Saturday, November 29, 2014

Film Review: The Bullfighters

"The Bullfighters"  *** (out of ****)

Laurel & Hardy put the bull in bullfighting in the 20th Century Fox comedy "The Bullfighters" (1945).

"The Bullfighters" has a special place in the cannon of Laurel & Hardy comedies. It was the last American movie the legendary comedy team starred in.

At the peak of their popularity in the 1920s & 30s Laurel & Hardy worked for comedy producer Hal Roach. It was there the team, mainly Stan Laurel, had creative control of their movies, often with Laurel as an uncredited director or writer. In 1940 however the comedy team left Hal Roach after releasing "Saps at Sea" (1940) and signed a contract with 20th Century Fox. Fans of the team, film historians and movie critics (sheep) often state their work at Fox doesn't compare to what they did at the Roach studio.

I agree and don't agree. Those that are critics of me often feel I allow sentimentality to interfere with my reviews and I "go easy" on things I find important. I admit I am reluctant to criticize the work of Laurel & Hardy. They were my childhood heroes and I believe were the greatest comedy team in the history of film. As a result, the work they did in the 1940s at Fox and MGM does not strike me as disappointing. I don't mind watching "Nothing But Trouble" (1944), "A-Haunting We Will Go" (1942) or "Jitterbugs" (1943). Do I believe these are great comedies? No. But I find them to be decent, harmless, entertaining pictures and they give me an opportunity to spend an hour with two characters I enjoy spending time with. So, in the end, I'm not complaining. Is that a good justification for everyone to watch their movies? Probably not.

Of their work in the 1940s I would elect "The Bullfighters" and "Air Raid Wardens" (1943) as the best of this period. That is not the popular choice. Public opinion dictates that "Jitterbugs" is their best movie of the 1940s.

My reason for disagreeing is I feel "The Bullfighters" gives "the boys" more opportunity to engage in classic comedy routines. Since this was their last American film and one of the last "B" pictures 20th Century Fox was going to release (they had decide to close down their "B" movie division) there weren't studio executives over their shoulders and Stan was able to write some material and have more creative input. It shows. "The Bullfighters" has the feel of an older Laurel & Hardy comedy. Too bad they didn't make this in the 1930s when they were a little younger and had the benefit of using great supporting cast characters that the Roach Studio allowed. And that's the biggest problem with "The Bullfighters". It is too little, too late. The boys could have made this material sing but it was made at the wrong time in their careers.

Still I recommend seeing "The Bullfighters". The moments that work in the picture are funny and you will laugh. All I ask of a comedy is that is makes me laugh. If I laugh then I must be honest and say I did and recommend the movie. If I didn't laugh I won't recommend it. It is that simple. I laugh when I watch "The Bullfighters". Case closed.

Laurel & Hardy play two American detectives sent to Mexico to arrest a known convict, Hattie Blake (Carol Andrews). When things don't go quite as planned the two find themselves caught in a case of mistaken identity as Stan is a dead ringer for a famous Spanish bullfighter, Don Sebastian, who will arrive in Mexico for a heavily promoted bullfight being put on by "Hot Shot" Coleman (Richard Lane) and Richard K. Muldoon (Ralph Sanford, who suspiciously goes uncredited). This leads to trouble as Muldoon was falsely accused of a crime and sentenced to 20 years in prison because of testimony by Laurel & Hardy. After serving his sentence for five years, Muldoon was released after the real criminal confessed. In an attempt to start a new life Muldoon moved to Mexico but swore, if he ever saw Laurel & Hardy again, he would skin them alive.

Right from the very beginning of the picture Laurel & Hardy keep the laughs coming. As they arrive in Mexico they stand in line waiting for a taxi. As soon as a taxi arrives a crowd appears out of nowhere pushing their way into the taxi leaving Laurel & Hardy unable to enter.

When they finally reach the hotel the boy engage in two "tit for tat" sequences. One involves the boys sitting in the hotel lobby. There is a fountain. Stan notices a knob and turns it. Water shoots out of the sitting and unknown to Stan the water hits Oliver. Sitting next to the boys is a man practicing a speech (Edward Gargan, an old character actor who mostly played cops and detectives), Oliver thinks this man splashed the water on him as the two proceed to splash water on each other back and forth.

