Movie Review: Happy Together (1997)


Title: Happy Together
Release Date: 30 May 1997
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Production Company: Jet Tone Production | Block 2 Pictures | Seowoo Film Company | Prénom H Co. Ltd.
Summary/Review:

Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) are an on-again/off-again couple.  They travel to Argentina where they lose all their money and have to take jobs to earn money to return home.  Their tempestuous relationship further erodes until it falls apart and they both hit rock bottom. I found it unsettling how the film depicts the domestic violence between Lai and Ho, so consider that a content warning if you are similarly sensitive.

As is the style of Wong Kar-wai, Happy Together uses brilliant imagery to depict images and moods rather than plot.  The music in the soundtrack is also expertly matched even when used for ironic effect, like the title song (a cover of The Turtles’ “Happy Together” by Danny Chung appears at the end).  For a movie from the 1990s, it feels very progressive for telling a warts and all story about a same-sex couple.  But for all it’s great artistry and storytelling, I guess I’m the philistine who has to admit I found it a bit slow for my taste.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Run Lola Run (1998)


Title: Lola rennt
Release Date: 20 August 1998
Director: Tom Tykwer
Production Company: X-Filme Creative Pool | WDR | Arte
Summary/Review:

In the summer of 1999, everyone was agog over The Blair Witch Project.  So one night I met up with some friends at the cinema, waited in a long line, and when we got to the front learned that all showings of The Blair Witch Project were sold out.  So we ended up seeing a German art film, Run Lola Run, instead. Run Lola Run quickly became one of my all time favorite movies, while I still haven’t seen The Blair Witch Project.

Set in Berlin (and incorporating the city as a character), the movie stars Franka Potente as Lola, a young woman who must find 100,000 Deutschmarks in 20 minutes.  Her doofy boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) is a bagman for a mob boss and lost the bag of money he was supposed to deliver and will meet certain execution if the money is not replaced.  As the title implies, Lola runs through the streets of Berlin trying to find the money, primarily from her estranged father who is a banker (Herbert Knaup).

What makes the movie unique is that the story is told three times with Lola’s split-second decisions affecting the outcome of her story and of the people she comes in contact with.  It’s basically the hip version of Sliding Doors which came out the same year.  People have compared it to a video game where one can start over after dying and keep trying to get it right.  The movie features a lot of innovative camera techniques for the time it was released, although they may seem clichéd after a few decades of overuse. In addition to the great visuals the film is expertly scored to a techno soundtrack on which Potente provides many of the vocals.

The movie is an exercise in efficiency getting across the basic plot points swiftly but still bearing emotional heft.  I’d completely forgotten that the movie also intercuts animation with the live action sequences that makes it a fun touch.  There are probably some deep philosophical issues that can be discussed in regard to this movie.  But I like it just for the pure energy it brings to telling a story about love and fate.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)


Title: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes 
Release Date: July 1, 1953
Director: Howard Hawks
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Summary/Review:

I went into Gentlemen Prefer Blondes hesitantly because I feared cringeworthy sexual politics.  On the surface that is true, but this is a more subversive movie than it appears.  At its heart, the movie is about a friendship between two women, Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell), and the women are calling the shots.  The men in this movie are almost tangential characters: Gus (Tommy Noonan), the meek heir engaged to Lorelei; Ernie Malone (Elliott Reid), the detective hired by Gus’ father to see if Lorelei is up to no good who also becomes a love interest for Dorothy; and Piggy (Charles Coburn), an aged diamond baron who is enchanted by Lorelei.

The basic plot of the movie is that Lorelei is going to Europe to marry Gus, and Dorothy is her chaperone.  Lorelei is drawn to wealthy men, and particularly diamonds, but Dorothy prefers men handsome and strong. They sail on a transatlantic liner along with USA men’s Olympic team and the aforementioned Malone and Piggy.  Hijinks ensue.

I particularly like the movie’s song and dance numbers.  “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” is the most famous and iconic, but what is up with the women posing as light fixtures?  “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love” is extremely funny and somehow combines the female gaze with perhaps the gayest thing ever shown in a Hollywood film up to that point.  But my favorite number is when Russell and Monroe duet in in a Parisian cafe on “When Love Goes Wrong, Nothing Goes Right.”

