Thursday, June 30, 2016

Film Reviews: The Great Gabbo & Blind Husbands

"The Great Gabbo"  *** (out of ****)

Erich von Stroheim proves he's no dummy in the dramatic romance "The Great Gabbo" (1929).

In "The Great Gabbo", directed by James Cruze, Mr. Stroheim stars as the brilliant ventriloquist Gabbo. Gabbo and his wooden friend Otto, have yet to make a name for themselves. In Gabbo's mind the acclaim is long over due. If he hasn't reached fame and fortune yet it is only because of others around him. An ignorant public unable to appreciate his genius, a foolish agent that doesn't book him in better venues and perhaps even because of his assistant / girlfriend, Mary (Betty Compson, in real life Mrs. Cruze), who sometimes stumbles on stage and is slow to reach her cues.

"The Great Gabbo" would seem to be the story of a struggling artist who feels unappreciated by society and misunderstood by those around him. But there is a dark side to this story. The only person that can understand Gabbo is Otto. Otto serves as something of Gabbo's conscience. After Gabbo and Mary have a terrible fight that ends in her leaving him, it is Otto that tells Gabbo he will be sorry to see her go. Gabbo may not realize it but he is in love with Mary.

Now "The Great Gabbo" becomes a story of an artist with a dual personality. An artist that can only express himself through his creation and is unable to show his feelings in public as himself. In the right hands with the right actor, "The Great Gabbo" could have had elements of macabre. Imagine for a moment if Lon Chaney had been cast in the lead. Mr. Chaney did play a sinister ventriloquist in another movie, "The Unholy Three" (1930) but what a missed opportunity "The Great Gabbo" proves to be.

Mr. Stroheim may be better know to some as a director. Prior to the release of this movie Mr. Stroheim directed "Greed" (1924) and "The Wedding March" (1928), two of his most famous films. In "The Great Gabbo" he showcases what a good actor he was. He had a dominating screen presence (and according to some he had one off-screen too) that commanded your attention. He made a career out of playing characters of nobility. Although that wouldn't describe his character in this movie, pay attention to Gabbo's proud nature. He stands tall and sits up straight. Gabbo may be a struggling artist but Mr. Stroheim plays the part with a rarefied air.

For whatever "The Great Gabbo" does right in the first half of the movie the second half gets everything wrong. The movie is practically split in two; one half a serious drama about a disturbed artist and the second half a Hollywood musical. The rationale for this is easy to understand if you are familiar with the time period. In 1929 the movies learned to sing, the Hollywood musical was born with the release of "The Broadway Melody of 1929" (1929), which would win the Academy Award for best picture. Soon a flood of movie musicals were released. Among them "The Hollywood Revue of 1929" (1929) and "On With the Show" (1929). With the advent of sound, the musical was a wholly new genre created. But the market became over saturated. As Hollywood usually does, it went overboard trying to cash in on a fad. As with most fads interest dissipated causing movies originally intended as musicals to be stripped of all or most of their songs. Two famous examples include the Joe E. Brown comedy "Top Speed" (1930) and the Olsen & Johnson comedy "50 Million Frenchmen" (1930). The latter was based on a Broadway musical which had a Cole Porter score (the song "You Do Something To Me" was written for it) and all songs were removed.

Clearly "The Great Gabbo" is attempting to cash in on the musical fad too but how unnecessary. By the second half of the movie Gabbo realizes he is in love with Mary and wants to win her back. Gabbo is now a famous Broadway star. Unknown to Gabbo, Mary is in love with another man, Frank (Donald Douglas) a singer and dancer. As fate would have it, the three of them are playing at the same theater. This second half becomes a story of unrequited love with endless possibilities. Will Gabbo find out about Frank? Will he seek revenge? Will "The Great Gabbo" turn into a "Phantom of the Opera" (1925) story? Here is where all your dramatic tension can rise and we can see the decline of Gabbo's mind instead the movie focuses on musical numbers.

With all of its flaws the movie is worth watching for Mr. Stroheim's performance. He comes out looking the best compared to everyone else involved. Co-star Betty Compson doesn't come off as a believable person. She does not display a wide range of emotions which at times leads the audience to wonder, what are her true intentions? Ms. Compson achieved her own fame being nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in "The Barker" (1928) and also appeared in Josef von Sternberg's "The Docks of New York" (1928).

"The Great Gabbo" would make a nice double bill with "Magic" (1978) starring Anthony Hopkins as a ventriloquist who is also a victim of his own dummy.

