Monday, December 28, 2015

Film Review: Licence to Kill

"Licence to Kill"  *** (out of ****)

James Bond is armed and dangerous with a "Licence to Kill" (1989).

After appearing in seven movies as secret agent 007 James Bond, Roger Moore would walk away from the franchise, due to his age. Mr. Moore's final movie as James Bond would be "A View to A Kill" (1985), which is much better than most people would have you believe. As of the date of this review no actor has played the character in more movies than Mr. Moore.

During the period Mr. Moore played the character there were some who criticized the direction the series was going in. Mr. Moore was replacing Sean Connery (the actor George Lazenby played the character once inbetween this transition) as the character and had very big shoes to fill. The majority of movie audiences believe Mr. Connery was the definitive actor to portray the character.

Critics believed Mr. Moore was a bit too comical. The movies started to become something of parodies of the earlier movies such as "Dr. No" (1962) and "Goldfinger" (1964).

With Mr. Moore walking away from the franchise this would be a good opportunity for producers to once again change course and have the James Bond series move in a different direction.

Timothy Dalton, a Welsh born British actor, was not well known when he was chosen to play the secret agent. Mr. Dalton however would indeed take the series in a new direction. If Mr. Moore was too playful with a wink of the eye and a smile on his face, Mr. Dalton was going to take the character serious. With Mr. Dalton playing the lead role James Bond is all business. This new James Bond is a little rough around the edges. Mr. Dalton's Bond lacks the suave manner possessed by Mr. Moore and Mr. Connery's interpretation and all of the humor associated with both men. In fact, looking back at Mr. Dalton in the role, one could now say Mr. Dalton was the precursor for Daniel Craig and the reboot the series has gone through with Mr. Craig as James Bond.

Mr. Dalton would make his debut as James Bond in "The Living Daylights" (1987). The movie would become one of the highest grossing movies in the series. Audiences watching "The Living Daylights" would instantly notice a difference. Women aren't throwing themselves at Bond. Bond doesn't always have a quip or double-entendre ready. Bond isn't distracted by a beautiful woman. If box-office returns are any indication of anything, it would suggest the American movie going public liked the new direction the series was headed in.

And that is where we find ourselves with the sixteenth entry in the James Bond series, "License to Kill". In an attempt to repeat their success, the producers, Albert R. Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, tried to keep everything the same as "The Living Daylights". Both movies were directed by John Glen, who directed the last three Bond movies Roger Moore starred in as well. The series would push the limits of the Bond formula completely altering it.

This time around James Bond goes rogue. He gives his resignation to M (Robert Brown) after his friend, Felix Leiter (David Hedison), a C.I.A. agent, is attacked by a shark and his wife (Priscilla Barnes) is murdered on their wedding day. Bond knows who is responsible for this, a drug lord named Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) and plans on hunting Sanchez down and killing him for revenge.

For today's audience, who have seen "Skyfall" (2012) and "Spectre" (2015), this plot may not seem that unusual however "Licence to Kill" was a major departure from the Bond formula. The Bond movies ran like clockwork. The movies begin with Bond on a mission, chasing after a bad guy. The sequence ends with a fantastic, cliffhanging stunt. Roll title credits. Bond walks into M's office, engages in some banter with Moneypenny (Caroline Bliss), and learns of his new assignment. Next he meets the villain and a pretty girl, in a social environment of course, perhaps at a casino, and uncovers the villain's scheme for world domination.

Bond did as he was told. He took pride in his job and defending the queen. In "Licence to Kill" Bond looks tired, beaten and talks back. Bond isn't a "happy agent". He is constantly put in life or death situations. Bond has no problem walking away from this lifestyle.

For the most part Mr. Dalton was a decent Bond. I can accept him as a secret agent tired of the spy game but I have trouble accepting Mr. Dalton as an action star. He delivers his lines nicely. Has a stern face, so we know he is serious. But I have trouble believing Mr. Dalton is an action star. Yes, it is true Roger Moore didn't look like an action star either but those stunts were poking fun at themselves. In that context I could accept Mr. Moore as Bond. Without the humor and charm and self-knowing nod, it is difficult to accept everything in "Licence to Kill" at face value. Sure, some of the action sequences are good and exciting, but, it makes Bond become more of an action movie star, nothing of which uniquely sets him apart from any other action movie. I suppose that is my difficulty with Mr. Craig in the role as well.

It was once said a James Bond movie is only as good as its villain. The more eccentric the villain and their diabolical plan for world domination, the better the movie. "Licence to Kill" doesn't have one of the great and memorable Bond villains. Sanchez reminds me of a "Scarface" rip-off. Sanchez doesn't want to rule the world. He is not working for the Soviets. He is not a spy. He simply wants to make money. He is a drug dealer. As such, he doesn't seem to pose much of a threat for James Bond. You don't feel Sanchez will get the better of Bond.

Unfortunately the Bond girls aren't that memorable either.This time around there is Pam Bouvier (Pam? What kind of Bond girl name is that? What ever happened to names like Pussy Galore?! She is played by Carey Lowell) a CIA informant who was working with Felix to expose Sanchez's drug deals. Bond hopes she can lead him to Sanchez. There is also Sanchez's girlfriend Lupe (Talisa Soto), who is not in love with Sanchez and wants out of his lifestyle. After a few brief meetings with Bond, she claims to love him. This feels completely out of place since Bond never makes a pass at her during their first meeting.

Finally I must say the title song, performed by Gladys Knight, is rather disappointing as well, even though it was a top ten hit on the UK charts. The song is not memorable. When you think of memorable Bond songs, the theme to Licence to Kill does not spring into anyone's mind.

For all of my criticism though "Licence to Kill" is worth watching. It is a different kind of Bond story. Some would say it is a welcome departure from the usual formula. For me, it works as an action movie not really a Bond movie. Personally I like Bond as suave and charming and with a dash of humor. Not to say I don't like Timothy Dalton in the role. I prefer him over Daniel Craig. Mr. Dalton looks like a James Bond. Not true with Mr. Craig.

"Licence to Kill" would be the last time Mr. Dalton would play James Bond. Legal disputes over the franchise would last several years. Mr. Dalton was originally slated to appear in one more Bond movie but after the long lasting legal dispute Mr. Dalton says he simply lost interest. This would pave the way for Pierce Brosnan to play the character. In my opinion, the last effective actor to play Bond.

If you like Daniel Craig as Bond you may want to see "Licence to Kill" and "The Living Daylights". I'm sure one would agree Mr. Dalton set the stage for Mr. Craig. If you like your Bond a bit more serious and rough around the edges, "Licence to Kill" will please you.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Film Review: Genius at Work

"Genius at Work"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

The RKO comedy team Brown & Carney prove to be a little too good at their jobs in "Genius at Work" (1946).

"Genius at Work" was the final movie released by RKO to officially feature Wally Brown and Alan Carney as a comedy team after the two men appeared in a handful of movies between 1943 - 1946. The two contract players were supposed to be RKO's answer to Abbott & Costello, the most popular comedy team of the early half of the 1940s.

Brown & Carney were first paired together as a team in "The Adventures of a Rookie" (1943) a war time comedy about the draft. It was inspired by Abbott & Costello's hugely successful comedy, "Buck Privates" (1941). You could also say the inspiration for "Genius at Work", a comedy / mystery, may have been the Abbott & Costello comedy / mystery "Who Done It?" (1942) however the movie is a remake of another RKO comedy starring another forgotten comedy team, Wheeler & Woolsey entitled "The Nitwits" (1935).

However, as in "Who Done It?", Brown & Carney try to solve a murder mystery at a radio station. Brown & Carney star as their usual characters Jerry Miles (Brown) and Mike Strager (Carney). They are the stars of a radio program called "Crime of the Week", a detective show. Jerry and Mike have been doing shows inspired by a real life serial killer named "The Cobra". Jerry and Mike seem to be one upping the police as they are often able to guess "The Cobra"s next move. The two men, along with their writer, Ellen (Anne Jeffreys) attribute this to the contributions of a criminologist Latimer Marsh (Lionel Atwill).

The police however, especially Lt. Campbell (Marc Cramer), are suspicious of Jerry and Mike and would desperately like to know their secret so they may solve the case themselves.

One question that arises is could Marsh or his valet, Stone (Bela Lugosi) know who "The Cobra" is? Is that how they get their information? Or worst, could one of them be "The Cobra"?

On paper "Genius at Work" sounds entertaining. I generally like comedy / horror and comedy / mystery movies like "The Gorilla" (1939) and "Hold That Ghost" (1941). I also, on occasion, enjoy watching Brown & Carney. But, "Genius at Work" is a missed opportunity. The story has possibilities but the script by Robert E. Kent and Monte Brice fails to deliver big laughs and does not take advantage of all the comedic opportunities to be had. As much as I wanted to like the movie, I even watched it twice, there was just something missing. Yes, the movie is harmless and is good for a smile or two but even Brown & Carney, as forgotten as they are, have appeared in better comedies such as "Girl Rush" (1944) and "Step Lively" (1944), which featured a young Frank Sinatra.

