Friday, July 31, 2009

Film Review: Katyn

"Katyn" *** (out of ****)

Certain directors were born to tell particular stories. Take Romanian filmmaker Nicolae Margineanu and his film "Bless You, Prison (Bincuvantata fii, inchisaore)" (2002) or Roman Polanski and "The Pianist" (2002). To that list we can also add Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda and "Katyn" (2009).

These stories are so personal and closely related to their filmmakers we are unable to separate the two. The films become more than telling a single story instead they become symbols of a country. They become windows into history. Does that make these movies sound too important? That might be because you haven't seen them.

Andrzej Wajda is the premier Polish filmmaker. He has had perhaps the greatness cross-over success in America, and that includes Roman Polanski. He has become something of a statesman representing his country's cinema and informing others about the history of his country.

War is not a new subject for the great Wajda. His earliest films were the "WW2 Trilogy" he made back in the 1950s; "A Generation" (1955, which a very young Polanski starred in), "Kanal" (1957) and "Ashes & Diamonds" (1958). Each of them, rightfully so, is considered a masterpiece. I wouldn't consider "Katyn" to quite be in those films league, but, it had moments just as powerful as any you've seen in any WW2 film.

"Katyn" is clearly a very personal film for the 82 year old director. For those unfamiliar with history, "Katyn" is based on a true story of the massacre which happened there when the Soviets killed 15,000 Polish soldiers, professors, engineers and intellectuals. One of the men to have died those dreadful days in 1939 of March and early April was Jakub Wajda, Andrzej's father. Imagine how Andrezj felt having to relive those memories. To tell such a painful story of his country's past.

For years controversy surrounded the event. A government conspiracy was in place to cloud judgement on who exactly committed these terrible crimes. During this time in history the Nazis were occupying Poland. But the Soviets were also storming into the country, just as they did in much of Central and Eastern Europe. After the war the official word, by the Germans, was the Soviets were behind these crimes. But, once the Soviet Communist took control, they decided to change history and said it was in fact the Germans who committed these crimes. While citizens knew the truth, the Soviets tried their hardest to hush it up.

The two main characters in "Katyn" are based on Andrzej's parents. We follow Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) who is separated from her husband Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski) a Polish officer. He, along with several others, are now considered POWs. They are sent to camps in Russia, where they must attempt to keep their spirits up, while the evil truth lingers in the back of their head.

"Katyn" feels like an important film. I complained last year about all these WW2 stories. And I have grown a little tired of seeing them. We must get at least 92 WW2 themed movies released every year. But I'm glad I saw this film. It was a story which needed to be told and Wajda was the only person who could have told this particular story.

Still there are a few things which I feel prevent this film from becoming a masterpiece. First of all the film largely deals with the before and after of the Katyn massacre. I would have liked to see more of the during. More of the actual incident itself. That was what I originally thought the movies would be. Showing us these men facing their deaths. Their ride to the camps, knowing their fate. The bonds which would form between them. Cross-cut with stories of their loved ones back home, all of whom can do nothing but hope and pray for the best.

"Katyn" doesn't give us these moments and in the end I felt the film missed some heartfelt emotional moments. It missed the opportunity to show us the evilness of the Germans and the Soviets and missed the chance to show us the enduring nature of the human spirit and the frailness of humanity.

When we do see clips showing us the massacre it felt like a delayed payoff. But because the images are so powerful it was still able to grip me. It still makes us think about what people had to endure during this period. But I just felt we could have used more of these moments.

I also wonder why Wajda and his cinematographer, Pawel Edelman, who worked with Polanski on "The Pianist" and "Oliver Twist" (2005), didn't shoot this film in black & white. It would have given the film a more nostalgic feel. As if we are watching a documentary. History unfolding right before our eyes.

Still I admire what Wajda has given us. Even if it doesn't reach the full potential of what could have been.

If there are young film fans who have not seen an Andrzej Wajda film I would strongly recommend watching this film. He belongs in a class with Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson and Istvan Szabo as one of the great masters of cinema. His work should not be neglected by a disrespectful youth which has no time for foreign films.

Wajda won an honorary Oscar back in 2000. His film "Promised Land" (1975) was nominated but lost to Kurosawa's minor "Dersu Uzala" (1975). His films have been nominated 6 times for the palm d'or at the Cannes Films Festival and "Katyn" was nominated for an Oscar but lost to "The Counterfeiters" (2008).

Watching "Katyn" made me appreciate Wajda again. Hopefully it will have the same effect on others. I'll be sure to review more of his films in the future.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Masterpiece Film Series: The Bad Sleep Well

"The Bad Sleep Well" **** (out of ****)

Well, it has only taken a year and a half and nearly 300 reviews but finally I will discuss a film by the Japanese master, Akira Kurosawa.

Since this is my first review for a Kurosawa film on this blog some may wonder why didn't I write about "Rashomon" (1950) or "Seven Samurai" (1954) first, as an introduction into his work? The reason is not as complex as one may think. I simply didn't feel like re-watching those movies. I wanted to spend my time seeing something new. Luckily "The Bad Sleep Well' (1960) turned out to be a masterpiece. Not just one of Kurosawa's best films but perhaps one of the greatest films I have ever seen.

Strangely though, the film doesn't feel like a typical Kurosawa film. It has themes of honor and redemption, which you will find in several of his films, but the strongest influence presented is American noir films. Raymond Chandler and Howard Hawks could have made this. It has even been suggested elements of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" are in the story. Which isn't that odd since Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood" (1957) is based on "Macbeth".

This all leads to a larger point. In his homeland Kurosawa was usually criticized as being "too Western". Some of his films were even remade in America. His samurai films just lent themselves to American westerns such as "The Magnificent Seven" (1960) and "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964). But in no other film I can think of has this American influence been so strongly displayed as it is in "The Bad Sleep Well". Maybe his "High & Low" (1963) would come in second.

"The Bad Sleep Well" is like a giant puzzle and slowly but surely Kurosawa puts all the pieces together. Nothing quite seems to add up until the end. Kurosawa even gives us details on the slightest sub-plots. Everything in this film happens for a reason and everything is explained. It is a perfectly constructed film.

In some cases I might complain when a film tries to explain everything too perfectly. But in this film's case it doesn't feel manipulative. Kurosawa isn't giving us a fairy tale ending.

While I prefer someone walk into this movie knowing nothing about it (why do people need to know all the details about a movie before seeing it?). I suppose because of human curiosity I'll give you a brief outline.

The film stars Kurosawa's most frequent collaborator Toshiro Mifune as Nishi, who has recently married Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa) the daughter of Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori) the Vice-President of the Public Corporation. It is rumored the only reason Nishi married the daughter is to advance his career, however, he has been friends with Yoshiko's brother, Tatsuo (Tatsuya Mihashi, probably known to most Woody Allen fans as the lead actor in "What's Up Tiger Lilly?" (1966) which was originally "Key of Keys" (1965).

The Public Corporation is currently in a scandal for doing business with the Dairyu company. Now, five years after their merger suspicious things are starting to happen as police crack down. Ex-employees are suddenly committing suicide after police question them and an anonymous person is sending threats to the company.

Kurosawa is playing with fire here giving us a story about corporate greed (how timely is that?) and vengeance. About the evil which lurks in man's soul.

Even the film's title is thought-provoking. Who are "the bad" in the title? The film's hero isn't such a nice person either. His sins may be greater than the film's villains or equal. Which leads us to wonder is anyone "just" in this film? Is it acceptable for someone to commit evil acts in the name of justice?

As some of my readers may know, Kurosawa was a painter before entering film, his story boards were actual paintings. In "The Bad Sleep Well" you have some interesting visuals. One sequence has newspaper headlines involving the scandal while fading to those involved being taken away by the police. I bet Francis Ford Coppola saw this movie and was inspired when he shot "The Godfather" (1972). I also like the way he plays with lighting, trying to give the film a ghost story appeal.

And then there is the ending. Oh, it's going to bother some, I know. They will complain it isn't satisfactory. Or is just disappointing. But that's what I love about. It is not what you'd expect. As we get closer and closer to the final scene Kurosawa keeps raising the stakes. It is one twist upon another. The film takes us on an emotional journey. Nearly every scene reveals a new revelation. Ultimately we have a very bleak message about the rich and powerful and what they are capable of. You might think it is a bit of a downer but I say it is a work of genius.

It is hard for me to say how this film stacks up against Kurosawa's other films. My personal favorite is probably "Rashomon" but "The Bad Sleep Well" is definitely in my top five. This is really a well orchestrated film with fine performances and a very dark message. That's what makes this one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Film Review: La Chinoise

"La Chinoise" * (out of ****)

What can I say about Jean-Luc Godard? He is perhaps one of the most famous directors of the Nouvelle Vague movement, which erupted on the world cinema scene in the 1960s, thanks largely in part to his film "Breathless" (1961).

