Classic Movie Review: The Barefoot Contessa (1954)


Title: The Barefoot Contessa
Release Date: September 29, 1954
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Production Company: Figaro
Summary/Review:

The Barefoot Contessa is part of the trend of “show business is sleazy” satirical dramas following on the heels of Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve (the latter written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz who wrote and directed this film).  Writer/director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) is part of a Hollywood team traveling Europe looking for a “new face” when they discover flamenco dancer Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner, born in North Carolina and not the slightest bit Spanish) in Madrid.  Maria becomes a superstar after making three films with Harry, before marrying Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rosanno Brazzi).  But since the movie begins at Maria’s funeral, and the film is told in flashback, we know that things are not going to end well.

Despite the title, the movie is not really about Maria.  She is more of an object for men to desire and for more conscientious men like Harry to philosophize about.  To be fair to the film, it makes no pretence at being a movie about Maria and spends a lot of time in voiceover monologues by Harry, Count Vincenzo, and even the sleazy publicist Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien) who works for a couple of millionaires who are pursuing Maria romantically. But it strikes me that the movie would be much better if it was from Maria’s perspective. The dialogue in the film strives towards witty repartee, but misses the mark so that it just embarrassing.  The film starts very well, and the friendship between Harry and Maria is very strong, but ultimately The Barefoot Contessa is a disappointment.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Él (1953)


Title: Él
Release Date: July 9, 1953
Director: Luis Buñuel
Production Company: Producciones Tepeyac
Summary/Review:

Él (Spanish for “Him,” but also released as This Strange Passion in the United States) is a Mexican film directed by the Spanish-born Luis Buñuel.  I’m familiar with Buñuel as a figure in the Surrealist art movement and particularly as the director of the bizarre silent movie classic Un Chien Andalou. Except for a few sequences near the conclusion, Él is not a surreal movie.  In fact, it feels a lot like a classic Hollywood film.

Francisco (Arturo de Córdova) is a prosperous middle-age man who spots a younger woman, Gloria (Delia Garcés), at church an aggressively pursues her.  Gloria appears resistant to his advances but after a flash forward in time, we learn that Gloria marries Francisco.  The better part of the film then features Gloria narrating to her friend and former fiance Raul (Luis Beristáin) about how starting with their honeymoon, Francisco has tormented her with an irrational and paranoid jealousy. If you have any experience with domestic violence, be warned that this is not an easy movie to watch.

The movie reminds me somewhat of Gaslight in the way the charming older man swiftly turns into tormentor of his younger newlywed wife.  But unlike Gaslight, there is no underlying mystery to Francisco’s jealousy, he’s simply mentally ill.  There are parts of the movie that also remind me of the dangerous obsession of Vertigo, particularly a scene in a bell tower, although I have no idea if Alfred Hitchcock was influenced by Él. The direction and the action in the film is good, but ultimately there is not much to this movie beyond a startling presentation of paranoia.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: On the Waterfront (1954)


Title: On the Waterfront
Release Date: July 28, 1954
Director: Elia Kazan
Production Company: Horizon Pictures
Summary/Review:

Today’s classic film is too fancy for Hoboken and too hot for church. On the Waterfront introduced a new style of naturalistic acting and pioneered a filmmaking style that inspired the New Hollywood movement a generation later.  It’s most famous for an oft-quoted monologue, but I don’t think that scene is quite so great without the context of the film around it.

Marlon Brando stars in this film as Terry Malloy, a former prizefighter who now works as a longshoreman in Hoboken, New Jersey and sometimes serves as “muscle” for the mob-connected union boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb, once again being George C. Scott’s doppelgänger).  Terry’s brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is Friendly’s right-hand man, so Terry gets special treatment in assignments.

Terry begins to be aware that his good life is built on lies and must make difficult decisions after inadvertently playing a part in the murder of a longshoreman who was willing to talk to the police.  The victim’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint) is outraged by everyone willing to be “deaf and dumb” about the crime and inspires the parish priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) to take action. Edie and Terry also grow close which affects his changing heart.

