Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Film Reviews: Top Speed, Sit Tight & 6-Day Bike Rider

"Top Speed" *** (out of ****)

Happy Birthday Joe E. Brown!

Since today marks the sadly neglected and forgotten comic's birthday I felt it would be fitting to dedicate today's reviews to him.

Whenever I speak to friends, family or other film lovers not familiar with Joe E. Brown, I like to describe him as a combination of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. By that I mean, like Lloyd, Brown had an "everyman" appeal to him. He was suppose to be the good natured all-American boy. He loved baseball, cars, money and most importantly, good looking girls. Like Keaton however Brown was also very athletic. A majority of his films centered around sports. In the case of "Top Speed" (1930) it is boating.

But unfortunately Brown's films haven't become a large part of the American film culture. His films are largely forgotten. I wouldn't be surprised if some readers have never heard of Joe E. Brown or any of his films. If there is one movie he is perhaps best known for it surely is Billy Wilder's "Some Like Hot It" (1959) where Brown delivers the film's famous ending line.

Though I normally enjoy discussing the work of the great forgotten comics of the 1920s-40s I haven't spent enough time on Brown. I have reviewed the work of Harry Langdon and comedy teams such as Wheeler & Woolsey and Olsen & Johnson. The only Joe E. Brown movie I reviewed was "Painted Faces" (1929) and that wasn't even a comedy! It's a sappy courtroom melodrama.

"Top Speed" doesn't rank among Brown's best efforts such as "You Said A Mouthful" (1932), "Local Boy Makes Good" (1931) and "A Very Honorable Guy" (1934) but it is passable entertainment. It is also a very suggestive comedy with plenty of sexual innuendos. Keep in mind, it is a pre-code comedy.

Joe E. Brown plays Elmer Peters. He along with a friend, Gerald Brooks (Jack Whiting, who reminds me of a cross between a young George Murphy and Rudy Vallee). They are two working class clerks at a broker's firm. They decided to go on a spending spree for one day only and check into a swanky hotel.

Here is where we are suppose to relate to Brown. He is a working class guy who dreams of being rich and successful and mingling with beautiful women. But Elmer has a problem with the truth. Mainly he doesn't like to tell it. This gets Elmer and Gerald into trouble when they meet two girls; Virginia (Bernice Claire) and Babs (Laura Lee). Elmer keeps bragging how rich they are. They do business deals with J.P. Morgan and Rockefeller. Gerald is starting to fall in love with Virginia and Elmer's lies keep digging him further and further into a hole.

When the boys first meet the girls it is because of a car accident. The ladies have driven their car into a tree. Elmer and Gerald come to their rescue, helping them escape from their car. In an example of the film's risque humor, as Elmer carries Babs in his arms, Virginia ask Babs how does she feel, to which Elmer replies, "just fine".

Another, longer, comedic set-piece, has Elmer hiding in Babs' bedroom. Her roommates walk in, now Elmer must hide, since it wouldn't be decent for Elmer to be found there. So he hides under her bed. The two roommates decide they want to undress and change into bathing suits. From under the bed Elmer has a wide open view. Another moment has Elmer looking in Babs' bedroom while she is changing into her nightgown. Elmer can see her silhouette.

Virginia's father, (Edwin Maxwell) is preparing for a motorboat race. Due to Elmer's lies, Virginia thinks Gerald is an expect driver. Her father now wants to have Gerald drive his boat. But, a rival racer wants Gerald to take a bribe and lose the race. He has found out Gerald's and Elmer's secret and will expose who they are if Gerald doesn't do as he says.

"Top Speed" was originally designed as a full blown musical but due to a backlash to musicals in America several songs were cut from the final print (though only in America. In Europe the longer version was shown). Because of this it seems the film was intended as a love story revolving around Gerald and Virginia. They are suppose to be our leads with Babs and Elmer has comic relief. For me this doesn't work. The best Joe E. Brown movies are the ones which completely center on him. If this was made later in Brown's career, he would have been the one driving the motor boat.

The film has been too heavily edited. As a result the big boat scene almost feels anti-climatic. Too many bits and pieces are missing.

The other major member of the cast is Frank McHugh as Tad Jordan, resident drunk and small time inventor. McHugh appeared with Brown in a couple of movies including "Going Wild" (1930), "Elmer the Great" (1933) and "Son Of A Sailor" (1933) but he also appeared in movies like "Footlight Parade" (1933) and the Oscar winner, "Going My Way" (1944).

The film was based on a Harry Ruby/ Bert Kalmar stage musical and was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, a very good studio director. Even if you don't know his name you have probably seen some of his movies such as "Little Caesar" (1931) and "I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang" (1932). He also directed some other Brown comedies; "Broadminded" (1931) and "Local Boy Makes Good".

Of the songs which have remained the most interesting one is "Knock Knees", introducing a new dance steps where you well, knock knees. It is pretty risque too with the female dancers lifting their skirts high enough so we can see their knees as they knock them together. It actually reminds me of the Con Conrad song "Lets Knock Knees" heard in "The Gay Divorcee" (1934) sung by a very young Betty Grable and Edward Everett Horton.

"Top Speed" is somewhat fun and fast moving and a good example of what Hollywood was getting away with before the production code. Plus if you are a Joe E. Brown fan you should see it.

"Sit Tight" ** (out of ****)

As I explained with "Top Speed" a Joe E. Brown comedy only works when it centers on Joe E. Brown. If the movie doesn't give him any slapstick routines to perform, quite frankly, what is the point of watching it? That is what is wrong with "Sit Tight" (1931).

"Sit Tight" is actually billed as a Winnie Lightner comedy, she gets billing above Brown (!). My hunch is Brown was thrown in as an added bonus. The film doesn't seem tailor-made for Brown's style of comedy. Too much of it doesn't involve him.

