Monday, March 5, 2018

Film Review: Bowling For Columbine

"Bowling for Columbine*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Given the very sad news of the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School I couldn't help but think of Michael  Moore's Academy  Award winning documentary "Bowling For Columbine" (2002), Moore's  thought provoking, satirical look at America's gun culture. On a side note, I have found in the era of Chancellor Trump, Michael  Moore has become more and more relevant as I have re-watched all of his documentaries since last year.

When I read the newspaper (yes, I read an actual newspaper) sometimes I read op-ed pieces. Before I read the article I always check, at the bottom, the small bio of the author first. Why? So I can understand who is writing the article and what their agenda is. What is it they are trying to sell me and am I interested in buying? It is always important to know who is giving you information. Every newspaper, news channel and website has an agenda. Of course, depending on our disposition we are incline to accept some agendas over others.

I mention this because Michael Moore and his documentaries have been considered controversial. Moore's right-wing critics believe he plays fast and loose with facts. Others believe he engages in outrageous theatrics, some I will get to later in this particular documentary. It is true Moore has an agenda. To be specific, it is a politically left leaning agenda. Personally I do not consider Moore a documentarian. I consider him a filmmaker. There is a distinction. Michael Moore makes movies in which he brilliantly creates a viewpoint through humor and editing. There is a lot of useful information in his movies. Does it present both sides? Only to the extent to claim the other side is wrong. But I am okay with that because I am usually in agreement with Moore's agenda. I also don't hold him to high journalistic standards. I watch his movies for entertainment. The fact that there is useful information is icing on the cake. It present a complete package. It entertains and informs.

"Bowling For Columbine" was controversial when it was released in theatres. It would be controversial today if audiences watched it again. The topic of guns will always be a touchy subject because of the extremes at both ends of the debate. However, Michael Moore asks a question in "Bowling For Columbine" that he cannot answer and probably could not be answered today either but deserves an answer. What makes America so different compared to other countries when it comes to gun violence? Why do so many people die at the hands of guns in this country when the rates are so low elsewhere? What is wrong with America? Why are we so violent?

There had been other school shootings in the United States prior to the one at Columbine High School, where 12 students and one teacher were killed before to the two teenager shooters shot themselves. Moore uses this tragic event as a springboard to start a conversation. And, as I say it is a rhetorical conversation with Moore asking questions he has no answers for. Realistically you can't expect Moore to solve the gun issue but you can reasonably expect him to have a point of view and state his opinion on the matter. Moore runs through the checklist of possible explanations; the U.S. has a violent history, poverty, high unemployment, race but then one by one discredits those theories yet spends the remainder of the documentary exploring each concept. It may be the one flaw of the movie. Moore has no answer for the problem but by the end of the movie, this viewer at least, is left to believe the answer is all of the above. There isn't one reason explaining gun deaths in America. It is poverty, race, unemployment and a new one Moore adds to the list, fear.

On a second viewing "Bowling For Columbine" is about more than guns. It is about society in general. As Moore discusses a culture of fear and poverty naturally we are getting into larger issues beyond guns. Moore discusses another school shooting after Columbine where a six year old boy in Flint, Michigan took his uncle's loaded gun to school and shot and killed a fellow six year old student. Moore uses this event to explain maybe this wouldn't have happened if the boy's mother wasn't working two jobs. She was on welfare and as part of the Welfare to Work program. The mother would take a 40 mile bus ride from Flint to Auburn Hills. She worked two jobs and was still unable to pay her rent. Faced with an eviction notice she asked her brother if her son could stay with him. This leads to all sorts of other questions like how is it possible people in the United States can work two jobs and still not make enough money to live? Why can't companies pay their employees a living wage? And why do we demonize the poor and make people feel bad if they are on welfare? You know what kind of welfare makes my blood boil? Corporate welfare. What a bunch of mooches!

To explain a culture of fear Moore goes to Canada, where he humorously learns people do not lock their house doors. Moore points out there are a lot of guns in Canada but their death rates are nowhere near the levels in America. According to Moore's statics there were more than 11,000 gun related deaths in the U.S. in 2001 and 165 in Canada.The difference Moore says is the media. In America, our news reports on constant shootings, which Moore believes forces white Americans to want to buy guns to protect themselves from the black shooters they see on news reports. Moore presents the Canadian news are presenting stories on new speed bumps. It is all very innocent.

That leads to the issue of Michael Moore always creating outrageous theatrics and taking cheap shots. Has the Canadian news ever reported on a new speed bump? I'm sure. We saw the footage. Is that typical of the news Canadian citizens hear every day? C'mon! But that may be the least of the attention grabbing theatrics presented in the movie. One of the more memorable may be Moore walking into a bank in Michigan where if you open an account you will receive a new gun. You see the bank is also a licensed gun dealer and according to Moore's movie, the bank has guns kept onsite in a vault. The bank has disputed this claim but Moore stands by what is depicted onscreen.

There is also a segment where Moore speaks to survivors of the Columbine shooting and meets two students that still have bullets in their body. It is revealed the bullets were bought at Kmart. Moore gets the idea of how about he takes the kids to Kmart and get a refund for the bullets. Besides putting Kmart on the spot and perhaps good for a cheap laugh, in theory, ultimately what is the point of this? Ironically it leads to a great change in one of Kmart's policies which actually leaves Michael Moore speechless. I will not reveal the outcome here.

But maybe the most famous sequence is Michael Moore meeting with Charlton Heston, who at the time was the president of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Of course if you are going to make a documentary about guns it would be interesting to speak to someone from the NRA and speaking to the president of the organization would be quite the catch. On the flip side I cannot understand why Heston would agree to the interview. He claims to know who Michael Moore is but I doubt it. Maybe he got him confused with Roger Moore. Regardless, some feel Moore took advantage of Heston, who revealed he was suffering from Alzheimer's but appears in his right state of mind. I find their time together perfectly justified on Moore's part. He asks Heston serious questions. The same questions Moore has been asking throughout the movie. Why does America seem to have a gun problem...ect.

What is most revealing about the sequence is what it not said which may hit one of Moore's points across. Heston lives on a very large estate. He lives in a gated home with security cameras. It is also a wealthy neighborhood in California. Yet Heston reveals he keeps a loaded gun in the home even though he admits to Moore he has never been he victim of crime, no one has ever broken into his home and he feels safe in the neighborhood. Why does he have a gun at all? Yes, he is he president of the NRA and it would seem rather silly if he didn't own a gun but he feeds to a larger point. These men argue they need a gun, all Americans need a gun, for protection. Heston and other rich privileged men are protected without the gun. They have never experienced violence. They are hypocrites. Yes, the right to bear arms is in the Bill of Rights and as a result every American has the right to own a gun, the problem is with so many guns in the U.S. it leads to so much violence and the people who buy the guns have no real justification for owning it in the first place. It is not for protection, they aren't hunters...ect.

"Bowling For Columbine" was Moore's third feature length documentary, coming after "Roger & Me" (1989) and "The Big One" (1997) but also after his first, and so far only, fictional directorial effort, "Canadian  Bacon" (1995). Looking at it in hindsight it really goes over so much of the material Moore would later address in future efforts like "Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004), "Sicko" (2006) and "Where To Invade Next" (2016). In some ways it makes for an appropriate place to start if you are unfamiliar with Michael Moore's work. It has also been the only documentary he has won an Academy Award for as of today's date.

For me the documentary lacks a bit of focus and takes on too much but there is a lot of good information here and it is typical Micheal Moore. He presents his material in a grand sweeping and humorous way that is entertaining from beginning to end. I don't know that this is Moore's best documentary but it definitely deserves to be seen again even in these rather unfortunate times we are living in now. The issue of gun violence has not improved since the years after this. It remains relevant.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Film Review: Apocalypse Now

"Apocalypse Now"
*** (out of ****)

[Note: This review is in reference to the 1979 theatrical released version]

The film begins with an image of what is supposed to be the jungle of Vietnam. An explosion goes off and the jungle is now in flames. Is this a metaphor for Vietnam? Is it a country imploding? Or is it a metaphor for the soldiers fighting? Are they self destructive? As the scene continues the song "The End" by The Doors is heard on the soundtrack. The lyrics begin "this is the end". Is that another comment on Vietnam?

Depending on who you speak to Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (1979) is either one of the greatest movies ever made or the beginning of Coppola's downfall. At the end of the 1970s Coppola would never again find the critical success he achieved in the decade he released "The Godfather" (1972), "The Godfather Part II" (1974), "The Conversation" (1974) and this film. It was a decade that saw Coppola nominated three times for a best director Academy Award, winning once for "The Godfather Part II". Each movie even received an Academy Award nomination for best picture with both Godfather movies winning.

I have struggled with "Apocalypse Now" over the years. I have seen it numerous times. I have watched the 1979 theatrical released version and the 2001 "Apocalypse Now Redux" version which added 49 additional minutes to an already two hour and 27 minute film. I own a Blu-ray that features both versions of the film. It would be the recommended copy to buy of this film.

There are astonishing images in "Apocalypse Now" and memorable characters yet emotionally I have never been drawn into the movie. I interpret the movie has a commentary on the mental state war has on men. If that interpretation is correct I believe there are better examples of this on film, namely Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" (1987), a film that as the years pass I find I admire more and more viewing after viewing. That is a film I would call a masterpiece and one of the greatest anti-war films ever made.

But as I say "Apocalypse Now" has its defenders. The late Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert, when reviewing the "Redux" version, wrote "more than ever it is clear Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" is one of the great films of all time. It shames modern Hollywood's timidity. To watch it is to feel yourself lifted up to the heights where cinema can take you, but so rarely does."

Coppola decided to base "Apocalypse Now" on a novel written by Joseph Conrad, "Heart of Darkness", which had nothing to do with the Vietnam War or Vietnam. The novel was published in 1899 and was about a voyage up the Congo River. It was meant to be a commentary about civilization and imperialism.

In Coppola's version we follow a Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), a man clearly suffering from Posttraumatic stress disorder. In some ways, every character in the movie is. In our introduction to Willard he confesses now that he is no longer in the jungles of Vietnam, he misses it. He is still haunted by the experience and is on a drunken binge when we see him but he wants to go back. He can't adapt to civilian life. He gets his wish when he given a mission to kill Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a soldier the U.S. Army says has gone rogue and may be insane. He is now in Cambodia where some of the locals treat Kurtz as a God. And so Willard makes his own journey down a river to find Kurtz.

As I watch "Apocalypse Now" I find myself agreeing with Kurtz. He doesn't seem crazy to me. Many of the other soldiers seen in the movie seem off the deep end to me but Kurtz appears lucid. Why should the U.S. Army want him dead? That creates some distance for me as I watch the movie because I begin to question the movie's and by extension the lead character's motives. Or, is that the whole point? Are we to believe Kurtz is right? Does he clearly recognize what the nature of war is? Does he convince us when he speaks of the horror he has witnessed?

These may be interesting questions but I never feel as if Coppola is really using Willard to counter Kurtz. Are they two sides of the same coin? Have they both experienced the horrors of war but come away with two different meanings? Some may say yes, Coppola does show that. Is it the nature of the movie. I would say you are really added a lot of you into interpreting the movie. You are creating things that aren't so visible on-screen. What, if anything, is Coppola telling us about war and the Vietnam War in particular?

Perhaps the answer is found in the three most distinct characters in the movie. As I said each is suffering in some way from PTSD. You have Captain Willard. In the first scene of the movie, Willard, doing a voice over narration, explains he is in Saigon, always Saigon. He feels being out of the jungle is making him soft. He explains he has divorced his wife. They barely spoke. He has been unable to adapted to civilian life.

Robert DuVall, who received an Oscar nomination, plays Lieutenant colonel Kilgore. Kilgore, who famously loves the smell of napalm in the morning, acts as if the war has no effect on him. It is life as usual. In the midst of fighting he talks about wanting to go surfing. This man has been deeply affected by the war. Kilgore will not be able to function either outside of combat. Life in not "normal" in Vietnam. Sooner or later that fact will hit Kilgore.

And finally there is Kurtz. To me the only sane character in the movie. He fully realizes what war is. That is the horror he speaks of. Kurtz may have his moments which reflect a disturbed mind but that may be the point. How can war not mentally affect you? I may describe Kurtz as sane but look what I am comparing him to. Willard may be narrating the movie, thus making it his story, but in some ways Kurtz is the movie's moral center.

There is one scene that really sticks out in my mind more than others as I feel it serves as a commentary on the Vietnam and may even reflect the opinion of those of the time period. As Willard and a Navy crew travel they notice a small boat with peasant. The captain of the Navy boat approaches this boat and asks one of the crew to inspect it, fearful there may be weapons on board. The crew member glances over, moves around a couple of things and believes everything is fine. The boat captain won't accept that answer and demands the search continues. Tempers start to flare. The Vietnamese passengers become frightened and shots are fired and people die. It seems as if Coppola is saying this is Vietnam. Everyone is tense. You don't know who you can trust. Situations escalate out of control and needless causalities are the result.

Stories of the movie's production are now legendary. Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack, a typhoon destroyed sets, a civil war broke out on the shooting location, the Philippines, the movie went over budget, Marlon Brando wasn't prepared for shooting when he arrived on set and Coppola struggled with finding an ending. This was all documented in "Hearts of Darkness" (1991) a documentary on the making of the movie. Watching that documentary really gives you an appreciation for this movie and what Coppola had to go through to get it done.

"Apocalypse Now", which won the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two. One for Vittorio Storaro's cinematography and for best sound. It was also nominated for four Golden Globes and won three including best director for Coppola. The movie's worth has been proven by lasting the test of time. It is well remembered today and his considered among Coppola's grand achievements. Many feel it would have been a much more worthy best picture Oscar winner than "Kramer vs Kramer" (1979).

