Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Film Review: Show People

"Show People" *** (out of ****)

Hollywood. The place where dreams become a reality. Everyone dreams of making it big and becoming a star. Everyones wants their entitled 15 minutes of fame. In our world today this sounds pretty relevant. All of these moronic reality television shows, "everyday" people wanting to become famous by singing, dancing, showing us want kind of morons they are, crashing into the White House, whatever! Of course the impulse to become famous isn't a new concept. People have long had that desire and Hollywood has made several films about it. King Vidor's "Show People" (1928) is a somewhat satirical look at Hollywood and what it does to people.

The film is a follow-up to Vidor's previous collaboration with star Marion Davies, "The Patsy" (also 1928, I have reviewed it already). Both of these movies are generally considered among Davies best performances, with "The Patsy" generally slightly edging it out. And I have to agree. I think as far as Davies' performance goes, "The Patsy" allows her to display her talents a bit more.

In "Show People" Davies plays Peggy Pepper, a young woman who wants to break out in the movies. Her father, Colonel Pepper (Dell Henderson), drives the two all the way from Georgia to California. He firmly believes in his daughter's talents. He knows she has what it takes to be a star.

This isn't the normal formula these type of stories follow. Usually the parents are against their child's desire to act. Acting wasn't considered a respectable profession. If the story revolved around a young man, usually he was expected to follow in his father's footsteps, "The Jazz Singer" (1927). If it involved a young woman, she was expected to get married and start a family, "The Extra Girl" (1923) with Mabel Normand. Here though we get the story of the pushy parent. Parents who want to use their children to fame and fortune.

"Show People" doesn't make Peggy suffer much to find her big break. It comes rather easily. A comedian, Billy Boone (William Haines) takes an immediate liking to her and in order to impress her, gives her a chance to act in a comedy. The only problem is, he doesn't tell Peggy it is a comedy. Like most people, Peggy looks down upon comedy as "vulgar". It isn't legitimate acting. She wants to do drama. But Peggy turns out to be a big hit in comedy. Still she yearns to make the transition to drama and eventually does.

The film now wants to be a love story showing how these two people drifted apart. They were in love but her fame has went to her head. She now sees herself as an artist and hangs around a different set of people. All the major stars. And goes around with her leading man co-star, a supposed Count, Andre (Paul Ralli). He fills her head with grand ideas. She deserves a man like him not Billy, a silly clown.

"Show People" doesn't really tells us anything about show business or for that matter show people. There are no great insights here. The story is fairly conventional. The main point of the movie, I would expect, was to showcase Davies, whose own career was the exact opposite of her character here. Davies was the mistress of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who produced motion pictures. He too felt comedy was beneath Davies and wanted her to act in drama. But Davies really started to gain an audience once she did comedy.

King Vidor was a great filmmaker, one of the giants of the silent era. He is responsible for what might be my favorite silent film, "The Crowd" (1928). When I comprised my list of the best films of the 20s, I included that film. It is nothing short of a masterpiece. Vidor also directed the WW1 drama, "The Big Parade" (1925), once considered one of the greatest films ever made the film is now sadly forgotten. It hasn't even been put on DVD yet. A criminal act in my opinion. It is in Vidor's more dramatic films we see his genius. I'm all for comedy. It is my favorite genre. But these comedies aren't about Vidor, they are pot-boilers for Davies. She is in the spotlight. In the dramas, while of course we pay attention to the acting, Vidor's craft is more on display. If you want to see Vidor at his best, watch "The Crowd" or "The Big Parade".

What I don't like about "Show People" is I didn't find it very funny. It is better than "The Extra Girl" however. But, I've yet to see a comedy better than "Exit Smiling" (1926) with Beatrice Lillie, that deals with similar material. Davies is good here and there are moments to enjoy but the film doesn't go in all the directions it could have. Peggy becomes a star too quickly. There is no great conflict. There aren't enough scenes with Billy, we loose him as the story goes on. We don't feel the strain of their romance as much as we should. Also, the print I saw, which aired on Turner Classic Movies, was edited heavily. TCM usually airs the best prints available, so I don't blame them, but clearly there are missing scenes.

Film buffs will also be excited to know there are a lot of cameos in this films, I guess to add to the "inside" feel of the film and I guess these moments are suppose to make us laugh. Some of the more famous faces we see are Charlie Chaplin (not in his tramp costume), Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, Norma Talmadge (whom KINO has just come out with a DVD set) and Vidor himself, directing Davies.

Those interested in the history of homosexuality in cinema will get mad at me if I don't mention the leading man in the film, William Haines was gay. He was considered one of the top male box-office draws of the late 20s. What is shocking is that he was "out of the closet" so to speak. He was very open about his lifestyle and lived openly with his lover. Some rumors have circulated that Louis B. Mayer asked Haines to marry a woman and give up his lover. When Haines refused, Mayer withdrew his contract. Haines' name is usually absent from some of the big names of the silent era. We normally think of Valentino, Gilbert, Barrymore and Fairbanks but Haines was attracting the ladies' eyes as well. And it seems a few of the men too.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Film Reviews: 5th Avenue Girl & Star of Midnight

"5th Avenue Girl"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Ginger Rogers is one of my favorite actresses and although most people might know her strictly for her partnership with Fred Astaire she was quite a good actress and appeared in many good movies on her own. "5th Avenue Girl" (1939) is one of them.

After her films with Fred Astaire, Rogers stopped appearing singing and dancing in musicals As often. That is quite frankly a shame, but, she wanted to prove that she was capable of more. And she was. But through it all, in every performance, Rogers still had a certain quality to her. She was such a charming actress. So much screen presence. Her persona was often that of an "every woman". Struggling to get by during the hard economic times of the depression. She played the kind of woman you could just walk right up to and begin a conversation yet at the same time I've always felt she had an elegance to her which put her above everyone else. She was incredibly beautiful and that alone made her stand out in a room.

In "5th Avenue Girl" Rogers plays her familiar character; a good, decent woman who has fallen on hard times. She doesn't have any money, isn't sure where her next meal is coming from and has no job prospects yet she is surprisingly good natured. Her luck changes however when she meets a rich millionaire, Mr. Borden (Walter Connolly). He feels his family neglects him. He and his wife (Verree Teasdale) don't share a bed as she is out flirting with other men. His daughter, Katherine (Kathryn Adams) is following in her mother's footsteps and his son, Tim (Tim Holts) is out drinking and partying, he has no interest in work, only spending money, and wants nothing to do with the family business.

On his birthday Mr. Borden is alone and depressed. His family's neglect has finally hit him. When he arrives home he is greeted by an empty house. No one has remembered his birthday. So he takes a walk in the park and there he meets Mary Grey (Rogers). She seems kind and friendly and with that in mind Mr. Borden decides he wants to take her out to dinner to celebrate his birthday.

