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The Merry Widow (1934)
A moderately diverting musical the enjoyment of which probably hinges on how much you like its stars, Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald. I don't particularly care for either, and I especially HATE that shrill, warbly style of singing that MacDonald was so famous for, so I'm perhaps not the target audience for this movie.
The most fun to be had comes from George Barbier and Una Merkel as the ding-a-ling king and queen of a fictional country. Ernst Lubitsch adds some witty directorial flourishes here and there, but nothing like what he would bring to his later and much better films like "Ninotchka" and "The Shop Around the Corner."
The film's opulent production design is a character in and of itself, and won Cedric Gibbons and Fredric Hope the 1934 Oscar for Best Art Direction.
Morning Glory (1933)
Hepburn's First Oscar
Historical accounts of the 1932-33 Academy Awards claim that there was only polite applause when the Best Actor and Best Actress awards were presented. Charles Laughton won Best Actor for his performance in "The Private Life of Henry VIII," and the guests at the awards ceremony were not pleased that the Academy chose a (gasp!) non-American. Katharine Hepburn won the Best Actress prize for her performance in "Morning Glory," and the tepid response to her win was due to the fact that the actress had already made herself unliked among Hollywood circles. Hepburn of course would go on to have perhaps the single most illustrious career ever for a movie star, and whether or not she was ever truly liked, she became one of the most revered and respected actresses in the business.
But based on her performance in "Morning Glory," it's easy to see why she turned people off. She's just weird. That weirdness was likely interpreted as unique, and she certainly delivers lines in the film in a way that no actress had delivered lines before her. I have to believe it's this uniqueness that won her the Oscar. But as a performance, it's pretty dreadful, though the movie around her is such an afterthought that I don't know that anyone could have done much with it.
Hepburn plays Eva Lovelace, a naive, stagestruck kid who comes to New York with ambitions to be a serious actress and annoys everyone so much that they just give in and give her her big break even if there's no logical reason for doing so. (I'm sure that's how the show business world really works). I don't know whether to blame the writing, directing, or Hepburn herself, but Eva comes across as mentally unhinged rather than innocent, and the film gives us no conceivable reason that a theater impresario (Adolphe Menjou) and a renowned playwright (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) would be so infatuated with her, let alone allow her to just sit around their offices and homes all the time while they go about their business. Despite being innocent and haughty and above it all, she falls into bed easily with Menjou and then becomes obsessed with him, until the end when, on a dime, she pivots and realizes that she's a woman scorned. Nothing in this movie makes narrative sense, and you want to see Hepburn punched in the face more than you want to see her character make it on Broadway.
I had the most fun with Mary Duncan, an actress I'd never heard of, who plays a Broadway diva, and I was struck with how much sex appeal Douglas Fairbanks had. Why on earth Hepburn's character didn't fall for him instead of Menjou is just one of the nonsensical plot developments this film wants us to swallow.
A Farewell to Arms (1932)
Hollywood's Take on Hemingway
Hollywood gets rid of much of the psychological complexity of Ernest Hemingway's famous WWI novel and boils it down to a doomed love affair in this 1932 version of "A Farewell to Arms." Still, as a movie it's pretty good, and it does manage to tackle some themes about the impact war has on people and their decisions.
Since the film is pre-Code, it's pretty racy, dealing frankly with sex before marriage and the fact that many women at the time "gave" themselves as gifts to soldiers since no one knew from day to day what the following day would bring. Gary Cooper is probably the draw for most people who watch this movie, but I was more impressed with Helen Hayes. I'm now convinced that Cooper was a fairly limited actor, though he did have tremendous charisma and screen presence when matched with the right role. But Hayes does all of the heavy lifting in the acting department, reminding everyone that she was able to transfer her talents from the stage to the screen.
The film is more technically ambitious than many films from the same time period, and there's a quite impressive montage late in the film conveying the devastation and daily grind of warfare. Famous cinematographer Charles Lang won his only career Oscar for Best Cinematography for his work on this film, and then would go on to score another sixteen nominations after it, all the way up through "Butterflies Are Free" in 1972. "A Farewell to Arms" also won the Oscar for Best Sound Recording, deserved for sheer ambition if for nothing else and it received nominations in the additional categories of Best Picture (there were ten nominees that year) and Best Art Direction.
