Classic Movie Review: Tokyo Story (1953)

Title: Tokyo Story
Release Date: November 3, 1953
Director: Yasujirō Ozu
Production Company: Shochiku

Drawing inspiration from Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, Tokyo Story is a moving film about an elderly couple and their adult children.  Shūkichi (Chishū Ryū) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) live in the Hiroshima Prefecture of southwest Japan with their youngest daughter, a schoolteacher named Kyōko (Kyōko Kagawa).  The travel by train to Tokyo for the first time in their lives to visit some of their other children.

Their son Kōichi (So Yamamura) is busy with caring for patients in his pediatric practice and their daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) is preoccupied with her hair salon.  Their grandchildren show no interest in spending time with them.  Only Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the widow of their middle son who died in World War II service, shows interest in them and takes a day off from her office job to take them sightseeing in Tokyo.

The children decide to ship their parents off to a spa, but the lively atmosphere there does not agree with them and Tomi begins to show signs of illness.  Unprepared for their parents’ unexpected return, the couple have to spend the night separated. Shūkichi reunites with friends he grew up with and spends the night drinking while Tomi forms a stronger bond with the kindly Noriko. They decide to go home early, planning a whistle-stop visit with their youngest son Keizō (Shirō Ōsaka) in Osaka, but end up staying longer as Tomi’s health deteriorates.

Shūkichi and Tomi finally return home, but Tomi falls into a coma.  The children reluctantly travel to their parents’ home for one last family reunion, although Keizō fails to arrive before his mother’s death.  Kōichi, Shige, and Keizō leave immediately after the funeral, still selfish and indifferent to their father. Kyōko is angered at her siblings, and Shūkichi thanks Noriko for treating him better than his own family.

This movie is absolutely beautiful and heartbreaking.  Like Ozu’s later film Floating Weeds, it features his trademark style of fixing the camera in a low position without any pans, zooms, or tracking shots (I believe the camera moves once in the entire movie) while cutting to different angles.  This movie also makes me realize that I’m enamored with Japanese domestic architecture.  It’s a great work of film art that touches on family, cultural changes in modern Japan, and the lingering after effects of the war.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

Title: The Friends of Eddie Coyle
Release Date: June 26, 1973
Director: Peter Yates
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

Long before The Departed and several adaptations of Denis Lehane novels made the Boston Crime Movie a cliche, there was The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Unlike most of the movies that I watched for this classic movie project this is not one that’s considered one of the great movies of all time, but I put it on my list because it’s considered one of the great Boston movies of all time.  Having watched it, I think it deserves much wider recognition because it is a powerful, well-acted, well-paced, and well-scripted film.

Unlike more recent Boston Crime Movies, The Friends of Eddie Coyle emphasizes the mundanity of life in the mob.  Doing mob work is work and for Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) it is  – literally and figuratively – a dead end job.  Sorry for the spoiler, but it’s clear from the beginning that Eddie is not much longer for this world, although you do pull for him to some how get out his situation.

Eddie’s job is to get guns for a gang of bank robbers who need fresh weapons for each heist.  He buys them from gun runner Jackie Brown (Steven Keats).  Coyle is also facing a prison sentence for getting caught in New Hampshire with a truck full of stolen liquor and refusing to squeal on who he was working for, the bartender/mob boss Dillon (Peter Boyle).  He asks ATF agent Dave Foley (Richard Jordan) for help with a recommendation to the judge, but Foley expects him to turn informer in return.

At first the movie seems disjointed, with scenes of Eddie, Jackie, Dillon, and Dave going about their business intercut with bank robberies.  But it all comes together brilliantly in the end. As I noted above, this movie emphasizes the mundane, everyday aspects of organized crime.  There’s no glamour here, and there’s actually only a handful of scenes of violence.  But the movie does offer terrific acting, especially Mitchum, who pretty much lives in his role as Eddie.

