Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Three Favorite Movies in STRANGER THINGS 3

*Warning! Mild spoilers ahead, but only related to minor incidents. No major plot points are discussed.

The third season of Stranger Things continues its love affair with all things 80s, including the movies of that decade and the heyday of the local video rental store, which gives the final episode of the season an opportunity to name drop a number of films that reveal aspects of the characters' personalities. A visit to the video store presents fan favorite Steve and new character Robin with an opportunity to name their three favorite films as a test of their movie knowledge and personal taste. Not surprisingly, Steve goes with some pretty obvious recent choices, while Robin plays the movie snob card by naming three classic films.

Robin (played by Maya Hawke) appears throughout the season as a new kind of girl in the character mix, but one with her own 80s movie roots. She's the edgy, prickly, smart girl who doesn't care about popularity or the usual high school status symbols. Sarcastic and bored with her job at Scoops Ahoy, she torments Steve but also proves herself to be a useful, loyal friend to the former high school golden boy. When asked to name her three favorite movies, Robin lists The Apartment (1960), The Hidden Fortress (1958), and Children of Paradise (1945). Her picks are especially esoteric for a teenager living in small town America in the mid 1980s, where it would have been difficult to see any of those three pictures, but they're intended to show her as a "serious" cineaste who leans toward foreign classics and film school standards. They immediately win the approval of the video store clerk, as well.

Steve's taste is, as Robin admits, "pedestrian" in comparison with her own. His picks, after much stumbling, are Animal House (1978), Return of the Jedi (1983), and Back to the Future (1985), the last of which Steve had just caught parts of during his misadventures with Robin, Dustin, and Erica. We've seen Steve grow a lot as a character since his initial appearance in Season One, but his first choice of Animal House reminds us of the kind of guy Steve used to be and might have remained if not for his experiences with the other Hawkins kids. He doesn't know the names of the specific episodes of Star Wars, either, and he loses even more credibility with the clerk by saying he likes "the one with the teddy bears" instead of going with the more fanboy approved The Empire Strikes Back. Ironically, Robin has included in her list Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, one of the films that George Lucas heavily borrowed from for A New Hope, thus showing that the best approach is to name not an actual Star Wars film at all but to show your depth of knowledge by picking one of its inspirations.

In a season packed with movie references, especially shout outs to horror films like Day of the Dead (1985), The Thing (1982), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and 1978 are equally relevant), and Alien (1979), along with a heavy dose of The Terminator (1984), the final episode's video store scene is a chance for the show to engage the cultural significance of movies very directly and mention some films that fall outside its horror/action/80s frame of reference. Robin's list is more about a hardcore movie buff's idea of what matters, but Steve's list is more in tune with the specific cultural moment in which the show takes place.

Honestly, in retrospect, they're both perfectly good lists, just reflective of very different movie watching moods and perspectives. When I was 18, back in 1990, I certainly hadn't yet seen any of Robin's picks, but I had seen all three of Steve's (I only saw Animal House because I was in college by then and away from parents who strictly cut off my access to R rated films). My top three would probably have been something like The Princess Bride (1987), The Lost Boys (1987), and, yes, Return of the Jedi (I also like the teddy bears. Fight me.)

What were your three favorite movies when you were 18? Were they "classics" or things you had only recently seen for the first time? How does your knowledge of movies - from the 80s or otherwise - enhance your enjoyment of a show like Stranger Things? I'd love to see your thoughts in the comments!

PS - If you're interested in my early teenage experiences with serious cinema watching back in the 1980s, check out "My First Summer of Cinema - 1988."

Monday, July 1, 2019

Classic Films in Focus: CASANOVA BROWN (1944)

What does a viewer expect going into a movie that features multiple marriages, a burning mansion, a kidnapped baby, and a clueless new father on a crash course in infant care? Hilarity seems like a reasonable answer, but that's not what we get with Casanova Brown (1944). While its plot summary sounds like truly outrageous material for a screwball comedy, the end result is quite tame, with far quieter performances than one might expect in a story about characters who take everything to extremes. It's not a terrible film, but it's by no means a great example of the genre, especially when compared to Gary Cooper's better known foray into screwball comedy in the hilarious Ball of Fire (1941). Here Cooper lacks the high energy of a proper screwball heroine to react to, even though he has dueling leading ladies in Teresa Wright and Anita Louise. In the end, Casanova Brown is a modestly amusing picture that offers an instructive example of what makes screwball tick by leaving out an essential component.

