Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Film Review: Whatever Works

"Whatever Works" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

Woody Allen's latest comedy marks two important milestones. "What-ever Works" is Allen's 40th feature film and it marks 40 years since Allen directed his first comedy, "Take the Money & Run" (1969), which to this day has remained my favorite of his films.

I consider Woody Allen to be the greatest American comedy filmmaker since Charlie Chaplin. Take out the "comedy filmmaker" part and Allen is, perhaps, my favorite director working today.

But "Whatever Works" is a sad example of a bad film by a great director. Nearly every great filmmaker; Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Alfred Hitchcock, Akiria Kurosawa and Stanley Kurbrick have all directed at least one film I didn't like. Each man is a great talent. They have all contributed to the artistic merits of cinema and have advanced it in some way. But even great men sometimes strike out.

I looked forward to watching "Whatever Works". Partly because of my admiration for Allen but also because I am a fan of Larry David. On certain days of the week I find his "Curb Your Enthusiasm" funnier than "Seinfeld". The two men have very different styles and approaches to comedy so I felt it would be interesting to see how these two men would work together. On paper David seemed a good choice to play "the Woody Allen role". But, as David's character, Boris Yellnikoff, tells us at one point in the film, "life is not on paper".

Boris Yellnikoff (David) was almost nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work as a physicist where he studied quantum mechanics. He and his wife have recently divorced after Boris realized they were simply perfect for each other. Thus proving the marriage wouldn't work, so he tries to kill himself by jumping out of a window. After the failed attempt he now walks around with a limp. This made me think of a running gag in Allen's "Melinda & Melinda" (2005) where Will Ferrell plays an out of work actor whose claim to fame is playing each character with a limp. Now all Boris does is sit down with friends, which include Michael McKean, and complain about the world.

Boris is an Archie Bunker type of character. He is very outspoken and insulting but he is for the left. He complains about religion and the so-called "religious right". He lectures how America is still stuck in racism despite having elected a black president. He views the world as being filled with morons, or "cretins" as he calls them. Only he can see the big picture and where the world is headed. Such is the burden of being a self-proclaimed genius.

Now poor Boris has a part-time job teaching children how to play chess. Since they naturally are not up to his standards he beats them with the chess board. But Boris' life is about to change when he meets a young runaway from Mississippi, Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood). Being only 21 and according to Boris "sub-mental" she will never make it in the big city. Boris takes pity on her and invites her into his home for a meal. From this point on Boris' life will never be the same.

Without going into too much eventually Melodie's parents follow her. First her mother, Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), finds her and informs her she and her father, John (Ed Begley Jr.) have divorced. He was cheating on her with her best friend. When John enters the film it is to win back Marietta. But New York has changed her and she no longer wants him back.

At first I enjoyed "Whatever Works". I actually found I agreed with much of what Boris said. But soon it becomes clear, what hurts "Whatever Works" the most is Boris. After a while I simply couldn't take the left-wing ranting anymore. And not just because it was far left. It just becomes annoying listening to someone complain so much. Boris is not a likable character. Archie Bunker, in his own way was likable. He grew on you. Clint Eastwood tried something similar in "Gran Torino" (2008) and made it worked. Both characters seemed to have an arc to them. Boris doesn't. After a while Boris becomes the least interesting character. I was having a better time when he wasn't on-screen. He becomes irrelevant in his own story!

I don't know if any of this would have changed if Allen had played the role. In fact Allen says he never intended to play the role. He says it was originally written for Zero Mostel, the two men worked together on the Martin Ritt film "The Front" (1976). As I watched "Whatever Work" I couldn't help but think of Mostel in the role. He would have been a perfect choice for the film and because of his wonderful acting ability he probably would have found a way to make the character more enduring. Larry David, bless him, just isn't a great actor. He is one funny son-of-a-gun, but has a very limited range. In some ways he is merely playing an extension of his character on "Curb", but Boris has a bit more depth to him.

I think "Whatever Works" could have used some more rewrites. SPOILER ALERT: In this sort of movie, with this kind of character, normally you would expect the other shoe to drop, meaning some sort of transformation. Boris would turn into a good guy. He would learn something from these people; Melodie and her parents, but no. He remains the same way from beginning to end. And why does Melodie have to marry him? We never see the two ever show any affection for each other. We don't even see them kiss. But, given the public reaction to Allen, it is probably best he doesn't show that. But why marriage? What if they just fooled around. END SPOILER

Besides David everyone else seems to be doing a fine acting job though too many of the roles are limited. Evan Rachel Wood has a sweet demeanor to herself and is believeable has an innocent southern girl. Patricia Clarkson has some funny moments. Ed Begley Jr. I thought goes through a transformation too quickly however. His character just seemed to be thrown into the film out of nowhere.

And the last thing which bothers me about "Whatever Works" is the film's message. There is so much venom, so much hatred in Allen's script. Allen suggest the world needs to be more left-wing. Conservatives are dim-witted morons. They need to move to New York. Once they learn there is no God and abandon everything they believe in, only then will they be happy. This is the point Allen gets fully across with the Marietta character.

Allen hasn't made a film in New York for 4 years now. His last was "Melinda & Melinda" (2005). Surprisingly, returning back to his hometown, Allen doesn't make much of the New York landscape. You'd think after not shooting a film here all this time he'd want to show off his city again. Not so.

This leads to a problem I have not with Allen but the critics. It has received mostly negative reviews. True, I don't like it either, but I haven't abandon Allen. I'll watch his next film and the one after that. At no point in this review did I suggest Allen should stop making movies, unlike some. But these recent attacks make the critics look pretentious. Nearly every American critic was ready to drop dead over Allen after "Match Point" (2005). They declared it a triumphant return! He made so much use of the London landscape. Unlike Americans, whom seem to have an unhealthy obsession with the U.K., I never found the London backdrop so special. I thought he did a great job showing Spain in last year's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (2008), which the critics also went wild over. But now that Allen has return to America they condemn him. It strikes me as strange. Americans are always ready to praise European films but dismiss their own.

If you read my original reviews for Allen's "Anything Else" (2003) and "Scoop" (2006) on amazon, you'll see at first I didn't like either one of those films. Since that time I have changed my mind. I wrote another review for "Scoop" on this blog and recommended it. This may seem odd but with those two Allen films I found they worked better on the small screen. There was something about being in the comfort of my own home in my room watching these films which made me enjoy them. Will that happen with "Whatever Works"? Maybe. Some movies I seem to enjoy on the big screen and the small screen. Others I enjoy only on the small screen. In the end it doesn't matter. Whatever works.

Monday, June 29, 2009

In Memory: Michael Jackson

I shouldn't have to tell anyone by now. You've all probably heard the news. Thursday, June 25th Michael Jackson passed away at 50 years old.

These past few days have been both strange and difficult for his fans all over the world. That is why it has taken me so long to write something.

After hearing the news, a friend texted me as I was out on a date, I was immediately stunned. What! was my initial reaction followed by how? and when?

Because this is a movie blog I usually don't discuss music. I've tried to sneak it in a few times when writing about the soundtrack to various movies. I even reviewed Martin Scorsese's "Shine A Light" (2008) his concert/documentary on the Rolling Stones. If you read it or if you know me, you know my relationship to pop mainstream music is not like others.

My father is a musician but looked down on pop music strongly. In other households Elvis and the Beatles were celebrated. In my house we laughed at those people. But, for me, Michael Jackson was different. Some of my oldest friends were shocked to know of my sadness when I heard of his passing. Michael Jackson was the first musician whose music I enjoyed as a child. When I heard of his death the memories flooded my mind.

I hadn't thought about Jackson for many years. At least I hadn't thought about his music. His name remained in the news but mostly because of his legal problems. The child molestation charges and such but after his early 90s album "Dangerous" which featured hit singles such as "Black or White", which went straight to number 1 on the charts, and "Remember the Time", which went to number 3, I kind of lost interest. He stopped releasing worthwhile music. I probably would have still listened to him if he had remained prolific. But as the saying goes, out of sight, out of mind. His music became secondary in the news. A whole new generation would know his name for much different reasons. But, for my generation, for those of us who grew up in the 80s Michael Jackson was our Elvis Presley. Going over his list of songs is like going over a Rolodex of the 80s. The way Glenn Miller defined his era, Michael Jackson defined the 80s (I'd also throw in Madonna).

I remember the first time I saw his "Thriller" music video. It gave me nightmares yet I listened to it repeatedly. MTV would play it frequently. Whenever the zombie part came on I'd turned my head away from the TV but turn the volume up. I remember when his follow up album, "Bad" came out. I remember the excitement one of my cousins showed when showing me his latest music video, it was for "Smooth Criminal".

All of these memories came back. My aunt saw him in concert. I was so mad at her. I wanted to go and see him. I bought a Michael Jackson action figure. I pleaded with my mother to let me dress up as him for Halloween one year. He was my musical hero.

