Movie Review: Moonstruck (1987)

Title: Moonstruck
Release Date: December 18, 1987
Director: Norman Jewison
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | Star Partners II Ltd.

A bride without a head!

A wolf without a foot!

I never saw this movie back when it came out and probably wouldn’t have appreciated, so I’m glad I got to watch it with more mature eyes.  The movie is a romantic comedy set among the Italian American community of Brooklyn which feels at first like it’s going to be getting laughs from broad ethnic characteristics but evolves into something deeper and a touch magical. Loretta Castorini (Cher) is a young widow who is very pragmatic and unsentimental and feels her life has been cursed by bad luck.  She accepts the marriage proposal of Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) whom she likes but doesn’t love out of this sense of pragmatism.  Johnny’s one request for Loretta is that she talk to his estranged brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) to help them reconcile before the wedding.

Implausibly, but satisfyingly, Loretta and Ronny fall instantly in love and find something they’ve both been missing in their passion for on another.  Around this main story are also the stories of Loretta’s parents.  Her father Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia) is having an affair with a longtime mistress.  Her mother Rose (Olympia Dukakis) suspects her husband’s infidelity and has a (platonic) dinner with serial philanderer Perry (John Mahoney) to question him about why men behave the way they do.  Loretta’s Grandpa (Feodor Chaliapin Jr.), along with his dogs, watches over all of this like a wise Greek chorus.

Despite the average-length runtime of this movie, all of these characters and their subplots are fully realized.  It almost feels like it could be a pilot for an ongoing series about the Catorini and Cammareri families.  But I suppose we will not be getting the Moonstruck Cinematic Universe anytime soon.  I’m glad I finally watched this move which is deservedly considered a classic.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

Title: When Harry Met Sally…
Release Date: July 14, 1989
Director: Rob Reiner
Production Company: Castle Rock Entertainment | Nelson Entertainment

When Harry Met Sally… is kind of the uber-romcom, a story so successful that Hollywood spent the next 20 years trying to recapture it, often in movies starring Meg Ryan.  Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Ryan) first meet sharing a car ride to New York City after graduating from University of Chicago in 1977 (and good work by the makeup artists in making Crystal look convincingly like he could’ve graduated at the same time as Ryan when he’s actually 14 years older).  They meet again five years later on a flight.  Despite not getting along well on either occasion, when they meet for a third time in 1987 they form a friendship that gradually leads to romance.

The central premise of this movie – “Can a man and a women just be friends?” – and the gender essentialism (“all women/men think that way!), has always bothered me.  But on this viewing it doesn’t feel as didactic as I remembered.  There’s also the fact that for most of the movie, Harry is really a jerk (what in 80s parlance would be called “a male chauvinist pig.”)  It’s really a credit to Crystal’s charm that both Sally and the audience can grow to like Harry enough to care about this relationship.

The movie also succeeds on just one iconic scene after another enriched by Nora Ephron’s dialogue (not too mention Reiner and Crystal’s additions).  Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby are terrific in supporting roles as Sally and Harry’s best friends Marie and Jess.  And there’s the soundtrack of jazz standards with contributions from Harry Connick, Jr.  Really it all adds up to one of the best comedies, best romances, and best movies of all time!

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980)

Title: The Gods Must Be Crazy
Release Date:  10 September 1980
Director: Jamie Uys
Production Company: C.A.T. Films

The Gods Must Be Crazy was one of my favorite movies when I was young, starting at the age of 10 when I first saw it on the big screen. There was a notorious XXX theater in the downtown of my hometown, but I guess gentrification arrived in 1984 and it reopened as an art house cinema.  The first time I entered that theater was to see The Gods Must Be Crazy and it felt very cosmopolitan to watch a movie made in Africa at an art house cinema.  I then watched it many, many more times on tv and video.

Before I start the review, I should note that there are some problematic elements of The Gods Must Be Crazy. First, it was partially filmed and funded in South Africa without ever mentioning apartheid or any indication of racial inequality (I noticed on this watch that they mention “Botswana” multiple times, but never say “South Africa”). Second, it deals with the San people (or the “Bushmen” as they’re called in the movie) in a condescending manner, depicting them as an isolated tribe of hunter-gatherers which wasn’t at all true to life at the time the film was made.  With that said, this is one of the first movies made in sub-Saharan Africa to become a worldwide hit and succeeds due to a brilliant combination of mockumentary with political satire, romantic comedy, and straight-up slapstick.

The mockumentary part deals with Xi (Nǃxau ǂToma), a member of a San tribe who finds a glass bottle that’s initially thought to be a useful thing, but as there is only one it begins to sow jealousy and division among the family.  They determine the bottle is an evil thing an Xi is tasked with carrying the bottle to “the end of the world” to return it to the gods.  The scenes with the San are narrated documentary-style with a professorial, anthropological tone by Paddy O’Byrne.

