Classic Movie Review: The Rules of the Game (1939)


Title: The Rules of the Game
Release Date: July 7, 1939
Director: Jean Renoir
Production Company: Nouvelle Édition Française
Summary/Review:

Released just months before the outbreak of World War II, The Rules of the Game is a scathing satire of the decadence of France’s wealthy elite.  Director Jean Renoir (son of the artist Pierre-Auguste) uses innovative techniques such as deep-focus cinematography to depict the ensemble cast playing out overlapping conversations and plots at the same time. Before I even looked it up, I could tell this movie influenced the work of Robert Altman.  In fact, Gosford Park is pretty close to a remake.

The film begins with aviator André  (Roland Toutain) completing a transatlantic flight and declaring his love for Christine (Nora Gregor) in a radio interview. The whingy man-baby then has a temper tantrum that she has not come to greet him at the airport.  Christine, it turns out, is married to Robert, Marquis de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), a French aristocrat (as an aside, I could’ve sworn the French nobility was eliminated well before 1939, but maybe someone more knowledgeable in French history could clarify this for me).  Robert, in turn, has a mistress, Geneviève (Mila Parély).

All of these characters, as well as Octave (played by the director, Jean Renoir), a mutual friend of André and Christine travel to Robert’s estate in Sologne for a weekend of parties.  Christine is accompanied by her maid (Paulette Dubost)  , who is married to the gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot), but more devoted to Christine.  Schumacher catches a poacher, Marceau (Julien Carette), but Robert is impressed by his skill at killing rabbits and hires him on the spot as a domestic servant.  Octave and Marceau are similar in that they’re both comical figures, outsiders, but in ways more morally-centered than everyone else around them.

At the estate, there are masked balls, performances, and a very grim rabbit hunt around which various romantic liaisons take place.  There are declarations of love, heartbreak, arguments, fist fights, and ultimately the threat of using firearms (sometimes these things are happening at the same time with deep-focus tricks).  Not surprisingly there is also a murder, albeit one due to mistaken identity.  The way the elite carry on, not allowing the tragedy to affect their emotional display and continuing to play “the game” shows their moral callousness.  This is a brilliant film about awful people.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)


Title: Make Way for Tomorrow
Release Date: May 9, 1937
Director: Leo McCarey
Production Company: Paramount
Summary/Review:

I’d never heard of Leo McCarey before, but he directed two films in 1937, and they’re both masterpieces of film-making.  While The Awful Truth is an improvised screwball comedy about a wealthy couple, Make Way for Tomorrow is a drama more grounded in the Great Depression reality of the time (but also highly relevant 82 years later).  McCarey won the Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth, but in his acceptance speech he stated he deserved the award for Make Way for Tomorrow.

The movie begins with an elderly couple, Bark (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) calling 4 of their 5 adult children together for a family meeting in their home. Bark informs them that since he’s been unemployed for several years, he’s been unable to make payments on their family home and the bank has foreclosed.  None of the children have room to take in both parents, so a plan is made to split them up for the time being with the hope that Bark will find work and they can reunite at a new home. At his advancing age, though, this plan seems overly optimistic.

Bark sleeps on the couch at the city apartment of his daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon), and spends days at the store of his new friend Max (a warm and heartfelt performance by Maurice Moscovitch as a Jewish immigrant shopkeeper).  Meanwhile, Lucy moves into the suburban home of her son George (Thomas Mitchell) and daughter-in-law Anita (Fay Bainter), taking an extra bed in the room of her teenage granddaughter, Rhoda (Barbara Read). The first half of the movie plays as a comedy of manners and focuses on the generation gap.  The children can be cold and clearly see their parents as an intrusion, although they are also sympathetic characters.  Lucy and Bark can be annoying in their own ways.

After several months pass, Cora decides that Bark would be better off living with the unseen fifth sibling in California, justifying it on the basis that the warmer climate would be better for his health. Meanwhile, in one of the more heartbreaking sequences, Lucy preemptively volunteers to move into a retirement home knowing that George is planning to ask her to do so.  The second half of the film takes place over a single day in New York City when Lucy and Bark reunite before Bark’s train departs to California.

