Movie Review – “Brief Encounter” (1945)

 

 

There’s a certain charm to movies that were restricted due to war efforts, especially European films made during World War II. The 1946 French version of “Beauty and the Beast” is possibly the best example of that, with its grand fantastical scope while being made under Nazi occupation, while others like “Rome, Open City” and the entirety of the Italian Neorealism film movement changed the way on-location filming was handled.

But British filmmakers handled it differently from the French and Italians. In France, they most made films to distract from the war and take the audience away from the pain. Italy embraced that pain and suffering, showing just how terrible war can be on the common man. But the British chose to focus on telling grounded yet sympathetic stories where our cast of characters often find hope in a bleak world where love seems lost.

One of the best examples of this is David Lean’s “Brief Encounter,” a tale about Laura (Celia Johnson), a married woman trying to lead a normal life in the middle of WW2, whose life becomes far more complicated when she has a chance encounter with a complete stranger, Alec (Trevor Howard). The two slowly but surely fall in love and this leaves Laura in a difficult position with her husband and children.

 

 

“Brief Encounter” is like if “Mrs. Miniver” was made on an extremely limited budget and did not have the benefit any big name stars, instead relying on realism and film noir-like lighting and sets. Laura desperately tries to run her life like the war does not exist, but it is taking a colossal psychological toll on her. Without ever showing a bullet or bombshell explosion, this movie emphases how bleak and empty life is when there’s someone so close by that wants to exterminate your way of life.

Yet at the same time, the film offers a ray of hope and optimism with Alec, who makes every moment matter. The relationship between these two feels genuine, especially when you see the utter joy Alec brings to Laura’s life.

I’d recommend “Brief Encounter” over “Mrs. Miniver” because of how authentic and genuine Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard’s performances feel, as well as David Lean’s superb use of camera angles and lighting. The film is minimalist, but that certainly gives it a distinct charm.

Final Grade: B-

 

Movie Review – “Baby Driver” (2017)

 

 

A word to the wise – to all the children and adults of the 21st century: whether their concern be pediatrics or geriatrics, whether they crawl on hand and knees and wear diapers, or walk with a cane and comb their beards. There’s a wonderous magic to “Baby Driver” and there’s a special power reserved for Edgar Wright. In short, there’s nothing mightier than these high-octane thrills powered by the largest variety of music you will ever hear in the cinemas.

 

The full enjoyment of “Baby Driver” is better left to visuals, not words. A review cannot do this film justice. I can only say that “Baby Driver” is like if the “Fast and Furious” franchise and “Singin’ In the Rain” had a crazy love child that was directed by Edgar Wright, a man who takes visual storytelling, compostion, and editing to an entirely different plain of existence.

 

 

Do yourself a favor and go experience “Baby Driver.” Because this film leads to the astonishing top of reality: you’re on a through route to the land of the different, the bizarre, the unexplainable. Go as far as you like on this road. Its limits are only those of mind itself. Ladies and Gentlemen, you’re entering the wonderous dimension of imagination. Your next stop, “Baby Driver.”

 

Final Grade: A

 

Movie Review – “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” (1961)

 

 

This is one film that gets better the less you think about it and the absurd premise. Science and reality are thrown out the window for entertainment’s sake, but “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” handles this by balancing difficult moral decisions with impressive special effects.

 

One of the richest and intellectual minds in the world, Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon) has designed the most advanced nuclear submarine the world has ever seen, the Seaview, including going to unthinkable depths in the arctic sea. Nelson plans to see how long the Seaview can last underwater without radio contact, but after a few days of underwater testing, the Seaview is forced to the surface when the ice caps around them start to break down. The crew finds that the sky is on fire and the surface temperature at the north pole is nearly 120 degrees and rising.

 

The crew arrives in New York City to find that the whole world is experiencing this deadly heat wave. Scientists have estimated that the Earth will become uninhabitable for any life within three weeks. One Russian scientist proposes that just two days before that time, this heat will just go away and everything will return to normal thus humanity should do nothing but wait. But Nelson and the crew are against this plan and come up with their own fire a nuclear missile into the atmosphere at just the right moment in just the right place, from the deepest point of the Earth just before all life is wiped out.

