The Grand Illusion, The Grapes of Wrath, and a few more movies

The Grand Illusion (1937)
Streaming free at Kanopy,
with your library card

"We've got to end this damned war, and make it the last."

"What an illusion."

This is a war movie, technically, but there's no combat and only one casualty. It's World War I, with French prisoners held by the Germans.

Eric von Stroheim, one of the most imposing actors ever in cinema, plays the prison commandant, and simply because he's von Stroheim you expect him to be the bad guy, but he's not. He's a decent guy, same as his prisoners.

Outside the prison, bloody war rages and millions are dying. But we're not shown any of that, which is part of the film's 'illusion'. Inside the prison, the French captives secretly plot an escape, and the German officers conduct searches of the premises. All very civilized, under the rules of war, another illusion. 

#302  [archive]
JUNE 22, 2024

"For me it's simple. A golf course is for golf. A tennis court is for tennis. A prison camp is for escaping."

After several escape attempts, they're sent to a different, more inescapable prison — a converted castle with very tall, very thick walls. But in the same sense that it's not quite a war movie, it's not an escape movie either — don't expect tension and intrigue or Steve McQueen on a motorcycle.

Directed and co-written by Jean Renoir, the film is perhaps an illusion on another level. It's set during WWI, but it was made in 1937, as Nazis were flexing their fascism, and the French across the border must've been apprehensive.

When the Nazis invaded, among many larger indignities, they seized and banned this film, leaving it very nearly lost for decades. 

Grand Illusion is never Hollywood 'big' (it's French!) but it's always big at heart, compelling and intelligent, with humor and heartbreak and dialogue that takes swipes at war, class, and antisemitism. There's also a hilarious sequence with soldiers and officers in drag.

I've never done "ten best" lists, announcing that one masterpiece is a smidgen better than another, but if somebody said that The Grand Illusion is the best movie yet, it wouldn't seem an implausible argument. It's really something special.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Le grand Méliès (1952)
Streaming free at YouTube

This short featurette is the life story of legendary early moviemaker Georges Méliès, with Méliès played by his son, and some home movies mixed in. 

We're shown tricks from Méliès' early career as a magician, and we visit the toy store he ran after being driven out of the movie business. Amid clips and recreations of some of his early films, where Méliès basically invented special effects, we're shown how some of the effects worked. 

All this is acted wordlessly, as if in a silent film, while a narrator — in English, at least in the copy I saw — explains what's going on.

Méliès' widow visits the flower shop that moved in where his toy store had been, to buy flowers to put on her husband's grave. It's one of the film's staged recreations that seem awkward and very staged, especially as it's Méliès' widow, not an actress or recreation. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Grand Tour (1992)
a/k/a Timescape
Streaming free at Tubi

Ben Wilson (Jeff Daniels) is troubled by memories of his dead wife, who got fatally hooved when he drove the station wagon into a horsedrawn sleigh in the snow.

Now he's rehabbing his far too picturesque house as a bed-and-breakfast, when a weird woman checks in with a small entourage of fellow travelers, despite the B&B still being under construction. The guests act peculiarly, like tourists not to the small town but to here and now, because they're time travelers, come to witness a disaster that's about to unfold.

The execution is as peculiar as the B&B's guests. It's filmed foggy and overlit, so it looks like a Hallmark movie, and it's set in a fake-looking town full of stock characters who behave strangely — not 'strangely' like sci-fi, but 'strangely' like bad writing.

For example, a doctor forgets privacy and shows Wilson a stranger's x-rays, just to hurry the plot along. One of the time travelers smears honey on her hands and inexplicably sleeps with Wilson. His relentlessly obnoxious father-in-law pops into and out of the story, bringing fresh complications and then vanishing. It all seems unlikely, even without the science fiction.

I have a fondness for time travel stories, and temporal tourism at the B&B is an interesting concept, but this needs a rewrite.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Grandma (2015)

I'd never heard of this movie, and that's a raging injustice. 

Lily Tomlin stars as 'Grandma', a/k/a Elle, an angry old woman. In the opening scene she breaks up with her short-term girlfriend, and does it meanly. This is Tomlin at her best — angry, acerbic, admittedly misanthropic — and she's splendid. 

Then comes a knock on the door. It's Sage, Elle's high-school age granddaughter. She's pregnant, needs an abortion, but has no money. Neither does Elle, so they spend the rest of the movie trying to scrape up the cash. They visit the fetus's father, ask a friend who'd borrowed money once, see a man who was almost Sage's grandfather, and once said, "If you ever need anything, just ask"... 

