Movie Review: The Music Room (1958)


Title: The Music Room (Jalsaghar)
Release Date: 10 October 1958
Director: Satyajit Ray
Production Company: Aurora Film Corporation
Summary/Review:

Set in the 1920s, a landlord in Bengal, Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), neglects his responsibilities and squanders his family fortune in order to host concerts and dance recitals in the music room of his decaying palace. His need to gain prestige by hosting expensive entertainments only intensifies when a nouveau riche man, Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Bose), moves into a neighboring estate. The film shows Roys descent into monomania and willingness to sacrifice everything, including his wife and son. The film is punctuated by three recitals in the music room which are fantastic displays of music and dance.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: A Night in Casablanca (1946)


Welcome to  the final Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ve skipped over several  of the Marx Brothers later movies as they’re considered to be not so good, and this is the only one I found free on a streaming service.  This will be my final review for now.

Title: A Night in Casablanca
Release Date: May 10, 1946
Director: Archie Mayo
Production Company: Loma Vista Productions
Summary/Review:

The Marx Brothers are set in a post-World War II spy thriller parody.  Groucho plays Ronald Kornblow who is hired as the new manager of the Hotel Casablanca, unaware that Nazi war criminal Heinrich Stubel (Sig Ruman) murdered the previous 3 managers as part of a plot to find stolen art hidden within the hotel.  Lisette Verea plays the femme fatale Stubel sends to seduce and distract Kornblow.

The comedy isn’t as sharp as the earlier films, but I did find myself guffawing quite a bit all the same. I especially like the antics of Harpo, Chico, and Groucho in the final 20 minutes as the subvert Stubel’s attempts to escape.  This may be controversial, but I found it funnier that A Day at the Races.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Review: The Exorcist (1973)


Title: The Exorcist
Release Date: December 26, 1973
Director: William Friedkin
Production Company: Hoya Production
Summary/Review:

I hadn’t planned on watching The Exorcist, but I added it at the last minute to my scary movie lineup. I can’t remember the first time I watched this movie, but I know I was definitely too young. I saw it several more times over the years – in whole or part – and then in the summer of 1990 I attended a five-week program for high school students at Georgetown University. That summer I became intimately acquainted with the setting of the movie, and of course watched the movie as a group. By that point, as a jaded 16-year-old, I found the movie more funny than scary. At any rate, I don’t know if I’ve seen it again in the past 30 years so it was worth revisiting.

Me, circa 1994, recreating a cinematic moment at the Exorcist Steps in Georgetown.

There’s something about the blockbusters of the 1970s where the way they are remembered in the popular imagination is not quite what the movies were about. Jaws was not about a shark eating people, but about three men of different backgrounds learning to work together on a boat and forming a bond. Rocky was not about boxing but about a man who happened to be a boxer learning to believe in himself. The Exorcist is not about a girl possessed by demons but about a priest going through a crisis of faith.

I’d forgotten how much of the movie does not deal with possession or the exorcism and the slow build it takes to get to that point. The ten minute prologue set in Iraq completely escaped my mind. Can you think of any other movie that introduces a character, as they do with Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), and then not have him return for 90 minutes. The connection of the Iraq scenes with the rest of the movie are never made obvious but I do appreciate that they were beautifully shot and like how there’s always sound in the background (picks and shovels, blacksmiths, dogs, etc.) that are discordant but musical.

I also didn’t really remember much of the main part of the film in Georgetown, such as Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) filming on the university campus or Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) travelling to New York to see his ailing mother. There are also a lot more scenes of Regan (Linda Blair) undergoing medical procedures. I was surprised to learn that Regan getting cerebral angiography freaked out a lot of people in the audiences back in the 70s, because I don’t medical procedures disturbing for the most part. (Two movies that I’ve watched this month, Frankenstein and The Exorcist, were both said to cause extreme horror and revulsion to audiences of the time although I’d consider them tame compared with some mainstream horror that’s been released in the past four decades).

The acting performances in the movie are universally good with Miller, Burstyn, and Blair being particularly good. I’ve wondered why I never saw Miller in anything but I’ve learned that he was primarily a playwright and unfortunately also struggled with alcoholism. Still, if there’s one performance that you’re going to be remembered for, this one was excellent. The 44-year-old von Sydow, with the help of some terrific makeup, puts on a great performance as an old man and looks a lot like von Sydow would look when he actually reached that age.