The next "tit for tat" sequence involves the boys finally catching up with Hattie Blake. She will not willfully turn herself over to the law. The three are in the cocktail lounge of the hotel as suspiciously there is a bowl of eggs on the bar stool(!) the sequence is a repeat of a routine Laurel & Hardy did in the MGM all-star comedy "Hollywood Party" (1934) where Stan and Hattie each take an egg and smash it on each other.

Perhaps I should explain what "tit for tat" is to non-Laurel & Hardy fans. Tit for tat was the team's most famous comedy routine. The boys would accidentally offend someone. In retaliation the individual would destroy something of the boys, whether it was an article of clothing or personal property. The boys would look on silently as the individual did this. Then the boys would destroy something of the individual while he or she looked on silently. The point was to up the ante at each turn. The best example of this is in the silent comedy "Big Business" (1929) where the boys destroy an entire house.

There is a lot fun to be had with the mistaken identity bit as beautiful women keep approaching Stan wishing him good luck and kiss him as Oliver looks on puzzled.

The entire situation escalates as Don Sebastian is having problems with his passport and there is a chance he will not be able to make the bullfight. Having seen Laurel & Hardy at the hotel (Don Sebastian was also booked at the same hotel) "Hot Shot" gets an idea. Why not have Stan pose as Don Sebastian? He is even willing to pay the boys for their trouble and warns them about Muldoon. The boys agree after being blackmailed. If they didn't agree "Hot Shot" would call Muldoon.

This whole business of the boys testifying at a trial putting Muldoon in prison and him vowing revenge was done before in the Laurel & Hardy comedy short "Going Bye-Bye" (1934) where the boys testify against a criminal known as Butch (Walter Long) who vows if and when he escapes from prison he will find the boys and rip off their legs and wrap them around their necks.

Laurel & Hardy would often find themselves the victim of gruesome, freak accidents as seen in "Going Bye-Bye", "Bohemian Girl" (1936), "The Live Ghost" (1934) and this picture.

Ralph Sanford however is not a good substitute for Walter Long, who had a better tough guy image. He also appeared in "Pardon Us" (1931), the first Laurel & Hardy feature length comedy, as a convict who shares the same cell with the boys.

The movie was directed by Malcom St. Clair, who had directed a few of the boys later pictures including "The Big Noise" (1944) and "The Dancing Masters" (1943) but his career went back to the silent era. He co-wrote and co-directed the Buster Keaton comedy "The Goat" (1921) and directed "The Show Off" (1926) with Louise Brooks and Ford Sterling.

The script was written by W. Scott Darling. His career also went back to the silent era. He wrote the funny Joel McCrea comedy "He Married His Wife" (1940) and he wrote 'The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942) as well as the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Jitterbugs".

Laurel & Hardy do what they can in "The Bullfighters". The material is the kind of stuff they would be working with at Hal Roach Studio. The boys still play well off each other but others feel the boys were too old to be doing this kind of thing. They should have retired after "Saps at Sea". I don't completely agree. I don't believe the boys embarrass themselves in this movie.

I keep referring to this as their last American movie and their is a reason for that. The boys made one more feature film, "Utopia" (1951) a French/Italian co-production which went under the original title "Atoll K". In that picture the boys are visibly in bad health. Oliver is probably at his heaviest and Stan is at his skinniest. He looks very fragile and you worry when Oliver hits him. Yet, I'm still reluctant to fully criticize that movie as well.

In the 1940s the public lost interest in the comedy of Laurel & Hardy, thanks to Abbott & Costello. But, for me, Laurel & Hardy were always watchable and had a great screen presence. "The Bullfighters" is not their best movie, no one is mistaking it for that, but it is a nice pleasant diversion. A harmless, silly comedy.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Film Review: Speedy

"Speedy"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Lately I have spent a lot of time revisiting the comedy world of silent screen icon Harold Lloyd. I have re-watched several Lloyd comedies including "The Freshman" (1925), "Girl Shy" (1924), "Hot Water" (1924), "The Kid Brother" (1927) and "Why Worry?" (1923).

The reason for the renewal interest in the work of Harold Lloyd is because I feel I have neglected discussing the films this comedy legend appeared in. I have reviewed nearly all the feature length films by Chaplin; "Modern Times" (1936), "The Kid" (1921), "City Lights" (1932) and "The Great Dictator" (1940) among them. I have reviewed all of the available silent feature length films starring the forgotten comedy clown, Harry Langdon. That leaves us with Buster Keaton and Harold  Lloyd. Of the Keaton comedies I have only reviewed "Sherlock, Jr." (1924). Of the Harold Lloyd comedies I have reviewed "Safety Last" (1923) and "Movie Crazy" (1932). But, I needed to review more.

