Movie Review: The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)


Title: The Lavender Hill Mob
Release Date: 28 June 1951
Director: Charles Crichton
Production Company: Ealing Studios
Summary/Review:

The Lavender Hill Mob is an Ealing Studios comedy starring Alec Guinness, much like Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955), and directed by Charles Chrichton, who later directed A Fish Called Wanda (1988).

Guinness plays Henry Holland, a fastidious bank clerk who spends twenty years in charge of transfers of gold bullion.  While known for his honesty, he’s in fact playing a long game to steal the bullion.  The only problem he faces is how to smuggle the bullion abroad so that he can sell it.  The solution comes when he meets a new boarder at his boarding house, Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), who runs a foundry that produces souvenirs for the export market.  The two men come up with a plan to steal the bullion, melt it down, make it into Eiffel Tower paperweights, and then ship it to France.

Things, of course, go very wrong.  But the way they go wrong and how the characters react is where the humor lies.  As an added bonus, much of this film was shot on location in London and Paris.  We get to see London still bearing the damage of World War II, and a stunning sequence where Henry and Alfred run down the circular staircase of the Eiffel Tour.  It all makes for an enjoyable, laugh out loud film with many twists right up to the conclusion.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Seventh Seal (1957)


Title: The Seventh Seal
Release Date: February 16, 1957
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Production Company: AB Svensk Filmindustri
Summary/Review:

This is a movie I watched sometime back in the 1990s, but didn’t remember too well beyond the “playing chess with Death” scenes (which is what everyone knows about this movie whether they’ve seen it or not).  Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is a knight returning after ten years fighting in the Crusades and facing a crisis of faith in a God he cannot experience with his senses.  He’s accompanied by his more earthy squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) who functions as more of the movie’s protagonist in that he initiates much of the action within the story.

The film begins on a beach where the knight and squire have just arrived in their home country and Death comes for the knight.  The knight challenges Death to a chess match both as a way to extend his own life and perhaps cheat Death.  They continue playing intermittently through the movie.  We are also introduced to the other main characters, Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson), a married pair of traveling actors with a toddler son.

Eventually all of these characters come together as they travel the land where encounter signs of The Great Plague ravaging the people, a procession of flagellants, and a woman put to death as a witch. The movie features some intense scenes and deals with serious philosophical issues regarding mortality, faith in God, and the meaning(lessness) of life.  And yet, there are also moments of humanity and joy, such as when several of the characters share strawberries and milk on a pleasant day.  The movie is also surprisingly funny at several parts.

Ultimately, Antonious Block finds contentment in “one meaningful deed” where his is able to distract Death long enough for Jof, Mia, and their baby to escape.  The movie features both striking cinematography and brilliant acting.  It is worthy of the accolades of being among the greatest movies of all time.  I think I’ll wait fewer than 25 years before I watch it again.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Bicycle Thieves (1948)


Title: Bicycle Thieves
Release Date: November 24, 1948
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Production Company: Produzioni De Sica
Summary/Review:

I watched this movie once before, perhaps at the Brattle Theatre, about 20 years ago when the title was still being translated as The Bicycle Thief.  I didn’t remember it well despite it having a very simple story of poverty and injustice. It slots right in-between Rome, Open City and Umberto D for its unsentimental, neorealist portrayal of everyday life in post-war Rome, and I believe it’s the best of the three movies.

Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) is one of many unemployed men in Rome and as the film begins he is able to get a position hanging posters around the city.  The catch is that he needs to have his own bicycle.  Antonio has pawned his bike, so his wife Maria (Lianella Carell) pawns the linens they received as wedding gifts in order to retrieve the bike.  Things are looking good for Antonio and his young family, but on the very first day of work, his bike is snatched by a thief ((Vittorio Antonucci).

The better part of the movie is spent on a Sunday where Antonio and his adorable and resilient 8-year-old son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) search for the bike and the thief.  The encounter a number of dead ends and the increasing sense of desperation of finding one bike in a city of millions.  There’s one joyous scene where Antonio rewards Bruno for his endurance by taking him for a simple meal, but even there they have to witness a wealthier family eat an elaborate meal.  They are able to find the thief but the people in the thief’s community stand up for him and with no other witnesses or the bike itself, the police are unable to act.