For Boston lovers, there are a lot of great location shots including familiar spots like City Hall Plaza and the old Boston Garden, where Eddie waxes poetically over Bobby Orr in the most Boston scene ever caught on film.  There are also scenes shot in a no longer extant Back Bay bar that is a platonic ideal of the men’s bars that no longer exist.  And although I can’t confirm, I’m almost certain there’s a scene in the late, lamented Doyle’s Cafe.  Much of the film is set in the suburbs at places like Houghton’s Pond and shopping centers with parking lots filled with big cars and flashy signs.

Bostonian or not, this is a film worth watching.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: American Graffiti (1973)

Title: American Graffiti
Release Date: August 11, 1973
Director: George Lucas
Production Company: Lucasfilm | American Zoetrope | The Coppola Company

George Lucas’ directorial debut THX 1138 bombed at the box office and he was charged with making a more commercially appealing film for his production company American Zoetrope. (The same fiscal crisis contributed to Lucas’ partner Francis Ford Coppola to agree to direct an adaptation of a sleazy gangster novel). Lucas decided to make a tribute to his youth in Modesto, California where teens cruised the main street in hot cars while listening to rock & roll.

The movie focuses on one night in late summer in 1962 and the exploits of four teenagers:

  • Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) who is due to leave for college the next morning but is uncertain about going. He keeps seeing a mysterious blonde woman in a passing T-Bird (Suzanne Somers) and spends part of the night hanging out with a street gang.
  • Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), who is also leaving for college, and is arrogant and obnoxious.  Early on, he tells his long-time steady girlfriend Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams) that he wants to have an open relationship leading to a tense night for the couple.
  • John Milner (Paul Le Mat), the city’s best hot rod drag racer. A car full of girls pranks him by sending over a 12 year old little sister, Carol Morrison (Mackenzie Phillips), to ride with him. The initial awkwardness turns into the sweetest part of the movie as John and Carol form a sibling-like relationship.  Much like Meet Me in St. Louis, one of the best scenes in this movie involves John & Carol bonding through vandalism. John also has to face down a challenge from another drag racer, Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford).
  • Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith), a younger teen who inherits Steve’s Chevrolet Impala. He picks up a Marilyn Monroe-esque woman Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark) who proves to be an adventurous oddball with kind of a Luna Lovegood quality.

The movie is linked together by Wolfman Jack’s DJ patter over rock and roll hit.  He also appears in a cameo as himself where he gives advice to Curt.  Wolfman Jack was a celebrity DJ in New York when I was a kid.  I never realized that early in his career he broadcast from a high-powered radio station in Mexico and was a mysterious figure to the kids who listened to him at the time.

I ended up liking this movie a lot more than I expected.  But probably the biggest thing about this movie is its legacy. The soundtrack is wall-to-wall hit songs of the early rock & roll era. It’s one of the first movies to be scored entirely with previously-released popular tunes.  These songs are the familiar tunes of the 1950s and early 60s and makes me wonder how much the American Graffiti influenced what songs would be played on Oldies stations forevermore.

The first song heard in the movie is “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & The Comets (which later becomes the opening theme of Happy Days) and one of the last tunes heard in the film is “Goodnight, Well it’s Time to Go” by The Spaniels (which became the farewell song on Sha Na Na).  Which leads to the next legacy, the 50s nostalgia boom of the 1970s. It manifest itself in the tv sitcoms Happy Days (which also starred Ron Howard) and Laverne & Shirley (which also starred Cindy Williams), the comedy variety show Sha Na Na, the Broadway and Hollywood musical Grease, and the revival of musical careers of early rock & roll stars like Chuck Berry and Frankie Valli.

Perhaps the biggest legacy is the career of George Lucas, who went on to make movies that are nothing like American Graffiti.  I never realized that Lucas only directed six films in his entire career (and half of them are the Star Wars prequels!).  I don’t plan to watch THX 1138 anytime soon, but I’m going to assume that American Graffiti is Lucas’ best work of directing actors, as opposed to his true genius at creating story ideas and producing them.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Ikiru (1952)

Title: Ikiru
Release Date: October 9, 1952
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Production Company: Toho

Ikiru (Japanese for “To Live”) is the story of career civil servant Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) who works 30 years without missing a day.  He’s shaken by the diagnosis that he has stomach cancer and less than a year to live.  As a widower who is alienated from his son (Nobuo Kaneko) and daughter-in-law (Kyoko Seki), he finds himself with no one to talk about his impending death.

