Classic Movie Review: Spartacus (1960)


TitleSpartacus
Release Date: October 6, 1960
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Production Company: Bryna Productions
Summary/Review:

I first saw Spartacus in 1991 when it was restored and re-released in theaters with previously censored scenes spliced back in.  Most notable is the scene where Crassus (Laurence Olivier) attempts to seduce Antoninus (Tony Curtis) with an extended metaphor about oysters and snails to imply he is bisexual.  This scene was too racy for the production code in 1960 although it would have probably been unnecessarily subtle in Ancient Rome. The other part of the movie I remember well is the gladiatorial training scenes where instructor Marcellus (Charles McGraw) has a comically gravelly voice that appears to dubbed over the film.  For months after seeing this movie, my sister and I would imitate that voice saying “Kill, me Spartacus! Come on, kill me!”

I was surprised that most of what I remember of the film happens pretty early on (except, of course, the famous “I’m Spartacus!” scene near the end).  Kirk Douglas stars as Spartacus, an enslaved man from Thrace who is brought to a gladiatorial training school in Capua and rebels after a series of indignities.  This prompts a broader revolt of which Spartacus is chosen as leader and many successful battles against the Roman military as the freed people attempt to leave the Italian peninsula. Spartacus also forms a romance with a former enslaved woman Varinia (Jean Simmons), although I find their scenes together to not be very convincing.

It comes as no surprise that director Stanley Kubrick was more interested in focusing on the Romans as it is in their scenes that the film is strongest. The story of the corrupt Roman aristocracy plays as a sharp satire much as I read Gone With the Wind as a satire of the slavocracy of the Old South, or to be more relevant to Kubrick, a progenitor of Dr. Strangelove.  Crassus is the aristocrat who outwardly stands for the greater esteem of Roman identity while privately plotting to take dictatorial power.  Against him stands Gracchus (Charles Laughton), the populist who stirs up “the rabble” to his own ends.  The movie even suggest the rise to power of Julius Caesar (John Gavin) is brought about by the events of this film, although Caesar himself plays only a small part in the story.  Stealing scenes from everyone is Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, the unctuous slave trader and owner of the gladiatorial school.

The production of this film was a legendary mess with a cadre of strong-willed men of assholic temperament at loggerheads with each other.  Nevertheless, it turns out as a very good if not great film despite the fact that it’s too long and uneven due to Kubrick’s disinterest in actually telling the story of Spartacus.  It was fun to revisit Spartacus, and while it won’t end up on my list of greatest films ever, it has earned a memorable spot in Hollywood history.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Wild Bunch (1969)


Title: The Wild Bunch
Release Date: June 18, 1969
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Production Company: Warner Bros.-Seven Arts
Summary/Review:

The Wild Bunch tells one of the most familiar stories in film history. A group of aging outlaws lead by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his sidekick Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) try for one last score with a heist of silver from the railroad.  The heist is a bust and soon the surviving members of the Wild Bunch find themselves on the run over the border into Mexico pursued by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), a former member of the gang now deputized by the railroad company as a bounty hunter.

The big difference between The Wild Bunch and earlier Westerns is that in 1969 the production code is no more.  Expletives are shouted, womens’ breasts are bared, and every bullet shot hits its target with an explosion of flesh and blood. (Previously all I knew about Sam Peckinpaugh was from a Monty Python sketch which I thought was exaggerating the blood and gore, but now I know better). A bigger change from earlier Hollywood is that all moral certitude is gone as the gang of anti-heroes does what they need to do to survive.

The Wild Bunch is essentially the template followed by action-adventure films for the ensuing 50 years.  It feels like an oddball among the other movies on the AFI 100 list but I can see it deserving a shot for being an influence.  And while this isn’t a movie I particularly enjoyed, it was worth watching it once.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Imitation of Life (1959)


Title: Imitation of Life
Release Date: March 17, 1959
Director: Douglas Sirk
Production Company: Universal-International[
Summary/Review:

For a Hollywood movie from 1959, Imitation of Life is surprisingly open about dealing with real issues of race and gender, and unsurprisingly a bit awkward in how it handles those issues.*  The story focuses on two women, one white and one Black, who develop a close relationship over a dozen years in New York City, as well their relationships with their respective daughters.  When we first be Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), she’s an aspiring actor and single mother raising her daughter Susie (Terry Burnham) in a single mother. Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) is also a single mother who appears to be homeless at the start of the film, and offers to be Lora’s maid/cook in exchange for room and board for her and her daughter Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker).  Sarah Jane is light-skinned and can pass for white which makes her struggle with her identity.