You will find many, many filmbuffs who will sing his praises as a true visionary. One of, if not the the single greatest, filmmakers of all time. To prove their point they will point to Godard's reputation all over the world. His numerous awards and nominations. He has been nominated 6 times for the palme d' or at the Cannes Film Festival for films such as "In Praise of Love" (2002), "Nouvelle Vague" (1990) and "Passion" (1982), not one of which I liked. He was also nominated 7 times for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and won once for "First Name; Carmen" (1983), one of his better films.

"La Chinoise" (1968) marks the first time I've written about Godard. I always planned on doing it before, but for reasons I'll explain here, you'll see what took me so long.

I've never been a great admirer of Mr. Godard. I understand and accept his position as a renowned filmmaker but his films never strike me as masterpieces. Godard has made a long career out of making radical leftist films. His characters openly declare themselves as Communist and/or Socialist. His films routinely revolve around war and political revolutions. And all of that is fine. I don't object to that. What I object to is the naive nature of his characters. I don't find Godard to be a great intellectual thinker. I find his insights into human nature childish and pretentious. He is not a mature filmmaker. He reminds me of a film student still experimenting with his camera shouting out cliche philosophical arguments, which he finds profound.

Oh, I know what some will say. I'm not being fair to Godard. I should perhaps withhold my judgement and see more of his work. Ladies and gentlemen, "La Chinoise" is the 20th Godard film I have seen. Nearly film after film Godard disappoints me. It is the same thing over and over again with him, film after film. At the very least he makes an excellent case for the auteur theory. You can always tell a Godard film a mile away. And each film seems as childish as the next. I don't like "Week-end" (1967), "Two Or Three Things I Know About Her" (also 67), "Pierrot le fou" (1965) or "A Band of Outsiders" (1964).

Now some will say, well, clearly you have a bias against Mr. Godard and therefore you will never give one of his films a chance, which is clearly indicated by your star rating for "La Chinoise". Before you start jumping to conclusions may I also state Godard has made some films which I have truly enjoyed. My favorite among his films is "Breathless". I think his "Tout va Bien" (1972) is a masterpiece. I called his "Notre Musique" (2005) one of the best films of the year. I admire "Les Carabineers" (1967) as well as "My Life To Live" (1962). So I'm willing to give Godard credit when I feel he deserves it.

"La Chinoise" however is a film which suffers from Godard's usual problems. The film follows a group of college students whom have decided France is in need of a political revolution. Their main source of inspiration is taken from Communist China. They have fallen under the influence of Mao and listen to radio Peking, where they get all the latest updates and hear about the advancement of the workers.

The leaders of this group are Guillaime (Jean-Pierre Leaud, whom I believe has appeared in every French movie ever made!) and Veronique (Anne Wiazemsky). Their followers are Yvonne (Juliet Berto) and Henri (Michel Semeniako). They have shut themselves off from the world and debate Communist theories among each other. The complain about Capitalist, complain about America and the Vietnam war and they complain about France's own Communist Party as being too weak. Only in China is Communism strong and correct.

Given the film was released in America in 1968 I can perhaps see the appeal young liberals would take in watching this movie. Lets face it, Godard was the voice of 60s radicalism in cinema. I'm sure he spoke for an entire generation. There was strong protest against Vietnam. The characters in "La Chinoise" call President Johnson a murderer, a repeated chant here by the angry left in America. So "La Chinoise" gave audiences something to relate to, to connect with. That was their voice on-screen. That was everything they had told their friends. Those were their thoughts and dreams. But this makes the film little more than a "time capsule" to me. A relic.

That is not what infuriates me about this film though. "Tout va Bien" has a leftist slant about the workers against factory owners. "Les Carabineers" is a strong anti-war film. And I have said, I admire both films. So it is not merely that the film is leftist which bothers me. But, that childish world view. The cliche philosophy.

All this Godard film is, is a collection of thoughts. We just hear the characters rant and rave about what is wrong with the world. How Communist need to stand up and revolt. But there is no real story. No real characters to speak of. Godard breaks down the fourth wall and has characters speak to the camera and then shows us the camera filming everything. It is as if we are watching a Brecht play. What is real and what is fiction?

But the major problem I have with Godard and this film is what is it exactly Godard is telling us about these characters and their ideas. For the first hour of the film Godard seems to be in complete sympathy with them, since he offers no opposing view point. He has a way of glorifying their group and its ambitions. But in the last half hour of the film Godard seems to turn on his characters.

One of the best scenes in the film has Veronique discussing her revolution with an older gentleman, a man who in his youth was a radical. As they have their conversation the man counters every argument Veronique makes. He tells to tell her how simplistic her world view is. How she and her group really don't know what it is they want to achieve. And for the first time Godard is showing us what the students are, naive and pretentious. But why show us this after an hour of praising them?

Another scene has the group kick out one of their own, Henri. As he describes his version of what happened, he eventually calls them fanatics. He is calling them fanatics when he was part of their group, agreeing with their view point.

When they actually attempt their revolution, which is to shut down a university, and kills teachers and students, they even mess this up by going into the wrong room and killing the wrong professor. Thus their revolution fails.

By the end of the film we see these students not as communist, not as revolutionaries, not as a threat to society but as confused children. Children looking for a cause to fight for but unsure which cause to chose and how to fight for it.

So is Godard turning his back on the radical leftist? Is he making a commentary on youth? How they seem involved for a cause one moment and then suddenly lose interest? They lack passion. Is he exposing these students for what they are? These are all interesting questions. And I think I have the answers and that's what bothers me about the film. How negative the film turns against these characters. It actually made me feel I had wasted my time watching this movie. There doesn't seem to be any point to it. It is an unsatisfactory film, much like their revolution. It has a great build-up and ultimately leads to nothing.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Film Review: The Fearless Vampire Killers

"The Fearless Vampire Killers" ** (out of ****)

There has always been an attempt to try to combine comedy and horror. Some of the best examples include "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948), George Hamilton in "Love At First Bite" (1979) and a pair of Mel Brooks comedies; "Young Frankenstein" (1974) and "Dracula: Dead & Loving It" (1995). But Roman Polanski's "The Fearless Vampire Killers Or Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are In My Neck" (1967), which I will refer to as "The Fearless Vampire Killers" from now on, is not quite a good film.

In retrospect I can understand why Polanski would have taken on this project, especially when we consider what he went on to accomplish. His very next film would be "Rosemary's Baby" (1968), one of the all time great psychological horror films. Years later he would also direct Johnny Depp in "The Ninth Gate" (1999). So Polanski's name is usually associated with the occult and darkness. A movie about vampires seems right up Polanski's alley.

The problem is "The Fearless Vampire Killers" is a comedy. And as talented as Polanski is, comedy is not his strong suit. He simply doesn't understand the fundamentals of screen comedy and therefore as a result this film fails.

Jack MacGowan plays Professor Abronsius, a van Helsing type, who has traveled to Transylvania with his assistant, Alfred (Polanski). After nearly freezing to death they are brought into a inn run by Shagal (Alfie Bass), who has a very pretty servant working with him, Sarah (Sharon Tate). The Professor and Alfred have come to do research on vampires. Which the townspeople refuse to admit they believe in, despite the presence of garlic everywhere. But once strange events start to happen, like the disappearance of Sarah and Shagal rising from the dead, the Professor and Alfred are on their way to find the castle of Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne).

As I have said, others have tried to find humor in these type of stories. So it is not impossible to do so. But Polanski doesn't know how, or at least understand how, to shoot physical comedy. He doesn't comprehend the concept of set-up and delivery. Even when dealing with physical comedy you need to establish a set-up before giving us the punchline. We must see the banana peel before the person slips on it. Polanski just wants to show us the person slipping.

And that's the best way to describe in the comedy in this film. It is just too broad with people falling, and speeding up the camera, for a 1920s slapstick look, which just doesn't work. Polanski doesn't take his time to establish the jokes. He just thinks fast action equals funny. Timing is important to comedy, no doubt, but you have to tell us why are we laughing. What makes the situation funny?

The best moments in "The Fearless Vampire Killers" are not the comedy sequences then but the more serious moments. When the film tries to create a horror atmosphere. Here Polanski is in his element. Showing us around the castle, following shadows, the eerie music...ect. Once Polanski strays away from the comedy he seems more confident in the situation. He has a better grasp what to do. If Polanski had attempted to make another "Nosferatu" he may have succeeded.

The film has a terrific look to it. The cinematography was done by Douglas Slocombe, who worked with Steven Spielberg on the original Indiana Jones trilogy and with Dario Argento on his "Phantom of the Opera" (1998). Slocombe makes this look like a serious horror film. He doesn't give the movie a cartoon-ish look. In fact everything about he technical aspects of the film are fine. Everyone seems to have went through a lot of trouble in order to get the "look" of the genre correct. That is one part of what makes it so hard to ultimately dismiss this film.

But then we have the performances. First of all, everyone is mumbling their lines. I actually had to watch this film with the English subtitles at the bottom of the screen. I couldn't make out what anyone was saying. Jack MacGowan is the worst of them all. And as for Polanski, he has no energy in this role. He is suppose to play a wimpy sidekick. Think along the lines of a Woody Allen or Bob Hope type. He is the kind of person who would be afraid of his shadow. But Polanski is like a zombie. He has no flair for the role. He is sleepwalking through the movie. He doesn't explore all the comedic possibilities of the character. Another actor in the role would have greatly improved the film.

There was one thing which I liked Polanski did. There is a sequence where he is running away from a vampire. What he doesn't realize is he has just run around in a circle. When he is face to face with the vampire he doesn't do a double-take and run away. He looks the vampire straight in the eye, very calmly, examines the situation and then runs away. It reminded me of something you'd expect from Buster Keaton. That my have been the best thing about his performance. That simply gesture, proved at the very lest, he understood something about comedy. You have to take your time once in while. If the situation is funny the laughs will come.

I also liked a sequence at the end where Alfred and the Professor are dressed as vampires at a Victorian ball, trying to make an attempt to escape. It brought to mind something out of a Bob Hope movie, say "Casanova's Big Night" (1954). So there are small touches which are funny. It just makes it sad there aren't more of these moments.

It has been over a year since I started a blog and this is actually the first time I am writing about Roman Polanski. Polanski is a very talented filmmaker. His debut film was "Knife in the Water" (1962) made in Poland. It is a good film but isn't one of his best. I prefer his later films. His best films in my opinion are "Rosemary's Baby", "Chinatown" (1974) and "The Pianist" (2002). I also enjoy his "Bitter Moon" (1992) very much.

"The Fearless Vampire Killers" is not the best movie to start your Roman Polanski experience. The only reason I reviewed this before any of his other films is because I have only recently seen this film and wanted to write about it. I didn't feel like re-watching one of his other films I wanted to experience something new. But don't let my review of this film fool you. Polanski is a very talented filmmaker. And don't let his personal life stop you from watching his films either. While, one my not like his life choices I feel that has nothing to do with his art. If you chose not to watch any of his films you will be missing out on great entertainment. Polanski's films are very dark. You could compare some of them to Ingmar Bergman's films and his examinations on the human condition. Polanski gives us piercing looks into man's soul too.

This film is a minor work. As I said in my "Whatever Works" review, sometimes great men strike out too. This and "The Tenant" (1976) are two of the more disappointing Polanski films I have seen. Had this been a serious horror film, it very well may have worked, with some re-casting.

Still I hope some of my readers, who may not have seen a Polanski film before, still search for one of his films. He is one of our more gifted filmmakers. This just isn't the place to start.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Film Review: Il Bidone

"Il Bidone" *** (out of ****)

As I draw closer and closer to my 300th review (can you believe it?) I want to sort of clean out my closet and review films by all the great directors I haven't done so yet.

I have reviewed a film by the great Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, his "Intervista" (1992), but Fellini's modern films are not what have gained him the reputation as one of cinema's great directors. So I thought I should review one of his more classic, older titles.

"Il Bidone" (1955) is not one of Fellini's better known titles. It often gets lost in the shuffle of some of his more acclaimed films; "8 1\2" (1963), "La Dolce Vita" (1960) and "La Strada" (1954), but "Il Bidone" shouldn't be dismissed by film fans. It should be celebrated as should most of Fellini's work.

In Peter Bondandella's book "Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present" he observes "Il Bidone" is actually part of a trilogy along with "La Strada" and "Nights of Cabiria" (1957) dealing with "spiritual poverty and an inquiry into the nature of grace or salvation." Putting the film in this context makes it seem to be one of Fellini's more personal films straying away from the themes more often associated with his work.

Bondandella describes "Il Bidone" as such, "a variation on the Christian parable of the good thief". The film centers on three con men; Augusto (Broderick Crawford), Picasso (Richard Basehart) and Roberto (Franco Fabrizi). They go around, dressed as priest, pretending they have just come from confession where a dying man has confessed to murder. The victim, along with a buried treasure, are on unsuspecting peasants' property. With the owner's permission, they dig on their land and discover human bones and the treasure. The peasants are allowed to keep the treasure for a price. What they don't know is the bones and the treasure have been planted by the con men. The "treasure" is worthless.

"Il Bidone", which translated into English means "The Swindle", not to be confused with Claude Chabrol's lighthearted and charming film, also about cons, attempts to use these deeply flawed men as an examination into human suffering, poverty and alienation.

As I started watching "Il Bidone" I thought it was going to be a strict comedy, something in the tradition of Mario Monicelli's "Big Deal on Madonna Street" (1958). But Fellini doesn't want to settle for laughs. And I'm glad he doesn't. But the biggest problem with this film is Fellini's examination doesn't go deep enough into these men's lives. We never truly get a sense of who they are.

In order for a film such as this to work Fellini needs to tell us about these men's hopes and dreams. What drives them into this line of work. Fellini does make minor attempts but doesn't hit this point hard enough. By the time he tries to show us another side, it is simply too late. The film is almost over.

We learn Picasso is married to Iris (Giulietta Masina, Fellini's real life wife). They have a child. He wants to be a painter. He only does this work to have off his debts but once he gets the chance to get out of a life of crime, he'll take it.

Roberto wants to become a singer. He has bought a collection of Johnny Ray LPs and has studied his voice.

But the character we center on the most is Augusto. Augusto is the oldest of the three men. He is 48 years old. Much is made of his age. Working with younger people makes Augusto feel old. He wonders, as do others, why is he still in this con game. What has he accomplished with his life. Augusto doesn't have the status symbols we associate with success. He doesn't drive a new car, own a beautiful home, wear expensive clothes. All Augusto has is his memories. He takes great pride in what he use to be. At one time he was considered the best con man in the business. But eventually Augusto is going to get left behind by these younger guys.

It is strange to see American actor Broderick Crawford in the lead role but he delivers a fine performance. He body language and facial expressions tells us everything we need to know about him. There are moments when we see Augusto stare off into space and we know what he is thinking. Crawford, who was an Oscar winning actor, for his performance in "All the King's Men" (1949), had made a reputation as playing tough guys, usually criminals. Watch him in "Larceny, Inc." (1942), which served as the basis for Woody Allen's "Small Time Crooks" (2000). Actually Fellini originally wanted Humphrey Bogart in the lead.

More than half way into the film we find out Augusto has a daughter, Patrizia (Lorella De Luca) a college student. The character pops up out of nowhere and isn't seen again until near the end of the film. And this represents the problem with "Il Bidone". Fellini only touches the surface surrounding these characters but doesn't scratch beneath it. That is where all the drama and human emotion is.

Augusto learns that Patrizia wants to work her way through college and become a cashier. She won't make much money and she doesn't care. Other young people are making the same amount of money and are getting by. I think she takes pride in the fact that she will work her while in school. It shows maturity and seems like the right thing to do. It offers a direct contradiction to her father, who, as far as we know, has never made an honest living in his life.

Fellini ends the film playing with the usual cliches we may have found in such a story about character redemption. I won't reveal it here but it is a clever twist Fellini has in store for us and takes the film in a whole new direction.

"Il Bidone" was Fellini's fifth film. Already "The White Sheik" (1952) and "La Strada" where behind him. It film was co-written by Fellini along with Ennio Flaiano, who also co-wrote "Juliet of the Spirits" (1965) and "8 1\2", and Tullio Pinelli, who worked with Fellini on "La Dolce Vita" and "I Vitelloni" (1953).

The musical score was by Nino Rota. The score has some of the elements in which we expect in his Fellini scores. But doesn't become as memorable as the ones he created for "Amarcord" (1973), perhaps his best or "La Strada".

While I wouldn't call "Il Bidone" a masterpiece it does have effective moments. Crawford's performance is standout. It is the best in the film. In a lesser actor's hand, I don't think the film would work as well as it does. Much of the film's appeal has to do with the acting. Still I wish Fellini would have given us more personal information about these people. It would have made this a much more emotion piece of work and perhaps make the ending even more devastating in its social message.

Film Review: Bunny Lake Is Missing

"Bunny Lake Is Missing" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

It is every parents worst nightmare. You drop your child off at a preschool, when you arrive to pick them up, they are missing. But, not only are they missing, no one has ever seen your child!

That is what happens to Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) in Otto Preminger's gripping psychological thriller "Bunny Lake Is Missing" (1965).

Ann, and her daughter Bunny, have just arrived in London coming from America. It was to be Bunny's first day at school, but when Ann is unable to find a teacher, after arriving late to school, Ann leaves the child with the school's cook.

All throughout the film we never actually see Bunny Lake. We only hear Ann talk about her. And once Bunny goes missing, Ann's brother, Steven (Keir Dullea), an American journalist working in London, threatens to call the police, headed by Super Intendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier). But after no clues can be found of Bunny's existence, the police start to wonder if Ann didn't just make her up.

It is an intriguing, if familiar, premise. Other films such as the recent French thriller "Tell No One" (2008) also deal with a disappearance. And then there's the Julianne Moore thriller "The Forgotten" (2004). But Preminger's film may have them all beat.

The first time I saw this film I was very much caught in the suspense of the situation. I hung on every word of dialogue. The film seems so expertly crafted as it leads us down this dark path of whether or not we are dealing with a delusional person.

