(On DVD, January 2018) One of the reasons why I suspect it’s better to start watching older movies after a certain age is that you get to appreciate not only the movie but its place at the time in which it was made. It’s impossible to watch Mrs. Miniver today without thinking about 1942 America, watching aghast at the disastrous first few years of World War II in Europe but not yet committed to the war effort. Mrs. Miniver is a propaganda piece designed to sway public opinion toward supporting America’s entry into World War II, and it does so by presenting the life of an ordinary (well; ordinary upper-middle-class) English family before and immediately during World War II. That’s how we spend a rather dull first act with a family doing ordinary things, but as events evolve we see them react to news of the war, then be directly involved as their daily lives are disrupted, as their son enlists in the air force, as bombing raids destroy their house, as dad goes down the river to help the Dunkirk invasion, and as death strikes. After a slow start, the film gets progressively more involving up until a gut punch of a conclusion that still works surprisingly well despite the decades since the film’s release. A sequence between Mrs. Miniver and a German soldier is designed to infuriate the audience and reading contemporary accounts of reactions to the film, it’s clear that the film was deemed incredibly influential in rallying American audiences in the war effort. The film won the Best Picture Oscar that year (presenting an interesting counterpoint to the following year’s winning Casablanca). Even acknowledging its quality as propaganda doesn’t take away its emotional or narrative impact. Greer Garson is quite good in the title role, gradually showing inner reserves of strength as the war marches on and hits closer. Walter Pidgeon is also noteworthy at the husband, as are Teresa Wright and Dame May Whitty in very different roles. I defy anyone to listen to Mrs. Miniver’s closing speech and not feel even a little bit stirred toward Nazi-punching action even in a war won decades ago. It’s still that good.
(Second or third viewing, On TV, January 2018) Whew. I remember watching Highlander in what must have been high school and thinking that it was an awesome movie. I’m not a teenager anymore, but I have to say that Highlander still carries a punch. No, it’s not the best movie ever. Yes, it has visibly aged and remains a film deeply steeped in the mid-eighties. But the rock video aesthetics of the film do lend it an enviable flair even today. The film may have wanted to portray the degeneracy of the time with its emphasis on heavy metal and entertainment wrestling as opposed to the nobility of an immortal Scottish highlander, but it works. Christophe Lambert has seldom had a more iconic role, and Sean Connery is perfectly used as a cranky mentor. (Clancy Brown is good enough as the antagonist, and so is Roxanne Hart as the love interest/audience stand-in.) The clever script is just good enough to earn our interest quickly, and develop the premise with effectiveness. Swordfights in modern rainy New York City? Bring it. Still, it’s director Russell Mulcahy who gives the biggest boost to the film by adapting then-unusual music video elements in service of a longer film—the impressive visuals are still striking (ah, that shattering-windows climax!) and the music is a strong component of the film. In retrospect, after numerous inferior sequels and a long-running TV show, there’s something about the admirably incomplete lore of the film’s premise. An immortal, a prize, a few big sequences signifying the progress of the quickening … it doesn’t take much more, and over-explaining it all rather ruins the experience. While Highlander does lose some of its appeal once viewers grow out of their teenage years, it’s still a good fantasy/action film, and a rather effective time capsule of the time. Just ignore the sequels.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) As much as I like exploring classic Hollywood and rarely even notice the difference between colour and black-and-white movies, I still have a bit of an uphill climb where silent films are concerned. The lack of sound and use of title cards still draws me out of the story—they compound the fact that it took a while for basic cinematographic grammar to settle down. While sound movies of the 1930s still play decently well today (some films of the late thirties are almost indistinguishable from modern ones in terms of pacing and execution), silent films from the 1920s are another matter entirely. But there are significant exceptions, and as I started watching Sunrise (whom I’ll keep arguing was a Best-Picture Oscar-winner just as surely as Wings), I was struck at the sheer artistic ambition of the film. Scenes aren’t just shot awkwardly and shown simply like many films of the period struggling with the basic grammar of cinema—there are authentic attempts at art, at style, at soliciting emotional responses to the images. Director F. W. Murnau clearly worked at a level above many of his contemporaries and as a result Sunrise works on a basic emotional level that transcends the obstacles in watching a silent film. (Murnau’s decision to often forego title cards as much as he can certainly works in the film’s favour, as it lowers the barriers to watching the action as a continuous unit of storytelling.) There’s no denying that the film will occasionally feel unpolished by contemporary standard—setting up the antagonist as a scheming “city woman” coming to corrupt the humble city folks is blunt to modern audiences. On the other hand, the film does get better as it goes along, and the unfolding story of an estranged couple getting back in love with each other is effective. By the ending, I was expecting the worst and ended pleased beyond rational expectations at the shape that the ending took. I am grading Sunrise on a curve here, and partially on the novelty of being surprised at a silent film’s effectiveness. This being said, I now understand and approve of seeing the film pop up on AFI’s Top-100 list, or mentioned as one of the great silent films. It still has things to tell us today, and it’s effective at a basic narrative level rather than just an imposed exercise in film history.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) All right. This is it. I am a contended cinephile. When I embarked on a conscious program to watch older movies, I did so supposing that sooner or later, I’d watch a movie that I’d fall in love with. While I’ve been really happy to revisit some old favourites and see them hold up (2001: A Space Odyssey, for instance), or to confirm that some beloved classics are beloved for a reason (Singin’ in the Rain, anyone?), I started watching Bringing up Baby without any expectations other than crossing off a popular title from 1938. Within minutes (specifically the torn dress sequence), however, I was squarely identifying with Cary Grant’s proto-nerd protagonist, falling in love with Katharine Hepburn’s drop-dead gorgeous romantic interest and gasping at the speed and precision of director Howard Hawks’ movie. To put it simply: Bringing Up Baby is as funny, witty and fast as any contemporary romantic comedy, and the 1938 year of release is irrelevant. The plot is a big ball of nonsense that has something to do with a paleontologist, an heiress and a tame leopard. But never mind the plot, as the real strength of the film is in its witty fast-paced dialogue. Hepburn is an instant favourite as a character too crazy to be true … but the entire film is like that, and it plays beautifully even eighty years (!) later. Those who complain that “old” movies are dull and slow clearly haven’t seen Bringing up Baby. It’s raucously funny even today—while contemporary comedic theory holds that chicken and monkeys are the funniest animals, the film makes a strong case that leopards may be a comic engine of their own, as several of the film’s funniest sequences hinge on the eponymous “Baby.” (To be fair, one scene also involves chicken. Being eaten by the leopard.) Considering that the film is often upheld as a representative example of screwball comedies, I have a feeling that I’ve just discovered an untapped vein of pure cinematic bliss. At the pace at which I see movies, I often see them and move on, never to re-watch again. In Bringing up Baby’s case, however, I ended up ordering it on DVD (along with three other similar Hepburn comedies) within days of seeing it. I have a feeling I’ll be extolling its virtues and often lending the DVD in the next few years.
(On DVD, January 2018) I’m annoyed that I don’t like Gigi more than I do. After all, at first glance, it should work much better than it does—it’s a big-budget musical that manages to affect a cynical view of romances before going back to classical values right in time for the ending. Set in early-20th century Paris, Gigi takes on the courtesan culture and makes it shine as an entirely acceptable alternative for young women who can’t be bothered by traditional life paths. In other hands, it could have been a playful, insightful way to poke fun at the conventions of musicals. Alas, this Oscar-award-winning movie makes a few missteps along the way and really doesn’t leave a good impression. Things get off on a now-terrifying wrong foot as the movie begins with an older man signing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” essentially making a case that young girls are awesome because they’ll grow up to be sexy women worth sleeping with. Eeeeeeeeek. (Contemporary restaging of Gigi wisely give the song to the elderly courtesan character, which is only marginally less icky but still an improvement.) Too bad for Maurice Chevalier, who’s otherwise quite charming and likable as an older playboy who’s come to his senses—thematically, his “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore” is the kind of topic I wish was covered more often in pop culture. Other bad touches abound, such as a jocular way of looking at the male protagonist earning his “first suicide attempt” from a jilted ex-lover. Given this far more adult take on romantic musicals, what’s perhaps most damning about Gigi is the way it may present itself at an edgy film but ultimately (and predictably) fall back on rote values in time for its ending. It simply doesn’t have the guts to follow its early contrarian impulses. As a result, it ends up as a muddled piece of work—too cynical to be mindlessly enjoyable, but ultimately unsatisfying for not forging its own path. Taken as individual musical numbers, it’s still often visually spectacular and impressive in the way only classic MGM musicals could be. (My favourite anecdote about the film is that the day following Gigi’s Best Picture Oscar win, MGM receptionists answered the phone with “M-Gigi-M”) But—wow—has the film aged badly in some crucial ways.
