Movie Review: Lady Bird (2017)

Title: Lady Bird
Release Date: November 3, 2017
Director: Greta Gerwig
Production Company: IAC Films | Scott Rudin Productions | Management 360

This coming-of-age story focuses on a year-in-the-life of a high school senior, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who chooses to call herself Lady Bird. Like many teenagers, she wants to get out of her hometown of Sacramento, and go to college on the East Coast which she thinks is more cultured. (NOTE: I’ve never been to Sacramento but this movie makes it look like a beautiful place). The main conflict in this film is the tension between Lady Bird and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who tends toward passive-aggressive criticism and worries about the family’s financial struggles.

This conflict though is subtle as plays on through various slice-of-life vignettes in Lady Bird’s life. Over the course of the year she dates two different boys, performs in a musical, turns on her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, playing a character completely opposite of who she plays in Booksmart) in order to hang out with a more popular girl, and conspires with her father Larry (Tracy Letts) to apply to a college in New York City.  Ronan’s acting and Gerwig’s directing do a great job of showing Lady Bird growing and maturing, but in a more nuanced way than the typical Hollywood moment of epiphany.

The movie reminds me a bit of Donnie Darko (without the supernatural elements) with parts of Pretty in Pink, and a strong similarity in the protagonist’s character growth with Frances Ha, a movie Gerwig wrote and starred in. Nevertheless, it is an original and honest portrayal of teenage experience.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Some Like it Hot (1959) #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: Some Like it Hot
Release Date: March 29, 1959
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: Mirisch Company 

Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) are struggling musicians who play sax and double bass in a speakeasy jazz orchestra in 1929 Chicago.  When they witness mobsters gunning down their rivals in a garage, they decide to disguise themselves as women and join an all-female jazz band that will be playing at a resort in Miami.

On the train with Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators, Joe (now Josephine) and Jerry (now Daphne) both become enamored with the band’s vocalist and ukulele player Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe).  During an impromptu party on the train, they individually make connections with Sugar.

In Florida, Jerry attracts the eye of an aging millionaire playboy, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown).  Joe creates another disguise as an heir to the Shell Oil company to attract Sugar.  One night, Jerry agrees to go dancing with Osgood so that Joe can take Sugar to Osgood’s yacht and pretend it’s his own.

Their hotel hosts a “Friends of Italian Opera” convention which is actually a cover for a national organized crime gathering. Chicago mobster “Spats” Colombo (George Raft) recognizes Joe and Jerry through their disguises.  While hiding at the convention, Joe and Jerry witness another mob hit.  On the run again, they flee with Osgood to his yacht with Sugar joining them.  Joe and Jerry reveal their true identities in one of the most hilarious film finales ever.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

One of many movies I watched with my family on tv as a kid in the mid-80s.  I remember liking it but for some reason never got around to watching it again until now.

What Did I Remember?:

I remember the train party, Tony Curtis dressing up as a millionaire and impersonating Cary Grant, and some of the basic plot.

What Did I Forget?:

Pretty much all of the mobster subplot.  I was actually impressed by the car chase that opens the movie and all the gags about the speakeasy in a funeral home are funny.  There’s about 10 minutes of this before we even meet Jerry and Joe.  I also forgot about Osgood and how the movie ends, believe it or not.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie is a cornball comedy that goes from merely good to great on the backs of four individuals at the height of their game: director Billy Wilder and actors Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon. I find Lemmon in particular to be hilarious in every scene he is in.  Monroe’s performance is a brilliant balance of sweet and simple with pure sexuality.  It’s surprising that she was so troubled in the making of this movie (arriving late, forgetting lines, etc.) because her performance seems so effortless.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

I was expecting a movie in which men dress as women and are horny for Marilyn Monroe to have aged poorly.  And there’s definitely some sexual/gender politics that don’t stand up.  But the amazing thing is that this movie avoids some of the cheap sexist jokes that later comedies that follow the similar plot tropes would revel in. I’m not going to say that Some Like it Hot is progressive, but it is a movie that seems okay with things about sexuality and gender that you wouldn’t expect from 1959.

Is It a Classic?:

I’d argue that Some Like it Hot is both a great movie, a definite classic, but also overrated.  When I see ranked as the greatest comedy of all-time I think it sets expectations too high.

Rating: ****

Seventeen-ish More All-Time Favorite Movies Starting With S:

  1. Say Anything…
  2. The Secret of Kells
  3. Seven Up! series (all nine movies including 56 Up and 63 Up)
  4. Sophie’s Choice
  5. Star Wars saga (especially Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Last Jedi)
  6. Stop Making Sense
  7. Sunset Boulevard

What is your favorite movie starting with S?  Any guesses for a movie starting with T (hint: it’s a LucasFilm production)?  Let me know in the comments.

