Thursday, February 26, 2009

Film Review: Just Another Love Story

"Just Another Love Story" **** (out of ****)

It has finally dawned on me that we are almost into the third month of the year and I haven't reviewed a single recent release. Some of it was intentional, as I have said I am going to focus more on classic films and the work of great directors, but, I never fully intended to stop writing about modern fare.

I have seen some good recent releases, I was a big fan of Tom Tykwer's "The International" which sadly seems to have fizzled out of the public's eye-sight, for instance.

And now we have the Danish film "Just Another Love Story". Here is a movie which is basically an exercise in story telling. It is a cross-genre picture, meaning it doesn't settle on one genre. There are elements of dark comedy, family drama, suspense and noir. But rarely have I seen a film told with so much energy. I actually felt alive watching this film. It was an experience I haven't had since watching, another Tykwer film, "Run, Lola, Run" or Dario Argento's "Suspiria". The film is a roller-coaster ride of thrills.

Films such as "Just Another Love Story" are works which exist within their own world and establish their own logic. This story probably isn't realistic. In the real world events wouldn't unfold the way they do here. Luckily this is a movie. You have to shut off your brain and throw logic out the window. In order to appreciate a film like this you have to allow yourself to be taken into the film's world. Don't question anything, just sit back and go along for the ride. It is pointless to resist.

And that is exactly why I like this film. It is unrelenting in its intensity and sheer audacious story telling. The filmmaker and writer, Ole Bornedal, has enough confidence in the story and in our ability to follow him on this adventure that he keeps taking us further and further down what could be considered a ridiculous plot. It is just one event after another. Layer upon layer is added to the point where I was on the edge of my seat waiting in excitement to figure out where all this is going to go.

The plot follows a man named Jonas (Anders W. Berthelsen). He is married to Mette (Charlotte Fich) and they have two children. They seem like a happy, loving couple. In an early scene, the two are in bed while Jonas tries to figure out the amount of times they have made love. According to his calculations it has been about 2,ooo times. He informs Mette, that is simply not enough.

One day, while driving their beat-up, old car, an accident happens. Their car stalls in the middle of the road, while an emotionally confused woman, Julia (Rebecka Hemse) is driving at a frantic pace. At the last moment she sees the car and swirls out of the way, but not quick enough to avoid tragedy. She has luckily survived but another passenger has died. Julia is taken to a hospital where she is in a coma.

Jonas feels responsible. His wife would nag him to buy a new car but he refused. Jonas knows the accident was his fault, and I personally agree with him. Why didn't he turn the car to the side of the road, out of everyone's way for example. Now Jonas wants to visit the young woman in the hospital to check on her health.

Through a series of events I refuse to reveal, Jonas is now mistaken for Julia's boyfriend, which her family has never met, Sebastian (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), who is actually whom Julia was running away from. Now Jonas has come to know the family as they expect him to take care of her as he goes along with the idea he is her boyfriend. We have seen this movie before, it starred Sandra Bullock, "While You Were Sleeping". But "Just Another Love Story" doesn't stop there.

Jonas starts to fall in love with Julia, who is still in a coma. This reminds me a bit of the Almodovar film "Talk To Her", where a male nurse falls in love with one of his coma patients. Jonas starts to doubt his marriage to Mette and the life they lead. Julia, he feels, is his true love. He can't go on leading two lives, he must decide between Julia or his wife and family.

But yet another element is added to the story. A secret, bandage, wheel-car bound patient is seen lurking around the hospital and has an unusual interest in Julia. Who is this man?

A few more plot twist are revealed but I'd have to be a fool to reveal them. Hopefully what I have told you about the film is enough for you to see the point I was trying to make. The film never lets up.

Some might argue the film does too much. The structure is a mess. You can't cross these genres. But, why not? That is what makes "Just Another Love Story" so much fun to watch. It switches these genres with such ease. I think Stephen Holden, film critic for the New York Times, was on to something when he wrote in his review, "you have the not unpleasant sense of being taken for a ride" he goes on to say "it is as exciting as a trip through a well-equipped scary fun house."

Naturally not everyone will enjoy this film. When you risk as much as this film does it will put off some viewers. But if you are willing to accept the film on its own terms I think this could prove to be an entertaining, exciting film. Lucky for me I like these kind of wild adventure films. I admire a director who is willing to risk it all and put everything on the line. When it works it makes for a highly energized, stylish ride. While it may be too early in the year to say this, so far this is one of my favorite films of the year along with "Waltz with Bashir".

The film was also nominated for a grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Film Review: The Suspended Step of the Stork

"The Suspended Step of the Stork" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Theo Angelopoulos' "The Suspended Step of the Stork", like so many of his other films, has deep political roots. The film is about division not just in Angelopoulos' homeland of Greece but throughout Europe. The film centers on the issue of border control. Should Europe have open borders? And what exactly are the effects of closed borders on refugees?

This doesn't make "The Suspended Step of the Stork" sound very interesting to a lot of viewers but for a film released in America in 1992 it is still strangely quite timely. When the film was made the Bosnian War was beginning. Open borders are still an issue in Europe. Granted many borders are now opening up as most of Europe now shares a common currency, the Euro. But for some the debate is still in the air. Not all countries have joined the E.U.

The film starts off with an image of dead Asian refugees floating in the ocean. They were denied political asylum by Greek authorities. Not wanting to return to their homeland they risked their lives.

Unfortunately this is/was a sad common occurrence throughout many parts of the world. And the very heart of Angelopoulos' film. "The Suspended Step of the Stork" argues in favor of open borders.

Theo Angelopoulos is not very well known in America. In Europe his name is known all over. Five of his films have been nominated for the palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival. One of his films won, "Eternity and A Day" (1999). Another, "Ulysses' Gaze" (1997) came in second place. His "Alexander the Great" (1980) won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. But in America he has never once been nominated for an Oscar. Several American critics throw out adjectives such as tedious and portentous when describing his work. They claim he has a big ego and his films often fall under the heavy weight of his confidence. I won't do these mean-spirited critics the justice of mentioning their names but read reviews of his work and you'll see what I mean.

Of all the great visual filmmakers; Werner Herzog, Federico Fellini and Jean Cocteau, Angelopoulos I think is the greatest. A master of imagery. There are several sequences in any number of his films which years after seeing them stick out in my mind. "The Suspended Step of the Stork" is no exception.

Angelopoulos' films are slow-moving and meditative. He likes to shoot in extreme, unbroken long shots. Like Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr or Antonioni, Angelopoulos' films are often filled with scenes which some would argue go on too long. Long after the "meaning" of the shot has been established. His films have scenes other directors would throw on the cutting room floor. But Angelopoulos means to lull us. That is why his films are able to have a hypnotic power.

"The Suspended Step of the Stork" follows a reporter, Alexandre (Gregory Karr) who has travelled to the Albanian/Greece border to report on a story. What exactly that story is, is not quite made clear. We assume of course it has to do with the refugees. While on a military patrol he learns from a Colonel (Ilias Logothetis) about a small town which the locals call "the waiting room". We are told Turks, Kurds, Poles, Romanians, Albanian and Iranians have all come there seeking political asylum. The Greek authorities have put them on a waiting list which seems to grow longer and longer as they are to be sent "elsewhere".

Another scene shows the Colonel taking Alexandre to the border line between Albania and Greece. As we see in the poster the Colonel suspends his leg, as if like a stork, claiming "if I take one more step I'm "elsewhere" or I die."

It is in this town that Alexandre believes he has found a former Greek politician that has been missing for years. He wrote a book explaining how Greece must open its borders and stop the inhumanity of closed borders. But at the time the book was largely criticized. The politician has never been seen again.

With this new belief he finds the politician's wife (Jeanne Moreau) to get her interpretation of what happened all those years ago. At first she is reluctant to talk about it. She went through all of this before and doesn't want to relive the memories.

The man who Alexandre claims to be the politician is an Albanian (Marcello Mastroianni). His wife died he says as they crossed over into Greece. Now he only has his daughter (Dora Hrisikou).

In these scenes "The Suspended Step of the Stork" plays like a suspense film. Is this man really the politician Alexandre thinks he is? Eventually the man and the wife meet, thanks to Alexandre. She claims he is not the man. But in an earlier scene the wife says her husband turned into a different man. When she tells Alexandre the man she saw is not her husband does she mean he is not the man he used to be? That's another question that is never answered but in the long run does it really matter?

One of the most striking scenes in the film is of a wedding. The man's daughter is about to be married. The problem is the groom lives on the opposite side of the border, still in Albania. They meet by a river with her on one side him on another. A priest comes and conducts the ceremony. This sequence perhaps best illustrates the division of borders. It has not just kept the lovers separate but has divided a village.

The sequence runs roughly about 18 minutes. Outside of a few sound effects, the sound of the river and some birds chirping, it is silent. It has a devastating power because of what it represents.

Another powerful image is of a deserted train where all the refugees live. The camera pans from left to right showing us the poverty in which these people live in. They are away form their homes, their families. They have give up their lives all for the idea of a better life which they simply haven't found yet.

And finally a scene in a restaurant/bar showcases Angelopoulos' use of space. In this sequence he divides the frame in half and in thirds and creates an imaginary line between two characters, in a way connecting them. No filmmaker, in my opinion, is able to set-up a frame the way Angelopoulos does. He makes full use of the screen putting the smallest details within the corners of a frame.

