Recent Movie Marathon: I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)


Title: I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Release Date: September 4, 2020
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Production Company: Likely Story | Projective Testing Service
Summary/Review:

This surreal film (from the writer of Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, among others) begins with a young woman’s (Jessie Buckley) internal monologue where she considers breaking up with her boyfriend of seven weeks, Jake (Jesse Plemons). The pair are driving through an increasingly strong snow storm where she will meet Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) for the first time.

The woman notices some odd things but misses quite a few more that are readily apparent to the viewer. There are time jumps, characters age and grow younger, people change clothing, and everyone acts erratically. The woman is referred to be various names and is said to work at very different jobs but only rarely seems to notice this herself. And to add to the oddity, the movie is intercut with scenes of a janitor (Guy Boyd) cleaning a high school, later revealed to be Jake’s alma mater.

Metaphorically, this movie may work as exploring the unreality of the woman going through the motions of meeting her boyfriend’s parents when she’s already planning to dump him. It also captures that eerie experience of visiting a partner’s home town, family home, school, etc. and the feeling that it’s like visiting a museum of their past. But as the movie goes on, the underlying message feels like it could be something else entirely. In fact, the characters could just be memories or a dream or a hallucination (this last thought reinforced by a bizarre homage to A Beautiful Mind) of someone, perhaps the janitor.

I like weird movies but this one is a bit too slow moving and precious for its own good, so it’s merely a good thing to watch once and say “Huh?” rather than to dive in with revisits. But the strong acting performances and surreal cinematography do make that one watch worthwhile.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Rear Window (1954)


Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: Rear Window
Release Date: September 1, 1954
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Patron, Inc.
Summary/Review:

If I played Jimmy Stewart’s part in Rear Window:

ME: I’ve been so bored, I’m just looking out the window watching my neighbors.

GRACE KELLY: I love you. I think we should get married.

ME: Wow! Really?  Forget about the window!  Let’s get married

(Roll credits)

Apart from my inability suspend disbelief that L. B. “Jeff” Jefferies (Stewart) is not interested in Lisa Fremont (Kelly), Rear Window is a fascinating motion picture. Built on a remarkable studio set, Jeff’s window looks out on a courtyard surrounded by New York City apartment buildings where his neighbors go about their daily lives.  Many of the actors in this movie only appear in distant shots through windows which requires remarkable skill and timing (and ear pieces so they could get direction from Hitchcock). I’m also amazed by the ambient sound of city life in this movie, and even the soundtrack is built entirely of diegetic music.

The movie cycles through experimental, comical, and thrilling moments, but it is also contains dark undercurrents.  The movie makes the audience conspirators in Jeff’s voyeurism as we look at his neighbors through the movie camera.  It also needs to be said that Jeff is a jerk, and treats Lisa awfully.  It’s no surprise that Hitchcock cast the beloved Jimmy Stewart in the role so we would care about him at all.  While I wonder why Lisa would like Jeff in the first place, I am impressed in the way that Kelly maintains her dignity and demonstrates her value.

This movie confines the story to a single place, much like Lifeboat and Dial M for Murder, and makes that limitation a strength.  There’s so much happening in this movie that will take repeated views to catch.  I think this is among Hitchcock’s best works.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: The 39 Steps (1935)


Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: The 39 Steps
Release Date: 6 June 1935
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Gaumont-British Picture Corporation
Summary/Review:

The 39 Steps is one of the many great movies I watched in my film studies class in high school.  I remember liking it but I didn’t remember anything about the movie other than the famous moment when the chambermaid’s scream is drowned out by a train whistle. The movie stars Robert Donat as Richard Hannay, an ordinary person who gets caught up in international intrigue.  The movie is a template for many spy stories and thrillers to follow, but I’m impressed by how fresh and original it seems.

The movie starts with Hannay attending a music hall performance of Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) when shots are fired in the theater and panic ensues.  Hannay meets Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) in the crowd and take her home for protection. Annabella confesses that she is a spy being chased for assassins because she is trying to stop the theft of valuable British military intelligence. In the morning, Hannay wakes up to Annabella stumbling into his room with a knife in her back, clutching a map of Scotland with Alt-na-Shellach circled.

