Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Film Review: Inside Job

"Inside Job"  **** (out of ****)

It is one of the most significant moments in modern history - the financial meltdown of 2008, when the U.S. government, thanks to the big banks and Wall Street greed, collapsed the economy. Yet, I fear Americans are forgetting the facts. People have "moved on" from this event and have become preoccupied with their daily lives and the importance of watching "Dancing with the Stars". These events took place nine years ago but for most Americans it might as well taken place 90 years ago.

How else can one explains recent U.S. events and Donald Trump? It is widely believed, by those humans which posses a brain, that one of the factors which lead to the collapse was deregulation. The U.S. government did not oversee what Wall Street was doing. And yet, the intelligent citizens of this country decided to elect a businessman, who was a reality TV show host, as president. A "man" that says there is too much regulation. A "man" that has filled his cabinet with Goldman Sachs executives and others from large corporations. This was the same "man" that said he was going to "drain the swamp". I can only believe it is all yet another example of the dreaded disease known as "voter amnesia". A terrible disease known to strike every four years and holds millions of people captive.

Stories that revolve around the financial crisis fascinate me. Every documentary and feature film I've see addressing this topic simply makes my blood boil. To see how the system works. To see it is a chosen few that set the policies in the interest of the banks, all in the name of money, infuriates me. Nothing has changed. No one has been held accountable and now it seems, people have simply forgotten. And I wasn't the only one angry. From the economic collapse rose Occupy Wall Street. People started talking about the 1%. Americans started talking about the Federal Reserve. The term "too big to fail" (a reference to the banks that needed to be bailed out) became part of the culture. All that anger. All that energy. All those people. What happened?

History is not a straight line, constantly moving forward. History is a circle. It is a cycle. We face a problem, fight to resolve it, achieve a goal and then time passes. Slowly the progress made on an issue is reversed. With time a national conversation starts again, over the same issue and we start the process over and over again. Workers' rights. Corporate control over politics. Healthcare. Freedom of the press. Do you have any idea how long this country has been talking about these issues? I have read books quoting sources from 1860 discussing these issues. That's history. One step forward, three steps back.

I mention this because that was my inspiration to re-watch "Inside Job" (2010). I feel history is once again repeating itself. Donald Trump is going to repeat the mistakes of the past. Everything has been forgotten, presenting an opportunity for those motivated by greed. When the financial bubble burst (the stock market at 20,000 plus is too high not to bust) the "amnesia" will set in and we will all ask ourselves "how did this happen"? Another national discussion will engage us, involving how do we move forward. Rinse, wash, repeat. There is a moment in this documentary when discussing Ronald Reagan a clip is shown of a man saying Wall Street and the White House are in sync. Has Wall Street not been happy about Trump due to his promises of deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy?

The task of "Inside Job" is difficult. How do you explain an issue many believe is complex and worst of all, boring? Do people want to hear about collateralized debt obligation (CDO) and subprime mortgages? Do they know know what a derivative is? That is the beauty of Charles Ferguson's documentary. He explains this financial jargon to us in simple and direct terms. We begin to understand the effect and consequences of Wall Street's actions. Mr. Ferguson paints a picture for us, putting events in historical perspective. The economic collapse of 2008 was one in the making. It wasn't unexpected. It was the result of various laws passed starting in the 1980s under President Reagan, continued under President Clinton and exploded under President George W. Bush.

Mr. Ferguson, who also directed the Iraq War themed documentary, "No End in Sight" (2007), creates a picture suggesting the collapse was a perfect storm. A system feeding itself. The first step was to make sure there was no regulation. As pointed out in "Inside Job", after the Great Depression until 1980 there were no financial crisis. It was only after a system of deregulation did recessions and financial scandals become a common occurrence. After Wall Street got these laws passed the dividing line between the politicians and Wall Street becomes a bit blurry. Hence the quote of the Reagan White House and Wall Street being in sync. One would do the other's bidding. People from the financial world started to work inside the White House in various advisory roles and positions in the Treasury department.

One of the men behind the bailout of the banks, for example, was then Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, who had previously worked at Goldman Sachs, who stood to benefit from the bailout. Goldman Sachs was very active in CDOs. "Inside Job" suggest this was a conflict of interest, which was, to be fair, pointed out in the media at the time.

"Inside Job" further pushes the idea of conflict of interest on the part of many involved in Wall Street and economics. This "protective cloud" is what contributes to the problem in mainstream society. People don't realize the "opinions" they hear or read about from "experts" (i.e. economic professors) were paid to say those things. It is never disclosed however. So, when one "expert" speaks of a "sound economy" or the integrity of a banking institute, what you, the public, don't realize is, it is basically paid advertising. Those opinion are they presented in the media and given much credence. Well if so-and-so said it is a good idea, it must be.

While you or I may see the conflict, what is astonishing is, Mr. Ferguson interviews many of these people and when he presents to them their conflict of interest they sit amazed at the suggestion of it. They don't see a conflict. It is simply how the system is and should be. So what if I am paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to say something good about the very people who are paying me. To his credit, Mr. Ferguson pushes back, a bit, which is more than the media tends to do when confronted by these same people. Did you ever watch the Fox Business Network?

Which leads to a point. These people live in a bubble. They are oblivious to the consequences of their actions as long as a dollar is to be made. That level of greed is what caused this entire mess. Put aside the policies which were enacted. It was the people. People motivated by greed. A system was created that rewarded greed which creates an incentive to become greedier and greedier. And that system is still in place today.

What is also of interest are the people Mr. Ferguson was able to interview (also interesting and very telling are those that declined). Appearing are former managing director of International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (who would later go on to be involved in a sex scandal), the Finance Minister of France, Christine Lagarde, who would become the managing director of the IMF, investor George Soros, congressman Barney Frank, former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer and the Under Secretary of the Treasury in the Bush administration David McCormick. Most are in agreement on what is wrong with the system while others are shown to make the opposite argument that all is fine.

While "Inside Job" won an Academy Award for best documentary and was named the best movie of the year by New York Times movie critic, A.O. Scott, my fear is the public will think of this documentary as too academic. It is what made "The Big Short" (2015) such a great film. This explains some of this same material but does it with humor and creates a dramatic story so as, one, to keep an audience interested and two, minimize the anger of the mob (the public). In "Inside Job" we see the individuals responsible for what happened. We hear their lies and cover ups. "The Big Short", while based on a true story, still was a dramatic film. "Inside Job" by comparison is a good piece of investigative journalism, piecing everything together.

It would serve in the public's interest if many saw this documentary. Please don't forget what happened in 2008 and how it happened. Don't forget the names and faces. And, mostly importantly, remember these people are still out there. No one was arrested for these activities. These people were given bonuses. Remember the bail out money was used for that. Be weary of politicians, that have former Goldman Sachs executives in their cabinets, that talk about deregulation. And, if you can remember, speak to your doctor about voter amnesia. It's not an election year, so you should be fine.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Film Review: Gangs of New York

"Gangs of New York"  **** (out of ****)

Martin Scorsese once again shows us the mean streets of New York in the drama "Gangs of New York" (2002).

When Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" was released the sheep (movie critics) had a mixed reaction to it. In fact it was the first time I could remember so many "critics" criticizing a Martin Scorsese picture. There was Manhola Darhis of the New York Times who felt Scorsese had made this picture for the purpose of being able to win an Academy Award (something he had not accomplished at this time). She, in all her "wisdom", called the movie "Oscar bait". There was also New York Observer critic, Rex Reed, normally a defender of Mr. Scorsese's work, who felt the movie wasn't up to Scorsese's best.

I point this out not to "shame" the "critics" that trashed Mr. Scorsese and this film but to reinforce the belief, time serves as the ultimate critic. Great movies will be remembered and stand the test of time. Even if they weren't successful upon their release, audiences will find those movies ("It's A Wonderful Life" (1946), "Duck Soup" (1933), "The General" (1926) and "Bringing Up Baby" (1938) are a few examples). I think "Gangs of New York" is one of those movies as well. Many may not remember the greeting this film received. They will be able to judge the movie solely on the quality of the movie itself. They will not be caught up in the gossip of the day such as how the movie was originally set to be released in 2001 and was pushed back a year. Normally not a good sign. Some complained Leonardo DiCaprio wasn't "worthy" of collaborating with Mr. Scorsese and there were reports the movie was over budget. In the end though, it doesn't matter. Time has judged the movie and given it a stamp of approval.

This is not to suggest "Gangs of New York" didn't have its defenders. The movie went on to earn 10 Academy Award nominations. The "movie critic" Richard Roeper called it the best movie of the year. Former Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert gave it a three-and-a-half star rating. And many praised Daniel Day-Lewis' performance.

Watching "Gangs of New York" three things strike me thematically. One, with time all is forgotten. Modern generations will forget those that lived before them and never know of their hardship. Two, man fights man, creating meaningless "gangs", fractions but the real enemy is the government. "Gangs of New York" ends with the U.S. government ordering the death of its own citizens as the poor have risen up and have said the Civil War draft is not just since the rich were able to buy their way out of it for the price of $300 (this is actual fact. Not fiction. Look it up). Three, how "Scorsese" the movie is in its themes, primarily loyalty.

"Gangs of New York" blends fact and fiction telling us the story of Irish immigration to New York and the resistance it was met with by those that didn't want "foreigners" entering their country. Too bad someone wasn't around to suggest building a wall. Which leads to another point. Nothing has changed. People are debating the same issues they have for hundreds of years and nothing will get better or change because people haven't changed. In "Gangs of New York" the Irish were the immigrants not wanted to enter the country. Today it is Mexicans and Muslims. Only "the other" has changed. The hatred remains the same.

Fighting against the Irish is Bill the Butcher (Day-Lewis). He "controls" the district known as the Five Points and a gang called the Natives. They are the "true Americans". Bill is initially opposed by the leader of another gang called the Dead Rabbits led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). In the film's opening sequence the two gangs will have a final conflict to decide who is the true leader of the Five Points. Vallon dies in battle at the hands of Bill, in front of Vallon's son, Amsterdam (played as an adult by Leonardo DiCaprio). Forward 16 years later and now Amsterdam wants revenge.

This leads to the most interesting dynamic of the film, the relationship between Bill and Amsterdam. Although Amsterdam is filled with hatred for Bill, Bill accepts Amsterdam into his gang and treats Amsterdam as a son. In one scene Bill makes a heartfelt speech saying as much. This creates a blurry line for Amsterdam. Can he hate this man who has been good to him? Is there good and bad in everyone? This makes Bill the most interesting character in the film. Bill is a multi dimensional character. Amsterdam had potential to be one but is shortchanged by the writers. Amsterdam isn't given the larger-than-life personality of Bill.

Within the Bill character Mr. Scorsese and screenwriters Jay Cocks, Kenneth Lonergan and Steven Zaillian, are able to present him as a sympathetic character and then shock us by his villainous nature, brutally killing people. What makes Bill even scarier is, we understand him and in our current political climate, know people like him.

Maybe the weakest character in the movie is Jenny (Cameron Diaz) a pickpocket that Amsterdam falls in love with who had a relationship with Bill. She adds very little to the film and seems to mostly be a symbol to show a "softer" side of Bill and Amsterdam. I guess you need a female character in a movie to tell a man, just as he is about to go into battle, that war is a bad idea. Then the man will tell the woman he will come back alive. If every scene between Jenny and Amsterdam was cut out, you might even have a better movie.

There is however a great group of supporting characters including including political boss, William Tweed (Jim Broadbent), Happy Jack (John C. Reily), an Irishman who fought along side Priest Vallon and in the passing years becomes a policemen, under the thumb of Bill. And "Monk" McGinn (Brendan Gleeson), a man for hire who also fought along side Vallon and knows Amsterdam is up to something.

"Gangs of New York" is also a visual masterwork, as everything you see was created on a sound stage at Cinecitta, the famous Italian studio where Federico Fellini shot his movies. How the art-direction and set-direction didn't win an Academy Award is a mystery and a shame. It was one of the most impressive elements to me, when I first saw the movie. I still think it is one of Mr. Scorsese's best looking movies.

Now, 15 year after its release, and with the gossip of the day behind it, Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" holds up well. It's themes of political corruption, loyalty and history is the work of a passionate filmmaker. Mr. Scorsese had wanted to tell this story on the big screen for more than 20 years. If Woody Allen shows us a romanticize view of New York, Mr. Scorsese gets down to the gritty side of the city. He shows us the blood, sweat and tears that went into making New York what is it. That's what "Gangs of New York" is, a crash course in American history.

I wouldn't say this movie is as influential as Mr. Scorsese's other films, such as "GoodFellas" (1990), "Raging Bull" (1980) or "Taxi Driver" (1976) but "Gangs of New York" is a masterpiece nevertheless. I called it one of the best films of 2002 (I placed it in the number three spot) and declared it one of the best films of the first decade of the 21st century. Watching it again, my mind has not changed.

"Gangs of New York" is a rewarding experience, worthy of multiple viewings. Daniel Day-Lewis gives the most effective performance and is in some ways, the center of the movie. Time has not dulled this movie. If anything, it has proven to be a "timeless" movie, still relevant today.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Film Review: A Day at the Races

"A Day at the Races"  *** (out of ****)

All bets are off with the Marx Brothers and "A Day at the Races" (1937).

For years I believed "A Day at the Races", MGM's Marx Brothers follow-up to "A Night at the Opera" (1935), the brothers first movie at the studio, was a "lesser" comedy, one that lacked the zest and zingers of their earlier comedies. Watching it again I find my memory wasn't too far off however the movie is better than I remembered and there are laughs to be had.

This seems to be a slightly different opinion compared to other modern Marx Brothers fans, who over the years I have always heard say, "A Day at the Races" ranks among their best. While I firmly believe one should not criticize the Marx Brothers (they are simply too funny) I also believe nothing quite compares to their earlier Paramount comedies like "Duck Soup" (1933) or "Horse Feathers" (1932) and should be the standard bearer that all other Marx Brothers comedies are ranked against. By comparison, "A Day at the Races" doesn't reach the apex.

Watching "A Day at the Races", the seventh Marx Brothers comedy, the team appears to be slowing down a bit and their age is showing. That by itself is no reason to dismiss any comedy, as I am someone who frequently argues against ageism. Great comedians don't stop being funny because they get older. If "A Day at the Races" is a "lesser" comedy it is only in comparison to what the Marx Brothers had previously accomplished. Excluding that, it is an entertaining movie worthy of an audience. In fact, the movie was a box-office success when first released.

"A Day at the Races" feels comfortably familiar in its plot with Groucho playing Dr. Hackenbush, who has been hired as chief of staff at the Standish Sanitarium, in an attempt to keep the sanitarium's only patient, Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont), who is convinced she is ill, content. However unknown to everyone, Dr. Hackenbush is a veterinarian. But, with business so bad the sanitarium cannot afford to lose its patient. Judy (Maureen O' Sullivan) owns the sanitarium and would like to ask Ms. Upjohn for financial help or else she will be forced to sell the property to J.D. Morgan (hmm, if you replace that "D". Played by Douglas Dumbrille) who owns a nearby casino and race track.

What I dislike about the movie is Groucho doesn't play Dr. Hackenbush with the same brash confidence he played his other memorable characters. This time around Groucho is worried about being discovered as a veterinarian. Normally Groucho would pretend to be the foremost authority on the issue of his choosing. This attitude plays better for Groucho's persona and allows him to get more laughs.

As is usually the case, some of the best scenes involve Groucho interacting with Margaret Dumont. As in their other comedies together Groucho would flirt with Ms. Dumont's character because of her great wealth despite not being physically attracted to her. In "Duck Soup" Groucho discovers Ms. Dumont is a rich widow. Groucho ask her "will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first."

