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Summer Staycation Movies, Review #2: Dialing, Dancing and Deciding

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As explained in last week’s post, in between stages of this year’s Tour de France (which kicked off in the neighboring Netherlands on Saturday and IT’S SO GOOD SO FAR), I’m trying to fit in a few movies each week so I can review them here.  This week’s installment is all classics, all the time.  And some of them fit the “classic” definition much more than others, in my not-much-worth movie opinion.  Here we go:

1) Dial M For Murder (1954; Grace Kelly, Ray Milland, Robert Cummings)

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I’d always heard of this movie but I’d never seen it.  A week or so ago I watched a bit of the Grace Kelly biopic starring Nicole Kidman, and realized I’d never seen any of the princess’s films.  This was her first of three movies made under the haunting eye of Alfred Hitchcock, and I thought it was just ok. Not horrible but not great.  It was originally filmed in 3D but I can’t for the life of me figure out why, since the entire movie takes place almost all in one room, the living room of a London house (which started to seem claustrophobic after a few scenes, but maybe that was Hitchcock’s intention); perhaps it would’ve actually been better with those funky 1950’s 3D glasses on?  And also: the movie has an Intermission, a real throwback!

The plot revolves around a love triangle between Margot Wendice (Kelly), her older husband Tony  (Milland), and the American man she’s having an affair with, Mark Halliday (Cummings).  When Tony finds out about Margot’s indiscretions, he decides to logically divorce her and move on with his life; oh wait, I meant to say he absurdly plots to murder her without ever having confronted or talked to her about the situation. (Very dramatically drastic.)

The first 20 minutes or so is a pretty boring account of Tony outlining the bit-by-bit murder plan to the common thug he’s hired to help him (although we do start to get a real sense of how far Tony has fallen off his rocker).  Hitchcock uses weird far-off overhead camera shots sometimes, which also felt strange (I did notice the recognizable director immediately though in a cameo-placed shot in the picture on the wall).  And Tony’s slicked back greasy hairdo seems to solidify his villainous status.

There’s never any reason given for why Margot strayed from her marriage, other than Tony’s busy work schedule (and?); perhaps she got tired of Tony bugging her about leaving the fire burning in the fireplace after she went to bed (oh sorry, that was me that got annoyed at that).  The real interest in the movie starts with a heartfelt “OH NO!” moment when we realize Tony’s watch has stopped (his murder plot involved precise time-points for him and the hired thug) – the audience is actually invested in the plan at this point, having been privy to its every detail ahead of time.  So when the plan starts to go awry, and we’re bombarded with the schizophrenic music score during the attack scene itself, we’re completely roped in at that point and hanging on to find out what happens.

I won’t ruin the outcome for you, but I will say I was very amused by the Britishness of some parts of the movie.  When the police are at the house investigating, they are offered a tray full of proper cups of tea, and they actually drink it, I found that funny for some reason; when a crime was reported to the police, the person calling states “Please come quick, there’s been a ghastly accident” (does anyone really talk like that except the British, which I love by the way?); and what’s a checkroom?  They keep referencing leaving things at checkrooms at tube stations and I hadn’t heard that before, but it sounds very British.

There are plenty of twists and turns in the second half of the movie to keep you tuned in.  And near the end of it, one of the best movie lines I think I’ve heard in a long time:  “In a couple of days, you’re going to have the most wonderful breakdown.”  (I’ll have to remember to try to use that in real everyday conversation sometime.)  I recommend this movie for the mystery storyline, Grace Kelly’s perfect 1950’s outfits & coke-can curls, and the intriguing plot; watch it when you’re in a nostalgic mood for old-timey phones with those round finger dials.

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2) Band of Outsiders (French title: Bande à Part) (1964; Anna Karina, Sami Frey, Claude Brasseur)

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I chose to record this film simply from the description given on my program guide, which said something like “Two bandits meet a young girl in English class while in Paris, and plan as a gang to act out the burglary of her wealthy aunt’s Parisian mansion.”  I like watching movies set in France or England, but my mistake on this one was not doing any additional research ahead of time.  If I had done that, I would have discovered that this movie is the all-time favorite of one Quentin Tarantino….and I would’ve deleted it before I even started.

