Classic Movie Review: Easy Rider (1969)

Title: Easy Rider
Release Date:
July 14, 1969
Dennis Hopper
Production Company:
Pando Company Inc. | Raybert Productions

I knew Easy Rider was a movie with two men on motorcycles while “Born to be Wild” plays in the background, but other than that I didn’t know what to expect.  It turns out to be a much quieter movie than I expected, the kind of movie with lots of long conversations by campfires where what’s not being said is as important as what’s actually uttered.  Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) smuggle cocaine over the border from Mexico and sell it for a profit in Los Angeles.  They then ride east with plans to go to Mardi Gras. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker (Luke Askew) who takes them to a dysfunctional commune for a few days.  Later they meet an ACLU lawyer, George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), in a Texas jail who joins them for a time.  Finally, in New Orleans they drop acid in a cemetery with two prostitutes (Karen Black and Toni Basil) in a devastatingly trippy sequence.

Probably because of the tie between Peter Fonda and his father Henry Fonda, I couldn’t help thinking of this movie as being a generational follow-up to The Grapes of Wrath. Wyatt and Billy even cross the same bridge in Arizona that the Joads crossed, just heading in the opposite direction. A farmer they eat with along the way could’ve been a Dust Bowl refugee as a child.  And just as the Okies were hassled by small-minded locals and cops, the longhairs suffer similar discrimination.  Nicholson’s George sums up the attitude best when he notes that the typical American talks a lot about individual freedom, but are scared when they see someone actually living it:

“I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.”

The movie is said to be representative of the Baby Boomer generation at its counterculture peak.  But there is no “flower power” here. This is a portrait of a hopeless and directionless time, which lacks the optimism of a Tom Joad willing to fight for the people. It’s interesting that as this generation grew older, many (but far from all) affiliated themself with Tea Party and MAGA movements that would look down on longhairs like Wyatt and Billy rather than see them as representatives of their generation.  But they do share the same sense of cynicism over losing “their” America.

The conclusion of the movie is shocking in much the same way as Bonnie and Clyde.  In fact, I’d say it’s more of a shock since it depicts an act of completely senseless violence against people who had not been violent themselves.  It’s a weird and unsettling finish to a movie that never seems certain about what kind of story it’s trying to tell and being totally okay with that too.  I wouldn’t put Easy Rider in my greatest movies of all time list but it is an interesting time capsule for an era in American history as well as the evolution of American filmmaking.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Color of Pomegranates (1969)

Title: The Color of Pomegranates
Release Date: 1969
Director: Sergei Parajanov
Production Company: Armenfilm
Summary/Review: This art film made in Soviet Armenia tells the story of a poet named Sayat-Nova.  This is not your typical biopic.  The effort is made to tell the story of a poet through visual poetry rather than conventional narrative. The film has very little dialogue and is structured as a series of tableaus.  The camera is pointed straight on at people posing and holding or manipulating objects.  A lot of these objects have symbolic significance although I don’t have the knowledge of what they mean.  It’s almost as if one is watching a series of memes from a culture you know nothing about.  Nevertheless, the film has a lot of striking imagery.  It also has a lot of horses with a strange canter, chickens, and sheep.  So many sheep.  I know the counterculture is not likely to have made inroads in Soviet Armenia in 1969 but this movie does feel awfully trippy.

Rating: I have no rational basis on which to rate this as a film

Classic Movie Review: Nashville (1975)

Title: Nashville
Release Date: June 11, 1975
Director: Robert Altman
Production Company: ABC Motion Pictures

I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a movie quite like Nashville.  Even with the trademarks of a Robert Altman film – large ensemble casts and overlapping dialogue – there’s still something ineffable about this film I haven’t seen before.  The general story involves the lives of several musicians, aspiring musicians, music biz people, political campaigners, and hangers-on on Nashville over a period of several days.  The movie isn’t exactly plotless, as it does have a story to tell, but the plot is slow and messy not unlike real life.

Nashville is more of a character study of the 24 people in the movie with an underlying focus on celebrity culture.  I’m glad this movie was made in Nashville instead of Los Angeles or New York.  As a country music hub, Nashville is probably unique in that it has a strong celebrity culture while also being small enough where everyone keeps ending up in the same places.  Or at least it was in the 1970s, as Nashville has grown in population in the intervening decades.

The film is full of musical performances, and interestingly the actors were tasked with writing their own songs and filming them in live concert settings.  I don’t know much about country music, but honestly a lot of these songs sound like they could’ve been standards, so the soundtrack is worth seeking out.  The movie also has political undertones in that a third-party candidate,  Hal Phillip Walker (voiced by Thomas Hal Phillips) is campaigning in Nashville with a car traveling around the city reading his platform promises as a throughline through the film. The final scene is also set at a political rally (more on that below with a huge spoiler warning).

