Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel (1932) movie poster

director Edmund Goulding
viewed: 05/14/2016

Grand Hotel might not have “more stars than in the heavens” but the Best Picture Oscar winner did hail from MGM, the studio who touted that astronomical line.  It’s got Greta Garbo and her iconic “I want to be alone” line, John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, and a young Joan Crawford.  It’s an ensemble piece of drama made for a star-studded cast, each getting their moments to shine as they haunt the titular Grand Hotel in Berlin.

For a pre-code film, it’s not especially racy, though it has a little innuendo here and there.  Beyond its starry cast, the thing that struck me the most was the cinematography and set designs.  There are some trippy master shots looking down from the high mezzanines upon the main desk in the lobby floor.  I don’t know how all these were orchestrated but they are often eye-popping and create a singular sense of space and place for the action’s setting.

Some of the drama leans toward the maudlin and the film turns into more outright tragedy by the end.  It’s a film so much of its era in style and performance that it’s easy to imagine a modern audience finding it weird and overdone.  But it also has some true qualities that transcend the aspects that make it seem such a figment of its time.

In the long-run, I’m swinging between three and a half stars and four, though I think landing on the more conservative estimation.

You Can’t Take It with You (1938)

You Can't Take It with You (1938) movie poster

director Frank Capra
viewed: 04/30/2016

You Can’t Take It with You is by no means a perfect movie, but it is damned entertaining and a lot of fun.  It comes from Frank Capra’s most successful run, weaving stories of hope and humanity for the common American against the backdrop of the Great Depression.  Capra’s real world politics were conservative and his portraiture deeply sentimental, but his artistry was strong and his films could be complex, or at least open to more complex readings.

I’ve stated before that I’m no Capra scholar.  This was my first time with You Can’t Take It with You.  I’ve been working my way through his films and typically find them very enjoyable.  I’ve watched them with my now 12 year old daughter, who also enjoys them.  In fact, she probably enjoyed this film more than any other films we’ve watched in weeks.

It’s got the terrific Lionel Barrymore as the “grampa” of a house of collected eccentrics, family and otherwise, somewhat like a non-Goth Addams Family.  His granddaughter, the fabulous and charming Jean Arthur falls for the always lovable Jimmy Stewart, son of magnate Edward Arnold, capitalist (and firearms manufacturer) about to corner the market, driving his opponent to bankruptcy and destroying a working class neighborhood in the name of the almighty dollar.

Adapted from a Pulitzer-winning play, it’s got the common man and the brutal machinery of capitalism stuff that Capra works into magic.  To be honest, some of the stuff works perfectly while others seem to shrill a little hard.  And as likable as Barrymore is, his speechifying is certainly heavy-handed.

And yet, when the emotional surge at the end comes up, if you don’t feel a tug at those tear ducts.

Was it the Best Picture of 1938?  The Academy deemed it so.  I deem it a fine film.

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Midnight Cowboy (1969) movie poster

director John Schlesinger
viewed: 04/27/2016

What movie won Best Picture at the Oscars the year you were born?  This bit of random trivia links John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy and I.  And though I had never seen it before, I was well aware of the film, from many points of culture, but notably from issue #134 of Mad Magazine (1970) which featured a parody titled “Midnight Wowboy”.  I wonder how many movies I experience first as a Mad Magazine parody?

The only X-rated film to win Best Picture, it’s an item very much of its changing times, a portrait of America, American dreams, big city blues, somewhat abstract storytelling, and a compelling friendship that may also be a tacit love relationship.  Of course, that latter thing is between Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and Rico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), the tubercular, gimpy greaseball.  As Buck’s story unreels in flashbacks, I’m not entirely sure what happened to him, though the image of sexual exploitation is clear enough.

