Classic Movie Review: Madame de… (1953)


Title: Madame de…
Release Date: September 16, 1953
Director: Max Ophüls
Production Company: Franco London Films | Indusfilms | Rizzoli Film
Summary/Review:

French aristocrat Louise (Danielle Darrieux) has a debt and sells a pair of earrings that were a wedding gift from her husband André (Charles Boyer) to pay it.  The earrings become a device around which the narrative revolves as they are sold and resold and take on new meanings to the characters with each transfer.

The main plot involves an Italian baron, Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio De Sica), and Louise falling in love (a big no-no in the aristocratic code where mistresses are acceptable, but love is forbidden).  There’s a brilliant scene showing their relationship blossoming over a series of nights dancing, their clothing changing as they move behind pillars, but the dance moving smoothly on.  Louise initially seems to be a careless and spoiled, and the matters of aristocrats mean little to me, but Ophüls tells their story in a way that can’t fail to elicit empathy.

I’m not sure exactly when the movie is set, but it appears to be the early 20th century. André and Fabrizio are both in the military of their respective nations and a recurring theme of the film is the formation of alliances among European nations.  I may be stretching my interpretation a bit, but I think this movie is not just a story of the dissolution of a marriage that leads to tragedy, but also a metaphor for Europe and all the petty slights that lead to the carnage of World War I.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review:Journey to Italy (1954)


Title: Journey to Italy
Release Date: September 7, 1954
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Production Company: Italiafilm | Junior | Sveva | Société Générale de Cinématographie (S.G.C.)
Summary/Review:

Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) and Alex (George Sanders, who kind of reminds me of Jim Backus) are a couple from England who drive to the Naples region of Italy (no explanation of how they got their car across the Channel) to sell a villa they recently inherited from an Uncle Homer.  Katherine is more engaged in seeing the local sights while the workaholic Alex just wants to get it over with, until he starts flirting with a local woman and takes a side trip to Capri with her.

Of the course of the film, it is revealed that Katherine and Alex’s marriage is as dead as the couple preserved in the ash at Pompeii, and like the cracks of Vesuvius the steam of resentment is rising. Yes, Rossellini does a great job of working in the local attractions as metaphors.  Although this film is directed by an Italian and set in Italy, the dialogue is in English.  Apparently, Rossellini gave the actors their lines only shortly before filming a scene with no time to rehearse.  It explains the halting, hesitant delivery but I think it has the opposite effect than Rossellini hoped as everyone just looks unprepared.

Nevertheless, this is a good film, beautifully shot and an honest depiction of the dissolution of a marriage.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Late Spring (1949)


Title: Late Spring
Release Date: September 19, 1949
Director: Yasujirō Ozu
Production Company: Shochiku
Summary/Review:

Following on Tokyo Story and Floating Weeds, watching this movie is making me a Yasujirō Ozu fan.  Conceptually it’s linked to Tokyo Story as part of a trilogy of films staring Setsuko Hara as a young woman named Noriko, although otherwise the characters and the film are related.  Two other actors who later appear in Tokyo Story are also stars in this film, Chishū Ryū who plays Noriko’s father Shukichi Somiya and Haruko Sugimura who plays her Aunt Masa.

Noriko is a single 27-year-old woman who has found contentment in supporting her aging father who is still working as a professor.  But Masa has determined that it is time for Noriko to marry, and ensnares Shukichi in helping her convince Noriko.  It’s a deceptively simple movie and one where the unspoken thoughts and desires are just underneath the surface of the smiling faces.

The movie was filmed just after World War II under the American occupation and the war and postwar are also underlying factors, from mention of Noriko’s ill health due to overwork during the war to English language signs and a Coca-Cola advertisement on the roadside.  The movie’s script was actually heavily censored by the Occupation authorities, but nevertheless a beautiful and heartbreaking story of a father and daughter shines thorugh.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: A Matter of Life and Death (1946)


Title: A Matter of Life and Death
Release Date: 15 December 1946
Director: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Production Company: The Archers | J. Arthur Rank
Summary/Review:

A Matter of Life and Death begins with a strikingly intimate conversation between British airman Peter Carter (David Niven), aboard a burning bomber over the English Channel, and American radio operator June (Kim Hunter). They bond in a few moments of shared humanity before Peter, who has no parachute, determines he would rather leap to his death than burn.  Then this movie gets very, very weird.