Gentlemen may prefer blondes but I think that Russell steals the show with her seemingly effortless and wry performance.  That’s not to knock Monroe, who’s character is written to be dumb, but she undercuts this characterization delightfully with her performance.  There’s a lot about this movie that I’m surprised made it past the production code in 1953.  I mean they probably have plausible deniability that Dorothy and Lorelei don’t actually marry one another at the end of the movie, but it seems perfectly rational to interpret it that way.

Rating: ***1/2

Midsummer Recent Movie Festival: The House (2022)


Welcome to my first Midsummer Recent Movie Festival!  For the past couple of years I’ve reviewed a bunch of recent movies on New Year’s Day.  But why wait when there are new movies to review now! My only qualifications for the Midsummer Recent Movie Festival are 1) a US release date January 1, 2022 or later, 2) a Letterboxd average rating of 3.5 or higher, and 3) available to me at no extra cost on my streaming platforms.

TitleThe House
Release Date: January 14, 2022
Directors:

I – And heard within, a lie is spun: Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels
II – Then lost is truth that can’t be won: Niki Lindroth von Bahr
III – Listen again and seek the sun: Paloma Baeza

Production Company: Nexus Studios | Netflix Animation
Summary/Review:

The House is an anthology film with three stories all set in a mysterious large house.  It is animated in stop-motion animation with characters made of fabric not unlike the style of The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

In the first segment, a poor family in rural England are allowed to move into the newly-built house but the mad architect continues to have the house built around them turning it into the maze.  9-year-old Mabel (Mia Goth) investigates what’s going on with the baby Isobel while her parents seem oblivious to the strange things happening.  This segment has the strongest elements of horror of the three.

In the second segment, an anthropomorphic rat contractor (Jarvis Cocker, of the band Pulp) is rehabbing the house and hosting a reception to entice potential buyers.  He has to deal with an infestation of beetles and then a strange couple at the viewing essentially move in without actually buying the house.  Despite the very creepy bugs, this segment is also the most comical.

In the final segment, the house survives in a world where everything around it has been submerged by a catastrophic flood. Rosa (Susan Wokoma), an anthropomorphic cat, is attempting to renovate the house while renting out the rooms.  She has only two tenants, Jen (Helena Bonham Carter) and Elias (Will Sharpe), neither of whom pay rent in cash. Things come to a head as the flood waters rise.  Despite the apocalyptic setting, this segment feels hopeful.

The animation in this film is beautifully done with great voice acting and music as well.  The combination of surrealism, fantasy, horror, and humor works well.  I think each segment is better than the previous, but maybe it’s just because I like cats.

Rating: ***1/2

Midsummer Recent Movie Festival: Badhaai Do (2022)


Welcome to my first Midsummer Recent Movie Festival!  For the past couple of years I’ve reviewed a bunch of recent movies on New Year’s Day.  But why wait when there are new movies to review now! My only qualifications for the Midsummer Recent Movie Festival are 1) a US release date January 1, 2022 or later, 2) a Letterboxd average rating of 3.5 or higher, and 3) available to me at no extra cost on my streaming platforms.

Title: Badhaai Do
Release Date: February 11, 2002
Director: Harshavardhan Kulkarni
Production Company: Junglee Pictures
Summary/Review:

Shardul (Rajkummar Rao), a gay policeman, and Sumi (Bhumi Pednekar), a lesbian PE teacher, decide the only way to get their families to stop pestering them is to enter into a marriage and live together as roommates.  While Sumi has her girlfriend Rimjhim (Chum Darang) move in and Shardul pursues a relationship with Guru (Gulshan Devaiah), their families continue to meddle and begin pestering about babies.  Sumi and Shardul begin to consider adoption.  A whole bunch of hijinks ensue.

I didn’t thinks this movie was bad but I also didn’t think the jokes were particularly funny. That’s likely a cultural divide, though.  I appreciate that the gay and lesbian characters were never made the butt of the jokes for being homosexual.  The movie also has a good message of how taboos against homesexuality in India cause loneliness and real harm.  It also shines a spotlight on the injustice of laws forbidding same sex marriage and LGBTQ people adopting children in India.