This is a movie I believe needs to be watched more than once. Each viewing should offer something new. That is usually the sign of a good movie but I still don't think it is great cinema. Some of the ideas don't seem clearly defined but it gives you something to think about.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Film Review: A Summer's Tale

"A Summer's Tale**** (out of ****)

It's a summer fling in Eric Rohmer's "A Summer's Tale"  (1996).

Of all the great French filmmakers that were part of the Nouvelle Vague (the French New Wave) Eric Rohmer was the romantic. His films, almost exclusively, dealt with the trial and tribulations of young love. Any one of Rohmer's films would serve as an excellent example and "A Summer's Tale" is just as charming as any of Rohmer's other films.

"A Summer's Tale" was part of Rohmer's "Tales of Four Seasons" series and was the third entry coming after "A Tale of Springtime" (1992) and "A Winter's Tale" (1994). All four stories are love stories taking place in the season their title references. Each one is a masterpiece.

For "A Summer's Tale" we follow Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud), a young musician on vacation in Dinard, a seaside resort. Though if asked Gaspard would say he is merely on vacation he actually is waiting for the possible arrival of Lena (Aurelia Nolin). A girl he believes may be "the one". I say possible arrival because Gaspard and Lena have no definite plans to meet. She does not have a phone and is on her own vacation with her sister traveling through Spain. She mentioned to Gaspard her plans to arrive in Dinard, which he took as an encouraging sign. Maybe he will have an opportunity to tell Lena how he feels.

Of course in order to tell Lena how he feels she must show up first. The days go by and there is no sign on Lena but Gaspard is filling his time with Margot (Amanda Langlet), a waitress at a nearby restaurant. Together they walk and talk about love as Gaspard reveals his true intentions for visiting Dinard. The two seem to have chemistry between them and clearly enjoy each other's company.

Before you can say you have figured the movie out Rohmer stirs the pot just a bit more. At a party Gaspard attends with Margot he meets Solene (Gwenaelle Simon). Margot tells Gaspard he should pursue Solene and forget about Lena. Gaspard takes her advice and pursues Lena but has he really forgotten her? And is he starting to have feelings for Margot? And if he is, does Margot like him back, despite mentioning she has a boyfriend.

Gaspard doesn't have time to find out the answers to these questions because after weeks of waiting for Lena, she finally arrives. Their meeting is everything Gaspard had hoped it would be. Lena is very affectionate towards Gaspard which only reaffirms his belief she is the one. But what to do about the other two women whom he may have been leading on?

If you've ever been young and dumb you can probably relate to "A Summer's Tale" and relive your own days when you were in your 20s and love seemed to be full of possibilities but also a complicated mess.

Rohmer captures both of those feelings perfectly and plays up the complicated mess aspect for plenty of laughs.

"A Summer's Tale", to be clear, isn't a slapstick sex farce. No one is running in and out of bedrooms but the movie does keep raising the stakes. With the appearance of each women what will Gaspard do? Eventually he must choose one. Naturally he fears making the wrong choice.

Like so many other Rohmer films the charm of the movie lies in its dialogue. There is nothing cinematically "splashy" about Rohmer's films and "A Summer's Tale" in particular. Basically we see characters talk and express their ideas about love and romance. The charming factor is their words ring true. There isn't anything "Hollywood" about the movie. The characters speak as we do. There isn't witty banter with sharp one-liners being tosses back and forth. Most people don't speak that way on a date, do they?

The acting is also very low key and naturalistic. No one is acting it up. If you aren't familiar with French cinema, you would easily believe these characters are real people. There is nothing phony about any of these performances. We genuinely come to like these people and are happy to spend time with them. We want them to find happiness and sincerely want a happy ending. How often can you say that?

Some though may feel that makes "A Summer's Tale" sound boring. Rohmer has a reputation for only making movies where people talk. You'll hear some say "nothing happens" in one of his movies. His naysayers describe his movies as "watching paint dry". That isn't fair however. A lot is happening in "A Summer's Tale". Characters, the lead character in particular, are emotionally growing. The plot is moving forward. And why should we be so quick to dismiss dialogue driven movies especially when the dialogue is this good?

And you really need to pay attention to the dialogue here and catch all the nuances of the words and the performances. It is amazing that Rohmer was 76 years old when "A Summer's Tale" was released in theatres and even at that age he was able to capture the frustration of young love in ways younger filmmakers can't.

"A Summer's Tale" is a smart and observant film. Rohmer knows these characters and understands human relationships. We can see ourselves in these characters. This would be a fine film to serve as an introduction into the work of Rohmer. All of his traits are on full display. If "A Summer's Tale" doesn't win you over, Rohmer may not be for you. "A Summer's Tale" made my list of the best films of 1996. It really should not be missed.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Tenth Anniversary!

This month marks 10 years I have been writing reviews on this blog. It has been an amazing experience. It all started with a simple idea. I wanted to introduce people to classic movies. 

It started when I was a college student at Columbia College of Chicago. At Columbia I studied journalism and film and noticed my fellow classmates in my film classes didn't know much about the history of cinema. Now, I know that may make me sound like an arrogant, obnoxious SOB, who am I to make such a statement about my classmates, but I was bothered by it. How could these students claim to love movies, go to college to study it and not know about the classics? It wasn't that they hadn't seen the classics, they hadn't even heard of them!

I grew up watching movies with my grandparents and my grandmother in particular. She grew up in the 1920s and remembered, with great fondness, the movies of the 1930s & 40s. I would sit and watch movies of the era with her. She would tell me all the Hollywood gossip of various stars as we sat and watched movies. That was my introduction to the classics. By the time I was old enough to go to school I knew all the great stars from Hollywood's past.

With that knowledge in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to create a blog and discuss these movies. I believed if my fellow students would watch these movies they would enjoy them. It was my understanding they weren't necessarily against watching these movies (though some were) they just didn't have someone in their life that could introduce them to these movies. I wanted to fill in that gap.

That was the original intention of this blog. I envisioned my typical reader as a young college student that truly wanted to learn about the classics. My goal was to introduce at least one person to a movie they never heard of. If I could do that, this blog would be a success.

Over the ten year period writing this blog I did hear from people who told me I introduced them to movies. I've had people thank me. And, to be fair, I've had my share of hate mail. I'm just a stuck up, old-fashion four letter word that is stuck in the past. Not to mention, I have terrible taste in movies. I've always heard, why would someone want to write about "old movies". What's the point? Movies are a part of our culture. There is value in movies. Movies even have some wisdom and can teach us about our society and other cultures. Cinema has a rich history. Plus, if you truly love movies, you should want to watch everything. Don't categorize  movies as "old" or "new" but instead "good" or "bad". Watching the classics will give you a deeper understanding of the movies of today. Just as history repeats itself so do movies. A lot of what you see today in movies has already been done. Knowing that will give you a deeper appreciation of movies. That is why it is important to write about classic movies and to keep them fresh in our minds.

But this blog has also served other purposes. Because of this blog I have been able to find work writing for various publications. A big thrill for me was being published in a Hungarian newspaper (I'm Hungarian if you did know). Because of this blog I attended my first press screening, interviewed directors and producers, was quoted in a movie trailer and met some interesting people.

