2021 A to Z Challenge: Reflections


This year I did a quick and dirty A to Z Challenge.  At the last minute, I figured that if I was watching a bunch of movies for my personal Classic Movie Project II then I could watch movies in alphabetical order. And so I did.

My A to Z Challenges from previous years:

Thanks to everyone who read and commented on my posts, and I hope you stick around!

Classic Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter O

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Once Upon a Time in the West
Release Date:  December 21, 1968
Director: Sergio Leone
Production Company: Euro International Film | Paramount Pictures |
Rafran Cinematografica | Finanzia San Marco
Summary/Review:

Sometime in the 1990s I watched The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, which I liked well enough, but never felt inspired to watch another Sergio Leone film or another “spaghetti western.”  So I went into watching Once Upon a Time in the West with no great expectations and ended up being absolutely surprised by how much I loved it.  It’s a slow-moving Western drama that often has limited dialogue and focuses on gorgeous scenery as much as the drama (much of the film was shot in Europe but there are scenes filmed in Monument Valley a la John Ford’s Stagecoach).  This may sound a little boring, but I found it to be mesmerizing.

According to Wikipedia, “Leone was far more interested in the rituals preceding violence than in the violence itself.”  This makes a whole lot of sense! The first two scenes of the movie are in fact big fakeouts as we spend a lot of time with a group of characters who seem to be the main characters of the movie, only for all of them to be shot and killed.  These two scenes, in fact, introduce the killers who are the film’s real main characters.  One is a mysterious man known only as “Harmonica” (Charles Bronson) who is set on the path of vengeance.  The other is a vicious gang leader, Frank (Henry Fonda), who is working for a railroad tycoon, Mr. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) to get control of a plot of land that has a water source for the railroad. I find it absolutely stunning that Fonda plays a character that is so evil and is creepy A.F.!

Newlywed Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) arrives to join her new family only to find they’ve all been murdered and she’s inherited the contested land.  With the help of Frank’s rival gang leader, Cheyenne (Jason Robards), she begins to develop the land while Frank and “Harmonica” carry on various machinations around her (this plot is a deliberate pastiche of Johnny Guitar).  The plot is complicated but it also seems secondary to the style for much of the movie where it’s more of a revelation from scene-to-scene.  The film also has a terrific score by the legendary Ennio Morricone.

I’m not a big fan of Westerns, but this film has definitely made my list of favorite Westerns!

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Nomadland (2021) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter N

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

There are no “N” movies on the classic films lists that I hadn’t reviewed yet so today I’m reviewing a current film that is receiving a lot of praise.

Title: Nomadland
Release Date: February 19, 2021
Director: Chloé Zhao
Production Company: Highwayman Films | Hear/Say Productions | Cor Cordium Productions
Summary/Review:

The always brilliant Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a woman who takes to living in a van and traveling the Western United States for seasonal work after the death of her husband and the closure of the gypsum mine in their home town of Empire, Nevada.  While her friends consider Fern to be “homeless” she begins to find a certain freedom and self-determination  in the community of van-dwelling nomads.

This movie basically has no plot but is more of a character study of Fern as she deals with issues of her past and learns to survive as a nomad.  The film has a documentary character to it and many of the supporting cast are actual nomads playing themselves.  The direction and editing by Chloé Zhao is impressive and this is an absolutely gorgeous.  The American West, including some National Parks, are captured in all their glory as well as some unusually beautiful industrial settings.

I saw this movie tagged as a “Western” and I really like the idea that this is the modern Western movie.  One of the characters even says that the vandwellers are the modern pioneers.  While I don’t expect that Nomadland is a movie I’ll want to watch again and again, it is definitely worth watching at least once.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Maltese Falcon (1941) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter M

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: The Maltese Falcon
Release Date: October 3, 1941
Director: John Huston
Production Company: Warner Bros.
Summary/Review:

I watched The Maltese Falcon several years ago – maybe at The Brattle Theatre or maybe I just borrowed the DVD from the library – and I also read the Dashiell Hammett book it is based upon around the same time.  But I didn’t remember much about it, which is a good thing since it meant I could enjoy the mystery of it once again.  I also felt that I thought the movie was good but not great, so I was also surprised to find I was really enjoying it the second time around.

