Saturday, August 28, 2010

Film Reviews: Masques & Comedy of Power

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

"Masques" (1987) is a title which could have been the title of any of French filmmaker Claude Chabrol's films.

Chabrol, who is credited with directing the first Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) film, "Le Beau Serge" (1959), has made a career making films about people who wear masks. People who never quite show their true identity. He usually takes aim at the French upper class, showing us they are not picture perfect. They have lots of buried family secrets and often are prone to murder. In America he has earned the title "the French Hitchcock". And, much like Hitchcock, Chabrol's films possess a dark humor. A witty cynicism.

"Masques" quite nicely falls into this category. The viewer never knows what to believe. Are these people on the level? How can they be in a movie called "Masques"? But what are these people hiding? And that is half the fun in this Chabrol film, which is a bit more tongue & cheek then we may be use to in one of the master's films.

Here we follow Christian Legagneur (Philippe Noiret, best known for his role in "Cinema Paradiso" (1989) which won an Oscar). He is a TV game show host who has granted a young journalist, Roland Wolf (Robin Renucci) the opportunity to interview him for an upcoming book.

Christian seems like an extremely good natured person. Always smiling and friendly. Despite his wealth he wants Roland to know he comes from a working class family. He wasn't always rich and famous. But he appreciates his good fortune and wants to help others. He has even decided to "adopt" a young woman, Catherine (Anne Brochet). He was good friends with Catherine's parents, who died in a car accident.

But this picture isn't as perfect as it seems. Catherine is sick or is she? She suffers from one of those rare movie illnesses where she is often told to rest. It seems some time ago, another young woman was staying with Christian. The young woman and Catherine became very good friends but one day the woman just disappeared. Was it murder or just a coincidence? Ever since the young woman's disappearance Catherine has been sick.

Roland slowly starts to uncover these family secrets by pitting everyone against each other. There is Christian's secretary Colette Monique Chaumette) who is also a servant in his home and his masseuse (Bernadette Lafont) who may be more than just a masseuse. But does Roland have any alternative motive?

There is a great line early in the film which Christian gives; "it's very amusing to live several lives at once." And that is what "Masques" is about. And a great insight into Christian's mentality.

Of late I haven't enjoyed Chabrol's work as much as I use to. He is one of my favorite filmmakers but his most recent films; "Bellamy" (2009), "The Girl Cut in Two" (2008) and "The Bridesmaid" (2006) have just lacked the edge his classics have. But "Masques" is the most fun I've had watching a Chabrol film in years. Chabrol moves things at a pretty fast pace. There is some room for tension but the film has fun with the genre. Nothing is taken too serious. It is playful. And Philipp Noiret's performance is pitch perfect. He walks a fine line and never makes the character campy. But clearly he is having fun playing the part.

The script was co-written by Chabrol and Odile Barski, a frequent collaborator. Together they have worked on "Violette" (1978) and "The Color of Lies" (1999). Barski also wrote the wonderful Andre Techine film "The Girl on the Train" (2010), which had Chabrol elements.

At the time when "Masques" was released there was a perception in this country that Chabrol's best days were behind him. He was old hat. He couldn't make films on par with his earlier masterpieces such as "Le Boucher" (1972), "Les Biches" (1968) or "The Unfaithful Wife" (1969). But I find these remarks unfair. Chabrol was making some decent movies during this period. His "Cop Au Vin" (1985) is very entertaining and also tongue & cheek. His "The Story of Women" (1989) was considered to have one of his most interesting plots. Sadly the public does this a little too often. We are too quick to condemn our great filmmakers. While I may not enjoy some of Chabrol's more recent efforts I would never suggest his best days are behind him.

I wouldn't advise viewers start off with this Chabrol film if you aren't familiar with him. But, for those that are "Masques" is a playful diversion. It shows the old master still had some tricks up his sleeves.

"Comedy of Power" *** (out of ****)

"Comedy of Power" (2006) is another Claude Chabrol film this time starring one of his greatest collaborators, Isabelle Huppert.

I originally saw this film at the International Chicago Film Festival where critics were buzzing the film was a return to form for Chabrol. Some were calling it his best film in years. A new twist on familiar themes. I didn't quite buy into their hype.

