Thursday, April 30, 2009

Masterpiece Film Series: Way Out West

"Way Out West" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Well, this is it. My last review for the month of April and the end to my month long dedication to classic comedies. We end on a high note. I've saved the best for last.

Throughout the month I've written about Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Mel Brooks and Bob Hope among others. All great and talented comedians but now I will discuss my absolute all time favorite comedy team. My childhood heroes.

I wonder if any of my readers have something so special to them they hate to hear an opposing viewpoint on it. Say a favorite song, poem, piece of music, cherished memory. Anything. I have such things. I understand it takes all different types to make up a world. There are two sides to every story we are told. Yet, there are certain things in my life which carry so much importance to me I simply am unable (not unwilling, there's a difference) to see the opposing viewpoint. Laurel & Hardy is one of those things.

My earliest childhood memories include me watching Laurel & Hardy. I have no idea when I first saw them in a movie. I have no idea what it was exactly that appealed so strongly to a three year old but they were my idols. Sure some young boys want to grow up and be policemen, firefighters, maybe they even want to grow up and be like their dad. That's all fine and noble but I wanted to be just like Laurel & Hardy.

I wrote about "the boys", as they are sometimes called, once before. During the month of December I reviewed their comedy "March of the Wooden Soldiers" (1934) because of its holiday appeal. But I talked about the film in relation to its holiday appeal instead of focusing more on the comedy team's ability. So in a sense this is my first true review of Laurel & Hardy.

Most fans of the team often cite "Sons of the Desert" (1933) as their best film. It is a good movie and has some funny bits but it was never my favorite. For me it has always been a toss up between "The Devil's Brother" (1933) and "Way Out West" (1937). "The Devil's Brother" I feel is technically a better film. Better production design, more plot, better acting and stronger directing. But "Way Out West" is funnier and features more famous gags by the team. Some of the most popular routines they ever did are in this film. This, in my opinion, makes "Way Out West" have the most broad appeal. Fans of the team enjoy it and those who have never seen a Laurel & Hardy comedy (who exactly are these people?) before can enjoy it as well. It perfectly sets up the team's relationship. You come to understand immediately what each man's role was.

"Way Out West" is very light on plot. I can describe it all in a few sentences. "The boys" are sent to deliver a deed to a gold mine to Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence) after her father has died. They arrive in the town of Brushwood Gulch seeking her out. They have never met her before. Her guardians; saloon owner Mickey Finn (James Finlayson) and his cabaret star wife, Lola Marcel (Sharon Lynn) dupe "the boys" into believing Lola is really Mary Roberts. Once they learn of their mistake the team must get back the deed.

It's not Shakespeare but it doesn't need to be. What "Way Out West" does is provide comedy sequences for the team which delay the progression of the plot. The whole story could have been told in 20 minutes but it wouldn't be as funny as it is now.

Stan Laurel said the idea behind the film was to make a comedy with as little plot and dialogue as possible. You must remember the team got their start in the silent days of comedy. So that wasn't a big stretch for them. Laurel wanted to make a comedy that was purely about the comedy. The risk paid off. At the time of the film's release, several critics claimed the film was one of the team's best.

The film was directed by James W. Horne. It is widely known however that Stan Laurel was the driving force behind the team. He would edit the films, have a hand in writing them and probably had a hand in the directing. Every Laurel & Hardy comedy, whether it is a two-reeler or a feature film, has the same look to them. Though directing credit is given to a number of different people.

The script was by Charles Rogers and Felix Adler. I've written about Adler a few times already this month. He wrote for Harold Lloyd in the comedy "Welcome Danger" (1929), the Three Stooges, their short comedy masterpiece, "Disorder in the Court" (1936) and for Laurel & Hardy, "Saps at Sea" (1940). Rogers was a writer and director. For Laurel & Hardy he wrote "Our Relations" (1936) and "Swiss Miss" (1938) and is credited as directing "The Devil's Brother".

"Way Out West" also marked one of the few times (it only happened twice) that Stan Laurel was given "producer" credit. At least acknowledging his creative input.

In their day Laurel & Hardy were not critical darlings. They had strong public support but elitist critics, likes those at "Variety" or "New York Times" criticized their every effort. Their humor was seen as too low-brow. They did anything for laugh. Their comedy lacked the social message of a Chaplin film. It lacked the technical inventiveness of a Buster Keaton comedy. But most people would say Laurel & Hardy provided more belly laughs than most of their contemporaries. The great comedian Steve Allen once said "Chaplin was the greatest comedian of all time. Laurel & Hardy were the funniest."

As I mentioned the team got their start in silent cinema. Both were originally solo acts. Laurel would write and star in his own shorts though never found much success. Producer Hal Roach however kept him on staff as a gag writer. Oliver Hardy, because of his physical appearance, often played "the heavy" or the bully opposite comics like Charley Chase or Larry Semon. Once in a while Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy would appear in the same short. Not as a team but as rivals. Sometimes they would no have scenes together. But around 1927 Hal Roach and Leo McCarey got the idea to pair the two as a team. Those early shorts; "The Finishing Touch", "Do Detectives Think?" and "Putting Pants on Philip" are good, some better than others. But for me it wasn't until 1929 the team really came together. They were always able to play off each other but it just took time to nail the characters. To understand what worked and what didn't. By the time sound pictures came to be, they were ready. Their persona was strongly in place.

By the time "Way Out West" came to be rumors were starting to circulate the team was going to split up. They were having contract difficulties with Hal Roach. Hardy even appear in a film without Laurel, "Zenobia" (1937) with Harry Langdon. But whatever the behind the scenes friction may have been the team still managed to put out a good film.

Memorable moments in the film include Laurel eating Hardy's hat after losing a bet. Laurel using his hand as a lighter. Two of the film's longest comedy sequences involve "the boys" attempt to get back the deed giving us the famous "haha/ho-ho/he-he" line and Stan being tickled into submission. Which is very similar to a moment in Harry Langdon's comedy "The Strong Man". We have the soft shoe dance and the block & tackle comedy sequence. I won't explain these moments in relation to the rest of the film because I think that would spoil the film. But keep your eyes open during these moments.

"Way Out West" is truly one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Film Review: Monsieur Beaucaire

"Monsieur Beaucaire" *** (out of ****)

Last year on April Fool's Day I wanted to celebrate the holiday by reviewing a comedy, I chose the Bob Hope comedy "Louisiana Purchase" (1941) a political satire which takes aim at then President Roosevelt. But this year I have taken things further and have devoted the month to reviewing the kind of movies I enjoy watching and writing about the most; classic comedies. Naturally I couldn't leave Bob Hope out.

Bob Hope was one of those figures in my life that just seemed to have always been there. Like Laurel & Hardy and Charlie Chaplin I can't remember when I didn't enjoy watching his movies. I can't remember when was the first time I saw him in a movie. I just seem to have always been a fan. I admit, he was not my all time favorite comic but I knew if I watched him in a movie I could expect a good laugh. Outside of Groucho Marx who else could deliver a one-liner with such ease? Henny Youngman may have been thought of as "king of the one-liners" but Hope was more deserving of the crown.

The sad thing about Bob Hope movies is rarely are they really good movies. Hope is funny in them but there is usually little reason, besides him, to watch the movies. Only a selected few would truly qualify as entertaining movies, "Monsieur Beaucaire" (1946) is generally deemed one of his best, if not his best. It is probably my second or third favorite behind "Casanova's Big Night" (1954).

"Monsieur Beaucaire" has Hope as the famed barber. He is in love with a chambermaid, Mimi (Joan Caulfield). The two are assigned to the lower level of the palace but Mimi is now moving to the upper level, making her closer to the King, Louis XV (Reginald Owen). Beaucaire doesn't like this because he is afraid Mimi will try to get in the King's good graces and forget all about him.

At this point in time France and Spain seem to be on the verge of war. An agreement has been made to arrange a political marriage to unit to two countries. Princess Maria of Spain (Marjorie Reynolds) will marry any man of the King's choosing. The King selects a well known playboy, Duc le Chandre (Patrick Knowles) who has been making advances at the King's mistress, Madame Pompadour (Hillary Brooke). The King sees this as his chance to eliminate the competition for Madame Pompadour's affection.

Events take a turn for the worst as Beaucaire is discovered impersonating the King as he tries to convince Mimi what kind of honorable man Beaucaire is. The Queen (Constance Collier) catches Beaucaire (still dressed as the King) and Mimi kissing. The Queen orders Mimi be sent to the Spanish border, never to be seen again. The King sentences Beaucaire to death by guillotine.

The Duc le Chandre however rescues Beaucaire as he disguises him in his clothes. Beaucaire now sees this as his chance to find Mimi in Spain.

That is pretty much the set-up to the story. It now involves a lot of mistaken identities. People assume Beaucaire is really the Duc, the Duc is really a servant, the Princess a maid.

The film was directed by George Marshall. He directed Hope in two movies; "The Ghost Breakers" (1940) and "Fancy Pants" (1950) with Lucille Ball. He also directed a W.C. Fields comedy, "You Can't Cheat An Honest Man" (1939). The script was by two of Hope's best comedy writers, the team of Norman Panama and Melvin Frank. The two wrote "My Favorite Spy" (1942), "The Princess & the Pirate" (1944) and "The Facts of Life" (1960) also with Lucille Ball. Frank was a director as well, having written and directed such films as the Danny Kaye vehicle "The Court Jester" (1955) and the Oscar winning romantic comedy, "A Touch of Class" (1973). "Monsieur Beaucaire" was based on a novel written by Booth Tarkington (who also wrote "The Magnificent Ambersons") which was filmed once before in 1924 starring Rudolph Valentino and Bebe Daniels. Comedy director Ernst Lubitsch did a sort of musical adaptation of it in "Monte Carlo" (1930).

So what is the best way to review a Bob Hope comedy? Or comedy in general? I don't know. I've been struggling with it this entire month. I don't want to simply give away the best jokes to prove the movie is funny because that will spoil everything for the viewer. But how can I prove the movie is funny without revealing something? If I merely said "this movie is funny." Would that be enough for everyone?

What I think makes "Monsieur Beaucaire" funny is the setting. Hope liked to place himself in these historical settings so he could put in a few anachronistic remarks. We tend to view Hope as a "modern" figure so seeing him in costumes is funny. When Hope plays the Duc, he now has to become a ladies man. This is always a rich topic for comics, their failing with women. But Hope doesn't view himself as a failure. Hope thinks he should be loved by all women. So it becomes funny when he fails. It doesn't break his ego however as he simply moves on to the next woman only to strike out again.

As is the case with most Bob Hope comedies there is a lot of physical comedy. The best sequence in the film probably involves Beaucaire and the Duc trying to hide Madame Pompadour from the King, in his room. It results in Beaucaire giving Madame Pompadour a shave!

Another good bit is more verbal. It is of when we first met Beaucaire. He is trying to hang himself to prove his love to Mimi. As he is about to do it, he is called by the King to give him a shave. He when explains to one of the King's servants what he was doing and why, the servant tells him he is doing the right thing. But the servant wonders where did he find the rope. Beaucaire tells him Mimi gave it to him.

I suppose if you are looking for fault with the film it has to do with the casting. This is not to suggest the performances are bad, but remember, everyone is either suppose to be French or Spanish. Does Bob Hope look French to you? He doesn't even speak with an accent. Reginald Owen (an English actor) as King Louis XV? Marjorie Reynolds as a Spanish Princess?

This leads to something else I found odd about the film, Ms. Reynolds doesn't get top billing. She was a popular star at the time. She was in Fritz Lang's "Ministry of Fear" (1944), in my opinion a minor effort and was in the Abbott and Costello comedy "The Time of Their Lives" (1946). Strange they shouldn't bill her higher as Caulfield gets second billing and this was only her second movie!

Regardless "Monsieur Beaucaire" is a funny movie and could serve as a good introduction to those unfamiliar with Hope. We can see his natural gifts for comedy clearly on display here. His wonderful way with dialogue and terrific handling of one-liners. If you like this movie please watch "Casanova's Big Night", "My Favorite Brunette" (1947), "Alias Jesse James" (1959) and any of the "Road" movies with Bing Crosby. I particularly find "Road to Zanzibar" (1941) quite funny.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Film Review: The Great Moment

"The Great Moment" *** (out of ****)

Preston Sturges' "The Great Moment" (1944) probably has gained one of the worst, if not the worst reputation among his films. It is routinely cited as an embarrassment for the great comedy filmmaker. The film was his first not to return a profit for Paramount Studio and is believed to have been the beginning of his decline, which ended a four year run Sturges had as an unstoppable force in comedy.

So why have I chosen to write about "The Great Moment" instead of some of Sturges' better known titles such as "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" (1944) or "Sullivan's Travels" (1942)? First of all, I admire Struges greatly. He is one of my favorite directors. I have said before and will say again, he makes the kind of comedies I aspire to make. I have seen nearly all of his work. But, as I have stated many times already, I don't like to only write about the celebrated films by directors. You don't need me to tell you about those. Secondly, I don't think "The Great Moment" deserves to be forgotten and shun by movie fans. It is not the disaster so many claim it to be.

I first saw "The Great Moment" about three years ago. I reviewed it on I explained how even I, a Sturges fan, had some trepidation about watching this movie. Its reputation proceeded it. It seemed like such an odd subject matter for a film and more specifically a Preston Sturges film. But I enjoyed it anyway. I mentioned at the time how "The Great Moment" even demonstrated Sturges' brilliance. How a man could find humor within a story such as this took vision and great creativity on his part.

"The Great Moment" is based on the book "Triumph Over Pain" by Rene Fulop-Miller about the life of W.T.G. Morton, the man who discovered the use for ether. You see, before this doctors had to perform surgery without the use of an anesthetic. You can imagine the pain involve say in something like an amputation. But this is how things were done. Morton, a dentist, tried to find a way to numb the senses long enough for him to pull teeth. Clearly the material presented here does not cry out for comedy.

And originally Preston Sturges did not want to make a flat out comedy. "The Great Moment" was intended to be a semi-serious film. The picture was originally slated for a 1942 release, but after mixed reaction from the public and critics it was shelved for two years. The film was taken away from Sturges and re-edited to a shorter length to place more emphasis on the comedic moments of slapstick. This was all done without Sturges' consent. When the film was finally released in 1944 it didn't improve reaction. The film became forgotten. Sturges no longer worked for Paramount. It was his first disaster. The film came out the same year as "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" which was a huge box-office success. People couldn't understand how the two films could have been directed by the same man.

The problem was Sturges had secured a reputation as comedy writer and director. The audience expected a comedy. Sturges attempted something different and people weren't buying. "The Great Moment" didn't meet public expectation because they weren't viewing it on the film's term. That is the difficult thing for an artist, to try and grow and expend your talents. The public doesn't want you to. There is great comfort in the familiar. When you walk into a Preston Sturges' comedy you expect certain things, laughs being one of them.

Joel McCrea stars as W.T.G. Morton. McCrea was an old Sturges regular having appeared in "The Palm Beach Story" (1942), and "Sullivan's Travels". So his appearance alone probably suggested comedy to audiences watching the film for the first time. But McCrea didn't do strictly comedy. He had a serious side to him. Watch him in Alfred Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent" (1940). He was in several westerns such as "The Virginian" (1946) and "Colorado Territory" (1949).

Co-starring is another Sturges regular, William Demarest, best known to today's movie audiences as the father in "Morgan Creek". He plays Morton's first patient, who came to him complaining about a tooth ache. It is in the Demarest character, Eben Frost, that Sturges throws in his physical comedy making Frost take more pratfalls than Buster Keaton.

The remaining cast consist of Betty Field as Morton's wife, Elizabeth. Julius Tannen, another Sturge regular, as Morton's old medical professor, Dr. Charles Jackson, who first gives him the idea. Harry Carey as Prof. Warren, the first doctor to perform a surgery using Morton's discovery and Louis Jean Heydt as Dr. Horace Wells, who was a fellow student with Morton, who decides to use laughing gas as a means to numb the senses.

Once Morton's discovery becomes famous, everyone claims to have known about it years before. The difference is no one put it to use the way Morton did. Ether did exist before Morton, but it was not done to sedate patients. Doctors and scientist may have wondered how to lessen pain but none seemed to have turned to ether.

"The Great Moment", as it stands now, is 80 minutes. I have no idea how long the film was originally suppose to be but the viewer can tell something is missing. The film ends which when things are starting to get interesting. The majority of the film is told in flashbacks, so we know how everything will end but the film doesn't take us through the process completely.

Some might complain the balance between comedy and drama seems clumsy. I disagree. Even though the film was re-edited, I think you can get an idea of what Sturges wanted to do with this film. He finds a nice balance between the film's more serious moments and Demarest's comedy. The comedy never interferes with the progression of the story. There are not comedy bits that leave you wondering why is this sequence in here?

Clearly there are problems with the film, mainly due to the editing but as I have explained that wasn't Sturges' fault. I'm not trying to make excuses but you have to consider that. Sturges' vision was not presented on-screen. Maybe one day we might discover some "lost" footage.

Preston Sturges started off as a comedy writer. I have not seen all the films where he was just the writer. I have seen two of them. "Easy Living" (1937) which I reviewed on here and "The Good Fairy" (1935) which takes place in Budapest. Both are good movies though I prefer "Easy Living". It has more of the Sturges touch.

He got his start as a director with "The Great McGinty" (1940) a political satire, which supposedly he was paid $1 for the screenplay in order for him to direct it. In total Sturges directed 13 films, 10 of which I have seen. The three I have not seen are "Vendetta" (1950). He has not given final screen credit for it because he was fired by producer Howard Hughes. Mel Ferrer was given directing credit. He made a film in France, "Les Carnets du Major Thompson (The Diary of Major Thompson)" (1955), his final film, which is no longer available. And finally "The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend" (1949) with Betty Grable, which is available.

Of the films I have seen I would say "Unfaithfully Yours" (1948) is my favorite. Which I will include in my "Masterpiece Film Series". I'm also a big fan of "Hail the Conquering Hero" (1944), another title I'll include in the series. The only title I have seen which I didn't like was one which surprised me the most. It is called "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock" (1947). On paper this film sounds great. Harold Lloyd stars in it. It was suppose to be a kind of sequel to Lloyd's silent classic "The Freshmen" (1925).

If you have seen Sturges' better known films and consider yourself a fan I would recommend watching "The Great Moment". It is not essential Sturges, because of the shift in tone, but it should be seen and enjoyed. Don't let the film's reputation intimidate you. At 80 minutes the film moves quickly, it is a pleasurable diversion.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Film Review: Hook, Line and Sinker

"Hook, Line and Sinker" *** (out of ****)

I have written once before about the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. Today they are largely forgotten by the mainstream public and are only remembered by film and comedy buffs.

Their comedy never really appealed to me. I prefer the work of Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Abbott & Costello. The problem with Wheeler and Woolsey was their material was never first rate and secondly their characters weren't clearly distinguished and never became as familiar to us as the persona's of other comics.

Think of it this way. If you watch Laurel & Hardy in comedy and say they join the army, become policemen, or are salesmen, you know something is going to go wrong because we understand these characters. They are consistent from film to film. And because of that we will laugh at a situation even before the joke happens. We feel as if we know these people and understand how they will react in a given situation. You really can't say the same about Wheeler and Woolsey. You know they would fail at a given task, that is the nature of comedy, but they didn't grow on us the same way others did.

But this makes it sound as if Wheeler and Woolsey should be avoided. I wouldn't go that far. I like to collect rare movies and as a result I have seen nearly ever single one of the team's films. In all they appeared in 22 RKO comedies together. They are routinely said to have saved the studio from bankruptcy. In the 1930s they were a popular comedy team though never critical successes. You can read some of the reviews the New York Times gave their films and they are rarely positive.

Though isn't that usually the fate comedies have? Critics never give them enough credit. That is why I decided to devote more time to comedies this month. When we think of great films 9 out of 10 times dramas pop into our heads. Perhaps an occasional musical; "An American in Paris", "Swing Time" or "Singin' in the Rain" but comedies often get left behind. While my blog isn't going to change any of this, at the very least I hope this month I have introduced some new titles to readers and have brought to their attention certain comics and directors they may not have known.

In "Hook, Line and Sinker" (1930) the team plays insurance salesmen. They are Wilbur Boswell (Bert Wheeler) and Addington Ganzy (Robert Woolsey). When we first see them they are being pulled over by a policeman. In this set-up the jokes start flying. Woolsey, the funnyman, throws out one-liners in the great tradition of Groucho Marx, whom he is most often compared to. Trying to talk his way out of a ticket he tries to sell insurance to the policeman. He tells him of a new policy they have which "offers protection against bruises, earthquakes and relatives." When he hasn't quite convinced the officer, he tries to prove the importance of getting insurance by telling him "people are dying this year that have never died before."

If these one-liners don't appeal to you, the film as a whole probably won't. These are the kind of one-liners Woolsey delivers. And to be honest, they make me laugh. Listen to the way he delivers the line. He may not be remembered as a great comic but he could handle a one-liner.

Soon after the boys meet Mary Marsh (Dorothy Lee). As is the case in their films, Lee and Wheeler become romantically involved. If you've ever seen Bert Wheeler's face, you'll have to ask yourself why? I know I do every time. She is running away from home after her mother (Jobyna Howland) insist she marry the family attorney, John Blackwell (Ralf Harolde). But she doesn't love him. So she has decided to make it on her own by re-opening the family hotel. Which according to John Blackwell is in fine shape. Not being one to turn down a pretty face Wilbur agrees to help Mary run the hotel with help from Ganzy.

When Ganzy hears Mary's last name he tells her "I love the name Marsh, it's so mellow." I told you what kind of jokes to expect people!

The hotel is not in the condition they were expecting. It is completely run down but Ganzy gets an idea. Call the newspapers and flat out lie. Tell them they are re-opening the hotel and already have some of the wealthiest people all over the world staying there. And brag about their burglar proof safe.

What Ganzy and the gang don't realize is now every crook in town wants to break into the safe if so many of the elite are staying at the hotel placing their jewels in the safe.

"Hook, Line and Sinker" has a little more plot then I like in a Wheeler and Woolsey comedy. The best comedies the team made I feel were ones which didn't get boggled down in plot. They focus more on the team and give them room to do their comedy. The previous comedy I reviewed by the team, "Peach-O-Reno" (1931) was an example of this. Their best picture might be "Diplomaniacs" (1933), something I am sure to include in my "Masterpiece Film Series". If anything in that film makes sense to you, you are one step ahead of the game.

When their films follow a plot too closely it restricts them. Now they have to follow a particular formula. When their films are loose on plot it gives us more comedy and becomes unpredictable. This works in their favor.

The film was directed by Edward F. Cline. He had been around the film business since the early silent era. Often working in comedy. He directed several W.C. Fields comedies though with a talent like Fields on the set it is hard to say just how much input Cline had on these films. But he directed "Never Give A Sucker an Even Break" (1941) and "The Bank Dick" (1940). He also worked with Wheeler and Woolsey before directing their last film "High Flyers" (1937) and "Cracked Nuts" (1931). Neither of which I personally like.

The script was by Ralph Spence. Another man who had been around since the silent era writing comedy. He wrote the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Flying Deuces" (1939), one of the few films the team made I don't like. Was responsible for the play in which the Ritz Brothers' comedy "The Gorilla" (1939) is based on. A lot of people damn this film but for reasons unknown to me I actually like this film. And finally he too worked with Wheeler and Woolsey before on their comedies "Cockeyed Cavaliers" (1934) and "Peach-O-Reno". The other writer was Tim Whelan, who was also a director. He went uncredited for the 1951 film "Utopia", Laurel & Hardy's final film. He also worked with Harold Lloyd, writing two of Lloyd's best, "Girl Shy" (1924) and the lesser known but equally funny "Hot Water" (also 1924). And wrote the Wheeler and Woolsey comedy "Hold 'Em Jail" (1932), which has some funny moments.

While you can say Wheeler was the straight man of the two and as I said put in the romantic lead, he was thought to be the more talented of the two. I completely disagree with this. Robert Woolsey is much more fun to watch. It is not often that the straight man is thought to be better than the comic. Did you ever hear someone say, boy that Bud Abbott, what a guy!? Lou Costello got all the attention. Did anyone ever say Zeppo was their favorite Marx Brother? No, it is usually Groucho. So why people think Wheeler was better than Woolsey I'll never understand.

The female lead, Dorothy Lee, was in 14 of the team's films. I don't think she was great actress but she has to be one of the cutest people I have ever seen. If her objective in these films was to offer innocent sexual innuendos she succeeds beautifully. She is always cheerful and sunny. She always has a smile on her face. While you don't get to see it on display in this film, oddly enough, she could also sing and dance. This is one of the few Wheeler and Woolsey films I can think of that has no musical numbers. Usually Wheeler and Lee do a duet. With Woolsey doing a comedic version of the same song.

Woolsey is paired with the mother, Mrs. Marsh. His interest in her is purely financial. In one scene she is telling him about all her previous marriages and how each husband died. It is hard not to think of Groucho and Margaret Dumont's banter watching these two. Which has to be what the writers were going for.

One scene in the film feels terribly out of place. Wilbur is caught with another woman, Dutchess Bessie Von Essie (Nathalie Moorhead) a crook in disguise, she pulls a gun out on him so he will tell her the code to the safe. He manages to get the gun away from her but Mary sees them together. As Wilbur tries to explain what happened to Mary, he pulls a gun out on her. This does not seem fitting for the character at all. Surely there must have been another way to get the two lovers to resolve their problems other than having the guy pull out a gun on her!

Also in a small role is Hugh Herbert as the house detective. He is given practically nothing to work with. He became a little better known during his years after this working for Warner Brothers, where often he played in Ruby Keeler musicals as a sugar daddy.

"Hook, Line and Sinker" has some funny moments. It waste no time getting into the comedy. The climax drags a bit but Wheeler and Woolsey are watchable. The team has made better films, "Peach-O-Reno", "Diplomaniacs" and "Half Shot at Sunrise" (1930), but "Hook, Line and Sinker" still has some fine comedy moments. It is good innocent fun. A slight and simply diversion.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Film Review: Heaven Can Wait

"Heaven Can Wait" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Heaven Can Wait" is magic. A splendid, romantic, sophisticated comedy done with a sure hand.

"Heaven Can Wait" marks the first time I've reviewed an Ernst Lubitsch film. It is something that I've regretted since I started this blog. The problem was, nearly all of Lubitsch's films belong in my "Masterpiece Film Series". Which one could I have reviewed first? I already wrote an entry into the series, Keaton's "Sherlock Jr." and it is too soon for another. While, I must admit, I like all of Lubitsch's films, some I like more than others. I use to think "Heaven Can Wait" (1943) and "To Be or Not To Be" (1942) were good Lubitsch films but not great. So, I thought I could review either one of those. So I watched both films again. I changed my mind slightly on "To Be or Not To Be" but dramatically on "Heaven Can Wait".

Those unfamiliar with the story should know it is based on a play, "Birthday (Szuletesnap)" written by Hungarian playwright Lazlo Bus-Fekete. Dom Ameche stars as Henry van Cleve. A playboy who has died. Looking over his life he feels he has led a life of sin. Hell should be his final resting place. But the Devil (Laird Cregar) is not sure Henry has come to the right place. So Henry tells him the story of his life and all the women he has engaged in sinful acts with.

The main problem I had with "Heaven Can Wait" was I never felt Henry's "sins" were as bad as he proclaimed. So he had many lovers, big deal! Does he deserve to go to Hell? I could never get my mind over that plot point. And thus, the rest of the movie was somewhat ruined for me.

As I watched this film again I began to realize the criticism I had was so insignificant. It didn't matter if Henry's sins were truly as evil as he thought they were or not. The movie is not about that really. The story is really a love story about a man who carries these personal sins around him but met a woman who became his redeeming light. It is a story of love overcoming both evil and lust. The sequence with the Devil is merely a plot device used to introduce the flashbacks which begin the story.

Ernst Lubitsch is one of my favorite directors. His comedies always maintained a certain level of sophistication to them that have only been matched by Preston Sturges. The difference between the two men is Lubitsch didn't rely on slapstick as much as Sturges. There may have been physical comedy in Lubitsch's films but the wit of the dialogue is what carried them through.

Lubitsch was born in Berlin, Germany in 1892. After making several films in his homeland, the DVD distributor, KINO, has recently released some of his early works, he left Germany in 1922 as the political climate was starting to change. His best known American film during the silent era may be "The Marriage Circle" (1924). But it was his sound pictures which secured is reputation as a great director.

His early films were musicals believe it or not and usually starred Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. My favorite of his musicals is probably "Monte Carlo" (1930) with Jack Buchanan. Others included "The Love Parade" (1929), "One Hour With You" (1932) and "The Smiling Lieutenant" (1931). But my all time favorite Lubitsch film is a sparkling romantic comedy about thieves, "Trouble in Paradise" (1932). All of these films were playful in their attitude regarding sex and made strong innuendos. But the films were never vulgar. That is something I miss about Hollywood. All of these Lubitsch films are what we now know as "pre-code" but even the films made after the production code, were smart. The viewer understands the sexual subtext underneath but it wasn't pushed in our face. Because of the code writers and directors had to be smarter. They had to find ways to work around things. Today it is all four letter words and nudity. There's no creativity. No imagination anymore!

"Heaven Can Wait" doesn't come out a say Henry was an unfaithful husband or that he was fouling around with various women but we get the idea. The film just says he kissed women he didn't end up marrying. Nothing is truly that innocent. Trust me, Henry was getting it on.

But everything changes for Henry when he meets Martha (Gene Tierney). For Martha, Henry says, he will change all of his vices. No more drinking, no more gambling, no more women, why, he may even get a job! This is serious talk from Henry. One problem. She's about to get married. But should that stop Henry from being with the woman of his dreams? Not in the movies.

Besides the fine performances given by the two leads the supporting cast is also terrific. Charles Coburn co-stars as Hugo van Cleve, Henry's grandfather. Coburn was a great character actor, who even won an Academy Award in George Stevens' great WW2 comedy "The More the Merrier" (1943). He was nominated two other times for performances in "The Devil and Miss Jones" (1941) with Jean Arthur and "The Green Years" (1946). He was also in the funny Jack Benny comedy "George Washington Slept Here" (1942) and the dramatic "Kings Row" (1942). He was always a lively personality on-screen. Who could definitely steal scenes from the bigger stars.

Allyn Joslyn plays Henry's father, Albert and Spring Byington as Bertha van Cleve, Henry's mother. They two were old character actors. Joslyn had many roles on TV and played the uncle in "High Society" (1956) with Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly.

But of course the two leads will catch most people's eyes. Gene Tierney may be best known for her role in Otto Preminger's "Laura" as the title character even though she was nominated for an Oscar for the film "Leave Her to Heaven" (1945) and was in Jules Dassin's excellent "Night and the City" (1950). In this film Lubitsch and his camera make us fall in love with her. The camera captures all of her beauty in several long unbroken shots of her. This movie, more than other made me realize just how beautiful of a woman she was. I understand that says nothing about her acting but her beauty is clearly something Lubitsch wanted to reference in this film.

Don Ameche honestly never really impressed me much as an actor. He is very good here and in a small number of other roles. I like him in the comedy "Midnight" (1939) where he actually plays a Hungarian. And in a pair of musicals; "Down Argentine Way" (1940) and "Moon Over Miami" (1941). He was nominated for one Oscar in his career, in 1986 for the Ron Howard comedy "Cocoon" (1985). In "Heaven Can Wait" he is suppose to play the refine young man who goes against societies' norm. He does it well. He looks the part and his able to make us care about him even though he tells us he has led the life of a sinner.

The film was nominated for 3 Oscars in 1943. One for the cinematography, directing and picture. It was nominated against such films as "Casablanca", David Lean/Noel Coward's "In Which We Serve" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls".

The title, and only the title, was remade in the 1978 Warren Beatty comedy "Heaven Can Wait" which was actually based on the film "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" (1941). Please don't confuse the two, though both of those movies are well worth seeing.

I guess the reason I love watching this film and Lubitsch so much is first of all because it is funny. The film has some wonderful lines, none of which I will reveal here. The supporting cast does a fine job supplying comedy relief. I like the old-fashion attitude of the film. I love how playful Lubitsch and long time screenwriting collaborator, Samson Raphaelson ("The Shop Around the Corner" (1940) and "The Merry Widow" (1934)) are in the way they treat sex. I also find the film can be very romantic, it reminds me of a popular Hungarian film, "Szindbad" (1971), about a playboy looking back on his life. Lubitsch is able to evoke a heavy deal of nostalgia. The film is sentimental about the bygone era. Normally we may not find such as character as Henry appealing, but he grows on us. And finally I merely love looking at Gene Tierney.

As for Lubitsch himself. I love his movies for the sentimentality they invoke. I admire his sophisticated ways in dealing with adult subjects. And most importantly of all, his films are funny. I mentioned before in my review for "Easy Living", written by Preston Sturges, that Sturges and Lubitsch make the kind of films which greatly inspire me. These are the type of films I have attempted to make. They will always remain a great influence on me.

I debated with himself about whether or not I should include this in my "Masterpiece Film Series". Now that I've written about it, there is nothing I can do. There are many more Lubitsch films I will have the opportunity to write about. I will include those in the series. The main thing however is to get people to watch this film. This is one of Lubitsch's best films.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Film Review: The Naughty Nineties

"The Naughty Nineties" *** (out of ****)

I've never reviewed anything by the comedy team of Abbott & Costello on this blog yet. But it is not because I don't appreciate their comedy, though I must admit, I'm not one of their biggest fans.

I've always thought of Abbott & Costello as a vaudeville comedy team. Even in their pictures they never seemed to have out grown that. They weren't really suited for the movies. All of their routines were verbal, with them standing next to each other engaged in very funny word play. But there is nothing cinematically interesting about seeing two guys stand next to each other. At least Laurel & Hardy did physical comedy. Just the image of seeing Laurel & Hardy carry a piano up 100 stairs is funny. They were more suited for film, I would guess because that was were their roots were. Abbott & Costello got their start on the stage.

Team was formed in 1935. They were an immediate hit. Vaudeville was just coming to an end, if it hadn't completely died already. By 1938 they made their radio debut on the Kate Smith Show. Two years later they found themselves replacing funnyman Fred Allen on the radio, eventually getting their own program in 1942.

But most people familiar with Abbott & Costello probably know them through their films, though they did have a popular television show in the late 40s into the early 50s. Their film debut came in 1940 with a Universal "B" picture entitled "One Night in the Tropics". The team was given supporting roles. The stars were Allan Jones and Robert Cummings. If you see the film today, Abbott & Costello are given top billing. From there they were put in "Buck Privates" (1941) their first starring vehicle. I'm not a big fan of that movie, though it is one of their most popular films and generally considered among their best. Other successful films for the team included their pairing with Universal Monsters. The best in the pack is "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948). Other adventures would include them meeting the Invisible Man, Boris Karloff, the Keystone Kops and the Mummy. Some of my personal favorites are "Hold That Ghost" (1941) and "Abbott & Costello In Hollywood" (1945).

Since I've never written about this comedy team it was difficult choosing a place to start. I normally don't like to begin with the most popular titles. I like to bring attention to lesser known works which are worth seeing. I thought about reviewing "The Noose Hangs High" (1948) or their final film "Dance With Me Henry" (1956) but I think I have much more fun watching "The Naughty Nineties" (1945).

This film, directed by Jean Yarbrough, who directed several episodes of the Abbott & Costello TV show and a few of their films, "Jack and the Beanstalk" (1952) and "Abbott & Costello In Society" (1944), has the team working on a riverboat. Bud Abbott plays Dexter Broadhurst, a second rate actor and Lou Costello as his assistant Sebastian Dinwiddle. Their boss, Capt. Sam Jackson (Henry Travers, best known for his performance as Clarence in "It's A Wonderful Life") falls into gambling debt when he meets three card sharks headed by the beautiful Bonita Farrow (Rita Johnson). She along with Mr. Crawford (Alan Curtis) and Bailey (Joe Sawyer) get Mr. Jackson drunk while playing poker making him bet his showboat in the game.

Ms. Farrow and her gang are on the run from a sheriff and think the travelling showboat would be perfect for their lifestyle. They can rig the gambling while moving on from city to city never running into the law. But Mr. Jackson and his daughter, Caroline (Lois Collier) have always prided themselves on running a clean show which families can bring their children to. But since Mr. Jackson lost control of the showboat there is little he can say.

Now much of this plot honestly has nothing to do with Abbott & Costello. Sometimes I get the feeling they aren't even in the same picture. The team merely performs their own material, which they had been doing on radio, and repeats it here. None of their humor stems from the plot of the story. Though I wouldn't have it any other way.

Abbott & Costello remind me of comedy teams such as the Marx Brothers or Wheeler & Woolsey. A plot just gets in their way. It slows them down from doing their comedy. The best films are the ones just have a simple idea behind it and let the team do their stuff. After all, that is why people are going to watch these films in the first place. No one is looking for an engaging dramatic plot. You judge these movies based upon how funny Abbott & Costello are. Their scenes will probably be the highlights.

For that reason "The Naughty Nineties" works. Here we see my favorite performance of their "Who's On First" routine on film. It is often regarded as one of the greatest comedy bits in history and this is considered their best performance of it. Though it comes out of, no pun intended, left field. There really is no reason for it to exist in this particular film. But there it is. If you listen closely you can hear giggles in the background. You may think since the team is on a stage while performing the bit, it is a pretend audience laughing. Not so. It is the crew and the director cracking up.