"Blind Husbands"
 ** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Blind Husbands" (1919) is a ridiculous melodramatic love story written and directed by Mr. Stroheim, based on his story "The Pinnacle".

On the surface "Blind Husbands" wants to appear to be a "forward thinking" movie about adultery. The movie's opening title cards tell us one of the main reasons marriages end in divorce is due to "alienation of affection" as often wives end up cheating on their husbands. Instead of condemning the "other man" the movie dares to ask, why? What about the husbands that no longer pay attention to their wives?

"Blind Husbands" does nothing more than perpetuate old gender stereotypes and cliches and is not forward thinking at all nor does it possess any "universal truths". In many ways the movie resembles Cecil B. DeMille's "The Cheat" (1915) as both movies imply women are more easily susceptible to temptation. And gives us the old cliche that all women seek the love and attention of a man as men become bored with their wives and love in general. And before someone says, boy, these movies from 1919 are sure sexist, let me remind you of the novel and the movie "The Bridges of Madison County" as one example. These same stereotypes exist today. Nothing has changed.

This time around Mr. Stroheim plays his usual nobleman, an Austrian officer, Lieutenant Steuben, the man who tempts Margaret (Francelia Billington) from her husband, Dr. Armstrong (Sam De Grasse) while the married couple is on vacation in the Alps in the town of Cortina.

"Blind Husbands" does not seem aesthetically or thematically as ambitious as either "Greed" or "The Wedding March". A majority of the third act takes place on a mountain as both Steuben and Dr. Armstrong go mountain climbing, in what one can assume was meant to be a symbol of masculinity. It is not as striking as the Death Valley sequence in "Greed".

The movie runs a modest 91 minutes yet it feels longer. The movie could have used some editing. Another problem is we don't believe in the romance between Steuben or Margaret nor do we believe Dr. Armstrong doesn't love his wife. The movie makes such giant leaps in logic and feels heavy handed with its message.

The movie unquestionably has its place in the history of cinema since it was the directorial debut of Mr. Stroheim but it does not compare to Mr. Stroheim's later work. Worth watching if you are a serious student of film but has little value to anyone else.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Third Coast Review: Gypsy In Your Soul Interview

I recently interviewed Chicago jazz musician Alfonso Ponticelli about his appreciation of Django Reinhardt and his dedication to preserving gypsy jazz.

This is the first non movie related article I ever wrote. It was published by Third Coast Review.

If you live in Chicago, you should check him out at the Green Mill Jazz Club.

Here's the link:

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Third Coast Review: Chicago Filmmaker Interview

Third Coast Review published my profile piece on a local Chicago filmmaker, Stephanie Rabiola.

Here is the link to the article.

I hope you enjoy it!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Film Review: The Wailing

"The Wailing"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

"The Wailing", the new South Korean film directed by Na Hong-jin, begins with a biblical verse taken from Luke 24:37-39 which starts off "they were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost".

The verse refers to the apostles seeing Jesus after he has resurrected from the dead. They are in disbelief. Jesus had died they thought, are they seeing a ghost? However in "The Wailing" the verse takes on a different meaning since the quote is not given proper context. None of the characters believe they are seeing Jesus or an angel. In fact it is the opposite. Something evil may be on the loose.

The setting is a small village where grisly deaths are happening. Victims break out in a rash and have boils all over their body. They go into violent spasms and die. Is it a virus? It is up to Police officer Jong-Goo (Kwak Do-won) and his partner Seong-kok (Han-Cheol Jo) to find out.

"The Wailing" presents Jong-Goo as inept but likable. He is under the impression he is smarter than his partner, who allows him to believe he is, maybe because he thinks it too. Jong-Goo, the audience suspects, may be a bit out of his depth in trying to solve these deaths. This allows the movie to go for a bit of comedy, challenging the audience's perception regarding what type of movie this will be. Will this be the story of the underwhelming cop that surpasses expectations during his investigation proving he is good at his job? In one bit of comedic lightness Jong-Goo wants to question a dermatologist who he believes will give him the answers he is looking for regarding the skin condition of the dead victims.

Soon though "The Wailing" splits in two halves. What starts off as a police procedural turns into a ghost story with religious undertones. Jong-Goo's daughter, Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan Hee), develops the same rash-like symptoms, leading him to begin to surmise he is dealing with the supernatural, an evil spirit. A prime suspect is a mysterious stranger, a Japanese man (Jun Kunumura) who lives alone in the woods. He lives in the same location some of the town's locals claim a half man - half beast lives.

