The Death of Stalin (2017)


Through no actual intent, we managed to follow up 1962’s “Doctor Zhivago” with 2017’s “The Death of Stalin”. I am a big fan of Armando Iannucci’s work (specifically “In the Loop”, a 2009 film he directed starring Peter Capaldi prior to his turn as Doctor Who). In “The Death of Stalin,” Iannucci provides a satirical look at the fallout from the death of USSR leader Joseph Stalin in 1953; and, in so doing, made for one of the best dark comedies I have seen in years.

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If you have seen “In the Loop” or, perhaps more well-known now, HBO’s Veep¸ you likely already understand Iannucci’s humor. Often dark and pessimistic, his works always have a knack for great dialogue, situational humor, and often points at the world’s least vulnerable (its should-be leaders) in a way that makes them out to be mostly idiots. It’s a fantastic formula, largely due to intelligent writing.

“The Death of Stalin”, whether historically accurate or not, paints a mood of institutional despair. The movie opens with a terrified music director who has just received a request from Stalin for a recording of that night’s performance, only to find out that the performance was not recorded and is just wrapping up. Hilarity ensues as he and others gather the musicians and audience back together to repeat the concert, only this time recorded. All this trouble because the threat of losing their lives over a slight, however justifiable, to Stalin is very real.

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Similarly, the scenes after Stalin is struck down by a cerebral hemorrhage reflect a culture of death seen at all levels of life. As we meet Stalin and his fellow members of the Central Committee, he is sending soldiers off to kill people on his lists. After his fall, as each member of the Central Committee comes in to see Stalin lying in a pool of his own urine, they act over-the-top as if this is the downfall of the greatest man who has ever lived, all while plotting in case he doesn’t make it.

Every member of the Central Committee is a standout. Jeffrey Tambor, as Georgy Malenkov, takes over as Stalin’s second-in-command, but it is clear he is unfit to lead. His story mostly revolves around trying to look the part of a great leader (complete with a corset and need to have an innocent blonde child to be pictured with).

In the film’s lead, Steve Buscemi proves yet again that he is far more of an actor than most give him credit. He plays Nikita Krushchev, one of two men angling to truly take Stalin’s place as head of the government, but always one step behind his very, very evil rival, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Despite being a rapist who imprisoned or murdered most of the USSR for Stalin, Beria attempts early on to reform the Party in the same ways Kruschev would have, before he had a chance to do so, to gain the love of the people. Their political battle is interesting enough in writing but made all the better by two outstanding performances from both men.

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And, despite a cast of great actors with great characters, the biggest standout is Jason Isaacs. He played the war hero, and general of the army, Georgy Zhukov. While used to him playing a villain, Isaacs got to stretch himself an extra inch or two here, as he steals all his scenes. Rather than the almost stoic, “better than you” attitude of Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, Isaacs as Zhukov gets to open his jacket filled with rifles and say things like, “Here’s your dicks for the evening, ladies.” It is great.

In contrast to “Doctor Zhivago”, which plays the perils of war and revolution in the background while romance blooms in a world gone mad, “The Death of Stalin” takes the same world decades later and points to the absurdity of its horrors which have since become commonplace and routine. At times, it feels wrong to laugh. The fear of death lingers, as terrible men do terrible things in pursuit of power.

That they as leaders are absurd, that the situations are made humorous by their absurdity, makes the horror all the plainer to see without succumbing to it. Satire must cut close to the edge of reality – feeling wrong to laugh means it is close enough. Not that we need a reminder that the absurd and idiotic might rise to power despite themselves these days, but “The Death of Stalin” is valuable all the same. As a comedy and a reminder, it shows us that evil men, be their evil intentional or a byproduct of their choices, can inflict all the horrors known to man on people they are supposed to serve and leave behind a climate of death and uncertainty.

WB Top 100: Doctor Zhivago (1965)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.


I heard of “Doctor Zhivago” once before. It was coming up next on Turner Classic Movies one time I was flipping channels. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it is a) not a sappy romance movie and b) about Russia during World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. My post-Cold War education largely skipped over Russia beyond its involvement in World War II and our rivalry during the Space Race. Most of my knowledge comes from movies and other pop culture, and, by that, I mean only the 1997 animated classic “Anastasia”, any Russian levels in Call of Duty or Medal of Honor games, and Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange”. 1965’s “Doctor Zhivago” helped fill in even more gaps!

