Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Film Review: The Rain People

"The Rain People"  *** (out of ****)

The American movies of the late 1960s and 70s often focused on "lost souls", characters trying to escape the world around them and "find" themselves. The most emblematic movie of this genre was "Easy Rider" (1969), though the Academy Award winner "Midnight Cowboy" (1969) had elements of it as well. As did "Saturday Night Fever" (1977) and "The Graduate" (1967).

These movies reflect the growing sentiment among the youth of the 60s of "feeling lost". There was great unrest in the world at this time; The Vietnam War, the May 1968 uprising in France, the assassination of President Kennedy, the Civil Rights movement and the Cultural Revolution in China.

Francis Ford Coppola's "The Rain People" (1969) follows in this tradition. The movie focuses on a young, white suburbanite female, Natalie (Shirley Knight). She is married to Vinny (Robert Modica). One morning she wakes up before him, gets dressed, writes him a note, visits her parents and decides to leave her husband. She hits the road in her station wagon.

Why does she do it? Where is she going? She does it because she has realized her life is planned out. She is married, lives a comfortable life, discovers she is pregnant, will spend the next few years raising the child (one assumes) and then what? It all seems so sudden. Isn't there more to life? As for where is she going, well, that's the point of the movie. She doesn't know. That is what makes the movie speak to the times and the generation that watched it upon its first release. She is "lost", just like the youth at the time. She is headed on the road with no destination.

Along the way Natalie meets a hitchhiker, Jimmy (James Caan) a college football player nicknamed "killer". The school, for reasons unknown to Jimmy and Natalie (at first), has kicked Jimmy out and has given him $1,000. Jimmy is going to visit his ex-girlfriend because her father once offered him a job. Now that he is out of school, Jimmy would like to take him up on his offer.

Natalie, who perhaps was feeling lonely agrees to pick him up and take him to his destination. Although the movie suggest she finds the young man attractive. Is Natalie after a few thrills? Was that her problem? She wanted to experience the "free love" movement? Maybe. The movie doesn't do much to suggest otherwise.

And so "The Rain People" becomes the story of two "lost souls". Two people traveling in a car with no place to go. We slowly learn about Jimmy and his football glory. We slowly learn why the school has kicked him out. We learn why his girlfriend broke up with him.

The problem is Natalie. We stop learning about her. Coppola, who also wrote the movie, doesn't allow Natalie to grow. We learn everything about her at the beginning of the movie. There are no new insights. No revealing moments. There is nothing there.

The only surprise is she accepts the advances of a police officer, Gordon (Robert Duvall) who takes her out for a cup of coffee after he has written her a speeding ticket.

It is difficult to make a movie and have an unlikable lead character and still have an audience interested in what happens. I didn't find Natalie to be likable. I understand the abstract concept of not knowing your place in the world. I understand not knowing what to do with your life. But, I don't like how Natalie goes about finding the answers. In fact, I don't even believe she is looking.

At least in a movie like "Easy Rider" they meet people from different walks of life. They interact. They learn from these people. By the end of the picture they have changed. They have grown. Natalie hasn't. By the end of the picture she is the same dazed and confused woman she was at the beginning of the picture.

What makes "The Rain People" interesting is it an a curiosity piece. Here we have an early Francis Ford Coppola film pre-"The Godfather" (1972). We are able to see his roots. Where he started from. What kind of stories did he want to tell. "The Rain People" feels like a personal project. And believe it or not both movies share something in common. They are about an American dream. About an ideal. Natalie may not know what she is after but she believes there is something better out there.

It is also interesting to see Duvall and Caan in early roles and we see Coppola's association goes back with them. No wonder he casted them in "The Godfather". I wish "The Rain People" would have spoken to me a bit more. I wish I could have connected with it a bit more. It is an interesting effort with a relateable idea. I just didn't warm up to the lead character. Jimmy on the other hand had my sympathy. There's a guy Coppola should have made a movie about.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Film Review: Mortdecai

"Mortdecai"  *** (out of ****)

There is a golden rule in acting when performing comedy. Never act funny. Don't let the audience know you are in on the joke. You play your role seriously, as a belivable character, just as you would any other role.

As you watch "Mortdecai" (2015), directed by David Koepp, and see Johnny Depp on-screen, you quickly begin to think to yourself "oh no! What is Johnny Depp doing?" Depp plays Charlie Mortdecai, an expert art dealer with connections to the underground world, as a complete caricature. Depp has created a funny sounding voice, walks in a funny way, has exaggerated mannerisms and wears a funny moustache.

And yet despite everything, all the warning signs of trouble on the horizon because of Depp's portayal of this character, I laughed. I couldn't help myself. I laughed at myself for laughing. "Mortdecai" is not suppose to work. But we laugh anyway. We laugh at the stupidity of the plot, Depp's character and the low brow, corny jokes.

With that in mind I would be a hypocrite if I didn't recommend it. How could I honestly tell someone not to see this movie knowing I laughed as I watch it? But, will others be as kind as I am? Probably not. Some people may genuinely think this movie is not funny and a complete waste of time. Elizabeth Weitzman of the New York Daily News gave the movie zero stars and called "Mortdecai", "a disastrously misguided career low" for Johnny Depp. There will be more people that share her sentiments than mine.

Johnny Depp is a strange character to me. I can't quite figure him out. He often seems attracted to bizarre characters. He has turned in some fine performances in Tim Burton movies, which may be where he gets his strangeness from, and has been nominated for Academy Awards for his work in Burton's "Sweeney Todd" (2007), "Finding Neverland" (2004) and in his most famous role as Captain Jack Sparrow in "Pirates of the Caribbean" (2003).

I can somewhat understand why Depp would be interested in playing this character. It might have been fun for him to play. He probably saw it as a caricature and thought that would allow him a certain freedom creatively. So, he gets dressed up, has a funny voice..ect. I also felt there was a hint of William Powell from the "Thin Man" (1934) in his performance. And there is a relationship between Mortdecai and his man servant, Jock (Paul Bettany) which reminds me of Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Jock is the muscle between the two and helps Mortdecai get out of every dangerous predicament Mortdecai finds himself in.

Now I should admit I never read the comic series by Kyril Bonfiglioli, yes readers, "Mortdecai" is based on pre-existing material. The stories were first published in the 1970s and were meant to be satire. Maybe this was in fact how Mortdecai was written in the book. Maybe Depp is being faithful to the source material.

The plot revolves around a once believed lost Goya painting which may have been re-discovered and may have lead to the death of an art restorer who discovered it. Now, it is up to  British Mi5 agent Martland (McGregor) to find the painting, unfortunately, it will require the help of Mortdecai. The two have known each other since college. Martland was and still is in love with Mortdecai's wife, Johanna (Paltrow) but it was Mortdecai that won Johanna's heart.

The visual style of "Mortdecai" reminds me of a Guy Ritchie movie with a cartoon comic twist. It has a lot of energy and is fast moving. I never found the movie to be boring.

Who knows why this movie was ever released? I can though understand why it was given the green light. The movie has an attractive cast; Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor and Paul Bettany and a brief role by Jeff Goldblum. Perhaps there is a devoted cult following of the Mortdecai books which eagerly awaited a movie adaptation. The director, Koepp, is not a bad director. He worked with Depp previously on "Secret Window" (2004)  and directed "Ghost Town" (2008) with Ricky Gervais. But, once the final product was shown wasn't there anyone to stop it from being released? Did the studio feel they had too much invested in this not to release it?

Still "Mortdecai" has a silliness to it which reminds me of "Austin Powers" (1997). I am not sure which time period "Mortdecai" is supposed to take place in but I have a feeling both he and Austin Powers would get along smashingly.

