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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Reviews: To Be or Not To Be (1942)


Title: To Be or Not To Be
Release Date: February 19, 1942
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Production Company: Romaine Film Corp
Summary/Review:

On the eve of a Presidential inauguration that is under the shadow of a white supremacist insurrection us two weeks ago, it seems unfortunate that a movie that makes light of Nazis would come up next on my list. Except, once I started watching this movie I found it so compelling I let my misapprehensions go. Set in 1939, the movie depicts a theatre company in Warsaw who support the Underground by using disguises and get themselves in and out of trouble. Despite being a very funny comedy this film makes the threat of the Nazis all the more menacing.

In this earlier version Jack Benny and Carole Lombard portray the married stars of a Warsaw theatre company named Josef and Maria Tura.  A very young Robert Stack (but his distinguishing voice is recognizable) plays the Polish airman Lt. Stanislav Sobinski who inadvertently gets them caught up in a Gestapo plot. Benny is absolutely hilarious as the arrogant and hammy actor playing a part in everything he does.  Lombard, in her last role before dying in a plane crash, is equally majestic as the quick-witted Maria.

I remember seeing at least parts of the 1983 remake with Mel Brooks (and more frequently, the unfortunate “Hitler Rap” music video) as a kid, but didn’t remember much about the movie. I can see why it would appeal to Brooks though as it has some of his dark, satiric humor as well as the willingness to be seen as doing something in “bad taste.”

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)


Title: The Best Years of Our Lives
Release Date: November 21, 1946
Director: William Wyler
Production Company: Samuel Goldwyn Productions
Summary/Review:

This is a movie I remember the adults in my family often having on the tv when I was a child. But I didn’t really watch it myself until I was in my 20s. Much like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I was gobsmacked that a movie from this era depicted people expressing nuance and frustrated opinions of post-war America in ways that might be considered “unpatriotic.” The movie is the story of three men return from serving in World War II and adjusting to the return to civilian life. But it is not a celebratory story and it offers commentary on things ranging from PTSD and physical disability to various changes in America’s economy, chains taking over local businesses, fears of another war and/or depression, empty words of “supporting the troops,” and even questioning the use of atomic weapons in Japan.

The three men at the heart of the story are:

  • Al Stephenson (Fredric March) – a banker who enlisted in the infantry at an untypically older age and only achieved the rank of sergeant. He returns to his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and his nearly-full grown children. He is frustrated by his bank undermining his loans to veterans of good character but without collateral and turns to alcohol to deal with his problems.
  • Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) – A bombardier in the war, Fred finds himself unqualified for jobs in the competitive post-war economy, eventually ending up back at the drug store where he had worked as a drug store (now operated as part of a corporate chain). He and his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) knew each other only briefly when they married hastily before his deployment and are now learning that they have nothing in common. Fred also finds the is falling in love with Peggy (Teresa Wright), Al and Milly’s daughter.
  • Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) – A sailor who lost both his hands in the war and now uses mechanical hook prostheses. While confident in using the prostheses he is uneasy about the pitying looks he gets from family and friends, and uncertain whether his fiancée Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) will still want to marry him. Russell was not a professional actor, but was actually a veteran who lost his hands in the war, and he puts in a phenomenal performance.

This is an all-around terrific movie with great acting, great writing, and great direction. It has a very modern feel to it and could easily be remade as movie today. In fact, a story about veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq would likely feel more alienated since there isn’t the common experience of service that there was in World War II. This remains one of my all-time favorite movies.

Rating: *****

Book Review: The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff


Author: Pam Jenoff
Title: The Lost Girls of Paris
Narrator: Elizabeth Knowelden, Henrietta Meire, and Candace Thaxton
Publication Info: Harlequin Audio (2019)
Summary/Review:

This novel is set during the final years of World War II and immediately after the war, and tells a story inspired by the true-life experiences of women serving as agent’s in Britain’s Special Operations Executive. The novel alternates perspectives among three different protagonists. Marie is a young woman recruited as an agent who is sent to work undercover in France not long before the D-Day invasions and has to overcome her inexperience and frequent changes of circumstance. Eleanor is the severe leader of the women’s division in France, but her strictness is due to her desire to keep her agents safe both from the enemy and from the government leaders who have no faith in woman doing espionage. 

