Classic Movie Review: Cabaret (1972)


Title: Cabaret
Release Date: February 13, 1972
Director: Bob Fosse
Production Company: ABC Pictures | Allied Artists
Summary/Review:

Brian Roberts (Michael York) is an English academic who arrives in early 1930s Berlin and plans to teach English lessons while working on his doctorate.  He settles into a boarding house where he meets Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), perhaps the ur-Manic Pixie Dream Girl (with emphasis on “manic”), an American who sings and dances at the Kit Kat Klub. Despite Brian believing himself to be homosexual, their friendship grows into a romance.  Then their twosome becomes a threesome as they are both pursued by the playboy Baron Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem).  All throughout the film, the decadence of the Weimar Republic transitions to the Nazi regime.

While it’s facile to say that a musical would not work without the song and dance, the plot of Cabaret is rather slight. The musical numbers performed in the Kit Kat Klub by the Emcee (Joel Grey) and Minnelli are not only outstanding but act as perfect commentaries on the characters and the plot.  I did find the Emcee a bit terrifying, both for his uncanny appearance and his willingness to indulge in anti-semitic humor when it was least expected.  The most terrifying song in this movie is the only one not sung by Grey or Minnelli, but a chorus of people in a beer garden singing the militant Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”

Despite the many allusions to Cabaret that are made in popular culture, this movie was not what I expected. It’s definitely a lot weirder than I imagined, and for a musical it is very bleak (which should not be surprising for any story involving the rise of Nazism).  Nevertheless, I liked it, and maybe it’s not an all-time classic, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston


Author: Casey McQuiston
Title: One Last Stop
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2021)
Summary/Review:

After a troubled childhood with an obsessive mother, August finds it difficult to connect with people.  Things begin to change when she moves to Brooklyn to attend college and is pushed out of her comfort zone by her eccentric housemates, Myla, Niko and Wes.  She also finds herself enraptured by a beautiful punk woman she meets on the Q train, Jane.  However, finding love and happiness is challenged by three strange things about Jane: 1. she can’t seem to leave the train, 2. she can’t remember her past, and 3. she hasn’t aged at all from a picture taken of her in 1976.

This book is great fun as it uses a unique time slip story mixed with a queer romance and a story of New York’s gentrification.  It’s particular interesting to read the contrasts of Jane’s experiences in the early LGBTQ+ liberation movements of the 1970s compared to the more accepting contemporary times.  There are a lot of subplots in this novel that get things a bit confused, and perhaps there’s just a bit too much “deep conversation,” but all is forgiven because I love the characters.  McQuiston does a great job of bringing to life a community of fun, creative, and really horny young adults in the city.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

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

Movie Review: Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)


Title: Grosse Pointe Blank
Release Date: April 11, 1997
Director: George Armitage
Production Company: Hollywood Pictures | Caravan Pictures | Roger Birnbaum Productions | New Crime Productions
Summary/Review:

This is one of those movies I’ve always wanted to watch but for some reason never got around to.  I like John Cusack in just about anything which was is the primary draw.  Turns out that this movie is full of actors I like in just about anything: Minnie Driver! Dan Aykroyd! Joan Cusack! and Alan Arkin!  It also has a killer soundtrack with music provided by Joe Strummer of The Clash and includes songs by The Clash, Violent Femmes,  English Beat, The Specials, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Pixies, Motörhead, and more!  Never has a movie made me more want to get up and dance.

But what about the actual movie?  Well, John Cusack stars as professional assassin Martin Blank who is sent to carry out a hit in Detroit at the same time as his high school’s tenth reunion in the nearby suburb of Grosse Pointe.  His assistant Marcella (Joan Cusack, god I love her) insists that he attend the reunion.  Blank admits to his therapist Dr. Oatman (Arkin) that he’s never gotten over his high school sweetheart, Debi Newberry (Driver).  It turns out that he never showed up on their prom night disappearing to begin the path he’s taken to hired assassin.

