Blind Spot 70: Frankenstein 1931

I think because I have never been a big horror movie person I have a ton of blind spots in that genre including the Universal monster movies. This is why I really wanted to include Frankenstein 1931 in my blind spot this year. Strangely I have seen Young Frankenstein which is a parody of this film but not seen the original. I have also read the book several times and seen the Kenneth Branagh version from 1994 (and I’ve seen Frankenweenie!). Now I have seen the1931 film and I loved it! It’s an extremely well made film with several scenes that really got to me.

Frankenstein 1931 is directed by James Whale and stars Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster. It’s a simple story and at 71 minutes it doesn’t waste much time. Dr Frankenstein creates a monster and that monster is misunderstood and mayhem results.

The film starts off with the iconic image of lightning bringing the monster to life. We of course get the doctor calling out ‘It’s alive! It’s alive’. I love the black and white in these scenes and the way director Whale uses light and shadow to create mood.  They are scenes so often parodied they lose some of their impact but if you think about what it must have been like to see for the first time it is very exciting.

Karloff is great as the monster. He plays it almost like a zombie unaware of what he is doing but with just enough alertness to be cognizant of his actions. The most tragic scene is when he is playing with a girl named Maria and in the game he drowns the girl. That scene combined with the farmer bringing his dead little girl into the town is so sad. Devastating.

Like I said, Frankenstein 1931 is not a long movie so its elements are simple. However, I found it effective and very well made. It’s violent, tragic and exciting all at the same time and it has something to say about playing God and how we treat things we don’t understand. Is it a monster just because we are unfamiliar with it? Maybe? Maybe not?

I did think the film ended rather abruptly and I wanted a little bit more. I suppose I will need to watch the sequels one of these days.

8 out of 10

 

Blind Spot 67: The Wild Bunch

The whole point of this blind spot series is a chance to push me out of my comfort zone and finally watch classic films I’ve never seen before. Each year I try to select a variety of films just to keep things interesting for myself and you wonderful readers. One genre I have many blind spots in is Westerns and I’ve enjoyed a fair number of the classics like The Magnificent 7, Stagecoach, High Noon and last year’s blind spot pick The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

This year I picked the 1969 classic The Wild Bunch and I must own I did not enjoy this one much at all. It was incredibly violent, which would have been fine, but I didn’t like the story or any of the characters. It felt really long and I will definitely never watch it again.

The Wild Bunch is directed by Sam Peckinpah and stars William Holden, Ernest Borgine, Robert Ryan and Edmond O’Brien. It was highly praised upon its release and was nominated for best screenplay and best score at the Oscars.It tells the story of a gang of outlaws in the Old West along the Mexican border. They want to make a big last score so they can retire but their attempt leads to one stand-off after another.

I think the reason this movie didn’t work for me is it has no heroes. I was craving a John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart to come and fight for truth and justice. These men are all so decrepit and terrible I grew weary of their antics and surly ways. The violence is strong and unending with even women getting shot at point blank and innocent civilians getting caught in a outlaw shout-out.

It’s weird because I always think of these Westerns as being wholesome but they really are not. Even one’s I like such as Liberty Valance are very violent. The women are also treated terribly here and often shown topless for no reason. It was too much especially at a long 145 minute run time!

I know this movie is highly praised for its editing, music and cinematography and I can see why. They are very well done. I just didn’t care about the story or any of the characters. I think I will stick with the Westerns I have enjoyed like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or even The Cowboys. Those films have charismatic performances and are about people I understand or enjoy spending time with. The guys of The Wild Bunch are pigs and the warfare in the Old West gets old fast. Not for me!

 

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

What about you? Do you like The Wild Bunch? I know it is a classic for many so please share your thoughts in the comments section. Thanks! Yeehaw!

For a children’s western I had a lot of fun reviewing An American Tail: Fievel Goes West for Family Movie Night

Blind Spot 65: Bonnie and Clyde

Part of the purpose of the Blind Spot series is to challenge myself to watch classic films outside of my comfort zone. These are usually films I’ve heard great things about but have been hesitant to watch for one reason or another. 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde definitely fall into that description. A landmark of its time Bonnie and Clyde is a film that changed cinema with its grounded feel and shocking violence and sensuality.

Of course, Bonnie and Clyde tells the story of the outlaw couple in Depression Era America. Bonnie is played by Faye Dunaway and Clyde by Warren Beatty. Gene Hackman and Estelle Parson also play notable supporting roles (Parson won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress). Burnett Guffey also won an Oscar for the incredible cinematography.

The best thing about Bonnie and Clyde is its realism. Even though I know it plays fast and loose with the real story of the couple, when you are watching it feels real. It feels like what it might actually have been like stealing and scrounging for food and lodging- learning to dodge bullets along the way. Nothing feels clean or glossed up for the movies.