The bulk of the film involves Hannay traveling to Scotland to find the spies and clear his name of Annabella’s murder. He falls into and out of trouble as he’s pursued both by the police and the spies.  Hannay doesn’t really have a plan but he’s good at improvising and has a good sense of humor.  Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), a woman who identifies Hannay to the police on multiple occasions, eventually ends up handcuffed to him by the spies in disguise.  Their scenes together, while fully in the thriller genre, also seem to be protypical tropes of the romantic comedy (and also kind of remind me of Frank Capra’s 1934 comedy It Happened One Night, which I’m going to have to rewatch to make sure).

The 39 Steps is an excellent thriller with great comic moments, inspired acting performances, and directorial innovation from Hitchcock.  It’s definitely worth a spot on lists of Hitchcock’s best movies and the best movies of all time.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: The Wrong Man


Title: The Wrong Man
Release Date: December 22, 1956
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Warner Bros.
Summary/Review:

Alfred Hitchcock introduces this film in a prologue where he notes that it is a rare occasion where he’s making a thriller based on a true-life story.  Hitchcock always is fascinated with telling “wrong man” stories, so it’s not a surprise that the case of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero’s false accusation for armed robbery in 1951 in New York City would appeal to him.

The story begins with Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), a musician who performs in a night club, needing to work out the family finances to pay for dental work for his wife, Rose (Vera Miles). He goes to a life insurance company office to borrow against Rose’s policy, and the staff there identify him as the same man who robbed the office on two other occasions.  The police take in Manny and the staff at two local stores also identify him as the robber.

Manny is arrested and held in jail overnight before being arraigned the next day.  Once bail is posted by some relatives, it’s up to Manny and Rose to find witnesses who can provide alibis for the dates of the crimes.  The stress and guilt of the ordeal leads to Rose suffering a mental breakdown.

Despite Hitchcock’s introduction, the movie is not a thriller or even really suspenseful.  The strengths of the movie are its depictions of the mundane procedures of being processed through the criminal justice system.  Fonda is perfectly cast as the every man (and with such an innocent face, how can anyone think he’s guilty?) bewildered by experiencing all these things for the first time, and holding on to hope that his innocence will win the day.

The film provides a happy ending, although the real Balestrero family continued to suffer mental and financial distress.  Most disturbing is that we are still having “Wrong Man” stories to this very day, often with tragic endings. Words utter in the film – “you fit the profile” – are chilling similar to the words used to justify police killings of innocent Black and brown men in recent years.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Strangers on a Train (1951)


Title: Strangers on a Train
Release Date: June 30, 1951
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Transatlantic Pictures
Summary/Review:

Two men meet on a train leaving Washington, DC. One is a tennis star with aspirations for going into politics, Guy Haines (Farley Granger).  The other is Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a layabout son of a wealthy family. Bruno initiates conversation and soon reveals that he knows a lot about Guy, not just his tennis accomplishments, but his personal life as well, and perhaps this meeting is not happenstance.

Bruno knows that Guy wants to marry the daughter of a US Senator, Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), but first has to divorce his unfaithful wife Miriam (Laura Elliott).  Bruno floats the idea of murdering Miriam in exchange for Guy killing Bruno’s father, a “murder swap” where neither man would have motive for the crime.  Guy tries to brush off the proposal as a joke, but Bruno takes it as agreement.

After killing Miriam at an amusement park, Bruno consistently harasses Guy to carry out his part of the deal.  The tension builds over whether or not Guy will be pressured to go along with the plan as the police begin to make a case against him as Miriam’s murderer.  Or, what will Bruno do if Guy continues to resist.  I have to say the movie played out in ways I didn’t expect, although it veered into melodrama at times.

