Classic Movie Review: Blue Velvet (1986)


Title: Blue Velvet
Release Date: September 19, 1986
Director: David Lynch
Production Company: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG)
Summary/Review:

I’ve long liked the work of David Lynch, but I missed this one so it was good to have an excuse to finally watch it.  The story tells of Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) who returns home from college to his hometown of Lumberton, North Carolina to help out when his father is hospitalized.  On a walk through the woods he finds a severed ear and becomes obsessed with discovering the mystery behind it.  The daughter of a police detective, Sandy Williams (a very young Laura Dern), informs him that the police suspect a singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) may be connected to the case.  Jeffrey begins to surveil Dorothy which leads him into a world of trouble.

I won’t go into the details but Jeffrey uncovers a criminal conspiracy lead by the extremely disturbed Frank (Dennis Hopper). I really enjoyed the first part of the movie when it was  a stylish noir mystery, but once Frank is revealed and Jeffrey is brought into his orbit I found it less interesting.  Frank is an amalgamation of every abusive, gaslighting, self-aggrandizing asshole I’ve ever know and I really don’t need to spend my time watching that.  I was also disappointed that both Dorothy and Sandy tended to fall into the “damsel in distress” trope.  There are reasons for that, but I think there were opportunities to have one of them seize initiative.

Overall though I appreciated that direction, cinematography, and overall mood of the film, which is aided by the selection of great music to fit the scenes.  The acting of all the leads is excellent, even Hopper as the all-too-convincing raging psychopath.  I’m really surprised to learn that Dern is about a decade younger than I realized.  I guess since she was making movies when I was in middle school it didn’t occur to me to realize she’s just a few years older than me.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Maltese Falcon (1941) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter M

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: The Maltese Falcon
Release Date: October 3, 1941
Director: John Huston
Production Company: Warner Bros.
Summary/Review:

I watched The Maltese Falcon several years ago – maybe at The Brattle Theatre or maybe I just borrowed the DVD from the library – and I also read the Dashiell Hammett book it is based upon around the same time.  But I didn’t remember much about it, which is a good thing since it meant I could enjoy the mystery of it once again.  I also felt that I thought the movie was good but not great, so I was also surprised to find I was really enjoying it the second time around.

The Maltese Falcon is a detective story featuring Humphrey Bogart as the hard-boiled private eye Sam Spade.  The movie is considered to be one of the examples of the film noir genre, or at least a predecessor to film noir.  Spade is definitely a morally ambiguous character and it is unclear whether he is actually willing to go along with the criminals’ plans or if he is just playing them.  When he does the right thing at the end of the movie, it seems like he does it more out of spite than justice.

The story begins when a woman, Ruth Wonderly or Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) depending on which version of her life she’s telling, hires Spade and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan).  When Archer is murdered, Spade finds himself drawn into a plot around finding the titular MacGuffin, a medieval figurine covered in valuable gemstones.  Also seeking the Maltese Falcon are conman Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and mobster Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet).

This was John Huston’s first film as a director, and despite the detective story, it is not really an action film.  In fact, I found it has a lot of unexpected parallels to Huston’s final film, The Dead, which is also a book adaptation about people who spend a lot of time talking but rarely speak the truth.  Subtext is key in the battle of wits among Spade, Brigid, Cairo, and Gutman.  The film succeeds because of the high quality acting of its cast.  Surprisingly, this was Greenstreet’s first film, while Lorre was just making his way into American films, and even Bogart was just becoming an A-list celebrity.  They’re firing on all cylinders in this film and the trio would reunite in Casablanca the following year, and Greenstreet and Lorre would make a total of nine movies together!