And for a film about borders it must be pointed out we have an international cast here. Mastroianni is of course a well-known Italian actor who has appeared in numerous Fellini films such as "8 1\2" and "La Dolce Vita". And Moreau is a French actresses, some say one of the greatest that ever lived. Her resume would certainly have you believe it. She has worked with Luis Bunuel in "Diary of a Chambermaid", Godard in "A Woman Is A Woman", Truffaut in "Jules & Jim", probably her best known performance, Antonioni in "La Notte" and a pair of films with Orson Welles; "The Trial" and "Chimes at Midnight".

"The Suspended Step of the Stork" is a film which I have been searching for at least five years. It may have been longer but I simply stopped counting after a while. The film was released theatrically in America in 1992 but never put on VHS or DVD. European copies existed but were rare to come by. Only now I have seen this film after getting a copy of a Greek DVD. As far as I know there is no American release upcoming for this title. However, if you have a region free DVD player I would strongly urge you to find a copy of it.

While I appreciate much of what "The Suspended Step of the Stork" does I must admit I wasn't hit as emotionally by it as I have been by some of his other work including "Landscape in the Mist", which I have reviewed on here, "Eternity and A Day" and "Ulysses' Gaze". Still though one cannot deny the film has powerful images and a socially relevant commentary.

I want to offer one more helpful insight into Angelopoulos' work. Those that do venture out to view one of his films keep in mind, regardless of the film, you have to be in the right mindset. As I said these films are slow moving. You have to be relaxed and calm prior to watching his films. This is a different kind of story-telling.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Film Review: The Extra Girl

"The Extra Girl" ** (out of ****)

Lets be honest, early silent comedy and early talking comedies seem to be an all-boys club, right? Think about it. What are some of the names which stand out today? In no particular order you'd probably mention Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd, W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers. If you are "hip" (hip in that uncool, film geek sort of way) you might throw out Harry Langdon, "Fatty" Arbuckle and the comedy team of Wheeler & Woolsey. But no women. Well, have I got a treat for you. Perhaps the most popular comedienne of the silent era was Ms. Mabel Normand.

Mabel Normand isn't very well remembered today. Don't believe me? Go ahead, ask your friends when was the last time they saw a movie with Mabel Normand. I'll wait. Chances are they will respond with "who"? But trust me, Normand was a popular star.

She got her start not as an actress but as a model. She eventually started appearing in films not based on talent but her looks. While working at Biograph Studio she met and fell in love with an actor/director, Mr. Mack Sennett, the king of comedy. Though they had a stormy relationship, which has been written about extensively, it was because of Sennett, Normand became a star, after Sennett left Biograph to form his own studio, a comedy studio, Keystone, which became home of the Keystone Kops and the Sennett Bathing Beauties, which is what Normand started off as. But very soon Normand's comedy skills were displayed and Sennett started to make short one or two reelers around her personality.

Though I haven't seen many of Sennett's comedy shorts, they are available if you are willing to search. Normand would direct and write a few pieces herself. She actually worked with all the big stars at the Sennett lot including Charlie Chaplin. Together they wrote "Mabel's Married Life" (1914). Normand would direct and write "Mabel's Busy Day" (also 1914) and co-starred in "Tillie's Punctured Romance" (again 1914) which starred Chaplin and Marie Dressler, a another comedy draw in her day and at one time the top box-office champion.

Her career started in 1910 and from what remains "The Extra Girl" (1923) is perhaps the most popular with audiences today, her other feature films with Sennett, "Molly O'" (1921), "What Happened to Rosa" (1920) and "Head Over Heels" (1922) are no longer available. Neither are the films she made with another legendary comedy producer Hal Roach, including "Raggedy Rose" (1926), which Stan Laurel co-wrote.

Judging by "The Extra Girl" it is somewhat difficult for me to understand what made Normand appeal to audiences. Some have claimed she was as good as Chaplin, capable to do whatever he did. Because I have not seen all of her work I can't truthfully comment on this. But, if she did have such an extraordinary talent, sadly it isn't fully on display in "The Extra Girl".

The film has Normand play Sue Graham, a young carefree woman who dreams of becoming a movie star. All day she puts on performances for her childhood friend, David (Ralph Graves) and her mother (Anna Dodge). But her father (George Nichols) wants Sue to lead a normal life and get married and raise a family. He has decided she will marry Aaron Applejohn (Vernon Dent, who played the "heavy" in several two reelers opposite Harry Langdon). When Sue hears of her engagement she is upset. Such a life is not for her. Plus she doesn't love Aaron. It is only when forced into marriage both she and David realize they love each other.

After reading a movie magazine, which had an ad in it looking for fresh new faces, Sue sends a snapshot informing them everyone tells her she is a natural born actress and very beautiful. But they must respond within ten days. By then she will be married to Aaron.

Through a mix-up, which I won't spoil, the wrong snapshot is sent to the movie studio. The studio however is impressed with the photo and offer Sue a contract. Gee, if only it were that easy to brake into movies now. When Sue arrives on the studio lot she realizes the mix-up. The studio will have to let her go since she is not what they hired. After pleading to give her any job she finds one in a prop room. As she still hopes to find herself one day in front of the camera.

"The Extra Girl" reminds me of another silent comedy called "Exit Smiling". The story follows another talented comedienne Beatrice Lillie, whom I personally prefer, as a would-be stage actress in love with a leading man, who sees her as nothing more than a friend. One day she gets her chance to appear on stage. But this film was made in 1926. There is a good chance whoever got the idea to make it saw "The Extra Girl". The difference is, having seen what Sennett and Normand did in this film, writers were able to improve upon it in "Exit Smiling". Mind you, this is just my own theory.

There is no other way to get around saying this but "The Extra Girl" just doesn't have enough laughs. I can see where humor could have been injected but there are far too many missed opportunities. It is also clear to see what Normand wanted her character to be. An average looking woman, who is a bit clumsy but well meaning. The problem is unlike some of her male counterparts, Keaton or Lloyd, Normand doesn't seem to have any special comedy gifts. The humor in "The Extra Girl" is primarily what you would call "situation comedy". Normand is put in funny situations but nothing about her adds to the moment to make it even funnier. She personally is not doing much other than fully believing in the situation itself. Sometimes I don't mind that, but, even if Chaplin knows he has a funny gag, he is still personally doing something. Normand is showing the restraint of a Keaton she is just acting rather plainly.

I figured once Sue gets a job at the studio perhaps now the film would become a parody on the film business. These moments I thought would be where Normand would display her comedy prowls. But not really. There is a funny moment when she has a screen test but unintentionally makes it funny through mishaps beyond her control but the film doesn't go far enough with the material. Normand needs to let lose.

Other comedies have dealt with the film industry. Look at Chaplin's comedy "His New Job" or Harold Lloyd in "Movie Crazy". They were making fun of Hollywood. "The Extra Girl" can't even do this! There is so much potential for comedy which the film never explores.

Anyone who knows me knows of the love I have not just for comedy (my favorite film genre) but silent comedy in particular. I walked into "The Extra Girl" with high hopes. I wanted to be able to say how much I appreciate Ms. Normand's brand of comedy. I wanted to be able to say she deserves a place along side Chaplin and Keaton. If she does "The Extra Girl" doesn't show it. And that's too bad. A certain part of me still wants to tell people to see this. I'm not sure how much is available with Normand, and simply because of that fact and this is one of the few films which has be preserved I'd like you to see it just so you can say you've seen her in something. But I can't assure anyone they will enjoy this.

"The Extra Girl" needed a few rewrites. More comedy needed to be written. Another problem is whatever jokes are in the film are given to Normand, thus wasting everyone else. Dent for instance has no funny moments at all. After watching this, if I told you he could be funny, you'd think I was nuts. But watch him with Harry Langdon. "The Extra Girl" should have given all or at least more of the characters funny gags. Every attempt at humor should have been taken. Instead we are left with a film which had much potential but lives up to almost none of it. A shame.

Also worth noting is the message at the end of the film regarding a women's place in society and what is expected of her and what should give her enjoyment. I don't want to spoil anything but think about these things at the end of the film and what exactly is it telling women of the day.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Oscar Reactions

Every "dog" has its day and at the 81st annual Academy Award ceremony the Oscars went to the "dogs" as "Slumdog Millionaire" walked away with the "Best Picture" Oscar.

Danny Boyle's crowd pleasing, sentimental, audience favorite was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and walked away winning 8. I should mention it was nominated two times in the same category for "Best Song", and there is usually only one winner per category, basically meaning, "Millionaire" won for everything it was nominated for.

Like any Hollywood production, the Oscars followed their script but there were some last minute Oscar surprises, which will either have you jumping for joy or banging your head against the wall in disgust.

As nearly everyone predicted Health Ledger won "Best Supporting Actor" for his role in "The Dark Knight". He was a strong sentimental favorite, especially after news of his death before the film's release. Also as expected Kate Winslet won as Oscar for "Best Actress" in "The Reader". And Penelope Cruz took home the "Best Supporting Actress" award for her work in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona".

Some of the show's surprises were Sean Penn winning "Best Actor". The "Best Actor" category was generally seen as a toss up between Penn and Mickey Rourke for "The Wrestler". The Academy decided to make more of a political and social statement in allowing Penn to win his second Oscar.

The "Best Foreign Film" category caused its own surprise as well. Many thought the animated/drama from Israel, "Waltz with Bashir" would win or possibly the French film "The Class" instead the Oscar went to the Japanese film "Okuribito" about a man who loses his job, very timely topic.

Rounding out some of the other winners were of course Mr. Boyle for "Best Director" for "Slumdog Millionaire". The film also won the "Best Original Screenplay" award as well as "Best Editing", "Best Cinematography", "Best Sound","Best Score" and "Best Song".

