Classic Movie Review: A Star Is Born (1954)


Title: A Star Is Born
Release Date: September 29, 1954
Director: George Cukor
Production Company: Transcona Enterprises
Summary/Review:

The second of four Hollywood movies entitled A Star is Born, stars Judy Garland as Esther Blodgett, a vocalist in a traveling big band.  Her performance entrances fading movie star and alcoholic Norman Maine (James Mason) and he seeks her out to offer her a chance at a Hollywood career.  The svengali nature of his pursuit is very uncomfortable to watch and it’s enhanced by Mason being one of Classic Hollywood’s creepiest actors.  By the intermission, Esther is a star (given the stage name Vicki Lester). The second half of the movie deals with Norman’s deterioration as his career fades while Esther’s rises.  It’s a very honest depiction of alcoholism and depression, for the 50s.

The movie contains several song and dance set pieces that really allow Garland to shine.  But they don’t feel as if they support the movie’s plot so much as offer a distraction from it.  The one exception is when Esther recreates a big production number from her current film for Norman in their living room.  It’s really the only moment we get to see them having a sweet moment.  Otherwise A Star is Born is overlong, melodramatic, and a bit boring.

It’s a bit eerie how much the movie parallels Garland’s own troubled career.  Norman’s character is criticized for delaying production on his films but in real life Garland was delaying production of A Star is Born with her absences.  At the time this movie was made, Garland had been in show business for around 20 years and A Star is Born was supposed to be her big comeback.  She was only 32 years old.  That’s so messed up.

 

Rating:

Classic Movie Review: America, America (1963)


Title: America, America
Release Date: December 15, 1963
Director: Elia Kazan
Production Company: Athena Enterprises
Summary/Review: America, America is an immigration story written, directed, and produced by Elia Kazan and based on the experiences of his uncle. Unusual for a film produced in the United States at the time it is made in a neorealist style with a cast of little-known actors.  The movie stars Greek actor Stathis Giallelis as Stavros Topouzoglou, a young ethnically Greek man living in the Anatolia region of Turkey in the 1890s. He dreams of escaping poverty and the oppressive rule of the Ottoman Empire by fleeing to the United States.

The nearly three-hour film is essentially three different stories.  The first part depicts Stavros’ life in Anatolia and the massacre of Armenians that kills his friend Vartan (Frank Wolff).  His father sends him to Constantinople to earn money to bring the rest of the family to join him.  The second part of the film follow Stavros’ struggles in Constantinople which include him becoming engaged to Thomna (Linda Marsh), the daughter of the wealthy merchant Aleko Sinnikoglou (Paul Mann) in order to use the dowry to pay for his passage to America.  The final third depicts the journey to New York City which Stavros pays for through having an affair with the wealthy American Sophia (Katharine Balfour). Hohannes Gardashian (Gregory Rozakis), a fellow dreamer hoping to emigrate to America and suffering from tuberculosis, appears at various points through the story and plays an important part in Stavros’ achieving his dream.

The movie is rough and sprawling and overlong.  The use of American actors in lot of the parts, speaking in broad American accents, comes off as very odd.  The acting also tends to be over the top in general, although Giallelis is a compelling central performance.  This movie was obviously a very personal project for Kazan.  I’m glad I watched it although I don’t feel that it’s a movie I will return to.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)


Title: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Release Date: November 19, 1975
Director: Miloš Forman
Production Company: Fantasy Films
Summary/Review:

In my teen years, I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a book by Tom Wolfe about author and Merry Prankster Ken Kesey.  This prompted me to immediately read Kesey’s most famous novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  At some point later in life, I watched the movie, but I only vaguely remember not really liking it.  Well, I’m glad that I was prompted to rewatch the movie, because it turns out to be a compelling drama.

