Saturday, April 30, 2016

Film Review: Paths of Glory

"Paths of Glory"  **** (out of ****)

The absurdity of war is front and center towards the "Paths Of Glory" (1957).

Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" shares the anti-war sentiments of early Hollywood films like King Vidor's "The Big Parade" (1925) and the Academy Award winner "All Quiet On The Western Front" (1930) however the movie goes beyond that. At times it feels like a surreal, Kafkaesque commentary on the inefficiency of bureaucracy. And a damnation of mankind forever turning the wheels of a corrupt system.

"Paths of Glory" isn't a "war movie" in the sense audiences associate the genre with. There is a battle scene, talks of war strategy and army officials but the film ends with a court martial sequence, which takes up a significant portion of the movie and where the film makes its strongest moral statement. In this sense it resembles the courtroom drama "12 Angry Men" (1957). Ironically both films were released in the same year and both movies feature a sole man standing up defending the rights of someone about to die and make a harsh comment about justice.

Some could make the argument "Paths of Glory" is not just an anti-war but also an anti-military film. The military is presented as a corrupt system. System compiled of individuals hungry for power, motivated by greed and comprised of a faux sense of honor and patriotism. That same faux patriotism that has always been held by politicians could have lead some to even call this wonderful, emotionally stirring masterpiece "un-American". Then again the movie is about the French army and as such it was not shown in France until 1975!

Film critics (sheep) and film historians routinely consider "Paths of Glory", Mr. Kubrick's third feature-length film (fourth if we include "Fear and Desire" (1953) which Mr. Kubrick disowned) to be his first masterpiece, the movie which established him as an artist, a great filmmaker. I disagree. Mr. Kubrick showed his brilliance in his film prior to this one, one of the all-time great heist movies, "The Killing" (1956). Either way the genius of Mr. Kubrick was recognized early in his career.

The movie, based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb, takes place during World War 1, 1916. The French and the Germans are engaged in trench warfare. They have been stuck in their positions for two years. Advancement needs to be made. French General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) informs his subordinate General Mireau (George Macready) he must give the order to advance the 701 regiment to a guarded German position known as "Anthill". Both acknowledge it is a suicide mission, where roughly 55% of the regiment will be killed but there might be a decoration in it for Gen. Mireau, a third star! The good general pretends, for a brief while, to act like he cares about the safety of his men but eventually creates his own rational justification for the order and declares it just might be accomplished.

Now all they must do is notify Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) that he must plan to send his regiment on this mission the next day. Col. Dax tries to protest, stating the obvious, it is a suicide mission. Even if they succeed, with the loss of men expected, there will not be enough left to hold the position.

The regiment fails to make the advancement, some men don't even leave the trenches. The consistent air attacks by the Germans is just too much for the men to overcome. Gen. Mireau meanwhile witnesses what happens and in his disgust orders that his own French soldiers be fired at, in order to make them head out on the battlefield.

After the mission is a failure, Gen. Mireau must save face. Both he and Gen Broulard decide to court martial the men for cowardice. It is agreed three men will be chosen, one from each company, with Col. Dax acting as their legal defense, as he was a lawyer prior to the war.

It becomes immediately obvious the trial is a charade and the court has already made up their mind to convict the three men randomly chosen, suggesting the men are guilty before convicted. Much like our own legal system where the court of public opinion will condemn people without knowing all the evidence. It also shows us how in the military the higher up officers use soldiers as scapegoats to hide their own ignorance within a system based on a faux hierarchy of power.

This is further displayed in a sequence involving a lieutenant (Wayne Morris), who during a night watch is overcome with his own cowardice and lobs a grenade, which ends up killing one of his own soldiers, and runs off. Because he is an officer there is no court martial.

What makes "Paths of Glory" so involving is the anger you may feel as you see all of this corruption and no one, but the powerless, are accused. You become angry at the system. Even in a "respectable institution" like the military, greed and mad ambition rule the day. In the original New York Times review by Bosley Crowther, he considered this one of the movie's flaws and wrote "you are left with the feeling that you have been witness to nothing more that an horribly freakish incident." But that is the point. That is what makes the movie so powerful to this day. The fact that all of this is allowed to happen. You can't give a movie like this a happy ending. It must play out to its natural tragic conclusion. Anything else would be a cop out and ruin everything that had been established. What would the moral be?

Shamefully "Paths of Glory" did not receive a single Academy Award nomination. Surely nominations for best picture, Mr. Kubrick's directing and Mr. Douglas' performance were worthy. Mr. Douglas' performance in particular is the heart and soul of the movie as Mr. Douglas is the movie's moral compass.

"Paths of Glory" may not have been a movie audiences would expect from a young Stanley Kubrick in the 1950s but the movie has something in common with Mr. Kubrick's later films such as "Spartacus" (1960) with its moral message, which also starred Kirk Douglas and naturally "Full Metal Jacket" (1987) with its anti-war message. However Mr. Kubrick's early movies do not share much else with his later films other than they all nearly all masterpieces.

I'm not sure when one should see this in relation to Mr. Kubrick's other films. All I know is it needs to be seen.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Film Review: The Blue Gardenia

"The Blue Gardenia"  *** (out of ****)

Playing with a woman's affection proves to be deadly in Fritz Lang's noir mystery "The Blue Gardenia" (1953).

Fritz Lang's "The Blue Gardenia" may not be as well known as some of Mr. Lang's other films and unfortunately it may be for good reasons although a bit of an over reaction to an otherwise decent movie.

The German filmmaker, who directed several masterpieces in the silent era, including "Metropolis" (1927) and "M" (1931), was never quite able to duplicate his success in American cinema and make movies as influential as those early German films, though his American debut film, "Fury" (1936), is one of Mr. Lang's crowning achievements. The American films Mr. Lang directed were mostly psychological noir stories, sometimes dealing with gender roles, more specifically masculinity. This is seen in "The Woman in the Window" (1944), "Scarlet Street" (1945) and "Clash By Night" (1952).

That is what makes "The Blue Gardenia" a bit different. The lead character this time is a woman. The movie doesn't comment on femininity really and has nothing to say about masculinity. Instead it boils down to a rather routine, predictable story, which is not how you want to describe a Fritz Lang movie.

Fritz Lang was a brilliant filmmaker, who often doesn't get his due. Mr. Lang never received an Academy Award nomination for his directing and to this day has not even received an honorary lifetime achievement award from the Academy, as so often they do when they shamefully neglect to honor the great artist they passed up for the flavor of the month. Mr. Lang directed better movies than "The Blue Gardenia". You expect more from the movie because of Mr. Lang. You expect a great message, more suspense. If "The Blue Gardenia" had been directed by someone else we might be more impressed. Still, one can't call "The Blue Gardenia" a time waster. It is passable entertainment but not necessarily memorable. You can't say the same about Mr. Lang's other movies.

This time around we follow a telephone operator, Norah (Anne Baxter). Her boyfriend is fighting in Korea. Norah leads a quite, simple life with her two roommates; Crystal (Ann Sothern) and Sally (Jeff Donnell), both of whom also work as telephone operators. Today is Norah's birthday. Her plan is to make dinner for two, place her boyfriend's photo on the dinner table and read the letter she has received from him. Even though her boyfriend is not around, Norah wants to do whatever she can to "keep him around".

And so it is devastating for her when she learns her boyfriend has fallen in love with a nurse from Tokyo who nursed him back to good health. Her feelings of betrayment lead her to want to exact some sort of revenge by having a night out on the town. As luck would have it Norah receives a phone call from a notorious wolf (what we used to call a ladies man), Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr), who mistakes her for Crystal and asks her to meet him at the nightclub "The Blue Gardenia". Norah agrees to meet him and will explain the misunderstanding when she arrives.

Harry is not looking for an innocent good time and plans on getting his date just drunk enough that he will be able to take her back to his place and take advantage of her. Norah, initially, falls right into Harry's trap. When back at his place, Harry begins to make his move but Norah resist and fights Harry off with a fire poker. The next morning Norah wakes up with a hangover and a foggy memory and Harry is found dead. Is there a connection?

Some may think this idea is original. However there have been other movies about people blacking out prior to a murder, while all the clues lead to them. One example is the "B" movie "Fear in the Night" (1947) while others have suggested "The Blue Gardenia" is really a remake of the Otto Preminger film "Whirlpool" (1949).

What will separate "The Blue Gardenia" from other similar movies will be the acting. By the time "The Blue Gardenia" was released Anne Baxter had already won two Academy Awards. One for her performance in "The Razor's Edge" (1946) and the other for "All About Eve" (1950). Ann Sothern became known for appearing mostly in comedies and by this point had starred in the Eddie Cantor comedy "Kid Millions" (1934), the Cole Porter musical "Panama Hattie" (1942) and the dramatic "A Letter to Three Wives" (1949). Ms. Sothern was also currently starring in the television show "Private Secretary". As good as Ann Sothern is in the role, one can't help but wonder why wasn't Eve Arden given the role?

It has been said "The Blue Gardenia" is a critical look at American life in the 1950s and is an indictment against journalistic values. I'm not exactly sure which version of 'The Blue Gardenia" these people have seen but it sure isn't this version. If that was Mr. Lang's intention it goes about it much too subtle. The audience does not come to hate journalist in this movie.

Richard Conte plays Los Angeles Chronicle reporter Casey Mayo, who tries to sensationalize Harry Prebble's murder, after police cannot find the culprit, by giving the lady the nickname "The Blue Gardenia". He writes an open letter in his column asking her to give him the exclusive story before going to the police.

There was definitely a way to convey the themes others have suggested in "The Blue Gardenia" but you would have to make the Casey Mayo character despicable. He would have to be presented as a ruthless reporter only interested in headlines. A man of loose moral fiber. That is not played up in this movie. At times "The Blue Gardenia" tries to make him a sympathetic character, a move which the movie doesn't earn. It happens too sudden and is not believable.

