Movie Review: The Birds (1963)


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: The Birds
Release Date: March 28, 1963
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions
Summary/Review:

This is the third film that Hitchcock adapted from the writings of Daphne du Maurier after Jamaica Inn  and Rebecca.  I remember reading the du Maurier story as a child and then not being impressed when I watched the film.  Unfortunately, I still have a low opinion of the film on this rewatch.

San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) makes a bold decision to follow a man she met in a pet shop to his family home in Bodega Bay, California.  She delivers a pair of lovebirds to Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) so he may give them as a birthday gift to his 11-year-old sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright, whose name seemed so familiar until I found that she played Betty Grissom in The Right Stuff).  Before this odd meet-cute can blossom into a full-on romcom for Melanie and Mitch, seagulls, sparrows, crows, and more begin attacking humanity at regular intervals. The rest of the movie features these attacks and the tense moments in between them.

Suzanne Pleshette and Jessica Tandy also put in good performances as a local school teacher, respectively.  The movie is full of iconic shots and is definitely a forerunner to a generation of horror films such as Night of the Living Dead and Jaws. But the movie is also overlong and way to talky.  Hedren is not a compelling enough performer to carry the movie, and mostly seems to be there to fulfill Hitchcock’s sadistic desire to see a blond woman pecked by vicious birds.

Rating: **

Book Review: The Hunger by Alma Katsu


Author: Alma Katsu
Title: The Hunger
Narrator: Kirsten Potter
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

This historical novel retells the journey of the Reed-Donner Party in 1846, but adds a supernatural element.  So in addition to a series of mishaps and a poor decision to use a dangerous cutoff in attempt to shorten their journey, the party of pioneers also have to deal with supernatural elements.  I found the characterization of the people in the novel was well-done, and the author created a good illustration of how the people in this moving community interacted.  But the horror of the real Reed-Donner party with people dying of disease and starvation, with others resorting to cannibalism to survive is horrible enough. The story is not improved by the supernatural horror.

Recommended books:

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: The Lighthouse (2019)


Title: The Lighthouse
Release Date: October 18, 2019
Director: Robert Eggers
Production Company: A24 | Regency Enterprises | RT Features
Summary/Review:

When I saw the previews for this movie that looked like a Guy Maddin film and from the director of The Witch, I knew I had to see it.  New England psychological horror is my jam, after all.  Set on an island off the coast of Maine around 1890, The Lighthouse features Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as two lighthouse keepers who lose their sanity when a storm prevents their relief arriving after their four week shift.  Dafoe plays the experienced old salt who insists on maintaining the light himself while assigning mundane chores to Pattinson character, a younger man who previously worked as a lumberman and is not 100% honest about his past.  This movie has great acting, absolutely gorgeous cinematography, and fantastic sound design (I found myself pumping up the volume to marinate myself in the sounds of isolation).  I suspect this movie won’t be for everyone, but it’s just my kind of weird movie about lighthouse keepers going crazy with evil seagulls.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Young Frankenstein (1974) #atozchallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Young Frankenstein
Release Date: December 15, 1974
Director: Mel Brooks
Production Company: Gruskoff/Venture Films | Crossbow Productions, Inc. | Jouer Limited
Synopsis:

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) lectures at an American school, pronouncing his name “Fronkensteen” in order to avoid association with his mad scientist grandfather, Victor Frankenstein. He learns that he has inherited his family’s castle in Transylvania. He travels there and is met by Igor (pronounced “Eye-gor” and played by Marty Feldman), the grandson of Victor’s assistant.  He also meets a research assistant, Inga (Teri Garr), and together they travel to the castle.

The housekeeper, Frau Blucher (Cloris Leechman) greets them at the door and shows Frederick to his room.  That night Frederick, Inga, and Igor hear mysterious violin music and find secret passages that lead them to Victor’s lab and private library.  Frederick learns that reanimating the dead is in fact possible.  They steal the corpse of an executed criminal and Igor is sent to get a brain of a great scientist, but ends up taking an abnormal brain instead.

The creature (Peter Boyle) eventually comes to life but is violent and dangerous.  Frau Blucher sets the creature free, revealing that she had lured Frederick to the lab and that Victor was her boyfriend.  Frederick, Inga, and Igor recapture the creature and by showing him affection, Frederick is able to make the creature calm and well-behaved.  He introduces the creature to fellow scientists in a display that includes a tap performance to “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”  But the creature is frightened when a stage light catches fire and goes into a rage and escape.