The Criminal Code (1930)
Walter Huston Rocks
I watched "The Criminal Code" in the same night that I watched the hopelessly creaky 1929 film "Madame X," and it was amazing to me when juxtaposing the two films how much film technology vaulted forward in just a couple of years. A movie from 1931 would probably feel too antiquated for many casual movie goers to enjoy, but compare it to something from just two years earlier and it feels like a technological marvel. Crisp sound, fluid, dynamic camera movement, acting grounded in the way actual people look and sound rather than a collection of melodramatic histrionics.
The moral dilemma at the heart of "The Criminal Code" is the point at which following the letter of the law must give way to subjective consideration of individual circumstances. Walter Huston embodies this dilemma in the role of a District Attorney who gets promoted to warden of a prison and must balance his professional and personal interests when his daughter falls for one of the inmates, a basically decent kid who's a good candidate for reforming but who keeps falling prey to bad circumstances. Huston is just the best, and he can convey more through the single word "Yeah" than most actors could with entire paragraphs of dialogue. He says the word frequently throughout the movie, sometimes as a question, sometimes as a statement, and I was amazed at how much meaning that single word can have when delivered in different scenarios by an actor who knows his stuff.
Most of "The Criminal Code" takes place in a prison setting, which gives the sound designers, playing around in a still new medium, heaps of opportunities to dazzle audiences at the time with the stomping of boots, clanging of bars, whirr of machinery, rat-a-tat of gunfire, etc.
Seton I. Miller and Fred Niblo, Jr. received an Oscar nomination for Best Writing (Adaptation) at the 1930-31 Academy Awards, which covered films released between August 1 of 1930 and July 31 of 1931.
Madame X (1929)
Really Difficult to Watch
"Madame X," like many of the very first talkies, is incredibly difficult to sit through.
Difficult not because of the subject matter. No, It literally makes you want to turn it off because the technology is so bad you can barely watch the movie anyway. For the first few minutes of the movie, I thought the sound had gone out on my T.V., because it's utterly silent -- not even any music over the opening titles -- and then, when the sound does finally come in, it's so muffled and distorted you can barely understand what the actors are saying. The sound seemed to improve over the course of the movie, either because the film crew actually got better at recording it as they went along, or because I got used to it. But sound doesn't help matters much. This was filmed in the days before anyone knew how to make a movie both move and talk at the same time, so most scenes are shot in long, static takes. If a character moves to the edge of the frame, the camera doesn't follow but remains pointed doggedly at the center of the room. Lionel Barrymore received an Oscar nomination for directing this film. He was apparently the first person to think of mounting the boom on a fishing pole that could be carried around the set and follow the actors as they spoke their lines, giving them greater freedom of movement. That innovation might be what nabbed him the Oscar nom, but it's little consolation to the viewer; even with that trick, the camera barely ever moves.
Ruth Chatterton also received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, and it becomes clear why as the film moves into its later half. She's dreadful at first, still acting like she's in a silent film as she plays a wayward wife and mother who comes begging at the door of the husband she walked out on in order to see her young child. But over the course of the movie, she transforms into a drunken woman of the world, and she's fascinating to watch. I'd already seen Chatterton in later films like "Female" and "Dodsworth," where she's spectacular, so I was surprised when this movie started at how bad she was. But the Ruth Chatterton of the later scenes is the one who went on to have a career in sound films.
It's nearly impossible to watch movies like this now for the sheer joy of watching films, and it's really not fair to review them using the same criteria you would for other movies. These early talkies feel far creakier and more antiquated than many silents that came out years before them. Instead, you almost have to approach them from a film study perspective, and if approached from that angle, they can be fascinating in their own right. It's kind of perversely fun to watch the product of a bunch of people who didn't really know what they were doing, and if you are interested in the history of film making, watching these silent to sound transitional films is like capturing a little bit of history in a bottle.
A Woman of Affairs (1928)
A Woman of Affairs
There really was an art to silent film acting. It wasn't just all exaggerated facial expressions. That becomes clear when you see really good silent actors who know exactly how to put across the material.
