Movie Review: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)


Title: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes 
Release Date: July 1, 1953
Director: Howard Hawks
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Summary/Review:

I went into Gentlemen Prefer Blondes hesitantly because I feared cringeworthy sexual politics.  On the surface that is true, but this is a more subversive movie than it appears.  At its heart, the movie is about a friendship between two women, Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell), and the women are calling the shots.  The men in this movie are almost tangential characters: Gus (Tommy Noonan), the meek heir engaged to Lorelei; Ernie Malone (Elliott Reid), the detective hired by Gus’ father to see if Lorelei is up to no good who also becomes a love interest for Dorothy; and Piggy (Charles Coburn), an aged diamond baron who is enchanted by Lorelei.

The basic plot of the movie is that Lorelei is going to Europe to marry Gus, and Dorothy is her chaperone.  Lorelei is drawn to wealthy men, and particularly diamonds, but Dorothy prefers men handsome and strong. They sail on a transatlantic liner along with USA men’s Olympic team and the aforementioned Malone and Piggy.  Hijinks ensue.

I particularly like the movie’s song and dance numbers.  “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” is the most famous and iconic, but what is up with the women posing as light fixtures?  “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love” is extremely funny and somehow combines the female gaze with perhaps the gayest thing ever shown in a Hollywood film up to that point.  But my favorite number is when Russell and Monroe duet in in a Parisian cafe on “When Love Goes Wrong, Nothing Goes Right.”

Gentlemen may prefer blondes but I think that Russell steals the show with her seemingly effortless and wry performance.  That’s not to knock Monroe, who’s character is written to be dumb, but she undercuts this characterization delightfully with her performance.  There’s a lot about this movie that I’m surprised made it past the production code in 1953.  I mean they probably have plausible deniability that Dorothy and Lorelei don’t actually marry one another at the end of the movie, but it seems perfectly rational to interpret it that way.

Rating: ***1/2

Midsummer Recent Movie Festival: The House (2022)


Welcome to my first Midsummer Recent Movie Festival!  For the past couple of years I’ve reviewed a bunch of recent movies on New Year’s Day.  But why wait when there are new movies to review now! My only qualifications for the Midsummer Recent Movie Festival are 1) a US release date January 1, 2022 or later, 2) a Letterboxd average rating of 3.5 or higher, and 3) available to me at no extra cost on my streaming platforms.

TitleThe House
Release Date: January 14, 2022
Directors:

I – And heard within, a lie is spun: Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels
II – Then lost is truth that can’t be won: Niki Lindroth von Bahr
III – Listen again and seek the sun: Paloma Baeza

Production Company: Nexus Studios | Netflix Animation
Summary/Review:

The House is an anthology film with three stories all set in a mysterious large house.  It is animated in stop-motion animation with characters made of fabric not unlike the style of The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

In the first segment, a poor family in rural England are allowed to move into the newly-built house but the mad architect continues to have the house built around them turning it into the maze.  9-year-old Mabel (Mia Goth) investigates what’s going on with the baby Isobel while her parents seem oblivious to the strange things happening.  This segment has the strongest elements of horror of the three.

In the second segment, an anthropomorphic rat contractor (Jarvis Cocker, of the band Pulp) is rehabbing the house and hosting a reception to entice potential buyers.  He has to deal with an infestation of beetles and then a strange couple at the viewing essentially move in without actually buying the house.  Despite the very creepy bugs, this segment is also the most comical.

In the final segment, the house survives in a world where everything around it has been submerged by a catastrophic flood. Rosa (Susan Wokoma), an anthropomorphic cat, is attempting to renovate the house while renting out the rooms.  She has only two tenants, Jen (Helena Bonham Carter) and Elias (Will Sharpe), neither of whom pay rent in cash. Things come to a head as the flood waters rise.  Despite the apocalyptic setting, this segment feels hopeful.

The animation in this film is beautifully done with great voice acting and music as well.  The combination of surrealism, fantasy, horror, and humor works well.  I think each segment is better than the previous, but maybe it’s just because I like cats.

Rating: ***1/2

Midsummer Recent Movie Festival: Badhaai Do (2022)


Welcome to my first Midsummer Recent Movie Festival!  For the past couple of years I’ve reviewed a bunch of recent movies on New Year’s Day.  But why wait when there are new movies to review now! My only qualifications for the Midsummer Recent Movie Festival are 1) a US release date January 1, 2022 or later, 2) a Letterboxd average rating of 3.5 or higher, and 3) available to me at no extra cost on my streaming platforms.