The scenes of them together enjoying one another’s company for the first time in months, with another separation hanging over them, are beautiful and tear-jerking.  They decide to skip meeting their children for dinner and instead visit the hotel where they’d spent their honeymoon 50 years earlier, eventually staying for dinner and dancing.  The people they meet – who can see them as humans, rather than problems – treat them with respect and listen to their stories attentively.  And then it all ends with Lucy seeing Bark to his train, both of them knowing that they’ll likely never see one another again, but neither wanting to admit it.

This is an incredible film that deals with serious issues of aging and how our society seems to have no place for our elders.  It’s remarkable for a Hollywood film to not fall into traps of sentimentality or melodrama. It certainly doesn’t have a happy ending, although Bark and Lucy’s last day together is nevertheless joyous.  Moore and Bondi seem so natural in their roles it’s almost as if they’re not acting, although they were both experienced actors, and neither of them was actually elderly.  Moore was 61 and Bondi was 48!  Bondi and Bondi’s makeup artist each deserved an Oscar.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Awful Truth (1937)


Title: The Awful Truth
Release Date: October 21, 1937
Director: Leo McCarey
Production Company: Columbia Pictures
Summary/Review:

I’ve long been a Cary Grant fan, and this is the film that established him as one of Hollywood’s leading actors for the next few decades.  It’s also unique in that director Leo McCarey didn’t have much of a script and believed in improvising dialogue on the set.  Grant and co-star Irene Dunne rose to the challenge and their performance is comedic brilliance.

Grant and Dunne play Jerry and Lucy Warriner, a fantastically wealthy couple who both believe that the other is unfaithful and sue for divorce.  They also have a custody battle over their dog, Mr. Smith (Skippy, who also played Asta in The Thin Man). During the 90-day period until their divorce is finalized, they each begin dating other people.  And each of them – individually realizing that they’re still in love with the other (and being the only one kooky enough to be their partner) – attempts to sabotage the other’s relationship.

In the first half of the movie, Lucy shares an apartment with her Aunt Patsy (Cecil Cunningham, making the most of the rare part for a glamorous older woman) and becomes engaged with the sweet but countrified Oklahoma oilman Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy, decades before Trading Places).  Jerry uses visits to Mr. Smith as a means to scandalize Dan and his mother (Esther Dale) and drive them back to Oklahoma.  In the later half of the movie, Jerry dates heiress Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont), and Lucy arrives at their house disguised as Jerry’s sister, pretending to be drunk and implying a working class background, to the horror of the stuffy Vances.

In the ensuing scenes they end up riding on the handlebars of police motorcycles, one of the more surreal scenes of this film, before ending up in a cabin where they reconcile over a long night.  And if you enjoyed the funny dog scenes with Mr. Smith early in the film, this segment has funny cat scenes! This includes a cat holding a door shut with its paw, the other great surreal moment that made me almost choke in laughter.

I can’t find a trailer for this movie, but one of my favorite scenes is embedded below.  Dunne’s expressions of embarrassment as Lucy when Dan makes her perform a rambunctious dance at a nightclub, and Grant pulling up a chair and smiling are absolutely terrific examples of physical comedy acting.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Swing Time


Title: Swing Time
Release Date: September 4, 1936
Director: George Stevens
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
Summary/Review:

Having had mixed feelings about Top Hat, I was a bit dubious about watching another Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie. The film starts with Astaire’s character John “Lucky” Garnett attempting to make it to his wedding on time but the other members of his dance troupe sabotage him.  When the wedding is cancelled and Lucky makes his way to New York City to prove himself worthy, he meets Rogers’ character Penny and they squabble over a stolen quarter.  The first 15 minutes or so of this movie is full of cringe comedy that set my teeth on edge.

But it turns out Penny is a dance instructor, and once made aware of Lucky’s dance ability, they are paired up to perform.  Unlike Top Hat, they seem to genuinely like each other early on and scenes alternate among their dance numbers, scenes of gambling (Lucky is a gambler as well as a dancer), and their shyness about admitting they are falling in love (it strikes me that this is also the basic plot of Silver Linings Playbook, although they’re veeeeery different movies. The movie also introduces standards like “The Way You Look Tonight” and “A Fine Romance.”

