Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Top Ten Films Of 2015!

Better late than never!

Although it is usually preferred to compile a "top ten" list at the end of a given year, I was simply unable to find ten movies which I believed were truly outstanding pieces of art. Admittedly, I had some "catch -up" to play and had to wait for various titles I missed in theatres to be released on DVD.

Now I feel much more comfortable creating a list of the best films of 2015.

I am generally known to complain about the quality of films released within a given year, I am also someone who complains about the quality of Hollywood filmmaking in general, yearning instead for the "good old days" of classic Hollywood cinema of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Lately though, when comprising my list of the best films of the year, I have not been as harsh. In fact, I praised recent years as providing audiences with choice films. Unfortunately I must go back to my old ways and say I found the films of 2015 to be disappointing overall. There were not as many quality films released in 2015 as there were in 2014, which proved to be a much better year, especially in hindsight.

Every year, when presenting my list of the best films of the year, I like to comment on common themes in the films released during the year and common themes found in the films which make my list. The most common theme found in the films of 2015 was the "Liberal agenda". Hollywood is usually considered a bastion of Liberal principles, so that statement is not too far-fetching for some, however not since the presidency of George W. Bush has Hollywood been so political.

Don't believe me? Lets look at the evidence. Hollywood released a movie about the big banks and the government bailout - "The Big Short" (2015) highlighting the corrupt system we live in and how no one was held accountable, this message being brought to us at a time when there is a candidate running for president - Sen. Bernie Sanders - who repeatedly discusses the government bailout and Wall Street corruption. During a time where there is a possibility America could elect the first female president there was the release of "Suffragette" (2015), a movie about the suffrage movement in the United Kingdom. A nice reminder to women illustrating how far they have come, from not being allowed to vote to perhaps voting for the first female president. Oddly enough the movie did not generate much critical support which translated to money at the box-office. The movie was even shut out at award season. Even stranger is the fact the movie is actually quite good and deserves an audience.

In an era of Caitlyn Jenner and liberals' defense of transgender rights, Hollywood gave us "The Danish Girl" (2015), based on a true story of one of the first reassignment surgeries in 1926 Copenhagen. The movie would receive much critical acclaim and win four Academy Award nominations, winning one award for its actress in a supporting role. There was also "Carol" (2015) dealing with the social repressive climate in 1950s America when it came to lesbians and gay right issues. It received six Academy Award nominations.

Hollywood heaped plenty of love at "Mad Max: Fury Road" (2015), which in some strange way gave us an environmental message, warning us about the depletion of natural resources such as water. And there was "Spotlight" (2015) which put a "spotlight" on the Catholic church, one of liberals favorite targets, while also celebrating the media, which is routinely championing liberal causes. And speaking of the media there was also "Truth" (2015) about the 60 Minutes report concerning former president George W. Bush's National Guard attendance record which aired during his 2004 re-election.

With the exception of one. none of these movies made my own top ten list, it had nothing to do with politics, if you must know I am in agreement with liberals on some of these issues, however I refuse to blind myself to the truth and pretend these messages aren't being thrown in the public's face by the media and Hollywood.

As for my own list, the movies which caught my attention and affection were the ones which stirred me. The ones which made me angry, excited me, showed me the world and everything wrong with it. They were damning documentaries exposing corruption, social / political satires and Hollywood rabble rousers. Were they political? Yep! It is getting so you can't watch any movie without it having a political slant, even superhero movies! One can even make the case all of these movies have contributed to the anger we see expressed by voters who have had enough of the political system as we know it and the "establishment".

Every year I make the case stating, movies are a reflection of the world we live in. As you look at my list of the best films of the year you know notice they are all about unrest. People are angry in these movies. The characters are socially aware. The documentaries I selected expose corruption in the government. We are in an election year where the two most popular candidates with the voters are Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, two people who speak out against the "establishment" and have capitalized on the public's anger. In these ten movies I have chosen you will see something was brewing long before they got in the picture.

Here are my choices for the ten best movies of 2015!

1. THE BIG SHORT (Dir. Adam McKay; U.S.) - 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.

"The Big Short" goes through a lot of information. Information which the average person should have already known before they see this movie. We lived through this! However, "The Big Short" gives the audience names and faces. The movie tells of how a small group of people saw the housing crash coming and bet against the U.S. economy.

At its core the movie shows us how the U.S. economy, and to an extent our government, is rigged. It is a system based on greed. Individuals making decisions without thinking about the consequences of their actions because they are not concerned about how those decision will impact anyone else as long as they can make a dollar.

This is a story we should not forget. We should always remember what these people did. They will do it again. Remember, no one went to prison for what happened. There was no justice. Surprisingly the movie gets this information across by using humor, so as not to incite an audience with anger, but, it is difficult not to get angry when you see how everything works.

The movie scored multiple Academy Award nominations - five in total, and won one for its screenplay, which was based on the book "The Big Short" written by Michael Lewis.

2. THE LOOK OF SILENCE (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer; U.S.) - Back in 2012 documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer released "The Act of Killing" a documentary about the 1965 Indonesian genocide, in which approximately one million people were murdered because they were accused of being communist by the military, which had over taken the government. It exposed the level of corruption in the government and the lack of public discourse, as those responsible have never been held accountable and are able to walk free in the towns they terrorized.

I was not a fan of "The Act of Killing", which was praised as a ground breaking, genre-defying documentary because, as with "Spotlight", I felt it followed the wrong story. "The Act of Killing" was not about the victims, it was about the murderers. It wanted to be clever and daring and instead lacked emotion and compassion.

In "The Look of Silence" Mr. Oppenheimer gets it right. Now we follow a family which was affected by these murders and hear their story as one of them confronts those responsible, putting their self at risk.

The documentary raises so many issues and exposes an amazing level of corruption as those responsible, in a not too subtle fashion, threaten history will repeat itself if people don't stop asking questions.

Exactly who is in charge of telling the history of one's country?

