I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.
Title: Meshes of the Afternoon
Release Date: 1943
Director: Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid
Production Company: Independent
Meshes of the Afternoon ranked #16 in the most recent Sight & Sound Poll of The Greatest Films of All Time. The short experimental film by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid is completely silent which serves as a good reminder of the importance of music and sound design to film even if there’s no dialogue. The movie is reminiscent of Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, which combined with the silence makes it feel around 15 years out of date. Then again, filmed in the sun-drenched streets of Los Angeles, it also feels like a precursor to film noir. Ultimately, David Lynch and Jordan Peele would draw inspiration from this film.
The story, as it is, involves a woman (Deren) pursuing a hooded figure with a mirror for a face. She ends up in a house and the sequence loops so that ultimately there are several versions of the same woman. There are repeated tropes of a key, a knife, and a telephone. Eventually, a man (Hammid) appears. Is he the hooded figure?
The movie is much darker than the previous movie I watched by the Deren and Hammid, The Private Life of a Cat. But they share a commonality in the way the camera is moved to provide point of view as well as the exploration of domestic interiors.It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but it does invite one to find an answer to the questions it spurs.
Release Date: 30 November 1982
Director: Richard Attenborough
Production Company: Goldcrest Films | International Film Investors | National Film Development Corporation of India | Indo-British Films
I saw Gandhi in its first run in the movie theaters which means I must’ve been 9-years-old at the time. That seems young to watch an epic historical drama, and it may be the only movie I ever went to with an intermission. But Gandhi resonated with me perhaps due to some combination of being a history geek inclined towards social justice and a budding cinephile. I saw the movie a few more times on tv but it has been more than 35 years since my last viewing.
I wondered if the movie would hold up since a lot of movies that received lots of awards in the 1980s are less well-regarded. There’s also the fact that the movie about a seminal figure in Indian history is directed and produced by British and American filmmakers. I did get the sense that throughout the movie the perspective is coming through white characters – a priest, journalists, politicians, and a pilgrim – which tends to keep Gandhi at a remove. Also the biggest criticism I’ve seen about this movie, with which I agree, is that it makes Gandhi too perfect. This has the unfortunate effect of making the characters around him look bad, even villainous, especially Muslim leader and founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Alyque Padamsee).
Despite these failures in cultural competence, I feel that Attenborough and co. were really trying their best to make a film that does justice to the life and movements of Mohandas K. Gandhi (Ben Kingsley). Kingsley performance is excellent and the cast features many top-notch Indian, British, and American actors, even in small roles. Compressing six decades of Gandhi’s life and the larger Indian independence movement into 3 hours is hard but the film has several memorable set pieces that I’ve remembered over the years, from the horrific Jallianwala Bagh massacre to Gandhi and his wife Kasturba (Rohini Hattangadi) sweetly recreating their wedding ceremony for a couple of reporters. The movie is also impressively filmed with beautiful cinematography framing intimate moments between a couple of characters ranging to massive crowd scenes.
So I’d say that Gandhi has held up and is a worthwhile introduction to his life and the history of India and Pakistan with issues that still reverberate to this day.
Title: The Adventures of Robin Hood
Release Date: May 14, 1938
Director: Michael Curtiz and William Keighley
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures
I have not read Robin Hood books and the only Robin Hood movies I’ve seen are the 1973 Disney animated film and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. And yet, I feel I’ve absorbed most of the Robin Hood mythology by osmosis, and thus The Adventures of Robin Hood feels to me like it’s the iconic Robin Hood story. The films strengths include a technicolor brilliance that looks better than many color films made decades later. It also has the captivating performance of Errol Flynn in the lead role. Flynn feels very modern in his acting, like he could time travel to the future and replace George Clooney in a contemporary movie.
The cast overall is strong with Olivia de Havilland (Lady Marian Fitzwalter), Basil Rathbone (Guy of Gisbourne), Claude Rains (King John), Eugene Pallette (Friar Tuck), Alan Hale, Sr. (Little John), and Herbert Mundin (Herbert Mundin) among others. There are great action sequences and Flynn gets to exchange zingers with Rathbone and Rains. There’s also a lot of people throwing their heads back in explosive laughter and men dropping out of trees in ambush. It’s a fun movie but it feels very slight in the connective tissue between the big set pieces.