In the course of ten years I have tried my best to write about the diverse history of cinema. I have written about silent movies and international movies across all genres. I have even written about modern movies that I felt deserve more attention. I don't write about every movie I've ever seen. I am selective. What can I say about a movie that hasn't already been said? Why is it important someone know about this movie? If I can't answer those questions, I won't review it. So far I have written nearly 1,000 post as a result.

After ten years I sincerely want to thank those that have read my reviews. Your support has kept me going. Here's to ten more years!

The Top Ten Films Of 2017!

It was quite a year. In 2017 we saw many major figures in movies and media be accused of sexual harassment including Harvey Weinsten, Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose among them. America had to get used to Chancellor Trump and a new daily controversy involving him or his administration. It has become "the new normal".

When the world gets a little crazy, some of us turn to movies as a distraction. But, as I always say, movies don't exist in a bubble. Movies are a reflection of the world we live in. Some filmmakers want to make social and political commentaries. They want their movies to be relevant to the moment. A great example of this is Steven Spielberg's "The Post" (2017). Although based on a true story it also was meant to parallel today and the current attack on the media.

I mention this because it is difficult (not impossible mind you) to escape reality in the movies. At least, as I grow older, those are the movies I find myself most absorbed in. Sure I love "Hollywood escapism" as much as the next person. I have my guilty pleasures, some on this list, but movies that say something about the world we live in have been the movies I've begun to cling to. I believe this has given to the rise of documentaries. Documentaries have been turned into political tools. So, has the movie business changed or just me?

This was also the first year I noticed Netflix released some good movies. Not all of them made my list but there was the charming "Our Souls at Night" (2017) with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, the unique "Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond" (2017) and a few political documentaries like "Get Me Roger Stone" (2017).

And Netflix proved helpful for me as, is usually the case, I struggled to find ten movies that really stood out to me and made a lasting impression. Every year the movies that the critics (sheep) hype leave me indifferent. And so I have to search under every rock to find an ignored gem. On this list you will not see "The Shape of Water" (2017), "Dunkirk" (2017), "The Darkest Hour" (2017), "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" (2017), "Get Out" (2017) or "Lady Bird" (2017). I saw all of them. Some I thought were good but not great.

I was also struck by the lack of quality non-English language films released this year. Usually there is a standout. I often try to create a diverse list of more than ten dramatic American movies and add a few international titles. Not so this year but there are some films from the United Kingdom on my list.

Looking at my list a lot of the movies are socially aware. I don't know that there was a major theme to the movies released in 2017 but my choices focused on the class system, racial justice, love, discrimination, family, tradition and dolls coming to life. Just a typical Saturday night in Chicago. 

Here are my favorite movies of 2017!

1. I, Daniel Blake (Dir. Ken Loach; U.K.) - I love and hate this movie at the same time. I hate it because of the horrible truths it shows in our society and love it because of the characters, each of whom I wish I could give a big hug to. How and why this movie has been ignored by the American mainstream media and public is a mystery to me. It even won the Palm d'Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.

Although this movie, directed by the legendary British filmmaker Ken Loach, takes place in England the social conditions it depicts of the working class should be recognizable to Americans as well. It shows us a government system that only makes things harder on the poor, the people it is supposed to help.

This movie began a social moment in the U.K. maybe the threat of that prevented the media from giving the movie more praise in the U.S. however this is truly a movie of our times. We are all Daniel Blake.

2. Saving Capitalism (Dirs. Jacob Kornbluth / Sari Gilman; U.S.) - Capitalism may be a fine economic system but it leaves out the Daniel Blakes of the world. It is a system that works for the few. Is there a way to improve it? That is what this Netflix documentary asks. In some ways it is a follow-up for director Jacob Kornbluth who gave us "Inequality For All" (2013). That documentary, like this one, follows former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich as he discusses the flaws in our current system and how to save it.

3. Molly's Game (Dir. Aaron Sorkin; U.S.) - The directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin just knocked me out with its screenplay (also by Sorkin) and the performance given by Jessica Chastain. How unfortunate she was snubbed of an Oscar nomination. It was a tour-de-force performance.

4. Loving Vincent (Dirs. Dorota Kobiela / Hugh Welchman; Poland / UK ) - An Oscar nominee in the best animated film category "Loving Vincent" is a bio-pic, of sorts, on the life of Vincent van Gogh. The movie is comprised entirely of hand drawn paintings, done in the style of van Gogh. Structurally the movie resembles "Citizen Kane" (1941) and Oliver Stone's "JKF" (1991) as a young man is given the task to deliver a final letter written by van Gogh to his brother, Theo. Trying to locate Theo the young man meets a variety of people, each with a different opinion of the great painter, and a conspiracy begins, did van Gogh really commit suicide?

This is a beautiful looking movie done with amazing artistry and depth.

5. Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Dir. Dan Gilroy; U.S.) - Another movie the critics ignored. From the reviews I have read, even the positive ones, it seems like no one "got" this movie. Here is a movie about a man that loses his moral center. He has devoted himself to civil rights, working as a lawyer for more than three decades. But he has nothing to show for it in terms of material possessions. Life doesn't reward us for being noble or selfless. So what do you do when you work hard your whole life for a cause you believe in but see nothing change and no reward?

Some complain the narrative is confusing and loses focus. These people, for whatever reason, couldn't relate to the dilemma the lead character is in. I perfectly understand him and all the choices he makes. The one thing that we can all agree on is Denzel Washington gives a great performance and was rightly nominated for an Oscar.

6. Wind River (Dir. Taylor Sheridan; U.S.) - Another quality movie ignored by the critics. This murder mystery, starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen taking place on a Native American reservation, was beautifully written by Taylor Sheridan. Very engaging movie featuring two strong performances.

7. Alone in Berlin (Dir. Vincent Perez; U.K.) - Based on a true story of a German couple that learns their son has died fighting in WW2. Filled with grief and anger they decide to leave postcards all over Berlin with messages exposing the lies and corruption of the Nazi government. How can the story of an individual standing up against a corrupt government not seem relevant today?

8. Coco (Dirs. Lee Unkrich / Adrian Molina; U.S.) - I really enjoyed Pixar / Disney's "Cars 3" (2017) but "Coco" was their best movie of the year. A charming, humorous story about family and tradition. I am amazed at how Pixar often finds wonderful new ways to tell us familiar stories with the same themes. This is one of those animated movies adults and children can both enjoy.

9. Lady Macbeth (Dir. William Oldroyd; U.K.) - This British Victorian drama has nothing to do with Shakespeare but instead was based on the novel "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District" by Nikolai Leskov about a woman forced into a loveless marriage but has a sexual awakening when she meets one of the work hands on the estate.

10. Annabelle: Creation (Dir. David F. Sandberg; U.S.) - Last year I praised David F. Sandberg's "Lights Out" (2016) as the horror movie of the year. Sandberg has done it again. The remake of "It" (2017) might be a more popular choice but the movies coming from the "Conjuring Universe" have impressed me greatly. Sandberg is going to be a great talent to watch out for.

