Sunday, December 29, 2013

Film Review: The Phantom Carriage

"The Phantom Carriage"  **** (out of ****)

In time for New Year's Eve, here is Victor Sjostrom's masterpiece "The Phantom Carriage" (1921).

An old legend tells us, the last person to die before the bells chime midnight on New Year's Eve will be forced to drive the Grim Reaper's horse and carriage and collect the souls of the dead for the rest of the year, until the following New Year's Eve.

For readers unaware Victor Sjostrom was called, by Ingmar Bergman no less, the father of Swedish cinema. Bergman never hid his appreciation for the actor/ filmmaker and even gave him a starring role in his masterpiece, "Wild Strawberries" (1959, which I have reviewed). Some have cited the influence "The Phantom Carriage" had on Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" (1957). Which in some concepts it does recall but I also thought of Charles Dickens and his novel "A Christmas Carol".

I am not familiar with the films of Sjostrom. In fact, I have just told you all I know about him but there is no denying "The Phantom Carriage" is a masterpiece. The work of a pure craftsmen. A man with a very distinct vision. I am extremely curious to see more of Sjostrom's work and discover if there is another film of the caliber of "The Phantom Carriage" in his cannon of films.

This is a film about death, redemption, love and God. But as I already mentioned, what it reminds me most of is Dickens. Whereas "A Christmas Carol" tells us the story of a man who learns the error of his ways through Christmas, in "The Phantom Carriage" a man learns to redeem himself on New Year's Eve. With a new year we have a clean slate. A chance to rectify the past and start over.

Sjostrom plays David Holm. A man full of hate. He spends his days drinking. Life has lost all purpose for him. His heart has turned cold. He is in a loveless marriage and mistreats his children. But, this wasn't the way it always was. David was a good man who loved his wife and children and had a steady job. It was when he met Georges (Tore Svennberg) that his life took a turn for the worst. Georges made David become a drunkard. Because of his new lifestyle David is thrown in prison for disorderly conduct but so has his brother, who killed a man while drunk. This changes David's life. He vows to turn over a new leaf.

But David has caused too much damage to his wife (Hilda Borgstrom) and their children. She cannot deal with David's violent behavior and his drinking. Before David is released from prison, she takes the children and leaves. When David comes home and finds she has left him, he turns cold. His heart is now full of spite. He will get his revenge by finding his wife and making her life miserable. She will regret the day she left him in such a cowardly fashion. Leaving him without confronting him and allowing him the chance to show her he has changed.

With nothing to live for and no job David spends his days and nights drinking. All that is on his mind is revenge. His hatred is what keeps him going. What gives him the drive to live. He will find her. On his journey he finds Sister Edit (Astrid Holm) who works for the Salvation Army along with Sister Maria (Lisa Lundholm). On their first day open to the public, New Year's Eve, David, in a drunken stupor, wobbles into their shelter, looking for a place to sleep. Sister Edit shows him to a cot and notices his jacket is ripped. While David sleeps she sews his coat all through the night.

This sequence, for me, is the most memorable for what happens next. In an attempt to show what kind of despicable person David is he undoes all the work Sister Edit has done when he awakes and sees his coat sown. The movie expresses David's inner conflict through music. As David awakens and sees his coat, we hear sweet music, expressing he has been touched by this kind gesture. We even see him smile and admire the coat. He inquires who fixed his coat and then something snaps. We hear disturbing music in conflict with the sweet music. Here is David's dual personality. He cannot allow goodness to find its way in his soul. Hate is all he has. When Sister Edit sees him, David shreds the coat.

Sister Edit sees David as a blessing. He will test her faith. She makes it her mission to redeem him.

In another scene, David walks home drunk. It is late. His children are sleeping as his wife stays up, waiting for him to come home. The door is locked. This makes David angry. He pounds on the door. His wife hurries to open it, not wanting the children to wake up. David walks in and sees his two daughter sound asleep. He walks over to them and start flicking at their ears, shaking the bed in the hopes of waking them up. We are lead to think to ourselves, what kind of man would do this?

David has concocted a "movie disease", where he coughs a lot. If you've ever seen a movie before, when someone coughs it is usually a sign they will die. David has this disease. And so he coughs in the face of his wife, hoping she will catch what he has. Within this scene David is locked in a room as once again his wife and children try to escape. In order to leave the room David finds an ax and breaks the door down. This sequence made me think of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" (1980) and the famous scene when Jack Nicholson, also with an ax in hand, breaks down a door and delivers his famous "here's Johnny" line. I wonder if Kubrick saw this movie and was paying homage to it. They are very similar scenes.

It is difficult to further discuss the movie and its themes and it relationship to "A Christmas Carol" without revealing the entire plot. I won't ruin the cinematic experience for you.

All I will say is Sjostrom was a very capable actor. We despise his character in this movie. He goes to great lengths to invoke that emotion in the audience. But we also believe he is redeemable. We sense the struggle within him. Sjostrom is the heart and soul of the movie.

"The Phantom Carriage" made a lasting impression on me in the way it goes about exploring this theme of salvation. This is an emotional film. At certain times it has an eerie quality to it. Much like a nightmare it is unsettling. Other times it dwells deep in melodrama. This is a powerful film.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Film Review: The Twelve Chairs

"The Twelve Chairs"  *** (out of ****)

Recently, for Christmas, I received a gift. A DVD called "The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy". Talk about a long title! Regardless, it is a collection of everything Mel Brooks minus his movies. I already own all of his movies on VHS and see no reason to "upgrade" to DVD. So, someone was nice enough to buy me this DVD which includes interviews with Brooks, documentaries made on him, television specials of shows he wrote; "Get Smart", "When Things Were Rotten" and new exclusive interviews with Mel talking about his career.

Needless to say, watching all of this, put me in a Mel Brooks mood. You see, back when I was 12 years old I had decided I wanted to make movies. My earliest childhood memories involved movies. Movies have always been a part of my life. But, in wasn't until I was 12 I said to myself, I want to be involved with the movies. And the reason for that was Mel Brooks.

Oh, I can talk a good game and tell you the importance of Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard. I can sing the praises of Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini. Spend a good deal of time writing about Francois Truffaut and Werner Herzog. And I have and will continue to. They are all great filmmakers. But Mel Brooks was the reason I wanted to make movies.

To some film snobs, that is not an acceptable answer. You must mention the names I just recited or talk about Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles. If you must mention comedy (dear God why!) you may talk about Chaplin or Woody Allen. Anything else is vulgar and unacceptable.

Over the years I haven't written much about Mel Brooks. As soon as I became a fan, back in 1995, he stopped making movies. I was able to see "Dracula: Dead & Loving It" (1995) in a movie theatre and that has turned out to be his last movie. I think because of that I "forgot" about him. It was also at that same age I discovered Woody Allen. Allen kept making movies past 1995. This year he has given us "Blue Jasmine" (2013), a critical success. I have written more about him. But sadly Brooks took a back seat.

If I were to attempt to convince you Mel Brooks can be a great comedy filmmaker, I would point you to "The Twelve Chairs" (1970). Is it Brooks' funniest? Nope. His most popular? Nope. It is completely forgotten. It gets lost in the shuffle of everyone's favorites; "Blazing Saddles" (1974) and "Young Frankenstein" (1974). But with "The Twelve Chairs" Brooks shows he can direct. He can turn down the vulgarity, the fart jokes, the sex jokes, and tell a "clean" story. Not only is he able to tell a clean story but he can add sentiment. He is capable of giving a comedy heart.

This of course is not what people want to read when discussing Mel Brooks. And it may be for that reason Brooks stood away from material such as this. Perhaps he himself found it too restrictive, though he was the sole writer on the film, based on two novels by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov called "The Golden Calf" and "The Twelve Chairs". But I point you to this movie anyway.

We are in Russia, now the Soviet Union. It is 1927. The revolution has taken place. The communist have won. A great man of nobility, Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) has lost his fortune. He fled his home and now works as a clerk. All he now has are his memories of his past life.

On this particular day, his mother-in-law is on her death bed. She may not make it through the night. Something heavy rest on her conscience. She must confess something to Vorobyaninov. On the day of the revolution, she took all of her jewels, in order to hide them from the communist, and sewed them into one of twelve dinning room chairs. Where, they have remained (?) all these years.

