Monday, December 26, 2016

Film Review: The Robert Benchley Collection

"The Robert Benchley Collection"  Various Ratings

The name Robert Benchley means far too little to far too many people, including those that would described themselves as "movie lovers". Luckily Warner Brothers, as part of its Archive Collection has released "The Robert Benchley Miniatures Collection" (1935 - 1944), a three disc set featuring 30 comedy shorts made at MGM.

Mr. Benchley first gained fame as a writer, writing satirical pieces in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. He was also a member of the Algonquin Round Table (named so because they would meet at the Algonquin Hotel in New York) along with poet Dorothy Parker, movie critic and playwright Robert Emmet Sherwood and playwright George S. Kaufman.

He would later make the transition to film, initially appearing as the star of his own comedy shorts and would have co-starring, comic relief roles in various movies such as "I Married A Witch" (1942), Alfred Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent" (1940) and the Bob Hope / Bing Crosby road picture, "Road To Utopia" (1945).

It is within these shorts Mr. Benchley would fully develop his screen persona as an at times hapless everyman while also presenting himself as a foremost authority on any particular subject. These comedy shorts are often parodies on "how to" videos and or books. The humor arises when the lecturer (Mr. Benchley) slowly reveals his ignorance on a subject. He stumbles over his words, repeats himself, loses his train of thought and forget the message of his speech. Through this however the genius of Mr. Benchley's comedy comes through as he accurately depicts man's foibles and struggles of everyday existence. Mr. Benchley lampoons social customs and authority.

As with any artist, every attempt at comedy doesn't always work. Some subject matters lend themselves better to comedy than others. This is the case of this collection of 30 shorts. I do not intend to review all 30 instead focusing on a few which best highlight the collection and those which expose the weaknesses of the collection.

"How to Sleep" (1935; Dir. Nick Grande) - The first short of this collection is also the best and a contender for Mr. Benchley's most famous comedy. This Academy Award winner (Best Short Subject, nominated against the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Tit for Tat" (1935), one of two comedies the boys appeared in to be nominated) presents Mr. Benchley as an authority on sleeping methods. What makes the piece so funny and a prime example of Mr. Benchley at his best, is his ability to present universal truths and puncture holes in them. In one scene Mr. Benchley explains when we awake from a night's sleep for a drink of water or to use the bathroom, we want to do so in such a way as to not fully awake ourselves. Or how we inevitably eat a late snack when we had no intention of doing so. We describes various sleeping positions, in which we have all found ourselves in at one time or another. Mr. Benchley takes the simple act of sleeping and turns it on its head revealing even such a simple task as going to bed can challenge man. *** (out of ****)

"How to Behave" (1936; Dir. Arthur Ripley) - This time around Mr. Benchley is a newspaper columnist who writes an etiquette column. He is called upon by two city sewer workers who ask if a man has to stand up when a woman is present while he is eating. After this Mr. Benchley gives us a few more helpful tips. As with "How to Sleep", what makes this comedy funny is how we begin with a simple idea and stretch it to its logical breaking point. If a man must stand when a woman approaches his table while eating, what happens if the floor is slippery? Or what if the woman talks alot and never sits down first? Huh? Did you ever think about such things? Etiqutte tells us when introducing two people are the first time, you introduce the oldest to the youngest. But, what if it is a group of women? How is a man suppose to know how old the women are? What if you are polite and offend someone at the same time? Not as commercially successful as "How to Sleep", this comedy, directed by Arthur Ripley (who worked often with silent screen comedy legend Harry Langdon), has aged nicely and demonstrates the appeal of Mr. Benchley to a younger generation.  *** (out of ****)

"How to Vote" (1936; Dir. Felix E. Feist) - A political committee in the 8th district has gathered together to hear a political candidate's speech. Unfortunately the candidate is not available and has sent his assistant (Mr. Benchley) instead to speak on his behalf. "How to Vote" is a misleading title. Mr. Benchley does not explain how citizens should prepare to vote, which may have lent itself to some funny comments about politics. Instead the piece feels like a retread of Mr. Benchley's own "The Treasurer's Report" (1928), with some of the same dialogue. A better name for this would be how to speak in public, or something related. The humor stems from Mr. Benchley being nervous and fumbling his words. It can be funny and made me smile, at one point Mr. Benchley pulls out a map explaining a new damn project and money has been allocated under the heading of "for what" but not to worry, they will think of a way to spend it. The problem is, the short lacks focus and even at its running time of less than 10 minutes, feels long. "The Treasurer's Report" was short and had better context. "How to Vote" may have been a nice idea but lacks proper context.  ** 1\2 (out of ****)

