Classic Movie Review: Funny Face (1957)

Title: Funny Face
Release Date: February 13, 1957
Director: Stanley Donen
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

The challenge for me with musicals is setting aside my logical brain and just enjoying the song and dance. Funny Face, for example, asks me to believe that Audrey Hepburn has a funny face when she is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful people of all time.  The movie is an odd one, with some startlingly feminist tones for 1957, although these are often undercut. Similarly it recognizes an emerging counterculture but mostly to make it a butt of jokes.

Funny Face can’t be faulted for its great sense of style. The movie uses bold colors and dramatic film techniques to great effect, and incorporates mid-century design into the background of its New York scenes versus the old world charms of its Paris settings. The music is entertaining, largely George and Ira Gershwin tunes composed for a 1927 Broadway musical called Funny Face that had an entirely different plot. Hepburn draws on her dance training performing several numbers, including a Bohemian dance in a Paris cafe, and we even get to hear her sing (unlike My Fair Lady, which was unfair to Hepburn’s lovely voice).

Kay Thompson, the author of the Eloise books, steals the show as the bombastic fashion magazine publisher Maggie Prescott. The trope of the domineering fashion magazine publisher followed by a gaggle of women editors is very familiar, did it start with this movie? On a photoshoot to a Greenwich Village philosophy book shop, Maggie and her crew harass the book seller Jo Stockton (Hepburn) and trash the store. Photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) takes a liking to Jo and stays to help her clean up. (He also kisses her without consent because apparently Fred Astaire always has to be creepy).

Avery convinces Maggie that Jo would be the perfect fresh face for their magazine’s new campaign,  since she has “character, spirit, and “intelligence.”  He convinces Jo to take the job since it would give her the opportunity to go to Paris and hear the lectures of the philosopher Professor Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair).  And so they go to Paris where there is singing, dancing, high fashion, and comic hi-jinks abound.  And, of course, romance flourishes because Hepburn must always be paired with men 30 years her senior for some reason.

Again, the logical brain must be disconnected, but once that’s done, there’s a lot to enjoy in this cheerful fluff of a film.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Wrong Man

Title: The Wrong Man
Release Date: December 22, 1956
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Warner Bros.

Alfred Hitchcock introduces this film in a prologue where he notes that it is a rare occasion where he’s making a thriller based on a true-life story.  Hitchcock always is fascinated with telling “wrong man” stories, so it’s not a surprise that the case of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero’s false accusation for armed robbery in 1951 in New York City would appeal to him.

The story begins with Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), a musician who performs in a night club, needing to work out the family finances to pay for dental work for his wife, Rose (Vera Miles). He goes to a life insurance company office to borrow against Rose’s policy, and the staff there identify him as the same man who robbed the office on two other occasions.  The police take in Manny and the staff at two local stores also identify him as the robber.

Manny is arrested and held in jail overnight before being arraigned the next day.  Once bail is posted by some relatives, it’s up to Manny and Rose to find witnesses who can provide alibis for the dates of the crimes.  The stress and guilt of the ordeal leads to Rose suffering a mental breakdown.

Despite Hitchcock’s introduction, the movie is not a thriller or even really suspenseful.  The strengths of the movie are its depictions of the mundane procedures of being processed through the criminal justice system.  Fonda is perfectly cast as the every man (and with such an innocent face, how can anyone think he’s guilty?) bewildered by experiencing all these things for the first time, and holding on to hope that his innocence will win the day.

The film provides a happy ending, although the real Balestrero family continued to suffer mental and financial distress.  Most disturbing is that we are still having “Wrong Man” stories to this very day, often with tragic endings. Words utter in the film – “you fit the profile” – are chilling similar to the words used to justify police killings of innocent Black and brown men in recent years.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Searchers (1956)

Title: The Searchers
Release Date: May 16, 1956
Director: John Ford
Production Company: C.V. Whitney Pictures

Cinematically, The Searchers is a beautiful film, shot in the scenic Monument Valley and featuring shots of the landscape and lead characters framed by a doorway as the opening and closing scenes.  Conversely, the subject matter of The Searchers is one of the ugliest things I’ve seen in a movie.

In 1868, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his family home in Texas (despite being filmed in Monument Valley which is in Arizona & Utah) three years after the Civil War ended, but still wearing his traitor’s uniform. Ethan is dismissive of the family’s adopted child, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), because he is 1/8 Comanche.  Soon afterwards, a Comanche tribe attacks the family homestead, killing the adults and abducting Ethan’s niece and Martin’s adopted sister Debbie (Lana Wood as a child, and Natalie Wood later in the movie).

