Classic Movie Review: Trouble in Paradise (1932) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter U

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

I couldn’t find a “U” movie to watch from these lists, so I’m going to just review another “T” movie and “U” will have to live with that.

Title: Trouble in Paradise
Release Date: October 21, 1932
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

The film begins with a romantic dinner in Venice between Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins). They gradually learn that they are both posing as aristocracy: he’s a master thief and she’s a pickpocket and a con artist.  They decide to team up and find their next mark in Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), a recent widow who owns a famous perfume company.  Gaston is able to get himself hired as Mariette’s secretary (and get a position for Lily as well) and work his way into her confidence to set up robbing her safe.  There’s one problem though – Gaston and Mariette fall in love.

Thus you have the perfect escapist fare for The Great Depression – the meaningless problems of the rich, a love triangle, and nonstop droll humor.  The three leads are terrific and have a great supporting cast.  I wouldn’t say this movie is laugh out loud funny, but these characters are so smart and effortless in their banter, I can’t help but enjoy it.  I’d never heard of Kay Francis before, but I learned she was the top-paid Hollywood actress of the early 1930s, and I can see why.  You can also tell this is a pre-Code film because they’re never explicitly sexual, they don’t hide its sexiness either.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Kiss Me Deadly (1955)


Title: Kiss Me Deadly
Release Date: May 18, 1955
Director: Robert Aldrich
Production Company: Parklane Pictures
Summary/Review:

A young woman, Christina (Cloris Leachman in her film debut), runs barefoot down a highway, wearing nothing but a trench coat. She stops a passing sportscar, driven by Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker).  The credits roll from bottom up as they drive off in the night. Thus is the stunning beginning of this film noir classic.

When Christina ends up dead and Hammer awakens in a hospital days later, Hammer realizes that Christina must’ve been into something big. He’s a private detective who specializes in divorce cases but nevertheless ignores the police when they tell him not investigate the case.  Hammer questions mobsters, kisses beautiful woman, and punches stooges.  Every trope you may have seen in a film noir homage or parody is in this film.  I guess they had to start somewhere.

The plot revolves around the MacGuffin of a mysterious box which appears to have influenced films ranging from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Pulp Fiction.  Meeker’s Hammer is brutally violent, unsentimental, and representative of the nihilism at the heart of this film.  The story doesn’t make much sense upon a little reflection, but I think this movie is more about atmosphere and capturing the truth of Los Angeles in the many location shots.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: A Brighter Summer Day (1991)


Title: A Brighter Summer Day
Release Date: July 27, 1991
Director: Edward Yang
Production Company: Yang & His Gang Filmmakers | Jane Balfour Films
Summary/Review:

Something about A Brighter Summer Day reminds me of the epic tv mini-series of the 70s and 80s.  Obviously those miniseries were often sensational and kind of cheezy, which does not apply to this movie, but there’s still that feel of something big being told in detail.

Set in Taiwan in the early 1960s, A Brighter Summer Day documents a time when the Chinese Nationalists who fled the mainland in 1949 are coming to terms with their exile being more permanent than they previously realized, while their children grow in a perpetual state of uncertainty.  The film’s protagonist is a young teenage boy, Zhang Zhen (Chang Chen), whose nickname is Si’r.  At the start of the film, he begins attending a night school (although confusingly he’s also depicted attending school during the day as well).  The main storylines are a growing relationship with a girl named Ming (Lisa Yang), and while Si’r does not join a gang he grows increasingly acquainted with members of rival gangs including one lead by Ming’s boyfriend. The movie is a slow-burn of Si’r’s gradually deteriorating mental and emotional state leading to a tragic finale.

The plot of this film does not require it’s four-hour runtime.  That time does serve the purpose of fully immersing the viewer in the world of early 60s Taiwan. We see a strictly regimented society where the students wear military-style uniforms to school and the actual military parades their tanks through the streets. Si’r’s father (Chang Kuo-chu) runs into trouble for his past associations and is interrogated by the secret police.  But there also is an influx of American culture which manifests itself most clearly in the rock and roll music the children listen to and perform.