The romance between Edie and Terry is the one thing I don’t really buy about this movie because Terry gives off a million red flags that someone like Edie would see right away.  Other than that this film is a compelling drama with terrific acting by all the leads and interesting staging and camera angles that take advantage of the gritty Hoboken locations.  Not only is this a great movie that realistically depicts the issues of working class people but it also reminds me of how Catholic social justice activists like Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan stood with the people like Father Barry in the mid-20th century.

The movie is great drama, but it also metaphorical.  There are all too many real life examples of organizations, even ones that should have positive uses like unions, falling victim to corruption. In more recent years things like the push for Iraq War, the rise of Trump, and the current efforts of the Republican party to suppress voting rights are all built on the ability of people in power to use fear, greed, and indifference to manipulate people into going along with something that they know is wrong. Unfortunately, director Elia Kazan also made this film to justify his testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, ruining the lives and careers of  several people who ended up being blacklisted for being labeled “Communists.” Comparing so-called “Communists,” usually people who tried advocating for economic equality and against racial discrimination to the murderous mobsters who were American capitalists at heart is just wrong.

On the Waterfront is a case where the art is greater than the artist, but it remains a spectacular film.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: The French Connection (1971)


Title: The French Connection
Release Date: October 7, 1971
Director: William Friedkin
Production Company: Philip D’Antoni Productions
Summary/Review:

In this movie we see an expose how Richard Nixon’s war on drugs is used to unleash unholy police violence on Black people. Oh wait! In fact, this film from “liberal” Hollywood wants you to believe the cops are heroes.  15 minutes into this movie I was determined to hate it.  But over time my opinion softened. For one thing, it features two of the most phenomenal actors of the time: Gene Hackman as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Roy Scheider as Buddy “Cloudy” Russo.  There’s something about Gene Hackman as a person that is just likable even when he plays the most vicious characters here and in Unforgiven (I don’t even know what this feeling is based on since I don’t really know anything about the real life Gene Hackman).  In this film, Hackman and Scheider also have an easy camaraderie that makes them feel like real partners.

Friedkin shoots the film in a verite style and most of the film depicts the long hours of Popeye staking out and tailing their suspects, including the French drug dealer kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey).  I don’t think a modern film would spend a fraction of the time on this details (and I don’t think earlier films did either), but it really builds the tension.  There’s a great sequence when Popeye and Charnier play cat and mouse on the 42nd Street Shuttle.  All of this leads up to Popeye commandeering a car to chase an assassin riding an elevated train above him.  I’m not usually one who cares much for chase scenes but I found this sequence to be ABSOLUTELY EXHILARATING.

The French Connection is a New York City period piece and is shot on location in many recognizable spots in at least three of the five boroughs.  Unlike Taxi Driver or Midnight Cowboy (or even The Out-of-Towners), New York is not depicted as an unredeemable hell-hole but more of the New York I knew and loved as a child.  It’s gritty and dangerous around the edges but you also see a lot of ordinary people of all backgrounds going about their business in the background.  Despite my first impressions that this film was pure cop-aganda, the film ultimately takes a morally ambiguous stance on whether Popeye’s violent obsession with taking down the French Connection is ultimately worth it.  By the end of the film, even Cloudy seems to realize that Popeye is a psycho.

Rating: ***1/2

 

Classic Movie Review: Aliens (1986)


TitleAliens
Release Date: July 18, 1986
Director: James Cameron
Production Company: Brandywine Productions
Summary/Review:

In the past few years as I’ve become something of a cinephile and watched lots and lots of movies, I often have an uneasy feeling about revisiting favorites from my childhood.  Will this movie have held up badly? Will it reflect my younger self’s bad taste?  Often, I end up delighted that I still enjoy a film I remember fondly. But what’s even better about revisiting movies is getting an entirely different perspective on a favorite movie.