As you are watching you feel the exhaustion from the actors as if they were actually experiencing the events of the film. And by the time you get to its very graphic ending it is a relief for the chase is finally be over. I can see why critics like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert were so drawn to such a visceral piece of work.

All that said, the film could do a better job in helping us to get to know Bonnie and Clyde as characters better. They are always kept at a distance and that’s a weakness in the script. Also, this type of violence just isn’t my cup of tea so I don’t picture myself ever watching Bonnie and Clyde ever again.

Still, I’m glad I saw it once to see a turning point in film and to broaden the scope of the films I have seen.

Have you seen Bonnie and Clyde? What did you think of this classic?

6.5 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Blind Spot 64: Two for the Road

I always like to have a variety in this blind spot series, so for April I decided to watch the 1967 romantic comedy Two for the Road. As a huge Audrey Hepburn fan this is one I had heard about but never seen and was excited to check off my list.

It’s interesting because this film was made 2 years after Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou which we just reviewed for The Criterion Project (my podcast with my friend Conrado about films on The Criterion Channel. We had guest artist Esther Ko on and it’s a fun listen!). I mention it because both films feel very similar. They are both about couples going on road trips in France and their relative tumultuous relationships. I don’t know which one I like better but they are both unusual romances to say the least.

Two for the Road is about a couple (Hepburn and Albert Finney) and their relationship over 12 years all told with their road trips in France over the years. It’s an experimental film like Pierrot le Fou and goes in and out of non-linear storytelling without any notice of a changing time (you have to tell by what car they are suddenly driving). It’s all very creative and the script is well done.

All that said, this is one of those movies I admire more than I like. I found both of them to be very unlikable and cynical takes on romance just aren’t my thing. I can see it is well done and understand why it was given an Oscar nomination for best screenplay.

However, I like my romances more on the fluffy-side (big shocker coming from the Queen of Hallmark movies). Even when they were supposed to be young and in love it still felt cynical and I wasn’t feeling the chemistry between Hepburn and Finney.

Two for the Road is directed by Stanley Donen with style and I can see why Roger Ebert said it was a ‘romance for grown ups’. Like I said, it’s well done but just not for me. This makes giving it a grade difficult (these are the hardest reviews to write) but I will go with…

5 out of 10

Frown Worthy barely

BLIND SPOT 60: REMEMBER THE NIGHT

I’ve said many times on this blog the hardest reviews to writer are for ‘just ok’ films. Movies that inspire a strong feeling either of praise or repulsion are easy to write about. The words flow through the keyboard. It’s the movies that are passable entertainment but nothing special that are a challenge to critique. Or at least challenging for this critic. This ambivalence is how I felt about the holiday classic Remember the Night. It has its moments but I definitely didn’t love it.

Remember the Night has a lot going for it. It’s written (but not directed) by the great Preston Sturges. It stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray who’ve I liked in other things including teamed together again in movies like Double Indemnity. From what I’m reading the the production of Remember the Night was messy and Sturges had his script hacked up and “was one of the main reasons fueling his determination to direct his own scripts thereafter, which he did beginning with his next project The Great McGinty

Learning about these problems with the film doesn’t surprise me and it is perhaps incredible it is as coherent and enjoyable as it is. In the film Stanwyck plays a woman who is arrested for stealing an expensive bracelet. She then goes on trial and MacMurray’s character is assigned to prosecute her. This would all be fine but there’s a lot of pieces which don’t fit. For instance, a long speech by her defense attorney claiming she was hypnotized and it is an example of the injustice against the poor for her to even be prosecuted. It’s full of theatrics and moral gravitas and then the script does nothing with it. We don’t get to know this man and the themes he mentions are rarely brought up again.

Another out of place scene is when she visits her Mother in Indiana. It feels cold and out of place given the witty banter and road trip shenanigans we’ve been experiencing for most of the picture. There’s lots of scenes like that and it leaves the viewer (or at least this viewer) feeling unsatisfied and disappointed.

All that said, Remember the Night does have positives. The long segments of banter are entertaining and MacMurray and Stanwyck have a spark in those scenes. The script from Sturges has brilliant moments which had me laughing. I particularly enjoyed the buttoned up MacMurray getting frustrated by the brazen rebel in Stanwyck.

Instead of Remember the Night I recommend a very similar movie also from 1940 His Girl Friday. Both movies are enemies to lovers stories with 2 people forced to work together with snappy banter as they of course fall for each other. I also recommend Bring Up Baby from 1938 which has a similar energy although Kathryn Heburn is more innocent in that role than either Stanwyck or Rosalind Russell are in their films. Or instead you could watch other better films by Sturges like The Palm Beach Story or The Lady Eve (also starring Stanwyck).

In the end, Remember the Night is too uneven to recommend. I liked some of the banter and performances but all involved would go on to do better things and so I would just check out those projects instead.