Documentary Movie Review: Earthrise (2018) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “E” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Previous “E” documentaries I’ve reviewed include The Endless Summer and Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Title: Earthrise
Release Date: April 20, 2018
Director: Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee
Production Company: American Documentaries Inc.

This short documentary focuses on the Apollo 8 mission of December 1968. The goal of this mission was to successfully orbit the moon and return to Earth in preparation for the moon landings that would begin the following year.  With NASA’s plan and rigid schedule for getting the spacecraft into lunar orbit and documenting the moon up close, there was no intention of looking back at Earth.

And yet as the astronauts – Bill Anders, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell – became the first people to ever leave low Earth orbit, they began to notice the beauty of the Earth visible in full.  While circling the moon and documenting the surface with photographs, Anders noticed the Earth rising over the moon.  The photograph he took became the most famous part of the mission.

The movie features archival footage of the mission and contemporary news events with the only narration coming from present-day interviews with Anders, Borman, and Lovell. They talk about the significance to them of seeing the Earth from afar.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Naked Gun (1988)

Title: The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!
Release Date: December 2, 1988
Director: David Zucker
Production Company: Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker

After watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, my son chose to watch this 80s spoof of police dramas next. As the opening credits popped on the screen he said “Wait! What’s O.J. Simpson doing in this?” It struck me that he’s never lived in a world where Simpson was just a popular retired athlete turned actor. I had to wonder if a 12 y.o. would “get” parodies of 80s police shows and current events he has never seen.  He seemed to enjoy the part where Frank Drebin urinates while wearing a live mic, as well as a part I totally forgotten about where Drebin is on a ledge and inadvertently fondles some nude sculptures.

And then, when the movie was approaching it’s final act, he declared that he was bored and turned it off.  I tried to convince him to turn it on again for the baseball scenes to no avail, so I had to watch those on my own.  The sequence of gags about baseball seem to hold up the best, perhaps because baseball is so timeless.  Reggie Jackson, not Simpson, is the real MVP when it comes to retired athletes acting.  I also love a scene where Drebin commandeers a car to chase a villain and it ends up being a student driver.  John Houseman is hilarious as the instructor calmly teaching the student how to conduct a car chase and to flip the bird at sexist truck driver.

I didn’t remember this movie as well as I thought I did.  I think most of the jokes hold up or are stupid enough to at least get a chuckle.  I have to confess that I never realized that the Angels game is filmed at Dodgers Stadium until now which was a result of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker having to agree to the demands of Major League Baseball and the Los Angeles Dodgers not wanting to participate rather than just another gag.

The Naked Gun is no masterpiece, but it still has some good laughs and a startling collection of 1980s actors and cameos. It’s still worth a watch, especially if you like baseball, but maybe not if your 12 years old.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

Title: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Release Date: June 11, 1986
Director: John Hughes
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

My 12 y.o. wanted to watch this movie which was a surprise since he rarely wants to watch movies at all, much less teen classics from the 80s.  Some things you notice when you’re watching a movie for the first time in decades with your children: 1. there’s a lot more profanity than I remembered, and 2. Ferris is really a jerk and deserves to suffer SOME consequences for his misbehavior.  Maybe not so much for skipping school, but  for how he mistreats his friends and family.  At least Cameron calls him out on it.

The story, should you not be aware of it or have forgotten, is that Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) pretends to be sick in order to skip school for the 9th time in his senior year in high school (we need 8 prequels to learn what he did on those days!). He picks up his chronically-depressed and hypochondriac friend Cameron (Alan Ruck), who is also absent from school. Ferris basically steals Cameron’s father’s antique sportscar (Cameron has some good suggestions of renting a car or hiring a limo, something these kids had the means to do).  They pick up Ferris’ girlfriend, Sloane (Mia Sara), from school on the excuse that her grandmother died.

The trio drive to Chicago for the geekiest day of truancy ever.  Impossibly, they are able to to visit Sears Tower and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, dine at a fancy restaurant, attend a Cubs game, visit the Art Institute of Chicago, and then see the Von Steuben Parade, which Ferris famously crashes to lead a sing-a-long and dance of joyous Chicagoans (and since I visited Chicago in 2018, I recognized exactly where those parade scenes were shot).  Meanwhile, the school principal Ed Rooney (played by real-life sex offender Jeffrey Jones), creepily tries to track down Ferris, going so far as to break into the Bueller’s home.  Simultaneously, Ferris’ younger sister, Jeanie (Jennifer Grey), angered at her parents’ favoritism toward Ferris, also tries to bust him for faking illness.