Lest I go to far in my “it’s not about a girl possessed by demons” thought, this movie does have it’s fair share of horror and gross out moments, as well as disturbing behavior for a 12-year-old. But I wouldn’t let that dissuade you if you’ve never seen it, because it really does also contain a thoughtful and nuanced story as well. For me, the darkest part of The Exorcist is learning how cruel William Friedkin was on the set. He allowed stunts to get out of hand so that they caused injury to both Burstyn and Blair, and Blair was given no protection from the extreme cold on the set as well as deliberately trying to frighten or anger the actors on the set. That to me is more unsettling than anything in the movie which is beautifully made and has an underlying message of hope in humanity.


Rating: ****

Movie Review: A Day at the Races (1937)


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

Title: A Day at the Races
Release Date: June 11, 1937
Director: Sam Wood
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

The previous movie introduced a “kinder, gentler” Marx Brothers, but the change in tone is more jarringly evident in their second film with MGM.  The feel of the movie is more sitcom than the “vaudeville-on-film” that preceded it.  Chico and Harpo adapt well, but Groucho just seems out of place.  The general plot is that a sanitorium in a resort town run by Judy Standish (Maureen O’Sullivan) is facing a fiscal crisis and could be bought and turned into a casino. Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho Marx) is brought in to care for a wealthy client who could be impressed upon to invest in the sanitarium, Mrs. Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont).  What no one knows is that Hackenbush is actually a horse doctor.  Meanwhile, fiancé Gil Stewart (Allan Jones) has unwisely spent his life savings on a race horse hoping to win a big race and give the prize money to Judy. The movie feels a little feminist by having its two main women characters be responsible and sensible, while the men are irresponsible and nonsensical.

The movie feels very episodic with the Marx Brothers comedy bits inserted between bits that advanced the plot and musical numbers.  There are two major musical numbers.  The first is “On Blue Venetian Waters” is a Busby Berkeley-esque song and dance spectacular with Jones singing solo and Vivien Fay leading the dancers.  “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” features the Marxes and Jones in a barn when out of nowhere dozens of African American singers and dancers appear, featuring Ivie Anderson from Duke Ellington’s orchestra and troupe of lindy hoppers.  It’s a delightful sequence and I was pleased that the Marx Brothers weren’t wearing blackface, until, of course, they do.  They actually but axle grease on their face to disguise themselves from the sheriff.  If one is feeling generous, one could say that they are mocking how ludicrous it is to wear blackface since it doesn’t make them look Black at all.

I feel this movie is hit-or-miss, but the hits are good enough to make it worth watching.  It is a good, but not great, Marx Brothers movie.  But with the Marx Brothers, good is still pretty entertaining.

Rating: ***

Scary Movie Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


Title: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Release Date: 26 February 1920
Director: Robert Wiene
Production Company: Decla-Bioscop
Summary/Review:

A character named Francis (Friedrich Fehér) narrates a strange tale of of the sideshow impresario Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) who trains a “somnambulist” named Cesare (Conrad Veidt) to carry out murders. The movie’s frame story ends with a surprising twist. I didn’t find the movie all to scary or suspenseful or even unsettling, but I guess I’m jaded from watching it 100 years in the future. I did appreciate the “fun house” style sets and the scene where the name “Caligari” is superimposed on the the screen in multiple fonts. This movie is definitely worth watching as it is arguably the first horror form and had a great influence on German Expressionism and later Film Noir. I also think that directly or indirectly it must’ve been an influence on Robert Smith of The Cure (who resembles Cesare) and the entire oeuvre of Tim Burton.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Saving Private Ryan (1998)


Title: Saving Private Ryan
Release Date: July 24, 1998
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: DreamWorks Pictures | Paramount Pictures | Amblin Entertainment | Mutual Film Company
Summary/Review:

This is another movie I’ve meant to see since it came out that I’ve procrastinated.  The epic war movie tells the story of a group of Army Rangers sent behind enemy lines to find a member of the 101st Airborne Division who parachuted into Normandy on D-Day.  Their mission is to bring him home because he is his mother’s only surviving son after his three brothers die in military action elsewhere.

In reality, Saving Private Ryan is really three movies.  The first part, and the most famous, is a verite style dramatization of the D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy. It follows several American troops as they are initially repulsed by the German firepower but team together to break through the lines.  Characters are largely anonymous here and we don’t know who will play a part in the rest of the movie and who will die.  At the end of the battle we see that a soldier named Ryan is among the dead.  This is followed by several scenes on the home front where the military brass give hokey speeches about saving the only surviving Ryan child and we see his mother react to the tragic news. I would’ve have cut this part out and stayed with the troops in Normandy as the sappiness really drags.