The evil spirit may be trying to contact Jong-Goo however. How else to explain the terrible dreams he has been having, causing him to wake up screaming each morning while his family looks on almost unfazed, another example of a comedic touch. The question for the viewer becomes, at what point are we seeing Jong Goo's dreams and when does reality begin?

"The Wailing" is not a comedy. It has horror and thriller elements thrown together. Some that have seen "The Wailing" have compared it to "The Exorcist" (1973) yet as I watched the movie I kept thinking of another South Korean movie, "The Host" (2007) due to its ability to combine genres and then turn the genre on its head offering the viewer a different variation of a familiar theme. There is even a little bit of "The Walking Dead" in this story.

In english the word wailing means to cry in pain, grief or anger, when we combine that with the biblical verse we understand what they are frightened of and why they cry out. But, who is the evil in this story? Who is the good and righteous that may be trusted? Will evil be able to deceive the just and tempt them to its side?

Director Na Hong-jin does a good job setting the pace of the movie, though it is a bit excessive. The movie's running time is roughly two-and-a-half hours. Some of it could have be trimmed down. The audience however is brought into the story, which deliberately takes its time creating mood, due to its prime locations, and establishing the lead character's traits, making him much more believable as a person.

Na Hong-jin became a critical darling with the release of his directorial debut, "The Chaser", a very effective thriller which also blurred lines in the battle of good vs evil. This time however he may have out down himself. "The Wailing" is one of the year's best films.

The Big Picture Magazine: Lost Classic Review

The on-line film magazine The Big Picture has published my review of Theo Angelopoulos' "Ulysses' Gaze" (1997) as part of their Lost Classics review section.

Here is the link:

Friday, June 10, 2016

Third Coast Review: Summer of Silence Article

Below is a link to an article I wrote about silent films being screened in Chicago.

The article was published on the website Third Coast Review, where I will now be contributing.


Film Review: The Three Stooges Meet Hercules

"The Three Stooges Meet Hercules"  ** (out of ****)

The Three Stooges don't flex much muscle in the time traveling comedy "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" (1962).

Between 1959 - 1965 The Three Stooges released six feature-length comedies aimed at children, thanks to a resurgence in popularity largely due to television which had begun airing their comedy shorts made at Columbia Pictures. By this time however the Stooges had undergone a change in their line-up. Now the team consisted of Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Joe DeRita, who would be billed as "Curly Joe", due to his physical resemblance to Curly Howard, perhaps the most beloved of all the Stooges. "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" was the third theatrical release.

The Three Stooges began as a vaudeville act in the 1920s consisting of brothers Moe Howard, Shemp Howard and Larry Fine. They were teamed with Ted Healy, whom is credited as creating The Three Stooges. The team (Moe, Larry and Curly) signed a contract with Columbia Pictures in 1934 and started releasing comedy shorts. They made shorts for Columbia until 1957 when the act consisted of Moe, Larry and Joe Besser, whom is, unfairly, the most hated of all the Stooges.

I mention this because by the time the Stooges started appearing in feature films with Joe DeRita the boys were too old to carry on. They looked old in the comedy shorts with Besser and the passing years did not make them look any younger. The image of seeing men in their 60s hit each other on the head or poke one another in the eyes was no longer funny.

Time is cruel to comedians. With age the mainstream public believes comes a loss of talent. The comedians slow down with age. They lose their comedic timing. They repeat famous routines. And, worst of all, they simply look old. Unfortunately it has happened to the best of them. The public turned their backs on Laurel & Hardy in the late 1940s and into the 50s. They began commenting the boys were too old to engage in their usual hi-jinks. People commented on their physical appearance in "Utopia" (1951). The public lost interest in Jack Benny and Bob Hope. They were merely getting by on their reputation and the memories fans had of them when they were younger.

I have defended those comedians and the movies they appeared in, in the past but I'm not usually willing to extend that goodwill to The Three Stooges. Why? I guess because I never liked the Stooges. They never really made me laugh. I've said it before, I might laugh when I see Moe poke Larry in the eyes the first time he does it but when Moe does it eight more times in the same comedy short it ceases to be funny. Something about going to a well too often.

And that is where we are with "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules". Is this a painfully bad movie? No. The viewer will get more or less what they expect. If you are a Three Stooges devotee you'll know this will not show the boys at their peak. You'll know they have slowed down considerably at this point in their careers. In hindsight I'm not sure I even remember anyone getting poked in the eyes. The physical bashing between the Stooges was almost non-existent.