Not to take anything away from them, Wally Brown and Alan Carney do their best with the material. They both have decent screen presence and enough energy to make viewers watch them. They try their best to sell this material. But one can only do so much with nothing. One wonders if RKO had simply grown tired of producing Brown & Carney pictures (these were essentially "B" movies) and didn't want to invest time and effort in their productions.

The director of the movie, Leslie Goodwins, had been assigned to other Brown & Carney movies including "The Adventures of a Rookie" and its sequel "Rookies in Burma" (1943), which is rather disappointing. Mr. Goodwins also directed "Vacation in Reno" (1946) in which Wally Brown and Alan Carney appeared, though they are not playing their characters Jerry and Mike and it is not considered an official Brown & Carney comedy. Jack Haley and Anne Jeffreys receive top billing in the movie. Mr. Goodwins was not an accomplished filmmaker. He was nothing more than a studio director who eventually went on to direct episodes of various television shows.

The screenwriters, in particular Mr. Kent, were not exclusively comedy writers. Mr. Kent wrote a lot of mystery / detective stories. He even wrote a Dick Tracy movie. Mr. Brice had a bit more experience writing comedy but neither man made much of an impression in Hollywood.

I point this out merely to suggest RKO wasn't throwing talented individuals behind Brown & Carney. In contrast Wheeler & Woolsey were directed by George Stevens and Mark Sandrich and had songs written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby in their movies. Wheeler & Woolsey were very popular during their heyday and have acted in one comedy generally considered a small masterpiece by film historians, "Diplomaniacs" (1933). Brown & Carney never appeared in one movie which reached that status. Their most popular movie is probably "Zombies on Broadway" (1945), which may be considered by some as a cult classic. One of those so bad its good kind of movies.

One problem with "Genius at Work" is the script does not define the characters of Jerry and Mike properly, as they had been defined in their previous comedies. Jerry is the "leader" of the team. He is what is known as the "big idea man" of the team. Jerry is the one that comes up with all the get rich quick schemes or knows exactly how to get them out of trouble after one of his ideas landed them in trouble in the first place. Whereas Mike is the "dumb one". Jerry is just as dumb as Mike but Mike is dumb enough to think Jerry is smart. That banter between the characters is missing in "Genius at Work". Imagine if the real killer wanted to take advantage of Jerry and Mike and in an attempt to throw the police off his scent, "The Cobra" tried to frame Jerry and Mike. In that situation Jerry would come up with some clever idea to clear their names. Jerry could say something like, "hey, we play detectives on the radio, surely there must have been something from one of the stories we acted in that could help us". Meanwhile Mike would keep telling Jerry it is a bad idea. That is just one example of a missed opportunity.

"Genius at Work" instead has the killer frame Ellen, who is not much of a character in the movie. True, she is the brains between herself, Jerry and Mike, but she is not activate enough in the plot. Instead the movie wants to suggest a romance between Ellen and Lt. Campbell which does not develop into much. Neither Ms. Jeffreys or Mr. Cramer make much of a screen presence here and have no chemistry between them. Mr. Cramer also possesses no heroic qualities.

Besides no big laughs the movie also fails as a mystery movie. There is nothing suspenseful about the movie. As is the case with comedy / horror a good comedy / mystery must balance both genres, splitting the movie in half and take advantage of the cliches regarding mystery stories. The movie is smart enough to have a creepy old house and positions Jerry and Mike inside of it but doesn't create atmosphere and make fun of the genre.

One can assume the choice to place both Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi in the movie was due to their association with horror movies and the possibility audiences view them as sinister figures. Mr. Lugosi of course was best known for his performance as Count Dracula and Mr. Atwill generally played villains and was in horror movies such as "Son of Frankenstein" (1939), "Mark of the Vampire" (1935) and "The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942). "Genius at Work" was not the first time either man poked fun at their public persona. Mr. Atwill also appeared in the comedy / horror movie "The Gorilla" while Mr. Lugosi co-starred with Brown & Carney in "Zombies on Broadway".

Near the end of his career Mr. Lugosi made really bad choices in the roles he accepted. Much of that had to do with the fact it was all he was being offered. Most of the time he simply embarrassed himself. In "Genius at Work" he comes out looking okay. He is not on screen that often and when he is not much is demanded of him. Mr. Atwill also does not embarrass himself too much. He often had a tendency to over act but here he tones down his performance still there is a sequence where Mr. Atwill must appear in drag. Unfortunately Mr. Atwill would never act again after this movie. He would pass away in 1946 at the age of 61.

And then there is the ending of "Genius at Work". We have everything revealed to us concerning "The Cobra"s identity, except his motive, and the viewer understands the fate of the character however some things aren't clearly resolved between other characters which left me feeling unsatisfied. The movie goes for a "joke ending" where a character says a one-liner as the camera fades out. Think of "Some Like It Hot" (1959) and "nobody's perfect". But here it just didn't feel appropriate.

"Genius at Work" has a running time of 60 minutes. The majority of Brown & Carney comedies were only 60 - 65 minutes however "Genius at Work" feels like a lot is missing. Much of the movie must have been edited to keep it at an one hour running time. As I said, this was essentially a "B" movie. Back in the days of the double-feature, the "B" movie would play before that main picture, so "B" movies were generally kept between 60 - 70 minutes.

"Genius at Work" is not a bad movie. It is harmless and silly but lacks inspiration. There are too many missed opportunities and I'm usually an easy target for these kind of old-fashion, clean comedies. One might be tempted to give the movie a pass but having seen a number of comedies with Brown & Carney I can tell you "Genius at Work" does not feature either man at the top of their game. There are better options if you are interested in exploring the work of this comedy team. Unfortunately the majority of their movies are not available on DVD. Warner Brothers, as part of their "archive collection" put together a "Brown & Carney Comedy Collection" which includes four movies featuring the team. "Genius at Work" is one of the four. The best movie in the collection is "The Adventures of a Rookie", which I would recommend as your starting place. It is too bad RKO didn't give Brown & Carney a better swan-song.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Film Review: Holiday in Mexico

"Holiday in Mexico"  *** (out of ****)

Fall in love the South American way with the MGM musical "Holiday in Mexico" (1946).

"Holiday in Mexico", with its all-star cast, is really centered around the young singing sensation, Jane Powell. It is a kind of "the difficulties of being a child" story. The kind of movie another young scarlet, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney would have appeared in. Powell plays Christine Evans, daughter of the American ambassador in Mexico, Jeffrey Evans (Walter Pidgeon).

Christine is 16 years old and at this point in her life feels she is old enough to be considered a woman. She is not a little girl anymore. She believes she runs the household and orders the servants around. Not in a mean, nasty way but, as an adult. She feels it is her obligation to keep the house in order and when time demands it, since Christine always goes on and on about how busy she is, she helps her father with his diplomatic work.

"Holiday in Mexico" is as much about the bonds between parents and children, especially fathers and daughters, as it is about the confusion of young love and misguided feelings. And it is all done to a fun and exciting musical score.

The movie, released after World War II, is another movie in a long line of musicals, such as "Down Argentine Way" (1940) and "Week-End in Havana" (1941) that tried to capitalize on the "Good Neighbor" policy enacted by President Franklin Roosevelt during the war years. Prior to the war it was not uncommon for movies to take place in Europe. Movies would feature rich socialites traveling to London or Paris on weekend getaways, searching for love. But, once the war started, even before America's involvement, movies could no longer do that. You couldn't make a movie about rich people, leading a carefree lifestyle, traveling to Paris or any other European country and not address the war going on. Americans knew there was a "conflict in Europe" brewing. So, Hollywood decided to change locations and focus on Latin America, where World War II was out of sight.

"Holiday in Mexico" unfortunately wants to do too many things at once and doesn't devote enough time to each storyline. By the end of the movie I wasn't satisfied. It doesn't have the Hollywood ending you'd expect. A kind of everyone kisses and makes-up ending. You really aren't sure what has been resolved.

"Holiday in Mexico" has a romantic love story in it revolving around Jeffrey Evans. Years ago, while in Budapest (that's in Hungary), he met a beautiful singer who called herself Countess Toni Karpathy (Ilona Massey, who really was Hungarian). For Jeffrey it was love at first sight. For reasons never explained in the movie, Jeffrey must leave Hungary and so ends the Countess and Jeffrey's love affair.

Years later, in an attempt to show she is a big girl, Christine arranges to throw a party and invites Xavier Cugat and his orchestra, which features a Hungarian singer named Toni Karpathy. Here is a second chance at love for Jeffrey and Toni. Will they be able to rekindle their romance?