3. 99 HOMES (Dir. Ramin Bahrani; U.S.) - This deeply emotional, stirring drama is in some ways the flip side of "The Big Short". Both movies address the collapse of the U.S. economy due to the burst in the housing bubble. Where "The Big Short" mostly discusses Wall Street and the all around corruption of the system, "99 Homes" deals with the people who lost everything. The people who were evicted from their homes. The people that the characters in "The Big Short" were making money off of once everything crashed.

The movie stars Andrew Garfield as a young man who is evicted from his home along with his mother (Laura Dern) and his son (Noah Lomax). Desperate to retrieve his family home, the young man makes an almost Faustian bargain with the Realtor (Michael Shannon) who represents the bank responsible for the eviction.

Where "The Big Short" will make you angry "99 Homes" will break your heart. We know these people. We can relate to them. We see ourselves in them.

If there is one fault with the movie is it never points the finger directly at the real villains in this situation - the banks!

Still it is mind boggling that "99 Homes", which was critically praised, did not earn any Academy Award nominations, though Mr. Shannon's performance was nominated for a Golden Globe, and that the public never found the movie. This movie truly deserves a second chance.

4. YOUTH (Dir. Paolo Sorrentino; UK) - "Youth", nominated for the Palme d' Or at the Cannes Film Festival, is one of those movies the general public will complain "nothing ever happens". And, to an extent that is true in the sense the movie is motivated by ideas not plot conventions. Here is a movie about age, youth, the arts and self-meditation.

The filmmaker, Mr. Sorrentino, directed the Italian Academy Award winner, "The Great Beauty", which was also about an elderly man in a youthful world. I didn't like that movie as much as society told me I should and instead prefer this tale of a retired conductor (Michael Cain) and an aging filmmaker (Harvey Keitel) on a vacation in the Alps. The two must deal with the reality of the men they have become. A life that has passed them by. All that mattered to them was their art in their youth and today, besides memories of the past, what do they have to show for it? They are alone, distant from the world, trying to remain vital.

5. WILD TALES (Dir. Damian Szifron; Argentina) - In my review for this Academy Award nominated film I wrote "If "Wild Tales" is any reflection of Argentina or the world in general it would suggest some very dark and disturbing (to some) truths. The world presented in "Wild Tales" is one filled with people who are angry and hostile. Some feel abused by a bureaucratic system, which is nothing more than a money generating scheme, and a government which is complicit with it. Others are fueled by greed, even at the expense of their family's protection, while others are willing to commit murder in the name of family honor.

Still Mr. Szifron and his film try to end on a positive note, suggesting, yes, life is miserable. Lets not pretend it isn't. Terrible and unfair things happen in this world to innocent people. If people aren't hurting you, institutions like the government, are. however we need to learn to accept things as they are. Life is messy and we all need to learn to deal with it and not allow anger and hatred to dictate our actions. We all need to learn to take a deep breathe."

I wrote that review in March of 2015. Look at our political climate now. Go ahead and tell me I wasn't right about the world. I dare you!

6. BEST OF ENEMIES (Dirs. Robert Gordon / Morgan Neville; U.S.) - Political discourse is nothing new in our culture and neither is listening to opinionated idiots on television who have nothing original to say except for the talking points handed to them by either the DNC (Democratic National Committee) or the RNC (Republican National Committee).

This documentary follows Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley as they debated on television during the 1968 presidential campaign and their hatred for each which followed and the impact it had on our culture in the way politics is discussed.

7. LABYRINTH OF LIES (Dir. Giulio Ricciarelli; Germany) - I asked the question who is exactly in charge of telling the history of one's country. This critically acclaimed German movie, based on true events, shows us life post-WW2 and how the German government tried the sweep its country's role in the war under the rug and one man's attempt to hold all those responsible accountable.

8. THE GOOD DINOSAUR (Dir. Peter Sohn; U.S.) - Disney / Pixar released two movies in 2015 one was a universally praised film - "Inside Out" (2015), which lead many sheep (movie critics) to cite it was the best Pixar movie in years leaving "The Good Dinosaur" to be regulated to the status of "the other Pixar movie". Strangely enough "the other movie" was the one I preferred. It had much more heart and sentimentality and a quality grown-ups could enjoy as well.

9. MERCHANTS OF DOUBT (Dir. Robert Kenner; U.S.) - Political discourse. Lack of information. Opinionated idiots. If "Best of Enemies" was the beginning of the end for intelligent conversation and civil political debate the documentary "Merchants of Doubt" shows us where we are today.

All corporations want to control the media's message regarding them and / or their product. How do you do that? You send your own people out to write editorials in newspapers, have them appear on television and present them as "experts" in a given field. Then it is their job to plant the seeds of doubt on an issue. There's two sides to every story, right? Who knows what it truth?

Remember to always be aware of who is giving you information and what their motives are.

10. WHITE GOD (Dir. Kornel Mundruczo; Hungary) - There was another Hungarian movie released last year (can you imagine that! Two Hungarian movies released in America in a single year.) which garnered a lot of critical acclaim and even won Hungary's first Academy Award, in the best foreign language film category. since 1981, called "Son of Saul". That movie didn't appeal to me as much as I would have liked it to or as much as the sheep (movie critics) tried to influence our opinions. It was about a flawed, selfish man who didn't gain my sympathy.

Then there was "White God", a political allegory about revolt which featured a cast of dogs gone wild. In my review for the movie I stated "The tagline for the movie is "the unwanted will have their day". The "unwanted" it is referring to is not dogs or animals in general. It is referring to the downtrodden; the poor and working class, the homeless. The people society prefer to ignore. Society treats them like animals. If we keep mistreating people one day they aren't going to stand for it. They will become fed up. And when that happens, they will fight back. Remember, there are more poor and working class people in the world than there are rich."

Again, look at our political landscape and tell me I wasn't on to something. The public interest in Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump hadn't happened yet. Neither had declared their intentions to run for president when I wrote this review, but, anyone who doesn't live in a bubble could have seen the writing on the wall.

