Classic Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in America (1984)


Title: Once Upon a Time in America
Release Date: May 23, 1984
Director: Sergio Leone
Production Company: The Ladd Company | PSO International | Embassy International Pictures | Rafran Cinematografica
Summary/Review:

Sometimes it seems that all you have to do to make it on a Great Films list is to make a movie about gangsters and make it very long.  That is the formula that legendary Italian director Sergio Leone followed in making Once Upon a Time in America, which ended up being his final film, and one he spent over a decade creating.  It’s also the final part of a loose trilogy of Once Upon a Time… movies that began with Once Upon a Time in the West.  Notoriously, the production company severely cut down the movie for its American release and rearranged the scenes in chronological order.  This movie bombed in the U.S. but the nearly 4-hour “European Cut” that I watched is considered a classic.

The movie is told from the point of view of David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert DeNiro, played by Scott Tiler as a teenager) who forms a gang in the Jewish enclave of Manhattan’s Lower East Side with his friend Max (James Woods, Rusty Jacobs as a teenager) and three other friends.  The story is framed by an older Noodles returning to New York City after 35 years because someone has learned he betrayed his friends in 1933.  The bulk of the film takes place in flashback during the Prohibition Era of the 1910s to 1930s.

Noodles is the epitome of unsympathetic narrator as we see him not only carry out violent crimes, but brutally rape two different women including the one who is supposed to be his lifelong sweetheart, Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern, Jennifer Connelly as a teenager). Women in this film are seemingly just there to be humiliated, beaten, and raped.  This is no doubt and accurate depiction of how gangsters treated women and girls, but if it’s up to you if that’s something you want to watch in a movie.

I’m not sure why Leone chose to cast actors of Italian/Irish and Irish ancestry in the lead roles as Jewish gangsters.  Not only was it unfair to ethnically Jewish actors who could’ve played the parts but it’s confusing since DeNiro and Woods had already played gangsters of other ethnicities.  I found Jacobs  was a lot more charismatic as the Young Max than Woods, who is just his usually creepy-ass self. The plot hinges on the audience’s’ belief in Noodles and Max having a deep friendship but I never feel any such connection between DeNiro and Woods. Indeed, the film seems to deliberately repel any emotional connection one might make with the characters. There are huge plot twists that end up being corny and unconvincing, and at the end I was left wondering why we spent nearly four hours on this story.

The one thing Once Upon a Time in America has going for it is that it looks really good. The sets are picture-perfect recreation of the Lower East Side in the early 20th century. I’d love to learn how it was produced and how they got Manhattan Bridge to hover over so many of the street scenes in the era before CGI.  Otherwise, gangster movies aren’t really my cup of tea, so your impression of this film may vary, but I found this movie to “meh” overall.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Cabaret (1972)


Title: Cabaret
Release Date: February 13, 1972
Director: Bob Fosse
Production Company: ABC Pictures | Allied Artists
Summary/Review:

Brian Roberts (Michael York) is an English academic who arrives in early 1930s Berlin and plans to teach English lessons while working on his doctorate.  He settles into a boarding house where he meets Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), perhaps the ur-Manic Pixie Dream Girl (with emphasis on “manic”), an American who sings and dances at the Kit Kat Klub. Despite Brian believing himself to be homosexual, their friendship grows into a romance.  Then their twosome becomes a threesome as they are both pursued by the playboy Baron Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem).  All throughout the film, the decadence of the Weimar Republic transitions to the Nazi regime.

While it’s facile to say that a musical would not work without the song and dance, the plot of Cabaret is rather slight. The musical numbers performed in the Kit Kat Klub by the Emcee (Joel Grey) and Minnelli are not only outstanding but act as perfect commentaries on the characters and the plot.  I did find the Emcee a bit terrifying, both for his uncanny appearance and his willingness to indulge in anti-semitic humor when it was least expected.  The most terrifying song in this movie is the only one not sung by Grey or Minnelli, but a chorus of people in a beer garden singing the militant Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”

Despite the many allusions to Cabaret that are made in popular culture, this movie was not what I expected. It’s definitely a lot weirder than I imagined, and for a musical it is very bleak (which should not be surprising for any story involving the rise of Nazism).  Nevertheless, I liked it, and maybe it’s not an all-time classic, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)


Title: O Brother Where Art Thou?
Release Date: December 22, 2000
Director: Joel Coen
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures | Universal Pictures | StudioCanal | Working Title Films | Blind Bard Pictures
Summary/Review:

Said to be based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? has enough character names and plot points with mythological forebears to make you pull your hair trying to figure out the other parallels before you realize the Coen Brothers are pulling your leg.  But this movie is deeply invested in the mythology of the South, from the sepia tones to the Spanish moss and the many cultural signifiers.  Then there is the soundtrack!  O Brother, Where Art Thou? is almost more famous for its music than the movie.  It’s no myth that most great American musical styles originated in the South, and this movie is an anthology of some of the best.

