Movie Review: O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)


Title: O Brother Where Art Thou?
Release Date: December 22, 2000
Director: Joel Coen
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures | Universal Pictures | StudioCanal | Working Title Films | Blind Bard Pictures
Summary/Review:

Said to be based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? has enough character names and plot points with mythological forebears to make you pull your hair trying to figure out the other parallels before you realize the Coen Brothers are pulling your leg.  But this movie is deeply invested in the mythology of the South, from the sepia tones to the Spanish moss and the many cultural signifiers.  Then there is the soundtrack!  O Brother, Where Art Thou? is almost more famous for its music than the movie.  It’s no myth that most great American musical styles originated in the South, and this movie is an anthology of some of the best.

George Clooney stars in one of his best roles as the loquacious and Clark Gable-like Ulysses Everett McGill, one of three prisoners who escape from a labor camp. John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson co-star has his companions Pete and Delmar.  The film documents their journey home as the fall into an increasingly ridiculous situations including recording a hit folk song as The Soggy Bottom Boys and getting in the middle of a gubernatorial election between two corrupt fat cats.  O Brother, Where Art Thou? is not the pure absurdism of The Big Lebowski but it gets pretty close.

The story is told through a white perspective of the South, and most of the Black characters are in the background, but O Brother, Where Art Thou? doesn’t hide the racism and segregation of the South either.  Our heroes are remarkably not racist for the 1930s, but they find themselves in the midst of the structural violence of criminal justice typically practiced against Black people. One of the most chilling scenes involve them stumbling upon a Klan rally with choreography that simultaneously echoes Triumph of the Will, The Wizard of Oz, and a Busby Berkley musical.  The main Black character in the film is Blues guitarist Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) who plays guitar on all the Soggy Bottom Boys’ songs, perhaps a nod to the African American origins of American popular music.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of my favorite type of movies, one that makes me laugh and makes me think. Part absurdist comedy, part social satire, and part anthology of American folk music, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is worth revisiting.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Hollywood Shuffle (1987)


Title: Hollywood Shuffle
Release Date: March 20, 1987
Director: Robert Townsend
Production Company: Conquering Unicorn
Summary/Review:

Hollywood Shuffle is a comedy that satirizes the institutional racism of the motion picture industry that limits roles for Black actors to gang members, servants, and enslaved people.  Robert Townsend directed and stars in the film and co-wrote the script with Keenen Ivory Wayans.  I remember at the time that Townsend was considered part of a much-publicized “trend” of Black directors making a mark in movies along with Matty Rich, John Singleton, and, of course, Spike Lee.  Townsend plays Bobby, an aspiring actor who gets a role in a stereotypical gang-related movie and has to choose between potentially advancing his career or standing up for more positive representation of the Black community.

The rather earnest main plot is punctuated by Bobby’s daydreams that play out as skits.  The style is very similar to Wayan’s sketch comedy show In Living Color, which debuted a few years later.  While the topics are still sadly relevant, some of the gags feel dated now,and the message of the film is by jokes based on homophobic and misogynist stereotypes. The sketches can run a bit long too.  But overall Townsend has his heart in the right place and this is a movie that needed to be seen in 1987, so I’m glad it became a hit.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Monsieur Verdoux (1947)


Title: Monsieur Verdoux
Release Date: April 11, 1947
Director: Charles Chaplin
Production Company: United Artists
Summary/Review:

Charlie Chaplin must’ve seemed like he was around forever by 1947.  He debuted on film in 1914 and swiftly rose to fame so much that he could co-create a film studio, United Artists, and have control over making his own pictures.  Throughout the 1920s he released innovative feature-length comedies.  After the advent of “talkies” Chaplin released his mostly dialogue-free masterpieces City Lights and Modern Times in the 1930s.  His first true talkie, The Great Dictator (1940), satirized fascism and more clearly enunciated Chaplin’s own political views.  By 1947, changing tastes and rumors of Chaplin’s Communist sympathies made him passe in the USA.  He’d been appearing in films since 1914 and again those 34 years must’ve felt like forever (although present day stars like Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks have been active for much longer, so maybe not).

Monsieur Verdoux was not a hit in the US but found an audience in Europe and of course Cahiers du Cinéma put it on their greatest films of all time list.  The movie is set in France during the Great Depression era and Chaplin plays the titular character who also operates under of a number of aliases.  Verdoux is a con artist who marries several women and then murders them for their money.  Chaplin tries to make the character sympathetic by having him be a bank teller laid off because of the Depression who needs to make money to support his disabled wife and child.  But Verdoux is an evil person and no amount of wily roguesnish makes him palatable to me.  When Verdoux is caught at the end and justifies his murders by contrasting them with the violence of governments at war, it feels more self-serving than a righteous critique of society.