Remember readers, I'm Hungarian not stupid. There is a slight difference!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

It's A Bird! It's A Plane! No, It's My Superhero Movie Reviews!

This Friday, March 25th marks the release of easily one of the most anticipated movies of the year, "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" (2016). So, in honor of this event, the dream match-up of every young comic book loving fan, I have provided links to every superhero movie adaptation I have reviewed, just to help you get ready for this Friday.

You may notice I have not always been supportive of comic book adaptations but I have slowly, very slowly, tried to give these movies a second chance and have actually written quite a few reviews for this genre.

Reviews are listed in order of release.

1. "The Mark of Zorro" (1920) - silent version starring Douglas Fairbanks.

2. "Flash Gordon" (1936) - movie serial - Perhaps the most popular of all movie serials.

3. "The Mark of Zorro" (1940) - American remake of earlier silent version starring Tyrone Power.

4. "Batman" (1943) - movie serial - This marks the very first screen appearance of the famed "dark knight" character.

5. "Batman & Robin" (1949) - movie serial

6. "Batman" (1989) - Director Tim Burton attempts to make a "darker" Batman.

7. "Dick Tracy" (1990)

8. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (1990) - Original live-action version based on the comic books and the Saturday morning cartoon series.

9. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II; The Secret of the Ooze" (1991)

10. "Batman Returns" (1992)

11. "Batman - Mask of the Phantasm" (1993) - Animated movie. A spin-off of the popular animated television series.

12. "Batman & Robin" (1997)

13. "X-Men" (2000)

14. "Sky Captain & The World of Tomorrow" (2004)

15. "Iron Man" (2008)

16. "The Dark Knight" (2008)

17. "Hancock" (2008)

18. "Superhero Movie" (2008) - Spoof of the superhero genre.

19. "The Watchmen" (2009)

20. "X-Men: Days of Future Past" (2014)

21. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (2014)

22. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (2014) - Live-action remake of the 1990 version.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Film Review: Which Way To The Front?

"Which Way To The Front?
*** (out of ****)

It's an all-out assault for laughs as Jerry Lewis marches forward in the comedy "Which Way To The Front?" (1970).

This World War II comedy written and directed by Jerry Lewis and released by Warner Brothers has gained an extremely negative reputation over the years. That kind of reaction may not be a surprise coming from the sheep (movie critics) who were known to dislike Mr. Lewis' comedies but even the general public dislikes the movie.

If you were to go on the website you will note, as of the date of this review, 896 users have rated the movie. On a scale of 1 - 10 the movie has averaged a score of 4. That's pretty low. You have to assume fans of Mr. Lewis are included in that 896 number. Where's the love?

"Which Way To The Front?" takes place in 1943 with Mr. Lewis starring as Brenden Byers III, the richest man in America. One wonders, was this meant to be a swipe at Howard Hughes? Mr. Byers is bored with life. He has acquired so much money and has been able to do so much with that money he feels there is nothing left for him to do. Life offers no new adventures. How much money can he possibly make in his lifetime? The thrill is gone. But then Mr. Byers learns he has been drafted in the war and welcomes the opportunity of a new experience.

The first 15 - 20 minutes of Mr. Lewis' comedy plays out as a sharp social satire and should have appealed in particular to anti-Vietnam War protesters of the time. Mr. Byers' legal team initially suggest ways in which he may be granted a deferment but Mr. Byers protests and declares "In a democracy it is the right of every man to die for his country." A line which surely made the youth in the audience giggle.

There is also a comment to be made about the draft. It is usually only in the movies that the wealthy were drafted. You would see this in several Hollywood movies made during WW2. The draft has been perceived as a device used strictly to enlist the working class and minorities while the wealthy are able to avoid service. During WW2 movies were made showing the wealthy being enlisted in an effort to promote unity and show the country at large that we are all fighting this war. Of course there was a draft during the Vietnam War. Did the country have the same perception of the draft as they did during WW2?

When Mr. Byers shows up for enlistment he and three other men have been rejected and classified as "4-F". While initially crushed by this news, since as Mr. Byers explains, due to his money he has always been able to get what he wants, he decides to turn the tables on the army. So, the army doesn't want him huh? Fine! He doesn't want the army! Mr. Byers decides to create his own army and head to the front lines.

Mr. Byers recruits the other men classified as "4-F" which includes nightclub comic Sid Hackle (Jan Murray), a timid, cowardly husband, Peter (Steve Franken) and a liberal, hippy type Terry (Dack Rambo), each of whom has their own reason for desperately wanting to enlist, in order to escape their complicated lives. Sid owes money to a gangster, Peter feels like a walking doormat for his  dominating wife and Terry has impregnated two women.

Perhaps out of a sense of patriotic pride, also joining Mr. Byers and his "soldiers" will be Mr. Byers' personal secretary Finkel (John Wood) and his driver, Lincoln (professional baseball player Willie Davis). Their plan is to head to Italy, where Mr. Byers bears a striking resemblance a Nazi general, Eric Kesselring (also Mr. Lewis). Mr. Byers will impersonate the general and order a retreat allowing the Americans to advance forward after being positioned in the same spot for four months.

At this point in the story one could assume "Which Way To The Front?" is Mr. Lewis' comedic version of "The Dirty Dozen" (1967), also about a rag-tag group of unfit soldiers on a WW2 mission. Mr. Lewis also seems to be tipping his hat to the Charlie Chaplin classic "The Great Dictator" (1940), a WW2 satire where our little tramp friend resembles an Adolph Hitler-ish dictator.

As in most comedies, events don't go as our hero plans and soon Mr. Byers, still impersonating General Kesselring, finds himself involved in a secret assassination attempt to kill Adolph Hitler, a plan which was originally devised by the real General Kesselring. Now "Which Way To The Front?" seems to be a bit ahead of its time as it proceeds Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" (2009), another movie about a group of rag-tag soldiers on a mission to assassinate Hitler.