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The story of “Doctor Zhivago” is told by Yevgraf Zhivago (played by Alec Guinness or Obi-Wan) who is the half-brother of Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif). Yevgraf has been looking for his lost niece and the late Yuri’s daughter. When he finds her, he tells her parent’s life stories, largely centering on Yuri, but also involving Lara Antipova (Julie Christie).

Like the book “A Clockwork Orange”, I have a hard time following any Russian words and names. To make matters worse, everyone in “Doctor Zhivago” has a nickname that may or may not sound like their actual name, and we almost always are treated to mixed use of each character’s full name, just their surname, or just their first name. It is a real headache!

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Despite being filmed in Spain, “Doctor Zhivago” feels like Russia in the 1900s. The level of detail adds a lot to reel you in, especially the Russian text used throughout the film or the occasional Russian word used in dialogue. It doesn’t always look as cold as I imagine Moscow or the rest of Russia, and the British accents are not at all appropriate, but it’s the kind of immersion I have come to expect from a really good movie.

And, for the most part, “Doctor Zhivago” is really good. Like so many films we’ve seen on this list, it is overly long and likes to meander. It also straddles the line between having an unlikable protagonist (Yuri is a cheater and Lara seems to totally abandon her first child throughout the film) without much motivation and trying to force the audience to like him because of circumstances. It is a bit wishy-washy and lost in translation, but all of the characterization issues are offset by the solid acting, gorgeous cinematography, a beautiful score, and a setting that is sadly underexplored by Western media (and in our classrooms).

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In many respects, this is a Russian “Gone with the Wind”. Unfortunately, that means in addition to a sweeping view of a significant historical period from a particular group’s perspective, too much time is spent on the less interesting romantic plot. I do wish more of the film had explored the history, psychology, or the philosophy of the Russian Revolution and Russian Civil War. There is some mention of the “death of the personal life” and Yuri’s family, who were affluent prior to the revolution, are forced to give up their status, possessions, and wealth to the newly-formed state. But since Yuri is so often forced to serve the Red Army as a doctor or he is otherwise abandoning his family to see Lara, their struggle is poorly reflected by the overall plot.

We both agreed that “Doctor Zhivago” would’ve been better if it were a series or mini-series. It’s an interesting enough story and a great bit of history to explore. After reading how the book compares to the film and ruminating on the plot some more, I am not sure if it is a story I would personally revisit. More about the Russian Revolution though please!

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For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.

WB Top 100: Viva Las Vegas (1964)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.


“Viva Las Vegas” is a resoundingly fun Elvis Presley vehicle. Referenced countless times, it is, to me, a musical personification of the city. Despite overuse, I still feel it stands up to this day. However, “Viva Las Vegas” the song stands in sharp contrast to the movie for which it was birthed. The movie, also starring the vocals of Elvis Presley and celebrating the wiles of Las Vegas, does not stand up.

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On our DVD copy of 1964’s “Viva Las Vegas”, the disc opens with three back-to-back-to-back trailers for other Elvis movies. I get no vote of confidence when a movie (in a collection, may I remind you, that opens with zero other trailers on any of the other discs) goes out of its way to remind me that I could be watching other movies instead. Worse, showcasing the acting chops of Elvis in rapid succession does the man no favors, especially when he plays the same Elvis-adjacent character in every film, only with a change of occupation (like a male Barbie). You’ve never seen Elvis, but you will in “TICKLE ME”!

Elvis was not a bad actor, but because he was such a charismatic singer and performer, there was no point in trying to make a good movie around him. Sadly, with time, Elvis is more an idea in pop culture than a man, and one long tired by parody and homage to the point that there’s little buy-in from someone like me for a movie such as this.

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“Viva Las Vegas” starts off surprisingly strong. In the opening act, we are introduced to Lucky Jackson (Elvis Presley), a talented young race car driver in need of money for a motor to participate in the Las Vegas Grand Prix. We meet his rival in the race, Italian racer Count Elmo Mancini (played by Cesare Danova, an actual Italian). Finally, we meet Ann-Margret’s Rusty, a woman.

That last one was a bit of a joke. Rusty is by no means a bad idea for a character, especially in the first act of the movie where she has some agency, but she is ruined by the latter half of the film. There, Rusty bounces around with no real character progression and a mood that changes faster than the racers can drive.  I think she is mad at Elvis’s Lucky Jackson because he won’t give up racing for her, but he liked racing before he met her and they don’t even bother showing him racing, but its too dangerous, to setup that tension. Much like the plot of this movie, it is dumb, and I am dumber for watching it.

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That said, this is a watchable film. Mostly due to Elvis and his performances which are, as you can imagine, pretty spot on. I genuinely enjoyed the song, “The Lady Loves Me”, and I loved the chemistry in the back-and-forth between Elvis and Ann-Margret. Some of Ann-Margret’s dance sequences are especially “Caucasian” by modern standards, so they have an unintended laugh-out-loud charm to them. The film is also shot competently, including gorgeous shots of Las Vegas, and a great race sequence in the movie’s climax.

Of all the movies we’ve seen in this grouping, “Viva Las Vegas” is the weakest yet. Culturally, I am grateful for its inclusion since Elvis was such a major milestone. As a fan of movies looking to expand my movie IQ, I don’t feel any smarter knowing this one existed. By no means bad, it is far from good.

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For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.

Fighting with My Family (2019)

My tolerance for all things WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) is at an all-time low. Sadly, it has never been very high. I rediscovered an interest in wrestling a few years ago along with the Mrs., mostly through NXT, WWE’s far superior sub-brand. Even with NXT, we no longer watch the weekly shows. I consider their bigger shows (called NXT Takeover) must watch television, and never miss our chance to see them.
This is a roundabout way of saying that I expected nothing from the 2019 film, “Fighting with My Family”. After hearing favorable reviews and finally getting around to watching it, I can safely it is surprisingly fantastic.

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“Fighting with My Family” is a dramatized telling of the wrestler Paige’s journey from Norwich, England, to Orlando, Florida, where she leaves her wrestling family to join the world stage, first at WWE’s Performance Center under the NXT brand, and later the WWE main stage itself as the youngest ever WWE’s Divas Champion.
Despite having plenty of dramatic moments and an endearing emotional arc, “Fighting with My Family” excels best when it tries to make you laugh. That’s likely due to the film’s writer and director, none other than the humanoid asparagus himself, Stephen Merchant. The addition of Nick Frost as Paige’s dad and an effervescent performance by Lena Headey as Paige’s mom end with more jokes landing than not.

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I even enjoyed the film’s lead Florence Pugh as Paige. The writing of Paige as an unsure teenager did not resonate with all I have seen of her wrestling persona or in interviews, but within the film’s direction, Pugh offers up a compelling performance. The wrestling and her confidence in the ring both help sell the film as well.
Jack Lowden also puts in a good performance as Paige’s older brother, Zak. His character is a source of much of the emotional turmoil in the story. After a tryout for WWE, the younger and less interested Paige is chosen over the far more passionate Zak. While Pugh-as-Paige felt a bit flat at times due to how the character was written, Lowden’s Zak has no such restrictions. “Amadeus” is my all-time favorite film and Zak reminds me of Salieri, one of my all-time favorite characters, in how he is an “also ran” who recognizes his dream but is doomed to never live it.

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In terms of complaints, I felt “Fighting with My Family” was relatively flawless in its execution. It is funny and endearing. If I had to complain, it would be in how the story deviates from reality, especially toward the end. It makes sense to finish on Paige’s debut in the WWE and winning of the championship but leaving out most of her NXT career leaves the film feeling rushed. Furthermore, despite having some recognizable faces, great writing, and great directing, the film never stops feeling like a made-for-TV movie, perhaps because it plays things almost too safe.
If you are a fan of wrestling, Stephen Merchant, or somewhere in between those two fandoms (what a Venn diagram that could be), then go see it.

WB Top 100: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.


Culture has a kind of osmosis. In this case, in my younger years, through channel surfing and TV guide, I learned the names of many classic movies. Some of those titles, either through their peculiarity or provocativeness, stuck with me. One such, 1962’s “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”, asks a question I could not have possibly guessed the answer to. Thankfully, I now know.

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“What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” stars Bette Davis as Jane Hudson, a melting wax candle of a woman whose light (as the eponymous Baby Jane, a child star) has long since gone out. She is joined by Joan Crawford as Blanche Hudson, her more successful and more famous sister. After an accident, Blanche is left crippled from the waist down and her sister Jane looks after her, together alone in a Hollywood mansion.

