Saturday, October 30, 2010

Film Review: Night of the Demon

"Night of the Demon" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Night of the Demon" (1957) is a British horror film directed by Jacques Tourneur. And oh what a missed opportunity. Why couldn't he and Val Lewton have made this picture together!

Over the years, for Halloween, I have reviewed the wonderful, classic Val Lewton horror films of the 1940s. The first three pictures Lewton produced were directed by Mr. Tourneur. I've often wondered how much control did Lewton have over these films. Sometimes the directors changed but the films mostly looked the same. The films Lewton and Tourneur did together are "The Cat People" (1942), "I Walked With A Zombie" (1943) and "The Leopard Man" (1943). I have reviewed all three of them. And each one of them is worth watching. They rank among the best films Lewton ever produced.

However watching "Night of the Demon" one can distinguish a difference in the way Tourneur directed this film and the way he worked with Lewton. The films with Lewton placed a heavy emphasis on lighting. We are constantly in the shadows. The effective touch of these movies was the violence always happened off-screen. We never saw the evil creatures which lurked around in those movies. What we don't see was thought to be scarier than what we do see. Our imagination could scare us more than anything which could have been shown to us. Sadly Tourneur forgot this principle.

Tourneur makes two mistakes in "Night of the Demon". He shows us the Demon twice. At the beginning of the movie and at the end. The Demon simply looks ridiculous. It does not look realistic at all. It looks like something left over from one of the "Sinbad" movies (or a Godzilla clone). But even the creatures in those movies were done with more artistry than what we have here. I don't know if they simply didn't have the technology back then or if Tourneur just didn't have the budget. But the Demon doesn't do what it is suppose to do; strike fear in our hearts.

Throughout the film we see drawings of what the Demon looks like. Tourneur should have left it at that. That would have been chilling. To look at those drawings and think that is what is attacking people is frightening. To actually see the beast, the way it looks here, causes us to pause for a moment and lessens our suspense. It wouldn't be fair though if I didn't point out there are rumors that Tourneur did not want to show the Demon but instead the studio (Columbia Pictures) put pressure on him to do so for commercial appeal. If true, yet another example of why producers should leave the movie making to the creative people, the directors.

Dana Andrews stars as Dr. John Holden. He has come to England after hearing about the death of Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham). Prof. Harrington has studied the supernatural. He and Dr. Holden are both skeptics and put they faith in science and logic. Harrington was going to expose a cult headed by Dr. Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) as fraud. Dr. Karswell and his followers are devil worshippers.

Dr. Holden soon meets Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins) the niece of the professor. She believes her uncle died under suspicious circumstances. The official report is Prof. Harrington died in a freak car accident when a telephone pole fell and the wires electrocuted him. But the professors body was found ripped to shreds. Also, from the professors diary, Joanna has learned that her uncle believed a curse had been put on him by Dr. Karswell.

None of this though is going to convince Dr. Holden. There is no such thing as Demons, witches and curses. Everything in life has a rational explanation. Dr. Holden decides it is time to meet Dr. Karswell. And Karswell is aware of why Dr. Holden has arrived, to continue Prof. Harrington's work. In order to convince Holden to stop his actions and to make him believe in his powers Dr. Karswell puts a curse on Dr. Holden. In three days, at precisely 10pm, he will die.

Back in the 1940s Val Lewton made a film about devil worshippers, "The Seventh Victim" (1943, I have reviewed it). I thought that movie didn't really take full advantage of all the possibilities involving such a cult. "Night of the Demon" doesn't either, but I prefer this film. It is much more suspenseful.

The only problem with "Night of the Demon", besides showing us the Demon, is the movie doesn't do enough to create an eerie mood. More scenes should have taken place at night. There should have been more done with the lighting and casting characters in shadows. Unexplainable occurrences should be happening to Dr. Holden. Nothing major, just small subtle events. A weird noise here and there. A missing object. A feeling of being followed.

Younger movie fans may find this material similar to a more recent horror film by Sam Raimi, "Drag Me To Hell" (2009). This is why I always try to tell younger viewers it is good to see these older titles. Movies existed before they were born. Hollywood today is constantly turning to the films of the past for creative ideas. The more films you see from the past, the better you can judge the movies of today.

Still, for all the little things I feel the movie does wrong, it does many things right. Forgetting the beginning and ending, the rest of the film has us playing guess work. Will Dr. Holden die? How can he stop it from happening? The film does build some suspense but, again, I have to go back to the mistake of showing us the Demon. Imagine how much more effective it would have been if even the existence of the Demon was in question. But, I suppose we can't harp on that. What's done is done.

"Night of the Demon" is an effective well made horror film. It doesn't have some of the big scares viewers may find in films like "Halloween" (1978) or "The Exorcist" (1973) but the film worked for me nonetheless. After watching this film please watch the films Tourneur did with Lewton.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Film Review: Fall of the House of Usher

"Fall of the House of Usher" *** (out of ****)

I'm going to make a literary confession. I've never really been much of an Edgar Allan Poe fan. Oh, I know how some of you may react to that. I'm worthless, uncultured, pathetic. Too ignorant to understand Poe's genius. Be that as it may, for some reason I've always thought of Poe moreso as a poet. And I've always had trouble with poetry. So, as one can imagine I've always had problems trying to interpret Poe's writings. Despite all of that, I must admit, I do love "Tell Tale Heart" (does that redeem me in any way?).

I mention all of this because, as some readers may known, "Fall of the House of Usher" (1960) is adapted from an Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name. This film in fact, which was directed by Roger Corman, began what is known as the "Poe series", a collection of films which Corman directed based on Poe stories.

It seems I only review Corman's work around Halloween. I have to stop doing that. Corman deserves the attention of filmbuffs, believe it or not. I'm a half-hearted admirer of his, not so much for his films per se, but rather I admire what he represents and his spirit.

Corman was a highly prolific independent filmmaker. His films, in my opinion, did not help establish cinema as an artform. His films have become cult classics though. They are known for being made on a modest budget (Corman has secured a reputation for knowing how to squeeze every cent out of a dollar), having a certain amount of camp, and usually starring Vincent Price. But this may all sound as if I'm insulting Corman. Not at all. I was happy last year when Corman was given an Honorary Oscar. I should have reviewed one of his films as a sort of tribute.

As I said, it seems I only review Corman's films around Halloween. I have written about two other films in his "Poe series"; "The Pit & the Pendulum" (1961) and "Masque of the Red Death" (1964). Both of which I gave a moderate recommendation to. Other Poe films include "The Raven" (1963) and "Tales of Terror" (1962) but those are much more campy comedies.

"Fall of the House of Usher", like most of Corman's films, actually has a nice look to it. Good production design, decent cinematography, somewhat effective musical score (sometimes it tries too hard to be creepy, as when we hear a soundtrack of voices crying out in pain) and ok acting. Surprisingly what the film lacks is a proper atmosphere. This is one of those "the house is alive" movies. The house becomes a character in the story. After having reviewed "The Changeling" (1980) it is hard to recommend this film. "The Changeling", "The Haunted" (1963) and "The Shining" (1980) all did such an effective job giving the house a personality. There was much more beyond the exterior of the house. Corman doesn't add such dimension to his haunted house.

Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) has come to the house of Usher in hopes of finding his fiancee, Madeline (Myrna Fahey). The two had an affair in Boston and agreed to be married. However Madeline has return to her New England home occupied by her brother, Roderick (Price) and his butler, Bristol (Harry Ellerbe). Philip is not welcomed into the home, even when he announces who he is and his intentions. He is told it is for the best he leave. You see, the house of Usher is a place of death. Both Roderick and Madeline are very ill and sure they will die any die now. Philip is sure both the house and Roderick seem to have a strong influence over her. If only he could convince her to leave but Roderick won't hear of it.

There are some effective scenes. I like a sequence when Roderick tries to explain the family's history to Philip, showing him painting on the wall of various members and revealing their troubled backgrounds. The sequence also allows for Price to get in a truly delicious campy performance. Another sequence, perhaps a bit more creepy, is a dream sequence as Philip tries to rescue Madeline. It has a tendency to borderline on campy once again, but, if you are in the right mood the scene can achieve its desired goal.

Still part of me believes the film never really makes us believe the house is truly evil. We never sense danger lurking around every corner. There aren't enough "things that go thump in the night". A majority of the film lacks the proper atmosphere. It isn't until the end of the film, the last act, that Corman starts to make things interesting and turn up the heat.

The performances do what are required of them but are still kind of, sort of, disappointing. Corman and the script don't demand enough from the actors. They seem capable enough. I suspect they did what they were told but the viewer doesn't sense the house is starting to take control of these people. Damon in particular seems so one dimensional.

Vincent Price usually gives the most memorable performance in any film he is in. I love to watch Price act in a movie but for all the wrong reasons. In these horror films, which he is undoubtedly best known for, he sometimes goes completely over the top. He lays it all on the line and can be quite campy. And I find it entertaining to watch. It is not Oscar caliber acting by a long shot but serves its purpose. Strangely Price is much more restrained here. He has the one good scene which I described but by and large Price appears to have taken this role a bit more serious.

Now, I have to point out while some readers may only know Price for these horror films like "House on Haunted Hill" (1959), "The Fly" (1958) and "House of Wax" (1953) all of which are worth watching. Price didn't start out that way. He wanted to be a serious actor. And he appeared in some very good movies. Watch him in Otto Preminger's "Laura" (1944) or "The Song of Bernadette" (1943). For pete sake's the man was even in "The Ten Commandments" (1956). He honestly could act. Tell me he doesn't get a strong reaction out of you in "Bernadette".

The film was written by Richard Matheson who had worked with Corman before writing a few other Poe adaptations. But Matheson is quite the diverse writer. Besides these Corman films he also wrote "Somewhere in Time" (1980) and "What Dreams May Come" (1999)!

Of course there was nothing new about adapting Poe stories to the screen. The first Poe adaptation dates back to 1908 with the short film "Sherlock Holmes in the Great Murder Mystery". I'm not even going to pretend I've seen that movie, I haven't. The earliest Poe adaptation I've seen is D.W. Griffith's "The Avenging Conscience" (1914). I thought about pairing these two movies together, but, decided against it because I really don't like that particular Griffith film, even though it does serve some historical curiosity purpose.

"Fall of the House of Usher" is not going to scare anyone. None of Corman's Poe films are scary. You don't see these films really for scares. You watch them in the hopes of seeing Corman's craft on display and admiring the film's atmosphere. "Fall of the House of Usher" does a remotely adequate job of entertaining us. I prefer "The Pit & the Pendulum" though.

Film Review: The Changeling

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

For the last few years during the month of October I would normally review classic horror films to celebrate Halloween. Unfortunately I haven't done that this year as I was busy attending the Chicago International Film Festival and because of the Charlie Chaplin retrospective going on in the city, I have been focused on not only Chaplin's films but silent comedy in general. So, I'm going to try and make up for some lost time and review some good horror films.

"The Changeling" (1980), which should not be confused with the Client Eastwood film made in 2008, has gained an impeccable reputation among horror film fans as one of the most scariest films made. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese listed it among his personal favorite horror films of all time.

Some of that praise may over sell the film. If I praise it too much, I may be setting you up for disappointment. The film won't be able to live up to such high expectations. Yet, I do have to be honest and say the movie is effective. It is a well made film which creates an eerie atmosphere. Hungarian director, Peter Medak, proves, given the right material, he can be quite the craftsmen. Unfortunately his career has not amounted to much since this film. He would go on to direct movies such as "Species II" (1998). Prior to this he directed Peter O' Toole in "The Ruling Class" (1972), for which O' Toole was nominated for an Oscar.

George C. Scott stars as John Russell, a man who witnessed the death of his wife and child, as they were killed in a tragic car accident. The film jumps to four months later. We learn John is a composer. He has moved to a small town where he will be teaching music at a university, while also working on a new piece.

John ends up going to the historical society in hopes of renting a house. Here he meets Claire (Trish Van Devere), who believes she has found the perfect house for him. A mansion with a large music room, furnished with its own piano. Although at first weary of the size of the home, John eventually agrees.

"The Changeling" at first moves at a very slow pace. Nothing much happens as the film is setting up characters and attempting to foreshadow later events. The movie is trying to give us a feel of the location and John's personality. But once the movie begins to settle into its storyline "The Changeling" takes us on a psychological roller-coaster.

John soon believes the house is trying to communicate with him. Unexplained noises are heard. Doors swing open unexpectedly. And objects switch locations in the house. In one of the most frightening scenes in the film, while recording himself composing, John hears the spirit's voice.

Bewildered by these events John contacts Claire in hopes of learning about the history of the home. Strangely enough, much information is now missing. The film now starts to resemble one of those police procedures with John and Claire rummaging in libraries looking for public records regarding the property and its former occupants.

This research leads them to Senator Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas). Back in 1909 his family lived in the house. John thinks the spirit may be related to the senator. But how can John find out what the senator knows about the house?

"The Changeling" plays with the usual horror techniques. The creepy music, the anticipation of objects jumping out in the corner of the frame and so on. But "The Changeling" is the kind of horror film I like. This is not a slasher film. There is no serial killer on the loose cutting people's throats. The film is not a blood-bath. I don't usually find those type of films scary, mostly I just find them disgusting. "The Changeling" is a stylish horror film.

The question I always ask myself when watching a horror film is, "what would I do if that happened to me?" The more realistic a horror film is, I find the scarier it is. There are a few things which happen in this movie that I doubt could happen in real life however, there are enough moments in the film which if they did happen to me in real life would simply scare me to death. The film has an unrelenting intensity to it. We just never know where the film is going to go. What is going to jump out from behind?

There have been those who claim George C. Scott doesn't do enough to flesh out the character. We never fear for his life. These comments I think are missing the point. The spirit in the house doesn't mean to cause harm to John. It seeks John's help. So, yes, it is true, I never felt John was in danger. But, I did fear for the people around him, who try to prevent him from investigating.

