Thursday, August 13, 2015

Film Review: The Magician

"The Magician"  *** (out of ****)

Ingmar Bergman will put a spell on you in the Swedish drama "The Magician" (1958).

When I was a teenager I discovered the films of Ingmar Bergman, in fact, while in high school, taking a French language class, I discovered the world of foreign films. It was during this time I first saw Mr. Bergman's "The Magician". I didn't like the movie very much. I don't think I understood what Mr. Bergman was trying to say. The movie had a nice visual style and created an eerie atmosphere though it left me cold.

I have seen "The Magician" again recently. Am I brave enough to say I understand everything going on in the movie? No. But I do see a deeper meaning in it. That has raised my appreciation for it.

When "The Magician" was released in America, Ingmar Bergman had already established a name for himself with the art house crowd in this country. Prior releases included "The Seventh Seal" (1957) and "Brink of Life" (1958). Each movie dealt with existential issues. Is their a God? What is the meaning of life? What is man's place in the world? Mr. Bergman, the son of a Lutheran minister, was an atheist. Religion had been a major theme in a string of his movies. He even directed a "faith trilogy"; "Through A Glass, Darkly" (1961), "Winter Light" (1963) and "The Silence" (1963).

It is when looking at the movie in this context that I begin to think Mr. Bergman wanted to make another movie which makes a commentary on religion. The question then becomes, what was Mr. Bergman trying to say? If you can answer that question you have found the key to understanding the movie and possibly enjoying it.

It is 1848 and there is a traveling magic show headed by Dr. Albert Emanuel Vogler (Max von Sydow) which makes its way into a small European town where they have been advertised. Before they can begin with their show they are taken to the home of Consul-man Egerman (Erland Josephson) where the Police Superintendant (Toivo Pawlo) and Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Bjornstrand) await to question the troupe, consisting of Vogler's assistant, Mr. Aman (Ingrid Thulin), Vogler's grandmother (Naima Wifstrand), who supposedly is a witch, their coach driver (Lars Ekborg) and Johan (Bengt Ekerot) the spokesman.

There has been some suspicion spreading from town to town concerning the authenticity of Vogler's act. The Superintendent and Dr. Vergerus demand the troupe put on a private show for them so they may ascertain (and possibly humiliate) whether or not Vogler's act is full of tricks or miracles.

Egerman and Dr. Vergerus are both men of science and have a wager going on between them. Egerman believes there are things in this world which happen that cannot be explained by science thus proving the existence of God. Dr. Vergerus believes in all logic and reason. Science will be able to explain everything. Vogler will confirm one of their beliefs.

So the movie comes down to science vs God. Is there such a thing as the super natural? The interesting question becomes what does the magician, Vogler, represent? Is Vogler God? Is he Jesus? Max von Sydow did play Jesus in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965). Who do Egerman and Dr. Vergerus represent? Could they be the non-believers that always required Jesus to prove himself by performing a miracle in front of them? Perhaps.

To a similar extent the viewers should should also ask themselves what about the grandmother? Is she really a witch or just a deceitful con artist like Vogler?

Besides not being able to completely understand what Mr. Bergman is attempting to say in this movie, what also lessens the experience for me is who is Vogler? I wish Mr. Bergman would have played around more with the mystique of this character. Does he actually have the ability to do what he says he does or is he a phony? Much of the movie seems to be about deception, so we may have our answer there. The same goes for the grandmother.

One could make a case, a small one, the movie is also addressing the censorship of the artist. However I do not believe this theme is fully addressed but if one does feel it is addressed properly in the movie, again, we must ask ourselves what is Mr. Bergman trying to say? Those that do not understand art try to de-value it? We are threatened by what we do not understand; art, religion?

"The Magician" doesn't rank alongside some of Ingmar Bergman's best films but it does play around with some very interesting concepts which seem typical of themes Mr. Bergman explored in a great number of his films. Because of that it should not be avoided however I feel this movie works best for those that have already developed an appreciation for Mr. Bergman's films. It should not be your introduction into his work.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Film Review: Nothing But Trouble

"Nothing But Trouble"  ** (out of ****)

Laurel & Hardy live up to the title of this MGM comedy and get involved in "Nothing But Trouble" (1944).

When first officially paired as a comedy team in 1927, when both men worked for Hal Roach studios, until 1951, when the duo appeared in their last feature-length comedy, "Utopia", Laurel & Hardy's work has been generally praised by movie fans as among the greatest screen comedies in the history of cinema. Their output between 1929 - 1940 ranks alongside the work of their contemporaries; Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Harold Lloyd and W.C. Fields. The boys (as they were often called) are routinely listed among the greatest comedy teams of all time.

You'll notice I mentioned the work the team did between 1929 - 1940 is what is often celebrated. "Nothing But Trouble" was released in 1944. What's the difference? It was until 1940 Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy worked for Hal Roach. Though the men had appeared in several silent comedies as solo acts and as a team, they are a rarity in that they were among the few silent film stars that not only lasted in "talkies" (sound pictures) but their work actually improved. Their voices perfectly suited their characters. That is why I use 1929 as a starting point. It was in 1929 Laurel & Hardy began to exclusively make "talking pictures"; two reelers and feature-length comedies.

