Classic Movie Review: M (1931)


Title: M
Release Date: May 11, 1931
Director: Fritz Lang
Production Company: Nero-Film A.G.
Summary/Review:

Continuing with German cinema, this film by Fritz Lang (who also directed Metropolis) is a thriller/procedural drama that basically invented the noir genre.  Peter Lorre, an actor I’ve always liked in his Hollywood films, had is first major role as the serial killer of children, Hans Beckert.  Depicting a serial killer on the silver screen and the way the story unravels is strikingly modern, and is about 30 years of Hollywood doing something similar.

The film begins with chilling sequences of children chanting about murder and then Beckert luring away a girl while whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”  In the panic that follows, people turn on one another with suspicion, and the police crack down on the criminal underworld.  The city’s mob bosses decide that they also need to track down the murderer, and the scenes of cops and criminals preparing for a manhunt are intercut, with it being deliberately hard to tell which group is which.

Beggars are able to track down Beckert who then hides in the office building.  The criminals seek him out using all the means at their disposal, including rather comically drilling a hole through the floor to access a locked office on a lower level.  Once they’ve captured Beckert, the criminals put him on a mock trial. These scenes feel didactic as Lang’s characters overtly explain the moral message to a sick society, which is a weak way to conclude the film.  The command at the close of the film to watch our children seems torn out of the present day manual of helicopter parenting.  Nevertheless, the film on the whole is a compelling drama.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: City Lights (1931)


Title: City Lights
Release Date: January 30, 1931
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Production Company: United Artists
Summary/Review:

Four years after the first “talkie,” Charlie Chaplin released another one his masterpieces of silent film.  It’s kind of fascinating how Chaplain resisted the shift to talking films.  On the one hand, there is great artistry in silent film, especially in the hands of an auteur like Chaplin. On the other hand, silent films existed primarily due to technical challenges.  Considering that the theatre had speaking roles for thousands of years, it’s not too hard to believe that early filmmakers wanted to replicate that. Chaplin makes light of “talkies” early on by featuring politicians delivering speeches at the dedication of a statue where the sound of gibberish comes from their mouths.

The main plot of the movie focuses on the Little Tramp (Chaplain) and his perambulations through the city.  One night he saves a millionaire (Harry Myers) from drowning himself.  In gratitude, the millionaire invites the Tramp for a night out on the town. When he returns to visit his new friend, the millionaire has no memory of him. A recurring gag has Myers’ character only remember the Tramp when he’s drunk.

The other main plot line focuses on the Tramp falling for a blind woman (Virginia Cherrill) who sells flowers.  He befriends her, and takes up jobs – as a street sweeper and a boxer (each with their own set of gags) – to try to raise money to help her restore her vision.  Eventually he is able to get her the money, but at a personal cost.  The final scene is one of the more touching and heartwarming scenes ever recorded on film.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Blue Angel (1930)


Title: The Blue Angel
Release Date: April 1, 1930
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Production Company:  Universum Film A.G. | Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

Here’s another German film that’s a kind of weird morality tale about how women are the devil or something like that. I found it more enjoyable than Pandora’s Box, though.  Marlene Dietrich is completely captivating  as the cabaret performer Lola Lola, and not surprisingly this film made her a big star.  The Blue Angel was intended to be a vehicle for renowned German theater and film star Emil Jannings, but he gets overshadowed by Dietrich.

This is one of the first German talkies and the direction seems to revel in sound, especially early on when the camera focuses on a clock ticking and the bell ringing the hour, or when Jannings’ Professor Roth opens a window allowing the sound of children singing on the street to enter, and then closes the window again to make silence.

The story starts with Professor Roth teaching at a preparatory school, where he gets little respect and they play pranks on him.  He catches the boys circulating postcards of Lola Lola, prompting him to visit the cabaret that night in order to catch the boys going there.  Instead he finds himself captivated by Lola Lola.  After a few visits, he asks her to marry him, and surprisingly she says yes.