Jack Nicholson stars as Randle McMurphy, a convict who fakes insanity in order to avoid hard labor at a prison work farm.  His free spirit and combative attitude begin to stir things up among the men in his ward at the mental hospital.  What makes this movie for me is the excellent ensemble cast who portray the other patients.  This includes Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd (before they would work together again on Taxi), Brad Dourif as the young Billy Bibbit, Sydney Lassick as the anxious Charlie Cheswick, and William Redfield as Dale Harding, who is kind of McMurphy’s biggest rival among the patients.  Another key character is “Chief” Bromden (Will Sampson), an apparently deaf and mute Native American.  Chief is the narrator of the book, but his significance in the movie is not as apparent until the final act. Nicholson’s future co-star of The Shining, Scatman Crothers, also has a key role as a night orderly.

Much of the drama in the film comes from the battle of the wills between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) who leads the therapy sessions for the men in the ward.  I find it interesting that Nurse Ratched is commonly understood as a villain and wonder if patriarchal fears of men under the control of a woman play a part in that assessment.  In the film, Ratched is clearly an antagonist to McMurphy, but she is calm and I don’t believe she is malicious, at least not until the film’s denouement.

I read that Kirk Douglas played the role of McMurphy in a stage adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and wanted to star in the movie. It occurs to me that McMurphy is very similar in temperament to Douglas’ character in Ace in the Hole. They both believe that they can take control of a chaotic situation to serve their own ends.  And their hubris leads to a tragic ending.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: All the President’s Men (1976)


Title: All the President’s Men
Release Date: April 4, 1976
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Production Company: Wildwood Enterprises
Summary/Review:  This docudrama dramatizes the investigative journalism of Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) at The Washington Post to connect the burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices at Watergate to President Richard Nixon. It’s kind of fascinating to think of audiences watching this movie at the time of release when the events depicted had just happened but are already being shown with the sheen of historicity.

The acting is top notch with Redford and Hoffman joined by Jason Robards as the Post‘s editor Ben Bradlee and Hal Holbrook as “Deep Throat” among others. The movie does a great job of creating tension out of rather mundane tasks like making phone calls and taking notes so that it is very compelling to watch. The movie also incorporates actual tv and radio news footage from the time period which I think was something new for narrative films, although it would become more common. On the downside, there isn’t much characterization for the leads beyond that Bernstein is apparently the better writer and Woodward is more fastidious about getting the facts right.  I don’t feel that we get any sense of who Woodward and Bernstein were as people apart from being idealistic journalists.

While I won’t deny that this is an excellent film, it is a curious choice for the AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Films list.  I expect it is recognized for the film’s influence in dramatize recent political events as well as inspiring generations of idealistic journalists.  I also suspect it is considered an important film because it relates to an important event in American history.  More cynically, it could be that it’s about a significant event in the life of the Baby Boomer generation and thus deemed important because Baby Boomers remain the tastemakers of American culture.  All that aside, it’s an excellent film worth watching.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Gone With the Wind (1939)


TitleGone With the Wind
Release Date: December 15, 1939
Director: Victor Fleming
Production Company: Selznick International Pictures | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

I’m not really sure what I can say about Gone With the Wind that hasn’t been said before.  For good or for ill, this film is steeped in our culture.  When I was a kid in the 70s & 80s, the annual broadcast of Gone With the Wind was a major event spread over multiple nights like a big new miniseries (and delightfully parodied on The Carol Burnett Show).  My mom and sister loved watching the movie, but I avoided it until I was a teenager and found that it was actually better than I imagined.

Still, even if my great-grandfather hadn’t served in the Civil War defending his home state of Pennsylvania, I would find it hard to love a movie whose opening text declares the slaveholder aristocracy to be a great, lost civilization and their insurrection to be a noble cause.  I decided that this movie really actually works as a satire of the South, since all the characters are universally awful in their narcissism, pettiness, duplicity, and greed.  Well, except Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) who seems to have found a happy place divorced from reality.

I can’t deny that this is a technically brilliant and beautifully shot film that was innovative for its time and still holds up (although it says something about our nation that so many of the American film industry’s milestone films – from The Birth of a Nation to The Jazz Singer to Song of the South – are deeply racist).  I also can’t deny that Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable are terrific in their roles.  I quibble with the idea that the story of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler really deserved the epic treatment and nearly four hours of run time, but it did hold my attention.

