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

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: Nashville (1975)


Title: Nashville
Release Date: June 11, 1975
Director: Robert Altman
Production Company: ABC Motion Pictures
Summary/Review:

I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a movie quite like Nashville.  Even with the trademarks of a Robert Altman film – large ensemble casts and overlapping dialogue – there’s still something ineffable about this film I haven’t seen before.  The general story involves the lives of several musicians, aspiring musicians, music biz people, political campaigners, and hangers-on on Nashville over a period of several days.  The movie isn’t exactly plotless, as it does have a story to tell, but the plot is slow and messy not unlike real life.

Nashville is more of a character study of the 24 people in the movie with an underlying focus on celebrity culture.  I’m glad this movie was made in Nashville instead of Los Angeles or New York.  As a country music hub, Nashville is probably unique in that it has a strong celebrity culture while also being small enough where everyone keeps ending up in the same places.  Or at least it was in the 1970s, as Nashville has grown in population in the intervening decades.

The film is full of musical performances, and interestingly the actors were tasked with writing their own songs and filming them in live concert settings.  I don’t know much about country music, but honestly a lot of these songs sound like they could’ve been standards, so the soundtrack is worth seeking out.  The movie also has political undertones in that a third-party candidate,  Hal Phillip Walker (voiced by Thomas Hal Phillips) is campaigning in Nashville with a car traveling around the city reading his platform promises as a throughline through the film. The final scene is also set at a political rally (more on that below with a huge spoiler warning).

Among the cast, the standout performances include:

  • Lily Tomlin as Linnea Reese, a singer in a gospel choir who is raising two deaf children and is in an unhappy marriage with Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty) a lawyer in the music business and organizer for the Walker campaign.  Linnea is by far the most fully-realized character and surprisingly this is Tomlin’s first movie role after years in television.
  • Ronee Blakely as Barbara Jean, who is kind of the “sweetheart” star of country music who is in and out of hospitals with mental health issues.
  • Karen Black as Connie White, another top female vocalist in the country scene who is set up as the rival to Barbara Jean.
  • Henry Gibson as Haven Hamilton, a male country star who represents the Nashville old guard.
  • Keith Carradine, a younger folk rock star who is party of a trio with a married couple, Bill and Mary (Allan F. Nichols and Cristina Raines) but wants to go solo.  He also is Lothario who tries to use his charm and vulnerable persona to coax women into bed with him, including Linnea.
  • Gwen Welles as Sueleen Gay, a young woman eager to get into the music business despite the fact that she sings off-key. Men take advantage of her ambition to give her opportunities to perform where she’s objectified for her beauty.
  • Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie’s daughter) as a BBC radio reporter who is doing a story on Nashville who inserts herself into many scenes and blurts out the most loathsome things.
  • The movie also features a baby-faced Scott Glenn in a small role as a Vietnam vet who is a big fan of Barbara Jean and the equally youthful Jeff Goldblum in a part where he never speaks but frequently appears around town on a motorized tricycle.

Even though I read a summary of the movie and knew what was coming, the end of the movie is still quite a shocker. (HERE COME THE SPOILERS) A disturbed loner we see throughout the movie (David Hayward) shoots and presumably kills Barbara Jean when she’s performing before a political rally. What happens next, beggars belief.  Instead of people clearing the area, they stay together and sing.  This is for a big twist in the film because a straggly aspiring singer named Albuquerque (Barbara Harris) is able to take the mic and prove that she’s actually talented despite appearances. But I also recalled that after the University of Texas tower massacre in 1966 that the school never canceled any classes. So the idea that people would want to go on with what they’re doing despite the violent attack seems true to the time.

Nashville is a long movie, and at times slow-going and just a bit too much.  Nevertheless, it is artfully crafted and undeniably a great film.  I’m glad I had the time to watch it.

Rating: ****

Holiday Movie Marathon: A Very Murray Christmas


Title: A Very Murray Christmas
Release Date: December 4, 2015
Director: Sofia Coppola
Production Company: American Zoetrope
Summary/Review:

How time flies! I thought to myself that I should finally watch that highly-regarded Bill Murray special on Netflix that came out, was it last year? No, it was five years ago. Five Christmases based and I neglected to watch this hour-long special. Was it worth the wait? Maybe not, but it is mildly entertaining.

The premise is that Bill Murray (playing himself, or at least the version of himself he plays all the time) is hosting a celebrity-studded live Christmas special in New York. But a blizzard means no one else can participate in the show and Murray is distraught. After wrangling Chris Rock into an awkward duet of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” the power goes out and the show is canceled. Murray makes his way to the lounge where he basically starts a karaoke party with the other guests and staff stranded there (played by a bevy of celebrities including David Johansen, Jenny Lewis, Rashida Jones, Maya Rudolph, Jason Schwartzman, and the band Phoenix). Finally Murray passes out drunk and dreams of an elaborate stage show with Miley Cyrus and George Clooney as guests.