Other good comedy routines include Sebastian thinking a cook has served him and Dexter cat. It is difficult to explain the set-up and in my opinion wouldn't be fair if you haven't seen this film before. It is too funny to spoil. Though I saw the Three Stooges perform the same gag in one of their shorts for Columbia. I'm not sure of the year the Stooges' did it, but their is a good chance Abbott and Costello burrowed it from them. One way to explain this, besides saying everyone stole from everybody, is that Felix Adler is credited here for "additional comedy sequences". He worked with Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy and the Stooges. It was probably his routine which he lent to each team.
Watch for another famous comedy routine as Sebastian is practing singing a song Dexter is trying to adjust the background of the stage. Dexter speaks aloud, giving orders such as "move to the left", "move to the right", "higher", "lower" but Sebastian thinks he is talking to him, instructing him on how to sing. This is an old comedy routine which other people have performed.

And if you are really up to date on your comedy routines you will notice Lou Costello and Joe Sawyer do their verison of what is known as the "mirror gag". I first saw Chaplin do it in his short comedy "The Floorwalker" (1916) but is probably best known for the Marx Brothers doing it in "Duck Soup" (1933). This is when Harpo, dressed as Groucho, pretends to be Groucho's reflection. Here however the gag isn't as polished. The timing is a bit off and neither seems to be having any fun with it.

The film gets a little weak during the climax. It leaves out some information regarding the characters' fate. I suppose the viewer is just suppose to assume the best and hope for a happy ending. Another thing about the film's final comedy sequence is it seems to have been stolen from Laurel & Hardy in their comedy short "The Live Ghost" (1934), where they try to get drunks to leave a bar only to be hit on the head. Abbott & Costello perform the same bit here and as you can guess the situation becomes predictable.

So what more can I say about "The Naughty Nineties"? There isn't much. If you are looking for a story, look elsewhere. But for the life of me I can't understand why someone would expect a coherent plot in an Abbott & Costello comedy. The team has the best moments, even though they have absolutely nothing to do with this film. Still, the comedy routines here are priceless. You watch this movie only to go along with each comedy sequence. Nothing else about the film is worth while. If you've never seen an Abbott & Costello film before, this isn't a bad place to start. If you are familiar with the team, I'm sure you'd agree this film has some very good comedy routines performed by the team. Not a great picture but good for a laugh.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Film Review: The Long Pants

"The Long Pants" *** (out of ****)

I first saw "The Long Pants" (1927) last year. At the time I was going through a Harry Langdon kick and wanted to see all the feature films he appeared in. But I remember having problems with the film. Watching it a second time I can't quite understand what my problem was.

I remember thinking one of Langdon's major problems in his full length films is so often he will side track a film's logical narrative progression for a comedic sequence. Usually these comedic diversions last several minutes over staying their welcome. I thought that was what happened in "The Long Pants". Langdon also seemed very interested in dark humor which didn't really fit his screen persona of an innocent man-child.

All I can say after re-watching this film is what was my problem! Why was I so critical? Langdon stars as Harry Shelby, a lovelorn romantic who dreams of meeting a girl and sweeping her off her feet with his over powering masculine ways. Problem is Harry is still a child, both mentally and physically. In fact, he still wears short pants. But one day his father, (Alan Roscoe) buys him his first pair of long pants. His mother, (Gladys Brockwell) protest. She is afraid the long pants will get Harry into trouble, making him feel older than he is. And sure enough that is what happens once Harry puts on the long pants.

With his newly stored confidence Harry meets Bebe Blair (Alma Bennett). A criminal on the lamb after smuggling "snow" while her husband is in jail. Harry, not knowing any of this, is taken by her beauty. She stops long enough, after getting a flat tire, for Harry to make an impression and have his heart stolen.

Their meeting is quite funny if not predictable. Harry with his bike attempts to catch her eye while she sits in a lavish car while her driver fixes the flat tire. Harry drives around the car performing various tricks on his bike. Wanting to get rid of him she gives him a kiss. In Harry's mind marriage is in their future.

His parents have other plans for him, not knowing about his affection for Bebe. They want him to marry Priscilla (Priscilla Bonner, who was in "The Strong Man" (1926) also with Langdon and "It" (1927) with Clara Bow). She is an old-fashion homely girl who will take care of him. But after meeting Bebe, Harry finds her to be the boring type now.

"The Long Pants" is a very short film, only 58 minutes. What I have described so far takes up the first 20 minutes. The set-up is as perfect as any comedic situation can be. But the film goes down strange paths and becomes an unusual film.

Harry is forced to marry Priscilla. It just so happens Bebe has been caught and sent to prison. Harry now feels it is his duty to help her escape. He simply can't go through with the wedding. His only out? He must kill Priscilla.

When I first saw this sequence I thought the initial idea of it was funny. A husband trying to kill his wife has always made for good comedy fodder. Think of the Jack Lemmon comedy "How to Murder Your Wife" (1965) or the Preston Sturges film "Unfaithfully Yours" (1948). But there was just something about the Langdon man-child trying to commit this action that seemed out of place. I think I understand why Langdon liked these dark comedy bits (in his comedy "The Chaser" (1928) he attempts to commit suicide). He must have thought the contradiction was funny. We simply don't expect such behavior from him. On some level I suppose that is funny. On my second viewing however, I wasn't bother at all by the sequence. I thought it represented a perfect movie logic. A man is forced to get married, doesn't want to, must kill his bride-to-be on their wedding day. What's so strange about that?

Through this bit Langdon gets in some fun gags. First he envisions the murder in his head. Naturally it goes perfect. In reality, nothing goes as plan. Harry isn't a killer so he fumbles. Priscilla doesn't know what his intentions are and ends up spoiling his plans.

"The Long Pants" was directed by Frank Capra. Early in Capra's career he worked as a writer for Langdon on some of his two reelers. The two worked together on "The Strong Man", often thought of as Langdon's best film (I have reviewed it on here). But "The Long Pants" would be their last film together. According to Capra, Langdon had a very big ego. At the time some were calling Langdon "the next Chaplin". This went to Langdon's head and he started ordering around Capra. Capra also claims Langdon didn't understand his character and what appealed to the audience. Langdon needed creative people around him who understood comedy and his character in order for him to succeed.

I don't know how much, if any, of this is true. Some say Capra just suffered from sour grapes as a result of Langdon firing him. But Langdon did have good people working around him. Capra was a talented filmmaker. Some readers may find it shocking that he was involved with this kind of slapstick comedy. But Capra's films have usually had some comedic elements to them. Also working with Langdon was Arthur Ripley. Ripley wrote "Saturday Afternoon", thought to be Langdon's best two-reeler, "Soldier Man", "His Marriage Wow" and "Plain Clothes" among others. And stuck with Langdon throughout his career. He wrote "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" (1926) and Langdon's directorial debut "Three's A Crowd" (1927), (which I have also reviewed on here). In addition to which Ripley worked with W.C. Fields, directing two of my favorite shorts "The Pharmacist" and "The Barber Shop".

"The Long Pants" does side track its plot for comedy gags but it is not as distracting as I originally thought. Especially since the bits are funny. I'm someone who was never bothered by sacrificing a story for a joke. Once Harry helps Bebe escape from jail the film become episodic as Harry gets in one bizarre situation after another. The best may be a sequence in which Harry thinks a police officer is sitting on a crate in which Bebe is hiding in. Harry goes to extremes trying to get the policeman to move.

Harry Langdon isn't very well remembered today. He has gotten the nickname "the forgotten clown". Fans of silent comedy like to say he is the fourth genius behind Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. I'm not a big fan of this ranking game but Langdon doesn't deserve to be forgotten by today's audiences. I don't find him to be as inspirational as the other three or as influential, still he has his place in comedy history.

It is strange that as much as I talk about my love of silent comedy and the work of the great clowns it is Langdon whose work I have reviewed the most, and I'm not his biggest fan. I have only reviewed two Chaplin comedies; "Modern Times" and "A King in New York", one Buster Keaton comedy ("Sherlock Jr.") and two Harold Lloyd comedies; his silent classic "Safety Last" and his talking comedy "Movie Crazy". But I have reviewed three Langdon comedies now. Why do I pay him so much attention? I really don't know. Maybe because I want to bring more attention to him and I feel most film buffs have heard of the other three. Or maybe I like Langdon more than I realize.

Regardless, "The Long Pants" lives up to its reputation as one of Langdon's best films. I would say it comes in second to "The Strong Man". This could serve as a good introduction into Langdon's feature films after his two-reelers. Here we get a very good understanding of what the Langdon persona was and even why some people find it creepy. I suppose the image of a grown man in short pants with high stockings can be off-putting.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Film Review: A King in New York

"A King in New York" *** (out of ****)

In order to understand Chaplin's "A King in New York" (1957) you must be aware of some history. In 1952 Chaplin was deported from America after being considered a communist or at least a sympathizer. The FBI had an extensive file on him after many of his films were seen as having "red" messages. Among them, "Modern Times" (1936), a film about the struggles of the working man. "The Great Dictator" (1940) where at the end of the film his character gives a speech claiming all people should live in peace and unite. I don't know how extreme these ideas or words are seen today but in their time Chaplin's words were threatening to American society.

A lot of people view "A King in New York" as Chaplin's rebuttal. A way to clear his name from the charges set forth. Both situations involve a foreigner coming to America, getting involved with the entertainment industry and being accused of communism. And because Chaplin had been exiled from America, a lot of people feel Chaplin wanted to get in some digs at American culture. Presenting Americans as uneducated and simplistic in their world view.

This is and isn't true. The film does deal with some of these issues. And I personally think Chaplin did want to set some facts straight and since Chaplin was a filmmaker, film was how he could best express himself. But that shouldn't repel audiences. Viewers should give the film a fighting chance and at least see it once with an open mind.