Let’s just say Tarantino and I (and most sane people?) have very different tastes in movies.  Don’t hate me, but I couldn’t stand Pulp Fiction.  And I’m sorry if I offend any French art cinema fans, but this may have been one of the worst films I’ve ever seen.  To call it bizarre, quirky or goth would actually be higher compliments than it deserves.  It’s a French film spoken in French with English subtitles, which doesn’t bother me since I do speak French, but I know most people either love or hate subtitles.  It was filmed in Paris but it’s not a Paris I’ve ever seen…it looked more like a really bad grey suburb of Pittsburgh.  And the beginning title sequence will give you a migraine if fast-flashing pictures are one of your triggers, so just a word of warning there.

The two bandit guys, Franz and Arthur, are horrible drivers, but then I guess their attention is all on their new girlfriend Odile and the stacks of money she told them (perfect strangers) about in an English class.  (That was already extremely annoying.)  The early scene in the English classroom is just plain crazy to me – since when is whistling, drinking alcohol from flasks, openly passing notes and sexually harassing the teacher accepted in any classroom anywhere, even in France?  Arthur is especially creepy, and Odile’s naivety comes across as self-imposed moronic.

Most of this film just makes absolutely no sense to me.  At one point Odile crosses a field behind her house, runs past a roaring lion in a cage, and throws a raw piece of meat to a tiger on a chain (never explained).  There are stacks of money in the house where Odile lives with her aunt, but there is hardly any furniture anywhere in the house.  The bandits wear full stocking masks but no gloves (fingerprinting techniques didn’t exist in Paris in the mid-60s?).  New Orleans-type jazz plays over some scenes, totally out-of-place.  They film a scene in the car where the top is down but it’s pouring rain – why didn’t they put the top up then instead of five minutes later when they were all already soaking wet?  All the winter-bare trees on location looked just like the evil trees in The Wizard of Oz. 

The strangest scene of all is THE DANCE.  The bandits and Odile are having drinks in a diner when they suddenly just decide to get up and do a choreographed dance in the middle of the floor (not a dance floor, just next to the tables); it would be like us getting up and doing a line dance at Denny’s, with waiters and customers walking around you and trying not to bump into you.  Apparently it was based on an American dance called The Madison?  Never heard of it, but apparently Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction dance scene was based solely on the jerky little number from this film.

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But most frustrating of all was the HORRIBLE sound quality in this movie.  Constant background noise: traffic, construction, other people talking…it’s so distracting and very hard to even hear the characters talk. But I now think the director actually wanted the sound to be horrible – because in the middle of the diner scene, Arthur actually proposes a minute of silence – and the editors actually cut all sound, it just goes silent while they stare at each other for, well, not a minute but 36 seconds.  “YOU READ MY MIND!” I yelled at the TV screen, it was such a welcome relief to my ears.

The movie wasn’t a complete loss – I actually learned two new pieces of information that I’d never known before: 1) Apparently Billy the Kid was shot and killed on July 13th – my birthday.  I’ve always loved anything to do with Billy the Kid but now I feel even more of a bond; and 2) There was another earlier genocide in Rwanda in 1964 where 10,000-14,000 Tutsis were killed, 30 years in advance of the 1994 genocide with which most of us are more familiar.  The fact that this movie taught me those things, in the same film, is yet another testament to its odd components.  But my final recommendation is to avoid this movie if at all possible, it’s just too weird, and it’s definitely not a “classic.”

And last for this week is:

3)  High Society (1956; Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra)

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After the disturbing disaster that was Band of Outsiders, I needed a completely opposite-direction pick-me-up film, so I thought what could be better than a 1950’s mayhem musical with the two most famous crooners of all time?  And for the second time in a week, I picked a movie with Grace Kelly in it – this was her very last film she made before officially becoming royalty and giving up her acting career.  (And it was also a musical remake of the earlier play and 1940 film, ‘The Philadelphia Story’ starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart; I watched that movie after this one and trust me, ‘High Society’ is much more worth reviewing.)