As the parent of a 9-year-old girl, I was not prepared to be overwhelmed by the centrality to Aliens of the character Newt (Carrie Henn), a child who is the sole survivor of a human colony that is decimated by the parasitic xenomorphs.  Kind of like rewatching E.T. as an adult, the depiction of a child in extraordinary circumstances resonated with me more than it did when I was a child. Henn’s performance is very Spielbergian, and she joins Judith Vitter in my Hall of Fame of Child Actors Whose Great Acting Performances Somehow Didn’t Lead to Lengthy Acting Careers.

Newt plays of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley developing the star character’s maternal role in what shapes up to be a battle of mother versus mother, human versus alien queen.  It’s not subtle, but it’s fascinating that in 1986 this idea of motherhood had never really been explored in an action film.  It’s one of the many things that makes Aliens one of the great 80s blockbusters and one of the greatest sequels of all time.

It helps that Aliens is an entirely different genre than its predecessor, moving from thriller to action adventure.  Ripley is joined by the rambunctious Colonial Marines as they investigate what happened to the human colonists on the terraformed planetoid where the Nostromo’s crew found the derelict alien ship in the previous film.  Bad things happen.  And as the title promises, there is more than one Alien. The great cast includes Paul Reiser (then primarily known as a stand-up comedians) as the sleazy company rep Carter Burke and Bill Paxton steals scenes as Private Hudson who sensibly panics when they’re overrun with xenomorphs.  Game over, man!

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Alien (1979)


TitleAlien
Release Date: May 25, 1979
Director: Ridley Scott
Production Company: Brandywine Productions
Summary/Review:

At its heart, Alien is a very simple story.  The crew of the spaceship Nostromo are diverted to a mysterious planet.  They pick up a parasitic life form (in the most disturbing and disgusting way).  The creature runs amok and picks off crew members one by one.  Only a single crew member (and her cat) survive to the tell the tale.

The movie is built on atmosphere. The Nostromo is a gritty, live-in spaceship with way too many places for a hungry xenomorph to hide. The movie builds up the tension slowly making it all the more effective when things spiral out of control.  In that sense it’s not unlike another 70s film I watched recently, The French Connection. It’s also a character story.   The first hour of the movie is establishing the crew of ordinary working grunts before anything happens.

The cast is made up mostly of older characters actors.  In fact at least four of the crew members are played by That Guy.  Tom Skerrit, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, and Yaphet Kotto are all “That Guy!” when you recognize them in the many movies and tv shows they appeared in. Veronica Cartwright is not a That Guy but her career ranges from a child actor appearing in The Birds to playing an astronaut’s wife in The Right Stuff.   Ian Holm is far from being a lovable hobbit in his creepy performance as Ash. Sigourney Weaver was unknown in film at the time and there’s little indication that her character Ellen Ripley will be the sole survivor early on in the film.  And yet, Ripley is also smart and confident, and if the rest of the crew had listened to her, none of the bad things would’ve happened.  Weaver also has to carry the film for basically the final half hour on her own and does a terrific job of showing pure terror and yet the necessity of doing what needs to be done.

When I was a kid I saw Aliens first and watched it repeatedly before ever seeing Alien.  I remember liking it less because of its spareness and the lack of humor and camaraderie that is found in Aliens.  I may have only watched it twice before.  I’m glad I’ve revisited it as an adult because I realize it is actually a masterpiece.  It’s a lot like Jaws in that it is a lot deeper than the horror/thriller blockbuster it appears on the surface in the way that it works with realistic depictions of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.  I’ll will have to revisit this film again soon.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Grapes of Wrath (1940)


Title: The Grapes of Wrath
Release Date: January 24, 1940
Director: John Ford
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Summary/Review:

I read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in high school and liked it so much that even though we hadn’t finished reading it for class by the end of the school year, I finished the book on my own during the summer. This is the opposite of the more typical situation where I was supposed to finish the book for class but never did (I’m looking at you Charles Dickens’ Hard Times). I also watched the movie around the same time and remember a) stunned by seeing Henry Fonda look so young and b) feeling a little disappointed that so much had changed from the book.