But now the "King of Pop" is gone. After listening to the tributes and celebrity statements and the absolute nastiness that is found on the internet I realized something. Michael Jackson's death could have been bigger than Frank Sinatra or Elvis' death but Jackson's recent troubles would forever remain a dark cloud over him. Imagine the impact of his death if it never happened? Imagine if there were only positive things to say about him. That made me sad to think about. It is a shame even now, in his death, the venom continues.

Oh I know what the critics will say. How dare I admire a child molester. But that has nothing to do with anything. I've always been a believer in separating the artist from the individual. Roman Polanski is a director I admire greatly. I was happy when he won the Oscar for best director. There is a man who admitted to having sexual relations with a minor! I've even remained a fan of Woody Allen. He is my favorite American filmmaker working today. If I could extend that kind of "forgiveness" to those men, I should have been able to with Jackson. I'm able to admire the man's music but not his life.

Now with his Jackson's death I've gone into a time warp. As I write this review I'm listening to Jackson's music. I've begun to re-appreciate his music. I even ordered some CD's online. Sadly it took his death to make me appreciate him again. But isn't that the way it always is? We only begin to appreciate something once it is gone. I wonder if Jackson would take any pleasure in knowing how so many of us feel about him now that he is gone. In a way we've all come together. We are sharing stories of our memories. We are discussing his music again. Listening to these songs again, maybe we never should have stopped discussing his songs.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Film Review: Going Hollywood

"Going Hollywood" *** (out of ****)

I haven't reviewed very many musicals on this blog. It is not because I dislike the genre either. I'm actually a pretty big fan of musicals but for whatever reason I rarely discuss them. "Going Hollywood" (1933) is not a very well known musical. It is pretty much a film only serious film buffs have seen.

Pay attention to the poster and the billing. That should tell you a lot about when the film was made. Notice Marion Davies name is above Bing Crosby. Today it wouldn't be so. Davies was at one time a popular actress. If her acting ability deserved all that attention is another story. Many have suggested she only got to where she did thanks to her relationship to William Randolph Hearst. But by the time "Going Hollywood" was made Davies was at the end of her career. Only a few more films were ahead for her.

Crosby had been around since the late 20s when he was with the Paul Whiteman orchestra. He was the new crooner of the day. By 1933 he had already scored one of his big hit songs, "Just One More Chance". He had appeared in a few short films where he sang. This is probably the first big film of his career.

Between these two stars today's audiences probably know who Crosby is and not Davies. Of course I'm not too sure if today's younger audiences even know who Bing Crosby is. He might be known by them as that old dead guy who sang that Christmas song. But Davies did have more experience in front of the camera. One of her better known films is "The Patsy" (1928) directed by King Vidor. Though "Going Hollywood" has its own titan behind the camera. The film was directed by Raoul Walsh.

"Going Hollywood" has a pretty simple story-line. It doesn't break any new ground. In fact by 1933, there wasn't much ground to begin with. Musicals were still a relatively new genre. The first musicals, not counting "The Jazz Singer" (1927), were made in 1929. But I bet even in 1933 this wasn't an original story.

Davies plays Sylvia Bruce. A school teacher who is bored with the lifestyle. She is younger than the other teachers and dreams of finding love and romance. This is unacceptable to the other teachers. After hearing Bill Williams (Bing Crosby) sing on the radio, he belts out "Our Big Love Scene", one of his finest ballads, Sylvia decides to leave the school and find Bill.

Bill, a famous singer, is on his way to Hollywood to appear in pictures. He is romantically link to his co-star, the French actress Lili Yvonne (Fifi D' Orsay). But when Sylvia sees Bill face to face, for her it is love at first sight. And she follows him to Hollywood, hoping she can steal him from Lili and win his heart.

"Going Hollywood" is not a great film. But it is important to film history if only because it signals the beginning of Crosby's career and the character he would play in nearly every single one of his films, the carefree, crooning charmer.

As for Ms. Davies I don't think she was a very good actress. Where Crosby seems to be a natural in front of the camera Ms. Davies seems uneasy. She seems too aware the camera is on her. She is allowed to dance in the film, check out her duet with Crosby on "We'll Make Hay While the Sun Shines", she wasn't a very good dancer. Decent perhaps but not standout. She was no Ginger Rogers or Eleanor Powell. For that matter she wasn't even Ruby Keeler.

But if "Going Hollywood" falls short of greatness I'm reluctant to place the blame on Ms. Davies. The script written by Donald Ogden Stewart is flat. This is a surprise since he wrote the screenplays to "The Philadelphia Story" (1940) and "Holiday" (1938). The dialogue in "Going Hollywood" doesn't sound realistic. Ms. Davies' lines sound clumsy at best. Sure, some of that is because of her delivery, but the lines weren't that good to begin with.

Bright spots in the dialogue belong to the supporting characters. Famous character actors like Ned Sparks, as the film within the film's director, gets in some good grouchy lines. And Patsy Kelly, as a wannabe show-biz star, also gets in some good wise-cracks. Kelly was actually a good comedienne, in the tradition of Eve Arden I would argue.

And as I said Raoul Walsh was the film's director. Those familiar with his work may be shocked by that but remember in the beginning of his career he did direct these kind of light films. He also directed "College Swing" (1938) with an all-star cast including Bob Hope and Burns & Allen. His better known films are a pair of James Cagney gangster pictures "The Roaring Twenties" (1939) and "White Heat" (1949) as well as the Humphrey Bogart film "High Sierra". Plus he directed the Jack Benny comedy "The Horn Blows at Midnight", which is nowhere near as bad as Benny joked about for years. But nothing in "Going Hollywood" suggest the work of a great director. It all seems very routine to me. Put the camera in the front of the actors and let them do their thing.

Bits of the film feel a bit rushed and underdeveloped. And you almost wish for longer musical numbers. The songs by the way were written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. The songs include "Going Hollywood", "Our Big Love Scene", one of Crosby's big hits "Beautiful Girl" and "Temptation". The longest set piece is for "We'll Make Hay". Not my favorite of the songs in the film. And if this musical team sounds familiar to you their music has been used routinely in MGM musicals, most notably in the classic "Singin' in the Rain" (1952).

Still I'm recommending "Going Hollywood". I watch it whenever I'm a bit down. It is good old-fashion Hollywood entertainment. This is pure escapism. The concept is one Hollywood use to live by. Anyone could become a star. Go out and follow your dreams. This was back in the day when Hollywood was a dream factory. Now it only produces nightmares.

Not everyone will like "Going Hollywood". It is really for film buffs, Crosby fans, and fans of musicals. The average joe will sit and wonder what the heck is this? Where's the nudity and four letter words? Back then "Hollywood" didn't run on that. At least not in public.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Film Review: The Steamroller and the Violin

"The Steamroller and the Violin" *** (out of ****)

It has been my agenda to try and review as many films as I can by all the great directors. But try as I may there are some great filmmakers I still have yet to review. The great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky was one of those people.

Tarkovsky is one of my favorite filmmakers. But which film should I review? I gave a lot of thought to reviewing "The Sacrifice" (1986) and including it in my "Masterpiece Film Series". But I would have to break my own rules in order to do so. No film made after 1980 can be included. But "The Sacrifice" is not only my favorite Tarkovsky film it is also one of my all time favorite films. For that movie I'd be willing to break the rules. And one day I may include it. But I was still left with my original problem. Which movie should I review first?

Why I decided on "The Steamroller and the Violin" (1961) is beyond me. As I said, perhaps "The Sacrifice" would have been a better choice or "My Name Is Ivan" (1962) that will definitely be included in my series. Then there is what might be his most popular film "Solaris" (1972), seen as Russia's response to Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). But here we are with "The Steamroller and the Violin".

"The Steamroller and the Violin" is not a bad film. It has some truly great emotional moments. This was a film Tarkovsky made as a student at the Soviet film school, VGIK. And even as a student we can see the seeds of greatness. His style is immediately recognizable. The long, static camera shots. The dreamlike quality. Dealing with childhood. The slow pace. As someone who has seen every film the great Tarkovsky has directed I can tell you these ideas will present themselves throughout his entire career.

But there was something a little more emotional to the film than I usually expect from the great master. The film follows a young boy, Sasha (Igor Fomchenko) who is studying the violin. But, because he is a child he has a very active imagination. He says he studies every day but he is easily distracted. When we first seen him he is running away from a group of bullies who pick on him because he plays the violin. And here Tarkovsky had me feeling such sympathy for the boy. Why are children, at times, so heartless and cruel? Where does this violent streak come from at such a young age?

But Sasha is saved by Sergei (Vladimir Zamansky). A city street worker who operates a steamroller. At first Tarkovsky really doesn't make their relationship clear and we may jump to the conclusion he is the boy's father. He is not but he is clearly a father figure, since we never see Sasha's real father.

The film from this point on is about the bond formed between these two opposites. But because the film was made during the time of Soviet communism. In 1961 Russia was still communist. I kept wondering if there was some political, propaganda being issued here. And then the idea of the worker (the steamroller) meets the intellect (the violin) popped into my mind. Was Tarkovsky trying to make a comment on this? One very telling scene has Sergei admiring Sasha's violin. He then ask Sasha if he will play for him. And so he does and we hear how beautiful the boy plays.

The film is only 45 minutes and doesn't really seem to go anywhere. I'm sure Tarkovsky is saying something but I'm not sure what. That is usually the problem I have watching his films. I admire his work greatly but I often feel he is so above me that I cannot always tell what it is Tarkovsky is really trying to tell me. I'm not smart enough to comprehend it all but he has such a style to his work that I'm always drawn in. Still we have to wonder what happens to these characters by the end of the film? Do they go on leading the same lives? Nothing felt properly resolved to me. I don't need a film to spell every single detail out to me and tie everything up with a little bow but after watching these characters for the time we do an investment grows and we try to fill in the blanks.

Watching "The Steamroller and the Violin" I kept thinking of a few other films. At the beginning of the film, when we are seeing the children, I thought of Albert Lamorisse's "The Red Balloon" (1956). That film had such a carefree tone to it showing us the wondrous joys of a child's adventure. At times "The Steamroller and the Violin" does something similar. I wonder if Tarkovsky saw that film before making this one.

Because of the age difference between the two characters Theo Angelopoulos' "Eternity and A Day" (1999) also came to mind. Sergei, I think, sees himself in Sasha. He sees great promise in him. Maybe he wishes, as a child, he would have been more like him.

So is this the best film to start watching Tarkovsky? Yes and no. Yes because it is his first work and if you watch his films in the order they were made you will see a certain progression to his work. A maturity. No because you may not find this to be his most interesting movie and as a result may not give his other films a chance. That would be a mistake. Another great filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman once said this about Tarkovsky; "Tarkovsky for me is the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream". We can see hints of that in "The Steamroller and Violin" but I think Tarkovsky goes deeper with his next work "My Name Is Ivan". That is a masterpiece. "The Steamroller and the Violin" is a warm-up.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Film Reviews: Parisian Love & Down to the Seas in Ships

"Parisian Love" ** (out of ****)

Clara Bow. What can I say about her? I haven't reviewed any of her films yet on this site. I thought it was about time. I never saw this double-feature DVD which was released by KINO and looked forward to it. How disappointing it turned out to be.

Clara Bow was one of the biggest box-office stars of her era. She didn't have the mystique of Garbo. She wasn't as innocent as little miss sunshine Mary Pickford. But she wasn't the non-sexual figure like Lillian Gish. Clara Bow had a playful, energetic quality to her. She was seen as the quintessential flapper. She, along with Louise Brooks I would argue, were seen as embodying the new found freedom of the roaring 20s.

If there is one film Ms. Bow is best known for it is "It" (1927), which some say Josef von Sternberg had a hand in the directing. The success of the film labeled Bow the "it" girl of the 20s. "It" referring to a special, indescribable quality which made her a star. It was widely believed "it" referred to sex appeal.

I have not seen all of Ms. Bow's work. But I find her reputation as a star often overshadows her work. Besides sex appeal, you will never hear anyone ever call her a great actress. She appeared in over a dozen films but many are not that well known or worst. Many of her films are thought to be lost. She never won an Oscar and to this very day, was never given a lifetime achievement award. She did act in William A. Wellman's "Wings" (1927) which became the first film to win the "Best Picture" Oscar.

Many myths have floated around about Clara Bow's sex life. One rumor was she had orgies with an entire football team. This was later discredited. But Clara Bow had a rough life. Her mother was seen as mentally ill, and was eventually put away. She even tried to kill Clara when she heard it was Clara's desire to become an actress. This lead Clara to forever feel guilty about her mother's health. Always putting the blame on herself for her life decisions.

Sadly, whatever made Clara Bow a star is not fully on display in "Parisian Love" (1925). The film simply doesn't know what it wants to be. It is part gritty street drama, part romance and part comedy of manners. Because it wants to be everything at once it becomes nothing.

The film was written by first time writer Lois Hutchinson. This is clearly the work of a beginner. There is no consistent tone. We are not fully dealing with believable characters. Too many of the events feel rushed. Very little is properly drawn out to establish character motivations.

The director was Louis J. Gasnier. He directed Clara Bow once before in "Maytime" (1923) and perhaps is best known for directing the anti-drug tale "Reefer Madness" (1936). There is nothing really to say about Gasnier's directing. I found it uninspired at best. The good scenes are few are far between.

The story has Bow play Marie. She is part of an Apache gang. She along with Armand (Donald Keith), who also happens to be the love of her life, and another man, the leader (Otto Matieson) are performers at a club. Here the engage in the famous Apache dance and stage a fight which leads to death. One day they spot Pierre Marcel (Lou Tellegen) a millionaire in the audience. The three of them plan to rob his house.

The robbery goes wrong when Pierre notices the men. When the leader of the pack pulls out a gun to kill Pierre, Armand stops him. Now the police have arrived. Pierre covers for Armand but sends the police after the leader, whom they shoot and kill. Armand however is only slightly hurt while Marie runs to safety.

Pierre claims to have recognized Armand. He use to be a student of his. Apparently Pierre is a professor. But how a professor can afford the home he has is beyond me. Pierre will nurse Armand back to health and wants to help him change his life. But Armand is still in love with Marie and awaits the day they can see each other.

Now comes the comedy. Marie disguises herself and her mother (Lillian Leighton) as old friends. Marie's plan is to get revenge on Pierre who is playing matchmaker with Armand, pushing forward a marriage. Marie wants to get Pierre to marry her and then take all his money.

Since Marie and her mother are not people of wealth, the scenes where they try to fit in are played for comedy. To her credit Ms. Bow goes through a lot of transitions for this film. Each new scene demands a different attitude; the vulgar criminal, the gentle lover and the vamp.

But I wasn't as impressed by the film and Bow's performance as I should have been. The story seemed all over the place to me and Bow just didn't seem to have a clearly defined character. She does whatever the scene requires of her. But she does do it with a lot of spirit. She was a fiery performer, you have to admit that.

By the film's end we get that kind of melodramatic acting style that often bring unintended laughs from a young audience. Watch the scene when Marie reveals her true intentions to Pierre. The wild hand gestures and facial expressions. But she's not the only one engaging in the over-acting.

Perhaps a few rewrites and more emphasis on the romance aspect of the film would have made it better. Throwing out the comedy which interrupts the flow of the film.

"Down to the Seas in Ships" ** (out of ****)

"Down to the Seas in Ships" (1922) marked Clara Bow's film debut. She appeared in one previous film "Beyond the Rainbow" (1922) but all of her scenes were deleted. In this movie she is given fourth credit. The stars are Marguerite Courtot and Raymond McKee.

The only thing worst than watching "Parisian Love" is watching "Down to the Seas in Ships". What a mind-numbing, absolute boring film this is. I was actually having a hard time keeping my eyes open.

I suppose on some level the story could be effective and may even sound interesting. It deals with a Quaker family, the Morgan's. The father, Charles W. Morgan (William Walcott) is a whalesman. She lost his son years ago to the sea. His daughter is Patience (Courtot). Though Charles not so secretly wants a grandson. It is a blessing from the Lord to have a son the film tells us. Thus this puts a lot of pressure on Patience. But the Quakers are very strict. Charles wants his daughter to marry another Quaker. And since Charles is a whalesman, he wants his daughter to marry one to. The problem is Patience loves Thomas Allan Dexter (McKee) whom is neither a Quaker or a whalesman.

The plot thickens when Samuel Siggs (J. Thornton Baston) an Asian businessman, wants to steal Morgan's fortune. He plays on doing so by marrying his daughter. He has however disguise the fact he is Asian and pretend to be not only white but a Quaker.

You are probably wondering what the heck does any of this have to do with Clara Bow. The answer; nothing! Bow plays "Dot" Morgan's granddaughter. Her parents have both died. She is a bit of a tomboy type. But she disappears from the film.

"Down to the Seas in Ships" tries to be an action film. She does have some impressive material when we see the whalesmen hit the seas. It almost feels like a documentary. But there is little else which is interesting about the film. I really can't understand why anyone would find this interesting.

The characters seemed very bland. No one manages to give a realistic performance. And trust me a lot of this stuff here is going to get unintended laughs. Patience plays with dolls and pretends one of them in Dexter which she kisses and gently touches. Also the racial portrayal of Siggs may bother some.

The film was directed by Elmer Clifton who directed the original "Captain America" serial back in 1944. Comic book fans should appreciate that.

It makes me sad to finally write about Clara Bow and not be able to tell you to rent this DVD. If you are honestly going to watch a film with her please watch "It". Unless you are a very big fan of her work then watch this. But don't expect these movies to be entertaining.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Top Ten Films Of The 1970s

Although I'm a big fan of cinema from the 1920s-1940s, perhaps my favorite decades involving American films, but, even I must admit, the 1970s were an amazing decade. Perhaps the last great decade in American cinema.

But it wasn't just American cinema that proved to be exceptional. Even international cinema was creating masterpiece after masterpiece. There must have been something in the water!

In America, what could have caused it? Did artist feel repressed by the Nixon and Ford administrations? Nixon was suppose to be a big movie buff. But the films of the 1970s just seemed to reflect the American conscience of the times. Nixon spoke of a "silent majority", it very well may have existed, but the problem with a "silent majority" is that, well, they are "silent". The 1970s represents a time of liberal uprising. Anti-war protesters. Draft card burners. Feminist activist. These issues found there way in American films during the period. Outrage at the political system, at Vietnam. Films at that time were truly a reflection of the world. Today, I don't know what the Hell is going on. These filmmakers are wasting my time. Cinema in the 80s for example played it so safe. Where are the daring bold films of that decade?

Think of all the great talents which started to come into their own in the 1970s. Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Robert Altman and Peter Bogdanovich. And what about the great international filmmakers? Old pros such as Ingmar Bergman were still alive and Federico Fellini, Bernardo Bertolucci. We saw the emergence of German New Wave cinema and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The Hungarian New Wave was just coming to its end.

It was such an exciting time. To be alive during the 70s and to have been able to see these classic films on the big screen. To have been in an environment where people actually discussed cinema intelligently and mentioned filmmakers like Truffaut, Godard, Kurosawa and films such as "Last Tango in Paris" (1972) and "The Godfather".

When I knew I was going to make this list I sort of dreaded it. There were simply too many films to limit a list to ten. So I made a runner's up list. But I still left great films off the list. Every film on the runner's up list could have easily been on the first ten best list. In fact the runner's up list is almost just as satisfying as the original top ten.

Making this list I tried to do something different. With my list of the 80s and 90s I listed the films in alphabetical order. This time I'm going to try and list them in order of preference. I'm sure tomorrow when I look at the list I'll regret putting my number 6 choice before number 5 and number 3 before number 4 and so forth. But the bottom-line is, these are great films of the decade. If you haven't seen all of the films on the list, honestly, what are you waiting for? Each is a classic.

And that is ultimately the important thing about this list and the films of the 1970s. So many films have stood the test of time. That is what makes a film great. Not what a bunch of critics say. Even if every critic bashed a movie but 30 years later we are still talking about, guess what? Screw the critics. Clearly the film was able to reach out to be people and resonant with them. That's one of the things which makes a film great. Being able to connect with people. That's largely why I made the cut off point for my "Masterpiece Film Series" to be the 70s. These films have been around long enough to be important. Anything after that hasn't really been tested by time. Oh sure, there are a small handful of films which the public often considers great films but by and large it is too soon. Films of the 1980s did not have the cultural influence of the 70s.

Here now is my list for the best films of the 1970s:

1. (TIE) THE GODFATHER/ THE GODFATHER PART II (1972/ 1974 Dir. Francis Ford Coppola; U.S.) - Arguably two of the greatest American films ever made. What Coppola was able to do with these films is still trying to be attempted by filmmakers today. His ability to create characters, whom despite how flawed they are, resonate so deeply with us. How often do we find ourselves justifying the actions of gangsters and promoting violence. All of a sudden we are saying the most awful things. "Well, he had to kill him", "I would have done the same".

These films have become the stuff of legend. By now everyone knows the background stories. Coppola was not the original choice to direct. The producers and studio was ready to fire him at any moment. They disapproved of his cast, especially Marlon Brando. Every actor in Hollywood auditioned for the role of Michael Corleone.

But despite all the problems, somehow this adaption of Mario Puzo's novel, worked. Everything came together. You couldn't change one frame of this film.

The first "Godfather" was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 3, "Best Picture", "Best Actor" and "Best Screenplay". The second film, which gave us Robert DeNiro and Lee Strasberg, went on to earned 11 Oscar nominations also but walked away with 6 including "Best Picture", "Director", and "Supporting Actor (DeNiro)". Oddly enough Coppola lost the directing Oscar for the first film to Bob Fosse for "Cabaret" (1972).

2. (TIE) ANNIE HALL/ MANHATTAN (1977/1979 Dir. Woody Allen; U.S.) - Besides "The Godfather" films what else managed to represent the time period as well as these two classic Woody Allen comedies? "Annie Hall" set the standard of the modern romantic comedy. It is probably the most influential screen romance since "Casablanca" (1943). Look at the fashion in the film. The political views. Even the social message. Allen managed to show a true reflection of the sexual/political/social hangups of a generation. This is of course in addition to being one very funny movie. It probably has the best performance Allen has ever given. Definitely his most typical.

"Manhattan" I've always thought of as the "sister" to "Annie Hall". It is more stylize however. It has better cinematography by the great Gordon Willis and a fantastic Gershwin score. I'd even say it is the more romantic of the two. But it is a continuation of the classic Allen persona as well as a view into 1970s society and its fleeting values.

"Annie Hall" went on to earn 5 Oscar nominations winning four including "Best Picture", "Director" and "Screenplay" while "Manhattan" went on to win 2 Oscar nominations for its screenplay, both films were co-written by Allen and Marshall Brickman, and for "Supporting Actress (Mariel Hemingway).

3. (TIE) SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE/ CRIES & WHISPERS (1974 /1973 Dir. Ingmar Bergman; Sweden) - Two of Bergman's most harrowing, poetic and haunting films. "Scenes From A Marriage" is probably the most gritty and realistic film on the subject of love and marriage. "Cries & Whispers" is one of the most powerful films you will see dealing with death. These films, without question, show the genius of Bergman. Made at a time when Bergman may have been considered "old hat" by pretentious film snobs, Bergman shows society's most ugly moments. He makes us face the ugly truths we'd rather not confront. But that is why Bergman is my favorite director.

"Scenes From A Marriage" shamefully didn't receive a single Oscar nomination. All the proof one needs to tell the Academy to go fuck itself (excuse my language). But his "Cries & Whispers" went on to earn 5 Oscar nominations winning one for Sven Nykvist's cinematography. Bergman was even nominated for "Best Director" and Roger Ebert placed both films on the top of his top ten list back in 1973 and 1974.

4. TAXI DRIVER (1976 Dir. Martin Scorsese; U.S.) - Maybe my favorite Scorsese film. A film which looking back on it I realize just how political it was. DeNiro shines here taking us deep into the mind of a madman. Paul Schrader's script, much like a Bergman film, only more violent, shows us human nature's ugly side.

How the film didn't win "Best Picture" is often a topic for debate. It lost to of all things "Rocky" (1976). And why did the Academy overlook Scorsese for "Best Picture"? But, fuck 'em. At least the film went on to win the palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival.

5. THE CONFORMIST (1971 Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci; Italy) - Bernardo Bertolucci's films are primarily known for two things. The way he blends sex and politics. No film he made before this or after has ever been able to combine the two so masterfully. This is one of the few films I can watch and say to myself now this is art! Bertolucci is at the top of his game here and Jean-Louis Trintignant as a hit-man sent to kill an old professor, has rarely been better. We can truly sense the conflict he is going through. And Stefania Sandrelli has never looked more beautiful.

6. CHINATOWN (1974 Dir. Roman Polanski; U.S.) - One of the last great noir films ever made and considered by many to be Polanski's best film. And it has to be considered as one of Jack Nicholson's best early performances. The film won 11 Oscar nominations only winning one for Robert Towne's screenplay. But, what do you except when the film went up against "The Godfather Part II"?

7. MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S (1970 Dir. Eric Rohmer; France) - One of the most popular films in Rohmer's series of "Six Moral Tales". Here Rohmer teaches us the art of conversation. As a young man thinks he has found the perfect woman but then he meets Maud. She is not what he was expecting. But within that one night he learns a lot about himself.

Many criticize Rohmer because they say his films are all dialogue but I enjoy his work. He might be my second favorite director (behind Bergman). I love the way he shows love in all its complexity.

8. LUDWIG (1973 Dir. Luchino Visconti; Italy) - Perhaps not a title you were expecting to find on this list but this is my favorite Visconti film. I think it is one of his most ambitious pieces. Here he looks at the life of King Ludwig of Bavaria. The sets, the costumes (which were nominated for an Oscar) are pure eye candy and the performances by Helmut Berger and Romy Schneider are the heart of the film while Trevor Howard manages to steal whatever scenes he is in.

Most people are probably more familiar with Visconti's "The Leopard" or "Rocco & His Brothers" but there is just something about "Ludwig" that I have not been able to forget it since the first time I saw it many years ago.

9. THE MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS (1971 Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Germany) - To me Fassbinder's greatest film. As is the case with most of Fassbinder's films we see a human being crushed by society but we come to feel such sympathy for the lead character. Lots of people prefer his "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" but that's got nothing on this.

10. THE EXORCIST (1973 Dir. William Friedkin; U.S.) - The greatest horror film I've ever seen. They just don't make them like this anymore. One of the most influential films of its genre. I wrote a review for this film on here before and I stated one of the reasons the films works, for me, is because of the religious aspect of it. As a Catholic we believe in exorcisms, so the film feeds on my perception of reality. That, to me, is what makes a film scary. When we say to ourselves, that could happen in real life.

RUNNER'S UP! (In no order)

1. SZERELMESFILM (1971 Dir. Istvan Szabo; Hungary)
2. IMAGES (1972 Dir. Robert Altman; U.S.)
3. NETWORK (1976 Dir. Sidney Lumet; U.S.)
4. ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976 Dir. Alan J. Pakula;U.S.)
5. KRAMER VS KRAMER (1979 Dir. Robert Benton; U.S.)
6. (TIE) CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON/CLAIRE'S KNEE (1972/1971 Dir. Eric Rohmer; France)
7. BLAZING SADDLES (1974 Dir. Mel Brooks; U.S.)
8. ADOPTION (1975 Dir. Marta Meszaros; Hungary)
9. FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1971 Dir. Norman Jewison; U.S.)
10. SAVE THE TIGER (1973 Dir. John G. Avildsen; U.S.)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Film Review: The Thomas Crown Affair

"The Thomas Crown Affair" *** (out of ****)

After reviewing Claude Chabrol's "Merci Pour Le Chocolat" (2002) for some reason I was in the mood for a heist film and the original "The Thomas Crown Affair" (1968) kept coming in my head. It had been years since I saw it. The only thing I remembered about it was the terrific score by the legendary French composer Mr. Michel Legrand. But nothing else stood out to me.

Now that I've rewatched the film I understand why I didn't remember much. There is very little story to the film. It is a perfect example of style over substance. When the film was originally released Roger Ebert said the film was "the most under-plotted, underwritten, over-photographed film of the year." As the years have gone on I've come to lose a lot of respect for Mr. Ebert, to the point where I rarely bother with him anymore but, when someone's right there right. And Mr. Ebert was right. The difference between us however is, what the film does do is done so well that I think people should see it.

"The Thomas Crown Affair" is a bit of a heist film and a bit of a romance. It revolves around Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen). A wealthy businessman who has just scored when of the largest heist. He gathered a group of people together and stole a large sum of money from a bank. The police say it was a perfect crime. They have no leads. There are no fingerprints. Plenty of eye witnesses but they lead nowhere. The bank is going to have to pay off the insurance but before they do, their own investigator is sent, Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway, a lady who knows a thing or two about robbing banks). She suspects Thomas Crown. And not for the best reasons. She simply finds him handsome.

The film is largely a cat-and-mouse game between them. She comes flat out and tells him she thinks he did the bank job. He comes dangerously close to admitting he did, without ever actually saying those words. But with love in the air will she turn a blind eye?

The story could have been told in 20 minutes. The film delays the pay-off by an hour and twenty minutes. Instead we see some flashy cinematography by Haskell Wexler. Probably best known for his work on John Cassavetes' "Faces" (1968), Mike Nichols' "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966) and his own directorial debut, "Medium Cool" (1969). Here he gives us lots of split-screens. The frame is divided into 4,8 or 16 boxes giving us fragments of the action sequences from multiple angels. At first it is an interesting visual. After a while I wasn't as impressed by it. If for any reason, it really doesn't add anything to the story.

The film was directed by Norman Jewison. Jewison at the time was coming off the success of the "Best Picture" Oscar winner "In the Heat of the Night" (1967). He and McQueen had previously worked together on "The Cincinnati Kid" (1965) and in the future he would direct "Fiddler on the Roof" (1971). He is not as active anymore but he has still managed to direct some good films in the last 10 or so years including "The Hurricane" (1999) and "The Statement" (2003).

But the problem with the film is not the directing or the cinematography or the acting. The script written by Alan R. Trustman, who wrote another Steve McQueen vehicle, "Bullitt" (1968), lacks depth of characters and interesting situations. There is however one great scene. It involve Thomas Crown and Vicki sitting down playing chess. There are no words but the way Jewison and Wexler film the scene is actually very erotic. There is no nudity. And no foul language. But we understand the not so subtle subtext of them playing chess. The camera gives us extreme close-ups of Dunaway's and McQueen's face. We can sense the heat and longing in their eyes. I don't think Dunaway has ever looked better than she does here.

McQueen seems like a natural of this film. Who else could have played it? There were rumors Sean Connery, probably because he was Bond, but, I don't see him in the role. McQueen had more of a coolness to him in my opinion. I never really thought he was a great actor. He was in some fine films, "The Magnificent Seven" (1960), "The Great Escape" (1963) and "The Getaway" (1972). But he never really impressed me. He was almost too subtle. There was a distance in his acting. It is exactly for that reason most people like him. He tried to almost blend in with the scenery. And he did managed to win an Oscar nominated for his role in "The Sand Pebbles" (1966). Here though his personality works with the character.

One scene has him playing golf. His ball has been buried in the sand. He swings and gets the ball on the green, right next to the hole. His golfing companion bets him he wouldn't be able to do it again. He accepts the bet. This time he doesn't do it. He loses $1,000. On the outside he remains cool but I sensed on the inside he was angry. This is a man who always has a cool exterior but doesn't like to lose. It is a revealing character moment.

At the time of the film's release Faye Dunaway was just coming off her role in "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967). And here she is again involved with banks. She too is not one of my favorite actresses despite appearing in some good films like "Chinatown" (1974) and "Network" (1976). But as I said, she has never looked more beautiful. I guess the film tries to suggest she and Thomas Crown are two sides of the same coin. Her character has no problem bending the rules in order to get her way. She knows full well Thomas Crown is a crook but has no problem sleeping with him. It is part of her investigation she says. But the audience knows better.

And finally we have the Mr. Legrand's score. "The Thomas Crown Affair" doesn't have the same brilliant score he penned for the French classics such as "The Young Girls of Rochefort" (1967) where he gave us the classic tune "You Must Believe in Spring" or "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" where "Watch What Happens" and "I Will Wait For You" came from, easily two of the greatest songs ever written. For "The Thomas Crown Affair" Legrand gives us "The Windmills of Your Mind" which won the "Best Song" Oscar that year. It is a haunting song dealing with the memory of a doomed relationship and how it affects the mind reliving those moments, "Round/Like a circle in a spiral/ Like a wheel within a wheel/Never ending or beginning/ On an ever-spinning reel". It seems to match the film's cinematography. In fact the song was written first and the film was suppose to match it.

So will "The Thomas Crown Affair" disappoint some? Yes. Those looking for a plot. Those looking for an exercise in filmmaking techniques will enjoy the film. The film is more about mood than story-line. It doesn't dwell deep enough into the characters in my opinion, but we get a sense of something larger beneath these characters. There is more than meets the eye. And what exactly does the ending mean?

If you enjoy this film I'd suggest watching some films directed by French filmmaker Claude LeLouch. Check out his "The Crook" (1970) and "Happy New Year" (1973). Both are light heist/romance films.

Many people may also know "The Thomas Crown Affair" was remade in 1999 and starred Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo. It was actually a remake which worked. In fact there are certain elements about it which I enjoy more. Try watching both back to back.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Film Review: Merci Pour Le Chocolat

"Merci Pour Le Chocolat" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Claude Chabrol's "Merci Pour Le Chocolat" (2002) begins with the marriage of Marie-Claire Muller (Isballe Huppert) and Andre Polonski (Jacques Dutronc), who were married before many years ago. We see their wedding reception, where we see the guest are commenting about the newly wed couple.

And here Chabrol takes us beneath the many layers of the bourgeoise. They engage in malicious gossip, they are cruel and because it is Claude Chabrol, often they have murder on their mind.

After Marie and Andre divorced, he remarried and now has a son, Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly). Andre's second wife and Marie became very close friends but mystery hangs in the air concerning her death. She died behind the wheel. Alcohol and sleeping pills were found on her but Andre says his wife never took sleeping pills.

But that is all in the past. For now Andre and Marie seem very happy. With their age comes maturity. She was very young the first time they married and he was trying to establish a name for himself as a pianist. Now he is established and she has inherited her father's chocolate company. Guillaume also seems fine with this new arrangement. He and Marie seem to have a special bond between them.