At first frustrated that his mother-in-law would keep such a secret, Vorobyaninov heads out to find the chairs and recover the family fortune. In doing so he travels back to his old mansion, which has now been turned into a boarding house. Still there is his servant, Tikon (Brooks) who informs him all of the chairs, except for one, are gone. But through Tikon, a traveling con-man, Ostap Bender (Frank Langella) finds out about Vorobyaninov's story, and tags along with him to search for the chairs.

And so we have the set-up to Mel Brooks' mad-cap treasure hunt. It actually is not unlike Brooks' previous film, his debut, "The Producers" (1968). Two men are out to make a fortune and will lie, steal and cheat if they have two in order to achieve their goal. In both movies one man has more street smarts; in the case of 'The Twelve Chairs" that would be Bender. And the other has more book smarts. And together, they know nothing.

In order for a movie like this to work there must be an antagonist. Someone we are rooting against. So we have Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise), who takes advantage of the dying women's confession about the jewels and heads out to find them himself.

There are some sight gags in the movie but nothing really reaches the belly laughs in "Blazing Saddles" or my favorite Brooks comedy, "History of the World Part 1" (1981). Then again, Brooks isn't going for that here. This movie is more about personalities. It is more about the characters and their relationship to each other. In the hands of another director, it could be a commentary on the life of the poor. In fact it was! Filmmaker Tomas Gutierrez Alea, considered the greatest Cuban filmmaker, made his own adaptation in 1962 under the title "Las doce sillas". It is a pro-communist, pro-Castro film commenting on the classes and the new, better life which is in Cuba's future. It is actually a funny movie and is worth seeing. It is available on DVD.

"The Twelve Chairs" does lack Brooks' signature staple of humor but he tried for something different and in my opinion succeeded. The film is able to work on more than one level. There are still laughs mind you but Brooks shows a streak of sentimentality. I like it. It shows Brooks was capable of more. This and "Young Frankenstein" I would say are his greatest films as a director. Where he really showcases his craft.

Listen for the film's theme song, "Hope For the Best, Expect the Worst". While it pretty much sums up the old Eastern European outlook on life, it was based on Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 4 (trust me I know. I'm Hungarian). It has some very funny lyrics. Pay attention!

Not a Brooks classic but an interesting movie with some insight and a lot of heart.

Top Ten Films Of 2013!

It is that time of year again. The time when we evaluate the year in movies. What a year it has been. A bit disappointing in my opinion. Not as bad as 2008 and 2009 but not quite as good as 2010 or even 2011. Thinking back on it, last year wasn't so bad either.

Not too many movies stuck out in my head this year. I have seen nearly all the movies I wanted to see and I have very little catch up to play. In total I gave 12 movies four stars, 10 of them are on this list.

It was the first time in two years death did not affect my family. Something which clearly influenced my past choices on these lists when I named Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" (2011) as the best film of the year and "The Impossible" (2012) last year.

But as is usually the case there were sad goodbyes in Hollywood. Only a few weeks ago we lost Joan Fontaine and Peter O' Toole. This was the year film criticism died when Roger Ebert, former film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, passed away. With him goes a generation of film critics who gained respectability and the trust of readers. With Ebert an era has ended. Gone are Gene Siskel and Andrew Sarris. Luckily Rex Reed and Michael Wilmington are still with us but, nowadays who reads what the critics have to say? It used to be an art to write an insightful film review now, papers are hiring people who don't know the first thing about the history of cinema. Young kids, who may love to write, but just don't know enough about movies. Or papers play "musical chairs" and put the book critic as their head movie critic or their theatre critic becomes the new movie critic. Maybe people who know how to write but again, don't know movies. And because of that, the trust is gone.

I usually like to strike a common theme among my list of the ten best films. I'm unsure this year. Five of my choices are based on real-life events. Is this the year we turned to the movies for reality? Some of my choices deal with family and connecting to people. Other choices are about the economy and inequality. A look at the rich and powerful and the gap between them and the working-class.

There was no single theme which touched me more than any other. These movies show society at their worst. They show a world where terrible things happen, but, sometimes we find the courage to fight back. Maybe that's the common theme this year. Perseverance.

Here are my choices for the best films of 2013!

1. BLANCANIEVES (Dir. Pablo Berger / Spain) - The second silent movie to come our way in two years! True, the Best Picture Oscar winner, "The Artist" (2011), may have stolen some of this film's thunder, but, this was the most visually impressive, endlessly creative heart breaker I saw all year. A re-telling of "Snow White" told in 1920s Seville dealing with a family of bullfighters.

Director Berger is not just dazzling us with visuals but gives us an emotionally well-told story about a young woman searching for a life she has never knew. A life with her father. We are all bound by a desire to be loved and connect with people.

This movie does many things but it never forgets to be about people. There will be those that will be put off by the movie because it is silent. This is not a gimmick picture. It is a straight forward story that is simply told without sound. Read my original review.

2. INEQUALITY FOR ALL (Dir. Jacob Kornbluth / U.S.) - Here is a documentary which exposes what we have all already known. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, Robert Reich explains to us economic inequality in this country and how the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" has been growing at a steady rate since 1978. In an age of "Occupy Wall Street" and a presidential election in which one candidate said 47% of the population are dependent of government, we cannot forget this injustice which is going on. A real eye opener. Don't miss it. Read my original review.

3. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (Dir. Martin Scorsese / U.S.) - With "Inequality For All" on my list here is another look at income inequality told to us by a filmmaker known for dealing with criminals, Martin Scorsese. Based on real-life events, the movie looks at the life of stock broker Jordan Belfort, a man who conned working-class people into buying worthless trading stocks and made a fortune in the process.

It is basically "GoodFellas" (1990) meets Wall Street as Scorsese shows us these people on Wall Street are no different than criminals. A visually bold work from a man who proves he still knows how to rattle us. Leonardo DiCaprio gives an outstanding performance as a man who cons himself. Read my original review.

4. WALESA: MAN OF HOPE (Dir. Andrzej Wajda / Poland) - Another movie based on real events, this film looks at Poland's Solidarity movement in the 1970s as it was lead by Lech Walesa (played by Robert Wieckiewicz). It was directed by the greatest Polish filmmaker, Andrzej Wajda, I have reviewed several of his films. This is a movie he was born to direct. No other filmmaker has done more to put Poland's history on screen. Wajda put Poland on the cinematic map. This film serves as a nice companion piece to his other works such as "Man of Marble" (1977) and "Man of Iron" (1981), both of which I have reviewed.

I saw this movie at this year's Chicago International Film Festival, where it became my favorite at the festival. A truly inspiring work of art by a great filmmaker. Read my original review.

5. BLUE JASMINE (Dir. Woody Allen / U.S.) - Cate Blanchett gives a tour-de-force performance in Woody Allen's celebrated cautionary tale about a rich socialite whose world comes crumbling down on her. Allen's film explores many themes including the influence the rich and powerful have on us and our desire to emulate them. It is also a story which warns us, everything will end badly, a theme which has found its way in several of Allen's films.

With "Inequality For All" and Scorsese's "The Wolf Of Wall Street" here is another movie which shows us the world of the wealthy and how out of touch they are with the rest of us.

6. HER (Dir. Spike Jonze / U.S.) -The love story of our times. A look at modern society's relationship with technology and with the world around us. A man falls in love with a voice on an operating system. But, it is not creepy. In this world of GPS, texting, emails, on-line dating and streaming movies, we have lost the ability to connect face to face with people. The movie ask us how do we define 'relationships" in this day and age. And shows us how technology is over taking our lives. Nothing beats human interaction. Read my original review.

7. THE HUNT (Dir. Thomas Vinterberg / Denmark) - This Cannes Film Festival winner from Denmark shows society at its worst. A teacher is accused of molesting one of his five year old female students. He didn't but no one believes him. The child lied as a way of revenge. The town turns against him showing us a place where people are quick to judge before knowing all the facts. We live in a world full of gossip, hate and lies. This is an emotionally stirring movie that really gets under your skin. Read my original review.

8. THE BLING RING (Dir. Sofia Coppola / U.S.) - In my opinion Sofia Coppola's best film. A damning look at our culture and our obsession with the rich and our desire to want to be like them. We live in world where "celebrity gossip" is a big business enterprise. But why? Who cares? The movie is based on real events as told in a Vanity Fair article. A sad look at what people think they have to do in order to lead a better life. Read my original review.

9. THE CONJURING (Dir. James Wan / U.S.) - The best horror movie I have seen all year. A throwback to classics like "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) and "The Exorcist (1973). Based on real events, the film takes place in the 1970s and a family that moves into a house which is possessed. Not all blood and guts, the way some horror films are these days but one with truly effective chills.

10. LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami / Japan) - The great Iranian filmmaker, Kiarostami has moved away from his homeland and has been met with some of his greatest critical acclaim. Following up on the success of "Certified Copy" (2011), which also made my top ten list, here is another movie about relationships and identity. Like "Her" a movie which ask us to question "relationships" but not at the same level. Kiarostami seems to have gained some vigor leaving his homeland. I greatly look forward to what this great visual artist has in store for us next.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Film Review: Her

"Her"  **** (out of ****)

We have certainly come along way since the days of "You've Got Mail" (1998) the romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan about two people falling in love over the Internet.

In those days there was a general fear about getting involved with someone over the Internet but there were stories about people who would begin talking in chat rooms and started developing romantic feelings for one another. They would live in different parts of the world and begin long distance relationships. At the time it wasn't something you wanted to speak about in public. It was taboo. It was dangerous. What if the person on the other end wasn't who they said they are. What if you thought you were "talking" to a 28 year old woman but in reality it was a 62 year old guy?

From this sprang on-line dating sites; e-harmony and Individuals paying money to join sites to meet people to date. And of course before that people started "texting" more than calling each other on the phone. You could skype instead of meet someone in person for coffee. We could order movies through the mail thanks to netflix instead of getting out of the house and driving to Blockbuster.

And so it happened. Technology over took our lives. Our interaction with the world changed. Some say for the better, others say for the worst. The way we communicate with each other changed and it will never go back to the way it was before. Internet dating is common. Texting has replaced talking.

It was only a matter of time until someone got the idea to make a movie like "Her" (2013). The love story of our times. A reflection of society's relationship with technology.

In "Her", directed by Spike Jonze, a man, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is dealing with the fact his marriage is headed for divorce. He and his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara) have been separated for a year but Theo can't bring himself to sign the divorce papers. Once he signs those papers, everything changes. With the stroke of a pen he is no longer married. True he and Catherine don't lead the life of a married couple anymore but signing that paper makes it official. It is more than Theo can deal with emotionally.

Memories of Catherine haunt him. He spaces out. He wants to escape from reality. To live in his memories. A time when things were right with the world. He was with the woman he loves, "the one". The person he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Now, all he has are those memories. He won't let go of them. But, of course, they stop him from moving forward.

Theo works for a company which writes notes for another people. Individuals send in a request for letters to be written for special occasions; birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, get well...ect Theo and his co-workers, fill in the gaps and relive moments in other people's lives. Think about that for a second. Here is a world where there is so much distance between us we can't even find words to express ourselves. We need to hire other people, outsiders, to tell us how important "special moments" in our lives are.

Being up to date with technology Theo decides to buy the latest gadget. An operating system called OS1. It creates an artificial person for you to communicate with. A GPS like device which you download onto your computer, has its own distinct voice and can function as your own personal calendar. It can alert you when you have emails, read them for you and respond to them at your command. It can interact with you on a personal level. Tell jokes, express fear and other human emotions. Soon, Theo falls in love with this device. And his feelings are shared, as his operating system, named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) loves him too.

Samantha makes Theo feel alive. It makes him believe in love and the world again. Here is someone that listens to him. Is willing to share in his delights. Try and see the world as he sees it. But one day the realization hits him. Samantha is not real. And never will become real.

And it is with this Spike Jonze and "Her" I feel hits on two themes. One - in our modern world, how do you define "relationships". With technology we can now have relationships with people we have never met. Is a relationship defined by the physical or the emotional? I may never see you, but, I communicate with you. We speak on the phone, I text you, email you and soon I develop feelings for you. Are my feelings any less valid than if we met face to face? Theme number two - technology has taken over our lives. We rely on it too much. So much that it interferes with face to face communication. We aren't looking for serious, meaningful relationships with other humans. We rush home to text someone. Write them an email. Update our facebook status. We prefer this over what we find to be the messy dealings of humans. We don't want to concern ourselves with other people's feelings. But, remember, one day that electronic device that you are so attached too will run out of batteries. Water may spill on it. You might drop it and break it. Then what? How will you survive? In the end, nothing beats social interaction with humans. Humans will always be there for you when your computer breaks.

A movie like this could have gone wrong in so many ways. Just the basic premise of a man falling in love with a computer sounds creepy. But Jonze and Phoenix are able to show the audiences how contemporary this story is. We care about this man Theo. We can see a little bit of ourself in him. And given this story line so much rest on Phoenix's shoulders. He is the only person in this relationship which we are capable of seeing. The other person in this love story is a voice. Joaquin Phoenix must single handedly convey to the audience all the emotions an individual goes through in a relationship. The excitement of meeting someone new. Of wanting to learn all about them. To discover their interest. The anxiousness you feel over your first intimate encounter. The awkwardness after it. You have taken the relationship to a new level. Things have changed. The jealousy and fear of losing someone. And falling in love with them all over again. All of this is up to Phoenix. And he does it. He does it beautifully. He makes this a real person not just a symbol of the times. This is a man with a background story.

Spike Jonze has always struck me as a quirky type. A bit eccentric. I enjoyed "Being John Malkovich" (1999) his debut film but I thought it lacked heart. It was creative, no doubt about that but I wasn't emotionally drawn in. His "Adaptation" (2002) left me cold as well. But here with "Her" Jonze shows he can deal with fully fleshed out characters. Not wacky characters but he can create people and make something which moves us on a deep emotional level. I wasn't prepared for that. That perhaps impressed me most while watching this movie. Jonze's ability to strike beneath the surface.

The movie has already picked up critical acclaim. Either winning or being nominated for various critic group awards. It has even managed to win three Golden Globe nominations including Best Picture and Best Actor (Phoenix). It wouldn't shock me if the movie also secured Oscar nominations.

Here is a true reflection of our times. A movie which shows us a changing world and our relationship with technology and one another. It is a contemporary masterpiece. One of the year's best films.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Film Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

"The Wolf of Wall Street"  **** (out of ****)

Filmmaker Martin Scorsese knows CEOs of corporations and stock brokers and everyone working on Wall Street are all a bunch of criminals. They are no different then the characters Scorsese showed us in masterpieces such as "Mean Streets" (1973), "GoodFellas" (1990) or "Casino" (1995). In fact the only difference between Wall Street and the Mafia is at least with the mob you know what you are getting. They are honest. People on Wall Street like to pretend they aren't criminals and hide their evil practices around the concept of "capitalism" and a "free market". But Scorsese seems to know better. He approaches this movie no differently than he would a mob story.

A movie such as "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013), one of the year's best films, undoubtedly comes at an opportune time. Maybe it could have been released a year or two earlier, but, we are still dealing with a financial meltdown thanks largely in part to the evil, greedy, manipulative people on Wall Street, all of whom are sadly still walking among the living. None of them have been sent to prison and sentence to death. A shame and a travesty. A slap in the face of justice.

The easiest way to describe this movie would be simply to say it is "GoodFellas" meets Wall Street. That's it. It is pretty much the same approach, the same narrative structure. Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Jordan Belfort, is our Ray Liotta character. All of the movie is told from Jordan's viewpoint. He is our narrator. Sometimes, he even breaks the forth wall and speaks directly into the camera so he may address the audience.

Jordan was a decent guy with a common dream. He wanted to make money and lots of it. The only place he thought this could happen in 1980s Reagan America, was on Wall Street. Newly married Jordan thought the world layed before him. He would accomplish his goal. And so he would. But at what price?

In order to succeed in the world of Wall Street you must play by a different set of rules. You must adapt a new set of ethics, a new moral code. You must leave decency, tradition, family values and God out of the picture. Your new God is Money. Your new moral code is do what is in your self interest. You must rig the game. Make people trust you so you can get their money and put it in your pocket. As an investment broker your job is not to make your client money, it is to get as much money as you can from your client so you can buy a nice car.

Jordan quickly learns these rules day one on the job when he meets Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), his first boss. Jordan's scheme is to get clients (suckers, whatever you want to call them) into investing into "penny stocks". Companies so worthless they aren't traded on Wall Street. The stocks are trading for pennies. But, here is the catch. On Wall Street you make 1% of commission on a trade. With penny stocks you make 50% commission. If Jordan can con hard working, innocent, working-class people into giving him their life savings, in the hope the companies will grow and the stocks will raise in value, Jordan can pocket all of that money and simply act dumb, shrug his shoulders and say, "sorry. The stock market is unpredictable."