I am unsure to call this one a thriller or a horror film. I suppose it depends on the story’s impact and this one packs a wallop. The two sisters are ever at odds with one another. The penitent Blanche plays the face to Jane’s heel. Blanche intends to sell the mansion and move in with her maid, Elvira (Madie Norman), but isn’t ready to have Jane committed for her psychological hang-ups and alcoholism. Jane, forever jealous of her sister, finds out about the betrayal and is plotting to hold her sister hostage for her money which she gains access to via faking her sister’s signature or pretending to be her over the phone.

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It is a disturbing movie. Bette Davis transitions from a look of abject scorn and derision to that of the child star she once was, a switch done so seamlessly as to reinforce with certainty the devastation of adult Jane’s mind. She begins to torture her sister, at first by killing and later serving on a lunch platter her pet bird and later by serving her a dead rat. That’s not to mention the isolation (cutting her sister off from fan mail or a neighbor’s flowers) or her dismissal of Elvira on her sister’s behalf. Jane Hudson is one of cinema’s best villains.

And Jane’s redemption never really comes. She drifts, and eventually falls into madness. The cunning cruelty she exhibits early in the film melts away as she retreats into herself after murdering Elvira to protect her secret. After dumping the body, she flings herself on a restrained Blanche who has been denied any real food and begs for her sister to help her. When the horror she has inflicted is discovered, Jane runs away with Blanche to the beach to watch the sunset. Blanche, dying, admits to Jane that the accident was anything but, and that she had intentionally tried to run over Jane in a rage only to miss and snap her own spine. Too late, Jane dances on the beach as a crowd gathers around her when the police identify who she is and what she is wanted for.

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Culture may have a kind of osmosis, but whereas so many other critical scenes, characters, lines, and moments filter their way through various homages and parodies, it is amazing that it has kept hidden the answer to the question, “What ever happened to Baby Jane?” so well. More people should know. Words do little justice and I recommend seeing this film to really understand how good it (still) is. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are amazing in their respective roles. The film is shot beautifully, and the score elevates its emotional impact at every turn.

 At times, I did feel it dragged and went overlong, but it never failed to hold my attention. And, despite being a black and white movie, it feels more modern than many of the other films of the same time with its lack of an overture, intermission, and its playing of the credits at the end. It also escapes that “filmed on a stage” feel of similar dramatic pictures since it was shot in an actual house, in an actual neighborhood, and has many establishing shots of the city nearby.

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“What ever happened to Baby Jane,” they asked. “Who the hell is Baby Jane”, someone responded. 

A woman trapped in purgatory.

For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.

WB Top 100: How the West Was Won (1962)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.


I never expected music. In its opening minutes, “How the West Was Won” offers a sprawling tour of 19th century American folk music. It is the opening salvo in the great whitening of the American west and a romantic call to “remember when”. With music, comes Lillith Prescott (played by Debbie Reynolds), a musician and performer, as the Prescott family frames the tale of the taming of the wild west.

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Shot and scored beautifully, “How the West Was Won” must have been a dream come true for the marketing department. Beyond Debbie Reynolds, other players include: James Stewart, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, and more! Of course, they combine for around 20% of the total runtime (around 164 minutes) – only 5% if you exclude Debbie Reynolds.

Spanning multiple locations over multiple years, “How the West Was Won” is even more patriotic than “Yankee Doodle Dandy” but not as much fun. The film looks and sounds great. Several of the more action-packed sequences are top notch. Style cannot save it from aging out of being patriotic and aging into being a tame, whitewashing of American history though. This was a boring movie to sit through and, outside of what amounted to be cameos, the story, acting, and dialogue all felt especially hokey. They do that thing where everyone feels the need to yell in platitudes at one another. It is terrible.

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If you are interested in seeing this film, stay for a few of the musical bits (featuring Debbie Reynolds), the buffalo stampede scene, and Gregory Peck playing an opposite Atticus Finch. Otherwise, be prepared to only hear about how white settlers made America great and set the stage for it to be made great again in 2016 or something. It’s a bunch of nonsense really.

As a greatest hits of Western films, “How the West Was Won” did little to win us over. Somehow more regressive than “Cimarron”, a movie that featured a Black child as a ceiling fan, the film celebrates the heroism of white people and their bravery for conquering someone else’s empire. There are white characters that are presented as sympathetic to Native American concerns, but that somehow makes it worse. Despite a few sequences and an excellent score, this is the kind of movie that reels you in with notions of Gregory Peck, James Stewart, and John Wayne, and gives you Hannibal from television’s the A-Team instead. Blegh.