I’d never actually seen any movies with Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra in them, I’d only ever just heard their songs.  I was pleasantly surprised by Bing Crosby, I thought he was very smooth in this movie, and played the character of wealthy Dex very believably.  His voice really is hypnotic, and I read that his friend (and co-star for this movie) Louis Armstrong once said Crosby’s voice was like “liquid gold being poured out of a glass.”  I really enjoyed his jazz song duet with Armstrong and the band, and I don’t even really like jazz.  (However I did not enjoy the song he sang to the young prepubescent girl in the beginning, it was creepy.)  My only quip with his role in this film was that he was 26 years older than Grace Kelly at the time – way too much of an age difference to be playing her former and maybe-future love interest, in my opinion.

Oh so the storyline is one of Tracy Lord (played by Kelly), a high society socialite who has to decide if she’s going to go through with her next-day nuptials to fiance George, get back together with her ex-husband (and now next-door neighbor) Dexter (Crosby) who professes he still loves her, or go in a completely new direction with a sudden third suitor and magazine reporter (there to cover her high-dollar wedding), Mike (Sinatra).  Poor baby, what a predicament.  “What do you do besides collect husbands, Miss Lord?” she’s asked at one point.  The script was full of some very good one-liners like this one.  When asked by Mike what she did in her spare time, Tracy quips “I sometimes endure arrogant reporters.”

Grace Kelly’s acting was much better in this film, in my opinion, than in ‘Dial M’ from just two years earlier.  She was given more of a chance to stretch her acting limbs in this one (including some flawlessly impeccable French that she must’ve picked up in Monaco), and while the ending is predictable, she did a good job of helping to make the journey to the end an enjoyable one.  Plus she once again looked “like a statue to be worshipped,” as she was referenced during the movie – her tiny waist!  The dresses she wore in this film were simply exquisite (just try to ignore the hat choice at the end though).  And she also wore her real engagement ring from the Prince of Monaco during this movie, a huge rock that should have had its own speaking role, it took up so much room.

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I hope this isn’t sacrilege, but I did not think Frank Sinatra was a good actor in this film.  I don’t have anything to compare it to, since I haven’t seen any of his other movies, but he seemed artificial and wooden and just…bad.  (Especially compared to Crosby, who seemed so natural.)  I found myself thinking “he should’ve just stuck to his singing career.”  I’ve read that he was a stickler for insisting on only doing one shot of his scenes, even if he didn’t do very well in them.  I did enjoy his fun duet with Crosby “Well Did You Evah,” especially the line where he sings to Bing “Don’t dig that kind of crooning, chum!” and Bing replies “You must be one of the newer fellows!”  I thought that was a funny dig at Sinatra and the younger Brat Packers moving in on Bing’s territory.

I was a little confused why this movie was classified as a true musical, since there really weren’t that many singing numbers it seemed.  But it’s good clean 1950’s fun – the clothes, the songs, and some great cars, like a coral-colored (!) station wagon and a fantastic silver bullet Mercedes convertible.  Louis Armstrong has a really good scene-setting song on a bus in the beginning.  And there’s even a 5-minute long Overture at the beginning, which is what they did I guess before previews existed?  Anyway, this is one to put in your pocket for future watching.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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Summer Staycation Movies, Review #1: Legends, Lotteries and Loopholes

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“Winning will put any man into courage.” ~William Shakespeare (Cymbeline, I, iv)

I’m off work for the next several weeks on a staycation summer break.  This time last year I was on a trip-of-a-lifetime in England on a 3-week jaunt around the country, including an amazing experience at the Grand Depart of the Tour de France in Leeds, Harrogate & York.  Since my bank account and credit cards can only handle a big trip like that every other year or so, this summer I’ll be:  watching the Tour in all its French fantasticality on TV, sampling croissants from various bakeries around town to accompany my Tour-watching, fish-mail-plant-and-baby-bird sitting for various family members who are all off on RV trips across America and Canada, and hopefully doing some freelance floral design work along with building aspects of my own business.  (For those of you wondering why I’m obsessed with the Tour de France each year, please refer back to this post from two years ago, still relevant today: Why I’m Still In Love With the Tour de France.)