This leads to a great sequence with Groucho and Ms. Upjohn dancing. Groucho notices a good looking blonde, Flo (Esther Muir, who you may recognize from Wheeler & Woolsey comedies) and begins flirting with her behind Ms. Upjohn's back and sometimes in front of her. What Groucho doesn't realize is Flo has been hired by Whitmore (Leonard Ceeley), Judy's business manager, to catch Groucho in a compromising situation which would turn Ms. Upjohn against Groucho and result in her leaving the sanitarium.

Another memorable sequence involves Chico and Groucho with Groucho trying to place a bet at the race track. Chico, wanting to con a few dollars out of Groucho, pretends he has a hot tip for Groucho in one of the races however the tip is in code and instead of simply telling Groucho its meaning he must buy book after book in order to de-code the code.

We also get to hear two staples of Marx Brothers movies, Chico at the piano. This time he uses Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody as an introduction (he does this in "A Night in Casablanca" (1946) as well) to "On the Beach At Bali-Bali" while Harpo plays some Rachmaninoff for us.

Unfortunately as is the case with several comedies of this era the comedy is mixed up with a romantic sub-plot. This time it involves Judy and her singing boyfriend Gill (Allan Jones). In an effort to help Judy, Gill, along with some friends, Tony (Chico Marx) and Stuffy (Harpo Marx), have bought a race horse. Gill hopes if his horse wins a big race Judy's financial problems will be over.

For a Marx Brothers comedy the movie is unusually long, 111 minutes. It is the longest comedy the boys appeared in. It is too long. The movie was going to be longer but musical numbers were cut out (one of them was sung by Groucho). One more song could have been cut in my opinion, "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm". Though it features Ivie Anderson (who was part of Duke Ellington's orchestra) it does nothing for the picture and wouldn't interfere with the rest of the plot if it was cut. It would however spare us seeing the brothers in blackface. Comedies like "Horse Feathers" and "Duck Soup" were only 68 minutes. They focused exclusively on the comedy which may explain their shorter running time and why I find them funnier.

The movie was directed by Sam Wood, perhaps best known for the dramas he directed including "Kitty Foyle" (1940) starring Ginger Rogers, in a role she would win an Academy Award for, and Ronald Reagan's best movie, "King's Row" (1942). It was said Mr. Wood, who also directed "A Night at the Opera", didn't understand the Marx Brothers' style of comedy and supposedly lacked a sense of humor. Rumor has it he and Groucho did not see eye to eye.

While there is a definite shift in tone in "A Day at the Races" compared to the Paramount comedies one has to admit there are funny moments in the movie. It is much better than later efforts like "The Big Store" (1941) and "Love Happy" (1949). Worth watching.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Film Review: Citizenfour

**** (out of ****)

Is truth stranger than fiction?

It is, unfortunately, a questions many people have to ask themselves given the political climate of the last couple of years, especially since the last U.S. Presidential election. Everything in the news seems so "fantastic", outrageous, that if someone told you these things 20 - 25 years ago you would have said to yourself, it's not possible.

Back when the story of the over reaching efforts of NSA surveillance and its illegal invasion of privacy towards United States citizens, many people were appalled. How on Earth could the government do this? The head of the agency went before congress and said "no". Information is not being collected on citizens concerning tracking on telephone calls and their duration, recordings of their conversations, knowledge of web search history...ect. Others however knew what was going on. It was called the Patriotic Act and was put into legislation after the terror attacks on 9/11.

Since the story broke it has never really stopped being discussed in the news and we find ourselves discussing it more frequently thanks to comments made by Donald Trump, claiming the former president, Barack Obama, issued wire taps on Trump Tower in New York. Also, a law was recently passed making it okay for search engine sites (Google) to sell your browsing history to corporations for advertising purposes.

With all this in mind and with last year's release of the Oliver Stone movie "Snowden" (2016) I thought it would be a good time to revisit the documentary "Citizenfour" (2014), a documentary I placed on my top ten list upon its release.

From a story-arc perspective "Citizenfour" is lacking. There isn't really a linear story being told. This has no beginning, middle and end. But, there is powerful information here. Crucial information every American, every person in the world, should know. Your government is spying on you. Everything you do is being seen by someone. That is no longer science-fiction or a conspiracy theory but has become "the new normal". Some people merely accept it. It is what it is. How can you stop it? But if it doesn't give you pause, quite frankly, there is something wrong with you. Why should we be watched? Why should the government know my location at all times? Why should the government know my purchase history? Read my emails, the duration of my telephone calls or my browsing history? The defense is, it is all in the name of national defense. It is how we fight terror. That is of course a blanket statement in which anything can fall under it and what has lead us to where we are. Some people rationalize and tell themselves, I have nothing to hide. Let the government spy on me. One, that is exactly what the government wants you to say and think. For them it is better if citizens are complicit and do not protest. It is also because of this train of thought, the rest of us must suffer.

That rationalization however is the product of fear. In theory bad things can happen anywhere. A terror attack can happen in a small rural town or a metropolitan city. In actuality though, it doesn't. But just as long as you are in a state of fear you will allow your government the 'freedom' to do whatever it has to in order to keep you safe. The extent of which includes being watched 24/7.

"Citizenfour" doesn't necessarily make these connections and instead argues the viewpoint, it is best to get all of this information out to the public in order to allow a debate. The debate is one-sided however. The media interviews politicians and intelligence officials, all who the share the opinion what Snowden did was wrong. As such society cannot have a proper debate. I would guess even with documentaries and news reports and legislation passed there are still Americans that don't understand the extent of the government's spying on citizens.

The value of "Citizenfour" is in its small way informs us of the scope of what is being done in the name of "national defense". It attempts to pull the curtain down and expose the men (peeping toms) behind it. It doesn't do this in a flashy way. Essentially "Citizenfour" is a conversation between Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald, who is writing articles for the British newspaper, The Guardian, as Snowden is in hiding in a hotel in Hong Kong.

Even with the limited locations and flashy visuals, "Citizenfour" still remains captivating and frightening. It has the makings of a really good spy novel but it is not fiction. It is reality. Once the viewer allows the implications of what is being said to settle in and think about it, it can make you uncomfortable. Everything you do, the government knows about it. Just think about that. You have no privacy. I don't know if your microwave is taking picture of you (as suggested by Kellyanne Conway) but it doesn't need to because your television is storing your data (this it true! Look it up).

Of course the ultimate fear people have is, with all of this capability, what if people abuse this power? What if people use surveillance for revenge? That is essentially what Donald Trump was implying was President Obama's motivation. Could we / would we trust Trump to make these decisions to not abuse power?

Directed by Laura Poitras, "Citizenfour" received much critical acclaim when released and won the Academy Award for best documentary. Ms. Poitras considers this part of a trilogy she has made on the "war on terror" since 9/11 and it is probably the most accomplished documentary of her career and the one that has had the most far reaching effect.

For its ability to incite and provoke discussion, "Citizenfour" should not be missed. This is a topic that will be with us for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Film Review: History of the World Pt. 1

"History of the World Pt. 1"  **** (out of ****)

It's good to be Mel Brooks in the audacious comedy "History of the World - Part 1" (1981)

Mr. Brooks' comedy is a combination of everything you love and hate about the filmmaker's comedies. It is a smorgasbord of ideas and jokes that don't always blend well together. Not all of the jokes work. Many are vulgar and could be considered "tasteless". Some have said the movie lacks a coherent structure. Mr. Brooks takes the old Mack Sennett approach to comedy and throws in every joke he thought was funny. Yet, here I am recommending it. What could possibly be my defense for recommending a movie that makes homosexual jokes, sex jokes and makes fun of Jews? I laughed!

Audiences should pretty much know what they are walking into before the movie starts, if you are at all familiar with Mel Brooks. If not, the opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie. It is a "Dawn of Man" scene, as a narrator (Orson Welles), tells us an ape like creature stood up and became man. The group of men quickly discover they have penises and begin to masturbate at a frantic speed. It is first and foremost a parody of a scene in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). And that is often what we are dealing with. Not so much comedic interpretations of historical events but rather parodies of famous scenes from historical movies. The joke is everything is presented serious, heck, Orson Welles is narrating the movie (which may be a reference to "King of Kings" (1961), which Mr. Welles also narrated) but the action on-screen doesn't match the seriousness of the narration, catching the audience off-guard.

The movie is an episodic comedy featuring five vignette segments that include the Stone Age, the Old Testament, the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution. The Stone Age doesn't have a plot and instead is a series of set-up and punchlines focused on historical "first" such as explaining how man created fire, created music, the first homo sapiens marriage, which are are told was quickly followed by the first homosexual marriage. This segment stars Sid Caesar as the chief caveman. The Old Testament is nothing more than a one joke musing considering what would happen if Moises was unable to hold all the tablets with God's laws on them.

The two segments that take up the majority of the movie are the Roman Empire and the French Revolution. The French Revolution episode borrows not from history but mainly Mark Twain's "The Prince and the Pauper". King Louis XVI (Brooks) learns of a revolt being brewed by the working class of France, headed by Madame Defarge (Cloris Leachman). Many will recognize the character's name from Charles Dicken's "A Tale of Two Cities". One of the King's advisors, Count de Monet (Harvey Korman), who is consistently called "count the money", notices a strong resemblance between the King and what is known as "the piss boy" (Brooks again). The plan is to disguise the piss boy as the King and allow the mob to kill him instead of the real King, who will be out of the country.

Whereas the Roman Empire segment is not based on any particular moment in history with Mr. Brooks playing a stand-up philosopher, Comicus, who thanks to his agent, Swiftus (Ron Carey) gets a job playing in the main room at Caesar's Palace to perform for Emperor Nero (Dom DeLuise). A funny thing happens to Comicus on the way to the palace, he meets a slave, Josephus (Gregory Hines, in the his screen debut), who thanks to a sex craved empress, named Nympho (Madeline Khan) wins his freedom and gets a job at the palace.

Mr. Brooks is undoubtedly best known for directing "Blazing Saddles" (1974) and "Young Frankenstein" (1974), two movies routinely listed among the funniest comedies ever made. I admire both very much but I have a fondness for "History of the World" and consider it my favorite comedy by Mr. Brooks. If filmmakers are artist then Mr. Brooks has given myself a large canvass to poke comedic fun at, no less than the history of the world. It provides a lot of room for satire and anachronistic humor. For that reason it is my favorite. The screenplay was written by Mr. Brooks alone, a feat he had not done since his second film, "The Twelve Chairs" (1970). Because of that I find this to be the most "pure Brooks" comedy. It may also be the reason the comedy goes in plenty of different directors. Without a Gene Wilder or gang of comedy writers collaborating with him, there is no one to tell Mr. Brooks something is a bad idea or doesn't fit. 

