Classic Movie Review: The Party (1968)

Title: The Party
Release Date: April 4, 1968
Director: Blake Edwards
Production Company: The Mirisch Corporation

The French magazine Cahiers du Cinema greatest films of all-time list includes a lot of selections I’ve never heard of. The Party is a strange inclusion since it is an American film with a English lead actor in Peter Sellers, but gets no attention from the American AFI or British Sight & Sound lists.

Turns out, The Party is racist as fuck. Sellers wears brownface to portray a bumbling Indian actor, Hrundi V. Bakshi, accidentally invited to a Hollywood cocktail party where he inadvertently causes chaos. Aside from the racial stereotyping, the movie is just cringe comedy of the worst kind. I gave it 30 minutes before I gave up but I don’t expect it gets any better.

Rating: No rating since I couldn’t finish it

Classic Movie Review: Do the Right Thing (1989)

Title: Do the Right Thing
Release Date: July 21, 1989 
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks

Do the Right Thing is a movie I watched ages ago and liked and always meant to revisit. The movie holds up startlingly well after 31 years and remains sadly relevant to our time as it deals with racism, police violence, and even global warming. It features a remarkable ensemble cast including legendary actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, John Turturro and Samuel L. Jackson before they became super famous, and the film debuts of Rosie Perez and Martin Lawrence.

The movie is set on the hottest day of the year on one block in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. The film is largely vignettes of various people on the street and in Sal’s pizzeria. Over the course of the day various antagonisms and aggressions build up leading to a massive fight erupting at Sal’s. When the police arrive they kill a young Black man, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), and the people of the neighborhood vent their rage by trashing and burning Sal’s pizzeria.

Spike Lee brings his distinct style to the film. The camera adopts extreme angles and movements to accentuate the conflicts. He also has almost every shot filmed against bold background colors. I remember this style being visually stunning at the time, but partly due to Lee’s influence, it also became emblematic of the late 80s/early 90s period. Music also plays a strong role in the film, especially Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” which appears 15 times in the movie from the opening credits where Rosie Perez performs a very angry dance to the recurring appearances of Radio Raheem and his boombox. The rest of the soundtrack includes an original jazz score by Bill Lee and soul and R&B tracks, many played by the DJ, Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), who watches over the day from his radio studio.

The cast does a great job of portraying the characters that are recognizable from any urban community. The movie pushes the line of being a neighborhood made up entirely of characters, but restrains itself and allows the nuances and humanity of each person to develop. Stand out performances of the movie include Ossie Davis as Da Mayor, kind of a wise fool who patrols the street in a filthy suit and has an alcohol problem. Davis’ real-life wife Ruby Dee plays Mother Sister, a neighborhood matriarch who looks down on Da Mayor despite his efforts to impress her. Danny Aiello portrays Sal as a complex character, a white man who feels a place of pride being part of a Black and Latin American community and watching the kids grow up eating his pizza, but nevertheless harboring racial animus. Turturro plays one of Sal’s sons, Pino, and despite being from the younger generation he is more openly racist and angry. Finally, there is Spike Lee himself who plays the pizza delivery man Mookie and somehow remains a likable character even though Mookie can often be a selfish jerk.

For all the realism of the movie, it also has a lot of unreality. It is virtually impossible for everything that happens to have happened on one block in one day. I don’t even think that Mookie ever has to go around the corner to deliver a pizza. The only people who ever leave the block and return are the police, the outside antagonists. In of the most startling sequences of the movie, a series of characters look straight at the camera and shout slurs about another race. Despite this movie showing a balance of views and nuance in every character it never gets preachy or reaches for easy conclusions like “Everyone is a Little Bit Racist” unlike some weaker movies that have attempted to address the same issues.

I remember when this movie came out that people said the murder of Radio Raheem didn’t resonate since he was an unsympathetic character. Critics who were indifferent to Radio Raheem’s death were nonetheless outraged by the destruction of Sal’s pizzeria. This valuing of property over human lives is all too familiar in our time where people still try to deny that Black Lives Matter. The heat of the day is also relevant as we have more and more hot days, and characters in the movie even discuss the polar ice caps melting. And the Unspooled podcast notes that New York City is getting much hotter summer days than the 92° in this film. If all that isn’t relevant enough to our times, some characters even discuss Donald Trump!