Lora is a is a surprising-for-1959 confident and assertive woman who achieves her dream of acting on her terms.  She stands up to the men in her life including the lecherous agent Allen Loomis (Robert Alda) and paternalistic love interest Steve Archer (John Gavin).  The second half of the film fast forwards a decade to a point where Lora is a prosperous Broadway star and living in a suburban mansion with Annie still working and living in her house with their now teenage daughters Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) and Susie (Sandra Dee).

There are a lot of plotlines going on in Imitation of Life, which I get, because life is messy, but it feels that the prioritization of stories is off-kilter.  Whenever the movie spent too much time delving into Lora’s acting career or Susie’s crush on Steve, I lost interest.  Of course, the most interesting storyline about Sarah Jane and her problems with racial identity is the one most poorly handled.  I feel the direction of the film made her into a rebellious teen who breaks her mother’s heart when they could’ve gone with a more nuanced approach. **

Of course, Imitation of Life is an extremely melodramatic film, although I think that works to its advantage for the most part.  I expected this movie to be a lot more cringy than it was and am overall impressed with the effort at dealing with issues of race and gender in a popular film of the 1950s.

Rating: ***1/2

* As surprising as it is that this movie was made in 1959, it is actually based on a book from 1933 and was originally made into a movie in 1934!

** Just an observation, it doesn’t appear that Susan Kohner had any African American heritage.  The 1934 film actually did cast a light-skinned African American actor, Fredi Washington, in the role.

Movie Review: Brief Encounter (1945)


Title: Brief Encounter
Release Date: 3 November 1945
Director: David Lean
Production Company: Eagle-Lion Distributors
Summary/Review:

Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), a married woman in her 30s, journeys by train to a nearby town every Thursday to do shopping and see a film at the cinema. On one occasion she is assisted by a charming doctor, Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), in the refreshment room at the train station.  They meet again and form a bond, meeting week after week over lunch, films, or a drive through the countryside.  They never “consummate” their relationship but nevertheless the strong feelings toward one another cause great guilt and they decide to end their encounters.  Their final meeting is used as a framing device to start and the film, so this is not a big spoiler.

The movie is very restrained in a characteristically British way.  The acting is top notch and I really feel the conflicting emotions simmering beneath the surface of Laura and Alec. I also like that with many scenes set in the train station’s refreshment room that there is another entire story going on with the staff at the bar. It all makes for a well-structured and moving work of cinema.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Talk to Her (2002)


Title: Hable con ella
Release Date: 15 March 2002
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Production Company: El Deseo S.A.
Summary/Review:

Back in the 1990s, Pedro Almodóvar films were a really big deal, but I never liked them.  It felt to me that his films used shock value in attempt to appear edgy and groundbreaking.  Almodóvar is known for centering his movies around strong women characters but also for having those characters humiliated and abused, leading him to be considered both a feminist and a misogynist filmmaker.  One of the worst examples was Kika, a movie I actually saw at the theater, where the title character is raped in a long scene that is played for laughs.  As you can imagine, I went into watching this Almodóvar film with strong reservations.

The women in this film are a dancer named Alicia (Leonor Watling) and a bullfighter named Lydia (Rosario Flores).  They are both comatose for the better part of the film, only acting in flashbacks.  Alicia is cared for rather obsessively by a nurse at the hospital named Benigno (Javier Cámara).  Lydia’s boyfriend Marco (Darío Grandinetti) also spends time with her hoping against hope that she will be restored to health.  Over time Benigno and Marco form a friendship over their shared experience.