My favorite more recent Chabrol film is "The Flower of Evil" (2003) which I put on my "top ten" list. But "Comedy of Power" is an interesting film which is much better then his two films which followed "A Girl Cut in Two" and "Bellamy". And we have the pleasure of seeing Chabrol work with Huppert on their seventh film together.

Huppert is known for her great poker face. She suggest an icy interior, a woman with a motive. Not since Chabrol's ex-wife, Stephane Audran, has an actresses been more suited to Chabrol. And Huppert uses elements of that this time around.

To be fair though Huppert isn't playing one of her sinister characters. This time she is on the side of the law playing a judge, Jeanne Charmant-Killman. Known for her tough, no nonsense ways. She is making a case against some CEOs whom she claims abused public funds. This is all supposedly based on a real life incident, the Elf Aquitaine scandal which happened in the 1990s in France.

Like "Masques", the title here "Comedy of Power" is one which can describe a good many of Chabrol's films, who often shows the "powerful" in powerless situations. The title would suggest we are getting a facade of power. These CEOs may have their connections but no man is above the law, right?

"Comedy of Power" is a good film if understated. The tone and pace of the film is much different from Chabrol's other films. As in "Masques" here we are seeing the dark side of "important" people. But I never felt like I was caught in a web with this film. The corruption didn't seem larger than life. And I live in Chicago, so I know a thing or two about corruption. With "Masques" we knew we were in the midst of a larger plot. This time around Chabrol doesn't really spell things out for us.

Still, there are admirable qualities about the film. The performances are sharp. Huppert is the best of the pack. I also like Francois Berleand as Michel Humeau, Killman's first victim. Chabrol's son, Thomas is also engaging.

Chabrol seems to be having fun though with this concept of "power". Who exactly is this "comedy" on? Who is under the influence they have power? Is it the CEOs, who are being watched by the police or is it the police and judges who think they have power but can be bought off? Is Killman as innocent as she seems? Does she really have power?

The script once again was co-written by Odile Barski and Chabrol, and compared to what Chabrol has released lately, this is one of his better films.

Friday, August 27, 2010

My Man Godard

On Wednesday the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the 2011 recipient of the honorary lifetime achievement Oscar will go to French filmmaker icon Jean-Luc Godard.

To many people Godard (now 79 years old) is not only the best known French director alive today but perhaps the most emblematic of the Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) movement, due to his film "Breathless" (1960) which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Godard, like many of his contemporaries (which included Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and the man who made what is considered the first Nouvelle Vague film, Claude Chabrol) got his start as a critic, writing for the now legendary Cahiers du cinema. They were a bunch of young film enthusiast who quite frankly, changed the way we look at film today by introducing new concepts to the language of cinema. One example is giving us the "auteur theory".

Of all the French filmmakers of the 1960s Godard was probably the most political. His films always had a heavy leftist slant to them. He championed Marxism. Many, rightfully so, view him as a radical.

My own personal experience with Godard has been a rocky relationship. He is one of the few acclaimed filmmakers I am most critical of. I feel we should honor the great artist of cinema. We should always show an eagerness to see what new adventures they have in store of us. But Godard has usually been difficult for me to digest. I find him pretentious. I feel he is not as "mature" in his world view as say Ingmar Bergman (who was not a Godard fan) or Andrei Tarkovsky. He seemed like a kid shouting for attention. His ideas sometimes borderline on juvenile.

But, despite that, deep down, I have a small amount of admiration for the man. I feel he is a worthy recipient of a lifetime achievement award. In fact I would even say it is long overdue. I may not enjoy every Godard film I have seen, but, the man deserves credit for changing the way we view films. He clearly has been an influence on several American filmmakers. Looking over his work, he has left us with an indelible vision. Like any great filmmaker, his films have a personal stamp. We can tell when we are in Godard's presence.

Unfortunately I have only reviewed one Godard film on this blog, "La Chinoise" (1967) one of my least favorites of his films. Though I did comment on the anniversary of "Breathless".

Believe it or not but Godard has never been nominated for an Oscar before. Clearly a sign of the Academy's ignorance. Five of his films however, were nominated for the palme d'or at the Cannes Film Festival.

More amazing is Godard is actually the first of his contemporaries to receive a lifetime achievement award. Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Claude Lelouch and Alain Resnais have not been awarded one. What exactly is the Academy waiting for?

In honor of Mr. Godard's honorary award I am going to list my ratings for all of the Godard films I have seen so far. If there are some titles you haven't seen or heard of, please check them out, despite whatever my rating may be.

1. "Breathless" (1960) *** 1\2 (out of ****)

2. "A Woman Is A Woman" (1961) ** 1\2 (out of ****)

3. "My Life To Live" (1962) *** (out of ****)

4. "Le Petit Soldat" (1963) ** (out of ****)

5. "Les Carabiniers" (Released in U.S. 1967) *** (out of ****)

6. "Contempt" (1963) *** (out of ****)

7. "A Band of Outsiders" (1964) ** 1\2 (out of ****)

8. "A Married Woman" (1964) ** (out of ****)

9. "Pierrot le fou" (1965) ** 1\2 (out of ****)

10. "Masculine Feminin" (1966) *** (out of ****)

11. "Two or Three Things I Know About Her" (1967) * (out of ****)

12. "La Chinoise" (1967) * (out of ****)

13. "Week End" (1967) * (out of ****)

14. "Tout va bien" (1972) **** (out of ****)

15. "Passion" (1982) ** (out of ****)

16. "First Name; Carmen" (1983) *** (out of ****)

17. "King Lear" (1987) ** (out of ****)

18. "Keep Your Right Up" (1987) * (out of ****)

19. "Nouvelle Vague" (1990) *** (out of ****)

20. "In Praise of Love" (2001) * 1\2 (out of *****)

21. "Notre Musique" (2005) **** (out of ****)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Armond White & Film Criticism

For those who have never heard the name Armond White is a film critic for the New York Press. Many in the public, including professional film critics, attack him as a "troll". He simply goes against the public's taste all for the sake of being different. He has recently gotten involved in a war of words with Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert.

I've personally never really paid much attention to Armond White. I've known his name for years and I've known of the controversy which surrounds his name but, I must admit, I rarely read film critics. One reason is because I don't like the know anything about a movie before I see it. The other reason is because, well, quite frankly, there are few critics I actually enjoy reading and who I feel know what they are talking about. Uh-oh! I'm starting to sound like Armond White. And now you can probably guess where all of this is going to go.

I recently heard Armond White on a podcast: Here Mr. White made a point of saying how disappointed he is with the current state of film criticism. He calls it "intellectual anarchy". He feels the Internet and bloggers (much like myself) have ruined or to use his word "stolen" the prestige professional film critics once had. Film critics, he says, have given up being film critics. Several critics are now "writing from a fan's perspective". Their standards have dropped.

Actually in some ways Mr. White has a valid point. I have called film critics "sheep" on here. One can pretty much predict how critics will mostly react when a new movie comes out. You can always rely on critics to gush at the latest Pixar film and place it on their year end "top ten" list. Meanwhile, Mr. White, has a reputation for not liking Pixar films. In fact, he didn't like "Toy Story 3" (2010). Critics, in many ways have dropped their standards. I should mention however, I actually liked "Toy Story 3" if it is worth anything to you.

But this all leads to an interesting discussion on what exactly is the role of a film critic? Many people say they don't like Mr. White because he dismisses mainstream Hollywood entertainment. So what! Good for him is my response. I believe a film critic's responsibility is not to serve as a mouth-piece for the masses. A critic's first priority should be honesty. A film critic does not have to agree with the masses in order to have a valid opinion. Their job is to evaluate art and explain why they have formed the opinion which they do.

Mr. White says not enough critics, especially those on the Internet with blogs, do not understand the history of cinema. They have not exposed themselves to the classics, which any film lover needs to see. To simply love going to the movies is not enough, in Mr. White's opinion, to make you a film critic. One needs to have studied it as an art form. I agree. Too many young people do not know enough about the history of cinema. I have said that repeatedly on here. But of course young people don't want to hear that.

Some people may wonder, why am I defending Armond White. Aren't I aware Mr. White would include me in that bunch of people who are ruining professional film criticism? I have no doubt, whatsoever, in my mind Mr. White would think that of me. According to Mr. White, no person under 30 should be a film critic. They don't know enough about art or life. He also believes no filmmaker should make a film until they are 40. I don't know about the filmmaker part, as even he admits, there are several exceptions to that rule, Orson Welles and "Citizen Kane" (1941) anyone? What about Bernardo Bertolucci? Roman Polanski? Still, I agree with his argument, most young people don't know enough about art or life at a young age. And I say this as someone who is under 30, I'm 27.

