Thursday, January 30, 2014

Film Review: The Greatest Show On Earth

"The Greatest Show On Earth"  ** 1\2 (out of ****)

Cecil B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show On Earth" (1952) on the surface is a story which celebrates life under the big top, the circus. However, watching the movie recently, I don't feel it is much of a stretch to say the movie is a celebration of showbiz. It has a "the show must go on" mentality.

Watching "The Greatest Show On Earth" I thought this circus theme is also a parallel for the movies. In "The Greatest Show On Earth" we follow a circus manager (Charlton Heston) as he and his circus performers head out on the road to various towns for a full season.

Traveling town to town, as everyone prepares for the show, much happens behind the scenes. People fall in love, get hurt, have trouble with the law...ect. There is so much life going on behind the curtain and through it all, the circus manager must keep things on schedule and make sure the show goes on.

You could compare this lifestyle to the life on a movie set and the role of a director. This is a big splashy movie and Cecil B. DeMille was known as a "showman". A man who made lavish historical, religious epics such as "King of Kings" (1927), "Cleopatra" (1934) and "The Ten Commandments" (1956), his final film.

Much happens on a movie set. Actors fall in love with co-stars, some are fired, directors clash with producers about falling behind on schedule, going over budgets...ect. In fact as I watched "The Greatest Show On Earth" I thought of Francois Truffaut's "Day For Night" (1974, which I have reviewed), a movie which shows the struggles of life on a film set. It emphasizes all the decisions a director must make; which lens to use, which color shoes an actor should wear, where to position the camera, which props should be in frame. And so, the circus manager must make several decisions about various acts.

The circus performers are Holly (Betty Hutton), a flying trapeze artist who falls in love with a fellow trapeze artist, Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), as they fight for the center ring. Meanwhile, Holly is in love with the circus manager. Then there is Buttons, the circus clown (Jimmy Stewart) who is hiding something about his past. Other performers are played by Gloria Grahame and Dorothy Lamour and Emmett Kelly appears as himself.

Given some of the film's theme this would have actually made a fitting final film for DeMille. A showman celebrating his field, the world of entertainment.

For some reason though I was never really brought into this movie. Some of the circus acts are fun to watch but I found the personal stories somewhat dull. No one really shines, really stands out. Maybe that was the point. No individual is bigger than the show. But, I tend to think the movie just wasn't written very well. No one really feels fleshed out. There really is no sense of who these people truly are.

There are those to claim this is one of the "worst best picture Oscar winners". It won in a year where its competition was "The Quiet Man" (1952), "High Noon" (1952) and even though it wasn't nominated in the best picture category, "Singin' in the Rain" (1952, which I have reviewed). I won't weigh in on that, what's the point? What's done is done. The movie won best picture. Though I wouldn't go as far as to say this is a terrible picture. Maybe it would improve upon multiple viewings. Still, I couldn't help be feel unimpressed by this movie.

The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards and won two; best picture and best writing. It was nominated for best director (DeMille), best costume design and editing.

Not a classic in my opinion but not a disaster either. I see it not so much as a "circus movie" but a celebration of showbiz.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Film Review: Blue Jasmine

"Blue Jasmine"  **** (out of ****)

Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" (2013) is simply put a masterpiece. One of the legendary filmmaker's very best films. It took me two viewings to come to this conclusion, but, here is a movie which touches on so many themes, so effortlessly, so masterfully, it is the work of a brilliant director and an equally gifted actress.

The film has been compared to the real-life scandal involving Bernie Madoff and "A Streetcar Named Desire". Not exactly two things which have much in common, but, Allen's "Blue Jasmine" is so much more than that.

Here is a movie which resembles a world we live in. A socialite, named Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), moves to San Francisco to stay with her half-sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), since her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin) has committed suicide while in prison. He was arrested for fraud, swindling people into making investments in phony companies.

This turns Jasmine's world upside down. Her rich elegant life is over. She is broke. The government has taken all of her assets. No more parties, social galas, European vacations, lavish gifts and beautiful homes. In her despair she turns to a sister she has never kept and felt better than.

"Blue Jasmine" becomes a story which deals with social class, the influence the rich have on our lives. We desire to be like them. We seek their approval. Jasmine is always criticizing Ginger's life. She did not approve of her ex, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), whom Hal defrauded out of his life savings. And she does not approve of Ginger's current boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), who she constantly calls a loser, since he cannot give Ginger a glamorous life, like Hal gave to Jasmine. This makes Ginger want to live up to Jasmine's standards, even though her life is perfectly fine.