I guess I did have a few things to say about Gone With the Wind.  I don’t think it really deserves the revered position it holds, but it is worth giving it a watch if you haven’t seen it yourself.  I don’t think I’ll watch it again.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Annie Hall (1977)/Manhattan (1979)


My effort to watch and review every movie ranked on three lists of greatest films of all time from the American Film Institute, Sight & Sound, and Cahiers du Cinéma offers many challenges.  The biggest one is “Do I really want to watch this movie?”  After all there is no requirement for me to do so beyond my own stubborn pride.  This is the challenge I face with watching Annie Hall (#35 on the AFI list) and Manhattan (#93 on the Cahiers du Cinéma list).

When I was young and my family first got cable tv in 1984, I became a fan of the Woody Allen films played on tv like Bananas, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex, Sleeper, and my favorite Love and Death. Later in my college years I became borderline obsessed with watching every Woody Allen movie ever made.  According to my Letterboxd stats, he is my second-most watched director of all time after Alfred Hitchcock. Through the 90s I watched new Woody Allen films as they were released.  But it’s been two decades since I last watched a Woody Allen movie and I never will watch one again.  Because watching a Woody Allen movie means watching the man who sexually assaulted Dylan Farrow.

There is an ongoing argument in our culture about whether or not one can separate the art from the artist. For me, I have to take several factors into consideration, such as:

  • the severity of the artist’s offense
  • what, if any, efforts has the artist made at accepting consequence and reconciliation
  • if the artist is still alive, will supporting their art provide them with material benefits and social account that would allow them to defend against consequences for their offense, or worse, carry out additional offenses
  • in a collaborative work of art, such as a film, can we recognize the contributions of other artists without elevating the offender

Woody’s Allen’s crime was most grievous and he’s made no effort at redemption.  Supporting his art gives him money and fame that allows him to evade legal consequences and possibly assault other women and girls.  And while many other artists made valuable contributions to Woody Allen films, he is the writer, director, and star of most of them, playing a version of himself.  I’ve tried to watch or rewatch every movie before writing a review for my Classic Movie Project but I can’t in good conscience rewatch these movies, so I will review them based on memories from decades ago.  I will also forgo giving these two moves a star rating.


TitleAnnie Hall
Release Date: March 27, 1977
Director: Woody Allen
Production Company: A Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe Production
Summary/Review: Annie Hall was once among my favorite movies. It is a clever romantic comedy which involves unusual for the time aspects such as breaking the fourth wall, a classic gag involving Marshall McLuhan and even an animated segment. And Diane Keaton as the title character is the rare woman in a Woody Allen film who gets to be funnier and more likable than Woody’s character. As a film, it hits the sweet spot of Allen gaining technical competence as a director but before he became to self-indulgent.


TitleManhattan
Release Date: April 18, 1979
Director: Woody Allen
Production Company: United Artists
Summary/Review:  Unlike Annie Hall, which I watched several times, I only watched Manhattan once.  I was in college in the early 1990s and learning about filmmaking techniques so it was one of the first movies where I could appreciate the black & white cinematography, montage, and the use of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” to score the film.  Since New York City had essentially hit rock bottom in the 1970s, it was nice to have a film tribute to Manhattan at the time, although the world of Isaac Davis (Allen) was entirely upper middle class white people.

Apart from the artistic touches, I didn’t like Manhattan all the much.  Mainly because the plot involves the 42-year-old Davis dating the 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway).  Even if you know nothing about Allen’s real life crimes, this is creepy.  It was creepy in the 1990s and it was creepy in 1979.  Apart from that plot point, the humor in this film lacks the nebbish and self-deprecating qualities of Annie Hall, and Davis’ character seems to be more of someone who insists that you should be on his side without giving a good reason to do so.

Classic Movie Review: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)


Title: To Kill a Mockingbird
Release Date: December 25, 1962
Director: Robert Mulligan
Production Company: Brentwood Productions | Pakula-Mulligan
Summary/Review:

I first read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in junior high school, as reading this novel is basically a nationwide requirement of the United States education systems, and immediately fell in love with it.  Then we watched the movie in class and I was disappointed.  At that age, I didn’t like it when movies deviated from the books. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to realize that the best adaptations used the language of cinema to capture the mood and spirit of a book rather than strictly recreating it (which is why Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of that series of movies).  I also remember feeling that the kids in To Kill a Mockingbird didn’t act like real kids but I felt the same about E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial as a child while thinking the kids were actually very realistic when revisiting as an adult.