This being a Hitchcock film there are some great technical moments.  Miriam’s murder is depicted reflected in her broken glasses on the ground, a startlingly beautiful shot for such an horrifying event. The denouement of the film plays out at the same amusement park aboard a merry-go-round that’s spinning out of control, which is filmed spectacularly (although I think it’s wrong that no one in the movie never acknowledges that the police shot and killed the ride operator).  Patricia Hitchcock (the director’s daughter) has a great role as Barbara Morton, Anne’s younger sister who takes a lurid interest in the details of the murder.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Rope (1948)


Title: Rope
Release Date: August 26, 1948
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Transatlantic Pictures
Summary/Review:

Rope is famous for being a story told in real-time, shot in long takes, and edited to appear as if it was filmed in one take.  The technical accomplishment serves the film well as the suspense build in this story of two young men who murder their Harvard classmate as an experiment of their intellectual superiority.  The victim, David Kentley (Dick Hogan), is choked to death in the opening scene of the film by Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger), who then place his body in an antique chest. Dall and Granger are suitably loathsome and arrogant in their performance (if this movie was made today they’d probably be MRA/Incel types).

While Brandon exults in the murder and the party he’s planned to hold with David’s body in the chest, Philip in anxious about getting caught and becomes increasingly erratic.  The guests for the party are David’s father Mr. Kentley (Cedric Hardwicke), hid aunt Mrs. Atwater (Constance Collier), and his fiancee Janet Walker (Joan Chandler).  Brandon also invites their friend and Janet’s ex-boyfriend Kenneth Lawrence (Douglas Dick) as part of plot to get Janet and Kenneth back together now that David is out of the picture. Also in attendance is the housekeeper Mrs. Wilson performed with a scene-stealing ebullience by Edith Evanson.

The final guest is Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart), a publisher, who was the housemaster at the prep school Brandon, Philip, David, and Kenneth all attended.  It was Cadell who introduced the intellectual ideas of the “art of murder” in philosophical conversations. Brandon believes Cadell will be impressed by what they’ve done.  The conversations at the party about the right of “superiors” to murder “inferiors” is especially chilling since this film was made shortly after the Holocaust (although it is based on a play from the 1920s).

As the party proceeds, the guests are largely put off by Brandon and Philip’s boorish behavior and worried about David’s absence.  Cadell grows suspicious, leading to the climax of the film. This movie is deeply suspenseful and well-acted in addition to its technical accomplishments.  The dialogue seems a little stiff and perhaps to reliant on stage-play conventions.  This is a good movie, but with its thoroughly devastating depiction of evil, it is not a movie that will make one feel good.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Notorious (1946)


Title: Notorious
Release Date: September 6, 1946
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
Summary/Review:

I never knew how much I needed to see a drunk Ingrid Berman angrily cuss out a cop, but this movie satiates that desire.  And that’s only the prologue!

Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, an American socialite whose father is convicted as a Nazi spy.  Federal agent T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) recruits her to help infiltrate a group of fugitive Nazis operating out of Rio de Janeiro.  Much like The Stranger, the issue of Nazis continuing to operate was clearly a concern in the immediate aftermath of WWII, but I’m still impressed that entire films of fictional Nazi fugitives were written and produced so soon after the war. One odd thing about this movie is that while it primarily takes place in Brazil, I don’t think we see a single Brazilian character.

En route to Brazil and as they establish themselves in Rio, Huberman and Devlin fall in love.  This leads to a racy-for-1946 scene where the couple kiss for over two minutes.  Of course, considering that most human beings would like to kiss Bergman and/or Grant, this is also wish fulfillment for the audience.  Like Hitchcock’s Spellbound, the romance leads a character to act unprofessionally, but this time it’s the male character Devlin, whose jealousy will ultimately put Huberman’s life in peril.

Huberman is tasked with getting acquainted with her father’s friend Alex Sebastian (Hollywood supervillain Claude Raines), a financier of the German war engine, and find out who he’s associating with and what the Nazis are plotting.  The movie is a slow burn as secrets are revealed one by one and the steps that Huberman takes to gain access further strain her relationship with Devlin.  It all leads to a satisfying denouement.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)


Title: Shadow of a Doubt
Release Date: January 12, 1943
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Skirball Productions
Summary/Review:

Shadow of the Doubt answers the question “what if a noir thriller crashed in a family sitcom?” Joseph Cotten is Charles Oakley, a man on the run, who decides to lay low with the family of his sister, Ann Newton (Edna May Wonacott), in Santa Rosa, California.  There he is reunited with his teenage niece and namesake Charlie (Teresa Wright), who adores him.  Over time Uncle Charlies strange behavior and the arrival of detectives makes Charlie suspect that her uncle is the Merry Widow Murderer.