Among the cast, the standout performances include:

  • Lily Tomlin as Linnea Reese, a singer in a gospel choir who is raising two deaf children and is in an unhappy marriage with Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty) a lawyer in the music business and organizer for the Walker campaign.  Linnea is by far the most fully-realized character and surprisingly this is Tomlin’s first movie role after years in television.
  • Ronee Blakely as Barbara Jean, who is kind of the “sweetheart” star of country music who is in and out of hospitals with mental health issues.
  • Karen Black as Connie White, another top female vocalist in the country scene who is set up as the rival to Barbara Jean.
  • Henry Gibson as Haven Hamilton, a male country star who represents the Nashville old guard.
  • Keith Carradine, a younger folk rock star who is party of a trio with a married couple, Bill and Mary (Allan F. Nichols and Cristina Raines) but wants to go solo.  He also is Lothario who tries to use his charm and vulnerable persona to coax women into bed with him, including Linnea.
  • Gwen Welles as Sueleen Gay, a young woman eager to get into the music business despite the fact that she sings off-key. Men take advantage of her ambition to give her opportunities to perform where she’s objectified for her beauty.
  • Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie’s daughter) as a BBC radio reporter who is doing a story on Nashville who inserts herself into many scenes and blurts out the most loathsome things.
  • The movie also features a baby-faced Scott Glenn in a small role as a Vietnam vet who is a big fan of Barbara Jean and the equally youthful Jeff Goldblum in a part where he never speaks but frequently appears around town on a motorized tricycle.

Even though I read a summary of the movie and knew what was coming, the end of the movie is still quite a shocker. (HERE COME THE SPOILERS) A disturbed loner we see throughout the movie (David Hayward) shoots and presumably kills Barbara Jean when she’s performing before a political rally. What happens next, beggars belief.  Instead of people clearing the area, they stay together and sing.  This is for a big twist in the film because a straggly aspiring singer named Albuquerque (Barbara Harris) is able to take the mic and prove that she’s actually talented despite appearances. But I also recalled that after the University of Texas tower massacre in 1966 that the school never canceled any classes. So the idea that people would want to go on with what they’re doing despite the violent attack seems true to the time.

Nashville is a long movie, and at times slow-going and just a bit too much.  Nevertheless, it is artfully crafted and undeniably a great film.  I’m glad I had the time to watch it.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Title: A Streetcar Named Desire 
Release Date: September 18, 1951
Director: Elia Kazan
Production Company: Warner Bros.

A Streetcar Named Desire is a Tennessee Williams play adapted to film by director Elia Kazan.  Vivien Leigh stars as Blanche DuBois, a woman who invested in the ideals of Southern culture regarding proper behavior and femininity.  Falling on desperate times, she arrives in New Orleans to stay at the home of her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and her brother-in-law Stanley (Marlon Brando).  The film largely depicts the battle of wills between Blanche’s snobbery and propriety and Stanley’s raw masculinity and violent temperament. Karl Malden also appears as Mitch, a man that Blanch hopes to marry after they form a romance.

The different acting styles of the two leads is quite striking.  Brando famously practiced the Method which serves him well in inhabiting Stanley.  But Leigh’s more classical British theater training works really well for Blanche who is always “acting” the role she believes she needs to play as a proper Southern belle.  Blanche, and just about everyone else, weirdly obsess about how old she is (Leigh was only in her mid-30s when this was filmed), but that is also sadly true to societal beauty myths.

Directorially, the film retains some of its stage play origins but is really pulled in to hustle and bustle of the French Quarter with the doors and windows open to a constantly active street scene.  I was surprised at how frank this movie was about matters of sexuality and violence for a movie made in 1951, although I was watching a 1993 restoration of the film that included scenes that had been cut by censors.  There’s a lot that has been said about A Streetcar Named Desire, so I won’t add anything more to it other than to say it is deservedly an all-time classic and I’m glad I had the opportunity to revisit it.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Mulholland Drive (2001)

Title: Mulholland Drive
Release Date: October 12, 2001
Director: David Lynch
Production Company: Les Films Alain Sarde | Asymmetrical Productions | Babbo Inc. | Le Studio Canal+ | The Picture Factory

Mulholland Drive starts off appearing to be one of David Lynch’s more straightforward films, but ends up being one of the most surreal. The main story is about Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), an effervescent young woman who arrives in Hollywood to pursue her dream of acting.  Betty takes advantage of using her Aunt Ruth’s unoccupied apartment but discovers that there is a woman living there, an amnesiac car crash survivor who calls herself “Rita” (Laura Elena Harring). Betty tries to help Rita discover her real identity and the mystery of a large amount of cash and a blue key in her purse.