Frederick and Inga sleep together, and shortly thereafter Frederick’s fiancee Elizabeth (Madeleine Kahn) visits unexpectedly.  The creature kidnaps Elizabeth and they also end up having sexual relations.  The creature is lured back to the castle and Frederick works on a transfer that helps stabilize the creature’s brain.  A mob of villagers storms the castle and attempts to destroy the lab, but the creature wins them over by telling how Frederick risked his life to help him.

In an epilogue, the creature and Elizabeth are apparently married, while Frederick and Inga are newlyweds.  On their wedding night, it’s revealed that Frederick picked up some of the “monster” during the transfer.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I saw this when I was probably too young, although it was on commercial tv so they cut out the naughtiest bits.  I remember reenacting scenes from Young Frankenstein with my neighbor on a cassette tape, plus some of our own improvised bits.  Then I lost that tape, which still breaks my heart to this day.

What Did I Remember?:

This is another movie I probably haven’t watched in decades but is nonetheless etched upon my brain!

What Did I Forget?:

Not so much forgot, more that I never I heard the gag, but when Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) loses his prosthetic arm at the end of the movie he shouts “to the lumberyard!”  This line just tickled my funny bone more than you’d expect.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie is part parody, part homage to Universal horror films of the 1930s, and mixes the goofy charm of that era with the slightly-raunchy sensibilities of the 1970s. The movie stars four comic actors at the peaks of their careers in Wilder, Feldman, Garr, and Boyle, with great supporting performances from Leechman and Mars, and one brilliant scene with Gene Hackman as a blind hermit.  They appear to be having a great time with the funny script by Wilder and Mel Brooks and numerous improvised bits. I also never appreciated the Brooks’ direction is excellent with numerous well-done shots throughout the movie.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Maybe I was particularly “woke” child, but it’s always creeped me out that the creature abducts Elizabeth to rape her, but then it’s “okay” because she’s impressed by his enormous schwanzstucker.  This kind of humor unfortunately plays into some persistent myths about women’s response to rape and penis size.

Is It a Classic?:

This is definitely a classic and one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Psycho (1960) #atozchallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

TitlePsycho
Release Date: September 8, 1960
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Shamley Productions
Synopsis:

A couple meet for a lunchtime tryst in a Phoenix hotel. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) hopes they can get married and legitimize their relationship, but her boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin) wants to pay off his alimony debts before he commits.  Return to work at a real estate office, Marion is entrusted with $40,000 in cash that a boastful client leaves in payment for a property.  Marion decides to steal the $40,000 and flee to California to help Sam pay his debts.

On her journey, Marion is questioned by a suspicious state trooper who finds her sleeping in her car on the side of the road.  To cover her tracks, she trades in her car for a new one surprising the car dealer with her willingness to pay for a car and go.  Close to her destination in Fairvale, California, Marion drives through a raging downpour and decides to stop for the night at an old fashioned motor court, the Bates Motel.

The motel owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) makes a sandwich for Marion and they dine together in the motel office. Marion overhears Norman’s mother chastising him and as they talk about it the conversation between Marion and Norman becomes increasingly awkward.  Marion returns to her room at the motel and takes a shower, where she is stabbed to death by a shadowy figure.  Norman covers up the murder, presumably by his mother, by cleaning up the bathroom and sinking Marion, all her possessions, and her car in a swamp.

A week later, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) arrives at Sam’s hardware store and confronts him about Marion’s absence.  A private investigator, Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), has been following Lila, and he informs them both that he is also trying to find Marion for stealing $40,000.  Arbogast makes inquiries at various hotels in the Fairvale area before finding evidence that Marion stayed at the Bates Motel.  While hoping to find out more information from Norman’s mother, Arbogast is also stabbed to death.

Lila and Sam, not hearing back from Arbogast, decide to investigate on their own.  The learn from the local sheriff that Norman Bates’ mother died in a murder/suicide a decade earlier.  They go to the Bates Motel with the plan for Sam to keep Norman occupied while Lila looks for the mysterious older woman in the Bates House.  Norman overpowers Sam, and Lila goes to hide in the house’s fruit cellar.  She discovers the mummified corpse of woman just as Norman shows up wearing a wig and a dress and ready to stab Lila.  Sam arrives in the nick of time and Norman is apprehended.  As an epilogue to the movie, a psychologist explains that Norman murdered his mother and adopted a split personality where he sometimes acted as his jealous mother.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

Someone (my mother?) told me the basic plot about Norman Bates having a split personality and being a knife-wielding murderer.  When I was probably too young to watch this movie, around 9-10 years old, I was excited that it was on tv after school one day.  I missed the beginning of the movie and tuned in when Marion and Norman are talking.  Hitchcock rolled in his grave knowing that I’d missed the movie AND had been spoiled about the surprise twist.