Now the question becomes, what to review? So, I started re-watching the Harold Lloyd comedies I own, which is all of his feature length comedies. I remember the last time I saw them, for some it was as long as 10 years ago, I really enjoyed them. Lloyd was a childhood favorite of mine. Often referred to as "the third genius" I took pity on him. I didn't think it was fair he should be referred to as the third best silent comedian behind Chaplin and Keaton. Since I was always someone that championed the underdog I figured someone should say Harold  Lloyd is their favorite silent comedian, so, I decided that person will be me.

The first time I saw comedies such as "The Freshman", perhaps his most famous comedy, AFI named it one of the 100 best films of all time in their original list, and "Girl Shy" and "Grandma's Boy" (1922) I was just blown away. What a truly brilliant, innovative comedian he was. Each film thrilled me through and through and inspired me, as an amateur filmmaker himself.

But, a funny thing happened as I began re-watching these Lloyd comedies. They didn't excite me the way they once did. Oh, sure, there were funny sequences, I would never suggest a Harold Lloyd comedy is dull and/or boring, but, I wasn't an active participant in the movie. There was something about the Lloyd character, commonly referred to as "glasses", that I wasn't responding to. It took a while for me to figure out what it was as I watched movie after movie. Then it hit me.

Harold Lloyd didn't make the kind of silent comedies Chaplin or Keaton did. Harold Lloyd was essentially a leading man in disguise and his pictures were more so romantic comedies than anything else. Watch "Girl Shy" and tell me that's not the case. It has a formula very similar to romantic comedies made today.

The other thing I began to notice was Lloyd often was a victim of the plot. He wasn't an active character. Bad things happened to him and he responded to the situation but he wasn't a performer the way Chaplin was. Lloyd didn't do funny things in his pictures, funny things happened to him. For some reason that lessened my enjoyment and I didn't feel like writing about any of the movies I was watching. In a last ditch effort I watched "Speedy" (1928), a comedy I remembered as being a minor, funny, effort. For me, it held up better than any of the comedies I re-watched and my opinion of it improved.

The major difference this time around is the romance isn't given as much screen time. I like this because it gives us more time for comedy instead. Also, as is the case with most silent comedies, the plot isn't sidetracked by a comedy routine that comes out of nowhere and takes up 15 minutes. "Speedy" is a pretty well structured story that narrows its focus and sticks to the outline of the plot. It is consistent.

In "Speedy" Lloyd plays Harold "Speedy" Swift. Reminiscent of the characters Lloyd usually played "Speedy" is a young all-American boy who loves baseball (what's more American than that?), especially the New York Yankees and their ace outfielder, Babe Ruth, and yes, "the bambino" makes an appearance in the picture (!).

The problem with "Speedy" however is he can't hold a job. He is too preoccupied with baseball and keeping up with the latest scores to focus on his work. There are more important things in life than a job after all. But this lack of financial security is a problem for the girl he loves, Jane Dillon (Ann Christy). She lives with her grandfather (Bert Woodruff) who runs the last horse drawn streetcar in New York. Major streetcar companies want to merge together and buy out small independent owned streetcars. But "Pops" is holding out to sell his, especially after "Speedy" tells him of the planned merger. It would be in "Pops" benefit to hold out and ask for more money.

Meanwhile, "Speedy" needs to find a job and keep it, so he can follow the American dream and marry the woman he loves so they may start a family together.

Getting in the way of that simply dream of "Speedy"'s however is "Pops". Jane won't marry Speedy until her grandfather's financial affairs are in order. "Speedy" over hears the head of a streetcar company devise a plan that will stop "Pops" from being able to run his horse drawn streetcar. A fight will be planned to happen on the streetcar and the thugs will steal it. Under the law, as long as the streetcar operates once every 24 hours the horse drawn streetcar belongs to "Pops" and no one can take it away from.

Discovering the plan "Speedy" offers to run the streetcar for a couple of days and rounds up a bunch of elderly business owners in the neighborhood to help him fight off the thugs and save the horse drawn streetcar.

What I enjoy most about watching "Speedy" is we get to see Coney Island. There is a date sequence as Speedy and Jane go on a Sunday date. We see them go on all the rides and eat hot dogs and a lot of other food. It adds a historical purpose, the viewer actually gets to see footage of what Coney Island in the 1920s looked like and it is fun to see. I liked the sequence of sentimental reasons. I love the era of the 1920s and what seemed to be such a simple lifestyle. Even the working class could go out and have a night on the town. Of course by the end of the night Speedy is completely broke.

We also get to see footage of Yankee Stadium and Babe Ruth hit a home run. Ruth plays a passenger in Speedy'a cab, in another job that Speedy can't hold as a cabdriver this time. We see Speedy zig-zag through the streets of New York narrowly missing cars left and and right because he is too busy with his head turned to Ruth expressing his admiration.

A funny sequence occurs at the beginning of the movie as Speedy works as a soda jerk. He keeps calling a friend who tells him the score of the Yankee's game while Speedy tells the other employees the score. But, because he is at work and doesn't want the boss to know what he is up too he must find clever ways to tell everyone the inning and the score.

The movie feels a bit different compared to other Lloyd comedies yet keeps some of the characteristic of his screen persona.

Lloyd wanted to play a character that could be described as an "every man". Someone who looked like your next door neighbor. Of course Chaplin played the tramp, Harry Langdon was a man-child, Keaton never smiled and always fought with technology but Lloyd didn't wear baggy pants, have a funny walk or wear exaggerated make-up. He was an all-round American go-getter. He always fought to achieve the American Dream. He wanted to win the girl's heart and get married. He wanted to be a success at business and make lots of money. He was just like the people watching his movies, in search of a better life. And, if he believed in himself and went after something, he would get it, because that's what America is all about, right? Well, at least that is what we are told. If you work hard and go after what you want you will be a success. Forget climbing the corporate ladder, why, if Harold had to, he would climb the side of a building to reach the top.

Although "Speedy" may not have the popularity of "The Freshman" or "Safety Last", I believe it is an enjoyable comedy that works just as well as any other Lloyd comedy. It takes out a lot of what I find unnecessary in most of Lloyd's pictures and just gives us the goods. There is a consistent plot, funny routines and a thrill sequence at the end, which was typical of Lloyd's comedies. And, Lloyd is more active in the plot, making things happen instead of always being the victim of someone else's actions.

Who knows, maybe after I re-watch Lloyd's comedies again my opinion will change yet again but for now I  say watch "Speedy" and appreciate the comedy world of Harold Lloyd.

Some other interesting notes about the film is this was Harold Lloyd's last silent comedy. After this picture he would start to make sound pictures. His first was "Welcome Danger" (1929). "Speedy" was also nominated for an Academy Award in the now defunct category of Best Director, Comedy Picture for Ted Wilde, who had previously directed Lloyd in "The Kid Brother" and worked as a writer on a few other Lloyd comedies.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Film Review: Le Boucher

"Le Boucher"  *** (out of ****)

Claude Chabrol's "Le Boucher" ( The Butcher; 1972) is often considered by sheep (er movie critics) as the best film the great French filmmaker ever made.

I first saw this often called classic several years ago when I was in my early twenties. I had just discovered the work of this brilliant and sometimes neglected filmmaker, referred to as "the French Hitchcock", and at the time I admired the movie. If I am honest with myself, I think I enjoyed it because I felt "pressured" to do so. The American movie critics throw a lot of praise at this film and you will find some in the general public praise it as well, so, I felt a certain "obligation" to like the movie as strongly as others have as well. But, as I watched "Le Boucher" again and being older and less concerned with how my opinions correlate with that of the general public, I find the movie to be lacking.

Claude Chabrol was known for making films which involved murder. His films mainly focused on the bourgeois and tried to expose the friendly, respectable facade they have created for themselves as family secrets were exposed and psychological conflicts were revealed and it usually ended in murder.

He directed what is generally considered the first film in the Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) movement, "Le Beau Serge" (1958). He, along with Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, wrote for the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinema. With time, as I have already mentioned, he earned the nickname, "the French Hitchcock", though Chabrol felt it was not an apt comparison.

"Le Boucher", like a few of Chabrol's early films ("Le Beau Serge" among them) focuses on the working class. Here we follow a school teacher, Helene (Stephane Audran, whom at one time was married to Chabrol) and a butcher, Paul (Jean Yanne). They both live in a small, quiet town, and as in other Chabrol films, things aren't what they seem. The small town will turn out not to be the idyllic, gentle place its surroundings would have you believe. For that matter, the characters are not as innocent as they appear either.