Almost nothing about "Which Way To The Front?" seems typical for a Jerry Lewis comedy. Mr. Lewis almost exclusively directed movies which have the message of being true to one's self. In his comedies his "man-child" character is misunderstood by the public in which he encounters but by the end of each movie the characters come around and appreciate the prat falling fool because he is genuine. They cannot change him.

"Which Way To The Front?" is taking the opposite approach. Yes, there are characters trying to change Mr. Byers, telling him his plan will never work, but Mr. Byers fights on. He is determined. He will not allow others to change him. Instead Mr. Byers wants to change others.

This makes the Mr. Byers characters, at first, not the typical character Mr. Lewis would play. The character has much more confidence than Mr. Lewis' typical characters. In fact, in another movie one would expect Mr. Lewis to play the timid husband character of this movie, Peter. But, because Mr. Lewis is playing the lead character, Mr. Byers, he does eventually slip and fall a lot, which feels out of place for the character. Mr. Byers was not established as this type of character. He is a take charge kind of guy. Not a man easily intimidated and prone to falling down a lot. What a different movie this would have been if say Mr. Lewis would have cast his friend Tony Curtis, for example, in the lead.

The argument can be made however that without Mr. Lewis in the lead "Which Way To The Front?" would not be funny. It is Mr. Lewis' antics which will bring a smile to the faces of those who see it. There is some truth to that. Who can do "Jerry Lewis shtick" better than Jerry Lewis?

And "Which Way To The Front?" is funny. Mr. Lewis is out to fiercely denigrate Hitler and his Nazi supporters, nearly at the same level Mel Brooks did in his comedy "The Producers" (1968). The Hitler presented in "Which Way To The Front?" (played by Sidney Miller) is not exactly the hippie seen in "The Producers" played by Dick Shawn but it is not a stretch to suggest one was influenced by the other.

"Which Way To The Front?" may at times go for the easy laugh and that may bother some viewers who may suggest the humor in the movie is repetitive. I have a hunch that people who say this either are not Jerry Lewis fans to begin with and / or are not familiar with his humor. To say Jerry Lewis engages in broad comedy, goes for easy laughs and "milks" situations is the same as saying ice cream is cold.

Mr. Lewis also takes a different approach to the film's visual style. Mr. Lewis usually has plenty of long shots and over head angles in his movies. He is also not shy about shooting several close-ups of his face. In "Which Way To The Front?" Mr. Lewis abandons this aesthetic. The one distinguishing trait of the movie is prior to transitioning from one scene to the next Mr. Lewis will freeze the frame. This gives the movie a look similar to that of a television show.

The interesting question to ask is why did Jerry Lewis want to make this movie to begin with? Was he inspired by what Mel Brooks did in "The Producers"? Did Mr. Lewis want to make a subtle commentary on the Vietnam War? Was Mr. Lewis eager to tell a story about World War II? Following "Which Way To The Front?" Mr. Lewis would have told a dramatic story, the infamous "The Day The Clown Cried" (1972), the story of a clown imprisoned at a concentration camp, who is used to lure children to the gas chambers. Of course that movie never saw the light of day as Mr. Lewis has said he is ashamed of the quality of the film and will never allow it to be seen. But, these two movies, back to back, would suggest an interest Mr. Lewis had in WW2.

The movie did not do well at the box-office, which was the trend starting with the last movie Mr. Lewis made for Paramount, "The Family Jewels" (1965). This coupled with the experience Mr. Lewis had while filmming "The Day The Clown Cried" caused him to not release a movie for 11 years. By which time his audience had left him behind as the comedy landscape had drastically changed from the time when Mr. Lewis was at his peak.

Audiences are over reacting in their dismissal of "Which Way To The Front?". It is something different from Jerry Lewis, even in its visual aesthetic, but the public should not considered it a disaster. Granted, it may not be the most influential movie Jerry Lewis directed but it is hardly something to be embarrassed over. The movie has its bright spots which made me laugh. It has moments when it makes social points as well. Clearly though "Which Way To The Front?" is for Jerry Lewis fans only. It appears to lack a cross-over appeal to those who find his antics childish and not funny.

Does a man falling down, tripping all over his words and fighting Nazis sound funny to you? Then move on up to the front lines!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Film Review: Swing Time

"Swing Time"  *** (out of ****)

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers get into the swing of things in the RKO romantic-comedy musical, "Swing Time" (1936).

Fans of classic Hollywood cinema and Astaire & Rogers fans in particular, usually refer to "Swing Time" as the best movie the famous song and dance team ever appeared in. I believe a lot of this sentiment has to do with the fact George Stevens, who would later go on to direct "Giant" (1956) and "Shane" (1953), directed the movie and so it makes filmbuffs regard the movie as "important". Because Mr. Stevens was a respected filmmaker therefore "Swing Time" is a respected movie.

But does "Swing Time" deserve all the acclaim?

"Swing Time" had never been my own favorite Astaire & Rogers musical but I decided this would be the next movie I review and so I gave the movie another chance to impress me. Watching "Swing Time" again I'm sorry to say but I just don't see the appeal. Is "Swing Time" a good movie? Sure. It is always fun to watch Fred and Ginger sing and dance. I consider it movie heaven. Some of the songs written for the movie, from the pen of composer Jerome Kern, are enjoyable to listen to. But is "Swing Time" really the best movie to feature Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers together? For me it takes whatever worked in their previous movies together, which includes "Top Hat" (1935), "The Gay Divorcee" (1934) and "Follow the Fleet" (1936), and combines it in one movie only the plot doesn't play out as nicely and or as smoothly.

As with most Astaire and Rogers musicals there is a mistaken identity plot, Penny (Rogers) is a dance instructor who doesn't realize a pupil, "Lucky" Garnett (Astaire), is really a professional dancer, who lied just so he could have a moment of her time. In "Top Hat" and "The Gay Divorcee" this set-up is played throughout the movie. Will she or won't she ever figure out who he really is? But in "Swing Time" nothing is really done with this plot convention. The screenwriters; Howard Lindsay and Allan Scott, do not milk this scenario for all its comedic worth. Oddly enough Mr. Scott wrote several of the Astaire & Rogers musicals including "Top Hat" and "Follow the Fleet" as well as "Roberta" (1935) and their next picture after this one, "Shall We Dance" (1937).

