Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Film Review: The Patsy

"The Patsy"  *** (out of ****)

How many times have you thought to yourself, why aren't I famous? I'm just as good or better than some of the people I see on television.

How many times have you watched Jerry Lewis and thought, this guy is not funny? I could do what he is doing.

"The Patsy" (1964), directed by Jerry Lewis, his fifth feature film as director, deals with these issues, as well as a few others.

Jerry Lewis was never a critical darling in America. Lewis felt the critics were hostile towards him, he would even go as far as to suggest anti-semitism was the reason behind it, and he was hostile towards the critics.

But, critical praise be damned, Lewis was a box-office star. His comedies at Paramount made a lot of money. Maybe the studio executives couldn't figure his movies out but they made money and that was the bottom-line. As long as a Jerry Lewis movie made money, Lewis would have the creative freedom to make the type of comedies he so desired.

Of course though, the critics and some of the American public did wonder, why would anyone find this guy funny. He is crazy. A child could do what he is doing. In fact, Lewis is a child. "The Patsy" dares to argue, oh yeah! You think anyone could do what Jerry Lewis does? Try it! Go ahead. Perform in front of an audience. Tell jokes. Sing a song. Dance. Not everyone can do it. You know why? It takes talent. It may all look easy but that is only because the person is so talented they make it seem effortless.

In "The Patsy" a famous comedian dies in a plane crash and now his entourage consisting of his writer, Chic (Phil Harris), his public relations man, Harry (Keenan Wynn), director, Morgan (Peter Lorre), producer, Caryl (Everett Sloane) and a beautiful woman named Ellen (Ina Balin), who handles his fan mail, have decided to turn a nobody into a star.

Their reasoning is they are afraid of what the future holds. Of course, if these people were any good at their jobs, they shouldn't worry. Any celebrity would want their services. Each person admits the deceased comedian taught them what they know about the movie business and now they believe they can take what they have learned and create a star. With minds like this backing a person, how could the plan fail?

On some level this story has appeal in our world today. Everyone wants to be famous. We have countless shows on TV featuring people trying to break through. They sing, tell jokes, make sex videos, all in the hopes of becoming famous. The one thing they all over look however is they don't have talent. What makes a person famous? It is not their public relations man. Oh sure, he or she might get your name in the paper or all over the internet, but if you don't have talent, the fame won't last.

Along with this theme Lewis also injects observations suggesting, one must be true to themself. That is the only way we will succeed. We must never lose our innocence and become corrupt by a system. A system that makes us question our instincts and hide our feelings.

The patsy in "The Patsy" is a bellboy named Stanley Belt (Lewis). He has been chosen by this great entourage to be turned into a star. The problem is Stanley has no talent. He can't tell jokes. He can't remember the set-up and doesn't know how to deliver a punch line. He can't sing. He doesn't know how to dance. But, he agrees to have this group of people publicize him because of the money and the promise of beautiful women, fast cars and an exciting nightlife. Plus, Stanley takes a liking to Ellen, whom for some reason, takes a liking to Stanley.

It has been suggested "The Patsy" was intended to be a sequel to "The Bellboy" (1960), Lewis' directorial debut. In that movie Lewis also played a bellboy named Stanley.

When I was younger I remember finding Jerry Lewis to be a very funny guy. There were two movies in particular that I found to be extremely funny. One was "My Friend Irma" (1949) a feature film based on a popular radio program of the same name. It marked the screen debut of the comedy team Martin & Lewis. I also remember finding "The Bellboy" to be hysterical. But, as I've gotten older, my feelings toward Lewis have become more neutral. I am not Jerry Lewis's biggest fan nor am I someone who finds his humor infantile.

However, as I watch his movies I am always questioning his filmmaking techniques. I can never quite understand how he uses his camera. Watching "The Patsy" for the third time I had these thoughts as well. Lewis likes the long shot. Charlie Chaplin once said, "comedy is long shot, drama is close-up". There is an element of truth to that but Lewis takes it a bit too far.

One example is a scene at the beginning of the movie. Stanley has agreed to the plan by the entourage. It is shot in an extreme long shot of the top suite in a Hilton hotel room. Immediately after Stanley agrees, everyone goes into action making important phone calls, running from one side of the room to the other. The problem is, when you shoot this sequence in a long shot you don't get that hectic, frenetic pace. Picture the scene shot in a medium shot, where we would only see the characters from the shoulders up. This would give the impression of being cluttered. In that split second, as soon as Stanley agrees, his life will now spin out of control. Then we see the other characters speedily walk past Stanley.

Once we see this sequence in an extreme long shot and we can see the entire hotel room we are aware of space. It present a different emotion. We don't feel chaos. Everyone has so much room. And, some of the characters are static. Lewis has given himself such a large canvass to paint he doesn't know how to fill the frame.

Lewis the director does this over and over again. He films too many scenes in long shots. He also has a bad habit and shooting characters from the back as they speak to Stanley, so only Stanley's face in on-screen and the back of the head of the other actor. He rarely cuts away to each person during a conversation. Sometimes the expression of the other actor as it relates to Stanley's behavior would be funny.

Another problem with "The Patsy" and Lewis in general is the dialogue. Jerry Lewis is not an intellectual. Lewis has nothing, if anything, insightful to say about human behavior. Lewis observes the world as a child. If you listen to the dialogue in this movie, if you listen to Lewis speak in interviews, he often speaks of a child's perception to life. What separates him from Chaplin or even Woody Allen is, they deal with adults. They examine the relationships between men and women. Lewis wants to. Pay attention to the dialogue between Ellen and Stanley. But Lewis writes cliches. Listen to Ellen's dialogue about dreams and recalling pleasant memories. Ellen's dialogue is clumsy at best and doesn't sound the way people speak but, doesn't it also resemble how a parent speaks to a child?

Lewis wants to have sentimental scenes as in a flashback sequence of when Stanley attended a school dance but didn't have a date and was made fun of for wearing a rented tuxedo. First of all, this is an unnecessary sequence. Secondly, again, we are dealing with observations based on children. Can we relate to feeling like an outsider, as Stanley does in this sequence? Yes. I can just picture Lewis speaking about this sequence saying it is for every poor child that went to school and didn't have enough money to wear expensive clothes. It is about the child that had to wear the same outfit two or three days in a row while the other children made fun of them. Great Jerry! You hit it on the head. Now how about dealing with adults.

Lewis could never find the right tone for great pathos like Chaplin. He doesn't have the insight into human behavior between men and women. He doesn't know how to comment on it. Even Woody Allen can make sharper observations about life, dating, marriage, death. And Allen can write better dialogue for women. This hurts Lewis as he tries to dip his toe into more dramatic scenes.

Jerry Lewis normally played a buffoon in his comedies and he certainly does here. This bothers some people as they say, it is not funny watching a grown man take pratfalls and act like a jerk. The viewer must either accept this or completely reject it. If you chose to reject it, then you are not allowed to ever watch a Jerry Lewis movie ever again. The funny thing is, while I normally accept the Lewis persona on-screen, watching "The Patsy" was the first time I struggled. There is a scene where Stanley is being coached to tell some jokes. Stanley can't repeat a simple sentence and fumbles and stumbles over the words, changing their order. Repeatedly Chic and Harry give him the line and time after time Stanley can't repeat it. As I watched the sequence, I understand it is suppose to be funny but soon I started to become aggravated. Stanley! What's so difficult?

And this leads to another issue. Clearly the other characters in the movie are aware and react to Stanley's buffoonery all except Ellen. She laughs at him. I found this to be a distraction. In nearly every scene Ellen has with Stanley she has a smile on her face or laughs at him. It feels as if Ellen is watching not Stanley but Jerry Lewis. Oddly the movie also ends on a self-referential note which feels awkward at best. It has been said Lewis simply didn't know how to end the movie.

Still "The Patsy" has some moments that are funny and nicely structured visual gags. As I said, I am neutral when it comes to Lewis. I can admit sometimes he makes me laugh and I can spot his flaws. "The Patsy" is one of his better outings. I would even go as far as to say it is one of Lewis's better movies.