If anything, "The Blue Gardenia" suggest it isn't only men capable of violence, women have a killer instinct too. The worst thing a man can do is upset a woman and jilt her. Women don't take too kindly to that and that makes them violent. It is the old cliche, still perpetuated in Hollywood, a woman is always the victim of a man's cruelty.

Others will find it interesting to note television's "Superman", George Reeves, has a role as a police officer and sports a mustache to help make him unrecognizable. You will also see and hear Nat "King" Cole as he sings the movie's theme song "The Blue Gardenia", which has an arrangement by Nelson Riddle, famed for working with Frank Sinatra.

"The Blue Gardenia" is a good movie but not a great one. Fritz Lang has dealt with similar material before and handled it much better, not to mention others movies, not directed by Mr. Lang, that have had familiar story-lines. Ms. Baxter and Ms. Sothern turn in good performances and make the movie watchable. This wouldn't however serve as a good introduction into the work of Mr. Lang. He may be best known for his German films but there are some good American films viewers should see before this one including "The Big Heat" (1953), "Human Desire" (1954) and "Hangmen Also Die!" (1943).

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Film Review: Bullets Over Broadway

"Bullets Over Broadway"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

[This review will contain spoilers without proper warning. Please do not read if you have not seen this movie.]

The young playwright complains he will not pander to appeal to a commercial audience. The old producer tells the playwright he likes his new play, it is about something, but he can't produce it. He can't afford another flop.

So begins Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994) a satirical look at the Broadway stage and America in the 1920s.

Although Woody Allen doesn't appear in the movie, his devoted fans will immediately recognize his voice in the young playwright David Shayne (John Cusack). David elaborates he wants to direct his new play as well, especially after his last two plays were flops. David says he had to sit back powerless and remain silent as actors changed his dialogue and directors misinterpreted his work.

This is not unlike Mr. Allen's own beginnings. Though Mr. Allen was first introduced to the public as a stand-up comedian in the 1960s, his first venture into films was as a screenwriter for the comedy "What's New Pussycat?" (1965). He also wrote his own lines for the spy spoof "Casino Royale" (1967). Mr. Allen has complained about both experiences and has cited them as his main influence for wanting to direct his own movies, as a method of self-defense.

Mr. Allen has often been accused of having all of his characters speak the way he does. When Mr. Allen does not appear in one of his movies there is usually a role believed to have been the role Mr. Allen would have cast himself in. From the very first scene it is clear David Shayne is the "Woody Allen character".

"Bullets Over Broadway", like so many other Woody Allen comedies, is much smarter than audiences may give it credit for, as serious ideas are discussed such as box-office appeal vs critical praise, which has more merit? What makes an artist an artist? Does society have preconceived notions about who is an artist and how they should look? And does an artist create their own moral universe? Should an artist's "bad behavior" be excused if they create great art?

That last point, critics of Mr. Allen, will argue is the main theme and justification of Mr. Allen's film and his defense for his own behavior. When "Bullets Over Broadway" was released it came off the heels of an ugly public dispute between Mr. Allen and his girlfriend, Mia Farrow with allegations that Mr. Allen had molested Ms. Farrow's adopted children. Mr. Allen denied all charges and the case against him was dismissed in court. Of course the allegations hurt Mr. Allen's public persona which translated into weak box-office appeal, which was never very strong for Mr. Allen to begin with. Was Mr. Allen telling the public, through "Bullets Over Broadway", I cannot be judged by the same standards as others. I am a great artist. My art must be factored into account when being judged.

In Mr. Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway" the theater is not unlike Hollywood as artist struggle to get their work produced. Producers want to put their girlfriends in roles. And everybody has ideas how to make something more commercial. In "Bullets Over Broadway" David Shayne is presented a Faustian bargain with the Devil when the old producer, Julian Marx (Jack Warden) informs him a gangster, Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli) is willing to produce David's new play on the condition his girlfriend, Olive (Jennifer Tilly) is given a role. She is currently a chorus girl but has acting aspirations.

And so what is success worth to David? Is he willing to take the gangster's money? Will he surrender to the gangster's demands and provide Olive with a role? Inevitability the answer is yes. In order to live with his compromise David insist on casting Broadway legend Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest) and esteemed actor Warner Purcell (Jim Broadbent) in the lead roles.

With another filmmaker at the helm this plot set-up would be sufficient enough and "Bullets Over Broadway" would work as a behind-the-scenes look at the trials and tribulations of what it takes to get a Broadway show made. With Woody Allen, along with Douglas McGrath, co-writing the screenplay audiences could expect sharp, witty dialogue. And that would be enough to make a funny movie but Mr. Allen and Mr. McGrath have an ace up their sleeve and have created an additional twist. Nick Valenti informs one of the men who works for him, Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), to act as Olive's bodyguard while she attends rehearsals. And so Cheech sits in the back of the theater, day after day, listening to the actors speak their lines until one day he makes a suggestion which actually improves the play. Soon Cheech makes more and more suggestions which begs the questions, who is the real artist Cheech or David?

"Bullets Over Broadway" creates a lot of characters which serves as reflections for each other. For example David believes he is a great artist that the public has not learned to appreciate yet. Olive on the other hand also believes she has great talent which has not been discovered yet. Helen Sinclair was once an acting legend but now is known for being a drunk and an adulterer. She matches our perception of how an artist should look and act whereas Cheech is also an artist but doesn't meet our preconceived notions.

This is perfectly illustrated in the opening scenes of the movie. As David and Julian are discussing David's play Julian informs him he cannot produce it and David should not direct it, a big name talent behind it will make it easier to raise money. Julian tells David he doesn't realise what kind of tough world it is. The next scene shows Cheech shooting someone. It really is a tough world. Next we see Oliver perform a song with a chorus at a nightclub. After the show, backstage, she argues with Nick. Nick promised to make her a star. Olive feels her talent is wasting. This scene mirrors the earlier one between David and Julian.

There are even early comparisons between Olive and Helen. When they both first read the script they are disappointed with their offered roles. Olive is upset because she has not been offered the lead. Helen is upset because the lead character is not "sexy" enough for her. Both think of ways to make changes to the character and suggest them to David. David dismisses Olive's ideas because who is she? Olive is a nobody in David's eyes. David dismisses Julian's initial ideas too. Who is Julian? David dismisses Cheech's first suggestion. Cheech is a thug to David. None of these people have any artist merit in David's eyes. It is only when Helen makes a suggest David is responsive. Helen is a star to David. Her opinion matters. Helen is an artist.

"Bullets Over Broadway" at one point has David's girlfriend, Ellen (Mary-Louis Parker) muse to herself, do women fall in love with the man or the artist? Of course the flip side of that is do men fall in love with the woman or the artist? The audience sees this presented in the relationship between Helen and David. David clearly idolizes Helen and later claims he thinks he loves her but what is he in love with? The woman or the artist? Helen makes advances towards David. But is she using David? Is she responding to the man or the artist?

Woody Allen makes sure "Bullets Over Broadway" represents the time period quite well. Mr. Allen has always shown a good eye for details in all of his period pieces. Here Mr. Allen makes sure the music reflects the era by only using songs which were written in the 1920s. There are some original recordings - we hear Al Jolson sing "Toot, Toot Tootsie" and Eddie Cantor sing "Ma (He's Making Eyes At Me)" as well as modern recordings of classic songs from The Three Deuces Musicians. As well as excellent costume designs and set decorations, both of which were nominated for Academy Awards and help visually establish the time period.

Plus lets not over-look the most important aspect of "Bullets Over Broadway", it is funny! Helen brags she has not had a drink since New Year's Eve, to which someone tells her you mean Chinese New Year's right? Helen confirms and says yes but it has still been two days! Helen and David go out for a drink after rehearsal and she orders two martinis. David is impressed Helen knows what he likes to drink, afterwards Helen changes the order to three martinis. Then there is the character Warner Purcell, a compulsive eater. At first Warner looks nice and slim. He is on a strict diet but once the pressure of the play sets in with rehearsals we see Warner slowly start to eat more and more, hiding food from everyone else.

"Bullets Over Broadway" was nominated for seven Academy Awards including best director (Allen), best original screenplay (Allen & McGrath) and won one for best supporting actress (Wiest). It remains a fast, fresh and witty comedy from one of the greatest American comedy filmmakers working today. It is a highlight in a decade that saw Mr. Allen nearly routinely put out impressive films, the 1990s. Don't speak, just laugh!

p.s. "Bullets Over Broadway" was turned into a Broadway musical in 2014 with an adaptation written by Mr. Allen. It was not a success (it closed after 156 performances) but is currently on tour. Recently I saw the stage version in Chicago and must say it is an absolute disgrace. It is so bad it is actually hard to believe Mr. Allen had anything to do with. Not one single contribution made to the play was either funny or worthwhile. If anything the play reminds us just how good this movie really is especially with this terrific ensemble which also includes Rob Reiner and Tracey Ullman.

Film Review: Ulysses' Gaze

"Ulysses' Gaze"  **** (out of ****)

The filmmaker tells a story of how once he took a photograph of a landscape and discovered no picture had developed. He changed his position and took another photo and once again no picture developed. Later the filmmaker learns of three reels of film, dated at the beginning of the 20th century, believed to have been lost, taken by the Manaki Brothers, cinema pioneers who brought motion pictures to the Balkans. He then sets out on a journey to find the reels.

The movie is "Ulysses' Gaze" (1997) and was directed by the legendary Greek filmmaker and master of imagery Theo Angelopoulos. Unfortunately, like so many other movies by this master filmmaker, the movie was greeted with a mixed reaction in America. Today the movie is largely forgotten and the name Theo Angelopoulos means nothing.

The story the filmmaker, known in the movie as "A" (Harvey Keitel) tells regarding the photograph may be key for audiences to understand this epic masterpiece. "Ulysses' Gaze" can be interpreted as a story of a man looking for his soul, his imprint on the world, which like the photograph he took is undeveloped. The three reels "A" goes searching for are a metaphor. Here is a story of two "lost" things looking to be found.

