Friday, June 22, 2018

Film Review: Howard the Duck

"Howard the Duck"
** (out of ****)

Every duck has its day in "Howard the Duck" (1986)!

"Howard the Duck" was the first Marvel comic book character given a feature-length movie and was produced by George Lucas and starred Lea Thompson, Tim Robbins, and Jeffrey Jones. Today it is routinely ranked among the worst movies ever made and was a box-office flop. Per his review in the Chicago Tribune newspaper, (click here) movie critic Gene Siskel reported the budget of the movie was $52 million. In the U.S. "Howard the Duck"  would gross a little more than $16 million.

However, there are some movie fans that consider "Howard the Duck" a cult classic. One of those "it's so bad its good" movies. If such a thing is possible, I am in the middle. I wouldn't call "Howard the Duck" one of the worst movies ever made. Such a statement is hyperbole. But, I wouldn't call this movie good either.

Watching "Howard the Duck," you can see how much movies have changed over the years. In "Kong Kong" (1933) audiences wouldn't imagine the girl falling in love with Kong. Although the Gill-Man from the "Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1954) develops a crush on Julie Adams, those feelings are not returned. But, in "Howard the Duck" a woman shares a bed with a duck and a romance is suggested by the end of the movie. When Peter Jackson remade "King Kong" (2005) Naomi Watts showed affection for Kong. In the Academy Award winner "The Shape of Water" (2017) a woman falls in love with a creature that resembles the one from the black lagoon. This leads me to ask, are men really that bad? Ladies, why don't you like us? What are we doing wrong? You really prefer ducks, creatures, and giant apes?

Making his comic book debut in 1973, Howard the Duck was created by Steve Gerber as a secondary character in Marvel's Man-Thing comics. Howard would be given his own series in 1976. Having never read the comic books, it has been said the stories were satires and parodies and became quite popular with young adults. It was George Lucas that suggested a movie adaptation of the comic book series to Willard Huyck (who would direct the movie), and his wife, Gloria Katz (who would co-write the screenplay along with Willard). Initially, it was intended to be an animated movie but at the suggestion of Lucas, due to studio pressure, was turned into a live-action movie.

In this version of "Howard the Duck" (which apparently differs from the comics. Remember, I said I never read them.) Howard lives in Marshington, D.C., which is part of the United States of Anatidae (the biological family of birds) on the planet Duckworld. Duckworld is nearly an exact replica of earth with the exception that ducks are the dominant species. There are no humans.

This allows the movie to poke fun at pop culture. In Duckworld their culture is similar to ours. For example, we see movie posters in Howard T. Duck's home. Posters include "My Little Chickadee" starring Mae Nest and W.C. Fowls. "My Little Chickadee" was the title of a real movie, released in 1941, and starred Mae West and W.C. Fields. There is also a movie poster for "Breeders of the Lost Stork" (a reference to the George Lucas / Steven Spielberg collaboration, "Raiders of the Lost Ark"). There is a magazine cover for Rolling Egg magazine (Rolling Stones for us on earth) and speaking of magazines, and in another way the movie tries to invoke humor, it throws in adult references as Howard reads a copy of PlayDuck magazine and immediately turns to the centerfold.

But on this day, for a seemingly unknown reason, some sort of magnetic force pulls Howard from his living room apartment, through space, to the planet earth, where he arrives in Cleveland, Ohio. He immediately befriends a punk rock musician, Beverly (Lea Thompson), saving her from being attacked by thugs, thanks to his mastery of Quak-Fu. Together the two try to discover a way to return Howard back to his planet.

That description may make sense and sound promising as far as an excuse for a narrative is concerned. But that would be misleading. There is a lot wrong with "Howard the Duck". By and large, the movie seems pointless. It takes far too long, one hour into this one hour and 50-minute movie, to answer the big questions about Howard's arrival and his potential way back home as well as establishing a villain, this is a comic book adaptation after all. You need a villain.

As asked by critics in 1986 there is the question, who was this movie made for? Based on visuals alone, the story of a duck from outer space arriving on earth would seem to be kiddie fare. Contrasting this kiddie image with sexual references is supposed to make the adults in the room laugh. But what about the kids sitting there? Or, are we to believe this movie is not for children? If it isn't for children, how many adults are going to want to see a movie about a talking duck? Let me rephrase that. How many adults that do not take drugs are going to want to see a movie about a talking duck? And if there was / is a market among adults for this kind of movie then why not go all the way with it? Make Howard a rude, crude, sarcastic duck with a strong sexual appetite with a one-liner always on the tip of his tongue. But don't give me this cutesy / edgy combination. It ruins the tone of the movie. Not to mention it prevents Howard from being a fully developed character.