The trick to the Lewis man-child persona is coming up with a good scenario which fits the character. "The Patsy" is about about a person that doesn't have talent trying to become a star. Therefore Lewis can play the fool. The persona is built into the plot rather than placing the Lewis character in a movie that doesn't need his physical comedy. That can become annoying. That's what makes "The Patsy" works, when it does. That is it's strength.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Film Review: Magic in the Moonlight

"Magic in the Moonlight"
*** 1\2  (out of ****)

Woody Allen comments on the meaning of life and finds magic in it in his latest comedy "Magic in the Moonlight" (2014).

Looking over the cannon of Woody Allen films of the last 10 years or so one notices age has neither slowed down or mellowed the old master. When compared to other giant filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman or Akira Kurosawa, Allen is a much more pessimistic director and individual.

Generally speaking age has a way of making us more reflective and softer. We lose our harsh edges. Take a look at the movies Ingmar Bergman was writing towards the end of his life; "Best Intentions" (1992), "Private Confessions" (1999) and "Faithless" (2001). Bergman was writing movies about his youth, his family and his private secrets. He had become more reflective. Knowing death stared him in the face, Bergman decided to empty his closet so to speak and free his demons. Take a look at what Kurosawa was doing in "Dreams" (1990), "Rhapsody in August" (1991) and "Madadayo" (1998). These were personal stories also told by a man who knew death was staring him in the face.

Born in 1935 Woody Allen knows death is staring him too in the face. Yet, that knowledge has not dulled his senses. It has not changed his world view. Some might turn to religion to explain the explainable. In a certain sense it provides comfort. Religion may not answer all of life's questions but it attempts to put our life in perspective. It attempts to give us meaning. It tells us, some things in life cannot be explained but through faith we must not only accept this fact but must also accept there is a plan created by God.

Allen has always described himself as an atheist, a non-believer. But, within the past 10 years he has forcefully push the notion in his films, life is meaningless. Take a look at "Match Point" (2005), the movie which re-introduced Allen to the public and brought him acclaim and box-office he had not experienced in decades. One of its underlying messages was luck. There is no divine plan. Life is a series of coincidences. Our lives are what we make of it and with a bit of luck, good things may happen to us. Then look at "Cassandra's Dream" (2007) and last year's "Blue Jasmine" (2013). They told us not to worry, all things will end badly. Life is tragic. And finally there is the movie I feel "Magic in the Moonlight" resembles closest, its companion piece, "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" (2010), a movie the public and sheep (movie critics) sadly condemned and ignored. These movies tell us life is what we make of it. Happiness is in the eye of the beholder. We chose to interpret what life throws at us to our benefit. We find our own happiness. Life may not have a grand meaning but in order to survive we hold on to what little our daily lives offer and embrace it and that is what gives life meaning. That is what allows us to get up in the morning and face the day.

This material can lend itself to drama; "Blue Jasmine", "Match Point" or it can be the basis of comedy; "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger", "Magic in the Moonlight", but, even if Allen takes the comedy route it doesn't diminish the theme. Unfortunately many in the public believe comedy equals lesser value. Comedy is not as "important" as drama. But, in Allen's comedies, especially ones like "Magic in the Moonlight", he is observant and clever. He makes strong commentaries and hits on interesting interpretations of the world around us and tries to expose the facade of our lives.

However, having seen "Magic in the Moonlight" three times now (twice in a movie theatre and once on DVD) I also believe there is a romantic streak in Allen and "Magic in the Moonlight". Yes, life is meaningless. All that exist is what we can see. But, the distraction which we chose to carry ourselves away with and provide us with pleasure is love. Love can make us happy. Love can take away our worries. Love can give the illusion of meaning to our lives. There is a sweetness I find in this message and throughout 'Magic in the Moonlight". Love gives us hope and changes our perception of the world around us. And because of this, because of the happiness love can offer, we then say, "life isn't so bad". And, so through the misery of our daily existence, we find happiness, or, if you will, an illusion of happiness.

In "Magic in the Moonlight" Colin Firth plays Stanley Crawford, a world famous magician, who goes by the named Wei Ling Soo, a Chinese illusionist. Stanley is a skeptic of the world. He does not believe in God and constantly proclaims life has no meaning. All that we can believe in is what we can experience with our five senses. Anyone that tells you differently is trying to con you.

After one of Stanley's performances, an old friend and fellow magician, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) calls upon him back stage and asks for his help. Howard, has been staying with a wealthy American family, the Catledges, in the south of France, during their holiday. Howard was brought by some of the family members to verify the accuracy of a psychic, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who has convinced the family she is genuine. Already the head of the family, Grace (Jackie Weaver) is ready to invest her money into a foundation for Sophie to teach her ability, and Grace's son, Brice (Hamish Linklater) has fallen deeply in love with her and serenades her with Rogers & Hart and Jerome Kern songs.

Howard, so far, has been unable to disprove Sophie's psychic powers and would like Stanley, who has gained a reputation for calling out swindling, fraudulent psychics, to come with him to meet the Catledges and Sophie and expose her as nothing more than a fake. Stanley, intrigued by the challenge, agrees.

But, things aren't easy for Stanley either. Sophie is able to tell Stanley about past family secrets involving himself and family members Sophie hasn't even met. Could she be the real deal? What if Stanley is wrong not just about Sophie but everything? What if life does have meaning? What if there is a God?

I find nearly everything about "Magic in the Moonlight" charming. The south of France locations are beautiful to look at, the 1920s jazz score consisting of songs such as "You Do Something To Me", "Thou Swell" and "It All Depends On You" is wonderful to listen to. It is a pleasure to listen to Firth and Stone deliver Allen's lines. I sensed chemistry between the two. Allen hints at a Pygmalion relationship between them. And Allen very entertainingly gets his point across. The film's theme and final message is told quite clearly. Allen finds a nice metaphor in magic to express his views. Nothing is quite what it seems. We can all be deceived if we allow ourselves to be.

Colin Firth would not have been my first choice to play the "Woody Allen" role in a Woody Allen movie but Firth handles the comedy nicely and knows how to deliver the punch lines. From the audience's perspective, Firth is a much more believable leading man than Allen. Firth seems to have a causal-ness to his performance here. I never felt he was trying too hard. Everything seems natural about his performance.

Emma Stone has moments to shine as well. She almost plays a kind of ditsy, Annie Hall, kind of character, Allen usually writes neurotic, less intellectual characters for females. Stone's Sophie character fits the bill nicely. Allen's camera accentuates her beauty. On a critical note you could say she is not a fully fleshed out character and serves more of a purpose as a figure of beauty than a fully functioning human being.

Still it would seem to me Allen is going through a very strong creative period ever since "Match Point". I have been impressed with the majority of his films; "Cassandra's Dream", "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (2008), "Midnight in Paris" (2011) and "Blue Jasmine". His films have been received by a wider audience which responds more positive to his work then they had prior to "Match Point".

For its charm, witty observations, terrific jazz score, beautiful locations, entertaining performances and romantic notions "Magic in the Moonlight" is one of the year's best films.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Film Reviews: Fred Claus & Four Christmases

"Fred Claus"  ** (out of ****)

I guess "Fred Claus" (2007) could have been a good movie. But it would have to be radically different from the version we see on-screen. One would suppose you can kind of, sort of, maybe, see the possibilities of a story dealing with Santa Claus's older brother Fred (Vince Vaughn), who grows up to resent his famous, he would claim over-achiever, brother, St. Nick (Paul Giamatti).

But the problem I had with a movie called "Fred Claus" is it lacks joy. I know, I know this is Hollywood and you can't really expect a religious movie about Christmas, but, even in the secular Christmas world of Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the red nose reindeer, the movie lacks visual splendor, lacks a "feel good" quality and has a terrible (not for the retailers though) message about how every child needs a toy on Christmas morning.

