Categories
5 Stars Movies

Fantasia (1940)

In just over a year, Disney Plus has unsurprisingly joined the ranks of Netflix, Hulu, and others as one of the top tier streaming platforms. It helps when you have not only a vast well of nostalgia in both film and television, but also some original content as well (perhaps most notably The Mandalorian).

Of course, the service does have its fair share of flaws, yet there is one that I find personally irritating. They have catagorized Fantasia (as well as its rather underrated sequel, Fantasia/2000) as a musical. I can understand needing to organize films (anyone who has seen my DVD/Blu Ray collection would attest to that), but I refuse to think of Fantasia as a musical. It is far more than that.

Categories
5 Stars Movies

Nosferatu (1922)

“Lisa, vampires are make-believe, just like elves, gremlins, and eskimos.”

— Homer Simpson

While they are indeed fictional (unlike the very real eskimos), that does not make vampires any less fascinating. For over a century, we have seen Vampires as not only monsters, but charmers, cereal mascots, teen heart throbs, superheroes (it was announced not long ago that Blade would make his appearance in the MCU), and muppets that helped us count as kids (“Von!” “Two!”…)

Categories
5 Stars Movies

Mr. Smith goes to Washington (1939)

I am old enough to remember the days when, as an elementary school student, the wheeling in of a TV on a cart meant a change in mood for the day (and sometimes, the whole week). Sadly, most of those times were dedicated to very below the bar forms of entertainment focused on just learning certain material (unless it was The Magic School Bus TV series).

My first real encounter with watching an actual movie for educational purposes came at the age of 13 in Mr. Russell’s 7th grade Social Studies Class in Middle School. I can’t remember if I had seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington before then, but I had definetly heard of it. So much of this movie can seem lost on today’s youth, mostly that a political film can actually be entertaining (not to mention, as Mr. Russell let my peers know, that black and white movies are not all boring.)

Categories
5 Stars Movies

It Happened One Night (1934)

Undoubtedly, the romantic comedy is one of the most overused genres.

For every 90s Julia Roberts flick, we get a movie like 2010’s Life as we Know it (which, for undisclosed reasons, was once trending big on Netflix) or 2018’s The Kissing Booth (which made a sequel for reasons unknown to us smart movie goers). In this genre, it seems that you win some, you lose a lot.

Categories
5 Stars Movies

The Seventh Seal (1957)

In the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, (the 7th one, which, considering this review, is rather ironic), there is a story entitled “The Tale of the Three brothers”.

Basically, the story shows how three brothers respond to death. Each gets three items from death: the elder wand (which wins ever battle), a stone to talk to the deceased, and a cloak to become invisible (the invisibility cloak). In the end, each brother meets death (albeit in different ways).

Categories
5 Stars Movies

The 400 Blows (1959)

In the 1938 film biographical drama Boys Town, we learned how Father Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) set up an orphanage for young boys, living by the code that there was “no such thing as a bad boy”. 

If only he had met young Antoine Doinel, the subject of The 400 Blows.

Categories
5 Stars Movies

Rear Window (1954)

In just under two months of being quarantined due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have found many ways of passing the time, and technology has certainly helped with that. That is one of the main reasons why a story like Rear Window would not be able to be told today. There would be too much else for a protagonist to do in order to combat the boredom.

It isn’t that L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) entirely wants to watch his neighbors: it’s that he has nothing else he can do. After a freak accident that has left him in a wheel chair for weeks with a broken leg, the photographer Jeffries is forced into his own form of social distancing during the hotter days of the year when everyone has their windows open. His only real visitors are his caretaker Stella (Thelma Ritter) and his high-class girlfriend Lisa (the immortal beauty Grace Kelly). It is Stella who worries more of Jeffries’ spying activity: “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms.”, she states.

Despite all this, he continues his observations. Ms. Torso the ballet dancer, the single Ms. Lonely Hearts, the struggling songwriter, and the newly married couple are some of the neighbors he tries to keep up with at a distance. Suspicion begins to truly arise when the salesman (Raymond Burr) across the courtyard has had events occur that result in the salesman’s invalid wife no longer being present. Jeffries surmises that murder has occurred.