It deals with homosexuality in a way that was no doubt daring for its time, but also probably very emblematic of it.  I think it’s funny that it was the film’s “homosexual frame of reference” that nabbed it its X-rating.  Typical, quite typical.  Buck and Rizzo’s relationship, and the performances by both Voight and Hoffman, cement the film and have made iconic if somewhat cartoonish figures as ultimately iconic as those roles have been taken.

That Harry Nilsson “Everybody’s Talkin'” number nails the vibe at the beginning of the film and then about 15 minutes in starts wearing super thin (before disappearing until the end again).

It’s a well-made film, and entertaining enough.  But I don’t think I totally loved it.  I can say that this is one I can finally check off the lifelong movie bucket list at last.

West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story (1961) movie poster

directors Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins
viewed: 09/06/2015

Of all the movies I’ve been catching as I work my way through the odd films that I hadn’t seen from the BBC’s 100 Greatest American MoviesWest Side Story is doubtlessly the most ubiquitous, famous, most-glaring omission from my film-watching history.  What can I say?  What I’ve always said: Nobody has seen everything.  But how could you have missed this?  Dunno.  It happened.

Until now.  Finally.

Fantastic movie.  Beautifully shot.  Gorgeous.  Great songs.  Classic.

It’s so weird, how familiar almost every song is.  This is one of those musicals that has been inflected and reflected through pop culture so much, such an array of images, that seeing it even for the first time, it’s still amazingly familiar.  But of course, I hadn’t seen it and I guess I was surprised how much I liked it.

I watched it with Clara.  She enjoyed it.  One of the music teachers at the kids’ school apparently has this as an all-time favorite movie, a go-to for the substitutes, and so Felix had seen it a few times already and Clara was familiar with the music too, even at 11 years old, the ubiquity of West Side Story is profound still.

One of the best American movie musicals?  I won’t argue.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a Slave (2013) movie poster

director Steve McQueen
viewed: 08/09/2015

I’m not big on seeing movies that win Oscars, but I had been wanting to see Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, though, let’s face it: it’s not a fun subject matter.  I’ve also been meaning to see McQueen’s earlier film, Hunger (2008), but haven’t yet either.  Starving Irish prisoners being almost as much fun as slavery.  I jest.

But, as I have mentioned elsewhere, I’ve been using the BBC’s recent list of “The 100 Greatest American Films” as a guide to filling in my dance card with classic films that I’ve never seen.  Interestingly, 12 Years is probably the newest film on the list, something that always seems a lack of perspective when compiling lists.

The story is terrible and fascinating, drawn from the true life account of one Solomon Northup, who in 1841 was shanghaied from his home in the North and sold into slavery in the South.  It stars the remarkable Chiwetel Ejiofor on a journey of a nightmare is almost impossible to comprehend.

Frankly, I thought that the film was good, but not great (I know this is something I say probably far too often about films).  I don’t feel like trying to pick it apart to say why I think it fails to reach a level of greatness.  It’s a noble effort, a noble endeavor, and there is nothing inherently wrong with it.  It just didn’t impress me overall the way great films do.

Take that for what you will.  I’ll leave it at that.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) movie poster

director William Wyler
viewed: 08/02/2015

Inspired by the BBC’s The 100 Greatest American Films list, I’ve been working my way through the percentage of that 100 which I couldn’t lay claim to having already watched.  It’s an odd effort, hunting down and watching “the great movies” as have been selected by whatever institution or just from popular knowledge.  Odd in that the variance in perceived “greatness” is very much in the eyes and minds of the beholders.

William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives is one of those movies that was big and successful in its day and went on to sweep up at the Oscars big time for 1946.  Wyler won Best Picture/Best Director three times and was a perennial for many years, with many notable films to his name including Jezebel (1938), The Letter (1940), Mrs. Miniver (1942), Roman Holiday (1953), Friendly Persuasion (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), and Funny Girl (1968) to name just a smattering.