The cast of this film is huge and doesn’t include any big stars although Martha Raye (later of Polident ads) and William Frawley (later of I Love Lucy) both appear.  A lot of the performances feels wooden and amateurish.  I did like Marilyn Nash’s performance as The Girl, a houseless woman that Verdoux plans to test a poison on until he learns that her story is similar to his own. Nash’s character the conscience of this film and the scenes between her and Chaplin are when the movie works best.  The rest of the movie seems to be telling several overlapping stories with differences in tone that never really gels for me.  I found it only moderately funny and the underlying cynicism rubbed me the wrong way.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Aardman Animation Short Film Festival


I felt like revisiting some of my favorite animated comfort food by watching a bunch of from Britain’s Aardman Animations studio. This will just be the shorts, not feature films like Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

TitleCreature Comforts
Release Date: 15 July 1989
Director: Nick Park
Production Company: Aardman Animations.
Summary/Review:

“In Brazil you have the space.”

In my college years (1991-1995), I went to a lot of animation festivals at the local arthouse cinema.  I remember Creature Comforts being a big hit at one of the first festivals I attended. It’s a simple concept, in which various animals discuss their lives in a zoo.  It’s even better when you learn that the voices are from unscripted interviews with various everyday people.  They weren’t necessarily talking about zoo animals, yet it all fits.  I only just learned that Creature Comforts was spun off into a tv series in the UK in the 2000s.

Rating: ****


Title: A Grand Day Out
Release Date: 4 November 1989
Director: Nick Park
Production Company: National Film and Television School | Aardman Animations
Summary/Review:

“Gromit, that’s it! Cheese! We’ll go somewhere where there’s cheese!”

This is the first Wallace & Gromit short, and the most absurdist of them all, and I probably saw it in the same animation festival as Creature Comforts.  Wallace wants somewhere to travel and they’re out of cheese. So he decides to go to the one place that combines both – the Moon.  They build a rocket and fly to the moon where they meet a coin-operated oven on wheels that issues parking tickets.  And you’ve never seen a coin-operated oven on wheels look so indignant!  This film is especially fun for all the little details you can pick out on repeated viewings.
Rating: ****


TitleThe Wrong Trousers
Release Date: 17 December 1993
Director: Nick Park
Production Company: Aardman Animations
Summary/Review:

“It’s the wrong trousers Gromit! And they’ve gone wrong!”

Wallace & Gromit come into their own in this short which establishes their home setting as a kind of theme park nostalgic vision of a post-war village in the North of England.  In this case they deal with techno-trousers, a shortage of money, a paying houseguest, and a jewel heist!  You’ll never hear “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” the same way again.  The chase scene on the model railroad is one of the greatest things ever animated.

Rating: *****


TitleA Close Shave
Release Date: 24 December 1995
Director: Nick Park
Production Company:Aardman Animations
Summary/Review:

“Aye, I’d better see to him. The bounce has gone from his bungee.”

Wallace & Gromit was such a big hit at animation festivals that by the time A Close Shave was released, we were pretty much going to see Wallace & Gromit.  Like, I think they may have put a couple of other animated shorts before it, but it was promoted as your chance to see the new Wallace & Gromit.  In this short, Wallace & Gromit deal with a wool shortage, sheep rustlers, and a new member of the household: Shaun the Sheep (who would spin off into his own media empire).  This is the first short where Wallace & Gromit have a business – in this case window washers.  It’s also the first time there’s a character other than Wallace who speaks, who becomes the first of Wallace’s love interests, Wendoline.  I go back and forth over whether I like The Wrong Trousers or A Close Shave better, but together they are peak Wallace & Gromit.

Rating: *****


Title:  A Matter of Loaf and Death
Release Date: 3 December 2008
Director: Nick Park
Production Company: Aardman Animations
Summary/Review:

“Farewell, my angel cake. You’ll always be my Bake-O-Lite Girl.”