Their lives will soon become more complicated when Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mouglalis) enters the picture. She was born in the same hospital, on the same day, as Guillaume. Andre was giving at concert during the birth and when he rushed to the hospital to see his child, a nurse gave him Jeanne. He later found out, from his wife, that they have a son, not a daughter. But Jeanne is also a pianist. Could there have been a mix-up at the hospital.

Now, don't go jumping to conclusions. "Merci Pour Le Chocolat" is not a story about a young girl trying to find herself. She claims she doesn't believe that Andre is her father. But human curiosity has led her to pay a visit to him to see if he remembers the incident. He does. Soon after talking, and discovering they are both pianist, Andre offers to give her lessons as she prepares for a competition in Budapest.

The real question when watching "Merci Pour Le Chocolat" is whether or not Marie is a murderer. Did she kill Andre's second wife? And is she trying to kill Guillaume by putting drugs into his chocolate, which she prepares for him every night?

Chabrol seems to be suggesting that Jeanne may be Andre's daughter and that in fact Marie is the killer. But I find when watching "Merci Pour Le Chocolat" that the plot is not so important. I have now seen it three times and every time the same thing strikes me. It is the the way Chabrol handles the situation. Each scene reveals a new secret creating more and more tension. "Merci Pour Le Chocolat" is really a lesson in how to set-up a suspense film.

Chabrol is very subtle dropping hints and clues in each scene. And slowly the audience's participation in the film grows stronger and stronger even though the story may sound far-fetched. But I suspect Chabrol is more interested in the characters, namely Marie, than the actually plot. Chabrol wants to examine these characters and their lifestyles. What makes them tick? Who are they really? What are they after?

Of course Chabrol has been dealing with these issues and attempting to answer these questions his entire career. Lately I have been somewhat disappointed in his latest outings such as last year's "A Girl Cut In Two" and "The Bridesmaid" (2006). He seems to have lost his nerve to condemn his subjects but in "Merci Pour Le Chocolat" he shows no signs of softening up. These characters engage in vile and evil actions and show no remorse. Chabrol is not afraid to point fingers this time. That makes "Merci Pour Le Chocolat" rank among some of the master's best films, as was the case with his next film "The Flower of Evil" (2003) the last great film he has made, so far.

And what can I say about Isabelle Huppert? She, as always, is wonderful to watch. Like Buster Keaton, her face never reveals too much. Her mind always seems to be at work but what evil plan is she working on? She is one of Chabrol's great muses. Together they have worked on seven films together including "La Ceremonie" (1997), which I have reviewed, as well as "The Story of Women" (1989), "The Swindle" (1997), another title I have already reviewed, and their first collaboration together "Violette" (1978). Recently she was also in Chabrol's "The Comedy of Power" (2007), a lesser attempt but still worthwhile.

As film critic Michael Wilmington said, when Huppert is playing bad in a Chabrol film, they work best together. And here she is playing bad. There is not another actress who could have taken on this role and add to it what she does.

The film was based on an American novel, "The Chocolate Cobweb" by Charlotte Armstrong whom also provided Chabrol with material for his film "La Rupture" (1970). The screen adaptation was done by Chabrol and Caroline Eliacheff, who also co-wrote "La Ceremonie" and "The Flower of Evil".

Those who consider themselves Claude Chabrol fans should see this film despite some of the mix reaction it has received from the public. As an old devotee of Mr. Chabrol's work, I truly feel the film is a throwback to his heyday back in the late 60s and 70s.

There are a few great visual moments in the film but may favorite and perhaps the most revealing deals with Marie sitting on a couch as a shawl is behind her. It resembles a web and now Marie is caught in her own web of lies. Meanwhile Franz Liszt's "Funerailles" plays in the background creating quite the atmosphere of dread and death. It is a great moment and one of the reasons Chabrol is such a master.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Masterpiece Film Series: Drole de Drame

"Drole de Drame" **** (out of ****)

I know I already made an entry into my "Master-piece Film Series" not too long ago when I wrote about D.W. Griffith's "Birth Of A Nation" (1915) but I didn't write many reviews last month so I want to catch up on these entries. Also, I have recently seen "Drole de Drame" (1937) for the first time and wanted to write about it. I simply had to include it in the series. So please forgive me for breaking my own rules.

"Drole de Drame" was directed by Marcel Carne. I have written one other review for a Carne film, his "Therese Raquin" (1953). I didn't include that title in my series but I did express my appreciation for Mr. Carne's films. He is one of my all time favorite directors though I rarely speak about him.

Most people are not aware of Marcel Carne's work. When some viewers think of French cinema they probably think of the nouvelle vague and Jean-Luc Godard. That is probably the most cliche answer. But I bet Carne's name will not come up. And to be honest Carne doesn't belong in the class of French directors such as Godard or Alain Resnais. Carne's work probably has more in common with Jean Vigo. Both in style and the time period in which they worked.

Carne is now somewhat forgotten I'm sorry to say. His best known film might be the masterpiece "Children of Paradise" (1945). But for me to call one of his films a masterpiece is pointless. They are pretty much all masterpieces and will each be included in this series. His "Port of Shadows" (1938) is excellent as is "Daybreak" (1939) and his comedy "The Devil's Envoys" (1942).

"Drole de Drame" however was made before all of this. It was Carne's third film. It doesn't have much in common with "Daybreak" or "Children of Paradise" but all of these films were written by the same person; Jacques Prevert. A well known poet and songwriter. He wrote the original lyrics for the song the "Autumn Leaves" which has since become something of a jazz standard. Prevert and Carne made quite a successful team. Their work managed to transcend time and make strong social commentaries, mostly on World War 2.

"Drole de Drame" is a flat out comedy but with some interesting social ideas. To describe the plot would nearly be pointless. I would pick and chose and try my best to make it sound coherent. But the film isn't coherent. One strange event leads to another but the movie seems to be having so much fun playing around with this genre that its pleasures become infectious.

The film starts with Bishop Bedford (Louis Jouvet) starting a crusade against a crime novelist, Felix Chapel. The Bishop feels such novels give readers inspiration to commit crimes and fill the world with violence. If you want to read something, read the Bible. To help him on this crusade the Bishop employs the help of his cousin, a fellow novelist, who writes on the subject of plants, Irwin Molyneux (Michel Simon). What the Bishop doesn't know is Felix Chapel is really Irwin! Now the plot sounds similar to the classic American comedy "Theodora Goes Wild" (1937) with Irene Dunn. But "Drole de Drame" takes things further. A murderer is out to kill Felix because he followed Felix's book on how to commit murder and still got caught.

Irwin and the Bishop are not close because being in the Bishop's company makes Irwin uneasy since he has to live a double-life in front of him. The Bishop invites himself over to dinner at the Molyneux's household. But, through events I won't reveal here, the Bishop suspects Irwin has killed his wife, Margaret (Francoise Rosay) and calls Scotland Yard.

Now Irwin and Margaret go into hiding. The couple tries to get their maid, Eva (Nadine Vogel) to help them clear their names. She turns to the milkman, Billy (Jean-Pierre Aumont) for help, since he gave Eva the ideas for Irwin's crime stories.

And to put the icing on the cake we learn that the Bishop has been fooling around on his wife, with their 12 children. He is afraid his secret will be revealed during the investigation.

If "Drole de Drame" is starting to sound a little strange that is probably because it is. This is a classic farce dealing with issues on society, gossip and hypocrisy. The wonderful thing about the film is everyone plays this material straight. Never, at any moment does Michel Simon seem to winking at the audience suggesting "hey everyone! Aren't I funny"!

The material, which was based on J. Storer Clouston's "His First Offence", speaks for itself. It is the material which is funny not so much the characters. Prevert and Carne simply allow the plot to carry itself out. It all seems logical to the film's world. In this environment everything that happens makes sense though we realize in the real world these events would never happen. Situations could never get this out of hand. But that's okay. That's where the humor comes in. That's what makes this film so funny to watch. Think of the Marx Brothers or the Wheeler and Woolsey comedy "Diplomaniacs" (1933). Events take the same bizarre turn here.

Some viewers may be shocked that Carne would direct such material. Most viewers are probably more familiar with his dramatic work during the war, though his "The Devil's Envoys" is a comedy, it is more romantic. "Drole de Drame" has no time for sentimentality.

Those looking for something completely different from Carne should enjoy this. But, as I said, don't think that the film has no hidden agenda. There are social commentaries being made. "Drole de Drame" is smarter than you may suspect. That's why it is one of the masterpieces of cinema!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Film Reviews: Up & Easy Virtue

*** 1\2 (out of ****)
When I was younger I wasn't much of a fan of animation. Even as a young child animation never really caught my attention. Of course, just like any child, I knew who Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse were but I preferred to watch live action movies particularly from the 1920s-1940s. I was a big fan of silent comedy but also liked musicals and dramas.