The movie works because of the generally wholesome activities the lead trio engage in on their trip to Chicago, a steady series of gags, and all-around great performances from the cast and great chemistry among the leads.  But as I noted above, Ferris is not a hero, but more of an agent of chaos.  The real protagonists of this movie, or at least the ones who change the most, are Cameron and Jeanie.  Cameron finally reaches a breaking point where he’s able to stand up for himself to Ferris, which leads him to gain the confidence to stand up to his neglectful father.  And by the way, watching is this as a parent makes me wonder just how monstrous this father is.  Meanwhile, Jeanie is able to exorcise her jealousy and righteous rage at Ferris and attempt to just take control of her own destiny.  This, of course, means that everything works out just perfectly for Ferris, the little twerp.

Almost 35 years after its release, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is still very funny and doesn’t feel dated.  Sure, there are boxy cars and big hair, but it doesn’t scream “EIGHTIES!” as much as John Hughes’ other movies. I do wonder what this movie would be like if Ferris had a cell phone, though, considering his ability to use technology to his advantage. More importantly, it doesn’t have the inappropriate moments that make one cringe at the sexual misconduct and racism that you find in 16 Candles and The Breakfast Club.  I also appreciate the directorial style, such as viewing Cameron debating himself about joining Ferris through his car window, or how Ferris running home at the end is directed like a Chuck Jones/Tex Avery cartoon, complete with zany sound effects and music cues.

If you liked it when you’re young, watch it with your (older) kids.  They may just enjoy it as well.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Lady Eve (1941)

Title: Lady Eve
Release Date: February 25, 1941
Director: Preston Sturges
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

Another day, another screwball comedy.  And this may be the screwiest one yet, because a lot of the plot is simply not at all logical.  But put aside logic and enjoy that gags and you have a good film.

Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) is a shy young man (Fonda is good at playing reserved, but morally-centered characters) and reluctant heir to a brewery fortune. Returning to the U.S. on an ocean liner from the Amazon after studying snakes for a year,  Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and her stunning cheekbones come into his life.  He falls for her quickly and they’re discussing marriage before the ship even docks.

But there’s a twist! Jean and her father, “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn), are card sharps, and Charles is their mark.  In another twist, Jean legitimately loves him in return, and protects him from being taken by her father.  Nevertheless, when Charles discovers the truth about Jean, he breaks off their relationship.

Learning of a con to swindle wealthy Connecticut families, including the Pikes, Jean jumps at the chance to join in, putatively to get revenge for Charles dumping her.  She pretends to be a British aristocrat named Lady Eve Sidwich, and Stanwyck is absolutely hilarious putting on her posh English accent and mannerisms.  Charles is stunned by Eve’s resemblance to Jean, but rationalizes that Jean would disguise herself better, and thus accepts she’s a different woman.  They fall in love, and humorously,Charles uses the same lines to propose to “Eve” that he used on Jean.

After they marry, things get really weird.  I mean it’s still funny, but also left me saying “huh?”  All in all a good comic film with great performances by Stanwyck and Fonda.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

Welcome to Harry Potter Week! My daughter became a huge fan of the Wizarding World this year so I’ve spent the past several months revisiting the books and watching the movies (some for the first time). I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the books and movies over the course of seven days.

Title: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Release Date: November 16, 2001
Director: Chris Columbus
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures

I revisited this movie for the first time in around 17 years. I was reminded that the movie series (as does the book) starts off with a fairly simple plot compared with the intricate world-building it would acquire later.  It was also a reminder that Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint were oh-so-little when this all started, and it was an impressive job of casting at that age to get actors who’d do so well over 8 movies and into their adult careers.  Chris Columbus takes a safe-but-boring approach to directing, I think some other directors are more creative and adventurous later in the series, but nevertheless the movie has its charms in bringing the books to life for the first time.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Great Dictator (1940)

Title: The Great Dictator
Release Date: October 15, 1940
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Production Company: Charles Chaplin Film Corporation

13 years after the first “talkie,” Charlie Chaplin finally made his first film with true sound.  And let me tell you, it is very strange to hear Chaplin talking.  But he puts words to good use in this startling satire of Adolf Hitler and fascism. Filming began the same month that World War II began and The Great Dictator appeared in theaters at the same time the Battle of Britain was raging.  Not knowing the full extent of the Nazi horror was justification for turning away Jewish refugees on the MS St. Louis in 1939, and yet this movie refers to “concentration camps” by name.

Chaplin plays two roles in this movie. One is a Jewish barber who loses his memory in one of the final battles of the Great War while valiantly aiding Commander Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) secure valuable documents.  20 years later he’s finally recovered and returns to work at his barbershop in the ghetto, unaware of the rise of fascism and the persecution of the Jews.  In this role, Chaplin very much resembles his Little Tramp character in attire.  The barber befriends Mr. Jaeckel (Maurice Moscovich, who liked so much in Make Way for Tomorrow and falls in love with Hannah (Paulette Goddard), who help him adjust to the new situation. Schultz is even able to arrange a brief reprieve of the oppression in the ghetto in recognition of the barber’s heroism in World War I.