Allen, known for using classic jazz in his movies, decided to use traditional New Orleans jazz. The soundtrack is comprised of music performed by Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Jimmie Noone. It is mostly jazz and blues music. The music helps enforce another theme the film explores; everything will end badly. This is a cautionary tale. A warning. Jasmine is a wreck. She suffers a nervous breakdown. She walks on the streets of San Francisco talking to herself. She spaces out in the company of others, reliving moments of her marriage to Hal. Trying to put the pieces of their life together. As Allen plays with time signatures, shifting from past and present.

In this aspect the movie is cleverly edited. Certain words trigger flashback serving as a bridge between present day and the past. It is not unlike "Annie Hall" (1977) in this respect.

As the film progresses we learn more about Jasmine and her marriage and what her involvement may have been in Hal's schemes. Being rich and privileged Jasmine does what many of us do. She turns her head to any wrong doing. She lives in the lies of convenience. To acknowledge her husband is doing something wrong, engaging in illegal practices, would mean a change in her lifestyle. It is better to play ignorant and pretend she does not know what is going on and keep her home and jewelry. Jasmine, like many others, only cares about things when they directly affect us. When things disturb our lifestyle. Otherwise, someone else's problems are not your problems.

 But Jasmine thinks she can get her old lifestyle back when she meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) a rich politician. He can provide Jasmine her old lifestyle. But will the secrets of her past catch up with her?

Much has been made of Cate Blanchett's performance. Every bit of praise is deserved. Blanchett has long been one of my favorite modern actresses. I would watch her read names from a phone book (remember those?). Film after film she has given wonderful performances. Watch her in her two Oscar winning roles; "Elizabeth" (1998) and Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" (2004). See her in "Veronica Guerin" (2003), "Notes On A Scandal" (2006), "The Shipping News" (2001) or "The Good German" (2006) each and every film is great and her performance in each is memorable. Once again Blanchett delivers a memorable performance. Here she must go through a variety of emotions. She is not exactly a likable character but Blanchett fleshes her out and doesn't make us hate her. We understand her. Jasmine is not a stable character and Blanchett captures her fear, anxiety, confusion and denial. For her efforts she has been nominated for an Academy Award in the best actress category. She is the odds-on favorite to win. She has already won a Golden Globe for her performance as well.

Although not just Blanchett should be praised. Who knew Andrew Dice Clay could act? He plays a working-class guy who gets taken in by Hal and Jasmine's charms. Even after he and Ginger divorce, he cannot get over what happened. His life could have been different. He could have been successful. But his hopes and dreams are gone. It is too late in life for him to start over again. He would need a lucky break but fate so often is cruel. And Sally Hawkins is engaging playing a doe eyed sister who feels pressure to better herself in the presence of her sister.

Ginger and Jasmine represent two different social classes. Where Ginger and Augie lost everything, and Jasmine says she did too, she still manages to fly to San Francisco first class. When the working class say they have nothing, they mean they have nothing. When the rich say they have nothing, they mean they have only a few million.

"Blue Jasmine" is a very pessimistic movie. Bad things happen to good people. The world isn't fair. It beats us up. Sometimes we rebound, sometimes we don't.

Allen has had a roller coaster relationship with the critics and the public over the years. Some of the bad feelings thawed a bit after "Match Point" (2005) but grew again after "Scoop" (2006, which I have reviewed) and "Cassandra's Dream" (2007, which I have reviewed), two movies unfairly damned. Good will returned again with "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (2008, which I have reviewed) and again with "Midnight in Paris" (2011, which I have reviewed). And now with "Blue Jasmine" Allen has proved he is not washed up. His critics were wrong. Allen still has powerful stories to tell. His screenplay is up for an Oscar.

I said I have seen this movie twice. The first time was opening day. The second time was on DVD. The difference in the experience I think had to do with me being alone. A lot of people think of this as a comedy or a semi-comedy. I don't. Watching the movie in a movie theatre, where people were laughing, put me at odds with the audience. On DVD, alone, I could experience the movie on my own terms. I didn't laugh watching this movie. I accept it as a dramatic film. That's what made the difference for me.

"Blue Jasmine" was one of the best films of 2013!

Film Review: Their Own Desire

"Their Own Desire"  *** (out of ****)

I remember "Their Own Desire" (1929) being a bold film which challenged 1929 American values. Watching it again, I don't know that I would go that far, though, I wouldn't call it a cautionary tale either. If it is possible it falls somewhere in the middle.

The movie stars Norma Shearer as Lally, a young 20-something girl born into a rich family. In the opening scene we see Lally with her father (Lewis Stone) playing polo. Not exactly the game of the "every man". Lally though, we see from the scenes, is not a "delicate flower". She is a bit rough around the edges. She'll play tough if she has to and can take a hit. And like most young people has a bit of an acid tongue. Always quick with a wise-crack or sarcastic remark.

