Monday, February 11, 2013

Film Review: The Guardsman

"The Guardsman"  **** (out of ****)

"The Guardsman" (1931) is a sadly forgotten comedy jewel directed by Sidney Franklin, starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne (who were married in real life and stars of the stage). Both were nominated for an Academy Award for their performances in this picture, which is why I have chosen to review the movie, since the Academy Awards win be revealed later this month.

"The Guardsman" is the kind of movie you might expect Ernst Lubitsch to have directed or Preston Sturges. It has that same sophisticated level of humor, with great one-liners and a dash of physical comedy thrown in for good measure. A staple of what you could find in a Sturges comedy. But it also has that adult playfulness you'd find in a Lubitsch comedy like "Trouble in Paradise" (1932).

However the film was based on a play written by that great Hungarian playwright, Ferenc Molnar, who was just as funny as Lubitsch or Sturges. Back in the 1930s Hollywood was adapting many of Molnar's plays into films. Others included the William Powell / Myrna Loy comedy "Double Wedding" (1937), "The Bride Wore Red" (1937) with Joan Crawford, "The Good Fairy" (1935) which Preston Sturges adapted the screenplay for, and one of my favorites "One, Two Three" (1961) which Billy Wilder brought to the screen. Molnar also wrote "The Boys of Paul Street (A Pal Utcai Fiuk)" which was adapted into a very famous Hungarian film in 1969.

The screenplay for "The Guardsman" was written by another very good Hungarian writer Ernest Vajda, who wrote many of Ernst Lubitsch's early screen comedies such as "The Love Parade" (1929), "Monte Carlo" (1930) and "The Smiling Lieutenant" (1931). All of which are great. In addition he also wrote "Personal Property" (1937) which I have reviewed.

With so many talented people involved in this film, quite honestly, it shouldn't come as any surprise that the movie works as well as it does. It truly is an unsung comedy gem. It is a shame it has been out of circulation on VHS for years and still hasn't been put on DVD.

Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne play a married couple. Both are actors. Lunt, whom is simply credited as "The Actor" suspects his wife, who is credited as "The Actress", of cheating on him. It seems his wife has begun playing Chopin in the dark (a very bad sign). She cries for no reason at all. And, as far as "The Actor" can tell, his wife's eyes brighten up when she sees the soldiers in the audience. The jealousy has overtaken the actor. There is only one thing he can do. So naturally, he pretends to be a Russian soldier who has been sending the actress flowers every day. He is going to test his wife and see if she allows the Russian to make advances. If she does, he knows it wouldn't be the first time. If she doesn't, he knows that his wife has been true to him and his suspicion has been that of a fool's imagination.

What makes "The Guardsman" so funny is we never quite know if the wife knows what the husband is up to. Can she recognize him in his Russian costume? It almost becomes an acting duel between two star performers. Who will out perform the other?

The situation keeps heightening. When the actor confronts his wife, she never reveals anything. She begins to act coy. But at times it seems as of she is trying to call his bluff. In one scene, the actor lies and says he has been called to give a performance out of town. A few minutes after the husband is suppose to leave the soldier is suppose to show up. But the wife tells the husband she will see him to the train. How will he escape going on the train and have time to switch clothes?

I love the quick witted banter between Lunt and Fontanne. When they argue, there hurtful words are not the words most lovers chose. For example, they do not try to say spiteful things like they slept with another person. Instead, in an attempt to really hurt each other, the wife tells her husband, once, in a small time, she saw an actor give a better performance as "Romeo". He quickly retorts that he also once saw an actress give a better performance as Camille. This is the way to ego driven actors argue.

Of course suspected cheating lovers has always made for good comedy. Great movies are a mirror reflection of ourselves. They make us confront ugly truths. Great comedies on the other hand exaggerate those moments. Look at Preston Sturges' classic comedy "Unfaithfully Yours" (1947), which I have reviewed, a movie about a conductor who suspects his wife is cheating on him and devises a plan to kill both her and her lover. We have all felt jealousy at one time in our lives or another. Sometimes it is only natural when you fear losing someone you love. But other times the paranoia is our own doing. And when it gets the best of us, that makes for good comedy. And that's what "The Guardsman" does. It makes us laugh at ourselves.

"The Guardsman" is also pretty suggestive for a 1930s comedy. This is one of those pre-code films. The movie indicates that characters are engaging in premarital sex. It suggest husbands and wives cheat. And doesn't go to too much trouble to be subtle about it. Though because it is a 1930s comedy and not a movie made today, by comparison the movie is tame and playful. That is part of the movie's charm.

As I mentioned both Lunt and Fontanne were nominated for Oscars. In the best actor race that year there were only three nominees (Lunt's included). Still there was a tie and both Wallace Berry and Fredric March won that year for "The Champ" (1931) and "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" (1931) respectfully. While Fontanne lost to Helen Hayes for the melo-drama "The Sin of Madelon Claudet" (1931), I have written a review for that movie. Which is ironic because in that movie Hayes played an unfaithful woman, a woman of "loose morals" who is "punished". Quite the opposite message from the role Fontanne played.

Viewers will also notice Roland Young as the actor's best friend, who gets caught up in the drama of wanting to know whether or not the actress is cheating.

If you can find "The Guardsman" it is well worth your time. A wonderful, charming, and most importantly, funny comedy.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Film Review: Disraeli

"Disraeli"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

With the 85th annual Academy Awards being announced later this month, I thought it might be interesting to review some past winners, as I have done previously during this month. That leads us to "Disraeli" (1929).

"Disraeli" is an interesting hybrid of a movie. Part of it is a bio-drama, based on the life of the former conservative  UK Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (played by George Arliss). It is part espionage story, involving Russian spies, and part love story, centering on Disraeli's relationship with his wife, Lady Beaconsfield (Florence Arliss, who was married to George in real life).

The movie also hints at some social and political commentaries. Disraeli was and is the only prime minister who was Jewish. In the film much is made of this. He is referred to as an "alien" throughout the film. He was not a "true" Englishmen. The English people deserved a prime minister who was a "pure" Englishmen, so goes the argument in the movie. An argument made by the Liberal Party.

But the film also talks about England's place in the world. Should England flex its muscle? Should it conquer more lands? Become an ever growing "super power", though that term is never said in the film. It is much like a national conversation which America is currently going through. Is there still a need for a "super power" in this new century? And should that "super power" be America?

"Disraeli" only focuses on one single moment in Disraeli's term as prime minister. His desire to purchase the Suez Canal, which would give them greater and quicker access to India. Most in the Liberal Party oppose this idea. England doesn't need to purchase the canal. It  doesn't need to make this power move. But Disraeli sees long term potential and is determined to find the money to buy it.

Meanwhile there are Russian spies who are watching Disraeli. They too have an interest in the Suez Canal but are not in a financial predicament to buy it, just yet. But Disraeli is on to the spies and tries to mislead them.

To say any more about the plot wouldn't be fair to those who haven't seen it. So lets discuss the performance by George Arliss. Arliss originally played this role on the stage. It become the role most associated with him throughout his career. He won his only Academy Award for his performance in this film in the best actor category.

Of all the actors in the film Arliss gives the most "lively" performance. Others might call it a "ham" performance. But I think the style of acting was a deliberate choice by Arliss and the film's director, Alfred E, Green. First of all it separates Disraeli from the stuffy, liberal elitist in England at the time. It presents Disraeli as more of a "man of the people". More down to earth. Whereas it makes his opponents seems to speak in platitudes. Disraeli has a more "common" touch.

However that "common" touch also serves another purpose. Since Disraeli is Jewish and not accepted by the elite, it makes Disraeli seem just plain "common", rough around the edges. Not a seasoned, diplomatic politician. Almost a "vulgar" man who lacks British refinement, since he is of course a Jew, an "outsider".

I have a hard time believing  neither Arliss or Green didn't think about these ideas while making the film. You also have to remember back in 1929 sound pictures were something new. Arliss gives the kind of performance you'd expect a man of the theatre to give. He is acting of those in the back row. He definitely has a "presence" on-screen. The performance is "larger than life". These kind of exaggerated performances were common during the early days of sound pictures, so, I don't hold it against Arliss.

In addition to the best actor nomination "Disraeli" was also nominated for best picture and best writing. It lost the best picture Oscar that year to "All Quiet On The Western Front" (1930), the greatest of the early war pictures. It was the second war movie to win a best picture Oscar, "Wings" (1928) was the first, winning the award at the first Oscar ceremony.

"Disraeli", while not a great film, it would have been better if it told us more about this man and his life in politics. For example, the real Disraeli was also a novelist. But that is never mentioned in the film. Practically nothing about his time in office is mentioned. Still this is an interesting film. Those with an interest in watching early Oscar winners may enjoy this film.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Top Ten Films Of 2012!

It has taken me longer than usual to make my list of the best films of the year but that is only because I had some catch up to play. I wanted to make the best list I possibly could and there were a few films I hadn't seen yet. I've pretty much seen all of the popular, over-hyped films released in 2012. You won't find them on my list but I have seen "Zero Dark Thirty", "The Master", "Lincoln",
"The Sessions", "Flight",
"Life of Pi" and "Les Miserables" among others. All good films but none of which deeply affected me.

Last year when I made my list of the best films of the year I explained the personal problems I had endure through the year. The death of my grandmother, who shared her love of movies with me, and the break-up of a relationship with a woman I thought would be "the one". I made a point of mentioning the films which touched me the most were the ones which dealt with similar issues I was going through. Sadly 2012 was no different. Once again death affected my family. This time my grandfather passed away, almost a year to the day when my grandmother died. I have been told this is common among couples that have been married for decades. And failed relationships and memories of the past filled my days.

With the lost of my grandparents it represents the end of an era. There are only a handful of relatives left who represent that generation. My grandparents were the anchors of my family. They passed on tradition to us, told us to preserve our culture. They made sure we never forget the past. We never forget who we are, where we come from. For me they provided a certain "order" to the world. And now they are gone. With them so much is now lost. My world is full of chaos and confusion. The world in general is in a confused state. What are we suppose to do now? How do we re-establish order? How do we make sense of the world again?

I tell you this information because once again, the films which affected me the most this year where the ones which dealt with themes close to my heart. The films of 2012 were about living in a world where nothing makes sense. Terrible things happen but people try to move forward. Characters needed something to believe in. They searched for hope. Without hope we have nothing. We all need something to believe in. Something to give us a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Something to make us face the world.

Film after film in 2012 had characters at a crossroad in their lives. Characters were in a confusing world trying to move forward.

The great movies are usually a reflection of society. There weren't too many "great ones" in 2012 but the ones we did get this year reflected the state of the world. We had a presidential election where people had to decided who could help us move forward. Wasn't "forward" President Obama's campaign slogan? There is so much going on in the world we are all scratching our heads wondering what will tomorrow bring?

Here now are my choices for the best films of 2012!

1. The Impossible (Dir. Juan Antonio Bayona; Spain) - Here is a movie about hope, family and survival. Based on a true story concerning the 2004 Tsunami and the struggles a family goes through to reunite.

The film was directed by a brilliant Spanish filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona, who topped my list back in 2007 with his feature length debut film "The Orphanage". "The Impossible" is Mr. Bayona's second film and his first in the English language. Sadly the film was not pushed by its studio and has mostly been locked out this award season. The critics didn't hype the movie in the same exaggerated way they did other movies. A shame. Naomi Watts however is nominated for an Academy Award for best actress and did receive a Golden Globe nomination as well but where is the best picture nomination? Or how about a supporting actor nomination for the young actor Tom Holland who plays her son?

2. Argo (Dir. Ben Affleck; U.S.) - For the longest time I figured this would top my list. A great piece of Hollywood filmmaking. And for my money Ben Affleck's best picture as a director. This is great, old-fashion storytelling.

3. Silver Linings Playbook (Dir. David O. Russell; U.S.) - It took me two viewings to really appreciate this movie but here is a wonderful example of the themes the films of 2012 dealt with. A movie about two people with a troubled past trying to move forward.

4. Little White Lies (Dir. Guillaume Canet; France) - Life. It is pretty damn difficult. Here is a movie about the lies we tell ourselves and the ones we tell others. A man gets into a near fatal motorcycle accident. The film deals with how his group of friends deal with the situation. What are our priorities in life? How precious is life and our time with friends and family? The film goes on a bit too long (it is over two hours) but it has strong moments and is filled with universal truths. The amazing cast includes Marion Cotillard, Francois Cluzet, Benoit Magimel and Jean Dujardin.

5. The Turin Horse (Dir. Bela Tarr; Hungary) - A film which represents the sad end of an amazing career. The uncompromising Hungarian master Bela Tarr says this will be his last film. He is retiring from filmmaking. This is a major lost for the world of cinema. But, Tarr ends his career on a high note. Probably the best film he has made since "Satantango" (1994). A deep movie about the order of things. The mundane routine of our lives. A reminder death is always around the corner in this harsh world we live in.

6. Brave (Dir. Mark Andrews / Brenda Chapman; U.S.) - This wonderful Disney / Pixar gem didn't get a strong push from the critics, who usually are tripping all over themselves in praise for Pixar. As far as I'm concern this was the best animated film of the year. A cute story about the struggle between parents and children and their constant battle trying to understand each other. The movie hits on themes of tradition and family loyalty.

7. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan; Turkey) - Ceylan has been a filmmaker I've always held in high esteem. A truly gifted visionary filmmaker. I didn't think he'd be able to top his film "Climates" (2007) but "Once Upon A Time" might be his masterpiece. A very interesting movie which makes us question if anyone is ever really innocent. It ask complex moral questions. Aren't we all guilty of something?

8. The Sacrifice (Dir. Chen Kaige; China) - Kaige is one of the great filmmakers to come from China (Zhang Yimou is another) in the last 25 years. Here is a film about revenge, family and moral responsibility.

9. The Dark Knight Rises (Dir. Christopher Nolan; U.S.) - Probably the greatest comic book movie I've seen. And coming from me that is quite the statement. The movie reminds me of a western. A lone man sees a world in chaos and decides it is up to him to make things right. The movie unfortunately has become associated with a terrible mass shooting in Colorado. This, I think, is what prevented the film from getting any Oscar nominations.

10. The Kid With A Bike (Dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne/ Luc Dardenne; France) - A movie I wasn't prepared to enjoy as much as I did. Maybe the best film the Dardenne brothers have made since "The Son" (2002). A young boy must come to terms with a father that does not want him and build a new life with a hairdresser that has agreed to take him in. Very emotional, gripping film.

11. Monsieur Lazhar (Dir. Philippe Falardeau; Canada) - An Oscar nominee at last year's Academy Awards in the foreign film category. Here is a quiet movie about the grieving process, death and culture clash.

A teacher commits suicide in a class room. The school and the students try to make sense of this event while another teacher must deal with his own personal demons.