This movie remains excellent and deserves all the accolades it has received over the years.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Title: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Release Date: September 24, 1969
Director: George Roy Hill
Production Company: Campanile Productions | Newman-Foreman Company

Loosely inspired by real life events, the film tells the story of Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), who rob trains and banks in Wyoming in the 1890s. After hitting the Union Pacific one two many times, the railroad head puts together a posse of the best law officers and trackers to catch them. After a LONG pursuit, Butch and Sundance decide to flee to Bolivia with the teacher and Sundance’s lover Etta Place (Katharine Ross). There they fall back into their criminal ways and become known as Los Bandidos Yanquis before meeting their ultimate fate.

The movie is a mix of classic Westerns with gorgeous scenery, great cinematography, and lots of action and stunts. It mixes in a bit of New Hollywood brashness with two handsome and super cool male leads who exchange quips and barbs, and some anachronistic musical numbers. It subtly deconstructs the mythology of the Old West, setting the story at a time when the frontier was closing and the first Western movies were appearing on screens. They have to leave the country to find a place wild enough to operate. The movie has a lot of humor and charm, and a lot of quotable lines and I can see how it became such a popular movie.

On the downside, it doesn’t give Katharine Ross much to do. There are some hints of attraction between Butch and Etta – especially in the famous bicycle sequence, but it never emerges into a love triangle (thankfully, because that would’ve been boring). If anything, she seems to be the third wheel in Butch and Sundance’s bromance. And when she leaves it’s a fairly unceremonious departure.

This is a fairly enjoyable movie and one I might watch again, but I definitely wouldn’t rank it among the best of all time.

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

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: Vampires vs. the Bronx (2020)

Title: Vampires vs. the Bronx
Release Date: October 2, 2020
Director: Oz Rodriguez
Production Company: Broadway Video | Caviar

Vampires vs. the Bronx uses the invasion of vampires into a Bronx neighborhood as a metaphor for gentrification, and not at all in a subtle manner. The movie blends horror and social satire with humor and a lot of heart. It’s very 80s Spielberg-ian in the way that kids must team up to fight the evil threatening their community. In this case the threat is a real estate company buying up local businesses and buildings, not to make luxury condos, but to make a nest for vampires. The most chilling line in the film is when a vampire states that they want to be in a neighborhood where no one cares if people go missing.

A team of young teenagers are the lead vampire fighters. Their leader is Miguel (Jaden Michael), a young activist known as Lil Mayor. His nerdy friend Luis (Gregory Diaz IV) has the knowledge of vampire lore. The wild card is Bobby (Gerald W. Jones III) who is being recruited to join the local street gang. Their hangout is the local bodega run by Tony (a great performance by Joel “The Kid Mero” Martinez). A late addition to the team is Rita (Coco Jones) an older girl who is Miguel’s crush. All the young actors are great and seem like real kids.

The movie is not a groundbreaking in horror and/or social messaging, but it’s also not overly scary or gory like, say, Get Out. So a family could potentially watch it together. It is also is feel-good movie depicting a community coming together to save their neighborhood.

Rating: ***1/2

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

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: ***

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

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: ****

Movie Review: Duck Soup (1933)

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

Title: Duck Soup
Release Date: November 17, 1933
Director: Leo McCarey
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

The Marx Brothers did not set out to parody Mussolini, Hitler, or any other autocrat, but nevertheless this film’s satire of a corrupt government going to war to enrich its leader remains topical and astute. The wealthy widow Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont, returning after a two film absence) insists on appointing Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) as the leader of the country of Fredonia.  Harpo and Chico are spies for the rival nation of Sylvania.  And Zeppo is Groucho’s secretary.

At a lean 68 minutes, Duck Soup is packed with gags.  There is no romantic subplot, and even Harpo’s harp solo and Chico’s piano recital are excised. The movie includes gags such as Harpo & Chico tormenting a lemonade vendor while swapping hats and the famed mirror sequence where Groucho and Harpo mirror one another.  I particularly liked the musical number “All God’s Chillun Got Guns” which is the rare occasion where all four brothers sing and dance together (and the last one too, as Zeppo would step down from performing after this movie).  The war scenes that complete the movie are full of references and puns and visual gags (such as Groucho’s uniform changing in every shot) that it’s worth rewatching to see all the things you missed.