Then there is the question of the appearance of Howard the Duck. In the first scene of the movie, it delays the on-screen appearance of the character. In its own way trying to build suspense. Even the poster of the movie doesn't reveal his full appearance. Many critics complained about the sight of the character. They say he is expressionless. I disagree a bit. The look of Howard the Duck is fine. It reminds me of some years later when the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (1990) was made into a live-action movie. The look of the turtles didn't bother me. In fact, I prefer the 1990 movie to the reboot. What bothers me about "Howard the Duck" is the suggestion Beverly could love Howard. April O' Neil didn't love the turtles. How can a woman develop a sexual relationship with a duck? Why couldn't we just leave it as they are good friends? If there was the need for a romance in the story, how about creating a human male character for Beverly? There is Phil (Tim Robbins) a wannabe scientist that is eager to expose Howard to the world for his own financial gain but Phil is a nerdy comic relief character. Otherwise, Phil and Beverly could have developed a romance and if it must be Howard could be secretly jealous.

Besides asking who is this movie for there is also the question, what is this movie really about? As an example of how serious I take reviewing movies, I actually watched "Howard the Duck" twice in the span of 24 hours. My conclusion is the message of the movie is delivered in one of Beverly's lines as she tries to explain why Howard may have arrived on earth. "There are no accidents in the universe. Maybe you are here for some greater purpose. Some cosmic cause."

"Howard the Duck" seems to be saying, sometimes strange things happen in the world, like talking ducks arriving from other planets. While we may not be able to explain everything in the world, things happen for a reason. There is also the message, everyone serves a purpose.

It may sound strange but there is a better moving lurking around in "Howard the Duck". It would either need a rewrite, better establishing the Howard character, or a re-edit. If re-edited the explanation for Howard's arrival needs to happen earlier in the picture. The villain needs to be introduced earlier as well. Completely remove a sequence where Howard works at a sex spa and is thrown in a pool with a couple having sex! And although it may happen in the comics, remove any suggestion that Beverly is romantically interested in Howard. The world is not ready for a duck / female human relationship.

Across the board the performances in the movie are underwhelming. To be fair, there was only so much Lea Thompson could do. She is acting opposite a duck and she is expected to display a romantic interest in said duck. That's not easy. You either play is straight and actually try to convince the audience such a thing is possible or you take it up a notch and play it for camp. Thompson doesn't take the camp approach. Her co-stars edge closer to the camp line. Jeffrey Jones, in the movie's last act, gives an exaggerated performance as a character that has been infiltrated by an alien. You could make a case that Jones gives the movie's best performance. Tim Robbins meanwhile is a compete joke and resembles a human less than Howard does.

Because the movie was such a flop at the box-office it turned out to be the last feature film William Huyck ever directed. Thompson, who was coming off "Back to the Future" (1985) success, immediately accepted a role in "Some Kind of Wonderful" (1987) just to distance herself from this movie.

"Howard the Duck" is not really a bad movie, it is just a pointless movie. A rewrite or re-edit is in order to give the movie more of a logical narrative progression. The Howard character also needs to be better defined. Are we going to cutesy route or more adult? Still, as far as movies about talking ducks being forced from their planet to Cleveland, Ohio go, "Howard the Duck" is up there with the best of 'em.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Film Review: Matewan

"Matewan"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

"If any man tells you he loves America, yet hates labor, he is a liar. If any man tells you he trusts America, yet fears labor, he is a fool."
Abraham Lincoln -16th U.S. President

It's a war on coal (miners) in John Sayles' "Matewan" (1987).

Throughout much of Europe, Asia, and Africa the first of May is known as May Day (or Labor Day), a day to commemorate the struggles of the labor movement (which unfortunately still exist). The date was chosen because of an event that occurred in Chicago on May 4, 1886, when a rally took place as workers were striking for an eight hour work day. A bomb exploded in the crowd resulting in several deaths. The event became known as the Haymarket affair.

To celebrate this holiday, today is a good day to review Sayles' "Matewan", a dramatic retelling of the Battle of Matewan (which also occurred in May in 1920), as newly unionized coal miners fought against the Baldwin - Felts Detective Agency, sent by the Stone Mountain Coal Corporation, to evict the striking miners from homes owned by the Corporation.

Little to nothing is taught in schools about the labor movement but lots and lots of money is spent to demonize the word union and union members. So many people fought and died to improve working conditions and better wages for workers and yet so many workers are ready, willing, and able to relinquish those rights. Corporations, aided by paid politicians, have brainwashed the public and workers to the point union membership is at all-time lows in the United States. Some statistics suggest membership in the private sector has declined to levels not seen since 1932 (!). Right-to-work laws have been enacted in 28 states. While it may sound nice, who wouldn't approve of the right to work, its objective is to dismantle unions. The laws ban unionize employees from negotiating contracts which require all members who benefit from the union contract to contribute to the cost of union representation. People want the benefits of a union but they just don't want to join (huh?). They say it is because they don't agree with the politics of the union and how the money is spent. If unions were to cease to exist, do you think that would hurt the workers or the corporations? The next time you hear someone criticize a union keep that in mind. Whose bidding (even if unknowingly) are they doing?

These modern-day attempts by critics to dismantle unions is what makes a movie like "Matewan" important and relevant in today's world and probably so when Sayles released the movie, perhaps to honor the 100th anniversary of the Haymarket affair, or as a rebuke to President Reagan, who had his own history against unions.

Matewan is the name of a small town in West Virginia and is practically controlled by the Stone Mountain Coal Corporation. If you don't work for them, you don't work. Stone Mountain has created a nice racket in the town as all workers are paid with company scrip. The scrip can only be used in a store owned by Stone Mountain, who in turn can set prices to any amount of their choosing. Housing is provided by the company but comes out of the employees' paycheck, as do their uniforms and equipment, on a continuous basis. In essence the worker is the property of the corporation. When the corporation controls the town and is the only viable option for employment, what can a person do?

Even within these conditions, however, the workers vote to unionize. Stone Mountain takes the old divide and conquer approach and brings in workers from out of state to replace the striking workers, scabs. The scabs are African-American which by itself creates tension. Will the workers accept African-Americans into their unions? A union representative, Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) says they should and explains there are only two kinds of people in this world, "them that work and them that don't". The African-American workers are not the coal miners' enemy. The coal corporation is. Thus Sayles touches on the complicated relationship between unions and race.

With all the workers unionized, including the African-Americans, Joe must retain order and keep the spirits up of the workers, who are tempted to react violently to actions taken by Stone Mountain, who have brought detectives, Griggs (Gordon Clapp) and Hickey (Kevin Tighe) to intimidate the workers and evict them from their homes. Joe believes it is a trap and will give Stone Mountain and all union critics an opportunity to declare all union members are violent and anarchist. But when men aren't working and see no end to their troubles in sight, rational, big-picture thinking is a tough sell.


Sayles and "Matewan" do a good job presenting the tension a workers' strike brings within the community and amongst the workers themselves. We see how the financial resources of the corporation can cripple the workers' spirits and divide the town, as hired thugs, paid by the corporation, arrive in town with guns for an O.K. Corral shootout finale. We see the split among the townsfolk as even the church sermonizes about the threat and danger of organized labor unions. Everybody does the bidding of the corporation, even when it is against their own self-interest.

Although the movie takes place in the 1920s it resembles Depression-era cinema and the Social realism movement, in particular, the writings of John Steinbeck and films like "La Terra Trema" (1948) by Luchino Visconti or "The Bicycle Thieves" (1948) by Vittorio De Sica. However, "Matewan" doesn't quite reach that level.

There is also a bit of the American Western in "Matewan" though Sayles turns the genre upside down. Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn), whose family was involved in the Hatfield-McCoy feud, is the local police chief but is comparable to a sheriff, a man standing up for law and order, defending the townsfolk from the rough bandits that enter the town looking for trouble. In another movie, this character would be the hero of the story but Sayles sees this character's actions and ultimate fate as tragic, not heroic in the traditional movie character sense.

That makes "Matewan" a morality tale, which some may fault for its simplicity in its depiction of good versus evil. In its conclusion, however, Sayles doesn't leave us with a feel-good message but a cycle of cynicism as the big gunfight finale suggest. We think back to those words said by Joe and the two types of people in this world. All we see in that gunfight is workers fighting other workers and ultimately for what?

The performances are effective across the board with Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, and James Earl Jones coming out looking the best. Cooper represents the moral center of the movie as his dialogue must reflect filmmaker Sayles personal, sympathetic view of labor unions. Cooper's portrayal of Joe makes him the most sympathetic and wisest of the characters. Unlike some of the other characters in the movie, Joe Kenehan was not a real person and in the hands of John Sayles and Chris Cooper the character becomes an almost mythical figure, with the patience of a saint, in his passive behavior as he preaches unionism as if it were a religion.

Also worth pointing out is the cinematography by Haskell Wexler which was nominated for an Academy Award, the movie's sole nomination. At the time it was Wexler's fourth Oscar nomination of his eventual five. In typical Wexler fashion the movie makes use of contrast and shadows.

"Matewan" tells an important story. Hollywood should tell more stories like this with the same simplicity Sayles tells his. Sadly, these stories will always seem relevant as the same struggles continue.That's the importance of "Matewan". It reminds us of the forgotten men and women Hollywood no longer makes movies about. The year John Sayles released this movie, Oliver Stone released "Wall Street" (1987) where a character famously says "greed is good". Sayles and "Matewan" shows us the faces of those that get hurt by that greed. Hallelujah!

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Film Review: The Palm Beach Story

"The Palm Beach Story"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Is it love or money that makes for a happy marriage? The answer in Preston Sturges' classic comedy, "The Palm Beach Story" (1942) is both.

"The Palm Beach Story" may be overlooked by movie fans in favor of Sturges comedies such as "The Lady Eve" (1941) or "Sullivan's Travels" (1941) but it is equal in the number of laughs those movies offer. The movie supplies us with the typical combination of broad slapstick comedy and wonderful dialogue so often found in Sturges' comedies.

Watching "The Palm Beach Story" again, I kept comparing it to Ernst Lubitsch's "Trouble in Paradise" (1932). I don't know about other movie fans but I've placed the two great directors side by side. Although Lubitsch pre-dates Sturges (Lubitsch made films in the silent era) both men, I believe, exemplified the standard of sophisticated, witty, adult comedies. Sturges' comedies usually had more physical comedy written into them but "The Palm Beach Story" may be the closest Sturges came to writing an Ernst Lubitsch comedy.

We follow a poor but happily married New York couple (that suspiciously lives in a very nice apartment) Tom and Gerry Jeffers (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert). Being behind on their rent their apartment is on the market and being shown with them living in it. One potential tenant, credited as the Wienie King (Robert Dudley), takes a liking to Gerry (short for Geraldine) and offers her money to pay off her debts. He also gives her some life lessons and warns her of the downfalls of old age and the realization of allowing valuable years to slip by.

Inspired by these words of wisdom from the Wienie King Geraldine asks Tom for a divorce. She says she is tired of being poor and struggling. However, this allows Sturges' screenplay to comment on sex and the sexes. Gerry begins to argue that she has had many opportunities to help Tom advance his career but his pride would not allow him too.  One fantastic line of dialogue Gerry delivers is "you have no idea what a long-legged gal can do without doing anything". It is a funny, well-written line but as it goes with comedy, every joke contains a kernel of truth thus making Sturges' screenplay not only funny but observant and smart.

Essentially what "The Palm Beach Story" becomes is a story of will they or won't they, meaning will Tom and Gerry (reminds you of the famous cat and mouse) get back together or won't they? Gerry may ask for a divorce and may be tired of financially struggling but the viewer never doubts for a moment Tom and Gerry love each other. Story-wise that may the flaw of the movie. We know how it will end and the movie does nothing to suspend disbelief.

Gerry heads to Palm Beach for a quick divorce and to find a rich husband. She unknowingly stumbles across one, John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), one of the richest men in the world and an obvious swipe at John D. Rockefeller. Hackensacker takes a liking to Gerry and she takes a liking to his money. Sturges could have made Hackensacker a viable suitor for Gerry's affection but doesn't take the movie in that direction. Yes, I know such a situation would have become the cliche of the poor woman having to chose between love or money but tell me since when has Hollywood been above using cliches?


In the Hackensacker character though Sturges has created a wonderful character and Vallee plays the part perfectly. Vallee and Colbert play off each other wonderfully, showing a lot of chemistry and I must admit, many of the big laughs I experienced were a result of the Hackensacker character. Younger audiences may not know it but Vallee was a tremendously popular singer during the 1920s and often the butt of jokes because of his nasal voice. He mostly appeared in movies as himself at this point but here Sturges really allows him to shine. Vallee even won an award from the National Board of Review for his performance.

Not wanting to leave Tom out of the action, Sturges creates a scenario where Hackensacker's sister, Centimillia (Mary Astor), takes a liking to him. You see, Tom follows Gerry to Palm Beach and not wanting to reveal the true nature of their relationship, Gerry tells everyone Tom is her brother. If all goes well, there could be a double wedding with Tom and Gerry hitting the jackpot.

"The Palm Beach Story" has more in common with depression era comedies centered around get rich quick schemes and characters concluding love is more important than money (reinforced by the popular songs of the day) than American cinema from the 1940s. Depending on the month this movie was released, America had either not entered the war yet or it was the early days of U.S. involvement and thus lacks the patriotism found in other movies of the era.

This was the fifth movie Sturges had directed in what would become his creative peak between 1940 - 1944 when it seemed as if he could do no wrong. He wrote and directed eight feature-length comedies during this period, scoring a total of three Academy Award nominations for best original screenplay, winning one for "The Great McGinty" (1940), his directorial debut. For me, this may have been his best movie at the time with only "Sullivan's Travels" giving it competition.

Still Sturges creates some unnecessary confusion with a sub-plot involving twins. The twins begin and end the movie but Sturges doesn't offer a proper explanation for what we have seen. By the end of the movie if we go back to the beginning it will either confuse you more or creates a situation that is so conniving it deserved its own movie.

Featured among the cast in various supporting roles is a rollcall of Sturges regulars including Franklin Pangborn, William Demarest, Al Bridge, Robert Greig and Jimmy Conlin. The names may not mean anything to you but trust me when you see their faces you will knowingly recognize each of them as "oh, that guy"!