Greta Garbo and John Gilbert are really, really good, and they sell the melodrama of "A Woman of Affairs" in a way that others couldn't. In the best of circumstances, films this old feel antiquated by today's standards, but "A Woman of Affairs" feels more sophisticated than other films of its type because of the subtle downplaying of Garbo and Gilbert. Garbo creates an actual woman responding to events that feel like they could actually happen to a real person rather than a stock character histrionically reacting to tear-jerking plot devices. She's fascinating to watch, conveying much with the lift of an eyebrow or a small hand gesture. Her performance here makes it clear why she had the stuff to make the transition to sound.
I have to give director Clarence Brown his due as well. There's a fluid, cinematic quality to this film that makes it feel far more mature than pretty much any of the early sound films coming out around the same time. For example, the film that won the Best Picture Oscar in the year of this film's release was "The Broadway Melody," a dreadful early sound film without a brain in its head. Compare that to the mature subject matter of "A Woman of Affairs" -- the homoerotic obsession one man has for another, for starters -- and you can see how much more daring late silents were than early talkies.
Bess Meredyth, credited in the opening titles with "continuity," received an Oscar nomination for Best Writing for her work on both this and another Clarence Brown film, 1929's "Wonder of Women," at the 1928-29 Oscars. This was during the time when the eligibility period for the Oscars was a wonky August 1 of one year through July 31 of the following year, and it wouldn't be until 1934 when the Academy changed the eligibility period to match the calendar year. This was also during that brief window of time when Oscar nominations could site work on multiple films, as Meredyth's writing nomination did.
Our Dancing Daughters (1928)
Introducing Joan Crawford
"Our Dancing Daughters" is the film that made a star out of Joan Crawford.
Released in 1928, the film was slightly behind the curve. Sound had arrived, and filmmakers were scrambling to produce product that took advantage of the new technology. "Our Dancing Daughters" is primarily a silent film, though there are the occasional sound effects and at one point you hear the voice of a bandleader. Crawford plays a fun-loving flapper, while Anita Page plays a more traditional "good" girl. Both are vying for the affections of a rich playboy. He picks the safe, wholesome one, only to be surprised when she turns out to be a bit of a mess and he realizes he should have gone with Crawford, who may seem like a good time gal but who's actually a girl with her head squarely on her shoulders.
It was hard for me from the vantage point of 2019 to find anything to care much about in this film. It's about a bunch of rich people and their not very pressing problems, and about which girl gets rewarded at the end with a man. But taken in context of its time, "Our Dancing Daughters" is cool for the peek it gives modern day audiences into the roaring 20s and the flapper age right before it all went south because of the stock market crash. It's also an interesting look into the gender dynamics of the time, and the extent to which women's futures were determined by men. The men could act any way they wanted, but a woman's actions defined whether or not she was marriage worthy, and God forbid a woman do something with her life that wasn't getting married.
"Our Dancing Daughters" was directed by Harry Beaumont, the man who was nominated for an Oscar in the same year for directing "The Broadway Melody," which won the second Academy Award ever given for Best Picture. Beaumont doesn't have a recognizable style, but his direction of this is much better than that of his Best Picture winner, which sits like a lump on the screen. I have to believe he was simply cowed by the task of directing a sound film and didn't have a clue what to do with it. The editing of "Our Dancing Daughters" is what really needed some work. For such a simple story, it's at times ridiculously hard to follow, since the editing jerks abruptly from one location to another without any transition, and doesn't give us an adequate sense of time passing.
The movie was nominated for a couple of Oscars of its own, one for Best Writing before there was any such thing as a screenplay award, and the other for George Barnes's cinematography. There isn't anything very special about the cinematography in this film, but there are a few scenes set against a picturesque oceanscape filmed in blurry, gauzy light, and I wonder if this was significantly artsy enough to impress Oscar voters.
Sentimental But Effective
Has there ever been another Hollywood story quite like Marie Dressler's?