The better part of the movie is Ethan and Martin spending five years searching for Debbie.  Ethan continues to mistreat Martin, and I could make a litany of the racist depictions in this movie, the worst among them being when Martin “accidentally” buys a Comanche wife, which is played for laughs.  The villain of the movie is Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon), who likes like a German man with shoe polish on his face, because the actor who plays him was in fact born in Germany.  Worst of all, Ethan’s goal in this obsessive, years-long quest is not to rescue Debbie, but to kill her because he believes she’s better off being dead after being raped by the Comanche.

This is a very ugly movie and I found it very difficult to watch.  Critics like Roger Ebert grant a generous interpretation that John Ford and John Wayne were deliberately portraying Ethan as an evil and racist man. There is a lot of plausibility in those intentions. But audiences then and even some now see Wayne as a hero and ideal representation of what Makes America Great. I think The Searchers is far too easy to be taken at face value, and in that it stands as a representation of the ugliest parts of the American character.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Bus Stop (1956)

Title: Bus Stop
Release Date: August 31, 1956
Director: Joshua Logan
Production Company: Marilyn Monroe Productions | 20th Century Fox

When I put together my list of Classic Movies, I made sure to include a Marilyn Monroe movie since she is such an iconic American movie star. I chose Bus Stop, because it is her most highly-regarded acting performance. Monroe’s acting is indeed spectacular, and while the rest of the cast are playing for comedy, for the most of the movie she acts as if she’s in a horror movie.  Bus Stop offers heaping portions of corn pone and heteronormativity, and let’s just say it hasn’t aged well.

Beauregard Decker (Don Murray) is a naive rancher from Montana who travels to Phoenix, Arizona to participate in a rodeo.  Having never had experience with women he declares that he hopes to find his “angel” on the trip. Spotting Chérie (Monroe) performing a song and dance at a Phoenix cafe, Beau declares that she’s his angel, and when Chérie admits she is physically attracted to him, that’s enough for him to decide that they will be married immediately.

Again, this movie is played for comedy, but it’s hard not to imagine that Beau’s aggressive and abusive behavior is terrifying for Chérie (you can see it in Monroe’s eyes). Beau’s friend and chaperone Virgil (Arthur O’Connell) and Chérie’s friendly co-worker Vera (Eileen Heckart) both try to interfere on Chérie’s behalf, but Beau will listen to no one. Ultimately, Beau abducts Chérie and puts her on a bus to Montana (and yes, the word “abduct” is used by the characters in the movie).

It won’t be a big spoiler to note that this movie does not end with Beau’s arrest for kidnapping a woman and transporting her across state lines.  Instead, Chérie and Beau finally fall in love and go off together.  A generous reading of the final scenes is that Beau finally learns consent and respecting the wishes of other.  But overall watching this movie made me feel uneasy.  Monroe had to deal with abusive relationships in her real life and the future of this fictional marriage does not look promising.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: To Catch a Thief (1955)

Title: To Catch a Thief
Release Date: August 3, 1955
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

John Robie (Cary Grant) is a jewel thief known as “The Cat” who reformed himself by serving with his gang in the French Resistance.  When a string of high-profile jewelry thefts strike the French Riveria, Robie falls under suspicion of the police, who want to arrest him, and his gang (now the staff of a restaurant), who want to kill him for bringing negative attention to their group.  Robie decides he needs to prove his innocence by catching the new jewel thief in the act.

His investigation leads him to American tourist Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis), a nouveau riche woman who acquired pricey jewels with her family’s oil wealth, and her daughter Frances (Grace Kelly).  Frances takes an interest in Robie, and a better part of the film is the two of them flirting intensely. At one point, Danielle (Brigitte Auber), the young daughter of Robie’s Resistance colleague, joins in to compete with France for flirting with Robie.  Never mind that he is old enough to be their father.  After all, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly are among the most attractive and charming people to ever live, so who can stop them from shameless flirting. Launch the highly symbolic fireworks!

Their isn’t much mystery or suspense in this film.  The options for who the real jewel thief may be are limited.  I was kind of hoping it would end up being Frances.  (SPOILER: It is not Frances).  So this film basically coasts on its lead actors charm and basic hottness, but my god, to they ever have a lot of that to spare!

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Title: Rebel Without a Cause
Release Date: October 26, 1955
Director: Nicholas Ray
Production Company: Warner Bros.