The movie was included among the American Film Institute's top 100 funniest American comedies ranked in the 77th spot. Three other Sturges comedies made the list, each ranked higher. "The Palm Beach Story" could be a nice place to start for those not familiar with the great comedy director's work. All of his usual traits are on display here.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Film Reviews: Ready Player One, Acrimony & A Quiet Place

"Ready Player One"
*** (out of ****)

It's that 80s show with Steven Spielberg!

"Ready Player One" (2018) may be the most crowd-pleasing movie director Steven Spielberg has released since "Catch Me If You Can" (2002). Depending on your perspective, that may mean different things.

Steven Spielberg is not a filmmaker I regard as one of America's finest filmmakers, even among his generation. I much prefer the work of Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick. Although Spielberg is better than George Lucas.

I have seen Spielberg movies I have enjoyed a lot. Of course, there are the usual suspects; "Schindler's List" (1993) and "Saving Private Ryan" (1998) but I also enjoyed "Munich" (2005), "A.I." (2001) and "Minority Report" (2002). The last movie Spielberg has released of merit I would say was "Munich" even though last year Spielberg released "The Post" (2017), which was nominated for a best picture Academy Award. Despite being praised by the Observer movie critic, Rex Reed, as the year's best movie, it seemed to lack the oomph of a Steven Spielberg release, a "must see event". In fact, I would argue the passing years haven't been so kind to Spielberg. He is no longer the wunderkind of cinema. He really hasn't made a movie of late that has had a great impact on the culture as he was once able to.

That brings us to "Ready Player One". Will it get a best picture Academy Award nomination? I doubt it. But, it was the most fun I have had at a Steven Spielberg movie in years. It is the kind of movie the public can and will get excited about and will create a lot of positive buzz as moviegoers recommend it to their friends. That enthusiasm has been missing from Spielberg's work of late. "Ready Player One" is a welcome return. Rather conveniently also the movie is loaded with 80s references, a time when Spielberg achieved his greatest success financially at the box-office.

The movie is based on a novel written by Ernest Cline, of the same title, which takes place in the year 2045 in Columbus, Ohio. Making a social commentary on today's society, nearly all of this futuristic society is immersed in an on-line world know as OASIS, where people create avatars and live out all their desires and can create their own identities. The recent news involving Facebook nicely coincides with the movie's theme.

The creator of OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) has died. In death, he reveals he created an Easter egg (a hidden message) in his game. Whoever finds it will get ownership of OASIS.

Our hero is a teenager, Wade (Tye Sheridan), who proves to be the biggest obstacle in the company's IOI way to finding the Easter egg. Wade is also able to find love with a fellow gamer searching for the Easter egg, Samantha (Olivia Cooke).

Among the many movie references found in "Ready Player One" are "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" (1971), "Back to the Future" (1985), "King Kong" (1933), "Jurassic Park" (1993), "The Shining" (1980), "WarGames" (1983) and "The Iron Giant" (1999).

"Ready Player One" tells us society spends too much time in a virtual reality and not enough time in actual reality. Life may be a miserable experience but there are some things that can't beat our bond with other real-life humans.

"Tyler Perry's Acrimony** (out of ****)

I am not familiar with the work of Tyler Perry but I am familiar with his name and acknowledge he is a force to be reckoned with. It seems each movie he directs is a box-office smash (this movie debuted in the number two spot). His "Acrimony" was my second experience with his movies. I can't say I am a fan.

My biggest disconnect with "Acrimony" may come from the fact I am a man. The movie deals with the fury of a woman, an angry ex-wife to be exact. For a majority of the movie, I could not relate to her anger and thirst for revenge.

Taraji P. Henson stars as Melinda. When we meet Melinda she has a very angry expression on her face as she sits in a courtroom, listening to a judge order her to see a therapist to deal with her anger issues.

Melinda was married to Robert (Lyriq Bent) for many years after the two met while in college. They are now divorced. Melinda believes Robert used her and has been unfaithful to her. When the two met, Melinda's mother had died, leaving her the family home and $350,000. Little by little Melinda gave it all the Robert eventually leaving the two struggling to get by. Robert has held on to a long belief that his invention, a rechargeable battery, will bring him great financial success. It is because of this invention Melinda has squandered her money.

The financial problems have caused a rift in their marriage. Melinda has also never been able to get over an incident that occurred when the two first started dating. She caught Robert with another woman. In a fit of rage, Melinda decided to drive her car into Robert's trailer park home, while he and his lover were in it. Could Robert still be cheating on her?

After the two divorce, Robert's ship comes in. A major company buys his invention, making him a multi-millionaire. He is now able to live the life he long told Melinda they would lead. Only now Robert is living that life with his new wife. Knowing of Robert's success drives Melinda off the deep end as regret and bitterness fill inside her. That could have been her if only she hadn't asked Robert for a divorce and believe his pleas that he never cheated on her after the first incident.

