Movie Review: The 39 Steps (1935)


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 39 Steps
Release Date: 6 June 1935
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Gaumont-British Picture Corporation
Summary/Review:

The 39 Steps is one of the many great movies I watched in my film studies class in high school.  I remember liking it but I didn’t remember anything about the movie other than the famous moment when the chambermaid’s scream is drowned out by a train whistle. The movie stars Robert Donat as Richard Hannay, an ordinary person who gets caught up in international intrigue.  The movie is a template for many spy stories and thrillers to follow, but I’m impressed by how fresh and original it seems.

The movie starts with Hannay attending a music hall performance of Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) when shots are fired in the theater and panic ensues.  Hannay meets Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) in the crowd and take her home for protection. Annabella confesses that she is a spy being chased for assassins because she is trying to stop the theft of valuable British military intelligence. In the morning, Hannay wakes up to Annabella stumbling into his room with a knife in her back, clutching a map of Scotland with Alt-na-Shellach circled.

The bulk of the film involves Hannay traveling to Scotland to find the spies and clear his name of Annabella’s murder. He falls into and out of trouble as he’s pursued both by the police and the spies.  Hannay doesn’t really have a plan but he’s good at improvising and has a good sense of humor.  Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), a woman who identifies Hannay to the police on multiple occasions, eventually ends up handcuffed to him by the spies in disguise.  Their scenes together, while fully in the thriller genre, also seem to be protypical tropes of the romantic comedy (and also kind of remind me of Frank Capra’s 1934 comedy It Happened One Night, which I’m going to have to rewatch to make sure).

The 39 Steps is an excellent thriller with great comic moments, inspired acting performances, and directorial innovation from Hitchcock.  It’s definitely worth a spot on lists of Hitchcock’s best movies and the best movies of all time.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: The Great Muppet Caper (1981)


Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.

Title: The Great Muppet Caper
Release Date: 26 June 1981
Director: Jim Henson
Production Company: Henson Associates | ITC Entertainment
Summary/Review:

A sequel that confusingly really isn’t a sequel because the Muppets play different characters but with the same names.  This was how it was explained to me as a child, especially to make sense of why Kermit and Miss Piggy were romantically involved in the movies, but Miss Piggy’s love is unrequited on the tv show.  At any rate, I don’t think I’ve watched The Great Muppet Caper since I saw it in the theaters long ago with my father, (perhaps I saw it later on tv, but never as often as the other Muppet movies I watched as a child).  The Great Muppet Caper has a reputation for being a disappointing follow-up to The Muppet Movie, but even with a sophomore slump, I think it holds up remarkably well.

In this movie Kermit and Fozzie are twin brothers who work as reporters, with Gonzo as their photographer, who travel to London to investigate the theft of fashion designer Lady Holliday’s (Diana Rigg) jewels. There they meet Miss Piggy, Lady Holliday’s new receptionist with aspirations for modelling, and several other Muppets who populate the fleabag Happiness Hotel.  Lady Holliday’s brother, Nicky (Charles Grodin), and a trio of models are behind the jewel heists and its up to the Muppets to foil their plot.

Much like it’s predecessor, this movie relies on meta-fictional humor and recurring sight gags.  Movie tropes, particularly heist movies, are parodied and there are grand song and dance numbers that harken back to Astaire & Rogers and Ethel Merman, except they feature Miss Piggy.  While The Muppet Movie wowed us with Kermit riding a bicycle, this movie shows the whole cast of Muppets bicycling and performing tricks!  Throughout the movie, Muppet characters seem to move autonomously in remarkable ways.

The criticisms that I have for this movie is that it feels very episodic and the humor is not as sharp. Joe Raposo’s soundtrack doesn’t include any songs as memorable as Paul Williams’ Muppet Movie soundtrack.  And the cameo performances aren’t as funny, with one notable exception. John Cleese and Joan Sanderson appear as an upper-class British couple carrying on the most boring, awkward conversation as Miss Piggy breaks into their house.

