Classic Movie Review: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)


Title: The Magnificent Ambersons
Release Date: July 10, 1942
Director: Orson Welles
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures | Mercury Productions
Summary/Review:

If your debut film is hailed as a masterpiece what do you do for a follow-up?  If you’re Orson Welles you adapt a Booth Tarkington novel to present a period drama about a wealthy family in Indiana during the Gilded Age.   This would also see the start of Welles’ off-screen conflicts that interfered with his vision for the project.  In this case, RKO Radio Pictures heavily edited down his film and added a new ending.  Most reviews I’ve read tend to focus on the challenge of following up Citizen Kane and the loss of Welles’ version of this film, so I’m just going to stick to what I watched.

The Ambersons are the richest family in town and daughter Isabel (Dolores Costello) is courted by Eugene (Joseph Cotten).  When he makes a social faux pas, she chooses to marry another man.  They have one child, George (played as an adult by Tim Holt who impressed me in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), a spoiled brat who has the townspeople wishing for his comeuppance.  The main part of the film starts when George is college-aged and Eugene, now a widower, returns to town after a 20-year absence with his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter, later to star in All About Eve).  George and Lucy begin a romance but George can’t help but be hostile to her father who has become wealthy manufacturing automobiles.  Efforts to appeal to George’s good side by his unmarried aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorhead), who also loves Eugene, or his uncle Jack (Ray Collins), fall on deaf ears.  When George’s father dies and Eugene attempts to court Isabel, George blocks every chance for his mother’s happiness, eventually leading to the family’s downfall.

It’s really hard to convey how loathsome and sociopathic George is as a character.  I know there are unpleasant people in real life and movies have to reflect that but there’s really nothing to care about in this movie when it’s just George making himself and everyone around him miserable all the time.  Still, there were some things I like about this movement.  The opening sequence where the townspeople appear to be interacting with Welles’ narration is cleverly done, and gave me the idea that the whole film would have a satirical feel to it rather than the melodrama we got. The scene where they try to start the “horseless carriage” in the snow is beautifully shot. As someone who dislikes cars, I also like the anti-automobile message of the movie, with even Eugene stating how damaging they can be. And the scene where George tells Lucy he’s leaving forever and she acts giddy about it is great (only marred a bit when we learn she was actually covering up that she was broken-hearted about it).

I don’t know what Welles’ version of this film would’ve been like, but this movie as it is was mostly a miss for me.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Grapes of Wrath (1940)


Title: The Grapes of Wrath
Release Date: January 24, 1940
Director: John Ford
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Summary/Review:

I read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in high school and liked it so much that even though we hadn’t finished reading it for class by the end of the school year, I finished the book on my own during the summer. This is the opposite of the more typical situation where I was supposed to finish the book for class but never did (I’m looking at you Charles Dickens’ Hard Times). I also watched the movie around the same time and remember a) stunned by seeing Henry Fonda look so young and b) feeling a little disappointed that so much had changed from the book.

With years removed from reading the book and a greater acceptance of how adaptations work, I found myself totally enthralled by the movie on this viewing. Fonda plays Tom Joad, a volatile young man paroled from prison after serving for homicide, who returns to his family home in Oklahoma to find no one there.  Meeting up with the lapsed preacher Jim Casy (John Carradine), he eventually catches up with his family as they plan to head to California to escape the Dust Bowl and foreclosure by the bank.  The film tracks their journey west and efforts to find work and hold the family together in California.

Director John Ford and Producer Darryl F. Zanuck were known for their conservatism, but nevertheless offer an honest depiction of the capitalist exploitation and abuse of migrant workers at agricultural camp, the use of police to repress labor organizing, and that the camp run by the Federal government is the one that respects the rights and dignity of the workers.  Interestingly enough, I learned that the Weedpatch camp depicted in the film was not only a real place but it is still serving migrant laborers to this day.  While the film depicts the suffering and discrimination endured by “Okies” trying to survive it also includes moments of compassion and ends on an inspiring note.

As I noted, there are major differences between the book in the film. The book intertwines the main narrative of the Joad family with short stories about other peoples’ experiences in the Dust Bowl and migration.  The “truck drivers” scene in the film actually happens to another family in one of the short stories in the book, for example.  The book also includes much more detail about all the Joad family members and their fellow travelers, where as the film focuses in on Tom, Casy, and Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) as the main characters.  Finally, the end of the book depicts a remarkable act of compassion by Rose of Sharon (played by Dorris Bowdon in the film) that nonetheless was something that couldn’t be portrayed on film in 1940.