It is true "A King in New York" is not one of the master's great films. I doubt I will ever come across someone who will tell me this film is funnier than "The Gold Rush" (1925), "City Lights" (1932) or even "The Circus" (1928) but it is, in its own way, an important film in the Chaplin cannon. If only because he helps us gain a greater insight into Chaplin's mind and thoughts on politics and American pop culture.

Chaplin stars, in his last leading role, as King Shahdov. Shahdov has had to escape his country after the people have revolted against him. He comes to America, New York to be exact, in the hopes of waiting until the political firestorm blows over. But when Shahdov finds out his prime minister has stolen all the government funds, leaving him broke, Shahdov now finds himself stuck doing advertisements, becoming an instant celebrity.

As goofy as this plot may sound, so far, it is actually quite amusing and handled very well by Chaplin. This part of the film I think works best because it gives Chaplin the opportunity to get in some good social comments in a humorous way. Without revealing too much some good gags include Shahdov and his Ambassador Jaume (Oliver Johnston) going to see a movie. Before the movie starts a rock n' roll band is playing while adoring teenage girls look on, fainting. Of course this sort of thing was happening in America with Elvis Presley and would start all over again with The Beatles. Shahdov at one point, after watching this spectacle, leans over to Jaume and asks, "is this healthy"? Another interesting sequence has Shahdov at a dinner party, after an attractive TV host, Ann Kay (Dawn Adams) lures him to a party being thrown in his honor. What Shahdov doesn't realize is there is a secret camera recording everything for live television. And since it is on television there must be mention of sponsors, so during Shahdov's and Ann's conversation, she must somehow go into "commercials" for various products. Today this gag seems modern given reality television shows and films like "The Truman Show".

But then Chaplin gets political. He meets a young boy at a liberal school, Rupert Macabee (Michael Chaplin, Charlie's son). Rupert is an editor for the school's paper. He is outspoken and has left leaning tendencies. You could call him a communist. At first he denies it but later, when in trouble, after his parents, who are school teachers, are called before HUAC, does he admit it. And because he has an association with King Shahdov, who after seeing the boy walking in the cold invites him inside his hotel room, both are accused of being communist.

Even though Chaplin may get in some jabs at pop culture he goes out of his way to reinforce the idea America is a great country, even though he was in exile. At one point he briefly looks into the camera while giving a pro-America speech. He goes on and on about the rights guaranteed to American citizens and how America has always opened her arms to those fleeing tyranny. Remember Chaplin made a short comedy, "The Immigrant" (1917), which was about that.

This moral preaching however doesn't feel natural at times. The dialogue seems a little forced. It is a collection of speeches rather than free flowing dialogue. Chaplin was always accused of this in his sound films, especially his previous film "Limelight" (1952). But that film was more dramatic and reflective. There it seems more fitting as the Chaplin character looks back on his career. "A King in New York" is supposed to be a modern story. Such speeches seem out of place.

There is also a sub-plot going on between King Shahdov and his wife, Queen Irene (Maxine Audley). She was a young woman when they were married, for political reasons, but was in love with another. Since Shahdov's country is up in arms, he wants a divorcee, since he feels it is what the queen wants, even though we can tell he still loves her.

This part of the plot isn't given enough time and honestly doesn't feel necessary to the story.

As I mentioned in my last entry, on Woody Allen's "Sleeper", I view Chaplin as the greatest comedy filmmaker of all time. I understand everyone is entitled to their own opinion. There are two sides to every story they say. But, there are certain things I don't like to hear an opposing view on. Chaplin is one of those things. From as far back as I can remember (around the age of 3 or 4) I've always been a Chaplin fan. My reasons for liking his films may have changed since I was a young boy but he has always made me laugh and has always been an inspiration to me.

Yes there have been other great comics; Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase and W.C. Fields, but Chaplin has meant the most to me. I don't like to knock down one person just to praise another and I'm not going to. I appreciate all of the great comics but think of how not only the history of comedy but the history of film as an art form would have changed if Chaplin didn't exist. It boggles the mind. His impact on film is immeasurable. The other comics had their impact on the culture too. No doubt about it. But only Chaplin became a world-wide icon. At one point it was said he was the most recognizable figure in history.

I mention this because I'm sure someone may think my appreciation for Chaplin clouds my judgement. That is the real reason I'm recommending "A King in New York". Not so. I was able to mention what I felt were the film's flaws; the dialogue, undeveloped plot points. But the film also has some funny sequences and amusing ideas. If I was truly so bias wouldn't I just give the film four stars, call it a masterpiece and be done with it?

Since, of course, Chaplin was in exile he couldn't film this picture in America so it was filmed in the UK. Though Chaplin made the film in 1957 it didn't open in America until 1972, the same is true for "Limelight", which actually won an Academy Award for it musical score. The reason the films did open in 1972 was because Chaplin was going to receive an honorary award and was allowed back into America to accept it. Now a new generation of film fans would discover Chaplin. Lets hope that continues today as well.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Film Review: Sleeper

"Sleeper" *** (out of ****)

I've written about Woody Allen on this blog before but only in reference to his latest films; "Scoop" (2006), "Cass-andra's Dream" (2007) and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (2008). I hadn't gotten around to the films Allen made back in the days people actually went to see a Woody Allen film.

Outside of Charlie Chaplin I would argue Woody Allen is the greatest and most influential comedy filmmaker around today. Of the current crop of directors living today, comedy or drama, Allen is my favorite.

In my last blog entry I pointed out the influence Mel Brooks had on me and my early interest in becoming a filmmaker myself. From Brooks I moved to Allen. As much as I appreciated Brooks, I could relate more to the Allen persona. We were both clumsy, shy around girls, somewhat timid and awkward. The different was I was 13 and Allen was in his 30s. But his behavior and insights reflected a horny teenage boy.

Allen hit it big as a stand-up comic in the 1960s but before that he would write jokes for Sid Caesar (another of my early comedy heroes) and his childhood idol Mr. Bob Hope. In the 1960s however Allen really emerged as a new force in comedy. His comedy was "cleaner" than his comtemporaries; Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce and George Carlin and in my opinion he had more wit. The Allen character became one of those instantly recognizable comedy figures. We felt we knew him and understood him. Only a few comedians have managed to develop such an intimate relationship with their audience; Jack Benny, Laurel & Hardy, Chaplin. We could always anticipate the joke, it may have been predictable but we laughed anyway.

"Sleeper" (1973) was Allen's fourth film as a director. The idea of what to do with the Allen character was starting to become clear. Allen tried to put the "Allen character" in settings which his character didn't belong and allow for culture clash. Here in "Sleeper" he is put in the future. In "Love & Death" (1975) he is put in the past, 17th century Russia, in his debut film, "Take the Money & Run" (1969) he is the subject of a documentary on the worst criminal of all time. And in "Bananas" (1971) he becomes involved in a South American dictatorship.

Because we knew the character so well, we could sense the funny a mile away. Just throw the familiar character in one bizarre situation after another. This is exactly what the older comics; Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields or the Marx Brothers would do. Since the comedic persona was so firmly established the jokes came not from the character but their surroundings followed by their reaction.

Allen's comedic gifts have never really been in physical comedy. He has always been a verbal comic. He can set up a funny visual joke, think back to "Take the Money & Run" where he plays the cello in his high school marching band, but his wit is what steals the show. In "Sleeper" Allen attempts to make a modern day silent slapstick comedy. Mel Brooks would try something similar three years later with "Silent Movie" (1976) but would take one step further by actually making a real silent movie. Allen just goes for the slapstick comedy.

This is somewhat odd for Allen. He has admitted in various interviews he was never a fan of slapstick. In the book "Woody Allen on Woody Allen" he says "I've just never had a broad tolerance of broad comedy." He admits in the same book to not liking Laurel & Hardy. He has also admitted to not liking Harold Lloyd. On Buster Keaton he says "I did not think Buster Keaton was particularly funny. I think his movies are superb. They are masterpieces; his work is beautifully crafted, flawless. But he himself never makes me laugh very much." Strange that "Sleeper" is often thought of as Allen's "Buster Keaton picture".

In "Sleeper" Allen plays Miles Monroe, a neurotic New Yorker who ran a health food store and played clarinet in a New Orleans jazz band. He went to the hospital in 1973 for a minor ulcer operation and after some complications never awoke. Now it is 200 years later. A group of scientist have brought him back to life. The United States is no longer as he remembers it. We are now living in a police state run by "The Leader". Since Miles is no longer a citizen they want him to get in touch with member of an underground revolution which is planning something known as the "Aries project" to overthrow "The Leader". And if he is caught there is nothing he could tell him.

Despite "Sleeper" relying on more visual and physical gags than is usual for an Allen picture, Allen still manages to get in several good one-liners. When Miles does find out what has happened to him he refers to it as a "cosmic screwing". When told if he is captured by the police "your brain will be electronically simplified" he responds in horror, "my brain? that's my second favorite organ."

In order to disguise himself Miles pretends to be a robotic servant. He is sent to Luna (Diane Keaton), making her debut in an Allen picture, an eccentric poet not impressed with her robot. So she plans to have his head removed.

Luna, Miles hopes, will be his connection to the outside world and help him get in contact with the underground movement. But she is not so willing. She sees nothing wrong with the government.

In some ways "Sleeper" is a mix between a Buster Keaton comedy and Chaplin's "Modern Times". Like both, the humor in "Sleeper" comes from Miles trying to adapt to modern technology. Keaton's films were about man against technology and it is pretty much the basis of "Modern Times".

Also given this set-up Allen is able to make fun of current public figures and institutions such as President Nixon, Norman Mailer, the NRA and Howard Cossell. When anyone did anything bad in society, the scientist believe, they were forced to watch Mr. Cossell.