Betty’s story is intercut with vignettes of other events in Los Angeles, some of which never intersect with the main plot. But a storyline that does continue involves the movie directory Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) having a bad day where mobsters take over his film and cut off his bank account and he discovers his wife having an affair.  In a normal movie these two plotlines would come together in a neo-noir caper that exposes the seedy underbelly of the Hollywood dream.  In a David Lynch film, things get extremely surreal.

Lynch obviously has his own style, but I feel like this movie is also a tribute of sorts to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Both movies are named after a significant road in Los Angeles and both deal with Hollywood myths and crime. The action of Sunset Boulevard begins with Joe Gillis hiding his car in a Hollywood mansion while the action of Mulholland Drive begins with Rita hiding herself in a Hollywood apartment. There also feels to be some influence from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in that they deal with the seedy underbelly of Hollywood and play with chronology.  A scene in which a bungling hitman ends up having to kill three people and its played for comedy feels particularly Tarantinoesque.

But the heart of the movie, especially its most surreal final third, is pure David Lynch at his best.  I read that Lynch originally envisioned Mulholland Drive as a tv series and I can see the movie being a tv pilot with scenes from various episodes, including the finale, cut into it.  And yet somehow it works. A lot of credit needs to be given to Watts and Harring for the range of their performances, capturing different aspects of their characters or perhaps entirely different characters. I’m kind of glad I waited until now to finally watch this movie as I’m more able to simply enjoy ambiguity and consider multiple interpretations than I was when I was younger and wanted to know what it “means.”

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Title: Cinema Paradiso
Release Date: November 17, 1988
Director:Giuseppe Tornatore
Production Company: Les Films Ariane | RAI | TF1 | Cristaldi Film | Forum Picture

Cinema Paradiso is a movie about going to the movies that celebrates how film can transport us out of lives as well as the communal experience of watching a film in a classic movie house.  It reminds me of my own experiences as a child going to see movies while on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.  At the time, there were four movie theaters on the island: The Strand and The Island in Oak Bluffs, The Capawock in Vineyard Haven, and The Edgartown Town Hall (which was literally an auditorium upstairs from the town hall).  Movies rotated through the four cinemas with a surprising diversity of film, including this Italian film I saw in the summer of 1990.

In the movie, Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita (played by the adorable Salvatore Cascio) is a boy in a Sicilian village just after World War II who is fascinated by the movies shown at the Cinema Paradiso on the town square.  He’s particularly interested in the work of the projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), and eventually Alfredo takes him on as an apprentice.  Alfredo also offers wisdom distilled from classic movies and takes on a fatherly role for Toto, whose own father died in the war.

As a teenager, Toto (Marco Leonardi) continues to work as projectionist at Cinema Paradiso while learning to make films on a Super 8 camera.  He meets the new girl in town, Elena (Agnese Nano), and immediately falls in love.  They have a brief, but passionate romance before Toto leaves for military service and Elena moves away with no forwarding address.  The movie is framed by the story of Salvatore (Jacques Perrin) as a middle-aged man, now a successful filmmaker in Rome, learning of Alfredo’s death. Alfredo implored the younger Toto to never return to his hometown but he returns for the first time in 30 years, seeing how the town and the people have changed.

The movie has several classic shots I’ll never forget.  There’s the scene where Alfredo magically projects a movie into the square for people who could not get into the Cinema Paradiso.  There’s one of the most romantic kisses in film history of Toto and Elena in the rain.  And then there’s the ending of the movie, which I won’t spoil, but oh that ending!  Cinema Paradiso is full of nostalgia, and humor of the quirky characters of small town life, but it is also bittersweet. Watching it this time I wonder if Toto is right to follow Alfredo’s advice because despite his success as a director, he seems to have abandoned his family and is unable to find connection with the series of women he dates.