In flashbacks, we learn that Benigno was actually stalking Alicia before the car crash that put her in a coma.  During the course of the film, Benigno rapes and impregnates the comatose Alicia (thankfully this is not depicted in the film but hinted at through a bizarre “silent film”).  A leopard does not change its spots, whether it’s Benigno or Almodóvar himself.  I actually don’t mind so much that the story shows Marco agreeing to help his imprisoned friend despite the disgust he feels for the crime.  Even the worst criminals are still human beings.  I just wish that Almodóvar could extend that empathy and humanity to the women in this film.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Senso (1954)


Title: Senso
Release Date:  30 December 1954
Director: Luchino Visconti
Production Company: Lux Film
Summary/Review:

Set during the Third Italian War of Independence around 1866, Senso is a sweeping Technicolor melodrama, romance, and war film.  The story centers on Contessa Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli) who enters into a tryst with Austrian Lieutenant Franz Mahler (American actor Farley Granger dubbed into Italian by Enrico Maria Salerno).  Initially Livia appears to be using her womanly guiles to support her revolutionary cousin Marchese Roberto Ussoni (Massimo Girotti), but she quickly gives into her passions and lusts (“senso” in Italian) and falls madly in love with Franz.

The “romance” of this movie is a hard sell for me since it’s clear from the beginning that Franz is a cad who is totally playing Livia for his own ends.  I hate to admit this, but the battle scenes near the end of the film were the most interesting part of the film for me.  Call me a philistine, but I found this movie to be pretentious dull.  If this is the type of film the Italian neorealists were reacting too, I can better understand the impetus of their movement.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Apocalypse Now (1979)


Title: Apocalypse Now
Release Date: August 15, 1979
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Production Company: United Artists | Omni Zoetrope
Summary/Review:

For the purposes of this review, I watched Apocalypse Now Redux, which I’d never seen before because it was streaming on Netflix and I was too lazy to go to the library for the original version.  The main difference is that 49 minutes of footage was added to the film ballooning the length to 202 minutes.  Apocalypse Now is definitely better without the extra footage, but I didn’t find it made the movie any less watchable.  In fact the story is so episodic that it would be possible to slide in and out various scenes to make several cuts that worked.

I first saw Apocalypse Now in college where it was something of a cult film among many of the students.  I watched the movie several times over a couple of years in the early 90s but hadn’t watched it since.  The movie depicts the war in Vietnam through a graphic depiction of the violence and brutality of that war.  Granted, it is not a very factual depiction of the Vietnam War, but one that catches the essence of the madness of that war through an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness. I read Conrad’s novel a couple of times in college and it was one of those books I struggled with maintaining my concentration.  Although I do remember the narrator’s aunts advising him to wear flannel and write often from The Congo.

In the film, U.S. Army Captain Benjamin Willard (a very young-looking Martin Sheen) is ordered to sail upriver into Cambodia on a mission to assassinate Special Forces  Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando).  Kurtz has gone rogue from the Army and set himself up as a cult leader and warlord of his own army of indigenous people and other Americans gone A.W.O.L. On the journey upriver, Willard and the crew of a Navy river patrol boat (which includes Laurence Fishburne when he was only 14!) have many strange and disturbing encounters with members of the U.S. military and Vietnamese civilians (and in Apocalypse Now Redux, a family of French colonist holdouts).  The structuring of the film almost follows that of a fantasy story or of a mythological heroes journey.

Except that there are no heroes in this movie.  The further Willard and crew go into the jungle the further they descend into the darkest parts of their psyches.  Kurtz on the other hand, has seen the madness of the war and embraced the madness. And yes the metaphor of “the jungle” and “indigenous people” representing the worst of humanity is as problematic in this movie as it was in Conrad’s novel.  But beyond that this is an excellent movie with considerable skill in its production and excellent acting all around.

Rating: ****

Scary Movie Marathon: The Phantom Carriage (1921)


Title: The Phantom Carriage
Release Date: 1 January 1921
Director: Victor Sjöström
Production Company: AB Svensk Filmindustri
Summary/Review:

According to the legend at the heart of this film, the last person to die before the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve will have to spend the next year as the driver of Death’s carriage and collect the souls of the dead.  Naturally, ne’er-do-well drunkard David Holm (Victor Sjöström) dies after hearing this story and is introduced to his new existence by an old friend Georges (Tore Svennberg).  Through flashbacks, they revisit David’s life and mistakes in kind of a topsy-turvy It’s a Wonderful Life.  The story is intercut with the present day story of Salvation Army Sister Edit (Astrid Holm) who is dying of tuberculosis and wishes to see David to see if her prayers have changed him any.  The movie is very much a morality play more than a horror film, but it does have a great spooky atmosphere and special effects that are still impressive 100 years later.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Stalker (1979)


TitleStalker
Release Date: 25 May 1979
Director:  Andrei Tarkovsky
Production Company: Mosfilm
Summary/Review:

As I started watching Stalker, I started having flashbacks.  Filmed in sepia tones with long shots and slow pans, the camera spends a lot of time focused on grimy interiors and muddy landscapes.  As I watched absolutely nothing happen in great detail, I felt like I was reliving Sátántangó.  Granted, Stalker is only a third of the length of Sátántangó, but it’s still a long time to watch the back of three men’s heads as they walk slowly through meadows and tunnels.

