Sunday, August 20, 2017

Film Review: Fahrenheit 9/11

"Fahrenheit 9/11"
**** (out of ****)

A businessman turned politician. A rigged election. A president with foreign ties and business transactions. No, I'm not talking about Chancellor Trump, I'm talking about George W. Bush.

In the immediate days following the 2016 presidential election, I kept thinking to myself, there are a lot of similarities between Donald Trump and George W. Bush. I predict Trump, like Bush, will be viewed by history as a failure.

Besides the previous mentioned connections both Trump and Bush are men that value loyalty. Both like to talk tough. Bush was a cowboy and Trump a street-wise New Yorker. Trump, like Bush, may gin up a war to create public support.

When I first saw Michael Moore's documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004), the country was in the midst of an election. "The most important election of our lifetime" they told us. Moore's intention was to influence the election results and make George W. Bush a one term president. The public was going to find out the truth about Bush's background and connections. It caused quite a controversy. At the time of its release, "Fahrenheit 9/11" stirred me. It made me angry. I called it one of the best films of the year.

After the election of 2004, I didn't watch Moore's documentary again until recently. The next two times I saw it, I felt distant. "Fahrenheit 9/11" seemed to be a time capsule. It was a documentary truly of its time. With more than a decade passed, "Fahrenheit 9/11" didn't effect me as strongly as it did when I sat in the movie theatre on opening day. But, having rewatched it a third time, my blood started to boil. The anger returned mostly because I see history repeating itself.

In "Fahrenheit 9/11" Michael Moore presents George W. Bush as a privileged man. A man who came from a wealthy family and used that to his advantage. He lacked a good business head and leadership skills. He remembered those that helped him and rewarded them once he was in a position of power. In Moore's view, Bush, his cabinet and the Republican party, played the American public for suckers, advancing an agenda long in the making, exploiting tragedy for their profit.

The thrust of Moore's documentary deals with the aftermath of the September 11th attacks and the way the Bush administration dealt with it; the passage of the Patriotic Act, color coded threat levels, creating a high level of fear in the country, and the lead-up to the Iraq War, which in Moore's view, was a war built on lies, deliberate lies. Moore also draws a connection between the Bush family and Saudi Arabia, claiming as president, Bush always considered what would be best for the Saudi's, due to the massive amount of money they have invested in America and because of both of their ties to oil.

Much of what Moore presents in the documentary was well known to the public prior to the election. Moore comments on the amount of vacation time Bush had taken. During the first eight months of his presidency, Bush was on vacation 42% of the time, like Trump on his weekend vacations on hotels with his name on them. Moore comments on Bush's connections with Florida, the deciding state in the election. And how Bush did not hold briefings on terrorism, much like how Trump doesn't have daily briefings, since he doesn't like (or maybe know how) to read.

But there is some shocking stuff in "Fahrenheit 9/11". It was Moore that obtained footage of Bush in the Florida classroom when New York was under attack and how Bush sat in the classroom for seven minutes after learning what happened. That became a major discussion during the time, with some believing any other person would have left the room. Moore also gets one congressmen to admit many do not read the bills they pass into law, like the Patriot Act. We saw this played out again when Republicans admitted they didn't read the repeal and replace legislation of the Affordable Care Act earlier this year.

With George W. Bush out of office, I find "Fahrenheit 9/11" to also be a commentary on our political system and the men (and women) that run for president. They all seem to have a self-interest in running. They aren't running for the "good of the country" but because there is money to be made for them, not to mention the attraction of being powerful. The Bush family had a long history of Saudi ties. There are financial connections. But, was Bush so different than other people that have run for president? Wasn't Trump's financial ties to other countries discussed and how Trump's brand could benefit from him being in the White House? Can the public be so blindly naive as to believe that never crossed Trump's mind or Bush's?

It is true, as Moore's critics like to point out, he does engage in a lot of antics and manipulation. In one scene, Moore decides to rent an ice cream truck and drives around the Capitol as he reads the Patriot Act through a megaphone, since no one knows what they voted on. In another scene he tries to get some in Congress to enlist their children in the Iraq War. If they voted for the war, they should share some of the burden and have their children fight.

But what Moore's humorless Republican critics can never seem to understand is that Moore is a filmmaker. If Moore is emotionally manipulating his audience, it is only because that's what movies do. If Moore exaggerates a premise for laugh, it is only because that's what comedy is, an exaggeration of the truth. If Michael Moore has an agenda and uses the medium of film to push forward that agenda, it is only because that is what documentaries do. They have a point of view. The documentarian had a purpose in making their documentary.

Is "Fahrenheit 9/11" anti-Bush? Yes! Is it fair to Bush and presents both sides of he argument? No. Michael Moore was not a Bush supporter but that doesn't mean the documentary doesn't present a lot of useful information. The way it is edited and packaged, it creates a damning portrait of Bush. It presents Bush's agenda and then exposes the real motivation behind it. Are the conclusions Moore jumps to accurate? Unfortunately that depends on your politics however Moore's conclusions are probably more accurate than what the White House told us at the time. Since when are politicians known to be honest?

When it was released "Fahrenheit 9/11" became the highest grossing documentary of all-time. I believe its success gave birth to the flood of documentaries released. Documentaries never received much public attention prior to Moore's movies. And not all documentaries were political. That changed after the release of this. Politics have taken over the documentary. Documentaries have become political tools.

Michael Moore has announced he plans to release a "sequel" to this called "Fahrenheit 11/9" about Donald Trump and the 2016 election. The 11/9 reference the date the election was held. Knowing what Moore did to Bush, it will definitely be interesting to see what Moore reveals about Trump.

"Fahrenheit 9/11" may not have stopped Bush from winning re-election but it is a great documentary. I believe it is Moore's best. Moore has rarely been as sharp and critical as he is here. Not to mention he finds plenty of opportunities for humor. Although it focuses on George W. Bush, there is still a lot that is relevant in today's world.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Film Reviews: A Story of Floating Weeds & Floating Weeds

"A Story of Floating Weeds"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

The mother. She sits and waits patiently. She never complains. She smiles when she sees the man. She eagerly serves him sake. It isn't much but it makes her happy.

Oddly enough she is not the focal character in Yasujiro Ozu's classic silent film, "A Story of Floating Weeds" (1934) yet there she sits, stealing our attention, gaining our sympathy.