From this idea Jordan creates his own company and recruits a rag-tag group of salespeople; Donnie (Johan Hill), "Sea Otter" (Henry Zebrowski), Chester (Kenneth Choi) and Nicky (P.J. Byrne). He teaches them how to manipulate people. He molds them in his image. Gives them a script to follow. Prepares them for any question they may be asked and the correct response. And soon the company grows.

As is usual with this type of stories we see the innocent guy become addicted to the life of crime and all the money which can be made. They have so much money their is no way to spend it all. You buy beautiful homes, yachts, brand new cars, fancy thousand dollar suits, become a drug addict and then boom. You meet the most beautiful woman you have ever seen. And boy will she take you for a ride. In this movie that character is played by newcomer Margot Robbie as Naomi, the woman Jordan falls in love with on first sight.

Although Scorsese has traveled down this path before he tells this story with such energy and intensity. His camera is vibrant, dancing around characters. Using slow motion, rapid edits and a musical score which compliments every scene. You wouldn't think this movie was made by a guy who has been making movies since the late 60s. It feels like the work of a fresh, bold director, trying to create new cinematic rules. Perhaps even someone inspired by Scorsese. But the old master proves he can still rattle us. Move us. He still knows how to tell a story. To bring characters to life. He has a way of, at times, glamorizing crime, showing us a lifestyle and a world we may never know.

This marks the fifth time Scorsese and DiCaprio have worked together. Each one of their collaborations has been a masterpiece. From "Gangs of New York" (2002), "The Aviator" (2004) to "The Departed" (2006, which I have reviewed) and "Shutter Island" (2010, which I have reviewed) DiCaprio has turned in one great performance after another. All of these movies required something different from him and each time he has delivered. This time DiCaprio plays a man engulfed in a world of drugs, sex and money. At first he was an innocent cub but he turns into a lion. A beast. At no time did I find him sympathetic. I never rooted for him but gosh darn it, I found him interesting. How a man can manipulate himself, can bring about his own destruction is fascinating. He forgets there is another world out there. He forgets who he is taking this money from. It doesn't matter. He is so distracted by everything else you lose sight of the bigger picture. You only see the world from your limited perspective. With DiCaprio playing this character we see that transformation. And we see how someone can be tempted.

My own political instincts would have preferred Scorsese make a greater indictment against these people, this culture of greed and their lack of morals. But, how could he when we haven't accomplished that in the real world.

The movie was written by Terence Winter, based on a book by Jordan Belfort himself, it is based on his life. Winter has mainly worked on TV shows such as "The Sopranos" and "Broadwalk Empire", which Scorsese directed the first episode of.

This, like so many other Scorsese movies, is a masterpiece. It is alive and bold and has a message. Yes, Scorsese has dealt with these characters before, but, he knows them so well. He knows how to keep these stories interesting. That is what makes Martin Scorsese a master filmmaker and what makes "The Wolf of Wall Street" one of the year's best films!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Film Review: The Cat & the Canary

"The Cat & the Canary" 
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Bob Hope had said "The Cat & the Canary" (1939) was the movie which made him "box-office", meaning a star. A recognizable name which audiences would seek out.

The film was based on a Broadway play which was adapted to the screen by the legendary German expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni under the same title in 1927. It is my favorite of Leni's films and was on my list of the best films of the 1920s. It is a masterpiece in genre filmmaking. Watching that film however I saw how comedy could have been inserted in it. There were comedic moments in that movie.

When I first saw Leni's adaptation I knew Bob Hope starred in this version. I have long been a fan of the sub-genre of comedy known as comedy-horror. So many of the great comedians of Hope's era attempted the genre. There was Laurel & Hardy in the two-reeler, "The Laurel & Hardy Murder Case" (1930), Harold Lloyd in "Haunted Spooks" (1920) another two-reeler. The comedy team Wheeler & Woolsey in the feature length movie "Mummy's Boys" (1936) all prior to Hope's attempt. But this version of "The Cat & the Canary" surpasses them all. This is a comedy masterpiece.

On the tenth anniversary of his death, the surviving relatives of the Norman estate are gathered together for the reading of his will. Attending the reading are Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard), "Fred Blythe (John Beal), Charles Wilder (Douglass Montgomery), Aunt Susan (Elizabeth Patterson, best known for her role on TV's "I Love Lucy"), Cicily (Nydia Westman), Wally Campbell (Hope) and the housekeeper who has remained all these years, Miss Lu (Gale Sondergaard).

Each is convinced the house is haunted and the spirit of the dead man remains in the house. Each family member feels they should inherit the family fortune and when it is reveals there are two secret envelopes, one in case the first benefactor should suddenly die, everyone soon suspects each other of being a future murderer, especially since all of these people will have to spend the night in this house which is on a secluded bayou in Louisiana, since all communication to the outside world is cut off until morning.

Lights start to flicker for no apparent reason, outside noises are heard and a security guard from a near-by sanitarium reveals an inmate has escaped, known as the cat. They are encouraged to lock all doors and windows.

It is not a spoiler to reveal Joyce inherits the house and begins to fear for her life when dead bodies are found around the house. The only person she truly trust is Wally, who isn't much help to her since he is scared half out of his mind too! But has slowly fallen in love with her and she with him. So they stick together and try to solve this mystery.

What makes "The Cat and the Canary" work so well is first of all it is a terrific story which in many ways established the haunted house formula. Dark, mysterious night, secluded island, gathering of suspects, dead spirits, family fortune, so on and so forth. Secondly, "The Cat and the Canary" doesn't sub-side the horror and eerie atmosphere for comedy. Yes, Bob Hope stars in the movie, but they keep the original story in tack. The comedy is an additional icing on the cake but never interferes with the haunted house story. By doing this it creates a near perfect balance of comedy and horror. It is as good, if not better, than "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948) which is often thought of as the best example of the comedy-horror genre.

There are moments in this movie which work as pure thriller. An effective musical score and a slow build-up of suspense is created when we see figures lurking in corners and hands appearing in frame.

At this point in time there wasn't really such a thing as a "Bob Hope movie". All of his movies prior to this didn't take advantage of the Hope persona we would later come to know and love. The coward who constantly gets himself into one bad situation after another and who had a natural gift for delivering one-liners and puns, with his breezy attitude and casual voice. Here Hope is part of the ensemble not the focal point. And it works.

The movie was directed by Elliott Nugent, who directed some of Hope's early screen comedies. Some of the choice ones include "Nothing But the Truth" (1941), which would serve as the basis for the Jim Carrey comedy "Liar, Liar" (1997) and "My Favorite Brunette" (1947). He also directed George Burns and Gracie Allen in "Love in Bloom" (1935) and Claudette Colbert in "Three Corned Moon" (1933).

The movie was so successful, Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard were teamed up again for another comedy-horror movie, "The Ghost Breakers" (1940, which I have reviewed). That movie also creates a nice balance between comedy and horror but "The Cat & the Canary" does just a tad bit of a better job. In that movie Hope and Goddard are in a haunted house, which she has inherited, on an island. Only this time zombies are involved and the setting is Cuba.

Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be much interest in Bob Hope movies anymore. When I was a kid I would always watch him. I've even reviewed some of his comedies; "Monsieur Beaucaire" (1946) and "Louisiana Purchase" (1941) among them. While "The Cat & the Canary" may not instantly come to mind as one of Hope best, mostly because it has been out-of-print for so many years, it is a classic comedy and should not be missed by anyone who appreciates classic Hollywood comedies and especially by someone who considers themselves a fan of Bob Hope.

Film Review: Million Dollar Legs

"Million Dollar Legs"  *** (out of ****)

"Million Dollar Legs" (1932) is the kind of absurdest comedy I normally champion. A comedy which understands a "plot" is something you can dance around. It has a tendency to "get in the way" of the jokes. The jokes are the most important element of a comedy. If you take away all the jokes, well, then you are left with drama. And that's not funny.

This philosophy of mine would put me at odds with every instructor I ever had in film school. When I would write my scripts and submit them for approval to film, the instructors would always take out their red pens and tell me, "Alex, you are sacrificing the plot for a joke". There is not enough character motivation. The script lacks structure. There are no repercussions for the character's actions. And I would always tell them, but the Marx Brothers didn't worry about that. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby didn't worry about that. Why should I? But Alex, they would say, you aren't those people. Which means, they could do that. They are famous. You aren't. Thus you must follow different set of rules. That's not fair of course and you can't stop me from finding something funny.

"Million Dollars Legs" understands my viewpoint. It follows in the tradition of political satires such as "Duck Soup" (1933) and "Diplomaniacs" (1933, which I have reviewed). Unfortunately however, it is not as funny. But Heaven knows it tries. And there is talent involved here in spades.

In the movie W.C. Fields stars as the President of a small European country, Klopstokia. A country on the verge of bankruptcy. The President's cabinet, consisting of character actors us old-timers will instantly recognize; Hugh Herbert  (as the Secretary of Treasury), Billy Gilbert (as the Secretary of Interior) and Vernon Dent (as the Secretary of Agriculture) among others, want to over-throw the President and rule the country themselves.

This puts the President in a bind. His only way out is to enlist his country in the 1932 Summer Olympics (!). What else were you expecting? In order to do this he needs the help of Migg Tweeny (Jack Oakie), the number one salesman of Baldwin Brushes. Tweeny is in love with the President's daughter, Angela (Susan Fleming), the official name of all women of Klopstokia. If Tweeny agrees to help the President and the country makes a success at the Olympics, the President will allow Tweeny to marry his daughter.

But this will not be easy for a variety of reasons. For one thing there is a spy (Ben Turpin, a comedy veteran, even by 1932, from the old Mack Sennett studio) writing down everything, everyone says. And number two, the Secretary of Treasury, along with the rest of the cabinet, have acquired the help of a famous vamp (as they used to be called), Mata Machree (Lyda Roberti). She will distract all the athletes entered in the Olympic games, ensuring the country will lose every contest.

Now you may begin asking yourself a lot of questions and say things just don't seem to add up with the plot description I've given you. Stop thinking! Sure it doesn't make a lick of sense on why a country thinks by entering the Olympics, it will save their country from bankruptcy. Of course you just can't enter a country in the Olympics on the same day. Naturally the movie doesn't depict a realistic view of society and the bad guys conveniently wearing black, so we know who to root against. But who wants to see any other kind of movie?!

To today's audience it might seem strange but Jack Oakie gets top billing. Although there may be people who never heard of anyone in this cast, so it really doesn't matter who gets top billing. But for those of us who know who these people are, you wouldn't think Oakie would get billing over Fields. Oakie was a star in musicals and comedies. He is best known for a performance he would give later in his career, in the Charlie Chaplin comedy, "The Great Dictator" (1940, which I reviewed), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. But he was also in the Alice Faye musical "King of Burlesque" (1936), which is actually very good. He co-stars in the Ruby Keeler / Dick Powell musical "Colleen" (1936), the Sonja Henie picture "Wintertime" (1943, which I have reviewed) and the Betty Grable / Alice Faye musical comedy "Tin Pan Alley" (1940, which I have reviewed). He usually played the cliche all-American go-getter. And that is exactly how you can describe his character here.

W.C. Fields is not playing the character he established through-out his career. The grumpy, dog-hating, child-hating, non-fmaily man drunk that you would find in comedy shorts such as "The Barber Shop" (1933) or "The Pharmacist" (1933) or motion pictures like "Never Give A Sucker An Even Break" (1941) and "You Can't Cheat An Honest Man" (1939). Here he plays a bit of a tough guy, who has super-human strength when he is angry. He rules his country with an iron fist. In one scene he beats up seven of his own bodyguards! Fields would play a similar character in the silent comedy "Running Wild" (1927, which I have reviewed).

I really enjoy the spirit of this movie and its lack of structure but I just didn't find it laugh out loud funny. It didn't take enough jabs at society or our political system. The Wheeler & Woolsey comedy "Diplomaniacs" does a much better job, commenting on the nature of war, as does the Marx Brothers comedy "Duck Soup". Their comedic target is bigger and allows for more opportunities to take aim at. "Million Dollar Legs" feels tame in comparison. It doesn't make a strong commentary in my opinion. It leaves the system untouched. Not even slightly bruised.

There are laughs to be had. When the President asks Angela for Tweeny's name, she replies, "I always call him "sweetheart". So, that's what the President calls Tweeny for the remainder of the picture. Angela hands Tweeny sheet music with lyrics written in the ancient Klopstokian language. If Tweeny loves her he will learn the song and the lyrics. When he does learn it and we hear him sing to her, it is done to the melody of "One Hour With You", the great 1930s standard.

The film was directed by Edward F. Cline. I have reviewed many of his movies on here. He worked with some of the great comedy talents of his era. Prior to this movie he worked with Wheeler & Woolsey on the political satire "Cracked Nuts" (1931, which I have reviewed) and "Hook, Line and Sinker" (1930, which I have reviewed). He would go on to direct Fields in "The Bank Dick" (1940, which I have also reviewed) considered one of Fields' best comedies. And finally he worked with the team Olsen & Johnson on "Crazy House" (1943) and the team's final film, "See My Lawyer" (1945). It is hard to say if Cline actually "directed" these people. I tend to believe the comedians had a very big say in the final product of all the films they appeared in. But Cline associated himself with very funny men and knew "funny" when he saw it.

The script was by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Henry Myers. They co-wrote "Diplomaniacs" and "Alice in Wonderland" (1933) which featured both Oakie and Fields, I have reviewed it. Mankiewicz is better known for more serious films and a different brand of comedy, see his Academy Award winner, "All About Eve" (1950) as an example.

"Million Dollar Legs" works in certain parts and should not be avoided. The movie moves along quickly at 62 minutes. I enjoy the spirit of the movie and it is great seeing such a talented cast assembled. Where else can you see Oakie, Fields, Turpin and Herbert all together? Only comedy Heaven. I just wish the movie would have taken greater satirical aim at the political system and the status quo. If you are looking for that watch "Duck Soup" and "Diplomaniacs".

And what about the movie's title? What does it mean? And the spy Turpin plays? Neither is explained. Bravo!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Film Review: The Hunt

"The Hunt"  **** (out of ****)

Watching a film such as the Danish film, "The Hunt" (2013), makes my blood boil. Here is a film which holds a mirror up to society so we can see our reflection and see a world full of gossip, hate, lies and vindictiveness. Some people in this world are full of malice.

"The Hunt" makes me hate people. There have been other movies which have affected me in the same way. There was Lars Von Trier's "Dogville" (2004), Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" (2002) and Neil Slavin's "Focus" (2001). All of these movies are masterpieces. All of them show society at its worst. All of them grab the viewer and stir our emotions. The reason these movies get under my skin is because I find it so sad to think I live in a world where people can hurt one another. That there are people that act the way characters in these movies act saddens me to my core.

In "The Hunt" a teacher, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a young female student, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp). She says Lucas showed her his erect penis. The head of the kindergarten, Grethe (Susse Wold) believes the accusation because as she puts it, "she always believes the children".

Without giving Lucas too many details he is fired from the school and a police report is filed. The community quickly turns against him. They never really question the child and soon other parents have a feeling their child has been molested too. There isn't any proof but they feel it. And a parent knows, right? Also, you have to ask yourself, why would a child lie? Children are not known to make up stories and lie. They are precious and innocent.

There is never any doubt that Lucas is innocent. The movie doesn't try to create a blurry line between fact and fiction. Is Lucas really innocent? He does spend a lot of time with those kids. Why? "The Hunt" doesn't go down this path or ask these questions. Child molestation is a serious subject. It should not be taken lightly and I under no circumstances mean to imply it should be. It is a serious offense. But I don't believe "The Hunt" is trying to say never believe children. Instead I think the movie is pointing a finger at the parents. We live in a world where people believe what they want to believe. People rush to judgement. Condemn without knowing all the facts and quickly turn violent. There is a cruelty lurking with in all people. Gossip and lies preoccupied our thoughts and fill our days.

A movie which came to mind watching "The Hunt" was an older film, "The Children's Hour" (1961) with Audrey Hepburn. In that movie a student accuses two women of being lovers. The women are shun from society. Both films deal with children creating gossip for no other reason than they are confused and angry at the adults but don't know who to deal with that angry. So they lie and create stories not fully understanding the implications of what they are saying.

"The Hunt" is a much more subtle picture than "The Children's Hour" or any of the films I mentioned. It isn't an intense film in the way a slasher film is. The movie very slowly builds tension. It slowly unravels. We wonder where will this movie take us? How can a story like this end?

Mads Mikkelsen won a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance here. He plays a man struggling to make sense of what is going on around him. All the facts are not presented to him so he doesn't know how best to defend himself though we can clearly see his struggle.

