Classic Movie Review: Tabu (1931)

Release Date: March 18, 1931
Director: F. W. Murnau
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

F.W. Murnau, famed for directing Nosferatu and Sunrise, made this “Story of the South Seas” on Bora Bora as his last film before dying.  The film purports to tell a legend of the indigenous people of Polynesia. This is a silent film in that it has no dialogue, but sound effects and music are synchronized with the film. Like many of the best silent films it doesn’t have frequent intertitles, but when it does they are presented as letters written by the character, which is a clever and attractive effect.

The opening title card also states that “only native-born South Sea islanders appear in this picture with a few half-castes and Chinese”.  But there are also clearly white actors portraying French colonial officials. The film has the feel of Nanook of the North, a docu-fiction that attempts to recreate traditional ways of Polynesian people, but is filtered through a western gaze (and Nanook director Robert J. Flaherty, was in fact co-writer of the film with Murnau).

The story regards a young couple, a Boy (Matahi) and a girl named Reri (Anne Chevalier) whose romance is interrupted by the arrival of The Old Warrior (Hitu). Reri is selected by her royal bloodline to be a maiden scared to the gods, and Hitu declares it tabu for men to form a relationship with her.  Matahi and Reri flee to another island under French colonial control where Matahi becomes a successful pearl diver, but they continue to suffer ill-fate they attribute to the tabu.

The movie is well-filmed and feels unique and sympathetic for a Hollywood production of the era, but nevertheless I think there’s a lack of cultural competence in its production.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Casablanca (1942)

Title: Casablanca
Release Date: November 26, 1942
Director: Michael Curtiz
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures

I watched this as a special Valentine’s Day viewing through the Brattle Theatre’s streaming service.

I remember the first time I watched Casablanca as a teenager and realized that it really was as good as everyone said it was.  Yes, it’s a great romance, but it’s so much more than that.  Or, to put it better, it’s about love but not just the romantic love of a man and woman, but love for humanity.

Let’s explore the ways in which Casablanca is great.  First, there’s the dialogue. The movie is filled with familiar quotations and it can be a bit jarring to hear them in context.  But that demonstrates just how well the film is written.

Next, there’s the cast.  Not just Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as the star-crossed Rick and Ilsa, but everyone.  Claude Raines as the gleefully corrupt Captain Louis Renault, Peter Lorre as the sketchy Signor Ugarte, Dooley Wilson as the pianist Sam (even though he was  drummer in real life), and S.Z. Sakall as the conscientious waiter, Carl (apologies to Paul Henreid, you did fine as the noble Victor Laszlo, you just got overshadowed). It’s notable for an American production of that time that most of the cast were born outside the United States. In fact, many minor characters and bit parts were played by actual refugees and exiles from Europe.

Which leads to my final point.  This movie was made while World War II was still going on. In fact, it was fairly early in the war, and the United States had just entered the conflict.  The Fall of Paris, depicted in the movie as a long ago memory, happened less than two years before it was recreated for the movie.  No one involved in making this knew how the war would turn out, and indications at the time pointed toward an Axis victory.  This makes the shows of defiance and sacrifice by the characters depicted in the film all the more powerful.

I’m going to finish this review with a couple of silly questions:

  • How did Rick get from Paris to Morocco and establish a large and successful cafe in less than two years?  From what we know about him, he doesn’t seem to have the experience as a restaurateur, the money to pull it off, or the time to get himself so well established in the community.
  • There must be Rick/Louis slash fiction out there.  I’m not the only one seeing this, right?

Casablanca is a deserved classic and if for some iconoclastic reasons you haven’t seen it, get over yourself and give it a viewing.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: Lola(1961)

Release Date: March 3, 1961
Director: Jacques Demy
Production Company: Rome Paris Films

Lola is a well-crafted film that tells the intertwining stories of several people over a few days in the port city of Nantes. The titular Lola (Anouk Aimee) is a cabaret dancer with a young son hoping for the return of her one true love, the boy’s father. She has a casual relationship with an American sailor, Frankie (Alan Scott), but does not return his affections. She also becomes reacquainted with Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), a childhood friend she hasn’t seen “since the War.” Roland also declares his love for Lola.