The movie is about the man, an actor who leads a traveling theatre troupe. His name is Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto). He returns to a small quiet town, after a four year absence. If things go well and his play is a hit, he plans to stay for about a year. Kihachi has other motives for wanting to stay in the town. For here is where an old lover lives, Otsune (Chouko Iida) and her son, Shinkichi (Hideo Mitsui). Unknown to the son, Kichachi is the boy's father, but, out of shame of his profession, he has never told Shinkichi, in the hopes he would go to school and make something of himself. Instead Kihachi is presented as the carefree uncle.

Is there still love between Kihachi and Otsune? The movie doesn't explore that issue. The two appear as a comfortable couple. Time has not altered their relationship. The viewer senses the couple picks up where they left off. Otsune holds no bitterness towards Kihachi. She never complains that he abandoned her and their son. The deeper question is not are they still in love but are they happy in their individual lives? Kihachi says he is not lonely. He is dating an actress in the troupe, Otaka (Rieko Yagumo). But what about Otsune? Her feelings are never stated but her face says it all.

As seen in so many American movies, "A Story of Floating Weeds" is a story about the sacrifices parents make in order to give their children a better life. Because it was directed by Yasujiro Ozu is it also about family as a unit, tradition and changing values.

Although I haven't spent as much time as I should discussing the work of Ozu, he was one of the premier Japanese filmmakers in his day. I previously reviewed my favorite of his films, "Late Spring" (1949) but have neglected reviewing the rest of his work.

Unlike his contemporary, Akira Kurosawa, Ozu didn't enjoy cross over success with American audiences. Ozu's films weren't released in America until the 1960s. For Americans Ozu's films were considered "too Japanese". Keeping with his cultural, Ozu created the "tatami shot" due to his keeping the camera low, at the eye level of a person kneeling on a tatami mat. In this respect, Ozu is creating a theatrical experience, making his camera an objective observe, sitting watching a movie. Ozu was also known for not moving his camera, although you will see a tracking shot in this movie.

Initially Ozu directed silent comedies but gradually turned towards drama, showing the pleasures of every day life. Some film historians cite "A Story of Floating Weeds" as the beginning of Ozu's more mature direction.

For a filmmaker not considered "Western", "A Story of Floating Weeds" could have easily been an American film noir. Otaka finds out Kihachi secret and becomes jealous. She threatens to tell Shinkichi the truth about who his father is. She vows revenge against Kihachi and one way or another will get even with him. However, don't mistake this movie for a Raymond Chandler mystery. "A Story of Floating Weeds" moves at a slow, deliberate pace. The movie is interested in the characters and their relationships not creating suspense.

"Floating Weeds"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Ozu would revisit this material twenty plus years later and shorten the title to "Floating Weeds" (1959). It too is a wonderful film worthy of any movie lovers' attention.

This was not uncommon for Ozu, whose films often shared similar plots and similar sounding titles. His other films include "An Autumn Afternoon" (1962), "Early Summer" (1951) and "Late Spring". Each is about a father or both parents, trying to find a husband for their daughter. However, "Floating Weeds" is the only "official" remake Ozu directed.

Immediately the audience will notice obvious differences. The remake uses bright colors whereas the original was shot in black & white. The location has changed to a seaside village. There is more humor in this story. And, the running time is longer, 33 minutes to be exact.

There is still the woman, sitting, smiling, serving the man sake, but, perhaps because of the cinematography and bright colors, the story no longer seems as sad and dramatic. In fact, I had a nice warm feeling as I watched the movie. I felt happy.

At times "Floating Weeds" feels like a sequel, a continuation of "A Story of Floating Weeds". Having seen both movies back to back, I felt the remake was making references to the 34 version. The first time the aging theatre troupe act, now called Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura), visits Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura), she asks him how are his shoulders, that he had previously complained about the last time they saw each other. In the earlier version Kihachi talks about his shoulders. Also in the earlier version the actor and the boy go fishing. Here too they go fishing but refer to prior times going fishing.

In the fishing scene Ozu hits on the theme of changing times as the two discuss acting. Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), the son, criticizes Komajuro's acting as "old-fashion", to which the father takes offense. A younger public may not appreciate his acting style but Komajuro insist his audiences is older and understand his style. Indicating, some of us just can't let go of the past and adapt to modern changes.

This version of "Floating Weeds" was my introduction to the work of Ozu and turned me into a fan ever since. Now that I have seen the silent version, I must confess I find that to be the better version because of the more dramatic impact of the story.

In the end we are still watching drifters, like floating weeds, searching for permanence, adapting to their surroundings.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Film Review: Seven Chances

"Seven Chances"
**** (out of ****)

The first time I saw Buster Keaton's "Seven Chances" (1925), as a teenager, I believed it was a somewhat entertaining comedy, with some good visual gags, that ultimately was a second tier "Buster Keaton comedy". It didn't neatly fit into the cannon of Buster Keaton comedies, accentuating the strengths of Mr. Keaton's "Great Stone Face" character. Watching "Seven Chances" again recently my opinion has completely changed.

To be honest, I don't know how well "Seven Chances" utilizes the "Great Stone Face" character but I have never seen a comedic premise executed as perfectly. "Seven Chances", at 56 minutes, doesn't waste one moment of screen time. The story is told in a straight forward manner. Its beauty is in its simplicity.

In comedic terms "Seven Chances" has an ingenious plot. Based on a stage play of the same name, Keaton plays James Shannon, a broker who due to a questionable financial deal faces disgrace and ruin. The Gods smile at James when an attorney (Snitz Edwards) informs him his grandfather has died and in his will has left a fortune of seven million dollars (remember this is 1925) to James, provided he is married by his twenty-seventh birthday. On this very day James turns 27. He now has until 7pm to find a bride.

The movie begins by stating James is in love with Mary (Ruth Dwyer) but has been unable to utter the words "I love you" to her. For what is about to follow, the movie needed this to establish the fact James loves Mary and is a likeable character. When James discovers his deadline he rushes over to Mary's home to propose. She accepts until James explains why they must marry that same day. Feeling insulted Mary decides she no longer wants to marry James. Now James needs to find a woman, any woman, willing to marry him.

This entire premise plays itself out within the first half hour of the picture. The remaining 25 minutes (give or take) becomes a "chase comedy", with James running away from a mob of women, all willing to marry him after it is revealed he is set to inherit a fortune. It is one of the most famous chase sequences in a Buster Keaton comedy and may be one of the greatest chase sequences in any silent comedy, perhaps only matched by one from another Keaton comedy, "Sherlock, Jr." (1924). The chase culminates to a situation with James ducking from an avalanche of giant boulders rolling towards him and eventually the would-be brides.