Is it even imaginable that in today's world an overweight, late middle age, and let's face it -- not very attractive -- woman could be the number one box office draw among movie audiences? But that's exactly what Marie Dressler was for two years running in the early 1930s. She won an Oscar for the 1931 film "Min and Bill" and received her second and last nomination for "Emma," the story of a nanny in a wealthy household who marries the father years after the mother has died in childbirth, and then sees the children turn on her when they become jealous of her inheritance. It's a short film (about 70 minutes or so) but nevertheless packs in a lot of plot. It covers decades and manages to work in a murder trial among everything else, and still manages to have moments that feel like padding. Poor Dressler is really put through the ringer. Everyone she likes best ends up dying, and she never gives us the catharsis we are begging for, which is to see her punch the spoiled brat children who accuse her of murdering their father in the face. No, Dressler stays good and true, choosing to see the best in them and never thinking of herself.
Dressler is a bit of an acquired taste. I found her Oscar-winning performance in "Min and Bill" to be tiresome. She mugs and grimaces, and that film gave her several "comedy" bits that were played up in an exaggerated, yuck-yuck vaudeville style. "Emma" has a couple of those moments as well, but overall her performance in this is much more varied and nuanced. I can see why she seemed unique at the time. So many actors in early sound films planted themselves in place on the movie set and delivered their lines like they were reading them off of cue cards. They didn't seem to be able to both move and speak at the same time. But Dressler is always doing something while she's talking -- she fidgets and dithers, and when she's not delivering actual lines, she's muttering and ad-libbing.
"Emma" is certainly guilty of being one of those sentimental melodramas so popular at the time, but for all that it does have some emotional force, and I found myself lingering over it for a little while after I watched it. There's a scene in which Emma walks through her house seeing the ghosts of the young children that once were, before they all grew up to be vile adults. It's a bit corny, but also strangely moving, and the whole movie is kind of like that.
Weary River (1929)
Better Than Most Transitional Sound Films
The years 1928 to 1930 were perhaps the crappiest couple of years in movie history. This is the period during which films transitioned from silent to sound and the learning curve was steep for most. "Weary River" is one of the better transitional films, as it actually feels like a movie and not a sound stage-bound play.
This film is actually part silent and part sound, though the ratio is about 80/20 talking to silent. Richard Barthelmess and Betty Compson prove themselves to be decent talking actors, though neither went on to have substantial careers in the new medium. The material they're given is still of the melodramatic silent movie kind, so they can only do so much with it. But the film bucks some of the trends that make other early talkies such bores. For one, the camera actually moves, whereas most early talkies find the actors standing in one spot with a stationary camera planted squarely in the middle of the frame. Also, this film has nearly constant underscoring like a silent film would have, which reduces the amount of dead air that plagues many early sound films and causes them to have such stilted pacing. The silent/sound hybrid is weird to watch -- there's no narrative reason for some parts to have titles while others are spoken -- but it's like the fact that this film couldn't quite commit to being a complete talkie made it a better sound film than it would otherwise have been.
The title of the film comes from a song that Barthelmess's ex-con character makes famous and that launches his reformed life as a radio singer, a song which I hope you like because Barthelmess warbles it in its entirety for what feels like a dozen times.
"Weary River" was one of three films that brought Frank Lloyd a Best Director Oscar nomination in the 1928-29 award year, the other two being "The Divine Lady" and "Drag." This was a weird year for Oscar. Technically, there weren't any nominations; at the awards ceremony, only winners were announced in each category. I'm not sure how people knew to show up for the ceremony if they weren't officially nominated, but that's something to figure out some other day I guess. But historical documents have since suggested what films were being considered in each category, and "Weary River" was included in Best Director. Frank Lloyd did win, but he won only for "The Divine Lady," as it seems that, though an artist could be nominated for multiple films, the voters were able to show preference for what film actually went with the award.
A bit of trivia -- Lloyd was only the second and last person to win a Best Director Oscar for a film not also nominated for Best Picture (Lewis Milestone was the first, for "Two Arabian Knights" from the previous year, though the first Oscar ceremony included two Best Director awards, one for dramatic films and one for comedies, so it's no an exact comparison).
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
Bleak Heist Movie
"Odds Against Tomorrow" is a bleak heist movie that tackles racial tensions in 1950s America head on.
Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, and Ed Begley play three petty crooks who go in together to rob a bank. Ryan is a bigoted racist who doesn't trust a black man being in on the job, and that mistrust results in the heist going wrong in all sorts of ways until the racial tension combusts into a literal blaze of violence in a rather shocking finale.