I was thoroughly enjoying the movie when I saw that the next number would be called “Bojangles of Harlem.”  I said to myself: “Please don’t come out in blackface.  Pleeeeaaase don’t come out in blackface.”  Folks, Fred Astaire totally came out in blackface, leaving me with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  Whatever Astaire’s intentions that this was a tribute to African American tap dancers, the fact is that it is nothing but black caricature.  It’s doubly insulting because Bill Robinson, despite all his talents, wouldn’t get a chance to do a showstopper like this in a Hollywood film.  It wouldn’t have been objectionable if Astaire had performed without blackface and the black caricature props alongside some African American performers (which is plausible since he would do that very thing in his very next film).  It’s too bad it’s so racist, because this dance sequence does have a great special effect of Astaire dancing with his own shadows.

It was hard to settle into watching the movie again after this (especially since Astaire doesn’t remove the blackface for the dramatic scenes that follow).  But there is a beautiful number “Never Gonna Dance” where Lucky and Penny dance their sorrow when they believe they’ll be going their separate ways. The conclusion of the movie is kind of odd, because the whole cast ends up giggling uncontrollably as if they were all high, or someone told an inside joke.  Nevertheless this was a pretty great movie with one exception, but it’s a pretty big exception.

Rating: **1/2 (might’ve been ***1/2 without “Bojangles of Harlem”)

 

Movie Review: April and the Extraordinary World (2015)


Title: April and the Extraordinary World (Avril et le Monde truqué)
Release Date: November 4, 2015
Director: Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci
Production Company: Arte France (and numerous others)
Summary/Review:

This imaginative animated film created by a team of French, Belgian, and Canadian filmmakers presents an alternative history of the world with a steampunk vibe.  The prologue of the film shows scientist Gustave Franklin working on a serum to create invulnerable soldiers for Emperor Napoleon III in 1870.  Angered that Franklin has only been able to create talking monitor lizards, the Emperor has a fit that inadvertently causes an explosion killing them both. In this alternate history, the young Napoleon IV signs a peace treaty to avoid the Franco-Prussian War thus maintaining the French empire in Europe.

A montage zips the story forward to 1931, during the interim the world’s great scientists are kidnapped retarding technological development. Relying on steam technology, the French Empire uses up all the coal in the world and then denudes Europe of trees for the wood.  This alternate past depicts a gray world devoid of vegetation and full of polluted air, but filled with fantastical steam-powered vehicles and devices. In 1931, Franklin’s son Prosper “Pops” Franklin, grandson Paul, granddaughter-in-law Annette and great-granddaughter April continue to work in secret on the serum, achieving success, but interrupted by both the French Imperial police and then a mysterious black cloud shooting lightning bolts.  Pops is separated, and Paul and Annette appear dead, leaving April alone with their talking cat Darwin (by far, my favorite character) and the serum hidden in a snow globe.

Whew, that’s a lot of setup in basically the first 15 minutes of the movie, because now the film zips forward again to 1941 for the main story.  April, now a young adult, continues to work in secret on the serum.  Disgraced inspector  Gaspar Pizoni – a kind of bumbling version of Javert – continues to try to track down the Franklins, and blackmails young petty criminal Julius to work for him.  Julius saves and then befriends April and Darwin, ultimately having mixed feelings about helping Pizoni.  They are reunited with Pops kicking off an adventure that reveals the secret plans of the French Empire and the mysterious forces that have kidnapped the world’s scientists.

This is imaginative story which also works as an environmental fable.  It’s also interesting that this alternate history depicts 1941 as a time when Europe is dominated by a French totalitarian government where in reality France was under the thumb of Nazi Germany at the time.  It’s imaginatively animated and a clever story.  The one flaw is that the voice acting feels stilted. If I watch this again, I’d like to find the original French cast instead of the dubbed version, because I think that would work better.

Rating: ****

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: ***

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

Movie Review: The Shape of Water (2017)


TitleThe Shape of Water
Release Date: December 1, 2017
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Production Company: TSG Entertainment | Double Dare You Productions
Summary/Review:

Set in Baltimore in 1962 during the height of the Cold War, The Shape of Water centers on Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who lives in an apartment above a derelict movie palace and works as a cleaner at a government research facility.  Her only friends are her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a struggling commercial illustrator who shies away from conflict, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a co-worker who helps interpret for Elisa.

An Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) captured in the Amazon by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) is brought into the facility for research.  Strickland is cruel to the creature and the facility’s staff alike.  Elisa befriends the Amphibian Man and when she learns that Strickland plans to vivisect him, organizes a rescue with Giles and Zelda, and are aided by a Soviet spy acting under the name Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who also feels sympathetic toward Amphibian Man.