If you have somehow never read To Kill a Mockingbird, it is a story told from the point of view of a young girl living in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s named Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Mary Badham).  Scout lives with her widowed father Atticus (Gregory Peck) and older brother Jem (Phillip Alford), and often plays with a boy named Dill (John Megna) who stays with his aunt in their neighborhood.  In the book, Scout, Jem, and Dill have many adventures and get into mischief.  Scout also begins to get an understanding of the differences of the adults in her lives through encounters with a cantankerous old woman who turns out to have an addiction to morphine, as well as a mysterious recluse, Arthur “Boo” Radley (portrayed without words by a very young Robert Duvall).  Atticus is a model of good parenting who attempts to instill compassion in his children, treating them with patience and never talking down to them.

The central plot to the book and even more significant in the leaner movie version is the trial of a Black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who is falsely accused of beating and raping a white teenage girl, Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox), by her drunken father Bob Ewell (James Anderson).  Atticus is assigned to defend Tom Robinson in court and demonstrates during the trial that the Ewells’ accusations can’t possibly be true.  But convincing an all-white jury in the Jim Crow South to accept the word of a Black man over white people is the impossible challenge.  In the most famous scene of this movie, Atticus delivers a nine-minute summation to the jury where he explicates his belief in the American justice system that they will find Tom Robinson innocent.

I found that this is a very well-made movie, yet it still feels like something of an appendix to an even better and more complex novel.  Gregory Peck’s performance is excellent, but it’s almost too good and having an actor of his stature portray Atticus Finch feeds into legitimate criticisms that Atticus is a “white savior” character.  I did feel legitimately moved though by the scene where the Black spectators in the courtroom balcony stand to honor Atticus and Reverend Sykes (William “Bill” Walker) says “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” A scene just before that where Dill is sleeping on Reverend Sykes shoulder is sweet and intimate especially considering the time and place.

As to the acting of the children, I was impressed with Phillip Alford’s performance as Jem.  His facial expressions and gestures say a lot as the older child who understands the significance of what is happening.  Mary Badham can be a bit too precious as Scout, especially in the scene when she talks down the lynch mob.  But she is absolutely perfect in her delivery of my favorite line of all, “Hey, Boo.”

I guess I have mixed feelings on To Kill a Mockingbird as a movie because I can never see it as standing apart from the book.  But it’s a great book, so it can’t help to be a good movie as well.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Graduate (1967)


Title: The Graduate
Release Date: December 21, 1967
Director: Mike Nichols
Production Company: Lawrence Turman Productions
Summary/Review:

I first watched The Graduate some time in the mid-90s because, along with Easy Rider, it is said to be an emblematic of the Baby Boomer generation.  Watching it then, I felt that Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) seemed more representative of my own generation, at a time when we were being called “The Slacker Generation.”  Watching it now, though, I think there is a feeling of directionless many people experience in their 20s that transcends generations.  My other impression of the movie was that it wasn’t very funny and I didn’t like it.

Watching it now, I realize the problem I had with The Graduate is that it makes me deeply uncomfortable, which is something that a good movie can do.  I wrote in my review of M*A*S*H that there were a lot of positives of the Sexual Revolution of the 60s and 70s, but sometimes there was a push to be transgressive which crossed the line from health to unhealthy sexual expression.  The seduction of Benjamin by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) is extremely creepy, almost predatory.  Later in the film, Benjamin becomes a creepy stalker in his pursuit of Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross).  I’m never convinced that Benjamin actually loves Elaine, he’s just looking for a way to escape the rut he’s captured in, and I think the film actually supports this interpretation.  As for Elaine, watching her respond positively to Benjamin is like watching a camp counselor in a slasher film enter the creepy house where I want to shout at the screen “NO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!?”

