Classic Movie Review: Van Gogh (1991) #AtoZChallenge



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

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: Van Gogh
Release Date: 30 October 1991
Director: Maurice Pialat
Production Company: Erato Films | Le Studio Canal+ | Les Films du Livradois | Films A2
Summary/Review:

I admire the artwork of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh.  I’ve been to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and seen his art at other museums, watched the film Loving Vincent animated in the style of his art, and “Vincent and the Doctor” is one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who.  Despite all that, I am only familiar with the basics of Van Gogh’s biography, so I was looking forward to this film.

Jacques Dutronc portrays Van Gogh in the final two months of his life in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise on the outskirts of Paris.  It’s largely a straightforward biopic, and Pialat’s approach eschews sentimentality and sensationalism.  For example, the story takes place after Van Gogh mutilated his ear but Dutronc’s ears appear in perfect condition.  The movie focuses less on Van Gogh as an artist and more on his interpersonal relationships.  This means a lot of people being goofy about trying to find something to talk about with an artist and Van Gogh being incredibly grumpy about it.

Key relationships include Dr Paul Gachet (Gérard Séty) the physician and amateur artists who Van Gogh consults who is ultimately helpless in dealing with Van Gogh’s mental illness.  Vincent also has several conflicts with his brother Theo (Bernard Le Coq), the art dealer who supports his career.  Theo’s wife Jo (Corinne Bourdon) is sympathetic to Vincent and advocates for him.  Van Gogh also forms a romantic and sexual relationship with Dr. Gachet’s daughter Marguerite (Alexandra London) while continuing an existing sexual relationship with Cathy (Elsa Zylberstein), a prostitute from Paris.

The movie is basically a sequence of Van Gogh having arguments and sex and there being very little emotion involved in either.  I know it’s probably more my fault than the film’s but I had a lot of trouble watching this movie. I ended up watching it over the period of four days because it just couldn’t hold me attention.  If the purpose of Van Gogh is to recreate the feeling of  emptiness the leads a talented artist to chose suicide, it does its job.  But ultimately I can’t say that is what I want from a film.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Trouble in Paradise (1932) #AtoZChallenge



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

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.

I couldn’t find a “U” movie to watch from these lists, so I’m going to just review another “T” movie and “U” will have to live with that.

Title: Trouble in Paradise
Release Date: October 21, 1932
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

The film begins with a romantic dinner in Venice between Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins). They gradually learn that they are both posing as aristocracy: he’s a master thief and she’s a pickpocket and a con artist.  They decide to team up and find their next mark in Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), a recent widow who owns a famous perfume company.  Gaston is able to get himself hired as Mariette’s secretary (and get a position for Lily as well) and work his way into her confidence to set up robbing her safe.  There’s one problem though – Gaston and Mariette fall in love.

Thus you have the perfect escapist fare for The Great Depression – the meaningless problems of the rich, a love triangle, and nonstop droll humor.  The three leads are terrific and have a great supporting cast.  I wouldn’t say this movie is laugh out loud funny, but these characters are so smart and effortless in their banter, I can’t help but enjoy it.  I’d never heard of Kay Francis before, but I learned she was the top-paid Hollywood actress of the early 1930s, and I can see why.  You can also tell this is a pre-Code film because they’re never explicitly sexual, they don’t hide its sexiness either.

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: Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) #AtoZChallenge



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

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: Les Enfants du Paradis
Release Date: March 9, 1945
Director: Marcel Carné
Production Company: Société Nouvelle Pathé Cinéma
Summary/Review:

If you’re country is occupied by a draconian regime and in the midst of some of the most destructive battles in human history,  making an epic costume drama film would probably not be a high priority. Director Marcel Carné, screenwriter Jacques Prévert, and the cast and crew of Les Enfants du Paradis (a.k.a. Children of Paradise – “merci” to the French language for letting me get an “E” post out of this) did not see German occupation or the Allied invasion of France as deterrents to making this movie. And I must impress that this isn’t a guerrilla production with a couple of cameras and a small cast.  No, this is full-on spectacle with a blocks-long city street set with 1000s of extras in costume!

The film itself is set in Paris in 1830s, focusing on the theater world and characters based on historical figures.  The “paradis” in the title refers to the highest balcony where the cheapest seats are and where the most enthusiastic and demanding audience members sat.  The central character is Garlance (Arletty), a bewitching woman who becomes the object of affection of four different men: Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) – a skilled mime, Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur) – an ambitious dramatic actor, Pierre-François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) – a “gentleman” criminal, and Comte Édouard de Montray (Louis Salou) – a calculating aristocrat.

The first part of the film is a comedy of manners with each of the men meeting and becoming entranced by Garlance, while she shows favor to none of them.  The second part of the film is several years later when Baptiste and Lemaître are now established stars of the stage and Garlance has reluctantly become Montray’s mistress.  The movie is very melodramatic, deliberately so as the film seeks to replicate the style of 19th century theatre while undermining in it in scenes that actually depict stage performances.  A good example of this is when Lemaître humiliates a group of stuffy playwrights by improvising dialogue during the premiere.

