Classic Movie Review: Bus Stop (1956)


Title: Bus Stop
Release Date: August 31, 1956
Director: Joshua Logan
Production Company: Marilyn Monroe Productions | 20th Century Fox
Summary/Review:

When I put together my list of Classic Movies, I made sure to include a Marilyn Monroe movie since she is such an iconic American movie star. I chose Bus Stop, because it is her most highly-regarded acting performance. Monroe’s acting is indeed spectacular, and while the rest of the cast are playing for comedy, for the most of the movie she acts as if she’s in a horror movie.  Bus Stop offers heaping portions of corn pone and heteronormativity, and let’s just say it hasn’t aged well.

Beauregard Decker (Don Murray) is a naive rancher from Montana who travels to Phoenix, Arizona to participate in a rodeo.  Having never had experience with women he declares that he hopes to find his “angel” on the trip. Spotting Chérie (Monroe) performing a song and dance at a Phoenix cafe, Beau declares that she’s his angel, and when Chérie admits she is physically attracted to him, that’s enough for him to decide that they will be married immediately.

Again, this movie is played for comedy, but it’s hard not to imagine that Beau’s aggressive and abusive behavior is terrifying for Chérie (you can see it in Monroe’s eyes). Beau’s friend and chaperone Virgil (Arthur O’Connell) and Chérie’s friendly co-worker Vera (Eileen Heckart) both try to interfere on Chérie’s behalf, but Beau will listen to no one. Ultimately, Beau abducts Chérie and puts her on a bus to Montana (and yes, the word “abduct” is used by the characters in the movie).

It won’t be a big spoiler to note that this movie does not end with Beau’s arrest for kidnapping a woman and transporting her across state lines.  Instead, Chérie and Beau finally fall in love and go off together.  A generous reading of the final scenes is that Beau finally learns consent and respecting the wishes of other.  But overall watching this movie made me feel uneasy.  Monroe had to deal with abusive relationships in her real life and the future of this fictional marriage does not look promising.

Rating: **

Movie Review: 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)


Title: 10 Things I Hate About You
Release Date: March 31, 1999
Director: Gil Junger
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures
Summary/Review:

This 1999 teen movie reinvents William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew as a romantic comedy set at Padua High School in Seattle.  Obstetrician and single dad Walter Stratford has strict rules against his daughters dating in high school but modifies them so that his younger, sociable daughter, Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) cannot date until his older, rebellious daughter, Kat (Julia Stiles) goes on a date first.  He does this knowing that Kat wants no part of high school social conventions.

A new student at the school, Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is smitten by Bianca and works out a plan with his nerdy new friend, Michael (David Krumholtz), to find someone willing to date Kat.  Realizing that they need money to bribe a potential suitor, they call in the obnoxious BMOC, Joey (Andrew Keegan), who also has interest in Bianca. They decide the fearless meathead with a notorious bad boy reputation, Patrick (Heath Ledger), is the best man for the job.

I realize that it’s taken me two paragraphs just to describe the complex, and somewhat silly, machinations behind this movie’s plot.  But once the pieces are set into motion, the movie really soars with some hilarious moments and quotable dialogue.  Curiously, the movie starts with Cameron, Michael, & Bianca as the A plot and Kat and Patrick as the B plot, but part way through the movie these switch places, to the movie’s benefit. Probably the best part of the movie is how it allows the main characters to emerge as more complex than their originally established stereotypes (well, except Joey, who remains a vain bully).

This movie is screamingly Nineties, and yet, for the most part, doesn’t have the cringe factor of revisiting many things from that decade. The dad, Walter Stratford, and his creepy, controlling attitude toward his daughters is deeply uncomfortable, but at least that is called out in the movie.  Prominent appearances by the bands Letters to Cleo and Save Ferris add some 90s charm, and the soundtrack holds up well, although apparently 90s kids partied to more music from the 70s than I remembered.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Last Days of Disco (1998)


Title: The Last Days of Disco
Release Date: June 12, 1998
Director: Whit Stillman
Production Company: Castle Rock Entertainment | Westerly Films
Summary/Review:

This movie is set in the “very early 80s” around New York City’s disco scene when bouncers maintained power by holding people behind a velvet rope. Disco culture originated in the Black, Latin, and LGBT communities but these people serve as wallpaper to a story of white young adults, recent graduates of New England colleges, making their way into the City’s business world. Then again, since this story is about the demise of disco, it’s appropriate to focus on people like them.

I appreciate that the movie doesn’t overdo the disco-era costuming. On the other hand, there are numerous anachronisms, such as a conversation about Yuppies years before the term was in common use. The subways are miraculously free of graffiti and their apartment doors lack multiple locks. The movie is as much about the 90s when it was made as the 80s when it was set.