This is actually the most interesting of the story-lines being told in "Holiday in Mexico" but sadly it is not given enough screen time as the movie most also juggles scenes between Christine and Stanley (Roddy McDowall), who is the same age as Christine and is convinced he is in love with her. But, you see, Christine is a "woman" and does not have time for a boy like Stanley. So, Stanley's advances go unnoticed.

The sequences involving these too provide the movie which comedic material as Stanley goes out of his way to show Christine he is in love with her only for her to ignore him. Does Christine love Stanley? Is she too busy to recognize her feelings? Will these two crazy kids get together in the end?

Finally there is the theme of how confusing growing up can be. Christine becomes jealous when she notices her father and Toni spending time together. Now, instead of Christine and Jeffrey having lunch together, as they always do, now Jeffrey has lunch with Toni. To Christine this means her father no longer has time for her, doesn't need her attended to his affairs and doesn't love her anymore. Toni has replaced Christine.

What is Christine supposed to do? How can she feel like a woman when there is no man for her to take care of? Besides inviting Xavier Cugat to the party to entertain Christine also invited the famous pianist Jose Iturbi. When Mr. Iturbi pays Christine several compliments, he believes she is a wonderful singer and very mature for her age, she mistakes it as advances being made at her and believes Mr. Iturbi is in love with her and she in love with him. Mr. Iturbi will then replace Christine's father as the man who needs her in his life. This of course infuriates Stanley.

"Holiday in Mexico", directed by George Sidney and written by Isobel Lennart, tells these stories with a lot of fun and enthusiasm. The movie has no time to become serious. There is too much music, romance and gaiety in the air.

However you could argue "Holiday in Mexico" is smartly written and is able to convey some important messages. At its best the life lessons learned in "Holiday in Mexico" are of the Andy Hardy (a series of movies starring Mickey Rooney) variety and are not profound. Still, one may be tempted to say a movie released after the war about teenagers becoming mature and adults may have been able to resonate with audiences. Don't forget a lot of young men, teenagers themselves, were either drafted or enlisted in the war. As the old cliche goes, they left has children but came back men. Mom and dad would have to adjust to that shift.

The lighthearted nature of "Holiday in Mexico" may have also been the result of the war. Americans read about the war for years. Some grew restless, especially parents with children fighting abroad. When would the war end? Countless people knew someone who lost a child. When the war was over people wanted to distract themselves and one way people distract themselves is through entertainment. So, why not watch a carefree movie musical where the biggest problem is trying to fall in love? Like the song tells us, "forget your troubles, c'mon get happy".

That will account for why we have a smorgasbord of talent involved in the movie. Jose Iturbi, like the great Oscar Levant, was not only a talented musician but also a personality, although I must admit, Mr. Iturbi was not near as entertaining a personality as Mr. Levant. Though Mr. Iturbi does have some nice comedic moments as does the band leader Xavier Cugat along with his chihuahua.

Roddy McDowell may only be known to moderns audiences for his role in "Planet of the Apes" (1968) however he was a child star who reached fame in the 1940s appearing opposite Elizabeth Taylor in "Lassie Come Home" (1943) and in the Academy Award winner "How Green Was My Valley (1941) also with Walter Pidgeon. In "Holiday in Mexico" Mr. McDowell turns in a good comedic performance. I wish there was more for him to do and greater resolution for his character.

I would say it is Walter Pidgeon who has the most difficult task. Mr. Pidgeon was a leading man in Hollywood though here he is playing a father. The majority of his scenes are with Ms. Powell. In these scenes he is presented as a wise older man. A skilled diplomat not the screen lover audiences may identify with a leading man. Still, Mr. Pidgeon turns in a good performance and I would argue has his best moments when he is acting opposite Ms. Massey.

The soundtrack consist of Jose Iturbi performing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 as well as some boogie woogie (!), Xavier Cugat singing "And That's That", Ms. Powell singing "I Think of You" and "Ava Maria" and Ilona Massey singing the traditional Hungarian folk tune "Csak Egy Szep Lany" (translated in English as The Only Beautiful Girl. This song was the inspiration for an American song, Golden Earrings).

My own memories of "Holiday in Mexico" go back to my childhood when my grandmother first showed me the movie. I have never hidden the fact my family comes from Hungary (my name kind of gives it away). My grandmother, who was the movie buff in our family, loved to tell me which movie stars were Hungarian and so we watched "Holiday in Mexico" because of Ilona Massey. I can not tell you how exciting it was to watch a Hollywood movie and hear a famous actress sing and speak in Hungarian. And "we" weren't the bad guys. No vampires, Hungary was not shown to be a depressing communist country, as it would be presented in American movies during the Cold War (see "Assignment: Paris" (1952) with Dana Andrews). This time no one insulted "us" or implied "we" were evil.

Despite some of its flaws "Holiday in Mexico" represents a kind of old-fashion, innocent Hollywood entertainment we do get anymore. Maybe because audiences believe they are "too sophisticated" for it or maybe because artist are incapable of coming up with these ideas. Everyone wants to be "edgy" and cynical. In the process "we", society, have lost our innocence. "Holiday in Mexico" is a nice reminder of what Hollywood once gave audiences. It is a good time; funny and sweet with some good songs, plus they speak Hungarian (!).

Friday, December 25, 2015

Film Review: King of Kings

"King of Kings"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

[Note: This review is in response to the 112 minute version of this film. There is a longer version, 155 minutes, also available on a Criterion DVD]

On this day believers celebrate the birth of their lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Of course, the meaning of Christmas is so often forgotten due to the secular symbols liberals celebrate and the commercialization of this religious holiday. Liberals celebrate Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer as the retailers and corporations force parents to go out and buy toys and other expensive gifts for fear their children will be shunned and outcast by their fellow second graders and doomed to a life of shame.

But we should not allow liberals / secularist to make us forget Christmas is a religious holiday. So, on this day I felt it appropriate to discuss Cecil B. DeMille's silent religious epic "King of Kings" (1927), the story which follows the last weeks of the life of Jesus as a reminder of the man we are celebrating on this day.

To some Mr. DeMille is a bombastic figure in the history of cinema. He was something of a showman. A man who is best known by today's audiences (assuming there are individuals that watch the movies directed by Mr. DeMille) for religious epics and "modern day" morality pieces. He is often credited as being, financially, the most successful filmmaker of the silent era. Mr. DeMille's movies were not always respected by the critics (sheep) but they were hits with audiences.

A devoted conservative Republican, Mr. DeMille made movies which showcased the downfall of society. He warned audiences the life they are leading, one full of jazz, sex and alcohol, was unholy. American values were falling and like the once great Roman Empire, America too would collapse. A wonderful example of this would be "Manslaughter" (1922).

Mr. DeMille though was criticized as being a hypocrite however, crusading that sex was too much a part of people's lives, yet, his movies had sexual images, while he address the issue of falling morals. Mr. DeMille may have been one of the first filmmakers to realize "sex sells". We haven't advanced from the concept in today's modern world.

I mention this because Mr. DeMille's reputation proceeds him. As a personality Mr. DeMille is as strongly identified with his movies as Ingmar Bergman or Martin Scorsese are with theirs. However, watching Mr. DeMille's adaptation of this story, I was not struck by images of sex and / or heavy moral preaching. One has to expect some preaching in a movie depicting the life and times of Jesus Christ but "King of Kings" doesn't come across as preachy.

That however was one of the aspects of the movie which I did not enjoy. "King of Kings", plot wise, is rather straight forward. Yes, the movie has grandiose sets and plenty of extras in the frame, all staples of Mr. DeMille's work, but plot wise there is not much of a driving force. The audience goes along from one event to the other without much, if any, explanation of who is who and what their motivate is. The audience watching "King of Kings" may already know who is who because they are believers and have read the bible, go to church every Sunday and / or have seen other religious movies, but it would not be because "King of Kings" explains anything.

But I did enjoy "King of Kings" if for no other reason than it is a good story. It is difficult not to be moved by the story of Jesus and his crucifixion. I have yet to see a movie which tells this story that has not touched me in some small way.

"King of Kings" is kind of a crash course in the life of Jesus. Viewers get to see many of the famous moments in Jesus' life. We see Jesus heal the lame and blind. We see the Last Supper depicted. We see Judas betray Jesus for 30 coins of silver. And we see the crucifixion. The title cards used quote scripture with chapter and verse credited.

Strangely what is missing are moments showing the birth of Christ and we don't see Peter deny Jesus three times. The role of the Virgin Mary is rather small as is the role of Joseph.

However there is much to enjoy watching "King of Kings". Even though I feel the movie is rather straight forward with its plot there is also something I like about it. It strips everything bare. This is not a glamorous telling of the life of Jesus. There is something innocent in Mr. DeMille's presentation of Jesus.

