Friday, May 27, 2016

Film Review: Radio Stars On Parade

"Radio Stars On Parade"  *** (out of ****)

Its a parade of laughter with the comedy team Brown & Carney in the RKO comedy "Radio Stars On Parade" (1945).

Watching "Radio Stars On Parade" one is decidedly mixed. Is this movie worth watching? As a showcase for Brown & Carney the movie fails yet as a glimpse into old-time radio and an opportunity for younger audiences to see the magic of radio the movie merits a recommendation. The question is does anyone care to see a movie about radio?

Many people believe RKO originally brought Wally Brown and Alan Carney together in an attempt to replicate the success Universal Pictures was having with Abbott & Costello. After the peace-time draft comedy "Buck Privates" (1941) became a box-office hit for Abbott & Costello, RKO took its two bit actors and starred them in their own comedy also about the draft, "Adventures Of A Rookie" (1943). If you watch that movie, which is generally considered the best comedy Brown & Carney starred in together, you will notice the boys engage in the same word play that made Abbott & Costello so popular with audiences. Also, the physical appearance of both teams was similar. One tall and skinny guy, who serves the role of the straight man, and the other, shorter and heavier, who serves in the role of the comic.

"Radio Stars On Parade" was released after Brown & Carney appeared in "Zombies On Broadway" (1945), the most popular and easily accessible movie the team starred in, but, was the second to last movie the team appeared in. Their final movie as an official team was "Genius at Work" (1946). I mention this because with these two final movies RKO released with the team it is clear RKO simply lost interest in releasing Brown & Carney comedies. The quality of the comedy is low in both movies. Admittedly all of Brown & Carney's movies together were "B" movies, so the production quality was never high but perhaps the team didn't live up to RKO's expectations.

This time around Jerry Miles (Wally Brown) and Mike Strager (Alan Carney) play a comedy team that is mistaken for a pair of successful talent agents. When the boys are on their way to meet with the actual agent, Phil Merwin (Ray Walker), he is just walking out the door. What Jerry and Mike don't realize is Phil is walking out of the door for good, after he is unable to pay off his debts. In order to not cause any disturbance and perhaps to shift the blame onto someone else, Phil tells Jerry and Mike they can be in charge until he comes back.

Jerry and Mike believe they have discovered a new talent, Sally Baker (Frances Langford), a singer from Chicago who has headed to California at the request of Phil Merwin. The boys try to assure Sally they will be equally as capable as Phil in finding her work and so Sally agrees. Jerry's plan is to get Sally to audition for bandleader Skinnay Ennis.

None of this may matter as Sally's old boss in Chicago, a gangster (Sheldon Leonard, were you expecting someone else?) follows Sally out to California and threatens Jerry and Mike. Lucky (Leonard) had his eye on Sally, who is in love with a solider (Robert Clark), who is also out in California. Lucky would love to separate the two lovebirds and have Sally all to himself.

At its best "Radio Stars On Parade" is nothing more than an excuse to feature a lot of famous radio talent of the day. I have name dropped some of the names already. Did you recognize any of them? Frances Langford was a popular singer, best known for the song "I'm In The Mood For Love". She traveled with Bob Hope as he entertained the troops during the war. Skinnay Ennis was a singer in the Hal Kemp orchestra and eventually was the leader of his own band. You will also see Don Wilson, best known today for his work with Jack Benny, appearing as his announcer on his radio program and his television show. And finally we see Ralph Edwards as the host of the show "Truth or Consequences". This was a real radio program where members of the audience where asked to participate in stunts and practical jokes. Mr. Edwards may be better known as the host of the television show "This Is Your Life".

A lot in the movie is fun to watch. Audiences may like seeing Mr. Edwards and the hectic pace of his show as he makes a fool out of Jerry and Miles on more than one occasion. You may enjoy hearing Skinnay Ennis sing "I Couldn't Sleep A Wink Last Night" or Ms. Langford sing "My Shining Hour" and "That Old Black Magic". You may also enjoy the imitations of  Alan Carney who would be able to work this routine in nearly all of the Brown & Carney comedies. Here we get to hear his Edward G. Robinson imitation. It is actually pretty good. Next question. Do you know who Edward G. Robinson was?

"Radio Stars On Parade" is something of a revue. There is humor, music, a little bit of suspense. In a way it is showing you everything you would have heard on the radio. Because of that the plot is not very strong. The ending of the movie is not very satisfying. It does what we expect it to partially do but there was so much more that could have been done with this material which would have lent itself to laughs.

What if Lucky made his presence known to Sally? What if other clients rushed into the talent agent's office demanding work? What if Mike used his imitation skills to get himself and Jerry a job? What if Lucky kidnapped Skinnay Ennis to prevent his radio program from going on-air thus delaying Sally's chance at a job? That's a lot of "what ifs" for a relatively short movie. The running time is 69 minutes. RKO deliberately kept the running time low on its "B" pictures but when you keep the running time too short you hurt the plot.

My hunch / fear is "Radio Stars On Parade" is going to have a very limited appeal. The appeal may go beyond Brown & Carney fans, if such a thing exist anymore, they were never "A" listers, and fans of old-time radio may enjoy this too. But how many of those are left? I suspect there are more people that feel they are too young, hip and modern to watch "Radio Stars On Parade". The movie is in black and white and stars a lot of dead people younger "movie fans" never heard of. There's not much for them to find interesting. However, if you are a brave soul, someone willing to watch movies made before the year you were born and want to expose yourself to as many movies as possible, simply because you love movies and want to know about the history of cinema, "Radio Stars On Parade" is worth watching. In many ways it feels like a time capsule.

One of the movie's co-writers, Robert E Kent, wrote other Brown & Carney comedies such as "Genius at Work" and "Girl Rush" (1944). He also wrote a few Gildersleeve comedies (a character that began on radio as part of the "Fibber McGee & Molly" program) as well as a few Dick Tracy adventures, another character that also appeared on radio.