The final protagonist is Grace, a young widowed American who finds a suitcase in Grand Central Terminal and impulsively takes a dozen photographs of women who prove to be SOE agents. Grace’s growing obsession with trying to find out who the women are and return the photos where they belong doesn’t make much sense and is a drag on the book.  Marie’s story is the most thrilling as she’s actively working in France carrying out missions she wasn’t trained for and hoping to avoid capture.  But Eleanor’s story turns out to be the most profound as it deals with betrayal and personal tragedy.

The book has a better premise than execution, but it was nevertheless an entertaining read.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: A Man Escaped (1956)


Title: A Man Escaped
Release Date: 11 November 1956
Director: Robert Bresson
Production Company: Gaumont Film Company
Summary/Review:

This French drama focuses on a member of La Résistance held in a prison in Lyon by the occupying forces of Germany. The film is inspired by the true story of André Devigny who escaped Montluc prison in 1943. François Leterrier portrays Lieutenant Fontaine, a young prisoner who if fully intent on escaping. Fontaine’s contact with other prisoners is limited to washing times and tapping on the wall to a neighboring cell, so much of the film is Fontaine working within the claustrophobic confines of his cell. Leterrier does a great job, especially considering that he was not a professional actor at the time in accordance with the neorealist approach to filmmaking.

While this movie may be a bit slow for modern audiences, I still find the depiction of Fontaine’s deliberate work to come up with an escape plan and the tools he needs for escape to be mesmerizing. It’s also fascinating that several key moments, Fontaine hesitates, adding an extra layer of realism. If there’s one thing that bothers me about this movie it is an overreliance on narration, especially when Fontaine narrates the exact thing we see him doing. I also don’t know how he remains clean-shaven despite not having access to a razor, but that’s a minor quibble.

This is an excellent, compelling drama and I’m glad I had the opportunity to watch it.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Saving Private Ryan (1998)


Title: Saving Private Ryan
Release Date: July 24, 1998
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: DreamWorks Pictures | Paramount Pictures | Amblin Entertainment | Mutual Film Company
Summary/Review:

This is another movie I’ve meant to see since it came out that I’ve procrastinated.  The epic war movie tells the story of a group of Army Rangers sent behind enemy lines to find a member of the 101st Airborne Division who parachuted into Normandy on D-Day.  Their mission is to bring him home because he is his mother’s only surviving son after his three brothers die in military action elsewhere.

In reality, Saving Private Ryan is really three movies.  The first part, and the most famous, is a verite style dramatization of the D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy. It follows several American troops as they are initially repulsed by the German firepower but team together to break through the lines.  Characters are largely anonymous here and we don’t know who will play a part in the rest of the movie and who will die.  At the end of the battle we see that a soldier named Ryan is among the dead.  This is followed by several scenes on the home front where the military brass give hokey speeches about saving the only surviving Ryan child and we see his mother react to the tragic news. I would’ve have cut this part out and stayed with the troops in Normandy as the sappiness really drags.

The second movie begins when a team is organized under Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) to retrieve Private Ryan.  The characters in the team are largely war movie archetypes although they’re portrayed by good actors that gives them a bit of life.  There’s the cynical guy from Brooklyn (Edward Burns), the loyal second in command (Tom Sizemore), the devoutly Christian sniper  from the South (Barry Pepper), the medic (Giovanni Ribisi),  the Jewish guy who takes out his anger on Germans (Adam Goldberg), and the naive youngster with no battle experience who’s brought along as a translator (Jeremy Davies).  Along their journey they meet up with other Allied troops and participate in skirmishes.  They argue about the value of risking their lives to save one man and whether they should kill or release a German captive.