"A" (many believe the "A" stands for Angelopoulos) repeatedly says he is on a "personal journey". His "odyssey" (do we dare use that word?) takes him to many lands and at times Mr. Angelopoulos has "A"s journey serve as a parallel to the journey the Manaki Brothers endured. History has a way of repeating itself. During the time of the Manaki Brothers they traveled through the region during the Balkan Wars and World War 1. They encountered refugees and saw destruction. And so does "A". This time it is the Bosnian War. Each country, each city "A" visits, as he follows the footsteps of the Manaki's, his own memories flood back to him of his childhood growing up in the Balkans as well.

Others though have interpreted Mr. Angelopoulos' film as a commentary on the value / meaning of art during war. "Ulysses' Gaze" was filmmed in 1994 in the Balkans. The movie takes us to Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Bosnia, ending in Sarajevo. There is definitely an element of this theme in "Ulysses' Gaze". I see the film as a marriage of both interpretations.

Why, some have asked, does "A" so desperately want to find the three reels? What could be so important about them? Both interpretations answer these questions. In times of war, after witnessing the destruction and devastation mankind can cause, where and how do we seek solace? Is it not through art? Do we not listen to a beautiful piece of music? Read our favorite novel? Watch a movie? Does art not distract us?

We see the effects art has on the war torn city of Sarajevo. Mr. Angelopoulos shows us bombed buildings, dead bodies in the streets, roads destroyed. And soon the fog comes in (is it the fog of war?) and the city returns to the way it was before war. People come out into the streets again. We hear a youth choir play music in the town square. A crowd gathers to listen. In another part of town people are dancing in the streets to music. Art distracts us. If nothing else, that is its value.

On this "personal journey" "A" also encounters three women, all played by the same actress, Maia Morgenstern, who serves as one more piece of his missing soul, a figure of passion and desire long gone in his life. A figure which represents "home", another theme of the movie. That everlasting desire to return "home" but "home" can never be what it once was, especially in the Balkans at a time of war and talk of borders, sadly we are still talking about borders.

There are those that will say this all sounds rather pretentious. That is not an original criticism. It was said of "Ulysses' Gaze" when it was first released in America and has been said of Mr. Angelopoulos' other films including "Landscape in the Mist" (1990) "The Suspended Step of the Stork" (1992) and "Eternity And A Day" (1999). Others that have seen this movie have complained the dialogue is portentous. It is too long (the film runs nearly three hours) and Harvey Keitel was miscast. The late Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert called this movie a "bore" and rated it one star.

That is the risk you run when you refuse to make cookie-cutter art. Critics may have some validity with their complaint regarding Harvey Keitel being cast in the movie. Why was Mr. Keitel cast as a Greek - American filmmaker? Perhaps having an American star would help financing or distribution. However Mr. Keitel is able to project the meditation qualities associated with the character. Some argue Mr. Keitel delivers all of his lines monotone and looks as if he is sleep walking through the performance. To me Mr. Keitel looks like a man waging an inner conflict. A man lost searching for meaning.

The so-called portentous dialogue is supposed to be poetic. The dialogue admittedly does not have a naturalistic quality to it. The characters do not speak in the way "normal people" speak. The dialogue is meant to convey philosophy and the movie's central themes.

Mr. Angelopoulos engaged in a style of filmmaking not on display much anymore. It was fairly common however in art-house in America as late as the 1970s. Mr. Angelopoulos fills his movies with long single takes and vast landscapes with sparse dialogue. The movies are more about mood and emotions. Films like "Ulysses' Gaze" are meditative and reflective. Today the world moves much too fast. People can't stay off their "smart phones". Recently AMC Theaters entertained the idea of allowing people to text during the movie. "Ulysses' Gaze" and films like it ask too much of us. It is not surprising audiences reject it.

But if you are able to fall under the film's spell "Ulysses' Gaze" is an rewarding experience. The movie creates unforgettable visuals. Visuals which have personally stayed with me ever since I saw this movie nearly 15 years ago. One scene includes a group of protesters walking through the empty streets of Greece with candles. There is a light mist. Police come with riot gear. On lookers arrive with umbrellas. All we see are the tops of the umbrellas. It is a visual which recalls something Alfred Hitchcock did in "Foreign Correspondent" (1940). We see refugees standing by the ocean as snow covers the ground. Two of the most impressive moments in the film involves a statue of Lenin being transported by sea and a family gathering eclipsing through five years of history in a few minutes and all done in one take.

My favorite story regarding "Ulysses' Gaze" and Theo Angelopoulos took place at the Cannes Film Festival where the movie was nominated for the Palme d'Or. "Ulysses' Gaze" did not win the top prize instead winning the "Grand Prize of the Jury". When presented with the award Mr. Angelopoulos said, "if this is all you have to give me, I have nothing to say." The winner of the Palme d'Or that year was Emir Kusturica's "Underground" (1997), also about the Balkans and also a masterpiece.

I love the story because it displays what kind of movie "Ulysses' Gaze" is. It is uncompromising. It is confident (some would say narcissistic). Mr. Angelopoulos fully believes in this story and its worth. Directors usually, if not always, set out to make their masterpiece with each new film, with "Ulysses' Gaze" Mr. Angelopoulos must have felt this was his masterpiece and it was not being appreciated.

"Ulysses' Gaze" is a slow moving picture but its rewards are plenty. A meditative, haunting piece of poetry the movie was one of Mr. Angelopoulos' grand achievements and was one of the best films of 1997, when it was released in America. The movie was released on DVD but is no longer in circulation. I own a VHS copy, which you are still able to find at a reasonable price. Some of the prices for a used DVD are ridiculously high.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Film Review: An Affair Of Love

"An Affair Of Love"  **** (out of ****)

What do you think of when you hear the word affair? Adultery? Is it a dirty word? Does it imply sex? What do you make of the title, an affair of love?

For a movie with the word "affair" and "love" in it, plus, a more than suggestive poster, "An Affair Of Love" (2000) is not about adultery or sex. To be honest, it may not even be about love either.

Here is movie about men and women, dating, dating rules, desires and our inability to communicate with one another especially regarding matters of intimacy and sex.

"An Affair of Love", a French film directed by Frederic Fonteyne, was released in that most horrid of movie years - 2000. When I initially saw it back then I declared it one of the best movies of the year and placed it in the number eight spot of my top ten list that year. I hadn't seen the movie since that time. When I saw "An Affair of Love" a second time I wasn't as emotionally struck by it. It was no longer a four star movie to me. Perhaps three stars would be more fitting. I attributed this change in opinion to my age. Back in 2000 I was 17 years ago. A movie like "An Affair Of Love" seemed so mature to me. So adult. But I wasn't prepared to dismiss this movie. Was "An Affair Of Love" a movie worthy of my initial opinion? Did it deserve to be on my top ten list? I have watched "An Affair Of Love" two more times. It still baffles me.

The movie begins with a man and woman being interviewed separately about a relationship they had between each other years ago. The woman placed an ad on a dating website to meet a man for a weekly sexual encounter regarding a fantasy she has always wanted to realize. Her previous partners were put off by the idea of her fantasy and so it remained only a fantasy. Soon the woman finds herself single and wonders perhaps now would be the time for her to explore her desires.

The woman is known only as She (Nathalie Baye). The man is He (Sergi Lopez). They are both middle-aged and attractive. She seems very confident and comfortable in her skin. He comes across as shy and perhaps the more romantic of the two. Though both recall each other fondly.

What is immediately interesting about "An Affair Of Love" is the different memories the two have when discussing the same encounter. For example she says she placed her ad on a website. He says he answered her ad in a pornographic magazine, which he has kept (in plastic) as a souvenir. He says he responded to her ad by sending her a letter with his photo. She says they never exchanged photos and did not know what each other looked like until they met in person. What is the cause for these different memories? Do we simply remember what we want to remember? Do we try to rearrangement our memories so they fit into a better narrative? Is it a gender issue? Do men and women remember events differently?

This is interesting because as we watch the movie and see events play out the audience must ask themselves, from whose perspective are we seeing this? "An Affair Of Love" seems to have a neutral position. We hear the characters speak in voice-over recalling memories of various encounters only to see images which don't correlate. When speaking of a particular sexual encounter between the two She remembers it being a perfect experience. She says it was the first time she experienced a simultaneous orgasm with a partner. We don't hear his thoughts on this encounter however what we see is different. He complains that this has never happened to him before. She tells him not to worry. She still enjoyed herself. Again, whose memories are we seeing and why does She have a different memory?

Because we are not seeing one particular character's view of events "An Affair Of Love" has an impersonal feel. We never truly get to know these characters. We never even hear them address one another by their names. They have a no names agreement. We understand her motivates for placing the ad but what was his motive for answering it?

This may make it difficult for some to become emotionally involved in the movie. Personally I enjoy watching movies about characters I am able to relate to. Situations I can relate to. "An Affair Of Love" may be a bit too challenging. Then I thought it seems rather fitting for a movie about lack of communication. Why should the audience know more about these people when the characters don't know each other. The audience is in a sense sharing in the impersonal experience as well.

As such we become voyeurs yet we do not see all. She and He meet at a local bar and then proceed to a nearby hotel. The audience never sees the couple in the hotel room as they engage in her fantasy. On the rare occasion the audience is permitted to see what goes on in the hotel room the fantasy is not being explored.  

Some may want to know what is the secret fantasy of She. It is never revealed but the details of the fantasy are not important. The fantasy is, in Hitchcockian terms, the MacGuffin of the story, something of no interest to the audience only the characters. Secret fantasies are not the point of the movie. "An Affair Of Love" is much more interested in telling us a story suggesting the fear of rejection dictates our decision making process. An inability to "read" people, due to lack of communication, causes us to make the "wrong" decisions. When it comes to love people are afraid to "put themselves out there".

The concept of two people meeting for a weekly sexual encounter may have audiences think of a movie like "Last Tango In Paris" (1972). That movie was about a grieving process and loneliness. The characters in "An Affair Of Love" are a different kind of lonely and one could argue they are not even looking for love because they realize what that would imply, the vulnerability required. Better to engage in a no names asked purely sexual affair.