I’ve ready a lot of glowing reviews of this film and find myself unable to muster the same enthusiasm that this is a “perfect movie.”  Nevertheless, I’m glad I watched it as it is an all-around excellent production of a fictional story that illustrates a place and a time I previously knew nothing about.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)


Title: Bonnie and Clyde
Release Date: August 13, 1967
Director: Arthur Penn
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures
Summary/Review:

I watched Bonnie and Clyde in my younger days, probably around 30+ years ago, and HATED it.  It seemed to me to just be glorified violence and gore.  Add to the fact that over the years Faye Dunaway has become one of my least favorite actors, and you can understand that I had little desire to revisit this movie.  Well, I’m happy to report that I enjoyed Bonnie and Clyde much more on this viewing.

I think the main thing I took away from this movie is that it is not a history lesson but a depiction of American myth.  The over-the-top nature of the film actually accents the mythological aspect of the movie where the real story of Bonnie & Clyde is shadowed by newspaper reports of their fictional exploits.  Dunaway’s Texas accent sounds as fake as her blonde wig, but she does bring a lot of nuance to her performance of Bonnie Parker who is perpetually yearning for more. For all the scandal this movie caused for being open about sexuality it seems like a good joke that Warren Beaty’s Clyde Barrow is essentially impotent.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the film debut of Gene Wilder as a young man briefly abducted by the Barrow Gang.  Wilder shows a wide-eyed excitement in the experience and adds some levity to the film that deliberately shifts it’s tonality.  It’s easy to see how this movie was in many ways a movie more about 1960s counterculture than it was about 1930s bank robbers.  It also shows a lot of influence of French New Wave films, and François Truffaut was even involved early in production.

I still see Bonnie and Clyde as an incredibly gory film, especially for its time, but I no longer see it as glamorizing violence, but as a commentary on glamorizing violence.  It’s a subtle thing but it makes a difference.  Anyhow, I still don’t think of Bonnie and Clyde as one of the greatest films of all time but I have greater respect for what the film was trying to do and the influence it had on Hollywood cinema.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: 12 Angry Men (1957)


Title: 12 Angry Men
Release Date: April 10, 1957
Director: Sidney Lumet
Production Company: Orion-Nova Productions
Summary/Review:

This is another movie I remember watching in high school, having read the play in English class.

Set almost entirely in the jury room of a New York City courthouse, 12 Angry Men is a compelling drama about the deliberations on a murder case.  Henry Fonda is the only big-name star in the movie, playing Juror #8, the only juror who feels that there may be reasonable doubt about whether the defendant, and 18 year old Latin American boy, actually murdered his father.  But there are excellent performances all around, including Lee J. Cobb as the angry man who is tough on crime, Jack Klugman as a man who grew up in similar conditions to the defendant, Jack Warden as the wiseass who is apathetic about the case, and George Voskovec as a naturalized American citizen who has a deep faith in democracy.

The movie is well-filmed, taking advantage of the confined space to build a feeling of claustrophobia.  There is also a slow transition of shots from above to close-up shots of characters’ faces over the course of the film. Keeping the camera on a character who is listening rather than talking is also an effective cinematic technique. Partway through the film a summer shower begins outside the windows and reflects the stormy mood in the chamber while also dramatically affecting the lighting.

The movie does his flaws.  Juror #8 visits the neighborhood where the defendant lived and buys a switchblade knife.  Not only are switchblades illegal but as a juror he’s doing research which is prohibited (and he somehow brought the illegal knife into the courthouse which would be harder to do today with security screening).  No less an authority than Sonia Sotomayor has declared that the jurors actions in this film is exactly what jurors should not do, and the Juror #8’s actions probably would’ve lead to a mistrial.  I also feel that it rings hollow that Juror #3’s intransigence is due to his failed relationship with his son.

I found that my experience watching this film changed significantly over 30-some-odd-years.  My teenage self saw this as a demonstration of how the American justice system works for good, or at least an idealistic presentation of such.  Nowadays, I feel the opposite.  The prosecution in this case clearly failed to make a credible case, the defense did even less to protect the defendant, and even the judge seems bored by the case.  11 jurors were ready to send a person to their death and call it a day.  In the real world, people like Juror #8 are few and far between and we’ve seen again and again that we can’t count on them to be around to protect justice and democracy when needed