Finally, they find Private Ryan (Matt Damon before he was famous) in the French town of Ramelle where he and his fellow paratroopers are guarding a bridge against German crossing, and the third move begins.  Ryan refuses to leave and thus Miller decides to have his group provide reinforcement as they improvise ways to defend the bridge against a much larger German force, or destroy it. An epic battle ensues.

I found this to be a perfectly competent, well-made war film with strong acting, special effects, sound design, and cinematography.  But I don’t see it as one of the 100 greatest films of all time or even the best movie about World War II.  Too often their are effective set pieces but not enough time getting to really know and care about the loosely-sketched characters.  Moral quandaries are discussed but then brushed away with easy answers.  And the movie attempts to be a universal story of front soldiers facing the difficult decisions in war but then indulges in glurgy American patriotism.

I’d like it and I’d watch it again, but Saving Private Ryan is more Very Good than All-Time Great.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Schindler’s List (1993)


Title: Schindler’s List
Release Date: December 15, 1993
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Amblin Entertainment
Summary/Review:

I’ve been meaning to watch Schindler’s List since it was released but didn’t get around to it until now.  1993, the year of the film’s release, has long been a demarcation in my life from telling people name and getting puzzled looks to people responding “Oh, like Liam Neeson.”  More seriously and more important it is a film about the Holocaust and how some Jewish people in Poland were able to survive genocide.

Neeson plays Oskar Schindler, a man of German heritage from Czechoslovakia, who travels to Krakow, Poland to make his fortune as a factory-owner.  Initially depicted as a dapper and conniving man, Schindler use his charm and bribes to influence Nazi leadership into letting him take control of an enamelware factory.  Schindler puts Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) in charge of running the business, and for finding Jewish employees to work in the factory because they cost less.  Stern (who is a composite of several real-life people) is the quiet hero of the story finding some of the most vulnerable people in the Ghetto to be trained to work at the factory, thus saving their lives because they’re work is “essential.”

A great thing about this movie is that it is for most of its run it is never explicit about Schindler’s goals and where is loyalties lie.  The change from a man selfishly seeking to maximize personal profit to a man willing to put his life on the line to save thousands of Jewish people is subtle and gradual. When Krakow’s Jews are moved to Płaszów concentration camp, Schindler makes inroads through charm and bribery with the brutal commandant Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes).  In movie terms, Göth appears to be an over-the-top caricature but the real Göth was far worse, committing atrocities that Spielberg refused to commit to film.

When the Nazis decide to carry out the Final Solution, Schindler uses the last of his wealth to bribe Göth to allow him to transfer Jewish workers to a munitions factory in Czechoslovakia and then bribe Rudolf Höss when a train full of women is accidentally sent to Auschwitz.  The list of the title is the names of 1200 Jewish people Schindler and Stern save in this way. Schindler no longer hides from his employees that his goal is to save lives and even sees to it that the factory doesn’t produces working munitions. As Germany falls to the Allied Powers, Schindler plans to escape since he will be seen as a war profiteer and collaborator by the Russians.

In the movie’s weak spot, Schindler has a mental breakdown from the guilt over not being able to save more lives.  Apart from being hammy and out of character, this seen is objectionable because the very Jewish people who have lived through unimaginable atrocities have to comfort Schindler.  It’s a strange decision to once again make Schindler unsympathetic just as his redemption story comes to its conclusion.

No movie can tell the true story of the Holocaust because the enormity of its brutality and inhumanity cannot be captured on film. One of the most effective parts of Schindler’s List for me are several scenes scattered through the film where groups of Jewish people talk amongst themselves.  They share their fears and grief, but their are also a variety of responses to the Holocaust from resignation to their lot to the often-repeated belief that it can’t get worse.  That the very people suffering the worst indignities and privations of the Holocaust also can’t see its enormity is very chilling indeed.

