Friday, March 27, 2009

Film Review: Way Down East

"Way Down East" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Having reviewed three modern movies in a row it is time to break away and start to write about classic, meaningful films again.

I always mention my appreciation for silent cinema and I have written about filmmaker D.W. Griffith already (I reviewed his "Broken Blossoms"). But I thought I'd revisit his cinematic world again.

Griffith is seen as the father of American cinema. He is the man most often credited with introducing film techniques still used today such as the close-up, the iris shot, cross-cutting and fades. This, I believe, makes Griffith's work appear "modern" in a sense. I find it fascinating to watch his films and think to myself, this stuff must have thrilled audiences. Few filmmakers were using the medium the way Griffith did.

But how many people still watch Griffith today? If people do watch his films it is my guess it is probably film students forced to study him in school. But how many people watch his work for sheer pleasure? As a former film student I can honestly say I never had a conversation about Griffith in my four years of college.

Watching "Way Down East" (1920) I was amazed by certain things. The first shocking thing was the film's running length. "Way Down East" is two and a half hours long. Today audiences might not consider such a running time risky, but, ladies and gentlemen, this was 1920! Movies weren't so long back then. You have to remember comedians for example were still making one or two reelers. Imagine an audience sitting down for more than two hours watching a film back than. Heck, even today some people have a problem watching long movies. But Griffith really liked to make these epic length films. His "Orphans of the Storm" actually runs a bit longer as does his "Intolerance" which is over the three hour mark.

Another astonishing thing about "Way Down East" is the subject matter. Griffith's greatest collaborator Lillian Gish stars as Anna Moore. A poor, working class woman, whom while visiting her wealthy cousins, meets Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman). A suave ladies man who seems taken by Anna and must make her his latest conquest.

This is actually unusual because during the first half of this film Gish is presented as a sexual being. Gish is not seen as the homely looking girl in "Broken Blossoms" but inspires deep passion in men. While Gish was a fine actress she never played roles which required her to be a temptress or flapper. Gish doesn't have that exotic look to her the way Greta Garbo did. And she is not the carefree flapper type the way Clara Bow or Louise Brooks were.

As the film presses on however, Sanderson and Anna spend a night of passion together which results in her having his baby. Sanderson is worried due to such events he will not inherit his father's fortune, so he tries to pay for her silence. After Anna refuses she decides to move to another town and have her baby there. But the shame of being an unwed mother will always follow her.

Even though there was no production code in effect in 1920 "Way Down East" is a morality play and does make the Anna character suffer a bit for her sinful actions. How exactly I won't reveal. But I wonder how shocking such a story as this was to audiences back then? Clearly there were unwed mothers back in 1920 but did making a film about it cause a social scandal? Just how risky was it to deal with this topic?

When Anna arrives in a new town she seeks employment with the Bartlett family, performing various house hold services. The head of the house, Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh) at first is reluctant to hire her, afraid she might be a "loose woman" who will bring shame to his home but at the insistence of his wife (Kate Bruce), who quotes scripture to him, he decides to hire her. The plot thickens when the son, David (Richard Barthelmess) falls in love with Anna but will her past matter to him?

It is said ever since "Birth of A Nation" was released in 1915 every film Griffith made afterwards was a response to the critics who called him a racist. That was supposedly why "Intolerance" was made and "Broken Blossoms" (thought to be the first film to deal with an interracial romance between a white woman and an Asian man). But "Way Down East" has similar themes to "Intolerance", mostly the "modern day" sequences. Both deal with social outcast, the vicious nature of gossip and both have a mother and child with an absent father. In "Intolerance" the father is in jail. It does seem though that every film Griffith was making was trying to correct social wrongs. Different races should come together. Society shouldn't judge unwed mothers so harshly but instead should put equal blame on the men who desert them. These must have been radical ideas to a 1920 audience.

If there is a flaw with "Way Down East" it is that it is simply too long. Griffith tries to cross-cut Anna's story while introducing the Bartlett's. When he does introduce the Bartlett's it felt as if it breaks the flow of Anna's story. Griffith could have easily taken an hour out of this film and still had a coherent masterpiece on his hands. There is actually some missing scenes. Kino, who has released this on DVD, uses photo stills in place of these scenes or just uses title cards explaining to us what is missing. It feels like anything Griffith shot made it into the final film. Someone should have sat down with Griffith and told him to cut some scenes out. And if he said no, they should have put up a fight. When the film was re-released in the 1930s it was cut a hour shorter. I have not seen that version but would like to see what changes were made.

I mentioned earlier how fascinating it is to watch Griffith's work and see cinematic devices being used in their heyday but while watching "Way Down East" I didn't really pay attention to it. Watching Griffith's early films those devices always seemed to call attention to themselves. Here though Griffith seems to have such confidence in his story everything moves along quite fluid. None of the techniques call out to us.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess were paired together in "Broken Blossoms" with Barthelmess as the Asian man. Here though it is Gish's show all the way. Her performance is both moving and convincing. That was the great touch of Griffith and Gish. They created such sympathetic characters. That is why Gish didn't fit as a flapper. I'm not saying the woman was unattractive but she had a look which just fit perfectly for these social outcast types.

Barthelmess isn't really given much to do with in my opinion. His name hasn't lived on the way Gish's has but during his day he was a star. He was nominated twice in the same year for "Best Actor" at the 1929 Academy Awards for his performances in "The Noose" and "The Patent Leather Kid". He also starred in "Tol' able David" as David. But here he just seems to be part of the scenery.

"Way Down East" is a great film and if it weren't for the running time I would probably give it four stars but the film needs edits. It's story doesn't justify it's length. Still the film has the ability to involve you. It seems clear what Griffith's intentions were and he largely succeeds thanks to Lillian Gish who gives one of her best performances here. If you've never seen a Griffith film or anything with Lillian Gish this is not a bad place to start.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Film Review: Religulous

"Religulous" *** (out of ****)

Before I begin this review I suppose I should tell you some small bits of information about myself. I went to a Catholic elementary school between the grades k-5. For my first year of high school I went back to the same school.

I'm not the world's most religious person but members of my family are firm believers. It wouldn't surprise me if there was a God but sometimes I wonder, with so many religions in the world, how can one tell which is correct unless you were born into one.

I also find when most people, especially those in mainstream media, discuss "religion" what they really mean to imply is the Catholic faith. Christianity is their main target. When people have a problem with religion they almost always complain about Catholics.

And to a very large extent this takes place in Bill Maher and Larry Charles' documentary "Religulous". The film runs about 95 minutes. For the first hour of the film Maher only attacks the Catholic faith.

In case some readers may not know who Bill Maher is, he is the current host of the HBO show "Real Time" where he discuss mostly politics but sometimes pop culture and religion. He started off as a stand-up comic before getting his own show "Politically Incorrect", where after many years was fired when he made remarks which were interpreted as Un-American regarding 9/11. He has long held the position of an Agnostic. And once in a while he drives this point home on his show. In "Religulous" he attempts to ask people why do they believe? Religion, to Mr. Maher is irrational. All religion is bad.

Watching just the first few minutes of "Religulous" it is clear Maher isn't really interested in a rational debate. He is in the business of smearing. He wants to make his subjects look bad. He wants to ridicule them with the proper editing.

One of the problems I personally had with Maher is he takes everything so literal and thinks all Catholics do as well. He laughs to himself when he says how can people really think they are eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ during communion. I've taken my communion. Whenever I go to church I always participate in the Eucharist. I don't literally think it is the body and blood of Christ. I understand it is symbolic. And I'm willing to bet other Catholics would agree with me. But that wouldn't get laughs so Maher doesn't offer that view point.

I wasn't offended watching "Religulous" but I did find certain things striking about it. Maher does spend the majority of the film attacking the Christian faith. And the way he talks down to these people. He is condescending. Always throwing in an insult. Always a bullshit remark slipping out. He is very obnoxious. If Maher thinks religious people are intolerant, he should take a look in a mirror. No one is going to change his mind and with his attitude he's not going to change any one's mind either. And that becomes the great failing of the film. A serious examination could have been made concerning religious beliefs. I have no doubt about that. But Bill Maher is not the man for the job. Of course Maher or his defenders will say, this was suppose to be a comedy. Well, it's not very funny sir. You are too abrasive in your interviews. I've heard better conversations on "Real Time" then in this movie. It is completely one-sided in Maher's favor.

What it interesting though is how Maher treats other religions. Where Maher is condescending towards Catholic faith and acts like a smart-ass notice how timid he seems when talking about Islam. He's not a smart-ass anymore! He even wears a suit at one point to interview someone. He doesn't interrupt them when they speak. He makes his snide remarks when away from people in his car with the director. And when he tries to make a point about violence in which he sees in the Koran and the way women are treated he is told he is wrong. But he is never at any point as confrontational with them as he is with Catholics. Maher must think it is okay to act like a prick with Catholics because nothing will happen to him. But try messing around with Muslims, all of a sudden Maher is on his toes and watches what he says.

Judaism goes unscathed. Maher only interviews a few people and doesn't attack the religion with the same fire as he does the Catholic faith. He does make fun of Mormonism and Scientology but these are like brief comedy bits. He doesn't offer the same unrelenting attacks.

I mention all of this because, if Maher truly feels all religions are bad he doesn't treat them all equally. Eastern religions are not mentions. Maher doesn't speak to any Buddhist for example. I would have preferred if Maher was an equal opportunity offender. Read the reviews for this film. The majority of the reviews only focus on what Maher does concerning the Catholic faith.

And I think I know why. Maher can say whatever he wants about Catholics but he knows Catholics are pretty much harmless. We are not threatening to him. He knows he can be obnoxious with some and not much will come out of it. Catholics may not have approved of this movie and many may not have seen it but did you hear of any violent backlash against it? Did Catholics burn down movie theatres where this was playing? Were there any assassination attempts against Maher? Imagine what would have happened if Maher spent the majority of the film attacking Muslims? Remember how mad Muslims were when Pope Benedict said there was violence in the Koran? They burnt down churches. Or how upset they became over a cartoon. People died in that incident too.

Remember what happened when "The Passion of the Christ" came out and the strong push made on the part of Jews who insisted the film would promote anti-Semitism? Did you hear about any Catholic protest about "Religulous"?

That's what I mean when I say Maher knows he can push Catholics around. We aren't as confrontational as other religions.

The film was directed by Larry Charles. He worked as a writer on "Seinfeld" and has directed a few episodes of "Curb Your Enthusiam" as well as the mock documentary "Borat". Charles can be a funny guy. So can Maher. You'd think the two of them working on something together would be funny. But religion is a tough target. And neither one of these guys pull any punches. That hurts the film. Because they way they attack religion doesn't seem playful. These men have an agenda. They want to make a point. I think, on some level, they were hoping to incite violence just so they can say, "look how violent religion makes people"! It would have provided more fuel for Maher. But that never happens.

So I spent a lot of time being critical of this movie yet I'm giving it three stars. Why? I'm for anything that can make people think. I believe in open discussions. I believe people should defend their positions not just on religion but all subjects. It is important to ask questions. Question don't have to lead to confrontation but instead can be a learning experience. When it comes to religion people should have discussions and talk about their faith. What makes them believe. It could be a rich subject for a documentary. Unfortunately this isn't that movie. Maher may raise some interesting points but doesn't he have to be so obnoxious about it? The way you deliver a message is just as important as the message itself. Maher should ask questions but with a civil tongue.

"Religulous" is good for a debate and the discussion which might take place afterwards. The only problem is how many people of faith will see this movie in order to have that discussion?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Film Review: What Just Happened

"What Just Happened" *** (out of ****)

Some readers may not remember this, but I swear it is true. There was a time when Robert De Niro acted in masterpieces. When you heard De Niro was going to be in a movie, you could almost count on it being entertaining and worth while.

But Hollywood being an ageist industry suddenly had no use for actors like Mr. De Niro or Al Pacino. You have to be able to be a superhero to act in movies today and who wants to see De Niro and tights wearing a cape? So actors like De Niro turned to comedy and poke fun at their persona. He started acting in films which were quite honestly beneath him. Some of them may have been pleasant diversions but would De Niro have acted in films such as "Godsend", "Hide and Seek", "Meet the Parents", "Analyze This" and/or "That" say 20 years ago? Part of me doubts it.

"What Just Happened" took a lot of abuse from the critics and subsequently from the public. It wasn't a box-office champion and I knew no one who looked forward to the film with great anticipation. The critics said the film played as more sitcom material. Both Roger Ebert and A.O. Scott wondered why the film didn't give us more inside dirt. Ebert compared it to "The Player" and said "What Just Happened" fails in comparison. Scott wrote that "What Just Happened" "serves up far too many warmed-over morsels of humor."

I'm not going to defend "What Just Happened" as a great movie. But a light-hearted comedy? Yeah, sure. This leads to the problem I have with critics and the public. Every so often to seems to me that critics latch on to a movie and criticized it just for the sake of criticizing it and then the public reads the reviews and merely mirror their opinions. Examples would be "Town & Country", "Swimfan", and "The Brown Bunny". All were said to be the worst film of all time. This is one of the reasons I don't read reviews prior to a movie. You have no idea how many times I'll hear someone talk to me about a movie, explaining why they did or didn't like it. Then I go home and start to read a few reviews. Everything the person told me was taken from the critics.

The other problem I have with critics is they always seem to "excuse" certain mindless movies but bash other which shouldn't be treated so harshly. Why did Ebert recommend "Tomb Raider" as just a silly exercise but write negative things about this film? Why couldn't "What Just Happened" be a silly exercise?

Robert De Niro plays Ben, a Hollywood producer going through one of the toughest moments of his career. The director of his latest project, Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott) has just had an awful test public screening for his latest movie "Fiercely". From the little bit we see of the movie within the movie "Fiercely" remind me of a Guy Richie shoot out movie. By the end of the film a dog is shot in the head. The audience reacts in horror, thus the cause for the terrible public comments. The studio head, Lou (Catherine Keener) wants the ending changed immediately before the film premiers at the Cannes Film Festival. Jeremy however, being the artist that he is, refuses to touch his film and change anything. It will take away the "edge" he tried for.

Another problem for Ben is Bruce Willis (playing himself) has put on some weight and grown a beard. The studio wants Willis to lose some weight and shave the beard. Willis refuses to shave the beard. He doesn't understand why audiences would care about his beard. If Willis doesn't shave the beard the studio will shelf the picture.