The Grapes of Wrath is an important book and an important film and they feel more relevant now than it did to me 30 years ago. The crises on the U.S.-Mexico border have lead to untold suffering for migrant workers coming into the country from abroad. Nomadland shows us that there are also American-born migrant workers struggling to make ends meet.  And while Nomadland is criticized for not being as political as The Grapes of Wrath, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the exploitation and abuse suffered by the laborers in the peach camp is similar to what order pickers endure today in an Amazon distribution center.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Isle of Dogs (2018)


Title: Isle of Dogs
Release Date: March 23, 2018
Director: Wes Anderson
Production Company: Studio Babelsberg | Indian Paintbrush | American Empirical Pictures
Summary/Review:

Wes Anderson’s second animated feature has a lot of the sames going for it as Fantastic Mr. Fox. It has stop-motion animation that is visually stunning.  It has clever storytelling.  It has a good mix of humor and adventure. It has a massive cast of celebrity voices.  It has dogs!

But for some reason I don’t enjoy it as much as its predecessor.  Perhaps because it is to long and has way to many subplots (they could’ve left out the Tracy Walker stuff and just focused on the dogs, for starters).  There has been some criticism of the film for cultural appropriation and stereotypes of Japanese people.  It felt more like a respectful homage to Japanese films to me but still, something felt off.

I’m not here to trash the film though.  I did enjoy it, just somewhat less than I had hoped.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)


Title: Fantastic Mr. Fox
Release Date: November 13, 2009
Director: Wes Anderson
Production Company: Indian Paintbrush | Regency Enterprises | American Empirical Pictures
Summary/Review:

Have you ever wanted to see animals stare deadpan into the camera while reciting quirky dialogue?  Wes Anderson’s brilliant stop-motion animation comedy/adventure fill will do that for you.

The titular Mr. Fox is a newspaper columnist who has adopted a suburban dad life after promising his wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) to give up stealing poultry when their son was born.  A few years later he’s yearning to get back into thievery and plots a heist of three farms on three nights with his opossum friend Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky).  The farmers respond with an all out war on the Fox family which puts all the local fauna under siege.  In a subplot, the Fox’s awkward son Ash (Jason Schwartzman, of course) forms a rivalry with his cool and athletically-gifted visiting cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson).

This is an enjoyable family film with a lot of visual treats in the animation, some clever gags, and maybe a few moments that might be scary for the kids.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)


Title: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Release Date: une 27, 2012
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Production Company: Cinereach | Court 13 | Journeyman Pictures
Summary/Review:

I went into this movie with little knowledge about what it’s about and felt as if I was plunged into a post-apocalyptic science fiction story that begins with the survivors having a big celebration. Eventually, I cottoned on that this story is set in our present day, a reminder that apocalyptic conditions already exist in many places on our earth.  In this case, it is a poor fishing community on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast called The Bathtub that is on the wrong side of the levees (and seemingly outside of governmental control) and thus susceptible to storms and hurricanes.  The movie is clearly a parable for the climate crisis, but it is also so much more.

The movie feels like a fantasy, or magical realism, because its point-of-view character is the 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis).  Wallis’ stunning performance captures a child both fully competent in navigating the world she’s grown up in but also still a child, who needs security.  She doesn’t find much of that in her volatile father Wink (Dwight Henry) who is dying, and her mother has gone missing some time before.

This movie defies description so I’m not going to summarize it any further. Much like Jaccques Tati’s Playtime, this is a movie unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and probably cannot be duplicated.  It’s a movie with a lot of emotion and imagination, and is a credit to Wallis, Henry, and the rest of the cast.  The direction and the cinematography are inspired, and credit must also be given to the set designers that created believable living spaces filled with floating debris.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)


Title: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
Release Date: March 11, 1977
Director: John Lounsbery & Wolfgang Reitherman
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

I’m surprised that I’ve never reviewed this movie before because I put it on a lot for the kids when they were little.  Granted, I did often use that time to take a nap on the couch, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love the adventures of Pooh and his friends.  I’m a fan of A.A. Milne’s classic books and the movie is not exactly a great adaptation.  And yet it ends up being great in it’s own way, even with the parts that are “not in the book.’

I love the voice work of Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell.  I love the songs by the Sherman Brothers. I love the way the characters interact with the pages of the book.  I love the way that Owl’s house sways in the wind.  I love the drug trip of “Heffalumps and Woozles.”  I love the bee that laughs at Pooh.

It’s amazing that one of Disney’s most consistent films is actually an anthology consisting of three shorts made over the course of a decade.

Rating: *****

See also: