Classic Movie Review: Gertrud (1964)

Title: Gertrud
Release Date: 19 December 1964
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Production Company: Palladium
Summary/Review: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Danish director of the classic silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, completed his career with this film, adapted from a play The film betrays its stage origins with several long drawing room conversations.  In fact, Gertrud is famous for its long takes of up to ten minutes.

The titular Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) is a former opera singer who announces early on in the film that she wants to divorce her husband Gustav (Bendt Rothe), a politician who is on the verge of being appointed as a cabinet minister.  She reviews her life and her future in ponderously long conversations with Gustav, her young lover Erland (Baard Owe),  and an ex-lover Gabriel (Ebbe Rode).

I’ve never found it especially profound for an actor to speak in flat tones while staring off into the distance, but it’s especially tedious when it’s done for nearly two hours.  Fortunately, I’m not alone in my dislike of this movie.  It was booed when released at Cannes, and an early reviewer stated “Not a film, but a two-hour study of sofas and pianos.” I guess this one of those movies that might be affecting to some, but I am not among them.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Leopard (1963)

Title: The Leopard 
Release Date: March 27, 1963
Director: Luchino Visconti
Production Company: Titanus
Summary/Review: After being underwhelmed by Senso, a movie by the same director set in the same time period, I was not looking forward to watching another lengthy Italian historical drama.  On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever watched a movie with Burt Lancaster in a starring role and I always like Claudia Cardinale, so I had those things to look forward to.

Lancaster plays Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina in Sicily in 1860 at the time of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s war of Italian unification.  His favorite nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon, L’Eclisse) is swept up in the romanticism of the rebellion and joins Garibaldi’s redshirts.  The Prince more pragmatically supports Garibaldi from afar as a means of maintaining the aristocracy as it is.  When traveling to his summer estate, the Prince reluctantly has to entertain the nouveau-riche mayor of the town Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa). When Tancredi falls for Don Calogero’s daughter Angelica (Cardinale), the Prince once again pragmatically approves of the match since it will bring in much needed cash from Don Calogero’s coffers.

For a movie of this length, there isn’t much plot. Instead it’s a series of subtle performances among the sumptuousness of the elite’s lifestyle of the Prince contrasted with the crumbling world of the common people of Sicily.  While I’m not all too interested in films about the fading of aristocratic society, since I think aristocracy should fade away, I have to admit that Lancaster’s nuanced performance makes the Prince a sympathetic character.  This movie very easily could have been a melodrama, but instead it is something more restrained and revealing.

I have to confess that I watched this movie on a 3-disc DVD from the library.  I popped in the first disc and watched the movie before realizing it was actually Disc 3, and what I watched was a shortened American version dubbed into English.  Ironically, this is the only version of the film that features Lancaster’s voice since he’s dubbed by an Italian actor in other versions.  I suppose that I failed to watch the version of the movie that earned the laudits of Cahiers du Cinéma and Sight and Sound, but I think I got a full taste of The Leopard for the time being.


Classic Movie Review: A Star Is Born (1954)

Title: A Star Is Born
Release Date: September 29, 1954
Director: George Cukor
Production Company: Transcona Enterprises

The second of four Hollywood movies entitled A Star is Born, stars Judy Garland as Esther Blodgett, a vocalist in a traveling big band.  Her performance entrances fading movie star and alcoholic Norman Maine (James Mason) and he seeks her out to offer her a chance at a Hollywood career.  The svengali nature of his pursuit is very uncomfortable to watch and it’s enhanced by Mason being one of Classic Hollywood’s creepiest actors.  By the intermission, Esther is a star (given the stage name Vicki Lester). The second half of the movie deals with Norman’s deterioration as his career fades while Esther’s rises.  It’s a very honest depiction of alcoholism and depression, for the 50s.

The movie contains several song and dance set pieces that really allow Garland to shine.  But they don’t feel as if they support the movie’s plot so much as offer a distraction from it.  The one exception is when Esther recreates a big production number from her current film for Norman in their living room.  It’s really the only moment we get to see them having a sweet moment.  Otherwise A Star is Born is overlong, melodramatic, and a bit boring.

It’s a bit eerie how much the movie parallels Garland’s own troubled career.  Norman’s character is criticized for delaying production on his films but in real life Garland was delaying production of A Star is Born with her absences.  At the time this movie was made, Garland had been in show business for around 20 years and A Star is Born was supposed to be her big comeback.  She was only 32 years old.  That’s so messed up.



Classic Movie Review: America, America (1963)

Title: America, America
Release Date: December 15, 1963
Director: Elia Kazan
Production Company: Athena Enterprises
Summary/Review: America, America is an immigration story written, directed, and produced by Elia Kazan and based on the experiences of his uncle. Unusual for a film produced in the United States at the time it is made in a neorealist style with a cast of little-known actors.  The movie stars Greek actor Stathis Giallelis as Stavros Topouzoglou, a young ethnically Greek man living in the Anatolia region of Turkey in the 1890s. He dreams of escaping poverty and the oppressive rule of the Ottoman Empire by fleeing to the United States.