But Ben has personal problems as well. He has been married and divorced two times with children from both marriages. Though he claims to still have feelings for his second wife, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn). In between business deals he tries to win her heart back.

"What Just Happened" was directed by Barry Levinson. Levinson has some good films as part of his credits. The Oscar winning "Best Picture", "Rain Man", as well as "Avalon" and "Bugsy". He and De Niro worked together on the political satire "Wag the Dog". He has though had some low points. Watch Robin Williams in "Toys" as a sad example. But Levinson can still sometimes bring the funny. One of his earliest writing jobs was for Carol Burnett which lead to him being part of Mel Brooks' writing team. He worked with Brooks on "High Anxiety" and "Silent Movie". He even had a cameo in "High Anxiety" as a deranged bell-boy.

Depending on what you expect from Levinson "What Just Happened" is worthy of him. I found the film enjoyable. Is it realistic? No. I wasn't expecting it to be. And I wasn't expecting it to be dark or give us dirt on Hollywood. I wasn't expecting life lessons either. I have no clue why anyone would expect such things from this movie. Many of the critics complained about the absence of such traits.
All I expected was a funny movie.

"What Just Happened" creates a lot of funny situations. They may not be laugh-out-loud moments. I don't recall holding my sides in fits of laughter. But there are a lot of smile moments. There is a lot of material which will make you smirk. There are a few clever lines. "What Just Happened" isn't a great comedy but it is easy on the eyes.

As for De Niro, this isn't the comeback role we may have been expecting but I would say it might be the best film he has been in, in the last 10 years or so. The only thing which comes close is "The Good Sheppard". Everything else, I think De Niro should have been slightly embarrassed to be. "Godsend", "Meet the Parents", "Hide and Seek". These films don't deserve De Niro. But "What Just Happened" is not an embarrassment. De Niro doesn't have to be ashamed of this movie.

I bet some readers will say I'm setting the bar too low. I'm being a bit too forgiving and kind towards this film. First, that should be your first sign that you are an elitist and cannot enjoy typical Hollywood entertainment. Secondly, if my review seems too kind that's not a reflection on me but the movie business and our society. The industry has lowered the standard to match the public's sensibility. I merely realize this is as good as Hollywood gets.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Film Review: Milk

"Milk" **** (out of ****)

Finally I have seen "Milk". I showed some resistance to it. I knew one day I'd see it because of all the critical acclaim thrown at it and the fact it won two Oscars, it was all just a question of when.

So what caused the trepidation? I was afraid "Milk" would only be about homosexuals. Homosexuality, as a cinematic theme alone, doesn't interest me. I need a little more added to the story in order to really grab my attention. A perfect example would be a Hungarian film called "Another Way (Egymasra nezve)" it deals with life after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and government suppression. It just so happens the two lead characters are lesbians. It deals with gay & lesbian issues but also makes a larger argument about the government and the memory of '56. It is one of director Karoly Makk's great films.

Some of the other "gay" movies which I have seen that I've enjoyed include Claude Chabrol's "Les Biches" (which I reviewed as part of my "Masterpiece Film Series"). The film follows two female lovers but it turns into a psychological suspense film and makes a commentary on identity thief.

When a film tries to make a larger comment I respond well. I like to see movies about something. I think we all do. And to my great enjoyment "Milk" seems to make larger points, then to just be the story of one man.

I'm also sure for political reasons, there will be a good number of people who stay away from this movie. I'm not going to judge them, in a free society it is their right if they chose not to watch this or any movie. But, I've always said, you don't have to share a movie's politics to enjoy it. Many people hold Godard's political views against his films, or Michael Moore. People are unable to merely see these films as "cinematic entertainment" and nothing more.

In Sean Penn's "Into the Wild", which I also reviewed on here, I gave it four stars. I disagree with everything the movie argues in defense of. It is making a commentary on nature and the characters, not surprisingly, considering it is a Sean Penn film, are liberals. But, there is no way I could deny the story it told was well done. "Milk" is another example. I may not agree with everything said in the film and where it will all eventually lead, but, when I watch movies I check my politics at the door. This is a film and I will judge it purely on its artistic and entertainment value.

"Milk" is based on the true story of the first openly gay person to run and hold government office. Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) lives in San Francisco and decides why should gays put up with discrimination, including police brutality? It is said there is strength in numbers. If all the gays ban together and put one of their own in government, they would see real change on their behalf. Someone would fight for and defend issues which concern them. Harvey Milk plans to be the person to take on the task. He runs 3 times for office and loses each time until winning an election as a city supervisor.

What may have caused his victory was strong opposition to gay rights from a singer, Anita Bryant, and orange juice spokesperson as well as from Sen. Briggs (Denis O' Hare). They want to deny gays working as school teachers for instance believing gays would use their position of power on small children and pass their ideology onto them corrupting the minds of children thus making them gay. Some readers this may think that sounds funny but, this is real. People do hold those opinions. Laughing at them won't make it go away.

Milk believes as the opposition grows stronger this will cause a chain reaction and make more gays come out and fight for their rights. He believes once straight people see exactly how many gays & lesbians there are, and that they may in fact know someone who is gay, they too will also stand up for gay rights.

Events reach their peak when the said initiative is put on a ballot. The state will attempt to overturn a court ruling taking back discrimination rights allowing employers to right to deny people jobs based on sexual orientation.

An interesting sub-plot emerges between Milk and another supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin). White is not in favor of gay rights, but, the two men talk and seem, at least on a professional level, friendly. Milk invites him to his birthday party, White invites Milk to his baby's baptism. Milk even believes White may be one of them. Unfortunately, on the film's part, I never felt this aspect was properly explored. It felt like a throw away line on Milk's part.

Still "Milk" succeeds. I was very much drawn into the political aspects of the film. The way politicians speak to one another, suggesting trading votes as if they really don't matter. I liked the process in which Milk had to go through in order to win. I wish it would have been more in depth giving some more insight into what goes on behind closed doors.

And then you have Penn's performance. It is a very good role. In fact it might have been too good. It never felt like a strenuous performance to me. Penn almost makes it feel like he is not playing a character at all. It is one of the most natural performances I think I've ever seen him give. I think Penn is a great actor, one of the best of his generation, but even in movies I enjoyed a lot like "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" or "21 Grams", as good as he is in those movies, you can still tell Penn is giving a performance. He goes through a lot of emotional highs and lows. I didn't feel that here in "Milk". Penn remains consistent through the entire film. There didn't seem to be very much emotional complexity. And if there was, Penn makes it all look so simple I hadn't noticed it at all.

That may speak volumes about Penn and his acting ability and Gus van Sant's directing. Van Sant is a talented filmmaker. I didn't enjoy his last film, "Paranoid Park" but he makes a nice rebound here. He seems to be one of the few directors who can make a small, independent film, "Elephant", "Park" and then make more mainstream titles such as this or "Good Will Hunting". He pulls everything together here nicely. Near the end, the film started to feel a little long to me, but the story moves at a pleasant pace.

Should "Milk" have won any of the Oscar awards it did win? Probably not. I've seen all the other films which were nominated against it and "Milk" didn't seem quite as deserving. I think Rourke would have been a better choice for "Best Actor" and I don't think the screenplay was Oscar worthy. I think the film won largely so the Academy could make a political statement. When "Milk" was in wide released, there was a gay marriage bill on the ballot during the presidential election. The bill failed. This made "Milk" quite timely and the Academy wouldn't want to pass up an opportunity to advance a cause which it claims to support. It sends a message to the rest of the world. Listen and watch what Penn said during his acceptance speech.