HONORABLE MENTION: "An Inconvenient Sequel", "It Comes At Night", "The Dinner", "Wonder Wheel", "On Body and Soul", "Lady Bird"

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Film Review: The Love Parade

"The Love Parade"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

It is a parade of laughter in Ernst Lubitsch's musical / comedy "The Love Parade" (1929).

If any movie fan ever needed to be reminded of the genius of filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch "The Love Parade" would serve as a nice reminder.

"The Love Parade", Lubitsch's first sound picture, is one of the master filmmaker's charming, adult, sophisticated, playful musical / comedies made at Paramont. Lubitsch made four films at the studio and each one of them is perfection or near perfection. The movies include "Monte Carlo" (1930) and "One Hour With You" (1932).

Maurice Chevalier stars as Count Alfred Renard, a Sylvanian military attache stationed in Paris. He has gained a reputation as a playboy engaging in one love affair after another and sometimes with married women. One such affair goes too far and Alfred is ordered to report back to Sylvania to meet Queen Louise (Jeanette MacDonald).

When we first meet Queen Louise she has awoken from a dream. She dreams of love and romance and proceeds to sing a song, "Dream Lover", suggesting her dreams will always remain that, a dream. However the queen has also been under pressure to find a husband. Marriage is something she appears to have no interest in. Perhaps because no man seems to meet her standards. It has gotten to the point that the royal counsel has simply given up. Initially this pleases Queen Louise but after she find out why they have given up she becomes upset. The queen's eventual husband would be a prince consort, a man with no power. He would only be her husband. A man would not find this appealing.

As soon as Queen Louise and Alfred meet there is an instant attraction. Queen Louise is not put off by Alfred's long list of love affairs. In fact she seems intrigue by the idea of him. Perhaps she wonders, what have so many women found intriguing about him?

The word "sex" is never spoken in "The Love Parade" but the entire movie is about it. If the movie were made today that may make it sound like a cheap, vulgar raunchy rom-com. In the hands of Lubitsch however a sex comedy can be smart, witty and charming. Although "The Love Parade" was made before the production code began to be strictly enforced the dialogue is full of double entendres and sly innuendos.

Take for example a scene filled with sexual tension in the air. Alfred and Louise have dinner after their first meeting. Everyone at the palace is amazed the queen has taken such a liking to Alfred. Could it lead to marriage? The scene is humorously played out as everyone is spying on the couple narrating what is happening off screen. They enter the room, they smile at each other, they laugh, they begin to drink champagne and soon the both of them are in the queen's boudoir. Had the scene ended there, it would be implied they spend the night together.

Lubitsch however doesn't leave the scene there. Now we can see Alfred and Louise together. Louise tells Alfred to forget she is a queen and treat her as he would any other woman. Alfred sits next to her, he takes her hand and kisses it and then kisses the inside of her palm. He places his arm around her. Louise stops him and tells him, if this is how he behaves with a woman on their first night meeting, what could be left for later. "Plenty" Alfred replies.

In this scene pay close attention to MacDonald, who makes her film debut. Look at her facial expression, the look in her eyes, the trembling quality in her voice. You completely buy into her character in the moment. You believe she is aroused by Alfred and her flirtation is real.

In this regard "The Love Parade" feels a little bit ahead of its time. You didn't often see characters you could actually believe were sexually active beings in American silent films and sometimes even into the early sound era. You can envision the two stars of this picture as being sexually involved. That helps keep an audience engaged.

These moments are countered with scenes involving Alfred's manservant, Jacques (Lupino Lane) and one of the queen's maids, Lulu (Lillian Roth). Jacques admires Alfred and likes to believe he has learned a lot about picking up women from Alfred and so Jacques courts Lulu. Their courtship is played for laughs and features a lot of comical musical numbers. One very good one is a duet between Jacques and Lulu called "Lets Be Common", which looks at how the common folk view romance compared to their royal counterparts.

For the most part the songs by Victor Schertzinger and Clifford Grey are entertainging and have some catchy melodies. The lyrics by Grey match the witty quality of the screenplay's dialogue.

The screenplay, which was based on the novel "The Prince Consort", was written by that great Hungarian playwright Ernest Vajda and Guy Bolton. Vajda wrote several screenplays directed by Lubitsch as well as "The Guardsman" (1931) a charming but sadly forgotten gem directed by Sidney Franklin. Bolton had written vehicles starring Joe E. Brown, the comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey and Will Rogers.

The message found in "The Love Parade" is every man must be king of his castle. In today's world that is a very old-fashion sentiment and it may turn off some modern viewers. They may go as far as calling the movie "sexist". I can't deny the unappealing nature of the movie to modern eyes but I still enjoy the movie. For me it is a harmless piece of Hollywood escapism.

The musical was still in its early stages when Lubitsch directed this movie but his musicals really stand out against the other musicals of the time and what was to come afterwards. The musicals of the time, understandably, placed great emphasis on the songs and were usually back stage musicals revolving around characters putting together a show on Broadway. Lubitsch on the other hand made musical comedies that were comedies first. "The Love Parade" could function just as well as a straight comedy. If every song was removed from the movie the sparkling dialogue would still shine through. Not many musical comedies of the period could pull off this feat as well.

For its trouble "The Love Parade" was nominated for six Academy Awards including best picture, best director and best actor. Unfortunately it didn't win any awards. It lost the best picture Oscar to "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930) and the movie's director, Lewis Milestone, won best director. Chavalier lost the best actor award to George Arliss for his performance in "Disraeli" (1929).

"The Love Parade" is a wonderful, entertaining and charming musical directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Its old-fashion message hopefully won't turn off too many younger viewers. Hopefully they can still be able to appreciate the witty dialogue and the performances given by Chavalier and MacDonald. This is truly a wonderful comedy.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Film Review: The Player

"The Player"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Robert Altman proves he is a Hollywood mover and shaker in "The Player" (1992)

"The Player" was seen as something of a "comeback" for a filmmaker that never went away. You can make the argument the 1970s in American cinema belonged to Robert Altman after the release of "M*A*S*H*" (1970), "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971), "Nashville" (1975) and "3 Women" (1977). The 1980s on the other hand were not as kind to Altman. Altman did release some trimuphs; "Health" (1980) and "Secret Honor" (1984) but the decade was one that saw Altman drop out of flavor with the public and lose critical acclaim.

"The Player" changed all that. A lot of people interpret "The Player" as a Hollywood satire. In some ways it is but I find Altman's movie works on more than one level and to describe it merely as a Hollywood satire or a Hollywood in-joke is to miss out on a lot of what the movie says.

The movie does center itself in the world of movies as we follow studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins). Mill is assigned the task of hearing movie pitches, weeding out the good from the bad, and pushing for those stories to be greenlit. Naturally with a job like that Griffin will make enemies and upset movie stars and young struggling writers. One of those writers is has been sending Griffin postcards with threats written on them implying he will kill Griffin. Griffin heard this writer's pitch and apparently told the writer he would call him back. That was five months ago. Griffin may have annoyed the wrong person.