There are some fragments about family and personal responsibility but the movie has no energy, and places no real emphasis on these themes.

Finally the last problem I had with the movie was Vince Vaughn. He basically plays the same character in every movie. He has one style of "acting", the ability to only play one character. That character doesn't work in a Christmas movie. I don't mind watching Vaughn in something like "The Internship" (2013) or "The Break-Up" (2006) but he lacks the holiday cheer needed for a Christmas themed movie. Even when his character makes a "transformation" he is still playing the character the same way.

"Fred Claus" feels like a one note movie. It is not a fully developed idea. Someone said, wouldn't it be funny if Santa Claus and an older brother, that was ignored. And they decided to leave it at that. And I have to say, what terrible casting to put Paul Giamatti in the role of Santa Claus. Nothing about Giamatti lends itself to the role. Who ever looked at Giamatti and said "that man should play Santa Claus in a movie"?

"Four Christmases"  ** (out of ****)

Vince Vaughn returned to the Christmas themed movie a year after "Fred Claus" and starred in "Four Christmases" (2008) with Reese Witherspoon.

Although "Four Christmases" has the word Christmas in the title and takes place on Christmas Day, it is actually a romantic comedy built around the old, boring, cliche that men are afraid of commitment and don't want to get married or have children.

The movie is set around the premise Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Witherspoon) are a young, wealthy, liberal couple that enjoys spending time together. For example they take dance classes together and go on vacations. They also live together but have decided they don't want to get married because as they say, marriage puts a lot of stress on the relationship. "Four Christmases" is full of original observations like that (can you sense the sarcasm?).

The couple plans to take a vacation on Christmas Day to the Fiji Islands, in order to avoid spending time with their family. But, due to bad weather, their flight has been canceled. A news reporter is at the airport when the couple finds out about their flight and begins to interview them live on the air. As a result, Brad and Kate's divorced parents see the newscast and each invites them to spend Christmas with them. Making it a total of four Christmases.

Like most Hollywood, liberal Christmas movies there is nothing religious about the movie. Yes, there is a character that is suppose to be a Christian woman but she is presented as a bit of a kook and is having a fling with her pastor. There is a church scene in the movie that is mostly played for laughs and could have been a moment when the movie could have had a sentimental scene showing the viewer and the characters what Christmas is about. Whether or not you like it, Christmas was, is and always will be a religious holiday. True, retailers, liberals and secularist have commercialized it, but it is a religious holiday nonetheless. A time when believers celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.

But there is no mention of Christ, not one character attends midnight mass. The movie has characters argue over presents, talk about Santa Claus, the torment of being with family and how unruly children can be.

"Four Christmases" is sit-com material. No depth to any of the characters, no big laughs, no clever or smart observations about people and no Christmas spirit. It is a romantic comedy at its core and in an attempt to cash in on Christmas, had the movie take place on Christmas and put the word in its title. A movie like this could have taken place at any time of the year and very little would have to be changed. But then someone might say, but that wouldn't be original. What? You thought "Four Christmases" is original?

Hollywood has to learn to become a little more comfortable dealing with religion. Have you noticed they stopped making Christmas themed movies around this time? They simply don't know what to do anymore and are too afraid to make a Christmas movie where characters acknowledge religion. Too bad.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Film Review: Scrooge (A Christmas Carol)

"Scrooge"  *** (out of ****)

Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" is a very familiar story yet it is one of the few stories that manages to "get me" every time. I have seen various adaptations of the story over the years, from "Mickey's Christmas Carol" (1983) to live stage productions. Here in Chicago, it is part of a Chicago tradition to see the Goodman Theater's production during the Christmas season, to various film adaptations. And, no matter the adaptation, the story always brings me to tears.

Number one, it is not often I admit that and number two it is not often to come across a story that can do that. No matter how many times I see this story, it has that strong emotional effect on me. It would seem to me, there just isn't any way you can get this story wrong. It is too good.

What effects me, and I would imagine effects others as well, is the message of the story. To show goodness and kindness towards man. Not just during Christmas but throughout the year. Life may deal us some serious blows, without question life is a miserable experience, a grueling struggle, but we cannot allow ourselves to become so jaded that hatred fills our hearts. Greed and corruption mustn't consume us (we aren't politicians after all). We must live a life of dignity and generosity.

Most American movie critics (sheep) and the public like to refer to this British adaptation as the definitive screen version. Released in Britain under the title "Scrooge" in 1951, it was released in the U.S. under the title "A Christmas Carol". Actually I am not as familiar with this version as I am the 1938 screen adaptation starring Reginald Owen. That was the version we would watch growing up. It was my late grandmother's favorite movie. She would watch it any time of the year. It became part of our Christmas tradition.

Nearly everyone should, on some level, be familiar with this classic Dickens story, so, I won't go into much detail over the plot. Instead I'll just focus on observations.

Initially the viewer notices the approach actor Alastair Sim has taken in his role of Ebenezer Scrooge. Sim, who was a well known character actor in British cinema, gives the character a bit of a comic, sardonic edge. Sim and director, Brian Desmond Hurst, try to find the comedic nature in the miserable old man. After Scrooge is met by the spirits does Sim give a more dramatic performance and by the end of the movie reverts back to a comical nature.

Something that really stuck out to me, and I am not sure why I hadn't noticed it before, is the lack of Liberal, secular Christmas symbols. There is no Santa Claus, no Frosty the Snowman. There is a moment when one of the spirits mentions a baby born in Bethlehem, of course a reference to Jesus Christ, which is suppose to be what Christmas is about, before retailers got their hands on it.

A lot of people mention the "dark nature" of this movie. They believe it is more mature than other adaptations. They believe it is more in-depth. I don't quite agree, but, I'm normally someone that doesn't follow the masses, so, I'm not the best barometer of public opinion.

"Scrooge" is a fine movie. As I say, it is difficult to not find the humanity in this story. The story is what carries each and every adaptation through.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Film Review: Eyes Wide Shut

"Eyes Wide Shut"  **** (out of ****)

Dreams. Fantasies. Sex. Jealousy. Temptation. Kubrick.

That about sums up Stanley Kubrick's misunderstood and sadly neglected masterpiece, "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999), which unfortunately turned out to be the director's final film.

The first time I saw "Eyes Wide Shut" I was 16 years old. The movie was still playing in theatres. Like many people at the time I was aware of the controversies surrounding the picture. Some suggested starring in this movie is what lead Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to get divorced. Others mentioned the film's initial NC-17 rating and edits which were made to secure a R rating. The movie holds the honor of having the longest continuous film shoot, 400 days and finally, Kubrick died prior to the film's release.

At it's time of release the sheep (movie critics) and the public could do little but talk about the erotic nature of the movie. They could do little but speculate on the effects the movie may have had on Cruise's and Kidman's marriage and people couldn't help but talk about the movie's initial NC-17 rating and the un-cut version which was going to be released in Europe. But, notice how no one paid attention to the movie itself. Few people tried to meet the movie half-way and attempt to interpret it, to understand what was Mr. Kubrick trying to tell us. What was the message being conveyed?

As a result, at best, "Eyes Wide Shut" has a mixed reputation. The 15 years which have followed after the film's release have not done much, in the circles I travel, to ease the movie's stigma as a cheap, vulgar, pornographic film.

"Eyes Wide Shut" was my first brush with Stanley Kubrick. As I sat in the movie theatre I was amazed. The music, the camera movements, the subject matter. At the time I said it was the best movie of 1999. I hadn't seen the movie again until recently, for this review. A total of 15 years passed and all I had to judge the movie on were my memories, which were still vivid and enthusiastic. I remembered my reaction to various scenes in the movie. I remembered the overall mood in the theatre. It was a fresh experience for me and afterwards I made sure I would see every movie Mr. Kubrick directed.

Watching "Eyes Wide Shut" again I was not filled the wide eye fascination I once was. Perhaps that's to be expected. But, I believe I understand deeper into the movie than I did at first viewing. "Eyes Wide Shut" now strikes me as a battle between the sexes. The fragility of marriage or relationships. The mind games genders play against each other.