It’s a tale of America back from WWII, adjusting to civilian life, as prismed through the stories of three vets: Sgt. Stephenson (Fredric March), Captain Derry (Dana Andrews), and Petty Officer Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), all returning to the fictive Boone City, OH.  The sprawling ensemble cast includes Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, and even Hoagy Carmichael, and tells of the various adaptations back to the world that challenged the men who led very different lives fighting in the War from those they left and resumed back at home.

While the film looks at the challenges of the characters, from Homer’s disfiguring wounds (he lost his hands in the war and works marvels with his claw clips), to Derry’s heroic war record but no prospects for work back on the home front, and even Derry’s PTSD nightmares, the film is also almost as much about the normality and regularity of America and the middle class values to which they are returning, as well as to which America itself is returning.  In fact, there is a pretty well-suggested future of the post-war 1950’s ideology laid out.

It’s a good film, certainly.  The acting is good and it’s very well-made.  It’s nearly three hours long, which makes sense for the subject matter, but is a bit of a long haul.

I don’t know.  One of the great American films?  It has its populist pedigree.  I’m not entirely sure yet what I think.

The Apartment (1960)

The Apartment (1960) movie poster

director Billy Wilder
viewed: 07/26/2015

I’m kicking off a new round of watching those “great movies” that I’ve never seen.  I started this last year and saw several before getting somewhat sidetracked on other trends, including “The Worst Movies Ever Made”.  My latest push is inspired by a new list produced by the BBC of the 100 Best American Films of all time.  While this list has many of the usual suspects and also some questionable entries, it does afford me some clarity on the movies on this list that I’ve never seen.

Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is an odd one for me to have never seen.  I do love me some Billy Wilder (as does the BBC list — he’s on there five times for #100 Ace in the Hole (1951), #54 Sunset Boulevard (1950), #35 Double Indemnity (1944), #30 Some Like It Hot (1959), as well as this one which was his highest on the list at #24.)  I also love me some Jack Lemmon.  And this is one of those movies that seems to play nearly endlessly on TCM.  So, how I never saw it?  I dunno.

Lemmon is a cog in a big insurance firm in New York, loaning out his convenient bachelor pad to some managers to take their many trysts.  When he finally gets a promotion for his efforts, he’s spotted by the big boss, played by Fred MacMurray, who starts to ask for the same favors.  Only it turns out that his girl on the side is Fran Kubelik (the very lovely Shirley MacLaine), an elevator gal in the building for whom Lemmon has developed feelings.

While there are elements of comedy about the film, it’s no Some Like It Hot or The Seven Year Itch (1955).  Fran tries to kill herself in Lemmon’s apartment, and while he tries to get her taken care of, he’s also trying to keep everything together.

Between The Apartment and Double Indemnity, you can forget all about the fatherly My Three Sons Fred MacMurray and rather see him as one of Hollywood’s best ruthless villains.

I enjoyed the film.  Wilder’s popularity is well-earned.  I think if I had caught it at a younger age, I might have really connected with it.  I certainly would have fallen for MacLaine.

Birdman (2014)

Birdman (2014) movie poster

director Alejandro G. Iñárritu
viewed: 05/03/2015

Birdman, man.  I dunno.  It won Best Picture at the Oscars earlier this year.  It’s a pretty good movie.  Uniquely cinematic, though its subject matter is the theater, the theater that a washed-up one-time superhero film actor played by Michael Keaton tries to enter into big time, writing, directing, and starring in his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver story.

It’s cinematic in its style, told in an oddly omniscient faux single long take style, with breaks and bumps from any sense of full reality, to the banging jazz drum beats of the soundtrack.  It’s interesting.  And original.  And different.

And sure, Keaton is good.  So is Edward Norton.  Both of them in tighty-whities.

Actually, I liked Emma Stone in it, slightly more of a character than she usually plays.  She’s got real charm and lots of types of talent.  I’d like to see her do something more unusual.

Overall, though,…I have to say…decent movie, good movie, but Best Picture?  Really?

Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca (1940) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 02/14/2015

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, his first American film, his only film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards (though they failed to give him Best Director), was one of those big, famous films that I just plain had never seen.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

With characters like the enigmatic Rebecca, the tortured Maxim de Winter, or the obsessed housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca is one of the more iconic narratives and Gothic stories of the 20th century.  Starring Laurence Olivier (as de Winter), Joan Fontaine (as the nameless girl and narrator), and Judith Anderson as the eerie Danvers, it’s so strange.  If you’ve never seen it before, as I hadn’t, how imbued the whole thing is with cultural deja vu.  I was left trying to track where exactly all of my foreknowledge had come from.  The Celluloid Closet? The Carol Burnett Show parody?

Like Jane Eyre before it, it’s the story of a young woman out of her element, brought to a lush estate, haunted by the former mistress of the place.  In this case, the unnamed girl is brought by de Winter as his new bride, though he’s given to fits of mania when aroused of the thoughts of the former Mrs. de Winter, the lovely Rebecca.  Mrs. Danvers is equally obsessed, but the mystery herein is in exactly what way are these people all touched by the tragic death of the mysterious lady.

One of the biggest upshots of the film is that it was produced by David O. Selznick, producer of Gone with the Wind (1939), and major figure in Hollywood.  His obsessions and auteurist visions and Hitchcock’s didn’t mesh as much as Hitchcock did with Daphne du Maurier, writer of the source novel, as well as the material for Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939) and his later film The Birds (1963).  In fact, the material seems like a fancy dress rehearsal for Hitchcock’s later classic Vertigo (1958), with the ghosts of lost wives and themes of obsession and madness.

It’s a pretty great film.  Having just caught a Joan Fontaine double feature a month or so back, it’s kind of interesting.  She’s very good here as the naive and beset young mistress of the house.  She would go on to win her own Oscar for Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) the next year, though that film (and that performance) aren’t nearly as good as here in Rebecca.

The Oscars have always been confounding.  But Hitchcock is almost always great.

All About Eve (1950)

All About Eve (1950) movie poster

director Joseph L. Mankiewicz
viewed: 10/08/2014

I began this year with a plan to see many of “the great movies” of all time that I had never seen.  And I was charging through this list until I got sidetracked with my parallel scheme to watch “the worst movies of all time.”

Well, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve started coming up in a variety of ways, highlighting that the winner of the Oscar for Best Picture 1950 was one of those movies that I just had never seen.  Not for lack of knowledge about it.  It’s one of those films that’s packed with lines and snippets that you’ve heard out of context throughout time.  And it’s also one of those films that I recall referenced in The Celluloid Closet (1995).

If you are like me, and haven’t seen it, here’s a brief recap of the story.  It’s set in New York’s theater world where Bette Davis is Margo Channing, middle-aging grand dame of the stage, surrounded by her coterie which includes Celeste Holms and Hugh Marlowe as Karen and Lloyd Richards, the latter of which is her top playwright, Gary Merrill is Bill Sampson, her boyfriend and director, and Thelma Ritter as Birdie, her maid.

Into this world steps conniving Ann Baxter (Eve), who seems to insinuate herself innocently enough, humbly enough, until she’s found to be trying to take over everything from Margo.  And with the help of the superb George Sanders as Addison DeWitt, influential columnist, she pretty much does.  It’s the dark side of show biz, ya know.

It’s a pretty impeccable film from an old Hollywood perspective.  Great performances, snappy dialog, and memorable moments abound.  Certainly worth its salt.

The homophobia aspect of the film is curious.  In 1950, the implied homosexuality of some of the characters is highly codified but nowhere outwardly explicit.  I would be willing to think a more modern audience might have that whole subtext pass them by. But it has long been a point of contention around the film, what it all signifies or was meant to signify.  I don’t know.  I think a reading that is oblivious to that aspect of the narrative wouldn’t necessarily harm the film at all.

At least I’ve got another film off my list of “I can’t believe you’ve never seen X”.