Classic Movie Review: Chinatown (1974)


Title: Chinatown
Release Date: June 20, 1974
Director: Roman Polanski
Production Company: Penthouse | Long Road Productions | Robert Evans Company
Summary/Review:

I watched this movie with some reluctance as I find Jack Nicholson overrated in that he always plays some variation of the same wiseass character.  I also think Faye Dunaway is not a good actor at all.  But more seriously, this movie is directed by someone who would go on to be a notorious child rapist.  With those reservations in mind, I gave Chinatown the benefit of the doubt.

Much as The Godfather put a New Hollywood spin on the gangster movie, Chinatown attempts to reinvent the film noir detective story.  Nicholson portrays a Los Angeles private detective, Jake Gittes, in the 1930s who typically investigates infidelity cases.  The case he takes as this movie starts is another cheating husband case but leads into a scandal involving the construction of a new aqueduct and the accumulation of land alongside it that will become more valuable when it can be irrigated.

Gittes investigates Evelyn Cross Mulwray (Dunaway), the spouse of LA’s water department engineer, and her father, Noah Cross (John Huston), who was the former business partner at a private water company. Only a small part of this movie, at the end, takes place in the neighborhood of Chinatown in Los Angeles.  Instead “Chinatown” is used as a metaphor for the unsolvable mess of a situation that Gittes finds himself trying to unravel.  It’s kind of racist since it’s an all-white cast involved in this mess (the treatment of Asian characters in the movie is stereotypical as well).

I guess Chinatown was a pithier title than Los Angeles Water Rights Scandals, but I found myself deeply intrigued in the subterfuge around bringing water to the city in a desert. The movie is based loosely on the historical California water wars, although they took place 1-2 decades before the movie is set.  A nice touch is that frequent motif of water and the sound of water throughout the movie.

Chinatown is a pretty good movie but I wouldn’t rank it among the all-time greats.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Tokyo Story (1953)


Title: Tokyo Story
Release Date: November 3, 1953
Director: Yasujirō Ozu
Production Company: Shochiku
Summary/Review:

Drawing inspiration from Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, Tokyo Story is a moving film about an elderly couple and their adult children.  Shūkichi (Chishū Ryū) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) live in the Hiroshima Prefecture of southwest Japan with their youngest daughter, a schoolteacher named Kyōko (Kyōko Kagawa).  The travel by train to Tokyo for the first time in their lives to visit some of their other children.

Their son Kōichi (So Yamamura) is busy with caring for patients in his pediatric practice and their daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) is preoccupied with her hair salon.  Their grandchildren show no interest in spending time with them.  Only Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the widow of their middle son who died in World War II service, shows interest in them and takes a day off from her office job to take them sightseeing in Tokyo.

The children decide to ship their parents off to a spa, but the lively atmosphere there does not agree with them and Tomi begins to show signs of illness.  Unprepared for their parents’ unexpected return, the couple have to spend the night separated. Shūkichi reunites with friends he grew up with and spends the night drinking while Tomi forms a stronger bond with the kindly Noriko. They decide to go home early, planning a whistle-stop visit with their youngest son Keizō (Shirō Ōsaka) in Osaka, but end up staying longer as Tomi’s health deteriorates.

Shūkichi and Tomi finally return home, but Tomi falls into a coma.  The children reluctantly travel to their parents’ home for one last family reunion, although Keizō fails to arrive before his mother’s death.  Kōichi, Shige, and Keizō leave immediately after the funeral, still selfish and indifferent to their father. Kyōko is angered at her siblings, and Shūkichi thanks Noriko for treating him better than his own family.

This movie is absolutely beautiful and heartbreaking.  Like Ozu’s later film Floating Weeds, it features his trademark style of fixing the camera in a low position without any pans, zooms, or tracking shots (I believe the camera moves once in the entire movie) while cutting to different angles.  This movie also makes me realize that I’m enamored with Japanese domestic architecture.  It’s a great work of film art that touches on family, cultural changes in modern Japan, and the lingering after effects of the war.

Rating: ****

Movie Reviews: Frozen II (2019)


Title: Frozen II
Release Date: November 22, 2019
Director: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

The sequel to 2013’s extremely-popular Frozen, picks up some loose threads from its predecessor such as Anna and Elsa’s parents’ story and the origin of Elsa’s powers.  Elsa (Idina Menzel) is now comfortable with her magic, but uncertain if ruling as Queen of Arendelle is her destiny.  Anna (Kristen Bell) remains so concerned for Elsa’s well-being that she ignores her own pursuits.  Meanwhile, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) just wants to find the right opportunity to propose marriage to Anna.  And the sentient snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is learning about the world much like a child. He is also once again the movie’s comedy MVP with his many whimsical quips.