They end up going to a fancy restaurant where Borden is spotted by his wife and her boy toy. But not distracted Borden and Mary proceed to have a good time and celebrate. And this Borden finds out makes his wife jealous. Could this be the key to winning his family back? Borden decides to pretend he and Mary are romantically involve causing his family to go into an uproar and everyone starts to pay him attention.

What I left out about "5th Avenue Girl" is a strong anti-rich, anti-capitalist streak running through the film. Perfect for the times today. Mary hates the rich. She thinks they are stuck-up snobs. They complain about petty problems while everyday hard working people really have something to complain about. And one of Borden's servants, Mike (James Ellison) is a devoted communist. Warning the wealthy family their day will come when the workers will fight back.

By 1939 I would think the economy was much stronger then it had been in 1929 and '32. Of course I'm aware President Roosevelt's "New Deal" policies never ended the depression, it took WW2 to do that, still the economic times couldn't have still been so bleak. But the film's message would suggest otherwise. And what a daring move for screenwriter Allan Scott, who wrote several of the Astaire/Rogers musicals such as "Top Hat" (1935), "Swing Time" (1936) and "Carefree" (1938), to pepper his dialogue with such class warfare. With films like this it is no wonder HUAC turned to Hollywood in search of pro-communist rhetoric. Even stranger is that Ginger Rogers, a hardcore Republican, would even get involved in such a movie.

But "5th Avenue Girl" also does something else. It tries to show us the rich aren't so different. This was a common theme among movies in the depression. Rich families are made to look dysfunctional. We are suppose to laugh at them. Each member seems a little more goofy than the next. Other examples include "My Man Godfrey" (1936) which incidentally was directed by the same man who directed this film, Gregory LaCava. Also reminiscent to this film is "Easy Living" (1937) written (but not directed) by Preston Sturges starring Jean Arthur. I have reviewed it on here. In that movie as well a poor woman (Arthur) is taken in by a rich family. And this leads us to another theme of depression era movies; good things happen to hard working people. Money is just around the corner. I suppose it offered hope to the audience. It suggested their luck could change any day now.

"Fifth Avenue Girl" also has something in common with another film I have reviewed on here, William Wyler's classic "Dodsworth" (1936). This is almost a comedic version of that story. The film doesn't hide the fact Mrs. Borden sees other men. Though the film doesn't focus on her adventures, it is suggested to us Mr. Borden is in a loveless marriage and could be described as a cuckold. She however actually allows Mary to live in her home as she thinks Mary and her husband are in love. Boy, these people are very sophisticated, aren't they?

There is another sub-plot going on here concerning the daughter being in love with Mike. She is so in love with him that she starts to embrace his anti-capitalist ideals. She feels guilty being rich. This is taken right out of "My Man Godfrey" but the film doesn't dwell on this aspect of the film so much. It is extremely under-developed I thought, but, maybe LaCava didn't want to be seen as copying himself. The screenwriter, Scott, would have to make up for his communist script during the war when we wrote the American propaganda film "So Proudly We Hail" (1943) which I have to admit is actually a very good movie.

There is a lot going on beneath the surface in a film like this. Some of it may fly over some people's head. I've tried to connect the dots here but "5th Avenue Girl" could be taken as a sweet romantic comedy. The stories dealing with the children I still feel are under developed but "5th Avenue Girl" kept me entertained enough that I simply have to recommend it.

Film buffs will also have fun spotting some great character actors. Franklin Pangborn plays a butler. He appeared in several Preston Sturges comedies including "The Palm Beach Story" (1942) and one of my favorites, "Hail the Conquering Hero" (1944) . He also worked with W.C. Fields in a few pictures, the most famous being "The Bank Dick" (1940) and appeared in "Easy Living" as well. Also look out for Hungarian character actress Ferike Boros as the family cook and Louis Calhern as a doctor. And, yes, that's Jack Carson, going unbilled, as a sailor. Walter Connolly was also in several movies though this is the first time I've ever seen him get such a high billing (his name comes second after Rogers). He might be best known for playing the father in Frank Capra's "It Happened One Night" (1934) and for his role in "Nothing Sacred" (1937).

"Star of Midnight" *** (out of ****)

Here is another solo movie with Ginger Rogers, that is the link between these two reviews.

"Star of Midnight" (1935) is a detective movie which is a complete rip-off of "The Thin Man" (1934) and it even stars Nick Charles himself; William Powell.

Poor William Powell, throughout most of his career the guy played a detective. I guess he had the face of a sleuth. He played Nick Charles in six different "Thin Man" movies and before that played Philo Vance five times. The only Vance movie I have seen is "The Kennel Murder Case" (1933). Even his screen debut was in a detective movie. He was in the John Barrymore version of "Sherlock Holmes" (1922), which I have reviewed. But after the success of "The Thin Man", for which Powell was even nominated for an Oscar, we would see Powell play these carefree, heavy drinking detectives who just seem to stumble upon clues. And it was something only Powell could do.

In "Star of Midnight" Powell plays Clay Dalzell a lawyer who sometimes has fun solving mysteries. A friend, Tim Winthrop (Leslie Fenton) wants him to find his old girlfriend, Mary Smith, who disappeared a year ago. When a news reporter (Russell Hopton) is shot dead in Clay's home, just before he was about to reveal a big secret, Clay agrees to help but is a suspect in the murder himself.

The big secret involves a new mysterious Broadway actress whom Tim claims to recognize. Could it be Mary? But why did she disappear only to return again? There are more questions to be asked concerning an old flame, Jerry Classon (Vivien Oakland) and her third husband, Roger Classon (Ralph Morgan), and a mobster (Paul Kelly) and even Clay's valet, Swayne (played by popular character actor Gene Lockhart).

As for Rogers, well, she plays a wannabe sweetheart of Clay's, Donna Martin. She is our Myrna Loy in this film. She tags along with Clay picking up clues. Here she is an innocent sweet girl who only wants to take care of Clay but can also dish out a wise-crack here and there.

What makes "Star of Midnight" work in my opinion is the actors. Powell and Rogers are a lot of fun to watch though even I have to admit the story follows a clear and established formula. But, that doesn't mean you can't have a good time watching the film. Powell is excellent in these kind of roles and Rogers has her usual sweetness. There are some nice wise-cracks sprinkled around and was I even trying to figure who was the killer. I will say how Clay goes about discovering the murderer is no different then how he does in "The Thin Man".

The script leaves out some small bits of information I think could have been helpful, but, I'm not saying the movie is a masterpiece anyway. It is a nice, formula, star driven movie with some charm.

I also want to mention the movie was directed by Stephen Roberts, who also directed another "Thin Man" rip-off which starred Powell, "The Ex-Mrs. Bradford" (1936) his co-star that time is Jean Arthur. Check it out too.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Film Reviews: Alice in Wonderland (1951) & Alice in Wonderland (2010)

"Alice in Wonderland" (1951) *** (out of ****)
"Alice in Wonderland" (2010) *** (out of ****)
Having seen Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" (2010) yesterday, I thought why not review both the Disney animated version as well as this new version.