For whatever reason, this movie failed to make a big impression on my around 17 years ago.  But upon revisiting this movie I feel it has earned a spot among my favorite movies of all time.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Parasite (2019)


Title: Parasite
Release Date: 30 May 2019
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Production Company: Barunson E&A
Summary/Review:

The Kim family are unemployed and struggling to make ends meet while living in a semi-basement apartment in a run-down looking part of a South Korean city. Their fortunes start to look up when the college-aged son Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) gets the opportunity to substitute for his friend as a tutor of the daughter of the prosperous Park family, despite not having qualified for the university himself. Ki-woo notices the anxiety the Park family’s mother (Cho Yeo-jeong) has for her young son and recommends his artistically-talented sister Kim Ki-jung (Park So-dam) as an art therapist he’s knows named “Jessica.” Ki-jung is able to get the driver of the Park family father fired, and recommends to Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) her own father Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) as a replacement driver (again in disguise).  Finally, the trio work to get the Park’s long-term housekeeper, Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), and replace her with their mother, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin).

With all four members of the family gainfully employed by the Parks, they take the opportunity of the Parks leaving for a camping trip to celebrate in the Park’s elegant house, designed by a prominent architect who once lived there. Things look good until Moon-gwang arrives claiming that she left something in the basement. She reveals a shocking secret which unleashes a series of events that lead to a tragic final act.

The movie is a dark satire of socially-stratified society. Despite the fact that the Kims do some morally reprehensible things, you still find yourself rooting for them because people as clearly talented and motivated as them should not be living in poverty (of course, no one should live in poverty). The conflict that arises between the Kims and Moon-gwang is also emblematic of how the poor are forced to fight amongst themselves for the scraps thrown by the wealthy. Without going into spoilers, the grim events of the final act are an indication that actual class war would be devastating for all involved, but that inequality is going to have be addressed by other means.

The movie is very cleverly-written and the acting is all-around terrific.  I really felt like I knew all these characters and they were fully-rounded humans, not just types.  I was also impressed by the direction.  One sequence shows the Kim family running from the Park’s house to their own neighborhood by way of descending a series of staircase.  The social stratification between the families is made literal. There’s also a shot where flood waters rise into the frame and everything above the waterline wipes into the next shot, an effect I’ve never seen before.

Parasite is a clever, funny, thoughtful, and disturbing film.  It’s received a lot of awards and accolades, and I guess I’m adding mine to the pile.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Night of the Hunter (1955)


Title: The Night of the Hunter
Release Date: July 26, 1955
Director: Charles Laughton
Production Company: Paul Gregory Productions
Summary/Review:

This movie is not what I expected.  I knew this was the movie with Robert Mitchum as a preacher (named Reverend Henry Powell) who has “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles.  I was under the impression that it was a noir detective film but it is not.  Instead, Powell is a man who marries widows and kills them for their money.

During one prison sentence he meets a bank robber/murder, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), and learns that the $10,000 he stole was never recovered. Upon release, Powell finds, woos, and marries Harper’s now widow Willa (Shelley Winters).  What he doesn’t count on is the stubborn resistance of the Harper’s son John (Billy Chapin), who is devoted in care of his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).

What I didn’t expect about this movie is just how weird it is.  The editing feels arbitrary and disjointed at times.  There are probably very expensive aerial shots early on, but then other parts of the film are deliberately filmed to appear like silent movies from 30-40 years earlier.  One sequence shows the children floating down a river (in a sound studio) with various live animals appearing in the foreground.  The sets often look deliberately artificial, like it’s a stage show. Then there’s an amazing shot of a dead body in a car under a river. It has to be seen to be believed.

Mitchum puts in the perfect performance as the charming and charismatic preacher who wins over the rural community before wooing and bringing Willa under his spell.  He then can also be thoroughly terrifying as he commits murder and relentlessly pursues John and Pearl.  Silent movie superstar Lillian Gish puts in a amazing performance as Rachel Cooper, a stern but kindly woman who takes in orphans. Billy Chapin holds his own as a child dealing with the most traumatic situations with resilience and initiative.