The very first image we see in "Eyes Wide Shut" is as the opening credits play. The credits cut to an image of Nicole Kidman's backside. She takes off a dress and we see her standing naked in her bedroom. Then the credits continue. From this first image the viewer knows the movie is going to be about sex. However, I want to make it clear, this is not a pornographic film. Characters talk about sex, think about sex, fantasize about sex but no one actually has sex. Yes, there is the famous secret society orgy sequence, but, even there the camera is moving. We are seeing various acts. We aren't focuses on any one in particular except Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise), who does not belong there.

The movie is about sex. Yes, that is true. But, it is not about the physical act of sex. It is about how we use sex to our advantage or disadvantage.

My main thrust of the movie concerns Bill and his wife Alice (Kidman) smoking marijuana discussing a Christmas party they have attended the night before. While at the party the two were separated most of the night conversing with other guest. Soon their conversation turns to the subject of fidelity, jealousy and the nature of men and women.

During the conversation Bill admits he is not the jealous type. He trust his wife because he believes in the false stereotype society has perpetuated on us that women are more faithful. They want security and commitment, whereas men, by their nature have a desire to sleep with as many women as possible.

Alice is offended by Bill's remark, because, as she points out, that would mean the only reason Bill would not cheat on his wife is out of consideration for her not because he wouldn't want to.

As the conversation becomes more and more heated, Alice makes a revelation. The prior year, when on a Summer vacation, Alice fantasied about a navy officer she saw at a hotel they stood at. With this, Bill becomes racked with jealousy. He is obsessed with the idea his wife would actually cheat on him. He has a constant image in his head of his wife with another man, while his hands are all over her body.

In retaliation for this confession, Bill decides he too will succumb to temptation. If his wife thought about sleeping with another man, Bill will actually take that next step and will sleep with another woman. This, in his mind, will even the score. And so he sets out on a sexual odyssey, walking the streets of New York, finding temptation all around him.

What is interesting however about Alice's confession is why does she say what she does? A year has passed. She has kept this secret to herself all this time. The reason, one can assume, she finally confesses this secret fantasy is because she is mad at Bill. She deliberately wants to make Bill jealous. She wants a reaction out of him. And, thus, I feel we are exploring the fragility of marriage and relationships. One word, one action, one moment can change everything. It is that fine a line we are walking on when we are with someone. Alice wanted to hurt Bill and she succeeded. That is the power people close to us can have on us. There is the old, asinine saying "words can never hurt us". I don't know what numb skull came up with this saying, but, words can have a devastating effect on our mood and behavior.

Of course, one has to also consider, what if Alice is making this all up? Out of anger. Out of a feeling of neglect. This could be because in a sequence prior to attending the Christmas party, Alice asks Bill, how does she look. Bill says fine. Alice asks how is her hair. Bill says fine. Then Alice tells him, you aren't even looking at me. Has Bill taken Alice for granted? Does he not notice her any longer? What bothers him most about Alice's confession? Is he feeling betrayed that he could have lost the love of his life or is his ego hurt?

And if Alice did make up the story to hurt Bill, doesn't that comment on the power struggle relationships truly are? Someone always has to be in the vulnerable position while the other is in control. From the moment two people meet until the end of their relationship, everything is about power. A man approaches a woman and introduces himself. He is in a vulnerable position. The woman has all the power in this moment. She may either accept or reject his invitation. Sex is all about power. Women can manipulate men with sex by denying them it or engaging in it. Sex is rarely just sex. We may not like to think about these things in such stark terms but isn't that just too bad? Sometimes we have to face the ugly nature of things.

Other sequences which elaborate on the movie's themes is the first opening Christmas party sequence being held by Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) and his wife Illona (Leslie Lowe). At the party we see well dressed, wealthy people talking among each other. There are three instances when the viewer is able to get a better understanding of what exactly these people are doing and saying to each other.

The first instance deals with Alice Harford. She is waiting for her husband at a bar, having a drink. A man standing next to her notices her and introduces himself. "My name is Sandor Szavost. I'm Hungarian" he says. From that moment Sandor (Sky du Mont) and Alice dance. And, as they dance, there is heavy flirtation. Sandor wants to sleep with Alice. She tells him she is married but that doesn't stop Sandor. They will continue this flirtation dance. And isn't that what flirtation is? A dance? Two people, generally mostly the man, moving around trying to verbally gauge if the woman in front of him is interested.

The second instance shows Bill with two young models. They too are engaged in a heavy flirtation. The two models want to take Bill where "the rainbow ends" and the viewer can only guess what that implies. Though we know if Alice finds out, she might kill the three of them.

The last instance at the Christmas party deals with Victor. He has been with a prostitute (Julienne Davis) in his bathroom. She has overdosed. Victor has secretly called Bill to help with the situation.

So, our nice little Christmas party with educated, well dressed, wealthy people, has now turned into something else. These people only think and talk about sex. Everyone is pretending to be something else. Their nice clothes are a facade. Their self-imposed intelligence is false. When it comes down to it all they are interested in is sex.

Now lets contrast this scene with the secret society orgy sequence. Here everyone is dressed in masks and wearing costumes. The few times we hear characters speak, they seem well-spoken. Could we perhaps be dealing with the same crowd as the Ziegler's Christmas party? The similarity is everyone is still hiding who they are. At the Christmas party the guest want to appear dignified so they wear nice clothes and are well-spoken but that does not represent their true self. They hide behind these things. Their nice clothes are in fact costumes. One person nearly died at the party and there was an attempt to sweep that under the rug. At the secret society party the people are still in disguise and they engage in the same activities they wanted to at the Christmas party.

I suppose the point behind both party scenes are, people and/or events are not what they seem. There is always a mask or a pretense in society. Bill meets an old medical school friend, Nick Nightingale (Todd Field) who dropped out of medical school and is now a jazz pianist. A piano player that studied medicine. Things aren't what they seem. Bill meets a costume shop owner that pimps his daughter. Things aren't what they seem. At the orgy party, a woman makes a sacrifice to protect Bill. But was it real or staged? Things aren't what they seem.

Like other Kubrick films; "Full Metal Jacket" (1987), "The Shining" (1980) and "A Clockwork Orange" (1973), "Eyes Wide Shut" is a movie about the mind, about the effects extreme situations have on us mentality, whether it is a drill Sargent verbally berating us, an old hotel taking possession of our mind or how far jealousy can drive us.

The mind is delicate. Individuals can drive themselves to obsession. We can be our own worst enemies.

"Eyes Wide Shut" requires multiple viewings. It has a lot to say. More than I have written about. It has ideas and makes a commentary. It is not a "dirty" movie. I hope with time audiences come back to this movie. As the years have passed the sensationalism of the backstage controversies will also fade. Then audiences will just judge the movie not its surroundings. I hope that day comes soon.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Film Review: Santa Claus: The Movie

"Santa Claus: The Movie"  ** (out of ****)

You better watch out, you better not cry, because if you do, I'll make you watch "Santa Claus: The Movie" (1985) then you'll really have something to cry about!

As I sat down watching "Santa Claus: The Movie" I simply couldn't believe how mis-guided and ill-conceived this movie is. The movie lacks joy and wonderment. There is no sense we are watching something magical and there is no significant plot.

"Santa Claus:The Movie" initially present itself as the story of Santa Claus. It explains the origins of how the man the world has come to know as Santa Claus came to be.

The movie takes place centuries ago as a heavy set man, with a white beard named Claus (David Huddleston), along with his wife Anya (Judy Cornwell) and their two reindeer, Donner and Blizten, deliver toys to children from a small village. We learn from one set of children, who call him Uncle Claus, though we are not sure if they are actual relations, that Claus and Anya have been doing this for years. Their gift giving has come to be expected on Christmas.