This movie is definitely the Marx Brothers at their best and nearly 90 years hasn’t made it any less relevant.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: Tootsie (1982)

Release Date: December 17, 1982
Director: Sydney Pollack
Production Company: Mirage Enterprises

I saw Tootsie in the movie theaters at the age of 9 and several more times on cable tv in the ensuing years, and loved it.  I was a strange child. I return to this movie many years later as an adult with a great hesitancy. Having a greater awareness of transgender people and media depictions mock and minimize them, I wasn’t sure of the value of watching a movie built on the idea that a man in a dress is inherently funny.

The movie stars Dustin Hoffman as the talented but cantankerous actor Michael Dorsey, who can’t get any parts because no one wants to work with him.  The movie’s director Sydney Pollack plays Michael’s agent, and their arguments about how difficult an actor Michael is to work with are probably inspired by real-life arguments Pollack had with the notoriously difficult Hoffman.  To prove his talent as an actor, Michael disguises himself as a woman named Dorothy Michaels in order to audition for a role on a soap opera.  Naturally, “Dorothy” gets the part.

It’s interesting that the premise is built on Michael needing a disguise more than him needing to be a woman.  The soap opera character quickly becomes a sensation and Dorothy becomes a star.  In an unsurprising twist, Michael finds himself falling for his co-star Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange) whereas Julie believes herself to be forming a close attachment with another woman. Another comedic wrinkle is that Julie’s widowed father (Charles Durning) falls in love with Dorothy.

As a social message movie, I kind of love and hate Tootsie at the same time.  Dorothy stands up for herself against the casual sexism and abuse on the set of the soap opera, which is good, but a real woman who did the same thing would likely be fired or punished in some way.  Dorothy inspires her co-workers and fans to be more assertive and take chances, which again is good, but why do women need to learn this lesson from a man.  Finally, Michael is depicted as something of a louche with women early on, and his experience as Dorothy gives him a better understanding of women’s experience, and thus he becomes a better man.  But really, one man becoming a little better is all the outcome of the whole charade?

One thing I forgot about this movie is that it has a really excellent cast. I remembered Lange was in the movie, because she was my first celebrity crush.  But the movie also has Teri Garr as an actress friend of Michael’s who he treats really badly.  And it has Bill Murray as Michael’s playwriter friend, delivering deadpan lines. And Dabney Coleman is there playing a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” who directs the soap opera. And Geena Davis is there as another of Dorothy’s co-stars, often appearing in her underwear.  And they even got the guy from Police Academy and Punky Brewster (George Gaynes) to play an actor who routinely sexual harasses his female co-stars.

Tootsie is clearly a well-made and well-acted film.  It also definitely from the early 80s and its approach to addressing social issues of sexism and masculinity feel horribly dated. Nevertheless, I can see this being an enjoyable viewing if you see at as a period piece and enjoy the work of all the acting talent.  I would not include this move on a list of 100 best of all time.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Horse Feathers (1932)

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

Title: Horse Feathers
Release Date: August 10, 1932
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

The Marx Brothers set their sights on roasting universities and college football with the topics of satire remaining remarkably current.  Groucho (as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff) is appointed President of Darwin College ushering in his inauguration with a wonderful song and dance number. Zeppo plays his son (!), a college student, while Chico and Harpo are ice vendors mistakenly recruited as ringers for the football teams big game against Huxley College (and yes, I do love the Darwin and Huxley allusions).

While the topics are ripe for satire, I find this movie to be a bit of a dud compared to other Marx Brothers comedies. Unfortunately, much of the movie relies on the tired Marx Brothers trope of “Creepy Men Chasing Women.”  Even if you could set aside 21st century ideas of feminism and consensual relationships, I can’t understand why anyone finds men chasing women to be inherently funny.  Most of the movie has all four Marx Brothers attempting to woo the “college widow” Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd) and the laughs are few. At least this movie is short.

Rating: **