"The Changeling" is more effective than "The Haunting" (1963), the film directed by Robert Wise. Both movies involve a house trying to contact the living. Unfortunately "The Changeling" came out in the same year as Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" (1980), also a film about a house which takes control of the living. "The Shining" may have overshadowed this film.

Still, "The Changeling" is well worth watching. Imagine watching this movie all alone in the dark. I'll admit, the film had me looking over my shoulder more than once.

One more interesting note, Melvyn Douglas appeared in another ghost story the following year in a film called "Ghost Story" (1981) which co-starred Fred Astaire and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and John Housemen. That too is worth watching.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Film Review: The Kid

"The Kid" **** (out of ****)

As the Charlie Chaplin retrospective here in Chicago continues at the Music Box theatre, I attended the screening of "The Kid" (1921) last night.

It had been years since I saw "The Kid" back on VHS. I had never seen it on the big screen. As the years have past, I had forgotten just how good this movie is. How effortlessly Chaplin switches from comedy and pathos, often within the same scene.

In "The Kid" a mother (Edna Purviance) has a child out of wedlock. Afraid and alone the woman decides she is unable to take care of the child herself. Walking down the street she passes the home of a wealthy family. Her plan is to leave the child in the family's car which is parked directly in front of the house. As she does this two thieves take the car, notice the baby and leave it in an alley. At this moment, our hero, a Tramp (Chaplin) spots the baby and decides to raise it.

I would imagine on some level "The Kid", which was Chaplin's debut feature length film, had autobiographical traits. The story must have hit Chaplin on some deep, personal level. Chaplin had come from a poor family. He too was separated from his mother at an early age. He, along with his brother, were put in an orphanage. This period in Chaplin's life, understandably, left a lasting impression on him. The fear of being alone, of being poor again, going hungry never completely left Chaplin. These are themes which find themselves not only in this particular film but are themes which can be found throughout all of Chaplin's films. It has been said that despite Chaplin's great wealth he had a tendency to be on the frugal side. His reasoning? He never wanted to go hungry again.

The film now jumps to five years later. The Kid (now played by Jackie Coogan) lives in the same impoverish life as the Tramp. But, oddly enough, they appear happy. The child simply doesn't know any other life. Together they go around the streets and hustle. The Kid breaks windows with a rock as the Tramp just so happens to be a window repair man unsuspectingly walking by.

Within this five year period we learn that the woman has become a major star, though not clearly stated as to what kind of star, one can assume she has become some sort of stage actresses. Remembering her humble beginnings the woman often visits the slums to give charity to the children and their families. One day, unknown to her, she meets her son.

That scene, along with a few others, hit such a high emotional level I honestly would not be surprised if it brought someone to tears.

In scenes such as the one described or the more famous chase scene, where care takers have come to separate the Kid and the Tramp, as the Kid cries, pleading for the Tramp to come and rescue him, the film is working on a level of melodrama which quite frankly can make some uncomfortable.

I remember back in college, when I was taking some film classes, we were shown the melodramas of Douglas Sirk and films such as "All That Heaven Allows" (1955) and "Written in the Wind" (1956). The students would often find the films campy and overly dramatic to the point they would actually laugh at scenes which were meant to be heartfelt. I thought about that as I watched "The Kid". I was afraid the audience would react the same way, especially since the theatre was mostly comprised of college aged students.

But I've always felt the genius of Chaplin was his ability to find humor in dark moments. He never gets too serious on his audience. Take for example a moment in "The Kid" when after the thieves leave the baby in the alley, initially the Tramp doesn't want the baby, he doesn't want the responsibility. So, the baby passes the hands of several people as each person tries to avoid taking care of it. In another movie this could have been a very emotional scene. Think of the image of a baby being left all alone in an alley. It can be quite sad. But no. Chaplin has managed to find a way to present this material to us and still find ways to make us laugh. Think of the scene in "The Gold Rush" (1925) when Chaplin eats a shoe. He is so hungry, so desperate that he has resorted to such an extreme act. Again, this is a scene which in another movie could have been played for heartening melodrama. But once again, we find ourselves laughing.

Much of the cast I felt understates their performances. This isn't really a broad slapstick comedy. Sure, Chaplin inserts a few moments of broad humor, but Edna Purviance for example, tries to make her character believable. She had worked with Chaplin on several shorts such as "The Immigrant" (1917), "Sunnyside" (1919) and the two-reeler which played on the same bill as "The Kid", "The Idle Class" (1921). Chaplin also gave her the leading role in his next feature film, the very serious "A Woman of Paris" (1923). Plus, Chaplin gives Jackie Coogan a lot to work with. Coogan goes through many emotions, playing sweet, funny and dramatic. I'm sure at the time of release Coogan's performance must have astonish audiences and I think it can still wow 'em today.

I was also surprised how relatively short the film is. Less than an hour. But it feels complete. There were only a few moments when I thought the editing was a bit choppy and left out a few things.

All things considered "The Kid" is a great film. A masterpiece. An amazing display of Chaplin's genius simply because of the way the film is able to work on so many levels. Chaplin's wonderful gift for combining comedy and pathos has rarely worked as effectively as it does here. This is one of Chaplin's very best films (though my favorite is still "Modern Times" (1936), which will also be shown at the retrospective). An emotional, funny, heartwarming film.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Film Review: Tramp, Tramp, Tramp

"Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" ** (out of ****)

Having only reviewed Charlie Chaplin in "The Circus" (1928) yesterday, readers may know of my great appreciation for silent comedy and my interest in reviewing films and comedians which time has forgotten. That leads us to this Harry Langdon comedy "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" (1926).

I've written about Harry Langdon on here before. I reviewed "The Strong Man" (1926) often considered Langdon's best feature film and "The Long Pants" (1927) both were directed by Frank Capra. Those two films, along with "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" are generally believed to be the highlights of Langdon's film career. I'm a fan of "The Strong Man" and "The Long Pants" but this film leaves me cold.

"Tramp, Tramp, Tramp", which gets its title from the famous George F. Root song, written during the Civil War (I have no idea what the connection is between that song and this movie), has Langdon play Harry Logan, son of Amos Logan (Alec B. Francis) who runs a mom & pop (minus the mom) shoe repair store which has fallen on hard times thanks to a major shoe company, Burton Shoes, run by John Burton (Edwards Davis). Amos is behind on his rent, and when his landlord, the world champion walker, Nick Kargas (Tom Murray) comes to pick up the rent, Amos begs for more time. Nick gives him three months. Now it is up to Harry to find a way to collect money fast.

John Burton is producing a huge publicity stunt, a cross country walking race. All the contestants will be wearing Burton shoes. Nick Kargas is one of the competitors. Harry decides to join the race too.

Harry is in love with Burton's daughter, Betty (Joan Crawford), whose face is on Burton billboards. Harry would love to meet her one day. When they do meet it appears to be love at first sight.

So far all of this sounds pretty good. It is your typical story of the everyman fighting the odds to success. Save the family business and get the beautiful girl.

But it is the way the material is played out which just doesn't feel correct. The film has too many missed opportunities. It doesn't connect all the dots and take full advantage of all the storyline possibilities. There isn't enough comedy, romance or suspense.

It's easy to complain, right? So how would I have changed things. First of all, it would have been a better idea if Amos and John knew each and were fighting over the same customers. The two aren't even in the same state. Secondly, the Harry character needs a rival. Someone who wants to see him and the family business fail. This could have been the Nick Kargas character. It was also a bad idea to make him a landlord. He should have been sent by Burton to win the race. Third, Burton should have been trying to buy Amos' business for the land so he could expand Burton shoes. Fourth, both Nick and Harry should have fallen in love with Betty. Each man trying to win the race not only for the cash prize, $25,000 but also to win Betty's heart.

These changes would have supplied the film with more suspense, as now you can create more tension over who will win the race, even though we probably know the answer to that question at the start of the film. It would have given us more comedy, as now Harry must prove his manhood and that is always funny. Did you ever try to impress a girl and make a fool of yourself in the process? And romance because Betty would have to chose one of the men to win and they would use her as a source of inspiration.

Instead "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp", like most Langdon comedies, gets side tracked with comedy routines which don't belong in the picture. This time around Harry finds himself arrested, part of a prison gang which eventually leads to a prison break! What this has to do with the rest of the film is beyond me. It never should have found its way into this film. It takes time away from the race and character development which could have been created.

"Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" doesn't give us enough scenes dealing with the race and the effects it has on the men. We should see Harry emotionally beaten. Perhaps a scene where he dreams of winning the race and what it would be like to win Betty's hand. Or even a scene where he writes a postcard to her, letting her know which state he is in. And how about sending one to his father as well.

And, if Nick would have been portrayed as a rival, how about a scene with him creating complications for Harry. Stealing his clothes. Locking him in his room. Or trying to cause some physical harm to come his way.

As it stands now "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" is nothing more than a vehicle for Langdon and it pretty much waste everyone else, especially Joan Crawford, who wasn't a major star just yet. She had only made her film debut a year earlier and would achieve greater success a year later in the Lon Chaney film "The Unknown" (1927) and really break out in the social melodrama "Our Dancing Daughters" (1928) which I have reviewed.

Still the film is not a complete dud. There are some humorous bits. Some of the gags seemed to have been inspired by other films. Take for example a scene where Harry climbs over a fence which reads "private. No trespassing" Only to find out nothing is on the other side. Harry is atop of a mountain and hangs onto the fence for fear of falling. It may remind some viewers of the famous scene in the Harold Lloyd comedy "Safety Last!" (1923) where Lloyd hangs onto the hands of a giant clock dangling from the side of a building.

Another bit has Harry sliding down the mountain when some rocks starts to tumble down after him. This recalls the Buster Keaton comedy "Seven Chances" (1925) where Keaton is running away from a mob of women, running down a hill as huge boulders chase after him.

And finally another sequence seems to have been inspired by Chaplin's "The Gold Rush" (1925) when Harry is inside of a shop which tilts left to right just like in the famous scene with Chaplin when stuck in the log cabin as a violent winds tilts it.

But in one comedic set-up "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" appears to have been ahead of the curb. The film ends with a cyclone storm, which could have inspired the finale to the Keaton comedy "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928). At one moment in "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" I thought the front frame of a house was going to fall forward on Harry.

When "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" was made, it was Langdon's first feature film release. He had made his screen debut only two years prior in a Mack Sennett two reeler "Picking Peaches" (1924). I don't think this film does as good a job as the two reelers do in establishing all the elements of the Langdon "man-child" character. Though, one could argue, audiences may have been familiar with the character and knew what to expect.

At its time of release Langdon was a major star. Some have suggested his fame rivaled Chaplin's. There were those in the public and critics which dubbed him "the next Chaplin". The fame was short lived however. Within the next few years Langdon would be washed up. Unfairly in my opinion.

The film was directed by Harry Edwards, who normally didn't direct feature films. He did direct several of Langdon's two reelers including "Saturday Afternoon" (1926), considered to be Harry's best, "His Marriage Wow" (1925), "The Hansome Cabman" (1924) and "Luck O' the Foolish" (1924). The only other feature length film with Langdon he directed was "His First Flame" (1927), also a lesser effort.

Those looking to expand upon their silent comedy knowledge would be doing themselves a favor in watching Harry Langdon. He has earned the nickname "the forgotten clown". But it doesn't need to be so. While I don't think "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" shows Harry at his best, others films do and some of the two reelers are enjoyable as well. It is time people give Harry another look.

Film Review: Alice in Wonderland

"Alice in Wonderland" ** (out of ****)

Back when Tim Burton's adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland" (2010) was released I reviewed it along side the Disney animated film made in 1951. At the time I spoke of this version released in 1933.

"Alice in Wonderland" has been a rarity for years. Out of print on VHS and never released on DVD most people only had their memories to go by on the quality of the film. A majority of people will tell you they remember seeing this movie on TV when they were a child. However, once Burton's film was released someone got the idea to finally release this film on DVD hoping the interest in Burton's film may spark some viewers with a interest to seek out other adaptations. I'm glad they did but the film is not what I was expecting.

On paper "Alice in Wonderland" should have been a knockout. The film was directed by Norman Z. McLeod best known as a comedy director. He was the man behind the Marx Brothers comedy "Horse Feathers" (1932), the W.C. Fields comedy "Its A Gift" (1934), the Bob Hope vehicle "The Paleface" (1948) and the Cary Grant comedy "Topper" (1937). The screen adaptation was co-written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. The famed writer/director was behind a few choice comedies such as the Wheeler & Woolsey comedy "Diplomaniacs" (1933) and another W.C. Fields comedy, "Million Dollar Legs" (1932). Plus you have an all-star cast including Cary Grant (Mock Turtle), Gary Cooper (The White Knight), W.C. Fields (Humpty Dumpty), Jack Oakie (Tweedledum), Edward Everett Horton (Mad Hatter), Edna May Oliver (Red Queen) and comedy legend Ford Sterling (White King), one of the original Keystone Kops.

Despite all the talent involved this adaptation of Lewis Carroll's acclaimed novels; "Alice Adventures in Wonderland" and its sequel "Through the Looking Glass" just doesn't work. The film feels long, and its only 1 hour and 17 minutes. It doesn't tell much of a story. It just lingers. There is no rhyme or reason to the film. And I seriously doubt today's younger viewers will find much to cheer about.

We meet Alice (Charlotte Henry) who sits home bored as a snow storm is outside. Desperate to go out and play Alice amuses herself inventing stories. One includes her entering through her mirror and seeing what life is like on the other side. Alice soon accomplishes this goal as she soon follows a rabbit down a hole and enters Wonderland.

Once Alice is in Wonderland the film consist of her meeting characters, whom she talks to for a few minutes and then shatters off to the next character. This goes on for roughly an hour. There really isn't a plot. Just a collection for short sketches thrown together. Alice doesn't even want to go home. There is no objective on her part.

The real reason anyone would chose to watch this film is for the cast. And the people who are going to watch this film are old timers like me who actually know the stars in the cast. And even that is disappointing as we cannot clearly tell who is behind the costumes and make-up. Only their voices are recognizable. The film is a low point for many of the talent involved.

