skip at the other end of the sheet.
  • your head is up and looking toward the skip and where you are aiming the stone even if you want to look at all your other body parts because you want to make sure they’re in the right place.

Throwing the stone was the most challenging part for me as I never got to a point where I threw with very good weight, or velocity.  To be in play, the stone must cross the hog line at the far end of the sheet which seems a long way away! I did get better over time although I’m pretty sure I’m the only one in my group who fell over while doing it.

Luckily, everyone on the team rotates through responsibilities so I only had to throw two stones each end (an end is when each team takes turns throwing all 8 of their stones akin to an inning in baseball).  If you’re not throwing, you are likely to be sweeping and sweeping is as simple and obvious as it looks.  The purpose of sweeping is to heat the ice in front of the stone to reduce friction and allow it to travel further.  The skip calls out instructions such as “sweep!,” “hard!” (to make you sweep more vigorously), and “off” (to stop sweeping).

The part I enjoyed most was taking a turn as the skip.  The skip stands by the house, the bullseye target the thrower is aiming towards, and gives instruction to their teammates. As skip I set a target for the thrower, marking it with my broom, and raise my right or left hand to indicate which direction to curl the stone. I also tell them whether the thrower should try to set up a guard stone that will block the opponent on their next turn, or a take-out stone to knock away the opponents stone already in the house.  The skip gives instructions to the sweepers and can join in sweeping once the stone crosses the hog line closest to the house.  I could also sweep to try to make the opponent’s stone go past the house once it passed the center line of the house which was deviously fun. The skip also has the responsibility of throwing the last two stones which are generally expected to be knock-out throws, which as I’ve noted was a challenge for me since I had trouble getting my stones to even cross the entire sheet, but I think my best two throws of the night were when I was the skip.

After learning the basics, we played 4 ends.  The other team won the first two ends narrowly by scores of 1-0 and 2-0.  We finally won on the 3rd end rather dramatically when one of my teammates threw the last stone (known as the hammer) and knocked several of the opponent’s stones out of the house leaving only one of our own.  We also won the final end 1-0, and thus the final score for the entire game was 3-2 to our opponents.

Curling is a lot of fun and I would like to do it again.  The big challenge is that membership in the North End Curling Club is cost prohibitive.  It makes sense since it’s expensive to rent ice time and rent the curling stones.  I think I will have to try to save up and see if I can do it next year.

Classic Movie Review: Notorious (1946)


Title: Notorious
Release Date: September 6, 1946
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
Summary/Review:

I never knew how much I needed to see a drunk Ingrid Berman angrily cuss out a cop, but this movie satiates that desire.  And that’s only the prologue!

Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, an American socialite whose father is convicted as a Nazi spy.  Federal agent T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) recruits her to help infiltrate a group of fugitive Nazis operating out of Rio de Janeiro.  Much like The Stranger, the issue of Nazis continuing to operate was clearly a concern in the immediate aftermath of WWII, but I’m still impressed that entire films of fictional Nazi fugitives were written and produced so soon after the war. One odd thing about this movie is that while it primarily takes place in Brazil, I don’t think we see a single Brazilian character.

En route to Brazil and as they establish themselves in Rio, Huberman and Devlin fall in love.  This leads to a racy-for-1946 scene where the couple kiss for over two minutes.  Of course, considering that most human beings would like to kiss Bergman and/or Grant, this is also wish fulfillment for the audience.  Like Hitchcock’s Spellbound, the romance leads a character to act unprofessionally, but this time it’s the male character Devlin, whose jealousy will ultimately put Huberman’s life in peril.

Huberman is tasked with getting acquainted with her father’s friend Alex Sebastian (Hollywood supervillain Claude Raines), a financier of the German war engine, and find out who he’s associating with and what the Nazis are plotting.  The movie is a slow burn as secrets are revealed one by one and the steps that Huberman takes to gain access further strain her relationship with Devlin.  It all leads to a satisfying denouement.

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending November 23


Only one new podcast episode this week, plus a recommendation for a podcast series to listen to in its entirety (I’m only halfway through myself).

This American Life :: The Out Crowd

Important journalism for anyone who wants to know the extent of the crimes against humanity being carried out in our names at the border.

The Report

This 15-part podcast breaks down the Mueller Report for those of us who don’t have time to read the report and/or need an assist with the legalese.

 

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances: