Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Funny Face (1957)

Funny Face dvdAll musicals exist in a world of fantasy, but maybe none more so than Stanley Donen’s 1957 film Funny Face. With no flying monkeys, talking killer plants, or even an extravagant Broadway fantasy (as seen in Donen’s crowning achievement Singin’ in the Rain), Funny Face surpasses them all in implausibility with the implication that there is anything “funny” about Audrey Hepburn’s face. Hepburn plays a shy but intellectual bookstore employee, whose whole world turns upside down when a photographer (played by Fred Astaire) points out the one thing that everyone else in the film seems to be blind to – the crazy notion that Audrey Hepburn could be a model!

Few plots have made less sense, but fortunately the film has enough charm and style to offer, that it’s easy to overlook such a ludicrous scenario. However, equally ridiculous is the romance between Astaire and Hepburn. Most films would fail with such an utter lack of chemistry (and with its creepy connotations, considering the thirty year age difference), but most films don’t have Hepburn and Astaire singing and dancing all throughout Paris, either.

Where the film really shines, though, is in Donen’s superb direction. He gracefully moves the camera around the gorgeous sets and refrains from using cuts to allow his actors show off their craft. The musical numbers are lively, exuberant, and downright charming. The titular “Funny Face” performance by Astaire is a standout, as he dances under the lights of a photo lab, drenched in the warm red hues. “Bonjour Paris!” finds the film at its most playful, as our leads arrive in the City of Love and can’t help but actually sing to the city itself. Hepburn does all her own singing (unlike her most notable musical hit in My Fair Lady, where Marni Nixon dubbed her vocals), which is not always on-key, but never not adorable. She does get to impress in a scene where she breaks out into an impromptu beatnik dance in the middle of a French café because why not?

Funny Face is a prime example of style over substance, but who needs substance when the style is so intoxicating? Hepburn, Astaire, and Donen work together to create a musical that may be utterly meaningless, but ends up all the more enjoyable because of it. You can check out this underrated Hepburn classic here.

Greatest. Movie. Ever?

andreiThere are lists beyond count of the Greatest Movies Ever Made. Some lists are short, some endless, and all are subjective. Most contain the usual gang of suspects. So my ears perked up when I ran across a reference to a 1966 Russian movie named Andrei Rublev, a movie I was unfamiliar with. It was noted that many directors think it’s the Greatest Movie Ever Made.



Christ the Redeemer, 1410

So I borrowed it, and with some hesitation popped it into the player. It’s in Russian, filmed in black and white and is 208 minutes long. Also, it’s sized so that it runs across your screen in a band—correct from the film perspective, but not so easy to watch in your living room. Outside, the sky was blue and the clouds fluffy. I thought of my petunias, which were getting scraggly, and needed cutting back. I thought of the lettuce in the crisper that needed rinsing. But, sucking it up, I sat down and started to watch. I have to say, within moments, I was hooked. Andrei Rublev was a medieval icon painter (1360-1430) who was so influential that his painting methods became church law in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Rublev is shown journeying through a tumultuous Russia, though most of the time there is focus on a series of stories, including the sack of the city of Vladimir by the Tatars.


The Holy Trinity, 1410

There are many odd things about this movie, one of which is you don’t see all that much of Rublev or his icons  (until the very end), but somehow it all makes sense—this is a dream world. It’s been pointed out that Andrei Rublev shows a series of punishments being meted out, and since Tarkovsky was born and raised in Stalinist Russia, it makes sense that he’s evoking the cruelty and capriciousness of life under a totalitarian dictator. For me, the most powerful story was that of a young boy who had claimed to be able to forge a gigantic copper bell. We see him getting more and more nervous, and he knows that the Grand Prince who commissioned the bell will behead him if the bell doesn’t ring. It’s excruciating, as it must have been to live under Stalin.

Andrei Tarkovsky

Andrei Tarkovsky

Tarkovsky’s main strength is showing us visions, and as screen after  screen of black and white images appear and vanish like bubbles in a stream, it made me think if he hadn’t been a filmmaker he would have been a painter. There are scenes that are like dreams, for instance when Rublev comes across some villagers celebrating Midsummer night by running naked down to a river with torches (a perilous sounding activity). This is one of the many scenes that got him in trouble with the authorities.