The Maltese Falcon is a detective story featuring Humphrey Bogart as the hard-boiled private eye Sam Spade.  The movie is considered to be one of the examples of the film noir genre, or at least a predecessor to film noir.  Spade is definitely a morally ambiguous character and it is unclear whether he is actually willing to go along with the criminals’ plans or if he is just playing them.  When he does the right thing at the end of the movie, it seems like he does it more out of spite than justice.

The story begins when a woman, Ruth Wonderly or Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) depending on which version of her life she’s telling, hires Spade and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan).  When Archer is murdered, Spade finds himself drawn into a plot around finding the titular MacGuffin, a medieval figurine covered in valuable gemstones.  Also seeking the Maltese Falcon are conman Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and mobster Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet).

This was John Huston’s first film as a director, and despite the detective story, it is not really an action film.  In fact, I found it has a lot of unexpected parallels to Huston’s final film, The Dead, which is also a book adaptation about people who spend a lot of time talking but rarely speak the truth.  Subtext is key in the battle of wits among Spade, Brigid, Cairo, and Gutman.  The film succeeds because of the high quality acting of its cast.  Surprisingly, this was Greenstreet’s first film, while Lorre was just making his way into American films, and even Bogart was just becoming an A-list celebrity.  They’re firing on all cylinders in this film and the trio would reunite in Casablanca the following year, and Greenstreet and Lorre would make a total of nine movies together!

For whatever reason, this movie failed to make a big impression on my around 17 years ago.  But upon revisiting this movie I feel it has earned a spot among my favorite movies of all time.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter L

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Release Date:
10 June 1943
Director:
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Production Company:
The Archers
Summary/Review:

This is a movie I’d never even heard of before I started working on lists of classic movies.  The title amuses me, partly because “blimp” is an inherently funny word, but also because in America the word refers to an airship, although I don’t that word is in use in Great Britain.  From some lazy internet research, I’ve learned that “Colonel Blimp” was a British comic strip satirizing the military elite.  There is actually no character in this movie named Blimp, although the main character, Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesy), matches the image of the rotund, walrus-moustached comic strip caricature.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp joins in the trend of Allied Powers in World War II producing epic historical dramas at the same time their countries are being bombed and/or invaded by Nazi Germany (France’s Children of Paradise and Russia’s Ivan the Terrible are previously reviewed films of this genre). This film alone actually deals with the present-day issues of World War II, beginning with a prologue about British soldiers beginning a mock war as part of training exercises.  Despite being informed that “War starts at midnight!,” the leader of the troop decides that the Nazis would never follow the rules of a start time, and decides to “invade” London and captures Major-General Candy in a Turkish bath.

The outrage of Candy’s embarrassment leads to a series of flashbacks that detail his history and ideology in the British military.  The first is set in 1902 when Candy has just returned from the Boer War and rashly travels to Berlin to counter anti-British propaganda by the Germans.  The next segment is set in the final days of The Great War and its aftermath.  The final flashback is set during the early days of World War II, where Candy is retired from the regular army based on his outdated views, but then appointed to lead the Home Guard.  Which leads back to the “present day” scenes of the prologue.

The movie has several plotlines tying everything together.  One is Candy’s long-time friendship with the German officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), whom he initially meets in a duel.  Another plot deals with Candy’s relationship with three women, all played by Deborah Kerr (later to appear in An Affair to Remember): Edith Hunter, who Candy realizes he loves after she marries Theo; Barbara Wynne, a WWI nurse that Candy marries; and Johnny Cannon, Candy’s driver when he’s leading the Home Guard.  The movie also deals with the erosion of the ideas of honor and rules among the European military elite, and idea also explored in The Bridge on River Kwai’s Colonel Nicholson. There’s propaganda in this movie too, as characters flat out lie and say the British did not commit atrocities in the Boer War or World War I.

The movie starts out very strange as a series of really awkward attempts at satirical madcap comedy.  But it’s worth sticking it out as the movie deliberately uncovers the human Candy underneath the “Colonel Blimp” caricature.  The movie never loses its sense of humor, but definitely becomes less silly over time.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Citizen Kane (1941) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter K

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Today is a bit of a cheat, as I technically post a third movie starting with the letter C, but you’ll excuse me because this is a great one!  Also, forgive me for publishing this a day late.