We hear a story the townsfolk have passed along involving a land at the top of the world that can only be seen at special moments, when the stars fill the sky and a giant bright star burst an elves or as they are called in this movie, vendegums, appear.

One Christmas Eve there is a terrible blizzard. It is not advised for Claus and Anya to travel around the village, but Claus insist. As they travel on, the snow and freezing weather take their effect on the reindeer, who simply can't go on. Stranded in the wilderness, alone, Claus and Anya huddle together for warmth in their sleigh, while Donner and Blizten, lay in the snow, freezing to death. And soon, it seems, so will Claus and Anya. Just when the weather turns for the worst, a giant star appears and burst and elves appear and approach Claus.

We slowly learn Claus is part of a prophecy, which gives the movie a religious feel. It is as if the filmmakers are turning Santa Claus into a Jesus like figure. The elves have been waiting for him. They have created a workshop and have made hundreds of toys. They have flying reindeer too to help Claus deliver toys, not just to children in the small village but to children all over the world, in a single night, Christmas Eve.

Claus and Anya are a bit perplexed at first and do not understand. And to be honest, neither does the viewer. Very little is explained. The viewer sense where all of this is going. We see the elves create a red suit for Claus, he is renamed Santa Claus. Their is discussion that naughty children will not receive toys and the elves, the keeper of a list separating children into naughty or nice categories, better watch out, because Santa Claus will be checking the list twice.

In the moments when the workshop is revealed to us and we see all the elves, it looks like more than a hundred of them exist, all I could think of was, these elves remind me of the seven dwarfs and I kept thinking of Babes in Toyland.

What I also thought during these moments is the movie is lifeless and lacks a spectacular feeling. I mean, we are seeing the North Pole and Santa's Workshop, and it all seems so ho-hum. The music, the cinematography, the effects, none of it puts us in the mood and fills our hearts with joy. We aren't excited seeing any of this.

And though I mentioned the seven dwarfs, those guys at least had personalities and their names defined their character traits. The elves in this movie aren't so lucky. None of the characters have distinct personalities. The only elf that is suppose to be any sort of developed character is Patch (Dudley Moore) the progressive inventor of the group. He has conceived such things as the alarm clock, the kettle and plumbing.

The centuries past until we reach the 20th century, as the movie mainly takes place in New York. We learn of a homeless boy, Joe (Christian Fitzpatrick) and a wealthy young girl, Corneila (Carrie Kei Heim) and her uncle, a mean (we can tell this because he smokes a cigar) toymaker, B.Z. (John Lithgow). These characters appear in the movie after an hour. The total running time of the movie is one hour and forty-eight minutes, and that includes credits. That is too long to introduce these characters.

Santa and Patch have a misunderstanding when Patch's latest invention, the assembly lines, creates unsafe toys, which fall apart, as an unknowing Santa delivers them, causing children to denounce Santa's toymanship abilities (the horror!). As a result of these actions, Patch leaves the North Pole and heads to New York and meets with B.Z. as the two will use Santa's methods of toymaking to compete with him for the affection of children and as far as B.Z. is concerned, he will make a lot of money.

The scenes with Joe, as far as I can tell, serve no other function than product placement. In one scene a hungry Joe walks around the street on Christmas Eve only to stare hungrily inside a McDonald's window, as he sees happy families eating big macs. This kind of scene is usually done as the homeless person walks pass an expensive restaurant while the wealthy people inside sip Chardonnay and laugh adoringly at each other, not noticing the hungry person standing outside staring at them through the giant glass window. But never have I seen a scene like this done with big macs. Exactly how much money did McDonald's pay to get to advertise in this movie?

In another scene with Joe, he stands outside the home of Corneila, who notices the hungry Joe. She prepares a plate of food for him but don't worry, in order to wash down all that food, she has given him a lovely, refreshing can of coca-cola, which is displayed prominently in both of their hands. In fact if you pay attention closely, you can see they use different cans. When the can is shot by itself, not being held, you see the letters 'coke' in bold white letters written on the red can. However, when Joe holds the can in his hand, as he drinks it, you see in smaller white letters 'coca-cola' is written. This is because consumers identify a red can with white lettering to be coca-cola, it is subliminal messaging. so there is no need to get a close up of the words written on the can when Joe is drinking it. But, when the can is by itself and you want to place emphasis on the brand, the larger, white bolder letters just saying 'coke' is used.

All of the dialogue in this movie is poorly written. It doesn't sound natural. The acting is over the top. The characters aren't fully dimensional people. There is little conflict and the point of the movie takes too long to establish itself.

Want to see a better movie on the origins of Santa Claus? Watch the classic animated movie "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" (1970) with the voices of Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney as Santa Claus or watch the more modern "The Santa Claus" (1994) with Tim Allen.

One terrible, twisted thought, that came in my head as I watched this movie, is what if this is all a dream sequence. Claus and Anya were about to die in the blizzard before the elves came. What if all the events that follow were part of Claus's dream and represent the things we would have liked to accomplish?

"Santa Claus: The Movie" doesn't strike me as a popular movie. I never hear anyone talk about it. I remember once seeing it on TV when I was a child. My nieces and nephews never heard of it. I hope it is something of a cult classic that the mainstream has forgotten about. Little children shouldn't have to sit through this movie. Childhood is bad enough.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Film Review: A.I. Artificial Intelligence

"A.I. Artificial Intelligence"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

In order to discuss "A.I." (2001) I feel we should start at 1999. That was the year the legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick passed away. "A.I." had been a project Kubrick was developing for more than a decade. The project never came to be because Kubrick felt no human could play the lead role believably. Instead he wanted to use CGI (computer generated imagery). However, Kubrick did release a movie in 1999, "Eyes Wide Shut" starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (whom at the time were married). Kubrick died prior to the film's release.

Unfortunately "Eyes Wide Shut" opened to mixed reviews. Some failed to see any artistic merit in Kubrick's film and thought it was nothing more than a kinky, fetish film. I, on the other hand, declared the movie, the best film of the year. I even named it one of the best films of the 1990s. Still, others felt it was not a worthy film be to Kubrick's last on-screen vision.

Prior to his death, some sources say, going as far back as 1995, Kubrick passed along his "A.I." story to Steven Spielberg. Now, with Kubrick's death, there was a renewed interest in the work of Kubrick, retrospectives and such. Spielberg could now sell the movie as, the picture Kubrick never got to make. If the movie was done successfully it would give the public and the sheep (movie critics) one more opportunity to praise Stanley Kubrick.

The movie is based on a short story by Brian Aldiss entitled "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" but some differences do exist as the movie also uses aspects of Pinocchio for inspiration. The story takes place late in the 21st century. Due to global warming the world as we know it does not exist. Flooding has submerged parts of the world. New York, for example, is now a fabled underwater city. Also, there has been a drop in the human population because of the government being involved in population control.

The original source material dealt with human loneliness in a world of intelligent machines and how humans use these machines as a source of companionship. I'm not sure what was going on in 1969, when this story was published, but what a commentary it makes on today's world. Both the short story and the film were in my opinion ahead of their time. We now live in a world where human interaction has been side stepped by social media. Only last year we had the movie "Her" (2013) released about a man who falls in love with a operating system based on Apple's Siri. In that movie a human fell in love with a machine in "A.I." a machine "loves" a human.

That of course leads to another question, what kind of companion can a machine make? You may think you are having a conversation but the machine has been programmed to pick up on certain words you say. It lack emotional understanding. It may process your words on a technical level but not the all important human level. You aren't really having a conversation at all.

In this futuristic world we learn of a company called Cybertronics headed by Professor Hobby (William Hurt) here they have been able to make a machine, known in the film as a "Mecha" that has the ability to love. A child mecha is created called "David" (played by Haley Joel Osment) which will help fill a void in the lonely lives of parents, who are unable to have a child.

To test the mecha, Cybertronics would like one of their employees to keep David. A perfect candidate is found in Henry Swinton (Sam Robards). Henry and his wife Monica (Frances O' Connor), have a son, Martin (Jake Thomas), who due to a rare disease has been frozen until a cure is found. Henry agrees to bring David home to see how his wife reacts.

