Title: Casque D’or
Release Date: 16 April 1952
Director: Jacques Becker
Production Company: Robert et Raymond Hakim | Speva Films | Paris-Film Production
Casque D’or refers to the helmet of golden hair on the head of Marie (Simone Signoret), the center of a love triangle between the ex-con carpenter Georges Manda (Serge Reggiani) and the mob boss Félix Leca (Claude Dauphin). The Belle Epoque story feels like a gentile predecessor to West Side Story. More significantly it is a predecessor to the French New Wave movement which is probably why it made it on the Cahiers du Cinéma list. The film is well-produced and well-acted, but I found it a bit dull. The famed final scene takes on the senseless violence of capital punishment.
Title: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Release Date: November 14, 2003
Director: Peter Weir
Production Company: 20th Century Fox | Miramax Films | Universal Pictures |
Samuel Goldwyn Films
From time to time, someone on Twitter asks “What movie do you think mosts deserves a sequel that never got one?” My answer is always Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. The 2003 film is based on details from several of Patrick O’Brian’s novels in his 20 book series about Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin (I read about half of them before my interest petered out). I personally think The Fortune of War, which is primarily set in Boston during the War of 1812, would make for great source material for a movie sequel.
I saw the movie on the big screen in December 2003 and it’s the subject of one of my earliest movie reviews. Despite being wowed by the movie on the big screen, I haven’t revisited it until now, partly inspired by a recent episode of The Cine-Files podcast. Well, I have to say that this movie is still impressive on the small screen. The special effects and sound design are amazing. But best of all the movie really gives one a sense of everyday life on the ship – the drudgery and the terror of battle as well as camaraderie and beauty. It’s a movie with a lot of action scenes but not afraid to slow down to set the mood and establish good character moments.
Russell Crowe seems perfectly cast a “Lucky” Captain Jack Aubrey, while Paul Bettany is great as the scientific and introspective (albeit ignorant of anything nautical) Dr. Maturin. While they are the big stars, this is really an ensemble movie and everyone is well cast. The historical detail of young boys of noble families serving as officers in training is well represented, especially by Max Pirkis who steals scenes as Lord Blakeney. Of course, the ship HMS Surprise is a character as well. While I’m not really someone into war and masculinity as presented in this movie, it really is an excellent work that deals with themes of leadership, friendship, and persistence very well.
Release Date: June 24, 1955
Director: Fritz Lang
Production Company: MGM
I decided to watch the movies listed by the French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma as the greatest of all time to supplement the AFI and Sight & Sound lists with movies that aren’t in English. So I’m continually surprised at the appearance of Hollywood movies in the French list that seem to have been forgotten in the United States. Moonfleet (like Letter From an Unknown Woman, which I also watched recently) does have notable European director. In this case it’s a late-career work of Fritz Lang, famed for making Metropolis and M.
Moonfleet is a full-on gothic adventure tale set on the coast of England in the 1750s and is reminiscent of Jamaica Inn and Treasure Island. The Fritz Lang touches include dramatic use of light and shadow, impressive set design, and underlying mood of menace. The titular village of Moonfleet is home to gangs of smugglers under the direction of a “gentleman,” Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger). 9-year-old orphan John Mohune (Jon Whiteley) arrives in Moonfleet on the instruction of his recently deceased mother who was an old lover of Fox.
Fox is not too keen on having a child in his manor, but John shows surprising devotion to him as a “friend.” Eventually they get caught up in seeking the lost treasure of John’s ancestor “Redbeard.” Plots are made, some buckle is swashed, betrayals are made, and characters grow. It is a fun adventure with a lot of “mood.” But I don’t think our French friends have discovered a lost Hollywood masterpiece.
Title: The Color of Pomegranates
Release Date: 1969
Director: Sergei Parajanov
Production Company: Armenfilm
Summary/Review: This art film made in Soviet Armenia tells the story of a poet named Sayat-Nova. This is not your typical biopic. The effort is made to tell the story of a poet through visual poetry rather than conventional narrative. The film has very little dialogue and is structured as a series of tableaus. The camera is pointed straight on at people posing and holding or manipulating objects. A lot of these objects have symbolic significance although I don’t have the knowledge of what they mean. It’s almost as if one is watching a series of memes from a culture you know nothing about. Nevertheless, the film has a lot of striking imagery. It also has a lot of horses with a strange canter, chickens, and sheep. So many sheep. I know the counterculture is not likely to have made inroads in Soviet Armenia in 1969 but this movie does feel awfully trippy.