Cooper plays Casanova Brown, a domesticated descendant of that other Casanova who stumbles into marriage rather more often than he should. On the eve of his wedding to the cosmopolitan Madge (Anita Louise), Cass discovers that his short-lived union with Isabel (Teresa Wright) has produced a child, whom Isabel plans to put up for adoption. Enamored at first sight of his newborn daughter and horrified by the idea of her being given away, Cass kidnaps the baby from the hospital and attempts to care for her while holed up in a local hotel. Meanwhile, both Madge and Isabel are searching for him with their fathers in tow.

There's certainly plenty of chaos and reversal on hand to fuel a screwball comedy. Cooper's Casanova is no Italian adventurer, much less a predatory seducer, but he still ends up at the altar with three different women. He seems to have a preternatural ability to create crises, as he does when his hastily hidden cigarette reduces Isabel's family home to a smoldering ruin, thus provoking the argument that ends his brief marriage. His reaction to Isabel's plan for their baby is to impersonate a doctor, make off with the infant, and then enlist half the hotel staff in his obsessive baby nursing efforts. Whatever the situation, Casanova Brown always seems to make exactly the wrong choice at the worst possible moment, and most of the film's best scenes rely on that disastrous trait.

The problem lies with the development of the two female characters, neither of whom clicks with Cooper or inhabits her role convincingly. I love Teresa Wright in other films, especially Shadow of a Doubt (1943), but here she seems so painfully young as a love interest for Cooper, and she's far too wounded and pitiful to be a proper screwball heroine. Her Isabel is a sad victim of her parents' foolishness, her groom's stubbornness, and her own inability to stand up for herself. Madge, meanwhile, who ought to be a scheming socialite man eater of the first order, is never even remotely awful enough to warrant being left at the altar. Moreover, Anita Louise looks far more age appropriate as a mate for Cooper than Wright (who was actually in her mid-20s in 1944 but looks so much like a kid that even Casanova mentions it), and one has to wonder about a man who prefers a childlike bride over an actual adult. The only real case made against Madge is the constant harping of her father (Frank Morgan) about how controlling and tight-fisted the Ferris women are, and it's clear that his resentment stems from his own greedy desire to run through his wife's fortune at the utmost speed. Louise might have made a more villainous Madge if the script provided any fodder, but Wright is flatly out of place, even if the role hadn't been so weakly written. Screwball needs screwy women to shake up the social order and disrupt expectations, and when they aren't present the picture falls flat.

Aside from Ball of Fire, try iconic screwball comedies like My Man Godfrey (1936), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Midnight (1939), or The Lady Eve (1941) to see the fireworks when everything goes right. Sam Wood, who directed Casanova Brown, was on firmer ground with more melodramatic material like Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Kitty Foyle (1940), and Kings Row (1942), each of which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Gary Cooper won Oscars for Sergeant York (1941) and High Noon (1952), while Teresa Wright won the Best Supporting Actress award for Mrs. Miniver (1942). You can see both of them, once again paired romantically, in The Pride of the Yankees (1942).

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Classic Movie Style: Cary Grant's Sunglasses

On my way home from a trip to the UK last week I happened to flip through the Holland Herald on our KLM flight from Edinburgh to Amsterdam, and I was delighted to find this little article about chic sunglasses inspired by those worn by Cary Grant in the 1959 film, North by Northwest. Cary Grant is still a style icon, and Oliver Peoples is celebrating his timeless cool with these classy glasses. You can find the glasses in both regular optical and sunglasses versions on the Oliver Peoples website. Unfortunately for us classic movie fans who aren't as rich as a Hollywood mogul, the glasses run from $380 to $475, but they'll look fabulous on anybody who can afford them.

Oliver Peoples also offers eyewear inspired by other style icons and classic Hollywood stars. There's a pair of glasses created in collaboration with the Peck Estate celebrating Gregory Peck's signature style in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), so you can wear spectacles just like Atticus Finch if you're so inclined.

Sadly, I didn't see any glasses designed for women with classic Hollywood connections, but I'd love to find a pair inspired by Edith Head's iconic eyewear or those worn by Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). What other stars or characters in glasses would you like to see celebrated? Maybe Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound (1945) or the fabulously four-eyed Dorothy Malone in The Big Sleep (1946)? They definitely make glasses look good!