The film was based on a novel by Evelyn Piper (whose real name is Marryam Modell) and adapted into a screenplay by John and Penelope Mortimer. For its time the screenplay seems pretty radical. The film goes into areas other mainstream film weren't heading in. The relationship between brother and sister is a very affectionate one. In fact, at first, the film tries to suggest these two people are a married couple! They call each other darling and repeatedly say I love you to one another. It's nice when siblings are close to one another but they should never forget they are siblings not lovers.

The film also dwells into a disturbed mind and the psychological effects of a traumatic childhood. The ending of the film made me think of "Psycho" (1960). The situation is not exactly the same but I wonder if "Bunny Lake Is Missing" would have been able to get made if Hitchcock's film didn't exist.

The best performance in the film belongs to Olivier, that is usually the case when he is in a movie. Probably one of my all time favorite actors, Olivier often has a way of making us believe every character he plays whether it is in "Rebecca" (1940), "Sleuth" (1972) or "Wuthering Heights" (1939). He doesn't make many physical changes but his manner changes from role to role and his light touches have lasting effects. Each performance is memorable. Here is a man seeking a simple truth. He is tactful and manipulative when he needs to be. He is not one of those ignorant policeman we so often see in movies.

The other performances do what they need to but you wonder how different the film would have been with more experienced actors. Carol Lynley was Preminger's original choice but the studio wanted Jane Fonda. Lynley has an innocent child-like nature to herself. No doubt intentional as it serves as a set-up for the film's later themes. But she doesn't seen to have natural screen presence. Her delivery isn't also convincing. Though Preminger apparently enjoyed working with her. She was also in his "The Cardinal" (1963) and appeared in the Jean Harlow bio-pic "Harlow" as Jean Harlow.

Keir Dullea has some of the same problems on-screen. He doesn't have a natural, at ease, presence on-screen. Though he does come off looking slightly better than Lynley, until the film's ending.

And that ending is what changed my rating for the film. After my first viewing I was going to give the film four stars. Even with the uneven ending. It simply goes on way too long, long after it has made its point. Then I watched the film again. It didn't seem to hold up after a second viewing. I wasn't as involved in the film as I was the first time seeing it. The film depends largely on its ending, and after knowing it, I found myself just looking for clues leading up to it. It distracted me from enjoying the film.

I don't think I've discussed Otto Preminger on this site. He was one of the great filmmakers working within the studio system. Maybe best known for the films "Laura" (1944) and "The Man with the Golden Arm" (1955). Preminger was a filmmaker who liked to tackle big controversial subjects. His films didn't shy away from issues. He was also known to be a perfectionist. Pay attention to the small details in "Anatomy of Murder" (1959) and "Advise & Consent" (1962).

I don't think anyone will call "Bunny Lake Is Missing" Preminger's best film but it is an intriguing film worth seeing.

I'd also like to briefly mention that is the master himself, Sir. Noel Coward playing Mr. Wilson, Ann's landlord. Surprisingly Coward's scene are the most sexual in nature as it plays around with fact and fiction. The more you know about Coward the more insight you'll see into the role as it plays around with his image.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Top Ten Films Of The 1960s

I can't say I find the cinema of the 1960s to be as exciting or fresh as the cinema of the 1970s. Filmmakers weren't making truly personal films. Cinema still felt like a big studio product. Of course some very good films came out of Hollywood studios but the films which truly defined the decade were smaller films. Take for example "Easy Rider" (1969) or "Midnight Cowboy" (1969).

The best films of the 60s and the ones which you will see on this list are the films which captured the times. Films which dealt which subject matters which demonstrated to the audiences the mood of the times. The films on this list will deal with sexual repression, alienation and paranoia.

Some people say the 1960s didn't start until the 1970s. What we think the 60s represented; sex, drugs and rock n roll, actually didn't start until the 70s. But through these films which I have chosen we see the seeds being planted. Many of these films challenged the social conventions of the times. Many were controversial upon initial release.

The 1960s, as I said, saw the grip the big studios had come to an end. By the end of the decade filmmakers were engaging in more personal projects. A new rating system was introduced, this would allow filmmakers to deal with the subject matters they wanted and at the same time offer a warning to those who would find the material objectionable. At least that was the idea. By the end of the decade films started to become more political. People were starting to speak differently about films. They were starting to talk about war and social issues. Watch the back room political dramas; "The Best Man" (1964) and Otto Preminger's "Advise & Consent" (1962) and notice the cynical nature presented.

The decade gave way to the debut of Woody Allen, who wrote his first script in 1965 ("What's New Pussycat"?) and directed his first film by the end of the decade, "Take the Money & Run" (1969). Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski was emerging on the world scene after his debut film "Knife in the Water" (1962). Later coming to America and giving us masterpieces such as "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) and "Chinatown" (1974). And the old pros were still around. Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and David Lean. We also saw, what some at the time felt, was the most exciting cinema they had ever seen, come out of France with the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague).

As I did with my top ten list of the 90s and the 80s I'm going to list these titles in alphabetical order. This was a very difficult list for me to come up with. I'm sure if I think about it later other titles will pop into my head which I left off. As I said before in these other entries it is merely too hard to limit an entire decade to only 10 films. Something is bound to get left off. Still, these 10 films are the ones which best show a shift in cinema. Films which are a reflection of the changing times.

1. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968, Dir. Stanley Kubrick; U.K./U.S.) - Many consider this to be Kubrick's best film. A film made in a decade when America was in an arms race with the former Soviet Union. Thought to be one of the most influential and realistic depiction of space travel. Kubrick co-wrote the film with science fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke, who was writing the novel of this film at the same time. The film was nominated for 4 Academy Awards including Best Director and won 1 for "Best Visual Effects".

Other important Kubrick films of the 60s include; "Spartacus" (1960), "Lolita" (1962) and "Dr. Strangelove" (1964)

2. BLOW-UP (1967, Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni; U.K.) - The great Anonioni's English language debut. In this film Antonioni is able to show us the swinging 60s in England, which was starting faster there than in America. But he also hits at the paranoia of the times. A photographer, played by newcomers David Hemmings, thinks he has accidentally photographed a murder. Did he really or was it just his imagination? The film co-stars Vanessa Redgrave and won the palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival as well as winning 2 Oscar nominations; "Best Director" and "Best Screenplay".

I felt bad about not including Antonioni's "The Passenger" (1975) on my list of the best films of the 1970s and had to include this masterpiece here.

Other important Antonioni films of the 60s include his alienation trilogy "L' Avventura" (1960), "La Notte" (1961) and "L'Eclisse" (1962)

3. BREATHLESS (1961, Dir. Jean-Luc Godard; France) - While it wasn't the film which started the Nouvelle Vague (Chabrol's "Le Beau Serge" did) it has become the most symbolic film of the movement and Godard's most popular film as well as considered his best.

The film dazzled audiences with its rapid edits introducing the term jump cuts to the language. The films took many elements of Italy's neo-realism movement but weren't so much about the economic issues facing their country.

"Breathless" was a story conceived by another important figure in the Nouvelle Vague, Francois Truffaut. And starred Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg.

Other important Godard films from the 60s are "My Life To Live" (1962) and "Contempt" (1963)

4. DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965, Dir. David Lean; U.S.) - I know, know, how dare I make a list of the best films of the 1960s and not put Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) on the list. But how many times do you want to see that movie on a list? I don't want my list to be full of cliches choices. These are suppose to be my personal favorites not a national consensus.

"Doctor Zhivago" is a film which most filmbuffs have seen but it has the reputation of being one of Lean's lesser efforts. I disagree and don't like people who feel that way. "Doctor Zhivago" is one of the all time classic Hollywood epic love stories, probably only behind "Gone with the Wind" (1939).

Set during the Bolshevik Revolution Omar Sharif stars as Doctor Zhivago and his search for Lara (Julie Christie). The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won five including "Best Screenplay", "Best Cinematography" and "Musical Score", and how can someone not love the song "Somewhere My Love"?

"Doctor Zhivago" doesn't deserve the mixed reaction it receives from audience. This is a masterpiece. Sometimes I like it more than "Lawrence of Arabia". Take that!

5. THE LION IN WINTER (1968, Dir. Anthony Harvey; U.K.) - Peter O' Toole stars as King Henry II who must decide which one of his three sons (one is played by Anthony Hopkins) will inherit the throne. The film works on a Shakespearean level. If I were a film critic around in 1968 this would have been my choice for the best film of the year. The acting in this film, headed by O' Toole and Katherine Hepburn as his wife, is standout!

Originally based on a play by James Goldman, who adapted his own work for the film, "The Lion in Winter" was nominated for 7 Oscars including "Best Picture" and "Best Director" and won 3, giving Hepburn yet another Oscar as "Best Actresses" and Goldman winning for his adapted screenplay.