H.B. Warner plays Jesus as a man with no reluctance about what he is meant to do, die for the sins of mankind. Contradict that with what Martin Scorsese did in "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988). There is not much focus on the passion as there was in Mel Gibson's masterpiece "The Passion of the Christ" (2004) or anything near that level of violence.

Instead one almost believes Mr. DeMille feels he is giving us an accurate portrayal of Jesus. Much mysticism is created in the early moments of the movie concerning who is Jesus. We follow a blind girl (she walks around with her eyes closed, bumping into things) as she asks someone to lead her to Jesus, so she may be cured. The viewer is then expected to ask themselves, where is Jesus? What does he look like?

The young girl is presented before Jesus, whom the audience still has not scene. Slowly her sight is restored. Soon an image appears in focus to the audience. It is the face of Jesus. There is a lot of over-the-top dramatics in this sequence with broad acting by the young girl yet Mr. DeMille wants the audience to believe we have witnessed a miracle. "King of Kings" isn't playing any false notes. Everything is done with a great deal of sincerity.

Besides Mr. Warner, the only other actor given a real opportunity to standout in the cast is Jacqueline Logan as Mary Magdalene, who is presented as a temptress of men. She is upset her lover, Judas, has followed a carpenter, with some other men. Mary wants to find Judas and lure him back to her while also confronting Jesus.

When the two characters met Mary is overcome by Jesus. His Holy Spirit is no match for her evil ways. All seven deadly sins escape her body and from that moment she will lead a good life.

At the same time though the movie does give audiences the sense of a spectacle they would associate with seeing a movie directed by Mr. DeMille. While there may not be anything as memorable as the parting of the seas as in "The Ten Commandments (1923) however there is a sequence when we see the temple in Jerusalem destroyed, which may match it, if not in "awe" than in its technical capabilities.

"King of Kings" was remade by the filmmaker Nicholas Ray, perhaps best known for directing James Dean in "Rebel Without A Cause" (1955) in 1961 and starred Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus. Movie fans may actually be more familiar with this version as it is played on television more often especially at Christmas and Easter than Mr. DeMille's version. Lets face it, most people don't want to watch a silent movie anyway.

Mr. DeMille's "King of Kings" is a fine example of the silent era epic and a good example of the spectacle Mr. DeMille was up to. The movie doesn't need to be watched during Christmas time. Like any good movie it may be enjoyed at any time of the year. However, it is especially important audiences watch the movie around Christmas time so we may all remember what we are truly celebrating.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Film Review: The Big Short

"The Big Short"
**** (out of ****)

I hate Wall Street and big banks.

There I said it. To me Wall Street means nothing more than corruption. I do not believe the men and women who run and invest on Wall Street are role models, "good citizens" or individuals which deserve the smallest shred of respect. That's too harsh you will say. People who invest on Wall Street are great Americans. They are people just like the rest of us. They work hard and contribute so much to our society. What exactly do they contribute would be my response. They haven't cured cancer. The haven't even found a cure for the common cold. They haven't invented anything to better the lives of anyone. They play human monopoly. They are worthless individuals that contribute nothing to society. Many went to fine schools and come from families of great wealth. Excuse me while I say I don't care! They, the people who run Wall Street, the bankers, brokers, hedge fund managers...ect are criminals. For as long as I live that is how I will see them.

Why am I telling you this? Because I have seen the exceptional motion picture "The Big Short" (2015), one of the best films of 2015. Here is a movie, based on true events, which tells the story of the collapse of the housing bubble and how the United States economy crashed in 2008.

We should all remember what happened. We lived through it. We really don't need movies to be made about it, but, movies have been made. We are still dealing with the effects of what these criminals did. They have given it a nice name. They call it The Great Recession of 2008. It has a nice ring to it, right? It caused millions of Americans to walk away from their homes. They could not afford their mortgages. Foreclosures were on the rise. Unemployment rose to double digits. It resulted in the United States government bailing out banks. Americans were introduced to a new term, too big to fail. Remember that one? That meant if the United States government did not bail out the very institutions which caused the economy to spiral downward things would have gotten much, much worse. The banks were too big to fail. And what happened with the money from the bailout? The money was used to give bonuses to the CEOs that caused the collapse.

"The Big Short" goes through a lot of that information. Information which the average person should have already known before they see "The Big Short". "The Big Short" however gives the audience names and faces. The movie tells the story of a small group of people who saw the housing crash coming. In essence these individuals were betting against the U.S. economy.

The movie begins in 2005 when Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hedge fund manager and founder of Scion Capital, discovers America is heading towards a crash. Michael has studied the numbers and notices some similarities between what is going on now and during the 1930s in the Great Depression. Flat wages, the rise of mortgage rates...ect. He predicts in the second quarter of 2007 there will be a crash. No one will listen to him. At the time no one was willing to entertain the idea homeowners would walk away from their homes. Who wouldn't pay their mortgage? Not only that, these subprime mortgage loans were given AAA ratings. It is considered a sound investment. But Michael wants to bet against the banks. Michael believes the banks are going to lose.

This information is leaked and soon Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), based on Greg Lippmann, who worked for Deutsche Bank, as a trader, Mark Baum (Steve Carell) another hedge fund manager and two young men hoping to make names for themselves; Charlie (John Magaro) and Jamie (Finn Wittrock) all start to follow Michael's lead, without realizing they are all connected and doing exactly the same thing.

"The Big Short" throws a lot of information at the viewer. There are a lot of terms and definitions you should remember. Everything presented in "The Big Short" is useful information. There was so much going on, behind the scenes, which lead to the economy collapsing in 2008, that to explain it all in facts and figures it would put to you sleep. You would see it as nothing more than a dry academic essay and would never bother to read it all. When was the last time you knew someone that read a book? Be honest.

To make up for this "The Big Short" does something I was initially skeptical about. It tells this story with humor. The movie was directed by Adam McKay, who has spent his career working with Will Ferrell on comedies such as "Anchorman" (2004) and its sequel as well as "Step Brothers" (2008) and "Talladega Nights" (2006). "The Big Short" is without question the most critically acclaimed movie Mr. McKay has directed. "The Big Short" will now add respectability to Mr. McKay.

Humor is a powerful weapon. Look at some of the movies which have been made that have dealt with the issue of Wall Street and banks since 2008. There was Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013) and Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story" (2009). Those movies, like "The Big Short" had to inject humor into their story. If you can tell people something important and make them laugh they will pay attention. Satire has been used to knock down communism, fascism and terrorism. We use humor to belittle our enemies. So they do not seem as threatening.

You could have told the story in "The Big Short" as a drama. Perhaps even as a documentary (ever hear of "Inside Job" (2010) ?). But would anyone see it? Would anyone remember anything about the movie? You need humor for this story to keep audiences interested. You need to make people laugh a little bit or the movie would incite too much anger. "The Big Short" plays with our emotions. You get worked up when the movie wants us to and we laugh on cue.

The performances in the movie are very good. "The Big Short" is an ensemble piece. I wouldn't say anyone really sticks out more than anyone else. Each actor is given their moment to shine. Everyone is given a fairly good amount of screen-time. Some characters are more fleshed out than others but the viewer gets a sense of who these characters are.

The Mark Baum character is supposed to be the moral compass of the movie. He is supposed to be the character which audiences sympathize with most. Mark says the things the audience wants to say like the banks are run by stupid people who engage in fraud. Jared Vennett is the movie's narrator and helps guide the viewer through the maze of characters and financial jargon.

As you watch the movie, there is brief mention of what all of this, the housing bubble, means in human terms. How many people are going to lose their homes? How many people are going to lose their jobs? Meanwhile, these characters are going to make money. How do you get an audience to relate to them? How do you get an audience care? I suppose the only way the screenwriters - Mr. McKay and Charles Randolph could have accomplished this is by creating a kind of hierarchy. The big banks are the bad guys. The people who gave out the loans, the CEOs of the banks. They are presented as ignorant. They just saw dollar signs and a way for them to fill their pockets. The hedge fund managers are the step below. They are making money off their investment however they did not cause this. They claim a moral authority. However, what about those people that lost their homes and jobs? This is their story. They were the victims. They didn't make money. They had their savings taken away. It is difficult for "The Big Short" to bridge that gap.

Still there is a lot to get angry about. How could the U.S. government allow this to happen? Why wasn't there strong regulations put in place? If you allow criminals to be free they will break laws. If you allow money hungry parasites to be free they will screw over people. Anything to make a dollar.

That is what "The Big Short" shows us. Greed. People don't think of the consequences of their actions. They are just making money. How do they justify their behavior? One character tells another, I'll tell you how much I am worth and you tell me how much you are worth. That means, I have money and you don't. Money equals success and power. If I have more money than you, I must be better than you.