Rebel Without a Cause is one of those iconic movies that seems to permeate popular culture, but having never watched it before, I was surprised that it was not what I’d imagined.  The movie begins with three of the main characters (all strangers to one another at the time) being brought to the juvenile division: Jim Stark (James Dean) is brought in for drunkeness, “Plato” Crawford (Sal Mineo) for killing puppies, and Judy (Natalie Wood) for violating curfew.  A sympathetic police inspector, Ray Fremick (Edward Platt), and the movie indicates at this point that teenagers have real concerns and worries that should be respected (the rest of the movie seems to shift back and forth in its sympathies toward the teenagers).

Jim, the rebel, actually seems to be a conscientious kid with a strong moral compass (albeit a tendency for saying inappropriate things), but is frustrated that his family keeps moving him around and he’s unable to make and maintain friendships. On his way to his first day at a new high school he meets Judy and flirts with her, but she rides off with gang of cool kids lead by Buzz (Corey Allen).  At school, Plato befriends Jim and begins to idolizes him.  It’s not clear whether the filmmakers intended it or not, but Mineo’s performance is coded as being gay.

In one, busy and tragic day, the new kid Jim goes through hazing at the hands of the cool kids, including a knife fight and a deadly game of chicken on a cliffside.  Jim, Plato, and Judy try to escape their worries by playing house in an abandoned mansion (the same one used in Sunset Boulevard), but even there they can’t escape violence and tragedy.

The acting performances of the three leads excel despite a hackneyed script and a whole lot of melodrama. There’s an underlying ugliness to the movie.  Jim attributes many of his problems to his father, Frank (a pre-Mr. Magoo/Gilligan’s Island Jim Backus), being subservient to his mother (Ann Doran).  The movie even has him wearing a frilly apron in one scene, apparently to show his lack of manliness and “castration” by his harridan wife.  Plato’s troubles are ascribed to the absence of his parents – which is plausible – and that instead he’s raised by the family’s housekeeper, a unnamed black woman (Marietta Canty), which is totally racist.

The movie is horribly dated and fails to live up to the promise of its opening scenes in depicting the real-life travails of American teenagers.  On the other hand, the movie was clearly shocking and surprisingly original in its treatment of teenagers at the time.  It’s a shame that James Dean was killed in a car crash a month before the movie’s release and he never had the chance to build on his performance.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Seven Samurai (1954)

Title: Seven Samurai
Release Date: 26 April 1954
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Production Company: Toho

In 16th-century Japan, a village of farmers faces the threat of repeated raids by bandits. The village elder Gisaku (Kokuten Kōdō) suggests that they hire samurai to defend themselves against the bandits.  Realizing that the farmers will only be able to pay in food, he notes that the will need to find hungry samurai.

The farmers are initially unsuccessful but they meet a skilled and generous rōnin, Kambei (Takashi Shimura) who takes leadership and recruits additional samurai to the cause.  The team brings together the various skills of an archer, Gorōbei (Yoshio Inaba), a swordsman, Kyūzō (Seiji Miyaguchi), and Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), who is less known for his fighting than for his good sense of humor that keeps up morale.  Two more oddball selections fill out the team: Katsushirō (Isao Kimura), a young and unskilled samurai who attaches himself to Kambei, and Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a hot-tempered and manic figure who may not even be a samurai.

The seven samurai train the farmers to defend themselves, build defenses around the village, and put together a plan to defeat the bandits.  Despite this, the farmers make it clear that they consider the samurai only a step above the bandits, making an uneasy alliance.  One of the farmers tries to protect his daughter, Shino (Keiko Tsushima), by cutting her hair to disguise her as a boy.  Nevertheless, Shino and Katsushirō end up having a romance that forms a major subplot of the movie.

Kurosawa directs a fantastic movie to look at, innovating several techniques to capture the action scenes from all angles.  He had an entire village built as a set and it really feels lived in with the geography made clear.  And does anyone film in the rain as well as Kurosawa? The movie is over 3-1/2 hours long but it goes by swiftly due to the good storytelling.  And it certainly is a very familiar story because it has inspired all manner of movies where a group is brought together to achieve a goal.  Just remember, it came first!

Rating: ****

Movie Review: 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Title: 10 Things I Hate About You
Release Date: March 31, 1999
Director: Gil Junger
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures

This 1999 teen movie reinvents William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew as a romantic comedy set at Padua High School in Seattle.  Obstetrician and single dad Walter Stratford has strict rules against his daughters dating in high school but modifies them so that his younger, sociable daughter, Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) cannot date until his older, rebellious daughter, Kat (Julia Stiles) goes on a date first.  He does this knowing that Kat wants no part of high school social conventions.