The film has Lightner play Dr. Winnie O' Neil. She is in charge of a health club. Jojo (Brown) a fellow doctor and employee is in love with her. But she doesn't want to get married. She was once before, to a wrestler, and never wants to get married again. He cheated on her and she doesn't want to go through that experience again.

One day O'Neil meets Tom Weston (Paul Gregory). He is currently unemployed after his girlfriend, Sally Dunlap (Claudia Dell) tried to use her influence to get her father to give Tom a promotion. He agrees but Tom wants to be able to earn it. As a result he quits. After O'Neil sees him she offers him a job as a wrestler, with her as his manager.

Brown's part in the movie is again, as a liar. He brags about what kind of great wrestler he is. He has given himself the nickname "Jojo the Tiger". He is a master wrestler, who strangely always gets beat up. He says he will train Tom.

Sally doesn't like Tom wrestling. She feels it is beneath him and if he continues to wrestle she wants nothing to do with him. What will Tom do?

Winnie Lightner never really had much of a film career. She was in one other Brown comedy, "Hold Everything" (1930) and the Olsen & Johnson comedy "Gold Dust Gertie" (1931). She is somewhat amusing but I can't figure out why she was given top billing.

The movie works best when it gives Brown something to do. The beginning moments with him treating guest at the health club are funny and his wrestling match is also. But everything else in the movie feels flat.

The movie was directed by Lloyd Bacon. Another very good studio director. He directed Brown in "You Said A Mouthful", "Sons O' Gun" (1936) and "A Very Honorable Guy". He was also behind the great musical "42nd Street" (1933) and the Olsen & Johnson comedy "50 Million Frenchmen" (1931, which I have reviewed).

"Sit Tight" is not a funny comedy and is not a good showcase for Brown's humor. Only watch this one if you are a devoted Brown fan and want to see every film he has appeared in.

"6-Day Bike Rider" * 1/2 (out of ****)

Despite Lloyd Bacon directing this, Frank McHugh appearing in it and a script by Earl Baldwin, who wrote "A Very Honorable Guy", the Abbott & Costello comedy "Africa Screams" (1949) and "Gold Diggers in Paris" (1938). "Six-Day Bike Rider" (1934) is the worst Joe E. Brown comedy I have seen. And I have seen 20 of his comedies made in the 1930s.

Brown is Wilfred Simpson who is in love with Phyllis (Maxine Doyle). They live in a small community but when a cyclist, Harry St. Clair (Gordon Westcott) comes into town with a travelling show, Wilfred is afraid Harry is trying to steal Phyllis away from him. As a result Wilfred, along with a friend, Clinton (McHugh) join a six day cycling event, which Harry is also in, in order to impress Phyllis.

All of the humor in this film is dead. I didn't laugh once watching this movie. The big cycling event is given too much time. They must spend more than 25 minutes on it. I suppose I could have dealt with that, but, there are no real jokes in the sequence. Brown should be overcoming several obstacles. He does. The film makes some minor attempts, but, not enough in my opinion. They shouldn't have devoted so much time to it. It really slows the movie down. It doesn't build any suspense and a lot of the jokes are flat.

I'm sorry I saw this movie. Thank God there are so many other more entertaining Joe E. Brown comedies to watch which will show you Brown was a very funny comedian. He should not be forgotten. There is a lot to enjoy when watching one of his movies, though "6-Day Bike Rider" isn't of those movies.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Film Review: Week-End in Havana

"Week-End in Havana" *** (out of ****)

"Week-End in Havana" (1941) is one of your typical 20th Century Fox musicals from the 1940s. It has a lavish production design, exotic locations, elegant costumes, pleasant songs and lots of familiar faces.

The film stars one of Fox's biggest draws, Alice Faye as Nan Spencer, a Macy's department store worker, who goes on a cruise which is cut short after the captain leaves his post and the ship is stuck on a reef.

This becomes a PR nightmare for the cruise company. They need to send a representative down to the ship to make sure all of the passengers sign a waiver, stating the company was not at fault, thus no lawsuits. So, the head of the company, Walter McCracken (George Barbier) sends his top man, Jay Williams (John Payne).

However this becomes a problem for Jay. He is engaged to McCracken's daughter, Terry (Cobina Wright). Their big day is coming up and if Jay leaves now, they will have to post-pone the wedding. Mr. McCracken though doesn't care. Better to save the image of the company. His daughter's wedding can wait. Needless to say, Terry is not happy about this. Reluctantly Jay goes.

Jay manages to get nearly every passenger to sign a waive, except for one. Unless this is the first movie you've ever seen you should be able to guess who the hold-out is. Nan Spencer refuses to sign. She says it is the ship's fault. The captain should have been paying attention. In order to clear matters up, Jay agrees to fly Nan down to Havana at the company's expense. Her only stipulation. She won't sign the waiver until the vacation is over. Prolonging Jay's stay.

Although I don't really have any proof, part of me is forced to believe "Week-End in Havana" could not have existed unless "Down Argentine Way" (1940) had been made first. "Down Argentine Way" (which I have reviewed) was a big success for Fox. It was the first major box-office success for Betty Grable, making her a star. But, Grable was a replacement for Alice Faye. Was this Fox's way to make it up to her?

Both movies center on locations movie audiences would find exotic. Argentina and Cuba. Movies at this point had to be set somewhere outside of Europe. Even though America may not have been involved in the war at this time, people weren't dumb. They knew war was going on. You couldn't have a movie show Europe has a happy, carefree place with people singing and dancing. Hollywood had to look elsewhere.

Other connections include both films were written by the same team; Karl Tunberg and Darrell Ware. They also wrote the somewhat disappointing "Orchestra Wives" (1942) and "Tall, Dark and Handsome" (1941) which won them an Oscar nomination for their screenplay. Ware also wrote the Fox comedy "He Married His Wife" (1940, which I have also reviewed). And the music was by the same team; Harry Warren and Mack Gordon. Warren might be better known for his scores for Warner Brothers musicals starring Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell.