The movie, as was done in other Astaire and Rogers musicals, provides the team with comedic supporting relief. In the past these roles were given to actors like Edward Everett Horton and Alice Brady. This time around Victor Moore plays "Pops", Garnett's best friend, and Helen Broderick, who also appeared in "Top Hat", plays Mabel, Penny's best friend.

Victor Moore may not be well known to today's younger movie fans but he had a successful career on Broadway and appeared in several movies, usually as comic relief, he never really became a leading actor, though did appear in the somewhat dramatic "Make Way For Tomorrow" (1937), which heavily influenced the the great Japanese movie directed by Yasujiro Ozu, "Tokyo Story" (1953). And on a sillier note, some may recognize his voice from the Looney Tunes comedy, "Ain't That Ducky" (1945) where Mr. Moore voiced a character based on his appearance - a big-game hunter who has set his sights on Duffy Duck. The character resembles another Looney Tunes hunter, Elmer Fudd.

Helen Broderick also got her start on the stage and later appeared in movies as comic relief. Both she and Mr. Moore are playing the kind of characters the public came to recognized them for. Mr. Moore has a befuddled look on his face. He always seems just one step behind everyone else. Ms. Broderick other the other hand played extroverted characters that were usually on the prowl for a husband. Her characters were, what at one time was known as, a "woman of the world". Her characters were also a bit sassy and always had a quip ready.

When I think of a great musical the most important ingredient is the score. A movie with a so-so plot that has a great score will entertain me. Just as with a comedy. The more I laugh, the more I am willing to recommend the movie even if the plot isn't fully developed. "Swing Time" has a somewhat good score. There is the Oscar winner for best song, "The Way You Look Tonight", which unfortunately did not have a memorable set piece built around it. Fred sits at a piano and sings it to Ginger. They don't even dance to it until the end of the picture (!). There is also "A Fine Romance" - a very subtle song about sex with some inventive rhymes. Some of the lyrics are "A fine romance/ with no kisses/ a fine romance/ my friend this is". And there is "Pick Yourself Up", which like "A Fine Romance" is a charming duet. The other songs have not become standards of the American Songbook. "Bojangles of Harlem", a homage to Bill Robinson, and "Never Gonna Dance" round out the remaining songs.

Neither song is very good although both have been highly praised by the sheep (movie critics). The "Bojangles of Harlem" number, which sadly features Fred Astaire in blackface (!), is rather clumsily choreographed. There is an awful lot of room for Astaire and his back-up dancers to move around however they don't. Everyone is squeezed together. Of course, in an example of how I am normally outside of public opinion, the dance direction received the movie's second Academy Award nomination.

"Never Gonna Dance" is said to be the dance sequence which shows Astaire & Rogers at their sexiest. I don't believe the song is memorable or the dance sequence. Watching the movie it is clear the intention was for this sequence to be the most memorable. Their hand gestures during the dance routine remind me of the same gestures they did during the "Night & Day" routine in "The Gay Divorcee". The "Never Gonna Dance" routine does suggest a sexual repression in their movements. This is a direct contrast to what I feel is the best dance sequence in "Swing Time", their routine for "Pick Yourself Up". Astaire & Rogers act as if it is a spontaneous moment where they come together and dance in perfect harmony. It possesses the carefree, flirtatious quality which made their dancing together so wonderful to watch.

Still one has to admit both sequences show Astaire & Rogers versatility as well as all the emotions which can be conveyed in dancing in general.

Astaire's Garnett character is a professional dancer with a bit of a gambling problem. The movie begins on the day of his wedding to Margaret (Betty Furness). After completing a performance Garnett plays to head to Margaret's home for the wedding. Only, for reasons never properly explained, Garnett's friends want to prevent him from getting married and delay him by preoccupying him with a crap game. By the time Garnett realizes what time it is he has missed the wedding.

In order for Garnett to prove himself as a man and a good provider, in the eyes of Margaret's father, Garnett must stay away until he has saved $25,00. And so Garnett and "Pops" head out to New York.

This is of course enforces the idea that New York is the place to be in order for one to achieve their dreams. Remember what Frank Sinatra sang about New York? "If I can make it there / I can make it anywhere". But it also conveys a "Great Depression" era attitude emphasizing the importance of money. Hollywood movies during the depression would normally do one of two things, 1) have characters engage in get rich quick schemes. This usually involved putting on a Broadway show. Number two, have characters (generally women) set out to marry rich men but then they fall in love with a poor man to leave the audience with the message, love is more important than money.

Once in New York Garnett meets Penny. Garnett is instantly attracted to Penny and when he discovers she is a dance instructor and he pretends he is a novice, despite the fact the audience has already seen Garnett dance. Garnett and Penny end up impressing her boss who immediately signs them up in a dance competition.

The problem for Garnett is what should he do about Margaret? That was the whole reason he went to New York. Should he tell Penny the truth? Will Garnett and Penny end up having a "fine romance" or is it better if they say "lets call the whole thing off"?

One of the reasons I don't find "Swing Time" to be the team's most successful picture is because the material is not played out to its fullest. You watch "Top Hat" and tell me that movie could not have worked on its own, without the musical score, as a typical screwball comedy. You really can't say the same for "Swing Time". It is jumping around from idea to idea too quickly. I can actually laugh when I watch "Top Hat". The comedy works. The best moments in "Swing Time" are the musical numbers. But, as I say, if the plot is half-way decent and the songs work, I will recommend a movie. That is why "Swing Time" is recommended.

