Sunday, July 19, 2015

Film Review: Fury

"Fury"  **** (out of ****)

Fritz Lang's "Fury" (1936) is one of the most powerful films I ever seen. That is quite a statement considering the man who directed it is best known for masterpieces like "Metropolis" (1927) and "M" (1931). Back when I created a list of the best films of the 1930s I made sure to include it. When I composed a list of the 100 greatest movies I remembered to recognize it. I embrace "Fury" as the greatest American movie Fritz Lang directed.

Unfortunately when Lang left Germany in 1934 for Paris and eventually America, the critics (sheep) and the public never recognized his greatness again until decades later after re-evaluating his films. The damage was done however and today his work is not as well known as it should be to American audiences particularly younger movie fans. "Fury" was his first American movie.

"Fury" is the story of moral authority. A terrible event occurs, a mob attempts the lynching of a man. The victim isn't killed but miraculously survives. The mob wants to pretend the event never happened. The victim vows revenge. Who is right in this situation?

"Fury" is one of those movies that grabs you and doesn't let go. It makes you face the sinister nature of man. Perhaps even confront feelings which lurk inside of you. It is on a list of movies that makes me pity society. It shows the true violent nature of the world we live in. A world where individuals are filled with hate and anger. It shows humans are nothing more than savage animals.

The movie can serve multiple meanings. In America lynching has been historically associated with race crimes and white supremacist lynching black people. But the movie can also serve as a commentary on what made Lang leave Germany. When Lang left his homeland the Nazis were in power. The movie is a strong indictment against "mob mentality". People wandering aimlessly fighting a cause they don't have all the facts about.

In the end "Fury" offers a nice Liberal message about due process. Doing the right thing. Not allowing our emotions to get the best of us. Not acting out on our violent impulses. This is fitting considering it comes from the same man who directed "M". "M" was the story of a child murderer who is captured by a mob, angry parents, all who want the murderer killed. But one person stands up and says the murderer is clearly mentally disturbed. You cannot kill him. You must place him in a mental institution. It is the right thing to do. The moral and just thing to do. And so in "Fury" we get the same message. Do we, as humans, have the strength and courage to do the right thing when we have been wronged?

The man is Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy). As his name suggest he is an "average Joe". He always tries to do the right thing and stay out of trouble. He is in love with Katherine (Sylvia Sidney, who gets top billing). They plan to marry as soon Joe has saved enough money. With the prospect of a better job, Katherine moves to Washington. Within a few months Joe will meet her there. The months pass, Joe runs his own business, a gas station, and saves up enough money to go to Katherine in Washington.

While driving through a small town, Strand, Joe is arrested by the police. In this small town a gang of three men have kidnapped a child. Joe fits the description of one of the men. Although the town's sheriff cannot prove anything he must keep Joe overnight until the District Attorney can arrive and the governor sends help to protect the jail.

The townspeople learn the sheriff has arrested a man in connection with the kidnapping. Because of the townspeople simple mindedness and thirst for blood, they conclude, surely if the police arrested a man, he must be guilty! You never heard of the police doing the wrong thing, did you? And so the news spreads, a gossip always does, and more and more people get that thirst for blood and make-believe justice. One by one they join together and head to the jail and demand the sheriff show them the prisoner. The sheriff tries to calm the people down telling them there is no proof the man being held is guilty. But, you know how savage people are. Once they have an idea in their head, heaven help us if you can get them to see the error of their ways. And so they attack. They break into the jail and try to capture Joe, who is locked away in a cell. When the mob can't get him they decide to set the jail on fire. One way or another Joe is going to die.

News makes it way to Katherine, who tries to protect Joe by heading to the jail. She is not able to make it in time and sees the mob set the jail on fire and through the cell's window they see Joe, desperately pleading for help, while they throw rocks at him, to keep him away from the window. The fire department arrives and may be able to help Joe but the townspeople decide to throw dynamite in the jail causing it to explode. Katherine faints and suffers a terrible trauma from witnessing the incident.

Joe didn't die in the explosion though. Everyone thinks he is dead including Katherine. Joe is tormented by what happened to him. He relives the moment over and over again in his mind. How could humans be so despicable? How can people succumb to such violent impulses? This builds a hatred in Joe. He vows revenge. He learns the townspeople can be trialed for first degree murder for his "death"

The town learns Joe was innocent after the real kidnappers are captured. So the people do what people normally do after they commit a bad act. They pretend it never happened so they can go on living their ordinary lives and tell themselves they aren't bad. They simply made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes, right?

The question becomes can Joe allow the people involved with breaking into the jail to die themselves and be convicted for murder when Joe didn't die? Does that make Joe just as sinister as the townspeople? In other words, do two wrongs make a right?

What makes "Fury" such a great movie is the intense feelings and range of emotions it makes the viewer go through. You can understand Joe's desire for revenge and yet you can understand the moral argument being made. We ask ourselves, what side do we far on? "Fury" is hard-hitting. It is a visceral experience. The writing was nominated for an Academy Award, The film's only nomination. But you have to give credit to Lang and Tracy too. Tracy makes us believe everything we see on screen. Lang, like so many great filmmakers, holds a mirror to society and forces us to stare and the ugliness within ourselves, just as the lynch mob must face themselves and images of what they did.

This may make some feel "Fury" is preachy. The characters give long speeches about justice and society. There is none of that. At least I never came away feeling that way. The movie's message is obvious but not pushy. It doesn't beat us down. Another admirable quality of the movie.

That Lang never received the respect his work merited in this country makes me flat out mad. Do you know Fritz Lang never received an Academy Award nomination for best director? Do you know to this very day the Academy has not given him an honorary award? Lang's films changed after this. They became more psychological and fitted into the noir genre. Among his best include "Hangmen Also Die!" (1943). "The Woman in the Window" (1944), "Scarlet Street" (1945), "Cloak and Dagger" (1946), "The Big Heat" (1953) and "Human Desire" (1954). Granted, none of them quite grabbed me the way "Fury" does but Lang should not be ignored. See "Fury" and all of Lang's movies.

Film Review: The Mark of Zorro

"The Mark of Zorro"  *** (out of ****)

Tyrone Power gives Douglas Fairbanks a run for his money as the masked bandit Zorro in the 20th Century Fox remake "The Mark of Zorro" (1940).

When I was growing up I had four favorite crime fighters. There was Dick Tracy, The Shadow, the Long Ranger and Zorro. Though I was never one to cheer the heroes in movies as a child Zorro was a character I found exciting.

When I think of Zorro two things come to mind and represent Zorro of  my childhood. One was Guy Williams in the role as part of the Walt Disney television series "Zorro" which ran from 1957 - 1959. The other Zorro I fondly remember is Tyrone Power in this movie. For me this remake of the original Douglas Fairbanks silent version also called "The Mark of Zorro" (1920) vastly improves the origin story of the character. Of course it is not even fair to make such a statement because the Fairbanks version gives the background story in inter-titles. It makes no attempt to visually show us how Zorro came to be Zorro.

Comparing the two versions should give one a greater appreciation of this movie though even if you haven't seen the original version this remake is still an entertaining picture which movie fans should enjoy watching regardless.

"The Mark of Zorro" was the beginning of 20th Century Fox billing Power as a swashbuckler instead of the romantic lead they had previously cast him as in movies such as "In Old Chicago" (1937) and "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1938) where he starred opposite Alice Faye in both pictures. "The Mark of Zorro" was such a success the studio would continue to cast him in more action movies: "The Black Swan" (1942), "Captain from Castile" (1947) and "Prince of Foxes" (1949).