As iconic as the image of rolling boulders may be, it is what leads us to that point that cracks me up as Keaton and his gag writers, including Clyde Bruckman (who worked on "The General" (1926) and Harold Lloyd comedies) create a cavalcade of sight gags with James encountering a female impersonator, nearly engaging an underage girl, mistaking a mannequin for a woman and running into a Turkish bath on ladies day. The writers have imagined every possible awkward scenario to place James in, building momentum towards the comedic climax.

Compared to other Buster Keaton comedies however "Seven Chances" may feel slight. The material could have been made into a two-reeler comedy. If you take out the chase sequence, it might have made a good Charley Chase comedy (look him up if you don't know who he was). Plot-wise the chase adds nothing to the story. Although Keaton was known not to care about sentimentality in his movies, "Seven Chances" creates no character build up, which would provide the audience an emotional investment in the story and the fate of the character. Instinctively Keaton fans might get defensive and say that is true about all of his movies. They are short changing Keaton. I like his character in "The General". I want him to succeed.

The question becomes how well does the "Great Stone Face" character work in this movie? In demonstrating his athletic ability, "Seven Chances" is characteristic of a Buster Keaton comedy but Keaton's comedies were also known for their technical innovation and themes of man versus technology. "Seven Chances" is more situation comedy than some may be used to in a Keaton movie. It is not unlike "Battling Butler" (1926) in that sense, which was also based on pre-existing material.

The reason "Seven Chances" succeeds is because of the humor. "Seven Chances" is essentially a one-joke movie but there is an onslaught of sight gags that make us laugh. The movie is consistently funny, always going for a big laugh and hitting its target. In terms of laughs "Seven Chances" ranks with "The General" and "Sherlock, Jr.".

Some of Keaton's best moments in the movie may be the subtle touches he gives the character. Take the scene where James proposes to Mary. James is sitting outside of Mary's home on a bench. He is rehearsing his proposal. Unknown to James, Mary sees him and sits next to him. James, still rehearsing, pops the question. Unable to contain her excitement, Mary says yes. James turns his head and faces Mary. He doesn't do a double take. Naturally he doesn't change his facial expression to one of surprise, he simply flows with the situation, as if nothing has happened. That is typical Keaton.

In the same scene, after accepting James' proposal, Mary sits closer to James. James moves his hat towards the edge of the bench to give him more room. As Mary shows him affection, James moves the hat closer to him. The actions don't bring attention to themselves and some may not notice the movements but this is what made the stone face character so funny.

Keaton originally did not like "Seven Chances" even though it did well at the box-office. The movie often gets lost in the shuffle of Keaton's comedies as much praise is thrown at "The General", "Sherlock, Jr." and "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928) but "Seven Chances" is just as good. Over the years the movie's reputation has grown. It may not always be characteristic Keaton but it is one of his best movies.

This movie (perhaps moreso than the stage play) served as inspiration for the Three Stooges comedy, "The Brideless Groom" (1947), one of Shemp's most famous outings with the team and the romantic comedy "The Bachelor" (1999) starring Chris O' Donnell.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Top Ten Films Of 2016!

More than half way through 2017 and only now am I making a list of the best films of 2016. All I can tell you is, the absence of this list was not due to forgetfulness. The movies of 2016 did not impress me. Having seen more than 120 movies released in the calendar year of 2016, I struggled to compile a list of 10 meaningful ones. I waited to catch up with titles I missed in theatres, and I am still not completely satisfied with this list. I will disclose that there are some titles I am still waiting to be released on DVD that may change this list. These titles include "Certain Women" and "Krisha".

I saw all the critically acclaimed movies released in December and the Oscar nominated movies; "Moonlight", "La La Land", "Silence", "Star Wars: Rogue One", "A Monster Calls", "Hidden Figures", "Lion", "Manchester By the Sea" and "Noctural Animals" to name a few. The majority of them I found "decent". Not great but not bad either. In most cases, I believe the sheep (movie critics) and general public over-hyped these movies, as they usually do. I do not purposely try to be "different" but from time to time I scratch my head in bewilderment over their tastes.

Some of my choices were nominated for Oscars and did receive critical acclaim. Most were ignored and some even slammed by the public.

The world in 2016 was, to put it mildly, interesting. Americans followed a presidential election between two of the most distrusted candidates in modern history. One had absolutely no qualifications whatsoever and was a reality TV host. In our age of celebrity, "wise" voters chose this person. America has been reaping the benefits ever since (that's sarcasm).

I mention the election because when I compiled my list of the best films of 2015 I pointed out how angry movies had become. Revolt was in the air. Liberal Hollywood was sending a message with movies advancing a liberal agenda. Oddly though, 2016 seemed tame by comparison. Yes, there was "Miss Sloane" (unfairly damned by the public) which caused conservatives to go bananas, but few other mainstream titles really stirred the pot and left much of an impression.

Suffering a backlash from the previous year's Academy Awards ceremony, which saw some black actors and actresses call for a boycott of the show, some of the best movies released this year saw life through the eyes of black characters. These movies were the saving grace of 2016.

Outside of that point, I'm not sure there is a connection, a common theme, between my choices for the best films of the year other than I simply liked them.

1. ALLIED (Dir. Robert Zemeckis; U.S.)
A movie that received a mixed reaction. It reminded me of an Alfred Hitchcock movie from the 1940s. It was honestly never my intention to place this at the top of my list, though I did intend for it to be placed somewhere in the top ten. Eventually, after being disappointed title after title, "Allied" seemed better and better by comparison than most.

Here is a piece of classic, old-fashion Hollywood entertainment featuring two mega-star performances by Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard with Cotillard stealing the show. I was very disappointed that the movie received only one Oscar nomination (costume design) but was shut out of all the major categories. If Hollywood was in a nostalgic mood (La La Land), "Allied" was a movie it should have paid more attention to.

2. FENCES (Dir. Denzel Washington; U.S.)

3. HIDDEN FIGURES (Dir. Theodore Melfi; U.S.)

4. LOVING (Dir. Jeff Nichols; U.S.)

5. SING STREET (Dir. John Carney; UK)

6. MISS HOKUSAI (Dir. Keiichi Hara; Japan)
One of the most beautiful animated movies released in 2016. It does not have a linear plot but is wonderful to look at.