Perry doesn't seem to side with Melinda and by extension has the audience see her as angry, bitter and entitled. Since I am not familiar with the work of Perry, I don't know if this is a common theme among his movies but "Acrimony" seems to be a movie telling people, you aren't entitled to anything in life. Don't go around believing people owe you something or you deserve the "good life". That was the moral I came away with watching the movie.

Henson does what she can with the role and is always able to command our attention but Melinda isn't a "real" person. She is much too broad a caricature. That makes her difficult to play. Henson has her moments on-screen that seem realistic but far too often the character becomes a stereotype of an angry black woman and feeds into the cultural stereotype suggesting women are rather revengeful minded when relationships end. Have you ever heard of a woman slashing a man's tires?

I have never understood this mentality. Why seek revenge because a relationship has ended? And in the case of Melinda, she demanded the divorce. She through Robert out of the house and warned him he better leave or she would turn into a devil. After he accepts her demands she then criticizes him for not fighting for her. Huh?

Another problem with the movie is Perry doesn't write good dialogue and doesn't understand women. Yes, I've only seen two movies directed and written by Perry, but neither had good dialogue. Little rings true in his words. He seems to use dialogue to make social commentaries instead of having it sound natural. This wouldn't be a problem but his commentaries aren't very interesting or thought-provoking.

I am willing to watch more Tyler Perry movies but not because of anything in "Acrimony". I would hate to believe this is one of Perry's better works. That would just make me angry.

"A Quiet Place*** (out of ****)

The sound of terror!

"A Quiet Place" (2018) is an intense movie experience.

Rather minimal on plot, this is a survival tale, with heavy emphasis on survival.

Aliens (or monsters) have attacked New York, at the very least. The scope of the attack isn't made clear but we do see headlines from NY newspapers. The monsters are blind and sensitive to sound. The slightest noise will send the monsters on the attack.

The movie follows a single family and the viewer has no real way of knowing how others are dealing with this, which may have been interesting.

The movie was directed by John Krasinki, who also stars in the movie along with Emily Blunt as his wife.

Although it is rather modest in its narrative it does hit on some themes regarding family and father-daughter bonds.

To Krasinki's credit the movie does, at times, go into detail attempting to explain how it would be possible to live in such a world. He also gets the most suspense I can ever recall out of the sight of a nail.

Not really an exceptional movie but fun to see on the big screen with a large crowd.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Film Review: Barry Lyndon

"Barry Lyndon"  **** (out of ****)

In the end, it is always a woman that leads to a man's downfall.

Starting a movie review with a sentence like that may make you think of a review about film noir but this is about Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" (1975). How can that be?

"Barry Lyndon" is a movie that tells us life is a grueling experience. For every bit of joy it may bring, tragedy follows. But, you will say, no, "Barry Lyndon" is a movie about how beautiful cinematography can be by candlelight. The cinematography is beautiful and inventive and all the other things you have read and heard over the years. But, a movie is nothing without a story and the story "Barry Lyndon" tells is a grim one that all comes down to a woman.

Watching Kubrick's masterpiece again and skimming through some reviews I find too many are preoccupied writing about the technical aspects of the movie, namely the cinematography. However, they say little about the story and the meaning of the story. Stanley Kubrick was too much of a perfectionist and too gifted not to make a movie that was about something. Theme is what interest me most about films. What are particular films about? What is the message the filmmaker is trying to make? The filmmaker usually will then use the conventions of filmmaking to get across that theme.

At the beginning of Kubrick's film, we meet a young man, Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neal). He loves his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton) and she seems to favor Barry. Feeling the bliss of first love, young Barry soon learns of its bitter aftertaste. The lovely Nora becomes the object of affection of Captain John Quin (Leonard Rossiter), a wealthy British army captain that may help Nora's family get out of debt. Barry, however, cannot stand aside and allow the woman he loves to marry another man. With hatred, jealousy, heartbreak, and pride stirring inside him, Barry challenges the army captain to a duel. This singular event sets the path Barry's life will follow. He must leave his beloved Ireland, leave his family, and leave the woman he loves.

The experience eventually will harden Barry and sour his view of life. His main ambition will now be to become a gentleman. He will become like the wealthy army captain he has killed in a duel. He will do whatever it takes to succeed and reach this goal. It is all because of a woman. A woman that hurt him. His quest to correct that moment in time leads to his downfall.

"Barry Lyndon" is somewhat episodic in its plot and tells its story in two acts and closes with an epilogue. After Barry leaves home he heads for Dublin and joins the army to fight in the Seven Year War. He makes the acquaintance of a libertine Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee). The two men join together and develop a system to cheat at cards which leads Barry to his ultimate goal, to marry a wealthy woman. And he finds one, Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). She is married and with a child when they meet but Barry is able to seduce her and wait for her elderly husband to die.

