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

Movie Review: Muppets Most Wanted (2014)


Title: Muppets Most Wanted
Release Date: March 21, 2014
Director: James Bobin
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Mandeville Films
Summary/Review:

As much as I enjoyed The Muppets, the movie did play it safe and nice.  Any restrictions on pure Muppet anarchy were removed for the sequel which picks up immediately from the end of its predecessor.  The Muppets are lured into going on a world tour by the vinous Dominic Badguy (played by the villainous Ricky Gervais).

Badguy is actually working for Constantine, the World’s Most Evil Frog (Matt Vogel). Constantine swaps places with Kermit (Steve Whitmire), leading the Muppets to various European destinations to pull of heists while the rest of the troupe performs (did Spider-Man: Far From Home kind of borrow this plot?).  Meanwhile, Kermit is stuck in a gulag in Siberia where he’s watched over by an obsessive guard, Nadya (Tina Fey), and forced to direct the prisoners’ talent show. A CIA agent, Sam Eagle (Eric Jacobson) and French Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) form a comic duo investigating the heists related to the Muppets performances.  I particularly like their “Interrogation Song,” which sounded like it could’ve fit in Hamilton.

Like it’s predecessor, there are touches of nostalgia with the plot being a throwback to The Great Muppet Caper, and a wedding scene and the song “Together Again” (which is now “Together Again, Again”) hearkens back to The Muppets Take Manhattan. It’s great to see the Muppets continue to be creative and funny over all these years and I look forward to watching their new program Muppets Now.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Dial M For Murder (1954)


Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: Dial M For Murder
Release Date: May 29, 1954
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Warner Bros
Summary/Review:

I watched this movie when I was younger and remember that it was Hitchcock’s only movie filmed in 3-D with a famous scene of Grace Kelly reaching toward the camera to get a pair of scissors.  That was about all I remember.  Like Rope, Dial M for Murder is set primarily in one apartment although without the tension of taking place in real time. Retired tennis player Tony Wendice (played as a gleeful sociopath by Ray Milland) comes up with an elaborate plan to murder his wife Margot (Kelly) as revenge for her having an affair with crime novelist Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), while also being able to inherit her wealth. Tony comes up with an elaborate plan to blackmail a university acquaintance and low-level criminal, Charles Alexander Swann (Anthony Dawson), into carrying out the murder while he’s at a party with Mark.

Of course, Tony’s plan goes awry, although he is resilient in improvising alternate plots. There are a lot of twists in the story but it also feels overly talky and focused on tiny details. A lot of Hitchcock movie plots don’t make much sense when you think about them after the fact, such as Vertigo, but Dial M for Murder strains its credulity as its playing.  This is especially true in the final act when both Mark and police inspector Hubbard (John Williams) each individually come to realization of what Tony really did and challenge him in his apartment.  The script also doesn’t give Grace Kelly much to do other than react to things happening to her, which seems a big waste of her talent.

Dial M for Murder is mildly entertaining, but by Hitchcock standards it’s a dud.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)


Title: The Lavender Hill Mob
Release Date: 28 June 1951
Director: Charles Crichton
Production Company: Ealing Studios
Summary/Review:

The Lavender Hill Mob is an Ealing Studios comedy starring Alec Guinness, much like Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955), and directed by Charles Chrichton, who later directed A Fish Called Wanda (1988).

Guinness plays Henry Holland, a fastidious bank clerk who spends twenty years in charge of transfers of gold bullion.  While known for his honesty, he’s in fact playing a long game to steal the bullion.  The only problem he faces is how to smuggle the bullion abroad so that he can sell it.  The solution comes when he meets a new boarder at his boarding house, Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), who runs a foundry that produces souvenirs for the export market.  The two men come up with a plan to steal the bullion, melt it down, make it into Eiffel Tower paperweights, and then ship it to France.

Things, of course, go very wrong.  But the way they go wrong and how the characters react is where the humor lies.  As an added bonus, much of this film was shot on location in London and Paris.  We get to see London still bearing the damage of World War II, and a stunning sequence where Henry and Alfred run down the circular staircase of the Eiffel Tour.  It all makes for an enjoyable, laugh out loud film with many twists right up to the conclusion.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Taxi Driver (1976)


TitleTaxi Driver
Release Date: February 8, 1976
Director: Martin Scorsese
Production Company: Bill/Phillips Productions | Italo/Judeo Productions
Summary/Review:

Taxi Driver is one of those movies constantly marinating in the ether of popular culture, but another one I’d never watched before.  It wasn’t quite what expected, at least the first half of the movie had some surprises.  I knew that Robert DeNiro starred as a taxi driver named Travis Bickle who becomes obsessed with protecting a child prostitute, Iris, played by Jodie Foster.  I also knew that in the twisted mind of John Hinkley, this movie played a part in his plan to assassinate Ronald Reagan.

I didn’t know that this movie also starred Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, and Peter Boyle.  Shepherd plays Betsy who is a campaign worker for a presidential candidate, and Brooks is her very funny co-worker.  Bickle initially becomes obsessed with Betsy and the first half of the movie shows his extremely awkward and uncomfortable attempts to date her. Boyle plays Wizard, a fellow cab driver who attempts to mentor Bickle but fails to have any influence.

It’s only after being rejected by Betsy that Bickle begins his obsession with Iris, and Jody Foster only appears in a small part of the movie (albeit a brilliant acting performance, especially for a 12-year-old). Bickle stocks up on weapons and trains to both assassinate the presidential candidate and kill Iris’ pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel).  It’s extremely disturbing and the final scenes where Bickle goes on a murderous rampage are gory but glamorized violence. The movie reflects the white moral panic of the 1970s when the victims of disinvestment and poverty in cities like New York were blamed for the degeneracy.  It also foreshadows the rise of MRA/incel ideologies with Bickle the prototype of men who feel that rejection by women gives them license to carry out unspeakable murder.

There is nothing technically wrong with this movie.  The acting, especially by DeNiro and Foster, is terrific.  The cinematography is stunning with many shots that are instantly iconic.  The musical score by Bernard Herrmann is both brilliant and disconcerting.  I can even admit that this movie depicts accurately the way a person like Bickle acts and thinks.  Nevertheless, I absolutely hate this movie and never want to watch it again.

Rating: *** (to be honest I don’t know how I can rate this movie at all, so I’m just giving it the standard ***)

Movie Review: Violet & Daisy (2011)


Title: Violet & Daisy
Release Date: September 15, 2011
Director: Geoffrey S. Fletcher
Production Company: Magic Violet | GreeneStreet Films
Summary/Review:

Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) and Violet (Alexis Bledel) are young women with an air of innocent naivete who like puppies, lollipops, and the new dress line from they’re favorite pop star.  They are also killers-for-hire who casually shoot down their targets and jump on their bleeding corpses for fun.  Much of the movie suffers from the style over substance emphasis on being quirky and grotesque, as if Wes Anderson took the reins of a mafia movie.  The movie improves some when they are sent to take out The Guy (James Gandolfini), who turns out to be nice – bakes them cookies, talks to them about his daughter, and listens to their concerns.  There is a lot of acting talent that carries this movie, but it can only go so far as the script and the premise is beneath them.

Rating: **