"The Big Short" has been met with much critical acclaim winning various awards from film critic associations and scoring four Golden Globe nominations including best picture in the musical or comedy category. This is an exceptional movie. It tells a story Americans should not forget. We should always remember what these people did. They will do it again. Remember none of these people went to prison. There was no justice. People need to forever hold these people accountable. With movies like "The Big Short" hopefully we will always remember.

Which leads me to wonder, why are we getting so many movies about this topic? Why is Hollywood so willing to tell this story? What is in it for them? During the time these events happened and the release of this movie there was of course the occupy Wall Street movement, which introduced the concept of the 99% into our conversations. This is a timely topic. We are still talking about these issues. But, is Hollywood trying to incite anger in the American public? How threatening are movies like this?

As a laugh sometimes I watch the Fox Business Network in the morning. I listen to these people talk and I sit stunned. They talk about the pressure on corporations having to pay high tax rates and the negative effects of raising the minimum wage and the affordable care act. They say it all with a straight face. They are under the delusion they are intelligent. What they are really saying is employers giving their employees a living wage and health insurance is too much of a burden. It interferes with their profit margin. Profits are more important than people. That's business. Too bad the American workforce isn't too big to fail. No one in the government looks out for them. When is Hollywood going to tell that story?

Yes, "The Big Short" will make audiences speak this way and discuss issues. If you are not up to speed about what is going on, that's okay too. There's a presidential election going on. Listen to what these candidates have to say about Wall Street and the banks and the concept "too big to fail" and keep "The Big Short" in mind.

This is one of the year's best movies!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Film Review: The Spider's Stratagem

"The Spider's Stratagem"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

History. We are told it is written by the winners. What exactly does that mean? History is subjective? It is a matter of perspective?

You may think about that while watching Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Spider's Stratagem" (1970), the fifth feature-length movie directed by the famous Italian filmmaker.

"The Spider's Stratagem", like most of Mr. Bertolucci's films, is about politics but the movie is also about history, fact vs fiction, identity and moral questions concerning government propaganda and propaganda in general and the question of whether or not a lie is ever more important than the truth.

So we ask ourselves about history. Who is writing history? What is their agenda? Is the truth ever, for lack of a better word, "fudged" a bit?

Mr. Bertolucci based "The Spider's Stratagem" on a short story written by Jorge Borges entitled "Theme of the Traitor and the Hero" however it is the first cinematic example of Mr. Bertolucci coming into his own style as a filmmaker and addressing themes and topics which would preoccupy his career. Prior to "The Spider's Stratagem" Mr. Bertolucci was under the heavy influence of the French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard.

We follow Athos Magnani (Giulio Brogi) as he arrives in a small Italian town called Tara where his father, also named Athos, lived and is considered a local hero. Athos was a socialist activist who was killed by the fascists. The viewer sees a statute of Athos, a cultural center named after him, even a street. The townspeople fondly remember him and keep his name and spirit alive.

The young Athos has arrived in the town at the request of his father's mistress, Draifa (Alida Valli), who believes the man that murdered Athos lives in the town among them and she wants Athos to find the person (s) responsible.

In a small town news travels fast and the townspeople do not like the idea of a stranger coming into their town stirring up trouble, especially if that stranger is going to change the town's image of the great Athos Magnani. So, while the initial reaction may be happiness to see the young Athos, the townspeople soon make it clear the young Athos is not welcome.

"The Spider's Stratagem" though is not a thriller. The movie doesn't take place in shadows as the young Athos fears for his life and is met with constant death threats. Villagers don't march to his hotel room with pitch folks and torches.

Instead Mr. Bertolucci begins to show us a story of history repeating itself and the blurry line between fact and fiction. The movie switches time periods between the modern day (the 1970s) and 1936, when the father Athos and his comrades conspired to assassinate Mussolini and the year Athos was murdered, but Mr. Bertolucci uses the same actors to play the younger versions of themselves and in the case of Athos the same actor plays father and son, which may confuse audiences as they try to decipher which time period they are watching. And that may very well be the point.

There is also a Freudian undercurrent to "The Spider's Stratagem". First, there is the choice to have the same actor play both father and son, suggesting the son lives in the shadow of his father. The father then becomes part of the son's identity. There is the Draifa character. She soon begins to "replace" the memory of Athos with the son, even revealing she would like to sleep with him. But, are the lines between past and present blurry to her? Does she think she is talking to the father Athos when she looks at the son? And what about the concept of a son sleeping with the same woman his father slept with? Freud would have a lot to say about that.

Many have and will suggest "The Spider's Stratagem" has something in common with Mr. Bertolucci's "The Conformist" (1970) as well as later films Mr. Bertolucci directed. "The Conformist" was the breakthrough Mr. Bertolucci needed to appeal to American audiences. In that movie Mr. Bertolucci found a perfect story to blend politics and sex and turn it into cinematic art. "The Spider's Stratagem" feels like an early draft yet "The Conformist" was released first (!). Mr. Bertolucci did direct another movie about fascist and socialist and history called "1900" (1977). That movie had more ambition, it wanted to tell the story of Italy, but didn't quite live up to its expectations. "The Spider's Stratagem" is a "smaller" movie but works much better.

By the end of the movie viewers may ask themselves, what exactly is Mr. Bertolucci trying to tell us? You may not find all the answers to that question after one viewing however "The Spider's Stratagem" has a lot of ideas and meaning. It is the work of a master storyteller.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Film Review: Higher and Higher

"Higher and Higher"  *** (out of ****)

Happy Birthday Mr. Sinatra!

Today would have marked the 100th birthday of the greatest pop vocalist of all-time, Mr. Francis Albert Sinatra. That kind of statement may be considered an exaggeration if said about any other singer but with Frank Sinatra it is considered just plain truth telling.

In celebrating Mr. Sinatra's birthday I have selected what may be considered a strange choice for honoring the birthday boy. However, there is a method to my madness. The musical chosen shows Mr. Sinatra in the beginning stages of his movie career. In "Higher and Higher" (1943) audiences got to see the beginnings of a monumental pop icon. This RKO comedy (really a "B" picture) was Mr. Sinatra's first screen appearance in a significant role.

When "Higher and Higher" was released Mr. Sinatra was not the leader of the rat pack. He was not "Mr. Las Vegas" or "the chairman of the board". All of that was a good 10-15 years off into the future. In 1943 Mr. Sinatra was a nice boy from Jersey (Hoboken to be exact). He was a clean-cut married man with children. To us old-timers he was known as "the voice" and had a legion of "bobby soxers" that followed him around. He was a big band vocalist. singing with the great Harry James and his orchestra. One of his biggest hits during this time was "All or Nothing At All". Mr. Sinatra later moved on and worked for Tommy Dorsey, where during the war years "sang the songs got us through the war", "I'll Walk Alone", "If You Are But A Dream" and "I'll Never Smile Again".

His screen persona, at this time, was that of a shy, timid kid who didn't know how to act around girls. The girls thought he had a nice voice and was "dreamy" but Mr. Sinatra just couldn't get the courage to talk to them. And he was skinny. Boy, was he skinny! The Bob Hope joke was he was so skinny even when standing in a shower the water misses him.

In his early screen roles Mr. Sinatra basically played some variation of himself. In "Higher and Higher" for example he plays a singer named Frank Sinatra. Nothing too difficult for the kid!

The plot for "Higher and Higher" comes from a Broadway play written in 1940 with the same title. The play was written by Gladys Hurlbut and Joshua Logan with a screen adaptation by Jay Dratler and Ralph Spence, who wrote several comedies including the Wheeler & Woolsey comedy "Cracked Nuts" (1939) as well as the Ritz Brothers comedy "The Gorilla" (1939).

Cyrus Drake (Leon Errol) is a bit of an eccentric millionaire (aren't they all?) who has discovered he is bankrupt and has 30 days to leave his home before all of his possessions are taken over by the bank. What will he do? His staff, which hasn't been paid in seven months, hatches up a plan. Mr. Drake was married at one time and had a daughter. The wife left him for another man and now she and her daughter live in Switzerland. That was 15 years ago. But, what if Mr. Drake's daughter, Pamela, returned home? She would be a debutante. And what if she married a wealthy man? That would solve all of Mr. Drake's problems and his staff would even get paid.

This kind of story recalls the type of comedies being made during the Great Depression. Stories revolving around people down on their luck hoping to strike rich or marry for money.

The staff agrees the maid, Millie (Michele Morgan), should be the one to impersonate Pamela Drake. However, she doesn't want to do it. Besides be afraid it will be discovered she is not really Mr. Drake's daughter, Millie is also in love with Mike (Jack Haley), who is Mr. Drake's valet, and the brains behind this scheme. He doesn't notice Millie but suspects Millie is in love with a crooner who lives next door, played by, you guess it, who sings lovely songs to her.