The story is a romance where the creatures considered “unsightly” – both Amphibian Man and Elisa – get their day (and yes, they totally have sex).  It also twists things around from classic horror films in that both Amphibian Man and a Soviet spy be heroic, while the American soldier is the villain.  More subtly the film plays upon racial prejudice and the Civil Rights movement occurring at the time, and discrimination against LGBT people through Giles.  Sally Hawkins performs terrifically and carries the film despite not speaking.

The movie feels very familiar.  It is, of course, a variation of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, and del Toro very directly based the Amphibian Man on The Creature from the Black Lagoon.  But like Stranger Things, it also draws a lot on 80s movies, particularly the many movies in which a unhuman character must escape a hostile government and forms a close bond with the protagonist (E.T., Starman, Splash, et al).  The mood and atmosphere of the movie sets owes a lot to Jeunet/Caro films like Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, and even lifts the idea of filling a bathroom with water by stuffing towels under the door and letting the faucet run.  There are similarities too with Dancer in the Dark in that the protagonist is working class with a disability and daydreams about movie musicals.  The closest similarity is to del Toro’s own work, Pan’s Labyrinth, each of which features a female protagonist engaging with fantasy elements set against the brutal reality of a historical setting (the Spanish Civil War and the Cold War, respectively).

I cite all these similarities not to say that del Toro is “ripping off” other movies, but that he is drawing on many influences and synthesizing them into a new creative endeavor.  For all it’s familiarity, The Shape of Water is a wonder to watch.

Rating: ***1/2

Every Movie I’ve Ever Watched*


Several years ago I made a list of Every Book I’ve Ever Read and since then I’ve used both this blog and LibraryThing to keep track of my reading history.  I got to thinking recently that I’d also like to have a list of Every Movie I’ve Ever Watched.  I sought out an app similar to LibraryThing for movies and the best I could find is Trakt, which did the job, but it’s not very user friendly so I can’t recommend it.

Nevertheless, I have a list of 1483 movies and counting.  The asterisk is there because I’m certain I’ve forgotten many movies I watched in the distant past.  The list is also embarrassing because in my teens and twenties I had both insomnia and cable tv, meaning I watched lots of baaaaaaaaad movies.   On the other hand there are numerous all-time classic movies I’ve never seen, so I’m making an effort to watch some great movies from the 1920s to present that I’ve missed.  I will start posting my Classic Movie Reviews on August 1. If there’s a movie you think I should watch, let me know in the comments.

Movie Review: Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)


Title: Spider-Man: Far From Home
Release Date: July 2, 2019
Director: John Watts
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

The 23rd entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the follow-up to Spider-Man: Homecoming, also serves as a coda to Avengers: Endgame. The movie shows the world dealing with the aftermath of The Blip (the term being used to describe people disappearing for 5 years and then returning) and grieving over the loss of multiple Avengers, most prominently Iron Man.  Peter Parker and many of his friends had to start over the year of school that was interupted by The Blip and share a class with kids who’ve aged 5 years in the interim.

Peter wants to escape the constant questions of whether he will step into Iron Man’s role and simply enjoy his school’s summer vacation to Europe and express his feelings for MJ (Zendaya).  Unfortunately for him, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) tracks him down to fight a series of invaders known as the Elementals.  He joins Quentin Beck/ Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) to fight the Elementals and is carried on a whirlwind journey across Europe from Venice to Prague to Berlin to the Netherlands to London.  The movie blends genres among comedy, romance, road trip, and superhero action film.  The supporting cast is strong and adds to the strengths of the film, particularly Jacob Batalon as Peter’s best friend Ned, Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan, and Martin Starr as Roger Harrington, a teacher/chaperone who’s doing his best trying to manage the nuttiness of the school trip.

It was pretty clear that Mysterio would turn out to be a villain, although the twist about his actual background was unexpected. I also enjoyed that Peter and Quentin got to have some important heart-to-hearts about being superheroes and hope that Peter can find someone to talk to about such things who won’t double cross him. Like many a sophomore effort, there’s a slump from Homecoming to Far From Home, mostly due to the need to raise the stakes that ends up with more superhero fightin’ and less nuance and charm.  But generally this is an entertaining movie and a good addition to the MCU oeuvre.

Rating: ***1/2

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS