I wasn’t alone in preparing to hate-watch Father of the Bride when it was announced as being a Latin take on the oft-remade film. Yet, when I realized that sublime Mexican filmmaker Gaz Alazraki would be helming the project, I found myself intrigued.
Now streaming on HBOMax, Father of the Bride (or “El Padre de la Novia”) proved to be what we need to cleanse our mental palates from a vicious news cycle and endless fantasy-driven narratives featuring people in tights.
No need to “be prepared” for the cultural nuances of the film, which are its special spice, enhancing a narrative that is both surprising and poignant beyond the emotional scope of the 1950 and 1991 versions. That the film offers a surprising plot twist that rings true raises its level of profundity from being just another wedding tale. More, the ensemble cast led by Andy Garcia and Gloria Estefan is a winning group of veterans and rising talent, including Adria Arjona, Isabela Merced, Diego Boneta, and SNL’s Chloe Fineman (in a scene-stealing role as a too-woke wedding planner). All are given space to shine in their spotlight, allowing for a refreshing and sincere film experience that we’ve been lacking from studio fare of late.
It may appear like it is a rehash con chile of Nora Ephron/Nancy Meyers most vanilla tropes. This Father is more than just his story It’s about the family and the families we create through tradition and life’s needs.
It was a real pleasure to interview director Alazraki earlier this year for the film’s suite of content. It wasn’t our first encounter, meeting for the first time on the set of the groundbreaking Netflix series, Club de Cuervos. That Father of the Bride is his first English-language film bodes well for his evolution as an artist. I’m looking forward to what the man behind the blockbuster hit Nosotros Los Nobles has in store next. In the meantime, check out Father of the Bride on HBOMax.
At last, the Carreón Cinema Club returns, and it only took being placed in quarantine before a shoot in CDMX to make it happen. Sitting in my hotel room these last few days, the theme of “It Could Be Worse” began its slow development in my brain.
Viewing a large amount of negative content on TikTok and other social media platforms could only add fuel to this fire. The Troll Patrol turned yet another harmless place into a burn book about anything and anyone. Screaming heads dominate social media narratives, another variation of the pundits who ruined mainstream news with their constant diatribes of hate, anger, and “this is why it sucks” vitriol.
If TikTok stood as our only source of information, the unpleasantness and unhappiness of Generation Whine would manifest itself with an algorithm of “content” that wilts one’s ability to believe in hope if you look at it long enough. Couple it with the “woke” and “cancel” threads, and you’re soon freebasing kitten videos to preserve your humanity. Anyone with a phone could use this power for good, not let the alt-right scream at the world with their often libelous and ludicrous dis-content.
Yes, it can be worse unless we stop the flow of misinformation and the endless lunacy of Kamp Karen videos to find reasons to create and not hate. (And, for the record, having a smartphone makes you as much a journalist as a pundit makes you an “expert” on any topic if you’re snarky or loud enough.)
Thus, as I sat in wonderment in my aerie above Paseo de la Reforma in CDMX, I pushed aside thinking over how fucked up we’ve become as a society. Instead, I began to mull over the films that could illustrate just how bad things can get unless we all pull our asses out of our heads long enough to deal with the weapons of mass distraction threatening our ability to evolve positively. Ergo, behold the “It Can Be Worse” edition of the Carreón Cinema Club, starting with the end of the world as depicted by Peter Watkins’s seminal film, The War Game.
THE WAR GAME (1961)
Produced, Written, and Directed by Peter Watkins
Narrated by Michael Aspel and Peter Graham
Once Kate Bush started “trending” thanks to the thieving Cultural Belloqs at Netflix ruining a good thing in the name of marketing, the 1970s and 80s never felt so omnipresent as they do now. Wars, nuclear threats, insane dictators, inflation, the gas crisis, and other nightmares threatened lives on Elm Street, alright. We were ready for the unforgettable fire to descend upon us, a fear ignited and realized with intent by the Mad Max films, “The Day After” and “Threads.”
But then again, it wasn’t the first time art harnessed the abject horror of humanity, letting stupidity get its way with nuclear bombs. In 1964, the BBC engaged award-winning filmmaker Peter Watkins of “Culloden” fame, a documentary covering the 1746 Jacobite uprising, a narrative presented as a parallel to the ongoing Vietnam conflict. Based on its success, the network turned to Watkins anew to craft an episode for its “The Wednesday Play” series. The innovative filmmaker delivered The War Game, a withering pseudo-documentary film chronicling the effects of nuclear war on Great Britain. Watkins, who wrote, directed, and produced the film, presented his work to a gallery of executives reacting with apprehension and panic, which government leaders also felt. The War Game wasn’t just shelved but censored by today’s standards. It did earn a token theatrical release instead of airing on the network. The BBC stated publicly, “the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting. It will, however, be shown to invited audiences…”
Following its presentation at the National Film Theatre in London and several leading international film festivals, The War Game would earn the 1967 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Curiously, the film remained an elusive relic until 1985, when it was televised by the BBC to a mass audience, honoring the 40th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. This time, it would air before an encore presentation of another iconic and harrowing nuclear drama, Mick Jackson’s equally devastating and award-winning telefilm, “Threads,” first broadcast in 1984.
Viewing The War Game today, you will see what unsettled the BBC executives and politicians at that time. Unrelenting due to its brevity, the hour-long documentary spares no one’s feelings or sensibilities in its raw and accurate depiction of the human and environmental costs of a nuclear exchange. Shot with live news precision by Peter Bartlett and an uncredited Peter Suschitzky, viewing the catastrophic effects of detonating missiles in real-time in such a visceral manner gives you pause. People asphyxiate in the heat, their eyes melting, or their homes lit on fire by the proximity of the blasts. Watkins left much of the horror to the viewer’s imagination, using graphic descriptions in the voiceover versus graphic visual effects.
Shot on location in and around the towns of Kent, Watkins chose an ensemble cast of non-actors, adding a sobering layer of emotional power to the verité style of the film. What will make you want to shout are narration scenes recorded by Peter Graham, coupled with Michael Aspel reading the quotations from source materials from actual and fact-based government and religious sources. At times conflicting and surreal, the visual parallels further illustrate how unprepared Great Britain, politically and socially, will only make you wonder if we’ve progressed at all.
As the war in Ukraine rages on with surprising support for the MAGA-inflamed populace, The War Game takes on stronger resonance today, if that’s even possible. Yes, friends, it can be worse if we allow such hateful rhetoric to excuse away the evils that are not ready to leave us alone.
I purchased a VHS copy of The War Game years ago off Amazon to complete my legendary collection of nuclear war-themed movies. You can now buy the Blu-Ray version (coupled with “Culloden”). Also, check your local library or indie video store for the DVD of The War Game, and search YouTube and Vimeo for the full-length presentation.
THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (1961)
Directed by Val Guest
Written by Wolf Mankowitz and Val Guest
Cast: Janet Munro, Leo McKern, and Edward Judd
Chances are you’ve already experienced the century-mark temperatures baking the nation. Still, think climate change is bullshit? Remember that when cities burn, infrastructures fail, and people die from the heat that’s not showing signs of abating. Yet, the topic of a burning planet is not a new one, either. I distinctly remember watching a telefilm called “Heatwave!” on ABC, chronicling a young couple’s desperate escape to the mountains from the growing heat of a big city. First broadcast in 1974, it was TV’s answer to the disaster movie trend. So, where is this leading? The award-winning 1961 sci-fi classic known as The Day the Earth Caught Fire.
While it’s more a cautionary tale about the perils of nuclear proliferation, it lists why we still argue about what we’ve done to overheat this planet. What happens in Guest’s film is tragic and mindblowing in science and fiction. Yet, hearing people bitching about the heat and the state/energy companies’ inability to keep the power grids from shutting down makes me want to make them force watch what could be worse.
True, the conceit of The Day the Earth Caught Fire is the result of what happens to the planet’s orbit thanks to the US and USSR detonating giant bombs on the same day in both the North and South Poles. But when it starts to get hot, the planet reacts unexpectedly, leaving its citizens scrambling for any relief or survival.
What I love about the film is that it centers around how a group of Fleet Street reporters at the Daily Express break the story in the first place, as well as other believable human drama involving the principals, Edward Judd, Leo McKern, and Janet Munro. More, real news editor Arthur Robin Christiansen is prominently featured in the film, adding a nice layer of honesty to the film. The urgency of visuals illustrating water rationing, the burning of London landmarks, and other tragedies make the film a sobering viewing experience.
Far from being a quaint black and white film of the 1960s, Guest deploys an arsenal of effects and human emotion to give the film its resonance. Even the ending is unexpected by leaving the planet’s fate unresolved. Although, it is humorous that the original US release featured an augmented ending of the sound of ringing bells, indicating that science might have spared humankind from being BBQ’d. By the end, however, you’ll respect the sun’s power.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire is available for rent and purchase on most major streaming platforms.
NUEVO ORDEN (“New Order”/2020)
Directed and Written by Michel Franco
Cast: Diego Boneta, Mónica Del Carmen, Naian Gonzalez Norvind, Fernando Cuautle, Darío Yazbek, Eligio Meléndez
Much of the industrialized world faces a widening gap between its socio-economic classes, leading to erratic and alarming shifts in political ideologies with high consequences with each election. Mexico’s economic chasm is no different and gaining further volatility with the rise of American gentrification in its capital city and other parts of the country. The Mexican-French production Nuevo Orden sought to unleash an uncompromising “what if” scenario with wildly uneven but impactful results.
Following its award-winning premiere at the 2020 Venice Film Festival, earning the Grand Jury Prize, the arrival of Nuevo Orden during a pandemic seemed like outrageous misfortune. The appearance of its trailer, featuring images of POC taking over the white elite enclaves, earned a harsh backlash of racial stereotyping in its home country. Despite its acclaim from critics worldwide, citing the film as being powerful and timely, the film continues to earn negative colorism commentary in its post-release life.
Directed and written by Michel Franco, Nuevo Orden chronicles the lives of an upwardly mobile family impacted by the rise of the underprivileged in Mexico City. The effects of class warfare go from the micro to the macro as the invasion of the family’s wedding event is projected upon a canvas of a violent coup. What seemed to be an explosion of one’s group’s frustration with the status quo is painfully revealed to be the machinations of a government seeking to establish a military rule.
Designed to provoke and challenge the safe and paranoid sensibilities of viewers not paying attention to the current news cycle. Franco’s narrative hits individual buttons by focusing on the destruction of the privileged and entitled classes, leading to why hailed as necessary by many of its champions. Unfortunately, Franco loses control of his narrative with the revelation that the military is behind the coup, undermining the more important message of social divides. Unlike Bong Joon-ho’s groundbreaking “Parasite,” Franco cannot sustain the foreboding tension in this clash of economic classes to a gut-punching finish, despite its many bold attempts otherwise. Regardless, as speculative fiction, however, Nuevo Orden does successfully visualize a world of devastating change that could be possible given our current state of affairs in the US and worldwide. Yes, folks, it CAN get worse if we ignore the signs.
Greetings, mi gente. Nice to see you all again. As we continue our slog through 2021, I found myself inspired by the idea of scandals and controversy. Sex, religion, racism, we seem not to be able to resolve any of our isms. Instead, we keep weaponizing them to devastating effect. At least we still have art to illuminate the darkest corners of our psyche to question and, hopefully, impact how we choose to view each other once we strip away the idea of “The Other.” That’s why I’m recommending this next group of film titles for the Carreón Cinema Club: The “It’s A Scandal” Edition.
Each movie listed here courted a wave of controversy when initially released. Audiences were either titillated, appalled, or couldn’t be bothered. Some of these films were not significant hits in their original years of release. More, they haven’t aged well or find themselves mired in more robust controversy in this era of political awakenings. Context is key when viewing these titles, which is why I think they are worthy of not being dismissed with nary a reason beyond, “It makes me uncomfortable” or “That’s wrong!” The Club is now in session.
Directed by Roy Rowland
Written by Jerome Weidman
Starring: Van Johnson, Ann Blyth
Streaming: TCM (until July 28)
If you think TMZ is a media scourge, your delicate sensibilities couldn’t survive the likes of Confidential Magazine. Considered a “pioneer in scandal, gossip, and exposé journalism,” as labeled by Wikipedia, Confidential made its yellow-hued debut in 1952. At its most popular, the magazine earned a circulation of five million copies per issue, surpassing Reader’s Digest, the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, and other leading, respectable publications of the decade. Scandals would eventually topple this dreadful rag, but its audience’s voracious appetite for its “stories” about Hollywood’s leading players at their weakest and most vulnerable, true or not, were devoured with bloodlust.
You’ll only need to read between the lines when watching Slander, which chronicles the life of a kids’ TV Show star Scott Martin, portrayed by Van Johnson. When the fictional periodical “The Real Truth” wreaks awful havoc on his life after refusing to corroborate an incendiary story on a popular actress, the collateral damage is swift. Outed for being a felon at the age of 19, the resulting judgment on Martin by the public breaks up his marriage and torpedoes his career. Here’s a clip featuring the great Ann Blyth as Martin’s beleaguered wife Connie and Steve Cochran as “The Real Truth’s” self-righteous and arrogant editor H.R. Manley.
Subtlety is not director-for-hire Roy Rowland’s strongest suit, with the melodrama and rather cliched dialogue marooning most of the cast, save for Cochran, who excels as the film’s villain. Slander rarely rises above its TV movie treatment, but it makes its point like a sledgehammer when Martin’s young son is struck and killed by a passing car after being bullied by his classmates about his dad’s criminal past.