Blank is at a crossroads in his life and attends the reunion wondering is he is still suited for killing and if he should have a different future.  In a running gag, he tells everyone who asks him what he’s been doing for 10 years the honest truth and they all think he’s joking. To complicate matters, several men are eager to carry a hit out on him, including Grocer (Aykroyd), a fellow hitman who wants Blank to join his union of hired killers and doesn’t take no for an answer.  This leads to a comical intermingling of Blank’s personal and professional lives as he tries to reconcile with Debi.

I don’t want to give too much away but this is a smart and entertaining film. It does a good job of mixing and playing with conventions both action films and rom-coms.  It also feels very original in a way that you don’t often see in Hollywood comedies.  I’m glad I finally watched it.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)


Title: Letter from an Unknown Woman
Release Date: April 28, 1948
Director: Max Ophüls
Production Company: Rampart Productions
Summary/Review:

Set in fin de siècle Vienna, this film begins with a concert pianist, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan), receiving a letter from a unknown woman (clever, eh?).  Oh, but he should know here because she is Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) who has loved him for years.  Lisa’s voice reads the letter which doubles as the film’s narration going back to when she was a teenager and Stefan moved into a neighboring apartment.  She falls for his music and then helplessly in love with him and keeps that flame going even when her mother remarries and they move to Linz.

Years later, Lisa finally meets Stefan and they have a romantic night that results in her pregnancy.  Stefan disappears and Lisa eventually marries another man who agrees to raise her son.  When Lisa and Stefan finally meet again, he doesn’t remember her at all.  Oh, it is all so tragic.

There are things I like about this movie.  It’s beautiful filmed with the flowing camera movement that Max Ophüls would go on to use so well in Madame de…  The set design is also excellent. I really like the Vienna apartments that are all wound together and the use of snow on the ground is impressive. And I always like Fontaine as she is excellent at playing characters who are uncertain and anxious, yet determined (and also rather foolish in their selection of romantic interests).  But overall this movie is heavily melodramatic and rather boring.  I guess this story of unrequited love is just not for me.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Some Came Running (1958)


Title: Some Came Running
Release Date: December 18, 1958
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Production Company:  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

Some Came Running is the first movie I’ve watched starring Frank Sinatra (not including cameos in films like Around the World in 80 Days). It’s directed by Vincente Minnelli, who is most famous for classic musicals and romances like Meet Me in St. Louis.  Despite starring one of the great vocalists of all time, Some Came Running is a straight-up drama, or melodrama as is the case.

Sinatra plays Dave Hirsh, a man who has published novel but now struggles to write. He left his hometown in Indiana 16 years earlier bouncing around among odd jobs and most recently serving in the army.  As the film begins, he returns to his hometown, accompanied by Ginny (Shirley MacLaine) whom he drunkenly invited to join him in Chicago and then promptly forgot about. His homecoming is not joyous as he has a strained relationship with his brother and sister-and-law (Arthur Kennedy and Leora Dana).  They are social climbers and since Dave is a noted author they introduce him to a prominent local professor and his schoolteacher daughter, Gwen (Martha Hyer).

Dave immediately falls in love in Gwen, but she has little interest in him beyond his writing.  She’s particularly put off by his drinking and association with the gambler Bama (Dean Martin).  Dave starts off as a cynical and self-absorbed character but gradually opens up a kinder side. He shows kindness to Ginny, who falls as helplessly in love with him as he has fallen for Gwen. He also takes his niece Dawn (Betty Lou Keim) under his wing, perhaps feeling a kinship with her because she has a strained relationship with her parents.

I wanted to like this movie more than I did.  The acting is great, particularly Sinatra, MacLaine, and Martin, but the plot is just too melodramatic. I’m always a tough sell on the “love at first sight” trope in movies and this one failed the “show don’t tell” test.  The story though does seem to have the seeds of something that could be remade as a quality movie today.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Cinema Paradiso (1988)


Title: Cinema Paradiso
Release Date: November 17, 1988
Director:Giuseppe Tornatore
Production Company: Les Films Ariane | RAI | TF1 | Cristaldi Film | Forum Picture
Summary/Review:

Cinema Paradiso is a movie about going to the movies that celebrates how film can transport us out of lives as well as the communal experience of watching a film in a classic movie house.  It reminds me of my own experiences as a child going to see movies while on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.  At the time, there were four movie theaters on the island: The Strand and The Island in Oak Bluffs, The Capawock in Vineyard Haven, and The Edgartown Town Hall (which was literally an auditorium upstairs from the town hall).  Movies rotated through the four cinemas with a surprising diversity of film, including this Italian film I saw in the summer of 1990.