A new student at the school, Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is smitten by Bianca and works out a plan with his nerdy new friend, Michael (David Krumholtz), to find someone willing to date Kat.  Realizing that they need money to bribe a potential suitor, they call in the obnoxious BMOC, Joey (Andrew Keegan), who also has interest in Bianca. They decide the fearless meathead with a notorious bad boy reputation, Patrick (Heath Ledger), is the best man for the job.

I realize that it’s taken me two paragraphs just to describe the complex, and somewhat silly, machinations behind this movie’s plot.  But once the pieces are set into motion, the movie really soars with some hilarious moments and quotable dialogue.  Curiously, the movie starts with Cameron, Michael, & Bianca as the A plot and Kat and Patrick as the B plot, but part way through the movie these switch places, to the movie’s benefit. Probably the best part of the movie is how it allows the main characters to emerge as more complex than their originally established stereotypes (well, except Joey, who remains a vain bully).

This movie is screamingly Nineties, and yet, for the most part, doesn’t have the cringe factor of revisiting many things from that decade. The dad, Walter Stratford, and his creepy, controlling attitude toward his daughters is deeply uncomfortable, but at least that is called out in the movie.  Prominent appearances by the bands Letters to Cleo and Save Ferris add some 90s charm, and the soundtrack holds up well, although apparently 90s kids partied to more music from the 70s than I remembered.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Last Days of Disco (1998)

Title: The Last Days of Disco
Release Date: June 12, 1998
Director: Whit Stillman
Production Company: Castle Rock Entertainment | Westerly Films

This movie is set in the “very early 80s” around New York City’s disco scene when bouncers maintained power by holding people behind a velvet rope. Disco culture originated in the Black, Latin, and LGBT communities but these people serve as wallpaper to a story of white young adults, recent graduates of New England colleges, making their way into the City’s business world. Then again, since this story is about the demise of disco, it’s appropriate to focus on people like them.

I appreciate that the movie doesn’t overdo the disco-era costuming. On the other hand, there are numerous anachronisms, such as a conversation about Yuppies years before the term was in common use. The subways are miraculously free of graffiti and their apartment doors lack multiple locks. The movie is as much about the 90s when it was made as the 80s when it was set.

The main characters are Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), who knew one another at Hampshire College and have entry-level positions at a publishing company. They end up socializing and becoming roommates despite not really liking one another. Alice is a bit shy and naive, but intelligent. Charlotte is self-absorbed and casually insults everyone on the pretext of offering advice. Everyone knows someone like this and Beckinsale’s performance is deliciously obnoxious.

Into their lives come several men that are all white, have the same haircut, and wear ties so I had trouble telling them apart. Des (Chris Eigeman) is the manager of the disco who pretends to come out as gay to end relationships with women, and casually dates Alice for a time. Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin) is an ad exec who uses his friendship with Des to sneak clients into the club, and ends up dating Charlotte. Josh (Matt Keeslar) is an assistant district attorney with mental health issues who slowly develops a relationship with Alice. And Dan (Matt Powers) is a co-worker who mocks the women’s disco lifestyle.

The movie has some good dialogue and humor and does a good job capturing that uncertain period after college. I just wish it focused more on Alice and her self-discovery and less on indistinguishable dudebros.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Sabrina (1954)

Title: Sabrina
Release Date: October 15, 1954
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

This romantic comedy focuses on the title character, Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn), a young woman who grew up on a Long Island estate of the Larrabbee family as the daughter of the chauffeur (John Williams).  Growing up alongside the Larrabee sons, she forms a lifelong crush on the carefree, playboy older brother, David (William Holden, in a very different role from Sunset Boulevard).

Sabrina goes to Paris for two years to study cooking, and returns feeling more confident and stylish.  She’s also able to attract David’s attention for the first time, although unfortunately he is engaged to marry another woman. David’s brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart, playing against type as a workaholic business man) has arranged a merger with the company owned by David’s fiancee’s family.  He arranges to put David out of commission, and begins seeing Sabrina himself, with the ultimate goal of shipping her off to Paris again.

It is not a spoiler to note that Sabrina and Linus end up having feelings for one another.  Romcom conventions typically have a couple fall in love and commit to one another over short time and expect the audience to be happy about that.  But Sabrina otherwise defies formula and offers a lot of humor and charming performances along the way.

Rating: ***1/2