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", which going into the show has the most Oscar nominations with 13, only won three; "Best Visual Effects", "Best Art Direction" and "Best Make-up". While "WALL.E" won "Best Animated Film" and "Man on Wire" walked off with the "Best Documentary" Oscar.

So now I've basically given you a nice run down of all the winners but what do I really think of the show. Well, I must confess I never watch the Oscars. I haven't watched the show for the last 8 or 9 years. So I can't tell you what I thought of Hugh Jackman as the host or if the musical numbers were good or the production value or if the show ran too long. All I can tell you is my impression of the winners and losers.

This year's Oscar show I think is a pretty good indication of why I don't watch the show. Looking over the winners I'm pretty upset. I didn't like the manipulative "Slumdog Millionaire". I found it too eager and sentimental. I think it is one of the worst "Best Picture" Oscar winners. I found it to be an absolute disgrace that it won any awards. But, I predicted it would win.

Who would have guessed the Oscar's would have turned into a "Slumdog Millionaire" sweep? I honestly didn't see that coming. Why did Hollywood want to celebrate this movie to such a degree? Well, I think I hit the nail on the head in my Oscar prediction. People who watch the show and honestly think the film's of the most quality and artist merit always win will be in for a shock. That's not true! The Academy Awards, like any organization, which is what the Academy is, likes to remain socially relevant. They many times like to make political and social statements. Just because certain actors and actresses may be presented as morons by the press, doesn't mean they don't have opinions and like to be heard. Oscar winners are a nice reflection of what Hollywood thinks. After all, they vote on the winners not us.

So does this year's award show tell us? As I said before "Slumdog Millionaire" won so many Oscars because it was the most "feel good" film of all the nominees. It provided "hope" and "change". Where have I heard that before? Gee, its on the tip of my tongue! Who would have guessed, say 10, 20, years ago such an unAmerican film as "Slumdog Millionaire" would have walked away winning the "Best Picture" Oscar? No Hollywood stars are in it. It takes place in India. Shows us poverty in India. Other than showing us the American influence in other countries, there is no other connection. "Slumdog Millionaire" is a "change" from previous Oscar winners.

I'll always think it was for political and social reasons the film won the award. In our Barack Obama world the Academy wanted to reflect "hope and "change" as well. It is suppose to be a feel good time, even as Washington has just spent 1 trillion dollars. But, hey, this is the new American. "Slumdog Millionaire" represents the new Hollywood.

As for Sean Penn winning the Oscar, I was a bit torn here. I wasn't sure which message the Academy would want to send. A "come back kid" story or a political one. They decided on a political one. A gay marriage bill failed in California inciting some riots and lots of angry in the gay and lesbian community. Hollywood claims to be in support of gay rights. So it was a nice gesture to the community to allow Sean Penn to win the award for "Milk" where he plays an openly gay politician. It was very timely. They even gave "Milk" a "Screenplay" nomination as well. It sends a message to the rest of the world.

Now, I know. Some people reading this are going to say I giving every reason under the sun on why a film won an award other then perhaps it was merely good. But ladies and gentlemen what do you expect? This is a popularity contest. It doesn't make a difference if a movie or performance is good. That's not what the Oscars are really about. It is all about politics and send a message. If you honestly don't think so, I'd like to talk to you about buying a bridge in Brooklyn. But you have to act now! This deal won't last long.

Over all, given the choice of winners I'd say the show was a disappointment. An expected disappointment but a disappointment nonetheless. But, I don't watch the Oscars so I don't get worked up about these things anymore. It's only an award show.
If there was some way I could control the Oscars. I would have loved to see Health Ledger lose the "Best Supporting Actor" award. That would have really warmed my heart. I still think the only reason he won was because of the sad and unfortunate news of his death. I think his win represents a "pity" win. Perhaps the Academy felt they robbed him of an Oscar for his performance in Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" and wanted to make amends. Heck, they've done it before with other actors. Had he been living I'm curious to know who would have won.
If "Slumdog Millionaire" would have lost that would have also given me great delight. I hated that movie more than words can ever express. Years from now, you mark my words, that movie is going to be considered one of the weaker "Best Picture" winners.

For a full list of Oscar winners click on this link:

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Masterpiece Film Series: Grand Hotel

"Grand Hotel"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Best Picture" Oscar (1933)

With the Academy Award celebrations tomorrow night as we add one more title to that selective group of "Best Picture" Oscar winners and since I've been reviewing some of the past winners, I thought why not review one of my favorites. But "Grand Hotel" is not just one of my favorite "Best Picture" Oscar winners, it is also simply one of my favorite movies of all time.

"Grand Hotel" is a surprisingly difficult film to watch. It is challenging, especially when you consider when it was made. It is a bold film with a unique vision. The film deals with love and death. The human condition. Living in an empty world.

The film takes place in the "Grand Hotel" in Berlin. It is the place where "nothing ever happens". We follow a group of various characters, each in their own drama. Their lives will intersect, some will find love while others will meet a worst fate. They will come to an ultimate end.

Lionel Barrymore plays Otto Kringelein, a sick man who is dying of an unknown disease. He has taken a sick leave from work to enjoy his last days and experience "life" for the first time. He takes his life saving and decides to spend it all on a lavish hotel room, drink for the first time, flirt with beautiful women and even gamble. Also in the hotel is Kringelein's boss, Mr. Preysing (Wallace Beery). A happily married man for the past 28 years with two grown daughters. He has come to the Grand Hotel on business. He is in deep financial trouble. A business merger is about to fall through. Without it, Preysing will go bankrupt. Put into a corner he is confronted with ethical questions he has never asked himself before.

John Barrymore plays a Baron, who is also in financial trouble. He owes some people a large sum of money. His plan is to steal some jewelry from his next door neighbor, a famous ballet dancer, Grusinskaya (the great Garbo). Rounding out this all star cast is Joan Crawford, as a stenographer sent to work for Preysing, but, finds herself falling for the Baron. Lewis Stone is a war vet who suffered a trouble grenade accident, leaving his face disfigured. And Jean Hersholt plays a head Porter at the hotel. Speaking of Hersholt, he of course has an honorary Oscar named after him for his humanitarian work. This year the award will be given to comedy madman Jerry Lewis.

The strange thing about "Grand Hotel" is none of the characters are truly likable. Granted, perhaps in a different movie, under different circumstances these people may have been likable but "Grand Hotel" takes good people and puts them in bad situations. That's where the drama comes from. Are good people capable of bad things? When we are pushed to the limit will we not be surprised by our actions? Do we understand our own human nature?

The film was directed by Edmund Goulding, who directed a pair of Bette Davis classics, "The Great Lie", which really has a bizarre story, and "Dark Victory". It was based on a German play written by Vicki Baum entitled "Menschen im Hotel" and was adapted by William Drake. It was only nominated for one Oscar, in the "Best Picture" category. Shamefully none of the well deserving performances were.

None of the actors really outshine one another. That's another great thing about "Grand Hotel" normally, when a group of stars get together in a film there is rarely enough screen time for each actor to develop interesting characters and provide much on-screen. To me the "Ocean" movies are a good example. Here Garbo, Crawford, Beery and the Barrymore brothers each give individually great performances.

I've written about the great Garbo on here when I reviewed some of her silent films; "The Kiss" and "The Single Standard". Here she is not much of a temptress, but she delivers perhaps her most famous line of all time,"I want to be a lone". She is a temperamental ballet dancer who feels no longer appreciated by the audience, since she has been dancing for half full houses lately. She has become very moody and usually skips performances. "Grand Hotel" is one of her great films. Maybe not as good as "Mysterious Lady" with Conrad Nagel, where she plays the "mysterious lady" in question, and plays the temptress role she is known for. Here however she is much more vulnerable. It is a nice change for her.

Lionel Barrymore has some standout moments as well. His situation, along with his brother, are probably the most interesting story lines. Much of Lionel Barrymore's storyline is really the heart and soul of the film. His dilemma has the strongest effect on the other characters.

Viewers unfamiliar with John Barrymore, who was nicknamed "the profile" because he always wanted to be filmed from his left profile. Pay attention to that. Gives quite a performance here but if you really want to blow your mind. Watch him here than watch him in the Howard Hawks comedy, yes I said comedy, "Twentieth Century" with Carole Lombard.

"Grand Hotel" is quite a mature film, that every once in a while gets kind of risque. Pay attention to a scene between John Barrymore and Joan Crawford, when they first meet. They are shamelessly flirting with each other. Barrymore suggest sometime they go dancing. But the way he says "dancing" gives the viewer the impression he is talking about more than dancing. And her acceptance tells us something more about her. All of Crawford's scenes involve sex in some way or another. Preysing finds her very attractive and makes advances at her. She doesn't push him away however. She is a poor working girl. Is this film saying in order for a poor working girl to get ahead she has to sacrifice or compromise herself? Another interesting scene deals with Preysing making Crawford a business proposition. Again, these characters are talking about more than business.

Besides sex, but also adultery, we get themes of suicide and moral corruption. "Grand Hotel" was a film way ahead of its time. Looking at it from this perspective it is shocking the film won a "Best Picture" Oscar. Very few Oscar winners from the 1930s are this bold and adult in subject manner. "Grand Hotel" holds very little back.