First, he decides on a night of hedonism with a young novelist (Yūnosuke Itō) he meets at a bar. Finding that life is not for him, he is next drawn to a young former employee, Toyo (Miki Odagiri), hoping to learn the secret of her joie de vivre. Finally, Watanabe decides he must do something significant as his legacy. Through the movie, parents from a poor neighborhood have been shuffled through the bureaucracy as they hope to have a cesspool filled and build a playground upon it. Watanabe makes it his goal in life to guide them through the bureaucracy and see the playground to its completion.

The second part of the film is five months later at Watanabe’s funeral.  City officials and Watanabe’s co-workers reflect on his life while arrogantly denying him any agency in building the playground.  Later when it’s just his co-workers and family, more stories and flashbacks reveal the truth. The men commit themselves to living more meaningful lives in honor of Watanabe, but in the final scene are shown being unable to live up to that promise.

This movie is absolutely beautiful and heartbreaking with outstanding acting and cinematography. The other Akira Kurosawa films I’ve watched are period pieces, but Ikiru demonstrates he was just as good, even better, at telling a contemporary story.  It’s definitely a movie I’d highly recommend that anyone should watch.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: The Last Picture Show (1971)

Title: The Last Picture Show
Release Date: October 22, 1971
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Production Company: BBS Productions

No one warned me that this movie is so bleak.  I thought I was going to be watching a comedy.  Filmed in black-and-white with Orson Welles-style direction, The Last Picture Show depicts a year in the early 50s in a run-down town in the Texas oil region.  The cast features a collection of future movie stars who all look impossibly young.

The film focuses on three teenagers during their senior year of high school and immediately after graduation: Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) who seems to be basically decent but struggling with what to do with his life, his best friend Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) who is more of an arrogant jock, and Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd), the prettiest girl in town from a wealthier family, but still as lost as the rest of them.  The heart of the town is Sam the Lion (veteran Western actor Ben Johnson), the owner of the cafe, pool hall, and movie theater, and Genevieve (Eileen Brennan), the cafe waitress, each of whom acts as surrogate parents for the teenagers.  The rest of the adults in town seem as lost as anyone else and mostly shame the boys for losing their high school football games.

There’s not much future in Anarene, Texas.  The boys can become roughnecks or go to war in Korea.  Jacy can go to college but doesn’t seem interested. In the meantime they can kill time at the pool hall or the picture show, or engage in the town’s favorite hobby: sex.  You can tell this movie was made in the 1970s because suddenly there are nekkid people everywhere. And their interweaving sexual encounters make up the better part of the film. Sonny has an affair with Ruth (Cloris Leachman), the depressed wife of his high school football coach. Jacy moves from Duane to a rich boy from Wichita to Sonny, seemingly trying out using her sexuality to become a master manipulator, but not having her heart in it.

If I haven’t made it clear, this is a sad movie.  The emotion depth of the characters is brilliantly portrayed even if lacking joy or hope.  I think this is a movie that’s going to stay with me for a long time.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Conformist (1970)

Title: The Conformist 
Release Date: October 22, 1970
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Production Company: Mars Film Produzione | Marianne Productions | Maran Film

This movie set in the 1930s focuses on Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), an agent of the Italian Facist secret police, sent to France to assassinate a former teacher,  Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio). The story begins with Clerici pursuing Quadri in a car driven by his handler Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) and returns to the car in-between flashbacks.  The flashbacks include moments further back in time such as his childhood when he believes he killed a family chauffeur who attempted to sexually assault him and more recently his engagement to his wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli).

