Friday, March 29, 2013

Film Review: Diplomaniacs

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

"Diplomaniacs" (1933) is my kind of comedy. It is a go-for-broke, anything goes, joke-a-minute romp.

My favorite movie genre has always been comedy. And my favorite comedies, to the disgruntle of every film teacher I had, are the ones which sacrifice plot for a joke. The movies which have no story arc, no real character motivation. The kind of comedies were the jokes come out of left field. Sometimes the jokes are out of character, not the kind of thing a particular character would say. Comedies were plot comes in second to jokes. Comedies that break the fourth wall.

Dear readers, "Diplomaniacs" is such a comedy. Nearly nothing in the movie makes sense. The story is so flimsy, you could tell it in 10 minutes. Characters are introduced in one scene and never seen again. Characters break out in song for no reason at all. Others characters make reference to being in a movie. Some decide, in mid-scene, they no longer want to be in the rest of the movie. Men insult women and there are no repercussions. And it is an all out attack on politics and the nature of war.

The movie stars the forgotten RKO comedy team of the 1930s Robert Woolsey and Bert Wheeler. I've discussed their movies before. I've always mentioned this movie but never got around to reviewing it. It has remained my favorite of their comedies together. I'd even take the compliment one step further and say, it is one of my all-time favorite comedies.

In the movie Wheeler and Woolsey play barbers on an Indian reservation. Their business is a disaster. Indians (or Native Americans for my sensitive PC readers) have no need for the barbers since, according to "Diplomaniacs", it is a well known fact, all Indians have no beards. However the Indians do have a certain use for our heroes. Their chief (Edward Cooper), who speaks with a British accent, and drives to the reservation in a Rolls Royce (I told you, nothing makes sense!) informs the boys of a peace conference in Geneva. The Indians were not invited but they would like the boys to attend on their behalf. The Indians have created a peace treaty which they would like all the world leaders to sign.

Now even in a goofy movie like "Diplomaniacs" there still needs to be a villain. Someone to create a small resemblance of conflict for Wheeler & Woolsey. This is supplied by Winkelreid (Louis Calhern). He represents a company which has created an explosive bullet. For this company peace would put them out of business. If there is peace in the world, there will be no wars. If there are no wars, there will be no need for guns. If people don't buy guns, they won't buy their explosive bullets. Get it? The gun manufactures and bullet makers need war. It creates a profit for them. So Winkelreid devises a plan to stop Wheeler & Woolsey from reaching the peace conference. He uses sex. He hires two vamps (as they were called in those days. I can't use the term we would use today but, another word would be seductress) to seduce the boys and steal their peace treaty.

Describing "Diplomaniacs", I feel, is a mistake. I'm trying to make the movie sound coherent. I'm editing the film to make it all sound logical. "Diplomaniacs" isn't logical. The word "maniac" is part of the title. You can't have a movie make sense with the word "maniac" in it, can you?

What I would like to do is just tell you all the best jokes. But if I do that, I've just spoiled the entire movie for you. Why bother to watch it? Yet, I still feel the need to fully get across how non-sensical the movie really is.

Take for example a henchman character named Chinaman (play by non-oriental character actor Hugh Herbert). During one point in the movie he tells Winkelreid he is tried of the movie and is going back to China. To be with his wife...who he hates! So, he jumps in a row boat and heads back to China! He never speaks with a Chinese accent and at one point goes into an Al Jolson imitation (!). Laurel & Hardy regular foil, Charlie Hall, has a brief scene in the movie. He plays a Valet, who when told to leave the room, jumps out of a window. He is never again seen in the movie. At the peace conference, where there is more fighting than peace talk going on, a bomb explodes, the impact of the bomb makes all the white diplomats appear in blackface. There is a musical number the boys do with an all female Indian chorus where everyone is singing in pig latin. Did you ever hear Indians sing in pig latin? Are you starting to get a sense of what type of movie this is?

"Diplomaniacs" was Wheeler and Woolsey's first film back at RKO studio. The team made all of their movies at the studio with the exception of one, "So This Is Africa" (1933). Which was released by Columbia Pictures. RKO, not wanting Columbia to steal their thunder after resigning the team, immediately released their own movie with the boys in the same year.

Still for all its silliness there is a message lurking around the jokes of the film. It is a political satire. The boys attempted something similiar two years earlier in their comedy "Cracked Nuts" (1931, which I have reviewed). Many people like to compare this movie to the Marx Brothers comedy "Duck Soup" (1933) since both were released in the same year and both have Louis Calhern play the villain. But "Diplomaniacs" actually takes its anti-war message a bit further. It is more direct. Pay attention to a closing number, which the boys do in blackface. It has a gospel feel to it, proclaiming the need for peace. "Diplomaniacs" almost comes across as a pacifist film. At this point in time there was talk of "a war in Europe" brewing. "Diplomaniacs" and "Duck Soup" offer the rebuttal.