Rating: I have no rational basis on which to rate this as a film
Title: The Magnificent Ambersons
Release Date: July 10, 1942
Director: Orson Welles
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures | Mercury Productions
If your debut film is hailed as a masterpiece what do you do for a follow-up? If you’re Orson Welles you adapt a Booth Tarkington novel to present a period drama about a wealthy family in Indiana during the Gilded Age. This would also see the start of Welles’ off-screen conflicts that interfered with his vision for the project. In this case, RKO Radio Pictures heavily edited down his film and added a new ending. Most reviews I’ve read tend to focus on the challenge of following up Citizen Kane and the loss of Welles’ version of this film, so I’m just going to stick to what I watched.
The Ambersons are the richest family in town and daughter Isabel (Dolores Costello) is courted by Eugene (Joseph Cotten). When he makes a social faux pas, she chooses to marry another man. They have one child, George (played as an adult by Tim Holt who impressed me in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), a spoiled brat who has the townspeople wishing for his comeuppance. The main part of the film starts when George is college-aged and Eugene, now a widower, returns to town after a 20-year absence with his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter, later to star in All About Eve). George and Lucy begin a romance but George can’t help but be hostile to her father who has become wealthy manufacturing automobiles. Efforts to appeal to George’s good side by his unmarried aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorhead), who also loves Eugene, or his uncle Jack (Ray Collins), fall on deaf ears. When George’s father dies and Eugene attempts to court Isabel, George blocks every chance for his mother’s happiness, eventually leading to the family’s downfall.
It’s really hard to convey how loathsome and sociopathic George is as a character. I know there are unpleasant people in real life and movies have to reflect that but there’s really nothing to care about in this movie when it’s just George making himself and everyone around him miserable all the time. Still, there were some things I like about this movement. The opening sequence where the townspeople appear to be interacting with Welles’ narration is cleverly done, and gave me the idea that the whole film would have a satirical feel to it rather than the melodrama we got. The scene where they try to start the “horseless carriage” in the snow is beautifully shot. As someone who dislikes cars, I also like the anti-automobile message of the movie, with even Eugene stating how damaging they can be. And the scene where George tells Lucy he’s leaving forever and she acts giddy about it is great (only marred a bit when we learn she was actually covering up that she was broken-hearted about it).
I don’t know what Welles’ version of this film would’ve been like, but this movie as it is was mostly a miss for me.
Title: Apollo 13
Release Date: June 30, 1995
Director: Ron Howard
Production Company: Imagine Entertainment
This is a movie I have difficult time being objective about since I’m endlessly fascinated by the space program, and because this movie is kind of a spiritual sequel to The Right Stuff, one of my favorite movies of all time. The movie tells the story about the third Apollo mission to attempt a moon landing in April 1970, which turns into a mad scramble to save the astronauts’ lives after a liquid oxygen tank explodes and causes other tanks to leak.
Tom Hanks stars as Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell (I read Lovell’s book Lost Moon many years ago and it’s an excellent memoir that I recommend) with Kevin Bacon as Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert and Bill Paxton as Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise. They all do a terrific job of dramatizing the cool under pressure astronauts in a helpless situation. The real heroes of this film turn out to be Mission Control crew under the leadership of Flight Director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris, who played John Glenn in The Right Stuff). A lot of the characters are composites reflecting the facelessness of the hundreds of people who made the Apollo program possible. Among them is Ken Mattingly played by Gary Sinise*, an astronaut who was supposed to go on Apollo 13 but was grounded because of exposure to measles. Nevertheless, Mattingly spends a lot of time in simulators to work out a plan to return the Apollo 13 astronauts safely.
Ron Howard directs the film competently, perhaps not with cinematic flair, but he gets all the points of the story in an entertaining and fluid. I didn’t know until recently that they actually filmed the scenes of astronauts in weightlessness in a special airplane used for training real astronauts. I know they could’ve done this with harnesses but it’s pretty cool that the actors were really weightless for some parts of the film. It adds to the authenticity of the piece. Of course, if you REALLY want to watch a great movie about the Apollo program, the documentary Apollo 11 is a must-see!
* There was a period in the mid-90s when Sinise was in a lot of big movies, and I always liked him, but then he seemed to vanish. Whatever happened to him?
Release Date: August 10, 2018
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: Blumhouse Productions | Monkeypaw Productions | QC Entertainment | 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks | Legendary Entertainment |
Perfect World Pictures
Inspired by actual historic events, or as the opening titles state “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit,” BlacKkKlansman is the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first Black police officer in Colorado Springs. Assigned to the intelligence division, Stallworth spots an ad for a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and calls for more information, using a white voice just like in Sorry to Bother You. Stallworth also accidentally uses his real name so a fellow detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), ends up meeting with the Klan members using Stallworth’s name. Flip is a composite character and in the film he’s made an unobservant Jewish man to raise the stakes of his interactions with the bigots.
Meanwhile, Stallworth continues his investigation by phone, eventually beginning a series of conversations with the KKK’s national director, David Duke (Topher Grace). Concurrently with the investigation, Stallworth begins a relationship with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a Black liberation activist from Colorado College (Patrice is also invented for the film). He meets her at at a rally where Kwame Ture (brought to life in an excellent short appearance by Corey Hawkins) is the speaker. Michael Buscemi, Harry Belafonte, and Alec Baldwin also appear in small but memorable parts.