Roland is also a point-of-view character, and is a moody slacker who can’t hold a job. At the same time he meets up with Lola, he is offered a sketchy job by a barber who wants him to deliver a briefcase to Johannesburg.  Add into the mix Cécile (Annie Dupéroux), an outgoing girl celebrating her 14th birthday, who makes the acquaintance of both Roland and Frankie.

The intertwining of the stories and characters is admirably done and the characters are all well-acted. The movie feels like a musical production without the music. On the downside, Roland is yet another example of the narcissistic and toxic men who seem to be the protagonists of every French New Wave film.  There’s also a certain creepiness to a grown man and a teenage girl having a seemingly platonic outing  to an amusement park but the way it’s filmed frames it as a romance.

Lola is a movie that was clearly something new when it was created, but nevertheless feels old fashioned.  I enjoyed it but I didn’t love it.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Portrait of Jennie (1948)

Title: Portrait of Jennie
Release Date: December 25, 1948
Director: William Dieterle
Production Company: Vanguard Films

Set in the heart of the Great Depression, a struggling artist named Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) finds his muse in a girl he meets in Central Park, Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones).  His art dealer and mentor Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore) sees promise in a sketch he makes of Jennie and encourages him to paint her portrait. The problem with Jennie is that she wears long out-of-fashion clothing, talks about a no longer extant theater in the present tense, and every time Eben meets her appears to have aged in years rather than in the days or weeks that have passed.

This movie has a lot of flaws. The dialogue is wordy and clunky, Jones is not at all convincing at portraying a child or even a teenager, and the romance that blossoms between the adult Eben and underage Jennie is downright creepy.  I guess it presages teen paranormal romances where a teenage girl finds romance with a centuries old immortal. Nevertheless, I am won over by the romantic charm of this movie, and it is one I enjoyed in my own youth as well.

Unusual for the time, the movie made use of extensive (and expensive) location shooting.  The shots of the snow-covered and sun-drenched Central Park are worth every cent, and it’s great to see the Cloisters museum doubling as a convent school, and the Graves Light in Boston Harbor appearing in the film’s denouement. There’s also a nice effect where many scenes begin as if they’re painted on canvas.

It’s interesting to watch this movie so soon after A Matter of Life and Death, as both movies are romances that deal with life and afterlife.  Portrait of Jennie even uses a switch from black-and-white to full color for effect, although in a much smaller amount. My favorite scene when I watched this when I was younger is when Eben gets a commission to paint a mural of Michael Collins in an Irish pub, and it remains a great scene.

Portrait of Jennie doesn’t seem to be as well-known or highly-regarded as other movies of its time, but it’s worth seeking out if you like a sweet and romantic fantasy movie with a mix of humor and mystery.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Title: A Matter of Life and Death
Release Date: 15 December 1946
Director: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Production Company: The Archers | J. Arthur Rank

A Matter of Life and Death begins with a strikingly intimate conversation between British airman Peter Carter (David Niven), aboard a burning bomber over the English Channel, and American radio operator June (Kim Hunter). They bond in a few moments of shared humanity before Peter, who has no parachute, determines he would rather leap to his death than burn.  Then this movie gets very, very weird.

Carter survives his fall and washes up on the shores of England. He meets June who works at a nearby base and they fall in love. It turns out that Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), a French aristocrat killed in the Revolution, was supposed to guide him to the Other World but lost Peter in the fog over the Channel.  With a new leash on life and his romance with June, Peter argues that he should be given another chance at life.

A neurologist named Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey) takes on Peter’s case, in two meanings of the word. First he assumes that Peter’s visions of otherworldly people are due to brain injury.  Later he takes on the role as Peter’s counsel in an Other World trial. Perhaps the weirdest part of the trial scene is that a becomes a debate of the British versus the Americans, with American multiculturalism ultimately being celebrated.

This movie is often compared to It’s a Wonderful Life as they both deal with the trauma of World War II and contain fantasy elements of the afterlife.  But I found it reminded me of The Devil and Daniel Webster, because both movies are built around a fantasy trial sequence. This movie also clearly was an influence for the most recent Pixar film, Soul.  Both films feature an escalator to the afterlife, heavenly bureaucracy, filing cabinets full of the details of every person who ever lived, and historical figures acting as mentors to souls. I also learned that a sample from the prologue of this movie is in one of my favorite tunes from my teenage years, “If I Were John Carpenter.”