Wisely, though, Frozen II is a stand-alone story that is more of a true fantasy adventure than its fairy tale predecessor.  When the elemental spirits of Air, Water, Fire, and Earth drive the people of Arendelle from their city, Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and the reindeer Sven must travel north to an Enchanted Forest that has been trapped in mists since the time of Elsa and Anna’s grandfather. There they meet the Northuldra, a people inspired by the Sámi, much as Arendelle is a fictionalized Norwegian town.  Together they must work to solve the mystery of the elemental spirits before they are all destroyed.

The movie is a great adventure, with good subplots for all the lead characters.  The animation is absolutely gorgeous especially the depictions of the autumnal Enchanted Forest.  The music is good in that it serves the movie, although I don’t think anything stands on its own the way it did in Frozen.  At least I haven’t heard thousands of kids singing “Into the Unknown” the way they did “Let it Go.”  My favorite song is Anna’s “The Next Right Thing,” because it’s lyrics offer a great philosophy and it’s performed in one the movie’s most emotionally powerful scenes.  At the other end of the spectrum is Kristoff’s power ballad “Lost in the Woods” which is filmed as if Kristoff and a group of reindeer were in a 1990s boy band music video.  I’m not sure if I was supposed to be laughing.

Frozen II falls short of being as good as the original, but it is good enough to justify existence as much more than just a cash grab.  It’s definitely worth watching if enjoy emotionally-packed fantasy adventure with musical interludes.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Conversation (1974)


Title: The Conversation
Release Date: April 7, 1974
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Production Company: The Directors Company
Summary/Review:

Gene Hackman portrays Harry Caul, a surveillance expert for hire in San Francisco.  The movie begins with his team recording the conversation of a young couple, Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest) as they stroll through Union Square during lunch hour.  They talk as if they have something to hide but their actual conversation appears innocuous.  As Caul edits and replays the conversation he starts to hear different things (not unlike Blowup where enlarging a photograph reveals tantalizing details).  Caul faces a moral quandary when he believes that if he delivers the recording to his client it could lead to the Ann and Mark’s murder.

Coppola made this movie as a personal project in-between The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II. The story reflects the increasing mistrust of government and Big Business the grew in the turbulent late 60s and early 70s, and inadvertently reflected the Watergate scandal that unfolded in 1974.  There are some great scenes of Caul and other surveillance experts at a trade show and party that show the surprisingly sophisticated technology of the era. Harrison Ford has a good small part as a snarky assistant to Caul’s client.  The movie is a slow-burn thriller with a fair amount of ambiguity and a surprising twist.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Great Mouse Detective (1986)


Title: The Great Mouse Detective
Release Date: July 2, 1986
Director: Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, Dave Michener, and John Musker
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation | Silver Screen Partners II
Summary/Review:

Adapted from Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus, itself a pastiche on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, The Great Mouse Detective is a classic mystery in Victorian London starring mice and rats. There’s the great detective, Basil (Barrie Ingham), his new acquaintance-cum-sidekick, Major Dr. David Q. Dawson (Val Bettin), coming together to help an adorable young Scottish mouse, Olivia (Susanne Pollatschek).  Her father, the toymaker Hiram Flaversham (Alan Young), is abducted by the evil Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price, who steals the movie as well) and forced to work on his evil plan.

The movie is delightful with a lot of imagination and Rube Goldberg devices. I can’t help but wonder what this movie would’ve been like if it had been made a couple of years later in the Disney Renaissance era and given the tender-loving care it deserved.  New Disney CEO Michael Eisner cut the films budget and sped up the release date.  He also renamed the movie because he thought “Basil” sounds too British. Disney animators famously circulated a memo illustrating the bland and generic nature of the new title by renaming Walt Disney animated classics.  It may be past time for a Basil of Baker Street movie reboot (but not a “live action” version please!)

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)


Title: The Friends of Eddie Coyle
Release Date: June 26, 1973
Director: Peter Yates
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

Long before The Departed and several adaptations of Denis Lehane novels made the Boston Crime Movie a cliche, there was The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Unlike most of the movies that I watched for this classic movie project this is not one that’s considered one of the great movies of all time, but I put it on my list because it’s considered one of the great Boston movies of all time.  Having watched it, I think it deserves much wider recognition because it is a powerful, well-acted, well-paced, and well-scripted film.

Unlike more recent Boston Crime Movies, The Friends of Eddie Coyle emphasizes the mundanity of life in the mob.  Doing mob work is work and for Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) it is  – literally and figuratively – a dead end job.  Sorry for the spoiler, but it’s clear from the beginning that Eddie is not much longer for this world, although you do pull for him to some how get out his situation.