Rewatching Cinema Paradiso now also makes me realize that it probably drew influence from two older films I watched for the first time this year.  One is Fellini’s Amarcord, which shares the same nostalgic view of coming of age in an Italian village populated by quirky characters.  The other is The Spirit of the Beehive which shares the experience of watching movies in a small town and how it affects a child.  These movies are on Greatest Films of All Time lists, but call me a lover of populist cheeze, because I prefer Cinema Paradiso to either of them. It would be fun, and I’m sure someone has done this, to have a film festival of all the movies that appear in Cinema Paradiso.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Amélie (2001)

Title: Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain
Release Date: 25 April 2001
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Production Company:
Claudie Ossard Productions | UGC | Victoires Productions | Tapioca Films | France 3 Cinéma | MMC Independent | Sofica Sofinergie 5 | Filmstiftung | Canal+ | France 3 Cinéma

Life’s funny. To a kid, time always drags. Suddenly you’re fifty. All that’s left of your childhood… fits in a rusty little box

French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet specializes in making films set in fantastical worlds.  In Amélie, he makes a fantastic world out of contemporary Paris, a world of wonders created in the mind of its protagonist Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tatou in the role that made her a worldwide superstar).  Amélie is shy young woman who works as a waitress at a cafe and finds pleasure in the simple joys of everyday life. When she finds a box of a child’s treasures hidden in her apartment she surreptitiously returns it to the now middle-aged man who hid it decades before.

Seeing the joy that the box brings to the man, Amélie dedicates herself to anonymously performing acts of kindness for others.  She also begins to pursue a shy young man, Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), whom she observes collecting discarded pictures from photo booths. While Amelie is full of sweetness and charm compared to darkness of Jeunet’s earlier films with Marc Caro, Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, some of the things Amélie does would be really creepy in real life.  Nevertheless, Tatou’s performance is brilliant and is one of the best examples of an introvert as protagonist that I’ve ever seen in a film.

In addition to Tatou there are some great performances by an ensemble cast that includes Rufus as Amélie’s father, Serge Merlin as The Glass Man, a wise older neighbor with brittle bone syndrome, and Jeunet film regular Dominique Pinon as a stalker-ish cafe patron who Amélie sets up with the hypochondriac tobacco counter clerk played by Isabelle Nanty.  André Dussollier narrates the film with a documentary-style gravitas that contrasts wonderfully with the magical realism of the movie.  Amélie is only my third favorite Jeunet film after The City of Lost Children and Delicatessen, but dang is if it isn’t a fantastic bronze medalist.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Scarface (1932)

Title: Scarface
Release Date: April 9, 1932
Director: Howard Hawks
Production Company: The Caddo Company

Scarface is classified as the first gangster movie so it’s one of those situations where the tropes and gimmicks that are all so familiar are done for the first time.  It’s also full of ethnic stereotypes.  You get a good sense of what movies like the Godfather were reacting against, while also being influenced by it. For a film from 1932, it has some excellent action scenes including car chase, gun battles, and gun battles from racing cars.  The pre-code violence can be explicit, but there’s also some artistry in its depiction.  Particularly impressive is scene where a rival gang leader is shot while bowling and the camera follows his bowling ball to show that he still got a strike.

Paul Muni brings a kind of goofy charm to his performance hiding the monstrous violence of a Chicago gangster. Inspired by Al Capone, Muni plays Tony Camonte, a lieutenant in a gang who goes well beyond his boss Tony Lovo’s (Osgood Perkins) orders in carrying out hits on rival gangs leading to an all-out war.  Muni also pursues Lovo’s girlfriend Poppy (Karen Morley).  It’s particular hilarious when Poppy insults Muni and he’s too dumb to realize it.

The introduction to the movie claims that everything is based on real-life events and exhorts the audience to a moral panic over gang violence.  This is a lie. This movie revels in the violence, and enjoys the spectacle.  And no matter what you say about this movie, you can’t deny that it is entertaining.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Laura (1944)

Title: Laura 
Release Date: October 11, 1944
Director: Otto Preminger
Production Company: 20th Century Fox

I first watched Laura about 25 years ago with a friend named Laura.  I’ve long ago lost touch with her which is sad because she was a good person.  This is irrelevant of course to the story of this film noir murder mystery.  Like many film noir movies, the plot and the actions of its characters don’t make a lot of sense upon thinking about it.  But sense is not important with the delivery of sparkling dialogue and camp theatricality delivered by its actors.

Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigates the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a young woman who works at a New York City advertising firm.  Among the witnesses/suspects he interviews is Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), a self-aggrandizing columnist who was Laura’s friend and svengali who was jealous of her attention to other men.  One of those men was her fiance Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) who had been having an affair with Laura’s co-worker.  Shelby is also a kept man to Laura’s socialite aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). As McPherson examines Laura’s personal effects and admires her oil portrait, it appears that he is falling in love with the dead woman.

Laura is full of twists and turns and mostly some terrific outlandish performances by Webb and Price.  It’s a great example of Classic Hollywood at its wackiest.

Rating: ****1/2