But then the same narration is used to describe scenes of “civilized” people in a big city (which I assume is Johannesburg) to hilarious effect. Which introduces the next thread of the film, Kate Thompson (Sandra Prinsloo), a woman decides to become a teacher in a rural village. She is given a lift by a biologist, Andrew Steyn (Marius Weyers), who is extremely awkward around women.  Their pairing provides the romcom and a lot of the slapstick.  Finally, a revolutionary, Sam Boga (Louw Verwey), goes on the run with his soldiers through Botswana after failing to assassinate the President of a fictional neighboring nation.  All of these threads come together in a genuinely funny way.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Chungking Express (1994)

Title: Chungking Express
Release Date: 14 July 1994
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Production Company: Jet Tone Production

I really had no preconceptions of this movie but it was still not what I expected.  I guess I thought there would be more trains?  Instead this is a wonderfully weird movie, and I’m not sure I quite understood, but nevertheless I really enjoyed the vibe.  In some ways it reminds me of Amélie (and I would no be surprised if it influenced that later movie), but mostly it is its weird, wonderful thing.

Chungking Express is actually two short films that are tangentially related.  Both of them feature Hong Kong cops as protagonists although we don’t see either of them doing much policing.  In the first story, He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) pines – or pineapples – over a woman who broke up with him. He’s then briefly brought into the world of a mysterious underworld figure (Brigitte Lin) who remains effortlessly cool despite wearing a ridiculously large blonde wig, sunglasses, and a raincoat at all times.  In the other story, a snack bar employee named Faye (Faye Wong) falls for her customer, Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who is also bereft after a break up with a flight attendant (Valerie Chow).  She begins to influence his life in bizarre ways.

That’s all the plot summary I’m going to give, because there are some interesting twists I don’t want to spoil.  Nevertheless, this movie feels more like a mood than a narrative.  The cinematography is interesting as well, sometimes feeling like it’s painted in watercolors.  There are a lot of shots through windows, mirrors, curtains, etc, that make everything feel dreamlike.  This is definitely a movie worth revisiting.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: The Seven Year Itch (1955)

Title: The Seven Year Itch
Release Date: June 3, 1955
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: Charles K. Feldman Group Productions

One of my great discoveries of watching lots of classic movies over the past couple of years is learning how Billy Wilder has directed some of the greatest films of all time.  Unfortunately, The Seven Year Itch is not one of them.  The movie begins with an obnoxious stereotype of the Native peoples of Manhattan that doesn’t even have anything to do with the rest of the movie.  It follows with a scene of men delivering their wives and children to Penn Station for their summer vacations and then joining a gang leer at the attractive younger women passing through.  This is one of those movies where it’s supposed to satirize the worst behaviors of masculinity but somehow just ends up presenting those behaviors.

Tom Ewell stars Richard Sherman a middle-aged executive who is among the men staying in the City when his family goes on vacation. He thinks very highly of his attractiveness to women and has vivid fantasies of extra-marital romance (as well as paranoid fantasies of what would happen to him if he gets caught).  These fantasies and Sherman’s ongoing monologue make up the bulk of the movie and really are a drag.

Luckily, this movie has Marilyn Monroe who plays the attractive young woman staying in apartment upstairs from Sherman.  Monroe’s character isn’t given a name but in a great meta moment Sherman says she could be Marilyn Monroe.  Literally everything else that’s funny in this movie comes from Monroe’s performance.  Her character’s naivety perfectly balances Sherman’s endless plotting.  And she gets all the best one-liners such as “When it gets hot like this, you know what I do? I keep my undies in the icebox!” and “Hey, did you ever try dunking a potato chip in champagne? It’s real crazy!” Well, it’s all in the delivery

This is a movie that fans of Billy Wilder and Marilyn Monroe will want to watch this movie, for completionist sake, if nothing else.  But I feel that overall whatever intentions of making a good comedy/satire really fell flat.

Rating: **1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (2021)

Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title: The Map of Tiny Perfect Things
Release Date: February 12, 2021
Director: Ian Samuels
Production Company: FilmNation Entertainment | Weed Road Pictures | Wishmore Entertainment

I saw this movie described as “If John Green did Groundhog Day,” which I think captures of the gist of the movie but undersells the originality and charm of the movie. Yes, this movie does namecheck Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow, and shares similarities with Palm Springs and other time loop movies. But as a teen comedy/drama/fantasy/romance it also uses the time loop trope to effectively examine the problems of young people ranging from dealing with grief to the fear of a future under climate change.

The movie begins with Mark (Kyle Allen) having already been in the time loop for some time and enjoying the godlike powers that come with knowing everything that is going to happen.  Things change when he meets Margaret (Kathryn Newton), a girl his own age who also is stuck in the time loop.  They begin spending time together and looking around their town for perfect moments of beauty which Mark documents each morning on a map (hence the title).  While Mark grows increasingly interested in finding a way to escape the temporal anomaly, Margaret is more reticent.  Mark is also interested in a romantic relationship which Margaret rebuffs.