Carter survives his fall and washes up on the shores of England. He meets June who works at a nearby base and they fall in love. It turns out that Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), a French aristocrat killed in the Revolution, was supposed to guide him to the Other World but lost Peter in the fog over the Channel.  With a new leash on life and his romance with June, Peter argues that he should be given another chance at life.

A neurologist named Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey) takes on Peter’s case, in two meanings of the word. First he assumes that Peter’s visions of otherworldly people are due to brain injury.  Later he takes on the role as Peter’s counsel in an Other World trial. Perhaps the weirdest part of the trial scene is that a becomes a debate of the British versus the Americans, with American multiculturalism ultimately being celebrated.

This movie is often compared to It’s a Wonderful Life as they both deal with the trauma of World War II and contain fantasy elements of the afterlife.  But I found it reminded me of The Devil and Daniel Webster, because both movies are built around a fantasy trial sequence. This movie also clearly was an influence for the most recent Pixar film, Soul.  Both films feature an escalator to the afterlife, heavenly bureaucracy, filing cabinets full of the details of every person who ever lived, and historical figures acting as mentors to souls. I also learned that a sample from the prologue of this movie is in one of my favorite tunes from my teenage years, “If I Were John Carpenter.”

A Matter of Life and Death (also called Stairway to Heaven in its American release) stands out as a unique and experimental film for it’s time.  And even though I wasn’t aware of it before watching it for this project, it is also clear it’s an influential film.  It’s a bit on the corny side, but I expect a lot of classic film fans will enjoy it. If nothing else the opening scene between Peter and Kim over the radio is magnificent.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)


Title: Young Mr. Lincoln
Release Date: May 30, 1939
Director: John Ford
Production Company:  Cosmopolitan Productions
Summary/Review:

Set in the 1830s, Young Mr. Lincoln is a very loosely historical drama about Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda) as a young lawyer and aspiring politician in New Salem, Illinois, as well as some of his early courtship of Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver).  The heart of the film is a courtroom drama where Lincoln defends two brothers accused of murder that is based on a real-life event, in 1858, when Lincoln proved a witness testimony to be false by using an almanac.  The gist of the movie is to show Lincoln as a many with folksy charm and a good sense of humor, which may not be 100% historically accurate, but does make for some good comfort food viewing.

I believe that Fonda put a lot of himself into this performance, so while it may not accurately Lincoln, it does feel real.  One of the standout scenes is when an angry mob tries to break into the jail in order to lynch the accused brothers (a scene that takes on new connotations after the recent white supremacist insurrection at the US Capitol).  Lincoln talks them down using a mix of self-deprecation and humor, eventually guilting the crowd into dispersing.  This movie is no doubt corny and hokey but Fonda’s performance and Ford’s direction give it enough oomph to make it an enjoyable film to view.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Napoléon (1927)


Title: Napoléon
Release Date: April 7, 1927
Director: Abel Gance
Production Company: Gaumont
Summary/Review:

Napoléon may have been more accurately titled Young Napoléon since it was intended to be the first of six movies about the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. This is the evident in the sheer amount of time spent depicting Napoleon as a child at a military school leading his classmates in a snowball fight. The film also depicts Napoleon escaping from Corsica during an uprising there and his rising up the ranks of the French revolutionary army. I do not know a lot of detail about Napoleon’s life, but this movie feels more like hagiography than biography and can get very cheesy in its patriotic set pieces. There are certainly far too many scenes of Napoleon just sitting and brooding for a silent film to handle.

Stylistically, the movie lives up to its epic protagonist. Like Intolerance, filmmaker Abel Gance had the budget for a cast of thousands and made sure to use them whenever possible. The use of lighter cameras also allowed for fluid camera movement used to great effect much like in Sunrise, made the same year. It also reminds me of Man With A Movie Camera since Gance used a lot of experimental techniques such as fast cutting, multiple exposures, and split screen images. Parts of the movie were filmed on location and the title cards are proud to let us know they were filmed on the actual historic sights. Most famously, the movie employed an early widescreen approach by having the final reel projected from three projectors onto three side-by-side screen, an effect many cinemas couldn’t support on time and is pretty much lost on me viewing the movie on an iPad.

