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 likes 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.

Film Review: Alone in Berlin

"Alone in Berlin"
*** 1/2 (out of ****)

Vincent Perez’s “Alone in Berlin” (2016), is a World War II themed drama centering on a working-class German couple (played by Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson) that finds out their only child has died in combat. Consumed with grief and anger they become part of the German Resistance, placing anonymous postcards, with anti-Hitler, anti-Nazi sentiments, throughout the city. In total, more than 280 postcards are written.

The film is based on the novel Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada published in 1947. It is considered to be one of the first anti-Nazi novels to be published after the war in Germany. It was made available in the United States, for the first time, in 2009. Even more astonishing is the novel was based on a true story and the actions of Otto and Elise Hampel. 

The novel has been adapted to the screen previously on a few occasions, once as a West German television movie in 1962 and again in 1970 as an East German television miniseries, among them.

Screened at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it was nominated for a Golden Bear (the festival’s top prize), “Alone in Berlin” begins as an emotional drama that slowly turns into a thriller with the Gestapo enraged and furiously conducting an investigation, which provides a nice role for Daniel Bruhl as Escherich, a police inspector, under pressure to deliver results and find the perpetrator.

Audiences are asked to draw a parallel, as is usually the case in these kind of movies, between the person being hunted and the hunter. Can Otto (Gleeson) influence Escherich and persuade him, by reading his postcards, to see what Hitler and the Nazi party really stand for?

What would have made “Alone in Berlin” a stronger movie would have been if Otto was a true Nazi sympathizer. A man who believed in what Hitler was doing and was proud of his son for fighting. Then, when he turns against it, it would have more dramatic effect. As it stands now Otto and his wife, Ann (Thompson), are like so many other people who see terrible things happen in the world and are silent, if for no other reason than tragedy has not struck them personally. It is only when it does that it opens their eyes.

It’s difficult however to find much else to fault with the movie. It is one of the best films released this year, thanks largely to Brendan Gleeson’s performance, as a solemn, calm and meticulous (trying to hide his handwriting, he spends up to an hour writing the postcard) man, who while driven by a purpose somehow seems apathetic about life and the consequences of his actions. This is countered by Emma Thompson’s performance, which is overwrought as she expresses her concern over the couple being caught and has moments where she lashes out demonstrating her grief. All of which emphasizes the separate ways the couple copes with their feelings, which will in turn bring them together again.

In only his third feature length film, Perez (who has spent most of his career as an actor), shows a sure hand as a director, avoiding much of the schmaltz another director may have brought out of the story, his weakness though is he needs to improve on creating suspense. 

At its core “Alone in Berlin” is a story that tells us all it takes is one person to stand up for what is right. One person can make a difference and change the minds of many. It is a nice message for the world we live in.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Festival of Films from Iran

Billed as the longest running showcase for Iranian cinema in North America, the 27th annual Festival of Films from Iran begins February 4th – 25th at the Gene Siskel Film Center, where each weekend audiences will see films highlighting modern day Iranian culture.

With a total of seven films being presented during the festival, the event will kick off with screenings of “Lantouri” (2016) and “Me” (2016), while later in the month, also pay tribute to the late filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami, who died last year. Kiarostami was perhaps the best known of contemporary Iranian filmmakers to Western audiences. His Palme d’Or winning drama at the Cannes Film Festival, “Taste of Cherry” (1998), will be screened on February 17, 18 and 19 as well as a screening of a documentary featuring the filmmaker, “76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami” (2016), which will be followed by a discussion of the filmmaker’s work with film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and professor and author Mehrnaz Saeedvafa in attendance. 

According to the Barbara Scharres, Director of Programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, it was Saeedvafa who approached her with the idea of the festival. Now, 27 years later, Scharres says of Iran “this is a nation and a culture that is unfamiliar, largely misunderstood, and often maligned in the U.S.” Yet, through cinema and its ability to show audiences other cultures, this can change.

Here are mini-reviews for movies to be screened opening night.