Rating: ***

Midsummer Recent Movie Festival: Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Space Age Childhood (2022)


Welcome to my first Midsummer Recent Movie Festival!  For the past couple of years I’ve reviewed a bunch of recent movies on New Year’s Day.  But why wait when there are new movies to review now! My only qualifications for the Midsummer Recent Movie Festival are 1) a US release date January 1, 2022 or later, 2) a Letterboxd average rating of 3.5 or higher, and 3) available to me at no extra cost on my streaming platforms.

Title: Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Space Age Childhood
Release Date: April 1, 2022
Director: Richard Linklater
Production Company: Netflix Animation | Minnow Mountain | Submarine | Detour Filmproduction
Summary/Review:

Apollo 10 1/2 is a sun-soaked, nostalgic film about growing up in the newly built suburbs of Houston in the late 1960s in a neighborhood where everyone’s dad worked for NASA. The movie is based on director Linklater’s own experiences growing up.  It is animated in a rotoscope style which basically involves tracing over live-action film and includes a lot animated archival TV and movie footage with the new content made for the movie.

The story focuses on Stan (Milo Coy), the youngest of six kids in a family where the dad has a “boring” job at NASA and the mom teaches at a college.  The framing device for the story is a fantasy that Stan has of being recruited by NASA to fly a secret mission to the moon because they accidentally made a lunar module too small for adults.  But this story doesn’t carry through much of the movie which is really just a catalogue of memories of being a kid in the the Houston suburbs in the late 60s.

The wry narration of adult Stan (the comforting voice of Jack Black) makes the movie feel like a more recent version of A Christmas Story or a less fantastic version of My Winnipeg.  I guess it all depends on your tolerance of the Gen X genre of nostalgia that basically boils down to “we did a lot of dangerous things without supervision and had a lot of fun!”  Personally I found that the warmth and charm made up for a lot of the deficits in plot, but that I’ve also seen better movies about the Apollo program and better coming of age stories from Linklater.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Field of Dreams (1989)


Title: Field of Dreams
Release Date: May 5, 1989
Director: Phil Alden Robinson
Production Company: Gordon Company
Summary/Review:

One of my favorite authors when I was a teenager was W.P. Kinsella. I was excited when I learned that his novel Shoeless Joe was getting adapted into a movie.  But when I finally saw the movie, I was disappointed.  There were a lot of changes from the book to movie, and on screen the story just seemed to ooze with cheesiness.  Over the years, Field of Dreams has become regarded as a classic baseball movie to the extent that Major League Baseball has started hosting an annual regular season baseball game in an Iowa corn field. I figured Father’s Day was a good opportunity to revisit Field of Dreams and watch it with my kids for the first time.

The basic story is that aging hippie and baseball fan Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) having married Iowa native Annie (Amy Madigan), has acquired a farm that they live on with their young daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffmann). Hearing voices in the corn field, Ray comes to a realization that he must build a baseball field on his farm. As a result, the deceased but not ghostly former baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) appears, and is soon followed by other former baseball stars.  Other messages prompt Ray to go to Boston to take the reclusive counterculture author Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) to a Red Sox game, and then to a small town in Minnesota to find “Moonlight” Graham (Burt Lancaster), a baseball player who played only one half-inning in the 1920s.  As all this happens, the Kinsella’s farm is failing and faces foreclosure at the hands of Annie’s brother Mark (Timothy Busfield).

The movie still oozes cheese.  There are changes from the book (including removing two significant characters) that effectively change the story.  There’s also a move away from the book’s magical realism to more of a Reagan-era nostalgia for baseball as something emblematic of America.  My wife noted that James Earl Jones’ famous speech about baseball has elements that feel eerily close to MAGA ideology.  While baseball is upheld as being something that was from a time when America was “good,” all of the former ballplayers who emerge from the corn come from a time when baseball was segregated.  That being said there’s a scene in the movie I’d totally forgotten where Annie takes on a group of conservatives who are trying ban books at the public schools which felt unfortunately relevant to our times.  Even then though, the feel of the movie is still steeped in a toothless nostalgia, this time for for 1960s.