On the flip side I should mention winning Oscars really don't mean a thing. If "Milk" did lose those awards, would that mean people shouldn't see "Milk"? Is the film suddenly worthless? Of course not. Viewers shouldn't based their opinion on movies based on whether or not a movie wins award.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Masterpiece Film Series: The Witness

"The Witness"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

On March 12th I wrote on this blog about the sad news of Hungarian filmmaker, Peter Bacso, who had died at the age of 81. Despite my brief blog entry, I stated I was going to include, what many consider his greatest work, "The Witness (A Tanu)" as part of my "Masterpiece Film Series".

I always intended to include this film as part of the series but I probably would have waited a bit longer, so I could have written about other titles sooner. But after Bacso passed away now seemed like the appropriate time to do so.

Peter Bacso got his start in films not as a director, he directed his first film in 1960, but as a crew assistant, eventually working as a screenwriter in 1949. One of his major early credits came in 1958 adapting the novel "Edes Anna" into a film of the same title, directed by another great Hungarian filmmaker, Zoltan Fabri. The movie starred perhaps the greatest Hungarian actress of all time Ms. Mari Torocsik. Later scripts included "Szerelem (Love)" directed by Karoly Makk, considered his greatest film and the comedy "Egy Erkolcsos ejszaka (A Very Moral Night)" also directed by Makk.

Bacso was a very political writer/director. If you are unfamiliar with the previous mentioned titles all of them, in one way or another, deal with politics. "Edes Anna" (which I have reviewed on here) with the class system, a sort of commentary on life after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and "Szerelem" another look at life under Communist rule, though much more poetic.

He was also friends with former Prime Minister Imre Nagy, who was put back in power after the revolution only to be killed two years later. Nagy was a kind of protection for Bacso and after Nagy's death, Bacso was banned from filmmaking for four years. But he wouldn't avoid controversy after the ban.

As I have already said "The Witness" is considered his masterpiece. It earned a cult status even before it was released. Originally made in 1969, the Communist government banned the film, only to be released ten years later, in 1979. What had changed in ten years? I cannot answer that. Certainly the movie hadn't. Bacso never edited it seeking the government's approval. But word of mouth grew concerning the film. It was even released in America in 1981.

What made "The Witness" so controversial was it was an attack on the Communist Party. Bacso and his film argued the party was inept and corrupt (go figure!). But did so not with moral preaching but satirical humor. It remains, as far as I'm concerned, one of the all time great political satires.

The film centers around a poor dike-keeper, Jozsef Pelikan (Ferenc Kallai), father of seven children left alone after his wife left him. Jozsef gets into trouble when he is caught slaughtering a hog. The family ran out of food and couldn't get more. Communism, supposedly, meant all are equal. One shouldn't have more than the other. So when it is found out that Jozsef has pork, the police come to arrest him.

Describing that scene sounds pretty serious perhaps. But what I left out, makes the scene a charming comedic sequence. Before being discovered Jozsef runs into a friend, Zoltan Daniel (played by director Zoltan Fabri) who is fishing. After fighting with a fish on his reel, Zoltan falls into the water. Jozsef tells him he can dry off at his place. Zoltan is a very important man in the Communist Party. So when the police come looking for the extra pork they believe Jozsef has, he feels he has some protection on his side and merely shrugs off the officers. When Zoltan hears what is going on he informs the men who Jozsef is. Jozsef was tortured during WW2, protecting Zoltan and other Communist from the Fascist. After giving his heroic speech on Jozsef, the police find the pork. And thus begins Jozsef bizarre journey.

He is jailed and told me may get the ultimate punishment, death. But he is soon released and put into the hands of Arpad Virag (Lajos Oze), a high ranking comrade. Virag wants to give Jozsef a high positioned job in the hopes one day he will do a favor for the party. Jozsef continually fails each job he is given only to be promoted to a higher one.

Finally it is revealed what they party wants, for Jozsef to serve as a witness against Zoltan, who is said to be a spy against the party.

Though Americans may sometimes find it hard to relate to foreign comedies "The Witness" finds humor in the universal, corrupt politicians. You don't have to be Hungarian to see the humor in that. The film has one outrageous situation after another constantly building on a level of absurdity established in the previous scene.

Two standout sequences are, Jozsef is told he grow the first Hungarian orange. He is put in charge of a research team to do so. A major celebration is planned as the top leader, Comrade Bastya (Bela Baoth) will be present. But something happens to the orange, I will not reveal what. In a state of panic Jozsef informs Virag, who immediately hands him a lemon. They hope to fool everyone into thinking the lemon is actually an orange. When Bastya tastes it, he isn't sure it tastes like an orange, Jozsef informs him it is a new Hungarian orange.

The other famous scene involves the preparation for the trial. A screenwriter is brought in to type Jozsef's statement. An argument happens when Jozsef tells them they are making things up. Comrade Bastya is also mad to find out his name is not mentioned. In order to appear important he insist an assassination plot be added.

Maybe now you can tell why the government wouldn't want this film released to the public. The party is shown to be run by fools. This is probably what made the film such a hit with audiences. It even brought about a new catchphrase. Virag is constantly telling Jozsef "the international situation is intensifying." This became a popular saying. Mention it to Hungarians and they will laugh and recall this film.

The performances in the film get, what I feel is the first rule of comedy, correct. Never reveal you are in a comedy. The more serious you act, the funnier the situation. You have to believe in what you are doing and not tip your hat you are in a comedy. Ferenc Kallai's performance reminds me of an innocent baby. He has a child-like quality to him. He is placed in situations beyond his control. Lajos Oze slightly seems to be acting it up but given his character it isn't distracting. The Virag character is so full of neurotic tics any embellish action seems plausible.

If after watching "The Witness" you decide you want to see more Bacso films other works include "Te Rongyos Elet (Oh, Bloody Life)", "Sztalin Menyasszonya (Stalin's Girlfriend)" and his most recent film, released just before his death, "Majdnem Szuz (Virtually a Virgin)". Unfortunately not many of Mr. Bacso's films have been released in this country. Most of his later films have not been shown in theatres here. He never had the cross over appeal of Istvan Szabo or Miklos Jancso but if you are a serious film lover, you owe it to yourself to check out some of his work.

"The Witness" is one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Film Review: Watchmen

"Watchmen" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

It seems since the days of Charles Bowers in the 1920s and 30s audiences have always had a thirst for special effects. One of the thoughts I had watching "Watchmen" was I no longer find special effects special. I've become so jaded by all the technical advancements of technology and computers that I simply assume they can achieve anything. Nothing in "Watchmen" was visually impressive to me. It has a sort of "been there done that" feel to me.

"Watchmen" was actually the first comic book adaptation I looked forward to seeing. For those who know me or perhaps could have picked up from my writings, I have little to no respect for the comic book genre. If I never see another comic book movie I wouldn't lose any sleep over it. But there was something about "Watchmen" that caught my interest. What exactly I can't say. I never read the comics the film was based on but it seemed to have a respectability to it. I heard it was considered by Time magazine as one of the greatest pieces of literature of the last century. Pretty high praise indeed.