Nativity of Jesus, 1405

Nativity of Jesus, 1405

Should you watch it? Since it really is one of the greatest movies ever made–a tour de force of story telling, poetry and cinematography–sure. But. There are a number of scenes of extreme cruelty, and I found myself shaken by them. Maybe, though, this is what artists should do—shake us up. In an interview included on the DVD, Tarkovsky notes that if the world were perfect it wouldn’t need artists. And most of the movie is extraordinarily beautiful, a world of mist, flame and smoke. It’s a movie you watch knowing that it will change you, so it’s up to you.

Mr. Turner

turMr. Turner is the story of the last 25 years of the life of British artist J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), an English Romanticist landscape painter and watercolorist. His dramatic landscapes and color-washed seascapes prefigured Impressionism and the abstract art of the twentieth century. One of his paintings, The Fighting Temeraire, is considered one of the the greatest paintings in Western art. He also invented modern watercolor techniques. Turner was so innovative that he remains influential today.


The Fighting Temeraire, 1839

Turner (played by Timothy Spall) himself was a shambling warthog of a man, notorious among his friends for his secretiveness, brusqueness, and lack of hygiene. To me, though, there is something modern and self invented about him—he marketed himself and built his own showroom, and made appearances that were a bit like modern performance art.


The Norham Castle Sunrise, 1845

The late Georgian world depicted in Mr. Turner has been created with infinite attention to detail, and if you like the sensation of being transported back in time, you will enjoy the movie. The director, Mike Leigh, also created Topsy Turvy, a biopic about Gilbert and Sullivan, and there is a similar, almost hyperreal sense of the past in that movie.


Rockets and Blue Lights, 1840

There have been a number of criticisms of this movie–one is that “nothing happens,” but it’s a character study, not an action flick. Then there is Turner himself, who at one point is shown abusing his servant, Hannah Danby (played by Dorothy Atkinson). He was complex, no doubt about it, and one of the themes of the movie is the strange form that genius may take. In the last ten years of his life, he lived a double life, living part-time with a former landlady named Mrs. Booth. I think Mrs. Booth, played with a luminous sweetness by Marion Bailey, saw the good in Turner, and the magic of this movie is that we are able to, as well.


The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 1835









Funny Movies

February. Grey. Snow. Ice. Blah. Seems like a good time for some funny movies! Here are my picks for some of the funniest of the funny—and, I know, I know, there are a jillion missing. But these are my old reliables. My definition of a funny movie is one that gets funnier every time you watch it, and these fill the bill!

By the way, humor is subjective, and I will admit to laughing at Borat and Bad Santa, two movies in certifiably bad taste. Also, I have yet to crack a smile while watching a Marx Brothers movie, which I know is totally abnormal. Still, here are my faves!

Some Like it Hot

Two unemployed musicians accidentally witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and flee to Miami disguised as female musicians in an all-girl band, which includes ukelele player Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk, played by Marilyn Monroe. Shenanigans ensue.

Note: In 2000, the American Film Institute listed Some Like It Hot as the greatest American comedy film of all time.


Tony Curtis as “Josephine” and Jack Lemmon as “Daphne.”

The Big Lebowski

The Dude Abides. A lazy, unemployed Southern Californian stoner who loves bowling gets mistaken for a millionaire with the same name. He’s beaten up by men looking for money from the rich man’s wife and gets drawn into the kidnapping of the millionaire’s wife. Note: The plot is immaterial: it’s all about The Dude (Jeff Bridges, on the left below).



Best in Show

A comic look at dog show participants (and the pooches who love them).

best in show

The winner!

Young Frankenstein

Summoned by a will to his late grandfather’s castle in Transylvania, young Dr. Frankenstein soon discovers the scientist’s step-by-step manual explaining how to bring a corpse to life. Then things get a little silly. A little?

Cast of Young Frankenstein.

Cast of Young Frankenstein.


An airplane crew becomes ill after a bad fish meal. Surely, the only person capable of landing the plane can’t be an ex-pilot afraid to fly. Yes, but don’t call him Shirley!