Slander’s bravado finish with Johnson’s “on the nose” plea to a voracious public to stop consuming “The Real Truth” seems too good to be true, and it is. Imagine anyone saying on Jimmy Kimmel or CNN to the public, “Now that they’ve seen the extent of its power to destroy the innocent and not-so-innocent, stop your intake of gossip and reality garbage.” People would switch it off or swipe it away.
Although the outcome for editor Manley is too fantastic to spoil, it’s almost worth the entire movie. Almost. As for how Slander fared in its day. Well, audiences seemed to have preferred the pages of Confidential, with Slander proving to be a box office bomb for MGM. Johnson himself would be at the center of a scandal when a tell-all book written by his son revealed he’d left his wife for another man. Only in Hollywood, kids, only in Hollywood.
Directed and written by William Friedkin
Starring: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen
Rent: Amazon Prime, Apple TV+
The scorched earth of the 1970s left plenty of burning embers to ignite the start of the 1980s. With gender and sexual equality, rising conservatism, and extreme violence impacting mainstream entertainment, it is no coincidence that two erotic thrillers would reach cinemas with a resounding wail of controversy upon release in 1980. And both dealt with the LGBTQ+ communities, an evolving and powerful voice determined to right the wrongs perpetrated in society.
While it possesses considerable artistic and thematic strengths, Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill earned hackles for its depiction of cross-dressing. His turning a trans character into a vicious slasher movie trope offered little context or catharsis, only lurid violence. William Friedkin’s Cruising delivered that film year was something akin to a cultural firebomb, even before the production wrapped principal photography.
Within the confines of its standard-issue “serial killer on the loose in the big city” plot is an unflinching look at New York’s gay subcultures. Without question, the film is most urgent at night, where Al Pacino, as an undercover cop, roams the Leather/BDSM bars in the Meatpacking district in search of a murderer.
Thanks to Friedkin’s direction and Pacino’s controlled performance, Cruising rises above its cliched plot of crooked cops and an overburdened detective force bullied into solving the crimes before they ignite a political firestorm, just like in real life. The neighborhood where Cruising filmed did not take kindly to the project, with locals and activist groups disrupting production. Once finished, due to its candid depiction of gay sexuality, the MPAA demanded 40-minutes of cuts to reverse its original X-rating. The controversies endure with film historians and gay leaders lambasting Cruising’s linking violence with illicit sexuality, a gross judgment on queer life.
Seeking to counter the protests, Friedkin offered the following disclaimer at the film’s opening, “This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world. It is set in one small segment of that world, which is not meant to be representative of the whole.”
It did little to mollify the objections to the film, which remain justified. The equation of gay sex with isolation, brutality, and murder permeates the movie because it does little to understand any of the motivations involved with the crimes. Few positive images materialize, and even those meet destruction by the film’s end. More, Pacino’s character seems to establish a connection with his gay self, but it is merely hinted at and not explored further.
We can argue the artistic merits of Cruising, but you cannot deny that the cameras did not shy away from the black and blue aesthetic of leather and BDSM culture. The result is a fearless time capsule of a culture embraced by many practitioners of this form of sexual expression. The film may focus on a youthful Pacino and the ensemble cast. Still, the background is where subversion exists, depicting queer culture and sexuality, breathtakingly and unexpectedly.
So why champion the film at all?
It’s a film history lesson that retains its power to illuminate and inspire a more explicit, honest discussion on how not to relegate sex and sexuality into something negative. Again, how else can we begin to improve the future without looking at the past? Cancel culture vultures need not apply.
SONG OF THE SOUTH (1946)
Directed by Harve Foster, Wilfred Jackson
Screenplay by Dalton Raymond, Maurice Rapf, and Morton Grant
Starring: Luana Patten, Bobby Driscoll, Ruth Warrick, James Baskett, and Hattie McDaniel
Finally, let’s talk about the nadir of Disney’s sometimes color-blind and tone-deaf oeuvre, perhaps the one film that may never see the light again by an audience outside academia. Based on the equally controversial Uncle Remus stories compiled by Joel Chandler Harris, you can see what inspired Disney to turn these moral fables into a major film. Unfortunately, the Mouse House decided to keep their animated musical in Harris’s chosen dialect for African-Americans featured in his work. The sounds are shocking, even by today’s standards.
Southern author Harris did not escape criticism with the original text, so why did Disney keep the same framing devices without contemplating the consequences? Several writers were part of the project, some recognizing and seeking to remedy the issues with the property, but the inherent problem remains. Despite its tuneful soundtrack and candy-hued visuals, the racial stereotyping depicted in the film is still difficult to accept today. The film industry, seeking a means to appease a justifiably angry NAACP, bestowed an honorary Oscar to actor James Baskett, who played Uncle Remus in the film. While Baskett may have been the first black male actor to win an Academy Award, it is essential to note that he couldn’t attend the 1946 premiere in segregated Atlanta.
If it is so venal, why should Song of the South even be viewed again? Quite frankly, it exemplifies what cancel culture does to our collective past. This lobotomy or erasure of art representing our worst selves does not magically clear our name as a flawed species. We are missing a chance to educate ourselves on how to make things better. What is missing in today’s “woke” discourse about art in the past is context. To understand where we want to go as a society, we must look back to see where we’ve been first. We need to give these examples their due and proper context as to WHY they are not images we need to repeat or reimagine.
It is your decision as to what you can accept in terms of the topics raised by the films. Have an open mind and question how these films can still fit in our worlds. Either way, I welcome your opinions. Until the Club meets again, stay safe and healthy, mis amigos.
Welcome back to the Carreón Cinema Club, mi gente!
I’m sure a lot of life has happened to you all since the Club’s last gathering. Perhaps a little too much of 2020 bled into the start of 2021, but it is vital to keep looking at the optimistic side of a pessimistic reality. Sooner or later, we will catch up to our changed lives and turn this cosmic Titanic around. Until then, I thought I’d kick off this year’s edition of the Carreón Cinema Club with “The 3 Films and Series That Give Us Life.”
AUNTIE MAME (1958)
Directed by Morton DaCosta
Written by Betty Comden & Adolph Green
(Adapted from the novel Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis; and the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee)
Starring: Rosalind Russell, Forrest Tucker, Coral Browne, Peggy Cass, and Jan Handzlik
Streaming: TCM (Check listings), Amazon Prime (Rent), Apple TV+ (Rent)
Rosalind Russell was already a comedic force of nature before she scored her most iconic role as everyone’s dream relative in Auntie Mame. During the early 1950s, Russell turned to the Broadway stage when starring film roles became less plentiful. After scoring a whopping success with the musical Wonderful Town in 1953, she hit it big again with the play Auntie Mame. Based on famed eccentric Patrick Dennis’s madcap best seller, it was adapted for the stage by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, becoming a box office smash for two years running. After the play closed, Russell returned to the big screen as Mame Dennis in the film version released in 1958. Directed by Morton DaCosta, Russell’s towering performance again entranced audiences, with the film still a beloved classic.