Besides Garbo's famous declaration, the "nothing ever happens" line I think says something about society as well. There is a lot of ugliness in the world but it is all hidden. The hotel always tries to present itself in a dignified manner. It hushes up any scandal. Society, at the time, worked the same way. Much was kept quiet. People worried about their image more back then. Standards were set higher. It just seems like "nothing ever happens" but if we can take a closer look inside we will see the true nature of people.

The film ends with a shot of the hotel's revolving door as a doorman hails a cab for some guest. It is hard not to think of F.W. Murnau's "The Last Laugh" with Emil Jannings, while watching it. There was another film about a hotel which mirrored the ugly nature of society and a man's downfall. In "Grand Hotel" we are watching more than one character's downfall.

For it's bold vision, adult manner and amazing all star cast "Grand Hotel" will forever be one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Film Review: The Return

"The Return" *** (out of ****)

It was always my intention to review as many films as I can on this blog from different countries. While, it is true I do not review every movie I see, I'm usually trying to review films from countries I haven't yet in an attempt to expose readers to as many international films as I can from countries they may not normally look. Most Americans probably have seen at least one film from France or Italy. When Americans think of Europe, I'm willing to bet, those are the two first countries which come to mind. But how many have seen films from Hungary? Romania? Slovakia? Or in the case of "The Return" (2004), Russia?

It is odd that I haven't reviewed a Russian film yet on this blog. One of my favorite filmmakers is Andrei Tarkovsky, the man Ingmar Bergman called "the greatest". But for all my attempts to expose readers to different types of cinema, somehow Russia was overlooked.

"The Return" is a film about fathers and sons. It is a power struggle between the generations. In this film a father, (Konstantin Zavronenko) returns home after 12 years. His two sons, Andrei (Vladimir Garin) and Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) are shocked when their mother, (Natalya Vdovina) tells them their father as returned. It is almost as if they didn't realize such a thing existed.

The father offers no explanation to where he has been these past 12 years and strangely his wife never asks him that question. The children as curious, but, even they don't dare ask. Perhaps they feel it will upset him and then they might not see him for another 12 years.

The two boys and the father decide to take a fishing trip. They will be gone for two days. But it is made very clear to the boys the father has other intentions. This trip will either make or break their relationship. The father is a stern man who demands discipline. He orders them to call him "dad" and is not above going to extreme measures to teach them a lesson, such as leaving Ivan to stand outside in the rain while he and Andrei drive off.

The boys react to their father's return in very different ways. Andrei, the oldest, is in reality the more gullible of the two. He does everything his father does says in order to please him. He seems to be in awe of the man. While Ivan is tougher. I doesn't understand why his father has returned. What does he want from them? Ivan wants no part of his father. He has gotten by this long without him, no need to have him around now. It is between these two characters; father and Ivan, where we see a power struggle going on between father and son.

In some ways I was able to relate to this movie as it brought back memories to me. Not memories related to my own experiences but a friend of mine. His parents divorced when he was very young. The father moved to another state. One day the father came back. The father would tell my friend about all the things they will do not that he is back. My friend would become very excited thinking about all of these activities. But in the end they never happened. He would repeatedly tell me what his father told him, and though I was young myself, I knew the father would never come through. I haven't given much thought to my friend or his father, but, watching "The Return" made me think about him again.

"The Return" has an uneasy nature about it. While on the trip we always get the feeling the father will abandon the boys. At one point in the trip he gives them money for the bus so they can go home but at the last minute changes his mind. There doesn't seem to be much of an emotional bonding experience going on between them. The father wants to pretend those 12 years never existed and the boys can't think of anything else.

The film works its way to one chilling, climatic scene. It is the reason we have been watching all this time. It doesn't really answer any of the film's big questions about the father and what exactly he was up to, but, if anything, shows a bond between the brothers and how, even though they may have had an odd, off putting experience with their father, they came away different from when the trip started. They grew up and learned some life lessons. In their father's own way, he made men out of these boys.

"The Return" is a very slow moving film. I'm not sure how many people will get pleasure out of watching it. It is not the kind of film which has much of a mainstream appeal. But it has a hypnotic quality to it. It lulls us while oddly keeping us on edge. Things just don't seem right here. The film makes us question things.

The director of the film Andrei Zvyagintsev has only worked on short films. This is quite an accomplished work for a first time director. It is very mature and suggest a great talent. He seems to have a lot of confidence in his story telling ability and a clear concise vision. I will look forward to seeing more from him in the future.

The script was also written by some newcomers; Vladimir Moiseyenko and Aleksandr Novotosky. They are both working on the screenplay for Nikita Mikhalkov's sequel to his Oscar winning masterpiece, "Burnt by the Sun" (1995).

The performances by the children are probably the best thing about the film. We totally believe they are brothers and their emotions seem sincere. Sadly however this would be Vladimir Garin's one and only film performance. He died before the film's released in an accident, not far from the shooting location. He had a good naturalist quality to himself. Ivan Dobronravov has the same quality. In fact I probably related more to his character. I was a bit like him when I was younger.

The film has won much acclaim winning nominations from the Golden Globes and the Cesar Awards, both for "Best Foreign Language" film as well as winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. "The Return" is a quite, meditative film about the past and growing up. I admire it a lot.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Film Review: Crimson Gold

"Crimson Gold" *** (out of ****)

"Crimson Gold" (2004) is an Iranian film directed by Jafar Panahi. It owes much to Italian neo-realism in the way it deals with the social classes in Iran and everyday struggles of the working class. Unlike Italian neo-realism however, "Crim-son Gold" is a bit darker.

The film stars Hossain Emadeddin as Hussein, a pizza delivery man. Hussein is usually seen with his friend, and we can assume his only friend, Ali (Kamyar Sheisi), who has set him up to marry his sister, (Azita Rayeji). Hussein is a large, overweight man who seems to know his social limitations in life but doesn't like it.

Hussein and Ali are a couple of small time crooks. Ali finds a purse and steals it. He and Hussein rummage through it and find nothing of value inside except a note explaining there is a $75 million necklace in a jewelry store, which the woman has not picked up. Hussein and Ali go to the store to see what the necklace looks like. When they arrive the owner, (Shahram Vaziri) will not even let them inside. Instead he asks them to speak through the door.

This act bothers Hussein a great deal. Who does the owner think he is to deny them access into his store? But Ali is not so bothered by it. He knows they look poor and would not be able to buy anything in the store anyway. Why shouldn't the owner deny them access. But seeing how upset Hussein is, Ali tells him, one day the owner will pay. How, he doesn't tell Hussein, but one day he will.

"Crimson Gold" tells us a bit of a Marxist story about social classes and how social injustice can make people engage in actions they normally wouldn't. I don't think I'd be spoiling much when I tell you Hussein and Ali break into the store in an attempt to rob it. Hussein is now put in a situation where it is either the man's life or his or in the worst case scenario, both.

The film was based on a true incident and was written by Abbas Kiarostami, himself an acclaimed filmmaker. I have not seen all of Mr. Panahi's films, this marks my second outing. My first was his most recent film, "Offside", which I reviewed on here. But given these two films and what I know about Kiarostami, I have seen a great number of his films, the movie is fitting for both of their styles.

Kiarostami likes to make social commentaries as well. And "Offside" was a film about women's place in society, using a sporting event as the backdrop. "Crimson Gold" like Kiarostami's films is minimalist in nature. Nothing seems to be happening on-screen. But Kiasrostami's films including "Ten", "Life, And Nothing More" and "Taste of Cherry" predominantly take place in vehicles. As characters drive around in their cars. Here Hussein drives around town on his delivery bike.

Much of the film's appeal will naturally have to do with much how you find yourself relating to Hussein. I personally find him very likable. He seems to be a poor, lost soul. He is like a helpless child wandering aimlessly through society. In real life, Emadeddin is actually a pizza delivery man.

For some reason, which I really can't explain, I took great pity on Hussein. I could somewhat understand his feelings. The idea that everyone is looking down on you, judging you. Jumping to conclusions based on your appearance.

As in Italian neo-realism, it is social conditions which drive people to extremes, like in "The Bicycle Thief", when a caring father, searching for his bicycle, stoops to the level of stealing one in front of his son, only to get caught. Here, society has put Hussein in a situation where he demands respect. The only way he feels he can achieve respect is by holding up the jewelry store and teaching the owner a lesson.

Don't think that either Panahi or Kiarostami are excusing his actions. Even though the audience may grow some pity for Hussein, the film does not tell Iranians this is the way to respond to social injustice and class warfare. Instead I think the film is saying, stop it now and don't let in come to this. As I said, this is based on a real incident. "Crimson Gold" is a cry to arms. A cautionary tale.

To counter this class view, a scene is created where Hussein delivers some pizzas to a wealthy young man. His girlfriend and her friend left before the pizzas arrive, perhaps they had a argument. The man, feeling lonely and depressed, would like a sympathetic ear. He invites Hussein inside to share the pizza with him. The man seems to be showing kindness, but, it is out of selfishness. The man wants Hussein to listen to his problems. When the girlfriend calls repeatedly, he tells her the pizzas are still here. Hussein stops eating. He tells the girlfriend he is all alone waiting for her to return. Hussein doesn't exist anymore. Kindness flees.

The only thing I can think of which stops "Crimson Gold" from being a masterpiece is the tension is not taken to a new level. Yes the jewelry store owner treats him badly, but why stick up the store? I would have preferred to see more injustice in the world as Hussein reacts to it. That single action alone I don't think is enough to drive someone off the deep end the way it does Hussein. Even when you include the meeting with the wealthy man. We are not seeing society at its worst. I think if the film had dwelled further into human nature and all its ugliness, then I could see Hussein taking the actions which he takes. Hussein hasn't reached levels of great dramatic despair. The world is not closing in on him. He still has his soon-to-be bride, a very attractive young woman. All hope is not lost.