The movie is a bit of slow burn. It takes a good hour for the characters to decide they want to go forward with the robbery, and in that time we're introduced to various supporting characters in these mens' lives, like Belafonte's ex-wife and daughter, or Ryan's wife (Shelley Winters) and next-door neighbor/gal on the side (Gloria Grahame). Grahame is always a welcome presence in any film as far as I'm concerned, but her appearance in this film is a bit puzzling. I guess she's there to help flesh out Ryan's character, but we don't learn anything from his interactions with her that we couldn't already surmise about him on our own. These scenes make the film feel longer than it needs to be, despite the solid direction of Robert Wise that keeps things moving.
The last scene of the film hits us over the head with its message, but this was 1959, and I suppose audiences had to be hit over the head when it came to racial issues. Hell, a lot of audiences now still do.
Good Premise But Disappointing Execution
"Borderline" sets up a pretty good premise with two great noir actors: Claire Trevor and Fred MacMurray both play cops pretending to be criminals so that they can nab a drug dealer played by Raymond Burr. Neither knows the other is a cop, so there's also the added joke that they each think they're bringing in the other for eventual arrest even as they team up to carry out their ruse. Trevor is especially appealing, as she always was, as a sharp cookie who has to pretend to be a cheap floozy, and gets to flex her comedic muscles. But the movie does her a disservice by relegating her to sidekick dame mode once MacMurray appears on the scene. She's a smart, tough, independent career woman when we're introduced to her, and the movie hints that it might actually give us a 1950s female protagonist with some volition of her own. But the movie plays up the romance angle, and she spends most of the film getting jealous of the various ladies she and MacMurray come across on their trek back over the Mexican border into the States.
The film is billed as a film noir, but it doesn't really feel like one. Much of that is due to the fact that the bulk of the movie is set in the wide open spaces of rural Mexico, and noirs don't feel noirish to me unless they're set in the cramped spaces of urban underworlds.
Thunder Road (2018)
"Thunder Road" had been sitting on my Netflix queue for quite a while. Then I saw that it was one of the options on a flight from Phoenix to Chicago. I didn't end up having time to watch the whole thing, but I just wanted to see what kind of movie it was, so I watched the first few minutes. Anyone who's seen the film knows what those first 10 minutes or so are like, and probably wouldn't be surprised to learn that I immediately moved it to the top of my queue so that I could see the whole thing.
"Thunder Road" may seem simple; it's practically a one-man show. But it is quietly astonishing in the way it's written and especially acted by Jim Cummings. He plays a man at a crisis point in his life, trying to hang on to a daughter during a nasty divorce while watching his career as a police officer crumble due to his unhinged behavior. He's a man who means well and wants to do right by himself and those around him, but can't control himself from messing up in both small and major ways. The film is hilarious, but it always walks that knife edge between funny and uncomfortable. This kind of dark humor is a tight rope act to pull off, but Cummings is expert at it, and I was absolutely fascinated by him and his performance. I didn't really want the movie to end, because I wanted to keep on spending time with this guy, even though he's exhausting to be with. That's the sign of a truly gifted actor.
You know, lately there has been so much complaining about white males and how everything has always been told through a white male perspective and that now it's time for women and people of color to take the stage and tell their stories. I embrace all stories and love seeing the world through the point of view of people who are very different from me. But "Thunder Road" is an example of how stories about and told by white men can still be interesting too, and we'd be making a mistake as a culture to just outright decide that white men's stories are no longer worth listening to just because we've been hearing them for so long.
The Farewell (2019)
One of the Year's Best So Far
Awkwafina the comedienne is an acquired taste, one I'm not sure is for me. But I was quite impressed with Awkwafina the dramatic actress, who plays a Chinese woman who's been raised in America but returns to China for a faux wedding. The wedding is just an excuse to get the family together one last time before the death of their mother and grandmother, who isn't told she's dying. This apparently is a common practice in China, the rationale being that since she's going to die anyway, she might as well not know it and live the rest of her short life in ignorant bliss.