In this version the movie starts off showing us a young Don Diego Vega (Power) in Madrid, where he was sent by his parents, to get an education. In Spain Don Diego becomes a great horseback rider and fencer. He is also known as something of a ladies man. However one day his father, Don Alejandro Vega (Montagu Love), request Diego came back home to California, much to the disappointment of Diego, who sees a life in California as simple and dull.

Prior to Diego leaving for Spain, his father was the Alcalde of the town and was a well respected man but when Diego returns to California he hears nothing but horror stories from the townspeople who speak of the mistreatment they have endured from the Alcalde. One man says he was lashed 20 times for misspeaking, another we are told had his tongue cut off when complaining about the high taxes the poor have to pay. Diego has a hard time understanding how the citizens can say such awful things about his father.

It is only later, when going to what he believed was still his family's home, does Diego learn there is a new Alcalde, Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), who along with Captain Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone), who serves as head of the army, have forced Don Alejandro to retire. The new Alcalde has no regard for the poor and heavily taxes them.

Diego, outraged by this injustice, decides to disguise himself as a bandit named Zorro (Spanish for fox) who will defend the rights of the people and force Don Luis to resign and reinstate Don Alejandro as the Alcalde.

In order to not bring suspicion to himself Diego hides his sword fighting and horse back riding abilities pretending to be a lazy nobleman who is disgusted at the thought of fighting and would much rather spend his time sleeping or doing magic tricks.

Zorro proves the be quite effective at scaring Don Luis though Captain Pasquale awaits the opportunity to sword fight Zorro and kill him.

Because of Zorro's plan to reinstate Don Alejandro, the Captain and Don Luis suspect Don Alejandro must be collaborating with Zorro and so the two men decide the arrange a marriage between Diego and Don Luis's niece Lolita (Linda Darnell). Diego has spoken to Lolita once before, when dressed as Zorro, and immediately fell in love with her. He gladly accepts the offer while Don Alejandro opposes such an arrangement joining the two families together. However Lolita is not attracted to Diego and is in love with Zorro.

"The Mark of Zorro", though not a comedy, has a sense of humor about it and creates situations which are comedic in nature. Diego, trying to escape from the Captain's troops, while dressed as Zorro, disguises himself as a priest while unknown to him, Lolita is praying in the same chapel and would like to speak to the father but Diego, even though dressed as a priest, can't help himself from making passes at Lolita.

Eugene Pallette, a popular character actor at the time, plays Father Felipe, who also disproves of the new government and constantly wishes harm to Don Luis and after his harsh words follows up with "God forgive me" while looking up at the heavens.

I find a lot of the supporting characters are just as much fun to watch as the lead characters. That was the way it was during the studio system. You had a lot of good character actors like Pallette, Edward Everette Horton, Eric Bore, Edna May Oliver and Eve Arden. They would often steal their scenes. Usually they played comic relief to the star of the picture. The studio would consistent put them in picture after picture that soon audiences would begin to recognize them and took just as much delight in seeing them as a star like Tyrone Power. "The Mark of Zorro" is no different. Pallette, J. Edward Bromberg and Gale Sondergaard, as Don Luis's wife, are all enjoyable to watch.

Unfortunately I didn't find much chemistry between Linda Darnell and Power. Separately I enjoy watching them but together you don't feel they are in love with one another. Instead it feels like we are watching two actors give separate performances even when they are in the same scene together.

You will also find some complain there is too much Don Diego and not enough Zorro. The movie almost gets the right balance but one or two more scenes with Zorro wouldn't have hurt in an attempt to build more suspense.

Like the 1920 version "The Mark of Zorro" is based on Johnson McCulley's "The Curse of Capistrano" written in 1919. This time around the screenplay was adapted by John Taintor Foote, who also wrote "The Story of Seabiscuit" (1949) with Shirley Temple. The movie's musical score by Alfred Newman received the movie's only Academy Award nomination.

The movie was directed by Rouben Mamoulian who did not direct too many movies but is best known for "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1931), "Love Me Tonight" (1932) and "Silk Stockings" (1957).

"The Mark of Zorro" does the best job of presenting the Zorro origins compared to many of the movie adaptations. Power was a good choice to play the character. I like the movie's playful sense of humor as well as several of the fencing scenes. Basil Rathbone actually did know how to fence. This, for me, will always be the definitive Zorro and take me back to my childhood.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Film Review: Health

*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Robert Altman. When you hear the name you probably association it with movies like "M*A*S*H" (1970), "Nashville" (1975), "3 Women" (1977) or "The Player" (1992). But "Health" (1980) is perhaps the most obscure of all of Robert Altman's pictures and it is a shame. Heck, you can even find "Quintet" (1979) on DVD!

"Health" was the last picture Robert Altman made at 20th Century Fox and was not even given a wide theatrical release by the studio. In David Thompson's book "Altman on Altman", where Thompson interviews the filmmaker and discusses his work film by film, Altman states, when referring to Fox's attitude toward his movie, "There was a whole change of management at Fox. Sherry Lansing came in, and they felt there was nothing in the picture that was going to attract an audience."

"Health" is a comedic look at a health convention taking place at a hotel in St. Pete Beach, Florida where there will also be an election for the next president of the organization. The movie was to serve as a commentary on American politics and the 1980 presidential election, which had just wrapped up its own political conventions. In the same book Altman explains his intention was to release the movie in 1980 when all of this was fresh in the public's mind, however 20th Century Fox decided to shelf the movie for two years.

The candidates at the convention are Esther Brill (Lauren Bacall) and Isabella Garnell (Glenda Jackson) whom Altman says were based on Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson with Brill representing Eisenhower and Garnell as Stevenson. There is also a third party candidate running, Dr. Gil Gainey (Paul Dooley) who like all third party candidates is fighting for the attention of the public and the media.

Of the contenders Esther is the most popular. She declares herself as "the first lady of health". She is also a best selling novelist whom at every speech she gives yells out her motto "feel yourself" that is when she is not falling asleep during her speeches or interviews, which the campaign desperately tries to conceal from the public. Isabella represents the lofty intellectual who makes grand speeches which she borrows directly from Stevenson and tape records everything, perhaps Altman's nod to Nixon.

But not everyone at the convention is running for office. The media is there to comment on it, the great American conversationalist Dick Cavett is filming his television show there and at night watches Johnny Carson. This joke might pass over the head of younger viewers, Cavett really did have a television show and competed against Carson for a while. He was also a writer for the Tonight Show at one time.

The White House has sent a representative, Gloria Burbank (Carol Burnett) to give the president's perspective, "the president is pro-health" she declares and there is Harry Wolff (James Garner), a womanizer who was once married to Gloria and now works for Esther Brill's campaign. Will sparks fly when they see each other again?

Two interesting supporting characters in the movie are Colonel Cody (Donald Moffat) and Sally (Alfre Woodard) who works at the hotel. I think Cody represents corporate interest. He talks about how he "owns" politicians and at one point threatens Gloria that she and the White House should keep out of this election. The president's job is to do what he says.

Sally I believe represents the American public that looks at politics and scratches its head thinking, "what is wrong with these people". Because of that disconnect the public doesn't even bother to pay attention.

When we view "Health" understanding Altman's intentions, what makes "Health" so interesting is what it has to say about the political process and the people who run. In this movie's make believe election, the real 1952 and 1956 presidential election and the 1980 election, the public is given the choice between the "traditionalist" and the "intellectual" and it is the traditionalist that wins every time.

Altman argues all campaigns are comprised of nothing more than slogans and not meaningful policies. "Yes we can" is a good modern example. Politics is advertising which never turns into a meaningful discussion in the public square where all voices are heard because no one has anything of value to say and those that do (i.e. the intellectuals) are boring and lack public appeal. They come off as if they are lecturing their audience and look down on people not as smart as them. When Adlai Stevenson was told he had the votes of "every thinking person" he said "but I need a majority"!