The movie begins by showing us the good times, a wedding, as we see Helene and Paul meet and strike up a conversation. We learn Paul has been in the army. He has not been back to this small town since his mother died seven years ago. He didn't get along with his father, who was also the town's butcher, now Paul has filled those shoes. We learn very little about Helene. All we know is she has been living in this town for three years and knew Paul's father.

At first "Le Boucher" doesn't seem to be about much. We just follow these characters and suspect perhaps a romance will develop between them. But, this is a Claude Chabrol film. Something has to happen. And that's my problem with "Le Boucher". Not enough happens and it takes too long for something to begin to happen.

We slowly learn one of the townspeople has been murdered. The police have no suspects. The victim was a young woman. The same woman who was married at the beginning of the movie. Next we learn of another murder. The police suspect it was done by the same killer since the deaths were similar.

But, there are only two main characters in "Le Boucher", so, it must be one of them. Paul talks about death a lot. He saw a lot of dead bodies in the army. That has an effect on a man. Helene may be a bit "too good". Is anyone really that perfect and innocent? But, our main suspect is the butcher if for no other good reason then the movie is named after him.

"Le Boucher" is not like your conventional mystery/thriller though. It doesn't slowly build suspense. There isn't a group of suspects. The movie doesn't earn our interest. It is too subtle. It doesn't develop a strong relationship between the audience and the characters. I never felt Chabrol, as a director, was guiding the audience in a certain direction. The movie seems to be about atmosphere and giving the town a sense of personality. There are also undertones of repression. But, it wasn't enough to make me care much about the characters and the situations unfolding.

I have read some claim the strength of the film is Helene. Does she know Paul is the murderer? Is she protecting him? It is an interesting concept but an unwarranted one. This is someone trying to make the movie more important than it is. I feel that way because, at no point is this a "woman in peril" movie. At no point do we feel Helene is in any danger. At no point is this idea suggested that Helene is protecting Paul. I simply look at the movie and take it at face value. There are no "clues" being dropped. The movie spells things out in the last 15 minutes or so of the movie. Prior to that, any evidence that Helene knows more than she is letting on is purely in your mind and was not put there by Chabrol.

It seems to me Chabrol works at his best when he is looking and the rich and powerful and attacks them. When he takes the same approach with the working class, it is not as interesting to me. Working class people aren't hiding as much as the rich. The rich are a better target because they are in a position where they have more to lose because I doubt they became rich by being honest, decent, hard working citizens. Save the fairy tale for someone dumb enough to believe it.

"Le Boucher" is not a bad movie. The ingredients for a great Chabrol film are here but they are not used properly. The performances by Audran and Yanne are effective, I especially like Audran, she was one of Chabrol's great muses. She had a wonderful look for Chabrol's films. She always had a "poker face". You never knew what she was thinking.

For as great as Claude Chabrol was, "Le Boucher" doesn't deserve the reputation it has gained over the years. I firmly believe Chabrol made better films; "The Unfaithful Wife" (1969), "Les Biches" (1968), "Merci Pour Le Chocolat" (2002) and "Wedding in Blood" (1974) among them. "Le Boucher" is kind of a let down after you have seen those movies. "Le Boucher" should be seen. You should see all of the movies directed by Claude Chabrol but "Le Boucher" should not be seen as Chabrol's definitive work. It is a popular minor effort.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Film Review: Scenes From A Marriage

"Scenes From A Marriage"  **** (out of ****)

When we first meet Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann) they are being interviewed for a magazine article. We learn they have been married for 10 years and have two children. The interviewer starts off by asking a simple enough question - describe yourself in a few words. Johan answers first and mentions he is bright, a good son, a good father, jokingly he says he is a fantastic lover, he enjoys sports and considers himself a good friend. Then Marianne must answer the question. She responds by saying she has been married for 10 years to Johan and they have two children.

This comments on an old cliche about married life. The husband has a life beyond the family. Men have an identity as more than a father and husband, they have a job, they get out of the house and have a social life, meeting interesting people. The woman on the other hand is identified as a mother and a wife. Her identity is defined by her family. Her children and married life consume her and make her who she is.

The movie was written and directed by Ingmar Bergman and was originally conceived as a mini-series on Swedish television divided into six episodes and was five hours long. In 1974 it was released theatrically in the U.S. in a shorter three hour version.

