1930s Oldies

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)

The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a weak Best Picture nominee from the 1930s. It lacks any strong spark to bring it out of the dull territory it inhabits for 109 minutes. The film takes place primarily in one room with almost all of the action occurring inside the Barretts’ home. These interior scenes have uninspired staging and are boringly shot. Even if you didn’t know The Barretts of Wimpole Street was based on a play, you can figure it out pretty easily since director Sidney Franklin didn’t hide it very well. It often feels like a recording of a stage play rather than a film itself.

You can add The Barretts of Wimpole Street to the melodrama subgenre, “films with weird and controlling fathers who have uncomfortable relationships with their daughters.” Charles Laughton plays the annoying father to Norma Shearer’s Elizabeth Barrett. He has a very creepy relationship with his daughters and kisses his adult niece on the lips. Based on Edward’s (Laughton) relationship with Elizabeth, one could say it’s a case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. He repeatedly tells his daughter that she’s sick and therefore cannot leave her house or bed. At one point in the film, Elizabeth manages to go down the stairs, but then is unable to go up them after Edward repeatedly tells her she won’t be able to. I believe that Elizabeth may have actually been sick at one point before the movie takes place but was “sick” for a long time afterwards because she believed she was, due to her father.

Norma Shearer is one of the very few good aspects of The Barretts of Wimpole Street. In addition to what I said before, the film is fairly predictable. Many scenes set up each other so you know what’s going to happen in the following scene. The film’s plot is minimal, with its only conflict being that Edward won’t let Elizabeth do anything. The majority of the film is essentially Elizabeth talking to people and Edward bursting in to scold her and the people trying to make her life less unbearable. There are better movies out there with similar stories that are more worth your time.

1960s Oldies

The Swimmer (1968)

I’m not quite sure I fully understand why The Swimmer is a cult classic. The cinematography is beautiful and the script attempts to critique the rich, but it doesn’t always do it successfully. I think it’s because the filmmakers liked their lead too much.

Burt Lancaster plays rich socialite Ned Merrill, the kind of guy to sleep with your wife and ask you not to harsh his mellow when you catch them in the act. He’s a narcissistic and entitled creep that goes on a swimming pool bender. Surprisingly, the bender isn’t the weirdest part. Going from pool to pool, crashing party to party, without a care in the world is the most head-scratching part of Merrill’s actions. It doesn’t take long to realize that Merrill is the kind of man who has gotten everything he’s ever wanted his entire life. He thinks it’s absurd for anyone to think he should have to ask first. Manners are just a formality for him, he never feels sincere. I absolutely detested Ned Merrill.

Almost everything Merrill did made me very uncomfortable. His interactions with women are downright gross. Right from the very beginning he’s being touchy and flirty with the wives of his “friends.” Then he convinces the former babysitter of his kids to join him on his pool quest and tries to put the moves on her. That’s not even his worst moment. Near the end of the film he attempts to sexually assault Shirley Abbott, a woman he had an affair with in the past. Merrill’s behavior toward women in The Swimmer shows he has disgustingly manipulated and seized any woman he’s ever desired his whole life, only caring about himself. The filmmakers seem to want to comment on social classes, racial divide, and the overall behavior of the rich. Instead, Frank Perry and Sydney Pollack weaken the arguments that were on the page by doing everything they can to try to humanize Merrill.

One could read The Swimmer as the story of a man crippling with a mental illness, but it never commits to that approach. Even if it was, which I don’t think it is, it’s hard to feel sympathy for someone who has lived the life Merrill has. His actions are those of a man who has done them throughout a lifetime, not those of someone who has recently lost self-control. As he continues to interact with people throughout the film you learn of all of the bad things he’s done. I don’t think it’s fair to see The Swimmer as a deconstruction of the rich American man who seems charming and honest, but is actually a terrible person. When the lead character is this unlikable and questionable from the beginning, it’s hard to give any weight to this possible approach.

Maybe everything is a fantasy in Merrill’s mind. Almost all of the characters in the film go along with what he says about his wife and kids even though they know the truth. He could be going through therapy or he’s been committed into a mental institution. Or maybe it was all a dream turned nightmare of his. Regardless, The Swimmer was a fantasy I wasn’t happy to take part in. 

1970s Oldies

What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

I’ve found myself going through screwball comedies in the midst of the Coronavirus and What’s Up, Doc? is one of the best I’ve watched recently. I’ve found the best way to measure them is how consistently funny they can be through hilarious and sometimes improbable situations. All of the screwball comedies I’ve watched have one or a few of these moments. Some of the funny situations land, others don’t, and the inconsistency of them can make the film feel uneven.