Still for what it does "Crimson Gold" is entertaining. You have to appreciate the way Panahi and Kiarostami are tackling a social problem. Kiarostami's "Taste of Cherry" dealt with suicide. A subject which I believe is forbidden in the culture. So these are brave men not afraid to make challenging movies. In fact "Crimson Gold" was considered "too dark" by the Iranian government and has not been released in Iran. To me, at least, that suggest the film was able to touch a nerve. It presents something the government wants to keep a secret. Maybe that's why such an incident happened in real life in the first place.

The film won the top prize, the Golden Hugo, at the Chicago International Film Festival and was nominated for an award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Top Ten Films Of 1992!

Well we are nearly coming to an end of 1990s in my celebration looking back on the "ten best" films of previous years. In my "Top Ten Films of 1993", I made mention of the cinematic interest in Asian cinema which flourished. Here we have yet another example of it in director Zhang Yimou's work.

The early 90s were weak years for movies. The film industry was still recovering from the disgrace of the 1980s. New blood was needed in Hollywood and some of the directors on this list were newcomers at the time or names that hadn't quite made an impact on mainstream audiences.

The highest grossing film of 1992 was a Disney animated film, "Aladdin" which brought Robin Williams' style of comedy to a whole new generation which normally wouldn't be allowed to listen to his sometimes vulgar stand-up and were much too young, in fact not even born, to remember him in his "Mork & Mindy" days. Other high grossing films were "Home Alone 2", "Batman Returns", people just seem to love Batman movies as "The Dark Knight", 16 years later was also a top grossing movie, actually the top grossing movie of 2008. The audiences' taste in movies doesn't seem to have changed much. "Basic Instinct" was also a big money maker and Sharon Stone's crossing legs scene was, for a while, the talk of the town.

The big scandal of the year sadly had to do with Woody Allen and Mia Farrow. It brought about the "end" of Allen's career, which never amounted to much to begin with as far as box-office went. But after this film even critics turned their backs on him. Suddenly it became "fashionable" to say Allen lost his touch. With the exception of "Match Point" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona", Allen has never fully recovered from the scandal.

At the Oscars, celebrating the films of the year, Al Pacino would finally win a "Best Actor" Oscar for his role in "Scent of A Woman". Many people felt it was more of a "pity" Oscar, since the Academy snubbed him so many times in the past when he was looked over for performances in "The Godfather" series, "Dog Day Afternoon", "Serpico" and "And Justice For All".

Other noteworthy films were "Chaplin" with Robert Downey Jr., "Howards End" which scored multiple Oscar nominations, Robert Altman made a big comeback with his "inside Hollywood" satire "The Player", about a movie producer who murders a man. In a related note a TV producer was accused yesterday of be-heading his wife!

Here are my favorite films of 1992!

1. RAISE THE RED LANTERN (Dir. Zhang Yimou; China) - Yimou has gone on to become, perhaps, the single most celebrated director on my "top ten" lists. He has topped the list three times, more than any other filmmaker. His "Raise the Red Lantern" marked the first time he did so and would do it again in 1994 ("To Live") and 2001 ("The Road Home").

"Raise the Red Lantern" starred his then lover, Gong Li, maybe one of the most beautiful actresses working today, as a concubine who becomes a rich man's fourth wife. The film shows us a strange, at least to western eyes, culture as the women share their husband. But the film has strong social and political tones concerning how woman are treated in Chinese society. Yimou has the audience feel pity for the newest wife. We are not suppose to celebrate this lifestyle.

Many people sometimes get carried away discussing how beautiful to look at Yimou's films are that I sometimes think they are over looking the power of the story. "Raise the Red Lantern" is a beautiful film to look at but it is the characters and the emotions which flow as watching this modern masterpiece which make it so special.

2. THE BEST INTENTIONS (Dir. Bille August; Sweden) - "The Best Intentions" marked the first time famed Swedish director Ingmar Bergman was involved in a motion picture which had a theatrical run in the U.S. since his 1984 masterpiece "After the Rehearsal". Bergman wrote this script concerning how his parents meet. The 1990s put Bergman in a more reflective tone looking back on his childhood and his parents relationship.

The film won the palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival and put Bille August on the world map as an important director. One of his later films, "A Song for Martin" is a sad, touching love story.The film stars Bergman regular Max von Sydow and Pernilla August.

3. HUSBANDS & WIVES (Dir. Woody Allen; U.S.) - Speaking of Ingmar Bergman, here is a film by his American counterpart, the great Woody Allen. Once again Allen takes us into "Bergman land" with his version of Bergman's classic, "Scenes From A Marriage", as Allen dissects the relationships of two couples with his usual biting humor and sometimes spot-on insights into the human heart and all its complexities. Two of my favorite quotes are "life doesn't imitate art, it imitates bad television" and when his insight into what people are looking for in the opposite sex, "themselves, only prettier".

The film was said to be one of Allen's personal favorites of his own work but was released shortly after the scandal broke out. Many viewers thought the film mirrored Allen's real life a bit too closely as he and Farrow play a bickering couple which eventually divorce.

The film scored much attention for Judy Davis, she was nominated for an Oscar and various film critic association awards. Allen was nominated for "Best Screenplay" at the Oscars.

4. A TALE OF SPRINGTIME (Dir. Eric Rohmer; France) - This was the beginning of Rohmer's "tale of four seasons" series, which every entry made my "top ten" lists.

It is hard not to fall in love with these characters as a young girl (Florence Darel) plays matchmaker for her father and a friend.

Rohmer shows us the joys of loves with much charm and sophistication.

5. RESERVOIR DOGS (Dir. Quentin Tarantino; U.S.) - Tarantino's debut film promised the emergence of an explosive new talent and he lived up to the challenge making one of the most influential films of the decade two years later, "Pulp Fiction". Here we see the seeds of what would come in this cross-cutting story involving a robbery. The film stars Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth and even has a part for Tarantino.

Strangely Roger Ebert didn't like the movie but says he can see Tarantino is talented. "Reservoir Dogs" is pretty much a standard Tarantino film. Hard to say what caused Ebert to change his opinion of Tarantino other than he was becoming more popular with each new film.

6. INDOCHINE (Dir. Regis Wargnier; France) - Catherine Deneuve stars in this historical period piece which takes us back to the days when the French had control of Vietnam. The film is a sprawling epic told behind a lush canvass.

Deneuve was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as the film won the "Best Foreign Language" award and multiple other awards, including one from the National Board of Review.

7. A FEW GOOD MEN (Dir. Rob Reiner; U.S.) - Could be Reiner's best film to date. The film scored 4 Oscar nominations including "Best Picture". A young Tom Cruise and Demi Moore stars as lawyers trying to take on a military cover up. Perhaps best known for Jack Nicholson's performance (which was nominated) and his courtroom scene in which he informs Mr. Cruise "he can't handle the truth".

8. HOFFA (Dir. Danny Devito; U.S.) - Jack Nicholson is at it again. The 90s were actually a pretty good decade for the actor. He had good roles. "Hoffa" might not be remembered too well by film fans but it is a stirring look at the mysterious disappearance of the union leader. Nicholson plays the title character. The film won two Oscar nominations. And could also be Devito's best film to date.

9. ONE FALSE MOVE (Dir. Carl Franklin; U.S.) - Carl Franklin's debut film was a critical success. Film critic Gene Siskle called this film the best of the year. A bank robbery film which goes deeper and becomes a film about human lives. Billy Bob Thornton and Bill Paxton star in this emotional draining film which works it way up to a remarkable ending.

10. (3-way tie) MALCOLM X (Dir. Spike Lee; U.S.)
UNFORGIVEN (Dir. Clint Eastwood; U.S.)THE CRYING GAME (Dir. Neil Jordan; U.K.) -"Malcolm X" is in my opinion one of Lee's two quintessential films. He deals with issues which best define his career. "Unforgiven" won the "Best Picture" Oscar and Eastwood won the "Best Director" Oscar. He stars as a retired gunfighter who gets pulled into the game one more time but lives with the sins of past deaths on his soul. A more reflective western then most viewers have seen. "The Crying Game" put Jordan on the map as a director to look out for. Probably one of the most talked about films of the year due to a shocking twist. You probably know what it is already but on the oft-chance someone reading this has never seen it I won't reveal anything.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Film Review: Tom Jones

"Tom Jones" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

Best Picture Oscar (1964)

Did you ever watch a movie that everyone seems to love but you scratch your head and wonder why? That happens to me more often then I'd like to admit but it rarely bothers me as much as it does in the case of "Tom Jones" (1963).

Before watching "Tom Jones" I thought it was going to be one of those stiff historical British costume dramas. It is actually anything but that, which I suppose we should be thankful for. "Tom Jones" is actually a very broad comedic farce. Under different circumstances I might have enjoyed it but for some reason that style seems all wrong for this movie. Though in the film's defense it is largely consistent. It starts off as a comedy and ends as one.

The opening moments are actually kind of charming. It resembles a silent film as we learn exactly how Tom Jones came to be the man he is. The master of the house, Squire Allworthy (George Devine) finds a baby in his house when he is about to go to sleep. He immediately calls for his servants questioning who put the baby in his bed. It is thought one of his servants is the mother of the child. To protect her image, being an unwed mother, Allworthy sends her away but vows to to raise the child as his own but doesn't give him his name.

