Movie Review: Duck Soup (1933)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: Duck Soup
Release Date: November 17, 1933
Director: Leo McCarey
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

The Marx Brothers did not set out to parody Mussolini, Hitler, or any other autocrat, but nevertheless this film’s satire of a corrupt government going to war to enrich its leader remains topical and astute. The wealthy widow Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont, returning after a two film absence) insists on appointing Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) as the leader of the country of Fredonia.  Harpo and Chico are spies for the rival nation of Sylvania.  And Zeppo is Groucho’s secretary.

At a lean 68 minutes, Duck Soup is packed with gags.  There is no romantic subplot, and even Harpo’s harp solo and Chico’s piano recital are excised. The movie includes gags such as Harpo & Chico tormenting a lemonade vendor while swapping hats and the famed mirror sequence where Groucho and Harpo mirror one another.  I particularly liked the musical number “All God’s Chillun Got Guns” which is the rare occasion where all four brothers sing and dance together (and the last one too, as Zeppo would step down from performing after this movie).  The war scenes that complete the movie are full of references and puns and visual gags (such as Groucho’s uniform changing in every shot) that it’s worth rewatching to see all the things you missed.

This movie is definitely the Marx Brothers at their best and nearly 90 years hasn’t made it any less relevant.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Cinderella (1950)


Title: Cinderella
Release Date: March 4, 1950
Director: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, & Wilfred Jackson
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

Well, I’ve gone and done it!  I’ve watched every single Walt Disney and Pixar animated feature film.  I saved one of the most famous for last. Cinderella essentially made the Walt Disney Company as we know it today (or as we’ve known it for most of the past 70 years because the company has changed considerably in just the past decade) inaugurating a new golden age of animated films, ventures into television, and ultimately theme parks.  Cinderella Castle towers over the Magic Kingdom in Florida to remind you of the film’s importance.

Cinderella may also be one of the best known fairy tales outside of the movies, so I figured I knew the basic plot.  What surprised me in the Disney version is that the movie is told largely from the perspective of two mice, Jaq and Gus.  The first 20 minutes of the movie is almost all about the exploits of the household mice with Cinderella as an incidental background character.  It’s both a daring storytelling choice but ultimately a bit off-putting.  I just kind of wanted the Cinderella’s story to get started already.

While I had no idea the movie so prominently featured mice, I was well aware of the Fairy Godmother and her famous song “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”.  So I was surprised that the Fairy Godmother literally appears in just one scene and there’s really no explanation for her existence other than to get Cinderella to the ball.

The movie is well animated and the music is solid and the mice are cute, but something about Cinderella just feels off.  I think Sleeping Beauty, a movie considered less successful than Cinderella, did a much better job with mixing story, character, humor, and drama.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Horse Feathers (1932)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: Horse Feathers
Release Date: August 10, 1932
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

The Marx Brothers set their sights on roasting universities and college football with the topics of satire remaining remarkably current.  Groucho (as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff) is appointed President of Darwin College ushering in his inauguration with a wonderful song and dance number. Zeppo plays his son (!), a college student, while Chico and Harpo are ice vendors mistakenly recruited as ringers for the football teams big game against Huxley College (and yes, I do love the Darwin and Huxley allusions).

While the topics are ripe for satire, I find this movie to be a bit of a dud compared to other Marx Brothers comedies. Unfortunately, much of the movie relies on the tired Marx Brothers trope of “Creepy Men Chasing Women.”  Even if you could set aside 21st century ideas of feminism and consensual relationships, I can’t understand why anyone finds men chasing women to be inherently funny.  Most of the movie has all four Marx Brothers attempting to woo the “college widow” Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd) and the laughs are few. At least this movie is short.

Rating: **

Movie Review: The Lion King (1994)


Title: The Lion King
Release Date: June 24, 1994
Director: Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation
Summary/Review:

I first saw The Lion King in the movie theaters with a group of college friends and we all had an enjoyable time and loved the movie.  Oddly, I didn’t see another Disney animated film in the theaters until Moana 22 years later (although I did see plenty of Pixar films).