In the heartbreaking finale, Antonio desperately attempts to steal a bike himself, only to be swiftly captured.  This movie is not a happy one, but it is a very honest and human story.  It’s also wonderfully filmed and acted, and one of those movies where the city is its own character in the story.  Bicycle Thieves is a definite all-time classic.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Mystic PiZZa (1988) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time.  I haven’t seen many movies starting with Z much less any that I want to watch again, so instead I’m reviewing a movie with TWO “Zs” in it! This post contains SPOILERS!

TitleMystic Pizza
Release Date: October 21, 1988
Director: Donald Petrie
Production Company: Night Life Inc. | The Samuel Goldwyn Company |
Virgin Vision
Synopsis:

This movie is a coming-of-age, romantic comedy about three young women living in the village of Mystic, Connecticut: the sisters Kat (Annabeth Gish) and Daisy (Julia Roberts) and their friend Jojo (Lili Taylor).  They all work as waitresses at the titular pizza restaurant, and the movie covers the period of a few months where they each have a challenging relationship with a man.

Kat is intelligent and hardworking and planning to start studying astronomy at Yale in the spring semester.  Daisy considers her a goody two shoes. To make more money Kat is hired to work as a babysitter for Tim (William R. Moses), a young father who wants someone to look after his daughter while his wife is in on an extended business trip in England.  Kat and Tim bond intellectually and physically leading to an extramarital affair that ends in heartbreak for Kat.

Daisy feels that her mother looks down on her for not being bright and ambitious like Kat, as well as being judged in general for being promiscuous.  She meets a handsome preppy Charles (Adam Storke) at a bar.  He proves to be less snobbish and more accepting than his friends and family.  But he also has an ongoing quarrel with his father and puts Daisy in an embarrassing situation when he uses her to show up his family’s elitism.

The movie begins with Jojo getting cold feet at her wedding to the fisherman Bill (Vincent D’Onofrio).  She’s torn by her love for Bill and her sense that she’s too young to commit to marriage, children, and the domestic life.  She’s also frustrated that Bill, a devout Catholic, will not have sex before marriage.  Their relationship has its ups and downs before they reconcile and marry for real at the end of the movie.

An ongoing subplot involves the Mystic Pizza restaurant where the owner Leona (Conchata Ferrell) treats Kat, Daisy, and Jojo like her own daughters.  The restaurant is known for its excellent pizza that features Leona’s secret recipe in the sauce. A famous and stodgy tv critic visits the restaurant and although there are several mishaps serving him, when his review is televised he declares the pizza to be “superb” leading to an uptick in business.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

First and foremost, this movie is set in Connecticut, which when you’re a kid growing up in Connecticut on a steady diet of movies set in California and New York, is a big f’in deal!  Mystic is home to two of the state’s biggest tourist attractions, Mystic Seaport and Mystic Aquarium, so every Connecticut schoolchild went to at least one of those places on a field trip. I also visited several times with my family.  People from the 47 states with more territory than Connecticut will laugh, but as a kid, the journey from our home in the western end of the state to Mystic felt soooooooooooooooo long.

Anyhow, I watched this with my family on cable or VHS sometime in the year or so after it was released.  I remember enjoying the movie greatly and forming a deep celebrity crush on Annabeth Gish even though all the other boys went for Julia Roberts.  In the 1990s, on a visit to Mystic, I dined at the original Mystic Pizza restaurant.  The pizza is – in fact – really good.

What Did I Remember?:

I specifically remember Julia Roberts dumping fish into the preppy’s sports car and Lili Taylor yelling at her boyfriend from the drawbridge.  Otherwise, I just remembered general impressions and plot details.

What Did I Forget?:

I forgot a lot.  Like I didn’t remember that the movie begins and ends with weddings.  I didn’t even remember that Kat and Daisy are sisters.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie does a great job on focusing on relationships – not just man-woman relationships, but also among family and friends.  It also captures the class dynamic in Connecticut of working class, Catholic enclaves (Portuguese-Americans in the movie, but Italian-American where I grew up) competing with the wealthier elites. The men in this movie are all horrible in their own way, but also have good qualities, so it is believable that 2 of the 3 relationships are reconciled by the film’s end.