"Mortdecai" is not great cinematic art. But, it is a funny, lighthearted, silly (very, very silly) ride of a movie.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Film Reviews: Just 45 Minutes From Broadway & In the Shadow of the Stars

"Just 45 Minutes From Broadway"  ** (out of ****)

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women mere players"
William Shakespeare - As You Like It

That quote by William Shakespeare from his play "As You Like It" may have inspired American indie filmmaker Henry Jaglom and his movie "Just 45 Minutes From Broadway" (2012), an adaptation of his own play, of the same title.

Like most of Mr. Jaglom's movies, "Just 45 Minutes From Broadway" deals with the lives of actors. In this movie's case, a theatrical family about to meet the fiance of their oldest daughter, the only one in the family that has not chosen acting as a profession.

One question to ask though is, is it true? Is all the world a stage? Can actors ever stop performing? Or do they see the world as one giant play or movie and they are acting their part? It could be the basis for an interesting, if not quirky, comedy. At least good sit-com material if all else fails. But, in the case of "Just 45 Minutes From Broadway" you have the wrong script, the wrong director and the wrong cast.

That is unfortunate. Mr. Jaglom, who made his directorial debut with "A Safe Place" (1971) starring Tuesday Weld, has mainly worked outside the Hollywood system. It gives him more freedom to make the movies he wants to make. Since that time he has directed 19 feature films. His movies often feel like "family gatherings" (Mr. Jaglom is not above casting family members and friends), a bunch of friends that have gotten together to put on a big show in the barn! As with anything in life, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. When a movie by Mr. Jaglom works, they are charming, breezy pieces of entertainment with a collection of eccentric characters. When they don't work, it is a tiresome, boring experience.

The reason Mr. Jaglom is the wrong director and has written the wrong script is because the movie has nothing to say about actors. The movie is little more than a cliche presenting actors as emotional train wrecks. They are free spirits. They let their emotions fly. They are in constant need of attention. And, they are always performing. Always trying to manipulate "their audience" by presenting themselves in a particular light, masking their true feelings and identity.

That may all very well be true but is any of that original? I absolutely agree people (whether they are actors or not) do try to present themselves to people in the most positive light often hiding their negative traits and only allow a select few to ever have the opportunity to truly know them. And, even then, they still may be hiding something from those people.

If the counterargument is Mr. Jaglom never intended to make an in-depth movie about the lives of actors, all he wanted to do was make an uninspired, predictable, cliche ridden, funny, lighthearted movie, I'll accept that as an answer. Now the problem is, "Just 45 Minutes From Broadway" is not funny. No matter how you want to argue it, the movie doesn't work as a whole. You can slice it any way you want but you can't avoid the movie's flaws.

Jack Heller and Diane Salinger star as George and Vivien Isaacs, the heads of a dysfunctional acting family. Their youngest daughter, Pandora (Tanna Frederick) has moved back in with her parents, at the age of 30, after a romantic relationship has ended. She is now emotionally distraught. Also living in the house is Vivien's brother, Larry (David Proval) and his wife Sharon (Mary Crosby, Bing Crosby's daughter).

George and Vivien are expecting their oldest daughter, Betsy (Julie Davis) to introduce the family to her fiance, James (Judd Nelson). Betsy is the only one in the family that has not gotten biten by the acting bug. She is embarrassed of her family and tries to keep a distance from them. She says she cannot deal with their chaotic lifestyle. She needs stability, which is what attracts her to James, who works in real estate.

And so the stage is set for a clash of lifestyles as the actors vs the non-actors, or "civilians" as they are referred to in the movie, sister vs sister and actor vs actor, as George and Larry argue over acting technique.

The best performances in the movie are given by Jack Heller and David Proval, though Mr. Heller, in the beginning moments of the movie, has a tendency to give a very theatrical performance, however, that is the downfall of the entire cast. Everyone in the movie is acting as if they are on the stage. They are acting for the seats in the balconies. Nearly all the performances are loud and gregarious, except Proval, who at one point in the movie gives a speech citing he feels his acting career has not gone as he planned. He feels he has been looked overlooked by comparisons to actors such as Robert De Niro.

This speech is actually one of the best moments in the movie. The scene plays like a confession, not just of the character but Mr. Proval himself. Proval may be best known for his role in Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" (1973). He has done a lot of acting since then in both movies and television but never accomplished what De Niro, Pacino or Nicholson did. That's what makes the scene so powerful. I bet deep down Mr. Proval feels that way about his career. He must have, at one time in his life, had this internal dialogue. Why didn't he become a bigger name? For all I know, the scene was improvised. Mr. Jaglom's films sometimes have improvised moments.

Ms. Frederick, whom I am usually critical of, shows more restraint than is normal for her. In the three prior movies she has collaborated with Mr. Jaglom on, her performances have tended to fall on the more whiny side. She doesn't know how to express frustration, anger, or despair. What she does instead is say how she is feeling but doesn't act it. Or, if she does try to act it, the gestures are too exaggerated and lacks believability. To her credit, she tones it down, a bit. She is still the acting weakling in the cast but it is a small improvement.

Mr. Nelson on the other hand appears too constricted. There isn't enough for him to do. His performance lacks life. He looks detached. He isn't playing a fleshed out character but rather a plot device.

Another strange component of the movie is Mr. Jaglom's attempt to have the movie appear to be a stage play on film. We see stage curtains close at the end of an "act". In the beginning of the movie we see a stage set. At the end of the movie we see a camera crew film the actors. The movie ends on a self-referential note. Probably an attempt to suggest all of life is a stage and the blurry line actors walk between reality and fantasy. But it is poorly done and raises more questions than answers. What have we been watching? What was real? What was an act of the imagination?

In the end "Just 45 Minutes From Broadway" is too predictable, filled with too many cliches, poorly staged and not funny. It is a middle of the road picture. Not something a maverick independent filmmaker wants to hear.

For a better Henry Jaglom movie dealing with the trial and tribulations of an acting family watch "Last Summer in the Hamptons" (1996).

"In the Shadow of the Stars"  *** (out of ****)

Who are they? They are nothing more that stage fillers. No one knows their names. No one will remember who they are at the end of the performance. The spotlight is never on them. But in the Academy Award winning documentary "In the Shadow of the Stars" (1991) they get to tell their story.

"They" are the members of the San Francisco Opera chorus. They stand in the background. They watch the major opera soloist, as the rest of us do, and marvel at their voices and talents. But, for the chorus it doesn't end there. They want to achieve fame. They want people to know their names.

Like "45 Minutes From Broadway", "In the Shadow of the Stars" tells us about the lives of artists, but, "In the Shadow of the Stars" does more than that. It tells us about the struggles artist must endure. It tells us how the arts can be inspirational. And the sacrifices one must make in order to succeed in this business.

While most documentaries may focus on famous people, here is a documentary that tells us everyone has a story. What makes the chorus of the San Francisco Opera interesting, or anyone in their position interesting is, these people have talent. They have been acknowledge as having talent or they wouldn't be working at an opera house. They are getting paid to do what they love but only to an extent. They want more. In fact they feel they deserve more. They love opera. They love to sing. In their minds they are just as good as the stars they must remain in the shadows of. So why haven't they gotten their break?

It is an interesting question but "In the Shadow of the Stars" doesn't have the answer. What could possibly be a good answer anyway? But it is enjoyable listening to these performers offer their explanations. It is interesting to hear them speak about their love of opera. Their desire to be heard and engage in creative activities.

This documentary was directed by Allie Light and Irving Saraf, whom at the time were married. It doesn't strike me as Academy Award winning quality but you can see why it would win. It deals with artist. It is the story of the underdog. Performers waiting for the big break. Following their dream. Why wouldn't Hollywood like such a story?

This is a lighthearted and truthful look at the life of an artist. It is a valentine to every performer still waiting for their big break.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Film Review: The Devil Is A Woman

"The Devil Is A Woman"  *** (out of ****)

It is the old familiar story of a woman bringing down a man in Josef von Sternberg's "The Devil Is A Woman" (1935) starring his greatest collaborator, the screen siren, Marlene Dietrich.

For older movie fans, those with perhaps a better understanding of film history, all I need say is this is a von Sternberg film starring Dietrich and we pretty much know the rest. For the rest of you, I'll do some explaining.

Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich worked on six films together. Their first film together was "The Blue Angel" (1930), where Dietrich played her most famous character, a cabaret singer, Lola-Lola. It is in this movie she has an iconic moment and sings "Falling In Love Again", a song which would become something of Dietrich's theme song. Her character in this movie causes a man to fall from grace as she seduces him and ruins his life. In "Shanghai Express" (1932) she plays a prostitute, though that word is never used (it couldn't be at the time) it is more than implied. And there is "Morocco" (1930), for which Dietrich was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress. Here too she plays a temptress of men, who has lead many to their downfall.

So, understanding a bit more of the relationship between von Sternberg and Dietrich, we can tell "The Devil Is A Woman" will be a continuation of the themes explored in their previous films and it is a good bet Dietrich will be "the Devil" referred to in the title.

And that's the problem with "The Devil Is A Woman". It doesn't cover any new ground for this legendary director / actress team. The only thing which may set it apart from their other works together is their is a hint of humor in this movie but I felt its placement was actually one of the elements which hurt the movie. Humor never truly felt appropriate and/or necessary to the story. Though I suppose someone could view this whole movie as a dark comedy, that is if you find the destruction of someone's soul funny. Me, I'm old fashion. I like a Bob Hope comedy.

Dietrich plays Concha Perez, a woman with a reputation as a seductress. Men cannot help themselves around her. They are instantly attracted to her and she uses them for her enjoyment and benefit.

The movie takes place in Spain during Carnival. A young, handsome, Republican revolutionary, Antonio Galvan (Cesar Romero) sees Concha from afar and a game of flirtation begins between them. He is passed a note which tells him where he can meet her later in the evening.

Before Antonio is able to set off on his rendezvous he notices Capt. Don Pasqual (Lionel Atwill) in a cafe. Antonio joins him and brags of his meeting with the lady. Don Pasqual is familiar with her name and since Antonio is not, Pasqual explains how he met Concha Perez and the emotional games she played on him which eventually leads to his downfall. She took his money, played with his affection and he resigned from his position as a captain. His days and thoughts were consumed by only one thing; Concha.

The one of the things I don't like about "The Devil Is A Woman" is we never get a clear understanding of who Concha is. We only hear other people's interpretation of her. We never have a moment where we hear her side of the story, where she is able to defend herself and offer an explanation for her actions. As a result, I was never sure how much I should believe Don Pasqual's story. Imagine what a different movie this would have been if told from Concha's perspective.

Don Pasqual's story is a relatable one. I too have fallen victim to the disease of loving the wrong woman. "The Devil Is A Woman" at times hit a little too close to home for me. I perfectly understand why Don Pasqual does what he does. I know why he allows himself to be taken advantage of. It means he gets to see her, hear her voice, spend time with her. Those pleasures are worth something. But it is exactly because of that infatuation one wonders if he has added more to the story than was there. Has love and obsession altered his sense of reality.

What impressed me most about "The Devil Is A Woman" is the acting. I don't know if I have ever seen Lionel Atwill give a better performance. He is a believable character. Cesar Romero doesn't get to do much but listen to the story, still it is interesting to see him in this movie. While I feel we don't get much of an understanding of Concha, Dietrich is mesmerizing on-screen. Talk about a star's presence. Director von Sternberg sure knew how to photograph Dietrich.

Some younger, more modern, more liberal, female viewers may object to the title of the movie and may object to the characterization of the story. The female is made out to be a villain. It is all because of a woman these men have suffered. Female viewers may feel, why does Hollywood have to perpetuate this stereotypes? Hollywood has nothing to do with it. The idea of a woman as a seductress, as being the downfall of man, goes back to the bible. It is the story of original sin in the garden of Eden. The story of Adam and Eve. Eve ate an apple from the forbidden tree, but, it didn't matter. Sin would only be known to mankind if Adam ate it too. Eve tempted Adam which lead to his downfall. That story, more than anything has lead to the characterization of women as being easily tempted by greed and power. Of using men to their advantage. It also doesn't help when some women behave that way in the real world too, but, that's another story. However, Hollywood is not to blame. The characterization of women being seen in such a light is an old story, Hollywood may not have helped matters by using stereotypes but since when was Hollywood known for originality?

"The Devil Is A Woman" lacks the memorable quality of previous von Sternberg and Dietrich collaborations. The movie is nice to look at and the performances by the two leads are very good, but, compared to "The Blue Angel" or "Morocco" "The Devil Is A Woman" lacks the punch of those movies. This is despite Dietrich allegedly saying this was her favorite movie she starred in.

Also the moments of humor are out of place. Edward Everett Horton, plays a governor in the movie. Horton, it is said jokingly, appeared in every comedy made in the 1930s. He had a reputation for playing what was known at the time as a "sissy man". His characters were never directly referred to as homosexual but the implications were there, if you were looking for them. The humorous moments are given to Horton. Horton could be funny but this story is one which should be taken serious. There is great dramatic weight here. Now, someone might say, but, von Sternbern and Dietrich have played this material dramatic before so why should there do it again here. My dear friend, if that is the case, why even bother making the movie in the first place? They've done it all before. The point is don't play against your material.

Could a funny movie be made about a woman seducing money and taking all their money? Sure. But you need to find the right tone. The performances need to match that tone. Atwill is not acting in a comedy. He is taking his performance very serious. Dietrich isn't going for laughs either. Though she could be funny. Watch her in "The Lady Is Willing" (1942). Only Horton is acting in a comedy.

"The Devil Is A Woman" shouldn't be avoided. There are pleasures in watching it. It is always wonderful to see Dietrich act. Younger movie fans should also become familiar with the work of von Sternberg (a two-time best director Oscar nominee). But, there is no way around it, "The Devil Is A Woman" is entertaining but a minor effort.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Top Ten Films Of 2014!

Having seen more than 100 films released in 2014 I am left feeling "blah". It wasn't an awful year at the movies as it was in 2000, 2006, 2008 and 2009 but I didn't enjoy what I saw as much as I did in 2010 or 2012.

The movies of 2014 were mostly average. There were a few good ones, those will be the ones on this list, and there were some bad ones, those will not appear on this list. But there were more films this year that were just average.

The studios and the big head executives tried to make us believe they had some strong, high caliber, meaningful films on their hands ("The Imitation Game" anyone?) but they didn't stick. The critics were ho-hum to them and the public didn't bother to see them.

A lot movies which I had high expectations for didn't meet the bar. A lot of the movies the sheep (movie critics) praised, didn't impress me. A lot of the movies the public went to see in droves, well, I didn't even bother to see them. I'm just not a fan of comic book movies, sorry.

It was somewhat difficult for me to come up with a list of ten great movies. They were out there but they weren't where you were looking. They weren't the Oscar nominated films. They weren't the box-office hits. They weren't the critical darlings. Nope. They were the small movies in most cases. They were the movies you haven't heard of. The movies which didn't have a $30 million dollar advertising campaign. They didn't get media attention. The best films of the year were the ones which were ignored. They were the documentaries, the low budget independent movies, the foreign language films. Those were the movies which inspired me. Which grabbed me. Which provoked me. Which touched my heart.

These 10 movies don't share a common theme. Though, a lot of them deal with relationships. A lot of them deal with ordinary people at a crossroad. They will make decisions which will change who they are forever. Why was I attracted to these stories? I'm not sure. Maybe I see myself at a crossroad in my life. Or maybe it says something about our country, about the world we live in. Maybe a lot of people aren't happy with their lives. They hate their job. They aren't making enough money. They are in a bad relationship or they are unhappy because they aren't in a relationship. Maybe they read the newspaper and world events scare them. Maybe some people feel, too many have let them down, whether it is their government or their neighbor.