This movie came out at the height of the Cold War era when Christianity was touted as the answer to “godless Communism.” This movie must’ve seemed incredibly radical in the way that it skewers the hypocrisy of American Christianity.  At no time is it ever confirmed that Powell is not actually an ordained minister (although some guess that he’s a fraud), and he certainly seems to be acting on a real – if twisted – belief in God to justify his actions. That the everyday Americans in the West Virginia village immediately fall for him is even more damning.

It’s hard not to watch this movie without thinking of Donald Trump, whose professions of Christian faith have never been backed up by anything he’s ever done in his life, but he has nevertheless become the hero of a certain strain of white evangelical Christianity.  The only difference is that when Reverend Powell’s crimes are revealed they form a lynch mob to kill Powell, whereas Trump’s supporters doubled down and attacked the US Capitol.

Rating: ****

Recent Movie Marathon: The Vast of Night (2020)


Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: The Vast of Night
Release Date: May 29, 2020
Director: Andrew Patterson
Production Company: GED Cinema
Summary/Review:

This movie is framed as an homage to The Twilight Zone, called Paradox Theatre in the movie, although stylistically it is far more cinematic than the tv show. The movie is set in a small town in New Mexico in the the 1950s when most people have gathered together to watch the high school basketball game. Two outliers are a pair of teenagers, Fay (Sierra McCormick) who is working her shift as a switchboard operator, and Everett (Jake Horowitz), the DJ at the town’s radio station. Both encounter a strange audio signal on the phones and the radio and begin an investigation that may lead to aliens!

This movie is the antithesis of an action movie with the focus on character studies, intimate moments, and the slow revelation of the source of the mysterious sounds. McCormick is great as the earnest Fay, and Horowitz teeters on the verge of unlikable in his performance as someone whose intellect overshadows his interpersonal skills. The movie is beautifully crafted with impressive tracking shots that establish the locations within the town and remarkable sound design.

I feel this movie is a treat for film buffs but may be less enjoyable if you’re just looking for a popcorn flick.

Rating: ***1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: Blow the Man Down (2020)


Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: Blow the Man Down
Release Date: March 20, 2020
Director: Bridget Savage Cole & Danielle Krudy
Production Company: Secret Engine | Tango Entertainment
Summary/Review:

I watched this movie because I’d heard that David Coffin, song leader of The Christmas Revels, appeared in it. Otherwise I had not idea what the movie was about and dang was I surprised. Don’t read any further if you want to be as surprised as I was.

The story is about young adult sisters Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth Connolly (Morgan Saylor), beginning on the day of their mother’s funeral. They live in a fishing village in Maine where their mother has established a fishmonger’s shop and has had to mortgage their house. Priscilla, the “responsible” older sister worries about how they’re going to keep the house, while Mary Beth, the “wild” one simply wants to get out of the small town.

On the night after the funeral, they argue and Mary Beth goes out to a bar where she hooks up with a man named Gorski (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). When she observes him acting suspiciously, he attacks her, and she kills him in self-defense. The bulk of the movie is Priscilla and Mary Beth poor attempts to cover up Gorski’s death. This gets them entangled in other town scandals with Enid (played magnificently by Character Actress Margo Martindale), an old friend of their mother’s who runs a brothel out of her B&B.

Over the course of the film, the sisters learn some dark secrets of the village and their mother’s past. Throughout the film we see the actions of three older women who are not to be underestimated. David Coffin and other singing fishermen appear from time to time to sing sea chanties as kind of a Greek chorus. The beautiful setting is a contrast to the quirky mystery at the heart of the movie. In the sense it reminds me of the first season of Broadchurch.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Review: The Exorcist (1973)


Title: The Exorcist
Release Date: December 26, 1973
Director: William Friedkin
Production Company: Hoya Production
Summary/Review:

I hadn’t planned on watching The Exorcist, but I added it at the last minute to my scary movie lineup. I can’t remember the first time I watched this movie, but I know I was definitely too young. I saw it several more times over the years – in whole or part – and then in the summer of 1990 I attended a five-week program for high school students at Georgetown University. That summer I became intimately acquainted with the setting of the movie, and of course watched the movie as a group. By that point, as a jaded 16-year-old, I found the movie more funny than scary. At any rate, I don’t know if I’ve seen it again in the past 30 years so it was worth revisiting.