The nearly three-hour film is essentially three different stories.  The first part depicts Stavros’ life in Anatolia and the massacre of Armenians that kills his friend Vartan (Frank Wolff).  His father sends him to Constantinople to earn money to bring the rest of the family to join him.  The second part of the film follow Stavros’ struggles in Constantinople which include him becoming engaged to Thomna (Linda Marsh), the daughter of the wealthy merchant Aleko Sinnikoglou (Paul Mann) in order to use the dowry to pay for his passage to America.  The final third depicts the journey to New York City which Stavros pays for through having an affair with the wealthy American Sophia (Katharine Balfour). Hohannes Gardashian (Gregory Rozakis), a fellow dreamer hoping to emigrate to America and suffering from tuberculosis, appears at various points through the story and plays an important part in Stavros’ achieving his dream.

The movie is rough and sprawling and overlong.  The use of American actors in lot of the parts, speaking in broad American accents, comes off as very odd.  The acting also tends to be over the top in general, although Giallelis is a compelling central performance.  This movie was obviously a very personal project for Kazan.  I’m glad I watched it although I don’t feel that it’s a movie I will return to.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Talk to Her (2002)

Title: Hable con ella
Release Date: 15 March 2002
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Production Company: El Deseo S.A.

Back in the 1990s, Pedro Almodóvar films were a really big deal, but I never liked them.  It felt to me that his films used shock value in attempt to appear edgy and groundbreaking.  Almodóvar is known for centering his movies around strong women characters but also for having those characters humiliated and abused, leading him to be considered both a feminist and a misogynist filmmaker.  One of the worst examples was Kika, a movie I actually saw at the theater, where the title character is raped in a long scene that is played for laughs.  As you can imagine, I went into watching this Almodóvar film with strong reservations.

The women in this film are a dancer named Alicia (Leonor Watling) and a bullfighter named Lydia (Rosario Flores).  They are both comatose for the better part of the film, only acting in flashbacks.  Alicia is cared for rather obsessively by a nurse at the hospital named Benigno (Javier Cámara).  Lydia’s boyfriend Marco (Darío Grandinetti) also spends time with her hoping against hope that she will be restored to health.  Over time Benigno and Marco form a friendship over their shared experience.

In flashbacks, we learn that Benigno was actually stalking Alicia before the car crash that put her in a coma.  During the course of the film, Benigno rapes and impregnates the comatose Alicia (thankfully this is not depicted in the film but hinted at through a bizarre “silent film”).  A leopard does not change its spots, whether it’s Benigno or Almodóvar himself.  I actually don’t mind so much that the story shows Marco agreeing to help his imprisoned friend despite the disgust he feels for the crime.  Even the worst criminals are still human beings.  I just wish that Almodóvar could extend that empathy and humanity to the women in this film.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Senso (1954)

Title: Senso
Release Date:  30 December 1954
Director: Luchino Visconti
Production Company: Lux Film

Set during the Third Italian War of Independence around 1866, Senso is a sweeping Technicolor melodrama, romance, and war film.  The story centers on Contessa Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli) who enters into a tryst with Austrian Lieutenant Franz Mahler (American actor Farley Granger dubbed into Italian by Enrico Maria Salerno).  Initially Livia appears to be using her womanly guiles to support her revolutionary cousin Marchese Roberto Ussoni (Massimo Girotti), but she quickly gives into her passions and lusts (“senso” in Italian) and falls madly in love with Franz.

The “romance” of this movie is a hard sell for me since it’s clear from the beginning that Franz is a cad who is totally playing Livia for his own ends.  I hate to admit this, but the battle scenes near the end of the film were the most interesting part of the film for me.  Call me a philistine, but I found this movie to be pretentious dull.  If this is the type of film the Italian neorealists were reacting too, I can better understand the impetus of their movement.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Apocalypse Now (1979)

Title: Apocalypse Now
Release Date: August 15, 1979
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Production Company: United Artists | Omni Zoetrope

For the purposes of this review, I watched Apocalypse Now Redux, which I’d never seen before because it was streaming on Netflix and I was too lazy to go to the library for the original version.  The main difference is that 49 minutes of footage was added to the film ballooning the length to 202 minutes.  Apocalypse Now is definitely better without the extra footage, but I didn’t find it made the movie any less watchable.  In fact the story is so episodic that it would be possible to slide in and out various scenes to make several cuts that worked.