Over the course of the movie, their are some interesting revelations and character growth I won’t spoil, but it ends up for making a very thoughtful and heartwarming film. With strong, nuanced performances by the lead actors (especially Newton), good storytelling, and editing, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is a lot better than I expected and better than others have been giving it credit for.

Rating: ****

Christmas Movie Marathon Review: The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Title: The Bishop’s Wife
Release Date: December 9, 1947
Director: Henry Koster
Production Company: Samuel Goldwyn Productions

Post-World War II cinema offers many examples supernatural beings offering inspiration to the film’s protagonist.  These include angels (A Matter of Life and Death and It’s a Wonderful Life), Santa Claus (Miracle on 34th Street), and the … ghost(?) of a girl (Portrait of Jennie). Add to this The Bishop’s Wife, in which Cary Grant plays the dapper angel Dudley who answers the prayers of the titular Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) and his wife Julia (Loretta Young).

The problem is that Henry has become estranged from Julia and their old friends because he’s caught up in fundraising for a new cathedral.  And so Dudley steps into help by showing Julia a good time and falling in love with her.  This movie gets really awkward really fast especially since Dudley is awesome and Henry is a fuddy-duddy and we don’t really know who we should be rooting for in this bizarre love triangle.  There are some lovely performances and some charming moments, but the movie just feels off to me.  It’s not a surprise that it didn’t become a Christmas classic.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Hello, Dolly! (1969)

Title: Hello, Dolly!
Release Date: December 16, 1969
Director: Gene Kelly
Production Company: Chenault Productions

Hello, Dolly! is the type of exorbitant, technicolor song & dance musical that I think was already old fashioned at the time of its release in 1969.  It may be the last musical of the classic style because in the 1970s, adaptations of Broadway musicals like Cabaret and Grease had a very different feel to them.  Hello, Dolly! has a long pedigree, going back to 1938 when Thornton Wilder wrote The Merchant of Yonkers, itself based on a century-old story.  Wilder rewrote the play as The Matchmaker in 1955, and in 1963 it was adapted once again as a Broadway musical starring Carol Channing.

In the film, Barbra Streisand stars as Dolly Levi, a widow who works as a matchmaker in New York City and is, as the kids these days say, so very extra!  Dolly sets forth with an elaborate plan to convince the prosperous but cranky Yonkers’ merchant Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau) to marry her. She also convinces Horace’s hardworking store clerks, Cornelius (Michael Crawford) and Barnaby (Danny Lockin) to enjoy a day in New York with the milliners Irene (Marianne McAndrew) and Minnie (E. J. Peaker). Chaos ensues.  The movie also features a cameo by Louis Armstrong in his last movie role before his death. He sings the title song with Streisand, a song that he got to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964, knocking The Beatles out of the top slot, because pop charts are weird and wonderful that way.

Hello, Dolly! is rather corny, and often very horny, and a lot of it doesn’t really make much sense. (What does Dolly see in Horace, anyway?)  But on pure spectacle, it’s a lot of fun with some great song and dance, so it’s worth a watch.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004

Title: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Release Date: March 19, 2004
Director: Michel Gondry
Production Company: Anonymous Content | This is That

The premise of this film is made clear in the trailer: After ending their troubled relationship, Clementine (Kate Winslet) uses a service provided by a company called Lacuna to erase all memories she has of her ex-boyfriend Joel (Jim Carrey).  When Joel discovers what she’s done, he decides to erase her from his memory as well.  The brilliance of the movie is that knowing this does not spoil the movie, and in fact the opening scenes defy the moviegoer’s expectations.  In fact, the movie plays with chronology to support the central idea of memory being lost. It all works in visually presenting a metaphor of how the mind works while Joel’s experience makes him realize that memories, even the bad ones, are what defines him.

Carrey and Winslet are great in their roles and their performance captures both the little things that are great about a romantic relationship as well as the little irritants that can build up and cause a relationship to fail.  The typically manic Carrey is reserved, even introverted as Joel, but even as the film’s straight man his comic instincts are well served, especially when he has to play his character as a child.

The supporting cast is mainly the crew of Lacuna who turn out to be a messed-up and unprofessional bunch.  Stan Fink (Mark Ruffalo) is the technician assigned to erasing Joel’s memory who uses the time to invite his girlfriend and Lacuna receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst) over for marijuana and sex.  Mary meanwhile has a crush on Lacuna’s director Dr. Howard  Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) who has skeletons in his own closet.  And Patrick (Elijah Wood) is the creepiest of all, using knowledge gained from the procedure to pursue women.

This is an excellent movie and I’m glad I revisited it after many years. Bonus points for having significant scenes set on the frozen Charles River.

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

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