Title: Badhaai Do
Release Date: February 11, 2002
Director: Harshavardhan Kulkarni
Production Company: Junglee Pictures
Summary/Review:

Shardul (Rajkummar Rao), a gay policeman, and Sumi (Bhumi Pednekar), a lesbian PE teacher, decide the only way to get their families to stop pestering them is to enter into a marriage and live together as roommates.  While Sumi has her girlfriend Rimjhim (Chum Darang) move in and Shardul pursues a relationship with Guru (Gulshan Devaiah), their families continue to meddle and begin pestering about babies.  Sumi and Shardul begin to consider adoption.  A whole bunch of hijinks ensue.

I didn’t thinks this movie was bad but I also didn’t think the jokes were particularly funny. That’s likely a cultural divide, though.  I appreciate that the gay and lesbian characters were never made the butt of the jokes for being homosexual.  The movie also has a good message of how taboos against homesexuality in India cause loneliness and real harm.  It also shines a spotlight on the injustice of laws forbidding same sex marriage and LGBTQ people adopting children in India.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Being There (1979)


Title: Being There
Release Date: December 19, 1979
Director: Hal Ashby
Production Company: Lorimar Productions
Summary/Review:

This is a movie that I know I watched sometime back in the 1980s but had next to know recollection about what happens in it.  In fact, I read the Jerzy Kosiński book it is based on in the 1990s and don’t remember that either!  So it was essentially like coming to this movie anew.

Peter Sellers stars (in his last film released before his death) as a simple-minded gardener named Chance.  I think if this movie was made at a later date they would probably identify him as being on the autism spectrum. His background is a bit of a mystery as he has lived his entire life on the grounds of a Washington, D.C. mansion and no one seems to know he exists beyond his benefactor and the maid, Louise (Ruth Attaway). With such little interaction with other people Chance spends his free time obsessively watching television.  As an aside, this movie makes great use of clips from 1970s television shows and advertisements that comment on the action of the film.

When “the old man” dies, Chance is forced out on his own.  Through a series of mishaps he becomes enmeshed in the lives of the wealthy and powerful Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas) and his younger wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine).  Chance’s comments on gardening are mistaken as an optimistic philosophy on business and the economy.  Ben, who is terminally ill, finds comfort in Chance’s companionship, while Eve falls in love with Ben.  As a result of his connection with the Rands, Chance is able to meet the President (Jack Warden), appear on a TV talk show, and attend a state dinner with the Soviet ambassador (Richard Basehart).

The movie is a product of the cynical 70s with the power brokers of Washington all projecting their desires onto Chance.  It also pokes fun at how easy it is for a well-dressed white man to “fail up.” But there’s also a sweetness to the movie, especially in the quick but real bond that forms between Chance and Ben.  The movie succeeds on the impressive performance of Sellers who really immersed himself in the role, finding that he identified strongly with Chance. The movie is beautifully shot, with Sellers appearing in the foreground of the Capitol building and in the Rand’s mansion (filmed at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina) being particularly iconic.  This is a movie worth remembering.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: After Hours (1985)


Title: After Hours
Release Date: September 13, 1985
Director: Martin Scorsese
Production Company: The Geffen Company | Double Play Productions
Summary/Review:

Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a nebbish computer data entry worker, meets Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) at a coffee shop and they apparently hit it off and exchange phone numbers.  Calling Marcy later that night, she invites him to come to the SoHo loft where she’s staying with her friend the sculptor Kiki (Linda Fiorentino).  Paul begins to feel that he’s not connecting with Marcy and decides to leave. But because he lost all his money, and eventually his house keys, he finds himself stuck in SoHo involved in increasingly bizarre situations and eventually pursued by a Frankenstein-style vigilante mob.

This is a movie that could not be made in the time of cell phones and ATMs, and of course SoHo has long since been tamed and commercialized so that it no longer feels eccentric to outsides.  When you think about it there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense about this film but it all holds together with a kind of dream logic.  The most unbelievable thing about this movie is that almost everyone in mid-80s Manhattan is white, with the major exception of Tommy Chong and Cheech Marin who are stereotypically cast as burglars.

The biggest flaw of After Hours is that Paul is just an unlikable character which makes it hard to care about him as the protagonist.  The great performances by the women in this film make up for it though, starting with Arquette and Fiorentino. Additional great performances include Terri Garr as a waitress with a beehive who becomes mysteriously obsessed with Paul, Catherine O’Hara as a Mr. Softee truck driver with a twisted sense of humor, and Verna Bloom as a sculptor who helps Paul out.