What Did I Remember?:

The shower scene, obviously, as well as Arbogast’s murder, Lila’s discovery, the psychologist’s speech, and Norman in his cell.

What Did I Forget?:

Even though I’d watched the movie in its in entirety at a later date, it was still a surprise how much of the “stealing $40,000” suspense plot there is before the big twist.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

Long before Game of Thrones killed off its protagonist in the first season, Psycho upended filmgoers’ expectations by not only having Marion brutally murdered 50 minutes into the movie, but also that her theft of $40,000 was a complete MacGuffin.  And then Arbogast takes over as the protagonist for the next part of the movie, where it appears that he will solve the mystery, until he is also murdered.  Lila is the final protagonist who sees the movie to the end.  This movie challenged the conventions of the production code and introduced the slasher film genre, changing Hollywood forever, for good and for ill.  And while it’s a low-budget movie, the cinematography, music, and acting performances from the likes of Leigh and Perkins are magnificent.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

I think the movie holds up well overall, although I suspect the early scenes of suspense around Marions theft and then the ten minutes where Norman silently cleans up the scene of the crime may be too slow for a lot of modern audiences.

Is It a Classic?:

No doubt.

Rating: ****

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with P:

  1. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
  2. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
  3. Popeye (1980)
  4. The Portrait of Jennie (1948)
  5. The Princess Bride (1987)

What is your favorite movie starting with P? What is your guess for my Q movie (Hint: It features a clown, but a crying on the inside type)?  Let me know in the comments!

Movie Reviews: Jaws (1975) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

TitleJaws
Release Date: June 20, 1975
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Zanuck/Brown Company | Universal Pictures
Synopsis:

A rogue shark attacks people swimming in the waters off of a New England beach town.  Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close the beaches, but others, including Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) fear the economic devastation of closing the beaches right before Independence Day.  The shark kills more people, the shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) arrives to advise, and shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) offers to kill the shark.  Quint, Hooper, and Brody sail out on a boat that’s not large enough to track and kill the shark, bonding on the journey.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

This movie was filmed in Martha’s Vineyard, a place that my family vacationed at often during my childhood.  We loved visiting the spots used as locations for the movie including some businesses that still had their “Amity” shop signs on display.  I’m pretty sure that I watched Jaws 2 and Jaws 3-D before I ever watched Jaws in its entirety, but sometime in the late 80s it became one of my favorite films of all time.  The sequels are “meh” because they’re about the shark, but Jaws is a story about people.

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered the plot and many details fairly well.

What Did I Forget?:

There’s a brilliant scene where Martin Brody’s son imitates all of his gestures and they make faces at one another.  It’s one of those great Spielberg family touches.  Later in the scene, Ellen Brody (Lorrraine Gary) and Hooper have great repartee over wine, which is interesting considering that in the novel they have an affair (I’m so glad Spielberg didn’t include this subplot).

While I remembered that Mayor Vaughn wanted to keep the beaches open, I forgot that Vaugh actually encourages people to go into the water before the July 4th shark attack.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

As noted above, this is a movie about people.  The first hour of the movie is less about a shark and more about how people respond to crises.  The town government prioritizing the economic interests over peoples’ lives feels very relevant at the time I watched this movie.  The second part of the movie is three men on a boat all from different backgrounds, all with key abilities, and all with serious flaws.  The camaraderie among Brody, Hooper, and Quint is one of the best aspects of this movie. People may want to avoid or dismiss this as a horror movie but I think they’ll miss that great human storytelling, adventure, and even comedy.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

I want to say that the ongoing manhood competition among Quint, Hooper, and Brody is dated, but really men are still that stupid about these things.

Is It a Classic?:

Yes, an all-time great.

Rating: *****

I apparently have no other all-time favorite movies starting with J. Let me know your favorite J movies so I can remedy that.  And if you have a guess for my K movie, let me know in the comments. (Hint: it’s about an out-of-towner having a really bad day in New York).