Leslie Goodwins directed "Radio Stars On Parade". He was a studio director at RKO and was behind the "Mexican Spitfire" series of comedies. He directed Brown & Carney in "Adventures of A Rookie" and its sequel "Rookies in Burma" (1943). Originally Mr. Goodwins started at RKO as a writer. He co-wrote the comedy "The Rainmakers" (1935) which starred another forgotten comedy team Wheeler & Woolsey.

Warner Brothers, as part of their Archive Collection, has put "Radio Stars On Parade" on DVD as part of a double feature pack along with "The Mayor of 44th Street" (1942). It is an odd collection and between the two I actually prefer "Radio Stars".

"Radio Stars On Parade" is a light, harmless diversion. It is not an ambitious comedy and doesn't really pack any big laughs. It also doesn't feature Brown & Carney at their best. However it is worth seeing as a showcase to see a variety of radio stars and hear some good music. The humor that is found in the movie is the kind some will describe as "dated" and "old-fashion". They mean it as an insult, I say it as a compliment.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Film Review: The Emperor and the Assassin

"The Emperor and the Assassin"
**** (out of ****)

Chen Kaige's "The Emperor and the Assassin" (1999) never received its proper due with Western movie critics (sheep). The critics largely ignored it upon its initial theatrical release. According to the website Rotten Tomatoes - a film review aggregator, there are 37 total reviews. That's not a lot.

Many American critics were never able to see beyond Mr. Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine" (1993), which was the great Chinese director's international breakout film. It won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. For several movie critics Mr. Kaige never made a movie as good or better than "Concubine". Throughout Mr. Kaige's career he would never make a movie which garnered the same amount of critical praise as "Concubine" again, at least in America.

Of course that is the movie critics' loss. Mr. Kaige is a great filmmaker who has directed multiple masterpieces. "The Emperor and the Assassin" is one of them. It originally made my list of the ten best films of 1999, placed in the number three spot, and after a second look at it, the movie holds up.

Mr. Kaige weaves fact and fiction into his epic story taking place during the reign of the King of Qin, Ying Zheng, between 247 - 220 BC and his efforts to unify China, which had been divided into seven states, including Qin. In a story reported by the British Broadcast Corporation, while covering the Cannes Film Festival that year, where "The Emperor and the Assassin" was shown in competition, Mr. Kaige believed his movie could also serve as a commentary on current events saying "if you see what's happening in Yugoslavia today you understand why I wanted to make this movie."

The three central characters in "The Emperor and the Assassin" are Ying Zheng, a king who sees it as his moral responsibility to unify China. It is a promise he must keep to his ancestors. Then there is Lady Zhao (Gong Li) the woman he has loved since a child. She believes in the king's vision because Lady Zhao thinks the king is a good man and truly wants what is best for the people of China. The king will honestly protect the people. And finally a retired assassin, Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi). In his younger days he was notorious. Like an aging gun fighter the sins of his past have caught up to him. He realizes the amount of blood he has on his hands and vows to change his ways.

When I first saw "The Emperor and the Assassin" I thought it was Ying Zheng's story. Watching the movie again I now believe Lady Zhao is the glue holding everything together. She is caught between these two men. She is the only character, of the three, that interacts with both of them. Lady Zhao is the character that gains the audiences' sympathy.

There is also much for audiences to relate to in the Jing Ke character. The audience is first introduced to him when he is given an assignment to murder a sword maker and his family. Jing Ke does what he is paid to do with the exception of the sword maker's young blind daughter whom Jing Ke takes mercy upon. The daughter is fully aware of what Jing Ke has done to her family and asks that she too be murdered. As a young blind girl, all alone, it will be difficult for her to live. She will end up a beggar. Out of pity the daughter asks Jing Ke kill her. The encounter has a lasting effect on Jing Ke who promises to never kill again.

In a strange twist of fate however Lady Zhao is sent to the state of Yan by Ying Zheng to persuade the prince of Yan to hire an assassin to murder the king before the city of Yan is invade by the Qin army. This plot is conceived by both Ying Zheng and Lady Zhao whom believe once word travels that the prince of Yan is looking to hire an assassin it will give the Ying Zheng the justification to invade Yan. The assassin both the prince and Lady Zhao seek to find is Jing Ke.

"The Emperor and the Assassin" was released a year before Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000) reached American audiences which led to a wave of martial art themed movies which also led to mainstream audiences discovering the work of Zhang Yimou, director of films such as "Hero" (2004), which also takes place during this same time period, and "House of Flying Daggers" (2004). Mr. Kaige's movie however lacks the gravity defying swordplay seen in "Crouching Tiger" with characters flying in the air and the spectacular choreographed fight scenes. "The Emperor and the Assassin" focuses more on drama and establishing characters. It may be the reason why Mr. Kaige's movie sometimes is an after thought for American audiences when they think of this genre and why the movie wasn't a box-office success in America the way "Crouching Tiger" was. The movie went on to win 10 Academy Award nominations whereas "The Emperor and the Assassin" was shut out.

Watching "The Emperor and the Assassin" one sees a story revolving around themes of redemption, honor, the thirst for power, corruption and love. All of this is told behind a majestic landscape shot by cinematographer Fei Zhao, who has worked with Woody Allen and Zhang Yimou. We see wide empty spaces, all the land Ying Zheng hopes to control which is sometimes contrasted with the same empty landscape covered with dead bodies.

If there is one weak spot to "The Emperor and the Assassin" it is the editing. The movie could have been re-edited as the consequence of events is not always laid out in the most dramatic order. Sometimes characters are left out for large majorities of the plot, The movie works because the story is interesting and the audience becomes invested emotionally in the characters. At nearly two hours and 40 minutes the movie could have also been shortened.

But why leave you with the impression "The Emperor and the Assassin" is not worth watching? This is a movie which deserves a wider audience. It is one of Mr. Kaige's great movies. Beautifully acted, stunning shot and emotionally told it was one of the best movies released in 1999. Former Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Wilmington wrote in his review "The Emperor and the Assassin" was even one of the great epics of the 1990s.

Mr. Kaige would return to the martial arts genre a few year later with the release of "The Promise" (2006), it would follow in the tradition of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and Zhang Yimou's films. Some would consider the move a sell-out on Mr. Kaige's part. I disagree and declared "The Promise" one of the best movies of 2006.

"The Emperor and the Assassin" tells us a fascinating story from a time in history most Americans will be unfamiliar with. And so we see the thirst for power always existed. Lands have always been conquered by mad rulers. Maps have been drawn and redrawn. "The Emperor and the Assassin" gives us names and faces however and puts its audience under its lyrical spell.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Film Review: Port of Shadows

"Port of Shadows"  **** (out of ****)

A stranger arrives in the town of Le Havre. He is an army deserter. That is the least of his problems. He wants to escape the past. He needs a new identity. He speaks of the "fog in his mind". What horrors did he seen in combat? He looks troubled, worn down, beaten. With a face a little rough around the edges the audience can tell this is a man that has seen a lot in his life. If he is lucky Le Havre will be the place he begins anew. It is a port town, ships coming and going. If he can board one of them, he'll never look back.

And so it is in the French film "Port of Shadows" (1938) directed by one of the great poets of cinema, Marcel Carne. The movie has endured as one of the classics of world cinema. To some it is a definitive example of the "poetic realism" movement, popular in French cinema of the 1930s, in a category with "L'Atalante" (1934). Others proclaim it should be viewed as the first noir movie.

The stranger in town is Jean (Jean Gabin). It is a character not unlike one Humphrey Bogart would play in American movies. Jean Gabin practically invented this type of character. Watch Mr. Gabin in the iconic "Pepe le Moko" (1937). It is the beginnings of raw masculinity in cinema, the tough guy character. It is not an over statement to say Mr. Gabin belongs alongside Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne. One has to wonder if "Port of Shadows", in any way, influenced "Casablanca" (1942).

The filmmaker, Marcel Carne, may not be a name instantly recognizable to American audiences. A shame. His name doesn't get thrown around as often as his contemporaries such as Jean Renoir but his talent as a director is immeasurable. One of his movies, "Children of Paradise" (1945) is routinely acknowledged as one of the greatest films ever made. Other poetic masterpieces include "Daylight" (1939), also starring Jean Gabin and "The Devil's Envoys" (1942). These films stand out in the canon of Mr. Carne's films due to his collaboration with screenwriter / poet / lyricist Jacques Prevert, whom sometimes received all the praise for these movies success, even in France.

I have shamefully / embarrassingly not devoted enough time to discussing Mr. Carne's work. I have only written about his comedy "Drole de Drame" (1937), also co-written by Mr. Prevert and "Therese Raquin" (1953) based on a novel by Emile Zola, it may one one of Mr. Carne's later films which comes closest to the brilliance of his earlier films, such as "Port of Shadows".

As Jean arrives in town he finds himself in a hide-a-way owned by a man named Panama (Edouard Delmont), a man who says he is not looking for trouble and doesn't ask questions. He invites Jean inside. There are other lonely figures there too; a suicidal painter (Robert Le Vigan), who says he paints with is hidden in images. If he sees a swimmer, he paints a drowned man. And Nelly (Michele Morgan) a 17 year old runaway, who lives with her religious godfather, Zabel (Michel Simon), who is secretly (?) in love with her.

Nelly and Jean seem drawn to each other. Jean doesn't shy away from telling Nelly he thinks she is beautiful. There are two "lost souls". Each has a past they would like to leave behind. For Nelly it is a man that said he loved her, Maurice, whom a local gangster, Lucien (Pierre Brasseur) is looking for. Lucien has also been harassing Zabel as well. According to Lucien either Maurice or Zabel will have papers he desperately wants to get his hands on.

Because of Nelly, Jean and Lucien will met. In trying to protect Nelly from Lucien, Jean and Lucien will get into an altercation which results in Jean humiliating Lucien in public. Yet another example of the tough guy image. It will all lead to Jean being accused of murder.

American movie fans may recognize Michele Morgan. In the 1940s, as war broke out in France, Ms. Morgan came to the United States and signed a contract with RKO. She made her American film debut in "Joan of Paris" (1942). Frank Sinatra fans may recall her in "Higher and Higher" (1943). She also co-stared with Humphrey Bogart in "Passage to Marseille" (1944) and was in the British film "The Fallen Idol" (1948).

When you watch "Ports of Shadows" you will notice a distinctly different way Jean and Nelly are photographed. Nelly is shot in a softer light. The movie really accentuates Ms. Morgan's beauty. Nelly isn't seen in darkness the way Jean is. This was probably done to present Nelly as a "saving grace" for Jean. A light of redemption.

Much of the appeal of the film will have to do with its visuals. A black and white town with a mist in the air. It all perfectly suits these characters living in the shadows. All covered in fog. The cinematography was done by the Academy Awarding winner, Eugen Schufftan, who won his Oscar for his work on "The Hustler" (1961). Mr. Schufftan left Germany as the Nazis began to gain power. First he settled in France and eventually America. He also work with Mr. Carne on "Drole de Drame" and with another French filmmaker, Rene Clair, on the American comedy "It Happened Tomorrow" (1944).

Although the movie romanticizes the harsh realities of life in poetic fashion you can also see the seeds of film noir. Social outcast, trying to escape his past, the pretty woman who will either be his redemption or downfall, gangsters.

There is a minority of movie fans that consider "Port of Shadows" a disappointment. They feel the plot is too predictable. Lets for the moment agree they are right. There is still so much to enjoy while watching the film. The atmosphere, the acting, the cinematography, the over all poetic nature of the movie. "Port of Shadows" is able to elicit emotions even if you know the path that lies ahead for these characters.