Like many people who have not read Lewis Carroll's classic children stories, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass", I think most of us might be most familiar with the Disney adaptation, despite the fact that upon initial release the film was a box-office flop. And even today there are those who bash the film. Reportedly, even Walt Disney himself was not happy with this film, although he had wanted to make his own version for years.

Still, it is a safe bet most children first learn about Alice and Wonderland through this animated feature. And quite frankly I like it.

What is it about this story that seems to capture the interest of filmmakers? Countless adaptations have been made of this story. The first known adaptation dates back to 1903, a British film which ran 12 minutes long, today 8 minutes remain (you can find it on youtube). Other well known versions include another live action version from 1933, which featured an all-star cast consisting of Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, W.C. Fields and Edward Everett Horton among many, many others. And if you are in the mood for a more strange telling of this story check out the 1988 Czech version by animator Jan Svankmajer simply titled "Alice". This is of course nothing to say of all the TV movies and series which have taken us to Wonderland. One wonders, was Tim Burton's version really needed?

Regardless, the 1951 Disney telling, is said to be a pretty decent adaptation. Watching it again I was struck by a few things. First of all, it is an incredibly short movie, 75 minutes. It all seems to end so abruptly. I felt much more could have been done with the story. And secondly, I didn't feel a clear moral was presented. Disney stories usually teach us something.

There is a moment in this movie when Alice (voiced by Kathryn Beaumont, who was also heard in "Peter Pan" (1953) as Wendy) is scared and frustrated. She thinks she will never find her way out of Wonderland. She sits alone and sings a song explaining that from now on she will learn to pay more attention to adults and do what she is told. Prior to this moment Alice is presented as a carefree child who doesn't take her studies serious. She wants to play and daydream. But after falling into wonderland, a place where nothing makes any sense. Alice, at this moment, learns that eventually she will have to take on responsibility. And for a while I thought this was the moral of the story. Children learning eventually they will have to grow up and learn to leave silliness behind. This was clearly a theme in "Peter Pan". But by the end of "Alice in Wonderland" I'm not sure she has really changed. Because, and I don't think I'm spoiling anything, it was all a dream. And all she had to do was wake up and go back to being herself.

Some people say they dislike this version because none of the characters are likable. I don't know about that. I wasn't bothered by any of the characters. Of course, I'm 26 years old. How would a 5 year old for example react? Still, I don't think children would have a negative reaction. I think some of the characters like Mad Hatter (voiced by Ed Wynn, a wonderful choice) and Cheshire Cat (Sterling Holloway, who was also in the 1933 version playing a Frog and was also the voice of Winnie the Pooh) should make children laugh. I think the movie is a nice reminder of a child's imagination. Maybe they have to be a little older to digest this 1951 movie but Alice's situation should be a relatable one. Children generally rather play and daydream, not hear about history or homework. Whether or not they actually want to go to a place like "Wonderland" is a different story.

Still I'd recommend this movie. I don't know if I'd put in the same league with some of Disney's other classic animated films, but, I'm sure with the release of Burton's new movie, parents might also show their children this version as well. Heck, because of Burton's version, finally the 1993 version is now available on DVD.

Walking into Tim Burton's version (who is sort of a mad hatter himself), I wasn't quite sure what to expect. The film has been doing terrific business at the box-office, still retaining its number one spot. I knew the film would have to be visually stunning. I've come to expect that from his work but I wasn't sure about Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. I also wasn't sure Burton was the right filmmaker for this story.

I think Burton has given us some of his best movies lately. I was a strong admirer of his "Charlie & the Chocolate Factory" (2005) even though the public turned their backs on it. I also loved "Sweeney Todd" (2007). And I'm not really a fan of Burton's. But, he won me over with those two films. The problem I tend to have with most of his work is it lacks heart. Visually they are something to witness, but, emotionally I'm left cold. With "Charlie" I didn't mind. I was too impressed with the world Burton had created for us. And I suppose I should have felt the same way with "Alice in Wonderland" but I didn't. That is not to say this is a bad movie however.

This version of "Alice in Wonderland" is kind of a sequel to the story we know. That is why I decided to review two versions together. Watch the Disney movie then this one. In Burton's version Alice (Mia Wasikowska, who was in last year's "Amelia" (2009) is about to be married. She is 19 years old, and is reminded her looks will not last forever, and since a Lord no less, is interested in her, Alice should jump at the chance. But, poor sweet Alice has been troubled by dreams. The same dreams she has had since a child, about falling through a giant hole to a land with blue caterpillars and talking rabbits. These images are starting to emerge again. What is poor Alice to do?

Here the film almost takes a "Wizard of Oz" approach as certain real life people remind Alice of characters she meets in Wonderland. Burton is throwing some hints and suggestions are way with Alice's future mother-in-law and her dislike for white roses, twin cousins who always stand side by side, completing each other's sentences.

The theme here with Burton's film seems to be the same, growing older, taking responsibility. In the real world Alice's fate has been decided for her. She must get married. But when Alice arrives in Wonderland, after chasing a white rabbit of course, she learns that her fate has been decided again. She must slay a jabberwocky (think giant dragon, voiced by Christopher Lee) and rescue her friend the Mad Hatter (Depp) and restore the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to the throne which was taken from her by her sister, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). Will Alice except her fate? Not only in Wonderland (though here called "Underland") but in the real world as well?

Burton says he wanted to make this version because he always found "Alice in Wonderland" to be too much of an episodic film. There was a slim thread holding everything together. Burton does tie up some loose ends, but, it still didn't feel like a complete movie to me. There is something to be desired though as expected the visuals are wonderful. I haven't seen a world like this since "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006). And I should mention I saw the film in 2-D not 3-D. Though I could tell which parts would have gained something from the 3-D.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Film Review: Our Dancing Daughters

"Our Dancing Daughters" *** (out of ****)

Recently I have been reviewing more modern films, mostly because of the European Union Film Festival going on in Chicago, but, I didn't want readers to think I had abandon classic Hollywood films, not on your life! I'm still out there fighting the good fight, trying to introduce people to the wonders of the classics. So, I thought I'd take a quick break from the modern movies and write about a good Hollywood film.

"Our Dancing Daughters" (1928) is a silent film starring a very young Joan Crawford, and some have suggested this was the film that made audiences take note of her. I personally haven't seen many of her silent films. I have only seen two; the Harry Langdon comedy, "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" (1926) and the Lon Chaney horror film "The Unknown" (1927). I have written about Crawford on this blog before though. I reviewed one of the pre-code gems she was in, the cops & robbers film "Paid" (1930). Where she plays a recently release convict who out smarts the police.