Unless you’re a film buff or particularly interested in French history, I don’t think many people are going to be up to watching this long, silent, epic. Nevertheless, it does deserve credit for its place in film history and innovations that would not become commonplace for decades after its release.

Rating: ***1/2

Holiday Movie Marathon: The City of Lost Children (1995)


Title: The City of Lost Children
Release Date: May 17, 1995
Director: Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Production Company: Canal+ | Centre National de la Cinématographie | Eurimages | France 3 Cinéma | Televisión Española
Summary/Review:

The Brattle Theatre podcast stated that The City of Lost Children is a Christmas movie, so I’m going to run with it since I’ve been meaning to rewatch this classic for some time.  The makers of another classic, Delicatessen, created this visually-stunning, creepy yet heartfelt story about chosen family and hope in dire times. The setting is a gritty port city (kind of a dystopian version of Sweet Haven from Robert Altman’s Popeye) populated by sideshow performers, a criminal gang of  orphans run by malicious conjoined twins, and a religious cult of Cyclops who kidnap children.

Many of these children are delivered to an evil scientist Krank (Daniel Emilfork) on an oil rog who is stealing their dreams because he can’t dream himself. Working with Krank are a half-dozen clones (all played by Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon), a dwarf named Marth (Mireille Mossé), and a brain in a fish tank named Uncle Irvin (Jean-Louis Trintignant). This all really begins to make sense over time as details are revealed. In retrospect, I wonder how much this movie influenced the tv adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Into this milieu enters the strongman One (a brilliant performance by Ron Perlman) whose world is turned upside down after his carnival manager is stabbed and his little brother, Denree (Joseph Lucien), is abducted. He aligns with a member of the orphan gang, Miette (Judith Vittet), to track down his little brother. The bond formed between One and Miette is what makes this film great, and I’m very impressed by the 10-year-old Vittet’s acting chops.  I looked at her IMBD page expecting her to be in lots of great movies as an adult, but alas her acting career was very short (although she does work in costuming for French tv series). 

This movie is absolutely brilliant but it has to be seen to be believed. Oh, and the Krank dream sequences contain imagery of many creepy Santa Clauses, so there is your Christmas content.  The themes of hope and family, though, make it even more relevant to the holiday. 

Rating: *****

 
 

Holiday Movie Marathon: Christmas in Connecticut (1945)


Title: Christmas in Connecticut
Release Date: August 11, 1945
Director: Peter Godfrey
Production Company: Warner Bros.
Summary/Review:

The movie begins with the travails of WWII sailor Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) who survives 18 days in a life raft and a long recovery in the hospital back home. He becomes obsessed with food and particularly the columns of Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck), a mother who writes about cooking and domestic life from her farm in Connecticut. The earnest publisher of her magazine, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) learns that Jones is a fan of Lane, and comes up with a publicity stunt of having the war hero spend Christmas at her farm.

There’s only one problem: Elizabeth is a single “career gal” who lives in New York City and knows nothing about cooking. Luckily, Elizabeth’s long-time suitor John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) is an architect with an actual farmhouse in Connecticut and is willing to pose at Elizabeth’s husband (and ultimately marry her for real). Elizabeth’s friend Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall) is a restaurateur who agrees to come along and do the cooking. All of this takes way to long to set up in the movie (as it takes too much space for me to summarize) but once all the pieces are set in place, the movie really shines.

When Elizabeth and Jefferson finally meet, it’s love at first site. There are a lot of comic hijinks of Elizabeth trying to keep up with the imagined life of her column, especially for Yardley’s benefit. But the movie is also surprisingly progressive as we learn that Jefferson is actually far more domestic than Elizabeth. This is especially true in a scene where he expertly bathes Elizabeth’s borrowed baby when she has no clue. The babies themselves are in fact left in the care of Sloan’s housekeeper by immigrant women working in war factories. The war has turned traditional gender roles upside down and this movie seems to be saying that they don’t need to go back to them. Stanwyck’s performance is particularly brilliant and she delivers lines that clearly indicate that she’s had it with societal expectations even as she’s forced to go along with them. (For more on the subversive elements of this movie see this recent article from the AV Club).