So many movies were about people learning and dealing with these issues. One of the most acclaimed animated movies of the year, "The Lego Movie", presented a world where people were told what they must do but the system was out to hurt them not make life better. Compare that with "Divergent". A movie which was about individualism. It argued, don't let society label you. Fight back. "The Giver" presented a world in the future where once again the government controls its people by taking away their memories. Of course, we don't need science fiction to tell us the government is trying to control us, there was the documentary "Citizenfour", about Edward Snowden, the American patriot who exposed government surveillance. And the "Hunger Games" movies show us a government that amuses its rich citizens by showing them poor children killing each other.

Pretty serious and scary ideas huh? But, as I say every year, movies don't invent themselves. They are a reflection of our world. Writers come up with stories which they believe will be relevant. Movies contribute and sometimes start the national debate. They shows us the world we live in far better than we can see it, We are too busy running around to take a moment and think of our lives. Movies, great art in general, makes us slow down and pay attention.

In this "average" year at the movies here are the ten "best" I saw and a runner's up list.

1. FED UP (Dir. Stephanie Soechtig; U.S.) - It didn't get much media attention. It wasn't a topic on the nightly news and the critics didn't throw high praise at it. I'd be surprised if you find a critic name it as one of the year's 10 best films, but, "Fed Up", is an important documentary. This is something anyone that eats should watch. This documentary is about the amount of sugar in our diet and the harmful effects it has on our body. The documentary suggest this issue is one of the leading causes for obesity in America. Sugar is not properly labeled in our nutrition facts on the food we eat. And who do you think this benefits? The sugar lobby! They have fought strongly against this.

The most important thing the viewer will come away with as they watch this is, we are slowly killing ourselves. We are putting poison in our bodies. The consumer really doesn't know what they are eating. And, the government doesn't care. They aren't helping the matter. "Fed Up" makes fun of the fact Congress has labeled pizza a vegetable. That's not a joke. That is true. That is one example of how our government is failing us.

"Fed Up" should open a lot of eyes. More people need to be aware of this documentary. There is vital information here.

2. AMERICAN SNIPER (Dir. Clint Eastwood; U.S.) - Based on the life of Chris Kyle, a NAVY SEAL, who served four tours in Iraq as a sniper has been cause for a lot of controversy among critics and the public. Not since Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" (1987) have I seen a movie which shows the dehumanization of war and the effects it has on the soldier.

Click here to read my review.

3. CITIZENFOUR (Dir. Laura Poitras; U.S.) - This critically acclaimed documentary, which is nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary, tells the story of American patriot Edward Snowden, the man who exposed the far-reaching effects of government surveillance, which should have been known to the public anyway due to the "patriot"-act during the Bush administration.

Anyone who watches the nightly news or reads a newspaper, knows about Snowden and his heroic acts and the controversy that sadly follows him, as the United States government, embarrassed their secrets were revealed, engaged in character assassination to discredit Snowden.

The movie can be frightening, if you think about it long enough. Everything we do is being recorded by our government. No fictional story can beat that. This is the new sad reality of our lives.

A young man like Snowden, with nothing to gain but everything to lose, had a moment of clarity. As he stood at the fork in the road, he took a brave stance. How many people can say they would act the same way?

 People need to see this movie. Even if you already know this information by following the news, this visual presentation will still have an effect on you.

4. THE BABADOOK (Dir. Jennifer Kent; Australia) - One of the sleeper hits of the year. This low budget Australian horror/psychological film gained a lot of traction on the underground film scene generating plenty of positive buzz.

The movie is about the grieving process, mother and son relationships, the difficulties of being a single parents, guilt and resentment.

It is also pretty darn freaky!

Click here to read my review.

5. ST. VINCENT (Dir. Theodore Melfi; U.S.) - For me, the feel good movie of the year! Bill Murray, in a Golden Globe nominated performance, stars as Vincent, a Vietnam war vet, who is seen as the local grouch. He lives alone, drinks a lot and doesn't like people but, deep down he is a good man who befriends his new neighbors; a single mom (Melissa McCarthy) and her son (Jaeden Lieberher). Some may argue there are stereotypes and cliches in Melfi's screenplay but the movie works for me because of Murray's performance first and foremost, a shame he didn't get an Oscar nomination.

The movie is sweet and human. We all have our bad sides but if you give people a chance you will find the goodness in them.

6. JODOROWSKY'S DUNE (Dir. Frank Pavich; U.S.) - A great story of "what if". Director Pavich interviews the cult favorite Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky about a screen adaptation of Frank Herbet's science-fiction novel "Dune" which Jodorowsky's never got to make, though all the preparations were made.

The movie is a celebration of art and an artist's desire to be heard. It is a celebration of film and the movie making process.

One of the few movies that made me feel great as I left the theatre.

Click here to read my review from this blog.
Click here to read my review as published by Chicago Talks.

7. CHILD'S POSE (Pozitia Copilului, Dir. Calin Peter Netzer; Romania) - A continuation of the trend of powerful Romanian films distributed in America, here is a story showing us the story of two worlds; one for the rich and one for the poor.

A child dies in a car accident. The driver comes from a wealthy family with connections. The victim comes from a poor family.

Will justice be served? Or can the rich get away with murder?

8. LOCKE (Dir. Steven Knight; UK) - A one man moral drama starring Tom Hardy as David Locke.

The movie takes place in Locke's car on the most disruptive day of his life. He is at a crossroad and makes a decision which will change his life forever.

Hardy delivers a tour-de-force performance. The entire movie rest on his shoulders. He is the only character we see. And yet, the movie is never boring. It is exciting and compelling and very well written, with a screenplay by Steven Knight.

A pity Hardy did not receive an Academy Award nomination.

9. LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (Dir. Hirokazu Koreeda; Japan) - A couple learns their six year old son may not be their's at all. The question is do they want to know the truth. And, if they do find out, then what? What moral responsibility do they have to this child they have raised as their own? The child only knows them as his parents.

Nominated for the palm d' or at the Cannes Film Festival this is a touching, human story about doing the right thing. About what defines a family.

10. LE WEEK-END (Dir. Roger Michell; UK) - A charming British comedy/drama about an elderly couple returning to Paris decades after their honeymoon.

A smart observant piece about marriage and growing old. The performances by the two leads; Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan create two lovely characters we enjoy seeing spending time together and hope they are able to work our their problems.

Click here to read my review.

Runner's Up!

1. MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT (Dir. Woody Allen; UK/ U.S.) - Click here to read my review.

2. THE NOTEBOOK (A Nagy Fuzet, Dir. Janos Szasz; Hungary) - Click here to read my review.

3. A MASTER BUILDER (Dir. Jonathan Demme; U.S.)

4. FORCE MAJEURE (Turist, Dir. Ruben Ostlund; Sweden)

5. A MOST WANTED MAN (Dir. Anton Corbijn; U.S.)

6. VENUS IN FUR (Dir. Roman Polanski; France)

7. OMAR (Dir. Hany Abu-Assad; Palastine)

8. WHIPLASH (Dir. Damien Chazelle; U.S.)

9. THE NOVEMBER MAN (Dir. Roger Donaldson; U.S.)

10. ANNABELLE (Dir. John R. Leonetti; U.S.) - Click here to read my review.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Film Reviews: American Sniper & Goodbye to Language 3D

"American Sniper"  **** (out of ****)

With its six Academy Award nominations, director Clint Eastwood's story of American sniper, Chris Kyle, based on his own 2012 memoir, is one of the best films of 2014.

The story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL, who served four tours of duty in Iraq, starting at the beginning of our decade war there, has been the subject of controversy, mainly for political reasons. Those that did not approve of the war feel Eastwood and his movie do not condemn the war as the mistake it was. Others feel too much of Kyle's life and remarks, divisive remarks, he made in his book were left out.

I cannot comment on Kyle's memoir and the accuracy in which it has or has not been translated onto the big screen. To be completely honest, I don't care. Movies do not need to be faithful adaptations of books, whether they are true stories or not. I sincerely wish this persistent belief among some people would end soon. As for the political nature of the movie and how strongly the movie makes a statement condemning the Iraq war is not as interesting to me as what the movie does say about war and the effects war has on the soldier. Not since Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" (1987) have I seen a movie which shows the de-humanization of war as compellingly.

The director, Clint Eastwood, gained fame for playing tough guys in westerns and came to represent a macho, anti-hero figure in American films, opposite what John Wayne represented in earlier westerns. Wayne became identified as a symbol of American principles. Wayne was the good guy. He stood for solid values. How interesting though, that Eastwood, the man known for appearing in violent pictures; "Dirty Harry" (1971) and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" (1967) would make a movie about the effects violence, specifically war, has on the individual.

I understand those that complain the movie doesn't take a stance on the Iraq war and the movie doesn't make the point it was a mistake to enter in the first place but, at no point does this movie want to tell that story. The movie is not about Iraq. What I came away it watching this movie was here is a movie which shows us the devastating consequences war has on the individual, just on a psychological level alone.

As Bradley Cooper, in an Academy Award nominated performance, plays Chris Kyle, we see a man slowly losing sense of himself. Kyle is credited it with more than 160 kills. That takes a toll on a man. Knowing that you personally have taken that many lives is something you must struggle to live with. Yes, the men he killed were classified as "the enemy". Yes, the men killed were on the battlefield, not the streets of a major American city. But, that argument misses the point. Killing someone is killing someone. Taking a person's life has an effect on the individual's mind. And to think, someone was trained to do that is disturbing, not only to the viewer watching the movie but to the man being trained.

In that sense, "American Sniper" could have been made in the 1970s and people would have said it was an anti-Vietnam movie showcasing the effects the war had on the troops coming home. That is the heart of the movie. It is not about Iraq, Vietnam or Afghanistan. It is about what war does to a man. Therefore "American Sniper" is an anti-war movie. The soldier is a victim of a government's actions.

Those that wanted an anti-Iraq war message get whispers of it as we hear other soldiers question why they are fighting this war. This is in contrast to Kyle who does what his government ask of him. Kyle believes he is defending his country. He is protecting his wife (Sienna Miller) and their children. Kyle never directly questions the policies of the war. His government told him to fight and so he did. Why would his government lie?

Cooper does something very difficult in this movie, he plays the emotion of showing no emotion. Kyle is a man who will not admit he is haunted by his actions. He lives in a state of denial. Killing all of those people, sometimes women and children, has made him question what kind of person is he. When he does speak to someone, later on in the movie, he says what bothers him is the thought he could not save all of his fellow soldiers. He may feel that, to a degree, but he will not admit the elephant in the room and discuss the effects those 160 kills have on him.

Clint Eastwood as a director has simply gotten better with age. I am continually impressed with his work and by what he finds interesting. He has made some of his best work in the last decade or so from "Mystic River" (2003) to "Million Dollar Baby" (2004), "Letters From Iwo Jima" (2006), "Changling" (2008) and "Hereafter" (2010).

"American Sniper" is an emotionally powerful movie headed by an excellent performance by Bradley Cooper. It is a well deserved Oscar nomination. The movie is also nominated for best picture though regrettably Eastwood was not nominated for best director. This is one of the best films of 2014.

"Goodbye to Language 3D"  * (out of ****)

Nominated for the palm d'or at the Cannes Film Festival, iconic French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard's "Goodbye to Language 3D" (2014) surprised a lot of people when recently it won best film at the National Society of Film Critics Award. I'm surprised and disappointed too.

Godard is best know in this country for making "Breathless" (1959), while not the first film of the French New Wave it became the most emblematic of the movement with its jump cuts, natural lighting and breaking the fourth wall.

Godard has done a lot for the language of cinema. At first, walking into his latest work, I thought that was what the title meant. We are saying goodbye to the language of cinema as we know it. The art form is changing and continues to change. Movies are made digitally now. Few, if any, filmmakers use actual film stock. Cinematic gimmicks like 3D are common. Rapid edits (jump cuts included) are standard practice. In "Goodbye to Language 3D" alone we see images appear upside down, images super imposed into other images in slow dissolve and of course 3D. Godard is challenging us in the way we watch movies.

But, I don't think the "language" referred to the in title necessarily means "film language". It may mean language in the way we communicate. Technology of course has changed that too. Communication doesn't exclusively mean "face to face", actually speaking to someone. Now it means text or email.

However, at the end of the day, I must be honest. I am not exactly sure what Godard is trying to convey in "Goodbye to Language 3D". Some of that is my fault, perhaps for not being unable to understand how to interpret the symbolism of the images on-screen but the rest of it is Godard's fault for not being explicit in his message.

That has always been my issue with Godard. In the 1960s he was seen as a far left radical who talked about revolution in his films. The movies are a time capsule in my opinion. They spoke to the moment. People who saw those movies during that era and enjoyed them caught on to the keywords Godard used. He didn't need to be explicit. They could speak in short hand. I find that to be the case with this movie as well.

I have no doubt Godard had intentions with this movie. There was an idea, a social point, he wanted to comment on. I question whether or not he has stated that message in the most effective way possible. Interesting ideas but poor execution in other words.

Godard has just always seemed to me to be pretentious. He is not the great intellectual he thinks he is. Still I have a small sense of admiration for him and recognize his influence. There are even a small handful of movies he has made which I enjoy; "Breathless", "The Carabineers" (1963), "Contempt" (1963) and "Tout va Bien" (1972) .

There is no coherent story in "Goodbye to Language 3D". We see two people, a couple, talk about equality while the man sits on the toilet and we, unfortunately, hear what he is doing. We see images of a dog, which is suppose to represent perhaps the idea of living a materialistic free lifestyle (?). We see a philosopher sitting in a park. We hear conversations concerning the conflict between society and the state. And we get to see a dog in 3-D.

It may all lead up to something interesting and meaningful. In its current state however it led me to boredom.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Film Review: Sullivan's Travels

"Sullivan's Travels"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

We learn it is better to laugh than cry in the Preston Sturges comedy "Sullivan's Travels" (1941).

Life. What a miserable experience it is. War. Death. Poverty. Homelessness. Violence. Despair. This is what life is comprised of. And that's how Hollywood director John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) sees the world. There is conflict in Europe. High unemployment in America. And what is John Sullivan doing about it? Why, he is making musicals and comedies!

Sullivan believes his movies are out of fashion. The public is not in the mood for his light-hearted pictures. There is too much trouble in the world. Too much human suffering. The public wants to see realism. People want to watch movies that have social significance. So, Sullivan has decided to change course. His next picture will not be a typical comedy. Sullivan will direct a drama. A socially significant movie called "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

This causes an uproar at the movie studio Sullivan works for. The public expects comedy from Sullivan, not drama. Sullivan's comedies are safe and formulaic and make a profit. Why fix it, if it isn't broken? The studio wants Sullivan to make another comedy, with a little sex in it. Maybe they can even get Bob Hope or Jack Benny to star in it. But, Sullivan is determine to make a movie that comments on today's conditions. No more Hollywood escapism.

At this point in the story, writer and director, Preston Sturges, is commenting on the popular belief comedy has no value. There is no "social significance" in comedy. Drama is art. Drama is important. Cinema, the greatest form of artistic expression of the 20th century, should be used to tell powerful, emotional stories. Stories which convey the hardships of the world. Instead, how do we use cinema in America? We film baggy pants comedians getting hit with a pie in their face. How disgraceful! Where's the significance in that?