7. ELLE (Dir. Paul Verhoeven; France)

8. MISS SLOANE (Dir. John Madden; U.S.)

9. LIGHTS OUT (Dir. David F. Sandberg; U.S.)
The horror movie of the year!

10. WE MONSTERS (Dir. Sebastian Ko; Germany)

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Film Review: The Kid Brother

"The Kid Brother"
**** (out of ****)

It may not have the fame of "The Freshman" (1925) or an iconic comedy sequence like the one in "Safety Last!" (1923) but the comedy "The Kid Brother" (1927) is one of Harold Lloyd's best.

Re-watching many of Harold Lloyd's comedies, I have come to the conclusion he may have been at the forefront of creating the situation romantic-comedy as we know it. How else do you explain "Girl Shy" (1924)? This, more than anything, separates Mr. Lloyd from his two more famous (?) contemporaries. I cannot recall a Buster Keaton comedy I would describe as romantic. In "The General" (1926) for example, Mr. Keaton spends as much time with trains than he does with a girl. Charlie Chaplin, in movies like "City Lights" (1931) could display a romantic sentiment, but Mr. Chaplin's movies generally had dramatic undertones rather than romantic.

In various Harold Lloyd comedies I've noticed a struggle trying to find a way to combine comedy with a credible romantic sub-plot. Some have a very good plot structure, "Girl Shy" and "Grandma's Boy"(1922), while others limit Mr.  Lloyd's interaction with the leading female character in order to focus more on comedy sequences, "Safety Last!" and "The Freshman".

In truth some of the same statements could be made about "The Kid Brother" but watching it again, it is the only comedy with Mr. Lloyd that I have seen that I have enjoyed as much as when I first saw it. The movie does balance romance with comedy with the comedy slightly edging ahead. The female character is used as a plot device, around at just the right moment to motivate our hero and provide him with the inspiration he needs. For instance, she does not participate in any of the comedy sequences, though some are built around her presence.

However, "The Kid Brother" is a successful movie simply because it is well told. The movie has an excellent plot structure, that tries to go beyond a laugh-a-minute plot, attempting to provide more character development for the Harold Lloyd character to create more of an emotional connection with the audience. That may mean fewer laughs as a result but it doesn't prevent "The Kid Brother" from being a rewarding experience. I am also aware some will say I am contradicting myself because I rated "Grandma's Boy" three-and-a-half stars while making the same comments about it as I am "The Kid Brother". Why am I not giving them both four stars? Because I like "The Kid Brother" more.

"The Kid Brother" is a kind of "Cinderella" story with Mr. Lloyd playing Harold Hickory, a shy, under confident young man who feels lost in shadow of his father, Jim (Walter James), the small town's sheriff, and his two older brothers; Leo (Leo Willis) and Olin (Olin Francis). Harold wishes he was an strong as his father and brothers. This scenario is familiar for Mr. Lloyd as it is reminiscent of "Grandma's Boy".

One day Harold sees Mary (Jobyna Ralston, in her last role co-starring with Mr. Lloyd), the daughter of a traveling medicine man, who has since passed away. Wanting to "prove" himself in her eyes. Harold pretends to be just as strong as his brothers, ordering them around when he knows Mary is nearby.

Outside of these sequences, there isn't much of a courtship between Harold and Mary. It appears Mary is instantly attracted to Harold, with no other male rivals in sight, fighting for Mary's hand. This dispenses with the usual romantic entanglements that proceed instead allowing more time for visual gags and character set-up.

A lot of the visual gags are clever with Harold using his surroundings to his advantage to avoid physical conflict. Without giving away too much, a gag involving a monkey and a pair of shoes is funny and a sequence with Harold trying to embarrass his brothers, while also trying to avoid a beating from them, when he brings Mary to their home late at night, after being caught in the rain. The brothers are embarrassed to be seen in their pajamas.

One sequence seems a little out of place, as Harold is fighting off a bad guy that he learns cannot swim. Harold gets bloody minded and tries to drown the man. It is all meant to be played for comedy but the impulse of the character contradicts the sweet, innocent nature the movie had been establishing, which I guess it meant to make it funny when it does happen.

The movie was co-directed by Ted Wilde, who received his first (of two) screen credit for directing a Harold Lloyd comedy. The first second directing effort was for "Speedy" (1928). Wilde worked with Mr. Lloyd on a few comedies, including "Why Worry?"(1923), "Girl Shy" and "The Freshman". Jay A. Howe (credited at J.A. Howe) only received screen credit for this Harold Lloyd comedy, despite his long career in comedy during the silent era and working for Hal Roach at one time.

The main theme of the movie however is a standard one found in far too numerous comedies of the time period; masculinity. A man proving his worth in the eyes of the woman he loves. In these movies a man's worth is equated to strength. A woman, these movies tell us, needs to fall in love with a "strong man". There is also the father / son dynamic that addresses the same theme. Jim believes Harold is frail and treats him as such, making comments like "You might get hurt Harold. This is a man's work."

"The Kid Brother" may lack some of the big laughs and thrills of "The Freshman" or "Safety Last!" but it is easily one of Harold Lloyd's best comedies due to its well constructed plot, character development, combination of comedy and romance, fine visual gags and Mr. Lloyd's acting (pay attention to his body language!). This would be a fine place to start to introduce yourself to the comedy of Harold Lloyd.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Film Review: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse

"Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse"
*** (out of ****)

Francis Ford Coppola experiences "the horror" of filmmaking in the documentary, "Hearts of Darkness" (1991).

I would imagine to the general public the idea of filmmaking might be a simple one. How difficult can it be to direct a movie? You basically tell everyone what to do and follow a script. To an outsider it may sound like fun. Movies are glamorous, right? You get to socialize with beautiful actors and actresses. You'll make a lot of money. You can become famous. People will ask for your autograph. You can even win an Academy Award. It all sounds like a pretty sweet deal, doesn't it?

Of course, anyone that has ever shot a movie will tell you, you are wrong. That is not what filmmaking is. The great French director, Francois Truffaut, won an Academy Award for "Day For Night" (1974), a movie about working on a movie set with Mr. Truffaut playing a director as he deals with major casting decisions to minor problems like a cat not properly drinking milk from a saucer. It created a romanticized view of filmmaking. Fax Bahr's documentary sets the record straight.

"Hearts of Darkness" documents the making of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (1979), a movie generally regarded as one of the greatest movies of all-time but one noted for its notorious production shoot, which lasted more than 200 days and went millions of dollars over budget. During production Mr. Coppola fired and re-cast his lead actor, a monsoon destroyed sets, his new lead actor suffered a heart attack, other actors failed to learn their lines and issues with the Philippine government, which was engaged in a civil war, delayed shooting. All of which lead Mr. Coppola to doubt whether the film would ever be completed.