The main characters are Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), who knew one another at Hampshire College and have entry-level positions at a publishing company. They end up socializing and becoming roommates despite not really liking one another. Alice is a bit shy and naive, but intelligent. Charlotte is self-absorbed and casually insults everyone on the pretext of offering advice. Everyone knows someone like this and Beckinsale’s performance is deliciously obnoxious.

Into their lives come several men that are all white, have the same haircut, and wear ties so I had trouble telling them apart. Des (Chris Eigeman) is the manager of the disco who pretends to come out as gay to end relationships with women, and casually dates Alice for a time. Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin) is an ad exec who uses his friendship with Des to sneak clients into the club, and ends up dating Charlotte. Josh (Matt Keeslar) is an assistant district attorney with mental health issues who slowly develops a relationship with Alice. And Dan (Matt Powers) is a co-worker who mocks the women’s disco lifestyle.

The movie has some good dialogue and humor and does a good job capturing that uncertain period after college. I just wish it focused more on Alice and her self-discovery and less on indistinguishable dudebros.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)


Title: Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (originally Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot)
Release Date: February 25, 1953
Director: Jacques Tati
Production Company: Discina Film | Cady Films | Specta Films
Summary/Review:

This delightful comedy gently satirizes the boom in middle class summer seaside vacations in the post-WWII era.  Many of the archetypical characters one would run into into at resort to this day appear in the film.  The movie begins with crowds of people attempting to catch trains and buses, with the title character M. Hulot arriving in an old, backfiring car.

Hulot is portrayed by the director Jacques Tati as a friendly and well-meaning character who inadvertently cause trouble for people around him.  Dialogue in this movie is incidental but music and sound effects are key for the not-quite-pantomime performances.  There are a lot of gags around men getting distracted by the attractive young woman Martine (Nathalie Pascaud), but it never devolves into the full on leering that was common in this era.  In fact, it’s a positive that Martine gets a name and some agency unlike many of the other characters.

The movie is charming and hilarious and probably worth a rewatch for to catch some of the simultaneous gags onscreen.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Harvey (1950)


Title: Harvey
Release Date: December 21, 1950
Director: Henry Koster
Production Company: Universal Pictures
Summary/Review:

Harvey is a movie I saw parts of when I was younger, and I’m pretty sure attempted to watch at a later date (checked out the video but didn’t get a chance to watch it).  So it’s been on my “list” for quite some time.  The central premise is whimsical: Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is best friends with a 6′ 3.5″ rabbit who is a pooka that only he can see.

The reality of the film is darker.  Elwood’s sister, Veta Louise Simmons (Josephine Hull) and niece, Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne), share his home and find their social life ruined by his apparent mental illness and alcoholism.  They’re attempt to have him committed to a sanatorium turns into a comedy of error that relies on a lot of cringe humor that rubs me the wrong way.  Maybe I’m overly sensitive to issues of mental health and substance abuse but much of the humor in this film didn’t make me laugh.

The other big problem with this movie is that the cast of this movie are just not as good at acting as Jimmy Stewart.  He has some wonderful moments in this movie, even if you have to set aside the cliche of the “wise fool” to enjoy them.  When he’s not on screen, it’s readily apparent that his colleagues aren’t up to snuff and the movie suffers.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Bridesmaids (2011)


Title: Bridesmaids
Release Date: May 13, 2011
Director: Paul Feig
Production Company: Apatow Productions | Relativity Media
Summary/Review:

I’d heard of Bridesmaids being a well-regarded comedy but didn’t know much else about the movie going in beyond the premise of the title. So I was pleasantly surprised to see several comic actors I enjoy appear in the movie one-by-one: Melissa McCarthy, Ellie Kemper, Chris O’Dowd, Rebel Wilson, Jon Hamm, and Wilson Phillips (okay, maybe Wilson Phillips don’t count as comic actors).

Kristen Wiig stars as Annie who is asked to be maid-of-honor in the wedding of her lifelong best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph).  Annie is not in a good place when the movie begins having had lost her bakery shop in the recession and a long-term boyfriend.  Over the course of the movie she also loses her job and apartment. The main tension of the movie is Annie’s rivalry with fellow bridesmaid Helen (Rose Byrne), the wealthy spouse of the groom-to-be’s boss who has only recently become friends with Lillian and is irritatingly perfect at everything she does.  O’Dowd plays Nathan, a police officer who becomes Annie’s love interest over the course of the film.  And McCarthy steals every she is in as Megan, the groom’s sister who is one of those people who have no filter between their thoughts and words.

The movie is known for it’s gross-out comedy, most notoriously when the bridesmaids go to a dress fitting while suffering from food poisoning.  But the humor boosts a thoughtful underlying story.  Bridesmaids skewers the wedding industrial complex but also the weird traditions that force together a bunch of people into a bridal party with nothing in common.  I also appreciate that it focuses on how big a challenge it is for adults to maintain and make friendships.