Directed and written by Reza Dormishian, the young filmmaker’s fourth directorial effort, “Lantouri” is a smorgasbord commentary on various social injustices endured in Iran, women’s rights, anti-intellectualism, censorship and criminal justice. It may have been better served narrowing its scope focusing on one specific issue or using an Altman-esque interconnected storyline featuring multiple characters, each confronted by an injustice, nonetheless “Lantouri” is an entertaining and socially aware film.

Starring Maryam Palizban as a persistent journalist driven by criminal justice reform, also named Maryam, who meets an activist and agitator played by Navid Mohammadzadeh, who loves her from afar. Depending on whose version of the story you are hearing Maryam may or may not love him back, leading to both of their downfall.   

Using a mockumentary format within an unrequited love story, sometimes it feels as if the conventions of the love story interfere with the social message. It is only until the last 40 minutes of “Lantouri” that it makes its greatest point, remarking on the power of forgiveness and the retaliation laws used in Iran’s courts, which only lead to more violence. 

Screening February 4th @ 6pm and February 5th @ 4:45pm

If “Lantouri” shows us the ugliness of a society on the outside, then “Me” shows us what happens in the shadows.

Azar (Leila Hatami) is a go-to person on all issues concerning the black-market. Need a fake passport? Azar can help. Need to get out of military duty? Azar can help. She even exports alcohol in water bottles. She is by all measures a fascinating character. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t do enough with her.

There are subtle moments when male figures question Azar’s authority over them suggesting as a woman she is a bit out of place but Azar is a fighter and puts the men back in their place. Meanwhile there is building suspicion authorities may be on to her with spies all around.

The threat of this however never escalates into rising dramatic tension which ultimately creates a weak second and third act for “Me”. Hatami dominates the movie with her screen presence and whatever entertainment value derives from watching it is a result of her performance.

As for a social critique, first time director Soheil Beiraghi, paints a portrait of the limited roles available for women in an oppressive society.  

Screening February 4th @ 8:15pm and February 5 @ 3pm

Friday, January 27, 2017

Film Review: Evolution

** 1/2 (out of ****)

The sea-side village, in the French movie “Evolution” (2015), is inhabited only by young boys and women in their 30s. If there are young boys, why are there no men? If there are women, why are there no young girls? Where are the elderly? There are a lot of lingering questions in “Evolution”, few, if any, the movie has answers for 

With another movie, the ambiguous nature of “Evolution” may have detracted me more however, I don’t believe the movie is concerned with narrative plot. The movie is about mood, emotions, tone and symbolism. I can’t say I understand everything about the movie, it did have me scratching my head, wondering, where is all of this going?

 Directed by Lucile Hadzihalilovic, whose previous directorial effort was “Innocence” (2004), which featured a cast of young girls at a boarding school, “Evolution” can be interpreted as a story about procreation, male adolescence and the bond between mother and son. In an interview with the film magazine, Film Comment, Hadzihalilovic says the origin of her story was about a mother that doesn’t want her child to grow up and become a teenager.  

In the first scene of the movie we are introduced to Nicolas (Max Brebant, making his screen debut) a young boy, who while swimming notices a starfish (a symbol of the movie’s reproductive theme) over the dead body of a young boy at the bottom of the ocean’s floor. When he runs home to tell his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) she doubts his story and upon her own investigation claims to have only seen the starfish. Meanwhile Nicolas is forced to eat wormlike grub and is constantly given medicine, as are all the other boys in the village. After a violent outburst, Nicolas is taken to a hospital, where he is sedated and operated on. He forms a friendship with one of the nurses, Stella (Roxane Duran) and begins to question everything around him. Is his mother really his mother? What is supposed to be wrong with his health? What is in the food he eats and the medicine he takes?

Stella becomes a surrogate mother figure for Nicolas and being a nurse (another use of symbolism), may also be Nicolas’ saving grace and help explain the world around him.

Inspired by the movies of David Cronenberg and David Lynch, “Evolution” has elements of science-fiction, mystery and horror all combined, creating a genuinely eerie mood, due in part to the movie’s soundtrack (comprised of the sound of waves from the ocean, birds and crickets) and sparse dialogue. Its hospital setting also helps establish a sense of danger always lurking around, treating the boys as if they are prey. However, the movie doesn’t follow the typical conventions of the mystery genre, especially by not offering an explanation of characters’ motives. Its subtle hints to a greater reveal of the movie’s plot are too subtle and far too reliant on symbolism making the experience feel unsatisfying, despite its many recommendable qualities.