Here though Crawford plays the role we most often associate her with. She plays the woman who defies convention. She goes against society's norm. She is a free spirit who is pretty street smart. Some of my favorite films with her are "Dancing Lady" (1933), "Laughing Sinners" (1931) and "Love on the Run" (1936). In her later years, I can only guess because of her age, she moved away from these type of characters but, was still able to turn in some powerful performances. Perhaps some of the best of her career. "Humoresque" (1946) and "Mildred Pierce" (1945) have to appear near the top of the list for her best roles.

In "Our Dancing Daughters" she plays Diana Medford, a young girl from a privileged family. She has a reputation as a "wild" girl, the life of the party. A sort of flapper. All the men love to be around her because of what appears to be her loose morals. The film also follows her best friend, Bea (Dorothy Sebastian) who is deeply in love with Norman (Nils Asther), a man who repeatedly ask Bea to marry him. And finally we have Diana's rival, Ann (Anita Page). Ann is something of a gold digger, who tries to come off as naive, sweet and innocent, Page normally played those kind of girls. All at once it seems she doesn't realize what kind of dangerously attractive figure she has but at the same time takes full advantage of it. Ann and Diana will soon butt heads when they each go after the same man, Ben Blaine (Johnny Mack Brown), a wealthy, handsome young man, who seems interested in both.

As the film goes on we learn secrets about each of these girls. Bea we find out has engaged in fornication. As a result she doesn't feel worthy of Norman. But, even after she reveals her big secret to him, he still wants to marry her. But can he completely forget her past? Ann thinks the only way to get a man is to lie and trick him into marriage. And we find out Diana is not as wild as she seems. She is still pure.

This all makes "Our Dancing Daughters" a cautionary tale for young women commenting on how to behave. Remember the film was made in 1928, the jazz age, the time of the flapper. But this film argues women should remain respectful and pure. Norman can never completely forgive Bea. Her past will always be a problem. If only she had remained pure. Ann cannot keep a man because eventually her lies will catch up with her. It is better to be a virtuous woman. Nothing in your past can ever come back to hurt you. It is these type of women men want to marry and start a family with.

For us old timers the message isn't anything new. It is a reflection of our own morals and the way we were brought up. A younger generation will look upon this as out of date. A film which reflects old fashion conservative values. Some girls may even find the film sexist. For instance, the idea of Norman "forgiving" Bea. Does any man have the right to be in a position to "forgive" a woman? Do women today seek a man's approval? But, I think in some ways the morals presented here are still with us today. Most men don't want to go out with a woman who has slept with a lot of men. Especially if that number is higher than the amount of women they have slept with. A man looks at a "wild girl" only as an easy conquest, not a future wife. The difference though would be today's movies might not play the material so melo-dramatic. Yes, "Our Dancing Daughters" is kind of sappy but this was 1928. Try to keep that in mind.

The film was directed by Harry Beaumont and written by Josephine Lovett. Beaumont directed the "Best Picture" Oscar winner "The Broadway Melody of 1929" (1929). He also directed Joan Crawford in a number of pictures including "Laughing Sinners" and "Dance, Fools, Dance" (1931). Lovett, who was nominated for an Oscar for her script here, wrote the Greta Garbo picture, "The Single Standard" (1929), which I have also reviewed. That movie dealt with the double standard between the sexes. How strange that "Single Standard" would try and promote a more progressive theme, equality between the sexes, while "Our Dancing Daughters" seems to endorse the more traditional values.

I must say the acting in the film is pretty good across the board, not just Crawford. Johnny Mack Brown was also in "The Single Stanard" as well as another Greta Garbo movie, "A Woman of Affairs" (1928). He also impressed me a lot in "Coquette" (1929) with Mary Pickford. That was the first film I saw him in. Nils Asther was a Swedish actor who was also in "The Single Stanard". His character is believable and reacts to situations in a way most should be able to relate to. Anita Page looks as beautiful and sexy as ever. The character kind of fades out as the film progresses sadly, but, it is a nice performance. She, like Crawford, had a good screen presence. She was in Beaumont's "The Broadway Melody" where she almost played a similar character. She was even in a couple of Buster Keaton comedies among them, Keaton's first sound comedy "Free & Easy" (1930). And finally Dorothy Sebastian remained a bit of a mystery to me. I couldn't quite figure out if her character had given up her old ways. Or does she just live in a constant fear of her jealous husband? She too appeared in a Buster Keaton movie, his last silent film "Spite Marriage" (1929) which actually has some funny bits.

"Our Dancing Daughters" was nominated for two Oscars; cinematography and writing. I wouldn't call it a masterpiece but I did enjoy watching it because of the good acting and the interesting theme. It is a movie which I felt really showcases the time period quite well, even while trying to challenge the times. It is worth seeing and I hope people check it out and won't let the fact that it is silent keep them away.
I should also mention if you enjoy this movie you have to check out the most famous story of a flapper looking to marry a playboy, Clara Bow in "It" (1927).

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Film Review: December Heat

"December Heat" *** (out of ****)

"December Heat" (2008) is another film I managed to see at this year's European Union Film Festival in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center. This film is from Estonia and as of the writing of this date, the film has no scheduled wide release date in America.

"December Heat" comes to us on the heels of some acclaim. It was one of the highest grossing films back home as well as being one of the country's most expensive films to date, being produced on a budget of 1.7 million euros. It was also Estonia's official nominee at this year's Oscars, though it didn't win one of the final nominations.

My initial interest to see this film was based on the fact I found the story-line interesting and because of the fact it was Estonian. I'm not Estonian but I do take an active interest in seeing films from countries that are often neglected. Recently, at the same festival, I went to see a film from Lithuania. I also have a strong interest in cinema from Slovenia, Bulgaria and Hungary. My knowledge of Estonian cinema is limited to the only other film I have seen from the country the rambunctious comedy "Made in Estonia" (2003).

Any viewer however should be able to tell that a film like "December Heat" must have been pretty important to the history of the country. The film tells us the true story of a 1924 coup d'etat when Soviet communist tried to overtake the newly independent Republic of Estonia. The film takes a similar approach I talked about in my recent review for the Hungarian film, "Children of Glory" (Szabadsag, szerelem 2006). We are being told history through the eyes of lovers. I suppose it is a convenient plot device for writers, but, sometimes it is not the best way to tell a story.

Here we follow a newly wed couple Tanel (Sergo Vares) and Anna Rouk (Liisi Koikson). He is a lieutenant in the army and she works at a telegraph station. She is fed up with the bitter cold weather and wants to move to France. He doesn't, but, as any married man will tell you, you often are going to do what your wife wants merely to avoid a headache. So they are on their way to France when, wouldn't you know it, a communist revolt begins, putting their plans on hold. The two become hostages and are separated. Now Tanel searches through the streets of Tallinn trying to find Anna. Meanwhile history is being made around them.