It’s not really clear what Lola Lola sees in Professor Roth.  Maybe she wants someone who will protect her, maybe she’s charmed by his old fashioned devotion, or maybe she just takes pity on him. Over the next few years though, it becomes clear that Roth won’t be her only man.  Roth becomes envious of her flirtation with other men and that he is financially dependent on her,  and he becomes angry and abusive.  The culmination of the film sees the troupe return to Roth’s hometown, and the townspeople come out en masse to see Roth – now performing as a clown – humiliated.

This movie is depressing, and tragic in the sense that the demands of toxic masculinity lead to Roth’s downfall.  Nevertheless, it is a well-acted and well-made film, and seemingly ahead of its time.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Pandora’s Box (1929)


Title:  Pandora’s Box
Release Date: January 30, 1929
Director: G. W. Pabst
Production Company: Süd-Film
Summary/Review:

This German film is deeply weird and severely misogynist.  American actress Louise Brooks plays Lulu, a young woman who is passionate and sexually confident and of whom the film tells us is “thoughtless.”  But really it’s a morality play that would have us believe that a woman with an independent streak will bring everyone around her to ruin.

Brooks is a captivating actor and without someone of her capability in the role, I don’t think this movie would be worth watching.  She’s a great silent film star because she can say so much with her face.  I found myself pondering for a long time who she reminded me of, and then finally I hit upon Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag who also conveys so much with a look.

The story, for what it’s worth, has kind of a perils of Lulu plot as each scene leads to another level of degradation. Lulu goes from a mistress to a stage performer to marrying her reluctant lover to an accused murderer to a fugitive in an illegal gambling den to prostitution to a victim of Jack the Ripper.  There are some interesting scenes, particularly during the backstage scenes of her variety show, where performers go on and off the stage entering and leaving Lulu’s drama in the backstage.  This movie also broke ground with a prominent lesbian character, Countess Augusta Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), who helps Lulu escape imprisonment.

The movie is kind of bland melodrama and I can’t really recommend watching other than for film history research.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Wings (1927)


Title: Wings
Release Date: August 12, 1927
Director: William A. Wellman
Production Company: Famous Players – Lasky
Summary/Review:

A big budget war epic and romance featuring the biggest star of the era?  This movie is totally Oscar bait!  Except the Academy Awards didn’t exist when this movie was made and it would win the first Best Picture award at a ceremony in 1929.  Clara  Bow is the big star of this movie, and while it’s clear that here role is awkwardly shoehorned into an existing story, she’s a delight every time she’s on the screen.  I found myself crushing hard on a woman born before my grandparents!

The story focuses on Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) a young man who tinkers with engines and is enthralled with the local beauty Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston).  Meanwhile, his neighbor Mary (Bow) is in love with him, but he’s oblivious to her attentions.  Sylvia is in fact all but betrothed to David (Richard Arlen).  When the war comes, both Jack and David enlist in the Army Air Force, and after some initial tension at training camp they become good friends and ace pilots.  Meanwhile, Mary does her part for the war effort as an ambulance driver.

The love “quadrangle” is central to the melodramatic plot of the film.  But there’s also quite a bit of humor.  El Brendel plays a character named Herman Schwimpf who consistently is challenged on his German name and thus demonstrates his over-the-top pugnacity for the American war effort (but then he disappears about half through, so I guess they ran out of gags for him).  In an extended scenes in Paris, Jack gets intoxicated on leave and comically goes on about the bubbles in champagne (which are animated on the screen) while Mary attempts to get him to his room to sleep.  But really, this movie is about airplanes flying and shooting and one another, and the scenes of aerial combat are really quite remarkable over 90 years later.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: La La Land 2017


Title: La La Land
Release Date: December 9, 2016
Director: Damien Chazelle
Production Company: Summit Entertainment | Marc Platt Productions | Impostor Pictures | Gilbert Films
Summary/Review:

This romantic comedy is built on the premise of big song and dance numbers from the Golden Age of Hollywood but set in the present day.  The movie stars Emma Stone as Mia Dolan, an aspiring actor frustrated by dead auditions, and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian Wilder, a jazz pianist taking on cheezy pop music gigs while hoping to open a classic jazz cafe. They meet cute, of course, and after some acrimony, they fall in love.  I’ll have to say that Gosling’s character comes across as a jerk, and unlike other romantic comedies, doesn’t soften that much over the course of the film.