Visually there is much to appreciate in “Evolution”. Hadzihalilovic is a talented filmmaker but plot-wise “Evolution” feels too reserved. It doesn’t make a grand statement. What does the director want the audience to think as they leave the theater? The characters in the movie aren’t people but instead plot devices. Then again, I must go back to the idea “Evolution” isn’t interested in plot or characters. It is focused on mood and symbolism. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s an evolving process.

Film Review: Little Caesar

"Little Caesar"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

There had been other crime dramas before it – D.W. Griffith directed “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” (1912), selected last year by the Library of Congress for preservation, “The Racket” (1928), nominated for best picture at the first Academy Award ceremony – but few may have been as influential as “Little Caesar” (1931).

The gangster movies of the 1930s have a special place in the history of American cinema. They are reflective of their time and comment on the public’s fascination with figures such as “Baby Face” Nelson, John Dillinger and Al Capone, who may have served as the inspiration for the characters in “Little Caesar” and “Scarface” (1932) with Paul Muni. Made during the Great Depression, when Prohibition was enforced, many believe gangster movies romanticized bank robbers and created public sympathy for characters interpreted as symbols of the American Dream gone awry. One can argue we see this in the movies of today such as “Hell or High Water” (2016).

Based on a novel written by Oscar-nominated writer W.R. Burnett, who was nominated for the war movie “Wake Island” (1942), “Little Caesar” tells of the now familiar tale of a small-time hood who works his way up the ranks of a life of crime and his eventual downfall. When we first meet Rico aka Little Caesar (Edward G. Robinson) he has just robbed a gas station and shot a man. He and his partner, Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), hide out at a diner. After reading about a famous gangster in the paper, Rico reveals he too wants to be famous, a “somebody”; he wants to strike fear in people, something he equates with respect. At that moment, he decides to go to Chicago, where big things happen.

This actually is not unlike a story of a young actor or dancer living in a small town that heads out to a major city in the hopes of finding fame and success. Once in Chicago, Rico and Joe join a gang headed by Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields, who often played opposite many of the great comedians and comedy teams of the era such as Laurel & Hardy, Eddie Cantor and Wheeler & Woolsey). It is clear however that Rico doesn’t like taking orders and a power struggle develops between the two men while Joe wants to make a clean break and start a new life as a dancer with his girlfriend, Olga (Glenda Farrell). But is it ever possible to leave a gang or will his old life always follow him? This idea would become very prominent in heist movies.

Edward G. Robinson (born Emanuel Goldenberg in 1893 in Bucharest, Romania) had acted in a few movies prior to “Little Caesar”. His first movie credit dates to 1916 but it was his performance here that is believed to have made him a star and forever identify him with tough guy roles. Robinson, at various times, plays the character with a child’s wide-eyed fascination as he looks at the expensive clothes others are wearing and marvels at their beautiful homes. Other times, Robinson plays up the character’s mean streak and cold nature and adds moments of vulnerability, especially in regards to the character’s relationship with Joe, touching on the theme of loyalty often found in gangster movies. Some even interpret their relationship as having a homosexual undercurrent. Masculinity is a theme of the movie, and the genre popularized the image of the “macho male”.

Nominated for an Academy Award in the best writing, adaptation category, the movie’s success critically and at the box office inspired the release of other gangster movies such as “Scarface” and “Public Enemy” (1931) starring James Cagney (another actor associated with tough guy roles). It has been suggested that because of the “glorified violence” in these movies, the Motion Picture Production Code (or the Hays Code) started its strict enforcement, beginning in 1934 (thus the term “pre-code”), but even prior to this Hollywood was placing a great emphasis on establishing a moral, “crime doesn’t pay” message. “Little Caesar” opens with a biblical quote taken from Matthew: 26-52, “For all then that take the sword, shall perish with the sword”. 

The influence of “Little Caesar” can be seen in the films of Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. Although “Little Caesar” may seem dated to younger movie goers the movie’s significant place in cinema cannot be debated. Perhaps “crime doesn’t pay” but watching “Little Caesar” does.