Watching Auntie Mame is almost a rite of passage for some. Turner Classic Movies often broadcasts the film today, particularly around the holidays. However, it was on the now-rebranded American Movie Classics channel that my family and I first saw the film several decades ago. Russell’s incandescent performance as a wealthy, stylish bohemian is one for the ages. Her transition from a woman of leisure to becoming the mother figure to her orphaned nephew Patrick is a beautiful and hysterical arc to follow. It’s hard not to want to be part of Mame’s riotous crew if it means meeting people like Vera Charles. Who wouldn’t want to hang with the first lady of the American stage, a salty broad who loves a drink as much as her stage entrances, maybe more?
The wonderful thing about Mame Dennis as a character is that she does evolve as much as she influences the people closest to her. Whether it’s her pregnant, possibly unmarried, secretary, the mousy Agnes Gooch, or her exuberant oil baron husband Beauregard Pickett Burnside, especially her little love, Patrick, combined, they redefine the concept of family. The same applies to the ensemble that surrounds Russell is as charged up as she, with Coral Browne, Forrest Tucker, Peggy Cass, and young Jan Handzlik, all giving as good as Russell.
In the end, Mame proves victorious over those who dare mess with her family, culminating in an outrageous “reunion” finale that makes the whole journey worth the ticket. Author Patrick Dennis’s real-life story is worth a film of its own, one that shares many of the same colors as Mame Dennis. The original novel’s success led to a sequel book and a smash hit Broadway musical with Angela Lansbury. Alas, Mame’s fortunes dimmed quite a bit when a misguided Lucille Ball brought the musical version of Mame to the screen, resulting in a box office bomb that damaged her reputation. Yet, word is Mame may rise again in the 21st century thanks to writer Annie Mumolo of “Bridesmaids” fame and the fearless Oscar winner Tilda Swinton as the fabulous Ms. Dennis. We shall see. Otherwise, to quote Mame, “Life’s a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!” In this era of too little happiness and endless complaint, you would do well to take in the meal offered by joining Rosalind Russell as Mame and company.
MARRIED TO THE MOB (1988)
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Starring: Michelle Pfeiffer, Matthew Modine, Dean Stockwell, Mercedes Ruehl, and Alec Baldwin
Written by Barry Strugatz & Mark R. Burns
Streaming: Hulu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+ (Rent)
It’s hard not to picture Michelle Pfeiffer as forever being an A-list star, yet, believe it or not, her ascension did take a while. After making her leading lady debut in 1982 with the infamous musical sequel Grease 2, she made sure no one would use that cult classic against her thanks to early memorable roles in Scarface and The Witches of Eastwick. 1988 would prove a watershed year for her with the release of the awards season hit Dangerous Liaisons and the mafia comedy Married to the Mob.
What made Married to the Mob significant for Pfeiffer was that the film allowed her to show off a sublime sense of humor as an actor. Director Jonathan Demme made an inspired and bold choice to cast her as beleaguered mafia wife, Angela DeMarco. She nails not just the “fuggedaboutit” accent and wears Colleen Atwood’s divinely OTT costumes with confident style; Pfeiffer brings luminous humanity to a woman who aspires to a better life.
Once hubby “Cucumber” Frank DeMarco is iced, played to the coolest hilt by Alec Baldwin, the widow DeMarco finds the power to leave the mob rule and find a new home for her and her young son. Unfortunately, Alpha Male don, Tony “the Tiger” Russo, portrayed by Oscar nominee Dean Stockwell, can’t think about anyone else but her. Neither can the FBI, led by Matthew Modine, whose investigation into Frank’s murder turns complicated when he pieces together Angela’s true agenda. Yet, hell hath no fury like Tony’s wife, Connie Russo, played by a scene-stealing Mercedes Ruehl. As the one person Tony fears, Connie is not about to let someone take her man.
Pfeiffer staked her claim as a leading actor of her generation the following year in The Fabulous Baker Boys, a star turn that brought her a first Best Actress Oscar nomination. Married to the Mob put her on the path, though, and in honor of the late Jonathan Demme’s recent birthday, it merits a visit as a film that will give you life.
COMO AGUA PARA CHOCOLATE (1992)
Like Water for Chocolate
Directed by Alfonso Arau
Screenplay by Laura Esquivel, adapted from her novel
Starring: Lumi Cavazos, Marco Leonardi, Ada Carrasco, and Regina Torné
Streaming: Hulu, HBOMax, Amazon Prime
Food on film has a long history of making audiences hungry for more. With such classic films as Tom Jones to Tampopo and Babette’s Feast, cuisine’s cinematic power will forever tantalize all of our senses. The arrival of author Laura Esquivel’s romantic fable Como Agua Para Chocolate (or Like Water for Chocolate) added a layer of magical realism and romance to the recipe. Here the food not only dictates the fate of its protagonist, Tita, it also manifests itself in the emotions of those who consume her meticulously prepared dishes.
Released in 1992, director Alfonso Arau realized Esquivel’s book and screenplay as an amber-hued period piece, particularly in the recipes captured on screen. However, the innocent beauty of Lumi Cavazos as Tita is the main reason the movie works so well. Her devotion to the culinary arts pales in comparison to her love for Pedro, her older sister’s husband. Being the youngest daughter, though, she’s trapped by tradition to forever care for her iron-hearted mother, Mamá Elena. Regardless, Tita finds her power by cooking for those she loves, an extension of her heart that affects them all in surprising ways. In the end, love does triumph, but she must endure several tragedies to reach that destination.
A novela aspect does exist in the film thanks to the steely presence of Regina Torné as Mamá Elena. Also, Arau’s visual ambition does overreach a bit in terms of its magical realism. Still, Cavazos pulls the film through in every scene, a relatable heroine for any generation, as illustrated in this scene from the film (presented in its original Spanish).
I think what I love most about Como Agua Para Chocolate is its blend of nostalgia and culture. It remains a seminal film of the 1990s, reigning as one of the most popular international movies of its time. More, it brought Mexico back into the fold of world cinema for a new generation. After years of exporting broad comedies about female truck drivers and narco life, film enthusiasts of Mexican cinema no longer made do with just a steady trickle of what was considered the “art film.” This genial, romantic period piece broke that cycle with great success, giving way to a powerful group of Latino cineastes that continue to influence cinema today.
Created by Jac Schaeffer
Directed by Matt Shakman
Based on Scarlet Witch by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby and Vision by Roy Thomas and John Buscema
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Teyonah Parris, Randall Park, Kat Dennings, and Kathryn Hahn
I’ll be honest in saying I watch very little in terms of today’s television series. I’ve spent one too many months re-watching The Golden Girls, Designing Women, and that 80s relic It’s a Living, an admission that will probably prompt an intervention. I don’t read recaps, and I feel the leading streaming platforms only care about a young audience. Then, I saw the teaser for Disney+’s WandaVision, which led me to the first episode, exploding this old geezer’s brain.
Led by the dynamic duo of Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany as Wanda Maximoff and Vision, this glorious extension of Marvel’s Avengers universe is not just for the supers crowd. Oh no, far from it. It does help to have a little knowledge of these characters going in, but it is so well crafted, I honestly don’t think it will matter. The premise is that solid and affecting. Imagine loving someone so much; you find the power to remix the physical world to bring him back from the dead.
Now entering the home stretch on Disney+, what makes these final episodes compelling is discovering the true depth of Wanda’s pain and the power it has unleashed. The loss of her great love, Vision, continues to overwhelm her, something she refers to as a wave that keeps taking her down whenever she finds the strength to stand again. Emotional poetry exists beyond the clever homage to the classic situation comedy tropes that frame most of WandaVision. Each lushly produced episode looks and feels like a motion picture, action-packed and large in scale. The devil is in the details, with a nostalgic aesthetic expertly woven in and out of our present time with breathless pacing that does not overshadow its emotional impact.
Thanks to a winning ensemble, especially the comic brilliance of Kathryn Hahn, the show within a show format feels ordinarily human and extraordinary at the same time. With one episode left ahead, how WandaVision decides to conclude this mesmerizing season is anyone’s guess. For those new to the party, the chance to see it all unfold in a marathon sitting is on par with being in a move theater again. Rest assured, this isn’t hyperbole from a fanboy. You’re in for one of the year’s most engaging series on television today.
It is hard to believe we’re heading into the first anniversary of our collective pandemic lives. To be honest, it feels great to share a little something with the Club again. I look forward to sharing more Club entries as the year continues. By the way, I’ve moved on from The Golden Girls to enjoy watching all seven seasons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I’m on season 4, and I have to say, it is way better than taking Lexapro. Let’s turn the world with a smile! Hasta pronto, mi gente.
We can spend a whole lifetime debating why some films connect with an audience while others remain left out in the cold. Yet, many titles endure as favorites, good or bad, and often for surprisingly personal reasons. That’s the focus of this edition of the Carreón Cinema Club: The “Films That Make You Go Hmm!”
When I started mulling over this episode’s topic, it was hard not to focus on just flops with cult followings. Every movie fan has a list of guilty pleasures, including box office monsters or monster flops. I’m notorious for not being able to differentiate between either. My good may be your bad, and vice versa. Besides, anyone who’s been on a set knows that it takes the same amount of effort to make a good film as it does a bad one. What kickstarted my engines to hit overdrive was a simple question: What is it about certain movies that straddle both lines of success and failure, the ones you wonder, “Was that the best they could do?” Those are the films that make you go Hmm. Depending on your tastes, any list can be chock full of surprises, but I’m only going to offer up three titles for now. Ready? Here we go!
FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) — Directed by Adrian Lyne
I will never forget the eager audience at the Mann Bruin in Westwood, CA, the night Fatal Attraction opened in 1987. You could feel the anticipation growing as the lights went down, and the trailers started playing. Blood was in the air. We wanted to see a crazy Glenn Close in action. What makes this significant is that the group excitement was driven only by TV spots and word of mouth. Before reality shows, recap culture, and the vast network of trash-talking platforms overtook all media coverage. The audience took pleasure that night in ’87, gaping at director Adrian Lyne’s ability to present a chic, upper West Side veneer of gloss and privilege sullied by curly haired madness and one, crowd-pleasing gunshot at the bitter end. It was like the opera diva hit a high note; the applause was deafening.
Fatal Attraction was a zeitgeist hit, its vision of infidelity gone wrong, becoming the topic of opinion pieces and talk shows for weeks. Audiences couldn’t get enough, turning the film into a major hit, becoming the highest-grossing film of that year worldwide. The title itself became synonymous with unhinged exes. It even earned six Academy Awards nominations , including Best Picture. But was it that good? More, does it hold up in the post-lions and Christians era of social media, reality TV, and the MeToo era? Not even close. Ha.
Watching Fatal Attraction today is to be turned off by its carefully designed vision of white male privilege and entitlement. Nothing happens to Michael Douglas, the lawyer husband who cheats on his gorgeous and wholesome wife with a rather intense book editor played by Glenn Close. His so-called punishments effect his pride and ego. Okay, she boils the family’s rabbit, destroys his car, kidnaps his daughter from elementary school to ride a roller coaster, and sends him a cassette of a profane rant. He got laid twice and freaks over why the woman in question can’t take no for an answer for his being a selfish asshole. No, the dirty is done by and to the women, a showdown between the perfectly wavy-haired Madonna and the frizzy permed whore. Instead of nuance, they represent extremes, trading looks of betrayal or outrage. It was hailed as visionary to have wifey Anne Archer shoot Glenn Close in the final, come-back-from-the-dead-moment. But it wasn’t. It was just slasher film lite nonsense.
Movie writers made much ado about the famed original ending, where Glenn Close commits suicide to the celebrated aria from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. The knife she used was one held by Douglas to threaten her in a previous scene. With his fingerprints still on the weapon, the police arrive at his home to arrest him, giving Close what appears to be the final word. Mama Archer is stupefied, with Douglas yells at her to call a lawyer. She runs into the house, goes into his artfully decorated man cave to make the call, only to stumble upon the cassette sent by Close. Archer plays it, rewinds one passage, hearing Close would just have to cut herself deeper, killing herself. With evidence of the suicide, not murder in hand, Archer bolts out of the room. We hear her saying to her daughter as she runs out, “Come on honey, we’re going to get Daddy.” Test audiences hated that Douglas was even punished a little, leading to a new ending, further underscoring the perils of a group vote in Hollywood. It did make a difference, though. Instead of earning a possible $15 million at the US box office, the film cashed out with nearly $160 million instead.
Fatal Attraction does hold a special place in history for being one of the trashiest films ever to be validated by Oscar nominations. It makes you go “Hmm” as to why so many people venerated the movie in its time. Close is a complex actor of incredible skill and depth, and you have to admire what she tries to do with the character. The idea of someone turning the tables on an unfaithful, arrogant partner is a good one. With violence perpetrated against women a major problem worldwide, seeing it done for entertainment purposes with a false ending of so-called female empowerment diminishes and trivializes what could have been a fascinating study of an age-old question. Why do people cheat? Instead, we get a passionate male fantasy dressed in white jersey and black leather, set in some gorgeous looking spaces in New York City. It’s fatal, alright.
Ah, what to say about Cats. The musical’s tag line was “Now and Forever.” The film version bears the legend, “What the Fuck Was That?” One of the most successful musicals ever produced, studios circled it for several decades. Besides its being a plotless show based on poems by T. S. Eliot, the underlying problem was how do you present it in a filmed medium. At one point, it looked like Cats would roam as an animated feature, which in hindsight, wouldn’t have been so terrible.