The movie also has some great set pieces, like when Jojo, Daisy, and Kat steal Bill’s truck and sing along with Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” (another great scene I was surprised I forgot about). The acting is really good in the movie and a lot of the cast went on to stardom.  Roberts, of course, became one of the biggest Hollywood leading ladies within a few years of this movie.  Meanwhile, Taylor became the indie movie queen in the 1990s. Gish’s career isn’t as illustrious but she did star in The X-Files for a few seasons. Even Matt Damon makes his film debut as Charles’ younger brother.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Younger viewers may laugh at the 80s hairstyles and fashions, but they still look pretty good to me.

Is It a Classic?:

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say yes.  It holds a special place in my heart at least.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Young Frankenstein (1974) #atozchallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Young Frankenstein
Release Date: December 15, 1974
Director: Mel Brooks
Production Company: Gruskoff/Venture Films | Crossbow Productions, Inc. | Jouer Limited
Synopsis:

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) lectures at an American school, pronouncing his name “Fronkensteen” in order to avoid association with his mad scientist grandfather, Victor Frankenstein. He learns that he has inherited his family’s castle in Transylvania. He travels there and is met by Igor (pronounced “Eye-gor” and played by Marty Feldman), the grandson of Victor’s assistant.  He also meets a research assistant, Inga (Teri Garr), and together they travel to the castle.

The housekeeper, Frau Blucher (Cloris Leechman) greets them at the door and shows Frederick to his room.  That night Frederick, Inga, and Igor hear mysterious violin music and find secret passages that lead them to Victor’s lab and private library.  Frederick learns that reanimating the dead is in fact possible.  They steal the corpse of an executed criminal and Igor is sent to get a brain of a great scientist, but ends up taking an abnormal brain instead.

The creature (Peter Boyle) eventually comes to life but is violent and dangerous.  Frau Blucher sets the creature free, revealing that she had lured Frederick to the lab and that Victor was her boyfriend.  Frederick, Inga, and Igor recapture the creature and by showing him affection, Frederick is able to make the creature calm and well-behaved.  He introduces the creature to fellow scientists in a display that includes a tap performance to “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”  But the creature is frightened when a stage light catches fire and goes into a rage and escape.

Frederick and Inga sleep together, and shortly thereafter Frederick’s fiancee Elizabeth (Madeleine Kahn) visits unexpectedly.  The creature kidnaps Elizabeth and they also end up having sexual relations.  The creature is lured back to the castle and Frederick works on a transfer that helps stabilize the creature’s brain.  A mob of villagers storms the castle and attempts to destroy the lab, but the creature wins them over by telling how Frederick risked his life to help him.

In an epilogue, the creature and Elizabeth are apparently married, while Frederick and Inga are newlyweds.  On their wedding night, it’s revealed that Frederick picked up some of the “monster” during the transfer.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I saw this when I was probably too young, although it was on commercial tv so they cut out the naughtiest bits.  I remember reenacting scenes from Young Frankenstein with my neighbor on a cassette tape, plus some of our own improvised bits.  Then I lost that tape, which still breaks my heart to this day.

What Did I Remember?:

This is another movie I probably haven’t watched in decades but is nonetheless etched upon my brain!

What Did I Forget?:

Not so much forgot, more that I never I heard the gag, but when Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) loses his prosthetic arm at the end of the movie he shouts “to the lumberyard!”  This line just tickled my funny bone more than you’d expect.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie is part parody, part homage to Universal horror films of the 1930s, and mixes the goofy charm of that era with the slightly-raunchy sensibilities of the 1970s. The movie stars four comic actors at the peaks of their careers in Wilder, Feldman, Garr, and Boyle, with great supporting performances from Leechman and Mars, and one brilliant scene with Gene Hackman as a blind hermit.  They appear to be having a great time with the funny script by Wilder and Mel Brooks and numerous improvised bits. I also never appreciated the Brooks’ direction is excellent with numerous well-done shots throughout the movie.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Maybe I was particularly “woke” child, but it’s always creeped me out that the creature abducts Elizabeth to rape her, but then it’s “okay” because she’s impressed by his enormous schwanzstucker.  This kind of humor unfortunately plays into some persistent myths about women’s response to rape and penis size.