Title: The Princess Bride
Release Date: September 25, 1987
Director: Rob Reiner
Production Company: Act III Communications | Buttercup Films | The Princess Bride Ltd.
I don’t remember The Princess Bride making any impression when it got its theatrical release in 1987, but in the ensuing years it was played endlessly on cable tv. When I was in college in 1991, it was a movie frequently rented and watched among my friend groups. And that was how it became a beloved classic!
At the time I first watched The Princess Bride, fantasy action adventure movies were rather unusual, seemingly old fashioned. And yet it was also modern with self-referential humor that also felt unusual for the time. Years later I would read the original book by William Goldman, itself a classic that bridges the border between spoof and homage to fairy tale romance. The movie proved to be a master class in adapting a great book by capturing the spirit of the book rather than the literal. This is fitting since the book was a parody of adaptation.
The success of the movie is due to its terrific cast. Cary Elwes and Robin Wright, then hot young newcomers, lead the film as Westley and Buttercup and in my mind are forever associated with those roles. Mandy Patinkin, André Roussimoff, and Wallace Shawn play the trio of villains Inigo, Fezzik, and Vizzini (the former two latter become heroes). The real villains are Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) and his sadistic henchman with six fingers, Count Rugen (Christopher Guest). The supporting cast includes comic legend like Carol Kane, Billy Crystal, Mel Smith, and Peter Kane. And then there’s a framing story with Peter Falk and Fred Savage as a grandfather and grandson reading the story.
Title: The Flowers of St. Francis
Release Date: 14 December 1950
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Production Company: Joseph Burstyn Inc.
Summary/Review: I saw this movie at Brattle Theater many years ago in a tribute to Roberto Rossellini (it was preceded by Isabella Rossellini and Guy Maddin’s odd tribute film My Dad is 100 Years Old). It was my first Rossellini movie and probably my first Italian neorealist movie too. I remember being touched by the depiction of the simple faith of Francis of Assisi and his followers in medieval Italy.
The movie features actual Franciscan brothers playing the roles instead of professional actors. It’s broken up into several chapters or vignettes each with a different moral lesson. This movie is less dogmatically religious as some viewers may fear, but instead focuses on the whimsy of Francis who was known as “God’s Jester.” It’s a beautifully filmed and touching movie that I think I like even more upon revisiting.
Release Date: July 2, 1980
Director: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Production Company: Paramount Pictures | Howard W. Koch Productions
The team of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker didn’t invent the spoof movie but their style of clever wordplay and visual gags set a pattern that’s still being followed 40+ years later. This is a movie I remember watching again and again in my childhood (mostly in an edited for tv version, more on that later) and still remember most of the gags revisiting the movie all these years later. Nevertheless, there are so many jokes packed into this movie that you always notice something new.
Now I’ll admit that there is an element of nostalgia to this movie. Air travel has changed so much in 40 years and there are references in this movie that a younger viewer just might not get the jokes. As always with 70s/80s comedy there’s a concern with racially and sexually insensitive jokes and Airplane! has a few (African villagers playing basketball, jiggling breasts) but fortunately not too many as much of the humor is situational rather than stereotypical. I won’t excuse Airplane for being “of its time” because I remember people in the 80s criticizing the movie for being crass.
I first watched this movie on TV in the mid-80s and I think watched a video tape of that version for years afterwards. The TV version not only cut out the raunchier parts but actually added scenes. I particularly remember the “Hi, Jack!” gag and more scenes with the children acting like they’re grownup business travelers. I found a compilation of the cut scenes on YouTube and remember every single one vividly. I would totally watch a cut of the movie that reincorporated these scenes into the theatrical version.
16 months ago I introduced a project to watch and review every movie on three lists of greatest films ever: AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Movies (2007), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All-Time (2012), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (2008). I’d to complete this project before the end of 2021, but here is where I stand:
So, I have just three movies to watch and review. But they are three doozies!
- La Maman et la Putain (#23 on Cahiers du Cinéma and #61 on Sight and Sound) – a 3 hour 40 minute film not available to stream or rent online and also not on DVD at any local libraries. It is on YouTube, but I’m hoping to find a better source to watch it.
- Histoire(s) du Cinéma (#49 on Sight and Sound) – an 8-part film project of Jean-Luc Godard’s that totals up to 4 hours, 26 minutes.