"Port of Shadows" is one of the greatest movies ever made. Anyone that is serious about cinema should see it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Film Review: Keep 'Em Flying

"Keep 'Em Flying"  *** (out of ****)

Abbott & Costello fly high in the Universal Pictures comedy "Keep 'Em Flying" (1941).

"Keep 'Em Flying" was the last of Abbott & Costello's "service comedies". In 1941 Abbott & Costello were given their first starring roles in "Buck Privates", a peace time draft comedy in which the boys accidentally enlist in the army. The movie was a box-office hit and Universal immediately wanted to cash in on their good fortune and take advantage of what would become the new star comedy team of the decade.

All Universal felt they had to do was try and duplicate whatever made "Buck Privates" work. So you put Abbott & Costello once again in the service, give the story a romantic sub-plot and have some musical numbers. The very next movie starring Abbott & Costello after "Buck Privates" was "In the Navy" (1941). In both movies the Andrew Sisters appear as themselves and sing songs and in the case of "In the Navy" for the romantic sub-plot Dick Powell co-stars.

For me "Buck Privates" was a bit too political, too patriotic and the country wasn't even at war (!). "In the Navy" lacked big laughs and allowed too much screen time for the romance. Some may feel the same way about "Keep 'Em Flying" and it is partially true however I find I enjoy watching it more than their prior service comedies!

There is still a patriotic feel to "Keep 'Em Flying", in one scene Lou asks Bud what is the U.S.O to which Bud replies it is a government building funded by unselfish Americans for the men in uniform to be a sort of home away from home. The movie starts off with a dedication to the air corps and the "unsung heroes" the "ground crew". And there are very patriotic lyrics to one of the songs sung in the movie, "Let's Keep 'Em Flying" about the air corps and the men who fly.

There is not much of a romantic sub-plot however and whatever little there is it is mixed with another sub-plot involving a pilot that has a psychological block and is afraid to fly solo. Both of these plots compete for screen time against comedy routines performed by Abbott & Costello.

Bud Abbott plays Blackie and Lou Costello is Heathcliff. They are friends of Jinx Roberts (Dick Foran), a pilot who currently works at a carnival, along with Blackie and Heathcliff, doing an air show. Their boss becomes fed up with Jinx stealing the spotlight from the other acts and with Blackie and Heathcliff's incompetence and fires them all.

Jinx (which is not really a good nickname for a pilot) is not worried about losing a job because he has enlisted in the service. Blackie and Heathcliff, being the good friends that they are and also unemployed, decide to join with Jinx, they even mention becoming "buck privates".

In the early scenes of the movie it is established Jinx's is a ladies man with a wandering eye. Once in the service there will not be time for women but that doesn't stop Jinx from making the moves on a singer, Linda (Carol Bruce), who as luck would have it, for Jinx anyway, is going to be a hostess at a U.S.O.

Linda has a brother, Jim (Charles Lang) who saw his father, who was also a pilot, die in a crash and as a result has developed a fear of flying solo. For reasons unknown to mankind Jim has decided to enlist in the air corps, which is why Linda has decided to be a hostess. Jim befriends Jinx, who is the exact opposite. Since Jinx already has flying skills he believe the air corps is merely wasting his time. He knows more than they will ever teach him. Plus, it is good to get in with the brother when you want to go out with the sister.

Naturally none of this has anything to do with Abbott & Costello. Nearly nothing their characters do advance the plot forward in any way. The boys are only shown on-screen to perform comedy routines. If they weren't so popular by the time "Keep 'Em Flying" was released these would basically be considered supporting characters but Abbott & Costello receive top billing, even above the title of the movie.

The boys do some good routines in this movie. The best may be a variation of the 15 cents gag, most famously done by Laurel & Hardy in the comedy short "Men O' War" (1929), where they play a couple of sailors who only have 15 cents between them. They ask two ladies if they can buy them a drink at a soda shop but they can only pay for three drinks which means Stan will be left out. With Abbott & Costello they only have 25 cents between them, just enough to order a turkey sandwich and a cup of coffee, which they will have to split. After Abbott places his order Costello must decline and say he is not hungry but Abbott keeps trying to coax him to order something and Costello can't resist. Making matters worst the woman behind the counter (Martha Raye) has a twin sister, that works with her. Each has a different personality and are never both in the same place at the same time which baffles Abbott & Costello because they never know who they are talking to.

Another good routine takes place when they boy are working at the carnival behind a "hit the umpire" stand. Lou Costello will stand behind a cardboard umpire's costume while players get three chances to hit him with baseballs. Bud Abbott will control a mechanical baseball player with a bat whenever someone throws a ball in order to prevent the ball from hitting Lou. But Bud's timing is always a little off and the bat keeps hitting Lou on the head.

One of the twin sisters Ms. Raye plays is a bit "man hungry" and has a crush on Lou, whose persona was that of a man-child that knew two adults playing doctor could be fun. "Keep 'Em Flying" has some fun with Ms. Raye's character, Gloria, always wanting to be romantic with Lou but he doesn't know what to say or do.

There are some good musical numbers in "Keep 'Em Flying". One of the songs is a boogie woogie number called "Big Foot Pete" performed by Martha Raye. In a story almost too strange to be believed the song was nominated for an Academy Award however the Academy gave the nomination to the wrong movie, another Universal comedy released the same year, "Hellzapoppin'" (1941) starring a comedy team often compared to Abbott & Costello, Olsen & Johnson. We also get to hear Carol Bruce sing "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You". The song was not written for the movie. The famous bandleader Tommy Dorsey recorded the song many years prior to the release of this movie.