This idea is really hard for an American to wrap her head around, and I first identified with Awkwafina's character, who struggles with her family's decision to concoct this ruse and their demand that she go along with it. Not only does it seem disrespectful to the person who has a right to know about her medical condition, it's also something that would be illegal in America. But as the movie progresses, what first seems like a no-brainer decision becomes much more complicated, and we start to see the family's point of view. As they see it, keeping the matriarch in the dark is one of the most selfless things they can do, since they're taking on all of the emotional grief and angst for her.
The family's secret is the biggest cultural hurdle Awkwafina's character must surmount, but it's not the only one. The movie is about the purgatory immigrants can find themselves living in, not entirely part of either their native or adopted culture. It's a quiet, thoughtful movie, not full of big showy Oscar moments. It's exactly what liberal progressive America is saying we need more of, stories about and featuring people of color, so of course this movie has a tiny audience while something glib and ridiculous like "Crazy Rich Asians" is a monster hit.
Before there was the MeToo movement, there was Pedro Almodovar.
Way back in the dark ages of 1988, Almodovar was making movies about women and the ways in which their lives are shaped by men. It took me forever to get around to watching this film, one of the first to bring Almodovar some fame among American audiences, primarily because it was nominated for the 1988 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It's a hoot, a modern refashioning of the screwball comedies of the 1930s. None of it is meant to be taken very seriously by the audience, yet Almodovar takes his own characters seriously, which makes all the difference between this being a toss off movie to be instantly forgotten and one that resonates because, despite all the goofiness, it's about real people who we come to care about.
I wouldn't call myself necessarily an Almodovar fan. I've liked some of his movies and disliked others. But I enjoyed this one quite a bit.
Under the Silver Lake (2018)
I wish I had written a review of "Under the Silver Lake" immediately after watching it. As it is, I'm now trying to reconstruct the plot in my head and all I'm remembering is a mish-mosh jumble. Perhaps not a ringing endorsement of the film's ability to tell a story.
I do remember liking this film as I was watching it. I read enough in advance to know what I was in for, so I didn't waste mental energy trying to figure everything out. I just relaxed into its whacko vibe and found myself fairly intrigued by where it was going to go next. I've seen the film compared to "Donnie Darko" and "Southland Tales," both of which strike me as apt comparisons, though this isn't as good as either of those movies. It also conjures impressions of David Lynch, or an adaptation of something written by, say, Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace. It's just bizarre, but in a pretty fun way. I'm not sure it has much to say, or at least, if it does, the director didn't do a very good job of saying it. But it's a fun ride nonetheless.
Andrew Garfield is quite good as an unapologetically unlikable character. We all know someone like this guy -- a jerk who loafs around doing nothing but who somehow conveys that his lack of ambition to do anything other than watch T.V. and get stoned is everyone else's fault.
Man Up (2015)
Fun Rom Com
Good rom coms are hard to come by, so chalk it up to low expectations, but "Man Up" was a nice surprise. Simon Pegg and Lake Bell have oodles of chemistry, and there are some really funny scenes between them. It doesn't hurt that it's a British film, and everything sounds funnier in a British accent.
Good Airplane Movie
I watched this movie on a flight from Phoenix to Chicago, and enjoyed it. Would I have liked it as much sitting in the comfort of my own home with a larger array of other options to choose from? Not sure. But as it is, it's a light-hearted change of pace from the usual bloated superhero movie, and it did make me chuckle quite a few times. I'm not sure if Zachary Levi has what it takes to be a major movie star, but he's winning enough in this movie. It's not like all that much was required of him.
Film Buff's Dream
"Once Upon a Time....in Hollywood" is entertaining as hell for an avid film buff. Steeped in the elegiac luster of an era in which the golden dreams of Hollywood were colliding with the darker, spoiled illusions of counter-culture America, the film, as its fairy tale title suggests, is one big "What If?" "Inglourious Basterds" was a "what if" movie too, providing an alternate ending to WWII in which Hitler is taken down in a literal blaze of cinematic might. The scope is much smaller in this film, circling as it does around a washed up cowboy star (Leonardo DiCaprio), his career stunt man and personal buddy (Brad Pitt), and their run in with the Manson gang in the days leading up to the murder of actress Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie). For all of its usual Tarantino swagger, there's an ethereal, delicate, and melancholy thread running through the middle of this film. It's at once a love letter to movies while at the same time a sad acknowledgment that life can't be more like them.