But, what does a rich, successful Hollywood filmmaker like Sullivan know about the plight of the poor? He never went to bed hungry. He attended boarding schools, was a successful director at 25 years old. He lives in a beautiful mansion with a swimming pool and a tennis court. He has a butler (played by Robert Greig, who spent most of his career playing butlers) and a valet (played by Eric Bore, a famous character actor at the time). How can he make a meaningful commentary on the poor and working class?

This is the argument the Hollywood studio head makes, in an effort to dissuade him from his dramatic effort. Alas, Sullivan must admit the facts. He doesn't know what it is like to be poor but he won't give up on "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" instead he has a brilliant idea, he will head out on the road, with 10 cents in his pocket, and live among the poor. He will find out the daily turmoil the poor must endure.

Preston Sturges was a comedy juggernaut in the early part of the 1940s, starting with his debut film as a writer and director, the political satire, "The Great McGinty" (1940), for which he won an Academy Award for his screenplay, up until 1944 with the release of "The Great Moment", the story of Dr. W.T. Morton, the dentist credited with using ether as an anesthesia. The movie was a box-office flop and ended his reign as a comedy king. Was "Sullivan's Travels", Sturges' fourth movie as a director, a comment on how Sturges felt about himself? Did Sturges feel he was wasting his time on comedy? Not necessarily. The movie is dedicated to those that make us laugh. "Sullivan's Travels" becomes a satire on those that feel the way Sullivan does.

Could Sturges also be making a comment on comedians that take themselves too serious? Whether it was Charlie Chaplin or Jim Carrey, comedians have usually been accused of having an affinity for pathos. Of wanting to prove themselves by acting in a drama. Those that are critics of Chaplin (it's such a shame people like that exist) point to his desire to want to be loved. Chaplin was too sentimental they say. Ironically that is what is missing from Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels". The movie needed more sentimentally to effectively pull off this project. Sturges, as brilliant as he was, is not able to perfectly blend comedy and drama at the heights Chaplin was. Chaplin also made a film that commented on the conditions of the working man, "Modern Times" (1936). Both, I feel, would make a nice double bill.

Like all Sturges comedies "Sullivan's Travels" displays the gift Mr. Sturges had in combining physical comedy and verbal comedy. The movie starts off with some great subtle jabs at the mentality of the Hollywood system. As Sullivan describes the kind of movie he wants to make, the studio head keeps injecting, "with a little sex in it", and of course, what has Mr. Sturges done for his part to make a movie with a little sex in it? He cast Veronica Lake in the female lead. We even get a few shots showing her legs (check out the movie's poster!).

The great verbal banter though is countered with sequences of broad physical comedy. There is a chase scene as a trailer speeds to catch up with a motorcycle, and causes chaos in the trailer, with dishes and food falling off of shelves and characters falling on top of each other.

Joel McCrea, who was also in Sturges' "The Palm Beach Story" (1942) and "The Great Moment", plays Sullivan as a naive, innocent man. A man that has led a sheltered existence. Others in the movie don't believe Sullivan is capable of being on his own. His character is off set by Veronica Lake (in her first role of significance), who is credited only as "The Girl", a young woman who came to Hollywood in the hopes of becoming a famous actress. She possesses the street smarts Sullivan lacks. There is also a hint of romance between them.

The rest of the cast is a roll call of great character actors of the 1930s & 40s, many of whom were regulars in Preston Sturges comedies. They include: William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall, Al Bridge and Esther Howard. Not to mention the already noted Eric Bore and Robert Greig.

One can fault Mr. Sturges by saying his view of the poor and the movie's ultimate message is too simplistic. "Sullivan's Travels" doesn't truly show us the hardship the less fortunate must face. Perhaps. But, like Sullivan, why should Mr. Sturges know about the poor? Still the movie does show moments when we see the extremes poverty will lead people to. The poor are shown as having violent tendencies. They are driven to stealing in other scenes. All in an attempt to survive. The problem is, we never get to know any of these people. Sullivan never befriends any of them. If you want to learn about how the poor live, why not talk to them while you are living among them?

Looking at the movie today, it is interesting the way it is marketed. For one, with the exception of the poster displayed here, most posters only feature Ms. Lake, as if she were the star. Perhaps a reflection of today's moviegoers who may only know her and not Joel McCrea. Also, the tagline, "Veronica Lake's on the take", would suggest this is a romance. It really isn't. What works best in "Sullivan's Travels" and what it is ultimately about, is its satirical nature. Not its romance. Even the movie's title is a reference to the novel "Gulliver's Travels", the political satire written by Jonathan Swift.

We can see the influence a movie such as this may have had on Woody Allen when he made "Stardust Memories" (1980), which was also about a comedy director that no longer wants to make funny pictures, though that movie was also influenced by the work of Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini and his film "8 1/2" (1963). And we can see how Mel Brooks was inspired by "Sullivan's Travels" when he made "Life Stinks" (1991), about a millionaire who lives alongside the poor. Even the Coen Brothers make reference to it by naming one of their comedies, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000), a depression era comedy starring George Clooney

"Sullivan's Travels" is a very entertaining comedy with a message. Mr. Sturges is aiming for the level of Chaplin with its depiction of the poor and sentimental moments. It is also a sharp satire on the movie industry and an attack on the snobbish attitude some have towards comedy. The movie also has a wonderful cast. Outside of a few minor complaints, this is near comedy perfection, with a little sex in it.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Film Review: The Hundred-Foot Journey

"The Hundred-Foot Journey"   *** (out of ****)

Food. I guess I never really thought about the importance and the effects a great meal can have on someone. It is one of the things I thought about while watching Lasse Hallstrom's "The Hundred-Foot Journey" (2014).

I would say I have only had a handful of great meals in my life. Most of those meals were cooked by my grandmother. Her sisters, our cousins and friends would all admit what a great cook my grandmother was. She would prepare traditional Hungarian dishes like toltott kaposzta (stuffed cabbage), csirke paprikas (chicken paprikash) and gulyasleves (goulash soup) for our family every Sunday. It was the one day of the week we could all get together. No one had to go to work, my sisters and I didn't have school. We could all just get together and eat a good meal. My grandmother passed away a few years ago and now I don't get to eat the cuisine of "my people". There aren't any Hungarian restaurants in the state of Illinois. And so, all I have are my memories of those delicious meals my grandmother would make and the time my family would spend together eating them.

One of the characters in "The Hundred-Foot Journey" says "food is memories". Certain foods make us remember certain people or moments in our life. I had never really given it much thought, but, I would agree. That is true. Food is a big part of our lives. We seek new hot-spot restaurants, in the hopes of finding a good meal. We prepare our own meals at home, to make sure we are eating fresh ingredients. We go on diets. We give into temptation and have a rich dessert. Food is all around us. And some of our best memories include sharing a meal with special people in our lives.

"The Hundred-Foot Journey" is partially about this and makes minor attempts at addressing larger cultural issues concerning food. Food is not just about having a great meal, food also represents tradition and culture.

Helen Mirren, in a Golden Globe nominated performance, stars as Madame Mallory, owner of a well respected French restaurant, Le Saule Pleureur. Madame Mallory takes great pride in her restaurant and the quality of food which is served there, which has received one Michelin star, from the famed guide book. It is a dream of Madame Mallory to one day receive another star.

Enter the Kadam family from Mumbai. They have decided to open an Indian restaurant in the same small French village as Le Saule Pleureur, infact, the Kadam's restaurant would be across the street from it, hundred feet away.

There is some disagreement among the Kadams however. the father (Om Puri) is in favor of the idea, but, one of his son's, Mansur (Amit Shah) believes it would be a bad idea. There are no Indian restaurants in this small town. The people don't don't like Indian food. They only like their own food. But the father believes, they may think they don't like Indian food but they have never tried it. They don't know what it is and they have never tasted Hassan (Manish Dayal), the second oldest son's cooking.