The car chase and hotel room fire scenes are the highlights for me, but What’s Up, Doc? doesn’t rely on these bigger moments. Throughout its duration, the film is funny through character reactions, physical comedy, its dialogue, and overall plot. The film is certainly a homage to the many screwball comedies that have come before it, but What’s Up, Doc? feels very much like its own, not an imitator of the classics. 

Streisand found the perfect balance of charm and annoyance. Ryan O’Neal’s character could be interpreted as unrealistically aloof, but O’Neal’s performance breathes so much life into a no-nonsense character that could have become an eye-rolling, cardboard cut-out. 

Peter Bogdanovich pulled off something special here. I’ve rarely found a screwball comedy to feel somewhat rooted in reality, laugh-out-loud funny, consistently engaging, and have it stick the landing. What’s Up, Doc? is definitely a must-see.

2000s Oldies

L’enfant (2005)

I couldn’t help thinking I had already seen this film. I hadn’t, but there was something all too familiar about it. Films about young couples that are unable to raise newborns together are out there in spades. I’ll be upfront and say I don’t typically like films with this plot to begin with. 

I don’t know if it’s entirely Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s fault for its familiarity. I’m sure that after winning the Palme d’Or many filmmakers were inspired and wanted to emulate this film. I’ve probably watched several of The Child‘s the imitators over the years. The lack of freshness is a result of that. I felt like nothing about The Child really stands out and without that, I should be interested in the characters, but I found Bruno (Jérémie Renier) very unlikable and Sonia (Déborah François) underdeveloped.

I didn’t care for Bruno and Sonia’s relationship and didn’t care about it being successful. Sonia was better off without Bruno and I couldn’t wait for her to distance herself from him. I have to give the Dardennes credit for not trying to string that relationship along for the whole movie with the state it was in. Many filmmakers fall into this trap and it makes for an excruciating experience for me. 

Bruno was not charming and most of our time is spent with him. He’s a man-child, which is entirely the point, but I didn’t need to watch 95 minutes of him being immature for him to figure that out. An issue lifelike films fall into is that they can be predictable and that’s fine, but from start to finish it needs to be engaging enough for the audience to get a worthwhile experience. The Child does have interesting moments, but the overall sum of its parts leaves a lot to be desired.

1950s Oldies

Le Plaisir (1952)

I have to be honest, I had never heard of Max Ophüls until February during TCM’s 30 Days of Oscar. I watched La Ronde as part of my March Around the World this year and was not a fan. From now watching Le Plaisir, they’re very clearly made by the same filmmaker, but the ideas and views expressed in Le Plaisir are less shallow. There is still plenty of cynicism to go around, but there is a touch of optimism in Le Plaisir. Regardless of how I felt about La Ronde, one thing I can say is the two films I’ve watched had me thinking about his ideas.

Ophüls clearly has an obsession with infidelity and I’m unsure if it’s related to French culture around the time of the stories or just his perception of the world and/or monogamy. Just like La Ronde, cheating on your wife or significant other is presented in such a casual manner you would think it was an every day occurrence outside of his films. There’s a comedic undertone Ophüls expresses as well particularly during the second vignette that is rather interesting because of its joyous nature.

Films made up of vignettes can be a recipe for disaster because some may be good and others may be bad. As a result, a film can come off disjointed. All of the stories need to be engaging enough to keep the story going along smoothly. Story One and Three are interesting enough, but Le Plaisir‘s second, “La Maison Tellier,” is where the film truly shines.

Before the second vignette begins, the narrator describes it as a fairy tale and it’s absolutely true. The way the camera shoots the brothel is the way you might shoot a castle. Even though the camera is voyeuristic, it never feels obtrusive and the audience never sees anything private that the parties involved wouldn’t want you to see (except their wives). The countryside is absolutely beautiful. The countryside scenes have a classical Hollywood feel and look.

I have to admit, I wouldn’t normally say this, but I couldn’t help but wonder how beautiful the second vignette would have been in color. The whole vignette, particularly the scenes in the countryside, feel like they’re begging to be colorized. The “Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White” Oscar nomination the film received was very well-deserved.

I love the way “La Maison Tellier” is constructed. When I was watching it I was unsure what the story was going to be and who it was going to focus on. Once the film centers on the main characters, it really hits its stride. The story flows so well and is fascinating enough that it doesn’t matter how free the story feels. The story could have gone anywhere and I would have followed it without hesitation.