Even if you don’t consider the circumstances under which this film as made, its technical brilliance cannot be denied.  Shots like the finale where a crowd of carnival celebrants dance in the street are awe-inspiring.  But apart from the wonder of the film itself and its remarkable background story, I didn’t feel very moved or engaged by the plot.  This movie is not going to make my personal list of best films of all time.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Deer Hunter (1978) #AtoZChallenge


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

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.

TitleThe Deer Hunter
Release Date: December 8, 1978
Director: Michael Cimino
Production Company: EMI
Summary/Review:

The Deer Hunter is a movie I’ve long been aware of but only had a vague idea that it was about Vietnam, involved Russian Roulette, and starred Christopher Walken.  I had no idea that the lead actor is actually Robert De Niro, who seems to be in every prestige film of this era, or that it is prominently set in a steel mill town of Western Pennsylvania.  I kind of figured that this movie fit in with films like Coming Home, Apocalypse Now, and Platoon, which it kind of does, but it’s also very much its own thing.

The movie centers on a trio of young men who decide to enlist in the army to fight in the war in Vietnam – Mike (De Niro), Nick (Walken), and Steve (John Savage).  The cast also includes John Cazale in the last of his five films before dying of cancer (all of which were nominated for Best Picture) as their friend Stan, and Meryl Streep in one of her earliest films as Linda, a woman that Mike and Nick are both in love with.  The first part of the film focuses on the group of Russian-American friends who work together in the steel mill in a very busy 24-hour period where they work, go out for drinks, attend Steve’s wedding and reception, and then go hunting (except Steve, of course, who goes to his wedding night with his wife).  Like The Godfather, this film uses an extensive wedding reception setting to establish the characters and the culture they live in.

The first segment goes on so long, in fact, I thought maybe that the Vietnam War may be more of a theme of the movie than actually seeing them go to war. But suddenly the film transitions to battle scenes and we enter the second act.  I kind of wish the movie had focused entirely on that 24-hour period before Mike, Nick, and Steve left for Vietnam.  Not only is it the best part of the movie but it would also be considerably shorter than the 3+ hour slog Cimino gave us.  The movie descends into gratuitous violence, impossible leaks of logic, heavy-handed messaging, and a really racist depiction of Vietnamese as cruel and sadistic.  The Russian roulette sequences in this movie are not based on any reality of how the Vietnamese treated POWs nor were there Russian roulette gambling dens in Saigon. For Cimino it’s supposed to be a metaphor but it really strains credulity.

The third act of the movie brings Mike home with considerable PTSD and a need to “save” his friends, Steve from a facility for wounded veterans and Nick from the aforementioned Russian roulette gambling dens in Saigon as the city falls in April 1975. This part could’ve have been an affective look at the way the trauma of war changes people, a la The Best Years of Our Lives, but the heavy-handedness and ludicrousness of the plot twists just makes it a slog.  I honestly wonder if the people who decided that this movie deserved a lot of awards and accolades only based it on the first hour or so.  Because it started off so good and I really thought it was going to be a very different film than it ended up being.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Andrei Rublev (1966) #AtoZChallenge


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

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 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: Andrei Rublev
Release Date: December 16, 1966
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Production Company: Mosfilm
Summary/Review: This epic film is based on the life of Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn), a monk in Russia in the early 1400s who gained renown for painting icons and other religious art. The film is split into eight parts depicting incidents from different periods of Rublev’s life (as well as a few other incidents that occur during his lifetime). The film is set against the background in-fighting among Russian princes and raids by Tatars. Thus the film depicts the horrors of war, cruelty, and barbarity contrasted with Rublev’s faith and the beauty of art.

The episodes depict Rublev’s transitions from youthful idealism to disillusionment with humanity to ultimately maturing to realize that his art can make a positive contribution to the world. In addition to Rublev’s story, the prologue and final chapter depict two other artistic spirits, a balloon pilot and a bellmaker, each of whom put their lives on the line in faith of their art. I found the movie well-made and well-acted but thought it was far too long and plodding.
Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: My Night at Maud’s (1969)


Title: My Night at Maud’s
Release Date: May 15, 1969
Director: Éric Rohmer
Production Company: Compagnie Française de Distribution Cinématographique (CFDC)
Summary/Review:

For years I’ve known of My Night at Maud’s as one of the all-time great films primarily based on its prominent display in the foreign movie section of the video store I frequented in the 1990s, but I’d never watched it before. I’d imagined it was a comedic romp (and perhaps a bit raunchy) based on the title and poster. It is nothing of the sort and is in fact a movie where people have in-depth philosophical conversations about morality and religion. That’s fine by me, and like there to be more movies like this, but as Roger Ebert points out, you want to prepare yourself for it.

The protagonist is Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a man in his 30s who has recently begun to work in the small French city of Clermont. A devout Catholic, he’s developed a crush on a woman he sees at church named Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault), but has not had the confidence to approach her. On a chance meeting, Jean-Louis is reacquainted with an old friend, Vidal (Antoine Vitez), who in turn introduces Jean-Louis to his friend with benefits, Maud (Françoise Fabian).