Although I believe "Keep 'Em Flying" is a solid Abbott & Costello comedy at its time of release movie critics (sheep) were not kind to the movie. Many critics, including "Variety" felt Abbott & Costello were appearing in too many movies in short period of time recycling gags. Because of this their appeal would wear off quickly with the public. It is actually a good point. If I were a movie critic in the 1940s I may have said the same thing. Between 1940, when the boys made their screen debut in "One Night in the Tropics" and 1942, Abbott & Costello appeared in nine comedies. Four made in 1941 alone! That is simply saturating the market place. It was an over-exposure. Even though Abbott & Costello are still remembered today because they were in so many movies in such a short period of time (they appeared in 36 movies in total) you will find their output is hit or miss. They did repeat gags and refused to create new material. However that should be of no concern when you watch "Keep 'Em Flying".

"Keep 'Em Flying" was directed by Arthur Rubin, who worked at Universal for many years. He directed five comedies starring Abbott & Costello including "Buck Privates" and "Hold That Ghost" (1941). One of the movie's co-writers was True Boardman (one of the strangest names I ever heard) who worked on other Abbott & Costello comedies such as "Hit the Ice" (1943) and a Bing Crosby / Bob Hope "Road" picture rip-off, "Pardon My Sarong" (1942). Another co-writer was Nat Perrin who worked with all the greats; Eddie Cantor, Abbott & Costello, Olsen & Johnson, Wheeler & Woolsey, the Marx Brothers and Red Skelton.

There are some big laughs in "Keep 'Em Flying" and some good musical numbers to listen to. Abbott & Costello fans should be pleased and those unfamiliar with the team might find something to enjoy.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Film Reviews: L' Enfer & The Flower of Evil

"L' Enfer"
**** (out of ****)

A woman makes life a living hell for her husband in Claude Chabrol's
"L' Enfer" (1994).

Claude Chabrol was one of the leading members of the Nouvelle Vague (the French New Wave) in the 1960s along with Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette. Prior to filmmaking each of them were movie critics for highly influential magazine "Cahiers du cinema". Mr. Chabrol directed the first recognized film of the "New Wave" movement, "Le Beau Serge" (1958). Throughout his career, the master filmmaker passed away in 2010, Mr. Chabrol made movies which were cynical critiques of the Bourgeoisie, trying to peel away their facade of leading happy, ordinary lives and instead showing them engaging in murder and hiding family secrets. Because of these films Mr. Chabrol was given the nickname "The French Hitchcock".

"L' Enfer" was made during a difficult time in Mr. Chabrol's career. Between the late 1960s and into the mid 1970s Mr. Chabrol released his most critically acclaimed movies, several of them are masterpieces which stand up after multiple viewings. However after this time and into the 1980s and early 90s, Mr. Chabrol fell out of favor with American movie critics (sheep) and the general public. His work was no longer seen as influential. There were some bright spots such as "The Story of Women" (1989) but it wasn't enough to put Mr. Chabrol back into the good graces of the public.

Although "L' Enfer" is not generally considered to be one of Mr. Chabrol's great films, the movie stands out as a cut above the rest from this particular period in Mr. Chabrol's career. The material is not new, in fact minues a few changes here and there the movie is comparable one of the Mr. Chabrol's masterpieces "The Unfaithful Wife" (1969). The main difference is "L' Enfer" is more psychological.

"L'Enfer" (which translated into english means hell) was based on a screenplay by Henri-Georges Clouzot, himself a noted French filmmaker. The adaptation was done by Mr. Chabrol and stars Francois Cluzet, who gained international fame years later in the thriller "Tell No One" (2006) and Emmanuelle Beart, who worked twice with fellow New Wave filmmaker Jacques Rivette. Mr. Cluzet stars as Paul, owner of a lakeside hotel and Ms. Beart is his wife Nelly. At first Paul and Nelly appear to be the quintessential couple. Young, happy and in love. They are bless with a child. On the exterior they are a perfect match.

Paul however slowly begins to slip into a mad obsession when he suspects Nelly is cheating on him. It is the little things at first. Nelly, who helps out at the hotel, goes out with some mutual friends without telling Paul. Nelly is napping when she should be taking the hotel guests dinner orders. She lies about going to her mother's, in the city, after Paul followed her.

The question for the audiences becomes is Nelly really having an affair or is Paul imagining everything due to jealousy. Nelly is a young and beautiful woman. Young beautiful women tend to know they are beautiful. Men tend to notice it too. Some men don't mind telling beautiful women they are beautiful. Some women may secretly like the attention and may accept the advances from one of the men, if they like them. But what does that say about society and about women? Beautiful women can't be trusted? Beautiful women can't be faithful?

Women have long been presented as being unfaithful in the movies despite the illogical, irrational belief perpetuated by the media that men are the ones prone to cheating. Chabrol's own "The Unfaithful Wife" is one example. What about film noir of the 1940s and 50s and femme fatales? Isn't it always a woman that is behind every man's downfall? Men waste so much time chasing after women and then when they get them, men waste more time trying to hold on to them.

Of course infidelity has always been a good topic for comedy. It feeds off of our own human emotions and exaggerates upon it. Look at the comedies of Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges and classic comedies such as "The Awful Truth" (1937). It works so well for comedy because of the silly things people do when they are in love and the mad heights jealousy leads people to.

Mr. Chabrol's film is different though. "L'Enfer" is exaggerated and for certain audiences the situations presented may become "too much", too over-the-top that there may be unintended laughs. For others though "L'Enfer" will become a brainteaser and a fascinating look into the world of a mad man.

There is though another way to interpret the movie's title. Who exactly is experiencing hell? At this point everything has been seen through the eyes of the husband but is the wife not going through her own hell living with a jealous husband? A husband that doesn't want his wife to leave the house, that questions her every move and at one point, ties her to the bed.

Although so much of the movie depends on Mr. Cluzet's performance it may be Ms. Beart that gives the more interesting performance. Mr. Cluzet's character can border on being fairly simple to understand. His obsession with jealousy consumes him. But what about Ms. Beart? When her character discovers just how jealous her husband is, she provokes him. She teases him by telling him he better stop following her and accusing her or else she will give him something to be jealous about. Is that really the best way to handle a situation when your spouse is jealous? This makes the performance a bit more interesting. We ask ourselves, what is this character up to?