We suspect this is what it is truly like to make a movie. It is hard work. A constant struggle. An endless day of decision making and compromise with moments when it feels as if you are flying by the seat of your pants. Within those circumstances it is not difficult to believe a director would begin to question their talent. How and when will the movie end?

Great directors, like Francis Ford Coppola, often blend their personal life into their work. There is a element of autobiography in their films, directors like Mr. Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman, usually draw on experiences from their childhood as inspiration. Watching "Hearts of Darkness" however, I have never seen a more perfect example of art imitating life. Has a filmmaker ever mirrored so closely the experiences of the lead character in a movie? It is a reality that does not escape Mr. Coppola.

If you have never seen "Apocalypse Now", it is loosely based on Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", written in 1899, exploring themes of imperialism and racism. In Mr. Coppola's film we follow Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), a special operations officer ordered to find Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a highly decorated officer who has gone rogue in Cambodia and leads his own military, and "terminate" him. Willard travels upriver, through the jungle of Vietnam searching for Kurtz. The movie is about a journey. The physical journey of find Kurtz and deeper ones involving the journey into one's mind, self discovery. To Coppola, the journey was a metaphor for the Vietnam War.

In order to make the film, Mr. Coppola and his crew, travel to the Philippines and face the harsh elements. Coppola begins to go slightly mad out in the wilderness. He openly speaks of shooting himself, after his has put his own money up to produce the movie, and is afraid the film will turn out to be a disaster. Mr. Coppola goes on his own journey to self discovery. He is a different man by the time the film is completed.

"Hearts of Darkness" uses footage shot by Mr. Coppola's wife, Eleanor, during the production shoot of "Apocalypse Now", originally intended for PR purposes, and video recordings between herself and Mr. Coppola. Eleanor also narrates the movie, reading from her diary, giving audiences an insider look at what goes on during the making of a film.

That is the strong suite of "Hearts of Darkness". We really learn a lot about what it takes to make a movie and hear to utmost personal thoughts of Mr. Coppola as he tries to deal with the situation at hand. Through the course of events Mr. Coppola comes across as a risk taker and a highly intelligent filmmaker. A man who always had a strategy, trying to work around all of the obstacles thrown in his direction.

These moments are countered with modern footage of the cast and crew (Mr. Sheen, Denise Hopper, Robert Duvall and Mr. Coppola himself) sharing their experiences on set, looking back on the film. Through the contemporary interviews, we learn quite a bit, such as George Lucas (who is also interviewed) was originally set to direct the movie. We learn Martin Sheen, at 36 years old, felt he was not in good shape to withstand the shooting schedule of the movie. We learn some of the actors were on drugs during shooting and many scenes were improvised.

Yet for all of these interesting moments and details learned about "Apocalypse Now", I'm still reluctant to call "Hearts of Darkness" a masterpiece. It feels too academic. Too much like a PBS special. It provides a lot of facts but lacks emotion. I wasn't involved, sitting as an activate participant, as I am when watching other documentaries by Michael Moore or Errol Morris.

"Hearts of Darkness" naturally makes a perfect companion piece to "Apocalypse Now". After watching "Hearts of Darkness", you truly come to appreciate "Apocalypse Now" a bit more and respect Mr. Coppola. You sit and watch a movie and never realize what goes into making it. "Hearts of Darkness" was filled with as much drama as "Apocalypse Now".

The documentary went on to win two Primetime Emmys, for directing and editing, and a National Board of Review award for best documentary. The late film critic, Gene Siskel, of the Chicago Tribune and the television show "Siskel & Ebert", called it the best movie of 1991.

You can also read my review published on the The Big Picture website here.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Film Review: Erin Brockovich

"Erin Brockovich"
**** (out of ****)

The Trump administration moved Tuesday to roll back an Obama administration policy that protected more than half the nation's streams from pollution.
Associated Press - June 27, 2017

The State of Michigan sued Flint Wednesday, alleging that the City Council's refusal to approve a broadly backed deal to buy water over the long term from a Detriot-area system is endangering public health.
Associated Press - printed in the Boston Globe June 28, 2017

Reading about these two news stories, I immediately thought of Steven Soderbergh's "Erin Brockovich" (2000), a movie I originally called one of the best films of 2000, and one that unfortunately proves relevant today.

The movie was based on the true story of the legal case against Pacific Gas and Electric Company in 1993 California. The company was accused of contaminating the drinking water of the town Hinkley with hexavalent chromium, which studies showed was linked to cancer in humans. PG&E used this chromium in their cooling tower system to fight corrosion.

Pacific Gas and Electric however was fully aware of the harmful nature of their actions. In their attempt to cover their tracks the company made proposals to buy homes within a radius of the plant. What was initially a pro-bono real estate case morphed into a larger issue, thanks to the keen eye of Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts), a filing clerk at the law office of Masry & Vititoe, who had no degree in law.

Essentially what you have in "Erin Brockovich" is a Frank Capra-esque story of the little guy (or girl) taking on the mighty large corporation, seeking justice, offering the message that against all the odds good will always prevail when the truth is on your side. Of course, it helps if you look like Julia Roberts as well.

"Erin Brockovich" isn't so much about the court case as it is about people. The viewer understands the basis of the case but we don't see a lot of lawyers talking about strategy or court room scenes. The majority of the movie focuses on Erin and her interaction with people. "Erin Brockovich" wants the audience to like Erin. To relate to her and cheer her on. We are meant to admire her.

In this respect Julia Roberts succeeds in her interpretation of the character. Ms. Roberts' charm saves the day as she delivers, what seems to be, an effortless performance. Where does Erin Brockovich begin and Julia Roberts end? In some ways Ms. Roberts is not doing much different than she has done in other roles. Her public persona, with her winning smile, are on-screen here. She is light and bubbly. That makes "Erin Brockovich" light and bubbly. You could have taken this movie and material in a more dramatic direction, imagine Meryl Streep in the role. But how many people would have seen the movie? Ms. Roberts makes "Erin Brockovich" mainstream and is directly linked to why the movie was a box-office success. It is great Hollywood entertainment. Minus a few short skirts and four letter words this is a movie Hollywood of the past would have made.

However there were many that criticized "Erin Brockovich" and Julia Roberts' wardrobe as distracting. These "movie critics" wrote a lot of words commenting on how Ms. Roberts' breast were far too often on display and seemed to be the focal point of many scenes. That is not fair and completely dismissing what the movie is trying to accomplish. I am a male and enjoyed the story presented in "Erin Brockovich". If other men watching the movie find Ms. Roberts' appearance a distraction, that says more about them then the movie.