I first saw Apocalypse Now in college where it was something of a cult film among many of the students.  I watched the movie several times over a couple of years in the early 90s but hadn’t watched it since.  The movie depicts the war in Vietnam through a graphic depiction of the violence and brutality of that war.  Granted, it is not a very factual depiction of the Vietnam War, but one that catches the essence of the madness of that war through an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness. I read Conrad’s novel a couple of times in college and it was one of those books I struggled with maintaining my concentration.  Although I do remember the narrator’s aunts advising him to wear flannel and write often from The Congo.

In the film, U.S. Army Captain Benjamin Willard (a very young-looking Martin Sheen) is ordered to sail upriver into Cambodia on a mission to assassinate Special Forces  Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando).  Kurtz has gone rogue from the Army and set himself up as a cult leader and warlord of his own army of indigenous people and other Americans gone A.W.O.L. On the journey upriver, Willard and the crew of a Navy river patrol boat (which includes Laurence Fishburne when he was only 14!) have many strange and disturbing encounters with members of the U.S. military and Vietnamese civilians (and in Apocalypse Now Redux, a family of French colonist holdouts).  The structuring of the film almost follows that of a fantasy story or of a mythological heroes journey.

Except that there are no heroes in this movie.  The further Willard and crew go into the jungle the further they descend into the darkest parts of their psyches.  Kurtz on the other hand, has seen the madness of the war and embraced the madness. And yes the metaphor of “the jungle” and “indigenous people” representing the worst of humanity is as problematic in this movie as it was in Conrad’s novel.  But beyond that this is an excellent movie with considerable skill in its production and excellent acting all around.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Annie Hall (1977)/Manhattan (1979)

My effort to watch and review every movie ranked on three lists of greatest films of all time from the American Film Institute, Sight & Sound, and Cahiers du Cinéma offers many challenges.  The biggest one is “Do I really want to watch this movie?”  After all there is no requirement for me to do so beyond my own stubborn pride.  This is the challenge I face with watching Annie Hall (#35 on the AFI list) and Manhattan (#93 on the Cahiers du Cinéma list).

When I was young and my family first got cable tv in 1984, I became a fan of the Woody Allen films played on tv like Bananas, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex, Sleeper, and my favorite Love and Death. Later in my college years I became borderline obsessed with watching every Woody Allen movie ever made.  According to my Letterboxd stats, he is my second-most watched director of all time after Alfred Hitchcock. Through the 90s I watched new Woody Allen films as they were released.  But it’s been two decades since I last watched a Woody Allen movie and I never will watch one again.  Because watching a Woody Allen movie means watching the man who sexually assaulted Dylan Farrow.

There is an ongoing argument in our culture about whether or not one can separate the art from the artist. For me, I have to take several factors into consideration, such as:

  • the severity of the artist’s offense
  • what, if any, efforts has the artist made at accepting consequence and reconciliation
  • if the artist is still alive, will supporting their art provide them with material benefits and social account that would allow them to defend against consequences for their offense, or worse, carry out additional offenses
  • in a collaborative work of art, such as a film, can we recognize the contributions of other artists without elevating the offender

Woody’s Allen’s crime was most grievous and he’s made no effort at redemption.  Supporting his art gives him money and fame that allows him to evade legal consequences and possibly assault other women and girls.  And while many other artists made valuable contributions to Woody Allen films, he is the writer, director, and star of most of them, playing a version of himself.  I’ve tried to watch or rewatch every movie before writing a review for my Classic Movie Project but I can’t in good conscience rewatch these movies, so I will review them based on memories from decades ago.  I will also forgo giving these two moves a star rating.

TitleAnnie Hall
Release Date: March 27, 1977
Director: Woody Allen
Production Company: A Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe Production
Summary/Review: Annie Hall was once among my favorite movies. It is a clever romantic comedy which involves unusual for the time aspects such as breaking the fourth wall, a classic gag involving Marshall McLuhan and even an animated segment. And Diane Keaton as the title character is the rare woman in a Woody Allen film who gets to be funnier and more likable than Woody’s character. As a film, it hits the sweet spot of Allen gaining technical competence as a director but before he became to self-indulgent.

Release Date: April 18, 1979
Director: Woody Allen
Production Company: United Artists
Summary/Review:  Unlike Annie Hall, which I watched several times, I only watched Manhattan once.  I was in college in the early 1990s and learning about filmmaking techniques so it was one of the first movies where I could appreciate the black & white cinematography, montage, and the use of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” to score the film.  Since New York City had essentially hit rock bottom in the 1970s, it was nice to have a film tribute to Manhattan at the time, although the world of Isaac Davis (Allen) was entirely upper middle class white people.

Apart from the artistic touches, I didn’t like Manhattan all the much.  Mainly because the plot involves the 42-year-old Davis dating the 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway).  Even if you know nothing about Allen’s real life crimes, this is creepy.  It was creepy in the 1990s and it was creepy in 1979.  Apart from that plot point, the humor in this film lacks the nebbish and self-deprecating qualities of Annie Hall, and Davis’ character seems to be more of someone who insists that you should be on his side without giving a good reason to do so.