The movie was based on a picaresque novel written by William Makepeace Thackeray entitled "The Luck of Barry Lyndon" and is similar to Thackeray's "Vanity Fair". Both deal with the class structure and follow two social climbers. And both are satirical. Although both movies were released in the same year and the source material is different, watching "Barry Lyndon" I can't help but think of Woody Allen's "Love & Death" (1975). Nothing in "Barry Lyndon" is as laugh-out-loud funny as in Allen's movie but "Barry Lyndon" does have moments of dark humor.


Unlike others, I enjoy Ryan O'Neal's performance as the lead character. O'Neal has an innocent face, which fits well with the early moments of the film, and he is able to express a coldness in his performance. Coldness and emotionless behavior is a large part of "Barry Lyndon". Some criticize the movie on this ground and say the movie is cold. Stanley Kubrick doesn't make warm and fuzzy movies. To call a Kubrick movie cold is not a criticism. It is an accurate description. His movies usually had a detached quality to them. O'Neal seems to be a perfect vehicle for this.

Kubrick doesn't make the viewer like Barry or grow an affection for him. Barry isn't off-putting but Kubrick places the audience, in a conscious way, in the role of observer. There isn't much of a mystery to what will happen in the movie because a narrator tells us things in advance and speaks in a lifeless voice, stating events in a matter-of-fact way. The "Acts" also have subtitles that outline events to come.

And yet despite Kubrick's intention of keeping the audience at a distance, I find that I love this movie. I love the character. I love the screenplay and the movie's message. The movie is almost nihilist. What happens in "Barry Lyndon"? Does the lead character learn any lessons about life? Maybe that it is foolish to shoot down (you'll understand after you see the movie). But there is nothing redeeming about the characters. If you look at the movie with this in mind, it is almost bleaker than an Ingmar Bergman movie.

I suppose society dictates that I must mention something about the film's cinematography. Being the perfectionist Kubrick was he did not want to use electrical lighting so he may stay true to the period. Kubrick and his cinematographer, John Alcott would shot several scenes by candlelight. Kubrick had the movie shot with special lenses.

To get a bit film geeky (?) on you, there is one scene that really impresses me but may not be as memorable to other viewers. We see a few soldiers in the frame as the camera pulls back, now we see there are more soldiers on the side of the frame. The camera pulls back further and now we see the background and more soldiers. Upon pulling further back we see the full army and an audience watching them. What I love about this scene is the way Kubrick creates depth within the scene and plays around with space. Many scenes in the movie are shot with wide long shots.

The cleverness of Kubrick's camera and his lighting may mean little to some who will say the movie is boring. It goes on too long and nothing happens. Of course, events are happening on-screen but it doesn't seem to amount to much. Does the life of Barry Lyndon, in the way it is depicted here, deserve such an in-depth examination? But, I must point you back to the themes; ambition, greed, the meaningless of life...etc.

The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards (including best picture) and won four; best cinematography, art direction, costume design, and music. It was a box-office flop when released in 1975 and was greeted with a mixed critical reaction. Some critics, like the former Chicago Tribune movie critic, Gene Siskel, thought very highly of the movie and placed it on his year-end top ten list. Due to reevaluation, it is now thought of as one of Kubrick's best movies. But, I find it still gets lost in the shuffle. Movie fans more readily acclaim "Dr. Strangelove" (1962), "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) or "The Shining" (1980). "Barry Lyndon" is equal to or greater than those movies. Of course, thinking it over, it seems all of Kubrick's movies have taken time to find their audience. "Barry Lyndon"'s day is yet to come.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Film Review: The Perfect Clown

"The Perfect Clown"
*** (out of ****)

Larry Semon is "The Perfect Clown" (1925) this April Fool's Day.

It may be an example of revisionist history but some claim silent movie comedian Larry Semon was a top box office attraction in the 1920s. In an attempt to measure his success, and impress modern-day audiences, they say his popularity rivaled Charlie Chaplin. These kinds of statements may have meant something to me if I hadn't heard the same things said of Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon. Exactly how many comedians rivaled Chaplin's popularity?

Nevertheless, lets split the difference and say audiences were aware of Larry Semon and he had fans of his style of comedy. Whatever his level of fame in the 1920s he is nearly forgotten today. Like many comics of his era, Semon got his start in vaudeville, where his parents were also performers with a magical act. Semon's first screen credit dates back to 1915 when he signed with Vitagraph Studios (which was eventually bought by Warner Brothers). His screen persona was a familiar one among comedians which utilized his diminutive stature and puny physique. He played a good-natured young man that would use his quick wit to get himself out of precarious situations. There was also a lot of physical comedy in his two-reelers and movies. While a comparison is not exactly fair you could say he had elements of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton in his character.