I didn’t know that this short existed until I saw it in the package with the other Wallace & Gromit shorts I was streaming.  It follows the same formula as A Close Shave and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit where Wallace is enchanted by a love interest and the duo run a business with a lot of Rube Goldberg devices.  In this case they are bakers and the love interest, Piella Bakewell, a former beauty queen for a bread company.  There’s also the mystery of 12 local bakers gone missing.  Will Wallace make a baker’s dozen?  It feels like the formula has gone a bit off in this short, and it feels a bit grim for a cozy comedy to have a story involving a serial killer.  And the villain’s motivation is basically a fat joke. Also, we get to see Wallace’s bare buttocks, which was not necessary.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Hope and Glory (1987)


Title: Hope and Glory
Release Date:  16 October 1987
Director: John Boorman
Production Company: Goldcrest Films | Nelson Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Set in London from around 1939 to 1942, Hope and Glory provides a child’s-eye view of World War II and the Blitz. In the horrors of war, Billy Rowan (Sebastian Rice-Edwards) can find joy in escaping school because of an air raid, bombed-out houses become a playground, and there’s beauty in a runaway barrage balloon.  Billy’s middle-aged father Clive (David Hayman) enlists despite his advanced age and his mother Grace (Sarah Miles) has to hold things together on the home front.  She’s unable to part with Billy and his little sister Sue (Geraldine Muir) in the Evacuation so they stay in the London for the nightly “fireworks” and gathering bits of shrapnel.  Meanwhile, Billy’s teenage sister Dawn (Sammi Davis) enjoys dancing with Canadian soldiers and ends up with an unplanned pregnancy.

In the the third act of the film, the family’s house is destroyed not by a bomb but by an ordinary house fire.  They end up living in a rustic Thameside cottage with Billy’s grandparents. Thus Billy learns about rowing, fishing, and cricket from his eccentric grandfather (Ian Bannen).  The whole movie has the sheen of nostalgia, probably based on writer/director John Boorman’s own childhood experiences, which helps excuse details like the fact that the children don’t seem to age over three years or Ian Bannen’s over-the-top acting.

The story of this movie is rooted in the stories the English like to tell themselves about the home front during World War II, stiff upper lip and all that.  Yet, subtly, Boorman also satirizes all that.  We see characters being cruel, foolish, and outright stupid.  And yet, Billy’s family survives the war and even seem to be in a better place by the end of the movie, more from dumb luck than anything else. I remember really enjoying this movie in my teen years for its wry humor and its view of children running wild and thriving during the darkest times.  Revisiting Hope & Glory all these years later I still think it’s an enjoyable and underrated film.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Band Wagon (1953)


Title: The Band Wagon
Release Date: August 7, 1953
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is a movie star of song & dance films who was big “about 12-15 years ago” but whose career is fading.  In other words, pretty much Fred Astaire at the time this movie was made.  He returns to New York where his friends Lily (Nanette Fabray) and Lester (Oscar Levant) have written a Broadway musical they want Tony to star in. They’ve enlisted a very serious producer/director/actor Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) to direct the musical despite Tony’s misgivings.  Cordova re-envisions the musical as a modern-day retelling of the story of Faust and the devil. He also recruits ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) to star in the show with Tony.

The main tension of the film is the big differences and age of Tony and Gabrielle that need to be resolved if they are going to be able to work together.  Cordova also keeps changing the show to be more over-the-top with elaborate sets and effects and making the show more of a serious metaphorical drama than the light comedy envisioned by Lily and Lester.  Chaos ensues.

Once all the conflicts are resolved the film finishes up with several numbers for the actual show.  I guess this was supposed to a victory lap for the performers but the movie fizzles out for me a this point, especially since none of these numbers would makes sense in a show together.  “Triplets” is nightmare fodder and the big set piece, “Girls Hunt Ballet,” is weird but entertaining. It actually reminds a lot of  “Broadway Melody” from MGM’s big musical of the previous year Singin’ in the Rain.  In fact, the two movies have a lot in common, which makes The Band Wagon feel a little formulaic, but if you like one you’ll like the other.

It’s a good formula though, and I really like the part of the movie where they do song and dance about making a show better than the song and dance from the show.  Standout numbers include “Shine Your Shoes,” “That’s Entertainment,” and “Dancing in the Dark.”  If you like movie musicals you won’t be disappointed.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Story of a Cheat (1936)


Title: Le Roman d’un tricheur
Release Date: 19 September 1936
Director: Sacha Guitry
Production Company: Films Sonores Tobis; Cinéas
Summary/Review:

Sacha Guitry directed, wrote (from an adaptation of his own novel) and starred in The Story of a Cheat, alternately Confessions of a Cheat. Guitry plays a man in his mid-50s writing his memoir and narrating the extended flashbacks of his life, including all the dialogue of his younger selves ( Serge Grave and Pierre Assy) have with other people. The Cheat’s story begins when he is orphaned as a 12-year-old and then runs away from his guardians after they rob him of his inheritance.  The cheat works as a doorman and elevator operator at hotels, serves in the military, becomes a croupier in Monaco, and is charmed by beautiful women into participating in various cons and crimes.  Eventually he becomes a professional card cheat, learning from his life experience that he makes money when he cheats and loses money when he’s honest.