Yet I can't deny I laugh when watching the movie. I failed to describe the Spanish Inquisition segment which once again doesn't focus on a plot but becomes an Esther Williams song and dance sequence. It is comedic brilliance, that like the best of Mr. Brooks' comedies, holds nothing sacred. The Inquisition itself was a dark time in history dealing with religious intolerance and torture. It doesn't lend itself to song and dance but that is what makes it funny IF you are in tune with Mr. Brooks' sensibilities. Otherwise it is simply bad taste. And that goes for the rest of the picture.

I often feel "History of the World" is overlooked because of "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" and so when I say this is my favorite Brooks comedy it may seem to be an odd choice, not the "correct" choice by society's standards. I'm not sure how others view the move's reputation today or how well it has aged but upon watching it again I find it holds up well.

I'm not sure if I would say "History of the World" should be an introduction into Mr. Brooks' comedies but it definitely should be in the top three movies you see as one ventures into these comedies as it is "typical" of Mr. Brooks' humor.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Film Review: The Last Command

The website Third Coast Review published my review of the classic silent film, "The Last Command" (1928) directed by Josef von Sternberg. The movie will be screened in Chicago this Wednesday at the Music Box Theatre.

Click here to read my review.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Film Review: 23 Paces to Baker Street

"23 Paces to Baker Street"  *** (out of ****)

Although not as well remembered as it should be the murder mystery "23 Paces to Baker Street" (1956) is a combination of Sherlock Holmes (Baker Street is where the famed detective lived) meets Alfred Hitchcock.

Van Johnson stars Phillip Hannon, an American playwright staying in London, where his latest play is a smash hit. Phillip, is a bitter man who seems to have lost the will to live. It is slowly revealed to the audience Phillip left a woman he loved behind in America, Jean (Vera Miles), because he went blind, another slow reveal to the audience. Phillip believed because of his disability the two could never live a "normal" life together. Jean however follows him to London and gives the impression she still loves him.

Love however is not on Phillip's mind as he believes he may have overheard a possible kidnapping attempt, while sitting in a local pub, listening in on a conversation between two people nearby. After reporting the conversation to the police, Phillip is convinced no one believes him and it is now up to him to solve the case.

"23 Paces to Baker Street" wants to utilize the gimmick of Phillip being blind and put him in danger. Over the years several movies have focused on this from Dario Argento's classic, "The Cat O' Nine Tails" (1971), "Wait Until Dark" (1967) and recent movies like "Don't Breathe" (2016). The suspense is supposed to come from a person, unable to properly defend them self, put in danger.

One example of this, and maybe the best sequence in the film, involves Phillip arranging to meet the woman, he believes, is involved in the kidnapping scheme. Her father is supposed to meet Phillip at the same pub as before. The man is not the woman's father but instead has been sent to kill Phillip and leads him to a building destroyed during the war. The entire front of the building is missing as Phillip comes dangerously close to reaching the edge. If it was Chaplin, it would be comedy. Here is it one of the most suspenseful moments in the movie.

Some have compared the movie to Hitchcock's "Rear Window" (1954) as both movies revolve around two people with limitations (one blind, the other in a wheelchair) who believe they have uncovered a crime no one else is paying attention to. Both men want out of relationships with the women in their lives and it takes a murder to bring the couples back together. Also, like a Hitchcock movie, there is a lot of humor. Not the dry, dark humor often found in Hitchcock movies but rather a sarcastic humor with Phillip throwing out one liners, that I must admit had me laughing.

But, to compare "23 Paces to Baker Street" to "Rear Window" or any other movie isn't fair as it may imply "Baker Street" can't stand on its own and / or is a lesser film by comparison. "23 Paces to Baker Street" is an entertaining movie that features a very good performance by Van Johnson.

Seeing Van Johnson here initially seemed strange. Johnson became famous in the 1940s because of his matinee looks and "boy next door" roles. That is missing here as the character is a wise-cracking smart-alec who is always sympathetic. It reminded me of his performance in "Brigadoon" (1954).

The movie, based on the novel "Warrant for X" written by Philip MacDonald, who worked primarily in the mystery / thriller genre, writing Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto mysteries, was adapted to the screen by Nigel Balchin and directed by Henry Hathaway, who once received a best director Academy Award nomination for "The Lives of Bengal Lancer" (1935). I've never thought of Mr. Hathaway as a great filmmaker. For me he lacked a distinct style, which served him well as he directed many different genre movies. His best known movies are "True Grit" (1969) for which John Wayne won an Academy Award (some say this was a pity Oscar, since Mr. Wayne had never won before), "Call Northside 777" (1948) with Jimmy Stewart, "The Dark Corner" (1946) with a pre - "I Love Lucy" Lucille Ball and "Niagara" (1953) with Marilyn Monroe.

"23 Paces to Baker Street" doesn't do anything terribly original but what it does, it does well.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Film Review: Sicko

**** (out of ****)

When documentary filmmaker, Michael Moore, released "Sicko" (2007), his cynical / satirical "editorial" on the American healthcare system, we were getting ready for a presidential election. Healthcare, at the time, wasn't the major issue for voters. If you remember correctly, the 2008 presidential election was supposed to be about the Iraq War, that is why to two leading candidates, for their "respected" parties were Barack Obama and John McCain, men that were opposed to (Obama) and supportive (McCain) of the war. But then a "funny" thing happened, George W. Bush and the Republican party bankrupted the country.