"December Heat" I must say is a well made film but lacks heart. It is nice to look at and I enjoyed a lot of the production and costume designs. But the film never really displays to an outside audience why this event is so important. The film doesn't have an emotional sweep most films of this genre normally do. There are few, if any, truly sympathetic moments. Moments when we feel a great connection to the characters on-screen and find ourselves rooting for them. Now, of course that can be a an example of culture clash. Perhaps audiences in Estonia had a much different reaction. I can tell the film wants to stir patriotic pride. But I wasn't as emotionally involved as filmmaker, Asko Kase, would have liked me to be.

Still I would argue this is a film that wants to have a historical, epic scope. It wants to tell us a great story of a great country. In some ways I thought of the work of the great Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda and some of his films such as "Katyn" (2009). "December Heat", like the work of Wajda, wants to put history on-screen. In some ways I feel it accomplishes what it set out to do. It nearly gets the feel of an epic correct.

The acting in the film I suppose is adequate. I took a strong liking to Liisi Koikson, but that mostly had to do with her beauty. Tonu Kark, who plays the real life character General Podder, nearly borderlines on comedy. He is suppose to be a strong, savvy officer, who almost single handedly saves Estonia from communist occupation.

"December Heat" is not a great film, but, it doesn't know it. It tries pretty hard to convince us it is a great film. Again, I liked some of the production and costume designs as well as the cinematography. I thought the film had a beautiful look. And in some ways I could relate to the story, because, like Estonia, Hungary tried to fight off the Soviets. So, I find these kind of stories interesting. I've heard the stories of people living under Soviet occupation and understand how difficult it was for many people. And I applaud "December Heat" for telling us this story. It seems like a story which needed to be told. But imagine how much more powerful the film would have been had there been more history, less of a love story, and more emotion. That would have been a masterpiece.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Why I Love Movies

I said at the return to this blog I was going to write more about myself in addition to my reviews. The writing would change from before. I think I have largely kept that promise. The reviews are shorter and more to the point. Why did I like a movie or why didn't I? I've cut down on the biography information concerning directors and stars. And now I want to tell you why I love movies.

This is going to be a list. But pay close attention to what I'm writing now. This list is not a list of my favorite movies, or a list of my favorite directors. This is a list of genres and/or filmmakers who I turn to when I'm down. It is these directors or actors whom I turn to when I have fallen out of love with cinema. These people restore my faith. Now a lot of the people on this list will surprise you. Some won't. Again this is not a list of my favorite films or directors but I list of what makes me happy and keeps me coming back to explore new movies and directors.

The list is in random order.

1. Hayao Miyazaki - Miyazaki is considered by a majority of filmbuffs as one of the greatest animators of all time. I'm not someone who usually defends animation but the work of Mr. Miyazaki and to a large extent Pixar, are the exceptions to the rule. I take such delight in watching Miyazaki's films. He is responsible for directing two of the greatest animated films I have seen; "Spirited Away" (2002) and "Howl's Moving Castle" (2005). I also take great delight in "Porco Rosso" (1992) and "Castle in the Sky" (1986).

I think the reason I love these films so much is because I feel they go back to the most basic elements of a good movie; story. The films take us a wild adventures. And perhaps, somewhere in the back of my mind, they make me feel like a kid again. Though I think Miyazaki's work can be enjoyed by adults just as much as children. In certain cases adults may get more out of his work.

2. Claude Chabrol - I will admit Chabrol is one of my favorite filmmakers. It was the great critic Michael Wilmington who first turned me on to his films after reading some of his reviews. He called Chabrol a great master, and at that time I had never heard of him. But, immediately after viewing my first film I was hooked. I loved the themes Chabrol was interested in and his visual style.

I haven't taken much pleasure in some of Chabrol's more recent works but I still have faith Chabrol will be able to hit one out of the park again. I'm not one of these people who turn their backs on our great filmmakers because it is the "fashionable" thing to do. A lot of people like to say Chabrol's best days are behind him. His peak was in the '70s and he'll never be able to produce work as good as that again. Excuse my language but fuck them!

When I watch a Chabrol film I'm excited. I feel like I'm about to watch something truly important. Something worthwhile not some bullshit mainstream Hollywood movie. To me it is the mark of a true film lover if you watch Chabrol's work. I've seen almost all of his movies so my exploring is coming to an end but I still take great pleasure in re-watching many of his films. Some of my favorites are; "The Flower of Evil" (2003), "Le Boucher" (1972), "Les Biches" (1968), "Le Beau Serge" (1958) and "Wedding in Blood" (1974). In fact I would argue anything with Isabelle Huppert and his ex-wife Stephane Audran are probably worth watching.

3. Val Lewton - Now I said watching Claude Chabrol's films is the mark of a true film lover, I also feel that way about Lewton's movies and "B" films in general. When you explore the work of a diverse number of genres and directors that suggest to me a deep rooted love of film. If you just stick with the superhero movies that suggest bad taste to me.

I wouldn't consider any of Lewton's films really scary at all but the films he produced are terrific examples of style and atmosphere. I've spent a lot of time writing about his work; usually around Halloween time. And I never get bored watching them. Sure I like some more than others but overall Lewton has a pretty impressive track record. There is always something to enjoy when watching his films. One sequence that sticks out.

Among my favorite of Lewton's work; "Cat People" (1942), "Leopard Man" (1943), "I Walked With A Zombie" (1943) and "The Body Snatcher" (1945).

4. Dario Argento - Continuing with the horror theme I have to mention Dario Argento. It was about two years ago that I saw my first Argento film and I haven't looked back since. I've seen a decent number of his work and he still continues to impress me. It was only recently that I reviewed one of his films on here; "Phenomena" (1985) which I called one of his best. He has been one of the most discussed directors on this site.

Now I know some may be shocked at my appreciation for Argento's work. He isn't considered in the same artistic league as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini or Akira Kurosawa, but, again excuse my language, who the fuck cares! Argento's films are fast moving, wild and exciting. The plot isn't so important in his films as how you feel watching them. And like a Val Lewton movie you will always come away admiring one sequence and taking a strange delight in one of his elaborate death scenes.

My favorites include; "Suspiria" (1977), "Deep Red" (1975), "Opera" (1987), "Inferno" (1980), "Tenebre" (1982) and "Phenomena"

5. Wheeler & Woolsey - I've never made it a secret that comedy is my favorite movie genre. And I have also never hidden the fact that the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey are not my favorite, so why did I put them on this list? Why do I continue to watch their films? The reason is simple. I love movies! I take great pleasure in discovering the forgotten films of the past. Especially the comedies. And Wheeler & Woolsey are largely forgotten by today's standards. While I'm not their number one fan, I don't believe they deserve to be dismissed by film fans.

Whenever I'm down and depressed certain movies by the team can put me in a good mood mostly because of the sheer silliness of the plots. Woolsey is no Bob Hope or Groucho Marx, but, could deliver a one-liner. He comes from the same tradition.

My favorite Wheeler & Woolsey comedy is "Diplomaniacs" (1933) a comedy that can rival the best of the Marx Brothers, believe me! Other favorites include "Peach-O-Reno" (1931) and "Hips, Hips Hooray!" (1934).