Griffin believes he has discovered the irritated writer sending the letters, David Kahane (Vincent D' Onofrio). He follows him to a movie theatre, hoping to come to an agreement, but after a physical altercation, Griffin kills David. Griffin tries to trace his steps and remove all evidence of him being there, but, will the police find out?

This aspect of the movie may remind some of Woody Allen's "Crimes & Misdemeanors" (1989) where a character dares to suggest there is no moral guilt associated with murder. "The Player" seems to be operating on this level. If the police aren't able to pin the murder on Griffin, Griffin should be able to live with himself. This also suggest, we really do live in two different worlds, one for the rich and one for everyone else. The rich and powerful really can get away with murder. "The Player" would seem to be making a social commentary instead of taking a jab at Hollywood. In the wonderful book "Altman on Altman" by David Thompson, Altman would seem to be confirming my interpretation, describing the subject of "The Player" as "it's all about greed, really, the biggest malady of our civilization, and it was Hollywood as a metaphor for society."

Altman and "The Player" are still able to make a comment on Hollywood, poking fun at uncompromising artist that want to make "real" movies, "Hollywood endings", the influence of money in Hollywood and the back stabbing nature of the business. Altman however says his portrait of Hollywood isn't accurate stating "Hollywood is much crueller and uglier and more calculating" though does admit to lifting a few rocks in the business.

One funny moment occurs at the beginning of the movie. The opening sequence is done in one long take with the camera on a crane. We are seeing a movie studio and are briefly being introduced to some of the characters. Two characters are having a discussion about movies and one of them mentions Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" (1958), which is known for its own one take opening sequence. "The Player" has a lot of this self referential humor.

The self referential humor is also seen whenever old movie posters are seen in Griffin's office. The posters are usually of noir films or mysteries and reflect or foreshadow were we are in the story.

There are also a large amount of cameo appearances made by a list of Altman regulars and other major stars which are humorous because they blur the line of fact and fiction. You can't initally tell when an actor in playing themself or a character. Appearances are made by Jack Lemmon, Burt Reynolds, Harry Belafonte, Steve Allen, Angelica Huston, John Cusack, Elliot Gould, Cher, Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis and Whoopi Goldberg among many, many others.

Despite the nature of the character, Griffin doesn't come across exactly as a bad guy. That may have something to do with Tim Robbins and / or Robert Altman. At first we sympathize with Griffin because he is being threatened. Yes he is rich and successful and seems pampered but audiences still don't want to see harm come to him. After he kills someone that should turn audiences against him, but, his actions seem to be more in self defense. You may not even hate Griffin after he starts to date Kahane's girlfriend, June (Greta Scacchi). If such a thing is possible to create a neutral character Robbins and Altman have done it.

In some ways only Robert Altman could have directed a movie like this. Altman had always been seen as an outsider. He never really belonged to the Hollywood studio system. His movie defied genres. He had a sarcastic sense of humor and a bit of a subversive streak in him. Yet he was nominated for best director at the Academy Awards for his work on this film.

Having said that it is rather ironic than that Altman initially was not interested in directing "The Player" instead he was focusing on what would become his next film, "Short Cuts" (1993). Altman thought the script for "The Player" was dreadful. The script was written by Michael Tolkin, based on his novel, also called "The Player". Altman said he and Tolkin were constantly rewriting the script as they were shooting the movie. It wasn't until they were halfway through shooting that the two came up with the ending. In the end the screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award.

No one would say the 1990s equal Altman's success of the 1970s but "The Player" rejuvenated the than 67 year old Altman's career. Practically every film he made afterwards was great in my opinion; "Shorts Cuts", "The Gingerbread Man" (1998), "Cookie's Fortune" (1999), "Gosford Park" (2001) and his final film "A Prairie Home Companion" (2006).

"The Player" is a slick cynical look at not only Hollywood but life in general. The world isn't fair. Terrible things happen. People die and their murderers aren't caught. And worst of all, Hollywood makes bad movies.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Film Review: The Voice of the Moon

"The Voice of the Moon"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

A character says he prefers to remember than to be living. I have a feeling that was a sentiment shared by the movie's director, the great Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini.

Nostalgia is not the main theme of Fellini's "The Voice of the Moon" (1990) however nostalgia had always been prominent in the films of Fellini. Remember this is a man that directed a movie called "Amarcord" (1973) which is translated as meaning "I remember". At the time when Fellini directed "The Voice of the Moon" the master was nearing the end of his distinguished career. It wasn't uncommon for Fellini to makes movies looking backwards. There was "Ginger and Fred" (1986) and what I feel was Fellini's last masterpiece, "Intervista" (1987, though released in American in 1993).

"The Voice of the Moon" could be interpreted as being directed by a different Fellini. It lacks some of the joy found in "Amarcord", "Juliet of the Spirits" (1965) and "The White Sheik" (1952). That is because Fellini wasn't in a joyful mood. He had a darker message for audiences in "The Voice of the Moon" based on what he saw happening in his beloved Italy.

Fellini seems to be concerned about culture and society in "The Voice of the Moon". There is a sense Italian culture is changing, perhaps being overwhelmed by American culture. Tradition is disappearing. The "good old days" are memories. There is a rather lengthy sequence with characters in a nightclub as young Italians dance to Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel". An older male character watches on in disgust. He tells them if they heard the sound of a violin they would know what they are doing in not dancing. He compares the nightclub, the music and the "dancing" to an orgy. He and his wife then proceed to dance a waltz. 

There is another scene between a former prefect, Gonnella (Paolo Villaggio) and a young man, Ivo Salvini (Roberto Benigni). Gonnella is delusional, suffering from among other things, paranoia. He explains to Salvini his theory about the people around him. They are all well trained spies. They look exactly like the people they are impersonating. But, Gonnella continues, they are all merely giving a performance, playing a part. Naturally this scene brought to my mind the words written by Shakespeare, "all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players". What does that say about our society. Have we been brainwashed? Has the media and advertising conditioned us to play a part? Are we all giving a performance, trying to live up to the character we would like to become?

While these scenes may be good and it is fun interpreting them unfortunately it saddens me to say Fellini's "The Voice of the Moon" is not a very good movie and slightly disappointed me.

Although "Intervista" was the last movie Fellini directed to be released in America, in the year of his death, "The Voice of the Moon" was the actual final feature length movie the great master directed. It did not however find American distribution and was never properly released in this country. Because of the anticipation of waiting to see this movie, expectations grew in my mind. I may have set myself up for disappointment.

Regardless, thanks to distributor Arrow Academy, which released a Blu-ray / DVD combo set last year, audiences can now see this elusive Fellini movie for themselves. That should have been cause for a celebration however I found out about the release of this movie on my own. Where were the distinguished movie critics (sheep) bringing attention to this movie, writing reviews?

I may not be a fan of this movie but the great filmmakers should not be ignored and their films should not be forgotten. In that sense I share Fellini's sentiments. I like the message found in the movie but it simply goes on too long. It often feels as if it is lingers. The movie may be too subtle. Perhaps "too Italian". It doesn't forcefully hit home its themes.There is no character for us to sympathizes with and no character development to speak of. The plot feels structureless. It took a while before I started to catch on to the social commentary.