6. MY NAME IS IVAN (1962, Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky; Russia) - The great Russian filmmaker's debut feature length film. I reviewed his "The Steamroller & the Violin" already and repeated mention how "My Name Is Ivan" was his masterpiece. The film shows us 12 year old Ivan who works as a spy for the Russians as he crosses over to German territory. Few films made by Tarkovsky are as poignant as he offers commentary not only on war but childhood as well. It is amazing such a deep, thought provoking and mature film would come from such a young director.

7. PERSONA (1967, Dir. Ingmar Bergman; Sweden) - By the time Bergman made "Persona" many pretentious critics and audience members were referring to the great master as "old hat". His best years were behind him. How could Bergman complete with the new cinema coming out from around the world? Bergman's style of story telling was too old-fashion. With "Persona" he shut them all up! With one film Bergman showed them he still had a few tricks up his sleeve.

The film stars Bibi Andersson as a nurse taking care of an actress (Liv Ullmann), who has given up speaking. The film has caused debate ever since its release as to what it is all about. My own feelings was Bergman was discussing a woman's guilt. Bergman doesn't hide the fact these two women are really one. But is it all make believe?

Other important Bergman films from the 60s are "Hour of the Wolf" (1968), "Shame" (also 68) and the beginning of his faith trilogy "Through A Glass Darkly" (1961) my favorite of the trilogy.

8. PSYCHO (1960, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock; U.S.) - It has been said with "Psycho" Hitchcock changed our movie going habits. After a surprise twist in the first half hour of the film audiences were told they could not attend the film after it had begun (a standard practice at the time). It also gave us one of the most famous movie villains, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).

The film was not part of the Hollywood studio and because of that Hitchcock got in a lot of strange taboos. Is it his best film? I wouldn't say that, my favorite is "Rear Window" (1954). But as Hitchcock was coming near the end of his career "Psycho" is the work of a master filmmaker.

Other important Hitchcock films from the 60s are; "The Birds" (1963) and "Marnie" (1964), not seen as one of Hitchcock's great films it deserves a second chance.

9. (TIE) THE RED & THE WHITE/THE ROUND-UP (1968/1966 Dir. Miklos Jancso; Hungary)- Two of legendary Hungarian filmmaker Miklos Jancso best films. "The Red & The White" (Csillagosok, katonak) was made 11 years after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 in the Soviet Union and deals with a revolt as the Hungarian Communist joined sides with the Bolsheviks as the fight the Czarists.

Those not familiar with Hungarian culture probably won't understand the significance of this. But this makes this one of the most important films in Hungarian cinema as Jancso shows us the absurd nature of war.

"The Round-Up" (Szegenylegnyek) is a bit different from most of Jancso's other films in that it actually has more character development than usual. This film deals with the 1848 revolution as the Hungarians tried to fight for independence against Austria. The freedom fighter Kossuth has disappeared while in a prison camp the Austria's make the Hungarian fight each other as they try to find out the new leaders of the movement.

Both films are excellent example of Jancso's style of filmmaking with their long camera shots, little movement and extreme long shots as we never see actions from a character's point of view but instead the larger picture.

10. REPULSION (1965, Dir. Roman Polanski; U.K.) - Here is a film which shows us the sexual repression of the times starring Catherine Deneuve who would go on to star in Luis Bunuel's "Belle de jour" (1967) about a sexual repressed housewife. The two films are not identical. Polanski's is a much darker film. But in some ways I prefer it. This is one of Deneuve's great performances.

Other important Polanski films from the 60s are "Rosemary's Baby" (1968)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Film Reviews: Abraham Lincoln & The Struggle

"Abraham Lincoln" ** (out of ****)

Lets play a game. Lets pretend "Abraham Lincoln" (1930) was the first film a particular person saw by director D.W. Griffith. Then, lets further pretend this person knew nothing about Griffith and his importance to the early development of cinema. After watching this film if I told this person who D.W. Griffith was they'd never believe me.

"Abraham Lincoln" is a straight forward telling of the 16th president's life. Sadly however Griffith paints Lincoln's life with a very large brush. He passes over moments in the president's life and tells us nothing new or informative about him.

Lincoln is played by Walter Houston, the 4 time Oscar nominated actor probably best known for his performances in John Huston's "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948) and Michael Curtiz's "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942). He was nominated for both performances.

The film glides over Lincoln's childhood. All we see is his birth. The next time we see him he is a grown man. He talks about running for state legislator but those moments are passed over as well. We briefly hear about his senate run against Stephen A. Douglas (E. Alyn Warren) and see a quick montage of their debate but we are never told why Lincoln lost the election. After losing the election however representatives are sent from the east coast and inform Lincoln they want him to be the presidential nominee of the Republican Party. Nothing else is ever mentioned about the campaign.

Now I've said before that people should not turn to the movies for historical truth. And I still stand by that. Movies do not have to be historically accurate to be entertaining pictures. But, if your movie is about a historical figure you should at least tell us something about the person. Why else are you making the movie?

Filmbufs will probably want to compare Griffith's story of Lincoln's life to the film "Young Mr. Lincoln" (1939) directed by John Ford starring Henry Fonda. Most viewers would probably say Ford's film is superior and I won't argue with them.

What exactly could have went wrong here? Griffith is considered the father of American cinema. His "Birth of A Nation" (1915) has been called the beginning of American cinema as an art form, despite its controversial nature. He is credited with introducing such film techniques as the "iris" shot, cross-cutting and the flashback. His camera was mobile and fluid. He established the film language which we use to this day. But none of that is on display in "Abraham Lincoln".

Griffith strangely seems out of place. Could the advent of sound have thrown Griffith so far off his game? Griffith creates no tension. Compare the Lincoln assassination scene in "Birth of A Nation" to the one here. Notice how Griffith is delaying the moment creating drama and suspense in "Birth of A Nation". In "Abraham Lincoln" he takes all the dramatic possibilities out of the situation. Griffith is not interested in creating arresting and interesting visuals. Griffith just places the camera in front of the actors and never moves it. Griffith's earlier films such as "Intolerance" (1916) or "Broken Blossoms" (1919) actually seems more modern and fresh than this film!

Still "Abraham Lincoln" and "The Struggle" (1931) have their place in cinema. These are the last two films by the the great director. They are his first sound films. So they are important in the Griffith cannon. Film buffs will be curious to see these films.

Some viewers may suggest the problem with "Abraham Lincoln" was Griffith was not use to making films with sound. I don't think that is it. I'm sure working with sound offered some challenges. No question. But I can't believe it would have thrown Griffith off so much. It is as if he has forgotten the fundamental rules of cinema. "Abraham Lincoln" is a major step backwards for Griffith. This is not the work of an innovative filmmaker but a beginner.

Una Merkel receives second billing playing Ann Rutledge. Her screen time is very brief. I believe she is in a total of two scenes. She is suppose to be Lincoln's first love. Their love scenes together offer the usual amateurish dialogue we expect from early sound pictures. It comes off as unrealistic and insincere.

Amazingly the cinematography in this film was done by Karl Struss. He won an Academy Award for his work on F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise" (1927). The cinematography in that film is truly innovative. Even he seems to have forgotten everything while shooting this film. Everyone seems to be starting from scratch again. They had to re-learn everything they had accomplished during the silent era.

"Abraham Lincoln" is not a bad film. Compared to "The Struggle" it is a better film. The problem is it is average. There is nothing memorable about it. How unlike Griffith to make such a film.

"The Struggle" ** (out of ****)

Just about everything I said about "Abraham Lincoln" could be said about "The Struggle" as well.

"The Struggle" was Griffith's final film. It is suppose to be a look at alcoholism in America during Prohibition.

If Griffith's intention was to make a realistic portrait of the life of an alcoholic he doesn't succeed. The film is not able to demonstrate to us what drives people to drink and how they must cope with the problem. One of the best early Hollywood films to deal with this topic was Billy Wilder's Best Picture Oscar winner "The Lost Weekend" (1945) with Ray Milland. If anyone has ever seen both of these movies they'd have to agree "The Lost Weekend" does a much better job showing the life of an alcoholic.

Griffith's film tells the story of Jimmie Wilson (Hal Skelly). A married man with a daughter. At first he says he will stop drinking if Florrie (Zita Johann) will marry him. But even after they marry and have a daughter, Mary (Edna Hagan) Jimmie still falls off the wagon.

"The Struggle" doesn't show us the struggle an alcoholic goes through. Imagine if the film had shown as withdraw scenes. Or Jimmie struggling to fight his temptations. But "The Struggle" doesn't do that. It offers no explanation for what leads Jimmie to drink. The film merely suggest he does so because he is out. Sort of a well, there's nothing better to do, attitude. That is not why people drink. People drink for many different reasons but there is usually a personal reason which leads people to become drunks.

The film later settles on showing us a daughter's love for her father and their special bond. Griffith can't even get much emotion and sentimentality out of these scenes. If you want to see that done right watch Elia Kazan's "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (1945). Though that film seems to romanticize the life of an alcoholic. But at least it makes us care about the characters and the situations.