The movie is based on absurd events and some of the wildest details are true to life. The characters seem to be aware of the absurdity, especially late in the film when the essentially dunk on David Duke. Some of the changes are odd, like moving the events to the early 70s when they took place in the late 70s. But as is typical for Spike Lee films, there is great attention to period details especially the fashions and music.
The movie talks about complex issues in interesting, if not subtle ways. For example, Ron’s earnest but perhaps naive hopes of being able to change things from the inside are contrasted to Patrice’s more revolutionary approach. Lee also uses excerpts from Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation to critique how popular entertainment reinforces white supremacist mythology. Finally, the film also incorporates footage from the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia as a chilling epilogue to a mostly comical look at the past.
Release Date: September 11, 2020
Director: Francis Lee
Production Company: BBC Films | British Film Institute | See-Saw Films
This film is based on the real life of Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) who was an underappreciated pioneer of paleontology who found and studied fossils along the coast of the English Channel at Lyme Regis. The film begins with Anning reluctantly guiding a geology enthusiast, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) on one of her collecting trips on the shore. Accompanying Murchison is his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) who is suffering severe depression. Roderick arranges for Charlotte to remain in Lyme Regis for convalescence and pays Mary Anning to take Charlotte on her trips to the shore.
The better part of the movie is Mary and Charlotte slowly lowering their defenses, becoming friends, and then beginning a romance. I thought with the stellar lead actors and the true life story of Anning’s contributions to science that this would be an interesting film. Winslet and Ronan do their best, but the whole movie has a paint-by-numbers approach full of well-worn tropes of period dramas and lesbian romance. We certainly don’t learn much about the real Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison, which is a shame, because even their short Wikipedia entries detail fascinating lives.
I’m not sure if this is a noble failure or if Francis Lee just totally missed the point, but what we end up here is a pretty, but hollow, film.
Title: One Night in Miami…
Release Date: December 25, 2020
Director: Regina King
Production Company: ABKCO | Snoot Entertainment | Germano Studios | Hit Factory | Capital Studios
On February 25, 1964, four of the most famous Black American of the 1960s met in Miami following a heavyweight title bout: Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), who had just won the heavyweight title and would later be known as Muhammad Ali, Nation of Islam minister Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), singer/songwriter Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.), and football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). The meeting really occurred, and this film depicts what they might have talked about.
Each of the characters is struggling with something. Malcolm X is planning to leave the Nation of Islam and start his organization (and hoping to bring Cassius with him), Clay is planning to publicly announce his conversion to Islam but also doesn’t seem ready to put drinking and philandering behind him, Cooke is still smarting over bombing in front of an all-white audience at the Copacabana, and Brown is considering leaving the NFL to star in movies. The main conflict of the film is between Malcolm X and Cooke, over whether Cooke is pandering to white audiences (Malcom’s view) or establishing economic independence for Black artists (Cooke’s view).
The movie is great in showing these four men who are larger than life in their public personas having moments of intimacy and vulnerability. There’s also some great humor. Who knew that Malcolm X’s idea of a party involved eating vanilla ice cream? All four of the actors are phenomenal in their roles and should’ve shared a Best Actor award.
The film is based on a play of the same name by Kemp Powers, and Regina King’s direction of the film retains a lot of theatricality which I think works to the films advantage. Kemp also plays around with the timeline in the script and in his screenplay adaptation, so it can be a bit frustrating if you know history to hear the characters referring to things that hadn’t happened yet and ignoring things that did. But it’s important to understand that Kemp is using these real life characters in a fictionalized account to depict different aspects of being Black in America.
Release Date: July 31, 2020
Director: Jessica Swale
Production Company: Shoebox Films | Iota Films
Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton) is a writer who researches and publishes studies on folklore and mythology. She is also the village curmudgeon living alone in a seaside town in Kent during World War II where the local children call her witch. To her surprise, she is assigned a child evacuee from London, Frank (Lucas Bond), to live with her. Hijinks ensue.
This movie has indication of trotting out the tired trope of Independent Women Must Learn To Embrace Her Maternal Side (As Fits Her Womanly Duty). But this movie has a few twists. Throughout the movie Alice remembers her younger days when she had a romantic relationship with a woman named Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Past and present intersect and both Alice and Frank have to deal with their personal traumas as they bond. Frank also befriends a mischiveous girl named Edie (Dixie Egerickx) who is my favorite character in the movie.
There are some historically-questionable oddities about this movie. Like, weren’t children evacuated inland rather than to a village just across the Channel from Nazi-occupied France? But if you can avoid letting little things like that from bothering you, this is a perfectly fine drama and romance film that is sweet as much as it is predictable.