"A Night at the Movies" (1937; Dir. Roy Rowland) - If "How to Sleep" is my favorite of the Robert Benchley comedies than "A Night at the Movies" is my second favorite. Once again Mr. Benchley takes a relatively simple idea, going to the movies, and shows us the daily struggles we all must endure. Nothing in life is easy which makes it both miserable and funny (as long as it is happening to the other fella). First things start off with a married couple (Mr. Benchley and Betty Ross Clarke) deciding what to see, which is always a challenge. Once in the theater there is the horror of finding a good seat and the possibility someone will sit in front of you (and the law decrees it must be a large overweight person that will completely obstruct your view). Mr. Benchley again puts a comedic spin on universal events we can all relate to. *** (out of ****)

"An Evening Alone" (1938; Dir. Roy Rowland) - Mr. Benchley plays a husband who will have the house to himself for the evening when his wife goes out. She is concerned he will have nothing to do but as Mr. Benchley explains, as the narrator, men have a lot to do around the house when left alone. The piece really engages in gender stereotypes, taking the position men are dumb and should not be left alone. A sentiment sadly still exhibited today in various TV sitcoms. What makes the piece funny is its ability to accurately display what we all do when we have too much time on our hands and avoid doing necessary errands. How many times have you said to yourself, if I only had a free day to do everything I need to and when presented with the opportunity, sit down and watch TV instead? Although there was no television in 1938 that is the general commentary of the piece. You have to love the way Mr. Benchley knows us so well. *** (out of ****)

"An Hour for Lunch" (1939; Dir. Roy Rowland) - Somewhat an continuation of the theme of "time" as seen on "An Evening Alone", here Mr. Benchley proper explains time management to us and demonstrate how to make the most of your lunch hour. The first step is of course to make a list of what needs to be done and then it is off to the races. Here we learn no matter how prepared we are life always has other plans for us and will make every effort to ruin our day. Secondly, we could get a lot accomplished in a day if it weren't for other people, who have no reason to exist in the first place. Again, another fine example of finding the humor in the mundane. *** (out of ****)

"See Your Doctor" (1939; Dir. Basil Wrangell) - Mr. Benchley shows us how not to worry about a problem. Another comedy short with a misleading title. Good idea but poor execution. Mr. Benchley believes he has been stung by a bee but his brother-in-law (Hobart Cavanaugh) puts the idea in Benchley's head that it may have been a black widow spider and it requires immediate attention. The situation would have been funny if Benchley was a hypochondriac and thought the bee sting would be fatal and eliminate the brother-in-law character. It would have also been funnier if Mr. Benchley could provide more examples of people worrying over silly things.  ** 1\2 (out of ****)

Overall a good collection of comedy shorts starring the great Robert Benchley. When you add all the shorts together, the viewer will have a great appreciation for Mr. Benchley's comedy and his witty observations on human behavior. The downfall is the short run roughly 9 - 10 minutes and seem to end abruptly. If you enjoy classic American comedy, you may enjoy this. If the names Bob Hope, W.C. Fields and Jack Benny mean nothing to you, watch them first and work your way to this. Also, you may want to read Mr. Benchley's writings as well.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Film Review: In Her Name

"In Her Name" *** (out of ****)

It is an experience no parent wishes to endure, having to encounter the death of a child, especially a death which may have resulted in a crime. It is what the lead character in the French drama “In Her Name” (Au nom de ma fille, 2016) must confront and ultimately becomes obsessed with.

The film, directed by Vincent Garenq, is based on a true story involving Kalinka Bamberski, a French teenager who died in 1982 in her mother and stepfather’s house. The stepfather, a German doctor, may have been involved in the girl’s death, which resulted in a near 30-year pursuit on the biological father’s part to have the doctor stand trial.

This within itself would be enough plot for a feature-length movie, however, it is not the whole story. Andre Bamberski (Daniel Auteuil) was a married man with two children, Kalinka (Lila-Rose Gilberti, as a child and Emma Besson as a teenager) and Pierre (Timeo Bolland as a child, Antoine Milhaud as a teenager and Tom Hudson as an adult). Andre discovered his wife, Dany (Marie-Josee Croze) was having an affair with a German doctor, Dieter (Sebastian Koch), whose daughter was a friend of Kalinka’s. Initially, Andre and Dany tried to give their marriage a second chance but the love between Dany and Dieter was too strong to overcome.