With the two restaurants so close to each other a mini war breaks out as they complete for customers and soon a cultural divide begins. Some of the residents of this French town don't want the Kadam's living there or their restaurant. The Kadam's aren't French! They don't make French food and if they did it probably wouldn't be better than the food at Le Saule Pleureur. The residents and even some of the chefs in Madame Mallory's kitchen don't like the Kadam's because they are Indian and seen as lower class. The Kadam's food, their music, their culture, lacks the refinement of the French.

The movie directed by Lasse Hallstrom, written by Steven Knight, adapted from a novel by Richard C. Morais of the same title, works best when it deals with this cultural divide and tries to become something more than a "food movie".

Knight is a very good British screenwriter and director himself. Last year he wrote and directed "Locke" (2014), one of the best movies of the year, starring Tom Hardy. He also wrote "Eastern Promises" (2007), the David Cronenberg film and the Stephen Frears thriller "Dirty Pretty Things" (2003), which also dealt with social class.

Hallstrom, a Swedish filmmaker, might be best known in this country for the Academy Award nominated "Chocolat" (2000) which also dealt with food and explored larger social issues, and "The Cider House Rules" (1999) for which he was nominated for a best director Academy Award.

Addressing the cultural issues helps the movie become more than a simple "feel good" romance. But, the movie doesn't develop this theme closely enough. It tries to balance larger issues with cooking scenes. This prevents "The Hundred-Foot Journey" from becoming a truly exceptional movie. Oddly enough what "The Hundred-Foot Journey" needed was more cooking scenes, more scenes dealing with cultural divide and fewer scenes dealing with romance, as Hassan has fallen in love with a chef at Le Saule Pleureur, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon).

Still there is a lot to enjoy while watching "The Hundred-Foot Journey". You can always rely on Helen Mirren to deliver a good performance. Her character starts off strong and then slowly fades into the background. There is quite an interesting character lurking there that sadly isn't given enough time to be fully developed, but, when Mirren is on-screen she is a delight to watch.

The locations are nice to look at, the movie has a good sense of humor as it deals with culture clash, I like the attempts at a larger social theme, I thought Charlotte Le Bon delivers a good performance as well. I am not familiar with her work but she has the makings of a star. She seems well suited for romantic comedies. She has an appealing screen presence.

"The Hundred-Foot Journey" is a nice return for Hallstrom, who seems to have gotten stuck directing Nicholas Spark adaptations such as "Dear John" (2010) and "Safe Haven" (2013). His talents exceed that material. "The Hundred-Foot Journey" has something of a bit more substance for him to work with. Hopefully there will be more movies like this in his future instead of "Dear John".

Film Review: The Babadook

"The Babadook"  **** (out of ****)

It hasn't had much publicity. You don't see television advertisements, its poster is not on the side of buses. Most of your friends probably haven't heard of it, but, the Australian horror film "The Babadook" (2014) has been quietly gaining steam. And for good reason. It is one of the best films of 2014!

Currently in Chicago it is only playing in one theatre, which has extended its run by two weeks. Showings are sold out. In a slow, creeping fashion, the word is getting out in the underground film scene, "go see "The Babadook". It is one of the scariest films of the year".

I'm slightly reluctant to build up "The Babadook" too much. Not because I genuinely didn't enjoy it, but because, I am afraid of the expectations game. You will find many film critics (sheep) and the public, in print and on the internet, praise the movie highly. Some critics have placed the movie on their year end top-ten list. However, I want you to know this is a low budget Australian movie. You most likely won't be familiar with the actors. There aren't dazzling special effects. Some of the things seen here would be laughable in a big-budget Hollywood production. Yet, at the same time, that is one of the strengths of the movie.

Unlike many Hollywood horror movies, "The Babadook" earns its scares. This movie takes its time establishing characters. Making us believe in the people we see on-screen. It gives the audience something to relate to. And then slowly the scares come in. And finally it is the anticipation that gets us. A lot of the time the frightening images are off-screen and all we have to judge the horror that is being seen is by the expression on the actor's face. Readers, I have never been so frightened by not seeing something as I have been when watching "The Babadook". If the look of terror on the characters faces is any indication of what they have seen, I am glad I did not have to witness it. Of course this device also works for budgetary reasons. It keeps cost low. As I said, this is a low budget movie. No astonishing special effects to speak of.

Like any great horror movie "The Babadook" works on a psychological level and tries to be about more than its scares. It dares to tackle some larger issues. These are the type of horror movies that are the most effective whether it is "The Exorcist" (1973), "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) or modern fare such as "Dark Water" (2005). These movies are about characters first. They are more than slasher movies. Once the audience is invested in the characters and the viewer comes to care about them, we are hooked. Making a good horror movie is not different than any other genre of movies. Gives us good characters.

The movie focuses on Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother, whose husband died in a car accident while going to the hospital to have their child, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Six years have past. It has been difficult for the both of them. In some perverse way, Amelia cannot look at Samuel and not think of the death of her husband. She loves her son and yet resents him all at once. Samuel can sense it too. In one scene Samuel tells his mother he loves her. She says "me too" not "I love you too". Amelia doesn't like it when Samuel hugs her or displays affection. Both are still going through a grieving process.

Lately Samuel hasn't been sleeping. He says at night there is a monster in his room. Each night he runs to his mother and she examines the room to check for a monster. Afterwards she reads him a bedtime story and the two go to sleep. We see this happen repeatedly.

One night however, Amelia tells Samuel, she will read any story he wants. He picks a book called "Mister Babadook". Amelia is not familiar with this book and ask Samuel where did he get it. It was on his shelf he replies. And so Amelia begins to read the book. It is a pop-up book with very graphic images. The story is more of a warning to the family. Mister Babadook wants entry into their home and the end result will be their death.

Amelia on a couple of occasions tries to get rid of the book. She hides it in her room yet somehow it is back in Samuel's room. She rips the pages out and throws it in the trash. Yet there it is once again, pasted together with a new warning. Images foreshadowing what the future will bring. Finally she burns the book.

All the while, Amelia hears noises at night and begins to see strange images. Is she slowly starting to believe her son? Is there really is a monster in their house? Or is something more frightening happening? Is this monster an act of one of the character's sinister imagination? But which character? It might not be the one you are thinking it is.

Amelia works as a nurse and deals with elderly patients, whom often are not the most agreeable. It requires a lot of patience to attend to them. Contrast that with a mother dealing with her son. Samuel doesn't mean to be a nuisance but he is needy, what child isn't? He constantly calls for his mother. He is in constant need of attention. He is often seen screaming for his mother, either calling out for help or merely to tell her something. Taking care of a child is difficult. Sometimes you just want to yell at the child and tell them to keep quiet. But again, Amelia should have lots of practice with this, since she is a nurse.

"The Babadook" is not just a ghost story. It deals with the grieving process. It explores mother and son relationships. Themes of guilt and resentment. The difficulty of raising a child on your own. And how we all harbor a bit of evil within us. We feed the beast. The challenge is to find the proper balance in life. To learn to deal with our grief and still have a productive life.

One of the great things about "The Babadook" is it keeps the Babadook character (played by Tim Purcell) off-screen a majority of the time. It is not a very scary looking character. It resembles a scarecrow. Being exposed to it, too much, would weaken the movie. It is what the Babadook represents which makes it scary. A looming evil force out to destroy this family.

The only flaw with the movie, in relation to the way it deals with the Babadook character, is by making him speak. This is a mistake because he doesn't sound scary. Better to leave the viewer with sounds that go bump in the night. The sound of footsteps at night when everyone is in bed, the sound of doors creaking open, loud, threatening knocking on a door, vague images in the corner of the frame. That's the stuff that works in "The Babadook".