6. Laurel & Hardy - Now if I was going to write about Wheeler & Woolsey there was no way I wasn't going to include my favorite comedy team of all time Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Simply wasn't going to happen!

Watching Laurel & Hardy rank among my earliest childhood memories, before I was old enough to go to school. And that deep appreciation for their brand of comedy has never left me and I hope it never does.

Sometimes I find it hard to explain why the team has had such an impact on me. There is a hint of sentimentality involved, I'll admit that. Watching their comedies takes me back to my childhood as I recall the first time I saw a particular film. And there is also something comfortable in the familiar. I've seen all of the feature films and every one of the sound two reelers as well as a majority of their silent work. So I know the gags and the routines. I can see them coming. But strangely, that's what I like. And it still makes me laugh. Laurel & Hardy became good friends. I could depend on them. I didn't see them as "movie stars" but buddies. There was something about their personas that lended themselves to that kind of familiarity.

My favorite of their feature comedies is a toss-up between "The Devil's Brother" (1934) and "Way Out West" (1937) their most popular film is "Sons of the Desert" (1933) but their "Our Relations" (1936) shouldn't be left behind either. It has some wonderful moments. Of their short films I've always loved "Going Bye-Bye!" (1934) that's the one where a criminal threatens to wrap their legs around their necks (!), "Midnight Patrol" (1933), where they play a couple of policemen (so much for law and order), "County Hospital" (1932) which has the famous sequence with Billy Gilbert hanging outside a hospital window and the great silent comedy "Big Business" (1929).

So there you have a small list of what I turn to when I'm down and out. The things which make me fall in love with movies.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Film Review: The Collectress

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

"The Collectress" (2008) is a Lithuanian film which was part of the European Union Film Festival in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center. I managed to catch the last showing of the film on Thursday, March 18th. As of the writing of this review the film has no scheduled wide release in America.

"The Collectress" is a film which many Americans, in theory, should be able to relate to, as part of the film's social themes, but, it is how it goes about telling its story that may put off some viewers.

The film follows a young and beautiful speech therapist, Gaile (Gabija Jaraminaite), who after the death of her father (Valerijus Jevsejevas) is no longer able to feel any emotion. She has been so affected by his death that the only time she can feel anything is when she sees herself on film, which she pays a film editor (Marius Jampolskis) to do.

If I interpreted the film correctly, I think what we have here is a commentary on how people have become so removed from society we are no longer able to relate. We can feel nothing in the moment. If you think watching "reality" television shows are keeping you connected to the world, I have a bridge in Brooklyn you may be interested in buying. It seems the people of Lithuania are going through the same problems we in America are going through. Despite all of our advance technology we seem to have lost our ability to personally communicate with people. Why call someone when I can text them?

On paper this all sounds quite interesting and thought provoking. And a very good film can be made from this material, however first time director, Kristina Buozyte, didn't bring me into the film enough. The movie is almost too subtle for its own good. It doesn't display Gaile's emotional problems clear enough. I would have liked to see her struggle more trying to connect to people. She goes through her ordeal too fast. I would have preferred more of a grieving process.

Still there are qualities of the film that make me appreciate it. I like films that are outside of the mainstream. I did go willingly to see this movie. Clearly it caught my interest. It seems bold and fresh when compared to cookie cutter Hollywood movies. Here is a film which seems willing to break the rules. Set us in a different direction. And I like Gabija Jaraminaite's performance. This is not a likable character but Jaraminaite keeps me from hating her. We realize there is more there than meets the eye. I just wish the film would have explored it a bit more.

In the end I'm glad I saw "The Collectress" even though it is not a complete success. It was an interesting viewing experience. Hopefully the film will get distributed in America (though I doubt it) or at least find a life on DVD.

The film won the Lithuanian Film Award (dubbed the Silver Crane) for "Best Picture", quite an accomplishment for the first time director, who originally wanted the film to be a 20 minute short.

Film Review: Children of Glory

"Children of Glory" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Children of Glory" (Szabadsag, szerelem 2006) is a film I have been wanting to watch since I first heard about it, some years ago. Sadly, the film never found distribution in America. Recently I bought the film on DVD while in London, where it did play theatrically.

A movie such as this is a bit difficult for me to review because of the personal baggage I bring with me. The film chronicles what is perhaps the single most important event in recent Hungarian history, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. It has had a lasting impact even on the generations which followed. I wasn't even born in '56 but the stories have been told to me. My parents were too young to participate. My mother was only a year old and my father was nine. But my grandparents can recall these times.

There have been other films which have tried to deal with this moment. One of the best may be Karoly Makk's "Another Way" (Egymasra nezve 1982) which dealt with the aftermath of the revolution. In more recent times there was Robert Koltai's bittersweet "Colossal Sensation" (Vilagszam! 2004). And many interpret the films of Miklos Jancso as being social commentaries on the revolution without ever directly mentioning it. Despite this, I've never seen a movie which so directly deals with the revolution starting from its origins.

"Children of Glory" however takes an approach I've noticed other films take when dealing with a moment in history. It shows us what happened through the eyes of a love story. We are seeing history being made while it interferes with the lovers. I don't always like this structure but it has become an easy plot device for screenwriters to tell their story. You need to have characters an audience can relate to. The characters are merely symbols, pawns of a larger story.

For those unfamiliar the Hungarian Revolution started as a college based movement as students tried to rally the people behind their cause, after taking a cue from the Polish. The majority of Hungarians wanted the Soviet Communist to leave Hungary. The revolt started October 23rd and lasted until November 10. Within those 12 days thousands of Hungarians were killed, including women and children, and various reports were made that the Soviets also raped the women. It was thought, for a time, that the Americans would help, since we were in the midst of the Cold War. America would see the Hungarian people reject communism and come to their aid. But it didn't work that way as the then Secretary of Defense went before the U.N. and declared Hungary was not an alley (a moment the film leaves out), thus leaving the communist in control until the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In the film we follow a water polo star, Karcsi Szabo (Ivan Fenyo). He has dreamed of going to the Olympics. While he is not very political, he and members of his team, do badmouth the Soviets. Though his main priorities in life are water polo and hanging out with his best friend, Tibi (Sandor Csanyi) and trying to pick up women. But all of that changes when Karcsi meets Viki Falk (Kata Dobo), a politically charged college student. For her Karcsi will make the leap into politics. But will it cost him his dreams of making it to the Olympics?

There is also another aspect of the story, which does deal with sports. At the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, in the semi-finals the Hungarians went against the Soviets in what has been described as the most bloody match in history. Here we are getting a story of how sports can unite a people. You can compare it to Clint Eastwood's "Invictus" (2009) if you'd like, but I think "Children of Glory" does a better job.