The film is whimsical but I never find it laugh out loud funny.  I wonder if this film inspired Jean-Pierre Jeunet because the stenatorian narration and quirky life story are reminiscent of movies like Amélie.  Mostly though, I just started to feel that Guitry should shut up and let people act, because that non-stop narration got grating.  I found The Story of a Cheat a mildly-entertaining picaresque but there’s nothing really great about it.

Rating: ***

Silent Movie Day Movie Reviews


In honor of National Silent Movie Day I watched several silent shorts:

 

Title: The Great Train Robbery 
Release Date: December 1903
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Production Company: Edison Manufacturing Company
Summary/Review: This 12-minute film was perhaps the first blockbuster motion picture. In latter days it was credited with lots of innovations that weren’t actually true, but it is undeniable that it was a big hit.  And the basic imagery of outlaws holding up a train is quite persistent. The version I watched had hand-colored segments that make it feel painterly.  And of course, who can ever forget the iconic shot of Justus D. Barnes firing his gun at the camera!
Rating:  ***1/2


Title:The Immigrant
Release Date: June 18, 1917
Director: Charles Chaplin
Production Company: Mutual Film Corporation
Summary/Review: Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp joins the tired  poor, huddled masses immigrating to America.  There’s not so much of a plot as a series of set pieces, first aboard a ship sailing to New York, and then in a New York restaurant where the broke Tramp struggles to pay for a meal.  In both scenes, he tries to charm a fellow immigrant (Edna Purviance).  Eric Campbell plays a big and tough waiter.  There are a lot of good gags in this movie with a warm and sympathetic portrayal of the travails of the immigrant experience.
Rating: ***1/2


TitleThere It Is
Release Date: 1928
Director: Harold L. Muller
Production Company: Educational Pictures
Summary/Review:  Charles Bowers is not as well-remembered as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd but work in the same genre of slapstick comedy during the silent film era.  This movie is almost entirely visual jokes and hard to summarize without spoiling the gags.  Suffice to say, a family in New York finds strange things happening in their house due to the “Fuzz-Faced Phantom” (Buster Brodie) and decide that the police will not be good enough so they call Scotland Yard.  In this case, it is an actual yard in Scotland where men in full kilts roam around. Charley MacNeesha (Bowers) is sent to investigate with his partner MacGregor, a stop-motion animated bug.  So many weird things happen in 19 minutes.  The primary Black character spends the entire film trying to leave which plays into the stereotype of easily-spooked African Americans, but then again getting out of that house seems wise.  MacNeesha is also extremely cheap, so more cultural stereotypes.  This movie is fun to watch to see absurdists humor from a century ago that seems to anticipate Monty Python.
Rating: ***


Title: The Cameraman’s Revenge
Release Date: October 27, 1912
Director: Władysław Starewicz
Production Company: Khanzhonkov
Summary/Review: If MacGregor stirred your passion for stop-motion animated bugs, then this movie is for you!  All the characters in this 12-minute short are animated insect specimens.  Mr. and Mrs. Beetle each are having affairs with other insects.  An angry grasshopper, who is a camera operator and projectionist, films it all.  So if a movie where insects canoodle while a voyeur watches them through a keyhole is your jam, then this movie has been there for you for almost 110 years!  This one is delightfully weird.
Rating: ****


Title: New York 1911
Release Date: 1911
Production Company: Svenska Biografteatern
Summary/Review: My grandmother was born in New York on May 1, 1911.  Sometime in the same year a Swedish production company filmed this travelogue of Lower Manhattan.  As travelers on this journey, we arrive by ferry and then travel around the city streets, sometimes by streetcar.  Despite the constant change in New York, the bridges and many buildings are very recognizable.  The absence of automobiles is the best part of this vision of New York where the streets are dominated by pedestrians and streetcars.  Although we do spend some time observing a white family packed into an open-air motorcar with a Black driver.  This film is only 9 minutes long but it’s a remarkable document of a place and time.
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)


Title: Grosse Pointe Blank
Release Date: April 11, 1997
Director: George Armitage
Production Company: Hollywood Pictures | Caravan Pictures | Roger Birnbaum Productions | New Crime Productions
Summary/Review:

This is one of those movies I’ve always wanted to watch but for some reason never got around to.  I like John Cusack in just about anything which was is the primary draw.  Turns out that this movie is full of actors I like in just about anything: Minnie Driver! Dan Aykroyd! Joan Cusack! and Alan Arkin!  It also has a killer soundtrack with music provided by Joe Strummer of The Clash and includes songs by The Clash, Violent Femmes,  English Beat, The Specials, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Pixies, Motörhead, and more!  Never has a movie made me more want to get up and dance.