But does that mean it would translate into a good movie? Audiences often grumble when novels are turned into films because they feel the novels are never faithfully adapted. This sometimes annoys me. When will people learn movies and book are two different mediums? We shouldn't compare the two even if they are based on the same material. Many will disagree with me and that's fine because in the end you are the one who will be disappointed not me.

Before seeing this movie two people told me the movie wasn't what they expected. Both read the comics however and therefore walked into the theatre with expectations. Another friend read the comics but refused to see the movie because she was afraid the film wouldn't be faithful. As I have already said, I knew nothing about the comics. I never even heard of it before this movie. Besides having little respect for the comic book film genre I also have little respect for comic books in general. One of the major reasons I found "Unbreakable" to be a pathetic movie and secretly laugh when I hear people liked it is because it took comic books too serious.

Of course last year we had a growing hysteria of Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight". It became the second highest grossing movie of all time only behind "Titanic". Currently on the movie website (Internet Movie DataBase) viewers have ranked it 6th on the site's top 250 movies. Undeserving indeed, but, there's no accounting for the public's taste. As of today's date "Watchmen" is ranked 225th on the list and has a score of 8.1/10. On the critic's side, they have also responded well to it. On the film scored a 64 percent. Out of 254 reviews 163 were positive while 91 were negative. This seems to demonstrate that people are responding well to the film.

One of the things I'm guessing some audiences members will want to do, besides compare this to the comic books, is compare this film to "The Dark Knight". In Roger Ebert's rather bland and pointless review he declares "Watchmen" is this year's "The Dark Knight". While I normally stay away from a fight today I don't care. "Watchmen" is a better movie than "The Dark Knight". This is despite the fact I gave "The Dark Knight" a higher rating (I wrote a three star review). And I'll tell you why I think so. "The Dark Knight" was said to be a story comparable to Greek tragedy. A classic tale of good v.s. evil. A film which had a moral dilemma at the heart of its story. That is true, but, it wasn't done as masterful as the devoted, almost cult-like, fans said. "Watchmen" has a greater social and political relevance to it. Though it takes places in a futuristic 1985, the themes presented could be told in a modern day setting. The film hits at the very essence of man. "Watchmen" is a film about the human condition. Between "The Dark Knight" and "Watchmen" I'd be willing to watch the "Watchmen" again.

I suppose at this point I should tell you a little more about the film's plot. It takes place in 1985, but not a 1985 as we remember it. President Richard Nixon (Robert Wisden) is serving his fifth term. A group of superheroes have banded together calling themselves the "Watchmen". They perform the usual heroic feats superheroes engage in. President Nixon has even asked for their help in Vietnam leading to America's victory. But times are changing. Nixon has now outlawed masked heroes. Some have revealed their identity and lead normal productive lives. Some still hind behind their secret identity.

As the film begins, one of these heroes has been killed. His superhero name was "The Comedian" (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). When one of his partners in crime, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) learns about his death, he fears it may be a message that someone is trying to kill all the old members of the "Watchmen".

The other heroes include Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Rorschach's old partner. Who still has not revealed to the world who he is. Then there is Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), the world's smartest man. His superhero identity was Ozymandias. Rorschach fears since he is the best known superhero he may be the next target. Veidt has turned himself into a very powerful businessman.

Next we have Silk Specture II (Malin Akerman), a Betty Paige pin-up type and her mother, the original Silk Specture (Carla Gugino). And finally, the only one among them that in the true sense is a superhero, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). Who is not no longer human, but quantum particles. President Nixon relies on him the most in his fight against the Soviets, as the Cold War wages on. Dr. Manhattan, many hope, would be able to stop any and all nukes the Soviets might aim at the United States.

One of the things I like most about "Watchmen" is it is not really a superhero movie in the tradition sense. I felt it goes beyond that, mostly because of the political and social message. These characters are confronted with real world problems, have real world thoughts and at times, must make real world decisions. The basic point of the movie as I understood it, was man's intentions. Are they good or evil? One character says since the beginning of time man has been trying to find ways to kill his fellow man. Our society is prone to violence.

But there are elements about "Watchmen" which I didn't enjoy. I thought it goes on too long. I felt the ending was a it cliche, though I did enjoy a discussion about sacrifices for the greater good. But by the end of the film "Watchmen" feels like a comic book. It started to seem a little silly to me.

There is one more thing about "Watchmen" I'd like to point out. Rorschach's true identity is reveal. His real name is Walter Kovacs. Kovacs is a Hungarian name, making him, as far as I know, the only Hungarian superhero. Too bad he is a bit of a lunatic.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Top Ten Films Of 1991!

We now only have two more "top ten" list to finish up the 1990s and these "top ten" lists of the past in general. I do not have any "top ten" lists for the 1980s. So enjoy these lists celebrating the best films of the past.

It is hard to find a common theme among my top ten favorites of the year. The only thing I can think of, and this is with a little help of some years of reflecting upon it, these movies mostly deals with characters in a crossroad. The new decade started off rather scary. I remember hearing more about AIDS and safe sex. Where was society headed? A youth which seemed disenfranchised. Whatever one feels about the 1980s, socially, at least, it was a time about Americans feeling good about themselves thanks to President Ronald Reagan. Michael Douglas taught us "greed is good" in "Wall Street". Cinematically I would argue the decade as a whole was weak, but, the 1990s offered hope, for movies at least. It took the industry a while to pull itself together but when it had a good year, as was the case in 1994, 97 or 99, we saw a fresh, new vision come from aspiring young filmmakers ready to change the landscape. Sadly 1991 wasn't such a year.

The top grossing film of the year was "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" followed by Kevin Costner as "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves". The remaining top ten grossing films were Steven Spielberg's "Hook", "City Slickers", "The Addams Family", Julia Roberts scored a big hit with the thriller "Sleeping with the Enemy" and Steve Martin had a hit starring in the remake of Vincente Minnelli's 1950 classic, "Father of the Bride".

Other note worthy films include Ridley Scott's "Thelma & Louise", Martin Scorsese's remake of "Cape Fear" with Robert De Niro. The Coen Brothers had the critical hit "Barton Fink", Claude Chabrol released his adaptation of "Madame Bovary" with Isabelle Huppert in the title role and the slice of life film "Grand Canyon".

At the Oscars, the "Best Picture" winner was "Silence of the Lambs". The other nominees were "Bugsy", "JFK", the Disney animated film "Beauty & the Beast" and "The Prince of Tides".

Here now is my list of the ten best films of the year!

1. BUGSY (Dir. Barry Levinson; U.S.) - Perhaps Levinson's best and most accomplished film. The decade started off so strong for him. He ended the previous decade with the Oscar winner "Rain Man", started the 90s off with "Avalon", another favorite of mine, and hit us with this modern masterpiece. I find it shameful that this didn't walk away with the Oscar for "Best Picture". Nearly every scene in this film I find perfect except for one where Beatty, in a power struggle, demands someone bark like a dog.

And speaking of Beatty, this may very well be his greatest role. Can you honestly think of another actor playing this part? Beatty makes the role his own.

The film generated some publicity when it was revealed that Beatty and co-star Annette Bening had started an off-screen romance. But, that isn't really important. These two shine on-screen. The remaining cast consist of standout actors such as Ben Kingsley, Harvey Keitel and Joe Mantegna.