I'd hate to get serious about this movie and I promise this will be the only time I do, but, why would the mother agree to be separated from her child and why would Allworthy agree to take the child in? What does he care if the mother and son both leave?

Despite these questions the sequence is told with a lot of energy. Director Tony Richardson keeps the film moving fast. It is told with a great playful innocence.

So why am I saying the film has charming moments, told with energy, playfully innocent and I'm not recommending it? "Tom Jones" seems to have a do anything mentality. In a Marx Brothers' movie I don't mind but here it seems distracting. The plot doesn't go anywhere. It has one simple idea and streches it out for more than two hours. And when it does end nothing is truly resolved between the two main characters. It could have ended 30 minutes before and outside of a few revelations, everything would have remained the same between the characters.

Tom Jones is played by Albert Finney. He is a good hearted young man who shows great love for Squire Allworthy but little attention to his studies and too much to the ladies. His behavior upsets Allworthy's heir, his nephew, Mr. Blifil (David Warner) who finds Tom vulgar. He doesn't understand why his uncle tolerates Tom. Mr. Blifil will go to great lengths to get Tom in trouble with his uncle, while all the time playing kiss-up to his uncle in his best gentleman disguise.

For as much as Tom loves the ladies, there is one he loves more than anyone else, the lovely Sophie Western (Susannah York). Her father, Squire Western (Hugh Griffith) takes a liking to Tom as the two go hunting. He is however unaware of the feelings Tom has for his daughter. Plus, it is no secret he is not the legitimate son of Squire Allworthy and the difference in their class would be too much to overcome. But as hunting buddy it is fine to mix company with him. As for Sophie she claims not to mind their differences. She and every other women in the film believes Tom is the most handsome man they have ever layed eyes upon.

Without revealing too much Tom is eventually sent away and told by Squire Allworthy never to return after being framed by Mr. Blifil. The rest of the film deals with Tom trying to get into contact with Sophie.

The film was based on a novel written by Henry Fielding and adapted by John Osborne. It was nominated for a total of 10 Oscars and won 4 including: "Best Picture", "Best Director" (Richardson) and "Best Adapted Screenplay" (Osborne). Finney was nominated for his performance as were three supporting actresses, the first time that happened, and they all lost.

I am truly amazed by how much attention this film received when first released. I find it to be such an undeserving "Best Picture" Oscar winner. Along with "Cimarron" (1931) and "Titanic" and perhaps "Slumdog Millionaire" (if it wins) "Tom Jones" has to be one of the most disappointing Oscar winners of all-time.

"Tom Jones" almost wants to be too likable. It is too eager to please. That is part of the "do anything" mentality I spoke of. For no apparent reason, well into a hour of the film, Tom Jones breaks the fourth wall and addresses us. For what? The scene could have gone on without such a break from the film's "reality". Tom gets into a fight in a bar with a soldier and suddenly the barmaids shouts "He's dead"! Only for us to realize he is not, just badly hurt as a narrator reminds us that the hero cannot die in the middle of his own story. Why tells us he died in the first place? It reminds of a device used in the film "Funny Games" where a character kills a murderer only for the murderer to grab a remote control and rewind the film in order to change "reality". I don't like it being used in either film.

This is one of those movies which I think may have worked better in it original novel form instead of a movie. As a movie I think it should have been played a bit more straight. It could have kept some of the comedy but showed more restraint. Though I suppose if it had done that readers would complain that it doesn't follow the book. Book lovers everywhere need to learn, one of these days, that movies and novels are two different things. For a movie to be good it doesn't have to follow a book to the letter. Somethings don't work on film as well as they do on paper.

And as for the film's conclusion as I said nothing between the two would-be (?) lovers; Tom and Sophie, is really resolved.


We find out that Tom is really Squire Allworthy's nephew. Tom's mother was not one of his servants but Allworthy's sisters! With this new information now a marriage can be planned. So was Sophie merely after Tom's money? She said she loved him anyway. What difference does he being Allworthy's nephew make to their love for each other? If she loved him before and after nothing has changed. Why couldn't the movie end sooner?


Still, I guess, it is hard to really dislike the film. I can somewhat, kind of, sort of, understand what appeal the film may have with its broad, farce tone and the appealing nature of the two leads. But cinematically I think it is inappropriate for this particular film. More restraint should have been shown. The running time should have been cut.

I don't know how many of my readers have seen this or for that matter how well this film is remembered today but if you haven't seen it, I don't think you are missing much. Unless you want to watch every Oscar winner, which I why I originally saw this, you can skip it. Not a terrible movie just undeserving of a "Best Picture" Oscar.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Film Review: Pauline at the Beach

"Pauline at the Beach" **** (out of ****)

Given that Valentine's day is coming up I felt it would be appropriate to review a romantic film. When the idea came to me I instantly knew there was only one director I need turn to; Eric Rohmer. What other filmmaker has explored the joys of love and all its perplexities the way Rohmer has?

Many people strangely do not like Rohmer. They find his films too "talky", not enough action, nothing ever happens is the standard complaint. But Rohmer doesn't make action movies. His films are not adventures. They are adventures of the heart but no chase scenes.

Oddly it is what bothers most about Rohmer's films that I enjoy most. I love the dialogue. Some consider it pretentious but I find it realistic. Rohmer's characters say what is in our hearts. We may not know anyone who speaks the way his characters do but we wish we did. The French take love so serious.

"Pauline at the Beach" is probably the best film I have seen which demonstrates the irrational nature of love. One of my favorite lines about love comes from Woody Allen's "Manhattan" when Allen tries to explain love to his 17 year old girlfriend, Tracy. He tells her something along the lines of, none of know what the hell we're doing. How true. Here is a film which proves Allen's point.

"Pauline at the Beach" is basically a series of misadventures focusing on characters falling in love with the wrong people. Pauline, (Amanda Langlet) is a 15 year old on vacation who has been left in the hands of her older cousin, Marion (Arielle Dombasle), a recent divorcee. Pauline wants to head out to the beach, which she hasn't been to yet. Marion, playfully suggest perhaps Pauline wants to meet a boy and fall in love. But Pauline says she has never been in love and Marion says, despite her marriage, she too has never felt a deep passionate love either.

The two ladies run into an old friend of Marion's, Pierre (Pascal Greggory). The two used to date. Pierre was the last man Marion was with before she got married. Also at the beach is an acquaintance of Pierre's, Henri (Feodor Atkine). He instantly makes the moves on Marion even though we can tell Pierre is still in love with her. The four of them go out dancing and discuss love and what they are searching for.

As we hear each character explain what they want we sense none of them are truly being honest with one another. Marion says she wants to "burn" with love. But it must be impulsive. She has already made a mistake and is determine not to make another. But how can one be impulsive and not make a mistake? We can also sense Marion is a tease. She pretends to be naive about her looks but she knows perfectly well what she does to men. She goes for the innocent angle.

Next we hear Pierre who says he must be friends with a person first and only then can he fall in love with someone. Henri feels each person should live to the fullest and not get tied down. Whereas Pauline calls them on their bluffs and says she is not looking for love yet is hopeful one day it will come along.

As the film goes on Pierre confesses his love to Marion, who tells him she is not looking for love despite having just said she is. So, naturally, she hooks up with Henri to make Pierre jealous and then believes they are in a deep meaningful relationship despite his feelings that sex is a sport and each woman is a new conquest. Pauline meets a boy, despite saying she doesn't want to, and believes she is in love.

The point I think Rohmer is making here is we all talk about love. We all pretend to know what we want. We are looking for someone who is this tall, has this color hair, weights this much, has this color eyes, has this job and then we meet someone who is the complete opposite. We have ideas in our head about what we want but never find it. Love is irrational. It makes us go against our better judgement.

Pierre says he will always love Marion after she rejects him. Marion says you can't force love. Marion is right, you can't force love. Two people can each other and on paper seem like a perfect couple. They can have everything in common but if there is no attraction, what's the good of it? Pierre can love Marion all he wants but if she doesn't love him back his love is wasted.

Rohmer allows more confusion to escalate as he turns the film into a light hearted sex farce as two people are believed to have been in bed together when one of them is covering for another.

The film ends with two characters having a frank discussion about this incident. The situation has been completely cleared up only one of them doesn't know it. They each agree to believe their own version because in the end it will make them both happy. And that is the thing about love. We believe in our own idea of it whether or not it is based on fact. We believe this person is right for us because we want to even though everyone around us tells us we are wrong.

Eric Rohmer is so good at making these light hearted examinations on love and how we lie to our heart to fall in love with an idea instead of the person. While his films could very easily turn into serious dramas I never feel they do. He is always playful with the material.

Rohmer is best known for his "Six Moral Tales" which included "My Night at Maud's", "Claire's Knee" and "Chloe in the Afternoon". He liked to make films which we part of a series. "Pauline at the Beach" was part of his "comedies & proverbs" series which also included "A Good Marriage". Another successful series he had was late in his career, during the 1990s, his "Tale of Four Seasons" series featured one of my favorite of his films "A Tale of Winter".

For all the joy Rohmer's work brings me it sadden me to say he has decided to stop directing. At 87 he has said his "Romance of Astrea and Celadon" will be his last work. Given his age it probably will be. It is a charming, however minor, film. I will miss not being able to look forward to a new Rohmer film, but with classics like "Pauline at the Beach" still with us we can relive their joys and watch characters engage in the follies of the heart as we do in real life.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Film Review: Suspiria

"Suspiria" **** (out of ****)

Dario Argento's "Suspiria" (1977) is one of the greatest horror films I have ever seen. It belongs in a class with "The Exorcist", "Rose-mary's Baby" and "The Omen" as one of my all-time favorites.