Me, circa 1994, recreating a cinematic moment at the Exorcist Steps in Georgetown.

There’s something about the blockbusters of the 1970s where the way they are remembered in the popular imagination is not quite what the movies were about. Jaws was not about a shark eating people, but about three men of different backgrounds learning to work together on a boat and forming a bond. Rocky was not about boxing but about a man who happened to be a boxer learning to believe in himself. The Exorcist is not about a girl possessed by demons but about a priest going through a crisis of faith.

I’d forgotten how much of the movie does not deal with possession or the exorcism and the slow build it takes to get to that point. The ten minute prologue set in Iraq completely escaped my mind. Can you think of any other movie that introduces a character, as they do with Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), and then not have him return for 90 minutes. The connection of the Iraq scenes with the rest of the movie are never made obvious but I do appreciate that they were beautifully shot and like how there’s always sound in the background (picks and shovels, blacksmiths, dogs, etc.) that are discordant but musical.

I also didn’t really remember much of the main part of the film in Georgetown, such as Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) filming on the university campus or Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) travelling to New York to see his ailing mother. There are also a lot more scenes of Regan (Linda Blair) undergoing medical procedures. I was surprised to learn that Regan getting cerebral angiography freaked out a lot of people in the audiences back in the 70s, because I don’t medical procedures disturbing for the most part. (Two movies that I’ve watched this month, Frankenstein and The Exorcist, were both said to cause extreme horror and revulsion to audiences of the time although I’d consider them tame compared with some mainstream horror that’s been released in the past four decades).

The acting performances in the movie are universally good with Miller, Burstyn, and Blair being particularly good. I’ve wondered why I never saw Miller in anything but I’ve learned that he was primarily a playwright and unfortunately also struggled with alcoholism. Still, if there’s one performance that you’re going to be remembered for, this one was excellent. The 44-year-old von Sydow, with the help of some terrific makeup, puts on a great performance as an old man and looks a lot like von Sydow would look when he actually reached that age.

Lest I go to far in my “it’s not about a girl possessed by demons” thought, this movie does have it’s fair share of horror and gross out moments, as well as disturbing behavior for a 12-year-old. But I wouldn’t let that dissuade you if you’ve never seen it, because it really does also contain a thoughtful and nuanced story as well. For me, the darkest part of The Exorcist is learning how cruel William Friedkin was on the set. He allowed stunts to get out of hand so that they caused injury to both Burstyn and Blair, and Blair was given no protection from the extreme cold on the set as well as deliberately trying to frighten or anger the actors on the set. That to me is more unsettling than anything in the movie which is beautifully made and has an underlying message of hope in humanity.


Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)


Title: The Silence of the Lambs
Release Date: February 14, 1991
Director: Jonathan Demme
Production Company: Strong Heart Productions
Summary/Review:

I watched this movie back when it was first released on video and I didn’t like it. For one thing, I don’t like movies that glamorize the villain. The other thing is that I remember it having lots of obvious and silly plot twists.

Since the movie is on the AFI 100 List and I’m doing a Scary Movies this week, I figured I could revisit this movie with an open mind. Unfortunately, this movie is actually worse than I remembered. For one thing, it is extremely 90s, with that era’s fear of widespread crime in the movie’s DNA, and thus naturally full of copaganda that practically serves as recruitment film for the FBI. Secondly, the plot twists are utterly ludicrous. Everything from the fact that an agent-in-training is given heavy responsibilities, to Clarice Sterling (Jodie Foster) revealing her most personal secrets to a psychopath, to the way in which Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) escapes his improvised prison is too ridiculous to take seriously. And while there’s dialogue stating something to the effect of “transexuals are peaceful,” the entire performance of Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) is heavily coded with the hateful idea that transgender people are psychotic.