But, why do I separate myself from others my age? First of all, I actually did study film. I went to Columbia College of Chicago and have a BA in film theory (critical studies as it is called at Columbia). I also took journalism classes, so I understand how the newspaper business works. Also, unlike many in my age group, I actually do understand the history of cinema. I have reviewed many of the great classics on here. I'm no stranger to the work of Ingmar Bergman (my favorite filmmaker), Luchino Visconti, Francois Truffaut, Andrei Tarkovsky, Claude Chabrol, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra and Rene Claire among many, many others.

It would seem though the remark Mr. White has made which has gotten him in the most trouble is his criticism of Roger Ebert. Whom he says "destroyed film criticism". I'm sorry, is Roger Ebert a God? Is he above criticism? So we can criticize the president of the United States but lay off Roger Ebert? Okay, I'm exaggerating, I have to point that out in case I have some sensitive souls reading this. But, I have noticed, no one really wants to hear anyone complain about Roger Ebert. I don't think that's fair, regardless of what my own opinion of the man may be. No one is above criticism.

In fact Mr. White is dead on when he says the job of film critic was simply given to Mr. Ebert. Roger Ebert himself will admit this point. He did not intend to become film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. The job was simply offered to him. The original critic left and he was asked. This kind of "musical chairs" still exist in the business today. I wasn't born in 1967, when Ebert became the paper's film critic, so I'm not sure, if at that time, he did in fact have the training and the background to become a film critic. In college Mr. Ebert wrote about sports. He did have the journalism background but did he understand cinema at that point in his life? It is a fair question to ask.

There are some comments Mr. White says that I disagree with. Ebert may or may not have lacked the knowledge of the history of cinema when he first landed the job, but, through the years he has gotten lots of "on the job training" so to speak. With time he has shown a knowledge of the history of cinema. Even if I disagree with his opinion of a particular movie, at this point, I don't doubt his understanding of film history. I'm sure Roger Ebert knows just as much (some would say more) than Armond White does about cinema.

White also complains Ebert likes too many movies. This is a point of attack I have heard others make, even Ebert's former partner Gene Siskel. Many people view Ebert as being "too easy". This may be true but I don't know if it is enough to condemn the man and credit him with destroying film criticism. But perhaps it addresses Mr. White's point of critics having dropped their standards.

Armond White also comes across as being much too arrogant. He calls himself a "pedigree film critic". When asked to cite other critics whom he feels reaches his standards he is silent. That's not good. Giving praise to others is not a sign of weakness. Mr. White would have come off better if he could at least acknowledge that someone, besides himself, understands cinema and has high standards.

Former New York Daily News film critic, Jack Matthews, wrote an interesting article about this topic: His take on the matter is that Mr. White is an "elitist" while Mr. Ebert is a "populist". I would say that is a fair analysis. That is mostly why some people dislike Mr. Ebert, they feel his TV show dumbed-down film criticism. The show needed to have a broad appeal, because, like any other television show, ratings are important. So he and Gene Siskel reviewed a lot of mainstream Hollywood films. Mr. Ebert would of course counter that he and Mr. Siskel would discuss foreign films, indies and documentaries as often as they could. Both men have the air of self-importance to them. Mr. Ebert once said that he and Mr. Siskel "saved" "My Dinner with Andre" (1981) with their praise. He may be right, but, who likes to hear someone recite their accomplishments?

I don't think Armond White is off base with some of his "attacks". People should listen more and not be so quick to insult the man. You can tell the host of the podcast are not happy with Mr. White. I think the problem is people don't want to be challenged. Mr. White asks society to look at itself and realize our standards have been dropped. We need to stop praising all the comic book adaptations and video games. To a certain part of the population that will make a lot of sense, but, to others it is just the sign of someone who is old and cranky. Let the debate continue.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Film Review: Buck Privates

"Buck Privates" ** (out of ****)

Lately I have been spending a lot of time watching some of my favorite comics and comedy teams. Mostly I have been focusing on Abbott & Costello. With that in mind, I thought now was a good time to write about them.