Is It a Classic?:

This is definitely a classic and one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) #atozchallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Release Date: December 23, 1954
Director: Richard Fleischer
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Synopsis:

It’s 1868 in San Francisco, and rumors abound that vessels in the shipping lanes across the Pacific are being disrupted by a monster.  This disappoints marine science expert Professor Pierre M. Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant, Conseil (Peter Lorre), who are eager to travel to Saigon.  They are invited to join US Navy expedition to investigate the rumors of the monster.  The expedition also included harpooner Ned Land (Kirk Douglas).

After nearly four months of methodically searching the Pacific, the captain is ready to return to San Francisco, but then they witness a nearby merchant ship get struck by something and explode due to it’s cargo of gunpowder.  Rushing to aid the sinking ship, the naval crew spot the “monster,” which turns and attacks them next.  Aronnax, Lorre, and Land all end up overboard.  They are carried on flotsam to a mysterious submersible vessel which they investigate and it appears to be abandoned. They witness through a window that the crew of submarine are actually carrying out an undersea burial.

The trio are captured by Captain Nemo (James Mason) and the crew of the Nautilus. Initially, Nemo wishes to execute the men but then decides to hold them prisoner, largely because he admires Aronnax’s scientific work and willingness to die with his companions.  Aronnax learns that Nemo and his crew were enslaved at a penal colony where they mined for material used in making munitions.  Now they find peace from the cruelty of human warfare, while destroying munitions ships that would contribute to further war.

Aronnax becomes convinced that if he gets close to Nemo, he can convince Nemo to use his technological knowledge for the betterment of humanity.  Meanwhile, Ned works on a plan for escape.  Conseil, feeling that the Professor has become irrational in his alliance with Nemo, joins Ned on an escape plan.

Nemo imprisons Ned after an escape attempt, but when the Nautilus is attacked by a giant squid, Ned is not only able to break out of his prison but also rescues Nemo.  The Nautilus sails to their base at the island of Vulcania, only to find it has been surrounded by warships (possibly due to Ned sending out the coordinates in bottled messages).  Nemo goes ashore to set off a bomb to destroy all of his scientific work, but is fatally shot while returning to the Nautilus.  The crew agree to go down with the Captain, but Ned manages to escape with Aronnax and Conseil in a skiff, where they watch Vulcania explode from afar.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

This may be one of the earliest movies I ever saw, with a screening at our local community club.  I loved it for its adventure and humor, and watched it several other times over the course of my childhood.  I was also a big fan of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction at Walt Disney World when I was a kid.

What Did I Remember?:

I may not have been able to summarize the plot of the film before watching, but several times throughout the film just as something was about to happen I remembered what was coming next.  Obviously key scenes like Kirk Douglas singing “A Whale of a Tail,” the conflict with the “cannibals,” and the attack of the giant squid are impossible to forget.

What Did I Forget?:

Mostly just the first ten minute or so, the boring establishing scenes prior to Kirk Douglas singing.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie is a pure adventure, drawing on the genius of Jules Verne, mixed with the mid-century Disney/Hollywood whimsy.  The humor and charm help mask that this is actually a very dark story with some deep philosophical questions.  I’m sure some people could pick nits with the special effects, but I still find them damned impressive depictions of the undersea world.  Douglas, Lorre, and Mason are all terrific in their iconic roles.  Also, this movie has a awesome sea lion that sings along with Kirk Douglas.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Not unlike King Kong, this movie includes a terribly racist depiction of indigenous people of the South Pacific.   The scene with the “cannibals,” especially when they get electric shocks from the Nautilus while Ned and Conseil laugh at them, is just awful.  I imagine that if this movie were remade today they would probably also work to have the crew of the Nautilus reflect the actual diversity of mid-19th century sailors rather than just be a bunch of white guys

Is It a Classic?:

It’s a whale of a tale and it’s all true, a classic through and through!

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: When We Were Kings (1996) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: When We Were Kings
Release Date: October 25, 1996
Director: Leon Gast
Production Company: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment
Synopsis:

On October 30, 1974, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman met in a heavyweight title bout in Kinshasa, Zaire, an event nicknamed “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali, an Olympic gold medalist and heavyweight champion in the 1960s, lost three prime years of his career after he refused to be conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War.  Meanwhile, Foreman, also an Olympic gold medalist, was younger with a strong punch and a history of overpowering wins over the top boxers of the era.