At this point Lally's life seems perfert. She is not in want of anything. Her family's wealth has provided her with all she could want. Her parents (Stone and Belle Bennett) appear to have a loving marriage. But then one day it is revealed her parents are getting a divorce. Her father has fallen in love with another woman, Mrs. Cheever (Helen Millard).

Naturally this devastates Lally's mother. And as Lally sees what her mother is going through, she also vows never to fall in love. No man will do to her what her father did to her mother. And this pleases her mother. You know the saying, misery loves company. The mother would like to use this as leverage to make sure her daughter never falls in love.

Lally and her mother take a trip to Europe, where the divorce will be made official. It is on this trip Lally meets Jack (Robert Montgomery). Much like Lally, Jack is also a child of wealthy. He leads a carefree life, no worries to speak of. For him it is love at first sight. The two hit it off but soon a secret is revealed.

Under normal circumstances this secret would end the relationship. In this movie the characters don't fully think out what the implications of their relationship would mean. The follow "their own desire" but there are consequences for doing that.

Now I say this isn't a cautionary tale and it isn't. In a cautionary tale the two young lovers would suffer a terrible fate. God or society, or both, must punish them for their wicked behavior. That doesn't happen here. At the same time however, it didn't strike me as a bold film. A film which dared to challenge social convention. I felt the movie is playing it both ways. Never taking a larger stance one way or the other. If the characters would acknowledge what this relationship means and then the young lovers still persist, I might have said it is a daring film. But that never happens.

Shearer was nominated for an Oscar for her performance here. It would be her first of six nominations. She would only win once, for her role in "The Divorcee" (1930). This time around it is she who gets the divorce. That is a much more daring film, up until the ending. Here though Shearer doesn't feel like she is giving a complete performance. It feel artificial. It is too theatrical at times. It doesn't seem like a worthy Oscar performance. Mary Pickford played a similar role in "Coquette" (1929, which I have reviewed), she won an Oscar for her performance and I feel it is much better. That one felt like a real person. Shearer doesn't.

Robert Montgomery I feel fares a little better. Though some of the dialogue written for him is too dated by today's standards. As soon as he sees Lally he tells her he is going to make her fall for him. He comes off very aggressive but playful, still the dialogue rings insincere.

The movie has moments which make it worth watching. I am someone that always encourages people to watch these classic Hollywood films. There is so much to be learned watching them. So much enjoyment to be had. They shouldn't be avoided. You should watch "Their Own Desire" even if I wouldn't call it one of the great ones. It is an interesting story which I simply felt doesn't take a definitive stand.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Film Review: The Divine Lady

"The Divine Lady"  *** (out of ****)

"The Divine Lady" (1929) is a silent movie starring Corinne Griffith and Victor Varconi, which was directed by Frank Lloyd and nominated for three Academy Awards.

I remember "The Divine Lady" as being a somber, border-line boring, heavy drama. As I watched it again however, I was immediately struck by the first half of the movie which had a wonderful comedic tone, almost a Pygmalion quality to it. The star of the movie, Corinne Griffith, displayed a capability for comedy and drama. It reminded me of Marion Davies. Griffith had such an expressive face. By merely rolling her eyes she conveys several emotions. The act could inspire comedy and make us laugh, it could express frustration, longing..ect.

But then came the moment when the movie shifts tone and does it fact become what I remember it as. A melo-dramatic Victorian love story. How disappointing. The change in tone is unfortunate. The movie, for the first 46 minutes or so (the film is roughly 90 minutes) moves along so carefree, so effortlessly and has such good cheer. I was thoroughly enjoying the movie, wondering how could my mind play such tricks on me. It was nothing like I had remembered.

Corinne Griffith plays Emma Hart, a poor, working class girl, who along with her mother (Marie Dressler) arrive at the home of Charles Greville (Ian Keith) for employment. Initially Greville is put off by Emma's actions and demeanor, which he finds vulgar. He dismisses them both. But, Emma pleads with Greville to please allow her and her mother to stay. She persuades him by telling him, by being in his presence she may become a refine (not divine) lady. Greville agrees.

Though Greville has his motives. First of all he finds Emma to be very attractive. She seems to have fallen in love with him. Of course, given the difference in social rank between them, this does make things difficult. However, Greville believes he can teach this young lady some manners and make her respectable, a lady (hence Pygmalion).

Greville views Emma has a prize trophy and wants to show her off to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton (H.B. Warner). Hamilton is taken in by her beauty as well and so an agreement is made. Greville will let Hamilton "have her" to teach her manners. Hamilton though lives in Naples, as an Ambassador. It is then agreed to lie to Emma and tell her, Greville will soon follow them, though he has no intention of doing so, as he doesn't love Emma.

With Hamilton Emma leads a good life. They are not in love with each other, but, there is a mutal affection. They eventually marry. Until the day Admiral Horatio Nelson (Victor Varconi) comes along. The two fall in love, putting shame on Hamilton, and on Nelson's wife. We now have the story of a love that cannot be. And here the tone shifts.

"The Divine Lady" is a staunchly pro-English film, and engages in the usual class-warfare British society often engages in. The treatment of women is interesting to look at in a modern context with the idea of "trading" women, and viewing them as prizes. The affair is treated in a more conservative manner. These scenes are not direct, though we do see the two kiss and the viewer knows full well they are married. This kind of thing would not be allowed once the production code came into effect.

The movie was based on a novel by Elizabeth Moresby, who is credited as "E. Moresby", keeping her gender a secret. She was the daughter of a Royal Navy captain. The film is supposed to be based on historical fact. These characters really did exist. How much is "Hollywood" and how much is fact, I don't know and honestly, I don't care. Movies are not suppose to be history lessons. The are suppose to be entertainment.

Frank Lloyd, the director of the film, won an Academy Award for his work here. He would go on to direct "Cavalcade" (1933, which I have reviewed), which won best picture and again Lloyd won a best director Oscar. In 1935 he would direct "Mutiny on the Bounty" with Clark Gable, which would win the best picture Oscar as well. And once again Lloyd was nominated for directing, making him one of the most celebrated directors in the early history of the Academy Awards. Today he is forgotten.

"Cavalcade" though has something in common with this film. Both are "British" pictures. We are seeing history through the eyes of England. It has always amazed me how much admiration Americans have for the British.

What truly makes "The Divine Lady" worth watching is Corinne Griffith, she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance. She gives the most lively performance. And again, that face, the expressions that she conveys through her eyes. She was beautiful. A shame she didn't become a biggest star. By the time this movie was made she had been acting for quite a while, since 1916, but this is the movie she is best remembered for.

Despite a wonderful first half, the movie gets bogged down in its love story, which I am sure could have been told with more energy and passion. We don't feel anything between these two characters. Their story is told in such a dull way, which leads me to take some points off.

This material was the basis for another movie, "That Hamilton Woman" (1941), directed by the great Hungarian producer, Sandor Korda (Alexander Korda) starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. It is was also nominated for Oscars and is considered the better adaptation.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Film Review: In Old Arizona

"In Old Arizona"  ** (out of ****)

With the announcement of the 86th annual Academy Award nominees, as has been tradition, I will review past Oscar winning and nominated films, leading up to the award show on March 2nd. First up on my list is "In Old Arizona" (1929).

"In Old Arizona" is a western directed by Irving Cummings and Raoul Walsh (even though Walsh is credited as a co-director, it has been widely reported he dropped out of production early on after an accident) starring Warner Baxter, Edmund Lowe and Dorothy Burgess. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture and director. It won one award however for Baxter in the best actor category.

"In Old Arizona" is your typical story of good vs evil. The law against the bandit. In that sense the movie is fairly routine and predictable and quite frankly, isn't much fun to watch. But the movie has a few elements in its favor. It has some "fun" performances by the leads, none of which are convincing in a realistic sort of way and a remarkable ending by 1929 standards. Heck, few films today would dare end the way this one does. Outside of that however, there is little to recommend.

This is a Cisco Kid story with Baxter playing the famous bandit. These were popular stories back in the day and there were several film adaptions of Cisco Kid stories. The Cisco Kid was a singing bandit and a great lover. In this movie he is presented as a bad guy with a good heart. He feels sorry if he steals from the poor for example. In one scene, when we see him rob a stage coach, he asks one of the female passengers for a pin she is wearing. But, rather than steal it, he kindly offers her money for it. See, all bandits aren't so bad!

Meanwhile the army (the story takes place in the old west) is after the Cisco Kid. Their best man, Sgt. Mickey Dunn (Lowe) has been assigned to track down the Kid. Mickey is what us old timers used to call a "good time Charlie". He is kind of a man's man. A good natured, quick-witted, arrogant guy always looking for a good time, whether is involves gambling, drinking or ladies. Especially the ladies. Mickey fancies himself a ladies man. In this respect he and the Cisco Kid are similar.

