Movie Review: Rebecca (1940)


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.

TitleRebecca
Release Date: April 12, 1940
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Selznick International Pictures
Summary/Review:

I watched Rebecca as a teenager and one of the main things I remember about the movie is that I really liked Joan Fontaine’s hair.  Fontaine’s hair is still great, but so is psychological thriller from Alfred Hitchcock.  This is Hitchcock’s first American film the Hitchcock style is compromised by producer David O. Selznick’s Hollywood flair (especially the soundtrack which can overwhelm the film).

Fontaine plays a young woman who unjustly is given no name in this story.  She’s working as a wealthy woman’s companion traveling in the French Riviera when she meets moody and brooding wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier).  They fall in love and marry and he takes her home to his estate in England, Manderly.  The new Mrs. de Winter finds Manderly overwhelmed by the memory of Maxim’s late wife, Rebecca. The creepy housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), is especially devoted to Rebecca and strives to make the second Mrs. de Winter feel unworthy, and even suicidal.

Over the course of the movie, secrets of Rebecca and Maxim’s past are revealed with some surprising twists.  Like many Hitchcock movies, when you think about it too hard, the plot doesn’t make too much sense, but you can set that aside because the mood and tension are built up so well.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Ghostbusters (1984)


Title: Ghostbusters
Release Date: June 8, 1984
Director: Ivan Reitman
Production Company: Columbia-Delphi Productions | Black Rhino
Summary/Review:

I saw Ghostbusters in the movie theaters three times in 1984, and countless times on tv and video over the years since then (often at the prompting of my sister who perhaps loved the movie more than me).  My most recent viewing on the Fourth of July coincided with my first ever visit to a drive-in movie and the first time my children watched Ghostbusters (they loved it too!).

I can’t review this movie objectively.  Despite it’s weird premise, the movie was and remains one of the funniest movies ever made. I’ve always appreciated the little details they built into the movie such as all the visual references to Stay Puft Marshmallows that appear well before we ever see the Marshmallow Man.  On this viewing, I noticed that the music works so well in the film too, both the original score and various pop songs worked into the soundtrack (and yes, I had the soundtrack as a kid).

One thing I don’t like about Ghostbusters is the underlying Libertarian message that comes out in things like the villain being a government agent played by William Atherton who arbitrarily uses his power to bring down hard-working entrepreneurs.  I’ve always liked Bill Murray, but on this viewing I also noticed that Peter Venkman is very creepy.  On the upside I better appreciated the work of Harold Ramis and Rick Moranis as Egon Spengler and Louis Tully. Despite any quibbles I may have, Ghostbusters stands the test of time.

Oh, and despite what you might have heard elsewhere, the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot is really good too.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: The Lady Vanishes (1938)


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 Lady Vanishes
Release Date: 7 October 1938
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Gaumont British | Gainsborough Pictures
Summary/Review:

Set in the fictional European nation of Bandrika, this comical thriller features several British characters being ugly travelers as one of their number mysteriously disappears. The film begins at a snowed-in alpine resort, but the majority of the film takes place on a train. Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is reluctantly traveling home to England to marry an aristocrat.  Iris is hit on the head by a falling planter box just before boarding the train, and in a disoriented state she’s helped on board by an elderly governess, Miss Froy (May Whitty).

When Iris awakes from a nap, Miss Froy is missing and no one else on the train remembers her ever being on board. Iris gets help from a smart-aleck ethno-musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), and together they search the train and uncover more and more curiosities. The movie expertly ties together mystery with romance and a comedy of manners. Only in the third act does the movie fall a bit apart with a lengthy gun battle.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: It Happened One Night (1934)


Title: It Happened One Night
Release Date: February 22, 1934
Director: Frank Capra
Production Company: Columbia Pictures
Summary/Review:

It Happened One Night is Frank Capra’s first big hit as a director and the first movie to sweep the five most prominent Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Actor). It is credit with making interstate bus travel on Greyhound popular while also making undershirts unpopular with men. It’s the template upon which the romantic comedy genre was built. And apparently Clark Gable only appears in this movie because he was being punished by his production company, and nobody involved in making this film had any fun at all (you wouldn’t know from watching this because they’re good actors).

Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is an heiress who is being held captive by her millionaire father Alexander (Walter Connolly) on his yacht after she elopes with a con artist. Ellie jumps ship and boards a bus from Florida to New York, finding herself on her own in the world without her fortune for the first time. She is helped by a fellow traveler, the smart-mouthed Peter Warne (Gable), who is hiding that he is a recently-fired newspaper reporter hoping to regain his job with a story about traveling with the famous heiress.  Traveling by bus, hitchhiking, and eventually stealing a car, the pair fight, escape the law, and naturally fall in love. Despite the title, the movie takes place over several nights and days, allowing their relationship to grow.