The whole film is told in Jeffries’ shoes (or cast, as it were). We can only piece together certain bits of dialogue that certain neighbors speak (sometimes drowned out by the musician in his practice sessions). We never look out the window as audience members, but as Jeffries. If a naïve filmmaker remade the film nowadays, there may be scenes outside the window when Lisa or Jeff’s old friend Detective Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) go out to investigate. That would ruin the intimacy that the audience has made with the main character, and make us care far less for him and his situation.

Of course, most directors would not even dream of trying to improve upon works from the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. I have yet to discover another director who was better at hijacking the psyche of their audience (which, he once said, should be played “like a piano”).  The audience is a marionette puppet, and he masterfully controls the strings.

He also was, I feel, horribly underrated when it came to comedy: Hitch’s talk show appearance on The Dick Cavett Show is still funny nearly 50 years later. In Rear Window, the comedy (mainly given by Thelma Ritter’s character) reveals his sense of humor as nothing short of unique, though some may call it an acquired taste.

He knew also how to use his stars as well. With James Stewart, Hitch used Jimmy’s “every man” persona (which Stewart was most known for along with his supreme kindness off screen) to make us feel even more for the disabled photographer. The director was also a fan of using blondes in leading roles, and here he gives Grace Kelly one of the most sensational character entrances in any film ever made.

Despite all that, he is still known as having been difficult to work with if you were an actor (most notably Tippi Hedren). He once said that Walt Disney had the best cast system: “If he doesn’t like an actor, he just tears him up.” (Remember what I said about his humor?)

Parents, when Hitchcock films were released, there was always talk about how much “sexual content” was allowed on the screen (which increased more in his later films, especially 1972’s Frenzy). Rear Window is rather mild, with only shots of the ballet dancer in revealing clothing being watched from a distance. I would say middle school at above.

If someone told me they had never seen a film by Hitch and wanted to start a binge watching session, I would tell them to start with Rear Window, which I would easily rank in his top three or four films he has ever made. Toward the end, when the shades of the window are drawn down, we realize that we are doing what all great movies make us do: stand outside our lives and look in.

Overall:

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Categories
5 Stars Movies

Pinocchio (1940)

Over time, many a movie made for children (or anyone, for that matter) are going to be forgotten, sought after only by die hard fans and film buffs. There are movies of my own childhood that I have seen many times, yet now are known only to a few of my generation. This is even true with the powerhouse of Disney. Had it not been for Disney Plus, certain films of lesser popularity like Oliver & Company (1988), Meet the Robinsons (2007), The Black Cauldron (1985), Robin Hood (1973), The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Great Mouse Detective (1986), A Goofy Movie (1995), and The Princess and the Frog (2009) would be almost swept under the rug, especially when compared to other monolith films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Bambi (1942), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and The Lion King (1994), just to name a few (not to mention the Pixar ones).

Which brings us to Pinocchio, a film that has most definitely pierced through the aspects of time and affected all generations of youth. For over eight decades, it has been sitting near the top of every list of great animated films. What is surprising after every viewing is how well it holds up when you consider it does not bow down to the typical Disney formula. Being the second Disney animated film (after Snow White), it does not deal with a prince or princess. Though there are memorable songs (one in particular which we will discuss), it is not seen as a musical (I doubt many are seeing a live musical stage version of this anytime soon).

Still, the strong morals are hidden plainly. We meet the ever so kind, young at heart Geppetto, just finishing his work on the titular puppet. When he wishes the creation to be a real boy, the blue fairy (who, when you think of it, is one of the most underrated powerful characters in the mouse house lore) grants his wish. “Prove yourself brave, truthful, and unselfish, and some day, you will be a real boy.”, she instructs firmly but gently, as he is given an official conscience in the form of Jiminy Cricket (my mother’s personal favorite Disney character).

As his adventures begin the next, Pinocchio (who is not given an age, but I would wager him to be around the age of 6 or 7) indeed encounters hardships and trials, mostly given to him by Honest John and his sidekick Gideon (who voice is credited to the legendary Mel Blanc). This leads to countless adventures that stay with children (especially boys) decades after.