The movie also suggest political candidates are self-serving creatures who are out to promote themselves and their products. Esther pushes her book and signs autographs, Gainey has health pills he wants to sell. These aren't noble people interested in "the greater good" but rather people with an agenda for themselves. And those that truly do want to do good, to make a difference, have a difficult time getting the public to listen because they aren't flashy candidates with snappy catchphrases.

Despite its lack of commercial appeal "Health" nicely fits into the cannon of Altman films. Altman usually made movies which commented on "America" and "American idealism". Great examples are "Buffalo Bill & the Indians" (1976) which pokes fun at American history and show business, suggesting they are one in the same, there's "Nashville", "M*A*S*H", which takes place in Korea but was widely seen as a criticism of Vietnam, and "Secret Honor" (1984) about Richard Nixon. "Health" wants to burst the pretentious bubble of politicians and expose the back handed nature of politics with secret meetings and dirty tricks.

Some may want to criticize the movie and say there is no real plot. My friends, this is Robert Altman. That criticism doesn't hold water. That is the appeal of a Robert Altman movie, the effortless structure, the "plot less" nature of his movies and the moments which seem improvised. You might also hear people say these aren't real characters. Perhaps. There really isn't a character to latch on to and invest your emotions in but this isn't that kind of movie and I believe was not Altman's intention. It is what these characters represent which is important. It is the ideas being discussed which make the movie enjoyable.

"Health" is not Altman at his best but it is far from Altman at his worst. Those that have seen the movie have a mixed reaction to it. Clearly I like it. I like the setting, it opens itself up for a lot of jokes, I like the acting and most of all I like the ideas presented. I love the movie's cynical nature. This is a smart movie. I hope one day Fox releases this movie on DVD and properly gives the public a chance to find it.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Film Review: A Clockwork Orange

"A Clockwork Orange"  *** (out of ****)

It is a violent world in Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" (1971).

What if I told you we can eliminate violence in the world. It might require a little brainwashing but individuals would be repelled by acts of violence and sex. Would you think it is a good idea to proceed? If you live and breathe you probably would. Yes of course no one approves of brainwashing. And yes of course someone could make a case about our civil liberties being violated. But what if the government countered with the defense "we are doing this for your own protection. To make the world safe. It is in our national interest." The public would then change its mind. You could convince a lot of people it is a good idea.

You don't believe me? Why? Look how much people are willing to give up in the name of safety when it comes to terrorism. Look at the patriot act. Look at what Edward Snowden revealed. We live in a world where everything we do is known by someone. Who you are talking to on the phone, what you buy, what you search for on-line, your exact position at any time during the day or night (your cell phone is a tracking device. Don't fool yourself). We even have televisions that store data of which programs we watch. Not to mention all the cameras recording us.

Why wouldn't people be in favor of eliminating crime and violence?

Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" is a satire which examines society, free will, a government wanting to "help" people and psychology. You might not see all of it upon your first viewing as the violent images and sex scenes may distract you. But, it is all there if you are willing to look for it.

The setting is sometime in the future in England. Violence is rampant. Streets are occupied by droogs (this movie's name for a gang of thugs). One group is lead by Alex (Malcolm McDowell). Alex enjoys violence, beating up innocent people, raping young women and listening to Beethoven, especially his 9th symphony. His partners in crime are Dim (Warren Clarke), Georgie (James Marcus) and Pete (Michael Tarn).

An enjoyable evening for Alex and his friends involves them engaging in a night of "ultra violence" which means breaking into someone's house, pretending they have been part of a car accident and need to phone the police. The unsuspecting victim allows them to enter their home and there the droogs beat and rape the owners. One incident involves a middle-aged writer, F. Alexander (Patrick Magee) and his wife (Adrienne Corri). The thugs beat Mr. Alexander to the point of crippling him for life and rape his wife in front of him while Alex sings "Singin' in the Rain".

One night however, after breaking into the home of a wealthy woman (Miriam Karlin) and attacking her with a large phallic statue, which the woman owed, the police capture Alex after his friends ditch him. He is sent to prison to serve a fourteen year sentence. After serving two years Alex learns of a experimental program being used in some cities which will rehabilitate criminals by using a form of therapy. If Alex volunteers he will be given a shorter sentence and set free after the therapy is completed.

The therapy, which is known as the Ludovico technique, conditions the criminal to grow an aversion to acts and violence by strapping the individual to a chair, propping his eyes open and supplying him with drugs in the form of eye drops as he watches violent images on a movie screen. The drug will cause a nauseated feeling which the person will be conditioned to identify with the violent images. This will condition the person to become sick at the thought of violence.

The government fully backs the program and was elected on their promise to erase violence and the success of this therapy. After two weeks of subjecting Alex to this treatment the Minister of the Interior (Anthony Sharp) presents Alex to the public as an example of what can be accomplished.

When I was in college I took a psychology course, which actually became very meaningful to me, despite being a film and journalism major. In the class we discussed Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, who is best known for his experiment "Pavlov's dog" and B.F. Skinner, an American physiologist. Both men believed in behavioral conditioning. The idea that a stimuli, if repeated often enough with a specific act, will become associated with that act and condition our behavior. Skinner referred to "reinforcement" as a way to explain it.

I mention all of this for a reason, believe it or not, during the late 1940s and into the 1950s Skinner was actually well known for his theories and it is these theories which are being criticized in "A Clockwork Orange". The movie strongly argues against the effectiveness of conditioning stating, you are taking away free will. Conditioning a person not to engage in negative acts is not the same as a person choosing not to engage in negative acts. The outcome may be the same - no negative acts, but by taking away their ability to make that judgement for themselves you are taking away what makes us human.

Watching "A Clockwork Orange" again though I also began to feel there is something being said about the nature of man. Are people essentially good or bad? What makes a person like Alex commit violent acts? Is it just their nature? Are they responding to their environment? It is a mixture of both? After Alex is conditioned, through an unbelievable series of events, he meets each person he wronged and while he no longer has a violent nature, each person wanted revenge on him. This made me think conditioning criminals is one thing but look at the violent nature of the people who aren't criminals. Which confirms my belief that people are essentially mean, vengeful, selfish, hateful creatures. If Alex is just another "bad seed" what is everyone else's excuse?

Besides violence the movie also comments on the hypercritical nature of sex. Wealthy people, like the woman with the phallic shaped statute are respectable but Alex and his "pornographic art" are vulgar. The rich have their kinks they just hide it or give it a different name but they are no better than the people they frown upon.

Critics of the movie however see more ugliness in the movie in the treatment of women. Some say the acts of rape are supposed to titillate the audience. They say Alex is presented as a likable character and so the audience approves of his behavior. This doesn't quite make sense to me because I never found Alex to be a likable character. If that was Kubrick's intention it didn't work on me.

What "A Clockwork Orange" becomes to me is a study of a society which is trying to create "the perfect world", a demonstration in population control and a showcase of the games our minds can play on us. Most of Kubrick's movies are about the mind though. Look at "The Shining" (1980), a hotel possesses a man and drives him crazy. "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999) about the sexual mind games we play against and with each other. "Full Metal Jacket" (1987) about the psychological effects war has on a soldier.

A lot of praise for "A Clockwork Orange" will go to Malcolm McDowell for his portrayal as Alex. He is the most dominate force on-screen but as I say, not a likable character. Because I saw no good in him it took away an emotional involvement I had watching the movie. That is not to say you cannot make a movie about an unlikable character, but usually movies try to humanize the person. "A Clockwork Orange" doesn't do that. There is no redemption in Alex. He is a bad person at the beginning of the movie and a bad person at the end, which was deliberate on Kubrick's part.

The movie earned four Academy Award nominations including best picture and best director. It was Kubrick's third of four nominations in the directing category. The movie lost the best picture award to "The French Connection" (1971).