The wealthy bachelor decided upon for Millie is Sir Victor Fitzroy Victor (Victor Borge). Millie has no interest in Victor and tries to secretly make Mike fall in love with her. Meanwhile Frank Sinatra really does like Millie but she is not interested in him either. However there is another maid, Mickey (Marcy McGuire), that works for Mr. Drake, who does like Frank but he doesn't notice her.

And so "Higher and Higher" comes down to the age old movie question, what will the pretty young lady do? Will she marry for money or love? And, will any one be able to actually say how they feel to the person they care for?

What sets "Higher and Higher" apart is Frank Sinatra is in it. If Mr. Sinatra was not in it, I feel somewhat confident in saying, the American movie going public would have completely forgotten about this movie and today it would be obscure, not even released on DVD. But, with the appearance of Mr. Sinatra in it and the fact it is one of his first major roles in a movie, "Higher and Higher" becomes something of a curiosity piece. Audiences may find it fun to watch the movie so they are able to see how Mr. Sinatra started his movie career.

This makes it sound like "Higher and Higher" is a time waster. Not really. It is a light, silly diversion. It is not a great comedy or even a great musical. It has a cast comprised of, at best, really good character actors, us old-timers will recognize; Leon Erroll, Dooley Wilson, Mary Wickes, Victor Borge (who we get to see play the piano) and making his screen debute, Mel Torme (!).

The two stars of the movie are Jack Haley and Michele Morgan. Haley is going to be best remembered for his performance as the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939). Morgan will be better known to French audiences for the performances she gave opposite Jean Gabin including "Port of Shadows" (1939) directed by the great Marcel Carne.

Haley was not a leading man and that hurts the movie for me a little bit. It is so difficult to see why Millie would be in love with his character Mike. Haley was not an attractive man. One would think if you place Frank Sinatra in a movie, that would be the man the female characters would be fighting over. It is hard to believe a woman would rather be with Jack Haley over Frank Sinatra. And I'm a man saying this! Plus, Haley didn't really have the acting chops to carry a movie. He was a decent enough entertainer with a mildly pleasant singing voice.

What "Higher and Higher" really wants to do is showcase Mr. Sinatra. In his first scene he sings the ballad "I Couldn't Sleep A Wink Last Night". Notice how the scene is framed. As Mr. Sinatra is singing the camera pans to Millie, who is swooning. This makes the audience feel they are being witness to something "great". Look at the effect his voice has on people. You will notice this too in "Step Lively" (1944), where Mr. Sinatra gets to play a character not named Frank Sinatra. RKO really tries to "sell" Mr. Sinatra as a phenomenal breakthrough talent, while also poking a little fun at him. There are a lot of Bing Crosby (Mr. Sinatra's idol) joke comparisons.

This is done a bit too much though. At the end of the picture, usually when audiences get to see the lovers get together, the image of the two lovebirds embracing is faded out so we can see Frank Sinatra in the middle of the screen sing! You don't that. You just don't. You don't take away from your romance plot. Audiences paid to see the lovers get together. In which case, what do you think audiences paid to see the movie for? The romance or Mr. Sinatra? It is clear what RKO thinks the answer to that question is. And I am sure they were right in their decision. But, you can still over sell something.

The director of the movie, Tim Whelan, actually may be better known as a comedy writer than movie director. He worked with Harold Lloyd contributing to comedy classics such as "Safety Last" (1923) and "The Freshman" (1925) as well as the Harry Langdon comedy "The Strong Man" (1926). One would think with these kind of credentials he would have been able to put together a much funnier movie than "Higher and Higher".

"Higher and Higher" is decent enough entertainment. This was actually the first movie I ever saw Frank Sinatra in when I was growing up. I remember seeing it on American Movie Classics (when the name actually stood for something) with my grandmother. Oddly enough it has stuck with me all these years. Naturally the main reason to see the movie is for Frank Sinatra. Happy Birthday!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Film Review: Christmas in July

"Christmas in July"  *** (out of ****)

Comedy filmmaking legend Preston Sturges gives movie audiences an early Christmas gift with his comedy "Christmas in July" (1940).

"Christmas in July" is a comedy which would have been much more socially meaningful if it was released around five years earlier, sometime in 1935 or at least during the heights of the "Great Depression".

Mr. Sturges' story revolves around an office worker, Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell), who has entered in the Maxford House coffee slogan contest. Jimmy and his girlfriend, Betty (Ellen Drew) are like so many other working class couples struggling to survive. They love each other but Jimmy perfectly explains, you can't get married when you don't have money. Love and marriage is a rich man's game. Poor people can't afford such luxuries in life. But, if Jimmy can win this contest, which has a first place prize of $25,000 Jimmy will be able to marry Betty and together they can live the life they always wanted, happily.

Jimmy firmly believes he will win the Maxford House contest with his slogan "If you can't sleep at night, it's not the coffee, it's the bunk". The way Jimmy figures it, each contest he has entered in and lost only doubles his chances for the next contest. So, according the Jimmy's logical, the law of average has to work in his favor. He has entered so many contest and lost now is his time to win.

Audiences during the "Great Depression" would have been able to perfectly relate to such a story. Get rich quick schemes were all people had to get them through the financial hard times they faced. When you have nothing in life, all you have are your hopes and dreams and the belief one day your ship will come in. The bad times can't life forever, right?

Preston Sturges' "Christmas in July" though was released in 1940. Times weren't as hard as they were in 1929 or 1932. In 1940 America wasn't involved in World War II either, however there is a brief acknowledgement of war in Europe. "Christmas in July" is a movie caught between two historic moments in history and as such feels a little out of place. That is why "Christmas in July" should have been released during the 1930s.

"Christmas in July" was based on a play Mr. Sturges wrote in 1931 called "A Cup of Coffee", which was one of the original working titles of the movie. Unfortunately it took so many years for Mr. Sturges to bring his story to the screen. "Christmas in July" was the second movie Mr. Sturges directed.

In addition to its "Great Depression" era sensibilities "Christmas in July" also takes jabs at advertising and the idea people don't really know what is a good idea or a bad idea. One of Jimmy's problems is he feels society views him as "a nobody". He has no value as a person because society has not told him he is worth something. A way to prove his worth is to win a contest. By winning a contest it proves someone else thinks Jimmy has good ideas which validates him as a person.

This leads to a funny sequence where someone explains to Jimmy they aren't sure if his ideas are good but if Maxford House selects his slogan, then it must mean Jimmy has good ideas. Which proves the point, the general public has no idea what is good whether it is good food, good music, good movies, nice clothes. The only way people have any idea if something is good or not is if they are told so by someone. If someone on television tells you something is good you believe it. Why? Because you were told so on TV. I don't know how many times I will talk to someone about movies and all they do is quote whatever they read a movie critic (sheep) write. I don't know how many times I'll talk politics with someone and all they do is repeat what they have on TV or read in a newspaper.

Preston Sturges was one of the greatest comedy filmmakers of all-time. His feature-length movies combined his brilliant gifts for verbal comedy and slapstick gags. Few filmmakers before or after Mr. Sturges have been able to write dialogue as witty and knew how to frame physical comedy and blend the two styles as effortlessly. Mr. Sturges may be best known for classics such as "Sullivan's Travels" (1941) and "Unfaithfully Yours" (1948). It is only when comparing "Christmas in July" to other Preston Sturges comedies does the movie seem to fall short.

"Christmas in July" doesn't have as much physical comedy as you'd expect in one of Mr. Sturges' comedies. It has some nice dialogue but not as many zingers and one-lines as the best of Mr. Sturges' movies do. But, "Christmas in July" is enjoyable nonetheless. It is a slight, breezy comedy. The movie is only 67 minutes. As such, there is not enough time to ever be bored with it. In fact, one really wishes the movie was about 20 minutes longer. There is an additional conflict missing from the story and the ending isn't as satisfactory as I would have liked.

The comedies of Mr. Sturges or comedies of this specific kind, usually work by taking a simple idea and expanding upon it to the extreme. Mr. Sturges does this to perfection in "Hail the Conquering Hero" (1944) but in "Christmas in July" Mr. Sturges misses some opportunities. One of the best examples of comedic escalation occurs when there is a near riot in the street as Jimmy is accused of stealing toys from a department store.

Dick Powell was a nice casting choice to star in the movie. Mr. Powell got his start starring in Warner Brothers musicals, usually co-starring Ruby Keeler. Mr. Powell was even in a series of musicals called "The Gold Diggers", the first of which Mr. Powell starred in was "The Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933). He starred in two more entries in the series released in 1935 and 1937. So, a comedy with Mr. Powell, as a guy down on his luck, hoping to strike rich, would only makes audiences think of the "Gold Digger" movies. Unfortunately at this time in Mr. Powell's career he was trying to move away from the movie musical and so there are no songs for Mr. Powell to sing here.