What strikes me is how clearly the quest for Pinocchio to be a real boy is portrayed. The film never says he wants to be given the title “good boy” (though he strives to), but a real one. Like any child, he can be rather simple minded (to say the least): asking “Why?” countless times, repeating things he just heard because he can, and learning the consequences of certain acts of mischief. No doubt that the latter is best shown in one of the most well known scenes in film, in which Pinocchio starts telling a lie, and his nose begins to grow until it supports a bird nest. The scene sticks with you even long after you realize a nose won’t grow.

More of the lessons taught to kids are a little more subtle, but not any less affecting. This leads us to one of the darkest segments in any children’s film: Pleasure Island. After escaping the life of an actor (“I’d rather be smart than be an actor.”), Pinocchio is again misguided by Honest John into joining a group of mischievous boys on a trip to Pleasure Island, where they are allowed to do basically anything they want (“Being bad is a lot of fun, ain’t it?!?!”).

This leads to the discovery that the boys are turned into donkeys and are sold off as slaves. I cannot be alone in saying this had a humongous impact on me as a child. While I am sure I was one to get into forms of trouble, I thankfully never got to the point of fighting, smoking, drinking, and breaking windows. When Pinocchio finds out his mistake and tosses his cigar, that was possibly the time I truly said I would never smoke (it took me a while after turning 21 for me to actually enjoy wine). The only thing that I still did was play pool (though scenes from the film still resonate with me when I play).

The film’s final segment shows Pinocchio in search of his father who has been swallowed by the great whale Monstro. It is in the sequence where many a child can first experience a sense of character growth, as the titular puppet sets out against all odds (and, in a sense, wisdom) to be reunited with his father. When they do eventually meet, one of the more understated touching moments occurs. Gepetto has seen his son has grown donkey ears and donkey tale, not to mention having a “hee haw” moment. Acting rather embarrassed, Gepetto simply gives him another hug, saying having him back is all that matters. Though a quick moment, it is a powerful one that brings to mind the parable of the lost son.

The animation of the film is breathtaking. As the film was being made in the late 1930s, Walt and his animators clearly did not have the computer tech to make their visions come to life. That being said, the detail is marvelous: no other film has yet to make a more exquisite and complex look at clocks. Like all Disney films that followed, the supporting characters are able to steal scenes, and the clear winners of Pinocchio are Figaro the cat and Cleo the Goldfish (though how that fish stays in her tank at the end of the Monstro scene is beyond me).

Speaking of Monstro, that last action sequence is stellar: it took me till I was in my teens to see it without closing my eyes. It is preceded by one of the first truly great underwater segments in the history of cinema. Though underwater sequences in animation has been exemplified in the last few decades (most notably The Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo), the material shown on the ocean floor still holds up as well as it did in 1940.

Parents, I have mentioned the fact that the film is indeed dark. There is also, by today’s standards, mild swearing (the other word for donkey is used at least twice). Still, it is not dark for the sake of being dark, but for the reason to inform. Though they are your kids, I would say the film is essential for all kids to see before they reach the age of 10 or so.

There is one lesson from the film that has surpassed all others, and that is in the film’s most enduring contribution to modern society: “When you Wish upon a Star.” Though it may not be everyone’s favorite song from the Disney canon (the debate of best disney song will likely never end), it is easily the most important, as it is the main theme of the company to this day. While I can’t speak for those who grew up before 1940, I know wishing upon a star is something that will occur more often for kids long after they see this film.

One may even see the idea of wishing on a star as a way for kids to learn how to start praying, which is obviously more affective. It lets kids know that God hears you, makes no difference who you are.

Overall:

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Categories
5 Stars Movies

The Searchers (1956)

At the 92nd Academy Awards, when Bong Joon Ho was accepting his Oscar for Best Director (for Parasite), he paid tributes to each of his fellow nominees. The first (and most memorable) was toward Martin Scorsese, which prompted an unexpected standing ovation. It was clear that Bong Joon Ho was paying tribute to a mentor.

In the filming industry, perhaps no other career is more vocal of paying tribute to mentors than that of a director. Most (if not all) have stated they have been in total admiration of a certain director that came before them, often rewatching their films almost to a degree of pure obsession. Certain names come to mind: Hitchcock, Kubrick, Welles, Kurosawa, Spielberg, Scorsese, Eastwood, Coppola, Lucas, Tarantino, and Spike Lee, to name a few. However, all the big named directors seem to have one person they all agree on that had influenced their career. That name is John Ford. Famously, when Orson Welles was asked the directors he admired most, he said, “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”

The winner of four Best Director awards (not including two others for short films) and the first winner of the AFI lifetime achievement awards, directors around the world are in some way, shape, and form in debt to Ford. He is most associated with the western. When we envision the old west, it is most likely seen the way Ford saw it. A time long ago, a relic. In a way, it is a way we sometimes look at the bible.