4.5 out of 10

Blind Spot 59: THE LAST UNICORN

When I included The Last Unicorn on my blind spot list for 2020 a lot of people were surprised I have never seen this classic animated film. This is probably especially surprising since I did an entire series on the creators Rankin Bass back in 2015. Well, the truth is I never saw this film because it never really interested me. I’m in general not that into fantasy stories and a story with unicorns, wizards and beasts didn’t look like my jam; however, the entire point of blind spots is to get me out of my comfort zone so I decided to go for it this year and watch it. Now I have seen it and my feeling is… it’s fine but not really my thing.

The first thing I will say is that the animation in The Last Unicorn is gorgeous. This is without a doubt the most beautiful film I have seen from Rankin Bass and I particularly loved the way it used color. We recently reviewed the hungarian film Son of the White Mare for Obscure Animation and that came out the year before The Last Unicorn and they struck me as very similar in style and feel (although I prefer White Mare personally).

It must have been a trend in the 80s because The Secret of Nimh also uses colors beautifully. And even the much maligned animated Lord of the Rings from Ralph Bakshi from 1978 has some bold color choices. I could use more of that in contemporary animation. Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse is one of the only recent animated films to use color in an interesting way (maybe Klaus as well).

Anyway, all those technical achievements are fantastic in The Last Unicorn, and I enjoyed watching it as an animation fan. On the other hand, the story wasn’t very compelling. It’s about a unicorn on a quest to find the rest of her kind who have disappeared. Along the way she meets an evil witch, an incompetent magician and briefly gets turned into a human and falls in love.The voice work is all good with the likes of Ala Arkin, Jeff Bridges, and Mia Farrow but I didn’t connect with any of the characters or feel much for what was happening.

So often in fantasy I enjoy the world-building more than the actual story and that’s definitely the case here. It’s not the dullest of the genre but I was tempted to fast forward on a number of occasions especially when she turns into a human. That love story was really treacly and plodding.

Still, I’d recommend watching The Last Unicorn especially if you are an animation fan. The story isn’t the best but it’s not awful either. It’s just a little slow but the music is beautiful,voice acting well done and the again the animation is stunning.

6 out of 10

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Blind Spot 58: ‘Halloween’ (1978)

Part of the reason why I do this blind spot series is to push me out of my comfort zone. As a film critic I want to be able to review any film, with the exception of outright pornography, that an outlet assigns me. That said I’m still a human being with preferences that come into play when watching films. However, by reviewing classics outside of my preferred genres for blind spots it helps me get out of my comfort zone with hopefully well made classic films. This is an effective way of pushing myself rather than watching a new film, which may or may not be a good example of the genre.

Horror, particularly slasher movies, is a genre I especially struggle with. Ever since I was a little girl I never liked the feeling of being scared and it’s still not my favorite; although I have grown a lot over the last few years. This year trying to push myself even further I decided to watch the classic slasher film Halloween from 1978 for this month’s blind spot.

Halloween is directed by John Carpenter who wrote the film with producer Debra Hill and the entire thing was made on a shoestring budget of only $300k. Carpenter also wrote the very memorable score that does a lot of the heavy lifting to bring tension into simple scenes.

Even though Halloween is outside of my comfort zone, I can totally see why it’s a classic and a favorite of horror fans. It is very well directed by Carpenter with leering cinematography by Dean Cundey. Even when characters are doing mundane things like talking on the phone or watching television there is a sense they are being watched and they should be more careful than they are being. We as an audience know the deranged Michael Myers is out there but the characters don’t. This makes us anxious for them and the violence, when it does happen, very effective.

Surprisingly, Halloween is not a very bloody film. It’s violent and there is carnage but most of the movie is about anticipating the kills rather than luxuriating in them. I also appreciate the film doesn’t try to explain away Michael Myers or give him some complicated backstory. We see from the opening that he is the personification of evil and that’s all we need to know. Sometimes evil exists and the devil is a real force so I appreciated that approach.

There is also an ambiguity to Michael Myers as a character that makes him scary. I am sure they elaborate on his nature in the sequels but I like here how he might be human or an alien or something else. We don’t know. Dr Loomis (played very well by Donald Pleasence) tells us he is evil from the start of the picture and we see him as a child murderer and that’s all we need to know to be scared.

Jamie Lee Curtis is definitely the best of the 3 young actresses in Halloween. She’s skeptical when you need her to be and smart when faced with a threat. So many of these ‘final girls’ in horror movies are needlessly stupid (including the 2 other girls) that it’s refreshing to see Laurie as played by Curtis as a character who uses her head.