Every visit is a new disaster, a chance to see who your friends really are, and Elle loses her temper repeatedly and hilariously. Eventually, they turn to Elle's daughter, Sage's mother, but with trepidation. Elle admits to Sage, "I've been scared of your mom since she was five years old." And she is scary, but she's exactly the daughter Elle would accidentally raise.

It adds up to a hell of a day, hell of a movie, and Tomlin's best performance since Nashville. These three woman are so pitch-perfect in their shortcomings, I had assumed Tomlin wrote the script, but no, it's written and directed by Paul Weitz (About a Boy). 

If there's a problem, it's the film's classist assumptions. Grandma can't be simply a smart, cranky old woman, she's must also be a once-famous poet. Her girlfriend is a waitress, but only while she rethinks her doctoral studies. Grandma's daughter is a controlling, neurotic mess, but that's not enough; she's also a high-stress executive with a personal secretary. It's a movie trope — the writers and stars are big shots, so they give us stories about big shots.

Grandma is very good, but would've been much better if it was about ordinary people. 'Specially since needing a few hundred bucks in a hurry happens to ordinary, working people a lot more than it happens to successful poets, doctoral students, and executives.

With Julia Garner, Judy Green, Marcia Gay Harden, Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Peña, and Sam Elliott.

Verdict: YES, and nearly a BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Grandma's Boy (1922)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

Harold Lloyd plays Harold, a timid schlump who's bullied but won't stand up for himself. When he confesses his cowardice to his ever-kindly grandmama, she tells him about his granddad, who also thought himself a coward but became a Civil War hero. The film then flashes back to Lloyd as his Granddad, and we see what gave him his bravery.

Lloyd is, of course, famous for being funny, but this isn't a comedy. It's a dramatic story with a sense of humor, squeezing honest laughs from the characters and situations instead of a pie in the face. 

To be honest, I found Grandma's Boy boring at first, but it gets better, tells its story well, and I came to genuinely care about both of Lloyd's characters. It all builds to a rousing, and very satisfying finish, with some laughs along the way.

As always with silent films, turn out the lights and put away your cell phone. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Grandma's Reading Glass (1900)
Streaming free at Vimeo

This is more a historical document than entertainment, but it's fascinating as the former.

Barely a minute long, this is a vignette about a boy playing with his grandmother's magnifying glass, looking at a bird cage, a cat, some newspaper clippings, and his grandma's eyeball. The latter must've been a fright to audiences in a darkened auditorium in 1900.

It's old-school cool.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

The Depression sucks all over, but it's worse in Oklahoma. Due to stupidity or ignorance, land all across four southwestern states was over-farmed, with next-to-no thought about soil conservation, leading to savage dust storms.

With less and less of a living to be made off the land, the whole region has become agriculturally untenable, and that's the setting for John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

This film adaptation tells one family's story, as they're forced out of Oklahoma, and drive their rattling, overloaded truck across the country to California, where they've been promised work picking crops. They're traveling on Route 66, but having no kicks. 

Same as it ever was, everything is rigged against little people like you and me, but there's nobody even to point a finger at and say it's his, her, or their fault.

Here's a great moment of dialogue from early on, when an eviction notice is served on a man carrying a shotgun, whose family has been sharecropping the same land for generations:

"All I know is I got my orders. They told me to tell you you got to get off, and that's what I'm telling you."

"You mean get off my own land?"

"Now don't go blaming me. It ain't my fault."

"Whose fault is it?"

"You know who owns the land — the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company."

"Who's the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company?"

"It ain't nobody. It's a company."

"They got a president, ain't they? They got somebody that knows what a shotgun's for, ain't they?"

"But it ain't his fault, because the bank tells him what to do."

"All right. Where's the bank?"

"Tulsa. But what's the use of picking on him? He ain't anything but the manager, and half crazy himself, trying to keep up with his orders from the east!"

"Then who do we shoot?"

"Brother, I don't know. If I did I'd tell you. But I just don't know who's to blame!"

I've typed all of it, because it's a better ode to hopelessness than "Heck of a catch, that Catch-22." There's no escaping your eviction, sorry, and a tractor is coming tomorrow to flatten your house, but it's just one of those things. You'll never find a bad guy behind it, because the bad guy is capitalism itself.