If there is to be criticism aimed at the movie it would be the way an unnecessary love interest character, George (Aaron Eckhart) a next door neighbor biker, is portrayed. Whether or not the real Erin Brockovich knew this man is immaterial to me. Story-wise the character adds nothing to the plot. What starts off as a good character, fizzles out. If the purpose of the George character was to show Erin's determination in her noble pursuit, a perfectly good character was wasted. As a result the character becomes an after thought used as a baby sitter allowing Erin to focus on the legal case. The George character could have been used to reveal personality traits in Erin's character while still turning George into a person instead of a plot device.

Some of the better scenes in the movie involve Erin with Ed Masry (Albert Finney), the attorney she works for. They have a good chemistry between them and are able to exchange witty remarks at one another. Development wise, the Ed character doesn't fare much better than the George character, however being the actor Mr. Finney is, with his own charm and screen presence, he makes the character memorable. He was nominated for an Academy Award in the best supporting actor category.

Also, in true Capra form, it would have been nice if there was a screen villain, someone from PG&E fighting back against Erin and Ed. Instead it is a faceless company. Was that within itself a social comment? Companies prefer to remain faceless as they cause suffering to the general public. Is that how they get away with it? It might be a good idea but in the movies it is always good to have a villain.

But, we have to come back to Ms. Roberts, who won an Academy Award in the best actress category for her performance. It cannot be overstated. Ms. Roberts is the central force in the movie. The entire movie is built around her. The great critic, Michael Wilmington, then of the Chicago Tribune, wrote of Ms. Roberts, she "may never find another part as perfect for her". Sadly this has turned out to be true as Ms. Roberts, with the possible exception of Mike Nichols' "Closer" (2004), has not starred in a movie worthy of her acting skill. Winning the Academy Award turned out to be one of the worst things for her a career. A similar fate shared by Halle Berry and Mira Sorvino.

Director Steven Soderbergh, who prior to this movie had a reputation as an American indie filmmaker with title such as "Sex, Lies and Videotape" (1989) a Palme d'Or winner and "Kafka" (1991) came into the mainstream with this movie. The year 2000 proved to be his year as he released another critically acclaimed drama, "Traffic" (2000), for which he won the best director Academy Award (while also being nominated for "Erin Brockovich"). Since this time Mr. Soderbergh has switched between Hollywood movies (the Ocean series) and personal projects.

As the news of the day reminds us, the events in "Erin Brockovich" were not a "one time" scenario. In fact PG&E, as late as 2011, was still addressing contamination concerns. Lead contamination has been discovered in Ohio and Illinois not to mention the horrific situation in Flint. The news media doesn't give these issues enough attention. That remains one of the great things about movies however. "Erin Brockovich" gives us names and faces. Movies, sometimes, bring important issues to the mainstream. They create awareness. We need more movies like "Erin Brockovich". All these years later the movie has lost none of its bite and Ms. Roberts' still shines.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Film Review: Rookies in Burma

"Rookies in Burma"  ** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Rookies" prove to still be amateurs in "Rookies in Burma" (1943)

"Rookies in Burma" is a sequel to the Wally Brown / Alan Carney comedy, "Adventures Of A Rookie" (1943), a World War II comedy about two American dopes (Brown & Carney) that are drafted in the army. It was RKO's response to the popularity of the Abbott & Costello comedy "Buck Privates" (1941) and the continued success Abbott & Costello were having at Universal Pictures with their war themed service comedies; "In the Navy" (1941) and "Keep 'Em Flying" (1941).

Of the eight "official" movies Brown & Carney were teamed together in, between 1943 - 1946, "Adventures Of A Rookie" and "Rookies in Burma" may be their two best known comedies. Both are available on DVD as part of Warner Brothers Archive Collection - "The RKO Brown & Carney Comedy Collection", which features four titles in total.

Movies lovers do not have to be told, Brown & Carney never achieved the success of Abbott & Costello. Their comedies together are largely forgotten by the mainstream. The comedies are mainly of interest as curiosity pieces. Some movies fans, like myself, may take pleasure in "discovering" forgotten comedy teams and / or comedians. Over the years I have found not all of them deserved their "forgotten" status.

"Rookies in Burma" however may prove to be a different matter entirely. I actually enjoyed "Adventures Of A Rookie", to an extent. I may be the only person in the history of the world to prefer it over "Buck Privates". "Privates" I felt was too sentimental and patriotic whereas "Rookies" knew its limitations and was strictly a comedy with no greater ambition. "Rookies in Burma" however is essentially a "B" movie made on a small budget featuring less than distinguished actors and poorly chosen locations. It wants to be a cross between an action / adventure story and comedy. The problem is neither aspect of the story is well executed.

Young, modern, liberal viewers will also be off put by the movie and will claim the movie is offensive and filled with racial stereotypes. The dialogue in the movie is filled with references to "Japs" and implications that all Japanese people have slanted eyes and buck teeth. While that language would definitely not find its way in movies today, one has to remember the time period. The movie was made during World War II. America was at war with the Japanese. I see no difference in this compared to American movies today and the depiction of Middle-Easterners in cinema as terrorist. Both share the objective of belittling your opponent.

At the start of the movie we meet Jerry Miles (Brown) and Mike Strager (Carney). They have not made anything of themselves since we last saw them in "Adventures". The first image of them is they are both peeling potatoes. Jerry, the "leader" of the team, is upset. Jerry believes he should be fighting in the front lines against the Japanese. His country needs him. Mike, on the other hand, is not so brave. When an opportunity presents itself for Jerry to become a hero and capture several Japanese soldiers, his plan backfires and he and Mike are taken to a Japanese camp as prisoners of war.

But Jerry is not ready to admit defeat. He is an American and Americans always fight back. Jerry and Mike will escape from the camp. Each man is surprised to find out their Sergeant (Erford Gage, reprising his role from "Adventures Of A Rookie") has also been capture. The three men manage to escape the camp and spend the rest of the movie hiding from the Japanese soldiers in an attempt to find their way back to the American lines.

Much of the humor in "Rookies in Burma" revolves around verbal dialogue between Jerry and Mike, much like the wordplay between Abbott and Costello. One routine is built around the word "cinch". Jerry wants Mike to strap a cinch for a saddle on an elephant (never mind how the elephant makes its way in the movie!). Jerry tells Mike it will be a hard job but when he keeps using the word "cinch", Mike takes it to mean it is an easy job. Do you find that funny? Well, how about this one. Mike says he never sneezes, which Jerry finds amazing and begins to tell Mike the effects his actions have on the economy and all the jobs that will be lost due to Mike not sneezing. It is incredibly similar to a routine Abbott & Costello did about not putting mustard on a hot dog.