Blazing Saddles

A spoof of every western film cliche in which a black man is appointed sheriff of a frontier town.


The immortal Mongo.


Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis are three eccentric parapsychologists in New York City who start a ghost-catching business. They soon discover they have more business than they can handle.

Who you gonna' call?

Who you gonna’ call?


You might want to check out this list of scientifically-proven to be the funniest films, rated by laughs per minute! The winner is Airplane, clocking in at three laughs per minute. Only three?

And here’s a new and  comprehensive list of the 100 best comedy movies, chosen by an impressive list of film insiders. Should keep us going through March, at least!



Space. The Final Frontier

gravityThe 2013 movie Gravity is a space thriller, and one of the best sci fi movies I’ve seen. It stars Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone, and George Clooney as Matt Kowalski, a veteran astronaut commanding his final mission. They are fixing the Hubble Telescope when space debris hurtles through and destroys their ship; they are left marooned in space, tumbling helplessly above the luminous Earth. From then on, it’s one thrill and chill after another. Sandra Bullock’s performance as Dr. Ryan surprised me—there was delicacy and vulnerability to her character, along with a gritty determination. Clooney was a bit too folksy for my tastes, but since astronauts do seem to be super cool and collected, his character rang true. The visual effects, which comprise 80 of the 91 minutes of the film, are totally amazing, as is the Academy Award-winning electronic score, which ratchets up the tension without mercy.

In Gravity, as I watched one of the space vehicles breaking up and burning as it fell to the Earth, I couldn’t help but think of the mythological Icarus, who with human arrogance, dared to fly too close to the sun.

2001As I watched their ship being smashed to smithereens, I couldn’t help but think of the serene opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which space was an accommodating blank slate for our dreams. The space station orbits the earth to the tune of The Blue Danube, and we have hauled our mundane world along with us. The outer space of Gravity is another thing entirely—a lethal nothingness, totally unforgiving to human beings.

martianIf you enjoy Gravity, consider reading The Martian by Andy Weir.  Astronaut Mark Watney is left marooned on Mars,  like a Martian Robinson Crusoe,  after a cyclonic sand storm. In a situation that would drive most of us insane, Watney cheerfully and resourcefully solves problem after problem in order to survive. But will it be enough? In some ways, the fascination of this book for me was following Watney’s thought processes as he faces catastrophe. The lesson seems to be that survivors don’t give up easily.

sands-of-mars-01Reading The Martian made me think of the first science fiction novel I ever read, which was The Sands of Mars, by Arthur C. Clarke. His Mars is an altogether kinder and gentler place for humans, and is a bit of a relief after reading of the ferocious Mars of The Martian. Clarke proposed a way for Mars to become habitable by transforming  its moon Phobos into a second sun. The science in The Sands of Mars is dated, but it remains an enjoyable read.

mars1If you enjoy The Sands of Mars, consider checking out Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars trilogy.  Chronicling the colonization of Mars in the year 2026, Robinson presents a startlingly realistic vision of what life on Mars could really be like. Mars becomes a political battleground for those who wish to leave Mars as it is, and those who wish to transform and exploit it.

All the above books and movies present different scenarios for whether man will be able to explore the planets and stars, or not. Space radiation and the possible inability of our bodies to stand up under the rigors of zero G gravity indicate that it will be tough going, though maybe it will be our own fragile psychology that will make the journey impossible.




Touching the Wild: Living with the Mule Deer of Deadman Gulch

hutto1A few minutes into watching the documentary “Touching the Wild: Living with the Mule Deer of Deadman Gulch,” the story of wildlife researcher Joe Hutto and his study of mule deer, I became aware that I was meeting an extraordinary person.

Joe, who lives on a ranch near the Wind River Mountains, of Wyoming, had dedicated himself to patiently earning the trust of the deer, and after two years the deer finally began to respond. Once he won full acceptance from their matriarch, a doe he called Raggedy Anne, he could move among the individuals in the herd: He had become part of the family. He was to spend the next years of his life with the deer, who are keenly intelligent animals.

muleThe mule deer live in families, and each deer has its own personality. There are family bonds, and the deer will stay with and mourn for a dying member. The deer themselves are, well, dear. With big soft ears and gentle, intelligent faces, it’s hard not to fall in love with them. Joe guards against anthropomorphizing the animals, but notes their “human” qualities, and wonders if loyalty, love, and the ability to grieve and mourn aren’t actually common to many animals, and aren’t really solely human at all.