The film was nominated for 10 Oscar nominations, two of which it won. One for "Costume Design" and "Art Direction". The other nominations included "Best Picture", "Director", "Screenplay" as well as acting nominations. The film also won the Golden Globe for "Best Picture". In another list I posted on here I declared it one of the best films of the 90s!

2. JU-DOU (Dir. Zhang Yimou/Fengliang Yang; China) - One of the great early works from Yimou, is a luscious, passionate story of forbidden love starring his muse Li Gong, one of the most beautiful women in films.

The film caused quite a stir in China, where the government banned it. Oddly enough however, the film was nominated for "Best Foreign Language" film at the Oscars. It was even nominated for the palme d'or at Cannes.

It was also one of the last films shot in Technicolor.

3. ONCE AROUND (Dir. Lasse Hallstrom; U.S.) - Another early work from a director who would became one of my favorite modern filmmakers after making such films as "The Shipping News", "Chocolat" and "Cider House Rules".

Here Richard Dreyfuss plays an outsider who falls in love with Danny Aiello and Gene Rowlands' daughter, played by Holly Hunter. An immediate culture clash develops.

The film is bittersweet. It has funny, joyful moments but also teaches life lessons, but not in a forceful, lecture kind of way.

4. HOMICIDE (Dir. David Mamet; U.S.) - And yet another early work from one of my favorite modern directors, Mr. David Mamet. "Homicide" is not however one of Mamet's typical, masterful con films. Here Joe Mantegna plays a Jewish detective assigned to a case which becomes a little too personal for him. It brings into question who he is as a person and what does he owe to his people, other Jews.

Because it is a David Mamet film there is a lot of intelligence to the dialogue and few actors deliver Mamet lines better than Mantegna. Another Mamet regular, William H. Macy co-stars.

5. L.A. STORY (Dir. Mick Jackson; U.S.) - I think of all the films on this list "L.A. Story" is probably the best representation of what life in the early 90s was like.

This Steve Martin comedy, which he wrote, deals with the love life of a bunch of L.A. yuppies. Looking back on the film it is almost like going into a time warp. Remember those giant cell phones? Men with ponytails? Cappuccino became our new drink.

The opening moments would make Woody Allen proud. In fact Martin pitched the film as a response to a movie called "New York Stories", an anthology film about life in New York, which had one short story by Allen.

The film perfectly displays the confusion about the new decade and the sense of "lost" which surrounds our lives. The script is incredibly smart and witty drawing references from Fellini to Shakespeare.

6. DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE (Dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski; France/Poland) - The most visually stunning and beautiful film of the year! And I would argue Kieslowski's best film.

Irene Jacob stars as two women name Veronique. One lives in France, the other in Poland. They have never met yet someone their lives seem connected.

Kieslowski is best known for his "Three Color Trilogy" but here in this sadly little seen masterpiece he is playing around with some of the same concepts.

Jacobs won an acting award at the Cannes Film Festival where the film was also nominated for the palme d' or. It was also nominated in the foreign language category at the Golden Globes.

7. JFK (Dir. Oliver Stone; U.S.) - One of the more controversial films of the year, but, what would you expect from Stone?

The film was based on two books; Jim Garrison's "On the Trail of the Assassins" and Jim Marrs' "Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy" suggesting the Kennedy assassination went deeper than any of us could imagine.

While many get boggled down in whether or not any of this was true or not, cinematically, it is an adventurous, rewarding film. It is intense and thought-provoking, as are most of Stone's films.

Kevin Costner heads a star-studded cast including Jack Lemmon, Joe Pisci, Sissy Spacek and Walther Matthau.

The film was nominated for 8 Oscars, winning two (for cinematography and editing). It was nominated for "Best Picture", "Director", "Screenplay" and "Best Supporting Actor" (Tommy Lee Jones).

8. CITY OF HOPE (Dir. John Sayles; U.S.) - Like "L.A. Story" or "Grand Canyon" here is another film about the world we live in. In Robert Altman fashion here is an inter-connecting slice of life film. You could compare it to Altman's "Short Cuts", though that Altman masterpiece wasn't released until 1993.

Sayles makes one of his most accomplished films here and he has a pretty impressive body of work including "Lone Star", "Eight Men Out", his most mainstream title to date and just in time for St. Patrick's Day, "The Secret of Roan Inish".

The cast includes Chris Cooper, Angela Bassett, David Strathairn and Gina Gershon.

9. LA BELLE NOISEUSE (Dir. Jacques Rivette; France) - One of the true masterpieces of the 1990s. Rivette's film went unappreciated upon its initial release but hopefully time has allowed some to open up to it.

Many complained the film was too long and boring. It deals with a elder painter who meets a young couple. The young wife intrigues the man and stirs artistic passion in him. He wants to start painting again but only if she will model for him. We get the creative process on-screen and see just how difficult inspiration can be.

American audiences rejected the film so harshly that a re-edited version was released excluding all the painting scenes and was re-titled "Divertimento". Please don't rent that version. This is the one to see.

Rivette is not very well known in this country but he was one of the young filmmakers part of the French New Wave. His best known film might be "Celine and Julie Go Boating", not a favorite of mine. Of his recent work, perhaps you heard of his romantic comedy "Va Savoir?". But "La Belle Noiseuse" for me will always be his best film. A real triumph for cinema!

The cast includes Michel Piccoli and Emmanuelle Beart.

10. RHAPSODY IN AUGUST (Dir. Akiria Kurosawa; Japan) - One of the great filmmaker's last works. His second to last in fact. The film was dismissed by critics and the public as a second-rate Kurosawa film, but, I'm not one to criticize our great filmmakers, some readers even consider that a fault of mine.

Richard Gere stars as the American nephew of a Japanese family and sees first hand the destruction of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki.

The film is meditative about different cultures and learning to see things from a different perspective.

Now, looking back, this seems like the kind of film we should have expected from a dying filmmaker. A piece of work which takes us back to a painful past. Many of Kurosawa's later films were more reflective and personal. Watch his previous film "Dreams".

Of the latter films I believe "Rhapsody in August" is the best. Not a great film but one which should not be avoided.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

In Memory: Peter Bacso

Sad news has hit the film world today, especially for those interested in Hungarian cinema. Legendary Hungarian writer/director Peter Bacso has died at the age of 81.

I'm pretty sure Bacso is not known to many American audiences but the very point of this blog was to inform readers of movies and directors they may have otherwise never heard of.

Bacso is probably best known for directing the political satire "A Tanu" (The Witness), which I will now be sure to include in my "Masterpiece Film Series" due to his death.

The film made in 1969 got Bacso in a lot of trouble. It was banned by the Communist Party and wasn't released until 1979. Bacso was banned from making films for four years due to his friendship with then Prime Minister Imre Nagy. After Nagy was put back in power, due to the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, Nagy was shot two years later. This made political satires such as "A Tanu" extremely personal for him.

Some of his other, more notable, works as a director include "Sztalin's menyasszonya" (Stalin's Girlfriend), Te rongyos elet (Oh, Bloody Life) and his most recent film, which is still working the film festival circuit, "Majdnem szuz" (Virtually a Virgin).

Besides directing, Bacso started off as a screenwriter. Two screenplays he wrote were directed by another legendary filmmaker, Karoly Makk. Their work together on "Szerelem" (Love) has made that film endure as a classic of Hungarian cinema during the Communist era. Their other film "Egy Erkolcsos ejszaka" (A Very Moral Night) tried to mix old v.s. new. I have reviewed it on here if you are interested.