The second movie begins when a team is organized under Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) to retrieve Private Ryan.  The characters in the team are largely war movie archetypes although they’re portrayed by good actors that gives them a bit of life.  There’s the cynical guy from Brooklyn (Edward Burns), the loyal second in command (Tom Sizemore), the devoutly Christian sniper  from the South (Barry Pepper), the medic (Giovanni Ribisi),  the Jewish guy who takes out his anger on Germans (Adam Goldberg), and the naive youngster with no battle experience who’s brought along as a translator (Jeremy Davies).  Along their journey they meet up with other Allied troops and participate in skirmishes.  They argue about the value of risking their lives to save one man and whether they should kill or release a German captive.

Finally, they find Private Ryan (Matt Damon before he was famous) in the French town of Ramelle where he and his fellow paratroopers are guarding a bridge against German crossing, and the third move begins.  Ryan refuses to leave and thus Miller decides to have his group provide reinforcement as they improvise ways to defend the bridge against a much larger German force, or destroy it. An epic battle ensues.

I found this to be a perfectly competent, well-made war film with strong acting, special effects, sound design, and cinematography.  But I don’t see it as one of the 100 greatest films of all time or even the best movie about World War II.  Too often their are effective set pieces but not enough time getting to really know and care about the loosely-sketched characters.  Moral quandaries are discussed but then brushed away with easy answers.  And the movie attempts to be a universal story of front soldiers facing the difficult decisions in war but then indulges in glurgy American patriotism.

I’d like it and I’d watch it again, but Saving Private Ryan is more Very Good than All-Time Great.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: A Night at the Opera (1935)


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

Title: A Night at the Opera
Release Date: November 15, 1935
Director: Sam Wood
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

A Night at the Opera is the Brothers Marx first film with MGM and the first produced by Irving Thalberg. At Thalberg’s suggestion, the Marx Brothers were to become less anarchic and only use their sass and nonsense against the movie’s antagonists while offering their help to the film’s heroes.  After being absent from Duck Soup, a romantic subplot and non-comic musical numbers return.  In fact this is the first time the Marx Brothers bits, romance, and musical aspects are all tied together into a coherent plot.

Allan Jones takes over for Zeppo as a chorister named Ricardo Baroni who is in a romance with the opera company’s lead soprano Rosa Castaldi (a strong performance by Kitty Carlisle).  The “bad guys” in the film are the abusive lead tenor Rodolfo Lassparri (Walter Woolf King) director of the New York Opera company Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman), and the dowager investor Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont, of course!).  The Marxes get several set pieces including the famous contract scene between Chico and Groucho, the crowd of people in Groucho’s tiny stateroom, and the general disturbance they cause in the concluding opera scenes. Chico and Harpo get their traditional piano and harp solos, but they’re vastly improved by performing on a ship’s deck surrounded by Italian children and comically interacting with them.

A Night at the Opera may not be my #1 or #2 Marx Brothers film, but it is a worthy classic.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Raging Bull (1980)


Title: Raging Bull
Release Date: December 19, 1980
Director: Martin Scorsese
Production Company: Chartoff-Winkler Productions
Summary/Review:

Growing up, Raging Bull was the other Italian-American boxer movie, the one in black & white that wasn’t Rocky. I never had much desire to see Raging Bull until I saw it was #4 on the AFI List and #55 on the Sights and Sounds list.  The movie is based on the true-life story of midweight boxer Jake LaMotta who was active in the 1940s and 1950s. Robert De Niro, almost unrecognizable beneath the prosthetics, stars as LaMotta, while Joe Pesci stars as Joey, his younger brother and manager.  Cathy Moriarity makes a stunning debut as Vickie, Jake’s second wife.

The movie is basically 2 hours of concentrated toxic masculinity, and that doesn’t include the 10 minutes of scenes within the boxing ring.  Jake and Joey spend a lot of time hurling profanities at one another.  Then the already-married Jake creepily stalks down the 15-year-old Vickie, eventually marrying her.  (The early scenes where Jake, Joey, and Vickie are supposed to be 19, 16, and 15 are hard to swallow since the actors look far too adult, but they do age well into their roles).  The heart of the story then becomes LaMotta’s jealousy of Vickie, and his brutal abuse of her, on the unjustified belief that she is cheating on him.  Eventually he even turns against Joey in a scene that – a surprise to me – is the source of the oft-quoted line “You fuck my wife?!”

I guess I’m going on record as a Scorsese naysayer.  I can’t fault Raging Bull for it’s acting, cinematography, editing, and sound design, all of which are top notch.  The behavior of Lamotta and others are certainly true to life. But like Taxi Driver, I have no desire to watch stories about nonstop abuse, cruelty, violence, and unredeemable inhuman behavior.  I wouldn’t recommend watching Raging Bull without a good sense of what you’re getting into, and I certainty won’t watch it again.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Sixth Sense (1999)


Title: The Sixth Sense
Release Date: August 6, 1999
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Production Company: Hollywood Pictures | Spyglass Entertainment | The Kennedy/Marshall Company | Barry Mendel Productions
Summary/Review:

In the summer of 1999, The Sixth Sense seemingly came out of nowhere to be a BIG! HUGE! DEAL! that everyone was talking about.  The biggest thing that people talked about was the movie’s SHOCKING TWIST! Getting the gist of what the film was about – a child who saw the ghosts of dead people – it was pretty easy to put 2 and 2 together and figure out the SHOCKING TWIST on my own.  So, I had no interest in ever seeing the movie.