I also thought I’d get in some quality movie time and pass along my FWIW reviews of the films I watch each week during vacation.  I’ll keep the reviews short and to the point, and maybe they’ll inspire some of you to watch (or avoid) them as well.  I’d like to focus on true old-movie classics (TCM-types) but I can’t promise that an ’80’s big hair gem or a current day blockbuster won’t sneak in there as well.  So without further ado, let’s get to the reviews of the movies I’ve watched since my vacation officially started last Friday:

1) Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967; Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Houghton)

darg.600.1I’ve been a fan of this movie for many years now, but it’s probably been 10 or more years since I last watched it.  Those of you who know me best will understand why this film really hits home for me personally, but I also think it should be a movie that everyone should watch at some point.  I wish I could go back in time to experience the visceral societal reaction that this film elicited back in 1967, as it must’ve been a powerful window with which to peer in on humanity.

If you haven’t seen it, here’s the nutshell (and by the way the movie takes place all in the span of one day): Sidney Poitier plays Dr. John Prentice, a tropical medicine doctor who meets and quickly falls in love with Joey Drayton, a woman much younger than him who also happens to be white.  Joey brings John back to her parents’ home in San Francisco not only to introduce him to her aging parents, Matt & Christina (played by movie legends Tracy & Hepburn), but also to spring upon them that they’ve gotten engaged and plan to move to Switzerland together to be married (all in the span of a week).  The rest of the movie deals with the reactions of all the parents (John’s fly up from Los Angeles to have dinner with the group too) to this bombshell news and to the fact that their children are racing into an interracial marriage.

Despite its civil rights iconic status, the movie’s not without its faults.  The soundtrack consists of only one song, “Glory of Love,” played many different ways all throughout the film, and after about the second playing, you want to strangle the sound guy or producer who made that decision.  The missing lenses in Spencer Tracy’s glasses throughout the entire movie is distracting (why did they do that?).  And why wasn’t the huge age difference (15 years) between John and Joey more of an issue to her parents, she was practically a baby (I guess that wasn’t such a big deal back then but still).  But it more than makes up for those issues with two of the all-time greatest speeches in movie history: Hepburn’s awe-inspiring shakedown of her gallery assistant, and Tracy’s famous 8-minute life-lesson monologue at the end.  There’s also a really groovy dance spot between the house and the butcher’s van, man.

I have a newly found appreciation and soft spot for this movie now, both after my own life experience and after some research I did on it; it was only as of watching it a few days ago that I found out it was Spencer Tracy’s last film (he was in extremely poor health during the movie and died just 17 days after filming the last scene), and that Katharine Hepburn’s tears during his last monologue were real, as she knew they would never act together again, and that she would probably soon lose him.  She’d been his life partner for 26 years but theirs was a behind-the-scenes relationship, literally (he was married to someone else that whole time but he lived with Hepburn); watching her watch him in that last scene, and knowing that she would never watch the film once it came out (“it was too painful,” she said), that she would be the one to be with him to the very end, and that she would not attend his funeral out of respect for his family…it’s all so tragically poetic.  The movie makes you laugh and breaks your heart all at the same time; in my book that’s a good movie.