The movie was directed by William A. Seiter. He worked with the team often. His collaborations with them rank among the team's better efforts. He directed "Peach-O-Reno" (1931, which I have reviewed). That one comes in a close second to being their best film. Seiter was also behind "Caught Plastered" (1931) and the Gershwin musical adaptation "Girl Crazy" (1932). When RKO split the team (in the hopes of doubling their profits) Seiter directed Wheeler's solo vehicle, "Too Many Crooks" (1931). In addition to Wheeler & Woolsey comedies, Seiter worked with the Marx Brothers on "Room Service" (1938) and Laurel & Hardy on "Sons of the Desert" (1933).

The script was written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Henry Myers. I find Mankiewicz to be an unusual choice. I don't often associate his name with this style of comedy. He was an accomplished writer and director himself. He is probably best known for directing "All About Eve" (1950). He wrote "Manhattan Melodrama" (1934) a great Clark Gable/Myrna Loy/William Powell vehicle and "A Letter to Three Wives" (1949). Myers on the other hand wrote the W.C. Fields political satire "Million Dollar Legs" (1932) and the comedy/western "Destry Rides Again" (1939) with Jimmy Stewart.

Unfortunately the comedy team Wheeler & Woolsey are forgotten. They are ignored by today's generation of movie goers. Too bad. But if you do ever decide to see this team in action, "Diplomaniacs" is the place to start. The movie belongs in the same league with "Duck Soup" and the Olsen & Johnson comedy "Hellzapoppin'" (1941, which I have reviewed) as one of the all-time funniest comedies.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Film Review: Tango Abrazos


"Tango Abrazos" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

The tango is a dance of life, love, seduction and passion. It is also a great way to pick up women.

That's what we are told in director Metod Pevec's "Tango Abrazos" (2012), a Slovenian film which played at the 16th annual European Union Film Festival in Chicago.

There have been many dance movies made which indicate dancing can change our lives. It gives us a fresh perspective. Think of the Japanese movie "Shall We Dance?" (1997) or the American remake made in 2004 with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez. There is the work of acclaimed filmmaker Carlos Saura, best known for his "Flamenco Trilogy"; "Blood Wedding" (1981), "Carmen" (1983) and El Amor Brujo" (1986). He even directed a movie called "Tango".

In all of these movies dancing over takes the characters' lives. It provides a new meaning. I didn't quite come away feeling that way after watching "Tango Abrazos". No doubt that Mr. Pevec wanted us to feel that way. And the film does show the effect dancing is having on their lives. But, the problem I have with the film is there isn't enough passion. The characters project a feeling of "ho-hum-ness" if such a thing exist. There is no vitality to this film. No real energy.

We follow two couples; Tjasa (Jana Zupancic) and Uros (Uros Furst) and Leon (Primoz Pirnat) and Lena (Pia Zemljic). Tjasa and Lena decide they want to take dancing lessons and want the men in their lives to come along. The men are recluctant but agree. There's a old rule most men know; if you keep your wife happy, you'll have fewer headaches.

Lena and Leon were married on a whim in Las Vegas. They seem happy but we sense are not a good match. If for any reason Leon is overweight and not an attractive man. Tjasa and Uros are not married, only living together. Their relationship seems more based on rountine and order rather than love and passion.

As they start to learn the tango, the dance will affect their lives differently. During the class everyone is asked to switch partners. In other words, dance with a different person than the one you walked in with. So Tjasa dances with Leon and Uros dances with Lena. The two couples soon become friendly, though we are led to believe through dancing, the seductive moves of the tango, the intimacy involved, is starting to bring the new dancing partners together. They dance better, look happier with the new partners than their real partners.

The dancing sequences are the best. The music is an absolute pleasure to listen to and it is fun to see the characters dance. These pieces are among the best directed sequences in the movie. It is when we don't see these characters dance I was losing interest. The characters are not fleshed out entirely. Only half-heartedly. I didn't feel like I was going through the process with these characters as the tango changes their lives.

I'm still glad I saw "Tango Abrazos" at the festival. It is a Slovenian film and Slovenian films never receive distribution in the U.S. So I like to take advantage of seeing films from Eastern European during film festivals, knowing full well, this will be my one and only chance to ever see these movies on a big screen (or even a small screen).

There are some good things to say about this film. The dancing is wonderful and the music a pleasure. Everything else could have used some work.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Film Review: On Her Majesty's Secret Service

"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" *** (out of ****)

"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969), the sixth film in the James Bond franchise, is in some ways an oddity. Film critic Gene Siskel, who dismissed the film and the actor playing Bond, called it "the answer to a trivia question."

The film is a bridge, the beginning of something new and different (the original trailer for the film made heavy use of the word "different") and yet at the same time a nostalgic look backwards, a look back on the road we have traveled on.

"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" was the last film made in the decade that gave us secret agent 007 James Bond, the 1960s. A lot had changed in that time. Bond was going to have a new look, the musical score was a bit more "funky", Bond would start to show more sensitivity, this was the beginning of the "sensitive male" after all. And of course the biggest change would be a new actor playing James Bond; George Lazenby. In his only appearance in the Bond cannon of films.

George Lazenby is the center of much debate. He was an unknown actor when chosen. In fact he wasn't much of an actor. He was a model and had starred in some commercials. The role of James Bond was a big break for him. But after all these years the debate continues. Was Lazenby a good Bond? Was he unfairly treated? People can't even agree on if the movie made money! Some stories I have read suggest the film was a box-office smash. The second highest grossing film of 1969. Others articles I have read state the reason Lazenby wasn't brought back for a second film was because the box-office was so poor. Yet still, some say Lazenby walked away from playing the character again. He had originally signed a seven picture contract, while others say Lazenby was a disaster and therefore wasn't brought back due to dismal reviews and public reaction.

It has gotten to the point I don't know what is true and what isn't. All I can accurately tell you is my opinion of the film. It is, as I mentioned before, a hybrid. Something new, while still trying to be something familiar. Take for example an opening action sequence which doesn't quite go the way Bond (Lazenby) expected. He looks into the camera, with a wry smile, and delivers the kind of remark Groucho Marx or Bob Hope would. "This never happened to the other fella" he says. That "other fella" he is talking about of course is Sean Connery. Everyone's choice for their favorite James Bond. Why invoke Connery when we are moving forward?

Next, during the film's title sequence, we see images of previous Bond girls and villains. We see clips from all the previous films; "Dr. No" (1962), "From Russia With Love" (1963), "Goldfinger" (1964), "Thunderball" (1965) and "You Only Live Twice" (1967). Once again I ask, why do this?

Another scene has Bond going through his desk looking at "memorabilia", which happen to come from previous Bond films, while the theme from "From Russia With Love" plays in the background.

All of this combined makes us think of Sean Connery and the other Bond films. It is as if we are taking two steps forward, one step back. We aren't letting go of the memory of Connery and giving Lazenby a chance. Yet at the same time, the film feels "different".

The gun barrel sequence is handled differently, the title sequence is different. This is the last time a Bond film would not have a title song sung. It is a instrumental (and a very good one at that). Though a song was written for the movie, "We Have All The Time In The World" with music by John Barry and lyrics by Hal David. The song was performed by Louis Armstrong. While I love Louis, I grew up listening to music from his era, the song doesn't "feel" like it belongs in a Bond film. Maybe in "Love Story" (1970) not this film. And while again Louis is great, his voice wasn't right for this type of love ballad. How about Jack Jones (who was very popular at this time) or Frank Sinatra?

And the ending to "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" may be the only ending in a Bond film that may actually make you want to cry. We almost see Bond cry. Something the director did not want to show. Though we did finally see that happen when Timothy Dalton played him. That too was a cause for controversy. Bond doesn't cry was the counter argument from us traditionalist.

As for Lazenby, he's not that bad. The word was he didn't look muscular. He didn't look like a secret agent. I think he handles himself quite nicely. Lazenby was in reality a tough guy. I personally had no problem accepting him in the role. Though there were a few things I didn't like. He is almost too sarcastic. Something Roger Moore would be accused of. But here Lazenby always has a quip. A one-liner or pun. It is too much. Again it is this balance between ruggedness and something comical.

There are a lot of good action sequences, some we would see later in "For Your Eyes Only" (1981) with Roger Moore. I like that one more than "On Her Majesty's Secret Service". It is one of Moore's better outings. There is a good skiing sequence and an exciting luge set-piece.

The downsides though are an uninteresting villain. This time it is Blofeld (Telly Savales). He doesn't have an evil nature and doesn't appear to be a real threat to Bond. A love angle dealing with Bond girl Tracy (the least sexy Bond name. But played by the very sexy Diane Rigg) seems undeveloped. It starts something, abandons it and then brings it back again.

The director for this film was Peter Hunt. This was his directorial debut. He served as a "supervising editor" on two previous Bond films; "Thunderball" and "You Only Live Twice". For a young director he had a nice eye. Though at this point in time Guy Hamilton was probably the best director working on these films.

So is "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" worth seeing? Yes. With all the years that have passed viewers can watch it with fresh eyes. We don't have to deal with all the controversy that surrounded the movie and the negative press. Word was Lazenby was difficult to work with. Clashed with the director...ect. And of course, the critics said he wasn't as good as Connery. Not exactly an unoriginal idea. But then again, when did most critics ever have anything original to say? Don't they all mostly repeated each other? You read one positive review for a movie, you've read them all.

Bond fans will want to watch it to have the fun of comparing who is a better Bond. Plus, it serves as a curiosity piece since it was Lazenby's only film.

It's not a great Bond film but it shouldn't be avoided.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Film Review: The Ox-Bow Incident

"The Ox-Bow Incident" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Like most westerns "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943) is a story about law and order, revenge, the meaning of justice and masculinity. A struggle between cliche western macho ism vs modern liberalism. It is a film with a deep social conscience about men trying to do the right thing.

Under those terms "The Ox-Bow Incident" doesn't seem much different than any other western. The themes are the same. But this is a powerful film. A movie that has the ability to stir a lot of emotions within the viewer. It strikes a nerves. It makes the viewer ask who is right? Who is just? Is justice truly being served. The film clearly takes sides but it presents both viewpoints. Neither side is willing to give an inch.

In the most basic terms "The Ox-Bow Incident" is about a small community. The townsfolk find out one of their own has been murdered. A fellow rancher. Not only was he murdered but a rustler stole his cattle. A posse is formed by Jeff Farnley (Marc Lawrence), who has taken the news very personal, and Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), who fought on the side of the Confederate during the Civil War. He proudly wears his uniform on the hunt for the killer.

The conflict is the sheriff is out of town. For the posse to go after the killer and lynch him (as is their plan) would be against the rule of the law. Every man is entitled to a fair trial. This is what Arthur Davies (Harry Davenport) argues. The townspeople don't want to hear such talk. One of their own was murdered. Revenge needs to be taken immediately. This is not a time for law and order. No one wants to hear talk about a trial, a long legal process where people may gain sympathy for the killer. Better the seek revenge quickly and be done with the matter.

Two drifters ride into town on this very day; Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art (Harry Morgan. Best known for his TV work on the shows "M*A*S*H" and "Dragnet"). They reluctantly agree to join the posse out of fear of being accused themselves, though they tend to agree with Davies point about a trial.

The posse believes they have found their killer, Donald Martin (Dana Andrews) who along with Juan Martinez (Anthony Quinn) has be caught camping in the mountain. He admits he has some of the dead man's cattle, but, he claims he bought it from him the day before. They are caught with the dead man's gun, but, claim to have found it.

What to do? Donald confesses to nothing. He shouts his innocents but the posse is already finding a tree to hang the noose.

With Henry Fonda in the film it is not hard to think of the Sidney Lumet courtroom drama "12 Angry Men" (1957) about a group of jurors debating a guilty verdict with Fonda as the only one among them who believes an innocent verdict should be passed. Here we are face with the same moral dilemma.

Of course with Dana Andrews in the picture, who knows, he could be the killer. Andrews didn't always play nice guys. Watch him in a pair of Otto Preminger noir films; "Fallen Angel" (1945) and "Where the Sidewalk Ends" (1950). At this point however Andrews really hadn't broken through yet. He would get a big break a year later in yet another Otto Preminger film, the classic "Laura' (1944).

Although Henry Fonda is given top billing, he is actually not the conscience of the film. It is Dana Andrews and Harry Davenport who give us the moral message. Andrews scenes are intense. His performance is a knock out. We can sense his fear and desperation. He is fighting for his life. He is faced against a crowd that has made up their mind about him no matter what he may say. Andrews' character delivers the stinging last words in the film.

Fonda on the other hand merely plays the outsider. He doesn't stick his neck out to protect the innocent. He follows the majority but knows in his heart what they are doing is wrong.

The other interesting theme of the film is masculinity. The major considers his son, Gerald (William Eythe) an embarrassment. At one point he calls him a "female male". The major forces his son to join the posse. The major is going to make a "man" out of his son.

With characters like Davies and Gerald, here we get the balance of "modern" liberalism against the western macho ism we expect in the genre. A "real" man joins the posse, carries a gun and is always prepared to kill in the name of defending his honor. A more "modern" thinking male talks about trials and due process. To the macho westerner these are the words a coward hides behind. A man who is afraid of the sight of blood. Real men shoot first and ask questions later.

It is these two ideologies which are competing with each other in "The Ox-Bow Incident".

I am someone who firmly believes movies are a reflection of their times. What would make 20th Century Fox and director William A Wellman (known for "Night Nurse" (1931), "The Public Enemy" (1931) and "A Star  Is Born" (1937) with Janet Gaynor) want to make this type of movie? By 1943 the attack of Pearl Harbor had already occurred and depending upon which month this film was released we may have sent men overseas into the war. Is "The Ox-Bow Incident" a pacifist film? Is it saying men should not take arms against other men? Violence only leads to more violence. I'm not sure. These are merely ideas, suggestions.

"The Ox-Bow Incident" was nominated for one Academy Award, for best picture. It had some good competition that year going up against "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (1943), "In Which We Serve" (1943, which I have reviewed) and the eventual Oscar winner, "Casablanca" (1943, which I have reviewed). Though it did win the National Board of Review award for best picture.

If you are interested in seeing another movie which plays around with some similar themes and is not a western, watch the classic Fritz Lang film, "Fury" (1936) with Spencer Tracy. That movie is a masterpiece.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Film Review: The Spy Who Loved Me

"The Spy Who Loved Me" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Nobody Does It Better" so goes the theme song for "The Spy Who Loved Me" (1977). But what exactly are we talking about? It could have multiple meanings. Nobody does it better could mean, no one is a better action hero than James Bond. It could mean, no one is a better lover than James Bond. Or it could mean nobody plays  James Bond better than Roger Moore. The answer to all of those meanings would be yes.

"The Spy Who Loved Me" was the tenth movie in the James Bond franchise and Roger Moore's third movie playing secret agent 007. Up til this point in Moore's reign as the character it was his best film to date as Bond. It was with this movie Roger Moore finally came into his own as Bond. The character was his. He needn't worry about Connery comparisons. They would still exist no doubt, but, he needn't pay them any attention. Audiences were willing to see Roger Moore as Bond since the film was a box-office smash. It is not only considered Moore's best film in the Bond series but there are those who would go as far as saying it is one of the best Bond films period.

Looking at "The Spy Who Loved Me" from a historical perspective it delivers on the promise of "Live And Let Die" (1973), Roger Moore's introduction as Bond. I have reviewed that movie. It's my opinion that in that particular movie Moore displayed the playful, comical interpretation fans consider "correct" for playing Bond. But Moore also got the action scenes right. The movie had some very good action sequences to counter Bond's sly wit. The next film in the series, "The Man with the Golden Gun" (1974) is not exactly a bad movie but it was lacking in some elements. Much of the wit and adventure was missing despite an interesting premise. Not to mention, the villain never struck me as interesting. But "The Spy Who Loved Me" changed the game.

What makes the movie work so well is it goes back to the classic structure of the Sean Connery films. Moore's first two films were almost a departure. "The Spy Who Loved Me" is every bit as good as "Dr. No" (1962) the first Bond film. Plus the villain is worthy of a Bond movie. No heroine addicts and voodoo here or an assassin with a third nipple. Just a purely corrupt evil genius bent on world domination. Precisely the way I like my Bond villains.

Heck I even love the title sequence and theme song. It was the best one in the More era up to that point. I'd even suggest "Nobody Does It Better" is one of the all-time great Bond songs. In a class with Bond songs such as "Goldfinger", "From Russia with Love" and "Diamonds Are Forever", just to name a few of my favorites.

In this movie Bond (Moore) confronts Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens). A man who has acquired technology which can trace nuclear submarines. His ultimate goal is to create an underwater world after destroying everything on the surface.

Since every country would be at risk if such information and technology reached the black market Bond teams up with the KGB and the top Soviet agent, XXX (Barbara Bach). What neither Bond or XXX knows is Bond killed her lover on a mission. For the moment however they must work together to stop Stromberg.

"The Spy Who Loved Me" also gives us memorable secondary characters. There is Stromberg's Hungarian henchmen Sandor (Milton Reid) and the metal mouth killer Jaws (Richard Kiel). And thankfully there is no Sheriff Pepper (Clifton James) in sight. He was the redneck sheriff who appeared in "Live And Let Die" and "The Man with the Golden Gun" to add comic relief.

Watching this movie once again I noticed something about Bond that I guess I never really picked up on before. The way the character uses sex. I always thought of the James Bond character as a ladies man. A man who always had beautiful women throwing themselves at him. Sex distracted him. But, that's not the case at all. There is a moment when Bond schedule's an appointment to meet a man who has information on the tracking device. A woman greets Bond and informs him the man is not home. She makes a pass at Bond and he responds. Not because he is interested in her but because he notices what she is doing. She is using sex for power, trying to set Bond up for something. So, like a femme fatale Bond plays back. He'll distract her with sex. Pay attention to the scene and notice during his love making he is trying to get information out of her. Sex isn't fun it's part of the job for Bond. How many times have we seen Bond with a pretty girl but once headquarters contacts him he leaves? England is always first for Bond.

"The Spy Who Loved Me" was directed by Lewis Gilbert, who was not the original choice. Guy Hamilton was set to directed this picture. He directed "Goldfinger" (1964) and Moore' first two films as Bond. Gilbert on the other hand had previously directed Sean Connery in "You Only Live Twice" (1967) and would direct Moore in the next Bond film "Moonraker" (1979). So he had an understanding of the Bond formula and how everything is suppose to work. It shows because the movie is nicely constructed and has a different feel to it compared to the two previous Bond movies.

The movie was also nominated for three Academy Awards; best art direction, musical score and best song (Nobody Does It Better).

"The Spy Who Loved Me" was a turning point both for the series and Roger Moore. He managed to grow into the character after this movie and the series was given a nice rebound thanks to this movie.

Casual Bond fans should enjoy this as will the devotees.

Film Review: Bizalom

"Bizalom" **** (out of ****)

You can see why a movie like the Hungarian film "Bizalom (Confidence, 1980)" would have interested a filmmaker such as Istvan Szabo and why a Hungarian audience would be able to relate to it.

"Bizalom" is a film where people live in a world of secrets and lies. Wandering eyes are forever upon you. You can't even trust your neighbor. There is a constant fear of being outed and reported to the government.

The film takes place during WW2 and deals with the anti-Nazi resistance in Hungary. However the film was made while Hungary was under the control of communist. During both periods people had the same fears. It was not unusual during the communist era for friends or family to report one another as enemies of the state, especially when your life was in danger. This WW2 story could be seen as a subtle commentary on the current times in Hungary in the 1980s.

Much of "Bizalom" is about deception. The movie starts off with a newsreel about bombs. Different bombs make different sounds. A true expert can sometimes tell which type of bomb is being dropped just by the sound. However, relying on this method is not often best. Sometimes sounds can be manipulated due to outside factors. By the time you may recognize the sound of the bomb, it's too late.

Istvan Szabo's film takes that element of deception and follows a woman, Kata (Ildiko Bansagi), who discovers her husband (Lajos Balazsovits) is part of the underground anti-Nazi resistance movement. For her protection she and her husband must be separated. She is sent to live with another member of the movement, Janos (Peter Andorai), where they must pretend to be husband and wife. Janos has found shelter living with an elderly couple (Oszkarne Gombik and Karoly Csaki) who takes in refugees. Janos feels their every step is being watched by this couple.

The English title for the film, confidence, does not mean arrogance or high self-esteem. Confidence in this context means trust. Taking someone into your confidence. Can these two people, Kata and Janos, come to trust one another. Are both of them really part of the resistance? Is one of them a secret agent? Can they depend on one another to protect each other from the elderly couple living with them. Can Janos trust Kata not to contact her husband and blow their cover. Can Kata trust Janos not to contact his own wife?

Pretty soon, after living so closely together, an attraction develops between Kata and Janos. They say they have fallen in love with each other. And so "Bizalom" now takes on themes of love and loyalty. Loyalty to the movement, loyalty to each other and loyalty to their spouses.

These themes aren't entirely new for Istvan Szabo. His previous films such as "Love Film (Szerelmesfilm, 1971)" also dealt with loyalty, in that case loyalty to Hungary, and love and memories. Some of his other films also used history as a backdrop, "25 Firemen Street (Tuzolto utca 25, 1973)" deals with WW2 and communist.

Szabo is probably the best known Hungarian filmmaker in America. His work was part of the Hungarian new wave of the late 1960s and 70s, along with Karoly Makk and Miklos Jancso. "Bizalom" was the first film Szabo made which showed real cross-over appeal. It was the first of five films which Szabo would make which received an Academy Award nomination for best foreign language film. Szabo's next film to be nominated, "Mephisto" (1982) would win the award. Making it the only Hungarian film to win in the category.

But for all the praise I may throw at "Bizalom" it doesn't matter. In America the film has not been put on DVD. I bought a region 2 DVD from the UK. The distributor Second Run has released the film on DVD.

"Bizalom" is a strong film due the to emotions it creates. The feelings of lost and love the characters are able to project. We can sense they are alone. Much of the film takes place in their small bedroom. The only room in the house where they may have privacy. They are completely shut out from the world. They may cling to each other not because they love one another but because they have nothing else. This element of desperation comes through due to their performances and the cinematography.

I wish the film would find an audience in America. But is seems unlikely. If it hasn't been put on DVD yet, a few years after it was released in the UK, what would prompt someone to release it now? It is a Hungarian movie after all. Most Americans couldn't find Hungary on a map. Why should they want to watch a movie from a country they've never heard of?

Still, for those adventurous cinematic souls out there "Bizalom" is a powerful experience. One of Szabo's great works.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Film Review: Live And Let Die

"Live And Let Die" *** (out of ****)

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise. I reviewed the latest Bond film, "Skyfall" (2012) in honor of the event but also meant to take a look back and review some of the classic, older Bond films. I never quite got around to it. Unit now.

I've only reviewed two Bond films. The two most current films which have starred Daniel Craig; "Skyfall" and "The Quantum of Solace" (2008). Craig is not my favorite Bond. I haven't been much of a fan of his Bond films. So I wanted to write about my favorite Bond, Roger Moore. "Live And Let Die" (1973) marked Moore's first appearance as secret agent 007.

By the time "Live And Let Die" was released the public was already used to Sean Connery playing Bond. He had left his indelible stamp on the character. No matter who played the part next the ghost of Connery would loom largely over them and comparisons would be made. The majority of movie goers believe Connery is the best Bond.

Connery had walked away from the role after the release of "You Only Live Twice" (1967) and in 1969 George Lazenby played the part in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service". The initial reaction was mixed. Most people however didn't accept Lazenby in the role. Many felt he didn't look muscular. It was the only Bond movie Lazenby acted in as once again Connery was brought back to play the role in "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971). After this movie Connery walked away from the franchise again. The next actor slated to play Bond was Roger Moore.

When "Live And Let Die" was released in 1973 the stack was decidedly set against Moore. Would he turn out to be another one hit wonder like Lazenby? Could the public accept anyone else in the role of James Bond besides Sean Connery?

In his original review for the movie, Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert wrote a negative review. He wasn't terribly impressed by Moore. Ebert felt Moore played the part too serious. At the end of his review he even suggested the franchise may be washed up.

Oddly enough, Ebert's view of Moore is now in the minority. Most people feel Moore's interpretation was a little too comical.

However watching "Live And Let Die" again, I have no clue what the nay-sayers are talking about. Moore walks a terrific balance here displaying a comical nature when the script calls for it and playing an action hero when scenes demand it.

We first see Bond at his home in bed with a beautiful woman, whom we find out is an Italian agent Bond worked with on a previous case. In the middle of the night "M" (Bernard Lee) arrives at Bond's home to inform him of his next mission. Three secret agents have been killed. One at the U.N., one in New Orleans and one in New York. There may be a connection. The main suspect is Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), a politician from a small Caribbean island.

As "M" is in Bond's home, Bond must hide the woman. Here we get an example of the playful interpretation of Moore's Bond. The sequence becomes one of those bedroom farces where the husband hides his mistress in the closet when his wife walks in. It sets up quite the introduction to Roger Moore as Bond. And from that moment on the movie picks up and comes to life whenever Bond is on-screen.

Without giving too much away Bond discovers Kananga is involved in the occult. He uses a tarot card reader as a sort of advisor, Solitaire (Jane Seymour, making her film debut) is her name. We also learn Kananga is planning to distribute heroine for free in an attempt to create more addicts. By giving it away from free, he eliminates his competition. Once people are hooked on his product he can charge them whatever he wants, since he will be the only supplier.

It may not sound as sexy as other Bond villain's plans of world domination but "Live And Let Die" works. It establishes many exciting action sequences. One involves Bond's driver being assassinated while driving. His foot pushes down on the gas peddle while Bond tries to drive the car from the back seat, swirling out of the way of other cars. Another sequence has Bond left to die by a group of hungry crocodiles.

For the first hour of "Live And Let Die" I was there with Bond every step of the way. Roger Moore slips into the Bond role comfortably and offers the promise of some great adventures to come. The movie had a particular sly wit we've come to expect from James Bond movies and had some good action sequences. But after the first hour the movie starts to drift. It hit a low point for me when there is a speed boat chase sequence which feels extraordinarily out of place in a James Bond movie. It might have worked better in a "Cannon Ball Run" movie but not James Bond. The sequence goes on way too long and gives way too much screen time to Clifton James as a redneck sheriff who doesn't know what is going on and who he is chasing after.

Still though I have to admit much of "Live And Let Die" works. If I could transport myself back in time to 1973, I would say Moore was a great replacement for Connery. You might feel his interpretation of the character is different but so what! This is Roger Moore playing the character. He is entitled to play it how he feels is correct. And I find that it works. After seeing this I would be looking forward to future Bond films with him in it. Luckily he played the role six more times. Making him, as of this date, the actor who played him in the most movies.

The movie was directed by Guy Hamilton. Hamilton directed one of the greatest Bond films, "Goldfinger" (1964) with Sean Connery and directed another Connery Bond movie, "Diamonds Are Forever". After "Live And Let Die" Hamilton would direct one more Bond movie, the follow-up to this movie, "The Man with the Golden Gun" (1974).

The script was written by Tom Mankiewicz, Joseph Mankiewicz's son. He also wrote "Diamonds Are Forever" and "The Man with the Golden Gun". Outside of James Bond movies Mankiewicz wrote "Mother, Jugs and Speed" (1976) and the awful film adaptation of "Dragnet" (1987).

If there is one other thing about "Live And Let Die" I don't like, it is the the film's theme song and title sequence. The song starts off okay but by the bridge I didn't like it. It was performed by Paul McCarthy and Wings. It received an Academy Award nomination for best song.

"Live And Let Die" may not be the best Bond movie Roger Moore was in, many would suggest that honor belongs to "The Spy Who Loved Me" (1977). But "Live And Let Die" has its own pleasures. Moore sets the stamp for the direction he will take this character in with his dry sense of humor. Effective Bond film.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Film Reviews: Gypsy & Faith, Love & Whiskey

"Gypsy"  ** 1\2 (out of ****)

The 16th annual European Union Film Festival in Chicago has gotten under way and last night I managed to attend screenings for two, somewhat similar, films. The first one we will discuss is "Gypsy (Cigan, 2011)" a Slovakian film, which was the country's official submission at the 84th annual Academy Awards. The film however, did not become one of the final nominees.

"Gypsy", directed by Martin Sulik, is an interesting film, which had great promise, but doesn't fully take advantage of all the dramatic possibilities which such a story could lend itself to. Mr. Sulik's film is partially based on Shakespeare's "Hamlet" told against the backdrop of a gypsy community in Slovakia. We follow a young boy, Adam (Jan Mizigar), who is caught in a major conflict. Already as a young boy Adam sees what life as a gypsy means. Limited opportunities. Leading a life where people look down upon you because of the stereotypes which proceed you. For example, all gypsies are thieves, have no education, tell fortunes, you know, the typical cliches associated with the minority.