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Richard III and Disinformation in TOWER OF LONDON (1939)

One probably doesn't go looking for timely political commentary in a film like Tower of London (1939), which offers a mashup of history and horror in its retelling of the bloody rise and fall of England's most reviled monarch. Much of the plot is familiar to viewers thanks to broad cultural awareness of Shakespeare's version and, perhaps, renewed 21st century interest that resulted from the discovery of Richard's bones in 2012. Tower of London, which was released in 1939, is very much a Hollywood vision of the Wars of the Roses, with Basil Rathbone starring as the murderously ambitious Richard. It generally favors the lurid and romantic over the strictly historical, a bent indicated by the presence of supporting players like Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. It's striking, then, to recognize the way in which this film depicts the insidious use of disinformation and a weaponized mob to influence political forces. Just like the hidden political operatives who manipulate our elections today, Richard III and his henchman, Mord, utilize a massive, medieval version of social media to undermine their opponents and assist their own ambitions.

We might not, at first, recognize the importance of the disinformation campaign to Richard's ascent. Shocking physical violence often overshadows the subtler efforts that propel the repugnant royal toward the throne. In the film, Richard has his enemies executed, drowns one brother in a vat of malmsey, has his young nephews brutally murdered, and conspires in the deaths of numerous other rivals. While he is a skilled swordsman, he normally avoids holding the murder weapons himself, preferring instead to have Mord commit the crimes or to fabricate grounds to get his enemies sent to the scaffold. Richard's general preference throughout is for the most underhanded, devious means of accomplishing his goals; his double dealing keeps everyone around him off balance and guessing at his true motives.

That inclination toward secretive, secondhand villainy fits perfectly with Richard's deployment of the rabble to spread lies and gossip that support his rise to power. We see in the film how Richard conducts this propaganda campaign, with Mord once again as his intermediary. Richard gives Mord the funding and the message to circulate, which Mord then takes to a collection of beggars who function as his network of infiltrators and spies. Somewhat comically, we see the mob rehearse their assigned lines under Mord's direction and then repeat them as they pretend to be casual spectators interspersed among the crowds. They work exactly like modern Russian agitators and other operatives on social media, taking their orders from the top and then presenting themselves as independent, sincere peers to the unsuspecting community. Their misinformation and propaganda spread through the kingdom until citizens rally in support of Richard and demand that he be crowned king, never suspecting that their actions have been carefully manipulated for that very end. The people affected by Richard's lies don't seem to realize - or care - that he has the blood of so many people on his hands.

Fortunately for history, Richard's propaganda is only temporarily successful, and, as we now know, his thoroughly abused corpse ended up buried beneath a Leicester car park. Tower of London ends on a positive note, with Queen Elyzabeth (Barbara O'Neil) rejoicing that she has saved her daughters from Richard's murderous reign and will one day see an heir to her line once more on the English throne (in reality, her eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, would become Queen to Henry VII and the mother of Henry VIII). The bloodshed and damage, however, were not undone for the many who lost their lives during Richard's rise and fall, and modern viewers can't assume that a new Henry Tudor will show up to right the ship of state in our current global political crisis. While we might rightly relish the horror-tinged spectacle that Tower of London offers, we should also take to heart its dire message about the insidious efficiency of misinformation and the deliberate manipulation of the masses through whisper campaigns, whether they're conducted in a marketplace or on Facebook. Now is the winter of our discontent, indeed, and Richard's modern counterparts are hard at work to ensure that no glorious summer follows.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Classic Films in Focus: DARK WATERS (1944)

Somewhere between Lifeboat (1944) and Gaslight (1944) lies the plot of Dark Waters (1944), in which Merle Oberon stars as the survivor of a U-boat attack whose fragile sanity is tested by a collection of nefarious characters. All three pictures appeared in the same year, but the first two are decidedly better films, while Dark Waters holds interest primarily for its cast. Joining Oberon for this wartime swamp Gothic are Franchot Tone, Thomas Mitchell, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Fay Bainter, with Rex Ingram making sporadic but memorable appearances as a former employee who suspects that something is amiss at the old plantation. Dark Waters fails to deliver enough creepy atmosphere to achieve its Gothic ambitions, and the ending is more a hard stop than a proper conclusion, but Oberon is fascinating to watch as she tries to figure out whether she's going or being driven insane.

Oberon's perpetually imperiled heroine is Leslie Calvin, whose family flees the Japanese descent on Batavia (present day Jakarta) only to fall victim to a German U-boat attack at sea. Leslie survives many days in an open boat before ending up in a New Orleans hospital. After months of convalescence she travels to a nearby plantation owned by her aunt and uncle, where she hopes to recover from her post traumatic stress. She meets a handsome doctor (Franchot Tone), who quickly falls for her, but everything else goes awry as she is constantly exposed to situations that recall her ordeal and unsettle her sense of reality. Leslie begins to suspect that the manipulative Mr. Sydney (Thomas Mitchell) and his sidekick, Cleeve (Elisha Cook, Jr.), are tormenting her on purpose, but to what end?