 

Book Review: The Shining by Stephen King


Author: Stephen King
TitleThe Shining
Narrator: Campbell Scott
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2012) [originally published in 1977]
Other books read by the same author:

  • The Bachman Books
  • “The Body”
  • The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger
  • Pet Sematary
  • The Eyes of the Dragon
  • Skeleton Crew
  • The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three
  • Misery
  • The Dark Half
  • Four Past Midnight
  • The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands
  • The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
  • Faithful
  • “Guns”

Summary/Review:

Having finally gotten around to watching the movie, The Shining, last fall, and finding it didn’t live up to the reputation, I really wanted to read the book it’s based on.  After all, Stephen King dislikes Stanley Kubric’s adaptation of his book, so perhaps I’d like the book better.  I’ll have to say that as an adaptation, the movie doesn’t stray too far from the source material.  There are obviously a lot of details that the movie leaves out, as is vital in filmmaking, and Kubric did the same thing he did with 2001, where he makes ambiguous some things that are explicit in the book.

What movies cannot do well is to express the interiority of the characters, and this is an aspect of the book I liked the best.  King is especially good at getting into the minds of Danny and Jack, but doesn’t do it as much with Halloran and Wendy.

Jack is more of a normal person at the beginning of the book – an alcoholic with anger issues, yes – but not the half-crazed character that Jack Nicholson plays.  Wendy is less of a dishrag and much more resourceful, and she even uses Danny’s shining abilities to help plan their escape.  Danny is the best part of the book as King does a great job of portraying a child dealing with things that someone much older would struggle to handle.  The book works well as straight-up horror but also symbolic of the destructive power of toxic masculinity.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Us (2019)


TitleUs
Release Date: March 22, 2019
Director: Jordan Peele
Production Company: Monkeypaw Productions | Perfect World Pictures
Summary/Review:

Following on the success of Get Out, writer/director Jordan Peele returns with another film of sheer terror.  The movie begins in 1986 when a young girl named Adelaide (Madison Curry) wanders away from her father at a seaside amusement park in Santa Cruz. Entering a decrepit fun house, she encounters a girl who looks just like her.  The experience traumatizes her, leaving her unable to talk, and only through taking up ballet is she able to express herself again.

In the present day, the adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) goes on vacation to a summer home near Santa Cruz with her family: goofball husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), moody teenage daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and shy and sensitive son, Jason (Evan Alex).  Meeting up with friends at the same beach in Santa Cruz stirs up memories of her traumatic past causing Adelaide to become increasingly anxious. As she reveals her childhood trauma to Gabe, the power in the summer home is cut, and Jason announces “There’s a family in the driveway.”  That family turns out to be terrifying doppelgängers of Adelaides family known as the Tethered who invade the house and begin attacking the family.

That’s all I’m going to offer by way of summary as the movie is best enjoyed unspoiled. What’s brilliant about Us is that everything that is introduced early in the movie, even stray pop cultural references, becomes relevant later in the movie. There are no stray details. While dealing with creepy twins bearing sharpened shears is scary enough, the movie also works on multiple metaphorical levels.  The Tethered represent our subconscious selves that we hide in order to live in civilization.  From a societal perspective, the Tethered also represent how when some people lead lives of privilege at the expense of the suffering of hidden, Other people. Even the title has multiple meanings as the Tethered are literally “us” to Adelaide and her family, but it can also represent the initials of the United States. One of the more terrifying lines in the movie is when Adelaide’s doppelgänger Red responds to the question of who they are by hissing “We’re Americans!”

Nyong’o puts in a terrific dual performance as Adelaide and Red.  Alex is also remarkable as Jason and his alter-ego Pluto. Elizabeth Moss gets special recognition for a scene in which she makes putting on lip gloss incredibly creepy.  Us also includes one of the greatest musical soundtrack cues in history with N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police.” I highly recommend checking this movie out, just don’t watch it late at night, and leave the lights on!

Rating: ****

Book Review: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado


Author: Carmen Maria Machado
Title: Her Body and Other Parties
Narrator: Amy Landon
Publication Info: HighBridge, a Division of Recorded Books (2017)
Summary/Review:

This collection of short stories uses tropes of horror – and particularly body horror – to relate the struggles faced by women and LGBTQ people. Stories include allowing the woman with the ribbon around her neck from an urban legend tell her life story and what seems to be a list of sexual partners growing into a story of a nationwide plague.  One story is synopses of Law and Order: SVU episodes that grow increasingly absurd and macabre. That story, and some others, went on too long and I lost focus. But overall this is a creepy and sexy collection of stories.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***