I went into this thinking it was a parody of corny old Christmas variety specials and about a third of the way realized that it’s a homage to corny old Christmas variety specials. Really, it’s almost entirely musical performances tied together by a meager storyline. Murray is surprisingly a great vocalist in his own right and sings well with all his guest talent. The humor of the show is light and really the only time I bust a gut was when George Clooney popped out from behind a tree to sing the chorus of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’.”

Is it an all-time Christmas classic? Maybe not, but it was worth finally getting around to watching to get myself into the holiday spirit this year.


Rating:

Movie Review: A Day at the Races (1937)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: A Day at the Races
Release Date: June 11, 1937
Director: Sam Wood
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

The previous movie introduced a “kinder, gentler” Marx Brothers, but the change in tone is more jarringly evident in their second film with MGM.  The feel of the movie is more sitcom than the “vaudeville-on-film” that preceded it.  Chico and Harpo adapt well, but Groucho just seems out of place.  The general plot is that a sanitorium in a resort town run by Judy Standish (Maureen O’Sullivan) is facing a fiscal crisis and could be bought and turned into a casino. Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho Marx) is brought in to care for a wealthy client who could be impressed upon to invest in the sanitarium, Mrs. Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont).  What no one knows is that Hackenbush is actually a horse doctor.  Meanwhile, fiancé Gil Stewart (Allan Jones) has unwisely spent his life savings on a race horse hoping to win a big race and give the prize money to Judy. The movie feels a little feminist by having its two main women characters be responsible and sensible, while the men are irresponsible and nonsensical.

The movie feels very episodic with the Marx Brothers comedy bits inserted between bits that advanced the plot and musical numbers.  There are two major musical numbers.  The first is “On Blue Venetian Waters” is a Busby Berkeley-esque song and dance spectacular with Jones singing solo and Vivien Fay leading the dancers.  “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” features the Marxes and Jones in a barn when out of nowhere dozens of African American singers and dancers appear, featuring Ivie Anderson from Duke Ellington’s orchestra and troupe of lindy hoppers.  It’s a delightful sequence and I was pleased that the Marx Brothers weren’t wearing blackface, until, of course, they do.  They actually but axle grease on their face to disguise themselves from the sheriff.  If one is feeling generous, one could say that they are mocking how ludicrous it is to wear blackface since it doesn’t make them look Black at all.

I feel this movie is hit-or-miss, but the hits are good enough to make it worth watching.  It is a good, but not great, Marx Brothers movie.  But with the Marx Brothers, good is still pretty entertaining.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: A Night at the Opera (1935)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: A Night at the Opera
Release Date: November 15, 1935
Director: Sam Wood
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

A Night at the Opera is the Brothers Marx first film with MGM and the first produced by Irving Thalberg. At Thalberg’s suggestion, the Marx Brothers were to become less anarchic and only use their sass and nonsense against the movie’s antagonists while offering their help to the film’s heroes.  After being absent from Duck Soup, a romantic subplot and non-comic musical numbers return.  In fact this is the first time the Marx Brothers bits, romance, and musical aspects are all tied together into a coherent plot.

Allan Jones takes over for Zeppo as a chorister named Ricardo Baroni who is in a romance with the opera company’s lead soprano Rosa Castaldi (a strong performance by Kitty Carlisle).  The “bad guys” in the film are the abusive lead tenor Rodolfo Lassparri (Walter Woolf King) director of the New York Opera company Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman), and the dowager investor Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont, of course!).  The Marxes get several set pieces including the famous contract scene between Chico and Groucho, the crowd of people in Groucho’s tiny stateroom, and the general disturbance they cause in the concluding opera scenes. Chico and Harpo get their traditional piano and harp solos, but they’re vastly improved by performing on a ship’s deck surrounded by Italian children and comically interacting with them.

A Night at the Opera may not be my #1 or #2 Marx Brothers film, but it is a worthy classic.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Horse Feathers (1932)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: Horse Feathers
Release Date: August 10, 1932
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

The Marx Brothers set their sights on roasting universities and college football with the topics of satire remaining remarkably current.  Groucho (as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff) is appointed President of Darwin College ushering in his inauguration with a wonderful song and dance number. Zeppo plays his son (!), a college student, while Chico and Harpo are ice vendors mistakenly recruited as ringers for the football teams big game against Huxley College (and yes, I do love the Darwin and Huxley allusions).

While the topics are ripe for satire, I find this movie to be a bit of a dud compared to other Marx Brothers comedies. Unfortunately, much of the movie relies on the tired Marx Brothers trope of “Creepy Men Chasing Women.”  Even if you could set aside 21st century ideas of feminism and consensual relationships, I can’t understand why anyone finds men chasing women to be inherently funny.  Most of the movie has all four Marx Brothers attempting to woo the “college widow” Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd) and the laughs are few. At least this movie is short.