Salvini is the lead character. A man who spent time in a mental hospital. He hears voices. Is it the moon? Maybe the voice is coming from a well. It is the first image presented in the movie. Salvini hears someone calling out his name in the middle of an empty field. He walks up to a well and listens for his name to be said again.

From this point on Salvini meets a variety of people, a musician that believes music should be forbidden by law. Spirits would visit him whenever he played a particular series of notes on his oboe. The prefect, visited by similar spirits, who fears old age is upon him. And a man who married the woman of his dreams only to lose everything but takes solace in sitting on rooftops.

Were all these men in the same mental hospital? Do they all hear the same voice Salvini does? What is that voice and where is in coming from? Could it be our inner voice? It may explain a final line in the movie as Salvini says if there was more silence, if we were all quieter, maybe we could understand. Understand what? How to hear our own inner voice?

And that is about it. There isn't much plot to discuss. The movie almost plays as a series of vignettes. Some are good, some not so much. The common factor is some very good cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli, who gives the movie a dreamlike quality. He was a great talent that worked with some of the giants of cinema including Pier Paolo Pasolini, Roman Polanski and Louis Malle.

Audiences that see "The Voice of the Moon" will come to it after seeing Benigni in "Life is Beautiful" (1998), which won three Academy Awards, including one for Benigni's performance. Keep in mind however, "The Voice of the Moon" is not a zany comedy. Benigni is more reserved. If he was renowned for his slapstick comedy, you will not find it here. This is not "Johnny Stecchino" (1992).

Federico Fellini may have been the best known Italian filmmaker in America. Seven of his movies were nominated for Academy Awards. Three won awards for best foreign language film. He influenced American filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. Movie lovers should see his movies. Some are considered among the greatest ever made. "The Voice of the Moon" may have its defenders however I would strongly suggest seeing this after you have seen Fellini's better known movies. "The Voice of the Moon" strikes me as a movie for devoted fans. Still, I'm glad we now have the opportunity to see this movie at all.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Film Review: One, Two, Three

"One, Two, Three"
**** (out of ****)

The year is 1961. It is the height of the Cold War. John F. Kennedy has been sworn in as President. The Berlin Wall has been built. The Soviets have sent the first human in space during the Space Race. In the middle of all this filmmaker Billy Wilder released one of his best movies and one of the all-time great comedies, "One, Two, Three" (1961).

As the story goes Billy Wilder saw the makings of a comedy dealing with the arms race between America and the U.S.S.R. In fact Wilder envisioned it as a Marx Brothers comedy. The film was to be called "The Marx Brothers at the U.N." The brothers would play bank robbers who are mistaken for delegates of Latvia. It is said Groucho loved the idea but due to health reasons (Harpo suffered a heart attack) plans for the film were terminated.

Despite these unfortunate events, Wilder still liked the idea of a Cold War comedy and would now base his film on a Hungarian play written by Ferenc Molnar called "One, Two, Three" ("Egy, ketto, harom" in Hungarian). Wilder and his frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond would modernized the 1929 play and create what biographer Maurice Zolotow called "the best Cold-War comedy, and the only interesting film about communism versus capitalism since Ninotchka" in his book Billy Wilder in Hollywood. "Ninotchka" (1939) was a comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch and co-written by Wilder. Both movies tell us political ideology is no match for sex.

The film would star James Cagney as C.R. MacNamara (Although the spelling is different the Secretary of Defense at the time was Robert McNamara. That couldn't be a coincidence, could it?) an American Coca-Cola executive in charge of operations in West Berlin.

MacNamara would like to get out of West Berlin and land in job in London as head of Western Europe operations. He may get a chance to make a good impression when his boss' daughter, Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin), visits West Berlin and he is asked to watch her for a couple of weeks until the boss and his wife visit West Berlin to pick her up.

On the day before his boss is to pick up Scarlett, MacNamara discovers not only has Scarlett married a communist, Otto (Horst Buchholz) but is pregnant with his child. Initially wanting to wipe out all records of the marriage MacNamara must turn Otto into a respectable capitalist before Scarlett's parents arrive. Causing another battle between east versus west in Berlin.

That essentially explains the humor in the movie. A battle between capitalism and communism. In "One, Two, Three" the communist aren't dedicated soldiers. They flounder. A pretty woman could tempt them to change their politics. They will accept a 6 pack of coca-cola as a bribe. Whereas MacNamara, the American, is unchangeable. If anything Americans are presented as wanting to bring their way of life to other countries. Why else could a corporation like Coca-Cola want to sell its product to communist countries? And doesn't this happen in the real world as well?

Also adding to the humor is domestic life. MacNamara is married to Phyllis (Arlene Francis). Phyllis is a wise-cracking wife that sarcastically calls her husband "mein fuhrer" and desperately wants to leave West Berlin and head back to America. I couldn't help but think this is a role Eve Arden could have also played and her probably could have delivered these lines funnier. However, Francis is perfectly fine in the role.

The success of "One, Two, Three" lies in the script by Wilder and Diamond and the performance given by Cagney. What is most memorable (and most challenging) about Cagney's performance is the speed with which he delivers his lines. It is like the rapid fire of a machine gun. This was actually the way the original play was written by Molnar. Molnar is quoted as having said of the lead character's dialogue, "he must accomplish everything he does with the almost superhuman celerity of a magician, without, however, any lack of poise, presence of mind or precision". Wilder and Diamond put their own spin on this and suggested the dialogue be said at a speed they called "molto furioso".

In Kevin Lally's book Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder  he writes the exact instructions for the dialogue was for it to be said at "100 miles an hour - on the curves - 140 miles an hour on the straightaway".

Cagney, who was 61 at the time of shooting, was Wilder's first and only choice for the lead. Despite Wilder's eagerness  to work with Cagney, rumor has it the two men did not get along. Cagney found the production too stressful. In fact, things were so bad between the two Cagney retired from films for 20 years until his role in "Ragtime" (1981). One of the sources of the problem? You guess it. The dialogue. Wilder would repeatedly tell Cagney to say his lines faster causing Cagney at one point to tell one of his co-stars " I don't want to make another film with this man (Wilder). He makes me speak too fast."

Oh, but that dialogue! Read this exchange:

Woman # 1 - Have you ever made love to a revolutionary?

Woman # 2 - No, but I once necked with a Stevenson Democrat.

Is that not great?

The dialogue also serves to make political statements as when Cagney delivers a voice-over explaining who his character is and the location of the story. He says of West Berlin it "enjoyed all the blessings of democracy". As this line is said, at the moment the word "democracy" is spoken, we see a Coca-Cola billboard. What a powerful commentary that is. "Democracy" equals consumerism. I'm reminded of a routine comedian George Carlin had on the freedom of democracy which he called an illusion of choice. That's your freedom. Consumerism. You can buy Pepsi or Coca-Cola. Those are your choices. That's what you have a say in but not government policy.