George Clooney stars in one of his best roles as the loquacious and Clark Gable-like Ulysses Everett McGill, one of three prisoners who escape from a labor camp. John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson co-star has his companions Pete and Delmar.  The film documents their journey home as the fall into an increasingly ridiculous situations including recording a hit folk song as The Soggy Bottom Boys and getting in the middle of a gubernatorial election between two corrupt fat cats.  O Brother, Where Art Thou? is not the pure absurdism of The Big Lebowski but it gets pretty close.

The story is told through a white perspective of the South, and most of the Black characters are in the background, but O Brother, Where Art Thou? doesn’t hide the racism and segregation of the South either.  Our heroes are remarkably not racist for the 1930s, but they find themselves in the midst of the structural violence of criminal justice typically practiced against Black people. One of the most chilling scenes involve them stumbling upon a Klan rally with choreography that simultaneously echoes Triumph of the Will, The Wizard of Oz, and a Busby Berkley musical.  The main Black character in the film is Blues guitarist Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) who plays guitar on all the Soggy Bottom Boys’ songs, perhaps a nod to the African American origins of American popular music.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of my favorite type of movies, one that makes me laugh and makes me think. Part absurdist comedy, part social satire, and part anthology of American folk music, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is worth revisiting.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Hollywood Shuffle (1987)


Title: Hollywood Shuffle
Release Date: March 20, 1987
Director: Robert Townsend
Production Company: Conquering Unicorn
Summary/Review:

Hollywood Shuffle is a comedy that satirizes the institutional racism of the motion picture industry that limits roles for Black actors to gang members, servants, and enslaved people.  Robert Townsend directed and stars in the film and co-wrote the script with Keenen Ivory Wayans.  I remember at the time that Townsend was considered part of a much-publicized “trend” of Black directors making a mark in movies along with Matty Rich, John Singleton, and, of course, Spike Lee.  Townsend plays Bobby, an aspiring actor who gets a role in a stereotypical gang-related movie and has to choose between potentially advancing his career or standing up for more positive representation of the Black community.

The rather earnest main plot is punctuated by Bobby’s daydreams that play out as skits.  The style is very similar to Wayan’s sketch comedy show In Living Color, which debuted a few years later.  While the topics are still sadly relevant, some of the gags feel dated now,and the message of the film is by jokes based on homophobic and misogynist stereotypes. The sketches can run a bit long too.  But overall Townsend has his heart in the right place and this is a movie that needed to be seen in 1987, so I’m glad it became a hit.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Aardman Animation Short Film Festival


I felt like revisiting some of my favorite animated comfort food by watching a bunch of from Britain’s Aardman Animations studio. This will just be the shorts, not feature films like Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

TitleCreature Comforts
Release Date: 15 July 1989
Director: Nick Park
Production Company: Aardman Animations.
Summary/Review:

“In Brazil you have the space.”

In my college years (1991-1995), I went to a lot of animation festivals at the local arthouse cinema.  I remember Creature Comforts being a big hit at one of the first festivals I attended. It’s a simple concept, in which various animals discuss their lives in a zoo.  It’s even better when you learn that the voices are from unscripted interviews with various everyday people.  They weren’t necessarily talking about zoo animals, yet it all fits.  I only just learned that Creature Comforts was spun off into a tv series in the UK in the 2000s.

Rating: ****


Title: A Grand Day Out
Release Date: 4 November 1989
Director: Nick Park
Production Company: National Film and Television School | Aardman Animations
Summary/Review:

“Gromit, that’s it! Cheese! We’ll go somewhere where there’s cheese!”