However Adam wants to better himself. He wants to leave the community, especially after his father is found dead, some say murdered. But how can Adam succeed when he is a gypsy? Few people will give Adam a chance because of what he is. No matter how hard Adam may try to take a different path, people will always see him first and foremost as a "gypsy". This is something his "uncle" (Miroslav Gulyas), who has married Adam's mother, constantly tells him. Never trust "the whites" (meaning non-gypsies). They will never accept you. If they don't like you, you don't like them.

It is an interesting story. It is the story of any minority in America or Europe. African Americans or Hispanics may feel the same way in America. No matter what they may accomplish, no matter their level of education, all some people will see is a black person or a Hispanic. And so it is with gypsies. Only they have it worst since they are not politically organized. Make a film which is loaded with black stereotypes and see how fast Spike Lee and the NAACP will rally together, protest and hit the airwaves. Gypsies on the other will not do this. Why? In order to protest, to hit the airwaves, someone must step forward. And to step forward means to admit you are a gypsy. You are speaking on behalf of "your people". No gypsy wants to be identified as a gypsy. So the stereotypes and cliches continue.

Watching a film about gypsies makes me think of the work of Emir Kusturica and Tony Gatlif. Kusturica directed "Black Cat, White Cat" (1998) and "Time of the Gypsies" (1988). Two films which the gypsy community regards as classics. Even some non-gypsies do as well. The great film critic Michael Wilmington picked both as one of the top ten best films of their respective years. Mr. Gatlif  has given us "The Crazy Stranger" (1998) another classic. Not the mention the Serbian film "I Even Met Happy Gypsies (Skupljaci Perja, 1967)" a film at one time considered to be one of the finest Serbian films ever made (I have reviewed it).

In the case of Mr. Kusutrica and Mr. Gatlif, they provide us with a better sense of the gypsy community. That is where "Gypsy" goes wrong. We never truly sense who these people are. We never really get to know them. Minor attempts are made but I wasn't emotionally drawn into their story. I didn't come away feeling a true sense of the injustice gypsies are met with. The most powerful scene may be one in which we see police officers mistreat Adam and another gypsy boy. There is no doubt they are harsher with them because they are gypsies. But the film is almost too subtle. "Time of the Gypsies" truly shows us the poverty in which gypsies live in. We establish a better sense of community. In "Gypsy" we don't truly get to know anyone.

Too bad. This film showed great promise. It could have been the stuff great dramas are made of. Young boy, badly treated in  cruel world, tries to over come the odds and set himself on a different path. What could be better than that? But the heart is missing from this story.

"Faith Love & Whiskey"  ** (out of ****)

The other film I attended at the 16th annual European Union Film Festival was "Faith, Love & Whiskey" (2012) a Bulgarian film with a Chicago connection. The film's director, Kristina Nikolova, attended the University of Chicago.

Much of the criticism I had for "Gypsy" could also apply to this film as well. Here is another film with an interesting plot but doesn't allow us to really get inside it's lead character's head.

That lead character is Neli (Ana Stojanovska) a beautiful woman who moved to America, is engaged to a successful American man, Scott (John Keabler) and seems to have her life in order. Yet, one day, for no apparent reason, Neli packs up and leaves, heading back home to Bulgaria.

Once back home she meets an old flame, Val (Valeri Yordamov), a below-average looking, heavy drinking, tattooed, loser, who doesn't have a successful job and still lives with his parents. When Val and Neli meet a spark of passion ignites them and they begin an affair. What will Neli do? Will she give up her comfortable life in America? Or will the call of home and the familiarity of Bulgaria make her stay?

What I don't like about films like "Faith, Love & Whiskey" is they require the audience to fill in too many blanks. Watching the movie is like doing paperwork. We have to fill in too many plot holes. Why does Neli leave America? Well, because she got cold feet. Because she doesn't love Scott. Because she is unhappy in America. Because she feels cultural clash and is unable to deal with the fast-paced, work yourself to death lifestyle of America. All good, possible answers. The problem? None of which is explicitly explained.

"Faith, Love & Whiskey" is a relatively short film, 75 minutes. What it needed was 10 more minutes added. A better set-up into what is causing Neli's unhappiness. It also needed more conflict. You see Scott follows Neli to Bulgaria but never do we sense Neli is caught in a conflict over which man to pick; Scott or Val. Her mind is made up from the beginning of the film. Where is the struggle? At one point in the film Neli is asked why did she leave Bulgaria? A great question. She never answers it. Thus, we have more paperwork to do. We meet Neli's grandmother, who is very happy she is living in America about to marry a rich American (to Bulgarians all Americans are rich). So, did Neli move to America for her grandmother? Good theory. You may find elements to support that. But, nothing is spelled out for us.

On one level I like movies such as "Faith, Love & Whiskey". Movies where characters are called back home. Where they recapture a sense of who they are, where they come from. Never forgetting one's roots has always been an important theme for me on a personal level. But "Faith, Love & Whiskey" is not an emotionally rich experience. There is too much from the story missing. Had director Nikolova answered who Neli is, allowed the audience the chance to get inside her head, show the world from her perspective, this could have been a very rewarding film. The final product however leaves much to be desired.