I have reviewed the work of Abbott & Costello before. I discussed their comedies "Hold That Ghost" (1941) and "Naughty Nineties" (1945) but "Buck Privates" (1941) is one of the team's most popular films. It was their first starring vehicle as a team. Their only previous on-screen performance was in "One Night in the Tropics" (1940), where they had supporting roles. To most audiences of that time, they stole the show and Universal allowed them their own vehicle, well, sort of.

"Buck Privates" is suppose to be a gentle, feel good, almost war-time comedy. Slicker Smith (Bud Abbott) and Herbie (Lou Costello) are a couple of salesmen going around selling cheap ties. One day a police officer, well known character actor Nat Pendleton (even if the name means nothing to you, trust me, you'll know the face) spots them and chases the boys. They think they are being clever and run into a movie theatre to escape. What they don't know is the theatre is being used as an army recruitment area. Now the boys have been drafted.

"Buck Privates" is actually a very political, patriotic message movie with Abbott & Costello thrown in. There is a belief among most people that wars are generally fought by the working class and minorities. Even with a draft in effect it is the poor who usually get recruited. The rich generally get deferments (Dick Cheney anyone?) or use their influence to avoid serving. "Buck Privates" wants to correct that problem.

In this movie a man of privilege Parker (Lee Bowman) gets recruited. He knows he doesn't belong there and wants his father, who works in Washington, D.C. to use his influence and get him out of the army. He expects to leave in about a week. Not only was he drafted though, but so was his chauffeur Bob Martin (Alan Curtis). Now we will see the rich and the working class side by side in the army. No man can escape the draft.

"Buck Privates" does a lot of flag waving. One of the songs heard in the movie is "You're A Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith". "Mr. Smith" representing the "average Joe". The song is really saying be proud you're an American. America is the greatest country on Earth. You have freedoms here you won't have in any other country. To a lot of people this may all very well be true, but, answer me this, what is it doing in an Abbott & Costello comedy?

This all adds to a problem I have with "Buck Privates". I'm not interested in the patriotic propaganda. America wasn't at war yet when "Buck Privates" was released. In fact there is no mention of war. This is a peace time draft. But I suppose audiences felt it was only a matter of time before America would get involved in that war in Europe.

Other problems with "Buck Privates" are the same problems with "One Night in the Tropics" or any number of comedies made in the 1940s. The comedy team plays second fiddle to a romance. Here Parker and Bob compete for Judy's (Jane Frazee) hand. And we have musical numbers enter the film for no apparent reason. The songs are provided by the Andrew Sisters (Patty, Maxene and LaVerne, why do I know that?). Some of the songs are very good. They became war time standards; "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B" (nominated for a Best Song Oscar) and "I'll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time" but they only take away screen time which could have went to Abbott & Costello.

"Buck Privates" works best when it lets Abbott & Costello do their routines. And there are some good ones. Pay attention to a scene when Abbott teaches Costello how to play dice. Listen to the dialogue for their "40 year old man in love with a 10 year old girl" bit (it is not as creepy as it sounds). And when Abbott asks Costello for a $50 loan.

But there is simply too much politics in the film. The screenplay could have been written by Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. In reality it was written by Arthur T. Horman who also wrote "In the Navy" (1941) another Abbott & Costello in the service comedy. And "Here Come the Co-Eds" (1945). Special material for the team was written by John Grant, who actually wrote every comedy the team appeared in consisting of "Who Done It?" (1942), "Hit the Ice" (1943), "The Time of Their Lives" (1946) and "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948) all of them rank among their best.

Directing credit was given to Arthur Lubin, who directed their next couple of films including "In the Navy" and "Hold That Ghost".

Because of the success of this film, it grossed four million dollars, Universal heavily pushed the team into making several films in the course of a year. In 1941 alone they appeared in four movies. From 1941 to 1956 Abbott & Costello appeared in at least one movie every year. Towards the end of their partnership, as one might imagine, audiences grew a little weary of them. They never developed new routines and after getting their own television show it became too much of a good thing. They were all over the place with the same jokes we heard ten times before.

I'm aware my opinion of "Buck Privates" does not follow the mainstream but how someone can watch this movie and honestly feel the politics, the love story and songs don't distract us from Abbott & Costello is a mystery to me. By all means watch Abbott & Costello, they are worth watching, but, you don't have to start with "Buck Privates".

If you are interested also in 1941 another comedy team took on similar material. Laurel & Hardy starred in their first 20th Century Fox comedy "Great Guns". I actually prefer that one over this.