The film was directed by a new name in Hungarian cinema, Krisztina Goda. I have reviewed one of her films on here already, the charming romantic comedy "Just Sex and Nothing Else" (Csak szex es mas semmi 2005), which was kind of a Hungarian Bridget Jones Diary. Nothing in that film suggested, to me, that Goda would ever want to tackle such a serious topic as this. This is clearly her most ambitious film. Though I have not seen her latest work, "Chameleon" (Kameleon 2008) which was Hungary's official entry at this year's Oscars.

Goda uses many of the same actors here that she did in "Just Sex", Sandor Csanyi, Kata Dobo and Karoly Gesztesi, who plays the water polo coach. But the comparisons stop there.

If there is one thing I don't like about the film it is that the film feel too slick, too well packaged, all the chips fall into the right places. It doesn't feel personal enough, which is strange given one of the screenwriters is Eva Gardos, who has also tried her hand at directing before. She gave us the English language film "An American Rhapsody" (2001) based on her experiences with the Hungarian Revolution. A young Scarlett Johansson plays her alter ego. The film is a modern masterpiece though I can't quite use the "M" word to describe this film, even though Joe Eszterhas was another co-writer, who is probably best known for writing "Basic Instinct" (1992) and "Showgirls" (1995).

"Children of Glory" wants to be one of those uplifting, emotional stories which stirs patriotic pride within you. It wants to make you proud to be a Hungarian. For the majority of the film it works. It is an inspirational story. It is a well made, finely acted film that deserves an audience.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Top Ten Films Of 2009!

Last year, at the end of 2009, I couldn't make a top ten list. It wasn't because I was a sissy like other critics, who hide behind words like "I liked too many movies" or who bitch and complain why do we even need a top ten list, no, my reasons were different. I felt the year was full of mediocre movies and I didn't feel like celebrating them. Why should I? But, I did feel bad. Every year, for nearly nine years, I have come up with a list in good years and bad. And the decade had a few bad years in there. And, while it is true the films of 2008 and 2009 did suck the joy of cinema right out of me and did make me take a break from this blog, I still, out of a sense of loyalty to readers, wanted to come back and give a list.

At the beginning of 2009 I was going to write a piece about how cinema might change now that Barack Obama was president. Hollywood had to endure eight years of, lets face it, a president they hated. Now that we had a president that the liberals in Hollywood actually endorsed would cinema change?

During the Bush administration Hollywood started to take jabs at the president, especially after the Iraq war. First it started off as documentaries. The biggest one being Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004), perhaps my favorite of his. But then Hollywood started to notice, hey, wait a minute, this political stuff is catching on, lets get in on the bandwagon. And soon feature films started to tackle political issues; Brian De Palma's "Redacted" (2007), "Rendition" (2007), George Clooney's "Good Night and Good Luck" (2005) and "Syriana" (2005). But now that Bush was no longer president, would Hollywood change with the times and stop the political films?

The answer it turned out is no. Cinema hasn't changed much. Hollywood is still pretty political but, I couldn't help but feel was fighting old battles. A lot of films this year seemed to be aimed at the Bush administration and its policies. Hollywood, of course, hates to kill off a good villain (Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger, President Bush) and so they keep going to the well over and over again. If Bush were still president, people would say "The Hurt Locker" (2009) is a criticism of his Iraq war. If Bush were still president, "Avatar" (2009) would be seen as an indictment of his environmental policy. And in many ways it is.

And that sort of describes the films of 2009. They were largely in the past. Fighting old battles. Many of the films on my list fit that description. Steve McQueen's "Hunger" (2009) deals with the conflict between the IRA and the British government in the 80s, the Israeli animated film, "Waltz With Bashir" (2009) deals with the conflict between Israel and Lebanon in the 80s. The charming "The Last Station" (2009) takes us even further back, to Tolstoy's final year and a government movement. Not to mention the German film "A Woman in Berlin" (2009) which deals with WW2.

There is also a sense of identity lurking in these films. Characters trying to break out. Take a stand. Move forward. Again in "Hunger" the characters are taking an active political stand. They demand certain rights. In "Up in the Air" (2009) a man learns the error of his ways and what makes life important. The word "home" takes on a new meaning for him. In "Me & Orson Welles" (2009) a young man thinks he knows what he wants out of life, to be a star. But after meeting Orson Welles, he changes his mind.

And that sort of describes this country, doesn't it? Fighting old battles. Exactly how many years have we been discussing health care? Since Nixon? Obama is the new kid on the block with a bit of an identity crisis. Who is he? Where does he stand? Is he too liberal? Movies generally reflect their environment. They are a depiction of the world we live in. According to 2009, things aren't looking too good.

Here are my choices for the best films of 2009!

1. HUNGER (2009 Dir. Steve McQueen, UK/Ireland)

2. ME & ORSON WELLES (2009 Dir. Richard Linklater, U.S.)

3. UP IN THE AIR (2009 Dir. Jason Reitman, U.S.)

4. A WOMAN IN BERLIN (2009 Dir. Max Farberbock, Germany)

5. THE LAST STATION (2009 Dir. Michael Hoffman U.S.)

6. (TIE) THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2009 Dir. Andre Techine, France) / ADORATION (2009 Dir. Atom Egoyan, Canada)

7. A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009 Dir. Robert Zemeckis, U.S.)

8. THE CLASS (2009 Dir. Laurent Cantet, France)

9. JUST ANOTHER LOVE STORY (2009 Dir. Ole Bornedal, Denmark)

10. WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2009 Dir. Ari Folman, Israel)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Film Review: Phenomena

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

It might puzzle some readers but ever since I saw my first Dario Argento film, I've been an admirer of his work. The reason it may puzzle some readers is because I'm normally the guy who praises the work of filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Eric Rohmer, Istvan Szabo, Charlie Chaplin, Claude Chabrol and Ernst Lubitsch. Argento, I admit, doesn't really belong in their league. I consider him more of a cult director whereas I would say Bergman, for example, made art house films. But as a film lover I take pleasure in many different genres. I respond to interesting storytelling first and foremost and Argento is a good storyteller.

A lot of readers may not know who Argento is or may have misconceptions about his work. I have repeatedly reviewed his films on this blog, to the point he is one of the most discussed filmmakers on here. And I've tried to set the record straight. First of all, Argento is widely considered the master of the horror sub-genre "giallo". It is Italian for yellow (see, my college class in Italian was good for something after all). Yellow was the color of cheap detective paperbacks which also dealt with the supernatural. Secondly, Argento has earned the reputation for making gory, ulta-violent films. To be honest, I don't find his films that disturbing. Perhaps that says more about me than Argento, but, I'm going to stand by that statement. I will admit however, he does seem to have an almost fetish with blood. Many of his murder scenes are quite elaborate. But the reason I don't find them disgusting is because Argento works on a modest budget. The "blood" in his films looks so fake. Because it doesn't look realistic it creates some distance for me.

Argento is also probably best known for his "Three Mother" trilogy. A series of films which deal with three witches known as the three mothers. Each film is devoted to one of the witches. "Phenomena" (1985) could make a nice companion piece. Here is a movie which may sound a little goofy, but, Argento tells the story so well we don't ask questions. Better to go along for the ride then to resist.