"L'Enfer" is not the first movie someone should watch to introduce themselves to the world of Mr. Chabrol's films but it is a worthwhile effort and one of the master filmmaker's better films from the period.

"The Flower of Evil"  **** (out of ****)

Claude Chabrol's "The Flower of Evil" (2003) opens with the image of a beautiful home. The camera slowly takes us up a staircase and leads us into one of the rooms where we see a dead body.

As the audience watches this sequence we hear a piece of music, a French song from perhaps the 1940s plays over the movie's credits. The song contains a lyric stating memories haunt us for an eternity.

You may not realize it the first time you watch "The Flower of Evil" but the song's lyrics serve as a key insight into the movie and fits perfectly into the cannon of Mr. Chabrol's films.

"The Flower of Evil", Mr. Chabrol's 50th feature-length film, will answer the question of whose body we see but the movie takes a spiral approach, having the movie end where it begins. As with any Claude Chabrol film however the sight of a dead body does not surprise us. We expect it. Death is merely used as a springboard to bring the audience into the lives of a Bourgeoisie family.

As with "L' Enfer" Mr. Chabrol presents us with a false exterior. Nothing in "The Flower of Evil" is as its seems. And we are reminded of the song playing over the titles. Memories. Why do they haunt the characters in this film? What kind of personal demons are they living with? While that within itself may be interesting to figure out, it is also interesting to watch how these characters try to cover up their past.

"The Flower of Evil", for me, remains the last great work Mr. Chabrol gave us. It is a throwback to his early films made in the 1960s and 70s. "The Flower of Evil" gives us every aspect we expect to find in one of Mr. Chabrol's films and the movie goes about presenting its ideas in such an effortless way, we may require multiple viewings to catch everything. A lot of that will also be due to we are having such a damn good time watching it we may not be wearing our "critic hat" to decipher everything.

This proves all the nay-sayers wrong. With age one does not lose their talent. When "The Flower of Evil" was release Mr. Chabrol was 73 years old yet the film is as fresh and clever as any film Mr. Chabrol had given us over the decades. In fact, according to film critic Michael Wilmington in his Chicago Tribune review for the film, he states Mr. Chabrol has called this movie one of his two favorites of his own movies. The other was "The Story of Women".

The movie follows the intertwining relationship between the Charpin family and the Vasseur's. Anne (Nathalie Baye) is married to Gerard (Bernard Le Coq). Anne's husband and Gerard wife were killed in a car crash together. After which Anne and Gerard got married. Anne had a daughter from the marriage, Michele (Melanie Doutey) and Gerard had a son, Francois (Benoit Magimel). Francois has returned home after living in America, Chicago to be exact, for the past three years. His reasons for leaving are mysterious but he may have had something to do with Michele, who claims she loves Francois, and the family, including the oldest member, Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon), whole-heartedly approve of the union, as it will carry on "tradition" of the two families being joined together.

These family secrets wouldn't matter much but Anne is running for office as the town's mayor and someone has revealed this family's torrid history in a leaflet distributed within the community. Could Gerard have done it, since he does not approve of his wife engaging in politics? Will it prevent Anne from winning the election? And what will it do to the family's social standing in the community since no one can refute the claims, since it is all true?

The Aunt Line character proves to be more important than some audiences may realize. She is the glue holding the family together and we begin to suspect those memories haunting us for an eternity may be the memories Aunt Line has been carrying with her for decades. Painful memories going back to World War II. Will Aunt Line try to protect the family name? Is it worth protecting?

Trying to save yourself from the sin of the past and protecting the family name may be meaningless as the movie hints "sins" are still be committed. It is suggested Gerard has a wandering eye. Is he acting on it? And what about Anne's running mate, Matthieu (Thomas Chabrol, Claude's son)? They spend a lot of time together going out trying to get votes. Could something be going on between them?

For some audiences this may all sound a bit too much. But Mr. Chabrol handles this material with a sure hand. He delicately weaves all of these stories together heightening our involvement. Providing us with a cynical, perhaps even chilling conclusion. People aren't what they seem and the rich always have secrets.

"The Flower of Evil" was nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and was one of my choices for the best films of 2003, being placed in the number five spot. If you are not familiar with the work of Claude Chabrol "The Flower of Evil" is not a bad place to start, which may seem unusual to movie fans. You wouldn't expect a later film in a director's career to be so quintessential to their output but "The Flower of Evil" is clearly the work of a master filmmaker.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Film Review: Underground

**** (out of ****)

It is a line that comes near the end of Emir Kusturica's "Underground" (1997) but it is a key line - "there is no war until a brother kills a brother". The line represents a mentality that perhaps sums up the entire reason Mr. Kusturica made "Underground" to begin with.

Mr. Kusturica's "Underground", which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1995, was made and released during the Bosnian War and the time of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing, which brought about the breakup of Yugoslavia.

The key line in the movie is supposed to refer to Serbians killing Bosnians and vice versa. Not brothers by blood but brothers in a national sense. It is a sentiment which even caused a stir in Europe during the movie's initial release with movie critics (sheep) especially in Mr. Kusturica's homeland, as many felt Mr. Kusturica, a Bosnian, was overlooking / excusing the actions of Serbians. "Underground" is a movie that does not take sides. "Underground" is instead interested in the concept of a country no longer existing. There is no such thing as "Yugoslavia" anymore. The maps have been rewritten. Yugoslavia is now a memory.

That too is an important theme in Mr. Kusturica's masterpiece. The movie begins by telling us there once was a place called Yugoslavia, as if it was all a fairy tale. What audiences are presented with however it not a fairy tale but instead a devilish, chaotic celebration of a country Mr. Kusturica loved. At its best you can compare "Underground" to the work of Federico Fellini. "Underground" is a satirical and jaded look at the history of and downfall of a country.

Unlike the reaction in Europe, movie critics in America, though sparse (not even Siskel & Ebert reviewed it) praised the movie. Michael Wilmington, formerly of the Chicago Tribune, called "Underground" "possibly the finest film made in the old Yugoslavia" and declared it one of the best movies of 1997, when it was released in America.

The celebratory nature of the movie is immediately established in the first scene of the movie (which takes place in 1941) as we hear a brass band playing the Romanian folk song "The Ciocirlia" (in english "The Lark"). They are following best friends Marko (Miki Manojlovic) and "Blacky" (Lazar Ristovski), both of whom are drunk and dancing to the music, while driving a horse carriage. The brass band accompanies the two men at all times because the music creates the emotion they want to feel. It is not unlike what Gary Cooper does in Billy Wilder's "Love in the Afternoon" (1957) where a Hungarian band (cimbalom and all) follows Mr. Cooper's character for romantic effect.

Marko is driving Blacky home to his pregnant wife, Vera (Mirjana Karanovic), who is not happy to see her husband drunk and suspects Blacky is cheating on her with an actress, Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic). In an attempt to clear things up for his friend, Marko explains Blacky was with him and has became a member of the Communist Party.

While Blacky is now a member of the Communist Party, the truth is, he is in love with Natalija and is driven mad with jealousy when he finds out she is spending her time with Nazi soldier Franz (Ernst Stotzner). Natalija may not love Franz but with the Nazi's occupying the city she must do what she can to survive along with her handicapped brother Bata (Davor Dujmovic). Blacky doesn't see it that way and decides Franz must be killed. Natalija is his woman.

Blacky goes through with his plan and as a result the Nazis have put out a bulletin for him. Marko hides Blacky, Vera and several others in a in a cellar until everything blows over. Meanwhile Marko now has eyes for Natalija and gets her to betray Blacky. Marko has another scheme up his sleeve and lies to everyone about the war. He keeps everyone in the cellar for 20 years. He is using them to make weapons which Marko sells on the black market.

In order to keep his lie going every morning Marko wakes up and puts on recordings of Nazi radio programs, has puts the sound of sirens on speakers, leading everyone to believe there are air raid warnings and when he periodically visits the cellar, he informs Blacky that even Josip Broz Tito talks about him and is waiting to use him for "the final battle", which pacifies Blacky from trying to escape the cellar.

Marko, who has now married Natalija, has become a big wig in the Communist Party and Natalija is considered one of the finest actresses in the country. The two are so beloved that a movie based on their life and the reported death of their comrade, Blacky, is being made. This is countered with life in the cellar as people adjust and try to lead a normal life, all the while praying the Nazis are defeated.

The concept of the movie is so outlandish that no one, not even Mr. Kusturica, can take this story serious. Mr. Kusturica has fun with this story as he tries to blend fact and fiction, using the old "Forrest Gump" (1994) technique of using achieve footage of historical events and inserting the characters of his story into them, interacting with various figures. It doesn't always look as polished as it did in "Forrest Gump" but that is okay. It adds to the 'flavor' of "Underground" as an exaggerated political satire.

What audiences will respond to most as they watch "Underground" is the movie's spirit. Some have compared the tone of the movie to a circus or carnival. They aren't too far off. The camera seems to dance with excitement as it follows these characters as absurd situation after absurd situation is created. On the day Belgrade is being bombed by the Nazis we see a zoo destroyed, animals roam free in the city. Marko is with a prostitute and just about as he is going to climax they both hear bombs. Buildings are being destroyed in the background. The prostitute wants to leave and run for safety but Marko is only concerned with "finishing the job". The Blacky character is something of a Serbian Rambo madman always ready for a fight and in one scene he is being tortured by electric shock. It has no effect on him and the machine breaks.

But Mr. Kusturica also gives his movie heart. It is that blend of wild comedy and a touch a poignancy which makes "Underground" something more than a silly farce and keeps the audience interested. Good intentions doesn't mean you have a good movie but it implies the director has heart and passion for a project. That passion and heartfelt sentiment is present in "Underground".

At the time of the Bosnian War many artist were inspired to make films commenting on this horrific event, particularly filmmakers from the Balkans. There was Goran Paskaljevic's "Cabaret Balkan" (1998), which also starred Mirjana Jokovic and Lazar Ristovski, Milcho Manchevski's "Before the Rain" (1994), Jasmin Dizdar "Beautiful People" (1999) and the Academy Award winning "No Man's Land" (2001) by Danis Tanovic. But the movie I mostly associate "Underground" with is Theo Angelopoulos' "Ulysses' Gaze" (1997). Both movies comment on the Bosnian War. Both movies competed for the Palme d'Or in 1995. Both movies were released in America two years later. And both movies made my list of the ten best movies of 1997.

Emir Kusturica is one of his country's great filmmakers and one of its most critically acclaimed. He won the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival for "Time of the Gypsies" (1990). He has had four movies nominated for the Palme d'Or; "Time of the Gypsies", "When Father Was Away On Business" (1985), "Underground" and "Life Is A Miracle" (2004). Two of these movies won the award; "Father" and "Underground". His "Black Cat, White Cat" (1998) was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival as was "Do You Remember Dolly Bell?" (1981). Unfortunately in America Mr. Kusturica been overlooked. His latest movies have not even been distributed in the country which naturally prevents him from being "discovered" by today's movie fans.

It is often believed we all have one great story in us to tell. For Emir Kusturica "Underground" may have been that great story. I have enjoyed all of his movies to various degrees but "Underground" is the movie where the ingredients all came together properly. Many of the movies he has released after "Underground" feel as if he is trying to duplicate its success and mad-cap spirit. They have been good movies but have not been as inspiring. Even his "Life Is A Miracle" dealt with a similar theme but didn't match the excitement presented here. Still Mr. Kusturica is a unique talent, a gifted artist. His work deserves to be seen. "Underground" is the place to start.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Film Review: Random Harvest

"Random Harvest"
**** (out of ****)

The story is almost too far-fetched. Too fantastical even for the movies. Yet it works. Somehow we buy into this story. That's the power of "Random Harvest" (1942).