Though I am still in the mist of seeing as many of his films as I can (he made over a hundred, so I got a way to go), The Searchers is more than likely his most well known, and certainty the most studied. David Lean watched it to prepare for Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and even a popular song from Buddy Holly was inspired by one of the film’s lines.

 Set in Texas, 1868, the door opens to the great outdoors of the west, as a returning Civil War Veteran visits his sister’s family. The man is Ethan Edwards (John Wayne, in perhaps his best role). He is tired and worn (as his face clearly shows), and wants nothing more than to take it easy. We learn his one main character trait: he is clearly racist. Not towards African Americans, but American Indians (mainly the Comanche).

Soon enough, the Comanche arrive, and kidnap his niece Debbie. He sets out to find her, only to realize that those accompanying him (especially the Reverend, played by the great character actor Ward Bond) are slowing him down. The only one truly able to stick his own with Ethan is Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), Debbie’s adopted brother, who Ethan is not fond of at all (Martin is part Indian). Undoubtedly, Ethan is not someone to mess with. There is a moment in the movie where he sees trouble, and just whips his gun out of the cover. That is one small moment when you realize that making this man mad is a death sentence.

Set just after the Civil War, first time viewers may find it strange to know that the quest for Debby indeed takes time. Five years in fact. This is shown in small touches, such as when Martin’s love interest Laurie (Vera Miles) is told she has been written by Martin. Not just one letter, but two letters in one year. It takes so much time that when Debbie is finally seen, she is no longer played by Lana Wood, but her older (and more popular) sister, Natalie Wood. Looking back, you realize that character development sometimes takes a while. How often have we heard (or experienced) times where God works on our character for months or even years?

In my view, there is a certain unique delicacy in a John Ford film. Each time you see how the camera is placed, you realize it could not be placed anywhere else. The shots can be put on pause, and you could study each one like you would a famous painting. In short, Ford was what all directors strive to be from the beginning: an artist.

While some directors are known for reshooting scenes until they are satisfied (most notably Stanley Kubrick), Ford was not one of them. He was a fan of getting the scene done on the first take (nowadays, this is especially attributed to Clint Eastwood, who has also stated his admiration of John Ford). Perhaps it was because he wanted the first impulse of the actor saying the line to be filmed, or because he was (reportedly) not a fan of dialogue, it is hard to say. The stories I have heard of working with him are, well, interesting, to say the least. The only person who seemed able to stand up to Ford was Katharine Hepurn (whom he became romantic with for a time). Regardless, the overall outcome seemed to work.

Even the comedy of the film is effective. For one reason or another, a vast majority of them involve the character of Martin: Just in the wrong place at the wrong time. My favorite is a fight scene between him and another man trying to win the affections of Laurie. The scene is not as over the top as the fight scene in Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), but it still should make you feel unexpected uproars of laughter. The same can also be said of an very unwanted battle wound for the Ward Bond character in a very unfortunate place. How did he get that wound? If you have to ask, you were not paying attention.

Parents, I am all for kids getting a head start on old classics (especially westerns). Still, it should be noted that the racism of the film is apparent (although what the Comanche do is indeed reprehensible). Still, the film has maybe two or three minor swears, so middle school and up would be fine.

There are certain movies which are blessed to have a great opening shot, or a great closing one. Very few have both, especially when they compliment each other by being virtually the same, like bookends. Just some that come to mind include Saving Private Ryan (1998) with the American Flag, 1917 (2019) with a soldier resting under a tree, and Parasite (2019) looking out the window into the street. Then there is The Searchers. After characters have returned, there is only Ethan Edwards left in the doorway. While others have entered, he stands alone, isolated. As he walks away, the door closes on him. Closes on the story. Closes on the old west. Lost to history.

Thankfully, never forgotten.

If it were, well…that’ll be the day.