The hardest scenes in the documentary are taken during hunting season, when hunters  “hunt the region hard.” Joe has hunted all his life, but with mule deer populations falling, feels that they should be protected. When a hunter kills a mule deer Hutto has known since the deer was a fawn, named Buck, he asked Hutto how old the deer might be. Hutto responded, “I know exactly how old he is. I’ve known him since he was a speckled fawn. I have all his shed antlers.”

Hutto feels that a hunter should know what he is hunting. Instead he sees hunters with high-powered rifles and high tech devices shooting from great distances, never truly entering into a contest with their prey. The moment when old Buck is loaded into a pickup truck like a sack of potatoes is a really hard one to watch.

touchingAfter watching this documentary, you may wish to read the companion book to it, also called Touching the Wild.

Hutto is the author of Illumination in the Flatwoods, which was made into the celebrated PBS Nature documentary, My Life as a Turkey, chronicling his exhaustive study of wild turkeys. He is also the author of The Light in High Places, an account of living alone in the high country of Wyoming observing the life of the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

Flicks for Fabulous Fashionistas

For the fashionistas among us, here are four documentaries about fashion greats Halston, Diana Vreeland, Carine Roitfeld and Yves Saint Laurent to slurp up while indolently leafing through the latest Vogue and painting your toenails.

vreeThe first is Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel 2012 (746.92 DIA). Diana (pronounced dee-ahna) worked as editor-in-chief at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, singlehandedly bringing fashion into the modern world and out of the hands of a privileged, stuffy elite. She was known for her eccentric, but amusing, pronouncements, such as “Why don’t you wash your blond child’s hair in dead champagne, as they do in France?” and “Why don’t you wear violet velvet mittens with everything?” Really, why not? She discovered major models such as Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton and the fabulous Veruschka. She was also known for her tremendous sense of personal style—her lacquered hair, her rouge, even for polishing the bottoms of her high heels every day.

vree1Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston 2010 (746.92 ULT), was, for me, the most enjoyable of these documentaries. Halston began as a milliner and created the famous pill box hat worn by Jackie Kennedy. He went on to revolutionize women’s clothing, simplifying and bringing fashion into the future. His ultrasuede shirt dress became an instant classic. He had a coterie of women followers, including Elizabeth Taylor, Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli, and they often partied the night away at Studio 54.

The seventies, with its avocado refrigerators and shag carpets, is sometimes remembered as an era of nightmare design, but seeing Ultrasuede reminds us of that era’s elegance. By the early eighties, though, fashion times had changed, and his empire crumbled and then collapsed. The party was over.

madcMademoiselle C 2014 (746.92 MAD) is about Carine Roitfeld, the least known of this group, at least to me. Mademoiselle C is for the hard-core fashionista, as it’s a  detailed documentary about Carine as she starts up her fashion book/magazine, called CR Fashion Book, in 2012. She doesn’t come across as warm and fuzzy, but if you are interested in the creative process behind magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s, it’s enlightening, and she does hobnob with fashion luminaries such as Karl Lagerfeld. Her hair, though, remains a mystery (meow!).

lamourL’Amour Fou  2011 (746.92 AMO) details the life of Yves Saint Laurent and his business partner and lover Pierre Berge. There are wonderful vintage clips of fashion shows, along with glimpses into their fabulously decorated homes. After Saint Laurent’s death in 2008, these belongings were sold in an auction at Christie’s for $483.8 million.

In some ways, this documentary is a meditation on having it all–is it ever enough? Saint Laurent suffered from depression, and the ups and downs of the creative process in the hot house atmosphere of the Paris fashion world ultimately destroyed him.

You might also be interested in the documentary September Issue 2009 (746.92 SEP) which details the creation of a September issue of Vogue magazine, always the biggest of the year.