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For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.

WB Top 100: North by Northwest (1959)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.


We had no expectations coming into “North by Northwest”. Sometime ago (before we began this project), we bought a small box set of Alfred Hitchcock movies. We started with “Rear Window” which we both enjoyed and stopped with “Vertigo” which we both hated. As such, we never got around to watching the other classics in the collection, including this one. After finally seeing “North by Northwest”, it is definitely better than “Vertigo” but probably not as great as “Rear Window”.

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“North by Northwest” felt like a Bond film without a 007. Cary Grant leads as Roger Thornhill, an ad man by day falsely accused of being “George Kaplan” by night. Kaplan is a supposed government agent on the trail of Phillip Vandam (James Mason), a smuggler of government secrets. When kidnapped one evening by Vandam and his cohorts, Thornhill narrowly manages to escape, but in an attempt to clear his name, he ends up falsely accused of assassinating a United Nations official. Forced to flee, he only falls deeper into the movie’s intrigues.

Even now, “North by Northwest” is a beautifully constructed movie. Some of Hitchcock’s shots remain breathtaking. With lots of location shoots across the continental United States, there is a road movie element to the entire affair that fills the film with authenticity. When the characters made their way to Chicago, I could have sworn they were standing next to a statue that Diane and I just saw in our early April visit to the city. I was also convinced the villain’s evil lair on the side of Mt. Rushmore was real, but that turned out to be a bit of movie magic.

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Cary Grant was fantastic. At first, I was annoyed that he was “just an ad man” yet still succeeding at the whole international spy thing. His performance won me over anway. His charm, his look, his suit – they all screamed “man you wish you could be” while he was caught in a situation I would never wish for. His charm and confidence seemed to increase as the film progressed with his earliest scenes being somewhat inconsistent with the middle and latter part of the movie. A minor nitpick at most.

Eva Marie Saint’s Eve Kendall, the romantic interest, was also charming. It was nice to see sex and sex appeal be more overt for a change. If I did not know to expect more from a female lead, I would have been shocked how the movie implied their initial relationship was only going to be a random one-night stand on a train. The fact that they fall in love at all afterward was cheesy and that Eve Kendall ending up as just being romantic bait for the villain was a bit insulting. But both were expected and neither ruined anything about the movie.

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Truth be told, as much as we enjoyed watching the movie, it was more fun than anything else. That’s not a knock by any stretch but it does make it hard for me to write at length. It’s a pre-007 007 movie that deserves all the attention you are willing to give it.

What more is there to say?

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For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.

WB Top 100: Ben-Hur (1959)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.


I managed to forget that a more recent “Ben-Hur” ever hit theaters in 2016. After watching the 1959 film, I would have thought a remake was overdue but apparently not. The 2016 version’s failure is for the best since the 1959 version still holds up with great acting, a fascinating story, and some amazing special effects, and action sequences – for its time and even now.

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Starring he-who-was-Moses, Charlton Heston plays the movie’s titular Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince living in Judaea. After being betrayed by his childhood friend Messala, a Roman Tribune played by Stephen Boyd, Ben-Hur is forced into slavery. In slavery, Ben-Hur is driven by his twin desires of revenge against Messala and vengeance for whatever was done to his mother and sister.

I was surprised to learn that “Ben-Hur” was based on an American novel from the late 1800s. I was even more surprised to know that it was a bestseller up until the release of “Gone with the Wind” in 1936. And, despite being from the South, I always forget that “Gone with the Wind” was ever a book. I am not sure what any of that says about our culture – a lack of appreciation for our culturally significant works, these authors are both one-hit wonders on the same level as “Mmmbop” by Hanson or “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice, or people and cultures just move on. Still, I thought it interesting.

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Even more interesting, as someone with no prior knowledge of “Ben-Hur”, was its New Testament-adjacency. The movie’s extensive runtime is mostly about a Jewish Count of the Monte Cristo but ends with a Passion Play (complete with the censored face of Jesus and a lack of credit for his actor). I should have guessed from the movies outset when it gave away the subtitle “A Tale of the Christ”, but it was another 40 minutes of runtime I could have otherwise avoided. That’s not to say the parts with Jesus were bad or even unjustified by the movie’s narrative; they just felt excessive on top of an already excessive movie.