(On TV, January 2018) Some films are epic enough that they transcend time, and so Cleopatra remains even today a reference for excess in filmmaking. Long a yardstick for the most expensive movie ever produced, Cleopatra is still notable today for the lavishness of its super-production, whether it’s re-creating Cairo or Rome at the height of their power, putting hundreds of extras on-screen or giving more than sixty different costumes to its title character. And then there’s Elizabeth Taylor herself—while people of my generation mostly remember Taylor as an older woman of multiple marriages and excessive makeup, movies like Cleopatra firmly justify why she was a sex symbol for most of her career. Compelling even when the melodrama around her gets too thick to be taken seriously, Taylor is the film’s centrepiece and offers an unqualified reason to watch the film despite the nearly oppressive running time. Not that she’s the only reason: Seeing her play off future-husband Richard Burton is a great way to get into one of cinema history’s most remarkable romance and an insight in the frenzy that their affair created in mid-sixties pop culture and tabloid reporting. Spread the viewing over two evenings if you can—there’s an intermission and a somewhat different tone to the film’s two halves: the first half (Cleopatra and Julius Caesar) is better, but the second half (Cleopatra and Burton’s Mark Anthony) is more interesting. Cleopatra should have been much shorter, but there’s a lot of stuff shown on-screen, and more peak-era Taylor is never a bad thing.
(On DVD, January 2018) I’ll be the first to admit that classic musicals aren’t for everyone, but there’s a fun quality to An American in Paris that makes it irresistible. From the pleasantly idealized portrait of post-war Paris to witty musical numbers that acknowledge their own nature as musical numbers, this is a fun, not particularly deep but rather enjoyable musical. It won an Oscar, but it feels considerably less substantial than you’d expect—just a few Americans having fun in a glossy version of Paris, wooing girls and getting into all sorts of dance numbers. Gene Kelly is fantastic in the lead role (he also brought his distinctive touch to the film’s choreography, including the spectacular but rather long standout ballet sequence at the end of the film), with Leslie Caron simply being adorable as the romantic ideal, and Oscar Levant as comic relief. While An American in Paris is notable for its extended ballet sequence that makes much of the film’s last half-hour, I found it long and disconnected from the rest of the film—of course, that’s the point. And it’s impressive to see Kelly make ballet not only accessible to movie audiences, but actually fun. Still, I like other moments of the film better—The “black-and-white” party sequence is visually memorable, and the sequence in which Henri first describes the heroine of the film is a delight. I can never say enough good things about Kelly, the colours are bright, the atmosphere is delightful and as an example of the height of MGM’s musical comedy era it’s about as good a representation of the form as possible—I like Singin’ in the Rain a lot more, but there’s a difference between a solid example of the form and something that completely transcends it. The exemplar should not feel slighted for not being exceptional.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) There is something charmingly creaky about The Great Ziegfeld, and its approach to a biographical picture so classic that it feels timeless. Tracking the life of Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld, a notable figure in Broadway’s history, the film mixes standard biographical vignettes but reaches its peak when re-creating musical numbers from his shows. If there’s one single reason to watch the film even today, it’s the awe-inspiring “A Pretty Girl is like a Melody” sequence, a single-shot wonder featuring an immense rotating “Wedding Cake” set and several dozen participants. William Powell is fine as the titular Ziegfeld, but the highlights are the musical numbers—the film was a big-budget production at the time, and the quality of the production is most obvious during those musical number re-creations—later on, there’s a dance sequence involving moving bed that’s impressive in its own way. For pop-culture enthusiasts, the film (despite its loose relationship with historical facts) does offer an interesting look at the development of the American theatre in the 1920s and 1930s. Where The Great Ziegfeld doesn’t fare so well is in sheer length—while it does have a few great or fun moments (including the “It’s Great to be Married” song), they’re drowned in a nearly three interminable hours running length that betrays inability to focus on the substance of Ziegfeld’s life. We get repetition, musical numbers, oddly slow sequences and melodrama that do much to defuse the impact of the film’s stronger moments. Still, it is an Oscar-winning film, and it was designed as a crowd pleaser—both qualities ensure that while it remains decently watchable today despite a significant time investment.
(On TV, January 2018) I didn’t end up enjoying Chitty Chitty Bang Bang all that much, which is strange given that I certainly expected to like it. Dick Van Dyke, Sally Ann Howes, fancy retro-technology … what’s not to like? The film is a minor reference in Science Fiction fannish circles, so I finally got some of the jokes. Even the opening credit sequence has a few promising surprises, from a Roald Dahl script of an Ian Fleming story. What a pedigree! For a while, it looks as if the film is off to a good start with an eccentric inventor, a big musical sequence set in a candy factory and enough quirky ideas to keep things interesting. I even had an audible “ah ha” as I recognized the source of a verbal tic (“toot sweet”) of an acquaintance of mine. Somehow, though, along the way Chitty Chitty Bang Bang sort of lost me. The radically different second act takes us to an unpleasant place, and while I was momentarily fascinated by the film all over again during the “music box doll” sequence, the film seemed less interesting as it went on. It wasn’t what I was expecting.