"A Clockwork Orange" has a lot to say about society and is one of those movies you'll need to watch more than once. It is a strong movie because of its ideas but it is not an emotionally rewarding one. Still, like all Kubrick movies, it should not be avoided.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Film Review: Raging Bull

"Raging Bull"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

You've heard it all before. Greatest movie of the 80s. Martin Scorsese's best film. Robert De Niro gained 60 pounds to play the role. None of that mattered to me as I watched "Raging Bull" (1980) again. What I came away being fascinated by was how well Scorsese knows these characters. For some reason I had it in my head "Raging Bull" didn't properly fit in the cannon of director Martin Scorsese's films because it was about boxing. First of all, the movie is not about boxing and secondly, the movie deals with the same neighborhoods and characters Scorsese's previous films dealt with.

Listen to the way Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta and Joe Pesci as his younger brother Joey speak to one another. It sounds real. That has always been one of the virtues of any Scorsese movie. His characters speak the way people with these backgrounds would speak. Scorsese grew up in these characters in Little Italy in Manhattan. He breathes the same air these people breathe. He understands their mentality. Jake La Motta and Joey are real people. There is rarely a false note in their performances. It doesn't feel like we are watching two actors give a performance.

The way he is presented in this movie Jake La Motta is a bum. He is a neighborhood rat. Like the Harvey Keitel character in "Mean Streets" (1973) La Motta thinks he is better than the neighborhood he comes from. He has a plan to get out. For Keitel it meant opening a restaurant. For La Motta it means becoming the middleweight boxing champion. In the big scheme of things, both men are after small potatoes. They only appreciate the materialistic because what else can they achieve in life? They have no education. What is so different about Jake La Motta compared to characters in "Mean Streets" or "GoodFellas" (1990)? People from these neighborhoods had limited options. They get in with the wrong crowd as a way to survive. La Motta was an animal. He was tough. So he became a boxer. But is his fate any different than Ray Liotta in "GoodFellas"?

"Raging Bull" is not about boxing. It is about redemption. The movie ends with a biblical quote from John IX. 24 - 26 "I was blind and now I can see".  Redemption is one of the major themes in the work of Martin Scorsese. In the end Jake La Motta acknowledges he has hit bottom. Here was a man that was a championship contender. A man that eventually became a champion. And he ends his life as a fourth-rate comic working in strip clubs and finds himself in prison. What has become of this man's life? Does he learn the error of his ways? Or is he still looking for someone to blame? Many interpret a moment when La Motta looks in a mirror and recites the famous "I coulda been a contender" speech from "On the Waterfront" (1954) as a rebuke of his brother. I think La Motta is talking about himself. No one but La Motta stopped him from being great. Besides being a raging bull he was also a stubborn bull. La Motta did things his way.

There are a lot of people for him to blame though. The neighborhood mob guys who wouldn't give him a title shot unless he played ball with them and took a few dives. There was his brother Joey. Did he really have his best interest at heart? Was he listening to the mob guys too much? Was he secretly against him? What about his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty)? She distracts him. Is she cheating on him? And if she is, with who?

The movie examines La Motta's life between the years 1941 - 1964. In the 1940s we see La Motta dominate his opponents in the ring but is unable to receive a title match. La Motta knows he must play ball with the mob but wants to win the title his way - on his own without help from anyone. So, he goes through the decade never receiving a shot until 1949, when he finally agrees to the mob's terms and defeats champion Marcel Cerdan.

During this time period La Motta meets Vickie, a 15 year old neighborhood girl, at the local swimming pool. Though La Motta is already married he pursues the young girl. These are some of the few moments in the movie when he see La Motta resemble something of a human being possibly capable of feeling love or something close to it. Though I to think La Motta approaches Vickie the same way he would a fighter. As soon as La Motta sees Vickie, at a distance, he tells Joey he has her all figured out. He knows what he needs, what kind of guy she is looking for. La Motta has a strategy to win her. This is no different than the way he approaches a fighter in the ring. You figure out your opponent's strength and weaknesses. You work out a strategy on how to beat them. This is what La Motta is doing. He is sizing up his opponent.

After La Motta and Vickie marry he begins to suspect she is cheating on him. Does she still see men from the neighborhood? Maybe she is sleeping with Joey. Or someone he doesn't even know. So he confronts his wife, repeatedly. He flat out asks his brother. And this leads to his downfall. The jealousy becomes too much for Vickie to handle. La Motta loses his title. He can't focus.

In the end, it all ends badly, as it does for so many Scorsese characters. They ride high and crash hard. Their lifestyle catches up to them. La Motta is not able to avoid this fate. He becomes a stand-up comic, opens his own nightclub, loses the nightclub, goes to prison, falls out with his brother, Vickie divorces him.

While there is a lot to admire about "Raging Bull" I must admit, it is not a favorite of mine. It is not one of my favorite movies nor would I say it is one of Martin Scorsese's best movies. Yes, I am well aware of the praise that has been thrown at the movie. Declared by several critics (sheep) as the best movie of the 1980s. The movie earned eight (8) Academy Award nominations including best picture but lost to "Ordinary People" (1980). Considered to be one of the biggest mistakes the Academy ever made. De Niro's performance was and still is ranked among one of the greats in cinema.

Yet I find the movie to be cold and distant. It features a lead character I am simply not that interested in watching. Emotionally I feel almost nothing for the movie. But there is no denying the quality of filmmaking involved. I appreciate the physical toll De Niro was willing to undergo to play this character. I like the black & white cinematography. I enjoy the feel of the time period and the neighborhood which Scorsese is able to capture. I can feel all of these things but still not like the lead character or have much of an interest in his life. That is why I rate the movie as highly as I do. Imagine if I actually cared about the character!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Film Review: Ludwig

"Ludwig"  **** (out of ****)

Why do certain projects appeal to some filmmakers more than others? Is it because all filmmakers look for stories which secretly tell the story of their lives? I thought about this as I watched Luchino Visconti's sadly often condemned and forgotten treasure, "Ludwig" (1973).

Over the years I have stated that among all of the works the great Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti had made, my favorite was "Ludwig", his depiction of the life and death of King Ludwig II of Bavaria with Helmut Berger in the title role.

Looking at the movie again however I see why Visconti would have been drawn to the story of a man from nobility, who had a great love of the arts and was closest homosexual, who struggled to deny his sexual temptations, in the name of his Catholic faith.

Visconti himself was a man of nobility. He was a Count who had developed a love of the arts. He studied the cello and became friends with the opera singer Maria Callas, whom he also directed in several operas. Unlike Ludwig though Visconti was open about his homosexuality. One of his lovers was Helmut Berger. Still, homosexuality was not a condoned lifestyle and most people at the time did not reveal they were for fear of being shunned by society.

Most movie critics (sheep) and film historians usually cite "The Leopard" (1963) as Visconti's best film and point out the comparisons between Visconti and his lead character Don Fabrizio, played by Burt Lancaster, but "Ludwig" has just as many comparisons and was probably as personal a story for Visconti to tell as "The Leopard". The difference is time has not been as kind to "Ludwig" as it has been to other Visconti films. That is too bad. Many people are missing out on a very interesting picture.

"Ludwig" can be summed up as the story of a man who never reached the potential so many had expected of him because he was not comfortable in his own skin. Ludwig is shown to be a man with a vision no one else could see. In the early moments of the film Ludwig is presented as a naive, innocent man. He befriends Wagner (Trevor Howard) hoping to share his music with the world, only to discover Wagner is using Ludwig for his money. Ludwig is in love with only one woman, his cousin, Empress Elizabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider), who is not capable of returning his love.