With all that being said, the biggest change from the book to the movie is also the best, and I think improves upon the book.  In Shoeless Joe, Ray takes the real life author J.D. Salinger to Fenway Park.  The filmmakers knew that they couldn’t depict the notoriously reclusive Salinger on screen and instead created the fictional 60s icon Terrence Mann, who is more than just a substitute for Salinger but a character with a well-developed history of his own.  It’s surprising that in 1989, Hollywood cast a Black actor in the role originally written as white character, doubly so since in 2022 there are people who still lose their minds when a Black actor is cast as a character originally written as white.  Jones is great for the part and his performance brings a lot of energy and authority to the movie right at a time when it needs a jolt.

I probably sound like I’m hating on the movie, it is a thoroughly enjoyable movie, but I’m just a harsh judge since I love the book so much.  It is a bit slow-going, but then again so is baseball.  I love baseball, and I’m not immune to the magic of ballplayers emerging from a corn field or an impassioned speech about baseball’s role as America’s pastime.  For all it’s flaws, Field of Dreams is one of the best baseball movies ever made.

Rating: ***

Favorite Movies of All Time: 130-121


Over the past few years I’ve made a concerted effort to watch lots of movies considered to be among the best of all time.  Now, for the first time, I’ve made my own list of favorite movies of all time.  Every other Wednesday throughout 2022, I will be revealing ten movies in my list of 250 Favorite Movies of All Time.

250-241 200-190 150-141
240-231 190-181 140-131
230-221 180-171
220-211 170-161
210-201 160-151

130

Title: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest 
Director: Miloš Forman
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, William Redfield
Year:1975
When did I first watch this movie?: 1990s
Why is this one of my all time favorites?:  A collection of tour de force acting performances in this tense, anti-authoritarian drama.


129

Title: Virunga
Director: Orlando von Einsiedel
Cast: Virunga National Park rangers
Year: 2014
When did I first watch this movie?: April 2019
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: This heartbreaking documentary follows in the path of brave park rangers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who risk their lives to defend mountain gorillas amidst poaching and warfare.


128

Title: Once Upon a Time in the West
Director: Sergio Leone
Cast: Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, Gabriele Ferzetti, Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Lionel Stander, Paolo Stoppa, Frank Wolff, Keenan Wynn
Year: 1968
When did I first watch this movie?: April 2021
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: A mesmerizing pastiche Western tropes and the “rituals” of violence that emerge from machismo.


127

Title: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Director: David Hand
Cast: Adriana Caselotti, Lucille La Verne, Harry Stockwell, Roy Atwell, Pinto Colvig, Otis Harlan, Scotty Mattraw, Billy Gilbert, Eddie Collins, Moroni Olsen, Stuart Buchanan
Year: 1937
When did I first watch this movie?: Maybe when I was a kid, definitely in April 2020
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: A groundbreaking work of animation that features a still frightening scene of Snow White lost in the forest and great exploration of motion and characterization in the Dwarfs and the animals.


126

Title: Dark Days
Director: Marc Singer
Cast: Documentary
Year: 2000
When did I first watch this movie?: April 2007
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: A documentary about the “Mole People” who created a shanty town in the railroad tunnels beneath Manhattan. It serves as anthropological study of a community that forms out of sight of most people in the city with a hopeful conclusion.


125

Title: The Green Knight 
Director: David Lowery
Cast: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Ralph Ineson
Year: 2021
When did I first watch this movie?: December 2021
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: An ancient legend is told anew in this visually innovative film.


124

Title: What We Do in the Shadows
Director: Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi
Cast: Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stu Rutherford
Year: 2014
When did I first watch this movie?: October 2021
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: This comedy asks the question, what if we had vampires but followed their daily activities reality TV style?


123

Title: Let the Right One In 
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Cast: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar, Ika Nord, Peter Carlberg
Year: 2008
When did I first watch this movie?: October 2021
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: This drama asks the question, what if we have a vampire but it represents children who form a bond when they are bullied and outcasts?