In the end though I would rather audiences watch "Swing Time" than any modern movie they can get their hands on. "Swing Time" represents what Hollywood was once capable of. It is playful and charming. You have two extremely talented lead performers. They have no equivalent in today's Hollywood. Looking back on "Swing Time" one gets the impression life was easier and Hollywood was innocent. Does anyone think that today about Hollywood or life? And that is what made the movies special. That is why these movies are classics. Hollywood was a dream factory back then. It made us dream.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Film Review: North By Northwest

"North By Northwest"
*** (out of ****)

Mistaken identity, government secrets and murder. All signs point us "North By Northwest" (1959) in Alfred Hitchcock's classic genre piece of Hollywood escapism.

Alfred Hitchcock is generally believed, by the public, to have been a filmmaker who was able to work inside the Hollywood studio system and still make meaningful work. Yes, his movies were commercial but they said something about society. They explored serious themes.

Lets not argue whether or not that is true but accept it at its face value, in which case "North By Northwest" is about nothing. The movie has no social commentary. It is not a clever political satire. It is pure "window dressing" - something that looks good but has no other value than aesthetics.

"North By Northwest" does not go over any new territory - thematically, for Mr. Hitchcock. The main thrust of the movie revolves around mistaken identity and an innocent man wrongfully accused. Mr. Hitchcock had several movies based on this idea. It was a favorite theme of his work. Some of Mr. Hitchcock's early British films dealt with this concept. The most memorable examples may be "The 39 Steps" (1935), "Young and Innocent" (1937) and "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934). By comparison however "North By Northwest" is a much more slick production. This Hollywood movie has much better production values than quite frankly any of Mr. Hitchcock's British movies including the ones previously mentioned. In some cases the acting is better in "North By Northwest", though, how do you not like Robert Donat in "The 39 Steps"? And the screenplay by Ernest Lehman is far superior than any screenplay Mr. Hitchcock worked with on his British movies.

The "problem" with "North By Northwest" is for a movie with nothing to say it goes on pretty long and resembles so many other Alfred Hitchcock movies. For a movie with directions in its title the movie itself is taking the viewing in all different directions and taking its cue from previous movies directed by Mr. Hitchcock. With the mistaken identity theme, as pointed out, we may drawn comparisons to several others movies by Mr. Hitchcock which dealt with the same concept. The most famous sequence in "North By Northwest" set against Mount Rushmore reminds us of another movie set against the backdrop of a famous American landscape, in "Saboteur" (1942) and the Statue of Liberty. Though I am not sure the symbolism is as effective in "North By Northwest" as it was in "Saboteur".

Still, none of this is to suggest "North By Northwest" is not a good movie. A movie which should be avoided by the American public. Absolutely not. "North By Northwest" is fun Hollywood entertainment. But, I may not regard the movie as highly as others in the public do. I do not considered this movie Mr. Hitchcock's best. I would not even place it among his top five or ten best. One of his most popular? Sure. A good starting place to gather insight into the work of Mr. Hitchcock? Maybe. It does explore the essential themes associated with Mr. Hitchcock, though I don't believe it explores those themes as well as it does in other movies.

Some will disagree and say "North By Northwest" does have something to say. It is reflective of the time period. They may attempt to suggest the movie addresses the Cold War. It is about spies and government secrets. It may deal with paranoia. Yes, these things may be mentioned but what is said about them? What about the Cold War? How exactly is "North By Northwest" making a statement on it? What about government secrets? It is the MacGuffin in Mr. Hitchcock's story. Nothing is said about those secrets.

While there are perhaps some instances when "North By Northwest" does create suspense, there is the famous sequence in the crop field with the crop duster plane, the moments which work best in "North By Northwest" deal with a romance between the two lead characters.

It is when dealing with the movie's romance the screenplay by Mr. Lehman really sparkles. The movie has the "filthiest" dialogue I can recall in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The script is flooded with sexual innuendos. Even by today's standards (which are monumentally lower!) the dialogue still sounds flirty and naughty. Imagine what audiences in 1959 thought! This is what you would call "hip", "suave" dialogue.

Unfortunately, even while the romance aspect of the movie works, it needs to be mentioned this too feels borrowed from another of Mr. Hitchcock's movies, "Notorious" (1946), which also starred Cary Grant and dealt with government secrets and spies. "Notorious" I would argue is one of Mr. Hitchcock's finest films.

One last area of criticism I have regarding "North By Northwest" has to do with the musical score by Bernard Herrmann. Mr. Herrmann was a great composer. He wrote some brilliant themes for Mr. Hitchcock's movies. In my opinion his scores for "Vertigo" (1958) and "Psycho" (1960) are wonderful. The theme for "North By Northwest", by itself, playing over the movie's credits, is good. But when you incorporate it behind scenes in the movie it doesn't work. The music doesn't compliment the scenes. It is too forceful. It suggest too much. It is just a piece of music behind a scene.

In "North By Northwest" Cary Grant stars as Roger Thornhill - a New York advertising executive who is mistaken for George Kaplan, a man who is wanted by Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) and his right hand man, Leonard (Martin Landau). Roger has no idea who George Kaplan is, who Phillip is, or what Phillip wants with George. What Roger soon discovers though is Phillip wants to kill him since he will not cooperate with him and Phillip's organization.

The audience however learns George Kaplan is a fictitious agent created by the F.B.I. to make Phillip believe they are hot on his trail and prepared to take down his crew. Roger Thornhill however is an unfortunate calamity caught in the middle, for whom they are willing to let be killed in order to protect George Kaplan.

While trying to free his name and find the real George Kaplan, Roger Thornhill meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) on a train heading to Chicago. These two "strangers on a train" begin a romance when Eva makes a very direct pass at Roger and offers to help him clear his name. She believes his story because, as she says, Roger has a nice face.

The question for Roger becomes, who can he trust? Who is working against him and who is on his side?

When we think of Alfred Hitchcock we may think master of suspense however, anyone who has watched all of his movies or a good number of them knows Mr. Hitchcock peppers his movies with dark humor. "North By Northwest" is no different. I have always felt "Rear Window" (1954) was Mr. Hitchcock's best movie. A lot of that has to do with the movie's humor. In "Rear Window" Mr. Hitchcock is able to find the perfect balance and tone to inject his sense of humor. I'm not completely sure the humor in "North By Northwest" gels as smoothly.