Alice Faye, like Betty Grable, was meant to have a "girl-next-door" appeal. Even though both ladies were beautiful I never felt their characters really used their beauty as a "weapon". They didn't entice men. "Week-End in Havana" is no exception. Faye's character works in a department store, complains how the accident ruined her plans as she has to save a long time to get enough money for the trip.

Yet, there is something "ugly" underneath the character. Is she a gold-digger? We get the impression she has come to Havana in the hopes of finding a rich man. A decade before this movie these kind of stories were common. They usually involved chorus girls looking for sugar daddies. Faye even starred in one of them, "Sally, Irene and Mary" (1938, which I have also reviewed). They were meant to show Hollywood was aware of the Depression. Audiences would be able to relate to down on their luck characters. In "Week-End in Havana" it isn't front and center but one character does confront Nan about it.

This is not to say Nan is not likable. The success of the movie depends on her being likable. We are following her vacation after all. We must relate to her on some level. We must see ourselves in her. Working class girl, first time in Havana, rubbing elbows with rich people, taking her somewhat out of her element. Much like some audience members watching the movie.

Recently I wrote about John Payne when I reviewed another 20th Century Fox musical, "Sun Valley Serenade" (1941). Payne was, I suppose, a good looking guy. "Week-End in Havana" takes the "Bringing Up Baby" (1938) approach when dealing with Payne's looks. If you remember in "Baby" Cary Grant was meant to looking "geeky" by wearing glasses. So does Payne. Payne also is presented as a man incapable of having fun. All business and no pleasure. He also doesn't know how to romance a woman. In short, he is everything Nan is against. The idea is to take all of the sexual chemistry out of their relationship. To make them incompatible.

But there is an "ugliness" to Payne's character too. I don't want to reveal too much and spoil the movie for you but I will say, he doesn't act like a man who is engaged. This struck me as odd for a 1940s movie. Yes, Terry is off-screen for a majority of the movie, but we know of her existence.

The remaining cast consist of Cesar Romero and Carmen Miranda. Both play an exaggerated stereotype of the fiery Latin. Romero had a career of playing the handsome playboy types in many Fox movies. Watch "Wintertime" (1943, which I have reviewed), "He Married His Wife" and the Betty Grable musical "That Lady in Ermine" (1948, which I have reviewed). This time he is Monte Blanca, a womanizer with a gambling problem. He is also an agent. His client is Rosita Rivas (Miranda) whom he also dates.

I would imagine certain younger, more politically correct audiences may find Carmen Mirdanda a bit too cliche. Too much of a stereotype. Maybe even to the point of being offensive. I don't. But, on some level I can see their point. She wasn't a great actresses and as far as I know, no one has ever accused her of being one. She was however an entertaining personality. She doesn't sing any of her better known songs like "South American Way" or "Tico-Tico" but she does have some interesting musical numbers.

You'll also notice character actors like Sheldon Leonard, as a casino manager, Leonid Kinskey as a hotel Bellhop and Billy Gilbert as a hotel manager. If none of those names sound familiar to you, trust me, when you see their faces you'll know who they are.

The film was directed by Walter Lang, who was behind several musicals. He directed the Betty Grable movie "Moon Over Miami" (1941), "There's No Business Like Show Business" (1954) and "Can-Can" (1960), one of his last films. He wasn't a great director but he moves things along nicely here. During some of the Carmen Miranda numbers I got the feeling he thought he's Busby Berkley.

There is definitely an audience for this movie. Film buffs, Alice Faye fans and people old enough to remember when this movie first came out. If you like this movie check out some other Alice Faye musicals like "The Gang's All Here" (1943, which I have reviewed), "Alexander's Ragtime Band", "Hello Frisco, Hello" (1943) where she sings the great WW2 song, "You'll Never Know" and "In Old Chicago" (1937).

"Week-End in Havana" may not be as much fun as "Down Argentine Way" but it has its own charms and a cast just as good.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Film Review: Babyfever

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

For women, how strong is the urge to motherhood? Do women feel pressured by society to have children? Why is it so difficult for women to find a man they want to marry and have children with? If these questions sound interesting to you than Henry Jaglom's "Babyfever" (1994) should prove to be quite a treat.

At the core of "Babyfever" is an interesting social concept. How do women juggle a professional career and the desire to be a mother, especially a generation that grew up during the women's lib movement. They were told they could have it all, but, in the real world that is easier said then done. Life is messy. It is not easy to have a career and be a mother. So some women hold off on having a child but then they start to think their biological clock is ticking away. And that is where our movie comes in.

Victoria Foyt stars as Gena. A thirty-something year old woman who quite frankly doesn't know what she wants out of life. Or does she know but she just feels she won't find it? Currently she lives with James (Matt Salinger). They discuss having a future together. Getting married, buying a house, having children, your typical "American dream". But Gena is reluctant. Does she really want to have a baby? Does she want to have a baby with James? Does she even love James?

Gena is kind of a lost soul. What does she want out of life and how is she going to find it? She's not a young woman anymore. After a certain age the mistakes we make become harder to correct. Gena doesn't want to rush into any major life decisions like having a baby or getting married until she is absolutely sure it is the right thing for her. Though, one ask to ask, can one ever be completely sure?

After a night of love making Gena tells James she forgot her birth control. This prompts a discussion if it would be a bad idea for them to have children. But Gena's life becomes more complicated when an old flame, Anthony (Eric Roberts) enters the picture and tells Gena he has been thinking about her. He wants to get back together and have a baby with her.

All of this sounds pretty good so far. I enjoyed the set-up and took an interest in Gena's dilemma. On some level I could relate. But then the film takes a wrong turn.