"Rookies in Burma" feels like a one-note comedy that keeps going back to making fun of the Japanese for laughs. The action scenes are never thrilling. There isn't any suspense created where the viewer wonders will Jerry and Mike find their way back to safety. The screenplay doesn't develop Jerry and Mike as two "loveable losers" that become endearing characters. The comedy feels "dated" and stale. The movie doesn't even give us a sense of patriotic pride as we see the American soldiers outwit the Japanese.

The movie also throws in two female characters played by Joan Barclay and Claire Carleton. Their appearance, one can assume, was meant to give the movie some sex appeal. Neither women is given much material to work with. There is no romantic development between the women and Jerry and Mike or between one of the women and the Sergeant. The movie doesn't even go to any lengths to suggest the movie are beautiful by photographing them in any particular way with special lighting. The whole movie is shot rather bland.

Despite all of this, I don't believe Brown & Carney should be entirely avoided. They did appear in some watchable comedies, "Girl Rush" (1944) and "Step Lively" (1944) starring a young Frank Sinatra. I also question the need to make a sequel for "Adventures Of A Rookie" in the first place. What does this movie accomplish?

Part of me likes the stale jokes in "Rookies in Burma". I have always admitted a weakness for dumb jokes and a soft spot for harmless comedies of the 1930s and 40s. But, my better judgement tells me this isn't a very good movie worthy of a wide audiences' attention. You have to draw a dividing line somewhere and "Rookies in Burma" is on the wrong side. Only watch this if you are a devoted fan of Brown & Carney. For the rest of you, check out "Adventures Of A Rookie" as a starting place to become familiar with Brown & Carney.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Film Review: Inside Job

"Inside Job"  **** (out of ****)

It is one of the most significant moments in modern history - the financial meltdown of 2008, when the U.S. government, thanks to the big banks and Wall Street greed, collapsed the economy. Yet, I fear Americans are forgetting the facts. People have "moved on" from this event and have become preoccupied with their daily lives and the importance of watching "Dancing with the Stars". These events took place nine years ago but for most Americans it might as well taken place 90 years ago.

How else can one explains recent U.S. events and Donald Trump? It is widely believed, by those humans which posses a brain, that one of the factors which lead to the collapse was deregulation. The U.S. government did not oversee what Wall Street was doing. And yet, the intelligent citizens of this country decided to elect a businessman, who was a reality TV show host, as president. A "man" that says there is too much regulation. A "man" that has filled his cabinet with Goldman Sachs executives and others from large corporations. This was the same "man" that said he was going to "drain the swamp". I can only believe it is all yet another example of the dreaded disease known as "voter amnesia". A terrible disease known to strike every four years and holds millions of people captive.

Stories that revolve around the financial crisis fascinate me. Every documentary and feature film I've see addressing this topic simply makes my blood boil. To see how the system works. To see it is a chosen few that set the policies in the interest of the banks, all in the name of money, infuriates me. Nothing has changed. No one has been held accountable and now it seems, people have simply forgotten. And I wasn't the only one angry. From the economic collapse rose Occupy Wall Street. People started talking about the 1%. Americans started talking about the Federal Reserve. The term "too big to fail" (a reference to the banks that needed to be bailed out) became part of the culture. All that anger. All that energy. All those people. What happened?

History is not a straight line, constantly moving forward. History is a circle. It is a cycle. We face a problem, fight to resolve it, achieve a goal and then time passes. Slowly the progress made on an issue is reversed. With time a national conversation starts again, over the same issue and we start the process over and over again. Workers' rights. Corporate control over politics. Healthcare. Freedom of the press. Do you have any idea how long this country has been talking about these issues? I have read books quoting sources from 1860 discussing these issues. That's history. One step forward, three steps back.

I mention this because that was my inspiration to re-watch "Inside Job" (2010). I feel history is once again repeating itself. Donald Trump is going to repeat the mistakes of the past. Everything has been forgotten, presenting an opportunity for those motivated by greed. When the financial bubble burst (the stock market at 20,000 plus is too high not to bust) the "amnesia" will set in and we will all ask ourselves "how did this happen"? Another national discussion will engage us, involving how do we move forward. Rinse, wash, repeat. There is a moment in this documentary when discussing Ronald Reagan a clip is shown of a man saying Wall Street and the White House are in sync. Has Wall Street not been happy about Trump due to his promises of deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy?

The task of "Inside Job" is difficult. How do you explain an issue many believe is complex and worst of all, boring? Do people want to hear about collateralized debt obligation (CDO) and subprime mortgages? Do they know know what a derivative is? That is the beauty of Charles Ferguson's documentary. He explains this financial jargon to us in simple and direct terms. We begin to understand the effect and consequences of Wall Street's actions. Mr. Ferguson paints a picture for us, putting events in historical perspective. The economic collapse of 2008 was one in the making. It wasn't unexpected. It was the result of various laws passed starting in the 1980s under President Reagan, continued under President Clinton and exploded under President George W. Bush.

Mr. Ferguson, who also directed the Iraq War themed documentary, "No End in Sight" (2007), creates a picture suggesting the collapse was a perfect storm. A system feeding itself. The first step was to make sure there was no regulation. As pointed out in "Inside Job", after the Great Depression until 1980 there were no financial crisis. It was only after a system of deregulation did recessions and financial scandals become a common occurrence. After Wall Street got these laws passed the dividing line between the politicians and Wall Street becomes a bit blurry. Hence the quote of the Reagan White House and Wall Street being in sync. One would do the other's bidding. People from the financial world started to work inside the White House in various advisory roles and positions in the Treasury department.

One of the men behind the bailout of the banks, for example, was then Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, who had previously worked at Goldman Sachs, who stood to benefit from the bailout. Goldman Sachs was very active in CDOs. "Inside Job" suggest this was a conflict of interest, which was, to be fair, pointed out in the media at the time.

"Inside Job" further pushes the idea of conflict of interest on the part of many involved in Wall Street and economics. This "protective cloud" is what contributes to the problem in mainstream society. People don't realize the "opinions" they hear or read about from "experts" (i.e. economic professors) were paid to say those things. It is never disclosed however. So, when one "expert" speaks of a "sound economy" or the integrity of a banking institute, what you, the public, don't realize is, it is basically paid advertising. Those opinion are they presented in the media and given much credence. Well if so-and-so said it is a good idea, it must be.