I'm no longer sure of how great "An Affair Of Love" may be however this is a movie deserving of multiple viewings. Something new will be revealed to you with each viewing, a gesture, a glance which you hadn't noticed before. This is a smart movie with something to say. Perhaps the older we become the more the movie will say to us.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Film Review: Greed

*** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Greed is good." 
Gordon Gekko - Wall Street (1987)  

[Note: This review is in reference to the 1999 four hour version presented by Turner Classic Movies which features photo stills in place of lost footage.]

A woman wins a lottery prize of $5,000 and quickly those around her, friends and family, grow jealous and resentful. Why did she win, they ask themselves. Each of them believe they were more deserving. She didn't need the money. Oh Lord, they plead, I have worked and slaved to save money, I have struggled to pay my bills, why didn't you let me win?

You also may not say these things out loud but I'm willing to bet at one time or another you have thought these things when learning of someone's good fortune. Sadly it is human nature. It is difficult for people to take delight in the success of others.

Erich von Stroheim's silent drama "Greed" (1924) has been widely considered one of the greatest films ever made. For a movie more than 90 years old it contains a lot of universal truths about people and is still able to get a reaction out of viewers which only proves great movies never lose their power.

"Greed", based on the novel "McTeague" by Frank Norris, was originally conceived as a nine hour movie by Erich von Stroheim. Prior to its general public release MGM took the movie away from Mr. von Stroheim and edited it down to approximately two hours. As a result Mr. von Stroheim was deeply hurt by MGM's actions and disowned the movie, which he originally thought was his masterpiece. The original, uncut, nine hour version of "Greed" has been called the "holy grail" by film scholars and historians.

Watching the four hour version of "Greed" is something of a challenging experience. Half of the movie consist of the audience watching photo stills on-screen with inter-titles describing the scenes. This breaks the emotional flow of the movie and makes it difficult to judge the acting and directing of the movie. At four hours the movie goes in a lot of directions which weren't necessary which leads one to wonder what was in the nine hour version? MGM's two hour version was probably edited a bit too much. A shortened mixture of these two versions would have been the most satisfying. Unfortunately it will never be.

Erich von Stroheim made "Greed" during a decade which brought about great economic prosperity in America after the end of World War I and ended with the worst economic collapse in U.S. history. Was Mr. von Stroheim's tale a cautionary one concerned about high consumer spending? If anything "Greed" tells us an old universal truth. Who are the greedy in society? Only those that have are greedy not those that don't have. If I have nothing and you take half of it, half of nothing is still nothing. Now, if I have a million dollars and you want half of it, well, that's a different story.

And so it is in "Greed" as we follow John McTeague (Gibson Gowland), the son of a drunkard father who has abandoned his paternal responsibilities and abuses his wife. John's mother (Tempe Pigott) hopes for a better life for her son. When a traveling dentist (Erich von Ritzau) enters town Mrs. McTeague believes this would be a good, respectable profession for her son, who currently works at a coal mine. After his mother pleads with the dentist, John becomes his apprentice.

Learning all that he could, John sets up his own business and becomes friendly with Marcus (Jean Hersholt) a big-shot loafer. One day Marcus's fiancee, Trina (ZaSu Pitts) comes into the dental office for repairs on a broken tooth. For John it is love at first sight. Being all consumed by the thought of Trina, John tells Marcus of his feelings. In a sign of friendship, Marcus agrees to step aside and allows John to court Trina.

As Trina and Marcus waited in John's office, during their first meeting, Maria (Dale Fuller), a half-crazed destitute, asks Trina if she would like to buy a lottery ticket. The jackpot is $5,000. Trina hesitantly purchases a ticket.

John and Trina begin a courtship and soon John proposes marriage. Trina is conflicted by this. She doesn't love John enough to marry him. She feels he is slightly beneath her. John is persistent though and his persistence wins out as Trina agrees to marry him. It is at this point Trina discovers she has won the lottery and the jackpot. No one, except John, is happy for her.

Marcus feels cheated. He was engaged to Trina and if he still had been that money would have been his. Trina's neighbors each feel more deserving of the money, especially Maria and her friend Zerkow (Cesare Gravina), the local junkman. When will their ship come in?

With this new fortune in hand Trina becomes a different person as the vicious vice of greed has griped her. Now she has something and it is all hers and she will protect it at any and all cost. It is here we see the different mentality of the rich and poor. John believes the the lottery prize they can both lead a comfortable life. Buy a new home, go out for nice dinners but Trina doesn't want to part with her money and constantly says they simply can't afford it.

Trina is perfectly willing to have them struggle, living in a cheap apartment, buying old food because it is cheaper, always suggesting splitting her expenses and sometimes lying about the amount of money she has so John can pay. All the while she saves her own money, fondling and caressing it. This of course perpetuates an old cliche about married life. Whatever is the husband's belongs to the wife. Whatever is the wife's belongs to her.

To serve as a counterbalance to these characters Mr. von Stroheim created two sub-plots, all of these scenes were edited out of MGM's version and are believed to be lost, which follow Zerkow marrying Maria because he believes she has a hidden fortune and an elderly couple, Mr. Grannis (Frank Hayes) and Miss Baker (Fanny Midgley) who love each from afar. These scenes are presented in the four hour version by showing photo stills. They were intended to serve as a moral compass. Zerkow, like Trina, is consumed by greed. Maria used to ramble on about a gold dinning set her family owed, that is now lost. After they are married Zerkow repeatedly asks her about it. Maria denies ever mentioning it, which leads Zerkow to believe Maria is holding out on him. Their story ends tragically.

On the other hand, Mr. Grannis and Miss Baker are not consumed by greed. They are content living the life they lead and do not pray for more fortune but instead seek love. The moral being, love should motivate people not greed and a thirst for wealth. Remember what the bible tells us in 1Timothy 6:10 - "the love of money is the root of all evil".

These sub-plots and much of the imagery in "Greed" feels a bit too on the nose. It is obvious what Mr. von Stroheim's intentions were and the message the audience should come away it. Take for example a scene in which Marcus, still filled with resentment and hatred, visits John and Trina pretending to make amends. Marcus says he will be leaving town and would like to say his goodbyes. This sequence is crosscut with an image of a cat preying on two caged birds. It is clear who is suppose to represent the cat and who are the caged birds. In another scene Mr. von Stroheim makes dramatic use of a broken smoking pipe. Marcus for the first time expresses his resentment towards John, who is smoking a pipe. The two have a physical encounter which leads the smoking pipe to fall to the ground and break. Marcus and John's friendship, like the smoking pipe, is now broken.

Finally there is a famous 30 minute ending sequence which takes place on location in Death Valley. The shooting location alone foreshadows events, which is only further cemented by a final image that all at once feels sarcastic, poignant and in a twisted way humorous. Only a fool would reveal more.

Stories of the filming of the ending sequence are legendary with reports claiming the weather hit more than 120 degrees during shooting causing members of the cast and crew to become ill. Jean Hersholt says he lost 27 pounds during the shoot and spent a week in a hospital. The camera even needed to be protected and was cooled with iced towels

Still there is no way to deny the artistry of Mr. von Stroheim's film. With "Greed" alone Mr. von Stroheim established himself as a major figure in the history of silent cinema alongside other distinguished filmmakers such as D.W. Griffith and King Vidor. "Greed" was a movie only a artist with a unique, confident vision could have made. "Greed" was Mr. von Stroheim's greatest achievement, a film I prefer over his other acclaimed silent film, "The Wedding March" (1928), which features much of the same cast, including a role for Mr. von Stroheim himself.

One interesting note about the casting of the film was the choice of ZaSu Pitts as Trina. ZaSu Pitts, while perhaps best known for her appearance in this movie, was actually a comedian, who worked at the famed Hal Roach studios, where she was teamed with Thelma Todd, in Mr. Roach's attempt to create a new comedy team ala Laurel & Hardy. She didn't play greedy characters in her career instead usually playing absent-minded, flustered women. If you are familiar with Ms. Pitts, her appearance in this movie will seem strange yet she proves herself to be a capable actress.

For as great a cinematic accomplishment as "Greed" is the movie has been treated very poorly. Not only is seven hours of the movie missing and forever lost. Not only do audiences have to watch a version with photo stills taking up half of its running time but the movie has never been put on DVD! This is an outrage. Why hasn't this movie been properly transferred to DVD?! Why deny the public the opportunity to see this highly regarded film? What exactly is MGM or Turner Classic Movies waiting for? The movie's 100th anniversary?!

There are three ways to guarantee you are able to see this movie. One is to buy a VHS copy, if you still have a VCR. Two is to buy an unofficial copy of the Turner Classic Movies version which is on DVD but with German subtitles. And three is to watch the two hour version on youtube. There is a fourth option but no guarantee. TCM might play the movie on television as they have done in the past.

However you see "Greed" it will be worth your time and effort. All serious movie lovers would agree this is one of the landmarks of cinema.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Film Review: Country Gentlemen

"Country Gentlemen"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

The team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson prove they are no country bumpkins in the comedy "Country Gentlemen" (1936).

From time to time it has been expressed I enjoy watching comedies which make no sense. Comedies which sacrifice plot for jokes. That is somewhat misleading as this Olsen & Johnson comedy will prove.

A good comedy should have a somewhat coherent story-line. There should be something which resembles a beginning, middle and end. When you have a minimally involving plot mixed with plenty of laughs it makes the movie worth watching. Even if a comedy has a "weak" plot an abundance of good jokes will make up for it.