Dario Argento, for those who don't know, is considered one of the greatest if not the greatest Italian horror filmmaker of all-time.

He is a director who makes films which are very often considered too gory and bloody. He has an almost fetish for excessive blood, though the blood and honestly much of his special effects are done on such a modest budget they are never truly disgusting. Still, he is a director who likes to push his audience to the limit. While the blood may not look real the situations he creates are memorable and intense.

I have only seen a few of Mr. Argento's films, two in fact. His "The Stendhal Syndrome" (1996) and his most recent film "Mother of Tears" (2008). After viewing these three films I am prepared to call myself a fan of his work. While I don't think the two previous films are worthy of being considered "scary", "Suspiria" is a masterpiece in its own right.

"Suspiria" is often considered Mr. Argento's best film. It was the beginning of what is known as "the three mother" trilogy. The other films in the series were "Inferno" and "Mother of Tears". The films revolve around a three witch sisters who find power through humans on Earth which lead to Hell on Earth.

In "Suspiria" we are at a European dance academy when a young American girl, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives on the night of a terrible storm. As she enters the academy another young girl, Pat (Eva Axen) is leaving. Pat has a terrified look on her face as she runs as fast as she can from the academy. Suzy doesn't make much of this at first, but, once she is denied access to the building she starts to wonder if there is any connection.

The beginning moments of "Suspiria" are a master class in horror filmmaking. Argento is using all of the cinematic devices at his disposal and creates tension and suspense at levels I personally have not experienced since I first saw "The Exorcist".

In these moments we follow Pat as she seeks shelter at a friend's apartment. Given Pat's emotional state, the viewer knows to expect something and since this is a horror film we know it won't be good. Without doing very much Argento has us hooked as we wait in anticipation. We see Pat in the forefront but she is never really the center of attention. Argento keeps her on the left side of the frame allowing us to see the background plainly. On this dark night we wonder if something will suddenly appear, a face or a body or hand. By simply showing us the wind the audience is in knots trying to figure out what will happen. Also at work in these scenes is Argento's choice of music. It sounds almost demonic. It too puts us in an eerie mood. I haven't heard music used this effectively since Kubrick's "The Shining".

"Suspiria" is really a film which is an example of style over substance, it is an exercise in genre filmmaking but I don't say these things as faults. Sometimes such comments can be taken as such. It is because of this I feel "Suspiria" works. Argento is a born filmmaker. He clearly knows the genre well and while some might argue he is going through horror cliches he does things with such relish I was absorbed throughout. Watching this film reminds me of going through a fun house. It is a maze of terror, people pop out of nowhere, characters die gruesome deaths and the dead come to life.

In the order of fairness I need to emphasis this script written by Argento and his collaborator Daria Nicolodi (his long time romantic partner), who also wrote "Inferno", is slightly weak on plot. Some viewers might complain the film is too broad. It has plot holes. Not all the angles in the film are explored. I can't argue with you on these points, but, I don't think Argento cares and as a result neither should we. The problem with this frame of thought is you are using logic. This film requires you to shut off your brain. You can't use logic when watching a film about witches, you have to let Argento take you by the hand and lead you down the path. Once you surrender yourself to Argento's vision you will soon begin to experience how powerful this film truly is.

Besides Jessica Harper the only other big name actor involved is Alida Valli, one of the great Italian actresses. She has worked with Bernardo Bertolucci on "1900" and "The Spider's Stratagem", Luchino Visconti on "Senso", Antonioni on "Il Grido", which I have reviewed on here and appeared in another bizarre horror classic "Eyes Without A Face". In "Suspiria" she plays one of the dancing teachers, Miss Tanner, who is Madame Blanc's (Joan Bennett) right hand person. Ms. Blance is head of the academy.

Valli plays the character as a woman we know has a secret and is hiding something sinister. She gives Suzy piercing looks and carries herself in mysterious ways. Whereas Harper plays Suzy as a naive young girl who seems to be in way over her head. Supposedly Argento originally wanted the character to be a 12 year old but producers were afraid given the themes involved and the amount of gore the film would never be released so Argento raised the character's age to twentysomething. Harper though is effective. Her almost clueless behavior brings us in because we don't know any more than she does to begin with.

The film was shot by Luciano Tovoli who has work with Argento on other projects as well as Antonioni's masterpiece "The Passenger" and the American film "Reversal of Fortune". Here he and Argento make special use of colors. The colors are very vivid and heavy use of the color red is made. I'll let you attempt to figure out why red.

There was a time I would have been very reluctant to watch an Argento film. I use to find his reputation intimidated me. Fans and some critics as I have said consider his work to rank among the scariest of all-time. But I am really beginning to understand his vision and no longer become frightened at the thought of watching one of his films. I look forward to it.

Will "Supiria" please everyone? Absolutely not. How could any movie do that? This will clearly be a difficult watch for some viewers because of the bizarre nature of the film. For others, if that isn't enough, they may find the structure of the film a mess. But for those brave few who are cinematically adventurous this is a treat. Though there are many films by Argento I have not seen and this was not my introduction into his work, I have the feeling this is the place to start. Comparing this to the other films I have seen, his more modern work, I see now they pale in comparison. "Suspiria" is truly a horror masterpiece those other films were more psychological suspense films. They didn't provide chills. "Suspiria" however will have you look behind your shoulder.

p.s. A remake has been rumored to be in the works with an adapted screenplay written by, of all people, David Gordon Green!

Film Review: Chicago

"Chicago" **** (out of ****)

Best Picture Oscar (2003)

When "Chicago" was released back in 2002 I declared it the best film of the year. It was as close to good old-fashion entertainment as we were going to get. I felt it did what the movies are suppose to do. It got us excited about them.

Going back to 2002 there were a lot of rumors flying around about this film. For a while it seemed as if it wasn't even going to be made. I think I remember reading that the studio had actually shelved the idea. This was considered a musical which was impossible to film. I remember reading Madonna was going to star in it. I even read a story saying Britney Spears was involved. Great comedy writer Larry Gelbart was rumored to be working on the script. All of this was bubbling around and my anticipation grew stronger and stronger. What exactly was "Chicago" going to be like?

The film is actually based on a play written in the 1920s which was made into a movie in 1927. Because it was a silent movie there was no musical songs. The film is still around however. Here in Chicago at our Chicago International Film Festival, the film debuted in a restored print with a brand new score. My only question is when will it be put on DVD?! Another non-musical version was filmed in 1942 called "Roxie Hart" starring Ginger Rogers (this I have actually seen). And of course in the 1970s Bob Fosse adapted this into a musical with a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb. "Chicago" is the film version of the Fosse play.

Here we have Roxie Hart played by Renee Zellweger. Roxie is a daydreamer. All she wants is to see her name in lights. She wants to be a singer and dancer. She idolizes Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who just went to prison for murdering her husband and sister. But Roxie is also on her way to jail when she murders her lover, Fred Casely (Dominic West), after he led her to believe he had stage connections and could make her a star. Roxie convinces her husband, Amos (John C. Reilly) to take the rap and say Fred was trying to break in their home and he shot him. But soon Amos starts to fit all the pieces together and figures out Roxie was cheating on him.

That is pretty much to set-up to the film. It is a cynical, comedic look at corruption in Chicago. How timely if this was released today. But there is also a social message lurking around here. We live in a culture were everyone wants to be famous and our culture seems to turn everyone into a celebrity. Was Warhol right? Does everyone get 15 minutes of fame?

This message is actually pretty relevant today. Look at all the so-called "reality" television shows. Ordinary people making fools out of themselves trying to prove they can sing or dance or win a date (or even marriage!) just to be seen on TV. Heck, we are even willing to turn a murderer into a celebrity.

When you look at "Chicago" in this light it seems like more than a silly musical. It actually has a story and a "purpose", whatever that means.

When the two women are sent to prison they learn quickly how crooked things even in jail are. The head guard, Mama Morton (Queen Latifah) is not above taking a bribe and doing favors for her inmates, working as something of agent, contacting talent agents on behalf of her "clients" and even setting them up with lawyers, like the man who never lost a case and will defend anyone as long as they pay him $5,000, Mr. Billy Flynn (Richard Gere).

To Flynn the justice system is a joke, a three ring circus. Anyone can be gotten off the hook because the system is corrupt and easily manipulated. Every character admits to having killed a man except one woman, a Hungarian, Katalin (Ekaterina Chtchelkanova), who proclaims her innocence. While we can never tell if she is truly innocent or not, she speaks all of her lines in Hungarian, she is the only woman she see get executed (we Hungarians catch all the breaks!). In her speech during the number, "The Cell Block Tango", she says, and I'm loosely translating here, that she is innocent. Another person tied down her husband while she is suppose to have chopped off his head. Why is Uncle Sam doing this to her? The actress is actually Russian playing the part and speaking with a Russian accent so it was difficult for me to understand everything she says.

But through the Katalin character we get another example of how our justice system really works. Innocent people go to jail while those with money, who can get good lawyers, are set free, even if they are guilty.

"Chicago" in some ways seems to be working on a higher level than just tipping its hat to Fosse and his musical. "Chicago" sometimes seems to be a homage to musicals in general. I couldn't help but think of Busby Berkeley during "The Cell Block Tango" when we see a giant set and in the background we see dancer in black silhouettes behind a red screen. It reminded me of the number "My Forgotten Man" in "The Gold Diggers of 1933" with the soldiers marching.