A Matter of Life and Death (also called Stairway to Heaven in its American release) stands out as a unique and experimental film for it’s time.  And even though I wasn’t aware of it before watching it for this project, it is also clear it’s an influential film.  It’s a bit on the corny side, but I expect a lot of classic film fans will enjoy it. If nothing else the opening scene between Peter and Kim over the radio is magnificent.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Partie de campagne (1936)

Title: Partie de campagne
Release Date: 8 May 1946
Director: Jean Renoir
Production Company: Panthéon Productions

After watching several lengthy, epic films in the past few weeks, I was delighted that this movie is only a brisk 40 minutes. Part of the reason for its brevity is that the film was never finished. Director Jean Renoir abandoned filming in 1936 after some weather-related problems and the film was edited together by other parties a decade later, after Renoir had left for the United States.

The story is quite simple. Henriette Dufour (Sylvia Bataille) is a young woman from Paris who goes on a tour of the countryside with her mother (Jane Marken), her father the shopkeeper (André Gabriello), and the shopkeeper’s assistant/Henriette’s fiancé, Anatole (Paul Temps).  When they stop for a picnic, two predatory young men – Henri (Georges D’Arnoux) and Rodolphe (Jacques B. Brunius) – divvy up the Henriette and her mother with plans for “hanky panky.”

While Anatole and M. Dufour go fishing, Henri and Rodolphe take Henriette and her mother out in rowboats. Henri stops at an island and makes the moves on Henriette. In the 1930s expectations, Henriette demurs Henri’s advances out of societal roles for women until she final accepts his kisses. In 2021 terms, it is clearly a sexual assault.  Either way, I don’t really feel a great romance between the two or any reason for the conclusion, set years ago, where they meet again and have a melancholy reflection on their one moment together.

The movie is incomplete and it feels incomplete because it doesn’t seem to fill in the details behind the characters’ emotions. Nevertheless it does work as a vignette, capturing fleeting feelings and moments in time. Stylistically it also impressive, especially with the camera work on scenes such as the one where Henriette rides a swing. I’m not convinced that this is one of the greatest movies of all-time but it’s not a huge investment of time if you want to judge for yourself.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: L’Atalante 1934

Title: L’Atalante
Release Date: 12 September 1934
Director: Jean Vigo
Production Company: Argui-Films

A newlywed couple process from the church to a canal barge for their honeymoon.  Jean (Jean Dasté ) is the captain of the barge delivering cargo at ports from Paris to Le Havre while Juliette (Dita Parlo) is a woman who has never traveled beyond the village where she grew up. At first, setting up house on the houseboat is eccentric and charming, with the scruffy crew member Père Jules (Michel Simon) and the cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre), forming an odd family, not to mention the numerous cats and kittens on bored. But things shift quickly as Jean’s jealousy and controlling nature makes life trapped on the barge miserable for Juliette.

The pair are separated for a time and ultimately reunited which I guess is supposed to be romantic, but I don’t see a bright future for this couple.  Nevertheless, this is a unique and fascinating film. I’m particularly entranced by the beautiful and eerie industrial landscapes captured in the location filming. The movie is more poetic than narrative, and like Jacque Tati’s films it features many wordless sequences of physical humor and humanity. Parlo gives off exuberant charm and innocence and is especially great playing off the gruff Simon.

This is a curious film and definitely one I’ll want to revisit.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Crowd (1928)

Title: The Crowd
Release Date: February 28, 1928
Director: King Vidor
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

First thing, a personal note: this is the first movie I’ve ever watched that was released in 1928, which means that I’ve watched at least one movie released every year from 1921 to 2020. One hundred years of film is kind of awe-inspiring.

The Crowd is a melodrama with touches of romance and comedy about John Sims (James Murray), who is born on the Fourth of July in 1900 and believes himself destined for great things. As an adult he moves to New York, works in a large accounting firm, and meets Mary (Eleanor Boardman) on a double date to Coney Island and immediately asks to marry her.