Bacso will be sorely miss. He was a very talented director whose work will hopefully live on now that he is gone.

Here is a link to a interview Bacso gave last year during the 40th anniversary of Hungarian filmweek.

40th Hungarian Film Week l 27 January - 3 February 2009 - Interview with Peter Bacso - film [2008] - film 2008

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Film Review: That Hagen Girl

"That Hagen Girl" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

"That Hagen Girl" (1947) has gained quite a reputation over the years. A sort of rediscovery of it happened in 1978 when it was named in Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss' book "The Fifty Worst Films of All Time". The film is nowhere near as bad as all that. And up to that point I will defend it. But, would I recommend it? No. Perhaps as a curiosity piece but not for sheer entertainment value.

Actually "That Hagen Girl" could have been a great film. The movie runs one hour and 40 minutes. I enjoyed about an hour and 30 minutes of it. And up until that point would have gladly given the film 4 stars. But, oh that ending!

But, lets not jump ahead of ourselves. First let me explain the plot. Shirley Temple stars as Mary Hagen. A young girl born to Manta (Dorothy Peterson) and Jim Hagen (Charles Kemper). Or was she? See, there was a rumor that Mary is the illegitimate child of Tom Bates (Ronald Reagan) and the daughter of a wealthy family girl. Because of this, in the small Ohio town where Mary lives she is the constant subject of mean spirited gossip. Knowing what to expect throughout his life, as another subject of scandal, as he prepares to be lawyer, Tom leaves the small town. But poor Mary can't.

Mary has pretty much been kept in the dark about the whole incident. Though she does wonder sometimes why adults always pick on her and say she is a bad influence. Why is she punished for the same behavior others engage in?

Tom Bates returns to the small town after an old friend leaves him his office. And soon the old rumors start. Has Tom came to claim his daughter? Tom is not exactly sure who Mary Hagen is even! But that doesn't stop people from talking.

Mary has by seen going out with a boy from a wealthy family, Ken (Rory Calhoun). But his parents object to their son seeing Mary. Mostly because of her background and the fact she doesn't come from a wealthy family herself.

The only other important person in Mary's life is one of her high school teachers, Julia Kane (Louis Maxwell). Not being one of the locals, she too wonders why others treat Mary so harshly. When she does hear of the rumor, she confronts Tom about it. But he refuses to answer her or anyone else. When word finally reaches Mary about who Tom may be, she starts to wonder herself.

"That Hagen Girl", despite having a lousy title, does a lot of things right. As I already said I enjoyed a great deal of the movie. I thought Reagan and small towns equals great movies. Reagan starred in an earlier film about a small town with a lot of secrets "Kings Row" (1942), often considered his finest film. And "Kings Row" is a great movie, perhaps I'll include it in my "Masterpiece Film Series" one day, and "That Hagen Girl" seemed to be going down the same path. Maybe a bit cliched in its view of small town life, it was still able to get me involved and wonder in excitement if in fact Tom was Mary's father.

And then comes the ending! I never would have thought an ending could have ruin a movie as much as the ending for "That Hagen Girl" does. What exactly was screenwriter Charles Hoffman, who wrote the Cole Porter bio-pic "Night & Day" with Cary Grant and "Two Guys from Milwaukee", Warner Brothers rip-off of the "Road" pictures with Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan, thinking when he adapted this? The film throws way too many, three actually, plot revelations at us out of the blue for no other reason than to try and tie everything up nicely with a little bow on top. These revelations have never, not even once, been hinted at earlier in the film. They were merely poorly executed plot devices attempted for closure. And one of them is downright creepy! In fact Reagan begged the director, Peter Godfrey to change it, claiming audiences wouldn't accept it. For once I agree with Reagan!

Shame on Godfrey. He should have known better. This wasn't his first film. He directed "Cry Wolf" and the holiday classic "Christmas in Connecticut". Godfrey should have been able to understand the impression such plot twists would leave on the audience. If I find it, and I'm not alone in this thought, creepy today, in 2009, imagine what audiences thought of the film's ending in 1947 when society was a bit more conservative and decent.

While I can't reveal the plot twists which occur in the last ten minutes of the film, all I can say is, there is great material here. I never read the novel this was based on, written by Edith Roberts, but if this had been given a re-write. If they would have hinted at some of the revelations earlier in the film and completely scrapped the last sequence with something more shall I say innocent(?) this would have been a great film dealing with the malicious power of gossip. How our own words can harm others especially the innocent lives of children. Other films have done this quite brilliantly, think of "Peyton's Place", do not confuse this with the TV show with Mia Farrow. And because "That Hagen Girl" had such potential, and entertained me for a duration of the film, that is what makes the ending so disappointing.

I liked to say a few words about the actors involved. When we think of Ronald Reagan, naturally we think of his eight years as president. But, this isn't a political blog, I only discuss movies on here, if you want politics, read my political blog, but when we discuss Reagan as an actor he did appear in some bad movies. Though I wouldn't go as far as to say he was a bad actor. An actor is usually only as good as the material they are given to work with. Reagan, like most actors, got his start in "B" movies. These were lower budget films which would play before the main attraction back in the days of "double features". But Reagan did have a likable quality to him on-screen. I think the problem was there was too much competition back then. How could Reagan compete with Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable or Gary Cooper? Reagan had a charisma to him you can't deny that, but I think he just wasn't put in films worthy of his certain qualities. When he was in an "A" picture I think he did well. Watch "Kings Row". His "Knute Rockne All American" was also popular, but not a classic of the era. That was the movie where his character was nicknamed "the gipper". In "That Hagen Girl", I think he does what the film requires of him. However, he is not the star of this film. It is Shirley Temple who carries the picture, at least in my opinion.

And what a role for little Shirley Temple. By 1947 Temple had grown up. Of course audiences, and I assume even the audiences of 1947, couldn't help but think of her as that sweet, curly top kid. Today's audiences may not realize this, but Shirley Temple was a big star. She was considered more valuable to a studio then Clark Gable. When she was making those pictures as a child actress in "The Little Princess" or "Heidi" she was a box-office champion. She was originally suppose to play Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" but the studio wouldn't loan her out.

Given her persona at the time how strange she would accept this role. The only thing I can think of to explain why she played it is that it went against her type so much she perhaps viewed it as something of a break out role. Something to branch out her public perception. The only film I saw her in where she was a bit older that I really enjoyed was "Since You Went Away", a WW2 masterpiece. But in 1947 Temple would have acted in two far-fetched films. Besides this picture she was in "The Bachelor & the Bobby-Soxer" with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy.

Here I think Temple does an adequate job. I feel neither her nor Reagan are given the opportunity to go through much of an acting range here. There doesn't seem to be many emotional highs and lows.
However the film did win one award for its acting. Louis Maxwell won a "Golden Globe" as "Best Newcomer". She is quite good in this. Her part isn't as big as Reagan's or Temple's but she does seem surprisingly more at ease than either one of them.

Another thing about the film I'd like to point out is the cinematography was done by Karl Freund, a legendary cinematographer. He shot such films as Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" and "Dracula" as well as "Key Largo" with Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. And later became a director himself. He directed the original "The Mummy".