Babette’s Feast

babette1I have several favorite movies: one is The Big Lebowski, which never fails to make me laugh until I snort, and the other is Babette’s Feast, which usually makes me laugh and cry. Babette’s Feast (1987) was unavailable as a DVD for a long time, but was just re-released, packaged with documentary footage and interviews. Apparently, I’m not the only one who loves this movie. I’ve probably watched it ten times, and have often reflected on just what makes it so wonderful.

babette4Well, first, there’s the story. It’s based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, who was a master storyteller. In Babette’s Feast, she tells of a master chef who must escape Paris during a revolution. Her husband and son have been killed, and on the recommendation of a friend, she seeks refuge with a pair of spinsters living on a remote coast of Denmark. The sisters are the daughters of a charismatic Lutheran minister who founded his own Christian sect. Babette begs them to take her on as a cook and housekeeper, and soon they are enjoying her good food. They have no idea that she had been the chef of the renowned Cafe Anglais, in Paris.

The years roll by and  Babette wins a lottery. She asks the sisters if she might cook a special dinner for the villagers, who are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the father’s birth. Little do the sisters suspect that Babette plans to cook the most fabulous meal ever.

babette3So villagers used to eating dried fish and rye bread crust gruel find themselves partaking of Blini Demidoff au Caviar (buckwheat cakes with caviar and sour cream); Potage à la Tortue (turtle soup); Caille en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigourdine (quail in puff pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce); La Salad (featuring Belgian endive and walnuts in a vinaigrette); and Les Fromages (blue cheese, papaya, figs, grapes and pineapple), with the grand finale dessert Savarin au Rhum avec des Figues et Fruit Glacée (rum sponge cake with figs and glacéed fruits). Numerous rare wines and Champagnes complete the menu. The dinner scene gets funnier every time I watch it, because the straight-laced diners have taken a vow not to notice the food, no matter how delicious.

babette2Under the influence of the wonderful meal, the diners, who had been quarreling with one another, are reconciled. In a transcendent moment, recognizing the shortness of life and their love for one another, they dance together under the stars. The sisters are flabbergasted to learn that Babette had spent all of her lottery winnings on the meal. Sister Martine tearfully says, “Now you will be poor the rest of your life,” to which Babette replies, “An artist is never poor.”

Dinesen’s ability to show the deep sadness of life along with its joy and comedy make this a unique movie to me. Babette’s Feast,  which is in Danish, won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

As a side note, Pope Francis has identified Babette’s Feast as his favorite movie. (New Yorker, April 26, 2013). I am not at all surprised.

H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine

wells2Sometimes memories of movies emerge like bubbles oozing up from the murk at the back of my mind, and the movie demands to be seen again. Such a movie is The Time Machine, made in 1960, and based on a novel by writer H. G. Wells.

wellsAs well as being a writer (he is sometimes called the Father of Science Fiction),  Wells was a historian, a champion of social ideals, and a futurist, who peered into the coming years and made predictions, some of startling accuracy. (He foresaw two world wars, saying the second would start in 1940, the rise of fascist dictators, and the invention of atomic bombs.) Such was the power of his inventive mind that his writings are still of interest.

First edition of "The Time Machine"

First edition of “The Time Machine”

Wells wrote what he called “scientific romances,” and one of his earliest (1895) was The Time Machine, in which he looked far, far ahead—to 802,701 A.D., to be exact. In it, a scientist travels to the future in his invention, a time machine.

He returns to tell his friends that he did not find the Utopian society he had hoped for. Instead, the human race had divided into two races: the passive Eloi, who dwelt above ground, and the subterranean, bestial Morlocks. The Eloi seemed to live an idyllic life, but, in fact, were consumed by the Morlocks. It’s actually a pretty horrifying vision of the future, and Wells, a socialist, based it on the widening gulf he saw between the rich and the laboring class, and viewed his story as a grim allegory of evolution.

timemachineThe movie The Time Machine was the most popular work of director George Pal. The time machine itself is a Victorian-looking contraption with brass trim and a red velvet seat, and is apparently powered by a single light bulb. The scientist, played by square-jawed Rod Taylor, who had met a beautiful Eloi named Weena (played by Yvette Mimeux), had led the Eloi in a successful revolt against the Morlocks. Perhaps thinking of Weena, he returns to the future.