The forgotten comedy team of Olsen & Johnson gained fame in the 1930s by appearing in broad comedies filled with visual and verbal puns. There was an anarchy to their comedies. The team's critics often described their comedy style as "nut humor". Their movies were sometimes self-referential and didn't always follow a consistent plot. Their best known comedy may be "Hellzapoppin" (1941) which was actually more of a revue with comedy, songs and dance, based on their successful Broadway show of the same title. The team followed up that movie with "Crazy House" (1943) and "See My Lawyer" (1945), their final movie. Both movies tried to imitate their predecessor's style but neither movie worked quite as well as "Hellzapoppin" if for no other reason than it is difficult for lightening to strike the same spot twice.

"Country Gentlemen", the fourth feature length comedy Olsen & Johnson appeared in together, has funny moments in it but with a running time of 53 minutes, something is missing. The comedy isn't wild enough, there aren't enough big conflicts for the boys to overcome, the plot is weaker than weak. According to the website the original running time of the movie was 66 minutes. Clearly the movie was tampered with and necessary scenes may have either found their way on the editing room floor or are lost.

In one way you can call "Country Gentlemen" a light diversion. It is only 53 minutes and could be seen as harmless fun. And that wouldn't be misrepresenting the movie if described as such however you have to draw the line somewhere. Audiences can watch other loosely constructed comedies like "Diplomaniacs" (1933), "Hellzapoppin", "Million Dollar Legs" (1932) or "Duck Soup" (1933) and for as wild and exaggerated as those comedies may be they still had something that resembled a plot and gave audiences something to follow and characters to cheer for or boo. "Country Gentlemen" doesn't. And that's a significant difference.

This time around the boys play two con-artist; J.D. Hamilton (Olsen) and "Chubby" Williams (Johnson). They have been selling stock in a worthless gold mining company and when Williams unknowingly sells some of the stock to a district attorney's wife, the boys quickly pack their belongings and head out of town.

The boys travel to the small town of Chesterville, along with their secretary, Gertie (Joyce Compton). Upon arriving the boys find themselves arrested on kidnapping charges when they drive a young runaway (Sammy McKim) back home to his mother (Lila Lee).

After the charges are dropped and everything is explained Hamilton and Williams begin to realize the town of Chesterville would be easy pickings for them to sell their phony stock. However Hamilton no longer wants to lead a life running away from the police and wants to go straight. For Williams the temptation is too strong to make a buck.

Through a misunderstanding the boys end up the owners of a worthless piece of land. To make their money back they pretend there is oil on the land and soon everyone wants to give them money. Will the boys be able to get away with their scheme? Will the new investors come after the boys' necks?

Nearly nothing in "Country Gentlemen" is played out fully. Why on earth was there a kidnapping sub-plot? It does nothing for the movie except to introduce the mother character to the boys. Do you mean to tell me there wasn't another way to do this? The mother couldn't have been driving after her boy and spot him? The whole kidnapping idea is a waste of time.

The double crossing business deals aren't exaggerated enough and heightened for comedic effect. Established conflicts are resolved too quickly. And the secretary character, a ditsy blonde the boys owe money too, is unnecessary. The character is able to get some laughs and at times works well with Olsen & Johnson but you have to ask yourself, plot-wise, what does this character contribute?

Still there are laughs to be found in "Country Gentlemen". When packing to leave town Williams starts to wash his hands. Hamilton notices this and angrily tells Williams there is no time for him to wash his hands to which Williams replies "you said you wanted to make a clean getaway, didn't cha?" When the police are roughing up the boys for a confession concerning the kidnapping charge Williams places two glass cups in front of his eyes and tells the police "you wouldn't hit a man with glasses, would ya?"

A lot of today's audience will probably find these type of jokes corny and out-of-date. But these are the jokes you will get. Either you warm up to Mr. Johnson's delivery style or you don't. Audiences may also become annoyed by Mr. Johnson's  trademark high-pitched laugh which he would often burst out. It was might sound like something you would hear The Joker (from Batman) do, which was the point. It was meant to emphasize Olsen & Johnson's maniac characters and their approach to comedy.

To be fair most audiences during their era never really warmed up to Olsen & Johnson. Together they appeared in nine feature length comedies, not counting television appearances and comedy shorts. Their output was considerably less than other comedy teams of the era such as Abbott & Costello (to whom they are sometimes compared to), Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers and the equally forgotten team of Wheeler & Woolsey. The team found more success on the stage and in nightclubs than in Hollywood, which proved to be too restrictive for them.

The appeal of Olsen & Johnson is one similar to Martin & Lewis. It was two guys goofing around, having fun and the audience got to participate. We are having fun because they are having fun. Their comedy thrives on chaos, they needed a live audience to feed off of and ad-lib. Naturally you cannot do that when filming a movie.

"Country Gentlemen" wants to have a chaotic feel and create absurd situations for the boys but it never reaches the level of lunacy it strives to achieve. Maybe seeing the full 66 minute version would change that. What is missing in those 13 minutes? Would it add some clarity to the plot? The movie does a lot of things right but too much is missing from the movie for it all to make sense.

If you want to see Olsen & Johnson performing with better material watch their follow-up movie "All Over Town" (1937), "50 Million Frenchmen" (1931) or "Hellzapoppin", which is really the best movie to serve as an introduction to the comedy team. "Country Gentlemen" is something to watch after you have acquired a "taste" for the team and want to see all of their comedies.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Film Review: Golden Earrings

"Golden Earrings"
*** (out of ****)

Marlene Dietrich and Ray Milland bring out the gypsy in your soul in the World War II romance "Golden Earrings" (1947).

At the time Mitchell Leisen's "Golden Earrings" was released World War II had ended. During the war years several movies were churned out  which were meant to induce Patriotic pride. These stories were either about brave soldiers fighting overseas or what life was like on the home front. Examples would include the best picture Academy Award winner "Mrs. Miniver" (1942), "Since You Went Away" (1945), "So Proudly We Hail" (1943) and "In Which We Serve" (1942).

With the war over though audiences wanted to hear stories about adventure. Espionage stories became very popular, especially as the Cold War would quickly begin right after WW2. Stories which focused on ways in which soldiers outsmarted those dumb Nazis and the axis of evil were a flavor of the month. "Golden Earrings" appears to be such a story. Here is a movie filled with love, romance and adventure. A story of a brave British soldier on the run from Nazis, desperate to save the day and a woman who saves his life, in more ways than one. It might have been exactly what audiences yearned for.

Today however "Golden Earrings" seems forgotten. Why do I say that? Ask yourself, when was the last time you heard someone mention the movie? On the website the movie has only had 768 users vote on it. To put things into perspective, the new "Batman v Superman" movie has 232, 069 votes!

"Golden Earrings" could be described as something of a mix-bag. It doesn't always take its story serious enough and at times injects a lot of humor, which diminishes its scope. The great Marlene Dietrich turns in a performance that is way over-the-top. I wouldn't call it "camp", but, that is only out of respect for Ms. Dietrich. She chews up the scenery. The movie also goes in for a lot of stereotypes which today's audiences may find offensive if not just plain ridiculous.

Yet there is something to enjoy while watching "Golden Earrings". Ms. Dietrich was a great actress. A woman who had tremendous screen presence. She commanded your attention and got it. "Golden Earrings" doesn't show Ms. Dietrich at the top of her game but she makes "Golden Earrings" watchable. It is a memorable performance for all the wrong reasons yet it is still memorable. Would the character be as memorable if played straight? If performed by another actress? Probably not. Maybe Ms. Dietrich knew exactly what she was doing.

Ms. Dietrich's co-star, Ray Milland, on the other hand seems to be doing Shakespeare standing next to her, yet Mr. Milland's performance also is one aware of its comedic implications. Depending on the audience watching it "Golden Earrings" may possess laugh-out-loud moments if not "smile material" as you watch these two serious actors out do one another in a somewhat trivial story.

The movie begins in "modern times" (1947), as Colonel Denistoun (Milliand), who is now retired, receives a package at his hotel. The package contains two golden earrings. Upon receiving this package Col. Denistoun immediately books a flight to Paris. What do the golden earrings represent? The audience can tell they carry some significance to them.

One of the guest at the hotel, an American journalist, Quentin Reynolds (playing himself), is also on his way to Paris and booked on the same flight. Prior to their flight however Mr. Reynolds, and some other hotel guest, notice Col. Denistoun has pierced ears but does not wear earrings. Pierced ears on a man was unheard of in 1947. No civilized man would do such a thing. And I have my doubts about a man doing it today, but, that's another story. Why did the Colonel do such a thing?

On the flight to Paris Mr. Reynolds is seated next to Col. Denistoun and cannot help himself from looking at those pierced ears. Not being able to endure much more of this the Colonel agrees to tell Mr. Reynolds his story.

It is now 1939 and Colonel Denistoun and another soldier, Byrd (Bruce Lester) are on a mission in Germany. They are to contact a Professor Krosigk (Reinhold Schunzel), who has developed a poison gas formula. The Colonel and Byrd are to get to the Professor before the Nazis do. However they are on the run from the Nazis and have separated, agreeing to meet in the town of the Professor's home.

While traveling at night through back roads the Colonel encounters a gypsy woman, Lydia (Ms. Dietrich) preparing a fish stew by a campfire. She invites the stranger over and quickly realizes the young man is a military man, perhaps even a British soldier. Although initially uneasy about Lydia the Colonel begins to think she could be a great help to him if she can disguise him as a gypsy and help him get to his destination.

Lydia agrees to help Col. Denistoun though her motives aren't purely innocent. Lydia has been traveling along for days and believes Col. Denistoun has been sent to her as an asnwer to her prayers. He is her man now. It is in these moments "Golden Earrings" has a strong sexual vibe as Lydia does practically everything but throw herself on top of the Colonel. On second thought I think she does! We can see the lust and "hunger" in her eyes. Her new "companion" has lit a spark in her. Their dialogue is full of innuendos and at times is not too subtle.

It is amazing to think all of this was able to get by the Hollywood censors as a production code was enforced during this time. The only reason imaginable that is was able to slip by has to be because it is played for comedy. It is all so outlandish as Col. Denistoun fights her off in disgust and annoyance.

With this set-up "Golden Earrings" engages in a lot of stereotypes concerning gypsies. A lot of it is nonsense the movie simply creates. It shows gypsies as fortune tellers. defrauding people out of money, stealing food, uncivilized - eating food with their hands and shocked to learn some people wash everyday. One character even says he believes his father died from washing too much! If society didn't condone prejudice towards gypsies (they are the only minority group where there are no repercussions if you demonize them) you might find all of this offensive. "Golden Earrings" instead wants to get laughs out of this.

"Golden Earrings" also perpetuates the erroneous belief that all Hungarians are gypsies. Almost every time gypsies have been shown in a Hollywood movie there is some Hungarian connection. Throughout the movie portions of Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" is heard on the soundtrack. When Lydia introduces the Colonel to other gypsies she advises him to say "Jo Napot brother". Jo Napot means "good afternoon" in Hungarian. The scene takes place at night so it makes no sense but that is besides the point. I hate to break it to everyone but gypsies don't just live in Hungary. They also live in Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Italy, England, France, Russia, Poland, Ireland, Bulgaria and even America.

 At its heart though "Golden Earrings" really wants to be a love story and not so much a war movie or an action movie. These are merely plot conventions established to bring the two lead actors together. "Golden Earrings" is based on a lot of cliches regarding women and their influence on men. Behind every good man is a good woman. Women help give men a fresh perspective on life.

Of course movie fans will say it is odd seeing Ms. Dietrich play a "good woman". Back in the 1930s Ms. Dietrich performed in several films directed by Josef von Sternberg where she played a temptress. A woman who used men as tools and brought upon their downfall. These movies include "The Blue Angel" (1930), "Morocco" (1930) and "Shanghai Express" (1932). In those movies Ms. Dietrich would never think of throwing herself at a man, exposing her vulnerability. Her characters had too much pride and always knew how to manipulate a man to get exactly what she wanted. In "Golden Earrings" her characters gets what she wants but doesn't manipulate to get it. She simply takes it.

One year prior to the release of "Golden Earrings" Ray Milland had won an Academy Award for best actor for his performance in the Billy Wilder drama, "The Lost Weekend" (1945). Mr. Milland was a leading man who could act in dramas and comedies with equal success. He appeared in another Billy Wilder movie, the comedy "The Major and the Minor" (1942) as well as the noir film "The Big Clock" (1948) and the Alfred Hithcock film "Dial M For Murder" (1954).

"Golden Earrings" may be better remembered by some for its theme song of the same name. What some of you may not know is the song was based on an old Hungarian folk song - "Csak Egy Szep Lany". The English translation would be "The Only Beautiful Girl". The song has actually been sung in other Hollywood movies in Hungarian (!). In the movie "Holiday In Mexico" (1946) Ilona Massey (who was Hungarian) sings it. It can also be heard in the Jack Oakie comedy "Fight For Your Lady" (1937). Most Americans have probably heard the legendary jazz vocalist Peggy Lee record the song. Her recording has a Latin vibe however instead of an Eastern European one, which is what would have been better suited.

Another fun fact is many people believe Ms. Dietrich is playing a zither in one scene. Actually the instrument she is playing is a cimbalom - the national instrument of Hungary. The frame for both instruments is almost the same except that a cimbalom has legs and is played with two cotton mallets. In the scene following her playing you will notice she is in a wagon playing the same instrument with two cotton mallets.

"Golden Earrings", which was based on a novel by the Hungarian author Jolan Foldes, is worth a viewing experience despite everything if only for the performances given by Ms. Dietrich and Mr. Milland and the chance to hear the song "Golden Earrings". In some ways "Golden Earrings" represents a kind of old-fashion melodramatic Hollywood romance and follows the old plot convention of two opposites falling in love.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Film Review: Swiss Miss

"Swiss Miss"
*** (out of ****)

The hills are alive with the sounds of laughter when Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy invade the Swiss Alps in the Hal Roach operatic - comedy "Swiss Miss" (1938).

When I was growing up my two favorite Laurel & Hardy comedies were "Way Out West" (1937) and "Swiss Miss". "Way Out West" is generally regarded as one of the team's best movies, filled with memorable comedy sequences and inventive visual gags. "Swiss Miss" on the other hand is often considered a "lesser" movie.

It wasn't until I was much older and largely thanks to the internet that I discovered the reputation "Swiss Miss" had acquired over the years. Through the internet I would be able to read comments from other Laurel & Hardy fans. Initially I was shocked to learn even fans of Laurel & Hardy dismiss "Swiss Miss".

Watching "Swiss Miss" again I can see their point. I don't fully agree with it and still believe "Swiss Miss" is worth watching but I must admit it doesn't show enough of Laurel & Hardy performing at the level audiences usually expect.

Oddly enough that statement has nothing to do with the comic timing and talent of either Stan Laurel or Oliver Hardy. "Swiss Miss" suffers from the same problems comedies from the mid 1930s and 1940s suffer from. Ever since the Marx Brothers appeared in "A Night at the Opera" (1935) movie studios and producers got it into their heads that flat out comedies were not enough to entertain audiences. Movies needed to have comedy, romance and music. Movies require characters the audience could root for and care about. Going along from joke to joke was not sufficient to sustain an audience's interest.

It was a fate "Swiss Miss" could not avoid, especially after "A Night at the Opera" became a box-office hit. Even fans of the Marx Brothers rank it among the comedy team's best movies. It also didn't help that Laurel & Hardy producer Hal Roach loved opera and would occasionally place his star comedy team in light operatic-comedies. The best of these is "The Devil's Brother" (1934), which I would say is the finest movie Laurel & Hardy starred in, from a technical standpoint. It lacks the big laughs found in "Way Out West" however.

Although Laurel & Hardy receive top billing "Swiss Miss" doesn't feel like a "Laurel & Hardy comedy". "Swiss Miss" feels like a musical - comedy that the boys just happen to appear in. The main focal point of the story revolves around an opera composer, Victor Albert (is the name supposed to make us think of the composer Victor Herbert? He is played by Walter Woolf King). He seeks solitude and inspiration. He sets off for the Swiss Alps, believing the change of scenery is just what he needs.

In doing so, Victor leaves his wife, soprano singer, Anna (Della Lind) behind. The critics rave about Anna's voice but routinely ignore the musical score Victor has written. Victor is discourage and wants to write an opera without his wife starring in it so the critics will finally notice him.

It all doesn't work out for Victor as planned as Anna has followed him to the Swiss Alps and in an attempt to make sure Victor cannot get rid of her, Anna goes to the hotel's restaurant, orders everything on the menu and then expresses regret as she is not able to pay the bill. She must now stay at the hotel and work as a chambermaid to pay off what she owes.

The rest of the movie works like a low-rent screwball comedy with Anna trying to make Victor jealous by receiving attention from the male staff at the hotel, all of whom do not know Anna is married. Hopefully Anna's actions will make Victor realize he does not want to be separated from her and she can star in his latest opera.

At this point some may begin to wonder, what does any of this have to do with Laurel & Hardy. The answer is absolutely nothing. And that's the problem! The boys play, as usual, two bumbling American entrepreneurs, who have invested all of their money in selling mouse traps. Following one of Stan's ideas they travel to the Swiss Alps, because in Stan's mind there will be more cheese for mice and thus a greater need for their traps. The result is after two months they have not sold a single trap.

Stan may have accidentally stumbled on a good idea when he suggest why don't they try to sell their traps at cheese factories. Surely the owners must have problems with mice eating their cheese. Sadly one of the owners of a cheese factory believes he will be able to dupe the boys and buys all of their traps with fake currency. Delighted by their good fortunate the boys head out to a hotel restaurant, order everything on the menu and are embarrassed to learn they have no money and must work off their debt.

So now we have a plot convention which allows the boys to be at the center of the movie's action and perhaps sporadically interact with the other principle characters at the hotel. But that is all "Swiss Miss" feels like. Two separate story-lines converging and not that successfully either.

Audiences will have little interest in whether or not Victor and Anna get together. If you have ever had the pleasure of watching any movie before in your life you may be able to guess the outcome for the dueling lovebirds. Plus, Walter Woolf King lack's a movie star's presence on-screen. Us old-timers will recognize him from a pair of Marx Brothers comedies, ironically he was in "A Night at the Opera" as well as "Go West" (1940). He admittedly had a nice look but never achieved leading man status. I also must admit, I have never seen Della Lind (whose real name was Grete Natzler) in a movie before. She too has a nice look and a somewhat decent voice but lack's a movie star's presence.

The movie also has a disappointing musical score. It consist of songs like "The Cricket Song", a silly piece based on the noise a cricket makes. "I Can't Get Over the Alps", based on Victor's delight of his location, which an entire chorus sings as well. And finally, maybe the best number in the movie, "Could You Say No", which Anna sings, while disguised as a gypsy. The song is presented as a traditional folk song, however it was specially written for the movie. The boys were in another operatic-comedy involving gypsies called "Bohemian Girl" (1936). That one is recommended as well.

The best moments in "Swiss Miss" belong to Laurel & Hardy, everything else in the movie delays our pleasure in watching them. The way "Swiss Miss" is structured the boys only appear when there is something funny for them to do. There is a punch line at the end of all of their dialogue or actions. Perhaps that is why I fondly remember this movie as being one of their best. Every time they are on-screen you smile.

Even though one might argue the material in "Swiss Miss" is not Laurel & Hardy's best there are two comedy sequences which have stood the test of time and belong alongside their most memorable routines. The first sequence has them deliver a piano (Remember their comedy short "The Music Box" (1932)?) to club house high atop a Swiss mountain. There is a narrow wooden bridge which the boys are afraid to cross, since they are unsure if it will be able to hold their weight plus the piano. As they begin to cross the bridge a gorilla (!) walks out of the club house and hides behind Oliver, who is closest to him. Once the boys discover the gorilla, the gorilla begins to violently shake the piano which causes the bridge to sway sideways.