The movie is filled with insightful observations on human behavior like the one mentioned. Bergman had always been known for his keen insight into the human condition, for his ability to make audiences face the grim truths of their existence, to hold a mirror to society and make us face our reflection.

Though Bergman was best known for directing films which had characters confront themselves with questions such as what is the meaning of life? Does God exist? What is our purpose? He also made films which examined the relationships between men and women. He was known as one of the few male directors to be able to write realistic portrayals of women. Many times the female characters are far more interesting than the male characters and it was not unusual for him to write a movie from a female perspective.

Going back to the first scene in the movie and the all important question of describing yourself, Marianne's answer will also provide another observation about herself. While society may view her as a "mother" and a "wife" what does it say about how Marianne views herself? It is true, when most people are asked to describe themselves, they can't. We are unsure of ourselves. We feel put on the spot, mostly because, we aren't used to expressing ourselves and spending time on internal reflection and critical thinking. I mean, stuff like that will interfere with our watching "Dancing with the Stars" and other important daily activities.

Still, as Marianne answers the question we sense something else about her. She is discontented with her life. Her inability to answer the question makes her realize, what is her life all about? Yes, she is a mother and a wife, but what does/did she want out of life? Does she feel fulfilled? In fact, what does a fulfilling life mean? What must we gain to accomplish that?

Contrast that with Johan. He is relaxed and confident during the interview. He may even be flirting a little with the female interviewer. Marianne is tense and awkward. Johan is in control of the moment. He is putting on a performance. Revealing only what he wants to and what he feels is important. Marianne is caught off guard.

Next we meet Johan and Marianne's best friends; another married couple, Peter (Jan Malmsjo) and Katarina (Bibi Andersson) as the four are having dinner. If Johan and Marianne seem to have to perfect marriage, which all of their friends tell them and even the two agree, Peter and Katarina are presented as the exact opposite. Johan and Marianne say they are best friends and according to Marianne they "speak the same language" and have an understanding between them. Peter and Katarine do nothing but argue with one another and make nasty remarks towards each other.

As we watch this scene we think to ourselves, which couple really has the better marriage? Sure, Johan and Marianne may not make a spectacle in front of others and may put on a good face however are Johan and Marianne really better off? Their friends may hate each other but their problems are real. Johan and Marianne lead an anti-septic life. Peter and Katarina communicate with one another. Where is life's complexities and quarrels in Johan and Marianne's marriage? These may not be the pleasant aspects of a relationship but they are a reality.

The movie lives up to its title. The movie is presented in chapters. It covers the course of 10 years into the life of Johan and Marianne. Not following, in the traditional sense, a linear narrative. We see them as husband and wife, later they contemplate divorce, we see them struggle with the meaning of that and the effect it will have on their lives and their children and finally a reconciliation. We see all the stages of a relationship. But because it is an Ingmar Bergman film, it feels real. These are characters we can relate to. The difficulties of married life are honestly presented. The pain of letting someone go and moving on are accurately reflected. The film hits on emotional truths.

The hardest aspect of any relationship or marriage is the most obvious, it involves being with another person. People are difficult to deal with. It is difficult to deal with another person's mood swings, their quirks and mannerisms. Especially when confronted with this person on a day to day basis. And soon we think of all we have given up for the other person. What could our life have amounted to if we hadn't met "this person". Marianne thinks that and in one of the movie's several powerful moments she is talking to an elderly woman. Marianne is a divorce lawyer and the woman has come to her office because she wants a divorce.

The woman has been married for many years. She and her husband have raised three children. They have all grown up and left the house. Now, the woman feels she has met her obligation, she has raised her children and now she wants out of her marriage. She says it is a loveless marriage. She and her husband are nice to each other. He was a good husband and a loving father but the love is not there. As Marianne listens to the woman, we can tell she is afraid, one day, this will be her. Yes, Johan is a good husband and a loving father. Johan and Marianne seem like a perfect couple on paper but, do they really love each other or did they get married out of convenience? Because it made sense.

Bergman films the movie, at times, in an almost documentary style. Their is a natural quality to some of the scenes. The acting has a relaxed quality to it. We don't sense Josephson and Ullmann are putting on a performance. We are eavesdropping on a couple. We are voyeurs looking at private, intimate moments in a relationship. We are seeing it destruct right before our eyes.