Stalker is a science fiction story about the Zone, an area struck by a meteor and possibly even visited by extraterrestrials, where the normal laws of physics don’t apply.  Within the Zone is the Room where anyone who enters is granted their deepest desires. The Zone is encircled by a military cordon, but guides known as “stalkers” will lead people past the military and the presumed hazards of the Zone for a cost. In this film we see a Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) take two clients, the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko), into the Zone.

Much like The Wizard of Oz, once they enter the Zone, the film changes from sepia tones to full (albeit muted) color.  Unlike The Wizard of Oz, the hazards seem to be entirely in the mind of the protagonists and they spend a lot of time debating philosophy and religion.  The Room ends up being a metaphor for belief and futility of existence. Stalker is clearly a well-made film with excellent cinematography, sound design, and set design.  Everyone on Letterboxd raves about it in their reviews.  But watching this movie felt like a slog for me and left me feeling cold.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)


Title: Yankee Doodle Dandy
Release Date: May 29, 1942
Director: Michael Curtiz
Production Company: Warner Bros.
Summary/Review:

George M. Cohan was an entertainer, playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer and theatrical producer credited with creating the Broadway musical.  When I was a kid, I really liked his song “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and in my second grade class the students got to pick the patriotic song we’d sing each morning and it almost always was “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”  My family even learned that we could sing “S-U-double L-I-V-A-N” to the tune of “Harrigan.” So Cohan’s work has made a mark on my life.  Yankee Doodle Dandy is purportedly the biography of Cohan’s life albeit historical accuracy is overlooked in order to make something that makes audiences feel patriotic during a time of crisis.  Which is fine, I don’t expect to learn my history from a musical, and after all can’t the same thing be said about Hamilton?

The movie is framed by an elderly George M. Cohan (James Cagney) being called to the White House to meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Hank Simms).  This was the first time a sitting president was depicted in a movie and Simms performance is awful.  These scenes are also the cheesiest and most over-the-top of the movie and might have been left out had they been thinking of posterity but again they probably appealed to audiences of the time. Cohan tells his version of his life story to FDR in a series of extended flashbacks.

Young Georgie (Henry Blair) gets his start in a vaudeville act with his family called The Four Cohans.  He seems pretty obnoxious and arrogant about his early success, and despite a lesson in humility from his father Jerry (Walter Huston, who is great in this movie), never really seems to change.  Nevertheless, once Cagney takes over the role his winsome charm is able to overpower any feeling that Cohan is kind of a heel.  The plot basically ties together a series of magnificent song and dance numbers including “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” and “Over There.”  It’s schmaltzy but thoroughly enjoyable.

Yankee Doodle Dandy has some unfortunate “of its time” aspects.  In once short scene The Four Cohans perform in blackface, because of course they do. The only actual Black characters in the movie are the servants at the White House which says something in a movie that’s supposed to represent the American dream.  Finally, Cohan essentially sabotages the career of Mary (Joan Leslie) repeatedly but it’s supposed to be okay because Mary seems to want nothing more than to be his dutiful wife.  That Cagney charm is strong because I almost didn’t even catch that Cohan’s marriage proposal was essentially to cover up giving Mary’s role to another actress.  Leslie, by the way, was only 17 when this movie was filmed and does a great job of “aging-up” to be the older Mary Cohan at the end of the movie.

Yankee Doodle Dandy joins several other movie musicals considered to be all-time greats as being a story about entertainers. Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and Cabaret (not to mention The Muppet Movie and La La Land) all fall into this category. On the one hand it makes sense to make a musical about people who sing and dance for a living, but it also jibes against the stereotype of musicals being where ordinary people break out into song and dance.  Personally, I can always use some more song and dance in my life.

Rating: ***1/2