The Great Muppet Caper is not the all-time classic of its predecessor, but it’s still a funny and creative step forward for Jim Henson and the Muppet performers in film-making

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)


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 Man Who Knew Too Much
Release Date: December 1934
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Gaumont British Picture Corporation 
Summary/Review:

As a child, I watched the 1956 Hitchcock movie The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Although the only thing I can remember about the movie is Doris Day singing “Que Sera, Sera,” I remember liking it well enough. The critical consensus, however, is that the 1934 version of the movie is better.

The movie begins with the British Lawrence family enjoying a vacation at a Swiss ski resort.  Jill Lawrence (Edna Best) is dancing with a French ski jumper they befriended, Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay), when the latter is shot from outside the ballroom.  In his dying moments, Louis tells Jill to have her husband Bob (Lesley Banks) to find in his room a secret message for the British Consul about an international crime.  Bob finds the secret note, but is witnessed in the act, and in retaliation, a criminal gang lead by Abbot (Peter Lorre) kidnaps the Lawrence’s young daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam).

The Lawrence’s return home to London and refuse to cooperate with the government officials, knowing it could lead to the gang killing Betty.  Instead, Bob begins an investigation with his comic relief brother-in-law, Clive (Hugh Wakefield).  Their investigation leads to a dentist office, a church for sun-worshipers, the Albert Hall, and eventually a massive shootout that would put Quention Tarentino to shame. Bob really doesn’t go into any of this with a plan and succeeds by luck, so much of the tension is around whether his latest improvisation will work.

Lorre is great as the villain, as always, but many of the other performances are kind of flat.  If you think too hard about a lot of Hitchcock films, the plans of the characters don’t make too much sense in retrospect, but in this movie they don’t even make much sense as you’re watching it.  This film is a serviceable thriller, but I wouldn’t rank it among the all-time classics or even the best Hitchcock films.

Rating: ***

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: ****

Documentary Review: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1983) #AtoZChallenge


This is my entry for “Z” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Previous “Z” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait and Zimbelism.

Title: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Release Date: December 23, 1983
Director: D. A. Pennebaker
Production Company: Miramax Films | MainMan | Bewlay Bros.
Summary/Review:

David Bowie finished off a world tour supporting The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars with this performance at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on July 3, 1973.  Pioneering D. A. Pennebaker and a small crew were on hand to film the show.  Cinematically, this film does not hold up to the likes of The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense. Nevertheless, I appreciate the simplicity and the intimacy of this concert film.

Bowie is the focus of the film, whether he’s on stage or in his dressing room for a costume change.  It’s clear that he has a special connection with the audience, many of who are in Ziggy Stardust style makeup and costumes.  Assuming there are no overdubs in this film – and I don’t think there are – the band was on fire this night, especially Mark Ronson who has several excellent guitar solos.  Pianist Mike Garson lends a cocktail lounge jazz sound to several songs that works very well.  My only disappointment is that the band doesn’t perform “Starman” or “Life on Mars” in this set.

If you’re like me and weren’t alive to see what the big deal was regarding Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, this is a good way to found out.

Rating: ****

Movie Reviews: Gaslight (1944) #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: Gaslight
Release Date: May 4, 1944
Director: George Cukor
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Synopsis:

This psychological thriller actually lent its name to the form of psychological manipulation and abuse depicted in the film.  The movie begins just after the murder of famed opera singer Alice Alquist as her niece Paula (Ingrid Bergman) leaves her London home and is told not to look back.  A decade later, Paula is pursuing her own singing career in Italy, but her instructor notices that she is distracted by being in love.  Turns out she’s fallen madly in love with her piano accompanist Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer).

Gregory and Paula marry and he manipulates her into moving back into her aunt’s townhouse in London.  Over the weeks and months that follow, Gregory isolates Paula by preventing her from going out and refusing to allow visitors to the house.  He begins to tell her that she’s not well, that she loses things, and is a kleptomaniac. He embarrasses her in front of their saucy, young maid, Nancy (Angela Lansbury).  Paula begins to question her own sanity.