Overall:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Categories
5 Stars Movies

The African Queen (1951)

“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”

This line, as said by Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) to the ship’s Captain Charlie (Humphrey Bogart) is indeed central to the 1951 classic The African Queen. Yes, the film is basically about two strangers who fight the wilderness, but that is not all the nature we are witnessing.

At the start of the film, we meet Rose and the Reverend (also her brother), doing missionary work in Africa in September of 1914. Having been there for years, their only key to what is happening in the outside world is Allnut, a Canadian worker barely scrapping by as he goes up and down the river on his boat, The African Queen. When news of war breaks, the local villiage is raided and burned, the Reverend dies, and Rose has no choice but to travel with Charlie.

In our first meeting with Charlie and Rose (before the Germans burn the village), we get a great sense of how Rose feels towards “Mr. Allnut” (which she calls him for more than half of the film). While she and her brother are reading and drinking tea in the “proper” sense, Charlie is sitting there, unable to overlook the fact that his stomach is growling loud (so loud nothing else in that scene is louder). This makes us realize all the more why Rose is at first hesitant to board the ship with him, despite having no other options.

Not long after leaving, both discover that they need a place to go. Looking at the map, Rose is dead set (almost from the get go) on taking the river down to the lake where the big German ship, the Louisa, is patrolling. Looking at all their supplies, she comes up with the “absurd” idea of making a torpedo and (using their ship), blowing up the Louisa. Of course, Allnut is all against the idea, but Rose is able to talk him into it (more than once).

While rewatching The African Queen for about the 7th time or so, I began to realize that Allnut is one of the few characters that, despite being a scrappy “bum”, is still a gentleman at heart. You never once think that he would try to take advantage of Rose if he wanted to (this could be because the film was in the early 50s). He is even patient with Rose and all her questions (though that patience does run out at times). If this film were ever remade (which I pray never happens), studios may make Allnut more of a jerk.

That the two will fall in love is a forgone conclusion (again, early 1950s), but one of the main reasons this works so wonderfully as a romance is the sheer fact that these are adults. Not teens. Not young adults. Adults. We don’t know much about their past lives (nor do we need to), so we don’t know if they have been in love before. We do, however, find out in a pivotal scene (after confronting some big rapids) that feelings of romance are becoming present, and we see it in their faces.

In the second act of the film, we actually see some bit of faith working. After being stuck in the mud, Charlie is forced to go out and drag the boat (and is rewarded with his least favorite thing, leeches). As he lies down exhausted, it is Rose who prays, and we get that great shot of seeing that they are unaware the lake is just yards away from them. It is a nice reminder that we do have to remember to let God come in and take care of the rest in dire situations.

No small part of this is due to the fact that Bogie and Hepburn are two of the great movie stars the world has known (both, in fact, were once named the best male and female star by the American Film Institute). It was at a time when the older school of acting was starting to fade away and the “method” actors appeared, most notably Marlon Brando. That same year, Brando would give his iconic performance in A Streetcar Named Desire. Oddly enough, it was Bogie who beat Brando at the Oscars that year for Best Actor (the only win for this film). History would disagree on this, but at the time it was mainly because Brando did not seem to care for winning while Bogie campaigned heavily.

In what had to be one of the first movies ever made about survival (LONG before Cast Away, 127 Hours, Life of Pi, and Gravity), so much should have gone wrong with the making of this movie. Pretty much the entire film was filmed on location (only some of the underwater scenes were shot in a tank in London). Filming on location in 1951 was a risk, to say the least (even now I would think it would be risky). Director John Huston (who worked with Bogart before and was a lifelong friend) was apparently dead set on shooting an elephant. The amount of equipment needed was insane. Bogart’s wife, Lauren Bacall, was onset helping out anywhere she could.

Then, of course, there was the living conditions. According to Hepburn, the only two people who did not get sick during the shoot were Bogart and Huston, due to the fact that they drank enough alcohol to reject any disease.

Parents, there is kissing, but that is really it. It is a 1951 movie, so it is all good for kids.

I mentioned how mother nature is not the only nature this film tells us to rise above. There is human nature as well. The nature to drink (which Charlie is prone to). The nature to want to give up. The nature to be insecure about ones feelings.

If you have doubts about seeing a classic old movie like this, then I would say you should rise above that nature as well.

Overall:

Rating: 5 out of 5.