“In Her Name” appeals to our basic instincts by placing us in the shoes of the parents, the father in particular, who believes justice has not been served. A child has died, possibly injected with drugs and raped, as her assailant may go free due to cracks in the legal system and political connections. How are the parents supposed to get closure? How would you react?

The movie, at times, attempts to question Andre’s motivations. Does Andre truly believe Dieter drugged and raped his daughter or does Andre want revenge on Dieter for breaking up his marriage?

Revenge, whether it is that of a jealous husband, or in the noble pursuit of justice, becomes one of the movie’s themes as Andre begins a descent into obsession. It all starts off innocent enough. At first Andre wants to see a copy of the autopsy report. When he receives it, it is in German. Having the report translated he learns of an injection Dieter gave his daughter. He also learns of a futile attempt Dieter made to resuscitate Kalinka and possible signs of sexual activity. None of which was disclosed to Andre by either Dieter or Dany. Dieter was even present during the autopsy.

With this, the seeds of doubt are firmly planted in Andre’s mind. Was Dieter responsible for the death of Kalinka? What should Andre do about it? How can he prove it? Andre dedicates the next 30 years of his life to seeing Dieter stand trial, even while Dany fully believes Dieter had nothing to do with Kalinka’s death.

Those familiar with French cinema will recognize Daniel Auteuil, who is arguably one of the greatest actors of his generation, since he gained international fame for his roles in Claude Berri’s epic masterpiece series, “Jean de Florette” (1987) and its sequel “Manon of the Spring” (1987). How you respond to Auteuil’s performance will ultimately decide your opinion of the movie. Auteuil dominates on-screen, giving a nuance performance which borders on sympathetic and obsessive. In Auteuil’s hands, the character is played as an intelligent gentleman focused on a single issue, who may or may not realize the world around him is slipping away.

In what may have been a missed opportunity, the movie neglects involving more scenes with Pierre. How does the son fit into his father’s life and his pursuit for justice? It would have been interesting as well if Dany had an internal conflict. Why does she so willingly and blindly believe Dieter?

But this is what happens when filming a movie with so much story. What do you leave in and what do you take out? There are times viewers may feel too much has been edited as the movie spans a 27 year period.

One of the best decisions by director Garenq is he never sentimentalizes the material, turning it into overblown melodrama. It primarily functions as a mystery, often building suspense while still allowing for dramatic moments. It is not difficult to imagine how this material could have been turned into a sappy tear-jerker.

Much of “In Her Name” will seem familiar to audiences, we have seen variations of this story before, parent / spouse, looking for justice after a loved one has died and dealing with a flawed legal system. There was another French drama, “In the Name of My Daughter” (2014) starring Catherine Deneuve and directed by Andre Techine with a similar story about a mother’s hunt for justice when her daughter disappears and is never found. But “In Her Name” has a lot of heart and a compelling performance by Daniel Auteuil. It isn’t quite the stuff of great drama but it comes awfully close.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Chicago News: Long Way North & The Brand New Testament Movie Reviews

The Chicago newspaper, Chicago News, published two movie reviews I wrote, in today's paper.

Opening at the Gene Siskel Film Center, the French animated movie, "Long Way North" (2016) click here to read my review.

Also, opening at the Music Box Theatre, the controversial Belgium comedy, "The Brand New Testament" (2016). Click here to read my review.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Film Review: Miss Sloane

"Miss Sloane"
**** (out ****)

It is small detail that may not catch anyone's attention in the opening moments of "Miss Sloane" (2016). In the right hand corner of the screen a date appears, April 18, but no year is given. We can assume this story takes place now or last year or even 5, 10 years ago. In the end, it does matter. "Miss Sloane" is a "timeless" movie.

The film is about the influence of the gun lobby, the issue of gun control, the role of lobbyist in our political system and their control over the politicians. As such it doesn't matter what year this story takes place. The issue of gun violence has dominated our media coverage for years due to mass public shootings and the asinine public dialogue we have over gun rights and the concept of universal background checks.

Because of the controversial nature of gun control the movie has also been subjected to mixed reviews, seemingly dividing audiences along political lines. For the movie's critics, it is one more example of Hollywood showing its left-leaning tendencies. On the other hand the film comes out a good time, politically speaking. In a year where there was a nasty, bitter presidential election in an environment where voters are in an anti-establishment mood, "Miss Sloane" shows us the system in place and why voters are in a populist mood.

Watching the first hour, hour and 15 minutes, I found myself thoroughly engaged in "Miss Sloane". I entertained the idea of calling the movie "the best film of the year". It was a rabble-rouser for me, much in the same way last year's "The Big Short" (2015) was, which I called the best film of last year. I enjoyed how "Miss Sloane" presented Washington, D.C., how it exposed the influence of lobbyist and comments on what motivates our politicians and how they make their decisions. THIS is what makes "Miss Sloane" worth watching for me. THIS is what is the most interesting aspect of the film. The fact that is it about gun control doesn't matter much to me. The movie could have focused on the tobacco lobby or abortion. The "issue" at play is merely a spring board to show us the larger context of how the national debate is controlled and dominated by lobbyist and big money in politics.

But then "Miss Sloane" slowly turns into something else and veers slightly off course becoming, in ways, what its detractors accuse it of, going off on a Liberal crusade and unfortunately tries to give audiences a psychological understanding of our lead, title character, explaining who she is and why this particular issue is important to her. These scenes are the most forced in the movie and the ones I responded least to. By the end of the movie, its strong anti-Washington sentiment slightly shifts, placing blame solely at the politicians and not so much at the feet of the lobbyist, after we have just watched a two-hour movie showing us how they control the issue. It settles on being a movie about a single individual taking on (or down) a system.

Miss Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is a career driven, focused lobbyist, determine to win at all cost and has a reputation to prove it. When the head of an NRA-ish organization, Bob Sanford (Chuck Shamata) approaches Sloane, he wants her to help his organization appeal to female voters. Women don't like guns he says. In order to stop a Brady bill, calling for universal background checks on all gun purchases, this demographic will be needed to prevent its passage. Sloane declines. Her boss (Sam Waterston) is furious. This will cost his firm a lot of money. Sloane however is taking a principle stance. She believes in universal background checks. She will not compromise herself and advocate for this issue to please her employer. So, she jumps ship and works for the opposition, headed by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong). Their objective is to switch a handful of senators to vote in favor of the Brady bill.

Ms. Chastain dominates the movie with an icy exterior. For some it may be too icy, which is unfortunately why the movie attempts to humanize her character, trying to set-up why her character chooses to fight for this issue. Why now in her career does she take a stand? Ms. Chastain makes the character work when not giving us the inside dish on the character. Her demeanor and speech tells us what we need to know. We know people like this. People that love a challenge. People that are all business and lack social skills. People that put their career first above the personal life. They choose career over starting a family. Luckily the movie avoids gender cliches, presenting Sloane as a cut-throat and a word that rhymes with witch. Sloane may be those things, but, she is respected for it. It is not held against her.

The movie was directed by John Madden, best known for directing the Academy Award winner, "Shakespeare in Love" (1998) for which Mr. Madden was nominated for his directing. He was also the man behind "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" (2011) and its sequel. One of my favorites of his movies was a lesser known drama, "Proof" (2005) with Anthony Hopkins and Gwyneth Paltrow. "Sloane" may be the most issue orientated movie Mr. Madden has directed. It would be nice if Mr. Madden picked up a second nomination for his directing. Mr. Madden gets the most out of Ms. Chastain, who is also due an Oscar nomination.

It is too bad the screenplay by Jonathan Perera isn't a bit more cynical. A bit more threatening. By the end of the picture it is the story of one person fighting against the corrupt system. Kind of like Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" (1939). Not much has changed since that time. It actually reminds me of a forgotten Kevin Spacey vehicle, "The Life of David Gale" (2003) - revolving around highly moral characters taking a stand in the most drastic ways possible. And it all gets resolved in one of those standard Washington Senate hearings sequences with the big speech given by the character exposing the charade of the system.

Still, despite these flaws there is no denying the craft that went into making this movie. The acting is stellar, with Ms. Chastain giving one of her best performances since landing in the spotlight. The round of supporting players are all very good including Mr. Waterston, Mr. Strong and John Lithgow as a U.S. Senator. The screenplay makes some strong points and mostly stays on message. I may no longer feel this is the best movie of the year, it is certainly among the top ten.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Chicago News: Dont Call Me Son - Movie Review

Opening today in Chicago, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, is the Brazilian drama, Don't Call Me Son.

Here is my review published in the newspaper Chicago News. Click here