Movie Review: The Big Lebowski (1998)


Title: The Big Lebowski
Release Date: March 6, 1998
Director: Joel Coen
Production Company: Working Title Films
Summary/Review:

Many years ago a friend told me “You’ve got to see The Big Lebowski.”  So I got the DVD and watched and then went back to him and told him I’d watched.  “Yeah, I didn’t like that movie,” he told me.  When I said, “But you told me to watch it!,” he replied “That’s because I knew you would like it.”  I guess my friend knows me because I do in fact like The Big Lebowski and I think rewatching it after many years I like it even better than before.

The Big Lebowski  is basically the ultimate shaggy dog story.  It takes inspiration from Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett novels and their movie adaptations.  It’s not so much a noir detective story as the episode structure of the protagonist falling into a series of conflicts with strange people that seem like that might add up to something, but upon reflection it doesn’t make much sense.  Actually, the movie Laura which I watched recently is a lot like this too.

The Big Lebowski is about “The Dude” (Jeff Bridges), whose real name is Jeff Lebowski, an unemployed slacker who spends his time bowling, drinking White Russians, and smoking pot.  A couple of hired thugs mistake him for a wealthy man also named Jeffrey Lebowski and pee on his rug “that really held the room together.”  In an attempt to get his rug replaced by the “Big Lebowski” (David Huddleston), The Dude ends up being recruited as a middleman when Lebowski’s trophy wife (Tara Reid) is kidnapped.

The supporting cast includes The Dude’s unstable friend Walter (John Goodman), the ultimate mansplainer and possible future MAGA who is on The Dude’s bowling team along with the dim but kind Donny (Steve Buscemi).  Among the people The Dude encounters investigating the kidnapping are Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), the Big Lebowski’s daughter who is a performance artist with a ridiculously affecte mid-Atlantic accent. Then there’s Same Elliot as The Stranger, who narrates part of the film and drinks sarsaparilla at the bar with no clear reason for being in the movie.

The Big Lebowski is great because of its quotable dialogue, great performances (even actors who only appear in one or two scenes are memorable), and an eclectic soundtrack with songs tied to the various characters.  The Dude also hates the Eagles, man.  The movie may be one of the all-time great Los Angeles films, and I’m glad I watched it so soon after Mulholland Drive which makes a great double feature.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020)


Title: The Forty-Year-Old Version
Release Date: October 9, 2020
Director: Radha Blank
Production Company: New Slate Ventures | Hillman Grad Productions | Endeavor Content
Summary/Review:

Radha (Rahda Blank) is a playwright nearing her 40th birthday who is dealing with the lack of success after winning a “30 Under 30” award early in her career and has taken to teaching at high school.  Her agent and childhood friend Archie (Peter Kim) helps her get producer J. Whitman (Reed Birney) to support her play about a Black couple dealing with gentrification in Harlem, but insists that she emphasize what Radha calls “poverty porn” and add a white character.  Radha feels her vision for the play escaping her and decides to make her voice heard by recording hip hop tracks with the laconic D (Oswin Benjamin) who runs a studio out of his Brooklyn apartment. Radha and D also form a romantic relationship, which is all fair since men who write/direct/star in their own films have a tradition of giving themselves younger love interests.

The Forty-Year-Old Version is very funny and also cringe-inducing with its characters following their worst instincts.  Radha Blank does a great job playing a character that can be very unsympathetic but still very likable.  I also like Radha’s chemistry with Archie and believe that they could’ve been friends with childhood.  The movie reminds me a bit of Frances Ha, as they both black & white movies in New York about artists having to deal with failed expectations of greatness and having to adapt to growing older.  But this is a funny and unique movie and I recommend checking it out.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Alien (1979)


TitleAlien
Release Date: May 25, 1979
Director: Ridley Scott
Production Company: Brandywine Productions
Summary/Review:

At its heart, Alien is a very simple story.  The crew of the spaceship Nostromo are diverted to a mysterious planet.  They pick up a parasitic life form (in the most disturbing and disgusting way).  The creature runs amok and picks off crew members one by one.  Only a single crew member (and her cat) survive to the tell the tale.

The movie is built on atmosphere. The Nostromo is a gritty, live-in spaceship with way too many places for a hungry xenomorph to hide. The movie builds up the tension slowly making it all the more effective when things spiral out of control.  In that sense it’s not unlike another 70s film I watched recently, The French Connection. It’s also a character story.   The first hour of the movie is establishing the crew of ordinary working grunts before anything happens.