The second memorable sequence has Stan intrigued by a St. Bernard, which serves as a rescue dog for those deserted in the mountains and in need of help. The dog has a small keg of brandy wrapped around its neck. Stan desperately wants to figure out a way he can trick the dog into allowing him to take a sip of the brandy. So Stan must create a rescue situation.

These two priceless comedy routines make "Swiss Miss" worth watching despite popular opinion. Some may argue how can two good comedy sequences justify a recommendation? The answer is simple. "Swiss Miss" is only 70 minutes. These two sequences plus other scenes Laurel & Hardy appear in, take up roughly half of the running time. By my estimation that makes "Swiss Miss" a breezy diversion. Also, why should audiences avoid watching Laurel & Hardy comedies, even comedies considered "lesser" efforts? The comedy presented here and the overall light-hearted nature of the movie is vastly superior to any comedy you are going to see in a movie theater today. If you want to watch "toilet humor" you go right ahead.

"Swiss Miss" was one of the last movies Laurel & Hardy appeared in for Hal Roach. By this point in time Stan Laurel and Mr. Roach were getting into "creative differences" (AKA arguing) over the material the team was being presented. Laurel & Hardy would eventually sign contracts with 20th Century Fox and MGM and regret it. Movie fans blast those movies too as the team lost creative input. Putting all of this into context "Swiss Miss" is much better than "The Big Noise" (1944) and "Nothing But Trouble" (1944).

To experience Laurel & Hardy at their best, watch their early sound comedies from the 1930s, which were straight comedies. In these movies you will see a chemistry which very few teams had. The two men truly worked as one, playing off each other effortlessly, making them, in my opinion, the greatest comedy team of all-time. If "Swiss Miss" feels like a "lesser" movie, that is only because of the greatness the team had achieved prior. Every movie can't be a home-run. Audiences are wrong to not acknowledge when the team makes a base hit and instead dismiss one of their comedies as a "waste of time".

"Swiss Miss" was directed by John G. Blystone, who according to, directed 109 movies, including shorts. Of those 109 movies, two may stand out to most. There is the Buster Keaton comedy "Our Hospitality" (1923) and Laurel & Hardy's follow-up to "Swiss Miss", "Block-Heads" (1938), which fans have cited as one of the team's better comedies. The script was co-written by James Parrott, who worked on many Laurel & Hardy comedies as a writer and / or director, including their shorts "The Chimp" (1932), "County Hospital" (1932, one of their best) and their first feature length comedy, "Pardon Us" (1931) and Felix Adler, an old comedy writer who worked with the Three Stooges and Laurel & Hardy.

No one is calling "Swiss Miss" a masterpiece but the boys are funny in the movie and do perform, at the very least, two memorable comedy routines equal to the greatness of their earlier work. "Swiss Miss" is a likable, silly, musical-comedy diversion. Fans of classic Hollywood comedies should watch it. The rest of you can take a hike to the Alps.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Film Review: A Night In Casablanca

"A Night In Casablanca"  *** (out of ****)

The Marx Brothers try to make it a night to remember in the comedy "A Night In Casablanca" (1946).

By 1946, when "A Night In Casablanca" was released, the Marx Brothers were no longer at the height of their fame. Their later comedies are often considered "lesser efforts". The movies are not quite as influential or inspiring as their "early, funny" movies released by Paramount in the 1930s which included "Duck Soup" (1933) and "Horse Feathers" (1932).

Of course by 1946 the three remaining brothers in the act (originally there were four) were older. American movie fans are ageist (whether they would like to admit it or not) and tend to believe with age comes a loss of talent. The public, usually, is not kind when it comes to comedians as they grow older. You will hear sheep (movie critics) and some in the general public take cheap shots and make mean spirited comments when discussing the later works of comedy legends such as Bob Hope, Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and Jack Benny.

The public generally feels the comics have lost their timing, their "schtick" is "old" and "tired". It lacks inspiration and the jokes are merely repeats from early routines. Plus, as mean as it may sound, audiences just don't want to watch a movie with old people.

Keeping all of this in mind "A Night In Casablanca" has a lot going against it, before you've even seen it. The Marx Brothers appeared in 13 movies. "A Night In Casablanca" was their second to last movie. Yes, all three brothers look old. Yes, they are still doing their same schtick. But don't you dare say "A Night In Casablanca" is not funny! Is it the funniest movie the Marx Brothers appeared in? No. But it certainly doesn't deserve to be ignored and forgotten.

Given the movie's title, it is clear it was intended to be a spoof of "Casablanca" (1942). Both movies show a Casablanca filled with intrigue, spies, Nazis, murder and have gambling at a casino. However when Warner Brothers (the studio that released "Casablanca") expressed concern over the movie's title and possible fear of copyright infringement the story was changed.

We are in "modern day" Casablanca, meaning immediate post-World War II, at the Hotel Casablanca where the last three hotel managers have been murdered in a period of six months. What is the hotel to do? Who would possibly want to manage the hotel now knowing what has happened previously? Enter Ronald Kornblow (Groucho Marx), the prior manager of a hotel so far off in the middle of the desert he would never know about the Hotel Casablanca's problem.

Soon we meet young Lieutenant Delmar (Charles Drake) who believes he knows why the managers have been murdered. During the war the lieutenant was kidnapped by Nazis who had a stolen treasure. After crash landing in Casablanca the lieutenant thinks the treasure must be somewhere in the hotel and the Nazis are looking for a way to search the hotel without raising suspicion. Unfortunately the local authorities do not believe him.

Of course the lieutenant is right. There is a Nazi staying at the hotel, going by the name Count Pfferman (Sig Ruman) who is trying to devise a plan which would make him the new hotel manager. His plan is to have Ronald murdered as well with the help of a femme fatale, Beatrice (Lisette Verea) another Nazi spy.

Admittedly "A Night In Casablanca" moves a little slower than "Duck Soup" or "Animal Crackers" (1930) however the highlight of the movie is Groucho Marx. Groucho may not be able to deliver his one-liners at the same rapid machine gun speed he once did but he never lost his ability to tell a joke. He can always make me laugh, even in his older years, whether it was on his game show, "You Bet Your Life" or in interviews with talk show host Dick Cavett. Groucho always maintained his wit.

This is not to suggest the other brothers; Chico and Harpo are not funny. Harpo in particular is able to engage in his usual slapstick hi-jinks. One distinctly funny scene has him fighting a duel with an expert swordsman. Harpo is able to outsmart the swordsman by not taking the fight serious. One moment he pauses the fight to play craps, dresses like a baseball umpire and eats an apple while fighting off his opponent.

Another scene involves all three characters as Chico and Harpo, acting as bodyguards, taste test Ronald's food, for fear it might be poisoned. In reality the two men are merely hungry and unable to buy dinner. At one point Harpo even eats a candle stick while Ronald passes on the opportunity to also eat it, claiming it will give him heartburn.

Also, "A Night In Casablanca" contains two staples of Marx Brothers comedies. We get to hear Chico plays the piano and Harpo play the harp. Chico plays what he calls "the second movement of the Beer Barrel Polka". He begins the piece by quoting the second Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt. This is the second movie in which Chico plays the Beer Barrel Polka. The first movie was "At the Circus" (1939). Meanwhile Harpo plays the second Hungarian Rhapsody.

But it is Groucho and his one-liners that steal "A Night In Casablanca" and make it worth watching. On Ronald's first day on the job he informs the staff they must improve their service and become more efficient. Ronald explains to his chef if a guest orders a three minute egg, prepare it in two minutes. If a guest orders a two minute egg, prepare it in one minute. If a one minute egg is ordered, give the guest a chicken and let them figure it out.

When a middle-aged man and his wife enter the hotel, Ronald refuses to give them a room after the man says he has no luggage. This raises Ronald's suspicion as he informs the couple he will need to see a marriage certificate. The man is outraged and retorts Ronald should be ashamed of himself. The woman is his wife. Ronald replies "if this lady is your wife, you should be ashamed."

My favorite exchange and maybe my favorite Groucho Marx one-liner is when Beatrice first meets Ronald and he informs her she is the most beautiful woman he has seen. Beatrice, in a flirty voice, responds "really"? Without missing a beat Ronald says, "No. But I don't mind lying if it will get me somewhere." It definitely has a sexual connotation to it and is a naughty remark but compared to what we see and hear in movies today the remark is downright charming and witty.

Since there is no Margaret Dumont, who played romantic foil for Groucho in several earlier comedies, to play off of, the Beatrice character serves this purpose for the movie. She and Ronald try to arrange a rendezvous, but Corbaccio (Chico Marx), still acting as a bodyguard, doesn't want to leave Beatrice and Ronald alone. This infuriates Ronald as he and Beatrice keep switching rooms with Corbaccio not far behind.

"A Night In Casablanca", one could argue is on auto-pilot. The brothers are simply doing what they always do. They are just going through old material. That's balderdash! The brothers are funny in this movie. At best, one can say the movie lacks a "lunacy" which their earliest movies had but to suggest the boys are getting by merely by performing old material, they are just going through the motions, is nonsense. Each brother is giving the material their all, staying true to the characters they created.

My general rule of thumb for what makes a good comedy is simple. If a movie makes me laugh I'll recommend it. "A Night In Casablanca" makes me laugh. Every scenario and dialogue exchange I revealed I find funny. These moments are highlights. I don't believe "A Night In Casablanca" is a "lesser" movie. It is a good Marx Brother movie with laughs. Fans of the comedy team will find everything they expect to find in one of their movies including humor.

The movie was directed by Archie Mayo, who also directed the Jack Benny comedy "Charley's Aunt" (1941) and the dramatic Bette Davis / Leslie Howard movie "The Petrified Forest" (1936), which also featured a young Humphrey Bogart. "A Night In Casablanca" was also Mr. Mayo's second to last movie. The script was co-written by Joseph Fields and Roland Kibbee.  This is the first movie Mr. Kibbee is credited as writing whereas Mr. Fields co-wrote the Bob Hope comedy "Louisiana Purchase" (1941).