Unlike Suspicion, the plot is never ambiguous about Uncle Charlie’s guilt, so its more of a story of what Charlie can discover and if she can avoid becoming a victim herself.  Amidst the noir thriller bits there’s a lot of comic  family squabble and a romantic comedy as Charlie is wooed by one of the detectives (Macdonald Carey).  Teresa Wright positively shines in this movie, which was her first top-billing, and it makes me wonder why she didn’t become a bigger star.  Joseph Cotten, who I’ve liked in other films, seems to be mailing it in on this one.

Rating: ***

 

Classic Movie Review: Suspicion (1941)


Title: Suspicion
Release Date: November 14, 1941
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
Summary/Review:

After watching several screwball comedies, it was alarming how similar this psychological thriller begins.  Was Hitchcock making a statement on screwball comedies, or is it just a coincidence? Shortly after their first meeting, Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) pursues Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) across a meadow, and then grabs her hair and starts to readjust it.  This is a huge red flag for Johnnie’s bad character, and yet how many screwball comedies begin with a “goofy” character breaking personal boundaries?

Lina, convinced she’ll become a spinster, is drawn in by Johnnie’s charisma and devil-may-care attitude.  After they elope and return from a honeymoon, Johnnie reveals that he is broke, has no job, and spends much of his time gambling.  Lina catches Johnnie in several lies as he continues to gamble, and even embezzle, behind her back.  When he proposes setting up a speculative land business with his friend Beaky (a wonderful performance by Nigel Bruce), Lina suspects that Johnnie is planning a con. And when Beaky dies, Lina begins to fear that Johnnie is a murderer and she will be his next victim.

The conclusion is cleverly ambiguous: is Johnnie really attempting to work through his compulsions and Lina’s imagination is running away with her suspicions? Or, is Johnnie lying and successfully conning Lina once again?  My understanding is that the Hays Code considerably changed the source novel significantly to be acceptable for filming, but I think Hitchcock worked well within those restraints to make a compelling drama.  Plus, Fontaine puts in a fantastic performance, and Cary Grant, who I’ve always liked, is very creepy and unsettling.

Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: Stranger Things (2019)


TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

The phrase “trying to catch lightning in a bottle” comes to mind as I ponder the third season of Stranger Things. The first season of the show came out of nowhere with a perfect recipe of writing, acting, setting, mood, and nostalgia. It’s a tricky thing to repeat, and just as the show was diminished some in season 2, it falls a bit further in season 3. By no means am I saying Stranger Things 3 is bad, I care about these characters and enjoy the stories, but feel it fails to live up to the high standards set by season 1.

At the core of Stranger Things is a pastiche to 1980s American culture.  In this season, the story draws upon the renewed Cold War hysteria of Reagan’s America and the trope of the “evil Russian” that found its way into propagandist movies such as Red Dawn, Amerika, Rambo, Top Gun, and The Day After.  There’s no deconstruction of the trope as the show plays it straight depicting the Soviets having the ability to secretly build a massive laboratory under the Starcourt Mall in the heartland of America at a time when the real Soviet Union was crumbling.  In a show with monsters that invade from a decrepit mirror universe, I found this premise to still be too unbelievable.

Much as the 1980s Cold War hysteria was a gritty callback to the Cold War panic of the 1950 and 1960s, the 1980s was a time when classic horror movies were remade with graphic violence and gratuitous gore.  Stranger Things 3 draws a lot of influence from horror movie remakes such as The Thing, The Blob, and Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (which was made in 1978, but I’m including in this list because it is clearly referenced). As a result, this is the goriest and most violent season yet, the sequel that decides to be a full-on action film.  In a great moment of metafiction, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) explains his love for New Coke as it being a remake, like The Thing, that he thinks improves upon the original.