It’s amazing how much ground “Ben-Hur” covers. Starting in Roman-controlled Judaea, Ben-Hur’s time in slavery is spent on Roman galleons at war in the Mediterranean. After saving the life of his Roman slaver, Ben-Hur is honored by the Roman Emperor, is adopted by his former slaver and made a legal citizen of Rome and rises to fame as a champion charioteer. After that, he journeys back to the Middle East, meets an Arab man with a vested interest in chariot racing, and eventually challenges Messala in the Circus Maximum as revenge.

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If anything, “Ben-Hur” should be remade as limited television series on something like HBO. Each leg of Ben-Hur’s journey alone could constitute an entire season’s worth of material. The fact that the movie manages it all in 3 1⁄2 hours is a bit of a miracle on its own.

Of course, no discussion of this movie should be had without mentioning the chariot race. By far, this part was worth the entire runtime and I cannot recommend it enough even for modern viewers who may be discouraged by the excitement potential of a movie from the near-60s. You owe it to yourself to see it first and then read all about how it was done (including carving out an arena from a rock quarry). Neither of us could turn away and seeing very life-like mannequins get trampled through chariot wheels and horse hooves was troubling to say the least.

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For me, the best part came after when Ben-Hur confronts a broken and beaten Messala. Rather than some triumphant moment of friendship overcoming their differences or forgiveness between two equals, Messala doubles down and stoically faces his own death to do so. For me, it was an immensely satisfying and realistic end to the villain, and I am grateful he went down swinging rather than falling prey to an unearned redemption.

“Ben-Hur” is a long, long movie, but it is fun. I doubt I ever revisit it and I probably will not recommend anyone seeing it beyond what I have already said here. Still, I am glad I experienced it and now know what it is about. I feel like I have come just a little bit closer to learning about my culture’s history through the lens of ancient Rome and ancient Judaea.

For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.

WB Top 100: Gigi (1958)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.


Based on a book of the same name, 1958’s “Gigi” is a musical-romance with songs and lyrics by Lerner and Loewe, the same duo that would later do “My Fair Lady”. The film is set in Paris and feels distinctly French despite being American-made. “Gigi” also won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1959, as well as many other Academy Awards in other categories, which were all likely well-deserved … at the time.

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It is hard to imagine anything more French than “Gigi”. Set in 1900’s Paris, the film opens with a stroll in a Parisian park that recalls George Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The character Honoré Lachaille, played by Maurice Chevalier, introduces himself directly to the camera as an older gentleman prone to chasing younger girls. He then sings in his distinctive French accent a song that celebrates how young girls grow to be worthy objects of lust. He expresses it a little differently, but it is not at all a song that has stood the test of time, at least not lyrically. Unless you like the idea of sexy French grandpas leering at children in a park.

Creepiness-aside, Chevalier was a global treasure and he is positively enchanting throughout “Gigi”. He is the French self-ideal: a charmer, a gallivanter, and someone who can still get erect even in his twilight years. His character is full of life, but when juxtaposed against his nephew, Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jordan), he helps grease the plot with, for one last sex joke, lube. Obviously.

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Unlike his Uncle, Gaston thinks everything is a bore. He says so in his introduction song several times and the line is called back to throughout the film. His boredom is an extension of his immense privilege as an imminently wealthy young gentleman. I still found the character and the actor to be a delight. He plays the straight man in the movie, and a few temper tantrums aside, I genuinely wished he would succeed in finding love.

The titular character of Gigi, played by Leslie Caron, was also a treat. We previously saw her in “An American in Paris” opposite of Gene Kelly. In the seven years between the two films, Caron has significantly improved. In “An American …” she primarily danced and swooned her way through the film’s plot, but in “Gigi” she proved she can lead a film and manage a speaking role. Far less dancing here, but Gigi’s youthfulness saturates every scene she is in and her charm lifts up a film that would be lesser without her.

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Isabel Jeans as Aunt Alicia and Hermione Gingold as Madame Alvarez manage to steal the show despite having almost no songs in a musical. Their characters combine to bring much of the comic relief to the film. Madame Alvarez plays Gigi’s grandmother, whom Gigi lives with, and her sister and Gigi’s aunt, Alicia, gives Gigi weekly lessons. 