The most humorous relationship in the movie is between Roger and his mother (Jessie Royce Landis). She doesn't believe Roger's story that people are after him. She makes insinuations Roger is a drunk and has womanizing tendencies. These two characters have a very good rapport between them and you almost wish there were more scenes for the mother character. Sometimes though the humor feels a little forced. It is trying too hard to go for a laugh.

The performances however given by Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are quite effective. Mr. Grant seems to be playing off the public persona established for him of a suave ladies man who had a natural ability for comedy. Mr. Grant plays Roger Thornhill with a wry smile but is often able to find the correct balance, knowing when to play the character with a wink and when to milk the situation for all the suspense it is worth.

Ms. Saint on the other hand may be the most sexual of all the "Hitchcock Blondes" I can recall. I am not sure how that benefits the movie over-all though the relationship between the two characters helps build on tension created.

If there is something negative to say about the performances and the characters it is that the love affair seems to happen too fast and it is not believable. It is difficult to accept these two characters are in love. The betrayal felt by one of the characters is plausible but nothing else.

"North By Northwest" feels like little more than a genre picture to me. It is almost a lark for Mr. Hitchcock, especially after he was coming off the financial failure of "Vertigo". At its time of release "North By Northwest" was considered a return to form for Mr. Hitchcock. Still it has something in common with "Vertigo". Both movies have characters searching for people that don't exist. Clearly, "North By Northwest" is the lighter of the two but that doesn't mean it is the less entertaining of the two. "North By Northwest" has its strong points - Cary Grant, sharp screenplay, some suspenseful sequences but it doesn't equal greatness. Mr. Hitchcock has made better movies but even a so-called "lesser" movie (I hate that term) by Mr. Hitchcock is worth watching.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Film Reviews: Jafar Panahi's Taxi, My Night At Maud's & 7th Heaven

"Jafar Panahi's Taxi"  *** (out of ****)

There used to be a program on HBO called "Taxicab Confessions", where passengers were secretly filmed inside a cab and discussed the most private details of their life, usually involving sex. Sitting in a cab, you could imagine, you meet a lot of interesting people, people of all different walks of life. The cab driver must have a pretty good sense of the "mood" of society.

This principle can be applied to the latest Iranian "movie" directed by the acclaimed filmmaker, Jafar Panahi, "Taxi" (2015). Mr. Panahi disguises himself as a cab driver and picks up fares driving people around the streets of Tehran, often not sure of how to get to his fare's destination and sometimes telling the customers they don't have to worry about paying.

In his taxi Mr. Panahi meets an eccentric group of people. Each person that enters his taxi as a story. Some dramatic event going on in their life. Mr. Panahi meets various people of social standing, getting a sense of the "mood" of the country. It is Mr. Panahi's sneaky attempt to make a movie which comments on Iran's social-economic policies and his country's sense of justice.

I initially put the word movie in quotations. That was not a thinly veiled criticism of the movie on my part. You see back in 2010 Mr. Panahi, along with his family and several friends, were arrested. The Iranian government declared Mr. Panahi made films which were propaganda against the government. As a result Mr. Panahi was sentenced to a six year prison sentence and a 20 year ban on making movies was put in place. So, technically, in the eyes of the Iranian government, "Taxi" is not a movie. In fact, the previous "movie" released in America by Mr. Panahi was entitled "This Is Not A Film" (2012), a not so so subtle commentary on the sentence imposed on Mr. Panahi.

In "Taxi" Mr. Panahi presents his movie as a docu-drama. Is what we are watching real or fiction? Is Mr. Panahi so desperate for money he has become a taxi driver? Hardly. Are the fares he picks up real customers or actors? Are their conversations scripted or improvised? That's a lot of questions to ask and in the eyes of Mr. Panahi half the fun to be had watching "Taxi". Mr. Panahi for his part plays it straight. No winking at the camera however several of his passengers recognize him and comment on a hidden camera they see on the dashboard.

Mr. Panahi even goes as far as referencing his previous movies such as "Offside" (2007), "The Mirror" (1997) and "Crimson Gold" (2003). This rises the question, lets assume for the moment what we see in "Taxi" is real and the passengers are in real-life situations which resemble scenarios Mr. Panahi explored in his movies, does that not comment on the relationship art has on society? Movies are a reflection of the world we live in. Movies deal with issues audiences are able to relate to. They present problems society experiences.

Once the audience stops playing the "guessing game" of whether or not "Taxi" is real and start paying attention to what the people are saying we hear them speak of crime and what is the root cause of crime. One passenger says it is poverty. We hear discussions regarding the government's stance on filmmaking and the guidelines artist must abide by. We hear people speak of how Iran is isolated from the world and the lack of culture to be found.

By the end of "Taxi" we have a "movie" which shows us not all Iranians hate America and want to engage in war. There are people in Iran that are against their government. People are angry. The people of Iran have intellectual discussions and debate ideas. Some readers may say, "I already knew that jackass". Maybe you did but that is not how America portrays Iran and its people.

In the end what hurts "Taxi" is it doesn't say enough and the style of the movie will distract too many audiences and they will miss the message of the movie. One wishes for a more concrete linear, a more forceful presentation of ideas. "Taxi" reminds me of a movie made by another Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami, called "Ten" (2002) which also took place in a taxi and dealt with the social-economics of Iran and the role of women in particular. "Ten", I believe, is the superior movie. Still, audiences should make an effort to see "Taxi" and while you are at at, track down "Ten". It will make a nice double feature.

"My Night At Maud's"  
**** (out of ****)

I have watched the French movie "My Night At Maud's (1969) directed by Eric Rohmer twice, so far. It was part of Mr. Rohmer's series of films called "Six Moral Tales" and was the fourth film released in America in the series.

I find Mr. Rohmer's film to be about the silly expectations people have when it comes to love and the concept of "the one", a person who matches the image of what we believe our mate must look like and the ideas they must share with us.