Part of me wants to compare the movie to John Cassavetes "Faces" (1968), another movie about a married couple. That movies focused on an American couple. Cassavetes wanted to show the lack of communication in marriage. Johan and Marianne only seem to talk when it is too late. When words no longer matter because the damage has been done. "Scenes From A Marriage" though is more poetic than "Faces". Cassavetes' movie has an improvised feeling to it.

What I love most about "Scenes From A Marriage" is its honesty. It doesn't feel cliche. It feels accurate. I have seen the movie a few times. I own it on DVD (where both the mini-series and the theatrical version are included). I have always liked the movie but having watched it at various points in my life, at different ages, I pick up on certain things. The characters speak to me in ways they hadn't before. As a teenager, when I first saw the movie, I felt it was an intense drama in the typical Bergman tradition. When I watched the movie in my 20s, again I felt it was an intense drama but a realistic portrait of marriage. Now, in my 30s the movie seems smart and observant. I see more of myself in these characters. As I watched it again, I thought of my own relationships.

Bergman revisited some of these characters in other movies. He followed up on Peter and Katarina in "From the Life of the Marionettes" (1980) and made an official sequel to "Scenes From A Marriage" called "Saraband" (2005) which was his last movie as a director. It also originally aired on Swedish television.

We tend to think of the 1950s as Bergman's peak as a writer and director with films such as 'The Seventh Seal" (1957), "Wild Strawberries" (1959) and "The Magician" (1958) but the 1970s was also an important time for him with the release of titles such as "Cries & Whispers" (1973), "The Touch" (1971), "Face to Face" (1976) and this movie. It seems Bergman was always making great movies.

"Scenes From A Marriage" is a powerful, honest account of marriage and love and the lasting bond two people can share between them.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Film Review: The Godfather Part III

"The Godfather Part III"  *** (out of ****)

Director Francis Ford Coppola concludes one of the greatest American film trilogies in cinema history with "The Godfather Part III" (1990).

"The Godfather Part III" was released 16 years after "The Godfather Part II" (1974) and was eagerly awaited by the public, though director Coppola hesitated to revisit the world of the Corleone family. Coppola had very bad memories of his time working on the first "The Godfather" (1972) film because he clashed with the studio and producers over casting decisions and control of the film.

I remember when "The Godfather Part III" was released. As a child I felt I was witness to something historical and epic. A "Godfather" film was going to be released during my lifetime. I wasn't born when the first two films were released in the 1970s but now I would have an opportunity to see a "Godfather" movie in a theatre.

Unfortunately "The Godfather Part III" was not able to live up to the expectations audiences had for the movie. Some consider the movie a complete failure. That is too strong a position in my opinion. It is true this is a minor effort. It is the weakest of the three films but it is not a disaster. It is not an embarrassment for Coppola or the actors involved in the movie.

The film has its defenders however. The late film critic of the Chicago Tribune and television, Gene Siskel, placed the movie on his annual "top ten" list back in 1990. His partner, the late film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert, also gave the movie a thumbs up on their TV show. In fact, Ebert even gave the movie a higher star rating than he did "The Godfather Part II".

The movie went on to win a total of seven Academy Award nominations including best picture, best director (Coppola) and best supporting actor (Andy Garcia). Making all three movies Academy Award nominees for best picture Oscars. The first two films won the award and were well deserved. This time around I feel every nomination for this movie was not justified. "The Godfather Part III" was simply not good enough to warrant a best picture nomination. I can only believe the Academy nominated the film out of respect for Coppola and the success of the first two films.

Written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, "The Godfather Part III" takes place in  1979. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has retired from the mafia. He has made good on his promise to his now ex-wife, Kay (Diane Keaton) as the Corleone family is now involved in legitimate business. Michael spends his time doing charity work and has started the Corleone Foundation which is run by his daughter, Mary (Sofia Coppola).

Besides this we also learn Michael does not have a good relationship with his son, Anthony (Franc D'Ambrosio), which was hinted at in the second film. Michael had plans for Anthony to become a lawyer and possibly work for him one day. Anthony however has no interest in law and has decided to drop out of law school and become a singer instead. Afraid to tell his father, Anthony has his mother, Kay, deliver the news to Michael and ask for his permission.