122

Title: Laura 
Director: Otto Preminger
Cast: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson
Year: 1944
When did I first watch this movie?: mid-1990s
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: Film noir at its delightfully wacky peak.


121

Title: Fruitvale Station
Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ahna O’Reilly, Octavia Spencer
Year: 2013
When did I first watch this movie?: September 2021
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: We “Say Their Names” when we protest the murders of black people at the hands of police and vigilantes.  This is the story behind one of those names, Oscar Grant, and the introduction of Ryan Coogler’s unique style.

Movie Review: Being There (1979)


Title: Being There
Release Date: December 19, 1979
Director: Hal Ashby
Production Company: Lorimar Productions
Summary/Review:

This is a movie that I know I watched sometime back in the 1980s but had next to know recollection about what happens in it.  In fact, I read the Jerzy Kosiński book it is based on in the 1990s and don’t remember that either!  So it was essentially like coming to this movie anew.

Peter Sellers stars (in his last film released before his death) as a simple-minded gardener named Chance.  I think if this movie was made at a later date they would probably identify him as being on the autism spectrum. His background is a bit of a mystery as he has lived his entire life on the grounds of a Washington, D.C. mansion and no one seems to know he exists beyond his benefactor and the maid, Louise (Ruth Attaway). With such little interaction with other people Chance spends his free time obsessively watching television.  As an aside, this movie makes great use of clips from 1970s television shows and advertisements that comment on the action of the film.

When “the old man” dies, Chance is forced out on his own.  Through a series of mishaps he becomes enmeshed in the lives of the wealthy and powerful Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas) and his younger wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine).  Chance’s comments on gardening are mistaken as an optimistic philosophy on business and the economy.  Ben, who is terminally ill, finds comfort in Chance’s companionship, while Eve falls in love with Ben.  As a result of his connection with the Rands, Chance is able to meet the President (Jack Warden), appear on a TV talk show, and attend a state dinner with the Soviet ambassador (Richard Basehart).

The movie is a product of the cynical 70s with the power brokers of Washington all projecting their desires onto Chance.  It also pokes fun at how easy it is for a well-dressed white man to “fail up.” But there’s also a sweetness to the movie, especially in the quick but real bond that forms between Chance and Ben.  The movie succeeds on the impressive performance of Sellers who really immersed himself in the role, finding that he identified strongly with Chance. The movie is beautifully shot, with Sellers appearing in the foreground of the Capitol building and in the Rand’s mansion (filmed at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina) being particularly iconic.  This is a movie worth remembering.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)


Title: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Release Date: October 31, 1962
Director: Robert Aldrich
Production Company: Seven Arts Productions
Summary/Review:

Got to see this on the big screen thanks to a 60th anniversary re-release last week.

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were known for playing … um … confrontational characters (and were even more confrontational in real life).  So it makes sense to channel their antipathy for one another into this psychological thriller about a lifelong rivalry between two sisters.  In 1917, we see that Baby Jane Hudson (Julie Allred) is a popular child performer on the vaudeville circuit while her sister Blanche (Gina Gillespie) watches from the wings.  By 1935, their roles are reversed as Blanche (Crawford) is now a Hollywood star who insists that the less talented Jane (Davis) get film parts as part of her contract.

But the story really begins in the present day when the aging sisters now share a decaying house on the outskirts of Los Angeles.  Blanche is unable to walk due to a car crash that broke her spine and Jane reluctantly cares for her.  A revival of Blanche’s old movies on tv seems to be the last straw for Jane who essentially imprisons her sister while she goes about trying to revive her childhood singing career.  There’s nothing quite as unsettling as Bette Davis with caked on makeup, greasy hair curls, and a babydoll dress singing songs about “Daddy.” But Blanche has her dark secrets as well.

David Lynch was only a teenager when this movie was released but it is nevertheless a very Lynchian film in nature.  Davis is great in her monstrous performance and Crawford has a more subtle role where she seems to wallow in her suffering.  It’s also brilliantly meta that this movie deals with the theme of women in entertainment being disposable once they reach a certain age and stars two women whose Hollywood careers seemed to be in the past. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? actually revived their careers which seems like a just reward.

Rating: ****