In the movie, Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita (played by the adorable Salvatore Cascio) is a boy in a Sicilian village just after World War II who is fascinated by the movies shown at the Cinema Paradiso on the town square.  He’s particularly interested in the work of the projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), and eventually Alfredo takes him on as an apprentice.  Alfredo also offers wisdom distilled from classic movies and takes on a fatherly role for Toto, whose own father died in the war.

As a teenager, Toto (Marco Leonardi) continues to work as projectionist at Cinema Paradiso while learning to make films on a Super 8 camera.  He meets the new girl in town, Elena (Agnese Nano), and immediately falls in love.  They have a brief, but passionate romance before Toto leaves for military service and Elena moves away with no forwarding address.  The movie is framed by the story of Salvatore (Jacques Perrin) as a middle-aged man, now a successful filmmaker in Rome, learning of Alfredo’s death. Alfredo implored the younger Toto to never return to his hometown but he returns for the first time in 30 years, seeing how the town and the people have changed.

The movie has several classic shots I’ll never forget.  There’s the scene where Alfredo magically projects a movie into the square for people who could not get into the Cinema Paradiso.  There’s one of the most romantic kisses in film history of Toto and Elena in the rain.  And then there’s the ending of the movie, which I won’t spoil, but oh that ending!  Cinema Paradiso is full of nostalgia, and humor of the quirky characters of small town life, but it is also bittersweet. Watching it this time I wonder if Toto is right to follow Alfredo’s advice because despite his success as a director, he seems to have abandoned his family and is unable to find connection with the series of women he dates.

Rewatching Cinema Paradiso now also makes me realize that it probably drew influence from two older films I watched for the first time this year.  One is Fellini’s Amarcord, which shares the same nostalgic view of coming of age in an Italian village populated by quirky characters.  The other is The Spirit of the Beehive which shares the experience of watching movies in a small town and how it affects a child.  These movies are on Greatest Films of All Time lists, but call me a lover of populist cheeze, because I prefer Cinema Paradiso to either of them. It would be fun, and I’m sure someone has done this, to have a film festival of all the movies that appear in Cinema Paradiso.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Amélie (2001)


Title: Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain
Release Date: 25 April 2001
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Production Company:
Claudie Ossard Productions | UGC | Victoires Productions | Tapioca Films | France 3 Cinéma | MMC Independent | Sofica Sofinergie 5 | Filmstiftung | Canal+ | France 3 Cinéma
Summary/Review:

Life’s funny. To a kid, time always drags. Suddenly you’re fifty. All that’s left of your childhood… fits in a rusty little box

French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet specializes in making films set in fantastical worlds.  In Amélie, he makes a fantastic world out of contemporary Paris, a world of wonders created in the mind of its protagonist Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tatou in the role that made her a worldwide superstar).  Amélie is shy young woman who works as a waitress at a cafe and finds pleasure in the simple joys of everyday life. When she finds a box of a child’s treasures hidden in her apartment she surreptitiously returns it to the now middle-aged man who hid it decades before.

Seeing the joy that the box brings to the man, Amélie dedicates herself to anonymously performing acts of kindness for others.  She also begins to pursue a shy young man, Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), whom she observes collecting discarded pictures from photo booths. While Amelie is full of sweetness and charm compared to darkness of Jeunet’s earlier films with Marc Caro, Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, some of the things Amélie does would be really creepy in real life.  Nevertheless, Tatou’s performance is brilliant and is one of the best examples of an introvert as protagonist that I’ve ever seen in a film.