The thing about John is that he gives off huge red flags and is something of a jerk. After their romantic honeymoon, their marriage in a claustrophobic apartment gradually spirals downward as John proves he’s ne’er-do-well who only talks a big game. Near the end of the film John has reached rock bottom and is only redeemed when his young son ( Freddie Burke Frederick) shares his unconditional love for him. That scene will probably be extremely cheezy to most viewers, but as a dad who has been pepped up by the love of my children (it made me weepy).

“The Crowd” is a metaphor throughout the film. John sees himself as apart from the crowd as he’s destined towards greatness, and belittles everyday people trying to make ends meet. Throughout the film there are actual crowds of people that the characters get lost in and sometimes act something like a Greek chorus. By the end of the film though, “the Crowd” has a more positive connotation as a community of ordinary people trying their best, and John seemingly accepting his place in the Crowd is a sign that he is really reforming himself.

This movie has great cinematography with moving camera work similar to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The sets for John’s massive office building are also reminiscent of the futuristic settings of Metropolis. I particularly appreciate the great location shots of 1920s Manhattan and Coney Island. As far as the story goes, I like the realism of the scenes on marriage and parenting where people have bad days, get very cranky with one another, and make up.

I would not consider this movie and all-time great, but it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in silent movies and film history.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

Title: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
Release Date: 5 March 1974
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Production Company: Tango-Film

An elderly woman, Emmi (Brigitte Mira), enters a bar ostensibly to get out the rain but really because she’s intrigued by the Middle Eastern music she hears. “Ali,” the nickname given to a younger Moroccan guest worker portrayed by El Hedi ben Salem, is dared to ask Emmi to dance. To surprise of everyone, Emmi and Ali make a connection, eventually deciding to marry despite their cultural and age gaps.  

The movie deals with the discrimination that both Emmi and Ali face from their xenophobic community.  Even Emmi’s adult children are outraged by her choice of partner. Things begin to deteriorate as Emmi takes on some of the prejudicial attitudes of her co-workers and displays Ali like an object. Meanwhile, Ali has an affair with a younger woman.  The movie is not without hope though as the couple are able to reconcile and seem ready to take on an unexpected challenge as the movie ends.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is an interesting blend of vérité and melodrama that gets at the heart of racism and xenophobia through a personal story.  There’s nothing “Hollywood” about this movie and it feels like the camera caught everyday people on the streets of Munich and told their story.  

Rating: ****


Movie Review: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Title: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Release Date: September 23, 1927
Director: F. W. Murnau
Production Company: William Fox Studio

This film from the end of the Silent Movie Era is the first Hollywood production by F.W. Murnau, director of Nosferatu. Sunrise is informed by the German Expressionist movie as it depicts a simple moral tale and melodrama. A farmer (George O’Brien) has a fling with a vacationing woman from the city (Margaret Livingston). The woman tells the farmer he should murder his wife (Janet Gaynor) and run away to the city with him. The man lures his wife into a boat with a plan to drown her, but can’t go through with it when she pleads for his life.

And here is where the movie goes to unexpected places. The couple end up taking a trolley to a big city where they eventually reconcile and end up having a wonderful day together in the city. Gaynor does a great job of expressing the trauma of the near-murder by her husband and then the joy of their renewed affection. The whole “one perfect day” segment reminds me of the later film Make Way for Tomorrow. Except in this movie they attend the most fantastical fun fair and end up chasing an intoxicated pig. The final act depicts another near tragedy but I won’t spoil the details especially since I found it less interesting than earlier parts.

The movie takes advantage of newer, lighter cameras that can move freely through the scenery. Unfortunately these cameras were noisy so they had to revert to more stationery cameras when talkies emerged later in the same year. Sunrise is also one of the first films with a synchronized soundtrack that included sound effects, albeit no dialogue, so it’s not entirely “silent.” Intertitles are used sparingly and when they do appear they’re in a stylish font and sometimes even animated. The sets are brilliant creating a somewhat real but also fantastical city with forced perspective. The movie also makes great use of multiple exposures and superimposed images to represent memories and fantasies of the characters.

The moralistic and melodramatic aspects made the movie a little hard for me to simply joy. And it should be noted that the man puts up many red flags, even after their reconciling, that indicate that he’s not a good husband, at least to modern audiences. But this is definitely a movie that fans of the cinematic arts need to watch for its place in film history.

Rating: ***1/2