In some scenes Lucas seems to be a victim but in the same scene he fights back. But this is not a revenge picture. He fights back when pushed too far but his instinct is to explain himself. To find someone that will give him a moment to explain the truth. To hear his side of the story. But the town has made up its mind. He is guilty.

The movie has an ending which may bother some. It doesn't give us real satisfaction. There is no finger pointing scene where Lucas confronts the town and proves his innocence. If anything the movie ends on a note which suggest, hate and gossip will always prevail. Life is a vicious circle.

"The Hunt" was directed by Thomas Vinterberg and has been greeted with much critical acclaim. Aside from winning the Best Actor award at Cannes it was also nominated for the palm d'or. It is Denmark's official entry for the Academy Awards. It has been nominated for a Golden Globe in the foreign language film category. And was named one of the five best international films by the National Board of Review.

This is a haunting film. The work of a truly gifted filmmaker. It was made with a great deal of craft by a natural storyteller. Someone who is able to create realistic characters and present them in a world we recognize as our own.

This is one of the year's best films!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Film Review: Cockeyed Cavaliers

"Cockeyed Cavaliers" 
** 1\2 (out of ****)

This RKO comedy starring the forgotten comedy team, Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey, starts off pleasant enough as a town crier (Franklin Pangborn) sings the town's news as the townspeople reply by singing as well. This sets a playful, silly tone that made me believe "Cockeyed Cavaliers" (1934) would be an entertaining, light diversion. It partly is.

Wheeler & Woolsey star as a couple of drifters, in 16th Century England, who go from town to town. They can't stay in any one place too long because Bert (Wheeler) is a kleptomaniac and his actions get them thrown out of every town they go to.

At our introduction of Bert and Bob (Woolsey) they immediately get into mischief as they ride into town hiding under the carriage of a Duke (Robert Greig, a character actor who made a career out of playing butlers) and the Lady Genevieve (Thelma Todd). Bert falls into one of his "spells" and ends up stealing the horses from the carriage, Lady Genevieve's necklace and eventually the carriage itself. This results in them being cast in irons on public display.

The reason the Duke has come to this town is to meet his bride, a young peasant girl, Mary Ann (Dorothy Lee, a frequent co-star in Wheeler & Woolsey comedies). She doesn't love the Duke and wants nothing to do with him. In panic she tells someone, the Duke is "going throw his second childhood", meaning he is a skirt chaser. So Mary Ann does the only logical thing a woman in her position can do. She dresses up as a boy and sneaks out of her house in the hopes the Duke will never find her.

On her escape, Mary Ann passes the public display of Bert and Bob, which has now turned violent as the villagers are throwing objects at our pillagers. Mary Ann decides to intervene and causes a distraction for the boys which allows them to escape with her.

As one thing leads to another the three of them find themselves at an Inn where Bert and Bob are mistaken for the King's physicians and are called to the home of the Duke who has fallen sick.

This all sounds pretty good so far and I honestly wanted to like the movie. I even laughed at some of the jokes in these early scenes. When Bert explains to Bob he is a kleptomaniac Bob tells him he should take something for that. To which Bert replies "I've taken everything." Heavy emphasis on "taken". These are the kind of jokes one should expect in a Wheeler & Woolsey comedy. To more modern audiences these jokes might seem corny and flat. I would imagine there are those that would describe a movie like this or any Wheeler & Woolsey comedy as "dated". Maybe. But I like these puns and one-liners.

Other funny moments involve the boys meeting the Duke for the first time and giving him an examination. Naturally the duo doesn't know what they are doing and Bert accidentally picks up a book on horses, thinking it is a medical book and gives Bob instructions on how to treat his patient. It lends itself to some funny situations as they treat the Duke as if he were a horse and try to give him a horse pill.

I also like the interplay between Bob and Lady Genevieve, who is married to the Baron (Noah Berry, Wallace's brother). Their dialogue is on par with Groucho and Margaret Dumount. Robert Woolsey was a bit of a Groucho type of character, wearing glasses, smoking a cigar and always making a pass at the nearest woman.

The movie follows the standard formula of any Wheeler & Woolsey comedy. There is singing and dancing. The boys go into a song and dance routine. Bert Wheeler and Dorothy Lee play the love interest (eventually they find out Mary Ann is a girl) and do a cute number together. Woolsey in turn does a comedic version of the same song with Thelma Todd. And the boys dish out the sexual innuendos which give their comedies an adult playfulness.

Yet for all the things which work and the movie's good intentions I am unable to recommend it. I didn't find the movie as funny as other Wheeler & Woolsey comedies such as "Diplomaniacs" (1933, which I have reviewed), "Peach-O-Reno" (1931, which I have reviewed) or "Hips, Hips, Hooray!" (1934). What I also felt hurt the movie was the historical setting. Wheeler & Woolsey were contemporary comedians. Their movies normally took place in the modern day. Their characters don't seem to work in a period piece setting.

That is not to say it couldn't. In fact I may even understand why you would want to put these characters in a historical setting. Again, their humor was rather adult and playful. It would make for a nice contrast against a more Victorian setting if they engage in anachronistic humor, speaking in 1930s slang. And there is some of that but not enough. There is just something not funny about seeing Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey in Victorian costumes. They don't have as much fun as they could have had with the time period.

Better examples of this would be Bob Hope in "Casanova's Big Night" (1954) or "Monsieur Beaucaire" (1946, which I have reviewed). There is also the Laurel & Hardy comedy "The Devil's Brother" (1933) one of the team's best and the Ritz Brothers in "The Three Musketeers" (1939, which I have reviewed). And though he is not of their era Woody Allen did something similar in "Love & Death" (1975). Hope and Allen nicely contrast their own modern sensibility against the historical period and make contemporary jokes while the characters around them act as if they don't get the joke.

This is what "Cockeyed Cavaliers" needed to do. Though I must admit everything else about the movie is well done. It has nice costume and production designs. The score is decent, there is a nice song the duo sings about a big bad wolf. All of the actors are fine. And the direction by Mark Sandrich is competent. Sandrich made a career directing musical comedies. He also directed Wheeler & Woolsey in "Hips, Hips, Hooray!" and worked on several Fred Astaire / Ginger Rogers musicals; "The Gay Divorcee" (1934), "Top Hat" (1935, which I have reviewed) and "Follow the Fleet" (1936) as well as "Holiday Inn" (1942, which I have reviewed) and the Jack Benny comedy "Buck Benny Rides Again" (1940, which I have reviewed).

Wheeler & Woolsey appeared in two other historical comedies. One dealt with World War I, "Half Shot At Sunrise" (1930), which is one of their best, and "Dixiana" (1930) which takes them back to the ol' south. It is a disaster.

I never thought Wheeler & Woolsey were a great comedy team. I dislike the majority of their movies together but I must admit they have made a small handful of comedies which have really entertained me. I have reviewed several of their comedies. I have seen all 22 comedies they starred in together between 1929 - 1937. It was said of them they saved RKO from bankruptcy. In their day they were a popular comedy team but time has not been kind to them. They are unfairly forgotten. Though I may not be their number one fan I still believe their work should not be ignored. I have made my own minor attempt to introduce them to readers.

"Cockeyed Cavaliers" is not a disaster. It has some qualities going for it. There are some laughs to be had but I just wish more would have been done with this material. The historical setting just doesn't seem to suite this team. They work better in a modern setting. Still, worth seeing if you happen to find it on TV.

Film Review: The Adventures Of A Rookie

"The Adventures Of A Rookie"  *** (out of ****)

In the 1940s two comedy teams reigned supreme in American cinema; Abbott & Costello and Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Hope & Crosby starred together in the first "road" picture, "Road to Singapore" (1940) which became a hit due to the chemistry between the two stars, who almost seemed to be having too much fun on-screen. Stories of their ad-libs on set are now legendary. As for Abbott & Costello they made their screen debuts in "One Night in the Tropics" (1940) offering comic relief. The stars of that movie were Robert Cummings and Allan Jones (!). But the comedy team made such an impression a year later they were given an opportunity to star in their own vehicle, "Buck Privates" (1941) a peace time war comedy about the draft, which I have reviewed.

I mention all of this for a reason (believe it or not), to give readers an understanding of the impact these comedy teams, in particular Abbott & Costello had on the culture. After "Buck Privates" Universal Studios released an avalanche of Abbott & Costello comedies. In 1941 alone the team appeared in four comedies! The following year Universal released three comedies. Every studio was looking the duplicate their success with their own comedy team. Everyone was trying to copy the formula which made Abbott & Costello comedies work.