I mentioned the book "The Fifty Worst Films of All Time" and in case you were wondering some of the other titles included in it were Antonioni's "Zabriskie's Point", Alfred Hitchcock's "Jamaica Inn", Alain Resnais' "Last Year at Marienbad", "The Omen", the Laurel & Hardy comedy "The Big Noise", which actually is a very bad film, and the George Gershwin musical "The Goldwyn Follies" which is where the song "Our Love is Here To Stay" came from. Personally I feel none of these films deserve to be considered "worst of all time". Some I would consider classics actually. So don't take too much stock in the book.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Film Review: The Band Wagon

"The Band Wagon" *** (out of ****)

The musicals have fallen on hard times. Hollywood doesn't make musicals the way they use to and younger audiences no longer have an appreciation of these type of movies.

In large part that is thanks to MTV and rapid edits as seen in modern musicals such as "Moulin Rouge!" and "Chicago". Traditional musicals such as "The Band Wagon" now seem boring to today's audiences.

Do the names Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, George Murphy, Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly, Ethel Merman, Nelson Eddy or Eleanor Powell mean anything to my readers? I have a hunch they probably don't. But that's not your fault. These kind of movies don't play on television anymore. And if they don't play on television, how exactly are you suppose to know who these people are and the movies they starred in?

Vincente Minnelli's "The Band Wagon" is routinely cited as one of the all time great MGM movie musicals. And to offer a startling confession, I never saw it until recently. To shock you even more, it doesn't strike me as all that great. Good, worth watching, but, a classic musical? Not quite.

Now perhaps outside of professional singers and dancers, I love musicals just as much as the next person. And I especially love Fred Astaire. Growing up Astaire, for some reason, meant a lot to me. To a 4 year old kid Astaire represented the epitome of style and sophistication. I even made my parents buy me tails! I tell you this information not to bore you but so you know if I say I don't like "The Band Wagon" as much as others it is not because I don't like musicals.

"The Band Wagon", which was based on a 1930s Broadway production which starred Fred and Adele Astaire, has a lot going for it. Of course you have Astaire but you also have the wonderful dancer Cyd Charisse as well as funny man Oscar Levant, whom besides being an absolutely incredible wit was a fine pianist. I think I read somewhere he was a big fan of George Shearing. Rounding out this cast is Nanette Fabray. Outside of her work with Sid Caesar on "Caesar's Hour", I'm not too familiar with her. And Jack Buchanan plays a pretentious theatre director. Buchanan is a legendary singer whose work goes back to the early 1900s. He was very popular in England.

The thing that struck me the most watching this film was the idea of old v.s. new. Astaire stars as Tony Hunter, a one time great song and dance man, who hasn't been in a movie for three years. He is considered a has-been. When he arrives in New York, by train, he expects a mob of reporters to take his picture. There is a mob there but not for him. Another celebrity was on board, Ava Gardner (yes that's the real Gardner).

Tony may get a chance at a comeback, when two of his friends; the Marton's, a pair of screenwriters, Lester (Oscar Levant) and Lily (Nanette Fabray), tell him they have written a new musical comedy for him to star in and they have managed to get a famous theatre director, mostly of drama, to agree to direct the play, Jeffrey Cordova (Buchanan). If that is not enough incentive, his co-star will be the young and beautiful ballet dancer Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse).

Facing a possible comeback however doesn't make Tony as happy as one might think. Instead it puts added pressure on him. What if he isn't as good a dancer as Gabrielle. Tony hasn't danced ballet in a long time. Plus there is the issue that she might be taller than him, which causes some more insecurity.

The screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who were a great songwriting team, writing scores for movie musicals such as "On the Town" and "The Bells Are Ringing", know a lot about the world of theatre. The viewers gets the impression the Tony character has something to do with the real Fred Astaire. Astaire stopped making musicals after the 1968 film "Finian's Rainbow". He was quoted as saying something along the lines of, as he got older his dance partners got younger. And there is truth to that. Charisse was much younger than Astaire, as was another dance partner he had in the 1950s, Vera-Ellen. But by no means was Astaire a has-been. But he was an older man in a business which fuels itself on youth. Movies were changing from the time Astaire hit it big in the 1930s with Ginger Rogers to the 1950s. New acting styles emerged. And "The Band Wagon" is playful with this idea.

As the director, Jeffrey Cordova, Buchanan represents a new philosophy in stage acting and intellectual theory. He speaks portentously about the new direction he wants to take the theatre. How the musical and Greek drama are not really that different after all, since they share a common objective, the desire to emotionally move an audience. Tony just listens to this stuff and gets dizzy. At one point Tony even says he's not Marlon Brando.

Gabrielle represents to me the pretentious artist. She is a ballet dancer, doing musical comedy is beneath her. It is not up to her standards. Ballet is serious dancing, for the elite. Musical comedy is for the common audience. Naturally there is friction between the two co-stars.

These ideas take up much of the running time of "The Band Wagon". In fact, most of the musical numbers aren't used until the very end of the film when we see the dance numbers of the musical production on stage. And that's just one element that bothers me about "The Band Wagon".

The score is complied of previously written songs by the team of Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. The songs include "By Myself", "You & the Night & the Music", "Something to Remember You By", "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plans" and the musical piece everyone refers to as the best moment in the film the "Dancing in the Dark" number, which is done as an instrumental as Astaire and Charisse dance in the park. Too bad no one sings the song in the movie. It is a beautiful song but I don't find this particular moment in the movie to be as magical as everyone else does.

It is hard for me to say why I don't like this movie as much as others. It is just a personal feeling I get. I'm not as involved when I watch this as I am other musicals. The film runs too long, One hour and 52 minutes. The musical numbers I think are spaced too far apart. I hate when musicals do that. "Footlight Parade" is another example of a so-called great musical which does the same thing. The entire film is really done without music. It could serve as drama. It is only at the end of the film, when we see the show they have been working on that we hear the songs. And some of the songs make no sense, as far as this plot is concerned. "Triplets" about siblings who hate each other, doesn't belong in this movie. I'll never figure out why "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plans" is sung as a duet between Astaire and Buchanan. And too bad Levant is given more to do. Watch him in "Humoresque", "An American in Paris" and "The Barkleys of Broadway" (also with Fred Astaire) to see what he can do. He doesn't even get a piano solo here.

Though I have no problem watching Astaire without Ginger Rogers, I still prefer some of his older musicals to the ones he did in the 1950s like "The Broadway Melody of 1940" with Eleanor Powell. Of the 1950 musicals I prefer "Royal Wedding", supposedly based on his partnership with his sister Adele. And "Three Little Words" with Vera-Ellen. But nothing beats the RKO musicals with Ginger.

Vincente Minnelli is a good director. Not one of my favorites, but good nonetheless. He won the Oscar two-times for "Best Director" for the films "Gigi" and "An American in Paris", both also won the "Best Picture" Oscar as well. Besides musicals he directed the comedy "Goodbye Charlie" with Tony Curtis and Debbie Reynolds and the back stage Hollywood drama "The Bad & the Beautiful" with Kirk Douglas.

I can't quite figure out why so many people seem to regard this so highly. "The Band Wagon" is a decent musical. Worth watching if you've never seen it before. But make sure you've seen Astaire's other musicals first and "Singin' in the Rain" before this one.

The film was nominated for three Oscars, including "Best Screenplay" and "Costume Design".