“La Maison Tellier” is where Le Plaisir truly shines.

1970s Oldies

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976)

I have a strong dislike for movies where a woman is dating or married to a man who is awful to her and she stands by him. Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands would actually be a perfect example of this kind of movie. From ones I’ve seen, I would put this film at the bottom of my list. I found Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands to not have any redeeming qualities. 

The characters are so one-dimensional that the actors aren’t given the room to have good performances. The cinematography is standard, so there isn’t anything impressive about it. When Dona and Her Two Husbands tries to implement humor it doesn’t work. I didn’t find the situation of Dona Flor’s husband groping two women with her right next to them funny or the rest of his behavior for that matter. It makes perfect sense that when he comes back as a ghost he’s completely nude.

Dona Flor’s first husband was a womanizing jerk. I found it difficult to watch him gamble and fool around with other women for the first hour of the movie. This behavior made the film become repetitive. He was so devoid of any depth that we knew what he was going to do for the first thirty minutes and nothing changed. 

I think one of the film’s biggest problems is its structure. It begins with the death of Dona Flor’s bumbling idiot husband, but then proceeds to give us a summary of his marriage to her, which was simply uninteresting. Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands might have worked better if the film had flashbacks during the time after his death and while she was married to her second husband.

The icing on the cake is the ending. Dona Flor ends up with both of her husbands. The irony is she becomes exactly what she despised about her first husband. She gets the husband who will give her all of the crazy sex she desires and another husband who is loyal and nice to her. I’m honestly not even sure what to make of this ending. Is it to show no one is perfect? Everyone is a hypocrite? Or is it some sort of revenge for how she was treated before? I’m honestly not sure.

I didn’t like anything about Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, but I have to give it a 2/10 because it was still competently made.


2010-19 2019 Reviews

Too Late to Die Young (2019)

Dominga Sotomayor’s film, Too Late to Die Young takes a personal and authentic look into the lives of a close-knit and isolated community in Chile. The events take place in 1990, right before the end of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. It’s a coming-of-age story that focuses on three kids in the community.

A film like this is only as strong as its performances and the young non-actors are excellent. Sofía (Demian Hernández), Lucas (Antar Machado), and Clara (Magdalena Tótoro) are the leads of this ensemble film. In the interview with BFI (on the Criterion Channel), Sotomayor spoke of her directing style and how many of the actors didn’t have any prior experience. She tried to keep the performances as real as possible by guiding them and not having them focus on the script too much. She directed them in a way that in the end, the film follows the screenplay closely. All three of them feel real and you will become attached to them. You might find yourself wanting to know what happens to them next. I would love to get a follow-up film with the three of them.

My favorite performance came from Antar Machado. He wears a boyish sadness that is brutally honest. You can tell how much he loves Sofía (Demian Hernández) just by how he looks at her. Machado and Sotomayor perfectly capture a teenage boy’s first love and the heartache that comes when the other person doesn’t feel the same way. Even when Lucas knows it’s hopeless he still wants to try. It’s heartbreaking.

Dominga Sotomayor’s Too Late to Die Young is a touching and unforgettable film. Her screenplay has some clichés, but her characters are so real that the clichés come off more as stereotypes than lazy screenwriting. I highly recommend Too Late to Die Young. It feels criminally unwatched right now.


2020 Reviews

Daniel Radcliffe Can’t Save Guns Akimbo

The latest shoot-em-up movie stars Daniel Radcliffe, and yes, you heard that right. He’s easily the best part of the film. I got so much enjoyment out of watching Daniel Radcliffe run around in a bathrobe with guns bolted to his hands. Radcliffe has done really interesting work since completing the Harry Potter franchise. I really respect him being game for pretty much anything.

Guns Akimbo focuses on Miles (Radcliffe), a computer programmer, who makes a poor decision and trolls an underground fight club organization’s stream. The organization, Skizm, doesn’t enjoy the trolling too much and wants to to make Miles pay. They end up bolting firearms to his hands and forcing him to fight in their next competition, against the baddest killer: Nix (Samara Weaving). 

I so badly wanted to like this movie more than I did. The concept is comical and cool. I’m a sucker for great posters with nice color schemes and Guns Akimbo has one of those. Initially, it checked all of the boxes, but in the end it didn’t deliver for me.

If you take away the initial set-up of having a character get guns bolted to his hands and having to participate in a fight to the death, the rest of the screenplay is pretty generic. It doesn’t bring anything new besides its tagline. While watching Guns Akimbo, you may find yourself thinking of other movies it reminds you of. I made a shortlist of ones I could think of right off the bay. Those movies are: the John Wick franchise, GamerNerveCrankHardcore HenryReady Player One, and The Running Man.