In reality, Gregory is a jewel thief named Sergis Bauer, who murdered Alice Alquist and is now sneaking in the attic to search Alice’s possessions for her famous jewels.  Gregory’s time in the attic leads to Paula noticing the fluctuation in the gaslight (hence the film’s title) and footsteps that add to her sense that she is imagining things.  Inspector Brian Cameron of Scotland Yard (Joseph Cotten, with an unexplained American accent), who was a fan of Alice Alquist, becomes suspicious of what is happening in her niece’s house and reopens the investigation in her murder.  Eventually he is able to help Paula turn the tables against Gregory.  Watching Gregory abuse Paula is extremely difficult, but the ending is very cathartic.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

This is one of the movies I watched in a film studies class in high school.  Imagine, if you will, a bunch of 15-year-old boys realizing that the same actress who played Jessica Fletcher was really hot when she was young.  We also were amused by Boyer’s outrageous French accent and spent weeks imitating the way he said “Paula.”

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered the basic plot, but none of the details, so it was really like watching the movie anew.

What Did I Forget?:

Most everything.  I’ll also add that watching as an adult, the severity of Gregory’s abuse hit me a lot harder, and I felt a lot of sympathy for Paula.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

The movie is melodramatic, but I think that it otherwise is a good microcosm of the very real psychological abuse that occurs in some relationships.  Boyer is convincingly evil while hiding it beneath his charm. Bergman does a great performance of how even a strong person can fall victim to these psychological attacks. It’s not your typical thriller.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

This is a 1940s movie based on a 1930s play with a story that is set somewhere around the 1890s, so it should feel dated in some way.  But I think it holds up pretty well overall.

Is It a Classic?:

Yes. And definitely a unique addition to an all-time thrillers list.

Rating: ****

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with G:

  1. Genghis Blues (1999)
  2. Glory (1989)
  3. The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980)
  4. Good Will Hunting (1997)
  5. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

What is your favorite movie starting with G?  What do you think will be my movie for H? (Hint: It’s set in Brooklyn in the 1960s). Let me know in the commments.

Movie Review: A Fish Called Wanda (1988) #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: A Fish Called Wanda 
Release Date: July 15, 1988
Director: Charles Crichton
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | Prominent Features
Synopsis:

English gangster George Thomason (Tom Georgeson) and his right-hand man Ken Pile (Michael Palin) plan a jewel heist. They bring the American couple Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Otto West (Kevin Kline), who claim to be siblings but are actually lovers. The robbery goes off without a hitch and then the members of the gang double-cross one another.  Wanda and Otto turn in George to the police, and Wanda plans to turn on Otto too, until they discover that George moved the diamonds to a different hiding place.

Wanda decides to seduce George’s barrister Archie Leach (John Cleese) so she can learn if George plans to turn over the diamonds for a reduced sentence.  Her attempts to get to know Archie are interrupted by a jealous and stupid Otto (“Don’t call me stupid!”).  Meanwhile, Ken attempts to assassinate an elderly woman who is a witness that identified George as being a robbery.  An animal lover, Ken is broken-hearted that each of his three attempts to kill the witness lead to the deaths of one of her tiny dogs.

Despite the odds, Archie and Wanda form a real attachment and through a screwy series of events the diamonds are recovered, and they escape to the South America with them.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I was at my peak period as a Monty Python fanatic, watching all their movies and taping every Monty Python’s Flying Circus episode off of MTV and PBS, as well as various other projects involving one or more Pythons.  I was ecstatic when I learned that there was a brand new movie involving two members of Monty Python and saw it soon after release with my family.

Kevin Kline was the revelation of this movie.  At the time he’d been mostly in serious dramas up to this point (although later in life I saw Sophie’s Choice where his character was both hilarious and terrifying).  His performance as a stupid American, ultraviolent jerk steals the movie.