Within time David fills the void he was created to do so and forms an attachment with Monica, who by this time has programmed David, by speaking a code which will activate the "love" mechanism in the machine. Now, instead of calling her Monica, David refers to her as "mommy". However, Henry never spoke the code to David and at all times refers to David as a toy. Therefore David does not have an attachment to Henry and never calls him "daddy".

This of course proves what the mecha is experiencing is not love. Maybe the parents loves the mecha but what the mecha is expressing is merely a program design. David doesn't know what "love" is but he has been given a function to "express" love. Because if the mecha truly understood love, why does he not love Henry? Why does he not call Henry "daddy". David spends just as much time with Henry as he does Monica. The difference is Henry didn't program David to love him.

Due to a scientific miracle, Henry and Monica's son Martin returns home and is now cured. Martin is a bit puzzled by David and the two begin to exhibit signs of jealousy towards each other. David was the son while Martin wasn't around. Martin has now replaced David. David doesn't receive the attention from Monica he once did. Martin slowly provokes bad behavior in David, daring him to do certain task which in return would gain the affection of Monica.

After several misunderstanding, Henry wants Monica to take David back to Cybertronics, where he will be destroyed. Once a mecha has been programmed to love an individual it can never be re-programmed and is rendered useless. But, in a sequence resembling Snow White, Monica is unable to take David to be destroyed at Cybertronics. Instead she leaves him alone in a forest with a "super-toy" known as Teddy. A walking, talking bear (which made me think of the comedy "Ted" (2012). Seth MacFarlane must have seen this movie and on some level been inspired by it). Teddy, in keeping with the Pinocchio parallel, acts as a Jiminy Cricket character, a conscience. Teddy, on a few occasions tries to warn David against his actions.

Remembering the story Pinocchio, which Monica read to both David and Martin, David decides to journey to find the "Blue Fairy", who will be able to turn him into a real boy, so Monica will love him.

And so David and Teddy head out on a journey to find the Blue Fairy. Events do not turn out as they had hoped when they meet Lord Johnson (Brendan Gleeson) who runs a Flesh Fair, an anti-mecha, carnival like attraction where humans watch broken down mechas be destroyed. The humans at the fair give speeches on the danger of mechas and how what man has done, by creating these machines, is evil. And here we have a commentary on man's desire to play God, which goes back to Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" to Professor Hobby in this movie and even Henry and Monica who have kept their son alive. They desire to create and preserve life, which in religious terms, goes against God's plan. There are some today that feel computers are taking over the world. Machines are replacing man. For that see Charlie Chaplin's masterpiece "Modern Times" (1936).

It is at the Flesh Fair David meets Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) another mecha created to express sensual love not emotional like David. Gigolo Joe agrees to help David find the Blue Fairy and serves as a father figure to David. Joe even suggest to David they give up on their search for the Blue Fairy and David come along with Joe. Joe warns David humans hate mechas because when the human race dies off, it will only be mechas that have survived. For that, humans resent mechas. While man may delude himself into believing he has created life, he has not been able to prolong his own.

In order for Spielberg's film to work on the viewer at an emotional level, the audience must accept the fact that David has human tendencies and is able to experience love as we humans know it. And at face value Spielberg presents his story as such. This was a cause of alarm for some in the public and the critical community because as they pointed out, each filmmaker; Kubrick and Spielberg, have different sensibilities. Spielberg has more of a "cutesy" approach to storytelling. His films can be described as "feel good". Kubrick was a more "cold" filmmaker by comparison. It is that "cold" message that never fully comes out unless the audience gives the movie the proper time to reflect upon what they saw and its meaning. But, most people will be content to accept the movie at face value if for no other reason than because it 'feels' better to do so.

Is David human? For what it is worth my answer is no. Who does David show compassion towards? Only the mother he was programmed to. David never once mentions "his father". He never once shows compassion towards Teddy, whom he treats as a toy, a machine, which is after all, what David is. David doesn't accept Joe as a father figure. David never acknowledges anyone's help.

David does show moments of anger, hopelessness, jealousy and selfishness. So, in that sense, he fits right in with the rest of the world. But, he is not human. He does not love or understand love.

What is the ultimate message of "A.I."? I'll be honest, I'm not 100% sure myself. But it is a dark disturbing tale if we think about it, at least in terms of how David sees the world. There is no love. Only hate. His "parents" don't love him. They reject him. Leaving him on his own, as Monica does, was far crueler than having him destroyed. Now he faces rejection. Not just rejection from Monica, but a society that views mechas as evil.

Even if we accept the premise that David has human emotions, I thought of the child that yells at his parents, I never asked to be born. A child doesn't get to chose its parents. And like David, he didn't ask to be made. He didn't ask to be programmed by a particular person. In fact it was selfishness, we find out, that lead to the creation of David.

I must for a moment though talk about the performance given by Haley Joel Osment. I must, once again, go back to 1999 when he starred in "The Sixth Sense". At the time there was talk Osment should have been nominated and won an Academy Award (he did receive the nomination but did not win). Others felt he was far too young. Since he was so young he would have time, later in his career, to win an Academy Award. But after watching "A.I." this is the movie the young man should have won an Academy Award for. It is a shame he didn't even receive a nomination. Though the movie did win two nominations for its effects and music.

But Osment dominates the movie and has to go through such complex emotions. There was a reason Kubrick felt no child actor could play this role. It is a very demanding role for a child. The fact that Osment does such a wonderful job only speaks to his talent.

When "A.I." was first released I said it was the third best film Spielberg had made behind "Schindler's List" (1993) and "Saving Private Ryan" (1998). I no longer feel that way as I appreciate titles like "Munich" (2005) and "Minority Report" (2002), which were released after this movie, but "A.I." is a strong film. It holds up on a second viewing. It raises a lot of philosophical and psychological questions. Questions, I admit, I don't have the answers to. But, this is a dark tale. This is a fairy tale gone wrong. And while the tone of the movie may at times, hide that fact, the bleakness comes out. This was a movie ahead of its time. I wonder what the reaction would be if it was release now, 13 years later?

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Film Review: A Christmas Story

"A Christmas Story"  ** (out of ****)

It is such a simple idea for a movie. A young boy tells the story of a must have Christmas gift. Of course, when you are a child, is there any story more important? Getting the perfect Christmas gift, when you are a child, is perhaps one of the single most important moments in your life, with a great birthday gift coming in second.

The viewer realizes this simple truth as we watch "A Christmas Story" (1983), a movie, that with time, has become a holiday classic and, as a result of this understanding, may find themselves able to relate to our hero's story. Who among us has not had a "must have" Christmas toy our lives utterly depending upon having? Who among us cannot recall the feeling of joy when we woke up Christmas morning and saw Santa had gotten us that special gift? On the other hand, how many of us can remember the feeling of disappointment when Santa didn't bring us that gift? You felt a pain in the pit of your stomach. How could Santa let you down?

I too am able to relate to this story. I had my own special gift that I wanted for Christmas. I was five years old and desperately wanted a pair of Laurel & Hardy (a popular comedy team in the 1920s & 30s) ventriloquist dolls. They were my childhood heroes. When I found out such a gift existed, I knew, then and there, I would have to have it. The days and month leading up to Christmas I pleaded with my parents, please, please buy me the Laurel & Hardy ventriloquist dolls. But, they told me, it was too much money. My heart was broken. I simply couldn't accept such an answer. What child would? So, I kept pleading. Eventually I decided to ask Santa. He was at the neighborhood mall. I asked my father if I could wait in line and tell Santa what I wanted for Christmas. He agreed. And so we stood in line. The excitement grew the closer and closer I got to the front of the line. Asking Santa for the gift was a sure fired way of getting it. What did Santa care about money? Soon it was my turn to sit on Santa's lap and ask for the Laurel & Hardy ventriloquist dolls. But, a strange thing happened as I sat on Santa's lap. I was frightened to death! I couldn't speak a word. I sat on Santa's lap silently as he asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I forgot how to speak! My father, standing beside me, stepped in and told Santa about the ventriloquist dolls. Santa, at first was a bit surprised a five year old knew who Laurel & Hardy was but told me afterwards I would get the gift. Joy!