The bulk of the movie, though, is flashbacks to events that happened in Paris immediately before the car chase when Clerici and Giulia went to Paris on their honeymoon and paid social calls to Quadri and his wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda).  Obviously, Clerici used this as a cover for the assassination assignment but I don’t think Giulia was in on it.  In fact she seems to be having a delightful time socializing.  In a weird subplot, Anna ends up making sexual advances on both Clerici and Giulia, which seems mostly an excuse for gratuitous nudity.

The movie ends with a coda set in 1943 with the fall of Mussolini and Clerici ratting out his blind Fascist friend to the monarchists. I’m not sure what this adds to the movie as Clerici is already established as untrustworthy and lacking values so it’s just doubling down on it.

The sets of this film very large spaces with Art Deco design that are reminiscent of Metropolis (apparently not a coincidence).  There is also some great camera work with light and shadow. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t have much going for it. The psychological study of a Fascist just seems to be making excuses for someone who is clearly just a nasty Fascist.  I never feel any tension that Clerici is going to do anything other than what he’s set out to do, although the movie feints at him being conflicted. In sum, the movie is pretty to look at, but it feels hollow to me.  Who needs a pretty movie about a Fascist?

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

TitleMidnight Cowboy
Release Date: May 25, 1969
Director: John Schlesinger
Production Company: Jerome Hellman Productions

Midnight Cowboy is a just plain weird movie.  Jon Voight stars as Joe Buck (no, not the sports announcer people love to hate), a Texan who leaves for New York City believing his natural charm to women will make him a successful prostitute.  There he meets Rico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a con man with a limp who nevertheless takes Buck in as a roommate in the derelict apartment where he squats.  Buck is a stereotypical Texan and Rizzo is a stereotypical New Yorker, but due to the acting talents of Voight and Hoffman they are stereotypes that are nevertheless fully-realized human beings. Their story as two outsiders suffering increasing poverty while finding friendship in one another is a good one.

Unfortunately, Midnight Cowboy also wants to go all-in on exposing the lurid underbelly of New York.  Again and again, it depicts sex acts in movie theaters, hypocritical Christian fanatics, a countercultural party with some of Andy Warhol’s hangers-on, and lots of gratuitous violence.  These scenes are also stereotypes, a Hollywood image of New York City decrepitude that would be repeated in B-movies for the next three decades.  Maybe they were new on-screen in 1969, but unlike Voight and Hoffman’s performances, there’s nothing particularly interesting about this rubbernecking at bad old New York.

I can see why Midnight Cowboy made the impression it did upon release, and it’s definitely a clinic for acting technique, but it’s many flaws make it a good film for me but not a greatest of all time.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review:Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Title: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Release Date: December 12, 1967
Director: Stanley Kramer
Production Company: Columbia Pictures

1967 was a huge year for Sidney Poitier with To Sir, With Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner making him the top grossing leading man of the year. Whether Hollywood needed a Black man teaching rebellious students in London’s East End, a Black man solving crimes in a racist Southern town, or a Black man meeting his white betrothed’s liberal parents for the first time, Sidney Poitier was your man.  The latter two films also did well at the Academy Awards, although Poitier was criminally not nominated for Best Actor for any of them.

Reviewing Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 2020 comes down to two questions: is it a good movie and was it a good movie for its time?  The latter question is easy to answer in the affirmative. It’s often noted that something like a Hollywood film can move the needle on a social issue by using a light touch. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner follows that prescription to a T with a cast of likable and good-looking actors coming together and having some disagreements, but nothing that can’t be worked out before dinner.  I think all the actors perform well in this movie even if sometimes I can’t believe the words coming out of their mouths. As an aside, I love that Katharine Houghton has a mid-Atlantic accent just like her fictional mother and real-life aunt Katharine Hepburn. I also like Cecil Kellaway as the random Irish priest who gets tipsy and says things without a filter.