Ellen Drew didn't quite have the same lasting cinematic impact. She did though co-star with Jack Benny in "Buck Benny Rides Again" (1940) and was in the Val Lewton horror movie "Isle of the Dead" (1945) with Boris Karloff. She was a pleasant personality on-screen and is especially nice to watch in "Christmas in July". Ms. Drew and Mr. Powell make a good on-screen couple and play off each other nicely.

As is normally the case in a Preston Sturges comedy, the supporting players nearly steal the show. This time around we have Frank Pangborn, Raymond Walburn, Al Bridge, Alexander Carr and William Demarest. Most of them would go on to appear in several other Preston Sturges comedies.

By the end of "Christmas in July" Mr. Sturges wants his audience to believe good things happen in life. All we have to do is believe in ourselves and a little luck doesn't hurt either. Again, this is a message more suited for audiences during the "Great Depression". However, it is a theme Mr. Sturges would like to leave his audience with in several comedies including "Sullivan's Travels" where a comedy filmmaker learns the importance of comedy and making people laugh. Mr. Sturges didn't make movies with unhappy endings. Mr. Sturges made movies which made audiences feel good about themselves and showed us the lighter side of life. "Christmas in July" fits into the broader context of Mr. Sturges' work.

Despite whatever flaws I may feel "Christmas in July" has it is smart and observant. Preston Sturges did write and direct it after all. The movie has something to say about society and our ideas of self-worth. It is about all of our desires to get rich and capitalism. Like any good comedy it takes certain universal truths and exaggerates them for comedic effect. "Christmas in July" is not one of Preston Sturges best comedies but it is an enjoyable one with some funny sequences and a brain. A comedy like that is worth seeing.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Film Review: Miracle on 34th Street

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

"Miracle on 34th Street" (1994) is probably the best remake of this story that could have made in modern times. Is it as good or better than the original "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947)? Of course not! But, you have to walk into the movie expecting that. How often are remakes better than the originals?

Some might ask, well, if I feel the remake is not as good as the original, why am I reviewing it? The answer is because I already reviewed the original, which I consider to be a classic Hollywood movie and like any good movie can be watched at any time of year. The original "Miracle on 34th Street" has an old-fashion charm and sentimentality that the remake could not match.

That is what separates the two movies and makes the original better. It was much more sentimental. The performances worked a lot better, mostly because you had wonderful character actors that added humor to their roles. You have to remember the 1947 movie had a cast that included Edmund Gwenn (as Santa), Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, Jerome Cowan and William Frawley (best known for his role in the television series "I Love Lucy"). Some may not recognize those names but if you watched movies made in the 1930s and 40s, trust me, you would know their faces. You may recognize them from Preston Sturges comedies.

Though it is not fair to this 1994 remake to make so many comparisons to the 1947 version. A viewer must watch this remake and accept it on its own terms and pretend, as difficult as that may be, that we have never seen any other version of this story. When we do that, overall the story works.

In this version we follow Dorey Walker (Elizabeth Perkins) who works at Cole's Department store. Dorey is in charge of the Thanksgiving Day Parade, which Cole's is known for, and runs into a problem when the man hired to play to Santa Claus (Jack McGee) is drunk. He gets into an altercation with a passerby, an elderly gentleman who claims his name is Kris Kringle (Richard Attenborough). Kris bears an uncanny resemblance to the image society has of Santa Claus. With Dorey in a jam, she asks Kris if he would be willing to play Santa in the parade.

What would seem to be a small gesture on Dorey's part will soon have a major impact on her life. Kris firmly believes he is Santa Claus and is determine to convince Dorey and her daughter, Susan (Mara Wilson) and a neighbor Dorey is attracted to, Bryan (Dylan McDermott) of the same.

Dorey has told Susan Santa Claus is fake, nothing more than a myth. Dorey's reasoning for this is because she does not want her daughter to believe in lies and fairy tales, only to face bitter heartache when she finds out the truth.

But is Dorey talking about Santa Claus or something else? Dorey was once married and divorced. There is no father in the picture. This has kept Dorey rather guarded. Are the "fairy tales" and "lies" Dorey is trying to shield her daughter from really about love and finding a good man? Is that the solution to Dorey's problem? If she had a man in her life maybe she would be happier and would allow Susan to have a childhood where she believes in Santa.

Meanwhile, across the street from Cole's is another department store called "Shopper's Express", which wants to run Cole's out of business and buy them out. One way to accomplish this the CEO of Shopper's Express feels is to hire Cole's Santa Claus, who is a big hit because he will tell parents where they can find toys at a cheaper price. But, when Kris Kringle doesn't want to leave Cole's and attempt is made to prove Kris Kringle is insane because he actually believes he is Santa Claus.

This leads to the famous courtroom scenes with a public defender (J. T. Walsh) trying to prove Kris Kringle is not Santa Claus and Bryan, acting as Kris' attorney, proving he is.

"Miracle on 34th Street" pretty much does everything you'd expect it to. It doesn't change the story very much, other than creating two fictitious stores, "Cole's" and "Shopper's Express". Us old-timers remember the original movie featured the department stores "Macy's" and "Gimbels".

But even though the story is mostly the same and the actors are decent in their roles, there just seems to be humor and warmth missing from this version. Remember in the original with Gene Lockhart as the judge and he is up for re-election, he desperately wants off the case because his grandchildren have stopped talking to him because he wants to put Santa Claus in jail. There is a great sequence between Lockhart and his campaign manager, William Frawley. Those little touches are missing in this movie. What it comes down to is the acting and the actors. I know I'm often accused of being an old-fashion guy with a sentimental prejudice for classic Hollywood movies, but, I'm sorry, the actors were better in the 1947 version.

The actors. especially the supporting actors, had a way of lighting up the screen. They had a strong screen presence with dominating personalities. That was one of the great things about the old Studio System, being able to see wonderful character actors.

"Miracle on 34th Street" is watchable. It is a "nice" movie. It hits all the marks it was supposed to. But, it doesn't feel like anything truly special. Families should watch it. Children may enjoy it. But, please, don't forget about the 1947 version That one is the real holiday treat.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Film Review: The Santa Clause 3

"The Santa Clause 3:The Escape Clause"  ** (out of ****)

The "Santa Clause" trilogy comes to a chilly end in "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause" (2007).

I was not much of a fan of the original "The Santa Clause" (1994) starring Tim Allen as an ordinary Joe who one Christmas Eve becomes Santa Claus, after the previous Santa Claus falls off his roof. I like "The Santa Clause 3" even less.

If the first "Santa Clause" borrowed a bit from "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947) than "The Santa Clause 3" borrows a lot from "It's A Wonderful Life" (1947).

The original "Santa Clause" I felt lacked a holiday cheer. It was more about the effects of divorce on a child and the bond between father and son and how only after becoming Santa Claus a father strengthens his bond with his son. That message doesn't warm my heart and doesn't seem like a "Christmas movie" to me. "The Santa Clause 3" is standard rom-com material. It has nothing to do with Santa Claus, the spirit of Christmas or goodwill towards your fellow man.

"The Santa Clause 3" shows Santa as a married man whose wife, Mrs. Claus (Elizabeth Mitchell) is expecting a baby. There is a possibility Mrs. Claus will go into labor on Christmas Eve as Santa is on his sleigh delivering toys to all the good boys and girls. This causes great stress to Santa who has an obligation to the children of the world as well as an obligation to his wife to be there and support her.

But the pressures are building up. The Council of Legendary Figures (which includes the Tooth Fairy, Cupid, Father Time and Mother Nature) have called a special meeting. It seems Jack Frost (Martin Short) is trying to undercut Santa and create his own holiday in which Jack Frost is celebrated. The problem is Jack Frost feels left out and unappreciated. He feels he gets no attention and all the love goes to Santa, who gets songs written about him and movies made about him. The Council wants to suspend him but agrees to change their mind when Jack Frost agrees to reform his ways and as a penance will help Santa in his workshop.

Now Santa must keep everything running smoothly in his workshop, take care of his wife and keep an eye on Jack Frost. It all proves to be too much for Santa, who then gets the idea, why not invite Mrs. Claus's parents (Alan Arkin and Ann Margret) to visit her. The problem is the parents don't know Scott Calvin (Allen) is really Santa Claus. They think he is a Canadian toy maker. So, Santa decides to pretend the North Pole is really Canada. As you can imagine, keeping that lie going is going to be difficult.

Fairly early in "The Santa Clause 3" the viewer learns of the "escape clause". This is a special fine print in the Santa Clause agreement which releases the individual from being Santa Claus and allows them to travel back in time, to the day they became Santa, and change their fate by never accepting the responsibility.