"The Struggle" has a finale with the father and the daughter which could have come right out of a silent film. After watching it think how effective it could have been with more cross-cutting, close-ups and an iris shot here and there. Imagine how much drama Griffith could have milked this scene for especially with a good dramatic score.

But none of it was to be. It is sad to think these are Griffith's last films. A man who was so important to cinema and to have failed so miserably as he does with these films.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Film Review: Paid

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

Because a lot of people are talking about Michael Mann's new film "Public Enemies" (2009), the story of John Dillinger, I thought why not review one of the classic cop & robber pictures of the 1930s. For some reason "Paid" (1930) kept coming in my mind.

Now that I have rewatched "Paid" it is not the movie I remembered. It was based on a play entitled "Within the Law" written by Bayard Veiller. When I first saw it I was so impressed with the way the film turned the tables and showed intelligent crooks outsmarting the law. During the time period Hollywood was under a lot of pressure to show viewers "crime doesn't pay". But that's not what "Paid" is. It is the standard story of good (cops) overcoming evil (crooks).

I don't know why I remembered "Paid" to be a different picture. There are elements there but the film settles and conforms to the morals of the day. In the film Joan Crawford plays Mary Turner. A woman sent to three years prison for allegedly stealing merchandise at a department store which she worked at. Her employer, Edward Gilder (Purnell Pratt) takes no mercy, despite Mary's protest she was framed. He pushes forth the charges. Mary vows revenge on him after her serves her time.

After serving three years Mary did a lot of reading. She began to study the law. She meets up with some cons, headed by Joe Garson (Robert Armstrong) whom a fellow prisoner, Aggie (Marie Prevost) introduces her to. Mary's plan is to get married men to write love letters promising to marry Aggie and then sue the men for playing with a woman's affection. The married men settle out of court for large sums of money and according to Mary it is all legal. She plans to use the criminal system to her advantage. All the while secretly plotting a way to get her revenge.

Up until this point "Paid", which was written by Charles MacArthur, best known for the play "The Front Page" and writing the classic screwball comedy "His Girl Friday" (1940) and "Wuthering Heights" (1939) and Lucien Hubbard, who wrote the controversial "Three On A Match" (1932), seems to be a very smart film. It is one of the few films I can think of where the bad guys are not presented as dim witted. Mary Turner is an intelligent woman. She has all the legal angles figured out. In one scene when the police try to arrest her in connection to a robbery, Mary presents the police officer with a restraining order against the police. You usually don't find such intelligence in movie gangsters. Normally they are running away from the law, constantly hiding out. In "Paid" Mary is out in the open. She is not doing anything illegal. She is actually becoming wealthy.

For that you have to give "Paid" its due credit. But then the film takes a twist. Mary begins a romance with Bob Gilder (Douglass Montgomery), the son of Edward. Mary knows perfectly well who he is and plans on pulling the same scheme on him that they have on others. And this is when sadly "Paid" loses its nerve and intelligence. Mary's downfall is love. And she learns a life of crime is not the way to go. Because now it becomes a standard cop & robber film.

Before writing this review I realized all this time I have never written a review for a movie with Joan Crawford. I did write a review for "The Women" (1939) but that was an all-star cast which didn't focus on Crawford. "Paid" is a Joan Crawford vehicle, though the role was intended for Norma Shearer. Still, the film is typical of the kind of characters Crawford came to play. Women on the outside of society trying to make it. She played chorus girls, gangster moll's and in a few films prostitutes. She usually played a woman dreaming of making it big. Some of my favorite films with her are Clarence Brown's "Possessed" (1931) with Clark Gable, whom she frequently co-starred with, including "Love on the Run" (1937) and "Laughing Sinners" (1931).

She was nominated three times for an Academy Award and actually won once. She won for her performance in "Mildred Pierce" (1945). Her other nominations came for "Possessed" (1947), don't confuse this with the 1931 film, and "Sudden Fear" (1952). Though Crawford had been a round since the silent days of cinema I found it odd that her critical success came later in her career. Another great later performance was given in "Humoresque" (1946).

But here in films such as "Paid" we can see the seeds of greatness within Crawford. A lot of people may have mixed feelings about her aftering seeing things such as "Mommie Dearest" (1981) but Crawford shows us in "Paid" and in countless other films she was a talented actress.

"Paid" could have really been an important film in cinema if it would have challenged Hollywood's conventions. Imagine the impact of seeing a film where the crook gets away. But "Paid" isn't that movie. Still it is good entertainment. And film lovers should try tracking it down. It is no longer available on VHS or DVD. But one day it may turn up on TCM. That is where I first saw it.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Film Review: Boeing, Boeing

"Boeing, Boeing" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

Sex. It has always been a rich topic for comedians. In the 1960s there was an almost unhealthy (or healthy depending on your view-point) preoccupation with it. It was a time when nearly every comedy was a wild sex romp creating its own sub-genre in comedy.

One of the better known sex comedies of the 1960s might be "What's New Pussycat?" (1965). It gave us the screen debut of Woody Allen, who also co-wrote the film, and starred Peter O' Toole and Peter Sellers. It was the highest grossing comedy of its time. But I never cared much for that film. It got the feeling of the times right. It is something of a time capsule with the Burt Bacharach score, the Paris streets and the fashion, but, as a comedy the film never really seemed to make much sense to me.

And that's sort of where "Boeing, Boeing" (1965) comes in. It doesn't give us a true feeling of the times but it is a more polished comedy, sorta.

Tony Curtis plays Bernard Lawrence. An American correspondent in Paris. When we first see Bernard he is having breakfast with his fiancee, Vicky (Suzanna Leigh). But Bernard seems uneasy. He keeps checking his watch. He keeps reminding Vicky about the time. She is a stewardess for British United and he doesn't want her to be late for work. He even writes down her schedule down to the minute for when she will be returning and leaving. Is Bernard a creature of habit? Is he one of those people who cannot have his daily routine disturbed?

The answer is no. What Vicky doesn't know is Bernard is having an affair. But he is not just seeing another woman. He is seeing two other women. And all three claim to be his fiancee! If that isn't enough, all three are stewardess working for different airlines. But as complicated as this set-up may be, and boy is it ever, things are going to get worst. A friend of Bernard's, another correspondent, is coming to France from Berlin. The friend, Robert Reed (Jerry Lewis) wants to stay at Bernard's place for a few days since every hotel is booked.

From the film's earliest moments we can see Bernard's life is a juggling act. All three women have very different work schedules. Sometimes their schedules are days apart. Bernard keeps track of their every movement in order to ensure these women never met. In one scene, just as soon as one woman's flight takes off, another plane is arriving with his other fiancee. But no man can keep this system up by himself. So Bernard has informed his housekeeper, Bertha (Thelma Ritter) of the details. She is the one who must keep track of what each woman likes to eat, separate their laundry and constantly change photo lying around the house to match the current woman staying in his apartment.

But now with Robert spending a few days Bernard is worried he will interfere with his schedule. And as you can tell, Bernard has a lot to lose if anything is ever revealed.

On this particular day though Bernard's system will be put to the test. Each woman will have unexpected plans bringing them all home during the same day. The other women are Lise (Christiane Shmidtmer) who works for Lufthansa airlines and Jacqueline (Dany Saval) who works for Air France.

As is the case with all sex farce there is a lot of jumping and running and bedroom doors opening and closing with one person running out while another runs in or someone unexpected is in one room or another. And that is the big problem with "Boeing, Boeing". It is so predictable and by the numbers that we know the set-up. You may not have seen this particular film before but you've seen countless others like it. Take Blake Edward's "Micki & Maude" (1984) for example. "Boeing, Boeing" is a one joke film that after a while no longer seems to be funny. All of the compromising situations are exhausted.

The only thing the film has going in its favor is we have three engaging, entertainers performing. I took no real joy in the plot after a while and merely enjoyed watching the interplay between Curtis and Lewis and Thelma Ritter's wise-cracks.

As far as casting goes I doubt you could have gotten a better actor than Tony Curtis for the role. If the film had been made 30 years earlier, possibly Cary Grant could have played this part. Curtis however is one of those great talents which can play drama, watch him in "The Sweet Smell of Success" (1957) and comedy. And Curtis was no stranger to these sex comedies. Consider Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot" (1959) and "Goodbye Charlie" (1964) as prime examples. Plus, Curtis seems like the playboy type. Lets not kid ourselves. He was a good looking man and was without doubt a matinee idol. For years that bothered Curtis who felt Hollywood always looked pasted him. He felt people thought of him as only a pretty face.

With Jerry Lewis though, maybe you could have found another actor. Lewis however is good in the film but I wonder how a true Jerry Lewis fan would react to his performance here. That is not to say I dislike Lewis. I appreciate his comedy skills but I'm not a member of the Jerry Lewis fan club. Lewis is one of those performers whose reputation proceeds him. We all have a certain idea of what to expect from him after watching such films as "The Bellboy" (1960) and "The Patsy" (1964), one of my favorites of the films he directed.