I will admit "A Night In Casablanca" should not be someone's introduction into the world of the Marx Brothers' comedy but I would say after you have seen their early Paramount movies watch this one.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Film Review: Silent Movie

"Silent Movie"
** (out of ****)

They just don't makes comedies like they used to, right? How many times have you heard someone say that? The comedies today are so vulgar. Why do comedians have to use so many four-letter words? Whatever happened to good, "clean" comedies, like the ones starring Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Jack Benny or Laurel & Hardy?

This is actually not a new argument. Audiences have been complaining about the state of American comedies for decades. Some audiences don't care for the low-brow comedy of Adam Sandler, Tom Green or Mike Myers or comedies like "Bridesmaids" (2011) or Amy Schumer's stand-up. It relies too much on "shock value".

In the 1970s this was also a topic of discussion and criticism concerning the comedies being made. One man that was usually on the receiving end of this criticism was comedy filmmaker Mel Brooks. Mr. Brooks once tried to explain his comedy style by saying "my comedy rises below vulgarity". Did Mr. Brooks rely too much on shock value? How else does one explain the "Springtime For Hitler" musical number in his directorial debut comedy "The Producers" (1968)? Or what about a man punching a horse in "Blazing Saddles" (1973) and the excessive use of the "n" word heard in the movie?

Or were people being too "up-tight"? Mr. Brooks' comedies were funny. Everything in his movies was done with good cheer. No need for anyone to be offended. Others would argue, no, Mr. Brooks did push buttons and good for him. It is good for comedians to walk that fine line of pushing the limits of what is acceptable and what isn't. In the 1960s and 70s comedy was changing because of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin and the Smothers Brothers. Mr. Brooks was no where near as socially conscious discussing the politics of the day. Did you ever hear Mel Brooks make a Watergate joke? Make a crack about Nixon? An anti-Vietnam statement? Vietnam and mistrust in the government may have provided good material for a lot of comics of the era but Mr. Brooks was more content making Hitler jokes.

This leads us to Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie" (1976). There has always been a yearning, a nostalgia for the comedy of yesterday. In the 1960s and 70s college students were discovering W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Charlie Chaplin was allowed back into the country, after being deported and considered a threat to American values, to receive an honorary Academy Award, thus allowing sheep (movie critics) the opportunity to re-evaluate his work and give younger audiences a chance to become acquainted with him.

It was in this setting Mr. Brooks, whom had already released two of his most financially successful movies; "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" (1974), would release the first American silent movie theatrically released in 40 years, "Silent Movie".

When Mr. Brooks released "Young Frankenstein" he had to fight with studio executives to shoot the movie in black and white and now Mr. Brooks wanted to make a movie with no sound. Mr. Brooks was going backwards not forward. By 1976 movies were in color and had sound. It was standard practice. Still there was that nostalgia for "clean" comedy. Even comedy contemporary Woody Allen would pay homage to the comedy of yesterday when he released "Sleeper" (1973).

Despite good intentions "Silent Movie" is not a successful comedy. Audiences may find something to laugh at but Mel Brooks cannot pull off this homage to the great silent clowns of the slapstick era. There are too many contrasts at play. Mr. Brooks, at best, is a verbal comedian. Those close to him, Carl Reiner, Dick Cavett, often comment on Mr. Brooks' wit and fast tongue. You can't speak in a silent movie, so there goes Mr. Brooks' strength. Think of "The Producers", "Blazing Saddles", "History of the World - Pt. 1" (1981). What do you remember about those movies? If anything sticks out to you it had to do with dialogue. The "Springtime For Hitler" number? The "Spanish Inquisition" number? Pretty much anything Madeline Kahn says in "Blazing Saddles"? It is all verbal. The funny catchphrases - "It's good to be the king", "Put the candle back", "What hump?" All dialogue. It would be the equivalent of putting Groucho Marx  in a silent movie. It wouldn't work. W.C. Fields started off in silent movies. Those movies are nowhere near as funny or influential as his sound comedies. Dialogue and simply the sound of their voices is what made Mr. Marx and Mr. Fields funny. One could argue the same for Mr. Brooks.

Mr. Brooks is also a contemporary comedian. The comedy in "Silent Movie" is of today. The movie is not a period piece. It takes place in 1976 Los Angeles. The contemporary feel of "Silent Movie" doesn't mix well with the nostalgia of silent cinema. Mr. Brooks uses the silent movie as a gimmick. Compare it to modern day silent movies (yes, they do exist) like "The Artist" (2011) or "Blancanieves" (2013). Those movies told stories. Complete stories. They were told in a straight forward fashion. They were not parodies of silent movies. They were not gimmick movies. You can't say the same about "Silent Movie".

"Silent Movie" feels like a series of vignettes pasted together. This is not a coherent movie which follows a fully developed plot and established characters. Audiences might be tempted to say "Silent Movie" is a clear homage to the work of Mr. Keaton and  Mr. Chaplin but those men showed much more discipline in their filmmaking. Their comedies were much better structured although silent movies definitely had a way of going off course and creating vignettes.

"Silent Movie" has more of a Mack Sennett approach, a "go for broke" comedy style. If someone thought something was funny, it was going to find its way in the movie. "Silent Movie" has several "filler scenes". Scenes which do absolutely nothing to advance the plot. We see the three main characters driving on the streets of L.A., in the small sports car, as they are stuck in traffic. One time a character may say he is hungry and would like a pie. Then they stop for something to drink. While they are waiting at a red light the audience sees unusually restaurants and shops on the sidewalk. It may be worth a laugh or a smile to some but what's the point of all of this?

Mr. Brooks plays Mel Funn, a once famous Hollywood filmmaker whose's career went downhill do to drinking. Mr. Funn, along with his associates - Mr. Eggs (Marty Feldman) and Mr. Bell (Dom DeLuise), are going to attempt a comeback. Their idea is to make the first silent movie in decades.

Funn, Eggs & Bell schedule an appointment with the Studio Chief (Sid Caesar) at Big Pictures - "If it was big, it was made here". The studio, Mr. Funn learns, is in dire financial trouble. Profits have fallen off the charts (literally!). If the studio does not show a profit within the next month a conglomerate "Engulf & Devour" (Our hands are in everything) has threatened to buy the studio. Despite this the Studio Chief is reluctant to give a green light to Mr. Funn's idea. But, if Mr. Funn and his associates can guarantee major stars will appear in the movie, the Studio Chief will allow it to be made.

And major Hollywood stars do appear in "Silent Movie". Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Brooks), Liza Minelli and Paul Newman are among those that make cameos. Each appears, as themselves, in a small comedy sequence with Funn, Eggs & Bell trying to sign them for their movie.

When Engulf (Harold Gould) and Devour (Ron Carey, who behaves more as a valet than a business partner) discover what Big Pictures Studio is up to they plan to stop production by hiring a vamp, Vilma Kaplan (Bernadette Peters), to seduce Mr. Funn and hopefully start him drinking again.

One can't deny on paper "Silent Movie" sounds as if it has potential. You can perhaps develop a background story for Mr. Funn. Get some poignancy out of the character by creating some emotional scenes, give the audience an underdog to root for, adding to audience involvement, get in some subtle jabs at the Hollywood industry and of course get some laughs in the way characters react to making a silent movie and resistance from movie stars to appear in one. And then you have to remind yourself Mel Brooks is making this movie and none of that is going to happen. Sure there are some minor efforts, but, they are only minor. None of it is played out to its full potential.

Oddly enough though it is not a silent comedy that "Silent Movie" resembles most. Fans of the sadly forgotten comedy team of Olsen & Johnson will recall their comedy "Crazy House" (1943), in which the boys try to sign as many stars as they can to appear in their own movie.

"Silent Movie" is not without its laughs. The movie works best when it plays around with the conventions of silent movies. For example, in one scene a character gives a long speech, going on a rant. However, when the inter-title cards are displayed only a short sentence is shown. In another example, one character clearly says a profanity when describing another character but the title card simply says 'you bad boy!'. The movie also plays with musical cues. The city of New York in seen on-screen as the orchestra plays "San Francisco". The conductor notices the mistake and the song "Manhattan" is now heard on the soundtrack.

"Silent Movie" is also not above stealing jokes from silent comedies. One sequence involves Devour helping Engulf put on his jacket but hi-jinks ensue as the task proves more difficult than you may expect. What happens is almost a recreation of what Buster Keaton did in the comedy "The Cameraman" (1928). Funn, Eggs & Bell walk in unison by taking a few steps and then skipping. Stan Laurel would do the same thing. Watch him in "Bonnie Scotland" (1935).

One has to admit though all of this is done with a lot of energy by the cast. Popular opinion suggest Mr. Feldman comes out looking the best, though Mr. Gould, Mr. Carey and Mr. Brooks turn in performances filled with a great deal of zest. The only one in the cast that seems to have really low energy is Sid Caesar. Mr. Caesar, who was a great star on television in the 1950s, would later admit his disappointment with his performance, revealing it was due to the fact he was in a very bad place in his personal life at the time of filming. Mr. Caesar was a very versatile comedian known for his pantomime skill and ability to fake his way in sounding as if he was speaking another language (known as "double-talk"). Sadly Mr. Caesar's gifts are not on display which may lead unfamiliar audiences questioning his comedic ability.

"Silent Movie" was a turning point in many ways in Mel Brooks' career. The comedy was the first time Mr. Brooks would give himself a starring role in any of his movies. It also marked the beginning of a decline in Mr. Brooks' movies in both financial success and critical appeal. "Silent Movie" has its defenders, the late Chicago Sun-Times movie critic, Roger Ebert, not only gave the movie a four-star review but also placed the movie on his list of the best movies of the year, but, its defenders are few and far between.

It is difficult to say if "Silent Movie" would have worked better if it had sound. The movie is funny in parts as it is but doesn't seem suited for Mr. Brooks. Mr. Brooks' humor requires the right target. He does well when satirizing specific movies which are serious and dramatic. Can you really satirizes something that is already funny like silent comedies?