 

The governments of the world refuse to approve this plan, which leads Nelson to take drastic actions and steal the Seaview and her crew, as they make their way towards the Marianas trench near Guam in an attempt to save humanity.

 

 

 

The main theme of “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” is power and how much one man should have of it. Nelson not only builds a one-of-a-kind submarine that outclasses everything the military had built up to the point, but he takes it upon himself to save the world from an event that he feels only he can stop. Anyone else is inadequate or not intelligent enough to carry this burden in Nelson’s eyes. He betrays the advice and authority of the United Nations to go on this mission, and even challenges the integrity and courage of the Seaview’s crew, feeling that they will be the downfall of this mission and thus ending all life on the planet.

 

Nelson’s power is questioned further when they rescue a scientists stranded on the ice, Alvarez, who spouts on about how this heat wave is God’s will and that he has chosen to end all life on the planet Who are we to go against the will of God? Yet, despite all this, Nelson pushes forward to prove that man has the power to make his own destiny, despite the will of others.

 

Robert Sterling plays Captain Lee Crane, who runs the Seaview and her crew, but is constantly battling Nelson’s decisions, especially with how he treats the crew and constantly puts the ship in danger, like when the sonar and radar go out and this leads the ship into a mine field they didn’t see coming. Sterling plays to the emotional side of the film, always understanding and compassionate towards his crew while focusing less on the mission, while Nelson is the cold, logical yet twisted side, always one wrong calculation away from breaking but has to keep his eyes on the goal at all times.

 

This makes the character struggles the most interesting part of “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” especially as the film reaches its climax and the odds keep staking against them. Certainly worth checking out if you’ve got nothing else to check out.

 

Final Grade: B-

 

Movie Review – “Wonder Woman” (2017)

 

 

At long last, a DC movie that doesn’t make you want to claw your eyes out. It has been a long time coming, especially since the company has been trying to years to make audiences take them seriously, and failing for the most part – While movies like “Man of Steel” and “Batman vs. Superman” have their share fans and defenders, the general consensus is that those are the bottom of the superhero barrel, at a time when this genre is at its peak.

 

Part of the reason DC has been like this is due to the success of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, which were moody, atmospheric, and thought-provoking. Clearly, with how movies like “Suicide Squad” turned out, they wanted to build off what Nolan’s movies started. Another factor, whether DC wants to admit it or not, is Marvel studios and DC attempting to not make their movies in the same vein. But the results up to this point have been dull grey movies where you can hardly tell what’s going on, about a bunch of whiny power-hungry man-children who act more like villains than the actual antagonists, and then spend the rest of their time brooding or sulking, making for an unenjoyable or unpleasant experience.

 

 

 

But thank the gods, DC seems to have finally gotten over that dark phase with their newest entry in their cinematic universe, “Wonder Woman.” What a complete change of pace from their previous movies – filled with a diverse range of colorful characters, led by a strong yet flawed woman, while at the same time being a period piece that can easily switch between war scenes, comedy, and some slice-of-life quieter moments. I got everything I wanted out of “Wonder Woman” and it was a joy to sit through.

 

The film begins on the island of Themyscira, a magical island hidden away from the rest of the world, inhabited by the Amazons, an all female-race created by Zeus to protect humans from the god of war, Ares. Since Ares hasn’t risen in centuries, the Amazons have lived peacefully on Themyscira without aging, but still train and are prepared for when the time comes that they are needed. Their queen, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), decides she wants to raise a daughter, thus scuplts one from clay and is brought to life by a lightning bolt from Zeus, giving birth to Diana.

 

As Diana (Gal Gadot) grows older, she learns about Themyscira and how Ares corrupted the otherwise good hearts of men, as well as the one weapon that can stop Ares – the Godkiller. But when a airplane crashes through the magical barrier protecting Themyscira, Diana goes out to rescue the pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and he tells the island about the terrible war going on throughout the world. Diana is convinced that Ares is to blame for this world war, and sets out to bring him down, believing that the war will end the moment Ares is killed.