What Did I Remember?:

“What was the middle part?”  I remembered pretty well how the movie began and ended but it was fun to rediscover how they got from point a to point.

What Did I Forget?:

Like I said above, I forgot the middle part.  I also forgot the subplot about Otto pretending to be gay with a crush on Ken, probably because it’s one of the few gags in the movie that doesn’t hit the mark.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie features a hilarious script by Cleese and Crichton and four actors putting in one of their career best performances while all playing against type. It’s really sad that they couldn’t find the magic again when they made Fierce Creatures.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

So many comedies that I loved in the 80s cause severe cringe, and I was worried that A Fish Called Wanda would be the same. Blessedly, the movie holds up well, I think because of the fact that everyone in the movie is clearly an awful person, so it’s not like your dealing with a sympathetic character doing awful things.

Even at the time it was released, the movie was criticized for Ken having a significant stutter.  I enjoy Michael Palin’s performance so I want to find a way to justify it, but there’s no denying that the jokes come at the expense of people who stutter.

Is It a Classic?:

It’s definitely a standout comedy film, although it may fall short of the all-time great movies list.

Rating: ****

5 more all-time favorite movies starting with F:

  1. Fargo (1996)
  2. Field of Dreams (1989)
  3. Finding Nemo (2003)
  4. The Fisher King (1991)
  5. The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)

What is your favorite movie starting with F? What is your guess for my movie starting with G? (Hint: this movie gave rise to a psychological term). Let me know in the comments!

 

Movie Review: The Crying Game (1992) #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: The Crying Game
Release Date: October 30, 1992
Director: Neil Jordan
Production Company: Palace Pictures | Channel Four Films | British Screen
Summary/Review:

A British soldier, Jody (Forest Whitaker), on duty in Northern Ireland during The Trouble is abducted and held hostage by the Provisional IRA. An IRA member, Fergus (Stephen Rea), stands guard over Jody over several days and the two men bond. Jody is accidentally killed when the British military carries out an assault on the IRA safe-house.  Seeking to lie low for a while, Fergus flees to London and takes on a job in construction under an alias.

Jody told Fergus about his lover,  Dil (Jaye Davidson), so Fergus tracks her down. Initially Fergus wants to make sure Dil is okay as a debt to Jody, but he soon falls in love with her.  In a moment that was heralded as the BIG TWIST at the time of release, Fergus discovers that Dil is transgender as they are about to have sex. After his initial revulsion, Fergus continues to be drawn to Dil.

Unfortunately, Fergus’ former IRA accomplices find him and inform him he’s been tried in abstentia for his failing to execute Jody and the fleeing. He’s able to atone for this if he carries out a risky assassination of a British judge. Dil’s life is put at risk is Fergus fails to come through on the assassination. Fergus is left with some difficult choices in a final act that depicts some touching moments of love and sacrifice.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

Like good Irish Americans, my mother, sister, and I went to see this at the theater as a family because it was a big deal movie about The Troubles.

What Did I Remember?:

The broad strokes of the movie stuck with me if not the details.

Also, I have to brag here, but Jim Broadbent is one of those actors who is in like every British movie ever and I never remember who he is, but for the first time ever I recognized him right away as the charming bartender, Col.

What Did I Forget?:

Jody is rather obnoxious in the first few scenes we see him in before he and Fergus begin to bond and the characters soften.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

At the time of release, people talked about the movie as if “THE BIG TWIST” was the main point.  I never thought that then, and 28 years later, I think the movie’s real intent to tell a story of love, sacrifice, and a kind heart in troubled times perseveres. It also has an excellent soundtrack, from Percy Sledge to Boy George to Lyle Lovett, the perfectly compliments the storyline.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Awareness and understanding of transgender people in popular media has improved in leaps and bounds in recent years (albeit with more improvement necessary) so the depiction of Dil feels a bit clunky, and overall her character seems to lack some agency.