This intrigues Jack Frost, who has not changed his ways at all. He wants to become Santa Claus and decided if he can add to Santa burden, both at the workshop and at home with the in-laws and Mrs. Claus, maybe Santa will relinquish his duties.

This sound all sound somewhat familiar to you if you've ever seen "It's A Wonderful Life". That movie was the story of a man, facing great difficulties in life, who wishes he had never been born. An angel appears to show the man what the world would be like if he was never born and all the lives he has affected.

Unfortunately, not enough time is spent showing the alternate world of what Scott Calvin's life would be like if he hadn't become Santa Claus and the full impact that decision wold have had on those around him. This would allow for more sentimentally and make the movie more human instead of relying so heavily on laughs.

The twist in "The Santa Clause 3" is the character is Santa. It is supposed to be funny seeing Santa having in-laws. It is supposed to be funny seeing Santa have the same disagreements with his in-laws we all face with in-laws. It is supposed to be funny seeing Santa acting as a worried husband over his wife's pregnancy. The problem is it is all supposed to be funny but it isn't. If this wasn't Santa Clause, what would make it fun and / or original? The movie is comprised of nothing more than cliches and sit-com material. A simple idea, that could have wrapped itself up in 20 minutes but is expanded to a 90 minute movie.

This all leads me to go a bit off focus and ask two questions. Number one, why doesn't Hollywood make good Christmas movies anymore? They seem to have given up. The "Santa Clause Trilogy" is really the last Christmas concept Hollywood invested in. Nowadays movies will be made about dysfunctional families during the holidays, this year "Love the Coopers" (2015) was released.

Question two. What is wrong with people? Why do we, as a society, need to humanize or in any shape alter the image of Santa Claus and what he represents? Why do we need to see Santa Claus as a married man, fighting with his in-laws, as we do in "Santa Clause 3"? Why do we need movies like "Bad Santa" (2003), "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" (1964), "A Christmas Horror Story" (2015), "Christmas Evil" (1980), "Silent Night, Deadly Night" (1984) and "Black Christmas" (1974) and its 2006 remake? On some level I get the idea. You take something innocent and pure and reverse the public's perception of it. You take something sweet, which people wouldn't associate as being scary and turn it into horror or make fun of it. But why? Why do we need to twist things? What does that say about society?

What do we learn watching "The Santa Clause 3"? There is a very thin message which hints at the importance of family, though I don't see how Santa's predicament has changed from the beginning of the movie until the end. And that's it. It would be difficult for me to believe children would like this movie more than the first one. It would be difficult for me to believes families have added this movie as part of their Christmas traditions. It is difficult for me to believe parents would get any pleasure from this movie.

In the end I would suggest families skip "The Santa Clause 3" and instead watch the classic, stop-motion animated movie "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" (1970) or even "The Year Without Santa Claus" (1974). Both movies go over similar ideas presented in the "Santa Clause Trilogy" and do so with much more charm and good nature.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Film Review: The Santa Clause

"The Santa Clause"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

How does one become Santa Claus? It seems like a pretty good gig. You work one day out of the year. You are beloved by millions of children. And people make movies about you. But, what if Santa Claus was an ordinary Joe? Your next door neighbor.

That is the concept behind Disney's "The Santa Clause" (1994). It is the story of a regular guy that one day becomes Santa Claus and must take on all the responsibility associated with it.

Watching "The Santa Clause" again I felt the movie went over a lot of material first presented in the Christmas classic, "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947). Both movies are about the idea is Santa Claus real. Both movies have adults that tell children Santa Claus is a myth. Both movies are about the power of believing in Santa Claus and the concept of never letting your inner child disappear. The difference is, one of the movies is a classic that can be appreciated any time of the year because of its warm hearted charm. The other movie stars Tim Allen.

While that may sound harsh or even snobbish to some, the problem with "The Santa Clause" is the movie lacks the imagination of a child. The audience watching this movie is not watching something magical. The movie instead focuses too much on the concept of whether Santa Claus is real and goes for comedy as Tim Allen's character goes through physical changes so he fits into society's image of how Santa Claus looks, overweight and with a white beard.

Where is the joy the Christmas season is supposed to represent? Where is the message of goodwill towards your fellow man? "The Santa Clause" seems to have more to say about the difficulty children must contend with during a divorce and the separation of father and son. We saw this before in "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993). In that movie Robin Williams dresses up as an elderly English nanny in order to see his children after a divorce. In "The Santa Clause" a man becomes Santa which strengthens the bond between father and son. Why can't fathers just be fathers and not play dress up?

Tim Allen stars as Scott Calvin, an advertising executive who works for a toy company. Scott and his wife Laura (Wendy Crewson) are divorced. They had one child together, a son, Charlie (Eric Lloyd). Scott and Charlie have an estranged relationship. Scott is too busy working and often doesn't have time for Charlie. Charlie, the view gets the impression, sees his dad as a bit of a screw-up.

A more reliable "father figure" in Charlie's life is his step-dad, Neil (Judge Reinhold) a psychologist, who doesn't want to fill Charlie's head with fantasies, and tells him there is no such person as Santa Claus.

This feeds into the concept adults are more "logical", they lack imagination. Adults aren't able to believe in Santa Claus because they have lost the child within them. However, why do children eventually stop believing in Santa Claus? Probably for the same reason Laura and Neil did. One Christmas they didn't get the toy they wanted. This is important to remember because it feeds into the belief, disappointments shape our lives. These adults are bitter. They didn't stop believing in Santa Claus because "they know better". They stopped believing in Santa Claus due to resentment and disappointment. Those feelings have hung around them since childhood. They still remember how old they were when they stopped believing in Santa Claus. They still remember which toy is was they didn't get. That disappointment hangs around us all of our lives. That is why Neil doesn't want Charlie to believe in Santa Claus, Not because "Santa isn't real and we shouldn't lie to children" but because adults are bitter.

This is in contrast with Scott. Scott works with toys. Scott is presented as a "silly", silly defined as someone that doesn't accept responsibility, adult. Laura often addresses him as being immature or kid-like. Scott has not lost the childhood innocence many adults often do. Scott is not presented as a bitter person.

Charlie spends Christmas Eve with Scott, who manages to arrive home late, burns their turkey dinner and accidentally kills Santa Clause. Charlie hears a noise on the roof and naturally assumes he is Santa and his sleigh. He runs by his father to tell him Santa is on the roof. When Scott also hears the noise he runs outside to check on it. There Scott sees a man standing on his roof. When Scott yells at the man to get off his roof, the person falls down. He was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. Unbeknownst to Scott, he now must become Santa Claus.

Tim Allen, at the time of the movie's release, was well-known as the star of the television comedy series "Home Improvement", which aired between 1991 - 1999, where he played the host of a home improvement television show, where he often did everything wrong, causing injury to himself. You will notice "The Santa Clause" reference the television show when Scott visits the North Pole and picks up a tool belt, which the elves made, and puts it near his waist.

Allen would seem like a good choice for the movie. He was a well liked personality. Children knew who he was. And there was a lot of physical comedy in the series. "The Santa Clause" was also the first feature length film Tim Allen starred in.

It is not difficult to imagine this story appealing to children. It is not difficult to imagine children laughing as Scott turns into Santa Claus and gains weight. It is not difficult to imagine some adults will like the movie because it will keep their children quite for an hour and a half. But it is difficult for me to believe most audiences won't see through this movie. It is difficult for me to believe most audiences get a feeling of Christmas cheer after watching this movie. And it is difficult for me to believe most audiences won't agree with me that the movie is more about the relationship between father and son and the divorce process than Santa Clause.

I don't want to be seen as a Scrooge who can't appreciate innocent harmless fun. How can someone not like Santa? I like Santa. Children reading this should believe in Santa. But there are much better Christmas movies to watch with better messages and give you that warm fuzzy feeling inside. Watch "Miracle on 34th Street". Watch "A Christmas Carol" (1938). Watch "The Polar Express" (2004). You still have the secular figures of Christmas but each offers a message of a bit more of humanity. Each movie tells us to believe in Santa Claus, but, not because we will get toys but because it makes us better people. Santa Claus wants us to appreciate our friends and family and those less fortunate. Isn't that a better Christmas message?

The best scenes in "The Santa Clause" are the sentimental ones. These moments come near the end of the movie. That is another problem with "The Santa Clause". It spends so much time trying to go for laughs it forgets to add heart. When the movie does try to pull on the audience's heartstrings, it succeeds. How strange a Disney movie wouldn't have more emotional moments.

"The Santa Clause" may be fun to watch for some, probably children, but it has nothing to say about Christmas. Children may like it for the comedy and seeing Santa. Others may not even see the themes I have mentioned and may see it as nothing more than a "Santa Claus movie". But it is all there. You just have to believe.