The cast is made up mostly of older characters actors.  In fact at least four of the crew members are played by That Guy.  Tom Skerrit, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, and Yaphet Kotto are all “That Guy!” when you recognize them in the many movies and tv shows they appeared in. Veronica Cartwright is not a That Guy but her career ranges from a child actor appearing in The Birds to playing an astronaut’s wife in The Right Stuff.   Ian Holm is far from being a lovable hobbit in his creepy performance as Ash. Sigourney Weaver was unknown in film at the time and there’s little indication that her character Ellen Ripley will be the sole survivor early on in the film.  And yet, Ripley is also smart and confident, and if the rest of the crew had listened to her, none of the bad things would’ve happened.  Weaver also has to carry the film for basically the final half hour on her own and does a terrific job of showing pure terror and yet the necessity of doing what needs to be done.

When I was a kid I saw Aliens first and watched it repeatedly before ever seeing Alien.  I remember liking it less because of its spareness and the lack of humor and camaraderie that is found in Aliens.  I may have only watched it twice before.  I’m glad I’ve revisited it as an adult because I realize it is actually a masterpiece.  It’s a lot like Jaws in that it is a lot deeper than the horror/thriller blockbuster it appears on the surface in the way that it works with realistic depictions of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.  I’ll will have to revisit this film again soon.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Mank (2020)


TitleMank
Release Date:November 13, 2020
Director: David Fincher
Production Company:
Netflix International Pictures | Flying Studio | Panic Pictures | Blue Light
Summary/Review:

This biographical drama tells the story of Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a talented screenwriter hired to write the screenplay of Citizen Kane for Orson Welles. Welles sets up Mank in a remote desert rental house so he can write the screenplay while recovering from injuries from a car crash, with the ulterior motive of keeping the alcoholic Mank away from the drink. Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) serves as Mank’s secretary and confidante while John Houseman (Sam Troughton) checks in and frets over Mank’s progress.

The main story alternates with flashbacks to Mank’s memories from the previous decade.  In one storyline he befriends the actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and is drawn in the world of her powerful partner William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).  Another plot focuses on the 1934 California gubernatorial campaign in which Hearst and the Hollywood moguls create propaganda films to smear the social democrat candidate Upton Sinclair.  Mank’s sympathies toward Sinclair puts him at odds with his wealth friends and his Hollywood bosses.

Since Citizen Kane is a satirical attack on Hearst, the conflict in this film is whether Mank should use his personal relationship to inform his writing of the screenplay.  Davies, as portrayed by Seyfried, is sweet, down to earth, and genuinely a friend to Mank, so his work could be seen as a betrayal.  But Mank also has good reasons to continue with the screenplay that will become his best work.

I don’t know how much of this film is “true to life,” although I expect that much of it is embellished. As much as I enjoyed the 62-year-old Oldman’s performance, I think it should be noted that Mank was in his 30s & early 40s when this film take place and actually a year younger than Davies.  I think those casting decisions in historical dramas can really affect our understanding of real life people.  Ultimately the historical accuracy takes a backseat to a personal story of Hollywood politics and one’s willingness to sacrifice personal beliefs.  It’s full of lots of Easter eggs if you know anything about Hollywood history, and is filmed in a style that is a homage to Citizen Kane.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Make Mine Music (1946)


Title: Make Mine Music
Release Date: April 20, 1946
Director: Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Joshua Meador, and Robert Cormack
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

Last year, I started a project to watch and review every Walt Disney and Pixar animated feature film.  With the launch of Disney+, I’ve decided it’s a good time to resume the project.  Instead of watching the remaining films in chronological order, I decided to watch poorly-reviewed films first and work my way to the all-time classics.  Make Mine Music is universally a Disney animated film held in low regard.  In fact, Make Mine Music is one of the few movies not available on Disney+ so I watched a version on Internet Archive that is from a 1985 Japanese laserdisc!

Make Mine Music is the third of six “package films” that Walt Disney Productions released in the 1940s when the war in Europe closed off markets and most Disney animators either were serving in the military or working on war time films for the US. government. These movies are basically a collection of shorter works around a theme that allowed Disney to release feature-length films cheaply and easily under these conditions.  (Fantasia, which was released before the US entry into the war is not considered a package film despite being made up of discrete segments).  With 10 different segments, Make Mine Music has more segments than any other package film and is basically a glorified collection of Silly Symphonies.