We also learn Tom Hagaen (played by Robert DuVall) has died since the last film (this was due to salary negotiations. DuVall demanded more money to appear in the movie) as a result the character B.J. Harrison (George Hamilton) was created and deals with the legal end of the Corleone Foundation. We are also introduced to Tom's son Andrew (John Savage) who has become a priest.

"The Godfather Part III" now juggles two competing storylines; has Michael Corleone really gone legitimate? And there is a sub-plot dealing with the Corleone family doing backdoor business deals with the Vatican and an international real estate holding company - Immobiliare. Michael makes a deal to help cover up financial problems the church has in exchange for buying their stake in the real estate company.

The over-arching theme in "The Godfather Part III" is redemption, which is fitting since the Catholic church is so prominent in the story. Michael looks back on his life and regrets many of the decisions he has made, especially ordering the death of his brother, Fredo (John Cazale) in "The Godfather Part II".

Viewers could sense these feelings in Michael in the second film as that movie was about how the choices we make in life define us. We could see Michael struggling to do the right things but the wheels have been set in motion and there is no way to stop it.

That continues in part three and leads to the famous line of dialogue delivered by Michael, "just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in". Can Michael ever escape the Mafia? Is it really possible to leave that life behind? Even when he says he tries to, the world around him won't let him. As he deals with the church he finds back-stabbing and manipulation. He may want to follow the straight and narrow path but the world is not comprised of people who want to do the right thing.

What makes "The Godfather Part III" a less interesting film compared to the previous two is, for me, the characters aren't as interesting this time around. There was greater complexity in the first two movies. Michael felt like a developing character, growing and struggling to find his place in the world and how to deal with his power. There is a struggle presented in this movie but it is not as powerful as in the first two movies. You almost get the feeling Puzo and Coppola just wanted to end this series and weren't looking to add any depth. It is as if they decided when writing the screenplay, "lets just really limit our focus here with Michael and have all signs point in one direction and not add any new human or character development. We know where we want this all to end and lets get there fast." That, for me, lessens the experience. The movie has no ambition.

Another thing that hurts the movie - the acting. Within the first two movies we had Pacino, Brando, DuVall, Cazale, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Robert De Niro, Lee Strasberg and Sterling Hayden. This time around we have George Hamilton, Andy Garcia, Sofia Coppola and Joe Mantegna. You could argue they are talented but they are not at that iconic level of those other actors (of course, neither were some of them when those movies were first released). Adding "heft" this time around is Eli Wallach as Don Altobello, an old friend of the family. New movie, new actors, new characters, it all gives the movie a different vibe.

When you mention the acting in the movie, some were and still are quick to criticize Sofia Coppola as being the weak link. I disagree. She is no better or worst then anyone else in this movie, She fits right in this movie because no one impressed me acting wise, so it is silly to only pick on her. Is Sofia Coppola a great actress? No. Did anyone in this movie standout by delivering a truly effective performance? No. Pacino is memorable, I guess, to the degree Michael Corleone has been the focal point in all three movies, but, it is not Pacino's best role, as great an actor he is.

Though, to criticize the actors alone is not fair. Again, we must go back to the screenplay. Nothing new is being attempted here. The movie is getting by on nostalgia for the first two movies. Many clips from those movies are presented here to help show the full spectrum of Michael's life. The screenplay doesn't seem to be very demanding on the actors.

Even with these criticisms I am recommending the movie. Why? The movie only fails when compared to the first two movies. It doesn't reach for a level of greatness. If we were to view this as a stand alone movie, audiences and myself, may not be so tough on it. As a movie fan there is a level of interest to revisit these characters and to see how Coppola wanted to treat them. What did he see in store for them.

"The Godfather Part III" is a technically well made movie. The actors do what they can. The cinematography is adequate. The musical score by Carmine Coppola is nice. A very pretty love theme was composed, "Promise Me You'll Remember" and was nominated for best song. But there is nothing to get excited about and that's the problem. Everyone hits their marks, the actors are in focus but it doesn't amount to much.

Those that love the first two movies will want to see this movie for "closure" but there is a reason it is widely regarded as the weakest of the three films, mostly because it is. "The Godfather Part III" is a well made movie. It is not a complete failure. I am not sorry the movie was made. I just wish Coppola had a little more ambition for the story. The best comparison I can make is, it is like watching a young child play piano. They read the sheet music. They hit the right notes. They play the piece properly at the correct tempo but there is no heart. No passion. That's "The Godfather Part III". Well meaning, adequately made, but no passion.