The Cisco Kid is in love with Tonia Maria (Burgess) an unfaithful, gold-digging flirt. She has the Cisco Kid wrapped around her finger. While the Kid may think of himself as a lady killer, he says he always remains true to Tonia. She is the love of his life. But she does not share his affection. She is only with him what for he buys her and the money he steals. The Kid is not as savvy as he thinks he is. Love can do that to a person. Make us lose sight of reality. Not see people for who they really are.

These three people will intersect. Mickey will use Tonia to get to the Kid. But, has Mickey fallen for Tonia? Is Tonia using Mickey? Is the Cisco Kid on to them? All of these question will immediately be answered. And that is just one problem with the movie. There is no suspense. Everyone is pretty much what they seem. The movie has no clever twist and turns, except for that wonderful ending!

Lowe is chewing the scenes he is in. It is amazing he doesn't gag. Baxter's Spanish accent is a joke as is Burgess'. Completely over the top. The movie is typical for the time period, wanting to impress you with its use of sound. In an opening scene we see passengers board the stage coach. The sound track is filled with lots of chatter. Multiple characters, those on-screen and off, speaking at once. It wants the audience to be amazed it is watching a sound picture. You will notice scenes like this in several early "talkies". They want to load the soundtrack with dialogue. By gum they are going to take advantage of this "new" technology. And that is why we hear several characters speak with accents. There is an Irishmen in the opening scene, a gentlemen with a southern accent, Mickey speaks with a New York accent and the Kid and Tonia with Spanish accents.

The problem I have with "In Old Arizona" is it simply bores me. I have now watched it three times and all three times I have come away with the same reaction. There is nothing exciting about the movie. Nothing interesting. It is all predictable and boring. Outside of the campy performances, there is nothing memorable about the movie. I'm willing to bet a majority of my readers haven't seen this movie. It hasn't lived on as one of the classics of early Hollywood. And there is a reason for that. It is not worth your time. So, why write about it? Well, it did win an Oscar. It has some curiosity value to it. If you love the history of cinema as much as I do, you will want to see it. You just won't enjoy it.

"In Old Arizona" is forgettable fluff. Over-the-top performances, predictable story-line and a surprise ending. That about sums up "In Old Arizona".

Friday, January 17, 2014

86th Annual Academy Award Nominations!

The 86th annual Academy Award nominations were announced yesterday morning, proving what I have already known. The Academy is lost in space!

Of course that's a joke as the sci-fi film "Gravity" (2013) scored 10 Oscar nominations, tying with the David O. Russell comedy "American Hustle" (2013) as the most honored films.

Both movies are nominated in the best picture category as are; "Captain Phillips", "Dallas Buyers Club", "Her", "Nebraska", "Philomena", "12 Years A Slave" and "The Wolf of Wall Street".

Many people believe going into the Oscars "12 Years A Slave" is the favorite, which scored nine nominations, but "American Hustle" seems to be growing in popularity. There are those that feel Russell's "Silver Lining Playbook" should have won the best picture Oscar last year over "Argo". Will the Academy make up for their "mistake" last year? Both films won Golden Globes for best picture in comedy and drama.

Other big stories include Meryl Streep winning her 18th nomination. This year it is for "August: Osage County". Her last win was for "The Iron Lady" (2011) the story of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. This is the second year a David O. Russell film has acting nominations in all acting categories. Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are all nominated.

Some predictable nominations include "12 Years A Slave" for best picture and Steve McQueen for best director. Bruce Dern is nominated for his performance in "Nebraska". Many have called it the crowning achievement in Dern's career. And Heaven knows the Academy is not above giving "pity Oscars". Also Cate Blanchett is nominated for her performance in the Woody Allen film "Blue Jasmine". Blanchett is the favorite going into the race. And finally the Disney animated film "Frozen" is nominated in the animated feature film category. Generally speaking Disney or Pixar usually secured a nomination every year. And "Frozen" has opened to positive reviews and done very well at the box-office.

As is the case every year there were some surprises. The Coen Brothers movie "Inside Llewyn Davis" was not nominated for best picture, was locked out of the directing category and best actor. In the foreign language film category the popular French film "Blue Is the Warmest Color" was not nominated. It won the palm d'or at the Cannes Film Festival. Robert Redford was not nominated for best actor for the film "All is Lost". Many have called one of Redford's best performances.

For me personally the biggest surprise was how well the "Dallas Buyers Club" did. I was not expecting a best picture nomination. Matthew McConaughey is nominated for best actor and some thought there was a possibility especially given the weight loss he under went. I was happy to see Woody Allen is nominated in the best original screenplay category for "Blue Jasmine". And how nice "The Wind Rises" by Hayao Miyazaki was nominated in the animated feature film category. It has been reported this will be the great animator's last film. Though that was the rumor floating around when "Ponyo" was released as well. Unfortunately "The Wind Rises" has not been released in Chicago yet.