What hurts "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" and every other movie they appeared in at this time including "Snow White and the Three Stooges" (1961) and "The Outlaws Is Coming" (1965) is the lousy production value, the stiff acting by all involved and the unfunny material given to the Stooges. "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" is no better or worst than the other films the Stooges appeared in. This is essentially a "B" movie made around the hope children, who had been watching the Stooges on television, would be able to wrestle up enough money to see this in a movie theatre.

This time around the Stooges play their well established characters as workers in a drug store in Ithaca, New York. The boys are friends with their neighbor Schuyler Davis (Quinn Redeker, who would win an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay for the anti-war film "The Deer Hunter" (1978). Davis is an inventor working on a time machine. The time machine is near completion but the owner of the drug store, Mr. Dimsal (George N. Neise) is growing tired of all the loud noises and explosions Davis' invention is causing.

The Stooges attempt to help Davis finish the time machine by working on it when Davis is not around. By the time Davis and his girlfriend, Diane (Vicki Trickett) come back the time machine not only works but transports everyone back to ancient Greece where they meet Hercules (Samson Burke, a Canadian wrestler and swimmer who competed in the 1948 Summer Olympics).

Hercules is a loyal subject to King Odius (Neise again), who has just defeated the army of King Ulysses, thanks to the Stooges, Davis and Diane, who are seen as Gods courtesy of their entrance to ancient Greece on a time machine. What the Stooges and company don't realize is their actions have changed the course of history. Before you can say "Back to the Future" (1985) the Stooges must make sure Ulysses becomes king and restore order.

"The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" gives us a typical, routine social commentary concerning male masculinity. Davis is a shy, timid man that allows Mr. Dimsal to walk all over him, which makes Diane angry. Why won't Davis defend himself she wonders. Isn't he a man? And so through the course of the movie, as the Stooges and Davis try to set history on the correct course, Davis will have to, at one point, prove himself as a man. Proving oneself as a man in movie terms means one must acquire strength and beat up their antagonist.

On the other hand this movie wants to poke fun at Hollywood epics. By 1962 David Lean had released "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962), Stanley Kubrick directed "Spartacus" (1960) and William Wyler had given us "Ben-Hur" (1959).

The screenplay by Elwood Ullman, who wrote five of the six Stooge feature length comedies, is predictable at best and lacks any inspiration. There are no memorable comedy sequences. Whatever routines are created only feel like pale imitations to routines the boys did in their earlier comedy shorts. For example there is one scene when the boys find themselves in a bathing house for women. At this point the boys are wearing female robes, only robes no make-up or wigs, and are mistaken as three new female slaves. How on earth can three 60 year old men, not even wearing make-up, be mistaken for three women? The sequence tries to create risque comedic situations for the boys by having the women ask them to help with their shower or paint their toe nails. In the end it is not funny because if for no other reason the pacing and timing is off. The boys aren't "selling" the material. Or perhaps couldn't "sell" it.

Another problem with the screenplay is it does not allow for much character development. The transformation regarding the Davis character is quite predictable and not interesting and in fact misses some good comedic opportunities. Davis throughout the course of the movie begins to develop muscles similar to that of Hercules. The Stooges use this as an opportunity to build up Davis' confidence and to make money by arranging for Davis to fight various monsters (a la Sinbad). Davis really isn't as tough as he may think he is. He is able to defeat his opponents with ease thanks to Curly Joe, who carries sleeping pills with him, which he makes sure to give the opponents. Unfortunately there is never a scene when Curly Joe runs out of pills and Davis, who learns of what Curly Joe has done, must fight the battle and really prove his strength.

Then there is the question of the romance between Diane and Davis. Nothing about the relationship seems believable. I suppose a better approach would have been to use the old cliche of Diane in love with a tough jock, maybe she could have fallen in love with Hercules, and Davis must prove himself as a man and have a showdown with Hercules, which would make Diane notice him. This would touch on the same theme, Davis proving his masculinity, but it gives Davis more to fight for. It gives him a goal to reach.

Finally there is the acting. No one seems to have any energy in their performances. For whatever it is worth I will say Quinn Redeker does a better job than Adam West (who appeared in "The Outlaws Is Coming", a year before he would play "Batman" on television) but he is still stiff and doesn't tap into the comedic potential of the role. Only the Stooges posses any flair for what they are doing.

The director was Edward Bernds who directed several Three Stooges comedy shorts, starting in 1945 when Curly was part of the act. He even directed a solo Shemp Howard short and a solo Joe DeRita short. But besides making sure the camera is in place to capture all of the acting there is nothing visual impressive about the movie. One may counter you don't watch a Three Stooges comedy for impressive visuals. In other words I'm right about Mr. Bernds but perhaps missing the point. I shouldn't mention bad directing because its not an issue. Talk about looking the other way!

