Classic Movie Review: Greed (1924)


Title: Greed
Release Date: December 4, 1924
Director: Erich von Stroheim
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

I came to this film reluctantly because in college I read the awful book it’s based on, McTeague, about a horrible dentist who abuses his wife. The novel’s author, Frank Norris, practiced scientific racism and the fictional work is supposed to be his expose of the inferiority of the working class, immigrants, Jewish people, et al. So, you know this is going to be a fun movie!

In a sense, the movie is better than the book, especially since director Erich von Stroheim removed the prejudicial undertones. Gibson Gowland plays the irascible John McTeague, a dentist in San Francisco. His friendship with Marcus Schoule (Jean Hersholt) deteriorates when he marries Trina Sieppe (ZaSu Pitts, one of the great names in Hollywood history), whom they both courted. McTeagues marriage swiftly falls apart, partly dur to Trina clinging to $5000 she won in a lottery even as the couple fall into destitution.

Von Stroheim largely filmed on location which means you get a lot of cool glimpses of San Francisco from a century ago. The final scenes were filmed on location in Death Valley under brutal conditions for the actors and crew. Still, the final shot is about as iconic as they come in film history. Von Stroheim also used tinting to add a golden glow to the objects of desire that the characters lust after. The movie is melodramatic and the characters are more types than realized people. Overall, this is another film that I’m glad to have watched from a film history perspective, but not one that I would otherwise have enjoyed.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean


Author: Susan Orlean
Title: The Library Book
Narrator: Susan Orlean
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:
Susan Orlean’s excellent work of narrative nonfiction focuses on the Los Angeles Central Library, particularly on the April 29, 1986 fire that severely damaged the building. Orlean examines the history and aftermath of the fire and reconstruction through interviews of past and current library employees and an examination of the library’s history to its origins over a century ago. The book also tells the story of Harry Peak, a young aspiring actor and attention seeker who became a leading arson suspect. The cause of the fire remains unsolved to this day.

I actually visited the Los Angeles Central Library on my visit to Southern California in 2007, and I’ve included a couple of photos below.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Lady Bird (2017)


Title: Lady Bird
Release Date: November 3, 2017
Director: Greta Gerwig
Production Company: IAC Films | Scott Rudin Productions | Management 360
Summary/Review:

This coming-of-age story focuses on a year-in-the-life of a high school senior, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who chooses to call herself Lady Bird. Like many teenagers, she wants to get out of her hometown of Sacramento, and go to college on the East Coast which she thinks is more cultured. (NOTE: I’ve never been to Sacramento but this movie makes it look like a beautiful place). The main conflict in this film is the tension between Lady Bird and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who tends toward passive-aggressive criticism and worries about the family’s financial struggles.

This conflict though is subtle as plays on through various slice-of-life vignettes in Lady Bird’s life. Over the course of the year she dates two different boys, performs in a musical, turns on her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, playing a character completely opposite of who she plays in Booksmart) in order to hang out with a more popular girl, and conspires with her father Larry (Tracy Letts) to apply to a college in New York City.  Ronan’s acting and Gerwig’s directing do a great job of showing Lady Bird growing and maturing, but in a more nuanced way than the typical Hollywood moment of epiphany.

The movie reminds me a bit of Donnie Darko (without the supernatural elements) with parts of Pretty in Pink, and a strong similarity in the protagonist’s character growth with Frances Ha, a movie Gerwig wrote and starred in. Nevertheless, it is an original and honest portrayal of teenage experience.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Birds (1963)


Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: The Birds
Release Date: March 28, 1963
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions
Summary/Review:

This is the third film that Hitchcock adapted from the writings of Daphne du Maurier after Jamaica Inn  and Rebecca.  I remember reading the du Maurier story as a child and then not being impressed when I watched the film.  Unfortunately, I still have a low opinion of the film on this rewatch.

San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) makes a bold decision to follow a man she met in a pet shop to his family home in Bodega Bay, California.  She delivers a pair of lovebirds to Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) so he may give them as a birthday gift to his 11-year-old sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright, whose name seemed so familiar until I found that she played Betty Grissom in The Right Stuff).  Before this odd meet-cute can blossom into a full-on romcom for Melanie and Mitch, seagulls, sparrows, crows, and more begin attacking humanity at regular intervals. The rest of the movie features these attacks and the tense moments in between them.