"Babyfever" from this point onward completely centers on a baby shower being thrown for Diana (Jackie Moen). At the shower the women only talk about babies and their inability to have any, mostly because they haven't found someone to have them with or their current partner doesn't want any. All of these women feel their time is running out.

At one point during the shower one of the women says, can we please talk about something else. We are all educated women, can't we change the topic. And that is an excellent point and the downfall of the film.

"Babyfever" has one idea in its head. Have women talk about wanting to have a baby. But in the process Jaglom and his screenwriter (and wife) Foyt, make all the characters one-dimensional. They are smart, intelligent women, with careers, and they can't talk about anything else? Why couldn't Jaglom show us more of Gena and James relationship? Why couldn't we see Gena at work more and have her realize how difficult being a mother and having a career would be? In short, why couldn't the film flesh these characters out more? At times it doesn't feel like these are real people.

I like "Babyfever" best when it had a plot. A woman caught between two men. A woman left alone with her thoughts deciding what was best for her future. When we get stuck at the baby shower for the next hour, at times, I lost interest. The film goes on way too long and simply starts to repeat itself. How long can we hear a roomful of women say they want to have a baby?

The director, Henry Jaglom is an, at times, brilliant filmmaker. Sadly he is not very well known to a majority of mainstream audiences. Jaglom makes very personal independent films. He has been doing that for more than 30 years. His first film was "A Safe Place" (1971). Jaglom's films feel largely improvised. They have a natural quality to them. In general he stays away from big name Hollywood stars. He mostly uses amateurs, for example, this is Victoria Foyt's debut screen performance.

And of all the performances in the film I would have to say Foyt's is probably the best. I would even go as far as saying this is probably the best performance I have seen her give. She seems extremely at ease here. I could attribute that to the fact she is working with her husband and did co-write the script but Foyt has worked with her husband before. Maybe it has to do with the fact this was a personal project for her. The film is dedicated to their child, Sabrina. Whatever the reason, Foyt has a natural screen presence.

"Babyfever" has the look and feel of a documentary. To be fair, there are times the characters speak in everyday terms. The dialogue is not poetry. We can relate to them. They speak the way we speak. That is very hard to accomplish. The films of John Cassavettes never or rarely feel that way to me. The dialogue doesn't come off as polish and natural. With Jaglom it sounds better.

If you're not familiar with Henry Jaglom's work, I don't think this is the place to start. Of his more recent films I would say his best is "Festival in Cannes" (2002). His most mainstream film is probably the romantic "Deja Vu" (1998). I also like his "Last Summer at the Hampton's" (1996) quite a bit. Some critics, like Gene Siskel and Michael Wilmington have said that is his best film. I have reviewed two of his films on here previously, "Hollywood Dreams" (2007) and "Irene in Time" (2009), sadly neither one was very good. Regardless I would still urge movie lovers to find the work of Henry Jaglom.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Film Reviews: Sun Valley Serenade & Wintertime

"Sun Valley Serenade" **** (out of ****)

It happens at the end of Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels" (1942) where a filmmaker learns the best way to serve a movie going public is not by making heavy, hard hitting social or political films showing the plight of the working man but instead by making them forget their problems and laugh.

I believe in that sentiment myself. Many, many times, there are movies that I like simply because they put me in a good mood. They aren't the best acted, best directed, most cleverly written or inventive, yet, they fulfill me. They provide me with exactly what I need. I smile endlessly while watching them. I forget my troubles and take delight in the characters and situations on-screen. That's good ol' Hollywood escapism and "Sun Valley Serenade" (1941) is a terrific example.

There will be film snobs, mostly of the younger variety, who may look at this film (if they have actually heard of it) and say there is no reason to praise this film. There are loop holes in the plot. The story doesn't go anywhere. They may be right on those counts but they are missing the point of watching a movie such as this.

"Sun Valley Serenade" has a very simple plot that is only slightly touched upon and addressed when it needs to be. The pleasure of the film comes in way of the music and comedy. "Sun Valley Serenade" is a 20th Century Fox musical starring Sonja Henie and John Payne with the Glenn Miller Orchestra and Milton Berle in comic relief.

When it comes to musicals my feeling has always been a musical in only as good as the music in the film. If you have a decent enough plot with great music the movie will succeed. The music in "Sun Valley Serenade" is great. It is the real star of the movie and what gave me the most pleasure. It is filled with songs us old timers grew up listening to. The score includes Glenn Miller hits such as "Moonlight Serenade", "In the Mood" and "Chattanooga Choo Choo". These are the songs which take us back to our childhood.

For those unaware Glenn Miller was one of the giants of the big band era. He practically defined an era with more than 20 number one hits, including the three I already mentioned. His career was sadly cut short after he joined the army during WW2. His plane crashed and was never found. But here Miller & his Orchestra steal the show.

The thin story line involves John Payne as Ted Scott and piano player with Phil Corey's (Miller) band. They are looking for work. In fact they have been for weeks. Their manager, "Nifty" Allen (Milton Berle) is mostly good for cooking up publicity stunts which never get them anywhere. But "Nifty" thinks he can land the band a gig at a ski lodge in Sun Valley.

The band's luck starts to change when they just happen to be around when a famous singer, Vivian Dawn (Lynn Bari) gets into an argument with a bandleader over an arrangement of a song. Ted proclaims he and his band would be able to play the song the way Vivian wants and thus they land the job.

But that's not enough. You see, one of the publicity stunts worked out by "Nifty" involved them adopting a refugee since war is going on in Europe. They head down to immigration expecting to find themselves with a baby boy or girl. But what do they get? A grown Norwegian woman, Karen Benson (Sonja Henie). And now it is Ted's job to watch over her.