In the brutal aftermath of another presidential election I thought about Michael Moore's documentary. Now healthcare is on a lot of people's mind. The current chancellor vowed to repeal and replace Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) and replace it "with something terrific" (whatever that means). But, things aren't going as well as the Republicans and the chancellor would have liked.

"Sicko" represents a system we might go back to if Republicans repeal the current healthcare law without replacing it, or at least that is everyone's fear.

When "Sicko" was first released I enjoyed it quite a bit. I called it one of the best movies of 2007, the second time Michael Moore made a documentary which made my top ten list, "Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004) was the first. As a fan of it, I remembered a lot of what was in it and how angry it made me. Watching "Sicko" again, it affected me the same way. It is still powerful, persuasive and informative. It argues in defense of free, universal healthcare, as America is the only country in the Western world without it. On a personal level, for me, there is no good reason to argue against it and Mr. Moore hits on some of the standard talking points fed (brainwashed) to the public over the decades of why such a system wouldn't work in the greatest country in the world.

To clarify a point, Mr. Moore's documentary is not about the, at the time, 50 million uninsured Americans, instead "Sicko" is about those that have insurance and the cracks within the system which benefit the insurance companies that love taking your money but aren't too keen on paying your medical bills when you need them to.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem and the main point, of "Sicko". The United States healthcare system is based on a profit modem. Money and greed is what is preventing this country from giving its citizens free healthcare as the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to "buy" elected officials and send their lobbyist to do their bidding. It is not about all the other BS one hears concerning this debate. Free healthcare will not result in limited choices (anymore than what they are now) and people dying because of long wait lines. For years I used to hear Americans can't get medicine from Canada because it hasn't been approved by our government and could be dangerous. Of course the Canadians taking the same prescription drugs seem to be alive but who knows. It couldn't have anything to do with money, right?

So, how does Mr. Moore and "Sicko" prove their point? First Mr. Moore shows us some Americans without insurance and terrible accidents they have faced. One man cut off the tip of two of his fingers on a table saw blade. He was told by the hospital it would cost $12,000 to fix one finger (his ring finger) and $60,000 to fix the other (his index finger). The choice was his. He took the cheaper option. And then we hear horror stories from those with insurance. One woman was in a car accident that resulted in her becoming unconscious as an ambulance drove her to a hospital but her insurance company wouldn't pay for the it because it wasn't authorized by the woman, while she was unconscious.

Next, Mr. Moore speaks to people who used to work for insurance companies, who have since left, because they did not approve of how the industry was run and the lack of care. They explain insurance companies are not in the business of providing care. At one point it is explained if doctors deny treatment to patients they are rewarded with bonus. Why? No treatment means the insurance company doesn't have to pay anything. We discover all the loopholes companies use to their advantage to deny coverage (pre-existing conditions). This is then countered by Mr. Moore's visits to countries such as Canada, England, France and yes, Cuba. In each country Mr. Moore paints a picture of their system being better than the one in America. Everything is free. In England the people laugh at Mr. Moore when he keeps asking how much does everything cost. In France Mr. Moore speaks to Americans living abroad. They speak of five week paid vacations (standard) a 35 hour work week (standard. Although in the country's upcoming election a right-wing candidate wants to change this), a week off for your honeymoon (paid) and even doctors that make house calls.

Yes, there are manipulative moments. In one scene an insurance company employee is crying thinking about a couple she knew would be denied. As she is crying the camera moves in for a close-up of her face so we can get a good look at those tears. In another scene a mother is sitting in a playground speaking about her daughter, who died, because of lack of treatment. Why place this poor woman in a playground? There is a stunt where Mr. Moore takes some people to Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, telling the guards he brought some Americans who only want to same, universal coverage, as the terrorist.

But, none of this really matters because it doesn't change the underlying point, the healthcare system, even with the Affordable Care Act, is not good in this country. The ACA is a big wet kiss to the insurance companies since it mandates everyone must have insurance. The money and greed is still not out of the system. Meanwhile, the cost of prescription drugs continues to rise. And what can stop this from happening? Money must be taken out of the system. Mr. Moore even shows us the amount of money that has been donated to various politicians by these industries who continue to argue in the defense of the current system.

One of the best moments in the documentary is when Mr. Moore is in England and speaks to a former Labour party politician who explains the two ways in which a government can make its people feel oppressed. One is by fear (the examples of this are too numerous for me to mention) and debt. When are are in debt (student loans, hospital bills, credit cards) you feel helpless and demoralized. That will stop you from fighting back. It is still true today.

Michael Moore is without question a controversial figure and there will be "people"; Republicans, insurance company executives, greedy doctors...ect who will argue against everything in this movie and give us the same old lines over and over again. It is socialized medicine, a slippery slope to Communism / Socialism, long wait lines, death panels, lack of care, lack of doctors...ect, ect. They will use fear (see paragraph above) but that's all they have. Fear and check donations of the insurance companies. "Sicko" shows us there is a better option.

Nominated for an Oscar in the best documentary category, "Sicko" is one of Michael Moore's best documentaries.

Film Review: The Obama Years: The Power of Words

"The Obama Years: The Power of Words"  *** (out of ****)

Words. Words are important. Words have meaning. Words shape our view of history and our vision of the future. Words are what the documentary “The Obama Years: The Power of Words” (2017) is about.

