Archive for the Reviews Category

THE BROADWAY MELODY (1929)

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 15, 2018 by cdascher

Broadway_Melody_posterThis is the story of a pair of sisters who hit the Broadway circuit and attempt to make it big. The film is interesting in that it was pre-Code, and the first sound film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, in 1929. This was also the second year of the Awards. The film features Anita Page as Queenie and Bessie Love as Harriet “Hank” Mahoney. Hank prides herself on her mind for business and her talent; Queenie is lauded for her beauty. This sets up a tension in the relationship, both professionally and personally. Eddie, who is engaged to Hank, starts the film off by telling two chorus girls he’s brought the sisters to New York to perform a vaudeville act with him in the latest revue being produced by Francis Zaneville. The chorus girls seem a little jealous and wish they’d have a shot at the gig, but Eddie in his charm still manages to stay in their good graces.

In the next scene, we see the sisters hanging out together and waiting for Eddie. When he arrives, we realize he has not seen Queenie since she was a girl. This part was a little confusing to me, since he’s engaged to Hank and clearly aware of their act as a sister duo, but I tried to suspend disbelief. He’s very taken with her immediately; so much so that it was rather uncomfortable to watch as a viewer – particularly because I liked Hank and her pluck so much.

The timeline of the characters’ backstory may not be the biggest wrinkle in this movie- but we’ll get to that in time. The Broadway Melody was the first talking picture to win Best Picture, and the second overall. I’m not sure if it was the first-ever feature musical, but it was definitely one of the first, and I’ve very much been looking forward to seeing it. Released sixteen months after The Jazz Singer, it is from a time when talkies were a novel artform. In any survey of film history, the introduction of synchronized sound always gets a mention. The Transition to Talkies has become the stuff of legend in Hollywood lore, with the stories of stars like John Gilbert, Clara Bow and Buster Keaton inspiring later classics like Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard. But while those later dramatizations are perennial classics, the actual output from this period is little-seen, making it something of a Hollywood ‘dark ages’. And there is something utterly irresistible about an artifact from a dark age. Continue reading

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THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 24, 2018 by cdascher

The_Silence_of_the_Lambs_posterCome with us, back to Valentine’s Day, 1991. All over America, suitors are planning the perfect romantic evening. Dinner perhaps? And look, a new spooky movie opening today. What better than a few scares and the winter chill to send that special someone into your arms! I think this Valentine’s Day is going to end very well, don’t you? Two hours of cannibalism, mutilation, flying semen and lotion-in-the-basket later, I’m pretty sure The Silence of the Lambs ruined thousands of first dates, but it was on its way to becoming a modern classic.

Let me start by addressing the obvious: This is a movie that wouldn’t be made today. It is undeniably transphobic. Jame Gumb – the only manifestly queer character – commits crimes that are inextricably linked to his gender dysmorphia. This is a world where being trans is pathology, and one that can be expressed violently. I want to acknowledge this, but I don’t want to spend too much time belaboring the point, castigating a movie from almost three decades ago. I’ll leave the subject behind by saying that in writing this, I’m genuinely second guessing which pronouns with which to use in discussing the film’s antagonist- evidence that we’re living in a future The Silence of the Lambs could not anticipate.

Silence is a thriller in the tradition of Hitchcock. It plays like a magic show, with audience expectation managed by misdirection. We start with a young woman jogging alone at dawn. Are we about to witness a crime? No, it’s Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) training for the physical requirements of her training. Buffalo Bill cuts off his victim’s clothes. Are we witnessing some sex crime? No, he has an entirely different and macabre agenda. Of course there is the famous switcheroo at the film’s climax, where we think the FBI team is raiding Buffalo Bill’s house, but no – Starling walking alone into the villain’s lair and her comrades are in an empty house hundreds of miles away.

The most crucial act of misdirection, though, falls to an actor. Anthony Hopkins is tasked with giving a portrayal Hannibal Lecter sufficiently engaging that our eyes never wander to the plausibility of a middle aged psychiatrist-turned-cannibal who can pick locks, escape detection and seemingly kill at will despite having no allies and a decade of only whatever exercise could be managed inside a small cell. The veteran actor’s perversely charismatic cannibal snob is what allows the movie to work. It was a career defining- and award winning- performance for a reason. It probably also helps explain why an earlier adaptation of the character, sans-Hopkins was not a success. Continue reading

THE DEPARTED (2006)

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2018 by cdascher

Departed234Our most recent Oscars film as part of our red carpet roulette project was The Departed, an American crime drama from 2006 directed by Martin Scorsese. I have to say, the first thing I commented on as we were watching this movie was the all-star cast. I looked at Mouse with each new person on the screen and said, “Wait – he’s in it too?!”