These lessons all focus on their intent to train Gigi not as the marrying kind of girl, but as a sort of professional mistress. The movie does nothing to explain this and it only made sense after reading about it later. This was by far our biggest flaw with the film. Maybe there is something about French culture I am missing that was more evident to Americans in the 50s?

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As watchable and enjoyable as it was, “Gigi” fell apart in its final act. With the gap in storytelling, sudden changes (yes, plural) of heart by Gaston feel out of place. His inability to decide how he feels about Gigi, combined with a tamer era limited in how blunt it can be about a controversial topic like children/only barely of age mistresses, leads to whiplash that sours the movie. When you add in the many elements that do not hold up to a modern audience, you are left with solid performances, some well-sung songs, and a Best Picture winner that is pretty forgettable.

With one exception: “I Remember Well” is a perfect song. Listen for yourself:

 

I wish the movie had been about Maurice Chevalier, an old gentleman who has slept with everyone in Paris, recall the one mistress who he truly loved and courting her again despite the years taking them in vastly different directions. It could still be funny and could still be very, very French.

Eh, bien.

For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.

WB Top 100: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.


1958’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is a decidedly-less sweaty watch than our previous “based on a Tennessee Williams” production, “A Streetcar Named Desire”. It has the same level of drama, intrigue, and Southern accents though. Plus, Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman are just as attractive as Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando (if not more so). Adapted from a play of the same name, “Cat …” demands attention from the moment it invites you into the home life of the well-to-do Pollitt family. Attention, for the most part, well-deserved.

As a movie, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” fails to take advantage of the medium. Through and through, this is still a play and it feels every bit as claustrophobic with characters spending their time slowly moving as a group from one room to the next. Outside of a brief trip to the airport and a quick look at the horses, the camera (and players) never leaves the Pollitt family home.

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Still, “Cat …” is an intense watch. Largely due to the performances, for a movie that spends its entire run time following people yelling at and talking over one another, it’s a wonder it isn’t boring. Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie “the Cat” oozes sex as she saunters around in her well-rounded figure, but never at the expense of playing a well-rounded character. She wants her husband Brick (Paul Newman) to love her again.

Despite her intensity and familiarity, Newman plays Brick in the film’s early going as passive as possible around Maggie. The film opens with him drunkenly failing to recapture his glory days as an athlete before we meet him again in his family home weathering the Mississippi heat with glass after glass of whiskey. The movie’s strongest hook is cast early on: why has Brick turned to alcoholism? What happened between him and Maggie?

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She tries to breeze past his coolness with more important things. Brick’s father, a wealthy entrepreneur, is dying and Brick’s older brother “Gooper” (played by Jack Carson, previously seen in several movies on our list) is angling to be his successor. Along with Gooper’s wife, who is referred to throughout the film as “sister-woman”, Maggie doesn’t want the pair to cut her or Brick out of the estate.

At first it may seem like Maggie is being selfish or only looking out for herself. I think the story does a good job of pushing back on this assumption. Gooper’s wife, Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), is terrible. Throughout the movie, she makes snide remarks about Brick and Maggie when both seem somewhat civil to her. Worse, she forces her five children to sing over-and-over again to “impress” the family patriarch, Big Daddy (golden voiced Burl Ives). The fact that Big Daddy and Maggie both hate the children – the rest just ignore them – really resonated with us both.

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The story, and everyone’s deep-seated mistrust of one another, slowly unravels as the seams start pulling apart. One issue I had was the big reveal of why Brick and Maggie are no longer on good terms with one another. The film does its best to lay the groundwork for Brick’s recently deceased best friend to be a potential homosexual romance, but it’s forced to hold back from pulling the trigger.

In our research, this was a criticism that Tennessee Williams himself had of the film. It would have been truly groundbreaking to witness for 1958. Whether Brick himself is gay is undercut by the film’s happy, hetero ending, but there is enough implied for modern audiences to fill in the gaps and answer these questions for themselves.

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With top notch performances, a good dramatic arc, and a lot of southern phrases, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” stands up. It’s an important “toe in the water” for a story revolving around a homosexual repression gone sour. I would’ve preferred the whole foot, but there is a real benefit for being so coy when looking back from a much more gay friendly future makes the conflict on Paul Newman’s gorgeous face all the more powerful. Chiseled out of self-doubt, self-loathing, and repression, and opposite the sexual icon of Elizabeth Taylor, “Cat …” is bound to cause conflicts for any sexual orientations.

For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.