In addition to Tatou there are some great performances by an ensemble cast that includes Rufus as Amélie’s father, Serge Merlin as The Glass Man, a wise older neighbor with brittle bone syndrome, and Jeunet film regular Dominique Pinon as a stalker-ish cafe patron who Amélie sets up with the hypochondriac tobacco counter clerk played by Isabelle Nanty.  André Dussollier narrates the film with a documentary-style gravitas that contrasts wonderfully with the magical realism of the movie.  Amélie is only my third favorite Jeunet film after The City of Lost Children and Delicatessen, but dang is if it isn’t a fantastic bronze medalist.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: The Brothers Bloom (2008)


TitleThe Brothers Bloom
Release Date: May 15, 2009
Director: Rian Johnson
Production Company:
Summary/Review:

I wasn’t aware of the work of  Rian Johnson before I saw The Last Jedi (which I will always love despite the concerted effort of whiny manbabies try to discredit it) and Knives Out. I was eager to see Johnson’s earlier work and The Brothers Bloom is his second feature film as director. Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody play the titular brothers Stephen and Bloom whose childhood in foster homes leads them to a life as conmen.

While Stephen has always enjoyed writing the elaborate stories behind their complex con jobs, Adrien has regretted not being able to form real relationships.  Stephen plays one last con with the mark being Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), a quirky heiress who lives alone in a New Jersey mansion.  The brothers and their silent partner Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi, she literally doesn’t talk, that’s the joke) carry out a multinational plot and soon it becomes hard for even Bloom to realize what is real and what is part of the con.

I thought that the movie would end up having Penelope playing a con on the brothers Bloom, or perhaps that Stephen was using the con to set up Bloom with Penelope romantically.  Neither of these twists happen although Bloom and Penelope become a couple anyway.  For some reason I can’t understand the movie appears to be set in the present day but the brothers wear 1930s style clothing and travel on a transatlantic steamship. The whole feel of the movie is kind of a cross of Wes Anderson’s precious style with early New Hollywood films of the late 60s/early 70s.  There are some good moments but overall the movie doesn’t really grab me.  I would of liked it better if Penelope and Bang Bang went off on their own adventure and left the boy drama behind.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: L’Eclisse (1962)


Title: L’Eclisse
Release Date: 12 April 1962
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Production Company: Cineriz
Summary/Review:

Before I jump into the main review, I just want to note that old movies should have a warning label when a completely random scene in blackface is going to occur.  I wasn’t ready when the film’s protagonist Vittoria (Monica Vitti) visits a neighbor Marta (Mirella Ricciardi), a white woman born and raised in Kenya , suddenly has her entire body covered in dark makeup and performs a “tribal” dance.  To be fair, unlike some movies, the audience is not supposed to be on Vittoria’s side in this moment, and there’s a pointed judgement of Marta when she reveals she believes the Black Kenyans seeking civil rights are “monkeys.”

This is just one scene though in a longer film that follows Vittoria on her perambulations through Rome over an ingeminate amount of time, although it feels like it’s a few weeks at most.  The movie begins with her ending a long-term relationship with Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) because she does not wish to marry.  Over the course of the film she gets to know her mother’s young stockbroker Piero (Alain Delon) and reluctantly forms a romantic partnering with him that feels doomed from the start.  Most of the film is shot on location emphasizing the post-war modernist design of Rome and its outskirts.

I feel this movie has many parallels with Cleo, From 5 to 7.  Both films feature a stylish and conventionally attractive young woman, who struggle with internal turmoil and inability to connect with others against the background of a European capital.  They even both touch upon African colonialism and independence movements.  However I feel that Cleo, From 5 to 7 is the stronger film because it makes you feel an emotional bond with the protagonist while L’Eclisse just makes you feel hollow.

There are several scenes I liked in this film.  The opening scene of the breakup is strong as both characters have things they want to say but not the words to say them. One scene in the Rome Stock Exchange lampoons the greed of capitalists forced to take a moment of silence for a recently deceased colleague as they grumble about lost earning potential.  And the final sequence of the film where there are multiple shots of Vittoria and Piero’s meeting spot with neither character ever appearing is a fascinating way to end a film.

Ultimately though, I have to agree with film critic Jon Lisi who wrote that L’Eclisse  “is beautifully made, historically important, and boring as hell.” After Blowup and L’Avventura this is the third Antonioni film I’ve watched and I’m glad there are no more on my list of Classic Films. I can see why his work is considered important but I don’t enjoy watching them.

Rating:**1/2