This leads us to RKO studios and "The Adventures Of A Rookie" (1943) a WW2 service comedy starring Wally Brown and Alan Carney. They were RKO's answer to Abbott & Costello.

I have written about Brown & Carney on here before. I reviewed "Zombies on Broadway" (1945) perhaps their most accessible movie together. It stars Bela Lugosi and is something of a low rent sequel to RKO's own "I Walked With A Zombie" (1943) which I have reviewed. The comedy team was also in the Frank Sinatra vehicle "Step Lively" (1944), which I have also reviewed, a musical remake of the Broadway play "Room Service" which the Marx Brothers adapted on film in 1938.

"The Adventures Of A Rookie" is a modest attempt to cash in on the success of "Buck Privates" and is generally considered the best movie the team starred in.

In my review for "Buck Privates" I admitted I don't like the movie very much. Sure, Abbott & Costello are funny in it but the movie gets bogged down in American propaganda and patriotic sentiment. I said the screenplay could have been written by FDR and Harry Truman and America wasn't even at war in 1941! "The Adventures Of A Rookie" at least avoids sentimental American propaganda and just wants to be funny. And Heaven knows, that is sometimes hard enough - to make a funny comedy.

The movie however does start off with some American pride. The first image we see is of Jerry Miles (Brown, the straight man of the team) working in a nightclub singing a patriotic song about how Americans will do all they can to support the boys over-seas. And then he gets his draft papers while on stage. Next we see a wealthy young man, Bob Prescott (Richard Martin) sitting at a piano in his fancy home as his butler delivers him his draft papers and finally we see truck driver Mike Strager (Carney) get his papers. The idea behind this montage is simple - no man can escape the draft. Men of all walks of life - the nightclub performer, the rich and the working man, will all fight in this war. Of course in reality that's not true, but, it was a sentiment Hollywood was trying to promote (more on that later).

And so while taking an aptitude test Jerry and Mike meet (these were the names of their characters in various pictures) and become friends while also being introduced to Bob.

It is quickly established which role each man will take in the team right from this first introduction. Jerry will be the straight man, the "brains" of the team while Mike is the comic, the gullible friend who goes along with his buddy Jerry's plans. Mike is a bit of a man-child (a la Lou Costello) and sometimes speaks in a innocent baby voice asking if someone is mad at him.

The best gag in the movie happens in Jerry and Mike's introduction as they discuss one of the questions Mike had a difficult time answering. A math problem involving "A" and "B" driving to Chicago. If "A" leaves an hour before "B" and is driving at 20 mph and "B" catches up to him in three hours, how fast was "B" traveling? As Jerry tries to explain the problem to Mike, Mike keeps interrupting asking his own questions. For example, "how did "A" and "B" get gas?" Why exactly did "A" leave "B" behind? Why couldn't "A" wait for "B"? Clearly this resembles the word play of Abbott & Costello. And while we can tell it is an imitation, Brown & Carney have fun with it and make us laughs.

In another scene there is even room for an army exercise scene as Jerry and Mike are doing gun drill exercises, another lift from "Buck Privates".

Events take a turn when the boys, along with Bob, are put in quarantine while visiting some lady friends at a boarding house.

There isn't really much plot to the film, as the title suggest is it mere "adventures", little episodic predicaments Jerry and Mike find themselves in. And what a silly name for a movie. Why is it called "The Adventures of A Rookie"? First of all there are more than one character we are following, so should it be "rookies"? Also, why even use the word rookie? They are in the army, shouldn't it be "privates", "The Adventures Of Privates"?

But why think about such things.

Now back to a point I made about the rich serving in the army and Hollywood trying to promote this idea. We also saw this idea in "Buck Privates" where a man of privilege tried to use his influence to get out of the army. In another attempt to copy "Buck Privates", 20th Century Fox had Laurel & Hardy star in "Great Guns" (1941) another peace time war comedy, where another wealthy young man gets drafted. Most people in society felt the draft would only affected the poor and working class. They would be the ones called to service, while the rich would get a deferment. This naturally was bad for morale. The country had to be united and not be lead to believe society had different rules for the rich and the poor. That's commie talk mister! So Hollywood had to show the rich and the poor fighting side by side in the war. No man escapes the draft. It is a subtle message lurking around all of these comedies, especially "The Adventures Of A Rookie".

So, is this movie any good? Yes. It has some funny sequences. Brown & Carney have some chemistry between them. I prefer this over "Zombies on Broadway". There was a sequel made called "Rookies in Burma" (1943), which was directed by the same man who directed this movie, Leslie Goodwins. He directed the team in some other movies; "Vacation in Reno" (1946) and "Genius at Work" (1945) a remake of a 1935 comedy starring another forgotten comedy team; Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, "The Nitwits".

Also keep your eyes open for a sequence where Carney goes into some imitations of famous Hollywood stars; Edward G. Robinson and Charles Laughton. It is pretty funny.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Film Review: A Christmas Carol

"A Christmas Carol"  *** (out of ****)

If you were to ask a group of movie fans which film version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" they thought was the best, there is a very good chance you'd hear the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim mentioned the most. As is usually the case, that wouldn't be my answer.

In my family we watched this 1938 version starring Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge.

As the story was told to me, Lionel Barrymore used to play the role of Scrooge on the radio every Christmas. Because of the popularity of the radio program, someone thought to make it into a film version and Barrymore was set to play the part. However, due to an illness, Barrymore had to drop out and suggested Reginald Owen play the role, thus, making this one of the first American film adaptations of Dickens' novel.

This version of "A Christmas Carol" was a favorite of my grandmother's. Every Christmas I would watch it with her. As readers know, two years ago she died. This was the first time I have watched this movie since her death. It was a bittersweet experience.

I enjoy this film adaptation. I find the story of Scrooge to be emotional no matter who plays the role. One year I placed Robert Zemeckis' animated version with Jim Carrey on my "top ten" list of the best movies of the year. And I was emotional watching this version again. Emotional because I find the story uplifting and because it made me think of my grandmother and how she and my grandfather are not around this Christmas.

There are those who claim this film, directed by Edwin L. Marin, is not a faithful adaptation. All I can say to that is, that's nice. Tell me another one. I sincerely don't care how faithful this movie or any movie is to a book. If I was that interested, I'd read the book again, not watch a movie based on the book. That of course is the ever long battle which will rage among book lovers who see movie adaptations of their favorite books. Forever and a day they will complain that a movie is not as good as a book. You'd think after a while they would get tired of making the same complaint over and over and over again. But no. Apparently they have good lungs and can complain for hours and days if needed. It's a shame I no longer listen.

Maybe this version does leave a lot out of Dickens' novel. In the end it really doesn't matter. As a film it works. Reginald Owen does a nice job playing the role of Scrooge. And, when necessary, makes us care about his character and experience in his moments of delight and regret. In other words, we are pulled into the story largely thanks to his performance.

For us old-timers Owen was/is a famous character actor. He appeared often in secondary roles playing stiff upper-class Englishmen. He was in two of my all-time favorite movies; "Random Harvest" (1942) with Ronald Coleman and "Mrs. Miniver" (1942) which won a Best Picture Academy Award. He was also in the sequel, "The Miniver Story" (1950), which was not quite as good. As well as the Jack Benny comedy "Charley's Aunt" (1941), the Jean Harlow comedy "Personal Property" (1937, which I have reviewed), the Bob Hope comedy "Monsieur Beaucaire" (1946, which I have reviewed) and the family classic, "Mary Poppins" (1964). So, even if the name doesn't ring a bell, you've seen his face and the movies he has been in.

Playing the role of Bob Cratchit is Gene Lockhart. Another famous character actor to us old-timers. He was in the classic comedy, "His Girl Friday" (1940), a very good Fritz Lang film, "Hangmen Also Die!" (1943) and another holiday classic, "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947).

I don't think I really need to go over the story line for readers so what I will comment on is what I didn't like about the movie. I have already explained what I did like about it. The biggest problem with the movie is it is too short. A little over an hour. It doesn't fully dwell into Scrooge as a man. His transformation is too quick. We need to see more of his pain and sorrow when being visited by the spirits. The movie does a good job establishing his character at the beginning of the movie, but, rushes through everything else.

The Tiny Tim character doesn't break our hearts the way it should. And it is hard to explain Scrooge's sudden heartache for the boy here. I wish the movie would have taken its time setting up these character revelations.

But that's it. I like all the actors in their roles. The direction is fine. The production value decent. The special effects are decent, especially for the time period.