Halloween is not a movie I am likely to watch again. It’s just not my thing, but I can recognize good filmmaking and that’s what we have here. It’s very well done and I’m glad I finally checked it off my list.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Blind Spot 57: ‘Apocalypse Now’

 

I’ll be honest when I put Apocalypse Now on my blind spot for 2020 I did so with hesitation. I knew it was a hard R rating and a long war film so it didn’t sound like something I would love. As we got closer to the watch in September my hesitancy increased as it seemed like a big downer to watch in quarantine.

Well yesterday I had terrible insomnia so decided to finally watch it and to my surprise I found it quite exhilarating.  To be sure it is long (I watched the theatrical cut) and brutal but the characters are so well realized and the story so surprising that it really worked well. I see why it is considered one of the great films of the 1970s.

If you didn’t know Apocalypse Now is directed by Francis Ford Coppola and stars Martin Sheen as an army captain given a secret mission in the Vietnam War to go into Cambodia and kill a rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). He is given assistance along the way by a PBR or river patrol boat which includes an assortment of characters such as Chef (Frederic Forrest), The Chief (Albert Hall), and Lance B Johnson (Sam Bottoms. He is a professional surfer in the movie).

They also meet people like a hippy journalist played by Dennis Hopper and an insane war-hungry Lieutenant Kilgore (Robert Duvall). His character is a morally repugnant man who cares more for surfing and the wins of war than human life but it’s such a big performance I found myself transfixed by it. Of course, he has the iconic line of the film ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’. And the crazy thing is he actually does love it. That’s nuts but also compelling.

The movie takes a long time to get to Colonel Kurtz but the wait is worthwhile. Brando was evidently quite the diva by this time in the 70s but somehow that aloofness and pride works well for the character. The final scene with the butchering of the water buffalo and the assault on Kurtz is riveting and tense.

It probably goes without saying but the production values of Apocalypse Now are absolutely outstanding. The sound design alone by Walter Murch was a game changer. The editing is great. The spectacle of the battles and use of color throughout the cinematography is incredible. All the acting is top notch.

As far as flaws there is a moral ambiguity about war which some might question. These days we want everything to make a statement but Apocalypse Now could easily be criticized as being both pro and anti war. This no doubt reflected the divided nature of the country in 1979 (what it must have been like to watch the film in 1979 is incredible to think about). I kind of like that it is open to interpretation but some may see it as a cop-out.

This might be a weird comparison but Apocalypse Now reminded me of another epic Lawrence of Arabia. Different time periods obviously but they both have large scale spectacle filmmaking mixed with unique characters that transfixed me. I love Lawrence of Arabia more but still both movies lived up to their respective hypes in my opinion.

What do you think about Apocalypse Now? Please put your thoughts in the comment section.

The horror! The horror!

9.5 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Blind Spot 53: ‘Lethal Weapon’ Review

I try to have a variety when I am setting up this blind spot series every year and since I did a trilogy of arthouse films in April with the 3 Colors Trilogy I decided to check off a blockbuster classic off of my list for May. This month I finally saw the 80s buddy cop film Lethal Weapon.

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Lethal Weapon was directed by Richard Donner of Superman: the Movie fame and is written by Shane Black who would go on to write and/or direct many popular films such as Predator, The Nice Guys and Iron Man 3. It stars Danny Glover as the world-weary cop who is paired with the mostly insane young cop played by Mel Gibson.

Obviously there are strengths to Lethal Weapon. It would not have made such an impact on its genre of films if it didn’t do some things right. Its biggest asset is the chemistry between Glover and Gibson. Their relationship isn’t easy but you believe their evolution as friends or at least trustworthy partners.

Lethal-Weapon-Christmas

I also enjoyed all the Christmas themes as it created a nice contrast between the darkness of the investigation and the brightness of the holidays. Shane Black also sets Iron Man 3 at Christmas so perhaps it’s a thing of his?

Unfortunately, my problem with Lethal Weapon is I did not love the script or the action. I haven’t enjoyed any of Shane Black’s scripts so maybe he is just not for me? The machismo in his writing is a turn-off and there’s a cynicism with how his characters treat each-other, which I do not connect with or find appealing. Other people seem to think it’s hilarious but again it’s not for me.

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As for the action I found it often dark, with strange lighting making it hard to see who was fighting who and what they were doing. Also the violence didn’t seem to do anything for the story, which made it feel gratuitous. In particular, an extended sequence where Murtaugh and Riggs are tortured didn’t help the narrative much and was mostly only there for shock value.

You also have to put on your 80s cap when watching Lethal Weapon because we have such a different attitude about police brutality and violence in 2020. Riggs spends most of the movie trying to convince Murtaugh that his method of killing the bad guys is the way to go. Today we’d certainly take a step back from that line of thinking!

Basically with Lethal Weapon you probably already know if you like it. I enjoyed the chemistry between Glover and Gibson and the Christmas setting was fun; however, the action and script didn’t do it for me. Take that for what you will.

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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