- Shoah (#30 on Sight and Sound) – a 9 hour 20 minute documentary about the Holocaust.
I suspect that I will get to these early on in 2021, but effectively I will no longer be posting weekly Classic Movie Reviews on this blog.
Title: Ordet (The Word)
Release Date: 10 January 1955
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Production Company: A/S Palladium
Summary/Review: Ordet is a challenging movie to watch and a difficult one to review. I could say I liked it but I’m not sure that word encapsulates my feelings accurately. The film is a slow and austere examination of religious belief.
The story focuses on the family and community of Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg), a widowed farmer in Denmark in 1925. His eldest son Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen) has abandoned religion but is married to the pious Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), and they are expecting their third child. Inger’s troubled labor is central to the film’s plot. The youngest son Anders (Cay Kristiansen) wishes to marry a neighbor, Anne (Gerda Nielsen). But her father, Peter the Tailor (Ejner Federspiel), forbids the marriage because he lives by a more orthodox code of Christianity and doesn’t think Morten and his family are faithful enough. Finally, there is the middle child Johannes who is under the delusion that he is Jesus Christ.
As I noted, this is a slow-moving film and a serious one. It is a character study that explores the reactions of the characters to the challenges they face over the course of the film. I feel I’ll have to watch it again to have a hope of “getting it” but it was definitely a thought-provoking film on the first viewing.
Release Date: 19 December 1964
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Production Company: Palladium
Summary/Review: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Danish director of the classic silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, completed his career with this film, adapted from a play The film betrays its stage origins with several long drawing room conversations. In fact, Gertrud is famous for its long takes of up to ten minutes.
The titular Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) is a former opera singer who announces early on in the film that she wants to divorce her husband Gustav (Bendt Rothe), a politician who is on the verge of being appointed as a cabinet minister. She reviews her life and her future in ponderously long conversations with Gustav, her young lover Erland (Baard Owe), and an ex-lover Gabriel (Ebbe Rode).
I’ve never found it especially profound for an actor to speak in flat tones while staring off into the distance, but it’s especially tedious when it’s done for nearly two hours. Fortunately, I’m not alone in my dislike of this movie. It was booed when released at Cannes, and an early reviewer stated “Not a film, but a two-hour study of sofas and pianos.” I guess this one of those movies that might be affecting to some, but I am not among them.
Title: The Leopard
Release Date: March 27, 1963
Director: Luchino Visconti
Production Company: Titanus
Summary/Review: After being underwhelmed by Senso, a movie by the same director set in the same time period, I was not looking forward to watching another lengthy Italian historical drama. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever watched a movie with Burt Lancaster in a starring role and I always like Claudia Cardinale, so I had those things to look forward to.
Lancaster plays Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina in Sicily in 1860 at the time of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s war of Italian unification. His favorite nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon, L’Eclisse) is swept up in the romanticism of the rebellion and joins Garibaldi’s redshirts. The Prince more pragmatically supports Garibaldi from afar as a means of maintaining the aristocracy as it is. When traveling to his summer estate, the Prince reluctantly has to entertain the nouveau-riche mayor of the town Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa). When Tancredi falls for Don Calogero’s daughter Angelica (Cardinale), the Prince once again pragmatically approves of the match since it will bring in much needed cash from Don Calogero’s coffers.
For a movie of this length, there isn’t much plot. Instead it’s a series of subtle performances among the sumptuousness of the elite’s lifestyle of the Prince contrasted with the crumbling world of the common people of Sicily. While I’m not all too interested in films about the fading of aristocratic society, since I think aristocracy should fade away, I have to admit that Lancaster’s nuanced performance makes the Prince a sympathetic character. This movie very easily could have been a melodrama, but instead it is something more restrained and revealing.
I have to confess that I watched this movie on a 3-disc DVD from the library. I popped in the first disc and watched the movie before realizing it was actually Disc 3, and what I watched was a shortened American version dubbed into English. Ironically, this is the only version of the film that features Lancaster’s voice since he’s dubbed by an Italian actor in other versions. I suppose that I failed to watch the version of the movie that earned the laudits of Cahiers du Cinéma and Sight and Sound, but I think I got a full taste of The Leopard for the time being.