Once the inevitable truth is discovered by Ludwig it crushes his spirit, especially knowing Elizabeth will never love him. So, he attempts to "conform" to society and take a bride, another cousin, Sophie (Sonia Petrovna), whom he does not love though she loves him. Ludwig cannot deny his homosexual feelings and calls off the wedding. After which he leads the life of a recluse and abandons his duties in state affairs.

These actions however alarm the government. Has the King gone mad? Can they take away his power? Several psychiatrist diagnose King Ludwig as suffering from paranoia and as a result is not in his right mental capacity to serve as king. But Ludwig is aware of the government's intentions, so is he really paranoid or justified in his actions?

For me the best scenes in the movie involve Ludwig and Elizabeth. He is sharing his soul with her but she is playing games with his feelings. Secretly she plots against him. She knows he is gay and that may be why she will never be with him but it is she that tells Sophie to marry Ludwig. Was it just to get Ludwig away from her or did she truly feel the the two were a good match?

I equally enjoyed sequences with Wagner. Ludwig explains over and over again the important of art on a society. How through art the artist will live forever. Is this something Ludwig would like to achieve, immortality? Is that why he admires the arts so much? The great artists will never be forgotten.

At nearly four hours long there were a few slow spots. I'm not particularly fond of the last hour of the movie. You also never truly get a sense of of Ludwig's reign. What were his accomplishments? But that was not of interest to Visconti we suspect.

"Ludwig" is considered by some film historians to be part of Visconti's "Germany Trilogy" which included "The Damned" (1969) and "Death in Venice" (1971). Like "Death in Venice", "Ludwig" is a story of a man in search of beauty. Like "The Damned" the movie looks at the behavior of the wealthy, though not in the same decadent way. Still like all Visconti films "Ludwig" shares a lush, operatic quality to it as we watch the tragic fate of this doomed figure. The classical music score helps create the tone as well.

There is so much eye candy in "Ludwig". It is a truly beautiful movie to look at. The craft of Visconti is clearly on display. The costume design by Piero Tosi was nominated for an Academy Award, his third nomination for a Visconti film. The cinematography, the lavish sets, the production design. You suspect more attention was given to these elements of the movie than the screenplay.

I'm no longer sure if "Ludwig" is still my favorite Visconti film. What did I find so appealing about this movie at one time? I don't have an answer to that question. At least not now. But, "Ludwig" holds up after a second viewing. I now see this as a personal story for Visconti. He may have been one of the few filmmakers capable of telling this story. Who else could have told this story with his sensitivity? How many other filmmakers could have related to the personal demons Ludwig faced due to his sexuality?

"Ludwig" may not be the best place to start if you are new to Visconti, he has made what I feel are more accessible films but after watching a few of his films you will notice nearly all of his artist traits are displayed here.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Film Review: The Scarlet Empress

"The Scarlet Empress"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

Director Josef von Sternberg and screen siren Marlene Dietrich explore the beginnings of Catherine the Great's reign as Empress of Russia in "The Scarlet Empress" (1934).

"The Scarlet Empress" was the sixth of seven collaborations between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Those efforts have included "The Blue Angel" (1930), "Morocco" (1930), "Shanghai Express" (1932), "Blonde Venus" (1932) and "The Devil Is A Woman" (1935). I have enjoyed each of those movies to various degrees. My favorites among them are "The Blue Angel" and "Morocco" but "The Scarlet Empress" left me with a mixed reaction. It is the least satisfactory to me of their work together.

Von Sternberg and Dietrich excelled at movies which showcased Dietrich as a destroyer of men. She would use her feminine wiles and deceive men of money and power. Men of respectability would beg at her feet for a brief moment in private with her.

The majority of their work together is what we now refer to as "pre-code", movies made before the production code, also known as the Hays Code, went into effect. It was enforced from 1934 until 1968. These movies are often more direct in their depiction of loose sexual morals.

When movie critics (sheep) and/or cinephiles discuss "The Scarlet Empress" much attention is paid to the visual look of the movie, with Russian palaces with gargoyles, and the "graphic" depiction of the Empress' sexual hunger. But, little to no attention is paid to the movie's narrative. Which is what I find lacking.

Watching "The Scarlet Empress" puts me in an odd position. On the one hand I do appreciate the craft which went into making this movie. Von Sternberg was a great filmmaker. Dietrich is an icon. The cinematography is impressive. Yet, I feel von Sternberg and Dietrich have collaborated on better films together. The movie fails when compared to those movies.

Dietrich stars as Princess Sophia Frederica, daughter of Christian August - Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst (C. Aubrey Smith) and Joanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp (Olive Tell). They receive word Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) has chosen Sophia to be the bride of her nephew, Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe), whom for some reason is presented as a half-wit. In the name of historical accuracy I have not found evidence which supports this. However it doesn't matter as this is a movie.

Young Sophia does not know what the Grand Duke looks like but hopes he is a tall, strong, handsome man whom she will fall madly in love with and at the request of Empress Elizabeth, have a son, who will be heir to the throne after her death.

Sent by the palace to pick-up Sophia and her mother is Count Alexei Razumovsky (John Davis Lodge) who finds Sophia attractive and she him. But, being the yound, innocent girl she is, Sophia will keep herself pure for her husband, whom she still has the romantic notion will be handsome.

Sophia quickly learns what the Grand Duke looks like and is terrorized at his sight. He has a constant grin on his face and likes to play with toy soldiers. Sophia could never learn to love a man like him and at that moment decides she will only be a wife to the Grand Duke in name only.

As in other von Sternberg / Dietrich collaborations the Dietrich character soon becomes aware of the effect her beauty has on men and how she can best use her beauty and men's insatiable lust for her to her advantage and their downfall.

The movie though isn't as forthcoming as I would have liked it to be and there isn't as much scheming as in the pair's other feature-films. Yes, there was a production code which was being more strictly enforced at this time, but, the movie still gets away with plenty, just not enough to really make this a gripping tale.

The movie even ends before Sophia becomes empress! The movie, in inter-titles, goes on and on about what kind of great ruler she was. How she was one of the most famous and important women of all-time and nothing is shown of her reign. Speaking of which, nothing is shown of Peter III's short reign as emperor except a montage of "proclamations" issued by him, which never have a description, and the image of people being tortured.

Anyone watching "The Scarlet Empress" looking for historical accuracy will be greatly disappointed. There is so much the movie leaves out, never addresses and changes about history for the sake of the movie. That is perfectly fine with him but others may be bothered by it especially history buffs. Of course if you feel so strongly about it, you probably shouldn't watch movies in the first people. Individuals in our society should not turn to movies, a form of entertainment, to learn about history. Movies are storytelling and will, when the occasion demands it, create fiction for the sake of what is best in the cinematic interest of their story.

Many filmbuffs include this movie as a great achievement in the cannon of films von Sternberg and Dietrich worked on together. Others will champion the production design and cinematography. I do as well. But, in the end it all style over substance. You could have told this story without it being about Catherine the Great. Von Sternberg has in his other movies. There is not enough scheming, not enough sex, not enough plot, not enough interest.

I'm often accused by my critics of being "too easy" on classic Hollywood movies and honoring tradition too much. Here is one example where I prove my critics wrong.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Film Review: Bad Girl

"Bad Girl"  *** (out of ****)

Is it possible to make a bad girl a good girl in Frank Borzage's "Bad Girl" (1931)?

Despite its perhaps salacious title and accompanying movie poster "Bad Girl" is not a risque movie serving as a morality play concerning loose sexual morals of the time. Of course, I say that in 2015 but it is difficult to believe audiences in 1931 viewed this movie as scandalous.

Frank Borzage was a successful, though now sadly forgotten, filmmaker at Fox Studios (20th Century Fox) where his career peaked during the end of the silent film era and into the early sound pictures era. His movies focused on young lovers in love facing trails and tribulations.