Gothic mystery is a fine setting for Oberon's exotic beauty, but she gets better material to work with in both Wuthering Heights (1939) and The Lodger (1944), where her characters have more energy and more successfully developed plots. Franchot Tone's country doctor, George, doesn't spark much chemistry, but he seems to be the only available man in the area aside from Elisha Cook Jr.'s creepy Cleeve. It doesn't take two minutes to recognize both Cleeve and Sydney as the villains of this piece, and Thomas Mitchell has a handful of effectively menacing scenes, but Fay Bainter's Aunt Emily is neither disturbing nor reassuring, and it's hard to justify John Qualen's presence as Uncle Norbert, since he barely comes out of his room to utter a few lines at dinner. Fine actors inhabiting the background don't get enough to do, either, especially Rex Ingram and Odette Myrtil, who turns up as the mother of a large, friendly Cajun family.

There's enough potential in Dark Waters to see the movie it could be, and that warrants a viewing, especially for contrast with moodier explorations of similar plots and atmospheres. The Louisiana bayou makes an evocative setting, and the premise of Leslie's very justified anxiety about water and boats creates numerous opportunities for her to be tormented. We know from the beginning where the third act of this story will inevitably end (hence the title), but when the film finally reaches that point it seems in a hurry to wrap things up, and quite a few loose ends are left dangling. The pacing is more of a shock because there had apparently been plenty of time to linger on an earlier fais do-do sequence that adds nothing to the story. It's hard to say if director Andre De Toth or the writers are to blame for these issues, but De Toth certainly made tighter pictures over the course of his career.

Do pause a moment to appreciate the underused Nina Mae McKinney as the housemaid, Florella, who unfortunately disappears from the picture in the third act. For more of Merle Oberon, try The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), or That Uncertain Feeling (1941). See earlier roles for Franchot Tone in Bombshell (1933), Dancing Lady (1933), and Dangerous (1935). Thomas Mitchell is best remembered for more sympathetic characters in Stagecoach (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), and It's a Wonderful Life (1946), while Elisha Cook, Jr. offers more of his usual type in The Maltese Falcon (1941), I Wake Up Screaming (1941), and The Killing (1956). For a more thoughtful and provocative treatment of a similar atmosphere, try I Walked with a Zombie (1943), or, for some really excessive gaslighting bayou horror, go for Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).

* As of February 2019, DARK WATERS is available for streaming on Amazon Prime, but the print is rather muddy, especially in the outdoor night sequences.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

2018 Movie Log in Review

2018 was an exceptionally busy year for me beyond my usual activities, so it's no shock that I didn't watch as many films this year as I have in previous years. A part-time volunteer effort became a full-time job on top of homeschooling my high schooler and keeping up with other volunteer work, but I learned a lot and am really proud of the work I did in 2018, and I know most of the classic movies will still be waiting for me when I can get back to them, even if the dearly departed FilmStruck no longer graces my Roku homescreen.

The total number of films watched for 2018 is 114, which is really not much lower than my 2017 count of 120. Hopefully I'll get those numbers back up in 2019!

Here's the full list, including repeat viewings, for 2018.

The Long Hair of Death (1964)
Brides of Dracula (1960)
Crimson Peak (2015)
The Limehouse Golem (2017)
Calamity Jane (1953)
Mrs. Miniver (1942)
My Favorite Wife (1940)
East Side, West Side (1949)

The Shape of Water (2017)
The Lady Eve (1941)
Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Labyrinth (1986)
Dodge City (1939)
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Fallen Angel (1945)
Another Man's Poison (1951)
Black Panther (2018)
A Royal Night Out (2015)
Queen of Blood (1966)
The Monster of Phantom Lake (2006)
House of Ghosts (2012)
Dance, Girl, Dance (2017)
Coco (2017)

Ball of Fire (1941)
Decoy (1946)
Easter Parade (1948)
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Justice League (2017)
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Flash Gordon (1980)
The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963)
Crooked House (2017)
Ready Player One (2018)

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)
Sunshine Cleaning (2008)
Double Indemnity (1944)
Easy Virtue (2008)
Isle of Dogs (2018)
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Fiend without a Face (1958)
Fast and Furious (1939)

After the Thin Man (1936)

Found Footage 3D (2016)
Another Thin Man (1939)
All This and Heaven, Too (1940)
Black Panther (2018)
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Merry Andrew (1958)
The Wicker Man (1973)