Foster is the strength of this movie and does put in a spectacular acting performance. Parts of the movie offer an excellent depiction of a woman working in a “man’s world” and how she is constantly operating under the male gaze. The interviews between Starling and Lector are also well-done, but as much as they loom large in the popular imagination, they are only a tiny portion of the film’s running time. This is really Foster’s movie and she carries it well. I know that there are several sequels and spinoff tv shows about Hannibal Lector, but for my money, I’d rather watch a sequel where Foster’s Clarice Starling works on another case.

As for Silence of the Lambs, it joins Taxi Driver in the category of Movies That Are Highly Regarded That I Don’t Like With The Exception Of Jodie Foster’s Performance.


Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Sixth Sense (1999)


Title: The Sixth Sense
Release Date: August 6, 1999
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Production Company: Hollywood Pictures | Spyglass Entertainment | The Kennedy/Marshall Company | Barry Mendel Productions
Summary/Review:

In the summer of 1999, The Sixth Sense seemingly came out of nowhere to be a BIG! HUGE! DEAL! that everyone was talking about.  The biggest thing that people talked about was the movie’s SHOCKING TWIST! Getting the gist of what the film was about – a child who saw the ghosts of dead people – it was pretty easy to put 2 and 2 together and figure out the SHOCKING TWIST on my own.  So, I had no interest in ever seeing the movie.

It turns out, The Sixth Sense is actually a pretty good movie and like The Crying Game before it, overemphasizing the SHOCKING TWIST does a disservice to the movie. Knowing the SHOCKING TWIST, I was impressed that the movie is told from the point of view of Bruce Willis’ character, a child psychologist named Malcolm Crowe.  Crowe takes an interest in a troubled child, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), who reminds him of another patient he feels he failed to help.  If you know the SHOCKING TWIST is coming, the clues are all there and director M. Night Shyamalan even includes a gag with Crowe performing a terrible magic trick which lampshades the idea of misdirection.

What I like about this movie is that it is a story of empathy.  What Crowe helps Cole to realize with his ability to see the ghosts of the troubled dead that he can help them instead of fearing them.  And, along the way, Cole helps Crowe as well, in ways that aren’t readily apparent until the close of the film.  There’s a lot of talking in this film and it works because Haley Joel Osment is up to portraying a child believably participating in those conversations (poor Jake Lloyd must’ve looked like an even worse child actor having The Sixth Sense released in the same year as The Phantom Menace). Shyamalan also does a great job of incorporating Philadelphia as a character in the movie, especially as a historic city with lots and lots of troubled dead people.

The Sixth Sense is thoughtful, full of heart, and overall is well done.  It’s definitely worth seeing at least once, but I wouldn’t put it on my Top 100 of all time list.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Birds (1963)


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 Birds
Release Date: March 28, 1963
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions
Summary/Review:

This is the third film that Hitchcock adapted from the writings of Daphne du Maurier after Jamaica Inn  and Rebecca.  I remember reading the du Maurier story as a child and then not being impressed when I watched the film.  Unfortunately, I still have a low opinion of the film on this rewatch.

San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) makes a bold decision to follow a man she met in a pet shop to his family home in Bodega Bay, California.  She delivers a pair of lovebirds to Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) so he may give them as a birthday gift to his 11-year-old sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright, whose name seemed so familiar until I found that she played Betty Grissom in The Right Stuff).  Before this odd meet-cute can blossom into a full-on romcom for Melanie and Mitch, seagulls, sparrows, crows, and more begin attacking humanity at regular intervals. The rest of the movie features these attacks and the tense moments in between them.

Suzanne Pleshette and Jessica Tandy also put in good performances as a local school teacher, respectively.  The movie is full of iconic shots and is definitely a forerunner to a generation of horror films such as Night of the Living Dead and Jaws. But the movie is also overlong and way to talky.  Hedren is not a compelling enough performer to carry the movie, and mostly seems to be there to fulfill Hitchcock’s sadistic desire to see a blond woman pecked by vicious birds.

Rating: **