I am perhaps not as familiar with Borzage's work as I ought to be but I have seen his adaptation of Hemingway's  "A Farewell to Arms" (1932) starring Gary Cooper, "Street Angel" (1928), for which its female lead, Janet Gaynor, won an Academy Award, the Will Rogers comedy "They Had To See Paris" (1929), a Joan Crawford vehicle "The Shining Hour" (1938) and Mary Pickford's final picture, "Secrets" (1933).

With the exception of "A Farewell to Arms" the work of Borzage has not impressed me much. Because of that, I haven't eagerly sought out his movies. However, "Bad Girl" is a picture I find to be an absolute delight.

The movie, based on a novel written by Vina Delmar, which was later adapted into a play, earned three Academy Award nominations; best picture, best writing and best director. Of the nominations it won one. Borzage was named best director of the year beating out King Vidor for "The Champ" (1931) and Josef von Sternberg for "Shanghai Express" (1932).

"Bad Girl", like any other Borzage movie, could easily be described as a story of young lovers facing difficulties, as they try to get ahead in life during 1930s Great Depression America. While that may not sound like an original idea it is the way the movie goes about showcasing this material which really makes it stand out. The two leads; James Dunn and Sally Eilers steal the picture. They give two of the most carefree, sweet, naturalistic performances I have seen.

Dunn plays Eddie and Eilers plays Dorothy two working class people who despite what they say are looking for love and marriage.

Dorothy has a bad idea about men. She believes all men think about one thing. Although she never says want that one thing is the audience gets the idea. Dorothy is used to men making passes at her, whistling, one character even mentions men on subways rubbing up against her. It is tame by today's standards but I wonder how much of this dialogue would have passed after the production code went into effect. In 1931 it hadn't yet.

Dorothy isn't seen as a bad girl but I thought because of the title Dorothy, in an attempt to get by, would soon lead a life of prostitution. Now, before anyone says "Alex, this was 1931! They weren't going to put that in a picture." Remember in Borzage's own "Street Angel" that is what happens. Also, don't forget "Waterloo Bridge" (1931), released the same year as this movie.

Eddie on the other hand is the exact opposite of what Dorothy expects from men. The first time they meet he doesn't make a pass for her. In fact, she annoys him. He wants some nice peace and quite. Eddie we leans is a shy guy and doesn't know how to speak to girls. He also has ambition and wants to run his own business. A radio repair shop.

When these two first meet Dorothy tells Eddie her ideas about men and Eddie tells her his ideas about women. Why does every women think she is so special and men are just dying to be with them? Why do women get mad when men stare at them or turn their heads when they are the ones wearing revealing outfits? This reminds me of a remark I have made among friends. A compliment is only a compliment when giving by a person you want it given from. Meaning if Brad Pitt tells a woman she is attractive she would like that remark and probably flirt back. If Quasimodo tells a woman the same thing she might tell him "get away from me you filthy pig"! And go into her "all men think about one thing" routine. Same compliment given by two different people. Only one is accepted.

After these beginning barbs by the characters I was expecting a "battle of the sexes" and even though this movie is classified as "drama" it didn't feel dramatic to me. It didn't have the tone of a comedy exactly and I wouldn't refer to it as romantic - comedy, but it does have a carefree tone. It kind of blends all of these genres. The dramatic moments aren't very dramatic to me and while it does make attempts to become melo-dramatic, the effort to make us feel a specific emotion feels forced.

The two finally get together and after spending an entire night together Dorothy must go home, where she lives only with her brother, since both of her parents have died. The problem is it is 4 a.m. decent girls aren't out with men until 4 a.m. what will her brother do to her? So Eddie proposes marriage. The brother can't get mad at Dorothy if she was out with her husband, can he?

And so we figure out the path "Bad Girl" is going to take. It wants to be a slice-of-life look into 1930s America. It addresses the difficulties working class people faced to start a family. Yes, the American dream was just that, a dream. Couples worried about where they are going to live, how will they pay for rent? Should they bring life into this cruel world? How will they afford a baby? If they do have a baby what about a doctor and hospital bills?

What was true in 1931 is true now. Audiences should be able to relate to the movie. Unfortunately there are some people that would never give the movie a chance. It is too old they will say. It is black&white. For some that is off-putting. They won't watch "old" movies, silent movies, b&w movies. Only what is "current". Too bad. It is a big movie world at there and you are missing out on so much. There are so many great movies you'll never see. So many great performances you will be deprived of seeing.

I do have issues with the tone of the picture and some of the situations which derive and this causes me to stop short of calling the movie a masterpiece and giving it a high star rating. The "drama" isn't dramatic. The conflict easily solved. But the performances could not have been better.

James Dunn won an Academy Award for his performance in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (1945) as an alcoholic father. Now there was a sad movie! Some audience members might recognize him for his role in a Shirley Temple vehicles; "Bright Eyes" (1934) and "Baby Take a Bow" (1934).

Sally Eilers was "discovered" by Mack Sennett, the famous comedy producer. Prior to this movie she appeared in two Buster Keaton comedies; "Doughboys" (1930) and "Parlor, Bedroom and Bath" (1931). She was also in the original version of "State Fair" (1933) starring Will Rogers, which would later become a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.

These two have a great chemistry between them. They are giving a "movie performance" but at times it feels authentic. You can believe in them as people. They are very natural on camera. Both have a bit of a comedic aspect to their characters which I enjoyed watching.

"Bad Girl" was considered the first major novel written by Vina Delmar, who would go on to win an Academy Award nomination for her screenplay for "The Awful Truth" (1937). The novel was about the dangers of premarital sex and pregnancy. The movie deals with both issues but is not really a cautionary tale. Perhaps the novel was a bit more spicy. It was banned in some cities. As a result the title of the movie doesn't seem appropriate. We keep waiting for the "bad girl".

You won't find many movie historians or film fans consider this one of Frank Borzage's best movies. But, for me, this is a good movie which deserves an audience. For what I have seen directed by Borzage, it was one of the more pleasurable movies I have seen.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Film Review: Mr. Skeffington

"Mr. Skeffington"  *** (out of ****)

Bette Davis learns your looks aren't everything in the Warner Brothers drama "Mr. Skeffington" (1944).

If such a thing as Bette Davis fans exist anymore, it would not be so strange for them to tell you about Bette Davis' performance in "Mr. Skeffington", for which she was nominated for Academy Award in the best actress category. At that time in her career it was her eight nomination. She had already won two previous awards for her performances in "Dangerous" (1935) and "Jezebel" (1939), which I thought of while watching this movie.

It is Bette Davis and Bette Davis only that really makes "Mr. Skeffington" a picture worth seeking out. There are other good performers in the movie. The cast consist of Claude Rains, Walter Abel and Jerome Cowan. Each of them is fine in their roles. But it is Bette Davis that has that larger-than-life presence. When she is in a scene, you watch her. Bette Davis commands that kind of attention. It is too bad however "Mr. Skeffington" isn't worthy of her.

Bette Davis stars as Fanny Trellis, the toast of New York circa 1914. Fanny loves the attention. Every night, different men proposing marriage, fighting over her, wishing and hoping for a chance to speak to her in private. It makes Fanny feel important. She is a somebody. People want to know her and be around her.

Fanny prides herself on her appearance. She possesses a youthful beauty. Her reflection in a mirror is a beautiful her. Without her looks she is nothing. Just another woman. A woman that would not receive half the attention she does now because men find her attractive.

One day Fanny meets Mr. Job Skeffington (Claude Rains), he is a stockbroker who owns his own firm. One of his employees is Fanny's brother, Trippy (Richard Waring). Fanny learns Trippy has embezzled $24,000 from the firm. If Trippy doesn't return the money, Mr. Skeffington will have to report this to the police.