Stone and Gosling aren’t trained dancers but that gives their performances a certain charm of ordinary people trying to fit into the Hollywood dream.  Los Angeles plays a big role in the film with many shots on-location at noted landmarks, and shot against the magic hour of sunset skies.

The song and dance numbers are great within the context of the film, but there’s nothing here I’d really want to listen to again.  The one exception is a song Mia sings for her big audition “The Fools Who Dream,” which reminds me a lot of the finale to The Muppet Movie thematically.  As strange as it may sound, La La Land and The Muppet Movie would make a great double feature.  It has is similar in some ways, but less cynical, than Steve Martin’s L.A. Story.

Not to get too spoilery, but after a year of romance, set against the seasons, Mia and Seb go their separate ways.  In a coda set five years later, they’ve each achieved their dreams, with Mia a movie star and Seb performing at his successful jazz club. There’s a dream sequence with a highly-stylized Hollywood rendition of what there life would be like if they’d stayed together. But what I really appreciate about this romantic comedy is that Mia and Seb do not get together at the end, nor do they mourn their lost love.  They recognize that their time together was valuable, but have moved on to other things, and that’s ok.  For all the tributes to Hollywood, that’s a message you rarely get from a Hollywood movie.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Metropolis (1927)


Title:  Metropolis 
Release Date: January 10, 1927
Director: Fritz Lang
Production Company: UFA
Summary/Review:

One of the earliest science fiction feature films,  the list of movies influenced by Metropolis is quite lengthy.  Set in a futuristic city of high towers and massive machinery, the city of Metropolis is ruled by the wealthy industrialist Joh Fredersen.  His son Freder enjoys an idyllic life until a woman named Maria invites him to come below the surface to see how his “brothers” are suffering.

Freder witnesses the grueling life of the workers on their machinery, and how the dead are casually disposed of after one of the machines explodes.  Unable to convince his father to improve conditions for the workers, Freder rebels and joins Maria in trying to lead the working people to a more equitable Metropolis.  Meanwhile, Fredersen enlists the inventor Rotwang to use a robot to impersonate Maria and discredit her with the workers. Rotwang has his own plans and various conflicts and tragedies occur before the film’s conclusion.

The dystopian world of Metropolis is all the more chilling considering this is a German film made just years before Hitler’s dictatorial regime came to power. I found it hard not to wonder if the actors in this film, especially the children, ended up becoming Nazis.  From a filmmaking perspective, it’s hard not to see why it’s so influential as the cinematography, set design, and special effects are spectacular.  Story wise, the film comes across a bit stiff, more of a preachy Socialist parable than a human story one can engage with.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Moonlight (2016)


Title: Moonlight
Release Date: October 21, 2016
Director: Barry Jenkins
Production Company: A24 | Plan B Entertainment | Pastel Productions
Summary/Review:

Moonlight is a compelling drama about masculinity, the search for identity, and particularly homosexual identity focusing on a character named Chiron at three different periods in his life.  The movie begins with the withdrawn child Chiron (Alex Hibbert) running away from bullies in his working-class Miami neighborhood and hiding in a crackhouse.  He’s rescued by Juan (an amazing performance by Mahershala Ali), a middle-aged Cuban man who takes Chiron home to meet his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe, also awesome), when Chiron is too shy to speak about where he lives.

Juan and Chiron’s middle-class home becomes a stable place for Chiron to visit, and Juan becomes the supportive father figure he needs.  Chiron’s father is not in his life, and his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is emotionally distant, working long hours and suffering from addiction.  The crushing irony is that Juan’s comfortable life is due to the money he makes as a drug dealer, and Paula is one of his customers.

The second segment focuses on Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) as a high school student.  He is still reserved and isolated, and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who we saw as a boy being friendly to Chiron, is now Chiron’s only real friend.  His mother’s addiction and hostile behavior have only grown worse.  Juan has died in the intervening years, but Chiron still visits Teresa. The main plot lines of this segment are Chiron attempting to avoid the school bully Terrel (Patrick Decile), and the romantic intimacy that grows.  Unfortunately, circumstances lead to brutally violent conflict and Chiron going to juvenile detention.