Another film that comes to mind when watching this movie is another work by Fosse, his "Cabaret". The structure of the films are similar in the way the songs are introduced. Unlike Hollywood musicals the characters don't break out if situations to go into songs. All of the musical numbers are part of Roxie's imagination. In "Cabaret" all the songs were part of a stage show and served as the film's conscience. As in "Cabaret" with the Joel Grey character, the master of ceremonies, who introduces each song, so here we have a bandleader (Taye Diggs) who performs the same function. Only here the character is not as significant. In "Cabaret" the character was more memorable, Grey won an Oscar. Secondly the character seemed more involved in the plot. Here the bandleader does nothing but introduce the songs.

Everyone in "Chicago" surprisingly does their own singing and dancing. In the case of Richard Gere this might not be such a surprise. If you remember he was in another 1920s period piece, "The Cotton Club" directed by Francis Ford Coppola where he actually played the cornet. And he did take dance lessons. But Catherina Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger, as far as I know, have no musical background. They all do a very nice job. Queen Latifah, of course a known singer, performs her song fine, it is probably the most risque of them all, "When You're Good to Mama". And John C. Reilly, back in the days when he actually acted in decent films, sings a song as well. What exactly happened to him. Now he appears in silly comedies no longer taking dramatic parts, why?

The real star of "Chicago" is the music. Kander & Ebb wrote a lot of songs which seem perfectly suited for the time period. The melodies and chord changes they have written are typical of the era. "All that Jazz", "They Both Reached for the Gun", "Nowadays" and "I Move On" are very good examples of their talents.

I don't know if "Chicago" really deserved the Oscar for "Best Picture" back then. It had some stiff competition back then. Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York", Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" and "The Hours" were nominated against it. My guess for the reason it won was because the year before the Academy made the mistake of not giving the Oscar to "Moulin Rouge!" instead giving it to Ron Howard's "A Beautiful Mind". "Chicago" was the Academy's attempt to let a musical win. Others might take a more pretentious view and say the film wasn't "important" enough. First of all, it is only an award show secondly, as I have mentioned "Chicago" does have a message.

The film went on to earn 13 Oscar nominated and walked away with 6. Besides "Best Picture", Catherina Zeta-Jones won "Best Supporting Actress" and the screenplay by Bill Condon won "Best Adapted Screenplay".

"Chicago" is a charming, old-fashioned piece of entertainment. All of the performances are well done with each actor giving their performance there all. Though I must admit, it does look like Gere is acting it up a bit but having a great time doing it, so you can't hold it against him. Strangely he brings you into the movie more so because you want to share in his delight. If you haven't seen "Chicago" yet, I'd strongly recommend it.

p.s. keep your eyes out for a brief cameo by Chita Rivara, she was in the original Broadway production of "Chicago".

Monday, February 9, 2009

Film Review: Easy Living

"Easy Living" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

There is no way for me to get around saying this. "Easy Living" represents the kind of movies I love most. Yes, I talk a great deal about Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Andrei Tarkovsky, Claude Chabrol, all great filmmakers no doubt. All men who changed cinema in one way or other. They deserved to be appreciated and remembered by a younger generation of film fans. But, the movies which I honestly enjoy watching the most are Hollywood films made from the 1930s - 1940s.

"Easy Living" has a storyline a lot of people would consider kind of strange. You might even say the storyline is weak and predictable. Though to say such things isn't fair. "Easy Living" wants to be wacky and goofy. It is charming. It has a spirit we no longer see in movies today. I'm actually sentimental about these kind of movies because they take me back to my childhood.

The movie was directed by Mitchell Leisen. In my opinion not a great director though his name is associated with some good movies. He directed "Golden Earrings" with Marlene Dietrich and Ray Milland and also with Dietrich, another charming comedy "The Lady Is Willing" (which I've reviewed on here) as well as "Hands Across the Table" and "Midnight", which was written by Billy Wilder. On "Easy Living" Leisen is working with a script by another great comedy writer, Mr. Preston Struges.

On that once in a blue moon when film fans think of Sturges, most remember him as a writer and director (in my opinion, one of the best). But before Sturges started directing comedy classics like "The Palm Beach Story", "Hail the Conquering Hero" and his directorial debut, "The Great McGinty", Sturges started off strictly as a writer. Most of the time he would go uncredited for his work. "Easy Living" (1937) is one of his early, screen credit works. He also wrote "The Good Fairy", directed by William Wyler.

I don't want to discuss too much about Sturges in this review, I want to save all of my useless information on him for when I review a movie he directed as well, but "Easy Living" is a good example of what makes Preston Sturges so special in my opinion.

As a amateur filmmaker myself, heavy emphasis on amateur, I always tried to make the kind of movies which I enjoy watching. As much as I love the work of more serious filmmakers, such as Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa, I never think of them when making a movie. I never ask myself, what would Bergman do? I don't have that kind of mind. I would not be able to make a "Seventh Seal", "Persona" or "Wild Strawberries" on my own. Sure now after seeing his work I could think of something similar but without him such ideas would never occur to me. Plus I'm far more interested in comedy. So I always try to make films in the style of Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges. Sturges is special to me because he does what I wish I could do.

As a movie lover I appreciate a wide variety of films. This goes for comedy too. I love verbal humor, the wise-crack smart alec remarks of a Robert Benchley, Don Rickles, Rodney Dangerfield, Bob Hope, Groucho and Woody Allen but I equally love slapstick humor and the work of Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd. I even made a movie once dedicated to Laurel & Hardy and Lloyd. The problem I have however is wanting my movies to be all things at once. I always want to combine verbal humor and slapstick together. For me it is difficult to come up with a story where I can easily blend the two. So in the end I sacrifice the story for a joke. Which I'm in no way above doing. In fact, many times, I firmly believe in that. But it doesn't always work. That's where Sturges comes in.

I suspect Sturges and I are similar in one way. I think he too appreciates a wise-crack just as much as a pratfall. The difference is, he could could combine the two in a way I've yet to see anyone duplicate. There is a lot of smart dialogue in Sturges' movies but he also allows for plenty of slapstick. Watch "Unfaithfully Yours", perhaps my favorite of his films, Rex Harrison is doing a lot of physical comedy in that movie. The sequence where he is conducting the orchestra while planning how to murder his wife is vintage Sturges. Few writer/directors are able to so effortlessly combine these two styles.

"Easy Living", though as I have mentioned, is not directed by Sturges, is still very typical of his work. In fact, I'm willing to bet Sturges had a very strong hand in the directing. Watch some of Sturges' directing efforts first then watch this one. Tell me if you notice a difference. It is very slight. That's why I don't think Leisen was a great director. I think he was a studio director who could be pushed around. Unlike Sturges, Leisen doesn't allow enough emphasis on some of the slapstick. I could imagine Sturges having his camera linger longer on events. There is a terrific food fight sequence here which I will not spoil.

"Easy Living" is a rags-to-riches story perfect for a depression era comedy. A poor working girl, Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) is sitting on a bus going to work when all of a sudden a mink coat falls from the sky and hits her on the head.

The coat was thrown by J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold) a very successful banker who has become fed up with his family's lavish spending. His son, J.B. Jr. (Ray Milland) doesn't work and just lives off his father, while his wife does nothing but spend his money on clothes. The mink coat she bought costed $58,000. Imagine what that meant in 1937!

When J.B. Ball sees Mary Smith with the coat, as she goes from door to door trying to find the owner of the coat, he tells her she can keep it. I assume he respects the fact that she works. Mary is a little confused and tells him she doesn't want the coat. But he won't take no for an answer. He even offers to drive her to work, since she missed her bus. When she complains that her hat is now destroyed he even offers to buy her a new one. And that is where trouble starts.

In the hat shop, which is run by Mr. Van Buren (Franklin Pangborn, a Sturges regular) he starts to spread gossip that Mary is really J.B. Ball's mistress. Why else would she be wearing a mink coat and he buying her a hat, right? So every department store owner wants to give Mary gifts in hopes of getting stock tips from Ball.

Modern audiences might find the story corny. A coat falls on a woman's head and people think she's rich. So what! But that's what I love about the film. It is a perfect, silly, set-up just ripe for all sorts of comedic possibilities. And it is incredibly charming.

Jean Arthur was so good at playing the typical average American working girl. Watch her in a pair of George Stevens' classics; "The Talk of the Town" with Ronald Coleman and Cary Grant and "The More the Merrier" with Joel McCrea. She was nominated for an Oscar for that performance. She had a good instinct for comedy. She was good at playing with words and pauses in just the right spots. She always made you want to root for her. She was a sweet kid with a heart of gold but also had street smarts, watch Frank Capra's "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town".

Edward Arnold I'm not use to seeing get top billing. He was a character actor probably best known for his appearance in two Capra classics; the "Best Picture" Oscar winner, "You Can't Take It With You" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington". He also had a funny part in a lesser known Ronald Reagan comedy "John Loves Mary".

Ray Milland shows he had a good leading man quality to him. Too bad he became a drunk ("The Lost Weekend"). This is the kind of role Jimmy Stewart would play. It fact in some ways he did in "You Can Take It With You". A rich kid ashamed of being rich. He wants to accomplish his own things in life. When he meets Mary he never tells her that he is rich.

"Easy Living" is a fun movie for fans of Preston Sturges and Jean Arthur to watch. Those of us who enjoy classic movies often complain they don't make 'em like they use to. While that is true, what can we possibly do about it? Why sit and complain? Better to watch movies like "Easy Living" and forget about what Hollywood releases today. You'll feel better in the end.