"Sleeper" was written by Allen and Marshall Brickman. The two would continue to work together on "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan". Brickman hasn't done much on his own, so I really can't comment on what his comedy style is but the two made a pretty good team. I love the banter between Miles and Luna. It has the same fast dialogue you'd find in "His Girl Friday" and a Marx Brothers' movie.

"Sleeper" was a pretty successful film for Allen. In its original release Roger Ebert stated that "Sleeper" establishes Allen as our premier comedy director.

The film was also nominated for a Writers Guild award but lost to "A Touch of Class", why, I'm not sure. Not that "A Touch of Class" is bad film.

I'm also willing to bet the film served as some sort of inspiration to Mike Myers when he created his Austin Powers character.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Film Review: High Anxiety

"High Anxiety" *** (out of ****)

The master of the spoof takes on the master of suspense with hilariously frightening results in "High Anxiety" (1977).

Of course when I say the master of the spoof I'm referring to filmmaker Mel Brooks, undoubtedly best known for his films "Young Frankenstein" and "Blazing Saddles" (my pick for the funniest film of all time). And the master of suspense is Alfred Hitchcock.

Film snobs like to look down at me when I say this but it was Mel Brooks who first made me give serious consideration to entering films. Snobs like to hear names like Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Renoir, Ingmar Bergman or Martin Scorsese. All dramatic filmmakers not comedy directors. As Woody Allen once said, when you write comedy you sit at the kid's table. Society holds that idea as truth.

But after watching Brooks' films, I was around 12 when I discovered him, I would always think to myself it looks like they are having so much fun making this movie. I wonder what the outtakes are like. And that was it. My plan was to be the next Mel Brooks. I felt I could make the same type of movies.

Strange for a man I admired so much, I've never written about any of his films before. It had been years since I watched a Mel Brooks movie. But because I planned to devote April to comedies I thought I should write about Mel Brooks.

"High Anxiety", while not my favorite, always seemed the most easy to digest. "Blazing Saddles" or "Silent Movie" were films which I had to be in the right mood in order to watch but I could always pop "High Anxiety" into the VCR and watch it. It very well may be his most accessible film. And like "Spaceballs" it has a strong cult following. I've even heard from some people who say "High Anxiety" is Brooks' best film. Funnier than "Blazing Saddles".

Mel Brooks stars as Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke, a Harvard professor who is going to be the new head of an insane asylum called "The Pyscho Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous". The former head seems to have died suddenly and under mysterious circumstances, at least according to Thorndyke's driver, Brophy (Ron Carey, a Brooks regular).

At the institute Thorndyke meets Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman), who wears a heavily padded bra, along with Dr. Mantague (Harvery Korman) and Dr. Wentworth (Dick van Patten). Also working at the institute is Thorndyke's old instructor, Prof. Lilloman (Howard Morris) who Thorndyke's mistakenly calls "Professor Little Old Man".

Thorndyke discovers that some patients are being held at the institute much longer than needed in order to keep money coming in. There have also been other strange deaths. But the most shocking to Thorndyke is an Arthur Brisbane who is at the institute, a well known industrialist. The further Thorndyke examines these going on, with the help of Brisbane's daughter, Victoria (Madeline Kahn) the more his life seems to be in danger.

The Hitchcock targets are "Pyscho", with another deranged Bell-boy (Barry Levinson), "Vertigo", by the very title of the film, "North by Northwest", Cary Grant's name in that movie was Roger O. Thornhill. "The Birds", where a group pigeons attack Thorndyke in the park and "Spellbound" which also had its setting in an insane asylum.

Because it is Mel Brooks, the spoofing doesn't just stop with Hitchcock. Brooks is an equal opportunity offender. The Brophy character is obsessed with photography, tipping its hat to Antonioni's "Blow-Up", the Nurse Diesel character resembles Nurse Ratched from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", also set in an insane asylum. And a killer wearing teeth braces makes us think of the Jaws character from the James Bond films.

When Mel Brooks began his career his idea was to actually copy Hitchcock by making his own cameo in each of his films. In "The Producers" you can hear Brooks' voice during the "Springtime for Hitler" number. In "The Twelve Chairs" he has a brief role as a serf and in "Blazing Saddles" another brief role as a cross-eyed governor. With "Silent Movie", released one year before "High Anxiety", Brooks would now play the leads in his films. We also get to hear Brooks sing the title song, which he also wrote. Brooks did this a lot. Nearly every one of his films has a song he wrote. Here he sings in a Frank Sinatra style.

"High Anxiety" is not going to be for everyone. Many in the public consider Brooks' humor to be in bad taste, something Brooks doesn't deny. The film has a go-for-broke style to it. If any of the writers, including Barry Levinson, Rudy De Luca and Ron Clark, thought something would get a laugh it was put in. Sometimes Brooks even recycles gags from previous films while still being able to play around with the suspense genre. One clever joke has Thorndyke and Brophy discussing the happenings at the institute, when the idea of murder enters the conversation all of a sudden we hear intense music. But, not only do we hear it, so do the characters! As the music grows louder we see a bus driving down the highway with the Los Angeles Symphony rehearsing inside. Brooks did something similar with Count Basie and his orchestra in the middle of the desert in "Blazing Saddles". In "High Anxiety" I like the joke more. It serves more of a purpose commenting on the use of music in films.

The only problem I can see with this film is you have to be a Hitchcock buff to enjoy it. Or least have seen the particular films being spoofed. When I first saw "High Anxiety" I wasn't as familiar with Hitchcock as I am now. Therefore some of the references went over my head. The film would still be funny but you wouldn't be able to fully appreciate what Brooks is doing. Now that I have seen close to all of Hitchcock's films I get the jokes more and appreciate how Brooks and his writers were able to tie it all in.

"High Anxiety" was nominated for two Golden Globes back in 1978. One for "Best Actor (Brooks)" and one for "Best Picture".

If you've seen "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" and are wondering where to go from there "High Anxiety" is worth seeing. The jokes come fast and are always in bad taste as Brooks pokes fun at S&M, homosexuals, the insane and anything else he can get his hands on. And honestly, would we have Brooks any other way?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Masterpiece Film Series: Sherlock Jr.

"Sherlock Jr."
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Buster Keaton. I've mentioned his name and some of his films when discussing other comedians and their films but I've never written a review for a Buster Keaton comedy.

Since this blog started I've repeatedly mentioned, after every 100 reviews, how I still need to write about Keaton's comedies. But someone else always came first. I've reviewed the work of Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, Bob Hope, Harry Langdon and Jerry Lewis among others all before Keaton. I didn't want to leave him out any longer. His worked needed to be discussed.

The hard part was figuring out what to review first. Which title should serve as an introduction? Initially I thought about "The General" perhaps his most celebrated film. But it was exactly for that reason I didn't want to. I wanted to bring to lesser known title to light. I remember enjoying "Battling Butler" very much, thinking it was one of his best. So I watched it again. It was good but not as funny as I remembered. It wouldn't have made a proper "Masterpiece Film Series" entry. So I turned to "Sherlock Jr." (1924) another title generally regarded as one of Buster's best.

Through out the years film fans have debated which of the silent comics was the best. The position has usually been held for either Keaton or Chaplin. Within each year a new champion emerging. Chaplin was the early favorite. Regarded as one of the first true film stars, a figure known all over the world. But in the 1960s college students started to re-discover these comedy legends. Chaplin now seemed "old-hat". Too sentimental. Too dated. Keaton was more exciting. His comedy remained fresh. Then in the 1970s, when the Academy Awards was going to honor Chaplin with a lifetime achievement award and allow him to come back to America, he became the favorite again. But Keaton has picked up steam over the years again.

I'm a Chaplin man but appreciate Keaton. It took me a while though. As a child I didn't like Keaton. At 17 I re-discovered him. I never warmed up to him the way I did Chaplin (though Keaton fans see this as a plus) but you couldn't deny Keaton had funny moments. Chaplin wanted you to love him, Keaton didn't give a damn. He just wanted to make you laugh.

As someone who has acted in a few short films, mostly comedies, I can tell you Keaton remained the bigger source of inspiration, acting wise, for me. Knowing my limitations as an actor, I realize I couldn't do the kind of ballet Chaplin did. I don't have his grace and style. But I could mimic Keaton, not his stunts but his manner. Keaton was known as "The Great Stoneface", meaning he always had a steady expression on his face. No matter what the situation, no matter his emotion, he always had a blank expression on his face. I was capable of doing that! So my screen persona became something of a cross between Keaton and Bob Hope.

Buster Keaton grew up in a showbiz family. He, along with his parents, had a stage act known as "The Three Keatons". Their routine was on how to discipline a disobedient child. They would throw Buster from one end of the stage to the other and sometimes into the audience. So even as a child Buster had learned how to take a pratfall. And that is how the nickname "Buster" came to be. The story goes, only being a few months old Keaton fell down a flight of stairs, untouched. Hungarian magician Harry Houdini saw this and gave him the name "Buster".

It was Keaton's physical stunts which made him a star. One of his most famous was in the comedy "Steamboat Bill, Jr." where Keaton stands in front of a house as the front frame falls forward. As luck would have it, Keaton is standing in the space where the window would be.

While there are no stunts which hit that iconic level in "Sherlock Jr." it does have one of the best comedy chase scenes I've ever seen. Keaton is on the handlebars of a motorcycle when the driver is knocked off after going over a pot-hole leaving Keaton, unknowingly, on the bike by himself.