The theme of the movie is, of course, music.  The animated visuals are accompanied by musical performances by The King’s Men, Benny Goodman and His Orchestra, Andy Russell, Dinah Shore, and The Andrews Sisters.  It’s tempting to see some of these segments as predecessors to music videos.  There are also some segments that adapt musical stories such as “Casey at the Bat” (more of a poetry recitation), “Peter and the Wolf,” and the longest segment, “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met.”

There is no narration or anything that links together these segments, and a lot of them are below par by Disney standards, although parts could be spun off as mildly entertaining shorts.  And I know that this has been done, because I’ve seen “Casey at the Bat” before.  My favorite segment is “All the Cats Join In” which features stylized illustrations of teenagers enjoying swing music that is “drawn” as we watch (much like Harold and the Purple Crayon).  It might possibly also depict interracial dating although it’s more likely that it’s just a girl with a deep suntan.  I feel that “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” is a noble failure, because it’s a cute story but it would have worked better as a short, or maybe even if the characters were developed it could be a feature film on its own.  But at it’s current length it just feels like a padded repetition of the same gags.

Make Mine Music isn’t particularly good, but it isn’t loathsome either.  With ten segments there’s probably something for everyone, although it’s doubtful that anyone will be delighted by the entire film.

Rating: *1/2

Classic Movie Review: Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)


Title: Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (originally Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot)
Release Date: February 25, 1953
Director: Jacques Tati
Production Company: Discina Film | Cady Films | Specta Films
Summary/Review:

This delightful comedy gently satirizes the boom in middle class summer seaside vacations in the post-WWII era.  Many of the archetypical characters one would run into into at resort to this day appear in the film.  The movie begins with crowds of people attempting to catch trains and buses, with the title character M. Hulot arriving in an old, backfiring car.

Hulot is portrayed by the director Jacques Tati as a friendly and well-meaning character who inadvertently cause trouble for people around him.  Dialogue in this movie is incidental but music and sound effects are key for the not-quite-pantomime performances.  There are a lot of gags around men getting distracted by the attractive young woman Martine (Nathalie Pascaud), but it never devolves into the full on leering that was common in this era.  In fact, it’s a positive that Martine gets a name and some agency unlike many of the other characters.

The movie is charming and hilarious and probably worth a rewatch for to catch some of the simultaneous gags onscreen.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Stormy Weather (1943)


Title: Stormy Weather
Release Date: July 21, 1943
Director: Andrew L. Stone
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Summary/Review:

Back when I reviewed Swing Time I noted that it would’ve been better if Fred Astaire include African American artists in his tribute to Bill Robinson.  Then I realized I was a hypocrite since my list of classic movies had no Bill Robinson films.  So I had Stormy Weather, a musical-dance-romance movie featuring the top African American performers of the era.

The movie is a loose biography of Bill Robinson’s career.  How loose?  The movie begins with Robinson’s character Bill Williamson returning from the First World War.  In reality, Robinson fought in the Spanish American War, and entertained the troops in WWI.  So we just ignore that the 64-year-old Robinson is playing a much younger character, especially when he strikes up a romance with 25-year-old Lena Horne’s character Selina Rogers.

The film is essentially a tribute to a quarter century of African American entertainment and follows Bill Williamson through a film packed with with song and dance numbers.  I was actually surprised that the plot actually holds together based on the standard of movie musical plots.  The movie begins with Bill going to a Harlem nightclub with his army buddy Gabe (Dooley Wilson) where he meets Selina and her manager/band leader Chick Bailey (Emmett ‘Babe’ Wallace) who becomes Bill’s romantic rival.

Bill returns home to Memphis, stopping to scat on a riverboat, and taking up a job as dancer/waiter in a night club where Ada Brown and Fats Waller sing the blues.  They’re all hired to join Chick’s touring act and eventually Bill outshines Chick and leaves to start his own company.  Bill and Selina split up but get back together in a night club scene featuring Cab Calloway (the generational difference between the two performers is acknowledged in a humorous scene where Robinson can’t understand Calloway’s jive talk).  Lena Horne sings the stunning “Stormy Weather” and the brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas perform a remarkable dance where they leap down steps and land in splits and don’t suffer groin injuries!