The Lion King draws upon Shakespeare’s Hamlet (and possibly a Japanese anime series) for inspiration, but this is the first Disney animated feature that’s not an adaptation of another work and I think it was very freeing for the creators.  They were able to create a universe within the wilderness of Africa to tell a story of love, betrayal, and redemption.  And I think this may also be the first Disney movie with no human characters.

The opening scene with Simba’s presentation is perhaps the most awe-inspiring animation Disney has ever created. And having it all end with a dramatic sting and the movie’s title is a bold choice before beginning the movie proper.  The Lion King strikes the right balance of humor, drama, romance, and adventure.  And the music drawing on African traditions is amazing.  Elton John as composer was an odd choice (and the beginning of a trend of pop artists composing soundtracks for animated movies), but even if his songs do get a little cheezy at times they are definitely memorable.

The Lion King is a great film that I believe will continue to reward viewings for quite some time.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Monkey Business (1931)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: Monkey Business
Release Date: September 19, 1931
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Production Company: Paramount Publix Corp
Summary/Review:

Monkey Business is the Marx Brothers first film written for the screen and their second classic.  Set aboard a transatlantic liner, the four Marx Brothers are introduced as stowaways hiding in barrels. The bulk of the plot involves their various hijinks as they attempt to avoid capture by the crew while also getting recruited by opposing gangsters.  Thelma Todd plays one gangster’s daughter, Lucille Briggs, and serves as a saucy comic foil.  There are a lot of great comic bits in this film including all four of the Marx Brothers singing a Maurice Chevalier song in an attempt to use his passport.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Animal Crackers (1930)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: Animal Crackers
Release Date: August 23, 1930
Director: Victor Heerman
Production Company:  Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

This is the Marx Brothers first true classic film.  Like The Cocoanuts, it is adapted from their Broadway musical, which is reflected in the stage-like sets of the film.  But in this movie the songs reflect and commentate on the plot (thin as it is) and support the Marx Brothers antics. The setting is a party at the home of socialite Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) who is hosting the celebrated African explorer Captain Jeffrey Spaulding (Grouch Marx). Another guest, art collector Roscoe W. Chandler (Louis Sorin) will be displaying a famous work of art by a painter named Beaugard.  Not one but two parties of guests decide to steal the Beaugard and put their own work in its place leading to the thin plot for the film and the source of most of its antics.

The movie has some cringe-worthy moments considering that Grouch is playing a man who hunts big game in Africa, thus leading to many horrible stereotypes about Africans (including being carried in a sedan chair but several Black men). Another running gag has Harpo chasing a young woman who is clearly not interested in him.  But all-in-all the movie is not as cringe-inducing as you might expect from a 90-year-old comedy.  Groucho’s song “Hello, I Must Be Going” is one of my favorite bits and a song I had on my voicemail greeting when I was in college.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Sleeping Beauty (1959)


Title: Sleeping Beauty
Release Date: January 29, 1959
Director: Clyde Geronimi
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

In the public imagination, Sleeping Beauty is what people imagine Disney films are like (or at least they did until more recent years): a fairy tale story where a princess survives dangers to find true love with her prince.  Sleeping Beauty Castle was even given prime real estate in Disneyland (which opened four years before the movie was released!). The reality is that after this movie performed poorly at the box office, Disney waited a whole 30 years before making a fairy tale princess movie again with The Little Mermaid. The Disney Princess marketing angle wasn’t even introduced until the 2000s!

The movie is good enough and competently-made but nothing jumps out as exciting.  While the characters and their movement are excellently animated, it strikes me as odd that the movie relies on rather flat backdrops which make it look cheaply-made.  Although there are moments when the characters are frozen against those backgrounds that look like woodcuts, so maybe that was what they were going for.

Despite being referred to in the title, Princess Aurora (alternately Briar Rose) is not the main character of the movie.  The protagonists are the good fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather who are responsible for just about every action in the movie, or at least reactions to the villain Maleficent.  Even when Prince Phillip is charged with rescuing Aurora, it is the fairies who are helping out along the way.  So let’s have a Disney live action remake called The Good Fairies that focuses on their stories.

Rating: ***

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: ****