I remember when the first Pixar film was released "Toy Story" (1995). I wasn't a big fan of the movie. At that time I still wasn't a fan of animation. It wasn't until I got much older, into my late teens I started to watch animated films. After watching "Toy Story 2" (1999) I became a fan. Though of course it was aimed at children I felt the movie also had an adult appeal with some of the jokes. Then I started to watch Pixar movies but only Pixar. Eventually I became aware of the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. His work really impressed me.

Miyazaki's work, unlike Disney I would argue, was much more adult. The characters faced larger dilemma's. They were part of our world. Disney was cute, Miyazaki seemed real. He has made two of the greatest animated films I have ever seen; "Spirited Away" (2002) and "Howl's Moving Castle" (2005), probably my all time favorite.

I've also just attributed this interest in animation at this point in my life as my way of going back to my childhood. To sort of make up for time lost. But I've started to shift away from animation again. I still see the Pixar movies but no longer with the excitement I once did. Now I'll wait for video. Ever since "Finding Nemo" (2003) Pixar hasn't made anything which really caught my attention. I've seen their last two movies "Ratatouille" (2007) and "WALL.E" (2008) but didn't like them as much as the public or critics did. They were OK. They didn't deserve all the attention which was thrown at them. And then came "Up" (2009).

I really didn't want to see "Up", but after reading all the great reviews, as is usual for a Pixar film, something about it caught my attention. I was now looking forward to it.

"Up" focuses on Carl Fredericksen (voiced by Ed Asner). Carl is now 78 years old. He has lived a good life but of course has felt unhappiness. His beloved wife, Ellie (voiced by Elie Docter when she was young) has passed away after many years of marriage. They were childhood friends who both looked up to famous explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Together they planned on going on their own adventures. One day they would have liked to live where Muntz made his reputation, Paradise Falls. But after Elie's death, so went Carl's joy for living.

After watching the first half hour of "Up" I was ready to call it a masterpiece. Maybe even the best movie of the year. There is a montage early in the film, showing Carl and Ellie over the years. Their marriage, their sad discovery that Ellie can't have children to them growing old and eventually her death. It is the most touching, heartfelt sequence I have seen all year. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I had to fight back a tear.

For some reason I've always been able to relate to older characters in movies well pasted the prime of their lives. Whether it is Isak Borg in Bergman's "Wild Strawberries" (1957), Andrew Crocker-Harris in Anthony Asquith's "The Browning Version" (1951) or Carl in "Up". I can understand the disappointment in growing older in realizing life has not worked out the way you expect. Unfulfilled dreams, faded hopes and faded memories. It is the stuff of great tragedy and what personally touches my heart most.

I was able to relate to Carl at the beginning of "Up". It seemed to be a story about growing older. About wanting to achieve old goals. Wanting to be young again, to have a second chance at life. In our current state, society has little respect for tradition. We no longer have a core set of values. We have no interest in the past. Everything must be new. We are a "modern" people. The past is for the dead. Carl sadly has no place in this world. People are waiting for him to go away. And I mean that literally. A construction company is waiting to buy Carl's house. It is the only thing standing in their way.

After a misunderstanding Carl is ordered by the courts to give up his house and move into a retirement home. But Carl's remembers the promise he had to Ellie. They were going to go to Paradise Falls. So Carl decides to attach several hundred balloons to his home and float away. Unfortunately what Carl doesn't realize is a young boy scout, Russel (Jordan Nagai) was on his porch at the time and now Carl must bring him along for the adventure.

At this point "Up" was starting to lose me. Once they land in Paradise Falls, an adventure begins. They are caught in a trap of a hunter trying to catch a rare bird.

"Up" actually shares a few things in common with the work of Miyazaki. It deals with flying and has a small boy along on the adventure.

But "Up" turns into a different film than what I was expecting. I was hoping for an "Around the World in 80 Days" kind of film. With Carl and Russell going from place to place as they reach their destination with Carl discovering the passion of life he hasn't felt since Ellie's death. But "Up" isn't that movie. It has a similar message but goes about it in a much different way. I still prefer my way but in this film the message is we cannot hold on to the past. We must go on so we can find new adventures. Life in itself is an adventure and we shouldn't let it pass us by. Thrill in every moment. Look around you.

It is a sweet message and is quite common in a Pixar film; simply follow your heart and dreams. But "Up" is a very emotional film. I've never forget that first half hour and how I felt. I would say "Up" is my third favorite Pixar film behind "Toy Story 2" and "Finding Nemo".

There are however a few things I don't like. The Dug character (voiced by Bob Peterson, one of the film's directors) is a talking dog, which quite honestly got on my nerves. But he draws some of the biggest laughs I heard from the children in the audience.

And speaking of children that leads me to another point. I don't know if children will understand all of the film's implications. Will they understand that Ellie cannot have children? The montage I spoke of is silent. So the parents will have to explain it. Children also may not be as moved as I was by the montage.
Still "Up" is a film I'm glad I saw. It actually gave me a different outlook on life. Only the best films do that.

EASY VIRTUE ** 1\2 (out of ****)

At first Stephan Elliott's adaptation of Noel Coward's play seemed to be the kind of film made for people like me. A good old-fashion comedy of manners with a pleasant film score, the credits are done to the tune of Coward's "Mad About the Boy", and nice visual eye candy in this 1920s setting.

I like the 1920s. I wasn't born during that time but as I have explained already in my "Up" review, I grew up on those movies. So I understand the period quite well.

"Easy Virtue" which was filmmed before in 1928 by Alfred Hitchcock, I have seen that movie, starts off promising. The silent version doesn't work as well. Coward had a wonderful wit to him. He was a very clever man. Nicknamed "the wonder boy" Coward did many things but did them all exceptionally well. A singer, songwriter, playwright, actor, painter, director and TV personality he was a true master. I've been a very big Noel Coward fan for many years. Mostly of his songs, he is often compared to Cole Porter. But I would also eagerly watch film adaptations of his plays.

This new version of "Easy Virtue" (2009) in the end doesn't work. The material has been changed to the point that it becomes typical sit-com material. None of the characters seem real. The situations seem trite and predictable. The film is a waste of the talent involved. Kristen Scott Thomas, who just came off such praise last year for her performance in "I've Loved You So Long" has nothing to work with. Her character is the cliched mean mother-in-law. Only Colin Firth, as her husband, seems like a real person. We don't get much information about him but what we do discover is he is the only character that has any life in him. He has loved, felt pain and desires to live again. He has a soul. He fought in the great war and has seen men died. We sense he and his wife are in a loveless marriage.

The plot for the film has Ben Whittaker (Ben Barnes) marry an American race car driver, Larita Whittaker (Jessica Biel). They arrive together to drop the bomb on Ben's parents (Thomas and Firth) and his sisters; Hilda (Kimberly Nixon) and Marion (Katherine Parkinson). The family is played as the cliche stuck up British family. They all, except the father, disapprove of Larita. She is American after all and we all know all Americans are loud and vulgar. She simply wouldn't be suitable for the Whittakers and their British ways.
This set-up actually sounds similar to Coward's "Relative Values" which was made into a film as recently as 2000 with Firth again and Julie Andrews.

One thing the film does that I simply hate when movies set in a time period does is screw up the music. Only Woody Allen ever seems to get this right. One of the daughters reads in the paper that the famous Hungarian magician Harry Houdini has died. Houdini died in 1926, meaning that is the setting when the story takes place. Every song in this movie was written after 1926.I remember hearing four Noel Coward songs; "Mad About the Boy" (written for the play Words & Music in 1932), "I'll See You Again" (written for the play Bitter Sweet in 1929, which was made into two films), "Mad Dogs & Englishmen" (written for The Third Little Show in 1931) and "A Room With A View" (written for This Year of Grace in 1928). Other songs heard are by Cole Porter, another one of my favorite composers, probably my favorite. And his songs are out of the time period as well. Directors need to learn I'll be in the audience and I know about these things. They better stop it! I'll point it out every time I notice it. They should hire people to correct these things. Perhaps I'll have to volunteer my services.

Regardless, using the wrong music is the least of this film's problems. Better characters were strongly needed. These are not real people on-screen. They have no soul beyond the page. It isn't even a passable diversion. That is a shame. I was so looking forward to this and it couldn't live up to any of its promise.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Masterpiece Film Series: Birth Of A Nation

"Birth Of A Nation" **** (out of ****)

Well, I haven't been looking forward to this. I've reviewed the work of D.W. Griffith before. I first discussed his "Broken Blossoms" (1919) then "Way Down East" (1920). I thought about reviewing a few others such as "Intolerance" (1916) or "Orphans of the Storm" (1921), the only Griffith film I have seen I don't like. But "Birth Of A Nation" (1915) just seemed too controversial. It was a debate I didn't feel like getting involved in. My opinion of the film and the thoughts I have watching it don't quite match up with society's views.