With years removed from reading the book and a greater acceptance of how adaptations work, I found myself totally enthralled by the movie on this viewing. Fonda plays Tom Joad, a volatile young man paroled from prison after serving for homicide, who returns to his family home in Oklahoma to find no one there.  Meeting up with the lapsed preacher Jim Casy (John Carradine), he eventually catches up with his family as they plan to head to California to escape the Dust Bowl and foreclosure by the bank.  The film tracks their journey west and efforts to find work and hold the family together in California.

Director John Ford and Producer Darryl F. Zanuck were known for their conservatism, but nevertheless offer an honest depiction of the capitalist exploitation and abuse of migrant workers at agricultural camp, the use of police to repress labor organizing, and that the camp run by the Federal government is the one that respects the rights and dignity of the workers.  Interestingly enough, I learned that the Weedpatch camp depicted in the film was not only a real place but it is still serving migrant laborers to this day.  While the film depicts the suffering and discrimination endured by “Okies” trying to survive it also includes moments of compassion and ends on an inspiring note.

As I noted, there are major differences between the book in the film. The book intertwines the main narrative of the Joad family with short stories about other peoples’ experiences in the Dust Bowl and migration.  The “truck drivers” scene in the film actually happens to another family in one of the short stories in the book, for example.  The book also includes much more detail about all the Joad family members and their fellow travelers, where as the film focuses in on Tom, Casy, and Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) as the main characters.  Finally, the end of the book depicts a remarkable act of compassion by Rose of Sharon (played by Dorris Bowdon in the film) that nonetheless was something that couldn’t be portrayed on film in 1940.

The Grapes of Wrath is an important book and an important film and they feel more relevant now than it did to me 30 years ago. The crises on the U.S.-Mexico border have lead to untold suffering for migrant workers coming into the country from abroad. Nomadland shows us that there are also American-born migrant workers struggling to make ends meet.  And while Nomadland is criticized for not being as political as The Grapes of Wrath, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the exploitation and abuse suffered by the laborers in the peach camp is similar to what order pickers endure today in an Amazon distribution center.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)


Title: Sullivan’s Travels
Release Date: December 29, 1941
Director: Preston Sturges
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

Back in the 90s, I picked out this movie from my local library based solely on its title (I am that self-absorbed).  I remember being disappointed by the movie which I thought had a good premise, but never really went anywhere with it.  Nevertheless, I welcomed the opportunity to revisit the movie having gained 25 years of wisdom and an appreciation for the work of Preston Sturges.

Well, my opinion of the film has shot up considerably.  John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a popular movie director who wants to make more serious message films about the struggles of ordinary Americans.  Clueless about the common people live due to his own privilege, he decides to travel incognito. On his travels he makes the acquaintance of an aspiring actress, known only as The Girl (a brilliant, nuanced performance from Veronica Lake) who joins him on his journey.

The filmmaking is subtle but brilliant.  Something I read pointed out that this movie is actually three different styles. It begins as a slapstick comedy.  Then it becomes a silent movie for an extended sequence as Sullivan and The Girl travel among the common people.  Finally it becomes a serious melodrama of the type Sullivan wanted to make at the beginning of the film set in a prison labor camp. The most remarkable scene in the movie occurs when Sullivan and other prisoners are invited to a Black church for a movie night and find joy in a Disney cartoon. For a film made in 1941, it was unusual to have a large number of Black characters and present them in a positive manner without stereotypes.

The message of the movie is that films work best as an escape, which seems a bit self-congratulatory but also makes a good point.  Of course, Sullivan’s Travels manages to be a message movie with a compassionate view of struggles of the poor while still being wildly entertaining.  Next week, I will review that The Grapes of Wrath that also shows that movies can be great without being escapist.

Having recently watched Mank, I think it would make a great double feature with Sullivan’s Travels since both movies satirize Golden Age Hollywood while contrasting it to the real struggles of Americans in the Great Depression.  Yes, the most obvious pairing would be to put Sullivan’s Travels with O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Mank with Citizen Kane, but I AM UNCONVENTIONAL!