Holding the fight in Zaire was a historic choice as the event became a coming-out party for post colonial Africa.  In addition to the boxing match, which was viewed on tv by a record 1 billion people worldwide, there was a concert featuring top African musicians alongside African American stars like James Brown and B.B. King.  The fight itself is delayed after Foreman injures his eye in training, allowing everyone to spend more time in Zaire.

The documentary captures a fascinating intersection of sport, culture, civil rights, and politics.  There is a great amount of archival footage from the time, including Ali in awe of flying on an airplane with a an all-Black crew for the first time. In addition to the historic film and photographs, the film includes interviews with Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Spike Lee, Malik Bowens and Thomas Hauser who also provide narration for important events.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I was flying home from Great Britain in 1998 and watched this movie on the seatback television on Virgin Atlantic. I was so engrossed that the flight attendant chastised me to turn the screen off since the plane was approaching landing.  I later rewatched it on video so I could find out what happened at the end.

What Did I Remember?:

I think I remembered it pretty well.

What Did I Forget?:

It was less about forgetting things and more that in the intervening years I’ve learned more about Ali, and some of the musical artists and interviewees in the movie so things seemed more significant.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

You don’t have to care about boxing to like this movie.  This documentary captures the feel and excitement of a major event in the history of Africa and really the first big media event that focused on African people and African descendants as the key figures.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

The lack of interviews with Ali and Foreman at the time this movie was made is a big loss. Also, most of the people they did interview were old white men which is kind of jarring with the African diaspora theme.  The movie leans in favor of Ali, which is a bit of a shame since Foreman is a very interesting figure, one who would reinvent his public persona by the time this movie was released in the 1990s.  Throughout the movie, Ali leads Zaireans in the chant of “Ali Bomaye” which means “Ali, kill him.”  One of my favorite parts of the movie is a clip where Foreman says he’d not want people to chant “Foreman Bomaye” but instead “Foreman loves Africa.”

Is It a Classic?:

Yes. This is an all-time great documentary and sports film.

Rating: ****1/2

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with W:

  1. When Harry Met Sally…
  2. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
  3. Winged Migration
  4. The Wizard of Oz
  5. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

What is your favorite movie starting with W?  What is your guess for my X movie (Hint: my “X” movie will actually start with a number and involves a submarine)?  Let me know in the comments!

Movie Review: Some Like it Hot (1959) #atozchallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Some Like it Hot
Release Date: March 29, 1959
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: Mirisch Company 
Synopsis:

Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) are struggling musicians who play sax and double bass in a speakeasy jazz orchestra in 1929 Chicago.  When they witness mobsters gunning down their rivals in a garage, they decide to disguise themselves as women and join an all-female jazz band that will be playing at a resort in Miami.

On the train with Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators, Joe (now Josephine) and Jerry (now Daphne) both become enamored with the band’s vocalist and ukulele player Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe).  During an impromptu party on the train, they individually make connections with Sugar.

In Florida, Jerry attracts the eye of an aging millionaire playboy, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown).  Joe creates another disguise as an heir to the Shell Oil company to attract Sugar.  One night, Jerry agrees to go dancing with Osgood so that Joe can take Sugar to Osgood’s yacht and pretend it’s his own.

Their hotel hosts a “Friends of Italian Opera” convention which is actually a cover for a national organized crime gathering. Chicago mobster “Spats” Colombo (George Raft) recognizes Joe and Jerry through their disguises.  While hiding at the convention, Joe and Jerry witness another mob hit.  On the run again, they flee with Osgood to his yacht with Sugar joining them.  Joe and Jerry reveal their true identities in one of the most hilarious film finales ever.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

One of many movies I watched with my family on tv as a kid in the mid-80s.  I remember liking it but for some reason never got around to watching it again until now.

What Did I Remember?:

I remember the train party, Tony Curtis dressing up as a millionaire and impersonating Cary Grant, and some of the basic plot.