The heart of Stranger Things is its characters, and this season’s biggest struggles are with characters being too broadly characterized.  This is true for Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery) who was the creepy, abusive metalhead teen with a traumatic past in season 2, and becomes the creepy, possessed by the Mind Flayer teen with a traumatic past in season 3.  Billy deserved better characterization, especially to make his ultimate heroic moment pay off. Priah Ferguson returns as Lucas’ little sister Erica, bumped up from a bit character to one of the main storylines, and although she’s very funny she’s written entirely as a sassy, precocious kid, a la Arnold from Diff’rent Strokes. The final episode seems to indicate a new role for Erica in season 4, and one hope that they flesh out her character.  And really, there was no reason to bring back the obnoxious Murray (Brett Gelman), who appeared in a couple of episodes in season 2, much less make him a character who seems to get more screen time than the core children.

My biggest disappointment with this series is with the character of Jim Hopper (David Harbour).  He’s always been depicted as a cop who will punch first and ask questions later, but previous seasons revealed that under his gruff exterior is a gentle heart.  It’s really distressing to see Hopper’s anger over El (Millie Bobby Brown) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) spending too much time together, and worse, threatening Mike.  Later in the season he completely brutalizes the mayor of Hawkins (Cary Elwes cosplaying the mayor from Jaws, right on down to be named “Larry”).  One of the most moving parts of the season is Hopper narrating a letter to El about his feelings, but I’m distraught that this side of Hopper’s character was ignored for the previous 7 episodes.

Like in previous seasons,  large cast is split up into different storylines that come together at the end.  The kids are becoming teenagers, and Hopper is right about Mike and El spending too much time together. El breaks up with Mike and Max (Sadie Sink) breaks up with Lucas, and in some wonderful scenes El and Max become closer friends.  Meanwhile, Will (Noah Schnapp), who lost part of his childhood to the Upside Down, wants to cling to being a kid a bit longer and play D&D.  The teenagers from the earlier series are becoming adults.  Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) attempt to prepare for a career by interning with the local newspaper.  Steve (Joe Keery) works for a paycheck, and maybe to meet girls, at the ice cream shop in the mall alongside an “alternative” girl who he never paid attention to in high school, Robin (Maya Hawke). Robin is the breakout character of the season and seamlessly fits in with existing characters, but I can’t help feeling that she looks like a time traveler from the 1990s (perhaps because Hawke is the daughter of iconic 90s stars Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke).  And the grown-ups, Hopper and Joyce (Winona Ryder), are concerned for the kids, challenged to move on from previous traumas, and resisting their attraction for one another.

In a town with both a Mind Flayer and evil Russians at work, bad things are going to happen.  El, Max, Mike, Lucas, and Will discover that Billy is possesed and recruiting more people for the Mind Flayer, and attempt to stop him. Nancy and Jonathan’s investigative reporting uncovers strange behavior in rats that leads to even stranger behavior in humans.  The Scoop Troop – Steve and Robin joined by Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Erica – investigate Russian ham radio messages and strange goings-on around the Starcourt Mall.  While the “Evil Russian” plot is ludicrous, these four definitely get the best storyline, dialogue, and character development.  Joyce investigates why magnets are suddenly falling of her refrigerator and convinces a reluctant Hopper to join in. I really like how Ryder plays Joyce as someone who has seen weird shit before, was right about it, and defeated it so now she has a greater confidence and seems more relaxed as she jumps into doing it again.  Along the way they capture a Soviet scientist named Alexei (Alec Utgof as the other breakout character of the season despite speaking no English) and get Murray for translation.

While I’ve expressed my reservations about Stranger Things 3 not living up to its potential, the show clearly attempts and succeeds at trying new things, drawing on new influences, and building on the existing story.  It’s a great bit of mind candy – with both brains and heart – for summer viewing.  I look forward to a fourth season and becoming further acquainted with these characters.

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