Suzanne Pleshette and Jessica Tandy also put in good performances as a local school teacher, respectively.  The movie is full of iconic shots and is definitely a forerunner to a generation of horror films such as Night of the Living Dead and Jaws. But the movie is also overlong and way to talky.  Hedren is not a compelling enough performer to carry the movie, and mostly seems to be there to fulfill Hitchcock’s sadistic desire to see a blond woman pecked by vicious birds.

Rating: **

Movie Reviews: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)


Title: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Release Date: June 11, 1982
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Universal Studios | Amblin Entertainment
Summary/Review:

E.T. was a huge monster hit right at the time when I was the target demographic for this story of an alien botanist stranded on earth and his friendship with a young boy.  And I didn’t really like it.  Watching this movie again for the first time in decades, I found myself far more moved by it than I did when I was 8.

I do remember seeing this in the theater with my family and my sister and I were allowed to go up to the balcony on our own.  Except that I found the movie too scary and forced my sister to go back downstairs to sit with our parents.  Well, it turns out, the first 20 minutes or so of this movie are pretty creepy from John Williams’ music to the slasher film perspective of E.T. running through the woods.  Later in the movie, when a bleached-out E.T. is discovered in a ravine and then the government agents invade the house are also creepy and scary moments.

Of course, the whole movie isn’t creepy.  It’s actually very sweet and a remarkably well-written (by screen written Melissa Mathison) story that balances the humor, drama, and pathos of a realistic childhood friendship (in a Sci-Fi setting, of course). It helps that the movie stars some terrific child actors in Henry Thomas as Elliot and Drew Barrymore as his little sister Gertie. All in all, this movie is much better than I remembered although it does tend to get overly manipulative of the emotions towards the end.  While I wouldn’t put it on my favorite movies of all time list, it is definitely worth watching.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker


Author: Karen Thompson Walker
Title: The Age of Miracles
Narrator: Emily Janice Card
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2012)
Summary/Review:

This novel offers a speculative account of the crisis that occurs when the rotation of the Earth slows, lengthening the periods of daylight and nighttime.  This incident is referred to by the characters in the book as The Slowing, and it has the effect of causing birds to die off, an increase of solar radiation, a complete inability to grow traditional crops, and even causing some people to contract an illness.

While the premise is fantastical, the way the fictional American society responds to the crisis is realistic.  The US government determines that the country will continue to follow the 24-hour clock regardless of what time the sun is shining or not.  Some people rebel against this, insisting on living on “real time,” even going so far as forming their own separatist communities.

The narrator/protagonist of the novel is a junior high school girl from suburban San Diego named Julia.  From her perspective we see the dissolution of the social order among her family, friends, and school.  Any attempts to deal with the normal struggles of adolescence are overshadowed by the crisis that prevents any sense of predictability in the world. Julia narrates from an uncertain future while the narrative focuses on the first few months of the slowing as Julia faces changing friendships and an emerging relationship with a long-time crush.

This novel is dark and emotional and all too real to be reading at this time.

Recommended books:

  • The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Disneyland Story by Sam Gennawey


Author: Sam Gennawey
TitleThe Disneyland Story
Publication Info: Birmingham, AL : Keen Communications, LLC 2014.
Summary/Review:

This book caught my eye when I was looking for guide books for our Walt Disney World trip and since I’ve long had a fascination with amusement park history, I decided to read it.  The story documents the origins of Disneyland in California from Walt Disney’s fascination with model trains and miniature villages and the desire to give something for fans of Disney films to do when they requested to visit the studios in Burbank.  It eventually grew to be the theme park built in an orange grove near the then remote town of Anaheim.  Disney’s monomaniacal commitment to building and then tinkering with Disneyland over the last 15 years of his life makes one wonder how he found time to work on the studio’s film and television project. This is doubly true since he was bringing a lot of the talent from the studios to work on Disneyland, becoming the first imagineers.  For all the artifice of Disneyland it is fascinating how many real things – from train engines to architectural details – were salvaged to build the park.