(On DVD, January 2018) Even the most average Hitchcock films are better than most other thrillers, so when I refer to Dial M for Murder as slightly-above-average, the lofty standards of the director mean that the film is really good. There’s a pleasant eeriness at the very beginning of the film, as elements are thrown together on-screen (such as a blackmail letter) in a way that seems more hurried than logical—it’s only later that we learn the ghastly truth having led to the situation. The rest is about an attempted murder, a criminal scheme, a woman in distress and an intricate plot for a detective to untangle. The mid-point plot twist makes Dial M for Murder jump tracks into far more interesting territory than simply a woman being stalked by a murderer. The plotting is impeccable, the character work is fine, much of the story is thrillingly set in one location, and the climax is unusually effective even by contemporary standards. There’s a comfortable classic feel to the story as set in post-war London. Grace Kelly is quite good in the lead role, with able supporting turns by Ray Milland, Robert Cummings and John Williams (who’s not John Cleese). Hitchcock’s direction is so slick that despite the film having been shot in 3D, little of it seems forced or out-of-place. I now have a little bit more respect for the 1998 remake A Perfect Murder, which takes the same premise but runs with it in different yet satisfying fashion. Still, have a look at the original Dial M for Murder—it’s a thrill and a pleasure to watch even today.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) It’s not a failure if some social-issue films don’t work as well now than at the time of their release—sometimes, the world moves in the direction advocated, and as a result the film looks as if it’s been outpaced by the future. So it is that the central conceit of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (a white girl bringing back a black fiancé home for her parents’ approval) doesn’t quite have the same charge fifty years later. And that’s quite all right. This being said, let’s not take this for a condemnation of the work from director Stanley Kramer, or by Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, and Katharine Hepburn. After all, the film finished shooting six months before Loving v. Virginia actually legalized interracial marriages across the United States. But it does feel a bit stuffy, all the way to a conclusion that boils down to an intensely paternalistic “Father has thought about it and will let you crazy kids do whatever you want” conclusion. It’s not quite fair to dismiss the film in such a way (and indeed, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’s ending gets far more potent once you read about how Spencer Tracy died two weeks after shooting his final scene and final film with long-time co-star Katharine Hepburn) but it is definitely a reflection of its time, and time has moved on.
(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, October 2018) As I suspected, revisiting Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner after watching a handful of Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn movies has significantly improved my opinion of the film. This was a partial re-watch, focusing on the scenes featuring Tracy and Hepburn, and it affirms that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a terrific victory lap for Tracy, whose kindly-father persona here acts as a capstone to a career that saw numerous pairings with Hepburn at various moments in their careers. It’s easy to imagine a shared backstory for their characters that includes bits and pieces of Woman of the Year or Adam’s Rib, and that’s when context can become crucial in seeing what the fuss is about a particular movie. If you de-emphasize the racial message and focus on the Hepburn/Spencer couple, this film becomes a satisfying epilogue to a shared on-screen career, well worth watching if you’re familiar with the rest of the Hepburn/Tracy filmography.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) There may not be all that much more to Kong: Skull Island than another monster-on-an-island movie, but it’s a heck of a monster-on-an-island movie. Gorgeously presented, competently executed, it’s a maximalist take on a familiar kind of film. The seventies setting brings more to the film than expected (largely due to a good soundtrack), while the special-effect work is amazing in ways that today’s jaded audiences don’t get to experience all that often. I’m not particularly keen on discussing the film’s plot holes when the result is this good. Kong himself is properly presented as a sympathetic force of nature, dangerous but essential when properly motivated. The poor humans aren’t the stars of Kong: Skull Island, although Tom Hiddleston makes for a credible action lead, John C. Reilly, John Goodman and Samuel L. Jackson all do well in their usual persona, and this is the first time I’ve really noticed Brie Larson as anything more special than a standard-model brunette heroine. The film moves well through its expected set pieces and thankfully eschews the archetypical Kong story in favour of something more interesting. While it doesn’t avoid a bit of excessive gore (that giant-spider scene … ick), this is a film directed with some refreshing cleverness by Jordan Vogt-Roberts all the way to one of the most enjoyable post-credit scenes in recent memory. That the film feels a lot like 2014’s Godzilla is really no accident, as they are both part of a buildup to a linked universe that (so far) looks far more successful and intriguing than the Universal Monsters continuity. All in all, Kong: Skull Island is a bit of a surprise—the premise looks dull and the idea of another monster movie is too familiar by now, but the results on-screen are undeniably enjoyable.