With musical films still doing surprisingly well at the box office, fans cheered when Universal announced that Cats the movie would be helmed by Tom Hooper. The man who shepherded the Oscar-winning hit adaptation of Les Misérables would now herd the kitties for the big screen. Its glittering cast led by James Corden, Taylor Swift, Judi Dench, and Jennifer Hudson, who’d sing the legendary “Memory” on screen, felt like this years-in-the-making version of Cats was on the right track. Then we saw the first trailer. Oooof. Derided and dissed, hated and hissed, Cats looked like a dog.
Once you saw it, design-wise, Eve Stewart’s Cats is a dream to look at on-screen, filling it in a way John Napier’s original stage production set could not. The choreography earned comparisons, too. Fans found themselves divided over Gillian Lynne’s original choreography, a landmark blend of acrobatics and modern dance enhanced by feline movement, versus Hamilton‘s Andy Blankenbuehler’s edgier take. Yet, even with such glittering trappings, most audiences either stayed away or failed to enjoy the experience if they did go.
Whatever committee agreed to employ motion capture effects, projecting the cast’s faces onto feline bodies, doomed the film from the start. You can accept it in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, but the sight of La Dench doing a leg extension stretch like a cat was too much to handle. That was a “Hmm” moment for the ages. Of course, it did trigger cheers from the “It’s so bad it’s good” crowd, who turned Cats into The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the 21st century. Leave it to some folks to pull the one thread from this ball of wool to play with good fun.
Some magic does exist in Hooper’s super-sized production. The appearance of Taylor Swift, late as it is, is welcome. Her natural gifts as a performer found the right space. The same applies to Jennifer Hudson, whose delivery of the classic “Memory” is one to remember. Francesca Hayward and Robert Fairchild also make good on delivering the dance elements with grace and excitement. But it ends there, at least for me.
In the end, Cats is for the curious only. However, I will never forget the sight of one little girl watching the film that Christmas week at a theater in Mexico City, where I saw the movie with my family. My siblings slept, but as I walked out to see why my mother hadn’t come back to her seat, I saw this child looking at the screen with a smile; you can see it was one of absolute wonder and joy. She loved the film. As for my mom, she was reading a magazine in the lobby.
The unexpected success of George Lucas’s Star Wars in 1977 paved the way for special effects-driven narratives that could transport audiences further than ever before. In 1978, Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie had droves of moviegoers believing a man could fly. And in 1979, Disney unveiled the dark space mysteries of The Black Hole.
Young listeners, believe it or not, a time existed where Disney was floundering in leading the cinematic charge. Even its fabled animation division was struggling for relevancy. Tastes were changing, and audiences no longer sought the family films that were the studio’s hallmark. Disney had been developing a space-themed adventure for the better part of the 1970s, which eventually became The Black Hole. Instead of delving into the heart of darkness in space, the studio opted to rehash its famed 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with wildly uneven results.
What makes you go “Hmm” over this film is when you ponder what could have been.
The famed imaginations of Harrison and Peter Ellenshaw and their visual effects team dreamed up visceral images of the black hole phenomenon in space. Their matte paintings also added plenty of fire to some of the widescreen sequences. The entire enterprise should have broadened Disney’s reach outside of kid-centric fare to keep the brand alive. Instead, the film was an awkward blend of its former self and its future goals, with neither coming out ahead. For all its visual wonder in places, you could see how the marketing team wanted to commodify its leading robotic players. The tie-ins were plentiful, the robots were cute and menacing, but the film’s failure meant no one wanted The Black Hole merch for Christmas 1978.
None of its accomplished ensemble cast led by Maximillian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux, and Ernest Borgnine could do anything with the by-the-numbers script. And its lofty desire to visualize the descent into the Heaven and Hell of the black hole was laughable, along with some other less than effective sequences. What could have helped was having a director with vision, not Gary Nelson, the man who brought forth Freaky Friday and The Boy Who Talked to Badgers for the studio, as well as episodes of Gilligan’s Island and The Patty Duke Show.
Science dictates that nothing can escape the pull of a black hole in space. Trust me. People avoided its force on Earth that Christmas season, bringing Disney a sizeable lump of coal. Despite its failure, Disney did not give up on creating more mature fare, as exemplified by the original Tron, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and the notorious Watcher in the Woods in the early 80s. Still, a cult following has developed for The Black Hole, one that continues to grow. So much so, Disney is looking to revive the movie again. Given the studio’s revamped fortunes courtesy of Lucasfilm and Marvel, a black hole may be swirling our way sooner than later. In the meantime, witness the humble origins of a powerhouse genre.
We could go on for a while longer discussing the films that make you go Hmm, but rest assured it will be back to ponder again. David Lynch’s baroque take on Frank Herbert’s Dune and the hateful, franchise killing sequel to Sex and the City both come to mind. Until the Club meets again, stay safe and healthy out there, mi gente.
Real life is probably scarier now than ever, but a little artificial fear mixed with nostalgia is still a damn good treat for the senses. If you are finding yourself eager to shut out all that ails us in this pandemic/election double feature of doom, why not try my Fright Night Five Film Festival?
Alien (1979) – Ridley Scott’s epic monster in space story still packs a wallop. Often imitated but never equaled, the original ALIEN defined a new era for the genre. Exquisitely minimalistic in execution, it is a slow burn of building suspense until it explodes with terror and primal violence. It remains my favorite scary film ever, despite the diminishing returns of the franchise.
Runner up: James Cameron’s 1986 militaristic mash-up ALIENS, which turned Oscar-nominated star Sigourney Weaver into a hero archetype for the ages.
Carrie (1976) – Stephen King’s classic novel Carrie is a perfect expression of teen rage, manifested in a young woman with telekinetic powers. A visualized by director Brian De Palma, CARRIE is a riveting blend of psychological drama and terror that reaches its devastating peak with a prom sequence for the ages.
However, the moments in between depicting Carrie being bullied at school by classmates and at home by her overbearing Bible-thumping mother give the film its most haunting and human qualities. Beautifully interpreted by future Oscar winner Sissy Spacek, CARRIE has since evolved into a cautionary tale that plays out even today with equally devastating results.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – Teenagers and horror go together better than “Boogey” and “man” for a reason. Leave it the horror auteur Wes Craven to create the ultimate nihilistic symbol of consequence: Freddy Krueger. Craven’s A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is terrifying because its villain results from the vigilante justice engaged by a group of parents seeking to stop a predatory child murderer. When their teenagers start to die one by one, this narrative of an unstoppable vengeful ghost instantly became mythic and a perfect representation of our current ethos. What happens when you can’t take care of your kids in an era of rampant American individualism? That’s a nightmare, alright.