 

 

 

Gal Gadot and her performance as Diana is the charm of “Wonder Woman.” Her wide-eyed innocence is cheerful and infectious, but never to the point where it was annoying. One of the better small moments is when she has her first taste of ice cream and is blown away by the taste, saying to the chef that he should be proud of the work he does. There is love and affection in every thing she says, and you really get the impression that she cares about every person out there. On her way to the battlefield, she nearly stops to help any person who is suffering, which is pretty much everyone, even if she cannot help all of them.

 

This is a woman who would selflessly put the needs of anyone and everyone ahead of her own, and always believes in the goodness and kindness in every living being, even if that gets her into a lot of trouble.

 

Gadot also has wonderful chemistry with Chris Pine, who acts as the straight man to her antics in London. One of the best scenes in the movie is the two of them sharing a boat ride to London, and they share more of their backstories – Diana explaining she was created by a lightning bolt from Zeus leads to some great reactions from Steve – as well as the difference between their worlds, and a discussion on “the pleasures of the flesh,” which given that Diana grew up on an island of only women leaves Steve in an awkward position.

 

 

 

The war sequences are beautifully shot, especially the trench warfare scene that showcases Diana’s full potential and her ‘never-give-up’ attitude – only armed with a shield, sword, and lasso, taking on a battalion of well-armed Germans on a desolate and barren landscape. The music amplifies the intensity of these scenes and makes every punch and bullet feel far more powerful.

 

There is not a single scene that feels wasted in “Wonder Woman,” with something of value coming at nearly every moment. Whether that is Gadot’s acting, the charming yet hard-hitting screenplay, the chemistry between Gadot and Pine, the quieter moments of reflection and fondness, the fascinating Greek mythology on display, or the well-executed action sequences, “Wonder Woman” has plenty to offer audiences of all types.

 

Even if you are not a fan of super hero movies, this one is a departure from the Marvel and DC movies in the past, and is more of an uplifting war movie that personifies innocence, mythology, change, and love, without ever feeling ham-fisted or forced. This one is a blast from start to finish and might even be worth checking out multiple times. You will not be disappointed by “Wonder Woman.”

 

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “House on Haunted Hill” (1959)

 

 

“Do you remember how much fun we have when you poisoned me?”

 

This is the line that perfectly encapsulates the lunatic chaos of “House on Haunted Hill” and upgrades it from being just another B-movie with laughable special effects to a confident horror film about psychological warfare and greed.

 

The line of dialogue is spoken by Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) towards his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), both of whom clearly despise one another and what they’ve resorted to, just to get what they want. This quote, and the playful banter they have about their attempts at murder, makes it clear that they’ve tried to kill each other multiple times in the past and want nothing more than to be done with their spouse. Frederick, a wealthy playboy, has been married three times, with the fate of his previous wives being unclear. Annabelle only married Frederick for his money and thinks she’ll get a lot more if he dies unexpectedly.

 

The two share how they would go about killing the other in a kind yet off-putting demeanor, like how Frederick could accidently shoot and kill Annabelle with a champagene bottle cork and how that would make a great headline in the papers. These two get a sick enjoyment out of torturing the other, and it seems to have brought them closer than ever before, as they share a few intimate moments in the creepy, supposedly haunted, mansion they rented for the evening.

 

 

 

Annabelle wants to throw a party in this haunted mansion, but Frederick decides to spice things up. He invites five very different people to the mansion, all in desperate need of money, and tells them if they can spend one night in this mansion then he’ll give each of them $10,000. Once inside, Frederick locks the doors and gives the key to the servants, who at one point warns a guest to get out before “he kills you too.”

 

The guests are given “party favors” – a loaded gun, for protection of course. One of the guests reminds Frederick that these would not work on the dead, only the living, so the guns are just escalating the fear everyone is currently feeling. But is it fear of the ghosts or fear of each other?

 

“House on Haunted Hill” plays out like a cheaper version of “The Haunting,” with more emphasis on the thrilling moments instead of the psychological elements. Both films share the mentality that these mansions could be haunted by ghosts, and leave it up to the audience to decide if the ghosts are real or not. It is clear that this movie had a miniscule budget, due to its cheesy special effects that would make Ed Wood laugh out loud, but the film more than makes up for that with atmosphere, tension, and wonderfully creepy dialogue.