The Graduate is an extremely well-made film.  I particularly like the the montage of Benjamin schlubbing around his house intercut with scenes of his assignations with Mrs. Robinson.  The acting is all around terrific, and Anne Bancroft’s performance in the scene where Benjamin presses Mrs. Robinson about her past is magnificent.  Simon & Garfunkel’s music for the film, while repetitive (although not as repetitive as Midnight Cowboy), is perfectly synched to the movie, and I especially like the part where Simon’s guitar strumming peters out when Benjamin’s car runs out of gas.  The final sequence of the movie is ludicrously unbelievable, but it’s still very funny (and was brilliantly spoofed in Wayne’s World II). Something I didn’t notice or didn’t remember from my previous viewing is that when Benjamin and Elaine get on the bus their smiles and laughter slowly turn to looks of confusion, as if they’re thinking “What now?” I never thought there was a happy future for Benjamin and Elaine and their expressions in the final shot confirm it.

Want to know something weird?  When filming this movie, Anne Bancroft was only 36 years old, joining Vivien Leigh and Gloria Swanson among actresses playing characters who are treated as older than themselves.  Granted, Mrs. Robinson had a teenage pregnancy, so it’s entirely possible that she have a child in college at Bancroft’s age.  But here’s something weirder: Katharine Ross is less than 9 years younger than Bancroft!  Weirder still?  Hoffman is only SIX YEARS younger than Bancroft.  The leads in this intergenerational comedy were all born in the same decade!

So, I think I like The Graduate a lot more than I did on my previous viewing, but I don’t love it.  I guess I’ll check in again in another 25 years, and who knows!

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Contempt (1963)


Title: Le Mépris
Release Date: 29 October 1963
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Production Company: Rome Paris Films | Les Films Concordia | Compagnia Cinematografica Champion
Summary/Review:

Contempt is a movie about making a movie.  In this case, German director Fritz Lang plays himself directing an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey on location in Italy. Sleazy American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) thinks that Lang’s vision for the film is too artistic and wants to create a blockbuster instead, so he brings in French playwright Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) to rework the script.  Javal’s wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) accompanies him to the film shoot.  Early on it is established that they both suffer from a lack of confidence, Paul in his writing, and Camille of whether she is worthy of love.

Things are sent into motion when Paul has Camille ride with the lecherous Prokosch when going to his house for lunch, and then doesn’t show up himself until 30 minutes later.  Camille fears that Paul is offering her to Prokosch as a beautiful young woman in order to advance his career.  When Paul later sides with Prokosch over Lang on changes to the film, she is further disgusted with his lack of integrity.  The better part of the film is the argument between Camille and Paul, first in their unfinished apartment and later on the cliffs at Capri.

This movie feels like it’s the type of movie that American sketch comedy shows spoof when they do a sketch about European films.  Beautiful people in various states of undress argue past one another, shouting they’re no longer in love, while repressing why they feel that way.  For some reason, Bardot is completely naked for a good portion of the film with the camera lovingly panning over her bare bottom.  Bardot certainly has a lovely bum, but I’m not sure how presenting it to the audience repeatedly adds to the film’s plot.  This movie is supposed to be Goddard thumbing his nose at mainstream filmmaking, but it feels to me like it’s just a poorly made melodrama.  The constantly swelling music is inappropriate to the mood and Bardot and Piccoli seem to be acting wooden deliberately

I don’t know, I guess this is one of those movie I’m just not going to “get.”

Rating: **1/2

 

Classic Movie Review: Casque D’or (1952)


Title: Casque D’or
Release Date: 16 April 1952
Director: Jacques Becker
Production Company: Robert et Raymond Hakim | Speva Films | Paris-Film Production
Summary/Review:

Casque D’or refers to the helmet of golden hair on the head of Marie (Simone Signoret), the center of a love triangle between the ex-con carpenter Georges Manda (Serge Reggiani) and the mob boss Félix Leca (Claude Dauphin).  The Belle Epoque story feels like a gentile predecessor to West Side Story. More significantly it is a predecessor to the French New Wave movement which is probably why it made it on the Cahiers du Cinéma list.  The film is well-produced and well-acted, but I found it a bit dull. The famed final scene takes on the senseless violence of capital punishment.

Rating: ***