The Academy Awards will be held March 2nd, 2014 and will be hosted this year by Ellen DeGeneres.

For a full list of Oscar nominees:

Friday, January 10, 2014

Film Review: A Woman of Affairs

"A Woman of Affairs"  *** (out of ****)

Garbo (one of the few remaining artist of the silent era we can still refer to by only the last name and audiences still know who you are speaking of) peaked before my grandmother's time, still, she showed me the great Garbo when I was a child eventually passing along her admiration for the silent film star on to me.

Greta Garbo, for me, is the greatest of all the female silent film stars (although Louise Brooks comes in at a very close second). Few other actresses during her time were able to captivate the screen. To take full control of our attention. She always presented herself as a mystery and because of that we accepted her in every role. Who was the real Greta Garbo? How different was she from the characters she played?

In the past I have discussed two films she appeared in; "The Kiss" (1929) and "The Single Standard" (1929), made at a time when silent films were coming to an end. Now we shall discuss "A Woman of Affairs" (1928), a movie about decency and honor. A film which presents conservative morals. Every character does what they feel society would have them do in the name of honor even if it means leading a life of misery.

Garbo and John Gilbert (the two co-starred in "Flesh and the Devil" (1926) and "Queen Christine" (1933) star as lovers who have known each other since childhood. She is Diana, he is Neville. Diana, and her brother, Jeffry (Douglas Fairbanks Jr., can you beat this cast!) come from an old wealthy family, the Merricks. They are the spoiled children of wealth. Neville does not come from such a family (though you could have fooled me). Given the difference in social rank and stature it is not advised for them to socialize.

And that leads us to one of the over-arcing themes of "A Woman of Affairs". This is a tale of a love which could not be. Two people from different sides of the tracks. Two people who do what society tells them, preventing them from sharing their love. They try to defy conventions and get married but when Neville's father (Hobert Bosworth) finds out he sends his son to Egypt.

The years pass and soon Diana marries a man who has loved her from afar. He has been patient. He knows of Diana's love for Neville. Still he hoped against hope that one day Diana may notice him. He is David (Johnny Mack Brown). Jeffry idolizes David, as he views him as a man of decency. He approves of this marriage, as Jeffry never liked Neville.

On the day of the wedding, David dies. He has committed suicide. Due to this Diana and Neville are brought back together. But still society tells them they can never be together as again, with the passing years, Neville is now engaged to Constance (Dorothy Sebastian, who appeared in another tale of morality, "Our Dancing Daughters" (1928) with Joan Crawford, which I have reviewed).

Without giving much away the film tells its story with great melo-drama, forever raising the emotion stakes. Always seeming to draw the characters together, due to various misfortunes, only to pull them apart at the last moment.

The performances across the board are effective though it is Garbo and Gilbert who steal the show.

Garbo doesn't play the temptress, the mysterious woman here. She plays a good girl with a bad reputation, always finding herself in the gossip columns. One of the reasons Neville's father objects to the two being together is because of Diana's reputation. She is not a woman of decency. But are the stories of her true? And, if so, does it change how she feels about Neville?

The movie was directed by Clarence Brown. He directed Garbo in "Flesh and the Devil"and "Anna Christine" (1930) her first "talkie". He also directed Joan Crawford and Clark Gable in "A Free Soul" (1931) and "Possessed" (1931) one of my favorites. As a result he was nominated six times for a best director Oscar for films such as; "National Velvet" (1944), "The Yearling" (1946) and "Romance" (1930). He never won.

Still Brown was a major force in early Hollywood. His films would dare to challenge society. There is a lot of sarcasm in "A Woman of Affairs". It pokes some holes at society's ideal of "do the right thing". Trying to conform to society's expectations. For its trouble the film received an Oscar nomination for its writing. It didn't win.

"A Woman of Affairs" is an emotionally charged, finely acted film with much to recommend. I wish it would have been edited a bit more, as I found some sub-plots and scenes unnecessary, still this is a film worth seeing.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Film Review: Hail the Conquering Hero

"Hail the Conquering Hero"  **** (out of ****)

Preston Sturges' "Hail the Conquering Hero" (1944) is a comedy masterpiece. A movie which raises comedic heights to perfection. A textbook example on how to properly write screen comedy.

"Hail the Conquering Hero" has always been one of my favorite Sturges comedies, but, I feel gets lost in shuffle to his other films. So many people are content to give cliche, standard "correct" answers when asked what is the best Preston Sturges comedy. People will usually respond "Sullivan's Travels" (1941), "The Lady Eve" (1941) or "Miracle of Morgan's Creek" (1944). All fine pictures, but because of those movies few seek out "Hail the Conquering Hero". Too bad.