Title: Citizen Kane
Release Date: September 5, 1941
Director: Orson Welles
Production Company: Mercury Productions
Summary/Review:

By the time I was a teenager, I was already aware that Citizen Kane was considered “one of the greatest films of all time!” and watching it for the first time back then did not elicit contrarian opinions.  I watched it a few more times, but somehow like a lot of classic films I saw in my younger days, I didn’t watch it again for decades.  So it was great to have an excuse to revisit this movie.  What’s harder is trying to find something to say about Citizen Kane that hasn’t been said before.  It is the number one movie on the AFI’s 100 Years list and the Cahiers du Cinéma list, and number two on the Sight and Sound list.

Perhaps we’ll start with a quick summary. The movie is a pseudo-biopic of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), a wealthy, celebrity newspaper publisher based on real life figures like William Randolph Hearst. The story follows reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) as he tries to learn the meaning of the last word Kane uttered before his death, “Rosebud!”  We see several non-chronological scenes from Kane’s life told from the perspectives of people who knew him, none of whom are particularly reliable narrators.  In order we see an obituary newsreel, Thompson reading the personal diary of Kane’s childhood guardian and banker Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), Kane’s business manager Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), Kane’s lifelong “frenemy” Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), and Kane’s second wife Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), and Kane’s butler Raymond (Paul Stewart).  In the final scene, the mystery of what Rosebud is revealed to the film viewers, but remains unknown to any of the characters.

With that said, here are some stray thoughts I have on Citizen Kane:

  • Apart from Welles and Cotten, none of the main cast were particularly famous or became famous later despite starring in “the greatest movie of all time.”  Alland is essentially the main character of this movie but he doesn’t seem all that well remembered (not least because the movie never shows a close-up of his face).
  • The movie is known for its innovation and technical brilliance but it also is wildly entertaining and relevant to watch today, which sets it apart from some other movies regarded for their innovation such as Battleship Potemkin.
  • Speaking of relevance, it actually really sad that 80 years later we still as a culture continue to idolize and prioritize the opinions of disgustingly wealthy people like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Rupert Murdoch, and Bill Gates. And if Kane’s campaign speech where he promises to imprison his opponent and his claims of fraud when he loses the election don’t remind  you of a certain loathsome person, I don’t know what to say.
  • Watching it this time it really hit be just how cruelly Kane treats Susan and it hits really hard.
  • That being said, the scene where Kane entertains Susan to distract her from her toothache is really sweet and maybe the moment where Kane is depicted with the most humanity.
  • Someday I need to rewatch this film and explore it from an archivist’s perspective.  The scene in Thatcher’s library and Leland saving Kane’s “statement of principles” are particularly interesting depictions of people’s’ relationship with records.
  • If you’re interested in learning more about the aspects of Citizen Kane that make it “great,” I’d recommend reading Roger Ebert’s “A Viewer’s Companion to Citizen Kane.
  • Kane slow-clapping for Susan at the opera house is an oft-used GIF on Twitter, but really this movie could be mined for so many more GIFs.

 

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter J

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Release Date: May 14, 1975
Director: Chantal Akerman
Production Company: Paradise Films | Unité Trois
Summary/Review:

I believe this is the first Belgian film I have ever watched.  The 3 hour, 21 minute film details the life of a woman, Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig), go through the ordinary routine of her life in minute detail over a period of three days. Jeanne cleans the house, cooks, bathes, goes shopping, babysits, spends time with her teenage son (Jan Decorte), runs errands, and receives men in her bedroom who pay her for sex.  Sometimes she also sits in a chair for a long time as well. She is so very precise about everything she does that when little things start to go wrong it is very jarring. This film is the slowest of burns all leading to … something I won’t say.

The film adopts the style of Yasujirō Ozu (Tokyo Story, Late Spring), where the camera remains stationary throughout and there are only cuts between scenes. With a woman director, Chantal Akerman, and a crew made up mostly of women, the film is a feminist statement on the invisibility of women’s work in movies (and in real life).  The film provokes a lot of questions, such as does it matter if a movie is technically brilliant and innovative if it ends up being extremely boring? Or, it there art in the verisimilitude of life, or should art transcend ordinary life?