  • One of the effects of the COVID pandemic is that it was very unsettling to watch dozen men together in a confined space, especially since at least one of them kept coughing.  The amount of second-hand smoke in the room also looked unpleasant.
  • I feel this movie would make a good double feature with Do the Right Thing.  Both movies are said to take place on the hottest day of the year (and thus have very sweaty actors) and deal with very heated arguments regarding race and justice.
  • All through the movie, I felt that Lee J. Cobb reminded me of George C. Scott.  It turns out that Scott played the role  of Juror # 3 in the 1997 remake.  Not only that but Scott took over the role of Lieutenant Kinderman in Exorcist III, which Cobb originated in The Exorcist!
  • I also appreciate that two actors ended up associated with The Odd Couple franchise: John Fiedler, who appeared in the movie, and Jack Klugman, who stared in the tv show.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Night of the Hunter (1955)


Title: The Night of the Hunter
Release Date: July 26, 1955
Director: Charles Laughton
Production Company: Paul Gregory Productions
Summary/Review:

This movie is not what I expected.  I knew this was the movie with Robert Mitchum as a preacher (named Reverend Henry Powell) who has “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles.  I was under the impression that it was a noir detective film but it is not.  Instead, Powell is a man who marries widows and kills them for their money.

During one prison sentence he meets a bank robber/murder, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), and learns that the $10,000 he stole was never recovered. Upon release, Powell finds, woos, and marries Harper’s now widow Willa (Shelley Winters).  What he doesn’t count on is the stubborn resistance of the Harper’s son John (Billy Chapin), who is devoted in care of his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).

What I didn’t expect about this movie is just how weird it is.  The editing feels arbitrary and disjointed at times.  There are probably very expensive aerial shots early on, but then other parts of the film are deliberately filmed to appear like silent movies from 30-40 years earlier.  One sequence shows the children floating down a river (in a sound studio) with various live animals appearing in the foreground.  The sets often look deliberately artificial, like it’s a stage show. Then there’s an amazing shot of a dead body in a car under a river. It has to be seen to be believed.

Mitchum puts in the perfect performance as the charming and charismatic preacher who wins over the rural community before wooing and bringing Willa under his spell.  He then can also be thoroughly terrifying as he commits murder and relentlessly pursues John and Pearl.  Silent movie superstar Lillian Gish puts in a amazing performance as Rachel Cooper, a stern but kindly woman who takes in orphans. Billy Chapin holds his own as a child dealing with the most traumatic situations with resilience and initiative.

This movie came out at the height of the Cold War era when Christianity was touted as the answer to “godless Communism.” This movie must’ve seemed incredibly radical in the way that it skewers the hypocrisy of American Christianity.  At no time is it ever confirmed that Powell is not actually an ordained minister (although some guess that he’s a fraud), and he certainly seems to be acting on a real – if twisted – belief in God to justify his actions. That the everyday Americans in the West Virginia village immediately fall for him is even more damning.

It’s hard not to watch this movie without thinking of Donald Trump, whose professions of Christian faith have never been backed up by anything he’s ever done in his life, but he has nevertheless become the hero of a certain strain of white evangelical Christianity.  The only difference is that when Reverend Powell’s crimes are revealed they form a lynch mob to kill Powell, whereas Trump’s supporters doubled down and attacked the US Capitol.

Rating: ****

Recent Movie Marathon: Blow the Man Down (2020)


Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: Blow the Man Down
Release Date: March 20, 2020
Director: Bridget Savage Cole & Danielle Krudy
Production Company: Secret Engine | Tango Entertainment
Summary/Review:

I watched this movie because I’d heard that David Coffin, song leader of The Christmas Revels, appeared in it. Otherwise I had not idea what the movie was about and dang was I surprised. Don’t read any further if you want to be as surprised as I was.

The story is about young adult sisters Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth Connolly (Morgan Saylor), beginning on the day of their mother’s funeral. They live in a fishing village in Maine where their mother has established a fishmonger’s shop and has had to mortgage their house. Priscilla, the “responsible” older sister worries about how they’re going to keep the house, while Mary Beth, the “wild” one simply wants to get out of the small town.

On the night after the funeral, they argue and Mary Beth goes out to a bar where she hooks up with a man named Gorski (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). When she observes him acting suspiciously, he attacks her, and she kills him in self-defense. The bulk of the movie is Priscilla and Mary Beth poor attempts to cover up Gorski’s death. This gets them entangled in other town scandals with Enid (played magnificently by Character Actress Margo Martindale), an old friend of their mother’s who runs a brothel out of her B&B.