"The Perfect Clown" was released towards the end of Semon's career (he died in 1928) and in the same year as his most famous comedy, "The Wizard of Oz" (1925). If "The Wizard of Oz" was Semon's masterpiece (as Semon intended) either by popularity or critical acclaim, "The Perfect Clown" is lacking. Its plot doesn't warrant a running time of 50 minutes. This would have been a nice, mildly pleasant two-reeler. To fill in the time "The Perfect Clown" veers slightly off course though admittedly along this detour creates some nice comedy sequences.

Semon stars as Larry Ladd, a man who started at the bottom to work his way down. He is an office clerk that is given the responsibility to deposit $10,000 at a bank. Naturally, he arrives at the bank late and is now stuck holding on to grip bag with the money. Paranoia kicks in when Larry reads a newspaper headline about a bank messenger that was killed while carrying $10,000 (what a coincidence)! What if Larry meets the same fate? He must quickly and safely head home and get ready for his date with his sweetheart (and co-worker) Rose (Dorothy Dwan, the real-life wife of Semon).

Unless I missed something it is never revealed what type of company Larry works at, what the financial transaction was for and why Larry was the one entrusted with this responsibility. It is all what Hitchcock would call the MacGuffin and viewers can live with that as the situation is relatable and entertaining enough to hold our interest.

The set-up of this premise takes up approximately 20 minutes of screen time including a rather lengthy character introduction of Larry centered around his inability to pay his rent as he tries to leave his apartment and head for work without his landlady (Kate Price) and her son (Oliver Hardy) catching him. This sequence features some good comedy routines such as Larry "shadowing" his landlady although Keaton did this type of thing better and seemingly effortlessly. Semon's variation of it isn't as polished.


Where "The Perfect Clown" begins to lose me is around the half-way mark. At this point, Larry teams up with another co-worker, Snowball (African-American comedian G. Howe Black) and the two are put in a comedy/horror situation after their car breaks down, they rest at a cemetery and are stuck in a scary looking basement until morning. What I don't like about this is it ultimately takes us away from the movie main objective, Larry going home. This scenario establishes a completely new environment and sub-plot to serve as a justification for its existence. It merely prolongs the running time of the movie. There are laughs created by this situation and for that, I decided to recommend the movie but "The Perfect Clown" engages in too many "comedy diversions".

From this comedy/horror sequence, the movie turns into a chase comedy. More specifically a cops and robbers chase comedy with an exaggerated number of cops chasing after Larry, recalling Buster Keaton's terrific two-reeler comedy, "Cops" (1922). Where again Keaton created better visual gags.

G. Howe Black (whose real name was Spencer Bell) was a forerunner to African-American comedians like Willie Best playing characters that would suggest racial stereotypes such as black people are illiterate and lazy. The title cards for Snowball's dialogue are written phonetically, as Snowball would say the words. What I liked about the character, however, was he was essentially treated as an equal with Larry. They both acted cowardly and got into trouble. Neither of them is the brains of the team.

It will also be fun for Laurel & Hardy fans to see Oliver Hardy in a comedy minus Stan Laurel. Hardy often appeared with either Charley Chase or Semon prior to his pairing with Laurel. He doesn't exhibit much comedy greatness here though. His primary role is to play antagonist to Semon and throw his weight around, literally. By 1925 Hardy had appeared opposite Laurel but it wouldn't be until 1927 when the boys were an official team.

"The Perfect Clown" is not a perfectly structured comedy. It becomes three comedies in one and in the process loses some of its focus. There are laughs however and some may find Semon's persona enduring. For me, this isn't really the best showcase for Semon and does nothing to establish the uniqueness of the character.

The movie was directed by Fred C. Newmeyer, who collaborated often with Harold Lloyd and directed two of Lloyd's best-known comedies; "The Freshman" (1925) and "Safety Last!" (1923). One of the movie's writers, Thomas J. Crizer, was credited as a writer on another excellent Harold Lloyd comedy, "The Kid Brother" (1927).

If "The Perfect Clown" does tickle your funny bone, you will be able to check out some of his two-reelers on YouTube. There isn't a Blu-ray or DVD collection I am willing to recommend. Also, check out his version of "The Wizard of Oz". I find his character much more appealing in that movie.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Film Review: Bowling For Columbine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Film Review: Apocalypse Now

"Apocalypse Now"
*** (out of ****)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 5, 2018

Film Review: A Summer's Tale

"A Summer's Tale**** (out of ****)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Tenth Anniversary!


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

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

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

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

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

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

But this blog has also served other purposes. Because of this blog I have been able to find work writing for various publications. A big thrill for me was being published in a Hungarian newspaper (I'm Hungarian if you didn't know). Because of this blog I attended my first press screening, interviewed directors and producers, was quoted in a movie trailer and met some interesting people.

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

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