However one must remember the time this film was made. It was done before people like Cary Grant or Gary Cooper were major Hollywood stars. Cooper hadn't appeared in films such as "Meet John Doe" (1941), "The Pride of the Yankees" (1942) or "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (1943). Cary Grant, at this point, was best known for appearing in a couple of Mae West comedies; "She Done Him Wrong" (1933) and my favorite, "I'm No Angel" (1933). Had this film been made at a later time, I would strongly bet against either one of them acting in this.

We must also put in perspective that while the cast is well known to us old timers and film buffs, the film is largely comprised of popular character actors not leading male and female stars. Edward Everette Horton is well known to us, but, he was largely a comic relief character. Same goes for Charles Ruggles (March Hare) and Edna May Oliver. The biggest star in the cast might have been Fields. Or maybe Baby LeRoy (Joker playing card).

Still, it wouldn't be fair if I didn't point out the film does have a certain amount of charm and some good visual effects for the day. Had there just been more for the actors to work with, this could have been a charming light diversion. A piece of nice family entertainment. If that is what you are looking for watch the Disney animated film instead.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Film Review: The Circus

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

Starting today, for the next two weeks, the Music Box theatre in Chicago will be having a Charlie Chaplin retrospective. The event begins with the showing of "The Circus" (1928).

I would imagine there are those who would wonder why "The Circus" would be the first film shown. It is not one of Chaplin's best remembered films. This might have something to do with the fact in Chaplin's autobiography he never mentions the film. It also lacks the social message of "Modern Times" (1936) or "The Great Dictator" (1940) and the level of pathos found in "City Lights" (1931) or "The Kid" (1921).

Still "The Circus" is a film which I consider an unsung comic gem. It is really a "gag picture". A feature film which is built around comedic set-pieces thinly strung together by a simple plot. It makes subtle hints at large themes; the mistreatment of the worker for example. Something which would be further examined in "Modern Times". But generally, the main goal of the film is to entertain not preach.

"The Circus" also has the distinction of being the film made in between the movie Chaplin wanted to be remembered for, "The Gold Rush" (1925) and perhaps his most popular film, "City Lights". That may also be another reason several in the public overlook this film. It gets lost in the shuffle, caught between two Chaplin masterpieces.

I was sadly unable to attend the screening tonight at the Music Box, so instead I watched my own copy of the film. I hope many in the audience, especially the younger viewers, find the film as funny as I do. Earlier this year, also at the Music Box, I saw the newly restored version of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (1927) where several of the younger audience members could be heard snickering. They weren't able to appreciate that film. However, I do have some hope that Chaplin's film will be greeted with the respect it should be met with. Back in college, students were shown some of Chaplin's two reelers and students did find them funny.

As the title should suggest "The Circus" mainly takes place at a circus. We have the Ringmaster (Allan Garcia) who also owns the traveling show. His step-daughter, Merna (Merna Kennedy) is a horseback rider, who suffers at the cruel hands of her step-father. After a performance he does not approve of, he tells the young woman she must go without dinner, establishing one of Chaplin's biggest themes; hunger. He is also seen beating the young girl. She soon becomes the object of the Tramp's (Chaplin) affection.

When we first meet the Tramp he is hungry looking for food. We see him standing behind a father holding his son, who is eating a hot dog. At first the Tramp entertains the boy, but, when the father is not looking, he takes a bite of the hot dog. Meanwhile, unknown to the Tramp, a pickpocket has placed a stolen watch and wallet in the Tramp's pocket, attempting to take the police off his scent. Now both the Tramp and the pickpocket are on the run from the police.

The sequence takes them into a house of fun and builds up to a brilliant piece of pantomime on Chaplin's part as he pretends to be a moving mannequin. Pay close attention to Chaplin's body. How perfectly stiff he makes his body giving it a mechanical appearance.

While running away from the police, the Tramp disturbs a circus performance, but, an unknowing audience thinks it is all part of the act. The Ringmaster, realizing the Tramp isn't aware of his success, hires him as a property hand, who always finds his way into the act.

As I mentioned before, it is at the circus the Tramp meets Merna. For him it is love at first sight. She may need to take a second look. However, they become best friends as the Tramp routinely sticks up for the her against her father. The Tramp soon starts to sense his love may be returned but a rival takes the scene. A new attraction, a tight-rope walker (Harry Crocker).

I've often felt the Tramp character has been misunderstood by critics and the public who proclaim Chaplin's character was a loner. He may have been alone and nothing more than a Tramp, but, he didn't carry himself as one. You'll notice this in several of his films including "The Circus". From Chaplin's first scene he walks around with a dignified air. He wants respect. The Tramp wants attention, seeks love and does want to be a part of society. But it is society which has shunned him based upon his looks. That is what makes "City Lights" so poignant, it takes a blind girl to show kindness to the Tramp.

We see this theme play out again in "The Circus". Merna looks at the Tramp merely as a friend. He shows her great kindness and in her way she returns it. But while he is thinking of marriage her heart is elsewhere. How could she ever marry a tramp?

In order to prove himself and gain acceptance the film builds up to its last sight gag (and its most memorable) a tight rope act done by the Tramp himself. Since Merna is so fascinated by the tight-rope walker, the Tramp becomes jealous. When the opportunity presents itself the Tramp does the act. Naturally things don't quite go as planned. The sequence, in my opinion is hilarious, as the situation just gets worst and worst. One complication after another arises. Up to the point where monkeys (yes monkeys) start to attack the Tramp.

But for all his heroics the Tramp's fate is the same as always. The film ends on a very touching note, giving us a certain amount of pathos we have come to expect from the master. Some may be puzzled by his motives but if you think about it long enough, it all makes perfect sense.

Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert recently reviewed this film and he spends a good amount of time talking about Buster Keaton (!) apparently forgetting he was actually writing about Chaplin and a Charlie Chaplin movie. Ebert, you see, is a Keaton man, whereas I am a Chaplin man. For me Chaplin is the greatest comedy filmmaker of all time. Chaplin is the foundation which American comedy has been built upon. Don't get me wrong. I admire many of the silent clowns; Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon and Charley Chase among others. And while each man is important to film comedy and has his place in film history, without Chaplin however, the history of movies changes dramatically so.

Some feel, Ebert included, that Keaton's film have aged better. Others feel that Chaplin's sentiment and overt messages often get in the way of his comedy. Strangely enough, it is for all the reasons people don't like Chaplin that I love him. Yes, we care about the Tramp. Chaplin makes us love him. But that is why I'm more involved in his movies compared to others. Chaplin's films go beyond comedy.

While I'll admit "The Circus" doesn't fully display Chaplin's genius, it does show us glimpses of his brilliance. Several of the ingredients are here but Chaplin wasn't as ambitious here as he was with other films. Still, one cannot deny how truly funny this film is.

At the first Academy Award ceremony in 1928 Chaplin received an honorary Oscar for "The Circus" which read; "for versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus". Well deserved indeed.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Film Review: The Days of Desire

"The Days of Desire" *** (out of ****)

The 46th annual Chicago International Film Festival is coming to an end but there are still a few worthwhile films being shown. Today I attended a screening for the Hungarian film "The Days of Desire" (2010, A Vagyakozas Napjai).

At the beginning of Jozsef Pacskovszky's "The Days of Desire", I thought Pacskovszky must have been influence by Bela Tarr. And sure enough, the cinematographer, Sandor Kardos worked with Tarr on his film "Almanac of Fall" (1984, Oszi Almanach), one of Tarr's great films. And much like "Almanac of Fall", "The Days of Desire" is an intense family drama.

The film is shot in black and white, with a minimalist musical score. The camera creates an uneasiness and claustrophobic feel. Much like our hero, Anna (Orsolya Schefcsik, making her screen debut) an orphan mute. We are trapped and limited to our space.

At first meeting Anna she is on her way to a job interview. Angela (Catherine Wilkening) is a successful businesswoman looking for a housemaid. Anna comes with no references or previous work experience. But Angela decides to take a chance on the young girl.

Notice the cinematography in this sequence. Anna is usually placed in the forefront with Angela in the background. It makes us feel Anna is closed in. She is uncomfortable during the interview, especially when you consider she can't speak.

Angela usually brings home a different man every night, much to Anna's surprise. We are further surprised when we find out Angela is actually married to Zoltan (Zsolt Laszlo), an eye surgeon, whom has just been released from rehab for a drinking problem. We learn Angela hasn't even went to visit Zoltan when he was away. Both are suffering from the death of their teenage daughter, who died in a car accident.

Anna meets a young man, Miklos (Akos Orosz) who works in a supermarket. He has taken an instant liking to her, but, because of her silence, thinks Anna doesn't like him. Eventually the two become friendly.

It is at this moment Anna's personal life will have an affect on Zoltan and Angela. The two soon start to treat Anna as if she was their daughter. They invite Miklos over to dinner. They never correct people (including Miklos) who assume Anna is their daughter. But this soon has a negative effect. It makes the couple confront, once again, the death of their daughter.

"The Days of Desire" is a film about damaged people and damaged lives. It is about pain and suffering. There is much going on here. There is multiple layers to this film. These characters are masking their emotions to such a level, they no longer know what to feel.

But sadly, for as compelling as the film sounds, director Pacskovszky can't bring it all together. We never really come to know these characters. There is so much going on under the surface the film never addresses the complexities of their situation. We don't get the full back story of these people.

On some level that disappoints me. There is enough material here to make a deep, thought provoking, provocative film. But "The Days of Desire" keeps things just at the surface level. It doesn't dig deep enough. We don't see the full consequences of how damaged these characters will become. Is their any hope for them? Can they ever rebuild their lives?

Still I cannot deny the overall striking effect the film had on me. There are some powerful confrontations. The moment these characters reach their final destinations can be chilling. The cinematography does a wonderful job creating mood and atmosphere. And Schefcsik has a very natural presence to her. It is amazing this is her first film.

The material in this film could have been played for a mystery. Think Claude Chabrol. Buried family secrets. Concealed family desires. Themes of redemption. "The Days of Desire" could have used some of that. Slowly building tension. Bringing us in slowly. Trying to uncover who these people are.

But why obsess over what might have been? "The Days of Desire" is better than most of the contemporary Hungarian films I've seen lately. It is much better than "Delta" (2010), which I saw a few years back at the festival.

"The Days of Desire" is a brooding, atmospheric emotionally draining film. A compelling, intense family drama, which is darker than you may realize.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Film Review: The Last Report On Anna

"The Last Report On Anna" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

When the line-up for the 46th annual Chicago International Film Festival was announced the Hungarian film "The Last Report On Anna" (2010, Utolso Jelentes Annarol) was the film I was most looking forward to seeing.

My desire to see the film had nothing to do with the plot or the actors involved. It had little to do with the fact it was Hungarian (for readers unaware, I'm Hungarian). The real reason I was looking forward to seeing this film was because it was directed by Marta Meszaros.

During the 1960s and 70s there was something known as the "Hungarian New Wave". Hungarian films were finding there way in art houses across America and despite the strained political ties between these two countries, film critics and the public were responding positively to these films.

The major directors during this time were Miklos Jancso (whom Meszaros was once married to), Istvan Szabo and Karoly Makk. And while it seemed like an "all boys club" there was one female director who was considered part of the movement, Marta Meszaros. Subsequently, she was also considered the premier female director in Hungary.

Unfortunately Hungarian films are not regularly distributed in this country. American audiences tend to like films from France, Italy, possibly Germany and/or Spain. So while Meszaros has been steadily releasing films all these years, here in America we have not had the opportunity to see them. Hence my excitement that the film festival would be showing her latest film.

Back in the 1960s and 70s Meszaros earned a reputation for making "women films". Films which centered on female issues. Those are the only films I have seen by Meszaros including titles such as "The Girl" (1968, Eltavozott Nap), "Riddance" (1973, Szabad Lelegzet) and "Adoption" (1975, Orokbefogadas), the most contemporary film by Meszaros to be released on DVD.

"The Last Report On Anna" is not really a "woman's film", though it does center on a female character. It has more in common with Istvan Szabo's work, whose movies usually tell us a story concerning Hungarian history.

The movie is based on a real life story dealing with Anna Kethly (Eniko Eszenyi), a Socialist politician who objects to the Communist rule Hungary found itself under after WW2. She goes into a self-imposed exile in France once Janos Kadar is named Prime Minister. The Communist however want Anna to return to Hungary in order to face her enemies. Their plan is to send a young man, Peter (Erno Fekete) to lure her back home with memories of her old lover, Laci (Jakob Ladanyi ) Peter's uncle. The two have not seen each other since Anna left Hungary after the 1956 Revolution.

Once Peter arrives in France and meets Anna, he soon starts to see issues from her perspective and learns family secrets. Will he still be able to go through with his mission and report his findings to his fellow comrades?

As a Hungarian and someone who has heard stories of what life was like under Communist rule, these type of movies usually affect me more than a viewer not familiar with Hungarian history. I know what the 56 revolt was. I know what it represents. I had family which was directly affected by the revolt. So I admittedly bring a lot of baggage with me when I walk into these movies. They get under my skin.

Still, I have to remain somewhat objective and try to determine how others will react to this movie. In the end my guess is a lot of viewers may not understand a lot of what they are seeing. When non Hungarians hear mention of 56 or Imre Nagy it may not mean anything to them. The film is too "Hungarian" to be enjoyed by everyone. Still, I cannot completely divorce myself from my own emotions and feelings and pretend the movie did not have moments which touched me. When we watch movies we all bring our own life experiences with us inside the movie theatre. I am no different, hence the high rating. But I acknowledge the difficulty others may have in relating to the film.

There are flaws with the film however. The script was written by Meszaros and frequent co-worker Eva Pataki. While there are moments of heartfelt sentimentality, I actually hoped for more. At certain times the film lacked a needed poignancy. I also thought the movie falls apart at the third act. I became confused by the fate of characters. Events were not clearly defined. This wasn't a problem with the screenplay but I suspect done in the editing room.

Eniko Eszenyi is effective in the role of Anna. The best moments are when we see her drifting back to her memories of the past. Here I was instantly caught up in the emotion of the situation and could relate to her desire to go back home and see her true love one last time. And while these moments are well done, still there is a part of me which feels we don't learn enough about Anna. We could have used more scenes showing us Anna and Farago back in Budapest. This aspect of the movie reminded me of Karoly Makk's "A Long Weekend in Pest and Buda" (2003, Egy Het Pesten es Budan). Which also dealt with star-crossed lovers.

In Peter one gets the feeling Meszaros is trying to draw a parallel between his relationship with his wife, Kati (Gabriella Hamori) and what happened to Anna and Farago. The message being the political turmoil of Hungary keeps repeating itself. Once Kati arrives in France and learns Anna's side of things, she wants to stay in France and not return to Hungary until things improve. It is a clever idea but one I felt Meszaros doesn't take full advantage of and remains too subtle. I also wish Hamori was given more to work with. She is a very talented actress whom I have seen in "I Love Budapest" (2001) and "Stop Mom Theresa" (2004, Allitsatok Meg Terezanyut!). She consistently gives engaging performances.

The film shifts time periods, at first starting off in the early 90s as the Berlin Wall has fallen and Hungary is finally free. But then it goes back to the 70s. In order to keep this bridge of old Hungary and new Hungary the music captured my attention. It is a combination of jazz, representing "new" but a cimbalom is clearly heard, representing "old". The cimbalom is played by Kalman Balogh, whom for the sake of complete honesty I should reveal knows my father, who is also a cimbalom player. The biggest question is, how many American audiences will appreciate that musical choice and catch on to it?

I doubt "The Last Report On Anna" will find American distribution. Clearly American audiences have little interest in the cinema coming from Hungary. I have seen some fine Hungarian films over the years at the Chicago Film Festival and none of them have gotten theatrical releases, I even saw an Istvan Szabo film back in 2006 which still hasn't even been released on DVD! So even with a major filmmaker like Marta Meszaros behind this film its chances seem pretty slim. But I'm glad I saw it. I'm glad Meszaros is still making films. She can still tell a good story.

Film Review: Love Life Of A Gentle Coward

"Love Life Of A Gentle Coward" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

Walking into "Love Life Of A Gentle Coward" (2010) the only Croatian film playing at the Chicago International Film Festival, I was a bit skeptical. The film had a "been there, done that" plot to me.

At its core "Love Life" is suppose to be the story of a timid man, abused by his family, boss and society, who finally reaches his tipping point and fights back. We can compare it to Franz Kafka or even the Coen Brothers "A Serious Man" (2009). We know this story and we know the formula. We have a good grasp on how things will all work out.

According to filmmaker Pavo Marinkovic, the film was his attempt to demonstrate the dying intellectual voice in Croatia. That sounds very interesting but "Love Life Of A Gentle Coward" never really seem to get that point across. It is the downfall of the film.

For a movie which is suppose to be about a man who is always the victim it never struck me that Sasa's (Nenad Cvetko) life was all that bad. He is a food critic who is divorced from his wife, with whom he had a child, Luka (Nikola Crcek). Luke, like most children doesn't listen to his father, but, I wouldn't say doesn't love him. His wife seems to flaunt her new boyfriend in Sasa's face, but, when he gets the opportunity Sasa is tempted to do the same. And his editor tells him his writing isn't clear and direct. Overall, Sasa's life doesn't seem that terrible to me. Perhaps he is timid but there is no reason for a one man revolution.

One day Sasa decides to join a health club, here he meets a masseuse, Ines (Dijana Vidusin). Her massages now become a substitute for sex. Since he and his wife have divorced Sasa has not had much of a sex life and openly declares he is a poor lover. Amazingly the women don't flock to him. Go figure! An attraction ensues and it is through Ines that Sasa will soon start to "act like a man".

But this leads to another problem with the film, which I really can't go into without revealing too much. The relationship between Ines and Sasa I felt simply fizzed out. It suggest one thing and turns into something else. I found it very disappointing. And quite frankly couldn't understand Sasa's actions in the third act.

"Love Life Of A Gentle Coward" is not a bad film. It has some nice moments of humor and Nenad Cvetko gives a good performance as a kind of "every man". There are moments where we can relate to the character and laugh along with him. However I am sure this film will not find distribution in the U.S. and because of that I'm glad I saw the movie despite not enjoying it more. It would be my only opportunity to ever see this movie. That experience is worth something. I'd say two and a half stars.
I will say however, I would not be surprised if the film's message resonated with Croatians. At the Croatian film festival in Pula the film won three awards; "Best Actress", "Art Direction" and "Editing".

Film Review: Tuesday, After Christmas

"Tuesday, After Christmas" **** (out of ****)

"Tuesday, After Christmas" (Marti, dupa craciun, 2010) is the latest film from Romania to hit the film festival circuit and cause a stir. I saw it at this year's Chicago International Film Festival.

A great many of the films coming from Romania have all been fiercely political. There was "12:08 East of Bucharest" (A Fost sau n-a fost, 2007), "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" (4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile, 2007), "How I Spent The End of the World" (Cum mi-am petrecut sfarsitul lumii, 2006) and the movie which started this recent "new wave" in Romanian cinema "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" (Moartea domnului Lazarescu, 2006). But "Tuesday, After Christmas" is much different. There is absolutely no mention of politics or even social injustice.

The film follows Paul Hanganu (Mimi Branescu) who is married to Adriana (Mirela Oprisor, whom some may recognize from Francis Ford Coppola's "Youth Without Youth" (2007), they have a daughter as well. But what is not known is Paul has been having an affair with Raluca (Maria Popistasu). The rest of the film addresses Paul's dilemma in having to make a choice. He simply cannot go on leading two lives.

Some of the buzz at the film festival concerning this film has been that it is very slow and nothing happens. I heard remarks like this even from the people who liked the movie. Those that didn't like the movie told me they kept waiting for something to happen. I'm not exactly sure what these audience members were expecting though that wasn't the impression I was left with watching this film.

If by "nothing ever happens" people mean there are no explosions, fight scenes and alien battles, then, yes, they are correct. But the movie is filled with emotion. In fact I have rarely seen a movie as emotionally sincere as this. We understand Paul's predictiment. We understand what consequences his choice will have on the women in his life. There is no easy answer. I personally found that element of the film gripping. What exactly will Paul do?

The film was directed by Radu Muntean. He is one of the new faces in Romanian cinema. He directed "The Paper Will Be Blue" (2006) a film about the Romanian Revolution. It also played at the Chicago International Film Festival and unfortunately never found distribution in this country. Here though Muntean displays a true understanding for how to capture people at their most vulnerable. After Paul makes his decision I felt a certain awkwardness in the scenes which followed. He is able to capture the uneasiness within the characters and the situation.

The performances are flawless. I wouldn't change one thing about this film. Everyone comes off as natural. Each performance is believeable. We can see ourselves in these characters. Everyone reacts to situations in a realistic manner. Nothing is overdone and overblown here for dramatic license. This is life.