Classic Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Title: Once Upon a Time in America
Release Date: May 23, 1984
Director: Sergio Leone
Production Company: The Ladd Company | PSO International | Embassy International Pictures | Rafran Cinematografica

Sometimes it seems that all you have to do to make it on a Great Films list is to make a movie about gangsters and make it very long.  That is the formula that legendary Italian director Sergio Leone followed in making Once Upon a Time in America, which ended up being his final film, and one he spent over a decade creating.  It’s also the final part of a loose trilogy of Once Upon a Time… movies that began with Once Upon a Time in the West.  Notoriously, the production company severely cut down the movie for its American release and rearranged the scenes in chronological order.  This movie bombed in the U.S. but the nearly 4-hour “European Cut” that I watched is considered a classic.

The movie is told from the point of view of David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert DeNiro, played by Scott Tiler as a teenager) who forms a gang in the Jewish enclave of Manhattan’s Lower East Side with his friend Max (James Woods, Rusty Jacobs as a teenager) and three other friends.  The story is framed by an older Noodles returning to New York City after 35 years because someone has learned he betrayed his friends in 1933.  The bulk of the film takes place in flashback during the Prohibition Era of the 1910s to 1930s.

Noodles is the epitome of unsympathetic narrator as we see him not only carry out violent crimes, but brutally rape two different women including the one who is supposed to be his lifelong sweetheart, Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern, Jennifer Connelly as a teenager). Women in this film are seemingly just there to be humiliated, beaten, and raped.  This is no doubt and accurate depiction of how gangsters treated women and girls, but if it’s up to you if that’s something you want to watch in a movie.

I’m not sure why Leone chose to cast actors of Italian/Irish and Irish ancestry in the lead roles as Jewish gangsters.  Not only was it unfair to ethnically Jewish actors who could’ve played the parts but it’s confusing since DeNiro and Woods had already played gangsters of other ethnicities.  I found Jacobs  was a lot more charismatic as the Young Max than Woods, who is just his usually creepy-ass self. The plot hinges on the audience’s’ belief in Noodles and Max having a deep friendship but I never feel any such connection between DeNiro and Woods. Indeed, the film seems to deliberately repel any emotional connection one might make with the characters. There are huge plot twists that end up being corny and unconvincing, and at the end I was left wondering why we spent nearly four hours on this story.

The one thing Once Upon a Time in America has going for it is that it looks really good. The sets are picture-perfect recreation of the Lower East Side in the early 20th century. I’d love to learn how it was produced and how they got Manhattan Bridge to hover over so many of the street scenes in the era before CGI.  Otherwise, gangster movies aren’t really my cup of tea, so your impression of this film may vary, but I found this movie to “meh” overall.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Grand Illusion (1937)

Title: La Grande Illusion
Release Date: June 8, 1937
Director: Jean Renoir
Production Company: Réalisations d’Art Cinématographique (RAC)

I doubt Grand Illusion was the first film about prisoners of war but it seems to have been a great influence on later films like Stalag 17, Bridge Over River Kwai, and The Great Escape.  Thematically, though, I found the greatest similarities are with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.  Both films deal with the the slow dissolution of the European aristocracy in the early 20th century and the bonds of the military elite even across enemy lines.  I had no expectations going into this movie, but came away very impressed by Renoir’s camera movement and storytelling as well as the strong acting performances.

Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is a working class French officer in World War I and Captain de Boëldieu (Pierre Fresnay) is an aristocratic flying ace who is his superior. They are shot down early in the film and held as prisoners of war by the Germans.  In camp, they befriend Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), who is from a nouveau riche Jewish banking family, and is generous in sharing the food sent to him so that the prisoners eat better than the guards.  The three men attempt many escapes and eventually taken to Wintersborn, a German fortress with high walls that seems impossible to escape. The camp commander is Major von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), an aristocratic flying ace who actually shot down  Maréchal and Boëldieu but after injuries is reassigned to prison camp duties.  Rauffenstein and Boëldieu form something of a friendship based on their shared nobility, although the latter is more aware of where the winds are blowing for the aristocracy.

The final act of the film depicts Maréchal and Rosenthal receiving aid from a widowed German farmer, Elsa (Dita Parlo).  Here the unity by class over nationality is replicated among the working people. This film was made on the eve of World War II and Renoir’s message of unity and commonality amongst the peoples of Europe was an optimistic vision that didn’t come to pass.  By depicting German characters in a positive light, he also seemed to be sending a message to a nation under the grip of Nazism to embrace their better selves.  Finally, Grand Illusion is an anti-war message at a time when one was really needed that exposed war’s promise of glory and honor as illusory.

Rating: ****