Scheduled to air on the Smithsonian channel on February 27th, as part of Black History month, this hour-long documentary focuses on a select few, of the more than 3,500, speeches former President Barack Obama gave during his eight years in the White House.

“The Obama Years” is by no means a definitive look at the Obama presidency. It does not offer a critical view or even a balanced tone. It is, without compromise, a full-fledged endorsement of the man and his oratorical skills.

Through the course of the documentary, seven speeches (the press kit says six but I counted seven) are presented and their historical significance explained. They include Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, where he gave the keynote speech. At the time, he was a state senator, who was running for the Illinois U.S. senate seat. The speech brought him national prominence. One anecdote told is the party’s presidential nominee, John Kerry, liked a passage so much from the speech, he asked if he could use it instead of Obama. The other speeches discussed are Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, his first “race speech”, during the presidential campaign, when the news media was reporting on remarks made by Rev. Jerimiah Wright, the President’s eulogy after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, the 50th anniversary speech on the civil rights march in Selma and the eulogy after the 2015 shooting in Charleston, South Carolina at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The “seventh” speech highlighted is his 2011 speech at the White House Correspondence Dinner, showcasing the president’s sense of humor.

It can be considered a strange topic for a documentary on a president, speeches. Why not one which takes us inside the White House and shows us key decisions made during his two terms like the killing of Osama bin Laden, his Supreme Court nominees and a behind-the-scenes look at how the Affordable Care Act came to be? But, you can’t fault the documentary for something it doesn’t want to be. You can only review it on what it is and how well it presents its ideas.

With that in mind, one must admit “The Obama Years” is an entertaining and emotional (I heard a few sniffles at the press screening I attended) look at the country’s first black president. You also become aware of how much history we have all lived through during the past eight years and how much the country has changed from the time Obama first ran for office. It also cannot escape anyone’s mind the difference between Obama and the current man in the White House, at least as far as their communication and speech making skills are concerned.

The documentary is highlighted by on-screen interviews given by the people who worked on Obama’s campaign; David Axelrod, Jon Favreau and Cody Keenan as well as historians; Douglas Brinkley and Doris Kearns Goodwin, who attempt to flesh out the man by discussing Obama’s writing style and comparing it to other presidents. 

Unfortunately, as with most things today, the documentary’s appeal will depend on your politics. Those that admire Barack Obama will feel “The Obama Years” reaffirms what made him a great man, while those that opposed his presidency, may feel Obama was all talk. Just words.

Film Review: Sophie and the Rising Sun

"Sophie and the Rising Sun"
*** (out of ****)

In the autumn of 1941, Grover Ohta (Takashi Yamaguchi), a Japanese-American, is found nearly beaten to death, in a small town in South Carolina. He cannot recall how he arrived in the town or who beat him up but his presence will set off a chain of tumultuous events in the social drama, “Sophie and the Rising Sun” (2016).

Given the recent headlines in the newspaper, concerning travel bans and indefinite suspension of Syrian refugees from entering the country, it is unfortunate that “Sophie and the Rising Sun” will seem relevant to audiences, illustrating there as always been a fear of “the other”, in director Maggie Greenwald’s tale of xenophobia, interracial love and racism set against the backdrop of America entering World War II.

In a town, unsure what to do with him and suspicious of “foreigners”, it is decided the best place for Grover to heal is in the home of the town’s widower, Anne (Margo Martindale), who is herself initially hesitant to be burdened with such a duty but reluctantly agrees, positioning her to be the movie’s moral center.

The “Sophie” referred to in the title is a young woman with a mysterious past (played by Julianne Nicholson) whom at first, we suspect may also be prejudice against foreigners and Grover in particular. It is Sophie and Grover’s identity the movie will take its time revealing.

“Sophie and the Rising Sun” is well intended and a modest movie but in its third act, feels as if it loses some of its focus. Much is made of Anne listening to news on the radio of war in Europe and when Pearl Harbor is attacked, the town, which thought Grover was Chinese, learns he is Japanese, proclaims him the enemy, while misguided patriotic pride causes violence. At this point the interracial romance is given more screen time, pushing the war time sentiment aside and becomes one of those movies about a small town and a nosey neighbor (played by Diane Ladd) interfering in the love affair of two people, spreading gossip the woman isn’t “acting like a lady”.

There is much to enjoy during the movie’s first two acts, especially the social message, and the wonderful performances given by Martindale, Nicholson and Ladd. While neither Martindale or Nicholson, who co-starred in “August: Osage County” (2013), are leading ladies, the movie allows them the opportunity to shine. It is worth the price of admission just to see the performances.

Director Greenwald, may be best known for “Songcatcher” (2000), which had some similar themes, including prejudice of the other, in that movie’s case people of the Appalachian Mountains, gives her movie a sensitive, romantic quality which seems much more interested in its female characters and their relationships rather than the romance between the male and female character.

Those with a knowledge of film history, may watch “Sophie and the Rising Sun” and think of the multiple Academy Award nominated film, “Sayonara” (1957) starring Marlon Brando, about an Air Force pilot who falls in love with a Japanese woman. That movie is a classic, often considered one of the most significant Hollywood movies of its time to address interracial romance, and deals with the topic head on. I can’t really say the same about “Sophie and the Rising Sun”. This is more of a movie about the bond between women with war and prejudice in the background.