The book is basically in two parts.  The 1950s and 1960s are more intricately covered with the focus on Disney’s dream and the projects completed and started in his lifetime.  From the 1970s to the present, the book is more of a listing of annual changes to the park, and the sense that Disneyland is getting neglected due to the company’s focus on new parks in Florida, Japan, France, and China.  The Michael Eisner era seems to be wrapped up in red tape and bad ideas as the company continually fails to expand Disneyland and the initial disappointment of the Disney California Adventure when it finally opens in 2001.  This period is also marked by the Disney company seemingly doing everything in their power to avoid ever paying any taxes to the city of Anaheim.   Nevertheless, while the book is rightly critical it also celebrates the imagination that went into creating and changing Disneyland and the joyous role it plays in American culture.
Favorite Passages:

Disney archivist Dave Smith said, “Disneyland’s true appeal, we admit now, is to adults. Children don’t need it. Their imaginations are enough. For them, Disneyland is only another kind of reality, somewhat less marvelous than their own fantasies.”

According to architect Robert A. M. Stern, “Ironically, Main Street and the very way the theme parks are designed would probably be, much to Walt Disney’s surprise, the actual genius of American Urbanism captured at a time when it had no value to most people, certainly in the architecture and planning profession.”

According to Crump, when he started working on the project, Ken Anderson took him aside and said, “Now you guys remember that when you’re designing anything for Disneyland, you’re the gods! You tell them what you want, and you make sure that they do it your way no matter what!” Then Crump met with Walt, who told him, “You gotta remember that there are electricians, there are plumbers, there’s air conditioning … you’ve got to work around that … they’re just as important as you are.”

At lunch with Walt one day, Ray Bradbury asked, “Walt, why don’t you hire me to come in and help you with ideas to rebuild Tomorrowland?” Walt replied, “Ray, it’s no use … you’re a genius and I’m a genius … after two weeks we’d kill each other!” Bradbury was flattered, “That’s the nicest turndown I’ve ever had, having Walt Disney call me a genius.”

Ray Bradbury recalled a time when Walt told him “Nothing has to die.” He wrote, “Walt was right. Nothing has to die. Just rebuild it. Steamboat America, lost? Carve a river bottom, flood it, and send your Mark Twain paddle wheel down the riverway. Victorian train travel, gone? Nail up a rococo scrimshaw station, steam in the 19th-century locomotive, carry passengers from Civil War territories through African jungles into AD 2000.” Disneyland was a way to live forever.

Recommended booksInside the Mouse by The Project on Disney, Mouse Tales by David Koenig, and Amusing the Million by John F. Kasson
Rating: ****

Beer Review: Almanac Pilsner


Beer: Craft Pilsner
Brewer: Almanac Beer Co. 
Source: Can
Rating: **** (8.5 of 10)
Comments: Almanac pours out golden, yet cloudy with a lot of effervescence and a thick head.  The aroma is of fresh cut grains and citrus with a flavor of mild hops balanced with a hint of sweet cream.  There’s minimal lacing and a light mouthfeel.  Overall this is great stuff.

Beer Review: Sierra Nevada Otra Vez


Beer: Otra Vez
Brewer: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Source: 12 oz. bottle
Rating: *** (7.6 of 10)
Comments:

This beer is brewed with prickly pear cactus, which reminded me of the time I fell into a prickly pear cactus and since there were no tweezers handy I tried to extract the needles from my hand with my teeth, but ended up with a needle in my tongue!  This was a more pleasant experience of introducing prickly pear cactus to my mouth. It’s a sparkly, golden beer with a finger-width head.  A sour citrus aroma introduces a tart and sweet flavored beer, kind of reminiscent of a gin & tonic.  It’s low in alcohol and highly drinkable, so it’s good for a hot day.  It paired well with my supper of Israeli couscous and roasted vegetables.

Beer Reviews: 21st Ammendment Toaster Pastry


Beer: Toaster Pastry India-Style Red Ale

Brewer
: 21st Ammendment Brewery

Source
: Draft

Rating
: **** ( 8.0 of 10)

Comments
: Beer pours with a gorgeous amber color, but no much head or carbornation.  Fruit and malts are apparent in the nose.  The taste is a balance of sweet and bitter with wood, nut, and strawberry favors.  Nicely done and palatable.  Not overly bitter as the “India-style” usually implies.