Halloween (1978) – If you’re a child of the late 1970s and early 1980s, you will remember where you were when the theme to John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN scared the shit out of you for the first time. It rivals John Williams’ theme to “Jaws” as a harbinger of death. The slasher film was alive and well, an outburst of anarchy brought on by the American Dream’s demise. After Vietnam, Nixon, and the gas crisis, America was numb and angry, among other societal malaise. New cultural monsters were born, and standing tall amongst them was the notorious and sadistic Michael Myers.
Myers was rage incarnate, another silent and vengeful killing machine, and it didn’t matter who stood in his way. As a horror film, it is a compelling example of cause and effect. You watch, you scream, and you laugh nervously at your reaction. It helps that star Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode is such a relatable screen heroine. We are all Laurie in that we will survive, dammit. However, look closer and try to project into the film what you fear at this moment in time. It’s a whole different movie experience. Trust me.
The Exorcist (1973) – If you’re craving tales of demonic possession, then THE EXORCIST is for you. What makes William Friedkin’s visceral supernatural thriller so compelling is having a young child at the center of a terrifying reality. Stars Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair are like watching a beautiful duet of humanity as a mother and daughter, even as all hell breaks loose in their Georgetown home.
In 1973, audiences reacted to this film by waiting in line for hours, some in freezing weather, to get a ticket. THE EXORCIST became part of the national conversation, even surpassing the Watergate scandal for a moment. Nearly 50 years later, though, aspects of THE EXORCIST feel quaint in terms of effects. The narrative, however, still shakes you up hard. It is a superbly crafted film experience, preying on all that you fear, whether you’re religious or not. Don’t watch it alone in the dark – or better yet, do. You’ll see and hear things all over the house that are NOT on your screen.
Enjoy the first ever Fright Night Five from the Carreón Cinema Club, mi gente. Be safe and sane out there — and wear a pinche mask! It’s alright tonight, ya tú sabes!
Welcome back to the Carreón Cinema Club. Get ready for a double feature of failing marriages and the importance of communication. But seriously, both films are remarkable for their emotional frankness and the artistry of the great Ingrid Bergman.
It is not a coincidence that I am focusing on another glamorous Swede after debuting the Club with Greta Garbo. The luminous Ingrid Bergman, a three-time Oscar winner, couldn’t avoid becoming a Hollywood legend thanks to such films as Notorious, Gaslight, and, of course, Casablanca. However, the discovery of her later works on the Kanopy and Prime Video channels revealed to me how she was one artist who didn’t shy from taking a chance on difficult material, especially at a time where public perception was actually against her.
After representing the perfect leading lady image in the 1940s, Bergman’s popularity took a severe hit in the early 1950s thanks to her relationship with Italian director Robert Rossellini. They had met while working on Stromboli in 1949, kindling a passionate affair. Both were married to other people. More, Bergman was also pregnant with her first child with the famed director. Deemed “scandalosa,” the actress stayed exiled in Europe for several years. Yet, that didn’t stop the duo from working together. Bergman’s collaborations with Rossellini were often compelling and nothing like her films that garnered her much success.
According to daughter, actress Isabella Rossellini said in a recent interview with Reuters, “She showed that women are independent, that women want to tell their own story, want to take the initiative, but sometimes they can’t because sometimes our social culture doesn’t allow women to break away from certain rules.”
Watching JOURNEY TO ITALY on Kanopy only reaffirms her daughter’s sentiments. Coupled with Rossellini’s stature as one of the most prominent members of the neo-realist movement in world cinema, Bergman flourished with portraying complex women who break the rules attached to traditional gender roles.
Much like Nicole Kidman today, Bergman had no problem stripping down the veneers of poise and gentility to reveal her truest self. Her emotional vulnerability resulted in a fascinating showcase in THE HUMAN VOICE, a one-hour televised adaptation of the famed and influential Jean Cocteau monologue. Speaking to an audience of one via telephone, Bergman captures all that can dismantle us when communication with a loved one becomes difficult and unbearable.
I love films that deal with unfiltered relationships and offer real psychology as to why we put ourselves through such trials, even when we face an absolute end. It makes for incredibly beautiful catharsis on film. That’s why Bergman leads this second entry of the Carreón Cinema Club. First up, JOURNEY TO ITALY.
Journey to Italy (1954)
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Cast: Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders
In JOURNEY TO ITALY, Bergman co-stars with George Sanders of All About Eve and Rebecca fame. As the film opens, the signs are evident that the moneyed duo of Kathryn and Alex Joyce may be facing the end of their marriage. Heading by car to Naples to unload an inherited villa, their trip starts as a vacation, a chance to reconnect. Instead, they find their conversations taxed by Alex’s sarcasm and Kathryn’s hair-trigger sentimentality. At constant odds for most of the trip, misunderstandings and jealousy sully the waters further, prompting Kathryn to ask for a divorce on impulse. Where the film takes a stunning turn, however, is when they visit the almost lunar landscape ruins of Pompeii. Seeing the discovered bodies of former lovers encased for eternity in ashes rattles Kathryn to the point that she begs Alex for them to leave. The impact is profound, one that delivers a final scene that is both powerful and unforgettable.
JOURNEY TO ITALY is no travelogue, although Rossellini’s composition of black and white shots is often beautiful and striking. No, the territory covered is all heart and mind. It is a fascinating journey to watch, even though not a lot happens for most of the film until the final act. The non-linear trajectory of the narrative, however, is what gives the story its forward motion. What captured my attention most was how urgent the emotions played throughout. Director Rossellini would tell the actors their dialogue before cameras started rolling, which sounds like a risky endeavor. Yet, Sanders, and especially Bergman, deliver such raw and unfiltered performances, you can only imagine how it felt like working without a net. The possibility erases any chance for overembellishment, never robbing the characters of their truth. They are living it out loud at that moment. That is why JOURNEY TO ITALY is such a wonderful experience to watch, one I hope you enjoy as well. It continues to be available on Kanopy. Take the journey. It is so worth it.
The Human Voice (1967)
Based on the play by Jean Cocteau
Adapted by Carl Wildman
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Cast: Ingrid Bergman
Jean Cocteau’s famed one-act play, has returned to court public attention this year thanks to Spain’s Oscar-winning auteur Pedro Almódovar. The toast of the 2020 Venice Film Festival, Almódovar took a giant creative leap with his adaptation, a short film no less, and in English! For the first time. Ay la leche! Starring the equally fearless Tilda Swinton, the threads of his passion for Cocteau’s have finally flourished. You can see how the story of a woman’s desperate phone call proved influential for his iconic 1988 comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. As we await the US release of his adaptation of THE HUMAN VOICE, what a pleasant surprise to know we have access to Ingrid Bergman’s interpretation of the role to offer a study of contrasts.