"Random Harvest" has gone on to become one of the all-time great Hollywood romances and one of the greatest movies ever made. Based on a novel by James Hilton, published one year prior to the release of this movie, "Random Harvest" was a box-office success for MGM and scored a total of seven Academy Award nominations including best picture.

Yet despite that praise and critical acclaim I fear the majority of today's audiences may not have ever heard of this movie yet alone actually seen it. It gets lost in the shuffle of other Hollywood romances such as "Gone with the Wind" (1939), "Casablanca" (1942) and "Wuthering Heights" (1939). But it is equally as good as those movies.

My own memories of this classic movie go back to my childhood. My grandmother, whom I have always said was the real movie buff in our family, introduced me to it. I think it was primarily because she liked looking at Ronald Coleman, which would drive my grandfather crazy. "Random Harvest" however stood with me from my first experience watching it. I saw it again in college when I took a class on Hollywood melodramas and my appreciation for it grew even stronger. Eventually it became one of the last movies I saw with my grandmother ("Now, Voyager" (1942) was the last) before she passed away, further adding to my sentimental attachment to it.

Sentimental attachment aside "Random Harvest" works. It is an example of pure Hollywood filmmaking at its finest. Some film snobs may look down on Hollywood. Hollywood doesn't promote "artistic value" they will say. Hollywood is only interested in commercialism. There is undoubtedly some truth to that. But back in the days when a film like "Random Harvest" was made Hollywood was able to churn out classic films. There were filmmakers who were able to make "art" within the system. "Random Harvest" was a culmination of everything associated with the "studio system" coming together and working. Bringing the right director on-board, casting the movie properly, good source material...ect.

And we cannot over look the importance of the acting. The movie works because of the actors we see on-screen. Both Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson were able to flesh these characters out and make the audience care about them. Between the two of them it might be Ms. Garson that comes out on top. The filmmaker, Mervyn LeRoy and cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg, who won four Academy Awards throughout his career, do their best to make Ms. Garson radiate. She seems to be glowing. She is the one that makes the audience care. Her character brings out the emotion of the story.

Set during World War 1, John Smith (Ronald Coleman)  has been at an asylum for soldiers for the past year. Smith, which is not his real name, suffers from amnesia. The asylum has been unable to locate a next of kin. On the day armistice is declared Smith acts on an opportunity to escape the asylum, when all of the guards are celebrating.

One of the first people Smith meets is Paula (Greer Garson), a singer in a traveling revue, who is immediately aware Smith is from the asylum but believes he is harmless, plus the audience suspects she finds him attractive. She befriends Smith, even offering to bring him along with her traveling with the troupe.

Still dealing with memory loss, Smith and Paula begin a romantic courtship which leads to a proposal and the eventual birth of a child. Smith, trying to create a "normal" life has begun free lance writing for a newspaper and when a full-time position opens up Smith must travel to their office, in a different town, for an interview. When on his way to the office, Smith is hit by a car while crossing the street. Initially unconscious, when he awakens his memory is restored but he forgets his life as "Smith". All Charles Rainier, his real name, remembers is being in the trenches during the war. Everything after that is a blank.

Without spoiling too much of the plot, Paula discovers what has happened to Smith and his real identity, Charles is now a wealthy industrialist. In an attempt to restore his memory Paula seeks employment in Charles' company, as his secretary.

Many will say this all sounds like soap opera material and will be put off by the movie. "Random Harvest" is not "corny" or "campy". The movie, as best it can, plays this material straight. Its emotions are sincere. We generally care about these characters and if they will reunite.

"Random Harvest" however was not the first movie to present such a plot. A similar movie is "I Love You Again" (1940) starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Like most of their pairings, they are best known for the "Thin Man" series, the movie is a comedy with Mr. Powell playing a conservative, uptight businessman who is suffering from amnesia and was really a con-man. Ms. Loy plays his wife that he is about to divorce but with his restored memory as the con man, he falls in love with her again.

With these two movies audiences can clearly see the different directions this story can go in. "Random Harvest" does not have a "sense of humor". It wants to be a full blown romance and if anything get a tear or two from us.

As is usually the case there were differences between the film and the novel. It was believed the novel was "unfilmmable" since the identity of certain characters were supposed to be a mystery. This presents a challenge when bringing the story to the screen. Also, some complain Ronald Coleman was a bit too old for the part. That actually does make sense. Mr. Coleman was in his 50s when this movie was released and the character was supposed to be a younger man. But Mr. Coleman and Ms. Garson have such good chemistry between them it is difficult to see anyone else in the role, though one of Ms. Garson's frequent co-stars Walter Pidgeon was a bit younger than Mr. Coleman. Both Mr. Pidgeon and Ms. Garson appeared in "Mrs. Miniver" (1942), which is what beat "Random Harvest" for the best picture Oscar and the movie Ms. Garson won an Academy Award for.

Director Mervyn LeRoy had a long career in Hollywood receiving his first directing credit in 1927. He would primarily be considered a "studio director" but a very good studio director whose list of credits include some diverse genre films; the classic gangster movie "Little Caesar" (1931), several Joe E. Brown comedies, "Local Boy Makes Good" (1931) and "Top Speed" (1930), the classic prison chain-gang picture "I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang" (1932), musicals; "The Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933) and "Gypsy" (1962) and the horror classic "The Bad Seed" (1956). He received his sole best director Oscar nomination for "Random Harvest".

Would today's audience appreciate "Random Harvest"? Is the movie too innocent for today's times? I sure hope not. What would that say about society? It has been suggested, at various times, to attempt to remake this movie, but filmmakers have decided against it, for fear audiences would not be willing to accept it. "Random Harvest" was a product of its times. Lets not forget in 1942 America would get involved in World War 2. On its most basic level here is a story about lovers separated. How could audiences not relate?