Preston Sturges is one of my favorite comedy directors. When I was younger, in college, making movies, Sturges was one of my cinematic inspirations. He makes the type of comedies I always wanted to. Sturges so perfectly balances verbal wit and slapstick comedy. I am a big fan of the great verbal comics like Groucho Marx and Bob Hope, guys who could deliver a great one-liner and quip. But, I'm also a fan of slapstick comedy. Charlie Chaplin is my absolute favorite comedy director and I love watching Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and Laurel & Hardy.

The problem for me was I wanted to put everything into my comedies. Just throw in slapstick and verbal jokes. Thus I could never find the proper tone. That was Sturges' gift. He knew how to find the proper balance and create comedies which were a perfect blend. A prime example is "Unfaithfully Yours" (1948, which I have reviewed). "Hail the Conquering Hero" doesn't have much slapstick in it, but it has some terrific dialogue and an excellent comedy structure.

Eddie Bracken (who was also in "Miracle of Morgan's Creek") plays Woodrow Truesmith. A Marine who was discharged for chronic hay fever after serving for one month. You see, Woodrow's father also served and was a war hero. It had always been Woodrow's dream to follow in his father's footsteps and become a war hero too. With his discharge Woodrow is filled with shame. He can't face his mother or go back home. So he lies for a full year and writes to his mother (they didn't have email or texting back then. The good ol' days) and tells her he has been transferred over-seas. Meanwhile he has gotten a job in factory.

On this particular night Woodrow will meet a group of Marines on leave for five days. They are headed by Sgt. Heppelfinger (William Demarest, a Sturges regular in films such as "The Great Moment (1944, which I have reviewed) and "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek"). The Marines are broke, so, Woodrow decides to buy the boys a round of drinks and sandwiches. Woodrow then tells the boys his story and they decide to "help out" by telling Woodrow's mother he is returning home and he is a decorated hero. In fact, they will go home with Woodrow to make him look good in front of his mother.

All of this makes Woodrow uneasy. He puts on his old uniform, one of the Marines even stick some medals on him. What he doesn't know is his mother has told the entire town of his return and they have decided to give him a big hero's welcome. A welcome committee headed by Franklin Pangborn (another Sturges' regular and a comedy veteran in such comedies as "The Bank Dick" (1940, which I
have reviewed) with W.C. Fields and "The Great Moment"). The Mayor of the town (played by Raymond Walburn, another regular in Preston Sturges comedies) is present, as he is running for re-election to give a speech as well. And just to make things interesting, Woodrow's ex, Libby (Ella Raines) is there and is now engaged to the Mayor's son, Forrest (Bill Edwards). Though Woodrow doesn't know of her engagement and she has decided to wait to tell him, against Forrest's wishes. Does she still love him?

From there everything escalates out of control. Monuments are going to be made and dedicated to him, the town has pitched in and paid off the family's mortgage, and there are those that even want him to run against for political office!

Sturges just keep raising the stakes but it all happens so effortlessly. Each scene takes events to a new level though it all seems so natural. Each turn makes sense. It all represents a perfect movie logic.

It is a comedy formula which is still used today. A character just digs a hole for themself by lying, putting themself further and further in trouble. But rarely is it done as wonderfully as it is done here and that is because Preston Sturges is at the helm. He is a comedy master. He knows comedy.

Though we also have to give credit to the performers. Eddie Bracken does a great job playing a guy who just can't keep up with the lies others are creating, all the while protesting, wanting ever so badly to come clean. But how can he? The situation keeps growing becoming harder and harder to tell the truth. It is not unlike the character he played in "Morgan's Creek". He stutters, fumbles and faints in one scene. It is Woody Allen-ish in its delivery.

And there are great jabs at the political system thrown in with the Mayor character (Sturges also took some jabs at politicians in his first movie, "The Great McGinty" (1940) as director). When the Mayor finds out Woodrow may run against him it causes a stir as his campaign manager (Al Bridge, yet another Struges' regular. The movie has a terrific supporting cast) tries to explain to him in this country people can vote for whomever they want. This causes the Mayor to respond "that's disgraceful!". We all like democracy when we know we are going to win.

The movie was made at the tail end of the war but it still has that patriotic war-time sentiment to it. There is a great display of community, people coming together to help each other. There is great pride shown for "our boys over-seas". Some may find the dialogue racist as characters use the term "japs". But this was how people spoke in those days. Does that mean it is right? No. But it is realistic. A sign of the times. I even remember a Laurel & Hardy comedy where the term was used. Not to mention the original "Batman" movie serial (which I reviewed) where the villain was called "an evil jap spy master".