The movie was written and directed by Jennifer Kent. This is her directorial feature-length debut. "The Babadook" is a re-working of a short film called "The Monster" which Ms. Kent made in 2005 and hit the film festival circuit. Meanwhile "The Babadook" has been nominated at various film critic awards including: Boston, Austin, Chicago, New York, Las Vegas, Detroit and even London.

If you are a bit adventurous in your cinematic viewing "The Babadook" should be a rewarding experience. Viewers have been fortunate to see really effective horror movies like "The Conjuring" (2013) and "The Babadook" recently. Lets hope this trend continues. Who doesn't enjoy a good scare?

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Film Review: One Hour With You

"One Hour With You"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Has there ever been a comedy more sophisticated, playful, charming or funny as "One Hour With You" (1932)? If there has been than it could only be another movie directed by the same man that directed this comedy/musical gem, the great Ernst Lubitsch.

"One Hour With You", along with the great Preston Sturges comedy "Unfaithfully Yours" (1948), represents two of the most important movies I ever saw growing up. Important because they shaped and influenced the type of movies I would make while attending Columbia College and the kind of stories I would write. Their humor and sensibilities reflected and matched my own. If I ever would become a famous filmmaker I would make movies like "One Hour With You".

One of the many things wrong with the movies of today is they lack guidelines. While, I would never be in favor of enforcing another production code, as was implemented in the 1930s until the late 60s, I must admit the movies of that era were smarter. The writers and directors behind these movies had to use their wits in order to have their movies get by the censorship board. Make no mistake about it, "One Hour With You" is a sex comedy but there is no nudity, no f-bombs in the dialogue, just a lot of sexual innuendos and double entendres. But that is the difference between movies such as this one and a contemporary rom-com of today. If "One Hour With You" were made today I can guarantee there would be a nude scene and a lot of four letter words in the script. Because there are no restrictions on the artist today, they can do whatever they want. A director like Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges had to work within a system. I would prefer it if filmmakers today used some self-censorship and tried to rise above the least common denominator mentality.

Born in Berlin in 1892, Ernst Lubitsch had been involved in German cinema as far back as 1913. He came to America permanently in 1922 where he directed a few silent comedies. The best known among them is "The Marriage Circle" (1924) starring Adolphe Menjou. With the advent of sound Lubitsch began making charming, sometimes risque (for the times) musical comedies, several of which starred Maurice Chevalier. Those included Lubitsch's first sound film "The Love Parade" (1929), which co-starred Jeanette MacDonald and was nominated for a best picture Academy Award and earned Lubitsch a best director nomination as well, and "The Smiling Lieutenant" (1931) which co-starred Miriam Hopkins and a very young Claudette Colbert and was also nominated for a best picture Academy Award.

"One Hour With You" marked the last of Lubitsch's Paramount musical comedies. His next picture would be the equally charming and funny straight comedy, "Trouble in Paradise" (1932) also released by Paramount. "One Hour With You" is considered a remake of Lubitsch's "The Marriage Circle" and re-teams Chevalier and MacDonald as a happily married couple.

Chevalier plays a Parisian doctor, Andre Bertier. He has been married for three years to Colette (MacDonald). As the movie opens we see them in a park billing and cooing (making out). A police officer tells them they must leave, back in those days that type of public display of affection was considered shameful to engage in and indecent, but Andre tries to convince the policemen he is married to the women. The officer doesn't believe him. Who ever heard of a husband and wife making out in a park? Who ever heard of a husband and wife making out?

Through this opening sequence the movie is establishing Andre and Colette as a sexually activate couple. This was quite risque for the times. A movie such as this could not have been made after the production code was more strictly enforced. Hollywood would not show a couple, even if they were married, as being sexual. Fast forward 20 years later on the television show "I Love Lucy". Ricky and Lucy are married but did you ever notice they do not share a bed? In their bedroom there were two separate beds. So the fact that we see Andre and Colette making out, sharing a bed and talk about "making love", was ahead of its time. "One Hour With You" is pushing the envelope.

One night, while in bed, Colette excitedly tells Andre her best friend, Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin) is going to visit. Mitzi and Andre have never met. Mitzi is married herself to a professor, Prof. Olivier (Roland Young). The professor, having such a beautiful, young wife, naturally assumes she must be cheating on him and hires a detective to investigate and follow Mitzi. Mitzi, we learn, is not above cheating on her husband. Yet another element of the movie which pushes the envelope. Showing infidelity and not having the character be punished by the end of the movie was not done. There must have been a moral in place condemning such actions.

Unbeknownst to Andre and Mitzi, they met while flagging down a taxi in the rain. The two agree to split the taxi. Mitzi finds Andre attractive and makes a pass at him. Andre informs her he is married. Mitzi tells Andre she is married as well and then tells him would either of their spouses believe they split a taxi with a stranger of the opposite sex and nothing happened. Andre, perfectly understanding her point, exits the taxi immediately. When Andre returns home from the office, he finds Colette with Mitzi in his home. Now what?

And there you have the conflict of "One Hour With You"? Should Andre admit he met Mitzi earlier in a taxi? Should he admit Mitzi made a pass at him? Should he admit he was tempted to accept her offer?

In an attempt to understand Andre's mindset, the movie breaks the fourth wall and has Andre address the audience and sing songs expressing his predicament. So many younger movie fans, that don't quite appreciate the history of cinema, always wrongly assume the device of breaking down the fourth wall started in French cinema with the films of Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s. Naturally they are wrong. Here is a movie which was released nearly 30 years prior. Oliver Hardy in Laurel & Hardy comedies of the 1930s & 40s would stare into the camera, acknowledging an audience is watching, though he never spoke directly to the camera. At most he would gasp. Bob Hope, another great comedian, would also address the audience and acknowledge he was acting in a movie and often suggest his performance should be nominated for an Academy Award.

Now while Andre is getting deeper and deeper involved with Mitzi, Colette is having her problem with Andre's best friend, Adolph (Charlie Ruggles) who professes a great love for Colette. At a dinner party being thrown, which both Mitzi and Adolph attend, Adolph confides in Colette, how desperately he would relish the opportunity to have one hour with her alone, hence the movie's title. At the same party, Mitzi and Andre get dangerously close to giving into temptation all while Prof. Olivier secretly watches on.

The issue of infidelity is not one that is new to comedy. "Unfaithfully Yours" deals with jealousy and wanting to kill your spouse as a result. What makes it such a reliable source for comedy is because it reflects human nature only events has escalated for comedic effect. It is funny seeing someone trying to schedule time with another person while their spouse is in the next room.

Though in the case of "One Hour With You" it is not often the issue is dealt with so directly. Even more shocking no one is punished. Here is a movie which tries to present itself not in the world of Hollywood but real life. The actions the characters take may in fact be what would happen in real life. And if not, if they represent a "movie logic", it is a logic we, the viewer, have often thought of ourselves, but, one which is not often presented in movie.

This is the strength of the movie. It has a magnificent screenplay written by Samson Raphaelson, who collaborated on several Lubitsch films including "The Smiling Lieutenant", "The Merry Widow" (1934) "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940) and "Heaven Can Wait" (1943). Each of every one of them is a smartly written comedy filled with clever lines and double entendres.

"One Hour With You" is sadly a forgotten work in the Ernst Lubitsch cannon of films. It gets lost in the shuffle. So many people like to only discuss "To Be Or Not To Be" (1942) or "Ninotchka" (1939). While both are fine films, it is disappointing people aren't able to praise more than two movies. This is a great comedy. A funny sex farce. A comedy way ahead of its time. A fine example of what Lubitsch was up to. All of his comedies were "adult", not in graphic context, but in maturity. It is no wonder this movie was also nominated for a best picture Academy Award.