Lewis doesn't go into that nutty childlike character he often played in his movies. With this script and another director Lewis tones it down several notches. He doesn't even get many, if any, memorable physical comedy bits in. That is not a bad thing per se, since the script doesn't really call for it as far as his character is concern but if you are a Jerry Lewis fan and see he is in this, you might be disappointed not to find him doing his usual schtick.

The funny thing about Lewis is the next film he would act and direct would be also be a similar story, "Three On A Couch" (1966) which co-starred Curtis' wife, Janet Leigh. Sadly it seems to be no longer available but in it Leigh plays a psychiatrist and Lewis an artist who wants to move to France but because of Leigh's patients she can't leave. Since her patients have romantic problems Lewis dates them all disguised as different characters behind Leigh's back. Working on "Boeing, Boeing" simply must have provided some sort of inspiration for him.

And six-time Oscar nominee Thelma Ritter plays the kind of character we've come to expect from her. It is no different from the role she played in Hitchcock's "Rear Window" (1954) in the sense she is street smart and wise-cracking or her role in the Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedy "Pillow Talk" (1959). Though she did have some range to herself. Check out her Oscar nominated performance in John Frankenheimer's "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1961). In "Boeing, Boeing" though she keeps the one-liners coming fast and heavy.

The film was based on a French play written by Marc Camoletti. And adapted by Edward Anhalt who wrote another 60s sex comedy "Wives and Lovers" (1963) with Van Johnson and again Janet Leigh. I've never seen the play which this was based on. And I have no idea how faithful Anahlt is to it. But "Boeing, Boeing" suffers from a truly pathetic ending. The film has no ending. I suppose there was no truly satisfying way to end this story but I refuse to believe there wasn't a more clever way to end the film. It is a total cop out. I was almost going to give the film the benefit of the doubt and recommend it but once I saw the ending I simply had to draw the line somewhere. You can't have this kind of ending and not expect to disappoint viewers. Maybe such an ending would have worked on the stage, I don't know, but it doesn't work in a film.

"Boeing, Boeing" isn't a terrible film but there are better comedies of this sort to watch. I've mentioned a few of them in this review; "Micki & Maude" and "Goodbye Charlie". If you are a big fan of the stars in the film I'd say check it out. But if you never see this movie I seriously doubt it will ever come up in conversation, so don't worry about it.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Film Review: Prix de Beaute

"Prix de Beaute" *** (out of ****)

After discussing Louise Brooks recently in my review for the G.W. Pabst film "Pandora's Box" (1929) I had the urge to write about her again. My ultimate attempt for this blog is to discuss all of the major figures in film history and Louise Brooks deserves to be discussed.

Anyone who appreciates the history of cinema knows who the great Louise Brooks is. If you don't know who she is I'd reconsider your status as a film lover. To me, she is the second greatest female star of the silent era, only coming behind the great Greta Garbo. Her career was plagued with controversy. She was an unconventional person behind the scenes. Leading a life many disapproved of in Hollywood.

Brooks was born in Kansas in 1906. Her first bout with fame came not as an actress but as a dancer in 1922. With her extraordinary beauty on full display Hollywood came knocking and in 1925 Brooks made her screen debut in the film "The Street of Forgotten Men", it was a uncredited role. However the following year she found herself in "The American Venus" (1926) with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Edna May Oliver and Ford Sterling. Sadly the film is considered lost. But that is the film which would give the world the gift of Louise Brooks.

Brooks did not like Hollywood. She felt she didn't fit in and wasn't happy with the film roles which were being offered to her. Controversy followed her as she refused to do sound retakes for the film "The Canary Murder Case" (1929). Paramount Studios hired another actress to do voice-over work and put Brooks on an unofficial blacklist. With this she suddenly found herself in Europe where she worked on a few German films directed by G.W. Pabst. Her collaborations with Pabst, including the films "Pandora's Box" and "Diary of A Lost Girl" (both made in 1929) are what made her a star.

And that is where we found ourselves when "Prix de Beaute" (1930) was made. The film was Brooks' only made in France, where once again her voice was dubbed (this time by Helene Regelly). The film was directed by Italian filmmaker Augusto Genina which was based on an idea by the famous French comedy filmmaker Rene Clair, who directed "Under the Roofs of Paris" (1930) and "Le Million" (1931). The script adaptation was done by none other than G.W. Pabst.

The film tells the story of Lucienne (Brooks), (AKA Lulu, also her name in "Pandora's Box") a typist who enters a beauty contest looking for the first ever "Miss Europe". Lucienne's boyfriend Andre (Georges Charlia) does not approve. He wants the two of them to lead a simple life with both of them out of the public spotlight. What Andre doesn't know is that Lucienne has won the contest. Will their relationship be able to withstand the pressure of Lucienne's new found fame as a beauty queen?

For a film made in 1930 its message is still able to connect with our modern world, where everyday people make fools of themselves on TV in so-called "reality" shows in order to achieve instant celebrity status. Andre gives Lucienne a choice. Either chose me or celebrity. She initial chooses Andre but the pull to become a celebrity is just too strong for Lucienne and ultimately that is more important to her than a "normal" life with Andre.

The other interesting element to the film is in America the country was going through the "Great Depression". Try to imagine an audience's reaction to a film where an ordinary woman suddenly becomes rich and famous for no other reason than her beauty.

If it seems I'm making too much of Brooks' beauty it is not a personal observation. The whole point of the film is to center on her beauty. The first image we see of Brooks is her legs. A man notices her undressing at a beach. The camera then lingers on her long sexy legs. The camera pulls back and we see Brooks' face. Directors such as Genina and Pabst also loved to get close-ups of Brooks' face. The whole point of this is to put her beauty on display. Brooks was an international sex symbol. She, along with Clara Bow, were seen as quintessential flappers of the day. So don't think I'm obsessed with Brook's beauty. She was a beautiful woman but I wouldn't make as big of a deal about it if the films didn't make it such an issue.

There is suppose to be a silent version of this film. That would make more sense. In fact I wish I would have seen that print instead. I saw the KINO sound version of the film. The sound is off sync, you can clearly tell Brooks is not speaking French as well by the movement of her lips. "Prix de Beaute" would have worked better as a silent film. The audio becomes distracting.

"Prix de Beaute" is not a great film. There isn't enough character depth and the film makes major shifts in tone. My guess is the first half of the film was all Clair. It is light hearted and humorous while the second half of the film is much more dark. It becomes a brooding love story with an ending that may shock some even today. That was probably all Pabst. Watch "Pandora's Box" and you'll see the themes he liked to work with. However the two style don't gel. It doesn't make "Prix de Beaute" unwatchable, not by a long shot. But the shift is noticeable. I may have preferred Pabst's vision for this story. I would have liked a closer look at Lucienne and Andre. A closer examination of their relationships and why he doesn't want Lucienne to enter the contest. But I can wish from now until doomsday, it's not going to happen. The film is what it is and either I appreciate it or a I don't.

And film fans should appreciate the film. While it is no masterpiece it is at least one more film we can watch with the great Louise Brooks. On the cover of the KINO DVD it states "in her last starring role". That is misleading. That may make some think this was Brooks' last role. It wasn't. Brooks went back to Hollywood after this film. She appeared in "It Pays to Advertise" (1931) with Carole Lombard and the last screen appearance came in the John Wayne western (of all things!) "Overland Stage Raiders" (1938). Neither was a starring role and neither took full advantage of her charms and acting ability.

Will today's audiences respond kindly to Ms. Brooks? I don't know, but, I sure hope so. Her name isn't as well known as Garbo to casual film fans and rarely do film buffs discuss her any more. But Brooks does have her admirers. Among them was Henri Langlois, the co-founder of Cinematheque Francaise, who once said "There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Brooks." That is quite a statement. Anyone watching "Prix de Beaute" may not think that Brooks deserves that acclaim but she was a true talent. This isn't her greatest film but we can see why audiences were impressed with her back then.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Masterpiece Film Series: Since You Went Away

"Since You Went Away" **** (out of ****)

Whenever there is a patriotic holiday I always like to celebrate it by reviewing a movie which represents American values. So in honor of the 4th of July I decided upon John Cromwell's "Since You Went Away" (1944).

"Since You Went Away" is one of the greatest films ever made dealing with life on the home front during World War 2. The other candidates would include a pair of William Wyler films "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946), which I have already included in this series, and "Mrs. Miniver" (1942). Both films went on the win the Best Picture Oscar in their respective years. But "Since You Went Away" is a bit different than those films. First of all "Mrs. Miniver" deals with Britain. "The Best Years" tells the story of U.S. soldiers returning home but "Since You Went Away" tells us what happened while they were away. For that reason alone "Since You Went Away" makes for a perfect companion piece. But that may suggest this film doesn't stand on its own, it does.

As I've already said, this film deals with what families went through back home being separated from their loved ones. In this film's case we are dealing with the Hilton family. Anne (Claudette Colbert) is first shown returning from the train station as she has just said goodbye to her husband, Tim (no one plays the character but we see pictures of him. The actor's face they decided on was Neil Hamilton. Some viewers may recognize him as Commissioner Gordon from TV's "Batman". But he was an old actor. Watch him in "Laughing Sinners" (1931) with Clark Gable). Now Anne and her two daughters; Jane (Jennifer Jones) and Brig (Shirley Temple, who came out of a two year retirement) must make certain sacrifices since Tim has went away.