"Sherlock Jr." however is known for its technical accomplishments. In it Keaton plays a janitor/projectionist at a movie theatre but dreams of becoming a detective. Keaton gets involved in a real life mystery when his sweetheart's father (Joe Keaton, Buster's real life father) has his watch stolen. Keaton is the prime suspect but he suspects the local playboy (Ward Crane). Discouraged he goes back to his job as a projectionist and dreams he has entered into the movie playing on the screen, a detective story where now Keaton is the world famous sleuth, Sherlock Jr.

Narratively there were a few things I noticed wrong with this film that I hadn't paid attention to all the other times I've seen it. The film abandons the modern mystery for the pretend one in the film within the film. Keaton never solves the modern mystery instead it is his sweetheart (Kathryn McGuire) who does what Keaton should have done. Keaton is accused of pawning the stolen watch, so the sweetheart goes to the shop and asks the owner to describe the man who brought in the watch. And finally we never see the thief punished for his actions thus not giving the hero any sort of vindication.

In comedy though such remarks are probably pointless, the real question is, is "Sherlock Jr." funny? It does have some choice gags. The best one, besides the chase scene, might be a pool table sequence between Keaton as Sherlock Jr. and the local playboy. A ball has been replaced with another which has an explosive it in. If Keaton hits it, it will be the end of Sherlock Jr. Keaton manges to hit every ball except the explosive, sometimes defying the laws of gravity. The sequence is very similar to one W.C. Fields did in his silent short (and first screen appearance) "The Pool Shark" (1915).

Another famous sequence is when Sherlock Jr. tries to run away from a gang of crooks and does so by jumping into the stomach of his assistant, Gillette (Ford West). Here we get a good demonstration of Keaton's acrobat ability.

And finally a set-piece where Keaton shadows his suspect, allowing only an inch space between them, but Keaton never misses a beat and keeps in step with the suspect.

I don't know if I'd say "Sherlock Jr." is Keaton's best comedy. I use to think it was "Battling Butler" but now I don't. I think I'll need to go back and re-watch these films again. "Sherlock Jr." though does have typical Keaton traits. The stunts, the fast action and pretty consistent pace. This film is only 45 minutes. While it probably could have used more development nonetheless it would have had to be completely changed in order to do so. As it remains it feels complete.

I think what I like best about "Sherlock Jr." is the themes. One strong one is the power of imagination and the influence cinema has on us. In both our dreams and movies events usually work out perfectly. In our dreams we are never the suspect but the hero. We don't lose the girl but win her heart. We don't coward away from danger. At the end of "Sherlock Jr." the lovers meet. They try to reconcile. Keaton, unsure how to "kiss and make-up" follows what he sees on the screen, thus life imitating art.

The idea of a man entering a movie screen has inspired various artist several years after. Some suggest Woody Allen was influenced by this film when he directed "The Purple Rose of Cairo" though Allen denies the claim. "Sherlock Jr." also must have been some source of inspiration for the 1980s A-ha video "Take on Me" in which a comic book character pulls a young lady into the book.

For its endless creativity and inspiration to those years later, "Sherlock Jr." is one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Top Ten Films Of 1990!

Well this is it. My last "top ten" list. I have no list prepared for the 1980s. Incidentally, if anyone is interested all of these lists I have made on here were originally on my amazon page, including other lists I have not posted on here. I merely copy what was on those list and put them on here. I don't rewatch all the titles before making these "top ten" lists.

The 90s were a somewhat interesting decade. It had its highs and lows. We saw some new trends emerge and fade away and new filmmakers have a major impact on the culture.

Tarantino blew audiences away with "Pulp Fiction" starting a slew of imitators. Suddenly every gangster movie had to have characters make cultural references while killing someone and throw in some comedy for good measure.

Neil Jordan also had a big hit with his 1992 film "The Crying Game" supplying us with one of the biggest twist of the year.

As sadly happens every year we lose some great artists. In the 90s we lost such great filmmakers as Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini. In 1990 alone we said goodbye to Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck, Michael Powell, Paulette Goddard, Eve Arden, Sammy Davis Jr. and funnyman Terry-Thomas.

But it wasn't all bad news for 1990. Some good movies were made during the year. Francis Ford Coppola completed his "Godfather" trilogy waiting 16 years to give us the final chapter. A new rating system was introduced giving us the NC-17 rating. The first film to receive it, Philip Kaufman's movie about Henry Miller, "Henry and June".

The top grossing film of the year was a story about a family who forgets to bring their son on a family vacation in "Home Alone". Other top grossing hits included "Ghost", the love story of the year, "Pretty Woman", making Julia Roberts a star, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles", "Dick Tracy" and "Kindergarten Cop". The eventual Oscar winner, "Dances With Wolves" became the highest grossing Western of all-time taking in more than $184 million, while never reaching number one at the box-office.

At the Academy Awards ceremony the five "Best Picture" nominees were; "Dances with Wolves", "GoodFellas", "Ghost", "Awakening" and "The Godfather Part 3". To this day, many disagree with the Academy's decision, claiming Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" was the real "best picture". Regardless, here is my list for the ten best films of the year!

1. DANCES WITH WOLVES (Dir. Kevin Costner; U.S.) - Yes, many will disagree with me. Luckily for me, I don't allow public opinion to influence my feelings on movies. This was the film which touched me most. A true epic film. It is clear why a film such as this won an Oscar. It attempts to tell an important, historical story. One of the first American films not to treat Native Americans as villains.

Costner's directorial debut is seen as one of the most realistic portraits of Native Americans with a supposed sequel coming out in 2011. Costner has already stated he will not reprise the role. The film scored a total of 12 Oscar nominations taking home 7, including "Best Picture", "Director" and "Adapted Screenplay" for Michael Blake, who adapted his own novel.

The film became the second Western to win the "Best Picture" Oscar after the 1931 film "Cimarron", my choice for the worst Oscar winner of all time, with this year's "Slumdog Millionaire" following close behind.

2. MONSIEUR HIRE (Dir. Patrice Leconte; France) - This is actually quite a grim film. In fact, you'll find nearly every film on this list is pretty sad and depressing. But "Monsieur Hire" is a beautifully told erotic mystery film starring Sandrine Bonnaire. Leconte and Bonnaire teamed up again for the sweeter "Intimate Strangers". A good film but not quite up to this film's level. It was nominated for the palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival.

3. THE GRIFTERS (Dir. Stephen Frears; U.S.) - "The Grifters" is possibly one of the best films in the con-man genre, excluding the work of Mr. David Mamet. Anjelica Huston, Annette Bening (both of whom were nominated for Oscars) and John Cusack score in this film which was originally supposed to be directed by Martin Scorsese (who does a narration at the beginning and was one of the film's producers) but he declined personally requesting Frears take on the film. The movie was nominated for four Oscars.

4. TOO BEAUTIFUL FOR YOU (Dir. Bertrand Blier; France) - Perhaps the most accessible film by Mr. Blier, this film stars Gerard Depardieu caught in a love triangle between his beautiful wife, Carole Bouquet and his new secretary Josiane Balasko, though she is not seen as attractive as his wife.

Here is a movie about how love knows no bounds. And to add another cliche, how we should never judge a book by its cover. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes while also being nominated for the palme d' or.

5. GOODFELLAS (Dir. Martin Scorsese; U.S.) - Naturally I couldn't leave this film off the list. Considered by some as Scorsese's greatest work and even called by Roger Ebert, the greatest mafia movie of all time (read his original review) Scorsese and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi have made the ultimate "insider" movie. I don't know if it really should have won the best picture Oscar but there is no way to doubt the sheer excitement of the film. All three of the lead roles, De Niro, Liotta and Pesci are fascinating to watch.

Nominated for 6 Oscars only Pesci walked away with an Oscar for "Best Supporting Actor".

6. AVALON (Dir. Barry Levinson; U.S.) - Many interpret this film to be about the struggles families faced when coming to America but Levinson denies this saying his real intention was to tell the story of storytelling itself. How television changed everything. Either way you want to look at it "Avalon" is one of Levinson's best films.

The cast includes Elizabeth Perkins, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Kevin Pollak, Aidan Quinn and a very young Elijah Wood. The film was nominated for four Oscars.

7. MILLER'S CROSSING (Dir. Coen Brothers; U.S.) - With titles such as "GoodFellas" and "The Grifters" on this list here is the comedic verison of those movies. Maybe my favorite of all the Coen Brothers movies. Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro and Albert Finney star in the off-beat, entertaining gangster film.

8. LANDSCAPE IN THE MIST (Dir. Theo Angelopoulos; Greece) - Often thought of as Mr. Angelopoulos' masterpiece "Landscape in the Mist" is a poetic, haunting film dealing with two children seeking their father, whom they have never seen. The children go on an emotional journey coming across several father figures. No filmmaker working today can master imagery the way Mr. Angelopoulos does.

9. CLOSE-UP (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami; Iran) - Here is a strange film which tears down the walls between fantasy and reality. Like Mr. Angelopoulos, Kiarostami is also a great visionary. His films probably have made the biggest impact in American than those of any other Iranian filmmaker, though sadly his work is not for everyone. He has a way of dividing an audience. But film after film Mr. Kiarostami manages to impress me. This might be my favorite of his films with "The Wind Will Carry Us" coming up a close second.

10. LIFE AND NOTHING BUT (Dir. Bertrand Tavernier; France) - Starring Sabine Azema and Philippe Noiret the film takes place during WW1 and tells us the story of the history of the "unknown soldier" though the facts are played around with, the film is mostly concerned with being a romance, it does feel like an epic. It swept the Cesar awards (France's Oscars) winning a total of 11 nominations. Not very well remembered today it is well worth seeing.