But is the movie good?  It’s definitely entertaining, but veers towards the schmaltzy (my goodness, the music!).  The fact that John and Joanna are getting married after only knowing one another for ten days seems to me more a cause for concern about the future of their marriage than their mixed race. I’m really curious why it was written to have them rushing into marriage instead of having known one another for some time, since every other effort was made to make them “perfect.”  I also think it was kind of dickish for John to make an ultimatum to Drayton’s without even talking to Joanna about it.  But the thing that bother’s me most is the inadvertent casual racism in things such as Matt (Spencer Tracy) being able to make the warm, fuzzy reconciliation speech while throwing Mr. Prentice (Roy E. Glenn, Sr.) under the bus.

Ultimately, this is a movie that is best watched as a reflection of its times while enjoying the performances of a talented group of actors.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Title: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Release Date: June 21, 1966
Director: Mike Nichols
Production Company: Warner Bros.

“That’s messed up!” I cried aloud as the credits rolled on this dramatization of a middle-aged married couple tormenting one another in the way only a loved one who knows one’s weaknesses can do.  Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the most glamorous actors in Hollywood at the time, play against type as the schlubby duo of Martha and George.  She is the daughter of the university president and he is an unaccomplished history professor.

The movie begins at 1 am after they’ve returned from a party and Martha mentions that a young couple will be dropping by that they have to get to know on account of her father.  The young biology professor played by George Segal (known as “Nick” in the credits, but never addressed by name in the movie) arrives with his wife, called “Honey” (which may or may not be her name), who is played by Sandy Dennis.  Over the course of the night and into morning, the quartet argue, drink, reveal bits of their past and as George describes it, play “games.”  These are mind games that George and Martha torture one another with.

I won’t go into any further detail, as I find this movie worked well without knowing what was coming.  I found it excruciating to watch despite or perhaps because of the excellence in acting.  The movie’s content and dialogue must’ve been shocking in 1966, and along with Blowup was a key factor in the demise of the Production Code and the emergence of a ratings system.  This is a great movie, no doubt, but it is not an easy movie to watch, so be warned!

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: 8 1/2 (1963)

Title8 1/2
Release Date: 14 February 1963
Director: Federico Fellini
Production Company: Cineriz | Francinex

Noted Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini had made 8 films on his own and one collaboration (hence 8 1/2) when he came up with the idea for his next film to be what would happen if a director forgot what movie he was making.  Marcello Mastroianni plays a famous director, Guido Anselmi, suffering from a creative block as he works on an epic science fiction movie.  He goes to a spa to try to relax and recover but his producer, production assistants, actors, and critics all follow him there. He’s continually pestered to work on the film while being unable to tell them anything about the movie, even to tell the actors the parts they will play.

Much of the movie depicts Guido’s feverish dreams and memories of his past. The line between his reality at the spa and what is happening in his mind is deliberately blurred. His mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo), arrives but he is not too happy to see her and puts her up at another hotel.  He also invites his estranged wife, Luisa (Anouk Aimée), to join him, setting up an obvious conflict. (Oddly, Luisa appears to be younger and more attractive than Carla which seems to defy the way philanderer’s typically think). He idealizes a third woman, Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), who he thinks can save his film and redeem himself. The most famous part of the movie is when Guido imagines all the women in his life in a harem, caring for him like a child, a scene that is incredibly sexist but also reveal his deep character flaws.

I found the movie overlong, although the last hour is very strong after a slow start. I’ve always hated songs about musicians bemoaning being on “the road” since it seems to just be complaining about their job, and this movie is the director’s equivalent.  Nevertheless, Mastroianni’s charming and nuanced performance of the deeply flawed Guido makes it a worthwhile exercise.  Fellini’s eye as director is also evident in the remarkable he way frames shots, edits, and weaves in the hallucinatory visions.

This is definitely a movie everyone should watch at least once, and probably more than once to catch the small details.

Note: The soundtrack includes several familiar classical music pieces as Guido and co. attempt to work on a science fiction space epic.  I think it’s interesting that just a few years later, Stanley Kubrick would make a science fiction space epic with a soundtrack of familiar classical music pieces, although I don’t know if there’s any intentionality.

Rating: ****