"Sun Valley Serenade" turns in a charming romantic comedy musical. Karen and Vivian have both fallen for Ted but naturally only one can get him. Which one?

An interesting note on the film is, there is really no mention of the war. Yes, Karen is a refugee but the film doesn't have a sentimental, patriotic feel to it. This isn't a war time musical comedy. Of course, the attack on Pearl Harbor happened at the end of 1941, clearly before this film hit theatres. But you can say the same about the other Sonja Henie film I'm reviewing, which was released in 1943 (!).

A lot of younger readers may have no clue who Sonja Henie is, a shame. She was, during this time, one of the highest paid female actors in Hollywood. Henie was born in Norway and was a famous figure skater. She won the gold medal at the Olympics three times; 1928, 1932 and 1936. Miss Henie however, after her skating career was over, decided she wanted to become an actress in Hollywood movies. So in 1936 Sonja Henie appeared in "One in A Million". In total she was in 11 Hollywood movies.

I can't in good faith say Henie was a great actress, she wasn't. But she was a likable personality. And she never took on more than she could handle. All of her characters were Norwegian and could figure skate. All of her films were light hearted musical comedies.

I can also say if you are looking to see Henie at her peak, "Sun Valley Serenade" probably isn't the best place to start. It could be one of the flaws of the movie. Henie's ice skating isn't given enough attention and properly coordinated into the plot. If you want to see Henie ice skate try finding "Happy Landing" (1938), one of her earlier films.

The reason for this is because so many other aspects are fighting for our attention. The music plays a big part and with a bandleader of the stature of Glenn Miller, you have to give them proper screentime. Also you have the comic relief provided by Milton Berle. And the love triangle.

Though even if we don't get to see Henie skate, the movie does allow her to give more of a performance. She plays the kind of woman you would find in a screwball comedy, scheming to find ways to win her man.

Milton Berle wasn't Mr. Television yet. He plays the kind of character most comics played in movies. Not only the best friend of the leading man, but an agent. Fred Allen, Jack Benny and even Jack Oakie would all play similar parts. More on Oakie later. Berle gets a lot of good one-liners in.

The film was directed by H. Bruce Humberstone, a studio director at Fox. Most of the films I have seen by him were musicals. He directed Betty Grable in "Pin Up Girl" (1944, which I have reviewed) and Alice Faye in "Hello Frisco, Hello" (1943).

Leading man John Payne is probably best known to today's audiences for his role in the Christmas classic, "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947). But he was also in another Sonja Henie musical, "Iceland" (1942). Here he gets to sing a few songs and does them quite well.

There are flaws with "Sun Valley Serenade", the lack of Henie's ice skating for one. Joan Davis has brief role, almost a cameo, too bad more wasn't done with her and finally it has a very, very weak ending. Still, "Sun Valley Serenade" is simply too good natured. It becomes infectious. I smiled throughout the whole movie. The great music, likable actors, funny lines. It all makes "Sun Valley Serenade" a pleasure.

The film was nominated for three Oscars; "Best Song" (Chattanooga Choo Choo), "Best Music" and "Best Cinematography". Also spot the Nicholas Brothers and Dorothy Dandridge doing their version of "Chattanooga Choo Choo".

"Wintertime" *** (out of ****)

Hollywood often thinks if it simply repeats itself it will be able to strike lightning in a bottle twice. Sometimes they get lucky and it works, other times it feels like a pale imitation. That is somewhat the case with "Wintertime" (1943).

"Wintertime" is another Sonja Henie musical. It too has an attractive cast consisting of Cornel Wilde, S.Z. Sakall, Cesar Romero and Jack Oakie. Like "Sun Valley" with Berle, here the comic is Oakie, also playing an agent. We have a leading man (Wilde) caught between two women and even a bandleader. This time Woody Herman.

But "Wintertime" isn't as light hearted and carefree. "Sun Valley Serenade" lets the plot wash over you. "Wintertime" takes itself too seriously.

Hungarian leading man Cornel Wilde is Freddy Austin, who owns an abandoned inn in Canada. Oakie is Skip Hutton, who has devised a plan to boost Freddy's business. He has tricked a wealthy Norwegian and his niece into staying there. The plan is, once people find out about this, others will flock to it.

The wealthy Norwegian turns out to be another famous Hungarian actor, S.Z. Sakall, best known for his roles in "Casablanca" (1942) and "Christmas in Connecticut" (1945). The niece is, you guessed it, Henie as Nora Ostgaard. Strange that Hollywood would get a Hungarian to play a Norwegian. I guess to some people one accent sounds like the next. They don't but, I won't write another word about it.

Cesar Romero co-stars as Brad Barton a song and dance man with Herman's band, who prides himself on being a ladies man. Carole Landis is his female counterpart. They are sometimes romantically involved.

Some of the problems with "Wintertime" are, the music isn't as good here. Woody Herman was a very good musician. His band actually swung more than Miller. But the songs aren't as good and memorable. Though it is nice to see Herman. I've never seen him play. I've only heard him on my LPs. I hate to say it but, Jack Oakie isn't as funny as Milton Berle. Cornel Wilde isn't given much to do. He was still making a name for himself. He would have great success two years later with "A Song to Remember" (1945) his Oscar nominated performance as Chopin and in the film "Leave Her to Heaven" (1945).

"Wintertime" also does a bad job incorporating Henie's skating into the plot. She does more skating here than in "Sun Valley Serenade" but it isn't an important aspect of the plot. And it has a lousy ending that doesn't give us the usual happy couples ending.

Still "Wintertime" is harmless and has some funny moments and it is fun to see Woody Herman play. The same crowd that likes "Sun Valley Serenade" will probably find something good to say about this film.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Film Review: Three On A Couch

"Three On A Couch" *** (out of ****)

When Jerry Lewis made "Three On A Couch" (1966) it was a turning point in his career. It was his first film made at Columbia Pictures. Lewis was one of the highest paid performers at Paramount Studios where he had directed all of his previous films including "The Nutty Professor" (1963), "The Patsy" (1964) and "The Bellboy" (1960, his directorial debut, which I have also reviewed).