Chaplin’s other role is Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomainia, a not at all subtle parody of Adolf Hitler.  Chaplain mimics Hitler’s oratory style, complete with wild arm gestures, in a German-sound gibberish.  His depiction of a power hungry tyrant who is vain, irrational, and stupid feels a bit close to the surface to watch in 2019.  Other parodies target Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, and Benito Mussolini as Garbitsch (Henry Daniell), Herring (Billy Gilbert), Benzino Napaloni (Jack Oakie) respectively.

It is not at all surprising with Chaplin playing two characters that it will eventually lead to mistaken identity.  But what is stunning is the speech the barber delivers in the guise of Hynkel at the film’s conclusion.  All the comedy ceases, and Chaplin essentially speaks as himself for several minutes on peace and unity.  It’s a powerful ending to a film that I’m still amazed even exists.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: In Bruges

Title: In Bruges
Release Date: February 8, 2008
Director: Martin McDonagh
Production Company: Blueprint Pictures | Film4 Productions | Focus Features | Scion Films

In this most bizarre spinoff from the Wizard World of Harry Potter, aurors Percival Graves and Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody are sent to Bruges, Belgium by their boss Lord Voldemort after a hit on Aberforth Dumbledore goes awry.  While there Graves forms a relationship with Fleur Delacour.  Okay, I’m having a laugh here, but this movie shares a lot of actors with the Harry Potter series, and good actors, too.  Apropos, In Bruges is an actors’ movie drawing out a very human, character-driven story against the backdrop of Bruges’ historic medieval city center.

I’ve been meaning to watch this movie for about 11 years now, and glad I finally got around to it. I was expecting an over-the-top black comedy crime story like Trainspotting or Intermission. While In Bruges shares qualities with those prior films, it is also quieter and more introspective at times.  Colin Farrel plays the young hitman Ray whose job killing a priest goes wrong and is sent to Bruges with his mentor Ken (Brendan Gleeson). While Ken enjoys the holiday as a chance to explore historic Bruges, for Ray the city feels more like purgatory.  He wavers between being suicidal and partying a local petty thief, Chloë (Clémence Poésy) and a dwarf film actor, Jimmy (Jordan Prentice).

Ultimately the movie comes down to a debate of whether or not Ray can be redeemed. Ken, despite being a hardened criminal himself, sees Ray as someone who can make a difference in the world.  On the other side, their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) sees the world in black & white and believes that Ray must be killed to restore order.  It’s a very well-acted film, and even minor roles like pregnant owner of the hotel (Thekla Reuten) where Ray and Ken are staying have clearly defined character moments.  Fiennes does go over the top though towards the films climax, which may be the film’s biggest minus.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Zimbelism (2015) #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.

Title: Zimbelism
Release Date: September 2015
Director:  Jean François Gratton and Matt Zimbel
Production Company: Bunbury Films | Ready to Shoot Studio

This biographical documentary focuses on the life and work of freelance photographer George Zimbel.  From the 1950s to the present, Zimbel has taken evocative photographs of celebrities and ordinary people.  Some of his most famous photographs feature Marilyn Monroe, John and Jackie Kennedy on the campaign trail, Harry Truman in his retirement years, and street scenes from gritty old New Orleans.

The Monroe photographs are particularly interesting since they are from a promotional event for the Seven Year Itch with the famous moment of Monroe standing over a subway grate. Zimbel’s photographs are different in that he stands back a bit and captures the sea of other photographers taking their photos, as well as capturing Monroe in a quiet moment thinking to herself between photoshoots.  Zimbel’s street photography of ordinary people is also quite excellent.

One flaw with this movie is that it’s framed with the reading of a series of letters Zimbel exchanged with The New York Times regarding the ownership of a print of a photo of the Kennedys.  The long, snarky letters add nothing to the story and both Zimbel and the Times come of sounding like petty jerks. Oh, and Zimbel really hates digital photography.  He’s entitled to that belief, but until I have the money and space for my own darkroom, I’ll stick with my digital camera.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Finding Vivian Maier tells the story of a street photographer who, unlike Zimbel, received absolutely no recognition during her lifetime.

Source: Hoopla

Rating: **1/2

2019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films

A: Amy
B: Being Elmo
C: Central Park Five
D: Dear Mr. Watterson
E: The Endless Summer
F: F for Fake
G: Grey Gardens
H: High School
I: Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice
J: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
K: Kon-Tiki
L: The Last Waltz
M: Man With a Movie Camera
N: Nanook of the North
O: Obit.
P: Pelotero
Q: Quest: A Portrait of an American Family
R: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
S: Soundtrack for a Revolution
T: Titicut Follies
U: Unforgivable Blackness
V: Virunga
W: Waking Sleeping Beauty
X: Xavier
Y: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train

If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:

And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:

And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.