Now streaming on Prime Video as part of its Broadway HD channel, THE HUMAN VOICE finished the one-season run of the ABC anthology series, ABC Stage 67. Bergman stars as an unnamed woman dealing with the emotional wreckage after her husband leaves her for another woman. We are allowed to hear what is probably be the last conversation between this couple, but only her voice. Representing her husband is the cold instrument known as a telephone, her literal lifeline as she makes a desperate attempt to stay connected in more ways than the unpredictable wire. We never hear from him, only seeing clues of his torn picture and a magazine feature image of his new love.
The premise is unadorned, offering an actor a bravura role that lasts just under an hour. Bergman takes full advantage. Chainsmoking and unable to keep her voice was quavering, she turns herself into a human rollercoaster of emotions, rising and falling throughout the often-painful conversation. Forget the part of her being famous; it is hard not to feel uncomfortable for eavesdropping before the famed actress hits specific notes that feel both personal and relatable as the conversation reaches its peak. The audio effects of a clock ticking, dial tones and silences on the other line are often intrusive and heartbreaking, punctuating the reality she’s not going to turn this situation around in her favor.
The look is all 60s television, abstract and theatrical. The camera work is not subtle, and the pauses for commercial breaks are annoying as transitions. Bergman feels a bit mannered at the start. Yet, it is a beautifully calibrated star turn by the end, offering a persona that is real and honest. Amazing what the human voice can do to us when we know it is close to being removed from our spheres of living.
You can see what several artists have taken on Cocteau’s play. Interestingly, Roberto Rossellini directed THE HUMAN VOICE in 1948 as part of a two-part Italian film titled L’Amore with Anna Magnani and Federico Fellini. It is now showing on HBO Max, which I will make a point to watch.
Thanks for reading this second installment of the Carreón Cinema Club, home of films with big feelings! Don’t forget to subscribe to the YouTube channel, as well as follow me on Instagram: @CarreonCinemaClub and Twitter: @CarreonClub. Lots more to share ahead. Keep on reading. Thanks for your attention, mi gente.
It was essential to start the broadcast reviews from the Carreón Cinema Club with a comedy because we need a laugh.
I also wanted to showcase a film from the past that continues to inspire and engage audiences today. I ran through my favorite film eras, and the minute I thought, “1939,” I knew what I had to do.
What was so special about 1939, you ask? Not much, just that it was the year audiences witnessed future classics galore, including one of my favorite films ever, George Cukor’s “The Women.” And how about “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Stagecoach,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and, of course, the legendary and still controversial “Gone with the Wind?” Yes, it was a monumental year.
I knew a museum piece would make your eyes glaze over. Nor did I want to pick a title that would encourage “cancel culture” discourse. The chosen film was one I saw, finally, for the first time thanks to Turner Classic Movies. Ergo, 1939’s leading romantic comedy, NINOTCHKA, kicks off the Carreón Cinema Club.
Starring the legendary Greta Garbo in her first real American comedy, NINOTCHKA remains a classic film thanks to its famed star, a winning ensemble cast, its peerless writing, and the deft directorial “touch” of Ernst Lubitsch.
Let’s take a look.
Written by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and the soon to be legend himself Billy Wilder, NINOTCHKA is an elegantly rendered satire of clashing ideologies, including gender, sex, capitalism, and communism.
Garbo stars as Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushov, an incredibly severe Russian envoy, itself a send-up of her previous dramatic personas on screen. Sent to Paris to retrieve the jewels of a deposed countess in exile, Ninotchka instead finds herself questioning her commitment to the Soviet cause thanks to the city’s charms and, mostly, the persuasive romantic attentions of the playboy Count Léon, portrayed by Melvyn Douglas.
I’d wanted to see this film for years but never got around to it until this summer. The lively banter between Garbo and Douglas, the absurd situations experienced with glee by a trio of other failed agents, and the biting visual commentary of life in the Soviet Union in that era is all spun into this delicious confection with substance.
What truly made me fall in love with this film was its famed scene between Ninotchka and the count in a Parisian blue-collar diner. Determined to make her crack a smile, Count Léon tells Ninotchka a slew of jokes, all of which land with a resounding thud. Her analytical mind keeps taking the piss out of his stories, frustrating him to the point of giving up. Then, it happens.
As the count beats a hasty retreat to his table, he trips on a chair and goes crashing down. The whole place erupts in laughter, including his steely Russian paramour. To witness the stunning Garbo bust a gut with delight is a huge turning point for the character. More, her glee is infectious for the viewer, too. I couldn’t stop laughing, rewinding the scene several times because it made me laugh out loud. To be frank, it just felt good. It’s ridiculous and human, all at the same time.
NINOTCHKA goes beyond the time capsule because it’s a perfect mix of all that we want in romance and comedy, with something for the brain, too. The film’s commentary on the Soviet Union takes up much of the final act, which speaks volumes for what Americans thought of the “Red Menace” before entering World War II. It’s not a pretty picture of communist life, dry and drab, but strangely warm at the same time. It is striking when watched through the prism of 2020, given how much anger American society felt for years. While Russia is still a hot button today, it has evolved into something more dangerous and polarizing. Nevertheless, you will gain an appreciation for how the film juggles spoof with sophisticated humor. Lubitsch was a master for a reason and worth investigating further once you’ve enjoyed NINOTCHKA.
Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Garbo’s 4th bid), Best Original Story (Melchior Lengyel), and Best Screenplay, NINOTCHKA would be shut out by the “Gone with the Wind” juggernaut. (Believe it or not, director Ernst Lubitsch didn’t warrant a nomination at all. And for all her cinematic might and acclaim, Garbo never won an Oscar ever.)
The glamourous fizz of NINOTCHKA reached further potency thanks to MGM’s legendary promotions and publicity team. Best slogan? “Garbo Laughs!” spotlighting her switch from drama to comedy. Runner up? “Don’t Pronounce It – See It!”
In the end, it was a bittersweet achievement for Garbo as the film was her penultimate effort. While she had worked with Douglas before in 1932, MGM was quick to pair them up again for another comedy, George Cukor’s 1941 effort “Two-Faced Woman.” Unfairly roasted by critics, Garbo found herself labeled “box office poison.” She would not return to the screen again. Instead, one of the cinema’s most enduring faces chose to stop acting at the age of 36, hiding from public view for the rest of her life.
The legacy of NINOTCHKA endures, however. Famed composer Cole Porter would set the story to music with the 1955 Broadway musical “Silk Stockings,” itself made into a film in 1957 by MGM with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse playing the leads. Still, the original remains the finest interpretation, one meant to be rediscovered and appreciated.
While the film is not streaming for free now, keep an eye out for it on TCM as it frequently appears on the channel. You can also rent the movie on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu for a nominal price. Better yet, check out the DVD collections at your local public library or visit the wonderfully eclectic collections at Vidiots in Los Angeles or Vidéothèque in South Pasadena.
Thanks for watching this first edition of the Carreón Cinema Club! Subscribe! Follow me on Instagram (@CarreonCinemaClub) and Twitter (@CarreonClub) for more content!