It was also a time when Lewis was starting to lose some of his star power. According to Lewis, Paramount Studios and all the professional film critics, didn't understand his films. They didn't get his humor. They simply had it out for him. But, his films made money. Paramount might have scratch their heads watching his films but one cannot deny he had a devoted following; mostly teenage boys. Though Lewis was starting to become an out-dated taste. None of his films after "Three On A Couch" would match the popularity of his earlier films. Even fans of Lewis would say the quality started to slip.

"Three On A Couch" has been out of circulation for years. It has been suggested this is because of Lewis himself, who was embarrassed by the film. He would not allow it to be seen in wide circulation. It has never been put on DVD and for years was out of circulation on VHS.

Having seen "Three On A Couch" recently I must admit, I find this puzzling. The film doesn't rank among his best; "The Nutty Professor", "The Patsy", but it is not an embarrassment. It is a light diversion. A silly lark of a comedy that suffers a few problems though not a career low-point for Lewis or any other members of the cast.

Lewis plays Christopher Pride, an artist who has won first prize in a contest. As a result he will be sent to France where he will be able to paint a mural. This of course reminds us of the old joke concerning Lewis' popularity among the French.

Christopher wants to bring his girlfriend, Elizabeth Acord (Janet Leigh) with him and hopes to marry her while there. One problem. Elizabeth is a psychiatrist and feels obliged to her patients, particularly three women whom she feels will not be able to function without her while she is away. Christopher objects and feels Elizabeth is not being fair but unless Elizabeth notices a behavior change in her patients she will not go and abandon them.

But Christopher has a plan. The three women; Mary Lou (Leslie Parrish), Anna (Gila Golan) and Susan (Mary Ann Mobley) all have relationship problems. They do not trust men after bad break-ups. Christopher feels all the women need is a man to come along and raise their self-esteem. So, in the hopes of getting Elizabeth to come along with him to Paris, Christopher will pick up the three ladies. He will play three different personalities, trying to match himself to each woman's taste.

Lewis previously acted in "Boeing, Boeing" (1965, which I have reviewed) before this film. That was a sex farce starring Leigh's husband, Tony Curtis. Lewis and Curtis played two ladies men who get in over their heads, taking on multiple romances. I wonder if that movie, in any way, lead Lewis to direct this picture.

One of the strange things regarding "Three On A Couch" is that Lewis didn't write it. The script was by Bob Ross and Samuel A. Taylor. Though I bet Lewis did several re-writes because the film seems tailor made for Lewis. The humor is typical Lewis shtick.

And that leads to one of the problems with the movie. Lewis doesn't really seem correct for the part. It is Christopher's friend, Ben (James Best) who puts the idea in his head that he should romance Elizabeth's patients, because as Ben points out, back in college Christopher was a ladies man. Really? Jerry Lewis a ladies man? That description doesn't fit Lewis. Maybe Tony Curtis should have played the part.

Another problem with Lewis is no matter what character Lewis is playing, in any movie, Jerry Lewis is always going to be Jerry Lewis. That means expect the infantile man-child character. The innocent, gullible, pratfalling goofball. The first time we see Lewis he is walking into a office where he is informed of his prize. He is so stunned he is unable to complete a sentence. He stumbles over words and is overwhelmed with emotion. How is that guy going to pick up a pretty girl? Wouldn't he be too insecure?

Still "Three On A Couch" is mostly able to overcome that problem because the film makes a shift with the Christopher character as he tries to be the person each woman wants.

Watching "Three On A Couch" made me pay more attention to Lewis as a director. Often I don't understand his camera choices. He'll shoot scenes from an over head angle or shoot a scene in a medium shot when I think a long shot would accentuate the joke. Take for example a scene when Christopher, now pretending to be a cowboy named Ringo, tries to pick up Anna, who has a weakness for cowboys. "Ringo" soon becomes distracted because several models start to pass him by. Lewis shoots the scene in a medium shot. The main focus is Lewis, who is making facial expressions. We see only the heads of the women passing. I think Lewis should have gotten everything into frame. We should see the model's entire body. We should see them walking into frame in an almost endless line. That's the joke. But Lewis wants to keep the camera focused on him. He feels he alone is the joke not the situation.

But this all makes it seem like "Three On A Couch" is a bad movie. It isn't. There are some funny moments as the stakes soon begin to rise. There really wasn't anything I found laugh out loud funny but I had a smile on my face. The movie runs a bit too long but Lewis keeps the jokes coming along.

Something to consider while watching this film is the social context. The film was made in 1966, the women's lib movement was pretty strong at that point. Pay attention to what "Three On A Couch" seems to be saying. All three patients are women. All three hate men. Yet, the answer to all of their problems is they need a man. Much pressure is put on Elizabeth to get married and have children, which would put her career on hold. Jerry Lewis once got into trouble when he was quoted as saying women are baby making machines. He said he doesn't find female comics funny, including Lucille Ball (!). "Three On A Couch" might have challenged some female viewers' perceptions.

I'm perfectly aware that in this country Jerry Lewis is an acquired taste. His sense of humor is not for everyone. I'm not Lewis' biggest fan but I'll give him credit when I feel he deserves it. I don't like all of his movies but "Three On A Couch" is a watchable comedy. It can have some cross-over appeal.

My favorite Jerry Lewis quote was by the French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard who said of Lewis; "[he] is the only one in Hollywood doing something different - the only one making courageous films." Think of that the next time you watch a Jerry Lewis film.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Film Review: Crossfire

"Crossfire" *** (out of ****)

"Crossfire" (1947) on paper sounds like a great movie, but, it is a deceptive movie. It pretends to be one thing but is actually something much different. Sadly I don't say that as praise.