By all accounts this is a quirky outlier in Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre, but I like it a lot more than his violent crime thrillers.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Time After Time (1979)


Title: Time After Time
Release Date: September 28, 1979
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Production Company: Orion Pictures
Summary/Review:

Time After Time is one of those movies I always liked as a child when it was frequently shown on tv. I was wondering how well it would hold up and I’m pleasantly surprised that it does.  The movie tells the story of 19th century author and futurist H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) inventing an actual time machine.  When showing off the machine to a party of fellow intellectuals, it is revealed that one of his guests is actually Jack the Ripper (David Warner).

The Ripper steals the time machine, and Wells follows him into the future arriving in San Francisco in 1970.  To Wells’ horror, the future is not the utopia he dreamed of but a place where the scale of violence is such that Jack claims he’s an “amateur.” While attempting to track down Jack the Ripper and prevent more murders, Wells forms a romantic relationship with bank employee Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen).

The movie does a really great job of blending together several genres – time travel science fiction, fish-out-of-water comedy, romance, and crime thriller.  Like a lot of time travel stories there are plot elements that don’t hold up to much scrutiny, but can be easily hand-waved away. This movie also has a great font of quirky trivia associated with it, such as:

  • Director/screenwriter Nicholas Meyer also wrote the script for another movie where time travelers arrive in present-day San Francisco, have a lot of fish-out-of-water comic experiences, and one of the time travelers forms a romantic relationship with a contemporary woman who ends up joining the time traveler.  That movie, of course, is Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
  • Mary Steenburgen appeared in yet another movie where she falls in love with a time traveler and leaves to go with him, Back to the Future III.
  • Speaking about the Back to the Future franchise, the date on which Marty arrives in the past is November 5, which is that same date that H.G. Wells arrives in San Francisco.
  • Finally, Cyndi Lauper saw the title of this film in TV Guide and used it to write one of her classic ballads.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks (2022)


Title: The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks
Release Date: March 15, 2022
Director: Reginald Harkema
Production Company: Blue Ant Media
Summary/Review:

This two-part documentary on Amazon Prime Video is tied in with the release of a new season of The Kids in the Hall, the first in 27 years!  I’m not going to review that series but if you’re a fan of the Kids in the Hall, watch it because it’s excellent and they haven’t missed a step.  The documentary features interviews with all five Kids – Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney,  and Scott Thompson – as well as producer Lorne Michaels, writer Paul Bellini, and celebrity fans like Mike Myers and Eddie Izzard, among others.  It also is rich in archival footage and clips from various KITH all projects.

I learned that Dave & Kevin were the closest partnership in the group and had started performing together in Toronto.  Meanwhile Bruce and Mark began working together in Calgary before moving to Toronto.  The four of them formed the Kids in the Hall (which Mark wanted to call The Audience) and then Scott Thompson willed himself into the group.  I also learned that Scott had survived a mass shooting at his school in Ontario as a child which has informed his work.  KITH also made a miniseries in 2012 called Death Comes to Town which I’d never even heard of.

This is a solid and informative documentary.  But it does strike me as an extremely conventional approach for a documentary about an unconventional comedy team.  At least Paul Bellini wears a towel during some of his interviews.

 

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Better Off Dead (1985)


Title: Better Off Dead
Release Date: August 23, 1985
Director: Savage Steve Holland
Production Company: A&M Films | CBS Theatrical Films
Summary/Review:

Lane Meyer (John Cusack) becomes suicidal after his girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss) dumps him for an obnoxious jock,  but his increasingly elaborate attempts to kill himself fail spectacularly.  This doesn’t sound like the premise for a comedy, but in the hands of Savage Steve Holland it becomes an iconic teen movie of the 1980s.  The absurdity of Lane’s life is everywhere, from his eccentric parents (played by tv veterans Kim Darby and David Ogden Stiers), the Korean drag racers who talk like Howard Cosell, and an extremely persistent paperboy (and this only scratches the surface of the oddities in this movie).  The soundtrack is also eclectic with songs by Howard Jones, Van Halen, Neil Sedaka, Frank Sinatra, and Muddy Waters, among others.  Lane’s life turns around when he befriends French exchange student Monique (Diane Franklin) who helps him regain his confidence.

This was one of my favorite movies when I was younger, mostly because it is so extremely silly with hilarious, quotable dialogue. On the downside, it gave me the unrealistic hope that my teenage romantic woes might be solved if only my school got a cute foreign exchange student.  But it only occured to me on this rewatch that so much of the absurdity serves to reflect the heightened emotions of teenagerhood.  I’m guessing that I’m probably ranking this movie too highly based on nostalgia, but those memories are an important part of my experience with this movie, and besides it still makes me laugh.