In the final segment, an adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) lives in Atlanta, and now deals drugs himself.  He receives a call from Kevin (André Holland) out of the blue, and it forces Chiron to reexamine suppressed memories and feelings. He visits Paula at a drug rehabilitation center and reconciles with her, then drives to Miami to visit the restaurant where Kevin works as a cook.  The final portion of this movie is an intense series of conversations between the two men that contain enough hesitation and buried emotions to put a Merchant Ivory film to shame. I joke, but it’s rare for a Hollywood film to give dialogue between two actors the space to breath, and Rhodes and Holland act the hell out of it.

This is an important movie, because honest depictions of homosexuality among Black and/or working class people are practically unheard of.  It’s also a delicate examination of masculinity and the paths it forces boys and men to follow that lead to harm and isolation.  It’s not the easiest movie to watch as there is suffering and violence that’s hard to look at straight on, but it does come to a hopeful conclusion.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: The General (1927)


Title: The General
Release Date: February 5, 1927
Director: Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton
Production Company: Buster Keaton Productions | Joseph M. Schenck Productions
Summary/Review:

I knew I’d need to watch a Buster Keaton film for my classic movie project, but was disappointed that his most famous work is not only a Civil War film, but one sympathetic to the Confederate cause.  So I watched this movie rooting against Keaton much of the time.

The movie was a big-budget spectacular for its era and stars Keaton as Johnnie Gray, a railroad engineer dedicated to maintaining the engine The General.  When the war begins, he attempts to enlist, but is denied because his skills with the trains are needed.  Nevertheless, his fiancée Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) believes him to be a coward, and refuses to speak to him.

A year later, Union spies steal The General (with Annabelle Lee aboard the train) and head north from Georgia to Tennessee with a plan to destroy the rails, bridges, and telegraph wires behind them.  Johnnie pursues The General through various means, eventually working on his own as he leaves the Confederate soldiers behind. There are are a number of spectacular gags as Keaton walks along the train performing various stunts and fights with the spies.  Scenes from the next day show him returning with The General  and Annabelle Lee, leading another chase and culminating in a battle (which was the most expensive shot in film history to that point due to hundreds of extras and the collapse of a bridge with a train on it).

Despite my misgivings, I enjoyed this film and think the stunts and slapstick hold up well, even if the politics do not.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Battleship Potemkin (1925)


Title: Battleship Potemkin
Release Date: December 21, 1925
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Production Company: Mosfilm
Summary/Review:

This classic Soviet propaganda film dramatizes events of the Russian uprising of 1905, which the filmmaker Eisenstein saw as a prelude to the successful October Revolution of 1917.  The film depicts sailors aboard the Potemkin returning after the Russo-Japanese War and the mistreatment they suffer at the hands of the officers.

When some of the sailors refuse to eat maggot-infested meat, the tyrannical captain sentences them to death for insubordination.  But a revolutionary sailor inspires the firing squad to lower their rifles, and the sailors stage a mutiny instead.  Grigory Vakulinchuk, the Bolshevik sailor, dies in the uprising and when his body is brought to Odessa, thousands of civilians pay their respects. The people join in the revolution, but it is quickly repressed by a detachment of Cossacks who massacre them on the city’s giant stairway.  The sailors escape on the Potemkin as Tsarist ships refuse to fire on them.

The movie impresses with its innovative film-making techniques, most notably editing between long and close-up shots, and creating connections among a sequence of shots.  The most famous sequence is when the Cossacks fire upon the people on the Odessa Steps, which depicts brutal violence and cuts between the precision of the soldiers and the faces of their victims on a seemingly endless set of steps.

This is definitely a movie worth watching for its technical brilliance and its role in film history.  That being said, it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience, not just due to the violence but the almost complete lack of characterization of the people depicted.  They are merely cogs in a propaganda machine with no opportunity to empathize with them as individuals.

Rating: ***