Julia Misbehaves (1948)
Oceans 8 (2018)
Incredibles 2 (2018)
Queen Christina (1933)
Murder, She Said (1961)
The Ladykillers (1955)
Game Night (2018)

Whisky Galore! (1949)
Antman and the Wasp (2018)
Murder at the Gallop (1963)
The Time Machine (1960)
Panama Hattie (1942)
Blonde Crazy (1931)
Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)
To All the Boys I've Loved Before (2018)
The Man in the Iron Mask (1939)

Set It Up (2018)
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Lady in the Lake (1946)
Sierra Burgess is a Loser (2018)
The Kid (1921)
Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
The Oblong Box (1969)
The Breakfast Club (1985)
The Man in Grey (1943)
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

The Set-Up (1949)
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)
Ball of Fire (1941)
Slice (2918)
High Spirits (1988)
The House That Dripped Blood (1971)
The Comedy of Terrors (1963)

The Devil's Bride (1968)
Tension (1949)
The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)
When Ladies Meet (1941)
HE Who Gets Slapped (1924)
Paper Moon (1973)
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
Auntie Mame (1958)
Lili (1953)
Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
White Christmas (1954)
Mamma Mia! (2008)
High Society (1956)
The Glass Slipper (1955)
Where East is East (1929)
Love, Actually (2003)

The Nutcracker (1993)
Beauty and the Beast (2017)
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
A Christmas Story (1983)
Ghostbusters (1984)
Ghostbusters II (1989)
Scrooged (1988)
Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse (2018)
The Christmas Chronicles (2018)
Mary Poppins Returns (2018) 

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Classic Movie Tourism: King Kong on Broadway

Some 85 years after the great ape's original screen debut, King Kong has made a triumphant return to New York City, this time as the star of his own Broadway musical. There have been plenty of sequels, reboots, revisions, and reincarnations featuring the oversized cinema gorilla, but I've never seen anything quite like this version of the familiar tale. It's an amazing marriage of puppetry and performance that brings Kong to life in a completely new way while also issuing some loving correctives to the thornier aspects of the original film.

The result is truly breathtaking, even if the songs aren't quite as memorable as one might like. I didn't come out of King Kong humming any particular tune, but I did come out with a stunned sense of awe and a weepy teenager overcome by the emotional rapport the audience develops with the incredibly sympathetic Kong. The eponymous ape moves, grunts, and breathes like a living thing, but his soulful and expressive eyes are his most impressive feature. Once you see him, you believe in him, even though the talented puppeteers working his enormous body are always in view.

The new stage production keeps the setting and some of the primary characters from the 1933 film, namely the ape himself, heroine Ann Darrow, and ambitious filmmaker Carl Denham. It eliminates the heroic love interest so that the focus stays squarely on Ann and Kong, and this Ann doesn't need a big, strong man to come and rescue her anyway. She's a brave, kind, adventurous protagonist whose version of the famous Fay Wray scream is a war cry of empowerment rather than a distress signal. The musical also eliminates the racist elements of the movie - there are no human natives on this Skull Island - and goes one better by making Ann herself black. These changes sharpen the focus of the story and breathe new life into it, making this a Kong adventure that resonates with a broad modern audience.

The human performances also make this new incarnation worth catching while the original cast is still attached. Christiani Pitts is a firebrand Ann, feisty and capable, and she gives powerful voice to songs like "Queen of New York" and "The Wonder." Eric William Morris understands the slippery line required for the selfish but seductive Carl; we have to like him enough to see why Ann goes with him in the first place, but Carl is the closest the musical comes to a villain, since he's incapable of understanding the perspectives of Ann or Kong, much less appreciating that they might have equal claims to happiness and self-determination. Lumpy, played by Erik Lochtefeld, offers an antidote to Carl with his sadly sweet affection for Ann, though I couldn't tell if it was the character or the actor or both who strongly brought James Cromwell to mind during his scenes.

As a feminist with a lifelong love of classic movies, puppetry, and musicals, I'm probably the perfect audience for a show like King Kong, but even if you're only casually interested in one or two of those categories this is a production worth seeing. It offers a fresh and thoughtful take on a story most of us think we already know, and it shows how that story can continue to change and appeal to new audiences. 85 years later, King Kong is alive and well on Broadway, and I hope that this show will enjoy all of the success that it truly deserves. It's absolutely stunning, and my entire family loved it.

Related posts:

Classic Films in Focus: KING KONG (1933)

Classic Films in Focus: MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)