Eddie’s job is to get guns for a gang of bank robbers who need fresh weapons for each heist.  He buys them from gun runner Jackie Brown (Steven Keats).  Coyle is also facing a prison sentence for getting caught in New Hampshire with a truck full of stolen liquor and refusing to squeal on who he was working for, the bartender/mob boss Dillon (Peter Boyle).  He asks ATF agent Dave Foley (Richard Jordan) for help with a recommendation to the judge, but Foley expects him to turn informer in return.

At first the movie seems disjointed, with scenes of Eddie, Jackie, Dillon, and Dave going about their business intercut with bank robberies.  But it all comes together brilliantly in the end. As I noted above, this movie emphasizes the mundane, everyday aspects of organized crime.  There’s no glamour here, and there’s actually only a handful of scenes of violence.  But the movie does offer terrific acting, especially Mitchum, who pretty much lives in his role as Eddie.

For Boston lovers, there are a lot of great location shots including familiar spots like City Hall Plaza and the old Boston Garden, where Eddie waxes poetically over Bobby Orr in the most Boston scene ever caught on film.  There are also scenes shot in a no longer extant Back Bay bar that is a platonic ideal of the men’s bars that no longer exist.  And although I can’t confirm, I’m almost certain there’s a scene in the late, lamented Doyle’s Cafe.  Much of the film is set in the suburbs at places like Houghton’s Pond and shopping centers with parking lots filled with big cars and flashy signs.

Bostonian or not, this is a film worth watching.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: American Graffiti (1973)


Title: American Graffiti
Release Date: August 11, 1973
Director: George Lucas
Production Company: Lucasfilm | American Zoetrope | The Coppola Company
Summary/Review:

George Lucas’ directorial debut THX 1138 bombed at the box office and he was charged with making a more commercially appealing film for his production company American Zoetrope. (The same fiscal crisis contributed to Lucas’ partner Francis Ford Coppola to agree to direct an adaptation of a sleazy gangster novel). Lucas decided to make a tribute to his youth in Modesto, California where teens cruised the main street in hot cars while listening to rock & roll.

The movie focuses on one night in late summer in 1962 and the exploits of four teenagers:

  • Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) who is due to leave for college the next morning but is uncertain about going. He keeps seeing a mysterious blonde woman in a passing T-Bird (Suzanne Somers) and spends part of the night hanging out with a street gang.
  • Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), who is also leaving for college, and is arrogant and obnoxious.  Early on, he tells his long-time steady girlfriend Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams) that he wants to have an open relationship leading to a tense night for the couple.
  • John Milner (Paul Le Mat), the city’s best hot rod drag racer. A car full of girls pranks him by sending over a 12 year old little sister, Carol Morrison (Mackenzie Phillips), to ride with him. The initial awkwardness turns into the sweetest part of the movie as John and Carol form a sibling-like relationship.  Much like Meet Me in St. Louis, one of the best scenes in this movie involves John & Carol bonding through vandalism. John also has to face down a challenge from another drag racer, Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford).
  • Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith), a younger teen who inherits Steve’s Chevrolet Impala. He picks up a Marilyn Monroe-esque woman Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark) who proves to be an adventurous oddball with kind of a Luna Lovegood quality.

The movie is linked together by Wolfman Jack’s DJ patter over rock and roll hit.  He also appears in a cameo as himself where he gives advice to Curt.  Wolfman Jack was a celebrity DJ in New York when I was a kid.  I never realized that early in his career he broadcast from a high-powered radio station in Mexico and was a mysterious figure to the kids who listened to him at the time.

I ended up liking this movie a lot more than I expected.  But probably the biggest thing about this movie is its legacy. The soundtrack is wall-to-wall hit songs of the early rock & roll era. It’s one of the first movies to be scored entirely with previously-released popular tunes.  These songs are the familiar tunes of the 1950s and early 60s and makes me wonder how much the American Graffiti influenced what songs would be played on Oldies stations forevermore.

The first song heard in the movie is “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & The Comets (which later becomes the opening theme of Happy Days) and one of the last tunes heard in the film is “Goodnight, Well it’s Time to Go” by The Spaniels (which became the farewell song on Sha Na Na).  Which leads to the next legacy, the 50s nostalgia boom of the 1970s. It manifest itself in the tv sitcoms Happy Days (which also starred Ron Howard) and Laverne & Shirley (which also starred Cindy Williams), the comedy variety show Sha Na Na, the Broadway and Hollywood musical Grease, and the revival of musical careers of early rock & roll stars like Chuck Berry and Frankie Valli.

Perhaps the biggest legacy is the career of George Lucas, who went on to make movies that are nothing like American Graffiti.  I never realized that Lucas only directed six films in his entire career (and half of them are the Star Wars prequels!).  I don’t plan to watch THX 1138 anytime soon, but I’m going to assume that American Graffiti is Lucas’ best work of directing actors, as opposed to his true genius at creating story ideas and producing them.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Ikiru (1952)


Title: Ikiru
Release Date: October 9, 1952
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Production Company: Toho
Summary/Review:

Ikiru (Japanese for “To Live”) is the story of career civil servant Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) who works 30 years without missing a day.  He’s shaken by the diagnosis that he has stomach cancer and less than a year to live.  As a widower who is alienated from his son (Nobuo Kaneko) and daughter-in-law (Kyoko Seki), he finds himself with no one to talk about his impending death.