One of the best things about "Since You Went Away" is the values we see on display. Not only was it a different time back then but it seems to have been a different planet. During the war years there was a sense of community. People stuck together. Everyone was in the same boat. Just about everyone had a loved one fighting overseas. Everyone had to make the same sacrifices such as rationing food. Today we don't have that. Today we live in an "every man for himself" world. People don't care about their neighbors. It's part of the values we lost in our modern world.

I've heard some suggest "Since You Went Away" is too sentimental. People didn't really act like that back then. Sure they did. That's what makes me love this movie so much. It gets the times so right. If it were phony audiences of the day would know it, they were living through it. The war had been going on for a little over a year. Audiences could relate to the film. It went on to earn 9 Academy Award nominations. And in my opinion should have won the "Best Picture" Oscar which instead went to Leo McCarey's "Going My Way" (1944) with Bing Crosby. It is a fine film but "Since You Went Away" was the more deserving choice.

Nearly everyone's performance in the film is perfect. I wouldn't dare dream of replacing one single actor. Colbert, who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance here, captures the essence of a woman who misses her husband. Sometimes, just by her eyes, we can sense she is daydreaming, thinking back to her happy memories with Tim. Her opening monologue, which takes place inside her head, is priceless. The desperation in her voice and the bewildered look on her face, tells us everything we need to know about her love for her husband and the hard times which are ahead.

Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple both have a sweet innocence to them. This may be the best performance Temple gave as an adult and Jones goes through an amazing transformation from a young girl to a woman, who must confront her own personal tragedies, and witness to Hell of war as a nurse.

But great movies such as this, with their heavy subjects, often try to lighten the load so to speak and give us humorous moments as well. "Since You Went Away" is no exception. The film's lighter moments are offered by Joseph Cotton as Lieutenant Tony Willett, an old friend of the family who constantly makes advances, in a playful way, at Anne. And then there is Colonel Smollett (Monty Woolley) a retired officer who moves in with the Hilton's after they take out an ad looking for a boarder, to help pay expenses. Smollett is a grump old man not use to have young children and pets around. As the film goes on though we find out his bark is not as bad as his bite.

The most tender moments in the film I would say belong to Jones and Robert Walker, who plays Smollett's grandson, Corporal Bill Smollett. They two do not speak since Bill hasn't lived up to his grandfather's expectations and become a great soldier. Bill has joined the army merely to prove himself to his grandfather but along the way falls in love with Jane. In real life Jones and Walker were married. Their scenes together, showing a carefree innocent love in the face of war really did touch me. They plan to marry as soon as Bill comes back from combat. She gives him the confidence he needs to become not only a better soldier but a better man.

"Since You Went Away" could have almost been divided into chapters. It gives us brief episodes of these characters' lives as they wait for the war to end and Tim to come home. Along the way we learn about these people, their hopes and dreams but their fears as well. We find ourselves relating to them.

The film was directed by John Cromwell, not a very well known filmmaker today. But he does have some impressive titles under his belt. He directed "Dead Reckoning" (1947) with Humphrey Bogart, "The Prisoner of Zenda" (1937) with Ronald Coleman and "Of Human Bondage" (1934) with Bette Davis. Cromwell is able to keep the film going as a nice pace. The film is just short of three hours but it doesn't feel long. This was considered the second longest Hollywood film of all time, behind "Gone With the Wind", both films were produced by David O. Selznick, who also wrote this film's screenplay, which was based on a Margaret Buell Wilder novel.

Sadly "Since You Went Away" is not well remembered. That is a shame. It may not make the same strong social message which "The Best Years of Our Lives" makes but it has its own charms. It shouldn't be forgotten. As I said the film was nominated for 9 Oscars including "Best Picture", "Best Actress" (Colbert), "Supporting Actress" (Jones), "Supporting Actor" (Woolley) and won one Oscar for "Best Musical Score" (Max Steiner).

With the holiday upon us you will really take notice of the American dreams and values presented in the film. It never felt too preachy to me, even with the soaring patriotic songs playing in the background. To me "Since You Went Away" represent something pure. There is something innocent about it. It takes us back to a simpler time. A time which we all need to revisit now and then. That's what makes "Since You Went Away" one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Film Review: Pandora's Box

"Pandora's Box" *** (out of ****)

"Kill yourself so you don't drive me to murder as well."
Dr. Ludwig Schon - "Pandora's Box"

So says Dr. Ludwig Schon (Fritz Kortner) on his wedding day to Lulu (Louise Brooks) after being put into a fit of rage.

It is a line that nearly any man in the movie could have said to Lulu and it would have made sense.

G.W. Pabst's "Pandora's Box" (1929) is all about Lulu and the wild passions she brings out in men. The film is not shy about dealing with issues concerning sex, lust and desire.

The first time we see Lulu she is with an older gentleman. They are sharing a drink. He glances at her and she back at him. We see the burning lust in his eyes and a girlish seductiveness in her's. Immediately, from the first scene, sex is in the air.

That pretty much sums up "Pandora's Box". In the film every man, and even a woman (film historians say this is the first film to feature a lesbian character) fall in love with Lulu. The film, which divided into "acts" really has two chapters. Lulu's empowerment. As we see her work her seductive charms over men and her downfall. After the men have already had their way with her and no longer see any use for her except to make money off her. So basically we are dealing with sex and money.

The film has no problem showing us scenes which more than suggest Lulu has become a prostitute. Or the intentions of Marquis Casti-Piani (Michael van Newlinsky) to sell her as a sex slave.

I could write page after page merely on Louise Brooks' beauty. And while some my say her looks have nothing to do with the movie, they are wrong. It has everything to do with it. Brooks was a beauty and at one time a great star. Today she is sadly forgotten by the youthful audience of today but she deserves much better. For me her acting is on par with the great Greta Garbo, whom I feel is the greatest female star of the silent era. She was prettier than Clara Bow, whom I've also discussed on here. Both women were seen as the quintessential flapper. But Brooks had such a screen presence to her that it made the screen come to life. Her face, her smile, her body. She was an indestructible force.

Watching "Pandora's Box" I kept wondering to myself does Lulu know what she is doing? Does she purposely set out to drive men wild or does it naturally happen? Is she a vixen or naive? Some people are natural flirts and don't even realize they are doing it. Others turn it into a sport.

"Pandora's Box" and "Diary of A Lost Girl" (also 1929) probably feature Brooks' two most famous performances. Both films were directed by G.W. Pabst. Pabst (I reviewed his "Threepenny Opera" (1931) is considered by some as the best filmmaker in Germany during his era (what about Fritz Lang and Paul Leni?). These films, and to an extent "Threepenny", are films which challenge society and its concept of what is morally acceptable. Lulu doesn't behave the way she is suppose to. She is a free spirit. But even she must pay a price.

Some of the film's most bold scenes deal with Lulu and Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts). On Lulu's wedding day the Countess ask her for a dance. By this time we know the Countess is in love with Lulu. I wonder if Bertolucci was inspired by this scene when he filmed his famous tango scene in "The Conformist" (1971).

Scenes dealing with Lulu as a street walker are as direct as you can possibly get. Lulu, at this point, has hit bottom. She is on the run from the police, after an accident which resulted in her husband's death, she has since fallen in love with Alwa Schon (Francis Lederer) her husband's son. And with them is Schigolch (Carl Goetz). Some have suggested he was her pimp. Both men know what Lulu is up to and they both allow it to happen because of the money it will bring.

But for as bold as the film may have been in spots there was still a censor board which would not allow such a character as Lulu to succeed. SPOILER ALERT: Lulu is killed by Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl) after she tries to bring him back to her place. At first Jack fights off his desire to kill her by throwing away his pocket knife. But the temptation becomes too strong when he sees a knife on her table while they embrace. It is what happens after her death which says the most. Pabst doesn't even make the audience feel pity for her lost life. The camera cuts away to the street. It is Christmas, people are celebrating. Given what has just happened it almost seems Pabst is suggesting we should celebrate Lulu's death. No one mourns for her. The film tells us, if women continue to lead this lifestyle death is all they can look forward to. END SPOILER

The film was based on two plays written by Frank Wedekind and adapted by Hungarian writer Ladislaus Vajda. And is considered to be a masterpiece by many film buffs. I don't think the film quite reaches that level but it is well worth seeing. I made the mistake, when writing about Clara Bow, not to review one of her better films as an introduction on this blog. I didn't want to make the same mistake with Brooks. Even if you chose to only watch this film for Brooks it will have been worth your effort.

What would have made "Pandora's Box" better? I'm not sure. Maybe a shorter running time. The film goes off into areas it didn't need to. And maybe if the ending were different, further challenging society's conventions. It seems so bold only to cop out at the end. Regardless though "Pandora's Box" should not be dismissed by today's audience.