Usually when a film combines this many different films it will create a more interesting movie because it has so much to pick and choose from. However, Guns Akimbo feels pretty derivative. One could see Guns Akimbo as an algorithmic movie created from other daring action movies that have come out over the last two decades. I say that because there seems to be no passion or strong voice behind it shining through. The film has a lot of fun in the beginning, with its sleek editing and really interesting compositions, but it takes a step back and doesn’t take any risks. Guns Akimbo then came off as lazy, borrowing shots and successful artistic choices from other films. To top it off, the villain, Riktor (Ned Dennehy) is cartoonishly goofy. Ned Dennehy gives a 80s-esque performance in a movie with a modern feel.

Daniel Radcliffe does everything he can to save the movie and he’s supported greatly by Samara Weaving, who has made a habit herself of making the movies she’s in much better than they’d be without her. Nevertheless, uninspired direction and a common action screenplay prevent this from breaking through the mold of the action genre.


2000s Oldies

Japón (2003)

Japón is Carlos Reygadas at his most aimless and self-indulgent. The film begins great and maintains its quality until about halfway through. What starts as a story of a man going to a small village slowly turns into a story of a man who grows affection for an older woman he wants to receive sex from. It takes such a sharp turn thematically it was hard for me to go along with.

The film shifts from being about a man who is unsatisfied with his life, in the middle of a deep existential crisis, to the man being unfulfilled due to his lack of sex life. I realize this may be a crude and elementary way of looking at the story, but when the actions of “The Man” (Alejandro Ferretis) feel one-dimensional I’m more inclined to think that way. To say his actions are due to a natural primal instinct due to his newly acquired isolation only ends up minimizing his initial, complex issues. It’s an arguably pessimistic and unfair interpretation of human beings. I also don’t think you can write off his feelings for Ascen (Magdalena Flores) as love either because he knows almost nothing about her and proposes sex to her in such an entitled and manipulative way.

Japón has this quality of feeling like everything is spur of the moment and the narrative is constantly shifting. I think this could have worked if what was going behind the camera didn’t feel the same way. The film feels unfocused during the second half. Reygadas’s film eventually starts to feel like a collection of images that don’t always flow together seamlessly. After a while the editing starts to feel choppy.

There’s a weird moment where a non-professional actor addresses the camera crew of Japón. I was instantly reminded of the ending of Taste of Cherry. I personally don’t like the ending of Taste of Cherry, but that had more intent behind it. The one-off line one of the workers utters could have easily been removed or even edited around. It’s such a weird moment.

If Reygadas wanted to remind everyone that they were watching a movie, like director Abbas Kiarostami did, more thought should have been put into it. Or, if the line was completely unscripted – which it probably was – he should have found a way to double down later on the line if he knew he was going to keep it in.

You can expect to see the typical Reygadas flourishes you get in his later films: longer takes, minimal dialogue, and beautiful cinematography. Japón is mostly let-down by his hazy screenplay. He might have been able to save the film if he had a stronger conclusion, but it ends in a cheap way.

2010-19 Reviews 2018 Reviews

Zama (2018)

I find Lucrecia Martel to be a fascinating filmmaker. Before Zama, the only film of her’s that I had seen was La Ciénaga. I’m not much of a fan of La Ciénaga, but it has stuck with me since watching it. I think that shows the impact she has as a filmmaker. She has a unique vision and doesn’t seem interested in conforming to a “norm” that other filmmakers do.

Martel is important as a filmmaker because she does the opposite of what American filmmaking teachers would tell you. She often focuses on the mundane, something your teachers would tell you to cut out of your film. Martel succeeds because of her great abilities as a visual storyteller and dedication to her vision.

The most admirable trait of Lucrecia Martel for me is that she doesn’t seem to be out to impress anyone. She doesn’t want to be flashy or show-off. Her films have a very literal approach. She seems to showcase things as they are and doesn’t try to dress them up.

Zama has beautiful images, but not in a way that asks us to pat Martel on the back for creating them. In Zama, the closest shot we have to that is when men are riding on horses across a field with a bright blue sky behind them. We should respect Martel for showing us the beauty of life and nature and resisting the urge to fabricate it in any way that lacks subtlety.

Lucrecia Martel is clearly a very gifted visual storyteller. The story in Zama could have been more engaging for me, but it was enough to support the cinematography. I would recommend Zama to anyone who just wants a film to wash over them and see attractive images.