(Second or third viewing, On DVD, January 2018) I first saw Casablanca in the mid-nineties, as I was rummaging through my university library’s collection of film classics. I really, really loved it at the time, to the point of writing a Science Fiction parody that has thankfully not escaped my hard drive since then. Casablanca remained my standard for accidental greatness from the Hollywood studio system, the kind of film where magic just happens from competent people just doing their job. (In discussions about classic cinema, I usually oppose Casablanca to Citizen Kane, both of whom I love dearly but the second of which was designed to be a masterpiece while the first just sort of happened.) I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to another viewing now: What if the film wasn’t as good as I remembered? What if it fell flat next to the thousands of movies I had seen since then? I shouldn’t have worried: Casablanca is still as good today as at any time since its original release. It’s a film that grabs you quickly and seldom lets go, whether it’s firing on romantic or thrilling energy. Blending comedy, passion, suspense and political issues (now deliciously historical), Casablanca is one of the original four-quadrant triumphs, seamlessly going from one thing to another along the way from a gripping opening to a memorable conclusion. Humphrey Bogart is impeccable as the protagonist, but the supporting performances are fine across the board, from Claude Rains to Ingrid Bergman to Paul Henreid, all the way to the extras singing The Marseillaise given how (Casablanca histories tell us) that they were nearly all European exiles or refugees. Historically, Casablanca rolled the dice and landed a solid 12, describing a personal tipping point right after the country decided to go beat up Nazi Germany. Still, there is something for everyone in this film—you don’t have to catch the allusions to the date of the events to feel for its heroes at the most basic level. The Paris scenes may feel redundant, but they provide some of the film’s best quotes and movie-star moments. All told, iconic Casablanca remains a triumph of moviemaking, as good as the genre ever gets. I look forward to seeing it another time.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) I’m not much of a dog person, so films such as A Dog’s Purpose start at a disadvantage with a proposition that takes dog mythology as granted. Here, we go a few steps beyond “a dog’s life-long loyalty” to a big reincarnation what-if, as dog’s soul is reborn in several bodies before reuniting with his original owner. It’s about as over-the-top as you can imagine, with expected tearful pyrotechnics toward the end. Much of the drama is counterbalanced by a more light-hearted development in which our naïve canine narrator comments upon the strange habits of humans from his particular perspective. A Dog’s Purpose is, needless to say, precisely engineered to tug at the hearts of dog owners, leaving the rest of us wondering what the fuss is about. (It really doesn’t help that the film’s release was preceded by misleading accusations of animal mistreatment, meaning that the people most likely to condemn the abuse were the people who were the film’s target audience.) This being said, as a cat person, does the film work? It sort of does, in small doses. The clash between the dramatic arc and the comic moments is an issue, as is the grating deification of its canine protagonist—but once all is said and done, it’s a film that runs on autopilot once the premise is made clear. It doesn’t really use its premise for anything much deeper than a (human) romantic comedy and there’s a lost opportunity there to bemoan, although coming back to the target audience of the film suggests that anything more ambitious would have been missing the point. At least Dennis Quaid turns in the kind of warm and sympathetic performance he’s best suited for. Let me put it otherwise: A Dog’s Purpose wasn’t for me, almost squanders its biggest assets and yet I don’t quite think it wasted my time. It may be the faintest possible compliment, but at least that’s that.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) Interestingly enough, nearly everything I know about the Armenian genocide has been because of attempts to deny it. In early 1994, for instance, the antics of “Serdar Argic” in flood-posting Usenet newsgroups with genocide-denying messages gave pre-web users a reason for a crash course in unpleasant Turkish history. Twenty-five years later, Turkish nationalists took it upon themselves to give one-star IMDB votes to The Promise, a film dramatizing the Armenian genocide. But here’s the thing: I base part of my essential viewing choices on the list of movies with the most votes … meaning that I likely would not have watched the film had it not been from the vote-stuffing attempt. Well done, genocide deniers—you denied yourselves. As it stands, The Promise is an effective dramatization of dramatic historical events, wrapped up in a generous wrapping of romance and personal drama. The film’s star power is good enough to be worth a watch by itself: Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale are known as intense actors, and while the film doesn’t quite fully exploit their acting talent, they do lend a lot of credibility to a film that seems content to run by the usual melodrama. A touch too long, a touch too predictable and a touch less satisfying than it should be, The Promise is run-of-the-mill historical drama filmmaking. It wouldn’t be particularly memorable, except as a reminder of the Armenian genocide and the attempts to silence it from history.