Take for example Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant). He is a devote Catholic. He is not perfect, he was a bit of a ladies man in his past, but tries his best to live up to the standards of his Catholic faith. For him a perfect mate must be Catholic. For Jean-Louis this means they would share the same world-view and morals. On paper they would be perfectly suited for each other.

One day, at Sunday mass, Jean-Louis notices an attractive blonde, Francoise (Marie-Christine Barrault). They are both attentively listening to the priest. For Jean-Louis this may be a woman he can marry. In fact, he almost instantly makes up his mind that he will.

Life is funny though. Some people have an "ideal" person in their head and go their whole life believing that they must find the person they have created in their head, that they miss the opportunity to meet equally good people who may not look like their "ideal" but are worth getting to know. Of course, one can't force themselves to be attracted to someone.

For Jean-Louis, he is introduced to Maud (Francoise Fabian) by an old school friend, Vidal (Antoine Vitez) he has not seen in many years but has had a relationship with Maud. The three gets together on Christmas and talk. Maud is not the kind of woman Jean-Louis would ever think of marrying because she is not Catholic. But eventually the two of them talk the entire night about dating, life, religion. Soon there is an attraction in the air between them. But, how can this be? Maud was not his ideal. Should Jean-Louis give into his temptation or stick to the path he has established for himself?

One of the major criticisms which followed the career of the brilliant filmmaker Eric Rohmer was all his movies are about characters talking. Some have described his movies as "as entertaining as watching paint dry". I personally have never come across an Eric Rohmer I have not liked. In fact I have rated the majority of his movies four stars. The reason is because I find his intelligent. "My Night At Maud's" may remind some viewers of another movie made by a French filmmaker, Louis Malle, and the English language movie "My Dinner with Andre" (1981).

Both movies are about conversations. And that is what makes them pleasurable to watch. How often do we get to hear intelligent characters speak in a thoughtful manner and clearly express themselves? There is no foul language. No nudity. No fart jokes. Just people talking engaging one another in an exchange of ideas. Having a meaningful conversation that we as the audience wish we can have with someone or perhaps have had.

The interesting thing to ask yourself while watching "My Night At Maud's" is what are the characters intentions. Jean-Louis clearly expressive his beliefs on religion or marriage. So why does Maud invite him to spend the night and lie about a second bedroom? Is she purposely trying to seduce him, to test his belief system? If so, why? What does she gain? Simply to call him out as a hypocrite? What is Jean-Louis' intentions? Is he aware of what Maud is doing? Does he plan to use Maud to get to Francoise? Is there anything genuine about Jean-Louis? Are people simply chess pieces on a board that he must maneuver to reach his objective?

This demonstrates the games people play when it comes to love. Does anyone say what they mean? There is also a commentary on "chance". By simply believing something to be true will we reach our goal? This is a theme you will find in other films by Mr. Rohmer.

"My Night At Maud's" is insightful and observant. It understands people and their motives. This is a unique movie about adults for adults. For me, it remains one of Mr. Rohmer's best movies.

It was nominated for two Academy Awards. One for best foreign language film and the other for its screenplay.

"7th Heaven"  *** (out of ****)

"7th Heaven" (1927) is a silent dramatic romance directed by Frank Borzage, which like "My Night At Maud's" also deals with love, marriage and religion.

Director Frank Borzage is a forgotten name and today's movie fans may not only not be familiar with his name but they probably never saw any of the movies Mr. Borzage directed.

In the 1920s and into the early 1930s Mr. Borzage was a respected filmmaker that twice won a best director Academy Award. The first time he won the award was for his directing "7th Heaven", which was also nominated for best picture at the first Academy Award ceremony.

Mr. Borzage was known for directing films which were meant to have a romantic realism but dealt with the harsh realities of life. He was also not afraid to tackle subjects most Hollywood movies dare not approach.

"Seventh Heaven" nicely fits into the cannon of films directed by Mr. Borzage. The movie stars one of Mr. Borzage's frequent muses Janet Gaynor, who won an Academy Award for her performance, as Diane, a timid woman who is bossed around by her sister, Nana (Gladys Brockwell), who is presented as addicted to absinthe and is given to on occasion to using a whip on Diane, when she does not obey her.

One night Nana is fed up with Diane and chases her out of their apartment onto a street corner and whips Diane until she is unconscious and protected by a sewer worker, Chico (Charles Farrell). Chico takes pity on Diane and allows her to stay with him for a few days. In typical Hollywood-romance fashion the two end up falling in love.

Chico we learn is  self-assured young man. He has big ideas and repeatedly refers to himself as "a very remarkable fellow". He dreams of one day getting out of the sewers and becoming a street cleaner, which in his eyes carries more prestige. Since this has not happened for him yet he considers himself an atheist. He engages in a long conversation with a priest informing him of his beliefs.

Chico will end up having an influence on Diane. She will gain more confidence in herself and will learn the need to face her fears.

World War I will unfortunately come between the two lovers as Chico must enlist, leaving Diane on her own.

For some of today's viewers "7th Heaven" will be a bit too melodramatic. It will try too hard to pull at your heartstrings. I can't deny the charge however you must keep in mind the time period this movie was made. "Seventh Heaven" has something to say about love, faith and religion. Its ideas may seem simplistic to today's movie fans but again we must put things into perspective. There were not many Hollywood movie which would star an atheist character. Years later when the production code would be enforced, such a thing would have been prohibited. You also would not see such extreme violence, as one person using a whip on someone, especially a woman, in a movie.

"Seventh Heaven" lacks the naturalistic quality found in "Bad Girl" (1931) and the likeable characters but I was much more involved on an emotional level watching this movie than Mr. Borzage's "Street Angel" (1928) or his Will Rogers comedy "They Had To See Paris" (1929).

The movie, which was based on a 1922 play of the same title, was remade a decade later in a movie starring James Stewart and Simone Simon.

"Seventh Heaven" is worth younger movie fans seeking out. They may not be "wowed" by the movie but you will see quality filmmaking and acting, mostly for the time period, displayed.