Gable and Colbert both play characters who are initially odious but over time reveal their humanity. Colbert is especially good at showing Ellie’s adventurous side as she takes several new experiences in stride. The pair have a great on-screen chemistry especially in a scene where Peter pretends they are a married couple and Ellie jumps in to squabble with him so as to fool the police.  Capra also includes some nice non-plot moments that allow the movie to breathe, such as when passengers on the bus take turns in a sing-a-long (no wonder bus travel looked so attractive!).

Despite what I said in The 39 Steps review, I’ve decided that it wasn’t influenced by It Happened One Night, although both movies feature an autogryo!  It Happened One Night is a worthy classic and still full of laughs 86 years after it was released.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Ugetsu (1953)


Title: Ugetsu
Release Date: March 26, 1953
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Production Company: Daiei Film
Summary/Review:

Set during a Civil War in 16th-century Japan’s Sengoku period, this movie is the story of a potter Genjūrō (Masayuki Mori of Rashomon fame) who hopes to take advantage of the troubled times to make a profit selling his wares in a city across a lake. Due to fear of pirates he leaves his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and their young son behind, but is accompanied by his friend Tōbei (Eitaro Ozawa) and his wife, Ohama (Mitsuko Mito).

The trio are separated in the city. Tōbei, who always dreamed of becoming a samurai, stumbles into being recognized as a hero by one of the armies, and is rewarded with armor, a horse, and troops to command.  Meanwhile, Ohama is abducted, raped, and forced to work in a brothel.  A noblewoman, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyō, who also starred in Rashomon and Floating Weeds) visits Genjūrō’s stall and he eventually he goes to live with her and marry her, not telling of his wife and child.

This movie is a ghost movie, but the spectral parts are subtle, and in a way unexpected.  This is also a movie where the two wives are severely wronged and the sympathies of the movie are with them against their foolish husband.  The movie is also a morality play, but again one that is well-done and moving.  I found myself weeping at the end, primarily because the final scenes involve some sweet scenes between Genjūrō and his toddler son.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Fantasia (1940)


Title: Fantasia
Release Date: November 13, 1940
Director: Samuel Armstrong, James Algar, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen, David D. Hand, Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, Ford Beebe, T. Hee, Norman Ferguson, and Wilfred Jackson
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

When I was a kid, my family never bought prerecorded VHS tapes of movies, and yet we somehow ended up with a copy of Fantasia.  And with no urgency to return it to the rental store, it sat on the shelf unwatched for years. Still, somewhere along the way I saw portions of Fantasia elsewhere, particularly The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  This was my first time watching the movie in full.

The movie features the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, performing on a backlit stage so that the various instrumentalists appear as large shadows as they perform.  This blends into the first animated segment Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which builds on the music with abstract imagery.

The remaining segments include:

  • The Nutcracker Suite – a ballet performed by various plants and animals.  Amazingly, master of ceremonies Deems Taylor introduces this piece as “rarely performed.” The Nutcracker being popularized by Disney is even more amazing than “Aquarela do Brasil” being made popular by Saludos Amigos.
  • The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – the most famous segment stars Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice whose attempt to use magic to avoid doing his cleaning work leads to a comic disaster.
  • Rite of Spring – a depiction of the primeval world from the first single-cell organisms to the dinosaurs.
  • The Pastoral Symphony – Unicorns, pegasus, fauns, centaurs, and cherubs frolic about in scenes from a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper come to life (albeit with more bare breasts than you’d expect from an animated movie made in 1940).  Bacchus tries to celebrate but Zeus disrupts the proceedings by throwing lightning bolts.
  • Dance of the Hours – perhaps the other most famous sequence, this is a comedic ballet featuring ostriches, hippopotamuses, elephants, and alligators.  And then it gets weird.
  • Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria – just a wild party featuring various demons, followed by a peaceful lantern-lit procession.

For what it is, an experimental combination of music, movement, color, and imagination, Fantasia is fantastic.  What it isn’t is a family movie you can watch with your kids, although individual segments may be worth watching alone if you’re introducing your kids to music appreciation.  The movie is on the long side and Deems Taylor’s lengthy introductions don’t help it move along.  Fantasia may have worked better as a shorter feature with fewer segments, or even just short films, that carried on as anthology series as Walt Disney intended.  Nevertheless, it remains a spectacular combination of sight and sound.

Rating: ****

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: ****