I'm not big fans of either DiCaprio or Pitt, but I can and have liked them in other things depending on the movie that surrounds them. I liked them both tremendously in this. Tarantino has always been an expert at casting. He gets the right people for the right roles, and the result is that even mediocre actors give great performances in his films almost by default. The two men get the showiest roles, but it's Robbie who threatens to steal the film. She gets virtually no dialogue, but it's mesmerizing to watch her play Tate as a budding starlet new to fame, flitting around Los Angeles, sneaking into theaters to watch herself in movies, and enjoying the promise of a fairy tale career. That we know what happens to Tate in real life imbues Robbie's performance with an intense sense of tragedy. We fall in love with her a little bit, but don't want to because we know we'll have to say goodbye to her.
Except that we don't, which brings us to the film's finale, the one thing I really had a problem with. I didn't have a problem with the story; in fact, I thought the idea of what happens was pretty hilarious. But the abrupt transition into stomach-churning violence really turned me off and took me out of the world of the film. Unlike in his other movies, the violence is fairly short lived and it doesn't ruin the whole experience, like it did in "Django Unchained" and "The Hateful Eight." But it feels so exploitative, and I was disappointed that Tarantino felt the need to end such a beautiful little movie with his trademark violence-as-porn. And worse, it's played for laughs. The audience I saw this with (though admittedly small) was yucking it up, which made me queasy.
Still, my reservations about the ending aside, this is Tarantino's best movie since "Inglourious Basterds," and really the first one since maybe "Jackie Brown" that I felt wasn't just a parody of other directors' styles.
The Art of Self-Defense (2019)
Squirmy to the extreme, "The Art of Self-Defense" exists in an off-kilter world a hair or two removed from the one we actually know and live in, and creates a dead-pan comedy of sorts out of incredibly uncomfortable material. I might have thought Yorgos Lanthimos directed this film if I knew for sure that he didn't.
Jesse Eisenberg is a wimpy dude who finds a mentor in Alessandro Nivola, owner of a karate dojo who teaches him how to better protect himself after he's physically assaulted. But he teaches him much more than that. He teaches him how to be a man with a capital "M," which means he must start listening to thrash metal, get a bigger, scarier dog, and take his aggressions out on the weak. It's a bit of a Frankenstein's monster story really, as the person Eisenberg evolves into decides he needs to destroy his creator.
The reasons behind that decision are revealed in a twist that doesn't come as especially surprising and is dealt with a bit awkwardly by the film's screenplay, and I thought the movie became messier and less satisfying the further it got into its running time. But originality goes a long way with me, and it's easy to see how "The Art of Self-Defense" is preoccupied with white male anger and fear and the way in which those feelings turn people and cultures toxic, so in addition to being original the film also has the benefit of feeling incredibly relevant.
I had seen "X-Men" many years ago and thought it was "meh." I recently re-watched it with my kids because I thought they might like the series and liked it more than I did the first time. It feels much less bloated and self-important than so many other superhero movies. I also just think it's cool that each person has his/her own unique abilities, especially when they work together to stop bad guys. Heroes like Batman and Iron Man, as far as I can tell, are only good at beating people up and wouldn't be much if it weren't for all their gadgets and costumes. But all of the X-Men actually have actual powers that set them apart.
And good grief, I think Hugh Jackman is sort of silly most of the time, but can I please look like him as I get older? Dude is ripped.
Same Missteps as "Get Out"
Jordan Peele's follow up to "Get Out" recreates both much of what worked about that earlier film and the missteps that ultimately made it less than satisfying.
"Us" ratchets up the tension nicely as it introduces us to a loving family on vacation in a cabin in the woods. It then explodes into an invigorating blend of visceral horror and very funny comedy as that family is attacked by a group of doppelgangers bent on doing them harm for unknown reasons. But as the film draws to its obtuse conclusion, Peele feels the need to over explain, and the creepy mystery at the film's center instead turns into awkward and literal plot exposition. How much more satisfying everything might have been if left unexplained.
Still, most of this film is wildly entertaining, and Peele is one director who makes films that feel completely plugged into our troubled times. He really does have a unique style, and both "Get Out" and "Us" bear the stamp of a formidable originality. It's just his storytelling that needs some work.