If the intention of "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" was for it to play as an elongated version of one of their comedy shorts of the 1930s or 40s the movie fails. If it was meant to serve as an introduction into the comedy of the Three Stooges, it fails. If this was meant as an attempt to cash in on the Stooges appeal to children, it is halfway adequate. If it was meant to give the Stooges something to do during the week to keep active, it succeeds.

"The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" is a harmless, incredibly silly movie but it lacks comic inspiration. The Stooges look tired. They are well past their prime. This is not a painful movie to watch it is just boring. And that may be worst.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Film Review: We Monsters

"We Monsters"  **** (out of ****)

The family that plays together, stays together in the German language drama "We Monsters" (2016).

Sarah (Janina Fautz) a young 14 year old girl has been having difficulty adjusting to her home life ever since her parents; Paul (Mehdi Nebbou) and Christine (Ulrike C. Tscharre) separated. Her mother has a new boyfriend, Michael (Daniel Drewes), who is very eager to move in with Christine so they can all live as a family and has more than hinted at the idea of he and Christine having a baby together.

Charlie (Marie Bendig) is Sarah's best friend. Her father, Kuszinsky (Ronald Kukulies) is a recovering alcoholic, has a police record and it is mentioned on at least one occasion hit Charlie. Domestic life is further complicated by the fact Charlie's mother is no longer around.

How will Sarah and Charlie deal with their emotional distress? One day Sarah murders Charlie after an argument involving a boy that had sent Charlie a text message. Sarah admits to her father that she deliberately pushed Charlie off a bridge into a reservoir. The body is missing and Paul doesn't know what to do. His initial reaction is to take Sarah to the police and report what has happened but when Sarah reveal it was intentional what is a father to do?

Soon Paul and Christine agree to cover up the incident. All seems to be going well, as Charlie had a history of running away from home, until Kuszinsky starts to ask questions and wants to speak to Sarah. Kuszinsky could start trouble for the family. He has begun drinking again and suspects Sarah knows Charlie's whereabouts.

The family is confronted with a moral dilemma. What is the right thing to do in this situation? We all know the saying, "oh what a tangled web we weave when at first we do deceive". How many more lies and cover ups will this one lie lead to?

The movie, directed by Sebastian Ko, aims to get at the heart of what are people capable of when put in extreme situations. Can good people do bad things but have good intentions? Are we all "monsters" within? When does "moral integrity" set in and prevent us from performing cruel acts?

At its best "We Monsters" has a naturalistic quality to it which helps the audience accept the actors in the roles and makes the characters believable. Many in the audience may ask themselves, "what would I do if that was me?"

At worst some may say the movie is predictable and its attempts at being clever, with plot twist and turns, are amateur and the pay off takes too long to build up to.

This would seem to sum up the attitude "We Monsters" was met with at last year's Toronto Film Festival. Only now has the movie begun playing in theatres. It just finished a week long run in Chicago, where unfortunately the local movie critics (sheep) failed to write reviews for it.

There were many different directions Mr. Ko and his co-writer Marcus Seibert could have taken this movie in. For one example it could have become a dark comedy with Hitchcockian undertones. The murder of Charlie does bring Paul and Christine together, making their new partners jealous. However the movie takes its premise and sees it through logically as far as possible in a dramatic human way with a touch of suspense.

Mr. Ko creates a reoccurring visual metaphor for the characters . We see a caterpillar shedding its skin as it transforms into a butterfly. What exactly does this visual represent? We come into the world as one thing and end up something else? Are the characters in "We Monsters" shedding their skin discovering something else underneath?

The actors may be unknown to American audiences, even to some that keep up with the current art house and foreign films. Ms. Tscharre has mostly appeared in German television shows and TV movies. Ms. Fautz had a role in Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" (2009) but has mainly appeared on German television shows. Mr. Nebbou was in Steven Spielberg's "Munich" (2005) and the Russell Crowe / Leonardo Di Caprio action movie "Body of Lies" (2008).

Each actor delivers a sincere performance. We believe Paul and Christine are conflicted and merely want to do what is in the best interest of their daughter knowing full well it is not the moral thing to do. We sense their grief. The fact that we are not familiar with their faces only helps us relate more to them.

What I enjoy most about "We Monsters" is the way it weaves ideas and themes so effortlessly. The plot is structured in such a way the escalation of events seems natural and we can logically see how events would reach these heights.

Because of very good performances and a tight screenplay "We Monsters" is one of the year's best films. A shame it has not received the attention it deserves.