This is the first Wallace & Gromit short, and the most absurdist of them all, and I probably saw it in the same animation festival as Creature Comforts.  Wallace wants somewhere to travel and they’re out of cheese. So he decides to go to the one place that combines both – the Moon.  They build a rocket and fly to the moon where they meet a coin-operated oven on wheels that issues parking tickets.  And you’ve never seen a coin-operated oven on wheels look so indignant!  This film is especially fun for all the little details you can pick out on repeated viewings.
Rating: ****


TitleThe Wrong Trousers
Release Date: 17 December 1993
Director: Nick Park
Production Company: Aardman Animations
Summary/Review:

“It’s the wrong trousers Gromit! And they’ve gone wrong!”

Wallace & Gromit come into their own in this short which establishes their home setting as a kind of theme park nostalgic vision of a post-war village in the North of England.  In this case they deal with techno-trousers, a shortage of money, a paying houseguest, and a jewel heist!  You’ll never hear “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” the same way again.  The chase scene on the model railroad is one of the greatest things ever animated.

Rating: *****


TitleA Close Shave
Release Date: 24 December 1995
Director: Nick Park
Production Company:Aardman Animations
Summary/Review:

“Aye, I’d better see to him. The bounce has gone from his bungee.”

Wallace & Gromit was such a big hit at animation festivals that by the time A Close Shave was released, we were pretty much going to see Wallace & Gromit.  Like, I think they may have put a couple of other animated shorts before it, but it was promoted as your chance to see the new Wallace & Gromit.  In this short, Wallace & Gromit deal with a wool shortage, sheep rustlers, and a new member of the household: Shaun the Sheep (who would spin off into his own media empire).  This is the first short where Wallace & Gromit have a business – in this case window washers.  It’s also the first time there’s a character other than Wallace who speaks, who becomes the first of Wallace’s love interests, Wendoline.  I go back and forth over whether I like The Wrong Trousers or A Close Shave better, but together they are peak Wallace & Gromit.

Rating: *****


Title:  A Matter of Loaf and Death
Release Date: 3 December 2008
Director: Nick Park
Production Company: Aardman Animations
Summary/Review:

“Farewell, my angel cake. You’ll always be my Bake-O-Lite Girl.”

I didn’t know that this short existed until I saw it in the package with the other Wallace & Gromit shorts I was streaming.  It follows the same formula as A Close Shave and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit where Wallace is enchanted by a love interest and the duo run a business with a lot of Rube Goldberg devices.  In this case they are bakers and the love interest, Piella Bakewell, a former beauty queen for a bread company.  There’s also the mystery of 12 local bakers gone missing.  Will Wallace make a baker’s dozen?  It feels like the formula has gone a bit off in this short, and it feels a bit grim for a cozy comedy to have a story involving a serial killer.  And the villain’s motivation is basically a fat joke. Also, we get to see Wallace’s bare buttocks, which was not necessary.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Hope and Glory (1987)


Title: Hope and Glory
Release Date:  16 October 1987
Director: John Boorman
Production Company: Goldcrest Films | Nelson Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Set in London from around 1939 to 1942, Hope and Glory provides a child’s-eye view of World War II and the Blitz. In the horrors of war, Billy Rowan (Sebastian Rice-Edwards) can find joy in escaping school because of an air raid, bombed-out houses become a playground, and there’s beauty in a runaway barrage balloon.  Billy’s middle-aged father Clive (David Hayman) enlists despite his advanced age and his mother Grace (Sarah Miles) has to hold things together on the home front.  She’s unable to part with Billy and his little sister Sue (Geraldine Muir) in the Evacuation so they stay in the London for the nightly “fireworks” and gathering bits of shrapnel.  Meanwhile, Billy’s teenage sister Dawn (Sammi Davis) enjoys dancing with Canadian soldiers and ends up with an unplanned pregnancy.

In the the third act of the film, the family’s house is destroyed not by a bomb but by an ordinary house fire.  They end up living in a rustic Thameside cottage with Billy’s grandparents. Thus Billy learns about rowing, fishing, and cricket from his eccentric grandfather (Ian Bannen).  The whole movie has the sheen of nostalgia, probably based on writer/director John Boorman’s own childhood experiences, which helps excuse details like the fact that the children don’t seem to age over three years or Ian Bannen’s over-the-top acting.