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Ivan the Terrible (1944)



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter I

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Ivan the Terrible
Release Date: December 30, 1944
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Production Company: Mosfilm
Summary/Review: Ivan the Terrible is an odd duck.  It ranks #39 on the Cahiers du Cinéma list and has appeared on past editions of the Sight and Sound list but it was also included in the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (and How They Got That Way). It was directed by the legendary film pioneer Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin), but it was made at the behest of the cruel dictator Joseph Stalin.  Roger Ebert gives the film his top 4-star rating but his review is less enthusiastic and full of caveats.

Like Children of Paradise, this film is an epic historical drama made at a time when the nation was fighting the Nazi threat to all of Europe.  It tells the story of Ivan IV (Nikolay Cherkasov) who as Tsar united disparate fiefdoms under Moscow to create the first Russian empire.  The film begins with Ivan’s coronation in 1547 and a speech in which declares his intentions to bring all of Russia under his control, much to the annoyance of the boyars who were kind of oligarchy of aristocrats used to doing things their own way. Thus the palace intrigue begins.  Ivan marries Anastasia (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya) and they produce an heir, which further enrages the boyars.  War, betrayal, and dramatic death bed scenes ensue.

The performances in the film are very stagey, as if this were some kind of pageant rather than a drama. It is also reminds of  The Scarlet Empress, from the large-scale furnishings and overwhelming shadows to the general over-the-top nature of the performances. While The Scarlet Empress was a Hollywood spectacle about the Russian monarchy, it seems strange that Russian filmmakers would depict their own history in such a campy way.  Eisenstein made a second part to Ivan the Terrible that displeased Stalin so it would not be released until 1958.  A third part was abandoned while in production for the same reason.  So it’s an unfinished epic a lot like Napoléon (except that Ivan actually had military success in Russia).

I suppose I’m supposed to watch both Part 1 & Part 2, but as I didn’t enjoy the first part all too much, and I have 27 movies to watch this April, I’m going to give Part 2 a pass.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter H

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Hiroshima, Mon Amour
Release Date: 10 June 1959
Director: Alain Resnais
Production Company: Argos Films | Como Films |
Daiei Studios | Pathé Entertainment | Pathé Overseas
Summary/Review:

Along with The 400 Blows and Breathless, this movie kickstarted the French New Wave.  Director Alain Resnais previously made the Holocaust documentary Night and Fog, and this movie similarly pulls no punches in using archival footage depicting the horrors of the atomic bomb detonation in Hiroshima.  The better part of the movie though focuses on a non-linear conversation between French Actress Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) and Japanese architect Lui (Eiji Okada) as the have a brief and passionate affair.  Note that their names are French for “Her” and “Him.”

They talk about Hiroshima and the bomb, and they talk about their own experiences during the war (which includes many flashbacks to Elle’s family home in Nevers, France).  The focus of the film is on memories and trying to remember while needing to forget.  It is a bit on the talky side and a bit pretentious as well.  I’m afraid it didn’t hold my attention all that well, but the lead actors are great and I liked the location work and the then innovative “flashes” of memory.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Grave of the Fireflies (1988) #atozchallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter G

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Today’s film is not on any of these lists, but it is highly regarded and in my opinion is an all-time classic film.

Title: Grave of the Fireflies
Release Date: April 16, 1988
Director: Isao Takahata
Production Company: Studio Ghibli
Summary/Review:

I have very limited experience watching anime and associate the genre with fantasy film so was surprised to learn that Grave of the Fireflies is an historical drama set in Kobe, Japan in the final months of World War II.  It tells the story of two children struggling to survive on their own after their mother is killed in by American firebombing raid and their father is away serving in the Japanese Navy.  Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi) is a young teenager who takes on the responsibility of raising his four-year-old sister Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi).  The film depicts him as hard-working and devoted but nevertheless still a child himself and limited in what he can do.  Setsuko is the sweetest and an accurate depiction of a very young child.

The movie is both heartwarming and heartbreaking.  Heartwarming in that is a love story between the siblings who care for one another when there is no one else to do so.  Heartbreaking in that it depicts the suffering and poverty of child refugees that is a constant outcome of war.  This film could easily be updated today and be set in Syria, Yemen, or Myanmar, and that’s terrible.  The movie is also beautiful with the bucolic setting of their pondside shelter and a trip to the beach contrasted with the devastation of war.  It’s clearly a deliberate choice by the filmmakers to draw the titular fireflies in the same style as the incendiary devices falling from American bombers.

Grave of the Fireflies is among the saddest films I’ve ever watched but it’s also one of the best.

Rating: *****