There is a moment in "A Christmas Story" when the lead character, a boy named Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) waits in line to tell a department store Santa what he wants for Christmas, a Red-Ryder Carbine Action 200 shot Range Model air riffle. When he finally gets his chance to tell Santa what he wants for Christmas, he too freezes and can't remember what he wanted for Christmas. Other children in line start to cry as soon as they sit on Santa's lap.

"A Christmas Story" remembers childhood. Why is it so many children eagerly wait in line to sit on Santa's lap to tell him what they want for Christmas and they start to cry when they get their chance? There is something scary about that moment. "A Christmas Story" knows this fact. That is one of the things I like about the movie.

The movie was directed by Bob Clark, who was actually an odd choice for this kind of movie. His previous directing credits include "Black Christmas" (1974) and the teen sex comedy "Porky's" (1982) and its sequel, "Porky's II:The Next Day" (1983) and was based on the book "In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash" by Jean Shepard, who was a radio and television personality. Mr. Shepard adapted the book into the movie's screenplay, along with his wife, Leigh Brown and Mr. Clark.

When "A Christmas Story" was originally released it was not a box-office hit. It grossed a little more than $19 million dollars and opened to moderate reviews. It has only become a Christmas favorite because of multiple airings on TV in the late 80s, early 90s, which have helped the film reach a new audience year after year and entertain older audiences.

We follow a young boy named Ralphie, who wants a BB gun, which his mother (Melinda Dillon) will not buy him because she warns him "you'll shoot your eye out". The story takes place sometime in the 1940s in a small town in Indiana.

"A Christmas Story" has a very anecdotal structure to it. Yes, Ralphie wants a BB gun, but, the movie gets side tracked with other going ons.This lessened my experience watching the movie. I would have preferred a stronger, narrative structure of the boy wanting a BB gun. If it was just going to be about his family and their day to day activity that's fine. They made that movie. It too is based on Shepard's work and is called "It Runs in the Family" (1994), which is generally considered not as good as this movie and deals with a lot of the same situations.

Watching this movie I couldn't help but think of Woody Allen's "Radio Days" (1987) also about a young boy in the 1940s telling anecdotal stories about his family. I love the Allen movie. While that too is anecdotal the difference is, "Radio Days" makes more use of its time period. It places a great emphasis on the music of the era and popular radio programs, all of which I also grew up with. The characters in that movie remind me of my family. I cared more about those characters than I do any character in "A Christmas Story". I find some of the stories in "Radio Days" funny. Nothing in "A Christmas Story" made me laugh out loud. In fact, for all the years I have watched this movie, I don't think I ever really laughed out loud at any scene. Maybe when the father (Darren McGavin) wins a prize that is delivered to their house. It arrives in a crate with the words "fragile" written on it. The father mispronounces the word mistaking it for Italian as the wife corrects him.

One thing I did find interesting about the movie is the relationship between the mother and father. It is a very interesting dynamic. Pay attention to the mother. She has a passive-aggressive streak in her towards the husband. She is always ready to cut him down to size. To burst his bubble. There is a scene when the family is driving home and they get a flat tire. The husband likes to pretend he is in the pit stop at the Indy 500 and bets his wife he can change the tire in four minutes flat. She purposely sends Ralphie to help out, knowing Ralphie will just slow down her husband and then she can tell him he didn't change the tire in four minutes flat.

"A Christmas Story" is well meaning. It is difficult to flat out hate the movie. But it feels too slight. I don't like the structure of the movie. I didn't warm up to the characters. And, mostly importantly, I didn't laugh out loud. Nothing I say will stop this from being a Christmas favorite and that's fine. I have no intention of changing people's mind. I'd rather watch "The Polar Express" (2004) about a young boy who questions whether or not Santa exist and the journey that takes him on. Simple story but told with greater importance.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Film Review: Hunger Games: Catching Fire

"Hunger Games: Catching Fire"  *** (out of ****)

Things are heating up in "Catching Fire" (2013), the second installment of the Hunger Games trilogy.

As I began to watch "Catching Fire" I quickly realized, in the time between seeing "The Hunger Games" (2012) and this movie, I had forgotten much. My mind had to play a lot of catch up. I couldn't remember crucial moments of that movie. All I could remember was my over all feeling. I found the image of young children savagely killing each other disturbing. I also remember thinking there was room for a social and economic commentary with this story of young, working class people, killing each other in a game for the amusement of the rich.

Unfortunately I couldn't remember the moments "Catching Fire" required me to remember. Normally, I suppose, that would be the fault of the critic, the individual. Just because I can't remember the first movie, that doesn't mean you don't remember it. True enough. But, may I suggest another perspective? Shouldn't "Catching Fire" have been a stand alone movie?

What I mean by "stand alone" is, shouldn't the movie have succeeded on it own merits? Shouldn't the movie simply tell its own story and not rely so heavily on what was done previously? The story should be moving forward. Not looking backwards. I saw the first movie but I just don't remember it. It didn't make a lasting impression. However, don't you think it is entirely possible that people who never saw the first movie may have seen this movie first? Given all the media attention, I'm willing to bet there were "casual" movie fans who entered a movie theatre not knowing what "The Hunger Games" were about or saw the first movie.

Fans of the book, which was written by Suzanne Collins, may object and say it doesn't matter. This movie is not for people who have never read the books, never seen the first movie and people who can't remember the first movie. All I can say is, you go right on believing what you want even though you are wrong. Hollywood wants to make money. They want everyone  to see this movie. People who never read the book. People who never saw the movie or can't remember it even. Hollywood isn't interested in your feelings of whether or not the movie was faithfully adapted. Or if the "wrong" audience goes to see this movie. Any audience that goes to see it is the right audience because they bought a ticket. So, get over yourself.

But, as I sat watching "Catching Fire" I just kept feeling this movie couldn't exist without a first one being made. It relies so heavily on the viewer's knowledge of the first movie. It cannot stand on its own as a great movie. And, by the time we get to the end of the movie, it offers no conclusion. No satisfaction. It merely sets it self up as a starting point for a third movie, which is now in theatres, "Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1" (2014). They even had to divide the movie into two parts to cash in and make even more money, just as they did with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, though I did enjoy part two of that series quite a bit. The entire movie feels like a sell out. It feels hollow and shallow.

After I saw the first movie and I explained to people how I felt there was an opportunity to engage in a political and social message that the movie did not take. People who saw the movie agreed with me and assured me, because they had read the books, this theme would be picked up in part two and three. There is no great social message, well not really, in "Catching Fire". Its attempts at offering a deeper message are half-baked at best. I actually think "Divergent" (2014) had a smarter screenplay. Even "The Giver" (2014) had better ideas but it turned into a mishmash of "The Hunger Games", "Divergent" and "Pleasantville" (1998).

One thing however that I do like about this movie is the violence has been toned down and we are no longer dealing with children killing each other. That was a welcomed turn of events. "Catching Fire" wants to be more about characters. This dystopian world has already been established in the first movie and we understand what the "hunger games" are so now that everything is out of the way, more focus can be given to the growth of the characters and their continuation of this journey.

In "Catching Fire" we once again follow Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the winners of the 74th Hunger Games, who caught the attention of the world with their love story, when in reality they do not even like each other. Now, they must go on a winning tour and convince the world they are madly in love.

Brewing beneath the surface however is talk of a revolution. People at the Capital, including President Snow (Donald Sutherland) are worried of a revolution. The public looks to Katniss as a figure of hope. Katniss is afraid President Snow will kill her and her family, including her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) and her true love, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), whom she can never be with, as the world is under the impression she is in love with Peeta.