2) Waking Ned Divine (1998; Ian Bannen, David Kelly, Fionnula Flannagan)

large_5rpJUAq2CTRmYUxiWRlrllBsqsxWhat a great movie!  I also had not seen this movie in probably 8 or 10 years and forgot how funny it was in parts (in that kind of quirky British humor way).  In case you haven’t seen it yet I won’t give away too much of the plot, but it revolves around a small village in Ireland (really small, only 52 people) and what happens after one of them wins the national lottery.  And while the village of Tullymore is supposed to be set in Ireland, the movie was actually filmed on the Isle of Man – and that amazing scenery is definitely one of the stars.  The music is great too and there are plenty of good small Irish pub drinking scenes (yes even in a village of 52 people there is a neighborhood pub – OF COURSE, IT’S IRELAND).  But just a heads-up, I did have to put my closed captioning text on the screen so I could understand some of the thicker accents.

The two main characters of Jackie and Michael (played by Bannen and Kelly) are endearing from the start (those motorcycle goggles!), and the storyline keeps you hanging on through to the very end.  The subplot of Finn and his pigs and will-she-won’t-she Maggie is a little annoying but be sure to pay attention to the end answer of the Maurice question should you choose to watch.  I was sad to find out that Bannen died in a car accident the year after this film came out, what a fantastic smile and laugh he had.  Seeing this film again after now having been to some very tiny towns in England over the past few years made me wonder even more what small village life in those lands must really be like.  Where literally everyone knows everyone else down to the smallest detail and what they had for dinner…how strange that must be.

If you’re looking for a good little across-the-pond movie without violence or demons or foul language, then watch ‘Waking Ned Devine.’ (By the way, the movie is called just ‘Waking Ned’ in every country other than America, they added ‘Devine’ thinking Americans would like a longer title.)

3) Skyfall (2012; Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes)

Skyfall-Daniel-Craig2Ok last one for this week.  You know that sound between a sigh and a frustrated grunt that means ‘what the what,’ how does one spell that out?  Ucchhhuuuggcchh.  That’s how I felt about ‘Skyfall.’  Yes I know I may be the last adult in America (and definitely the last Anglophile) to have seen the latest (and 50th anniversary) 007 movie that came out two and a half years ago already, but truth be told I never could get into Daniel Craig as Bond.  I know I saw ‘Casino Royale’ when it came out, just out of curiosity, and I think I saw ‘Quantum of Solace’ but honestly I can’t be sure.  But when I noticed ‘Skyfall’ was premiering on network TV I decided to give it a go.

It’s pretty bad.  Especially for a Bond film, which has such high expectations.  I’m trying to like Craig, really I am, but he’s just so…dry.  He seems to literally have the same expression on his face through the entire movie.  But he wasn’t the worst part – those were the never-ending loopholes and belief-suspending moments that meant the movie basically made no sense whatsoever.  “Shouldn’t that just be what to expect from a Bond film, and instead just be satisfied with all the explosions and helicopters and inevitable top-of-train fight scenes?” you might ask.  Nope, not even all the special effects could make up for the skipping storyline in this one.

There wasn’t even a good badguy backstory, and those are key to Bond movies working well.  Javier Bardem seems to have been given free rein to make the character of Silva as weird and messed-up-by-mommy as he wanted, but the end effect was just weird and flat.  Every few minutes I found myself having to rewind as I thought I was missing a scene or two telling me how something happened, but no, the writers and/or producers must’ve thought we would just be too idiotic to notice huge storyline gaps.  All these huge moments in the film were never explained, the lack of Bond gadgets was very disappointing, and the end sequence was just too dumb to even go into.  I read that this movie was perhaps the most expensive movie ever made (or is that the next one), and this was the best they could come up with?  They need a real-life Bond to work some MI-6 miracles for the next script please.

What did I like about the 23rd Bond film?  I thought the new younger Q was a surprising-in-a-nice-way add (the actor playing him had good range), and when they brought out the old Bond’s classic Aston Martin to “go back in time,” I admit I cheered a little.  I liked that they ended up in Scotland in what seemed like a nod to Sean Connery.  I liked all the London street and rooftop scenes.  And…that’s about it.  I hear Daniel Craig is already signed up for the next two Bond movies and that the same director is in line for the them as well…which may mean I’ll be waiting awhile before I see my next Bond flick.  I’ll survive.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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