With the current interest in Romanian cinema I can only hope the film finds distribution in this country. I have a good feeling it will. "Tuesday, After Christmas" is a film not to be missed. The cinematography is rather simple but emotionally it is complex. The film is nothing short of brilliant.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Film Review: Certified Copy

"Certified Copy" **** (out of ****)

"Certified Copy" (2010) is yet another example of filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's genius. Here is a delicate film which balances fact and fiction, reality and fantasy in a meditative, poetic masterful way.

Abbas Kiarostami is an Iranian filmmaker who is one of the great visionaries of our time. Every film he has made I would describe as a masterpiece.

At first I worried "Certified Copy", which was a success at the Cannes Film Festival, might not live up to Kiarostami's standards. "Certified Copy" is not an Iranian film. It is filmed in Tuscany and spoken in French, Italian and English. I was concerned a change in location may take Kiarostami out of his element. But it doesn't.

Kiarostami is a director who usually films conversations. He has a very minimalist style. Watch "Ten" (2002) or "Taste of Cherry" (1998) as examples. However "Certified Copy" does resemble another film by Kiarostami, "Close-Up" (1990), which I put on my top ten list. There too were themes of fantasy vs reality.

What makes "Certified Copy" so wonderful and engaging are the performances given by the two leads. Juliette Binoche plays Elle. Her performance here fills the screen with warmth and vulnerability. This is a contrast to William Shimell, who plays a novelist James Miller. Mr. Shimell is detached and cool.

James Miller is an English writer who finds himself in Italy promoting his new book "Certified Copy" which examines art and the issues of authenticity. Can a forgery be just as beautiful to look at as an original? Elle, who has read the book and says she doesn't like it, has arranged to meet James. She hopes he will sign some copies of his book so she can give them out as gifts.

But Kiarostami and "Certified Copy" have some tricks up their sleeves. And soon we enter a game of fact and fiction, authenticity and forgery. Viewers may even got lost in the blurry lines created here but that is what makes this film so engaging and memorable. It challenges us. It makes us think about what is going on. What is life? What do our experiences mean? Maybe we don't actually have to "live" life, maybe we can just pretend we have. Create stories in our head and make ourselves believe they are true.

I saw "Certified Copy" at the Chicago International Film Festival on its final day showing. But I have to believe the film will find distribution. Binoche won a "Best Actress" award at Cannes. Films she appears in usually find there way in American theatres; "Paris" (2009), "Summer Hours" (2008). And Kiarostami has a following here. If it is released theatrically here by the end of the year, it will be one of the year's best films!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Film Review: You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger

"You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

"You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" (2010) is a typical Woody Allen movie. Depending upon your feelings for the legendary comic filmmaker that can either be a blessing or a curse. For those that like Allen, the film goes over familiar themes and ideas which have preoccupied previous Allen characters and have entertained us.

Yet, there are those who complain, Allen has nothing fresh or meaningful to say on these subjects. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wondered if Allen even enjoys making films anymore or is he simply going through the motions.

I always find it so sad when film critics and the public seem to relish condemning our great filmmakers yet praise the latest "flavor of the month" as a cinematic genius.

I'm going to defend Allen's latest film. Yes, it hits familiar ground, but, Allen has become something of a master of these topics. I feel he always finds a new way to present his ideas on love, life and luck.

"You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" begins with credits being shown while the song "When You Wish Upon A Star" plays. And here, immediately Allen is setting up what his film will be about. People wishing on a star. People searching for their dreams to come true. People who feel so defeated in their own lives they turn to the heavens, the stars, for answers.

The film starts off by introducing us to Helena (Gemma Jones). She is recently divorced from her husband, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins). She has decided to see a psychic, Cristal (Pauline Collins), who somehow always manages to say exactly what Helena wants to hear. One day Cristal foresees a tall dark stranger will enter Helena's life.

And strangely enough this is exactly what Helena needed to hear since Alfie is about to marry a much younger woman, an "actress", Charmaine (Lucy Punch). You see, the reason Alfie and Helena divorced is because Alfie suddenly realized he is getting old. The years have gone by and he wants to fight off death. How? Work out more, eat healthy, buy a new sports car. Try, in some way, to recapture the vigor of his youth. Helena has simply gotten "too old" for him.

Now Alfie and Helena have a daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts) who is married to Roy (Josh Brolin). Roy is a novelist, who showed great promise after writing his first novel. Since that time he has not completed another. He is intimated by his own success and what expectations some may have for his next book. As a result of this, Helena helps pays the bills while Sally goes back to work at an art gallery run by Greg (Antonio Banderas).

These financial troubles are starting to have a strain on Sally and Roy's marriage. Sally wants to have a child while Roy wants to finish his second novel. Their constant bickering leads Roy to notice a young, beautiful musician who has moved across from them, Dia (Freida Pinto). And has lead Sally to notice Greg.

Allen is playing with some big themes here. And it is nothing we haven't seen before in "Everyone Says I Love You" (1996), "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" (1982) or "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (2008). And like "Barcelona" we have an unseen narrator explaining all these characters to us. Giving the movie a novel on film feel to it, much like "Hannah & Her Sisters" (1986) or "Crimes & Misdemeanors" (1989).

But Allen is playful with this material. It is a whimsical, charming light diversion pondering the importance of luck and chance in our lives. The musings of love and our fear of death and growing old.

Every single character in this film is searching for love. This however made me think of society today and my generation. Technology they say has brought us closer together. We have the ability to instantly connect with people thanks to dating websites and facebook. But are people really searching for love? Is Allen's tale an outdated one? One which only a certain age group will relate to? People of my age don't seem to want relationships. They seem content with causal dating and hookups. The desire to find someone and have a meaningful connection with them appears to be a social relic. Something our grandparents did.

Watching "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" made me think of the work of two great filmmakers before Allen. The wonderful French filmmaker Eric Rohmer and the gifted Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira. Two directors whom have shown us young and old people falling in love, talking about love and searching for love all with an amusing twist. The sequences with Roy spying on his pretty neighbor made me think of de Oliveira's "Eccentricities of A Blond Hair Girl" (2009). The idea being, what we can't have always seems more appealing.

Even though this film was shot in London, Allen doesn't film it as a British story. London does not play a prominent part in the film. The movie could have taken place in any large city, even Allen's beloved New York. I also like that Allen has went back to using classic jazz standards in the soundtrack. In films like "Match Point" (2005), "Cassandra's Dream" (2007) and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona", Allen shifted away from it. My guess was he felt jazz was too low brow for the sophisticated European settings.

The film also marks Allen's third collaboration which famed Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who won an Oscar for his work on "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977). With Allen, Zsigmond has worked on "Melinda & Melinda" (2005) and "Cassandra's Dream". Needless to say this film is shot much different that "Cassandra". "You Will Meet" has a much lighter tone to it. While Zsigmond doesn't show off London, he does give the film a proper look which almost gives the film a nostalgic feel to it. A kind of 1930s comedy vibe.

I enjoyed "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" more than I thought I would. The film isn't as profound in its themes as say "Match Point" but I don't think that was Allen's intention. Allen, I suspect, wanted to have a little cosmic fun. A story about what we chose to put our faith in and how that helps us interpret what life brings our way. What we may think are meaningful signs into our existence may actually be sheer dumb luck and coincidence.