It’s an amazingly entertaining film, and I’m leaving out a lot of the great performers and numbers.  There are times where the movie leans into the stereotypes of African Americans that Hollywood audiences expected (for example, a comedy duo perform in blackface).  But there’s also a sense of these artists reclaiming something from these stereotypes and showing how hard they strive toward excellence.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Cat People


Title: Cat People
Release Date: December 25, 1942
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
Summary/Review:

This horror/thriller stars French actress Simone Simon as Irena Dubrovna, a Serbian immigrant in New York who believes she is descended from people who turn into cats if aroused or angered.   She meets Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and they strike up a relationship and eventually marriage, although Irena refuses to kiss (and presumably consummate the marriage although the Hays Code won’t allow this to be mentioned).  Oliver is patient and tries to get Irena psychiatric help.  Eventually, Oliver’s work colleague Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) admits she’s in love with Oliver and they begin spending more time together.  Irena is enraged with jealousy and Alice finds herself being tracked by an animal.  The film makes it’s low budget an advantage by keeping the panther in shadows and making the audience question whether the big cat is real or merely psychological.

Roger Ebert classifies Cat People as a Great Movie, but I believe it is merely good.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: My Man Godfrey (1936)


Title: My Man Godfrey
Release Date: September 6, 1936
Director: Gregory La Cava
Production Company: Universal Pictures
Summary/Review:

I watched My Man Godfrey after watching several silent films, and it was startled by the quick and frequent dialogue.  Talkies were of course well established by 1936 and this movie makes the most of it with enough witty repartee to make up for decades of silents.  This movie is both a romantic comedy and a mild social commentary on the idle rich.  At the center of this film is the dysfunctional Bullock Family and the butler they hire, Godfrey (William Powell) who straightens things out for them.

The film begins with Godfrey living in an homeless encampment along New York’s East River until he is picked up by the youngest member of the Bullock clan, Irene (Carol Lombard), who needs a “forgotten man” for a scavenger hunt being held by wealthy elites based at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.  Irene takes a liking to Godfrey and offers him a job as the family’s butler, and declares that he will be her “protégé.”

Despite learning of the high rate of turnover for the Bullock’s butler and being warned of the family’s general horribleness by the maid Molly (Jean Dixon), Godfrey finds the job restores his spirits, and enables him to work on a project to help out the other “forgotten men.” Irene falls in love with Godfrey and tries many dramatic ways to get his attention and to return her affection.  Irene’s vindictive older sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick), meanwhile, and schemes to spoil any happiness for Irene or Godfrey (I’ve never seen Patrick in a movie before, but she is both a talented actor and stunningly gorgeous). And Godfrey has a secret past that may come back to haunt him.  All of this if played at maximum screwball comedy level.

The denouement of the movie has Godfrey shorting the stock market, both to save Bullocks from financial ruin, and to fund a night club on the former homeless encampment which provides jobs for 50 “forgotten men.”  Honestly, I didn’t expect short-selling stock to feature in a Depression-era comedy, but it was a great twist.  The final scene where Irene manipulates Godfrey into marrying is both uncomfortable and unnecessary, but otherwise this is a terrific film.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Top Hat (1935)


Title: Top Hat
Release Date: August 29, 1935
Director: Mark Sandrich
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
Summary/Review:

In all my life, I’d never before watched a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie.  Much of the plot is a thin link between the wonderful dance sequences.  This movie is also the origination of “Cheek to Cheek,” which was the first dance at my wedding reception.  Nevertheless, much of this movie left me cold.

This movie is divided into two parts.  The first is in London where American dancer Jerry Travers (Astaire) has come to star in a show.  His love for dance leads him to tapdance around his hotel suite awaking the guest downstairs, Dale Tremont (Rogers).  When Dale complains, Jerry falls for her and begins following her around London. This is a romantic comedy trope that’s supposed to be romantic, but comes across as really creepy in this movie.  His dance performance also involves him miming shooting all his back up dancers with his cane.  Maybe its my modern sensibilities but I don’t find a massacre to be a fun thing to incorporate in dance.

The second part of the movie takes place in Venice where Dale travels for work and Jerry (creepily) follows her there.  The set design for Venice only superficially resembles the city, but it’s great in its own right, and provides lots of steps and bridges for the dance sequences.  I suppose if you ignore everything but the dance sequences, it’s really quite enjoyable, but I found much of the plot here, with Dale believing Jerry to be married, and then deciding to up and marry someone else, to just be obnoxious.

Rating: **