It turns out, The Sixth Sense is actually a pretty good movie and like The Crying Game before it, overemphasizing the SHOCKING TWIST does a disservice to the movie. Knowing the SHOCKING TWIST, I was impressed that the movie is told from the point of view of Bruce Willis’ character, a child psychologist named Malcolm Crowe.  Crowe takes an interest in a troubled child, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), who reminds him of another patient he feels he failed to help.  If you know the SHOCKING TWIST is coming, the clues are all there and director M. Night Shyamalan even includes a gag with Crowe performing a terrible magic trick which lampshades the idea of misdirection.

What I like about this movie is that it is a story of empathy.  What Crowe helps Cole to realize with his ability to see the ghosts of the troubled dead that he can help them instead of fearing them.  And, along the way, Cole helps Crowe as well, in ways that aren’t readily apparent until the close of the film.  There’s a lot of talking in this film and it works because Haley Joel Osment is up to portraying a child believably participating in those conversations (poor Jake Lloyd must’ve looked like an even worse child actor having The Sixth Sense released in the same year as The Phantom Menace). Shyamalan also does a great job of incorporating Philadelphia as a character in the movie, especially as a historic city with lots and lots of troubled dead people.

The Sixth Sense is thoughtful, full of heart, and overall is well done.  It’s definitely worth seeing at least once, but I wouldn’t put it on my Top 100 of all time list.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: West Side Story (1961)


Title: West Side Story
Release Date: October 18, 1961
Director: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Production Company: The Mirisch Company | Seven Arts Productions
Summary/Review:

This iconic movie musical based on a Broadway musical based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet remains a cultural touchstone. I see the songs and the story referenced regularly. Even the New York City subway hums the first three notes of “Somewhere.”  The creators of West Side Story include the powerhouse trio of composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and choreographer/co-director Jerome Robbins.  Co-director Robert Wise may not be as famous as the other three, but also has a jaw-dropping list of accomplishments.

I first saw West Side Story in 7th grade after we’d read the script in class (we’d also read Romeo and Juliet and watched the Franco Zeffirelli film adaptation).  None of us kids could take a street gang seriously when they spent so much time finger-snapping and dancing ballet.  But even then I did like some of the songs and the story.

Later in life I learned that the neighborhood where West Side Story is set was demolished by Robert Moses to build Lincoln Center.  I’ve even heard, but can’t confirm, that already condemned blocks were used as sets for filming the movie.  As much as I like Lincoln Center, it makes me sad that a poor, mostly non-white community was displaced to build it.

Watching the movie as an adult, I realize that it was pretty edgy for a movie made under the Production Code. For example, the mentions of drugs and mental illness in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” or the absolutely horrifying scene where the Jets attempt to rape Anita (Rita Moreno).  While the movie does feel dated, a lot the issues it addresses feel relevant.  The racial prejudice the Jets have against the “immigrants” from Puerto Rico sounds all to similar, and police Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) is a surprisingly realistic racist/corrupt cop for a film from 1961.

The big flaws with the movie come down to casting as almost every one of the Latin American characters is played by a white person of European heritage, including major rolls like Maria (Natalie Wood) and Bernardo (George Chakiris).  The fact that Puerto Rican-born Rita Moreno is an absolute scene stealer who puts in the best performance in the movie makes it clear that it was possible to find talented Latin American actors, singes, and dancers.  Apart from Natalie Wood, I believe the cast were unknowns at the time as well, so it’s not like the white actors portraying Puerto Ricans gave the film extra star power.

Despite these flaws, this movie is a deserved classic.  The choreography, costuming, cinematography, and editing are beautifully done and the care taken in making this film reward multiple viewings.  Of course, the song and dance numbers are great.  I particularly like “Something’s Coming,” “America,” “Tonight Quintet,” and “Somewhere.”  And the final scene actually improves on Shakespeare by having one of the star-crossed lovers survive. Maria’s line “Well, I can kill now too, because now I have hate!!! How many can I kill Chino? How many — and still have one bullet left for me?” is absolutely chilling.  And anyone who isn’t weeping at “Te adoro Anton”  is made of stronger stuff than me.

Rating: ****