I also like how Cagney plays with his screen image and makes references to past Cagney roles. At one point in the movie MacNamara says "Mother of mercy! Is this the end of Little Rico?" This is a reference to the gangster character Edward G. Robinson played in "Little Caesar" (1931). While Cagney didn't star in that movie, he and Robinson were known for their roles playing gangsters. MacNamara has a cuckoo clock that plays "Yankee Doodle Dandy" on the hour. Cagney starred in the movie "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942). Also, Red Buttons has a small role and at one point does a Cagney impression in front of Cagney.

Wilder's sharp commentary on the Cold War proved to be a bit too much for audiences and movie critics (sheep) at the time. Some critics, like Pauline Kael, felt the movie treated a serious subject too lightly. As an example, when one character is asked to describe his feelings on the international situation he says, "it's hopeless but not serious". Kael even called Wilder a sellout. She even made similar complaints about Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" (1964). "One, Two, Three" also did poorly at the box-office. It seems Kael wasn't the only one not ready for a comedy about the Cold War.

However, the ultimate judge of any movie is time. "One, Two, Three" doesn't sting audiences the way it may have in 1961. The political satire presented seems playful not threatening. But, I'm reluctant to say the movie is widely accepted as one of Wilder's best. I get the impression it is lost in the shuffle compared to "Some Like It Hot" (1959), "Double Indemnity" (1944), "Sunset Boulevard" (1950) or "The Apartment" (1960). As far as I am concerned though the movie is a knock-out.

That's what makes the great movies great. They hold a mirror up to society. The great comedies exaggerate our behavior and make us laugh at ourselves and the world around us. "One, Two, Three" does that. A movie like this also demonstrates the versatility of Billy Wilder's talent. For this movie he was criticized for treating a topic too lightly yet Wilder was also praised for making one of the most realistic films ever about alcoholism, "The Lost Weekend" (1945). That suggest Wilder's great talent and the greatness of "One, Two, Three". Different movies need different tones to get their point across. Wilder seems to have always found the right tone for the right story.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Film Review: Pan's Labyrinth

"Pan's Labyrinth"
**** (out of ****)

It's a cruel world the mother tells the daughter. That is essentially what Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006) is about.

When "Pan's Labyrinth" was initially released in theatres it was an critical success and an audience favorite, for those with an appetite for foreign language films. It appeared on my own list of the best films of 2006 and I even called it one of the best films of the last decade. It was nominated for six Academy Awards and won three.

I had not seen "Pan's Labyrinth" since seeing it in a movie theatre 12 years ago. I remembered certain visual aspects of the movie and could recall the movie's plot. Seeing the movie again however I noticed things I hadn't before.

The movie takes place in Spain in 1944. The Spanish Civil War is over and fascist dictator Francisco Franco has been in power since 1939. However this has not stopped Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) from hunting down leftist as it is believed they are forming an underground resistance.

Capt. Vidal has married Carmen (Ariadna Gil) the widow of a tailor and mother of 11-year old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). Vidal and Carmen are expecting their first baby. As the movie begins Carmen and Ofelia travel to Vidal's estate, where Carmen will deliver the baby. It is quickly established Ofelia does not like Vidal and even though her mother would like her to call Vidal "father" Ofelia refuses. Instead Ofelia likes to live in the world of books especially fairy tales, which the adults around her say is filling her head with nonsense.

This could have been enough to make an interesting movie. A young girl must adjust to a new life living under the rule of an authoritarian figure, mirroring the circumstances the rest of the country is enduring. This would reinforce the mother's statement to Ofelia that it is a cruel world. But del Toro has something else up his sleeve and turns this story into a very dark fantasy where the lines between reality and fiction become blurred.

Ofelia discovers an underground world where a Faun (played by Doug Jones and voiced by Pablo Adan) informs her she is really Princess Moanna reincarnated. In order to prove she has not been human too long, she must undergo a series of test. If she passes, she can take her rightful place on the throne.

Many interpret "Pan's Labyrinth" as a fairy tale. To an extent it is. What I noticed on a second viewing was this may be a fairy tale but it is a very dark fairy tale. When you hear a story is fairy tale you may think of a bright story, full of good cheer with colorful images and a happy ending. "Pan's Labyrinth" is the opposite. If the real world is a cruel place where terrible things happen and there is "ugliness" all around us, the "fairy tale" in "Pan's Labyrinth" is "ugly" as well. Ofelia faces great danger in this underground world and confronts disturbing images.

I interpret this as saying two things. First, living in a cruel world, one filled with violence, we must find an escape. We escape within our dreams. Our imagination will distract us and make us forget the cruel, miserable world we live in. However, the dark nature of the fairy tale I believe reflects the idea, when we live in a dark, cruel world it tends to influence our dreams and so we dream of disturbing things.

Some have suggested both stories take place in reality. The fairy tale is not Ofelia's escape from the real world. It is really happening. We have two stories going on at once. If that is the case than "Pan's Labyrinth" may be about a constant battle between "innocence" and violence in our world. Personally I tend to view the fairy tale as the act of Ofelia's imagination.

However to focus too much on the delicious, mesmerizing visuals del Toro has offered us is to short change this film's accomplishments. Visually it is stunning but emotionally it is rewarding as well. The cinematography, which won an Academy Award, deserves our praise but so does the performances given by Ivana Baquero and Sergi Lopez. Baquero, who was herself 11 years old at the time, is more than just a child in peril. She is able to combine a child's innocence (there's that word again) with a heroine's sensibilities and makes very mature, adult decisions.

Sergi Lopez, whom prior to this movie appeared in the wonderful "An Affair of Love" (2000) and the Hitchcockian "With A Friend Like Harry..." (2001), hadn't given a performance that would prepare us for the one given here. The only thing I can think of to compare it to for American audiences would be one of those great movie villains found in World War II stories. He truly embodies the "shoot first ask questions later" mentality as perfectly illustrated in one scene. He lacks a shred of empathy which makes him all the more frightening. Perhaps even equal to the creature Ofelia encounters in the underworld. But in Lopez's hand the character isn't a caricature. It is firmly based in reality. 

One could also say the previous work of del Toro hadn't prepared audiences he was capable of a film with this depth. His prior credits included "Hellboy" (2004) and "The Devil's Backbone" (2001), which many have compared "Pan's Labyrinth" to, including del Toro. Even with the acclaim del Toro is now receiving with "The Shape of Water" (2017), "Pan's Labyrinth" for me remains his masterpiece.

The movie was also responsible for opening the eyes of American movie fans to the world of Mexican cinema. Along with del Toro two of his contemporaries released movies in the same year, Alfonso Cuaron with "Children of Men" (2006) and Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu who had released "Babel" (2006). All three movies were considered among the year's best. 

"Pan's Labyrinth" is a mature film made by a director with a unique vision. Whether or not the movie is "real" or not is immaterial to the human emotional drama we are confronted with in the story. It is not a horror movie in the conventional sense ut the movie does show us the horror of war and the horror of what people are capable of in the name of a political ideology. This "fairy tale" is really a nightmare, a disturbing reminder of the evil that surrounds us. This is a movie that deserves multiple viewings, each offering a new discovery. Guillermo del Toro has outdone himself with this masterpiece.