First, he decides on a night of hedonism with a young novelist (Yūnosuke Itō) he meets at a bar. Finding that life is not for him, he is next drawn to a young former employee, Toyo (Miki Odagiri), hoping to learn the secret of her joie de vivre. Finally, Watanabe decides he must do something significant as his legacy. Through the movie, parents from a poor neighborhood have been shuffled through the bureaucracy as they hope to have a cesspool filled and build a playground upon it. Watanabe makes it his goal in life to guide them through the bureaucracy and see the playground to its completion.

The second part of the film is five months later at Watanabe’s funeral.  City officials and Watanabe’s co-workers reflect on his life while arrogantly denying him any agency in building the playground.  Later when it’s just his co-workers and family, more stories and flashbacks reveal the truth. The men commit themselves to living more meaningful lives in honor of Watanabe, but in the final scene are shown being unable to live up to that promise.

This movie is absolutely beautiful and heartbreaking with outstanding acting and cinematography. The other Akira Kurosawa films I’ve watched are period pieces, but Ikiru demonstrates he was just as good, even better, at telling a contemporary story.  It’s definitely a movie I’d highly recommend that anyone should watch.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Fun and Fancy Free (1947)


Title: Fun and Fancy Free
Release Date: September 27, 1947
Director:  Animation: Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts, Hamilton Luske; Live Action: William Morgan
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

Disney’s fourth package film of the World War II features only two stories, neither long enough to make their own feature.  I’d argue that these stories only had enough substance for a short film. Jiminy Cricket returns from Pinocchio as the host who links the two segments together.

The first story is Bongo, which is presented as a storybook record narrated by Dinah Shore. Bongo is a performing bear in a circus who escapes to the forest. First he’s delighted by his newfound freedom, but then he faces challenges of adapting to the wild.  Then he falls in love with a sexy female bear named Lulubelle and there’s some clever animation of them floating through the clouds with Cupid bears.  The song about bears slapping one another as a sign of affection has aged poorly.

The second part is much better.  Mickey and the Beanstalk, features Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy as roommates who climb the beanstalk and outsmart Willie the Giant. This segment is narrated by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen with his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd and child actor Luana Patten.  I’m absolutely certain that I saw this on tv and the Disney Channel as a kid with the ventriloquist dummies edited out because Disney realized that they’re nightmare fodder.

Watching this package film made me realize how the 1940s package films prepared Walt Disney productions for television.  Telling stories too long for shorts and too short for feature films turns out to fit perfectly into the television format, as well as using characters like Jiminy Cricket to link them together. It’s the formula adopted by Walt Disney’s Disneyland in 1954 and all the anthology shows that followed.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Home on the Range (2004)


Title: Home on the Range
Release Date: April 2, 2004
Director: Will Finn  & John Sanford
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

It’s hard to understand what happened to Walt Disney animated features in the first decade of the century.  Hot on the heels of the 1990s Disney Renaissance, when the opening of every Disney animated movie was a big event, suddenly you have a string of around 11 movies that opened with a whimper and are remembered well in retrospect either (with the exception of Lilo & Stitch, which is a masterpiece that arose from low-budget experimentation).

The concept behind Home on the Range, a Western movie from the perspective of cows, is a clever one.  And with women voicing the three lead cow characters and the owner of the farm they hope to save, it’s a strong women-lead story as well.  The animation style is reminiscent of the Post-Walt/pre-Renaissance features of the 1970s and 80s. But the movie seems unable to decide if it’s light family fare of that earlier era, or if it is the brash ironic comedy of the 1990s with bodily function jokes.  I mean, I like a good belching joke, but it has to be good, and a joke, not just belching.

Roseann Barr is surprisingly not irritating as the lead cow, Maggie, a new arrival on the Patch of Heaven farm.  When she learns that the farmer Pearl (Carole Cook) may lose the farm due to debt, she enlists the fussy, older cow, Mrs. Calloway (Judi Dench) and a spacey, younger cow, Grace (Jennifer Tilly) on a mission to save the farm.  This means hunting down the cattle rustler Slim Alameda (Randy Quaid) who uses his mesmerizing yodeling skills to lure cattle away from their ranches.

There are some good gags here and there, but it’s a bit one-note and feels padded to make very little story into a feature film.  My guess is that very young children may enjoy this movie, but it’s not one of those movies with the Disney magic that makes it entertaining for all ages.

Rating: **