Rating: ****

Documentary Review: Night and Fog (1956) #AtoZChallenge


This is my entry for “N” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “N” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Nanook of the North, New York: A Documentary FilmThe 1964 World’s FairThe Night James Brown Saved Boston, No-No: A Dockumentary, and NOVA: Iceman Reborn.

Title: Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard)
Release Date: 1956
Director: Alain Resnais
Production Company: Argos Films
Summary/Review:

This is a movie I wanted to watch and felt important to watch, but nevertheless didn’t want to see.  Made a decade after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in Europe, this is one of the first films to document the horrors of the Holocaust.  The structure of the film mirrors the experience of the people imprisoned in the camps.  It begins with their arrest and transport by train.  Arriving at the camps, the people are stripped of clothing and shaved of hair and humiliated in thousands of ways.  Daily camp life involves forced labor, frequent humiliation, and hunger due to meager rations. Then there is mass murder which this movie is unflinching in depicting.

The filmmakers intercut contemporary film of the abandoned concentration camps in color with black and white film and photographs taken during their time of use.  Jean Cayrol, a poet who survived the concentration camps, wrote the narration which is delivered by actor Michel Bouquet. The movie asks us to remember the full horror of the Holocaust and recognize that it can happen again.

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending April 4


Hit Parade :: La Vida Loca Edición

A history of Spanish-language hit songs on the Billboard Top 100 from the 1960s to the present with a special emphasis on Latin crossover artists Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, and Shakira.

Memory Palace :: Stories to Wash Hands By

Twenty stories of historical events that last twenty seconds each, the perfect length of time to wash your hands.  Whether or not this is practical (I mean if you push play on your device before your hands are clean it will be contaminated, no) the stories are all very interesting tidbits of history.

Radiolab :: Every Day is Ignaz Semmelweis Day

The story of the Viennese doctor who determined that medical professionals should wash their hands to prevent the spread of deadly infections long before germ theory was even understood.

Sidedoor :: The Milkmaid Spy

The mindblowing adventures of Virginia Hall who worked as a spy in occupied France during World War II, helping establish resistance networks.

60 Second Science :: Bird Fossil Shared Earth with T. rex

Scientists discover evidence of the earliest modern bird, the Wonderchicken.


Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Classic Movie Review: The Conformist (1970)


Title: The Conformist 
Release Date: October 22, 1970
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Production Company: Mars Film Produzione | Marianne Productions | Maran Film
Summary/Review:

This movie set in the 1930s focuses on Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), an agent of the Italian Facist secret police, sent to France to assassinate a former teacher,  Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio). The story begins with Clerici pursuing Quadri in a car driven by his handler Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) and returns to the car in-between flashbacks.  The flashbacks include moments further back in time such as his childhood when he believes he killed a family chauffeur who attempted to sexually assault him and more recently his engagement to his wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli).

The bulk of the movie, though, is flashbacks to events that happened in Paris immediately before the car chase when Clerici and Giulia went to Paris on their honeymoon and paid social calls to Quadri and his wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda).  Obviously, Clerici used this as a cover for the assassination assignment but I don’t think Giulia was in on it.  In fact she seems to be having a delightful time socializing.  In a weird subplot, Anna ends up making sexual advances on both Clerici and Giulia, which seems mostly an excuse for gratuitous nudity.

The movie ends with a coda set in 1943 with the fall of Mussolini and Clerici ratting out his blind Fascist friend to the monarchists. I’m not sure what this adds to the movie as Clerici is already established as untrustworthy and lacking values so it’s just doubling down on it.

The sets of this film very large spaces with Art Deco design that are reminiscent of Metropolis (apparently not a coincidence).  There is also some great camera work with light and shadow. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t have much going for it. The psychological study of a Fascist just seems to be making excuses for someone who is clearly just a nasty Fascist.  I never feel any tension that Clerici is going to do anything other than what he’s set out to do, although the movie feints at him being conflicted. In sum, the movie is pretty to look at, but it feels hollow to me.  Who needs a pretty movie about a Fascist?

Rating: **