I’d wager that Bridesmaids is not for everyone but I laughed more than I have at any movie I’ve seen for several years.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)


Title: Kind Hearts and Coronets
Release Date: June 13, 1949
Director: Robert Hamer
Production Company: Ealing Studios
Summary/Review:

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a dry and satirical British comedy from Ealing Studios, among the earliest of a string of “Ealing Comedies” that include classics like The Ladykillers and often starred Alec Guinness. Set around 1900, the story focuses on Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price) whose mother (Audrey Fildes) was disowned by her aristocratic family for marrying his father (also Price), an Italian singer. In revenge for their ill-treatment of his mother, Louis decides to murder every member of the D’Ascoyne family who is ahead of him in inheriting the title of Duke of Chalfont.

The so-absurd-it’s-wonderful twist is that Alec Guinness plays all the members of the D’Ascoyne family, 9 characters in all, of different ages and genders.  The amazing thing is that Guinness’ chameleon-like talent allows him to portray all these different characters without much in the way of make-up or costuming.

In addition to Guinness, the cast includes Joan Greenwood as Sibella, Louis’ childhood friend who turns down his marriage proposal due to his initial poor prospects, but later becomes his mistress.  Valerie Hobson portrays Edith, the widow of one of Louis’ murder victims whom he marries in order to have a properly elite bride.  There are a lot of good comical twists to the story, especially a stunner at the finale. And keeping with British tradition, there’s also a lot of variety and creativity in how the murders are carried out.

These days, the British aristocracy is an open target for mockery, but I wonder if in 1949 there was still some level of deference that would’ve made this movie more shocking. Deference to aristocracy is certainly a target for satire right at the start when a comical hangman seeks to  learn how to properly address his illustrious victim.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Great Dictator (1940)


Title: The Great Dictator
Release Date: October 15, 1940
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Production Company: Charles Chaplin Film Corporation
Summary/Review:

13 years after the first “talkie,” Charlie Chaplin finally made his first film with true sound.  And let me tell you, it is very strange to hear Chaplin talking.  But he puts words to good use in this startling satire of Adolf Hitler and fascism. Filming began the same month that World War II began and The Great Dictator appeared in theaters at the same time the Battle of Britain was raging.  Not knowing the full extent of the Nazi horror was justification for turning away Jewish refugees on the MS St. Louis in 1939, and yet this movie refers to “concentration camps” by name.

Chaplin plays two roles in this movie. One is a Jewish barber who loses his memory in one of the final battles of the Great War while valiantly aiding Commander Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) secure valuable documents.  20 years later he’s finally recovered and returns to work at his barbershop in the ghetto, unaware of the rise of fascism and the persecution of the Jews.  In this role, Chaplin very much resembles his Little Tramp character in attire.  The barber befriends Mr. Jaeckel (Maurice Moscovich, who liked so much in Make Way for Tomorrow and falls in love with Hannah (Paulette Goddard), who help him adjust to the new situation. Schultz is even able to arrange a brief reprieve of the oppression in the ghetto in recognition of the barber’s heroism in World War I.

Chaplin’s other role is Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomainia, a not at all subtle parody of Adolf Hitler.  Chaplain mimics Hitler’s oratory style, complete with wild arm gestures, in a German-sound gibberish.  His depiction of a power hungry tyrant who is vain, irrational, and stupid feels a bit close to the surface to watch in 2019.  Other parodies target Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, and Benito Mussolini as Garbitsch (Henry Daniell), Herring (Billy Gilbert), Benzino Napaloni (Jack Oakie) respectively.

It is not at all surprising with Chaplin playing two characters that it will eventually lead to mistaken identity.  But what is stunning is the speech the barber delivers in the guise of Hynkel at the film’s conclusion.  All the comedy ceases, and Chaplin essentially speaks as himself for several minutes on peace and unity.  It’s a powerful ending to a film that I’m still amazed even exists.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)


Title: Make Way for Tomorrow
Release Date: May 9, 1937
Director: Leo McCarey
Production Company: Paramount
Summary/Review:

I’d never heard of Leo McCarey before, but he directed two films in 1937, and they’re both masterpieces of film-making.  While The Awful Truth is an improvised screwball comedy about a wealthy couple, Make Way for Tomorrow is a drama more grounded in the Great Depression reality of the time (but also highly relevant 82 years later).  McCarey won the Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth, but in his acceptance speech he stated he deserved the award for Make Way for Tomorrow.

The movie begins with an elderly couple, Bark (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) calling 4 of their 5 adult children together for a family meeting in their home. Bark informs them that since he’s been unemployed for several years, he’s been unable to make payments on their family home and the bank has foreclosed.  None of the children have room to take in both parents, so a plan is made to split them up for the time being with the hope that Bark will find work and they can reunite at a new home. At his advancing age, though, this plan seems overly optimistic.