While working for Hal Roach, Stan Laurel, off-screen considered the brains of the team, had creative input into their work. Laurel was able to write gags for the team, edit their movies and serve as an uncredited director. On a few of their movies Laurel was properly given a "producer" credit. It was during this time Laurel & Hardy appeared in "The Music Box" (1932), which won an Academy Award for best live action short, "Sons of the Desert" (1933), "Way Out West" (1937), "Going Bye-Bye" (1934) and "A Chump at Oxford" (1940).

Due to contract disputes Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy left Hal Roach studios in 1940. The team then released eight movies released by either 20th Century Fox or MGM between 1941 - 1945 and one European production, "Utopia". It was here the boys lost creative control of their work. At a major studio the boys were hired only as performers. These movies are often described as "B" movies. These were considered hard times for the team. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the movies made money which made the studios feel they were justified and continued the same approach movie after movie. "Nothing But Trouble" was the team's second to last American movie.

I am generally thought to be a sucker for a Laurel & Hardy comedy. They were admittedly my childhood heroes. I have seen every feature-length comedy they starred in, every sound two-reeler they appeared in and almost all of their silent work together. Because of that I often "go easy" on their later work during this period. I actually like "The Bullfighters" (1945), their last American comedy. I have fond memories of "Utopia", "Air Raid Wardens" (1943) and "A-Haunting We Will Go" (1942). I used to have fond memories of "Nothing But Trouble" too. I remember laughing at it when I was a child. After watching the movie again recently I think I was just a happy kid and laughed at everything because boy does "Nothing But Trouble" feel like a letdown!

It is 1934 the country is in the midst of the Great Depression, Stan & Ollie are looking for jobs as a cook (Hardy) and a butler (Stan). They come from a family of a long line of cooks and butlers. Stan & Ollie want to follow in the footsteps of those before them and keep their family tradition going. But, with everyone in the country looking for a job, Stan & Ollie are unable to stand out in the crowd. Stan has an idea. If jobs are so difficult to come by in America why not try another country? So the boys head to Europe for the next 10 years. Still unable to find work.

In 1944, the movie informs us, jobs were very easy to come by. There weren't enough workers to fill the vacant positions. Stan & Ollie return to America not knowing this and quickly find themselves jobs working for Mrs. Hawkley (Mary Boland) and her husband (Henry O' Neill). The Hawkley's are going to be hosting a dinner party where the guests of honor will be the king of Orlandia Christopher (David Leland) a young boy and his uncle Prince Saul (Philip Merivale).

Prince Saul would like to one day be king. The fastest way for him to be king is to kill the young king. However Stan & Ollie end up befriending the boy, not knowing he is a king, and inadvertently save his life.

The idea of the story may not immediately sound like the basis of a good comedy to some however I firmly believe any story can be made into a good movie if done properly and humor can be found in any story. The problem with "Nothing But Trouble" is there are no big laughs. There are no big laughs because there is nothing for Laurel & Hardy to do. There are no engaging comedic set-pieces written for them. There are no memorable moments. There is nothing to compare to the block & tackle sequence in "Way Out West" or moving the piano across a bridge in "Swiss Miss" (1938) or Stan helping Oliver put his boot on in "Be Big!" (1931). You might be tempted to say it is because of the age of Laurel & Hardy. In 1944 Stan Laurel was 54 years old. Oliver Hardy was 52. Maybe age did have something to do with it but even in their other later movies the boys had good sequences in their movies. I remember a very funny "rescue" scene in "Air Raid Wardens" and the bull fight sequence in "The Bullfighters".

The best sequences in "Nothing But Trouble" involve the boys trying to steal a piece of raw steak from a lion at the zoo and then trying to cut the cooked steak at the dinner party.

On top of this the boys don't seem to have any energy. Did they realize this movie was a dud? Did they feel unappreciated at MGM? Were they just going through the motions? Maybe. It sure appears that way as you are watching the movie.

In these later movies there always seems to be a scene where either Stan or Ollie will acknowledge they are dumb. They will have a moment of self-pity. Lick their wounds. They usually say this to another character in the movie. They do it again in "Nothing But Trouble". Each time I see and hear it in one of their movies it feels out of place. Did Laurel & Hardy face hard times in their comedies? Yes. Did their plans and get rich quick schemes fail? Yes. But the boys never felt sorry for themselves. They never asked the world to take pity on them. They would fall down and get back up. They would never say, "we are two dim witted guys. Lets give up." Never! The only reason I can think of that these type of lines were put in their movies was because of their age. How could Laurel & Hardy be so old and still not realize their short comings? Perhaps it was odd seeing two 50 year old men falling down, getting hit on the head, making mistakes. But these lines of dialogue go against the nature of their characters.

The movie was directed by Sam Taylor, who had a long career in the movies and whose name was most associated with silent comedies. He worked with Harold Lloyd on "Safety Last!" (1923) and "The Freshmen" (1925) as well as the Mary Pickford sound picture "Coquette" (1929). You would have thought Taylor might have seen the problems with "Nothing But Trouble" but maybe he had no power against the studio and/or didn't want to rock the boat. Who would listen anyway?

"Nothing But Trouble" is not a bad movie. It would be uncalled for if viewers declared it the "worst movie of all-time" or something along those lines. It wouldn't be fair to call it a successful movie either. It certainly doesn't hold a candle to Laurel & Hardy's earlier work in the 1930s. But, I doubt anyone would ever claim that it does. At best you can describe it as a harmless, uninspired diversion. That's too bad. One shouldn't say such things about a Laurel & Hardy comedy.