But what about the actual movie?  Well, John Cusack stars as professional assassin Martin Blank who is sent to carry out a hit in Detroit at the same time as his high school’s tenth reunion in the nearby suburb of Grosse Pointe.  His assistant Marcella (Joan Cusack, god I love her) insists that he attend the reunion.  Blank admits to his therapist Dr. Oatman (Arkin) that he’s never gotten over his high school sweetheart, Debi Newberry (Driver).  It turns out that he never showed up on their prom night disappearing to begin the path he’s taken to hired assassin.

Blank is at a crossroads in his life and attends the reunion wondering is he is still suited for killing and if he should have a different future.  In a running gag, he tells everyone who asks him what he’s been doing for 10 years the honest truth and they all think he’s joking. To complicate matters, several men are eager to carry a hit out on him, including Grocer (Aykroyd), a fellow hitman who wants Blank to join his union of hired killers and doesn’t take no for an answer.  This leads to a comical intermingling of Blank’s personal and professional lives as he tries to reconcile with Debi.

I don’t want to give too much away but this is a smart and entertaining film. It does a good job of mixing and playing with conventions both action films and rom-coms.  It also feels very original in a way that you don’t often see in Hollywood comedies.  I’m glad I finally watched it.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Graduate (1967)


Title: The Graduate
Release Date: December 21, 1967
Director: Mike Nichols
Production Company: Lawrence Turman Productions
Summary/Review:

I first watched The Graduate some time in the mid-90s because, along with Easy Rider, it is said to be an emblematic of the Baby Boomer generation.  Watching it then, I felt that Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) seemed more representative of my own generation, at a time when we were being called “The Slacker Generation.”  Watching it now, though, I think there is a feeling of directionless many people experience in their 20s that transcends generations.  My other impression of the movie was that it wasn’t very funny and I didn’t like it.

Watching it now, I realize the problem I had with The Graduate is that it makes me deeply uncomfortable, which is something that a good movie can do.  I wrote in my review of M*A*S*H that there were a lot of positives of the Sexual Revolution of the 60s and 70s, but sometimes there was a push to be transgressive which crossed the line from health to unhealthy sexual expression.  The seduction of Benjamin by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) is extremely creepy, almost predatory.  Later in the film, Benjamin becomes a creepy stalker in his pursuit of Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross).  I’m never convinced that Benjamin actually loves Elaine, he’s just looking for a way to escape the rut he’s captured in, and I think the film actually supports this interpretation.  As for Elaine, watching her respond positively to Benjamin is like watching a camp counselor in a slasher film enter the creepy house where I want to shout at the screen “NO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!?”

The Graduate is an extremely well-made film.  I particularly like the the montage of Benjamin schlubbing around his house intercut with scenes of his assignations with Mrs. Robinson.  The acting is all around terrific, and Anne Bancroft’s performance in the scene where Benjamin presses Mrs. Robinson about her past is magnificent.  Simon & Garfunkel’s music for the film, while repetitive (although not as repetitive as Midnight Cowboy), is perfectly synched to the movie, and I especially like the part where Simon’s guitar strumming peters out when Benjamin’s car runs out of gas.  The final sequence of the movie is ludicrously unbelievable, but it’s still very funny (and was brilliantly spoofed in Wayne’s World II). Something I didn’t notice or didn’t remember from my previous viewing is that when Benjamin and Elaine get on the bus their smiles and laughter slowly turn to looks of confusion, as if they’re thinking “What now?” I never thought there was a happy future for Benjamin and Elaine and their expressions in the final shot confirm it.

Want to know something weird?  When filming this movie, Anne Bancroft was only 36 years old, joining Vivien Leigh and Gloria Swanson among actresses playing characters who are treated as older than themselves.  Granted, Mrs. Robinson had a teenage pregnancy, so it’s entirely possible that she have a child in college at Bancroft’s age.  But here’s something weirder: Katharine Ross is less than 9 years younger than Bancroft!  Weirder still?  Hoffman is only SIX YEARS younger than Bancroft.  The leads in this intergenerational comedy were all born in the same decade!

So, I think I like The Graduate a lot more than I did on my previous viewing, but I don’t love it.  I guess I’ll check in again in another 25 years, and who knows!

Rating: ***