What Did I Forget?:

Pretty much all of the mobster subplot.  I was actually impressed by the car chase that opens the movie and all the gags about the speakeasy in a funeral home are funny.  There’s about 10 minutes of this before we even meet Jerry and Joe.  I also forgot about Osgood and how the movie ends, believe it or not.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie is a cornball comedy that goes from merely good to great on the backs of four individuals at the height of their game: director Billy Wilder and actors Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon. I find Lemmon in particular to be hilarious in every scene he is in.  Monroe’s performance is a brilliant balance of sweet and simple with pure sexuality.  It’s surprising that she was so troubled in the making of this movie (arriving late, forgetting lines, etc.) because her performance seems so effortless.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

I was expecting a movie in which men dress as women and are horny for Marilyn Monroe to have aged poorly.  And there’s definitely some sexual/gender politics that don’t stand up.  But the amazing thing is that this movie avoids some of the cheap sexist jokes that later comedies that follow the similar plot tropes would revel in. I’m not going to say that Some Like it Hot is progressive, but it is a movie that seems okay with things about sexuality and gender that you wouldn’t expect from 1959.

Is It a Classic?:

I’d argue that Some Like it Hot is both a great movie, a definite classic, but also overrated.  When I see ranked as the greatest comedy of all-time I think it sets expectations too high.

Rating: ****

Seventeen-ish More All-Time Favorite Movies Starting With S:

  1. Say Anything…
  2. The Secret of Kells
  3. Seven Up! series (all nine movies including 56 Up and 63 Up)
  4. Sophie’s Choice
  5. Star Wars saga (especially Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Last Jedi)
  6. Stop Making Sense
  7. Sunset Boulevard

What is your favorite movie starting with S?  Any guesses for a movie starting with T (hint: it’s a LucasFilm production)?  Let me know in the comments.

Movie Review: Rocky (1976) #atozchallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Rocky
Release Date: John G. Avildsen
Director: John G. Avildsen
Production Company: Chartoff-Winkler Productions
Synopsis:

Just before Thanksgiving, down-on-his-luck boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) wins a local boxing match in Philadelphia.  Nevertheless, the manager of his boxing gym, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), has all of Rocky’s gear removed from his locker at the gym.  To make ends meet, Rocky works as an enforcer for a local loan shark, although he tends to be too soft on those late on their debts.  Mickey disapproves of Rocky’s life choices and wasted potential and suggests he should retire.

At this time, Rocky pursues a romance with a shy pet store clerk, Adrian (Talia Shire).  Rocky’s frenemy Paulie (Burt Young) is Adrian’s brother and invites Rocky to Thanksgiving dinner although he is shockingly dismissive of his sister.  World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) plans to kick off the bicentennial year with a title fight in Philadelphia, but his challenger has to back out with an injury and no other ranked boxers are able to accept the challenge.  Creed decides to make the fight a novelty by selecting a local Philadelphia boxer to get the opportunity to participate in a title fight. Creed selects Rocky because his nickname “The Italian Stallion” ties in with the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus.

Internally reluctant, Rocky decides to take up the challenge. Mickey offers to be Rocky’s manager, and after an argument over their past disagreements, Rocky takes Mickey up on the offer.  The news media are intrigued by Rocky’s unique training methods, which include punching sides of beef at Paulie’s meatpacking business and running up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Knowing he cannot beat Creed, Rocky hopes to be the first boxer to “go the distance” by fighting all 15 rounds with getting knocked out.  Defying the odds, Rocky does just that in the brutal title bout that concludes the film.  Both Rocky and Apollo immediately state that they don’t want a rematch, so there won’t be any sequels or anything like that.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

A lot like Jaws, I saw the sequels (particularly Rocky III) before I saw the original.  And much like the Jaws sequels, the Rocky sequels tend to miss the point of what made the original great.  Instead of being movies about sharks and boxing, Jaws and Rocky are rich human stories about deeply-flawed people who nevertheless step up to a challenge.

My dad always liked the Rocky movies so they make me think of him and how I drove him nuts when we visited Philadelphia and I ran up every set of steps we came across.  My father died when I was 17 and the night after his funeral I didn’t know what to do so I flipped on the tv just as Rocky was starting.  That seemed like to much of a cosmic coincidence so I left it on and watched it all the way through for the first time in my life.  I was really impressed by how much deeper a story it was than the sequels I’d watched when I was younger.

What Did I Remember?:

The basic plotline was in my head but not the details.

What Did I Forget?:

I’d forgotten that Rocky and Mickey were actually in an antagonistic relationship when the story began and that they argued before Rocky agreed to let Mickey be his manager.  I’d also completely forgotten that Apollo enters the arena dressed as George Washington while throwing coins to the spectators.  In retrospect, it’s kind of ironic that a Black man in the 1970s is depicted as the super patriotic character (consider that the real life World Heavyweight Boxing Champion at the time this movie is set was Muhammad Ali, who was highly critical of the US government and Americanism).