Rating: **

Movie Review: The Lion King (1994)


Title: The Lion King
Release Date: June 24, 1994
Director: Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation
Summary/Review:

I first saw The Lion King in the movie theaters with a group of college friends and we all had an enjoyable time and loved the movie.  Oddly, I didn’t see another Disney animated film in the theaters until Moana 22 years later (although I did see plenty of Pixar films).

The Lion King draws upon Shakespeare’s Hamlet (and possibly a Japanese anime series) for inspiration, but this is the first Disney animated feature that’s not an adaptation of another work and I think it was very freeing for the creators.  They were able to create a universe within the wilderness of Africa to tell a story of love, betrayal, and redemption.  And I think this may also be the first Disney movie with no human characters.

The opening scene with Simba’s presentation is perhaps the most awe-inspiring animation Disney has ever created. And having it all end with a dramatic sting and the movie’s title is a bold choice before beginning the movie proper.  The Lion King strikes the right balance of humor, drama, romance, and adventure.  And the music drawing on African traditions is amazing.  Elton John as composer was an odd choice (and the beginning of a trend of pop artists composing soundtracks for animated movies), but even if his songs do get a little cheezy at times they are definitely memorable.

The Lion King is a great film that I believe will continue to reward viewings for quite some time.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Aladdin (1992)


Title: Aladdin
Release Date: November 25, 1992
Director: John Musker & Ron Clements
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation
Summary/Review:

I missed Beauty and the Beast when it came out and didn’t see it until years later, but I have good memories of seeing this movie in the theater with my sister.  The big attraction for Aladdin was Robin Williams as Genie.  Even kids who had no idea who Ed Sullivan and Senor Wences were enjoyed Williams many celebrity impersonations and overall manic performance.  It was the first time a big-name movie star voiced a character in a Disney movie and it would not be the last.  I suspect the animators had a lot of fun animating Williams’ bits especially the constant flow of gags in the songs “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali.”

Speaking of songs, the movies of the Disney Renaissance were known for their great music, and The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast sold a lot of soundtracks and earned Oscars and Grammies.  But it was Aladdin that made a full assault on the music charts.  If you were not around in 1992-1993, I can’t begin to explain the inescapability of the movie’s love song, “A Whole New World,” in the aural soundscape of the time.  Perhaps only “Let It Go” from Frozen could compete with the utter ubiquity of a Disney movie song.

I hadn’t watched Aladdin in a long time, and mostly only remembered the Genie parts.  I was impressed that overall the movie is very funny and clever.  Aladdin (Scott Weinger) and Jasmine (Linda Larkin) are well-characterized and likable characters and while their romance may be swift it is believable. The themes of being true to oneself and escaping imprisonment (real and metaphorical) are well-done. Even Gilbert Gottfried – who usually annoys me – is pretty funny as the sardonic parrot Iago.

If there’s a downside to Aladdin it is that it relies on some tired stereotypes of Arabic people.  Also, the casting of Aladdin and Jasmine makes them sound like white teenagers from an American suburb rather than from the Middle East. To its credit, the Disney company has gotten better about cultural sensitivity and representative casting in recent years in movies like Moana. But it would’ve been revolutionary if they’d offered more positive representation of Arabic people and culture in 1992, especially so soon after the Persian Gulf War.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Animal Crackers (1930)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: Animal Crackers
Release Date: August 23, 1930
Director: Victor Heerman
Production Company:  Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

This is the Marx Brothers first true classic film.  Like The Cocoanuts, it is adapted from their Broadway musical, which is reflected in the stage-like sets of the film.  But in this movie the songs reflect and commentate on the plot (thin as it is) and support the Marx Brothers antics. The setting is a party at the home of socialite Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) who is hosting the celebrated African explorer Captain Jeffrey Spaulding (Grouch Marx). Another guest, art collector Roscoe W. Chandler (Louis Sorin) will be displaying a famous work of art by a painter named Beaugard.  Not one but two parties of guests decide to steal the Beaugard and put their own work in its place leading to the thin plot for the film and the source of most of its antics.

The movie has some cringe-worthy moments considering that Grouch is playing a man who hunts big game in Africa, thus leading to many horrible stereotypes about Africans (including being carried in a sedan chair but several Black men). Another running gag has Harpo chasing a young woman who is clearly not interested in him.  But all-in-all the movie is not as cringe-inducing as you might expect from a 90-year-old comedy.  Groucho’s song “Hello, I Must Be Going” is one of my favorite bits and a song I had on my voicemail greeting when I was in college.

Rating: ****