"Crossfire" pretends to be a noir film. It deals with a murder, a wrongly accused man, dark lighting, seedy streets, a detective on the prowl. Yes, the ingredients are all there but the film, based on a Richard Brooks novel, is concerned with telling a different story. One about anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism was a serious problem in post WW2 America. Remember the scene at the diner in "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) when a man says we fought the wrong people? Anti-Semitism was also the subject matter of another film released in 1947, "A Gentleman's Agreement", which would win the "Best Picture" Oscar that year.

You see, a majority of Americans and soldiers, didn't realize concentration camps existed. They thought WW2 was a battle of ideology. We were fighting the spread of Fascism and Communism. This was mostly the fault of President Roosevelt and Churchill who kept the treatment of Jews a secret fearing people wouldn't want to fight a "Jew's war".

The movie starts off with a fist fight taking place off screen. We only see the shadows on a wall. One of the men is beaten to death. We later found out three soldiers were in that apartment. A civilian, Samuels (Sam Levene) lived there and had invited the men for a drink. But which one killed him? That's what Detective Finlay (Robert Young) is going to find out.

So far this all sounds like your typical noir set-up. The main suspect is Mitchell (George Cooper) he has not been seen since the incident. One of the soldiers, Montgomery (Robert Ryan) attempts to defend him but really points all the arrows in his direction. Meanwhile the third soldier, Floyd (Steve Brodie) is also missing. But Finlay focuses on Mitchell.

Eventually we meet Mitchell's friend, Keeley (Robert Mitchum) who believes in Mitchell's innocence and tries to find him. He tells us about Mitchell's background and relationship with his wife (Jacqueline White). Mitchell is suppose to be a sensitive type, an artist, and therefore incapable of killing anyone.

Finlay however is having trouble establishing a motive. Why would Mitchell or anyone want to kill Samuels? Why kill a man they never met before and knew nothing about?

What I object to about "Crossfire" is why not play honest. The film isn't interested in being a noir film. It is a message movie. It wants to be about anti-Semitism. Why not just be about that? You have to give Elia Kazan credit. "A Gentleman's Agreement" was about anti-Semitism. Nothing else. It didn't try to pretend to be about anything else.

My hunch is, Hollywood producers felt anti-Semitism was a divisive subject. How would they get a mainstream audience to realize this racial problem in everyday terms. So they throw in the plot conventions of a noir story. This reminds me of something done decades later in "Philadelphia" (1993). There the subject was AIDS and homosexuality. But homophobia was strong and people didn't know much about AIDS at that time. So in order to gain public support for a gay character the film tied it to a civil rights issue and linked it with the treatment of blacks and used the courtroom drama plot.

The novel "Crossfire" is based on actually had nothing to do with anti-Semitism, it dealt with homophobia. But the treatment against Jews was a more pressing social problem. The director was Edward Dmytryk, this was another deceptive move since he was associated with noir having directed "Murder, My Sweet" (1944). He would go on to direct "Raintree County" (1957) and "The Carpetbaggers" (1964).

"Crossfire" would go on to earn 5 Academy Award nominations; "Best Picture", "Director", "Screenplay", "Supporting Actress" (Gloria Grahame) and "Supporting Actor" (Ryan). It lost everything however.

Robert Mitchum, supposedly, hated this movie and his character. He went on to say any American actor could have played the part. If he really did say that, he was 100% right. The movie did not need a Robert Mitchum. It makes no use of his talents. He doesn't play a complete character. Luckily for him, later in the same year, he would appear in a real noir film, "Out of the Past" (1947). There his acting talents would be more on display.

"Crossfire" has a certain historical and social importance but I don't find it as honest as "A Gentleman's Agreement". The performances aren't very memorable though Robert Ryan is the best of the pack. It is really his show. Casual movie fans may not respond positively to the film. It is mostly for filmbuffs.

Film Review: The Green Zone

"The Green Zone" *** (out of ****)

"The Green Zone" (2010) like any other politically themed movie is going to divide its audience even before the credits roll. If the movie shares your political views chances are you are going to like it. It will allow you the opportunity to yell at the screen, "that's what I've always said." If it counters your views, you'll describe it as junk.

"The Green Zone" takes place at the start of the Iraq War and soldiers are on the hunt for WMDs. One soldier, Miller (Matt Damon) slowly begins to realize, there doesn't seem to be any weapons to be found. After he arrives at three sites which American intelligence have claimed had weapons only to find the areas deserted. How can this be? Could Americans have gotten it wrong?

But Miller isn't the only one who suspects Americans may have gotten it wrong. So does a CIA agent Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) who suspects Iraq may quickly turn into a civil war.

The big secret here is government officials like Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) may have deliberately gotten it wrong merely to advance their own desire for war and to remove Saddam Hussein. So they cooked up the intelligence about WMDs just so America could invade the country. And how the press, here represented by Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan) sheepishly accepted whatever they were told about the war and drummed up support from the public.

"The Green Zone" doesn't start with a "based on a true story", but it mixes fact and fiction. Names have been changed but if you follow the news you can tell who is suppose to be who. Even actual footage is used of President Bush's "Mission Accomplish" speech.

A lot of critics beat the movie up because they said everything presented here was already known by the public. The film told us nothing new. Michael Wilmington of Movie City News wrote "my main complaint with taking that official screw-up as a subject is that it comes seven years late." Chris Tookey of "The Daily Mail", a British newspaper, echoed the same sentiment and went on to add, "too much of the film has the air of being aimed at ignorant American teenagers."