So, why now? Why have I decided to review this incredibly controversial film? A film which still, to this very day, is able to cause debate. Well, besides goulash, one of my favorite things is to upset people. It is a strange quirk I have and I'm currently seeking treatment for it. But, in the meantime, you're just going to have to deal with me reviewing "Birth Of A Nation".

As I have mentioned in the past D.W. Griffith is seen as the father of American cinema. He is the man whom is most often credited with inventing such film techniques as the "close-up", "cross-cutting", the "flashback" and the "iris" shot. His "Birth Of A Nation" is believed to have signaled the birth of modern American cinema. So why all the hate for this film?

First lets start with what do most people know about this film? I have a hunch, and maybe I'm wrong, but I suspect more people have heard of this film rather than have actually seen it. Through my four years of college, where I studied film for the final two, the film would come up repeatedly in my various classes but not one teacher would ever show the film in class. Not even clips of it! Too controversial! Racist! Disgusting! These were the words people would use to describe the film. People whom haven't even seen the film will tell you how controversial it is. When you ask them if they have seen it they will say no. And they say they have no intention of ever seeing it. My question is, why not? How do you know it is racist if you haven't seen it? Why not give it a chance? At the very least, I hope my review will make some think twice and decide to watch it. I'm not saying you're going to like it, I can't predict that. But, at least see it and be in a better position to debate it, no matter which side you take.

The basic plot of "Birth Of A Nation" takes place during the Civil War. The North and the South are divided over the issue of slaves and state rights. The film focuses on the South and the effects of President Lincoln's (played by Joseph Henebery) assassination and the Reconstruction period. According to this film, total anarchy ensued as blacks became drunk with power and new found freedom. Whites were now being mistreated. All of this mistreatment however gave rise to the KKK which was set to restore order to the South.

Now a lot of this has been perceived as racist to many, many people. Historians will claim no such events happened during or after Reconstructing concerning black power. That blacks were still badly mistreated.

As far as history is concerned my view is pretty lenient. I'm never bothered if a film plays around with historical facts. I don't see movies to learn about history. I go for entertainment value. If I want to learn about history I will read a history book. I won't turn to D.W. Griffith or Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese or King Vidor.

But as far as racism is concerned I think people need to ask themselves is "Birth Of A Nation" showing racism or supporting it? There is a difference. We do see acts of racism on-screen. But in order for a film to be racist I feel a film must support those ideas. It must try to make the audience agree. I don't think "Birth Of A Nation" does that.

Here are some examples. There is one scene, after the Reconstruction, where we see a bunch of black soldiers as they try to dominate the sidewalk by knocking over white people. In this instance, perhaps your sympathy goes to the white people, whom are presented as defenseless. Okay, now try this scene. When we do see the emergence of the KKK as they beat black people, our emotions now side with them, because they are helpless.

Other moments include the new congress meeting. More than 100 blacks sit in power while only a few white people have power. The blacks are pushing through laws such as all white people must now bow and greet black soldiers. We see the black army terrorizing neighborhoods. And then we see white resentment.

But I don't think Griffith is taking sides. I honestly don't. The film seems subjective to me. The camerawork, done by Griffith's long time collaborator, G.W. Bitzer is able to make us care about both sides. The black army becomes abusive because they are drunk with power. The whites create the KKK and kill the blacks. It seems to me Griffith is showing how both races use violence to address racial issues. In the end, the viewer ends up not agreeing with either side. We don't want to join the KKK after watching this film. The viewer doesn't condone their actions.

We see a white family on trial while a black judge and a black jury convict the family. We see all the black lawmakers. Instead of provoking racism, couldn't Griffith have been smarter than we give him credit for? Couldn't he have been making a sharp social commentary? Now the blacks are in control and are going to treat the whites the same way they have been treated. I was reminded of the film "White Man's Burden" (1995) with John Travolta and Harry Belafonte where the races have been switched. The black man in now in the majority while the white man is suppressed. Couldn't Griffith have been ahead of his time? Couldn't that be the message behind these scenes?

There are some offensive events in the film, I admit. The term "mulatto" is used to describe a character, Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis). The political correct term used today is "mixed". One scene has Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh) kill herself as a black man tries to rape her. The idea is she would have rathered died than have the black man touch her. The movie presents her act as "noble" since she protected her virtue.

At the end of the day however, the bottom-line is, if someone finds the film offensive, not me or anyone else can tell that person it isn't. If you are offended by the film I'm sure you have your reasons. But I feel it has simply become too convenient for people to merely call the film racist and avoid seeing it. It becomes an excuse. All I'm saying is watch the film and lets have the debate.

Some interesting facts I left out are, spot director Raoul Walsh in a small cameo as John Wilkes Booth. The film was based on a novel written by Thomas F. Dixon entitled "The Clansman". Dixon also directed the sequel to this film, "Fall Of A Nation" (1916), which is now considered lost. And supposedly, President Woodrow Wilson, described the film as "like writing history with lightning."

"Birth Of A Nation" isn't a perfect film. I hate the first hour of the film, the total running time is a little more than three hours. The first hour does a poor job of establishing characters and making us care about them. I also didn't pay much attention to the film techniques. They didn't shout out at me the way they have in other Griffith films. But at the end of the day I still believe it is a film worth seeing. Like it or not it is a movie which will be around for a long time, still stirring up debates. It is one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Film Review: Summer Hours

"Summer Hours" *** (out of ****)

Filmmaker Olivier Assayas has gained a reputation as being pretty bold and daring. His films are made outside of mainstream convention. He is probably best known for the action film "Irma Vep" (1996) which starred his ex-wife, Maggie Cheung. He also directed Asia Argento in "Boarding Gate" (2007), which I reviewed on here. And he was the director of "Demonlover" (2003).

His latest film "Summer Hours" (2009) could have been directed by a different person. It is not as experimental and edgy as his previous films. It is a movie for art lovers.

I don't know how the typical Assayas fan will react, but, as someone who is not a typical fan, I think it is the best thing he has made that I've seen.

"Summer Hours" revolves around three siblings; Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), Frederic (Charles Berling) and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier). Their mother, Helene (Edith Scob) has passed away. The children's uncle was a famous painter. Helene kept the her house as a sort of museum dedicated to him, where she showcased his work. Now that she is gone the children must decide what to do with all of the paintings and whether or not to sell the house.

Of the three children only Frederic still lives in France. Adrienne lives in New York, while Jeremie has a job with Puma in China. The three are rarely together, except to celebrate their mother's birthday. She is the glue which keeps the family together. But what will happen after she is gone?

And that's the question "Summer Hours" is most interested in and the result of her death. As one might expect now that the mother is gone the children no longer see any reason to continue to come back to France when they have lives in other countries. Two of the three siblings decide to sell the house and donate all the art to museums to avoid a hefty estate tax.

Olivier Assayas seems very interested in telling a story concerning the generations. It is a story about roots and traditions. Helene would often tell her grandchildren that the house will be around when they have children and they can continue traditions which she has started with them. But the children, like most modern age people, have no use for tradition. They see no importance in keeping up customs. They don't cherish their time with their grandmother. And the children don't seem to care much either. But there is a universal fact in life we all know. You only begin to realize the importance of things after it is gone. Will that happen again?

"Summer Hours" is pretty somber and monotone. I didn't think there were any dramatic shifts in tone. There are no heart wrenching moments. Assayas is a bit more subtle. Thinking over the film in my mind it seems more impressive than when I watched the film in the theatre. During the beginning moments I wished it would have been more emotional. I kept thinking about Andre Techine's "My Favorite Season" (1996) with Catherine Deneuve and Daniel Auteuil as a brother and sister who must cope with the lost of their mother as family secrets are revealed. "Season" I think it a modern masterpiece, "Summer Hours" is a decent film.

Of the three siblings I think the one I related the most to was Frederic. He is the one which is the most reluctant to sell the house. He doesn't want to lose the memories he has of the house and his mother. He is sentimental. The other two just seem too caught up in the moment and their lives. They don't have time to think about anything else and the consequences of their actions. The Frederic character I think goes through the most emotional range. He is the most complex of the siblings.

I don't know how the public will react to this film. As I said it is not typical of Assayas' other films. But I like the film's ideas and its message. It has some nice realistic human moments between the brothers and sister, though not quite as realistic as "A Christmas Tale" (2008). One of the most realistic holiday movies I've ever seen. Plus I have to support Assayas since he is half Hungarian. I'm just kidding. Assayas is Hungarian but it doesn't matter to me one way or the other. I didn't like his "Boarding Gate" or "Demonlover".

The film managed to earn one Cesar Award nomination (the French Oscar) for "Best Supporting Actress" (Edith Scob). Hopefully American audiences won't forget about the movie as it gets lost in the shuffle. It is a small movie but it has big rewards.