Like a majority of Hollywood Christmas stories, this one has a more secular message. Christmas is a time of holiday cheer. A time to show good will and kindness toward your fellow man and those less fortunate than you. There is no mention of it being a time to celebrate the birth of Christ. Though there is a scene in which we see characters in a church singing.

I don't get mad when the seculars in Hollywood do this. It's fine. It's a nice message even without the mention of religion. Only "The Bishop's Wife" (1947, which I have reviewed) mentions Jesus Christ. Then again, it had to. One of the characters is a Bishop. Surely the Bishop has heard of Jesus, even if it was made in Hollywood.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Film Review: Shutter Island

"Shutter Island"  **** (out of ****)

I first saw Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" (2010) back when it was in theatres. In fact, I saw it on opening day, given my great appreciation for Mr. Scorsese's work. At it's time of release I called it one of the year's best films and placed it on my "top ten" list that year (in the number nine spot).

It marked the fourth collaboration between Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. Previously they had worked together on "Gangs of New York" (2002), "The Aviator" (2004) and "The Departed" (2006), the only film Mr. Scorsese has made, to date, to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director. Each one of those films is a masterpiece. I placed all of them on my "top ten" list in their year of release.

As much as I enjoyed watching "Shutter Island", at the time, I felt it was a highly entertaining psychological thriller but compared to their previous films, "Shutter Island" seemed to be the weakest of the bunch. Watching the film a second time I think I am struck more so by it. It is in no way a "weak" film compared to "Gangs of New York" or "The Departed". It is every bit as good as those movies and now I would say DiCaprio gives an incredibly complex performance here that matches any of the performances he gave in other Scorsese pictures. Both the movie and DiCaprio's performance do not have to take a back seat to anyone.

What immediately gripped me on a second viewing of this film is the concept of what is reality. Whose story are we watching and when can we tell what is real and what is fiction? In some ways I was reminded of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" (1980). That movie also had an unreliable narrator. Like Scorsese's masterpiece "Taxi Driver" (1976), "Shutter Island" is a movie which presents us with a troubled mind. We are sinking into the world of a mad man. A man with several demons inside. A man with obsessions which will not let go of him. They control him and he must, at every corner, surrender to them because he no longer knows what is real and what is the product of his imagination.

The story takes place in 1954 Boston. We follow two U.S. Marshalls; Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) a rookie cop from Seattle. They are headed to Ashecliff, an asylum for the criminally insane. The men are called when a patient, Rachel (Emily Mortimer) has escaped without a trace. The head doctor, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) needs their help before the woman turns violent and kills again.

Problems start when we learn Teddy is suffering from his own problems which distract him from the case. He is a WW2 vet and memories of what he saw in Germany still linger in his mind. He also lost his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams) when she died in their apartment when it set on fire, killing her and three other people.

Teddy and Chuck seem to keep running into dead ends. No one saw Rachel leave. She has left no traces of her whereabouts. Her doctor is on vacation and cannot be reached due to a violent storm which has cut off communication on the island. The only way of escape is by ferry and with the weather the ferry will not be coming any time soon.

Besides the other inmates, which aren't very helpful, the only other person to question is Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), Dr. Cawley's partner, a German doctor.

We soon learn Teddy had reasons for wanting to be assigned on this case. He believes the man who killed his wife is in the asylum. Furthermore, he believes the asylum is conducting experiments on its inmates in an anti-Communist scheme. Teddy wants to expose the asylum and find the man who killed his wife.

The longer Teddy stays on the island, on the asylum's ground, the more paranoid he becomes. The doctors don't seem to be very helpful. Chuck has a way of disappearing. And Teddy can't let go of the images he saw during the war and the sight of his dead wife.

The first image we see in "Shutter Island" is of the ferry bringing the men to the island. It is coming out of a fog. It looks like a ghost ship. There is eerie music playing in the background, something Bernard Herrman (Hitchcock's most trusted composer) might compose. It all creates an unsettling feeling. The viewer knows trouble is ahead.

The film, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane and adapted to the screen by Laeta Kalogridis, was a box-office success for Scorsese but wasn't a critical darling. Many people felt it was a good movie but a genre exercise. Not a piece of cinematic art from Scorsese. How wrong they were. The movie hits on important themes, which I have explained. Lehane's work was also the basis for Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River" (2003) and "Gone Baby Gone" (2007). Both are amazing movies. Kalogridis wrote the Oliver Stone film "Alexander" (2004) and "Night Watch" (2004), in my opinion a truly awful Russian sci-fi film. Lehane's novels are about damaged men traumatize by events from the past. Moments which made them feel helpless and eventually that helplessness turned to hopelessness. "Shutter Island" is no different.

DiCaprio has to go through so many emotions, it is as if he is playing more than one character. In any particular scene he has to hit highs and lows of emotion. His mood must constantly shift. He must express vulnerability, anger, paranoia, confusion and heartbreak all at the snap of a finger. It is a very challenging role and DiCaprio pulls it off brilliantly.

At one time I didn't like DiCaprio. It was around the time of "Titanic" (1997). I thought he was merely a young actor who was going to get by on his looks and the adoring eyes of young women. But that has not been the case. His work with Scorsese has shown him grow as a actor. He takes risks. Few would be able to pull of this role.

"Shutter Island" is a modern masterpiece. A gripping, edge of your seat thriller. It is a genre exercise, that is true. But Scorsese puts so much craft into this. He carries the movie along beautifully. He is a conductor in full command of his orchestra. Everyone plays every scene for all it is worth. He has created another memorable look inside the world of a disturbed mind.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Film Review: The Bishop's Wife

"The Bishop's Wife"  **** (out of ****)

"The Bishop's Wife" (1947) is a Christmas time romantic comedy with a religious undertone. Watching it again, in preparation for this review, I remembered the movie differently. I thought it was much more religious. It is the only Christmas movie I can think of that actually mentions what Christmas really is - the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

Growing up "The Bishop's Wife" was one of four Christmas movies we watched every year. Part of my family's own holiday tradition. The others were Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life" (1947, which I have reviewed), the 1938 version of "A Christmas Carol" with Reginald Owen and "Christmas in Connecticut" (1945 which I have reviewed).

The story involves a Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) who is trying to get a new Cathedral built. But in order to do so must beg for money from wealthy families, which have ulterior motives. His work also keeps him from spending more time with his wife, Julia (Loretta Young). They argue a lot as Henry is frustrated dealing with selfish people. So, in a moment of despair Henry prays and ask God for guidance. Should he move forward with the Cathedral? Will it ever be built? His prayer is answered. An angel descends from Heaven (Cary Grant) to help Henry.

At first Henry, ironically, doesn't believe the man is an angel. But slowly, Dudley (Grant) as he is eventually called, begins to convince him. Along the way though Dudley ends up falling in love with Julia.

And that's really what "The Bishop's Wife" wants to be. A romantic comedy. A jealous husband suspects his wife is having an affair with an angel, unknown to her of course. In theory it is a funny concept but the movie throw in some religious discussions and it in told during the Christmas holiday.

One of my favorite moments in the movie is when Dudley tells Henry's daughter the story of David, from Psalm 23 which goes "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want", hopefully you know the rest. I love the scene so much because it is a "feel good" moment. The child is so interested in the story and soon Henry and Julia are too. It is a beautiful story and the movie finds ways to insert humor as Dudley ever so gently tries to tell Henry what his intentions are.

But there are some truly funny comedic situations which are set-up. They involve an old friend of Henry and Julia, Prof. Wutheridge (Monty Woolley). Dudley tries to convince him they have met before. In another scene Dudley uses his power to constantly refill the professor's glass of port. And in other scenes Dudley keeps Henry out of the picture so he and Julia can spend more time together.

In some ways if I think about this story long enough the set-up seems a little awkward. It doesn't seem right to have an angel fall in love with a married woman.

The movie was directed by Henry Koster who also directed the Danny Kaye comedy "The Inspector General: (1949), a pair of Betty Grable musicals; "Wabash Avenue" (1950) and "My Blue Heaven" (1950), though he might be best known for the movies he directed Jimmy Stewart in; "Harvey" (1950) and "Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation" (1962).

"The Bishop's Wife" was nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director) and won one for Best Sound. It lost the Best Picture Oscar to "A Gentleman's Agreement" (1947). Another Christmas themed movie was nominated that year in the Best Picture race as well, "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947).

"The Bishop's Wife" has a fine cast, sweet message and very good acting. How do you go wrong with Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven? Plus it has some very funny moments.