Indeed, it is chock full of heavyweights – Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Sheen, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin. A story about Irish mob boss Frank Costello (played by Jack Nicholson) in Boston, the film was a success both critically and at the box office. While I am not a fan of many of his political ideas, Marky Mark is fan-freakin-tastic in this. He is so Boston I can’t handle it. It’s a film about loyalty, infiltration, trust, family, and ambition. I was prepared to not really care that much about this film, but I have to say it is one of my favorites that we’ve watched so far.

I did have one looming question, though: in a film with so many heavyweight stars, why did they cast a woman who was not nearly as famous as the lead? Vera Farmiga plays Madolyn Madden, the love interest of both Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and Billy (Leonardo DiCaprio). She’s great in the role, but this question did occur to me. Also, as ever, I wished in this epic film that there were more roles for women and that Madolyn herself was better developed.

So much Irish. So much Boston. Are you not clear about that? Just to be sure, we’re going to play Dropkick Murphys and put a shirt on Nicholson that says IRISH.

OK, let’s talk about Marky Mark, since you brought him up. I don’t fault Wahlberg’s acting. If you want a wicked accurate portrayal of a tough Bostonian, whom else would you call? But there’s something about the character of Dignam that I found overblown to the point of being distracting. He’s a ‘tough cop’, the guy who got here by way of hard work and street smarts, not education and high connections. I get it. But at some point I found myself wondering “How does someone this incessantly abrasive get himself into this extremely sensitive position on the police force?” Continue reading

UNFORGIVEN (1992)

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2018 by cdascher

Unforgiven_2Allow me to pose a question. Is there any mode of storytelling more fundamentally American than the Western? Not just movies, but literature, visual arts, anything. The cowboy is nearly synonymous with America itself. And so my second question. Why is it that in the 90 years of Academy Awards- largely a celebration of the American film tradition- has that most uniquely American of film genres been awarded Best Picture only three times? In the Awards’ fourth year, Cimarron took the prize, and while I maintain for the record it isn’t as bad as its reputation, I think Cimarron is seen nowadays as a Best Picture in name only. A full 51 years passed before another Western took the Oscar (Dances With Wolves), then Unforgiven two years later. Since then, nary a Stetson has been seen on the awards podium.

In Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood (who also directs), plays William Munny, a reformed outlaw now widowed and struggling as a farmer. He is coaxed out of retirement by a young man seeking to carry out a contract on two cowboys who participated in the facial slashing of a prostitute. They’re joined by ex-outlaw Ned (Morgan Freeman) and run afoul of sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) on their way to the job.

You love Cimarron so much, hehe. I think it may still rank as one of my least favorites of the films we’ve watched, but I am glad to have seen it. I have to say I have long held a prejudice against westerns, and this one wasn’t half bad. It’s hard to not despise Eastwood from my perspective because I think he has abhorrent political views, but his character is a compelling one in this film. The scenes where he is with his kids before he sets out on this expedition are my favorite; they tug at the heartstrings, and when you see that he is a bit frail and out of it, you almost feel like you should look away. This is the sort of feeling I got as a kid when my dad would trip or something – there was a sense of not wanting to witness him feeling any embarrassment, though maybe that is connected to some toxic and dangerous ideas we as a society have about masculinity. Continue reading

AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999)

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2018 by cdascher

American_Beauty_posterI put off watching this movie for a while – I won’t lie. A movie I deeply loved when it came out and several times subsequently. It was quite honestly daunting and disturbing to me to think about sitting down to watch a film in which Kevin Spacey, an actor we now know (through the bravery of fifteen people and counting) to have sexually assaulted and violated people in their teens and early twenties throughout his career, lusts after a teenager.

In the era of #MeToo, silences are being broken and people are feeling less afraid to name behavior many of us as survivors have known for decades. People in positions of powerful often abuse that power and prey on others. #MeToo and #TimesUp are helping to shed light where it has been desperately needed.