But I take objection to this for a few reasons. First of all, I don't go to the movies to keep up with current events. That's why I watch CNN. Secondly, as far as waiting too long to make the movie, when was it suppose to be released? Before the war? A year after? Not all the facts were finally revealed to the public. It would have been a much different picture. Also, in 10 years from now, no one is going to watch this movie and have the same complaint.

The film was directed by Paul Greengrass, who directed "United 93" (2006) the film about the September 11th attacks. Back than the cries were "too soon" now the cry is "too late". This guy can't win. He also directed Matt Damon before in two of the "Bourne" films; "Bourne Supremacy" (2004) and "Bourne Ultimatum" (2007). And Damon was in another war movie, "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), his first movie after his "Good Will Hunting" (1997) fame.

I do have one problem with "The Green Zone". A lot of people fell the movie is very political. I did not. I wish it would have been more political. I wish Miller would have uncovered these clues more slowly. I wish the film would have made more comments about the policy. Not only on the ground but those made in the White House as well.

My only other complaint would be some of the action scenes are too frantic, too rapidly edited. Much like the "Bourne" movies. It becomes hard to follow.

Still "The Green Zone" is well made. Matt Damon gives an effective performance and I liked Greg Kinnear. Even if you disagree with the movie's politics it is an adequate thriller.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Film Review: Disgrace

"Disgrace" *** (out of ****)

Warning: This review will contain spoilers throughout without proper warning. Do not read this review if you have not seen the movie.

Sometimes movies come along which simply frustrate you. It has nothing to do with the acting or script or even the directing. It is the heavy-handed message, the political leanings of the film. I usually tell people don't allow a film's politics to alter your view of a movie if it counters your own. I'm a big fan of Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" (2007) a movie which I disagree with every idea presented. Still, the movie is beautifully told, and I cannot deny that. I don't share Jean-Luc Godard's politics either but I acknowledge him as one of the great figures in cinema and do enjoy some of his films; "Tout va bien" (1972) and "Les Carabiniers" (1968).

So I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't extend the same generosity towards "Disgrace" (2009) a film which made my blood boil. The film however is consistent in its views and does follow its own logic to a fault. It has an extremely heavy-handed message it wants to present to us and goes to the extremes to get that point across.

In short the film is about "Liberal White Guilt", quite fitting in our Barack Obama world, where I'm sure many white liberals felt compelled to vote for Mr. Obama out of the idea, "it would be good for the country". The idea of having the nation's first black president would ease some of the sins of the past. If this makes sense to you, "Disgrace" will suite you very, very nicely.

"Disgrace" follows a professor, David Lurie (John Malkovich). He is in his 50s, thinks of himself as an educated man, has a great fondness for poetry, especially Bryon, which he is currently teaching his class. He finds himself attracted to a student, Melanie (Antoinette Engel), a student of mixed race. He abuses his position as professor and sleeps with the young girl. His actions are found out.

Given the title, "Disgrace" I assumed the disgrace applied to David and how the community would react to his actions. But it isn't so. You see, "Disgrace" takes place in South Africa, shortly after the apartheid. There is racial tension between blacks and whites. "Disgrace" has other ideas up its sleeve.

David must go before a school committee and explain his side of the story. He sees no need to. He pleads guilty and dismisses the process. The committee asks for a sincere apology. David doesn't feel like playing their games. He admits his wrong doing and leaves. Not only the school but Cape Town. He heads towards the country side to visit his daughter, Lucy (Jessica Haines) a lesbian who has recently broken up with her lover. As a result she is all alone. She has no guns, no fence, no means of protection. There is a black man however, Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney) who lives on her property and looks after her and her dog kennel.

These living conditions don't seem acceptable to David. And his worst fears suddenly come true. Three black men beat David and set him on fire and rape his daughter. After the incident Lucy refuses to get the police involved and file formal charges. It is later discovered one of the men knows Petrus, who was suspiciously absent that day. It is his brother-in-law. David feels it is time for Lucy to leave. But she doesn't want to even though she fears the men may return. But it would be impossible for her to leave. To make matters worst, Lucy discovers she is pregnant. She will not get an abortion because as she tells her father, "I am a woman. Do you think I hate children?" I have no idea what exactly that means but it is her explanation.

Lucy later decides she will sell the land to Petrus, who feels what happened to Lucy was a bad thing, but, it is over. Lucy is still alive, so it is time to move on. After Lucy sells the land she will become a tenant on her own property and will allow Petrus to "marry" her so he and his wife and the boy may take care of the baby.

You see my friends, the "disgrace" mentioned in the title refers to the disgrace white Africans have put blacks through. Lucy has decided to take on all of their sins. She doesn't press charges against the rape, allows the boy to live on the property, has the child, gives up her land, all in the hope her acts will somehow right a wrong. It would be good for the country.

The film is based on a novel written by J.M. Coetzee, who shares some traits of the lead character. Mr. Coetzee was born in South Africa and is an academic. He was/is anti-apartheid and gets that point across during the school committee scene with David's apology. He is also an animal rights activist (most liberals are). And animals play a part in "Disgrace". Lucy has a dog kennel. Her friend, Bev (Fiona Press) runs a shelter taking care of abandon dogs. We are suppose to take great pity on these animals.

A lot of people liked "Disgrace". New York Times film critic Stephen Holden put it on his "top ten" list for 2009, which was the main reason I had decided to see the movie in the first place. Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert gave the film 4 stars and called it one of the best films of the year (though he no longer makes a formal "top ten" list citing he simply likes too many movies). But these men are liberal. The film speaks their language. It is almost like a mirror feeding back to them their own views.

Now my dislike for the film will lead some extremely judgemental people to quickly decided my lack of praise for the film is due to my politics and you'll quickly label me a "conservative". Not so fast! What I object to is an almost simplistic nature of the film. It goes to such extremes to present these ideas. It over-sells itself. I don't mind a message movie but I do mind when the film hits me over the head with that message into submission.