Bark sleeps on the couch at the city apartment of his daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon), and spends days at the store of his new friend Max (a warm and heartfelt performance by Maurice Moscovitch as a Jewish immigrant shopkeeper).  Meanwhile, Lucy moves into the suburban home of her son George (Thomas Mitchell) and daughter-in-law Anita (Fay Bainter), taking an extra bed in the room of her teenage granddaughter, Rhoda (Barbara Read). The first half of the movie plays as a comedy of manners and focuses on the generation gap.  The children can be cold and clearly see their parents as an intrusion, although they are also sympathetic characters.  Lucy and Bark can be annoying in their own ways.

After several months pass, Cora decides that Bark would be better off living with the unseen fifth sibling in California, justifying it on the basis that the warmer climate would be better for his health. Meanwhile, in one of the more heartbreaking sequences, Lucy preemptively volunteers to move into a retirement home knowing that George is planning to ask her to do so.  The second half of the film takes place over a single day in New York City when Lucy and Bark reunite before Bark’s train departs to California.

The scenes of them together enjoying one another’s company for the first time in months, with another separation hanging over them, are beautiful and tear-jerking.  They decide to skip meeting their children for dinner and instead visit the hotel where they’d spent their honeymoon 50 years earlier, eventually staying for dinner and dancing.  The people they meet – who can see them as humans, rather than problems – treat them with respect and listen to their stories attentively.  And then it all ends with Lucy seeing Bark to his train, both of them knowing that they’ll likely never see one another again, but neither wanting to admit it.

This is an incredible film that deals with serious issues of aging and how our society seems to have no place for our elders.  It’s remarkable for a Hollywood film to not fall into traps of sentimentality or melodrama. It certainly doesn’t have a happy ending, although Bark and Lucy’s last day together is nevertheless joyous.  Moore and Bondi seem so natural in their roles it’s almost as if they’re not acting, although they were both experienced actors, and neither of them was actually elderly.  Moore was 61 and Bondi was 48!  Bondi and Bondi’s makeup artist each deserved an Oscar.

Rating: ****1/2

TV Review: Good Omens (2019)


Title: Good Omens
Release Date: 2019
Creator and Writer: Neil Gaiman
Director: Douglas Mackinnon
Production Company: Narrativia | The Blank Corporation | Amazon Studios | BBC Studios
Summary/Review:

Having finished re-reading the Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman novel Good Omens, I binged the miniseries adaptation on Amazon Prime. It’s largely entertaining, and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from watching it, but it’s a bit disappointing based on the source material and the talent involved in producing the adaptation.

The strength of Good Omens is the casting of David Tennant and Michael Sheen as the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale who team up to try prevent Armageddon.  The miniseries increases the focus on these two characters and their centuries-long friendship, which is a good decision because they are talented comic actors who fill their characters fully.

Unfortunately, the adaptation is almost too faithful to the book. Several scenes feature dialogue word-for-word from the book.  There is a lot of heavy foreshadowing of gags to come, and excess narration from Frances McDormand as God.  While the authors of the book enjoyed digressing into silly tangents featuring supporting characters, the straight adaptation of these scenes to tv just don’t work as well.  There’s too much icing on the cake!

Good Omens the novel was published in 1990.  While the tv series is not a period piece set in the 90s, there’s only a slight effort to update the story to the present day, so it comes off feeling dated.  I think the satirical take on pop culture tropes was groundbreaking in 1990, but has become commonplace in the ensuing decades, so that Good Omens the tv show is the victim of the success of Good Omens the book.

A ton of notable actors from the UK in the US appear as supporting cast and cameo roles.  These include Nick Offerman, Anna Maxwell Martin,  Jon Hamm (as the Archangel Gabriel, a role greatly expanded from the novel, and one of the strongest parts apart from Tennant and Sheen), Miranda Richardson, Michael Mckean, Bill Paterson, Mark Gattis, David Morrisey, Derek Jacobi, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Josie Lawrence.  Again, there is nothing wrong with any of these performances, but it often feels as if the creators of the miniseries weren’t ambitious enough to go beyond eliciting the reaction of “hey, there’s that funny actor I like doing something funny.”  No one really inhabits their roles the way that Sheen and Tennant do.

There is some promise in some of the lesser known actors, for example, Adria Arjona as Anathema Device.  She seems to be weighed down by having to do nothing more and nothing less than what was written for her character in the book.  Ironically, Anathema’s character’s life was defined by following the predictions written in a book by her ancestor, so it’s sad that Arjona was similarly constrained.

Okay, this sounds like a bad review.  But, again, Good Omens was a perfectly fine show to binge over a few days.  It’s only six episodes long, which may actually be one episode too long for the material, but nonetheless a worthwhile enjoyment.