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Blue Velvet (1986)


Title: Blue Velvet
Release Date: September 19, 1986
Director: David Lynch
Production Company: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG)
Summary/Review:

I’ve long liked the work of David Lynch, but I missed this one so it was good to have an excuse to finally watch it.  The story tells of Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) who returns home from college to his hometown of Lumberton, North Carolina to help out when his father is hospitalized.  On a walk through the woods he finds a severed ear and becomes obsessed with discovering the mystery behind it.  The daughter of a police detective, Sandy Williams (a very young Laura Dern), informs him that the police suspect a singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) may be connected to the case.  Jeffrey begins to surveil Dorothy which leads him into a world of trouble.

I won’t go into the details but Jeffrey uncovers a criminal conspiracy lead by the extremely disturbed Frank (Dennis Hopper). I really enjoyed the first part of the movie when it was  a stylish noir mystery, but once Frank is revealed and Jeffrey is brought into his orbit I found it less interesting.  Frank is an amalgamation of every abusive, gaslighting, self-aggrandizing asshole I’ve ever know and I really don’t need to spend my time watching that.  I was also disappointed that both Dorothy and Sandy tended to fall into the “damsel in distress” trope.  There are reasons for that, but I think there were opportunities to have one of them seize initiative.

Overall though I appreciated that direction, cinematography, and overall mood of the film, which is aided by the selection of great music to fit the scenes.  The acting of all the leads is excellent, even Hopper as the all-too-convincing raging psychopath.  I’m really surprised to learn that Dern is about a decade younger than I realized.  I guess since she was making movies when I was in middle school it didn’t occur to me to realize she’s just a few years older than me.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Yi Yi (2000) #AtoZChallenge



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

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Yi Yi
Release Date: 5 May 200
Director: Edward Yang
Production Company: 1+2 Seisaku Iinkai | Atom Films | Basara Pictures |
Pony Canyon
Summary/Review:

Yi Yi is a family drama from the director of A Brighter Summer Day, and thankfully less bleak than that earlier film. It depicts the Jian family of Taipei, Taiwan: father NJ (Wu Nien-jen), mother Min-Min, early teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), and 8-year-old son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang).  The film begins at the wedding of Min-Min’s brother A-Di, introducing the main characters and setting up important plot threads. (Ever since I’ve watched The Godfather, I’ve noticed the whole “start the movie at a wedding” thing popping up in a lot of movies). At the wedding reception, NJ encounters Sherry (Su-Yun Ko), a romantic partner his university days, in the hotel lobby.  After the wedding, Mim Min’s mother suffers a stroke and ends up comatose.

The film does not have a straightforward plot, per se, but interweaves the four individual threads of the family members as they deal with their personal struggles.

  • NJ is unmotivated by his job but bonds with potential client from Japan, Mr. Ota.  On a business trip to Japan he reunites with Sherry and they have an emotional series of conversations over unresolved issues from their failed relationship.
  • Min-Min is overwhelmed by her mother’s coma and leaves for a Buddhist retreat.
  • Ting-Ting feels guilty because her grandmother collapsed doing Ting-Ting’s chore of taking out the trash. Ting-Ting talks to her comatose grandmother about her guilt and other concerns. She also befriends her neighbor Lili, and later briefly dates Lili’s ex-boyfriend, Fatty.  While not a member of the family, Lili’s life is also documented in the film apart from her interactions with Ting-Ting.
  • Yang-Yang, the MVP of this movie, is a shy kid who’s bullied by other kids and his teacher. He finds a way to express his creativity by taking photographs.
  • We also spend time with A-Di, who struggles financially, gets kicked out by his wife, gets back together with an ex-girlfriend, and hosts the worst possible baby shower imaginable.

The movie is beautifully filmed and most shots use the Ozustyle of keeping the camera still and a mid-distance rather than panning or zooming or using closeups. The acting is solid and naturalistic as well. Occasionally there are plot twists that feel a bit soap opera-ish, but largely is more about the patterns of ordinary life.  There are some joys and some sorrows but a lot just hovers in the middle.  Clocking at over 3 hours, it is a big time commitment to spend time with these people without a traditional story or payoff, but I think it’s worth it.

Rating: ****