Rating: ****

Movie Reviews: Between the Lines (1977)


Title: Between the Lines
Release Date: April 27, 1977
Director: Joan Micklin Silver
Production Company: Midwest Films
Summary/Review:

This ensemble film broadly tells the story of an alternative newspaper in Boston as the deal with evaporation of the idealism of 60s counterculture and the threat of takeover by a corporate publisher.  More specifically it is a group of character studies and an examination of gender dynamics in relationships.  The film feels a lot like a television “dramedy,” maybe even a pilot to an ongoing series.  This isn’t criticism, but more of an observation that they just don’t make movies like this anymore.  Nowadays this would probably be made as a limited streaming series.

The cast includes John Heard, Lindsay Crouse (who appeared in Slap Shot the same year), Gwen Welles (following up on her work in Nashville), Jeff Goldblum (another Nashville veteran appearing in this Altman-esque film), Stephen Collins (as a controlling character that seems to match his later real life sexual misconduct), Bruno Kirby (following up on The Godfather, Part II, Jill Eikenberry, and Michael J. Pollard (most famous for Bonnie and Clyde). The running plots in this movies, as they are, include:

  • The on-again/off-again relationship of disillusioned writer Harry (Heard) and photographer Abbie (Crouse)
  • Another relationship between writers Laura (Welles) and Michael (Collins) where Michael has used his success in writing a book to run roughshod over Laura’s hopes and dreams
  • Rock critic Max (Goldblum) just trying to get a raise
  • Idealistic young reporter David (Kirby) trying to report on a scandal in local government
  • Also, the filmmakers got Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes to perform in this film and really felt good about that get

Overall, the men in this film are narcissistic and a bit creepy.  The women seem eager to enjoy the sexual revolution but questioning why they have to do it with these men.  Since this is the 1970s the movie features a lot of gratuitous nudity.  But one of the better scenes is when Harry and Abbie go to interview an exotic dancer (Marilu Henner) and Abbie is able to strike up a genuine rapport when Harry just relies on the same stereotypical questions of sex workers.  It’s a nice touch that I think benefits from having a woman director.

This movie is set in Boston but doesn’t have any of the usual Hollywood stereotypes of Boston. The characters generally grumble about their lives and are snarky in their conversations, which is on point for Boston.  And we get to have fun with movies and their convoluted geography.  The newspaper is supposed to be based in Back Bay, but their office (in a converted house) is decidedly not in Back Bay.  I think it’s actually shot in Cambridgeport.  There’s also a scene where Goldblum and Kirby exit the office and suddenly are in Harvard Square.  Over all though, they make good use of the city as a set.  I particularly like the overhead shot of Copley Square before it was renovated and before the construction of Copley Place Mall, as well as a scene on the platform at Charles/MGH when the Red Line trains weren’t Red.

Should you be curious, watching this prompted me to make a list of every Boston film I could find on Letterboxd.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Say Anything… (1989)


TitleSay Anything…
Release Date: April 14, 1989
Director: Cameron Crowe
Production Company: Gracie Films
Summary/Review:

Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) is a well-liked teenager with a lot of nervous energy and a passion for kickboxing, who lives with his older sister (Joan Cusack) and young nephew. Diane Court (Ione Skye) is a academic high achiever who feels she’s missed out on the social connections of high school.  At the time of their high school graduation, Lloyd decides he wants to ask Diane out although his friends Corey (Lili Taylor) and D.C. (Amy Brooks) say she’s out of his league. Nevertheless, with persistence, Lloyd and Diane form a bond and begin a whirlwind romance in the summer before she leaves for a fellowship in England.  Things hit a snag when Diane’s close relationship with her divorced father Jim (John Mahoney, soon to remain in Seattle and be Fraser’s father) is shaken by an IRS investigation into his embezzling funds from the residents of the retirement home he operates.

That’s the basic plot of the movie, but it really doesn’t say anything  (ha!) about why this movie is so special.  More than any other teen movie of the period, the characters feel like real human beings with natural behaviors and motivations.  Cameron Crowe’s script is sharp with lots of memorable dialogue.  And the editing is interesting, really showing the development of a relationship over a period of time without excessive exposition.  Then there’s the iconic soundtrack featuring songs by Fishbone, The Replacements, and, of course, “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel.  But seriously, this movie is sooooo much more than that boombox scene.

Rating: ****1/2