The story of this movie is rooted in the stories the English like to tell themselves about the home front during World War II, stiff upper lip and all that.  Yet, subtly, Boorman also satirizes all that.  We see characters being cruel, foolish, and outright stupid.  And yet, Billy’s family survives the war and even seem to be in a better place by the end of the movie, more from dumb luck than anything else. I remember really enjoying this movie in my teen years for its wry humor and its view of children running wild and thriving during the darkest times.  Revisiting Hope & Glory all these years later I still think it’s an enjoyable and underrated film.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Band Wagon (1953)


Title: The Band Wagon
Release Date: August 7, 1953
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is a movie star of song & dance films who was big “about 12-15 years ago” but whose career is fading.  In other words, pretty much Fred Astaire at the time this movie was made.  He returns to New York where his friends Lily (Nanette Fabray) and Lester (Oscar Levant) have written a Broadway musical they want Tony to star in. They’ve enlisted a very serious producer/director/actor Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) to direct the musical despite Tony’s misgivings.  Cordova re-envisions the musical as a modern-day retelling of the story of Faust and the devil. He also recruits ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) to star in the show with Tony.

The main tension of the film is the big differences and age of Tony and Gabrielle that need to be resolved if they are going to be able to work together.  Cordova also keeps changing the show to be more over-the-top with elaborate sets and effects and making the show more of a serious metaphorical drama than the light comedy envisioned by Lily and Lester.  Chaos ensues.

Once all the conflicts are resolved the film finishes up with several numbers for the actual show.  I guess this was supposed to a victory lap for the performers but the movie fizzles out for me a this point, especially since none of these numbers would makes sense in a show together.  “Triplets” is nightmare fodder and the big set piece, “Girls Hunt Ballet,” is weird but entertaining. It actually reminds a lot of  “Broadway Melody” from MGM’s big musical of the previous year Singin’ in the Rain.  In fact, the two movies have a lot in common, which makes The Band Wagon feel a little formulaic, but if you like one you’ll like the other.

It’s a good formula though, and I really like the part of the movie where they do song and dance about making a show better than the song and dance from the show.  Standout numbers include “Shine Your Shoes,” “That’s Entertainment,” and “Dancing in the Dark.”  If you like movie musicals you won’t be disappointed.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Story of a Cheat (1936)


Title: Le Roman d’un tricheur
Release Date: 19 September 1936
Director: Sacha Guitry
Production Company: Films Sonores Tobis; Cinéas
Summary/Review:

Sacha Guitry directed, wrote (from an adaptation of his own novel) and starred in The Story of a Cheat, alternately Confessions of a Cheat. Guitry plays a man in his mid-50s writing his memoir and narrating the extended flashbacks of his life, including all the dialogue of his younger selves ( Serge Grave and Pierre Assy) have with other people. The Cheat’s story begins when he is orphaned as a 12-year-old and then runs away from his guardians after they rob him of his inheritance.  The cheat works as a doorman and elevator operator at hotels, serves in the military, becomes a croupier in Monaco, and is charmed by beautiful women into participating in various cons and crimes.  Eventually he becomes a professional card cheat, learning from his life experience that he makes money when he cheats and loses money when he’s honest.

The film is whimsical but I never find it laugh out loud funny.  I wonder if this film inspired Jean-Pierre Jeunet because the stenatorian narration and quirky life story are reminiscent of movies like Amélie.  Mostly though, I just started to feel that Guitry should shut up and let people act, because that non-stop narration got grating.  I found The Story of a Cheat a mildly-entertaining picaresque but there’s nothing really great about it.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Synecdoche, New York (2008)


Title: Synecdoche, New York
Release Date: October 24, 2008
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Production Company: Sidney Kimmel Entertainment | Likely Story | Projective Testing Service | Russia Inc.
Summary/Review:

When you watch a Charlie Kaufman film, you know things are going to get weird.  This was the first film Kaufman directed as well as wrote after writing the screenplays for movies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a theater director whose life begins to crumble after his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) leaves him taking their young daughter.  Not only does Caden suffer various physical ailments but he becomes obsessed with staging a large-scale dramatic work inside a massive warehouse.

Caden isn’t a very appealing person but seems to attract the attention of a lot of attractive younger women (male writer’s fantasy?)  Hazel (Samantha Morton) is a woman who works and the theater and lives in a burning house who is attracted to Caden and becomes kind of a lifelong companion.  But Caden actually marries the actress Claire (Michelle Williams).  Then he hooks up with Tammy (Emily Watson), the actress playing Hazel. Finally, Ellen Bascomb (Dianne Wiest) takes over playing Caden and directing the play.