The slow start to this movie could use some judicious editing, and there are some subplots I’ve left out of my summary that aren’t too interesting, but overall, once this movie gets to Connecticut it’s a great rom-com. By the way, despite the movie taking place over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, it is not a particularly Christmas-y movie. Also, in an odd bit of trivia, this movie was remade in the 1990s as a tv movie directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger! I’m not going to watch that one.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Platoon


Title: Platoon
Release Date: December 19, 1986
Director: Oliver Stone
Production Company: Hemdale Film Corporation
Summary/Review:

Back in the 1980s, there were a lot of Vietnam War films that all came out around the same time, and I couldn’t remember if I’d watched this one. Upon reflection, I had not. The film focuses on the war-time experiences of Chris (Charlie Sheen), a volunteer from a more privileged background than his conscripted cohort in his platoon. The movie is filmed deliberately to make it hard to know what is going on, recreating for the viewer Chris’ experience of the “fog of war.” I think this movie was innovative in that effect although it has been repeated in ensuing films. I’ve read that veterans of the Vietnam War said that Platoon was the most accurate depiction of the war on film.

The large ensemble cast includes many actors who went on to greater fame including Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon, Mark Moses, and Johnny Depp. Outside of Chris, who narrates his thoughts in letters to his grandmother, we don’t get to know the members of the platoon personally (although this movie also avoids the war movie trope of having all the characters represent a stereotype of the regions that they come from). Instead, the platoon is divided into two ideological camps. On one side, the compassionate Sgt Elias (Willem Dafoe) leads the men who just want to get through the war and relax by smoking pot during down time (knowing what we know of Sheen’s real-life habits, it unintentionally funny that he portrays an innocent being drawn into the drug culture). On the other side are the more hard edge soldiers who revel in machismo and racist dehumanizing of their Vietnam rivals. They are lead by the scarred and sadistic Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger).

The movie follows several months of conflict where Chris goes from idealistic to frightened to disillusioned. While clearly an anti-war film and one that dramatizes the traumatic affect of war on the soldiers, it does seem to want to have it both ways by also being an exciting action film with a certain amount of jingoism. This includes a disturbing sequence where the platoon attacks a village with many parallels to the Mỹ Lai massacre. The Vietnam War was very unpopular in the 1970s and early 1980s with many veterans leading the anti-war movement. And yet by 2004, John Kerry could be swift-boated for his opposition to the war as a veteran, partially because the slew of 1980s Vietnam War movies like this one recontextualized the war from an unjustifiable quagmire into a time of great valor.

Platoon is a well-made film and is an influential pioneer in the war movie genre. But I don’t feel the movie holds the courage of its convictions and thus doesn’t hold up all to well over the decades.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Crowd (1928)


Title: The Crowd
Release Date: February 28, 1928
Director: King Vidor
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

First thing, a personal note: this is the first movie I’ve ever watched that was released in 1928, which means that I’ve watched at least one movie released every year from 1921 to 2020. One hundred years of film is kind of awe-inspiring.

The Crowd is a melodrama with touches of romance and comedy about John Sims (James Murray), who is born on the Fourth of July in 1900 and believes himself destined for great things. As an adult he moves to New York, works in a large accounting firm, and meets Mary (Eleanor Boardman) on a double date to Coney Island and immediately asks to marry her.

The thing about John is that he gives off huge red flags and is something of a jerk. After their romantic honeymoon, their marriage in a claustrophobic apartment gradually spirals downward as John proves he’s ne’er-do-well who only talks a big game. Near the end of the film John has reached rock bottom and is only redeemed when his young son ( Freddie Burke Frederick) shares his unconditional love for him. That scene will probably be extremely cheezy to most viewers, but as a dad who has been pepped up by the love of my children (it made me weepy).

“The Crowd” is a metaphor throughout the film. John sees himself as apart from the crowd as he’s destined towards greatness, and belittles everyday people trying to make ends meet. Throughout the film there are actual crowds of people that the characters get lost in and sometimes act something like a Greek chorus. By the end of the film though, “the Crowd” has a more positive connotation as a community of ordinary people trying their best, and John seemingly accepting his place in the Crowd is a sign that he is really reforming himself.

This movie has great cinematography with moving camera work similar to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The sets for John’s massive office building are also reminiscent of the futuristic settings of Metropolis. I particularly appreciate the great location shots of 1920s Manhattan and Coney Island. As far as the story goes, I like the realism of the scenes on marriage and parenting where people have bad days, get very cranky with one another, and make up.

I would not consider this movie and all-time great, but it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in silent movies and film history.

Rating: ***