Fanny loves her brother and would do anything to protect him. Because she and Trippy are broke Fanny would even marry Mr. Skeffington if it meant Trippy would not go to jail.

At first one could assume "Mr. Skeffington" would be a movie showing the dangers of women. Women are money-hungry, greedy creatures that cause the downfall of man. It would be the kind of movie you might find Marlene Dietrich in. Here is a woman willing to use her beauty to take advantage of a man that genuinely loves her and would happily share what he has with her. There would be no need to con him if only Fanny had a heart and was able to love someone other than herself.

That could and has made for some entertaining movies in the past. It is not an original concept for a movie but those kind of stories are interesting to watch because of the universal truths they hit on.

However, that is not what "Mr. Skeffington" is about. The movie is about a woman's desire to be young. About the fear of growing old in a world that only admires youth and beauty. A woman so obsessed with the idea of having people think she is young she would even deny the existence of her daughter.

This is a theme which could very easily resonate with audiences today. What was true in 1944 is true in 2015. The problem is "Mr. Skeffington" treats this material in such a heavy-handed way. It wants the viewer to believe they are watching great drama. The movie runs two hours and twenty-six minutes. You don't need all that time to tell this story.

If you re-made this story today I am willing to bet the tone of the movie would be much different, much lighter. More satirical and comical. The movie would also be shorter. About forty minutes shorter.

Since the movie was released during World War Two it is pointed out Mr. Skeffington is a Jew. At the break of WW2 Mr. Skeffington goes to Europe. The movie, very subtly, injects the idea of anti-semitism. The problem is, it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It feels awkward hearing it about it and when other characters infer "is Mr. Skeffington a Jew?"

The movie has nothing to say about the mistreatment of Jews in Europe. It has nothing to say about war in general. I'm truly baffled why the topic would even be brought up.

As great as Bette Davis is in this movie, I have to admit, I find her to be an odd choice to play this character. Bette Davis was a great actress but a great beauty? I just don't see it. I personally have never looked at her and thought to myself, "gosh Bette Davis was so beautiful". I also have never begun a sentence with the word "gosh" either. We can argue who was a better actress but it would have made more sense if Dietrich was in this role or even one of the actresses up against Davis that year for the Academy Award like Greer Garson or Claudette Colbert. Of course then we would have been denied what is a truly entertaining performance from Davis. And that is worth something.

By the end of the picture one has to wonder has Fanny learned anything? Has she learned beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Learn to age gracefully. We all can't stay young. Has she learned the cruel way she treated others? I don't think she has. The movie gives us an ironic twist ending that perfectly suite's Fanny's vanity. But, I believe, she will go on being the person she has always been. A leopard doesn't change its spots.

The movie was directed by Vincent Sherman. He may be known for directing "In Our Time" (1944) which also about WW2 and a WW2 themed comedy called "All Through the Night" (1941) about gangsters fighting Nazi spies in America. The movie stars Humphrey Bogart, Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason, Frank McHugh and Conrad Veidt. It is actually kind of funny.

"Mr. Skeffington", what a strange name for the movie, since it isn't about him, it not a bad movie but it is not great either. It is too melodramatic. That by itself is fine but the subject matter of the movie doesn't match the tone. It goes on too long. Two-and-a-half hours is too much for this story. On the plus side though, you have two Academy Award nominated performances; Claude Rains and Bette Davis. And Bette Davis is a real standout. It should be for her performance you watch the movie.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Film Review: The General

"The General"  **** (out of ****)

Buster Keaton helps defend the honor of the ol' South and win a major battle during the Civil War in the silent comedy classic, "The General" (1926).

Watching "The General" again recently I was struck by many things which I may not have noticed over the years or simply didn't remember about the movie, as it had been years since I last watched this comedy treasure.

Early on in the movie there are a few, subtle, moments in the movie which are typical Buster Keaton moments and help explain his character, not only in this movie, but the comedy persona he created for all of his silent comedies.

It is one of the first sequences in the movie. We meet Johnnie Gray (Keaton) engineer for the Western & Atlantic Railroad, who we are told only has two loves in his life. One is his locomotive, called The General, and the other is the girl in his life, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack).

After a day's work Johnnie rushes to meet Annabelle. What Johnnie doesn't know is two young boys have been following him as well as Annabelle. Johnnie keeps walking towards Annabelle's home, knocks on the door, and as he waits for an answer, turns around to notice the crowd behind him. What does he do when he sees them? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. No shocked expression. No embarrassing moment. No pratfall. No double take. He simply acknowledges Annabelle with a nod of the head and they walk inside the house together.

What is so characteristic of the moment is it illustrates why Keaton's comedy character was referred to as "the great stone face". Nothing phased him. His expression doesn't really change when you watch him. Imagine Stan Laurel in this sequence or Harold Lloyd. Surely they would have given an exaggerated reaction. But not Keaton. Less is more with Keaton.

Within this same scene Johnnie notices the two young boys have followed him into Annabelle's home. Without saying a word to the boys or Annabelle, Johnnie casually stands up, walks to pick up his hat, heads towards the door, the two young boys stand in front of him, Johnnie opens the door, the young boys proceed to walk out, Johnnie closes the door and walks back towards Annabelle.

This demonstrates how Keaton's characters are always thinking. The mind is constantly at work. Life throw obstacles at "the great stone face" but nothing deters him. He immediately assesses the situation and forms a plan of action right before the audiences' eyes, in an instant. Keaton doesn't draw out these moments showing us a long thought process with the character meticulously planning every detail. The viewer just watches the plan unfold and tries to keep up with "the great stone face".

What is also interesting watching "The General" is the movie really never wants to be more than an action / comedy. The film, co-written and directed by Clyde Bruckman and Keaton, never goes in for sentimentality or romance. Try to say the same about a Charlie Chaplin movie. Of course that doesn't mean Keaton's approach is better but it clearly distinguishes the different approach to storytelling both men had. Could you tell this story with sentimental and romantic scenes? Sure.

Take for example a sequence when Johnnie learns the Civil War is inevitable. Annabelle's brother (Frank Barnes) and her father (Charles Smith) quickly decide to enlist. Feeling pressure from the family, especially Annabelle, Johnnie agrees to as well. But, when he goes to the recruiting office he is denied. It is felt Johnnie could better serve the South as an engineer than a soldier. Annabelle's brother and father don't know Johnnie was rejected and think he is simply a coward, "a disgrace to the South" they tell Annabelle. She feels letdown and tells Johnnie never to speak to her again until he is in uniform.

In this moment Johnnie feels rejected. Here would be a perfect opportunity for some sentimentality. Johnnie's heart has been broken. He sits on the side rod of a train by the wheel. He is lost in his thoughts. Suddenly the train begins to slowly move with Johnnie still on the side rod as he begins to ride up and down and quickly realizes what is going on. Poof! A moment of self-reflection turns into a sight gag.

A year passes. Johnnie and Annabelle have not spoken to one another. Johnnie still works as an engineer. We learn of a plan the North has devised to steal The General and ambush the South in a surprise attack. Annabelle will be on the train this same day as she is going to visit her father, who has been wounded in the war. She finds herself in the wrong place at the the wrong time and is held prisoner by the North.

At this point all Johnnie knows is someone has stolen his train after it has made a stop. He attempts to chase it and finds himself in an army encampment. It is here he learns Annabelle is being held hostage. He now must rescue her, the train and warn the Southern army of the North's plan.

Here once again is an opportunity for the movie to engage in some romantic scenes with a nice kiss and make-up scene between Johnnie and Annabelle. But who has time for that!