That's what really grabs me about the movie. We have the same bad guy now — capitalism has only gotten uglier, but it's just as elusive, just as impossible to aim a shotgun at. 

Of course, by nature of being a movie, not all of the book's rage and thought come through. I've read it, and the ending here is more optimistic than I remember, but the movie, scripted by Nunnally Johnson (The Dirty Dozen, The Three Faces of Eve), does a good job squeezing plenty of outrage into itself.

Henry Fonda plays his aw-shucks good guy, but this time his character is an ex-con, and carries a hint of menace when he speaks. John Carradine plays a disillusioned preacher, and it's the first time I've seen Carradine act instead of overact.

John Ford directs and Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane) runs the camera, giving this as much poetic beauty as any of Ford's westerns. 

It's a movie that'll make you angry, if you're not already. Wrathful, even. Times were shitty then for the working poor, and they're shitty now, and shitty times are the only times we're allowed.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦   

In Memoriam: Michael Cimino (1939-2016) 

How Mad magazine helped Roger Ebert win a Pulitzer Prize


• • • Coming attractions • • •     

The Grass Harp (1995)
Gravity (2013)
Grease (1978)
The Great Dictator (1940)
The Great Escape (1963)

... plus schlock, shorts, and surprises

— — —
Now accepting movie recommendations,
starting with the letter 'H'.
Just add a comment, below.
— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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  1. I read Ebert's column about female film roles in 1973 and then went hunting through movies just to prove him wrong. Was surprised to see that few of the year's best/highest grossing films even had a woman's name top listed on the poster.

    But the eventual winner for the Academy Award was Glenda Jackson for A Touch of Class. An amazing woman: she won two Oscars, never picked up either one in person, tried to quit acting to become a social worker but her hatred of Margaret Thatcher lead her to become a member of parliament for the Labour Party for the next 23 years instead.

    1. Ebert's point, I'm guessing, was that women's roles are usually "the mother," the wife," one-dimensional and peripheral to the story. Which is still the way it is. Men drive the stories, women do the laundry.

      To some extent that's also true in life; blame testosterone. But a great many men driving their stories are driven by women, and movies should do better by the chicks.

      My Glenda Jackson knowledge is limited, but you've motivated me to add several titles to my list...

  2. I like Grand Illusion. I like every Renoir film - the ones that seem trifling often linger heavily, and the ones that seem heavy are made with such a light touch. Still, I wouldn't even put Grand Illusion in his top ten best.

    I have a copy of Grand Tour I've been meaning to watch for a while, should get around to that. I keep hearing this recent time travel flick is good:


    But I haven't seen it yet. You know me: A modern film? I have my doubts.

    John Ford. Fucking John Ford. Maybe the greatest director of all time. Orson Welles thought so, Kubrick loved him too, all the Hollywood beardos of the 70s. Stagecoach and Kurosawa's Seven Samurai invented the modern action film - there's be no Die Hard without the former, no Raiders of the Lost Ark without the latter. I know everyone loves The Searchers, but I think Stagecoach is a more radical film - it actually uses indians, not Italians with greasepaint, and it's entirely sympathetic to the weak, the downtrodden, drunks, whores, etc.

    Gravity: I think Cuaron is a dullard, wildly overpraised by film bros, and Gravity is 90 minutes of shrill, charmless diva Sandra Bullock whimpering and screaming and dumb-lucking her way back to earth. However, watching the first ten minutes in 3D in a theater was amazing.

    Great Escape: Lord how I hate this dumb, dumb, dumb movie.

  3. There's a lot of Renoir on my list, but I'm still relatively virginal. Only seen half a dozen or so.

    Very agreed about John Ford, and especially Stagecoach. The Searchers can kiss my ass; Stagecoach has *everything* going on, story, characters, setting, cinematography, and yes yes yes, it's still more progressive than 2024.

    And yes about when movies are made. When I'm making a quick decision whether to add something to my watchlist, it's *definitely* a demerit if the movie was made in this century, and a double demerit like Leonardo DiCaprio if it was made in the past ten years. It's possible to outweigh the demerits, but it takes a trusted recommendation or a known writer... something.

    We're agreed about Gravity, but I can't hate Great Escape. It's an empty popcorn movie, certainly, and its claim to be a true story is obvious hogwash, but as popcorn sprinkled with testosterone goes, it's fun. Let me know if I missed the magic of Grand Tour, too.


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