The acting in this movie is fantastic, especially by Lupita Nyong'o, who's fierce in a double role as the mom and the mom's frightening twin. It's not an exaggeration to say that her performance is award worthy.
Atmospheric Hitchcock Silent
Super atmospheric Hitchcock silent film set in London about a young male boarder who may or may not be a serial killer.
The boarder is played by actor Ivor Novello, and the main draw for me in this film -- aside from it being a Hitchcock movie -- is that Ivor Novello is a character in Robert Altman's murder mystery "Gosford Park," and "The Lodger" specifically is mentioned in an exchange between Novello (played by Jeremy Northam) and a snooty dowager played by Maggie Smith. In "Gosford Park," Novello is constantly singing and playing the piano, and it wasn't until I watched "The Lodger" and learned a bit more about Novello that I found out he was more known as a musician than an actor, and that much of the music in "Gosford Park" is his.
So this isn't really a review as much as a lot of trivia, but I don't have a lot to say about this movie anyway. I enjoyed it, and it feels like what it is -- an early film by someone who would eventually grow into one of the masters of the art form.
The Getaway (1972)
Sam Peckinpah does his own version of "Bonnie and Clyde," and the result is a cynical, unapologetic heist movie with repellent characters and not an ounce of humor.
I didn't enjoy "The Getaway" exactly; it's far too nihilistic to enjoy. But I did find it very interesting to compare it to "Bonnie and Clyde," one of the seminal films of the American counter culture. "Bonnie and Clyde" was bleak too, and crafted a building sense of impending doom, but it was also tragic. The characters created by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were victims of circumstance. They were young kids who got themselves in over their heads and couldn't see their way out. We liked them, even if we didn't like the things they did, and though we maybe wanted to see them brought to justice, we didn't want to see them destroyed.
At the other end of the spectrum is "The Getaway," a film in which everyone's a bad guy and we don't like anyone. The brutality toward women and the casual violence inflicted on everyone else is hard to stomach, especially in the absence of a hero to root for. This movie came out after the attitudes of the American counter culture had curdled into the stuff of nightmares (the Manson gang, anyone?) and it's like that disillusionment found its way into Peckinpah's vision and manifests itself on screen. The characters in this movie are who Bonnie and Clyde would have turned into if they had lived.
Steve McQueen brings his usual tough-guy coolness to his role, but he plays a vile character. Ali McGraw is simply terrible, wooden as a tree stump. And poor Sally Struthers exists for the sole purpose of being treated horribly.
"The Wild Bunch" and "Straw Dogs," two other Peckinpah movies that I like a lot, are hard to watch as well, but they both feel like they have something to say about the violence they traffic in, which makes them worth sticking with. I'm not sure "The Getaway" has much of anything to say, and the whole thing feels uncomfortably exploitative, even as Peckinpah's irresistible style keeps it entertaining.
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson make for unlikely action movie stars in this goofy mashup of "King Kong" and "Jurassic Park."
Samuel L. Jackson wears out his welcome awfully fast as a gun totin' military hothead who wants to just blow everything up. It's John C. Reilly, who pops up mid-way through the movie as a crazy island recluse, who steals the show.
Or should I say it's the Oscar nominated visual effects that steal the show. Kong is an impressive CGI creation, as are the mean chicken lizards he's constantly fighting.
A post-credits sequence hints at a sequel. Though this movie was moderately enjoyable, I'm not sure whether or not that counts more as a promise or a threat.
Angel Face (1953)
Simmons is Tremendous Fun
Jean Simmons is tremendous fun as the femme fatale in this Otto Preminger noir from 1953. She stars opposite Robert Mitchum, the quintessential tough guy who's way too cool to be taken in by a scheming dame until....guess what?....he is. But not in the way you might expect. This movie has to have one of the most jaw-droppingly abrupt endings I've ever seen.
The movie until then is pretty good, even if it does have its slow parts. It suffers a bit from an identity crisis. Is it a moody thriller? A courtroom drama? A domestic melodrama? It's a little bit of all of these, and I think I would have preferred it if it had been leaner and more focused on the sleaze and less on the romantic escapades.
But that ending though.....