When it starts to snow, Vidal excuses himself but since Jean-Louis lives outside the city, he stays the night at Maud’s. The next day he encounters Françoise and finally introduces himself. That night he gives her a ride home but when his car gets stuck on ice ends up spending another chaste night out at her apartment complex.

All of this plot is merely the structure to hang the deep conversations among the four primary characters, with Maud and Vidal offering atheist perspectives to the religious Jean-Louis and Françoise. Their conversations are both direct and exceptionally corteous and should be an example to us all. A coda to the film reveals a surprise twist so subtle I missed it entirely until I read a summary of the film.

My Night at Maud does not feel like a movie made over 50 years ago and it could be remade today with few changes (not that it should).

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Kiss Me Deadly (1955)


Title: Kiss Me Deadly
Release Date: May 18, 1955
Director: Robert Aldrich
Production Company: Parklane Pictures
Summary/Review:

A young woman, Christina (Cloris Leachman in her film debut), runs barefoot down a highway, wearing nothing but a trench coat. She stops a passing sportscar, driven by Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker).  The credits roll from bottom up as they drive off in the night. Thus is the stunning beginning of this film noir classic.

When Christina ends up dead and Hammer awakens in a hospital days later, Hammer realizes that Christina must’ve been into something big. He’s a private detective who specializes in divorce cases but nevertheless ignores the police when they tell him not investigate the case.  Hammer questions mobsters, kisses beautiful woman, and punches stooges.  Every trope you may have seen in a film noir homage or parody is in this film.  I guess they had to start somewhere.

The plot revolves around the MacGuffin of a mysterious box which appears to have influenced films ranging from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Pulp Fiction.  Meeker’s Hammer is brutally violent, unsentimental, and representative of the nihilism at the heart of this film.  The story doesn’t make much sense upon a little reflection, but I think this movie is more about atmosphere and capturing the truth of Los Angeles in the many location shots.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Johnny Guitar (1954)


Title: Johnny Guitar
Release Date: August 23, 1954
Director: Nicholas Ray
Production Company: Republic Pictures
Summary/Review:

One thing I enjoy about watching movies off the Cahiers du Cinéma list is that along with the expected French films, there are completely bonkers Hollywood movies that don’t seem to get the same recognition in the Anglophone world.  Sterling Hayden (who would later go on to steal scenes in Dr. Strangelove and The Godfather) plays the titular guitar-slinging cowboy who travels to the outskirts of a remote cattle town in Arizona, presumably to provide entertainment at a saloon/casino. The railroad hasn’t arrived in town yet so there are no customers in the large and elaborate establishment that looks like it would be a really awesome 20th-century Western theme park hotel.

While Johnny Guitar has his name in the title, he’s more of a supporting character to the real star of this film, Sienna (Joan Crawford).  She’s a pants-wearing, gun-totin’ saloon-keeper who is fully intent on making sure she has a profitable future by supporting the railroad against the objections of the rest of the town folk.  She also raises their ire by allowing a gang of miners who are believed to be robbers lead by The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) to frequent her saloon.  But really they are against Sienna because Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) has a personal animus against Sienna and will use any pretext to drive her out of town.

I won’t say that this movie is a striking blow for feminism, but it is refreshing to see a movie where the main protagonist and antagonist are both women who act well outside the confines of female stereotypes of the time.  The dialogue in this film is full of witty banter as if someone like Aaron Sorkin were behind writing it.  And there are a lot of quirky twists and full-on DRAMATICS that make it entertaining.  I found myself enjoying this movie a lot although I do feel it fizzles out with a more conventional Western conclusion.

If you don’t like Westerns, try this one, because it is not quite what you’d expect from the genre.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Madame de… (1953)


Title: Madame de…
Release Date: September 16, 1953
Director: Max Ophüls
Production Company: Franco London Films | Indusfilms | Rizzoli Film
Summary/Review:

French aristocrat Louise (Danielle Darrieux) has a debt and sells a pair of earrings that were a wedding gift from her husband André (Charles Boyer) to pay it.  The earrings become a device around which the narrative revolves as they are sold and resold and take on new meanings to the characters with each transfer.

The main plot involves an Italian baron, Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio De Sica), and Louise falling in love (a big no-no in the aristocratic code where mistresses are acceptable, but love is forbidden).  There’s a brilliant scene showing their relationship blossoming over a series of nights dancing, their clothing changing as they move behind pillars, but the dance moving smoothly on.  Louise initially seems to be a careless and spoiled, and the matters of aristocrats mean little to me, but Ophüls tells their story in a way that can’t fail to elicit empathy.

I’m not sure exactly when the movie is set, but it appears to be the early 20th century. André and Fabrizio are both in the military of their respective nations and a recurring theme of the film is the formation of alliances among European nations.  I may be stretching my interpretation a bit, but I think this movie is not just a story of the dissolution of a marriage that leads to tragedy, but also a metaphor for Europe and all the petty slights that lead to the carnage of World War I.

Rating: ***1/2