If that sounds confusing, the whole play becomes a simulacrum of Caden’s life with the actors and real life figures commenting on and interacting with the actors.  And yes, then they need to get actors to play the actors.  I get what Kaufman is doing here, reflecting on the meaning of life and mortality, but the film can get tedious and disturbing.  Then again life – and death – can be tedious and disturbing.  Roger Ebert recommended watching this movie multiple times.  Maybe I’ll return to this film, but I find on my first viewing of Synecdoche, New York that I veer between finding it profound and finding it pretentious.

Rating: ***1/2

Silent Movie Day Movie Reviews


In honor of National Silent Movie Day I watched several silent shorts:

 

Title: The Great Train Robbery 
Release Date: December 1903
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Production Company: Edison Manufacturing Company
Summary/Review: This 12-minute film was perhaps the first blockbuster motion picture. In latter days it was credited with lots of innovations that weren’t actually true, but it is undeniable that it was a big hit.  And the basic imagery of outlaws holding up a train is quite persistent. The version I watched had hand-colored segments that make it feel painterly.  And of course, who can ever forget the iconic shot of Justus D. Barnes firing his gun at the camera!
Rating:  ***1/2


Title:The Immigrant
Release Date: June 18, 1917
Director: Charles Chaplin
Production Company: Mutual Film Corporation
Summary/Review: Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp joins the tired  poor, huddled masses immigrating to America.  There’s not so much of a plot as a series of set pieces, first aboard a ship sailing to New York, and then in a New York restaurant where the broke Tramp struggles to pay for a meal.  In both scenes, he tries to charm a fellow immigrant (Edna Purviance).  Eric Campbell plays a big and tough waiter.  There are a lot of good gags in this movie with a warm and sympathetic portrayal of the travails of the immigrant experience.
Rating: ***1/2


TitleThere It Is
Release Date: 1928
Director: Harold L. Muller
Production Company: Educational Pictures
Summary/Review:  Charles Bowers is not as well-remembered as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd but work in the same genre of slapstick comedy during the silent film era.  This movie is almost entirely visual jokes and hard to summarize without spoiling the gags.  Suffice to say, a family in New York finds strange things happening in their house due to the “Fuzz-Faced Phantom” (Buster Brodie) and decide that the police will not be good enough so they call Scotland Yard.  In this case, it is an actual yard in Scotland where men in full kilts roam around. Charley MacNeesha (Bowers) is sent to investigate with his partner MacGregor, a stop-motion animated bug.  So many weird things happen in 19 minutes.  The primary Black character spends the entire film trying to leave which plays into the stereotype of easily-spooked African Americans, but then again getting out of that house seems wise.  MacNeesha is also extremely cheap, so more cultural stereotypes.  This movie is fun to watch to see absurdists humor from a century ago that seems to anticipate Monty Python.
Rating: ***


Title: The Cameraman’s Revenge
Release Date: October 27, 1912
Director: Władysław Starewicz
Production Company: Khanzhonkov
Summary/Review: If MacGregor stirred your passion for stop-motion animated bugs, then this movie is for you!  All the characters in this 12-minute short are animated insect specimens.  Mr. and Mrs. Beetle each are having affairs with other insects.  An angry grasshopper, who is a camera operator and projectionist, films it all.  So if a movie where insects canoodle while a voyeur watches them through a keyhole is your jam, then this movie has been there for you for almost 110 years!  This one is delightfully weird.
Rating: ****


Title: New York 1911
Release Date: 1911
Production Company: Svenska Biografteatern
Summary/Review: My grandmother was born in New York on May 1, 1911.  Sometime in the same year a Swedish production company filmed this travelogue of Lower Manhattan.  As travelers on this journey, we arrive by ferry and then travel around the city streets, sometimes by streetcar.  Despite the constant change in New York, the bridges and many buildings are very recognizable.  The absence of automobiles is the best part of this vision of New York where the streets are dominated by pedestrians and streetcars.  Although we do spend some time observing a white family packed into an open-air motorcar with a Black driver.  This film is only 9 minutes long but it’s a remarkable document of a place and time.
Rating: ****