The film stars a young girl, Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly, in one of her first roles) who enters a Swiss boarding school. The town however is currently dealing with a serial killer who attacks young girls. All of the students at the female boarding school are at potential risk. Though the looming question is, how to capture the killer. The police think they have found an answer in an unexpected place, an entomologist, Professor McGregor (Donald Pleasence, who knows a thing or two about serial killers). It is through the study of insects police can tell how long a body has been in decay. And, we learn, certain insects have a "radar" for pinpointing a corpse. Sound slightly odd? Well, wait I have more to tell you. Jennifer has a special bond with insects. They never harm her but seem to protect her. Will this be enough to save her from the killer?

As was the case with Argento's masterpiece "Suspiria" (1977) here we have a story about a young girl in boarding school with violence all around her. Argento, like most horror films, seems to find the idea of the innocent "pure" girl facing evil an interesting concept. The only problem I have with it here is, Argento seems to be adding a sex appeal to these young girls. They are far too young to be depicted that way. Argento should have at least made them college age then.

But I liked the film over all. There are moments when I was on the edge of my seat awaiting to see what will happen. An opening sequence builds the tension beautifully constantly adding a certain level of danger as the camera acts like piercing, peeping eyes hunting its prey; a young girl.

Connelly, even at such a young age, displays a good amount of screen presence. She has moments where she makes the character appear believable, which is hard to do with this kind of story.

There is also an interesting performance, though under-developed, given by Argento's former lover, Daria Nicolodi as Frau Bruckner. I still think her best performance in an Argento film was in "Deep Red" (1975), another one of Argento's masterpieces. Here I felt we don't learn enough about her. She is one of the teachers at the boarding school. Argento also makes us suspect the headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzaro). And if you remember in "Suspiria" the teachers at the school were up to no good.

"Phenomena" is one of Argento's best. I'd put it in his top five. I'm not sure I'd start off with this as an introduction however. The plot might be a little too goofy for some. I think you need to understand Argento's films a little better. His movies aren't so much about plot as they are a viewing experience. If you keep that in mind, I think you'll come away enjoying this film as much as I do.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Film Reviews: Cul-de-Sac & What?

"Cul-de-Sac" *** (out of ****)

With the recent release of Roman Polanski's "Ghost Writer" (2010), which you should see, even though it is not a masterpiece. Still, when a filmmaker of Polanski's stature comes out with a film you should see it. I wanted to go back and review some of Polanski's work. I have reviewed one of his films on here before, "The Fearless Vampire Killers" (1967). I have almost seen every Polanski film now, with the exception of one. I greatly looked forward to watching both of these films but sadly, neither was quite what I expected.

"Cul-de-Sac" (1966) stars Francoise Dorleac and Donald Pleasense as a newly married couple, living on a remote island in a castle. They encounter two gunmen; Richard (Lionel Stander) and Albie (Jack MacGowran). They have been injured on a job. Albie was shot in the stomach and Richard has his arm in a cast. They seek shelter and a phone to get in touch with their boss.

Richard invades the couple's house, keeps them hostage while waiting for his boss to come and pick them up.

On paper "Cul-de-Sac" sounds quite suspenseful and fitting for Polanski. It could have been a sort of sadistic thriller, but, the film never settles on that tone. It is actually somewhat light and filled with dark humor. Which in my opinion never fully gelled with the plot.

Polanski did a similar story many years later, "The Death and the Maiden" (1994). That film impressed more much more because it found the right tone and quite frankly, the acting was much better. "Cul-de-Sac" feels like an exploitative film, think along the lines of a Roger Corman or Wes Craven film. Think "Last House on the Left" (1972).

Strange how the film would sadly mimic events in Polanski's life with the death of Sharon Tate. But that event wouldn't happen until two years later.

The Richard character on one hand is suppose to be a vicious killer yet at times he seems like a fumbling crook. His moments with Albie borderline on comedy as they quarrel with each other like a couple.

The film I thought at times was making a comment on masculinity. There is a sexual tension in the film. The first time the couple meets the killer, Pleasence is dressed as a women (reminding me of Polanski's "The Tenant" (1976) as he and his wife were playing a game. After they are kidnapped, Dorleac keeps egging Pleasence on telling him to "act like a man" and defend her against these men. These two incidents put together suggest Pleasence is a coward and not masculine. Especially when Richard constantly refers to him as a "fag" or "fairy".

Still, the movie is interesting if not fully successful. It has some moments which have lingered in my mind. Not a waste of time but not one of Polanski's great achievements.

"What?" *** (out of ****)

Roman Polanski's "What?" (1972, though released in the U.S. 1976) has suffered quite a bad reputation. Neither of these films is currently available in the U.S. on VHS or DVD. The only review on "What?" I have read was written by Roger Ebert, who gave the film a half a star. Yet another reason why I have become indifferent to the film critic. Ebert blast the film but I can't really tell you what specifically he disliked about it.

But this is my review not Ebert's. I think there is something at work here. Polanski is making some sort of commentary and I have a strong feeling the movie was very personal to Polanski. At the time of this film's release, Polanski reportedly felt this was his best film.

A young woman (Sydne Rome) escapes an attempted rape and finds herself in a villa where bizarre events occur. The residents in the villa each seem stranger than the next. And once again, as in "Cul-de-Sac" we have a story of a stranger in a strange land. Both are filled with sexual tension. As the young woman spends the majority of the film barely dressed.

Watching the film I thought of two previous Polanski films; "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) and "Macbeth" (1971). As in "Rosemary's Baby", the hero of this film is an innocent, naive woman who finds herself in situations way over her head. "Macbeth" because, each film, I suspect, was triggered by the same event, the brutal murder of Sharon Tate. "Macbeth" is a bloody adaptation of the Shakespeare play but of course deals with revenge. There are obvious connections between Polanski's real life. Here, with "What?" the villa is treated as a sort of cult and everyone takes advantage of the young woman, mostly sexually. She is trapped in this villa.

I'm not going to lie, "What?" is not a great film and I suppose if you think about it long enough, it makes little sense. It lacks a three act structure. The film feels improvised. There is no logic to what is going on. There is little character motivation. But, despite all of this, I'm recommending the film. Why? Because it feels like a silly lark for Polanski and I think he earned it after making exceptional films such as "Repulsion" (1965), "Rosemary" and "Macbeth". Plus, as I said, I do believe Polanski is channeling some inner demons here and trying to settle old scores. There is more to the film than what is on the surface. But, of course, I will be the first to admit, good intentions don't always equal a good film. True enough. "What?" is no masterpiece. It will divide an audience. This is far from a mainstream picture. It is not entirely successful.

Another perplexing thing about the film is the ending. It becomes self-referential. Why? It makes you feel the film had no purpose for being in the first place. Maybe a better title for the film was not "what" but "why".