The remaining moments of the movie are a psychological cat and mouse game between President Snow and Katniss. At first Katniss wants to convince the President she is not part of a rebellion and the President wants her dead, before a rebellion becomes wide spread.

The sheep (movie critics) actually threw a lot of praise at the movie claiming it was a better movie than the first and that Jennifer Lawrence brings a great intensity to the character. Lawrence and the cast, consisting of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Jena Malone, Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks are quite good.

Mainly I've mentioned what I didn't like about the movie and yet I've given it three out of four stars. After my initial reaction to feeling I had to play catch up, once the movie settles, somewhat, into its plot, I was interested and found some sequences enjoyable and interesting. This is a well made, slick Hollywood product. The director of the film, Francis Lawrence, who did not direct the first movie, has worked on other big budget science fiction films before; "Constantine" (2005) and "I Am Legend" (2007).

"Catching Fire" is not a great movie. It is not a personal movie. It is not a movie with much to say, other than to hint at larger issues concerning poverty, the theatrics of politics, and class-warfare, but it doesn't take a strong stance. The movie is not about ideas but action.

Perhaps in the third installment all of these social issues will arise more strongly and directly, maybe not. "Catching Fire" almost feels like a bridge to nowhere, with its ending, but perhaps it will lead us to something important.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Film Review: Miracle on 34th Street

"Miracle on 34th Street"  **** (out of ****)

As has been tradition since the inception of this blog, during the month of December, Christmas themed movies will be reviewed through the month.

Throughout the years, as I reviewed Christmas themed movies in the month of December, I thought I had reviewed all of the contemporary Christmas classics and the new favorites. Over the years I have reviewed "A Christmas Carol" (1938), "White Christmas" (1954), "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946), "The Polar Express" (2004), "The Bishop's Wife" (1947) and religious themed movies such as "The Nativity Story" (2006) among them. And, as I started to beat my head thinking of titles to review this year, it dawned on me. I haven't reviewed the original "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947). How could I over look it?

"Miracle on 34th Street" is a holiday classic. It is one of those movies young and old movie fans alike enjoy. You don't have to be a movie buff to have seen it. It is a movie like "It's A Wonderful Life" in that, I've never met anyone that didn't like it. No matter how casual a movie fan you are, there is a very good chance you saw "Miracle on 34th Street" at one time during your childhood.

In our house "Miracle on 34th Street" wasn't one of our annual traditions but it is a movie I have fond memories of watching as a child.

What makes "Miracle of 34th Street" so special is it is a genuine feel good movie. As an adult, the movie makes you remember the joy of being a child. The movie is about faith. A kind of faith only a child has. It tells its story through such likable characters and with such good cheer, it becomes infectious. It makes you want to believe. Maybe not believe in Santa Claus but believe that wonderful things are capable of happening. It makes you believe in the value of kindness and generosity. And it makes you admire the innocence of childhood.

However, "Miracle on 34th Street" doesn't have to be watched only at Christmas time. Like any good movie it can be watched any time of year. This is a well-written, superbly acted movie. A remake of this movie was made in 1994. It was not a bad movie mind you. It did most of the things this movie did. But, there was a difference. You can't remake the charm of this movie. You can't find actors better than the ones used here. This will always be the definitive version of this movie. That's not necessarily a put down of remakes of this movie but a comment on the special quality this movie has.

Maureen O' Hara stars as Doris Walker. She works at Macy's Department store. As the movie opens she is planning the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. She finds out the person hired to portray Santa Claus is drunk and not able to participate in the parade. Caught in a bind, on the spot she hires an elderly gentlemen, who pointed out the condition of the drunken Santa. The man goes by the name Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) and he truly believes he is Santa Claus. He is originally from the North Pole and knows the position of all of his flying reindeer that pull his sled.

Doris however doesn't believe the man. Doris is a rational, sensible, young, attractive, modern, independent woman. She has a daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood) and teaches the child not to believe in Santa Claus. There are no such thing as fairy tales either. Doris wants to be completely honest with her child and not put foolish ideas in her head.

We learn the reason for this behavior on Doris's part is because of a failed love life. When Susan was a little girl, her parents divorced. When Doris explains to a neighbor, Fred (John Payne), why she has raised her child not to believe in Santa, she goes off on a tirade about Prince Charming, and the audience knows all they need to know. Of course it goes back to an old, cliche notion, that the root of a woman's problem is always a man. A woman's happiness or sadness is dependent on a man.

Fred has taking a liking to Doris and to Susan. But, with her broken heart, how can Fred ever get Doris to give him a chance? If Doris can't open her heart to believe in Santa Claus, and accept the possibility that all things are possible if we have faith, then Fred doesn't stand a chance. And that's the theme of the film. Believe. Don't ever stop believing good things can happen.

If there is something "Miracle on 34th Street" doesn't do well it is the way it handles the love interest between Doris and Fred. In one scene they aren't a couple and the next time we see them together Doris mentions they have spent the last few days together and have discussed building a future together. The audience hasn't seen any of those scenes or heard the two of them talk about being a couple. Heck, I didn't even know Doris was interested in Fred.

The movie also doesn't show her heart warming towards Kris. She makes declarations in two scenes about growing fond of him, but, the audience hasn't seen a slow, steady build-up to that statement. These kind of scenes may very well have been written in the script and may have even been filmed. The problem may have been in the editing room. These are important scenes which would have establish characters. Sadly they are missing.

Instead of scenes between Doris and Fred or Doris and Kris, the movie settles for a trial sub-plot with Kris on trial and must prove he is a sane person and the real Santa Claus. This takes up a majority of the picture.

Still, these scenes are very funny. The judge for the hearing, Judge Harper (Gene Lockhart) begins to worry about the political implications of the hearings if he should have to declare Kris insane. What would the papers say? Judge declares Santa Claus crazy! The Judge is up for re-election and his campaign manager (William Frawley) warns him not to rule against the kind old man who believes he is Santa Claus. It would cause a union backlash against the Judge.

Because so much time is spent on this angle of the plot, with Kris as the center of attention, one thing that bothers me is the billing for the movie. Maureen O' Hara and John Payne are given top billing, above the title of the movie. Edmund Gwenn is listed with the supporting characters. This isn't fair in my opinion. When I think of this movie, to be honest, I don't think of Maureen O' Hara or John Payne. I think of Edmund Gwenn first. The movie is about Santa Claus. It is not a screwball comedy between O' Hara and Payne. It could have been. They could have taken the "Adam's Rib" (1949) approach. Payne's character is a lawyer who defends Kris during the hearing, O' Hara's character could have been the prosecutor, and during the hearing, while they are fighting, they fall in love. But that's not the case. At the very least Gwenn's name should have been billed equally with O' Hara and Payne. I understand, O' Hara and Payne were the box-office names but Gwenn's role is equally important to the movie.

"Miracle on 34th Street" was directed by George Seaton. Prior to this movie he directed the entertaining Betty Grable vehicle "The Shocking Miss Pilgrim" (1947). He would go on to direct "The Country Girl" (1954) with Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby, a movie which I believe is a masterpiece. Seaton was nominated for a best director Academy Award. He did win the best screenplay award for that picture and Kelly won the best actress award that year. Seaton would also go on to direct "Teacher's Pet" (1958) with Clark Gable and Doris Day.

The movie also has a terrific supporting cast; Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, Jerome Cowan and William Frawley (also spot Thelma Ritter in a brief role). This could have been the supporting cast for a Preston Sturges comedy!

"Miracle on 34th Street" received a total of four Academy Award nominations including best picture. It won three of the nominations; best supporting actor (Gwenn), best original story (Valentine Davies) and best screenplay (Seaton). It lost the best picture Oscar that year to "A Gentlemen's Agreement" (1947). Also nominated that year for best picture was another film that has become a holiday favorite, "The Bishop's Wife".

"Miracle on 34th Street" is a wonderful film to watch any time of the year. It holds up to repeated viewings and would be a great movie to introduce younger children to.