Over the course of the film, the sisters learn some dark secrets of the village and their mother’s past. Throughout the film we see the actions of three older women who are not to be underestimated. David Coffin and other singing fishermen appear from time to time to sing sea chanties as kind of a Greek chorus. The beautiful setting is a contrast to the quirky mystery at the heart of the movie. In the sense it reminds me of the first season of Broadchurch.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Pulp Fiction (1994)


Title: Pulp Fiction
Release Date: October 14, 1994
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Production Company: A Band Apart | Jersey Films
Summary/Review:

So I finally watched Pulp Fiction after avoiding it for 26 years.  And it was … okay.  Especially in the first sequence with Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), I kind of felt that I already knew every line of dialogue from repeated quoting and referencing.  Nevertheless, there were some surprises:

  • I had no idea that stars like Christopher Walken and Bruce Willis were in this movie, much less that Willis has a major role.
  • I didn’t realize that this movie is very long (154 minutes).  Granted, it’s basically three different movies intertwined. Tarantino essentially went ahead and made Pulp Fiction sequels and integrated them into the original film, which is admittedly clever.
  • The movie also features a lot of dialogue, both conversations and monologues, allowed to play out in full which is unusual for movies in recent decades and much appreciated. Although that dialogue also adds to the long running time…
  • I had absolutely no idea of the many twists and turns that occur in the “The Gold Watch” sequence with Butch (Willis), Vincent and then Marcellus ( Ving Rhames)

I avoided this movie because I assumed it was full of gratuitous violence and casual, hipster indifference to that violence.  There’s definitely some of that in this movie (a rape scene in “The Gold Watch” and a character getting his head blown off in “The Bonnie Situation” are particularly brutal to watch).  Nevertheless, the violence doesn’t seem to be as extreme as expected and as I noted above, words are more key to this movie than action. I was turned off by the gratuitous and “hipster-cool” ways that racial slurs are used in the movie and that aspect is going to only to continue to make the movie look dated as time passes.

What makes the movie for me is the moments of humanity. In three instances, in fact, people go to great efforts to save the life of another: Vincent rescues Mia (Uma Thurman) from a drug overdose, Butch goes back to rescue his rival Marcellus from their attackers, and Jules begins his transformation away from a life of crime to rescue the hapless robbers Ringo (Tim Roth) and Yolanda (Amanda Plummer).  There are great acting performances by everyone involved including smaller parts by Harvey Keitel, Maria de Medeiros, and Eric Stoltz.

I can definitely see Pulp Fiction earning a spot on a greatest movies of all-time list based on its influence on the film industry alone.  Nevertheless, I don’t believe it will make my personal lists of favorite movies.

Rating: ***1/2

 

 

Classic Movie Review: Goodfellas (1990)


Title: Goodfellas
Release Date: September 19, 1990
Director: Martin Scorsese
Production Company: Warner Bros.
Summary/Review:

Well, I’ve finally found a Martin Scorcese “greatest film of all time” that I actually like. Based loosely on a true story, Ray Liotta stars as Henry Hill, a half-Irish/half-Sicilian kid drawn into a life of organized crime. The movie is similar to Trainspotting (which was probably inspired by Goodfellas) in that it starts by glamorizing the criminal life but slowly reveals the seedy underside and becomes an object lesson against that life.

Scorcese regular Joe Pesci plays the psychotic loose cannon Tommy DeVito and another Scorcese regular Robert De Niro plays the seemingly level-headed but ultimately more dangerous Jimmy Conway. Lorraine Bracco does a good job portraying Henry’s Jewish wife Karen who is drawn in by the allure of the gangster life. I think what sets this movie apart for me is that Pesci and De Niro aren’t playing the same characters they always seem to play, there’s a lot of nuance in their performances, while Liotta and Bracco don’t fit into the typical stereotypes of gangster films at all.

The movie veers between comedy and horrific violence, but avoids becoming a deeply unsettling paean to the myths of masculinity and violence like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. The final sequence is a vigorously-paced collection of cuts showing Henry Hill’s increasing paranoia and coke-fueled energy set to a full playlist of Scorcese’s favorite classic rock hits. If The Godfather depicts the elite of organized crime and The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the story of the lowest rungs of gangsterism, then Goodfellas slides in as the story of the mobster middle-class. Doubly so since Hill, and Conway, can never attain the highest ranks because they aren’t fully Sicilian.

While Goodfellas isn’t something that will make my greatest films of all time, it definitely joins the list of Scorcese films I actually enjoyed, along with The Last Waltz and The Departed.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic 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
Summary/Review:

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