EloiMuch of the fun of the movie stems from its retro vibe and time-lapse photographic effects, which received an Oscar. It’s been criticized for its paring down of a thoughtful novel into a straightforward adventure film, and for the casting of brawny Rod Taylor who teaches the Eloi that there’s nothing a punch in the jaw won’t solve, but I enjoyed it for its silliness, its glowing Metrocolor coloring, and for the hapless Morlocks, who sometimes look more frightened of the Eloi than the other way around.



Speaking of the Morlocks, they are a fun bunch. After watching modern horror sci-fi such as Alien, in which the snake aliens really are frightening, the Morlocks look like big green teddy bears with long blond hair, kind of like what Pamela Anderson would wear, and you may find yourself smiling rather than shuddering at them. When a spindly Eloi, emboldened by the professor’s manly example, timidly raps a Morlock on the snout, the Morlock instantly falls dead, bleeding profusely. I found myself rooting for the adorable Morlocks.

The Time Machine is a bit of a cult film, and has its own Facebook page, and there are modern filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg who cite George Pal and his thoughtful science fiction movies as one of their inspirations. At any rate, from the moment the MGM’s moth-eaten lion roars in the opening frame, I think you will enjoy yourself. A lukewarm Tab and a bag of Doritos would be the preferred snack to eat while watching.


White Night Wedding

Not knowing much about Iceland, I didn’t know what to expect when I popped White Night Wedding (DVD WHI) a movie by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur into the DVD player. Touted as a comedy, it is the story of a professor named Jon. We first meet him teaching a class of bored students at a community college. Lecturing about moral relativism, he gazes out a window as though looking for someone—anyone—to come to his rescue. Life wasn’t supposed to be like this for Jon. Some years before, he and his artist wife had come to live on a remote island off the coast of Iceland, she to burn up the world with her art, and he, with his writing. Life dealt them harsh blows, though: her high spirits wobbled into emotional instability, then to madness, then to suicide. His writing doesn’t burn up the world; he struggles under the burden of his wife’s mental illness and her death, and he finds himself commuting by ferry to the college every day to teach. Then he meets a local island girl who is a student. She falls for the professor, and thinks she can save him from his sadness. After some plot twists and turns, they marry, and it’s happily ever after. Right? Watching this sequence of events unfold, we feel forebodings.
If you think this sounds like unpromising material for a comedy, I agree, and a big problem with this movie is its awkward mix of humor and tragedy that doesn’t gel into black comedy. We meet other islanders, including the mismatched parents of the young girl, some of the buffoonish friends of the professor, a lonely young minister, who is played for laughs, and some locals who, improbably enough, want to make the island a tourist destination, complete with golf course. The island is beautiful, gilded with the midsummer’s sun, with seascapes and soft green countryside looking like paradise to this landlocked Midwesterner. I found some of the humor rather broad, and laughed instead at the throw-away lines. For the first half hour of this movie, I was in a truly foreign world, where I didn’t know the people, the language, or their landscape, and had no point of reference, a world whose Norse heritage is thinly overlaid with European culture. This movie will pull you in, though, if you give it a chance. One test as to whether a movie is “good” or not is how it sticks with you after you’ve seen it. Some movies are like fast food: they are consumed quickly and then immediately forgotten. But a good movie will resonate in your imagination long after viewing, and the characters may haunt you. In this case, it is the character of the first wife who haunts. We think of her, on a remote island with no kindred souls, living with a husband who is decent, but emotionally remote. There was nothing or no one to slow her downward descent, and the lonely beauty of the island must have made her life all the more difficult. In my recollections of this movie, the antic humor has evanesced away, leaving only her dark image. Watch “White Night Wedding,” to see this absorbing slice of a world far away, and to have some smiles, but don’t expect a frothy comedy. (I have the feeling Icelanders just don’t do frothy comedy). Director Kormakur seems to be saying that life is a tangled mess of the horrible, the mundane, and the funny, and that we can’t lose ourselves, no matter to which island we may escape.