 

 

 

This movie is ultimately about the games that are being played by a handful of greedy, self-absorbed yet curious individuals. And when you have that many egos floating around, all of whom want something, the rules keep changing, especially for Annabelle who faines ignorance that this is not her party when Frederick corrupted her idea and turned it into a struggle for survival. Everyone in this situation is out for something, but only cares about themselves. It certainly does not help when one of the guests, Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook), constantly talks about the seven other murders that occurred in this house, or the tank of acid in the basement, or how the house is coming to kill them all.

 

While corny at times, “House on Haunted Hill” is a great haunted house tale with loads of atmosphere and character dilemmas to keep the entire film fresh and exciting. The relationship between Frederick and Annabelle Loren is the best part of the movie, especially how much they love to hate each other. The mystery of the house is basic but well handled in its simplicity, and it compliments the strange greedy personalities inside the house playing their games. This is one of the cheap horror movies out there.

 

Final Grade: A

 

Movie Review – “The Omen” (1976)

 

 

Imagine a sequel to “Rosemary’s Baby” if they decided to ramp up the violence and the idea of demons and satanic cults, and you would probably get something like “The Omen.”

While “Rosemary’s Baby” was more-so about the mystery of what was happening around Rosemary and the fate of her baby, “The Omen” is all-in on the fear and making you genuinely afraid that the Antichrist is coming and that the end of the world is upon us.

On the night that the son of American diplomat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is born, Thorn is told the baby died moments after the birth. With his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) unaware that their child was stillborn, Robert is convinced by a priest to adopt another new born child whose mother died during birth. The two raise their adopted son, Damien, in the United Kingdom, though Robert never tells Katherine that Damien is adopted.

But on Damien’s fifth birthday, things take a turn for the hellish when his babysitter throws herself off their mansion’s balcony. After this, Robert is visited by an Italian priest, Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton), who warns Robert that Damien must die in order to save him, his wife and the world from the Antichrist.

 

 

What sold me on the terror of this situation was the prophecy of the Antichrist, in particular how he would take over the world, and how it matched up with the life Damien was leading. It was a simple yet effective technique, since a five-year old couldn’t show demonic powers and the apocalypse by himself.

There was also this constant ominous atmosphere to Robert’s search for the truth, like he was always being watched by this entity that could strike him down at any moment. By that entity holds back, letting Robert uncover so much before doing anything about it. Is it because of the importance Robert must play in Damien’s growth? Or maybe because this force just loves toying with people and showing their lack of control in the world? Either way, this force looms over the entire film like a stalker, waiting for just the right moment to sink his claws into his prey and getting the most enjoyment out of it.

Overall, “The Omen” feels like a middle ground between “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist,” filled with mystery and intrigue, but also with the fear of a parent helpless to stop unspeakable horrors and monstrosities. With the satanic chorus, gothic architecture and ever-present demonic atmosphere, this does feel like one of the most evil movies I have ever watched.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “Imitation of Life” (1959)

It is funny that I mentioned Douglas Sirk in my “An Affair to Remember” review, and then I watch my first film by Douglas Sirk in years shortly after that review. Going into “Imitation of Life,” I had no idea that it was a movie by Sirk, a director who certainly left his mark on the romantic genre and the portrayal of strong women that didn’t follow the norms of society back then.

“Imitation of Life” follows widowed mother Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), who takes in Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), a black single mother, and her daughter, who has fair skin that passes for white and takes advantage of that at every opportunity. Both mothers do their best to make a living for their daughters and try to be someone that their daughters can look up to. As they grow older, their daughters drift away from them, especially Annie’s daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), who is tempted by the seedy side of town.

 

 

This is ultimately a film about motherhood, and all the triumphs and baggage that comes with it. The reason Lora and Annie work so well off each other is because of their determination to make the best possible lives for their daughters, but both eventually realize the insurmountable odds they have to face to get there; which is why they need each others strength. Lora’s devotion and patience combine with Annie’s kindness makes the pair the highlight of the movie.

To witness “Imitation of Life” is to appreciate all the effort and pains mothers must go through. To watch these women realize that they here, not just for themselves any longer, but to care and nurture another life.

Final Grade: B-