Is It a Classic?:

Yes, indeed.

Rating: ****

 

5 more all-time favorite movies starting with C:

  1. Casablanca (1942)
  2. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
  3. Citizen Kane (1941)
  4. The City of Lost Children (1995)
  5. Clueless (1995)

What is your all-time favorite movie starting with C? What do you guess will be my movie for D?  Let me know in the comments!

Classic Movie Review: Blowup (1966)


Title: Blowup
Release Date: December 18, 1966
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

Years ago I read Lights Out For the Territory, a series of essays about walking around London by Iain Sinclair.  He mention Blowup as a significant London film in that book so I was happy to finally seeing this movie.  It does capture “Swinging London” of the mid-60s, and like La Dolce Vita does for Rome, it shows a city in transition.  As the protagonist, Thomas (David Hemmings), drives through London in his sportscar, he passes by rows of buildings that don’t look like they’ve been updated since the Edwardian period, and then passes modernists apartment blocks that look like they’ve just been dropped in from outer space.

Unfortunately, this movie is also like La Dolce Vita in that it’s protagonist is completely loathsome, a photographer who is cruel to the models who pose for him, a sexual aggressor, and just all-around unlikable bloke.  Michelangelo Antonioni came from Italy to make his first English-language film with the continental flair for celebrating “La Dudebro.”  Curiously, this movie, with it’s frank depictions of sexuality and nudity, became a hit in the USA and helped bring about the demise of the Production Code.

The central plot of the movie is about Thomas taking pictures of a couple kissing in the park.  The woman (Vanessa Redgrave) pursues Thomas to try to retrieve the film and destroy it, which includes her taking off her top for Thomas (because of course woman do that very thing in a world where the dudebro is hero).  Thomas keeps the film, though, and when developing the pictures he notices a man with a gun and an apparently dead body in the bushes.  He blows-up his prints repeatedly to find clues in the grainy detail (hence the film’s title).

The film is classified as a mystery or a thriller, but I believe it is neither. The whole photography/blow up/mystery part only happens after an hour of a day-in-a-life of Thomas being a total dick.  The mystery of the photos is something that engages him temporarily from the ennui he’s suffering, but even then he allows himself to be distracted twice (first by having sex with two young women and then by attending a druggy party) instead of, you know, calling in the police. The movie is more a meditation on inaction and the perception of reality which unfortunately is built around a total asshole.

As much as I disliked most of the movie, the final scene is actually brilliant.  Thomas returns to the park to photograph the dead body (spoiler: it’s gone). Then a troop of pranksters arrive and begin pantomiming playing a game of tennis.  The easily-distracted Thomas becomes absorbed in watching the “game” (and to be fair, these are really excellent mimes) and even goes to fetch the “ball” when it flies over the fence.  The camera work following the non-existent ball really helps make the viewer sense that a ball is really there.  If only the rest of the movie were as weird and whistful as this final scene, I would like it so much more.

Rating: **

Book Review: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson


Author: Steven Johnson
Title: The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
Narrator: Alan Sklar
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: [United States] : Tantor Media, Inc., 2006
Summary/Review:

This book explores the ideas of urbanism, epidemiology, and social networks through the lens of the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in the Soho district of London.  Dr. John Snow, with the help of Reverend Henry Whitehead, created a map of where people infected with cholera lived and drew their water to trace the infection to a water pump on Broad Street.  That Snow and Whitehead knew the neighborhood and its people well proved advantageous in creating the connections needed to document the spread of disease. Snow also had to fight an uphill battle against the prevailing scientific belief that diseases like cholera were spread through the air, known as the miasma theory.

Johnson details how the evolutionary response to putrefaction and vile odors made such beliefs plausible, but practices such as “cleaning up” the city by deliberately washing waste into the water inadvertently caused infections to increase.  Johnson also depicts the urban environment as a unique battleground for humans and microorganisms.  All in all this is a fascinating account of an historic account, with broader implications for how we live today and into the future.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2