At every opportunity when the movie can divert its attention to more dramatic or romantic scenes the movie instinctively settles on action sequences. Buster Keaton was really ahead of the curve. Look how many buddy action / comedies we get today!

Although I guess that could be the one flaw someone may find with "The General". The movie feels like one long action sequence. It has a very simple plot and spends a lot of its time showing trains chasing after each other. For the majority of the movie Johnnie is seen on a train. This was actually the criticism most movie critics (sheep) had with the movie during its original release.

I find these moments work though as it allows Keaton to show good visual gags. Each train tries to slow down the other by throw items on the train tracks or causing damage to them. The humor comes from how Johnnie finds ways the over come these obstacles. Again, we see that mind always at work. These sequences also contain some thrills. We even see a train collapse when traveling over a bridge!

If we chose to think about it long enough, we can also find a message about masculinity here. Annabelle is disappointed when Johnnie isn't enlisted. He isn't a man. Where is his bravery? His sense of honor? His patriotic sentiment? Annabelle won't even speak to him. But, Annabelle soon changes her mind when Johnnie rescues her. Now he has committed a heroic act. Now he is a man.

The movie was inspired by a real incident during the Civil War known as The Great Locomotive Chase (or Andrews' Raid) which happened on the Western & Atlantic Railroad in April of 1862. The movie used a memoir written by the soldier William Pittenger as inspiration.

Upon its initial release "The General" was a commercial and critical flop and ranked among Keaton's worst performing movies at the box-office. Time has been on the movie's side however as now it is considered not only Buster Keaton's best movie but some even rank it as one of the all-time greatest silent movies ever made. The movie also appeared on AFI's updated 100 greatest movies list in 2007.

I'm honestly not sure if I would call this Keaton's greatest film or his most typical. I am going through a re-evaluation process with Keaton. It has been so many years since I have watched his comedies. In some cases it has been 15 years. Recently I have re-watched "Seven Chances" (1925) and "Go West" (1925) and my reaction was not as I thought it would be. Unfortunately, of the silent comedians, Keaton is the one that has been neglected by me. I have only previously written about "Sherlock, Jr." (1924).

Watching Keaton again though I find some similarity in his character and Chaplin's Tramp. Both men are loners. In "Go West" Keaton's character is called "Friendless". Both men want to be active participants in society. Chaplin though is shunned because of his looks. Keaton makes a greater effort. Keaton also has more thrills in his movies and displays a greater athletic ability. Still, sometimes it is difficult for me to completely warm up to "the great stone face". I consider myself a Chaplin man. I prefer Chaplin's sense of storytelling. There is more involvement with his characters.

However, I am looking forward to re-examining the work of Keaton and while I am on the fence if this is Keaton's best movie it is nonetheless a movie people should watch, especially those that are not familiar with Buster Keaton.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Film Review: Girl Rush

"Girl Rush"  *** (out of ****)

There's plenty of gold and girls in the RKO comedy "Girl Rush" (1944) starring Wally Brown and Alan Carney.

Back in the 1940s, in order to capitalize on the success Universal was having with Abbott & Costello comedies, RKO studio wanted to create a comedy team with a similar appeal, so, the studio paired two of its contract players together; Wally Brown and Alan Carney. Between the years 1943 through 1946 the two men were in 11 pictures together, though not necessarily as a team. Sometimes they were just supporting players in the same movie and did not share any scenes together.

When the two men were a team they often played the characters Jerry Miles (Wally Brown) and Mike Strager (Alan Carney). Jerry was supposed to be the "leader" of the team. Their relationship didn't resemble Abbott & Costello so much as it did Laurel & Hardy. Two men that wanted to be taken serious and achieve great success. Neither man however was very intelligent. Although Jerry may have been the "thinker" between the two, that is only because Mike was dumb enough to let him be. Jerry could only be the big man standing next to Mike. And only Mike would look at Jerry and think he had any brains.

Needless to say Brown & Carney never achieved the success of Abbott & Costello or Laurel & Hardy. They didn't even achieve the success of Wheeler & Woolsey, another comedy team at RKO, who were a popular back in the 1930s. Instead Brown & Carney are a forgotten team only known to filmbuffs and maybe fans of Turner Classic Movies (TCM) where once in a while their movies will play on television.

Of the movies the two men appeared in "The Adventures of a Rookie" (1943), a low rent version of Abbott & Costello's "Buck Privates" (1941), is often considered their best movie. However, their most popular movie and most easily accessible movie, may be the horror / comedy "Zombies on Broadway" (1945). Perhaps thanks to TCM, Warner Brothers has put four of their movies on DVD as part of a comedy collection. It is part of their "Archive Collection".

One of the movies that is part of the collection is "Girl Rush", made right before "Zombies on Broadway" but after "Step Lively" (1944), my favorite movie featuring the team. It stars a young Frank Sinatra.

The movie takes play in the 1800s with Jerry and Mike as a couple on saloon performers working in San Francisco with an all female troupe called "The Frisco Follies" consisting of Flo (Frances Langford) the group's singer and Suzie (Barbara Jo Allen though credited as Vera Vague) the comedian of the group. They have a hit show, a first for Jerry and Mike, thanks largely to men coming to see the ladies. The popularity of the show comes to an end when gold is discovered and all the men in the town head out to take part in the big gold rush. This leaves the show without an audience.

Never without a bad idea Jerry decides the best way to keep the show going would be for him and Mike to head out to see if they can find any gold and the ladies keep the show going. If Jerry and Mike find gold they will pack up and take their show to New York.

The two men find themselves in a small town called Red Creek, where there are no women. The town is run by Greg Barlan (Cy Kendall) who runs a tavern where all the men in town go to drink and gamble. What the town needs however is another form of entertaining, where men won't kill each other for cheating at cards. The town also needs women. This is where Jerry and Mike come in. A musical comedy show may be just what the town needs and since their show features women it may be just the ticket! But how can Jerry and Mike convince the women to give up on the idea of going to New York and instead go to Red Creek? They'll have to lie to the women.

Although Brown and Carney were paired together by a studio, they still have a good amount of chemistry together. The movie is short on big laughs but the best comedy sequence in the movie may be when the two men are driven crazy from hungry after a day of traveling and try to get some sleep. Each man is afraid the other may kill him in his sleep and cook him. So, one hides a razor blade in his hand while the other holds an ax.

Another good sequence has the two playing "the shell game", three card monty with walnut shells, where one of them has a pea underneath, as they try to con the residents of Red Creek in order to buy some food.

What some viewers may find interesting is a young Robert Mitchum appears in the movie, playing Jimmy Smith. One of the men in Red Creek who wants to run Greg Barlan out of town. Mitchum keeps his tough guy persona but believe it or not actually dresses in drag. Even when in drag though Mitchum still tries to be rugged by not speaking in a high pitch voice, in order to convince people he is a woman.

Mitchum at this point, had appeared in many movies including one with Laurel & Hardy called "The Dancing Masters" (1943). He usually played tough guys and gangsters.

"Girl Rush" is relatively short on plot and runs a mere 65 minutes. The movie could have actually been longer as I suspect too much was edited. Still it sees its story through and has a beginning, middle and end.

The movie was written by Robert E. Kent, who also wrote "Zombies on Broadway" and "Genius at Work" (1946) also with Brown & Carney adapted from a story by the Hungarian writers Laszlo Vadnay and Aladar Laszlo and was directed by Gordon Douglas who directed the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Saps at Sea" (1940) and "Zenobia" (1939) starring Oliver Hardy and Harry Langdon.

"Girl Rush" won't please everyone but those that like "clean" comedy and discovering "forgotten" films from Hollywood should find something to enjoy. Plus, on the scale of Brown & Carney's work together "Girl Rush" is a good example of their brand of comedy and what they had to offer.