What Makes This Movie Great?:

As noted above, this is a well-written, well-acted human drama (Stallone, Meredith, and Weathers stand out in the cast).  It’s less a sports movie and more a movie about how an ordinary person deals with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  And while the “Training Montage” has become a tired cliche in movies, Rocky did it first and best and you’d have to have a rock-hard heart to not find it a little inspiring.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

This movie depicts working class white people in the 1970s who don’t exactly have the most progressive views.  That being said, I don’t think that the movie ever endorses any racist or sexist behavior so much as give a realistic depiction of how people behave.  The one part of the movie I’ve always found creepy and weird is Paulie’s obsession with Adrian’s virginity.

Is It a Classic?:

Yes.

Rating: ****

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with R:

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark  (1981)
  2. Real Genius (1985)
  3. The Right Stuff (1983)
  4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
  5. Roman Holiday (1953)

What is your favorite movie starting with R? What would you guess is my movie for S (Hint: The final line is “Nobody’s Perfect.”)? Let me know in the comments.

 

Movie Review: On Golden Pond (1981) #atozchallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: On Golden Pond 
Release Date: December 4, 1981
Director: Mark Rydell
Production Company: ITC Entertainment | Associated Film Distribution
Synopsis:

An elderly couple, Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) and Norman Thayer (Henry Fonda) return to their summer home in New Hampshire. The curmudgeonly Norman is disoriented by memory loss and frequently talks about his imminent death. Their estranged daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda) comes to visit with her new fiance Bill (Dabney Coleman) and his son Billy (Doug McKeon). They have some tense moments, but Ethel and Norman agree to let Billy stay with them while Chelsea and Bill visit Europe for a month.

Not surprisingly, 13-year-old Billy is not thrilled to be stuck with a pair of elderly strangers.  But over time Norman and Billy bond over fishing. They also suffer a boat crash while pursuing the giant trout Walter in a giant cove.  Chelsea returns and is initially resentful that Norman has bonded with Billy in a way he never did with her, but seeing a different side of her father also provides an opening for them to reconcile. The movie concludes with Norman having a heart scare as they pack up to leave.  Ethel recognizes their mortality for the first time and they express their love and devotion.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

This was one of those movies that was on tv a lot when I was a kid.  I remember it being treated as a “serious, grown-up” movie and being surprised when I watched it and found out how funny it is.

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered the basic outline of the movie, and major incidents like the boat crash, but for the most part I watched this movie afresh.

What Did I Forget?:

One of the biggest things I forgot is that Dabney Coleman is in this movie.  It’s kind of hilarious that I’m posting back-to-back movies starring Jane Fonda and Dabney Coleman. And this is a rare movie where Coleman is not playing “the man we love to hate” although his nice guy character has a jerky edge when he threatens to send Billy back to his mother.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, two of Hollywod’s 20th century greatest stars, act the hell out of this movie.  It’s amazing that not only had they never appeared in a movie together before On Golden Pond, but they never even met before they started filming.  It’s a rare Hollywood film that provides a nuanced depiction of elderly people as well as such an honest story about family struggles.  You get the sense that some real-life Fonda family drama is occurring in the scenes between Henry and Jane. Plus the scenery, filmed at Squam Lake in New Hampshire, is absolutely gorgeous!

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

For all the accolades On Golden Pond received in 1981, it doesn’t appear on greatest films lists.  I feared that its sentimentality would come across as cheezy, but I feel that I liked this movie even more than I did as a child.  The last time I watched this movie I was younger than Billy, and now I’m older than Chelsea, so there’s something to be said for the perspective of age.  I’ll have to watch it again when I’m Norman’s age.

Is It a Classic?:

Yes, a definite classic, and apparently something of a hidden gem.

Rating: *****

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with O:

  1. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
  2. Office Space (1999)
  3. On the Waterfront (1954)
  4. Orlando (1993)
  5. Outside Providence (1999)

What is your favorite movie starting with O?  What is your guess for my P movie (Hint: this movie was shot on a low-budget with a tv film crew)? Let me know in the comments!