This cultural moment sadly made me remember all the experiences of sexual assault and abuse I’ve had, particularly as a woman who ran a label and played in bands for years. I am heartbroken to say that more than once I have been sexually assaulted or abused by men within the world of music I have treasured so completely. I know what power imbalances look like. I’ve been public in some cases, and kept it quieter in others. Hearing all of the people currently coming forward has flooded me with memories – and in some cases I’ve chosen to revisit some of those past violations with those who perpetrated them. I often feel like it is a wonder I wasn’t run off from music completely – and I know I am not the only one.

As you can imagine, I might not be in the mood to watch Spacey drool over his teenage daughter’s friend amidst the tedium of his life in the suburbs. Drab and gray, his character Lester Burnham hasn’t felt alive in years in this film until he encounters his teenage daughter Jane’s friend Angela. Annette Bening is Spacey’s co-star in the film, playing his materialistic, Type A wife Carolyn. Their marriage has become miserable and loveless at the outset of this depiction, directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball. Continue reading

12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2018 by cdascher

12 yearsIt was like a scene from middle of the previous century, like something from an old civil rights documentary. A column of angry marchers – mostly male, uniformly caucasian – carrying torches and chanting racist slogans, converging on an American town. But this wasn’t dusty archival footage; this happened in 2017, five months before I write this. The animus behind this gathering of far-right groups was the planned removal of a statue from a local park, a statue of Confederate military leader Robert E. Lee. So just what sort of society was it that these extremists were so intent on venerating the memory of?

12 Years a Slave is the story of a real man, Solomon Northrup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a 19th century resident of New York state who was lured by a false promise of employment, kidnapped and illegally sold into slavery in the American South. He is purchased by a man named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), then, after an altercation with Ford’s overseer, sold to the sadistic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), all the while struggling to find a means to communicate his situation to his contacts in New York.

12 Years a Slave is a breathtaking work – literally. I could barely breathe throughout most of the film. It is painful to watch, but necessary – highlighting a time in our nation’s history that has set the stage for the enduring structural racism we see today as well as the cultural and individual racism. Ta-Nehisi Coates often writes about how we are a nation based on “pillage and plunder” – this powerful cinematic work brings that squarely to light. The film was directed by Steve McQueen, who I recently learned spent time in Iraq as an official artist documenting the horror of the war there. I mention this because I think McQueen is deft at depicting endless, brutal violence as both horrific and somehow mundane – the fabric of everyday existence under slavery.\ Continue reading

THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 4, 2018 by cdascher

bridgeOur most recent Oscars winning movie was The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957 British-American war film directed by David Lean. The film stars Alec Guinness as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, the senior British officer; Sessue Hayakawa as Japanese Commandant Colonel Saito; William Holden as survivor and US Navy Commander Shears; and Jack Hawkins as British Major Warden. The film starts when a train full of British soldiers arrives at a Japanese labor camp under Saito’s control. Saito informs the group that regardless of rank, they will all have to perform manual labor to build a bridge over the nearby River Kwai to connect Bangkok and Rangoon.

This does not sit well with Nicholson, who explains repeatedly to Saito that the Geneva Conventions expressly exempt commanding officers from manual labor. However, Saito is having none of it. The two begin to engage in a battle of wills – with their men looking on. Shears is already at the camp, observing from afar and quite often trying to get out of as much work as possible.  

The David Lean streak continues here at Red Carpet Roulette. And we can’t have a David Lean movie without Alec Guinness. And while William Holden’s name is at the top of the poster, this really is Guinness’s show. (His name, by the way, is an anagram for ‘genuine class’.) I find Colonel Nicholson to be one of cinema’s more compelling characters. He refuses to legitimize Saito’s disregard for the laws of war with his own cooperation – even in the face of torture and possible death – and Guinness sells this as a sort of ultra-British stolid fanaticism. If on the homefront they are adopting an attitude of “keep calm and carry on,” Nicholson faces his captor with a strategy of “decline to submit and politely remind the enemy that he is a war criminal.” It’s impossible for the audience, like the men under his command, not to cheer him on as a righteous warrior. The scene where Saito concedes to Nicholson’s terms is gold. Saito ‘magnanimously’ rescinds his demand that the officers work under the pretense of a patriotic holiday and Nicholson stumbles out into the arms of his cheering men. Cut back to Saito in his office – crying. Continue reading