"Hail the Conquering Hero" is a masterpiece. One of my favorite Preston Sturges comedies and one of the finest comedies of all time. If you are not familiar with Sturges it is a good place to start.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Film Review: Liv & Ingmar

"Liv & Ingmar"  *** (out of ****)

"Liv & Ingmar" (2014) is a lovely tribute to film maker Ingmar Bergman and actress Liv Ullmann. Bergman was one of the great film makers in world cinema, and, for me, the greatest. Ullmann was a frequent collaborator, working on a total of 11 feature films together including "Scenes From A Marriage" (1974), "Cries & Whispers" (1973), "The Passion of Anna" (1970) and "Face to Face" (1976) among them. She was his muse and together they are one of the great director / actor teams in all of cinema on par with Scorsese and De Niro, Woody Allen and Mia Farrow and Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich.

However, don't walk into "Liv & Ingmar" expecting a searing look into their work together. A documentary on Bergman's career and his place in cinema or for that matter Liv Ullmann's place. The movie does not dwell on the critical reception their films received or the influence it had on future generations.

I mention this for two reasons. One, people may expect a documentary called "Liv & Ingmar" to be about their work together. Two, a "movie critic" wrote a review in the Chicago Tribune complaining the documentary doesn't do these things and when clips are shown in the movie there is never a reference to which film it is. I'll explain why it doesn't matter but first, how sad that this is the state of film criticism when a "critic" is published in a newspaper, gives his/her opinion of a film and doesn't know what they are talking about. They don't understand the intention of the film. How sad. How very sad.

"Liv & Ingmar" explores Liv Ullmann's and Ingmar Bergman's personal, off-camera relationship. When they first worked together on Bergman's masterpiece, "Persona" (1967), the two began an affair. Both were married at the time and there was a roughly 20 year difference between them (Ingmar was the older one). Since Ingmar died in 2007 at the age of 89 it is Liv Ullmann who is mainly on-screen for the entire length of the documentary, except when clips of films are shown and even then the clips are of Ullmann.

She discusses the good times and bad times of their relationship and what life was like on Ingmar's private island, Faro. She explains his jealousy and controlling nature and how their relationship changed and her inner change with the birth of their daughter. And the pain she felt at their breakup and how she moved on with her career when she came to America. But through it all she and Ingmar remained friends. Not just because of their daughter but because they were two connected spirits who understood one another and whom despite everything, loved one another.

Of course we are only getting Ullmann's side of the story. And every problem in their relationship seems to have started because of Ingmar's actions. I never heard her once say an argument was her fault. Or she did something wrong. However that, I suppose, is not really the point.

Even though the movie is called "Liv & Ingmar" it could have very easily been called "John & Jane", meaning, this story could have been about any two lovers that have had a complicated life together. It just so happens in this case to be the life of two famous celebrities. The movie is more so about their bond and love for each other, not about their movies together.

Yes, Liv talks about her career. She shares some stories of what it was like on the set of some of Bergman's movies and how he would take out his anger on her during set giving harsh directions or putting her through extreme working conditions, but, she and the documentary always go back to their personal time together and their love. That is the whole point of the documentary.

Now, about the director, Dheeraj Akolkar, not telling us the names of the movies he shows clips us. It doesn't matter because the clips could have been taken from any movie by any director. What this said to me was how art reflects life or vice-versa. The clips are shown when Ullmann discusses painful moments in the relationship and the clips inserted give us a visual of a similar moment in one of Bergman's films. The film itself doesn't matter. The clip is not about the particular film but rather the emotion and ideas which the clip conveys exploring how Bergman would use his personal life in his films. How the films are sometimes a reflection of Bergman's life and we have Ullmann putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Explaining the context. Plus, if you are a Bergman fan, you are going to know which films the clips come from.

But, that leads to a different discussion. Who is going to watch this documentary? Who is the intended audience? The answer would seem only those who already know who Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann are. This is not a good introduction into the life and work of Ingmar Bergman or Liv Ullmann. The casual movie fan may not enjoy this. May not understand why these people would be the subject of a documentary. That is understandable, because, as I said, this is about Liv &
Ingmar's relationship and love for one another not a critical look at their work.

After watching this documentary you may find it interesting to see "Faithless" (2001, which I have reviewed). It is a movie Ingmar Bergman wrote and Liv Ullmann directed dealing with the guilt associated with an affair. It has largely been interpreted as dealing with the affair Liv & Ingmar had.