While you or I may see the conflict, what is astonishing is, Mr. Ferguson interviews many of these people and when he presents to them their conflict of interest they sit amazed at the suggestion of it. They don't see a conflict. It is simply how the system is and should be. So what if I am paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to say something good about the very people who are paying me. To his credit, Mr. Ferguson pushes back, a bit, which is more than the media tends to do when confronted by these same people. Did you ever watch the Fox Business Network?

Which leads to a point. These people live in a bubble. They are oblivious to the consequences of their actions as long as a dollar is to be made. That level of greed is what caused this entire mess. Put aside the policies which were enacted. It was the people. People motivated by greed. A system was created that rewarded greed which creates an incentive to become greedier and greedier. And that system is still in place today.

What is also of interest are the people Mr. Ferguson was able to interview (also interesting and very telling are those that declined). Appearing are former managing director of International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (who would later go on to be involved in a sex scandal), the Finance Minister of France, Christine Lagarde, who would become the managing director of the IMF, investor George Soros, congressman Barney Frank, former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer and the Under Secretary of the Treasury in the Bush administration David McCormick. Most are in agreement on what is wrong with the system while others are shown to make the opposite argument that all is fine.

While "Inside Job" won an Academy Award for best documentary and was named the best movie of the year by New York Times movie critic, A.O. Scott, my fear is the public will think of this documentary as too academic. It is what made "The Big Short" (2015) such a great film. This explains some of this same material but does it with humor and creates a dramatic story so as, one, to keep an audience interested and two, minimize the anger of the mob (the public). In "Inside Job" we see the individuals responsible for what happened. We hear their lies and cover ups. "The Big Short", while based on a true story, still was a dramatic film. "Inside Job" by comparison is a good piece of investigative journalism, piecing everything together.

It would serve in the public's interest if many saw this documentary. Please don't forget what happened in 2008 and how it happened. Don't forget the names and faces. And, most importantly, remember these people are still out there. No one was arrested for these activities. These people were given bonuses. Remember the bail out money was used for that. Be weary of politicians, that have former Goldman Sachs executives in their cabinets, that talk about deregulation. And, if you can remember, speak to your doctor about voter amnesia. It's not an election year, so you should be fine.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Film Review: Gangs of New York

"Gangs of New York"  **** (out of ****)

Martin Scorsese once again shows us the mean streets of New York in the drama "Gangs of New York" (2002).

When Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" was released the sheep (movie critics) had a mixed reaction to it. In fact it was the first time I could remember so many "critics" criticizing a Martin Scorsese picture. There was Manhola Darhis of the New York Times who felt Scorsese had made this picture for the purpose of being able to win an Academy Award (something he had not accomplished at this time). She, in all her "wisdom", called the movie "Oscar bait". There was also New York Observer critic, Rex Reed, normally a defender of Mr. Scorsese's work, who felt the movie wasn't up to Scorsese's best.

I point this out not to "shame" the "critics" that trashed Mr. Scorsese and this film but to reinforce the belief, time serves as the ultimate critic. Great movies will be remembered and stand the test of time. Even if they weren't successful upon their release, audiences will find those movies ("It's A Wonderful Life" (1946), "Duck Soup" (1933), "The General" (1926) and "Bringing Up Baby" (1938) are a few examples). I think "Gangs of New York" is one of those movies as well. Many may not remember the greeting this film received. They will be able to judge the movie solely on the quality of the movie itself. They will not be caught up in the gossip of the day such as how the movie was originally set to be released in 2001 and was pushed back a year. Normally not a good sign. Some complained Leonardo DiCaprio wasn't "worthy" of collaborating with Mr. Scorsese and there were reports the movie was over budget. In the end though, it doesn't matter. Time has judged the movie and given it a stamp of approval.

This is not to suggest "Gangs of New York" didn't have its defenders. The movie went on to earn 10 Academy Award nominations. The "movie critic" Richard Roeper called it the best movie of the year. Former Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert gave it a three-and-a-half star rating. And many praised Daniel Day-Lewis' performance.

Watching "Gangs of New York" three things strike me thematically. One, with time all is forgotten. Modern generations will forget those that lived before them and never know of their hardship. Two, man fights man, creating meaningless "gangs", fractions but the real enemy is the government. "Gangs of New York" ends with the U.S. government ordering the death of its own citizens as the poor have risen up and have said the Civil War draft is not just since the rich were able to buy their way out of it for the price of $300 (this is actual fact. Not fiction. Look it up). Three, how "Scorsese" the movie is in its themes, primarily loyalty.

"Gangs of New York" blends fact and fiction telling us the story of Irish immigration to New York and the resistance it was met with by those that didn't want "foreigners" entering their country. Too bad someone wasn't around to suggest building a wall. Which leads to another point. Nothing has changed. People are debating the same issues they have for hundreds of years and nothing will get better or change because people haven't changed. In "Gangs of New York" the Irish were the immigrants not wanted to enter the country. Today it is Mexicans and Muslims. Only "the other" has changed. The hatred remains the same.

Fighting against the Irish is Bill the Butcher (Day-Lewis). He "controls" the district known as the Five Points and a gang called the Natives. They are the "true Americans". Bill is initially opposed by the leader of another gang called the Dead Rabbits led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). In the film's opening sequence the two gangs will have a final conflict to decide who is the true leader of the Five Points. Vallon dies in battle at the hands of Bill, in front of Vallon's son, Amsterdam (played as an adult by Leonardo DiCaprio). Forward 16 years later and now Amsterdam wants revenge.

This leads to the most interesting dynamic of the film, the relationship between Bill and Amsterdam. Although Amsterdam is filled with hatred for Bill, Bill accepts Amsterdam into his gang and treats Amsterdam as a son. In one scene Bill makes a heartfelt speech saying as much. This creates a blurry line for Amsterdam. Can he hate this man who has been good to him? Is there good and bad in everyone? This makes Bill the most interesting character in the film. Bill is a multi dimensional character. Amsterdam had potential to be one but is shortchanged by the writers. Amsterdam isn't given the larger-than-life personality of Bill.

Within the Bill character Mr. Scorsese and screenwriters Jay Cocks, Kenneth Lonergan and Steven Zaillian, are able to present him as a sympathetic character and then shock us by his villainous nature, brutally killing people. What makes Bill even scarier is, we understand him and in our current political climate, know people like him.

Maybe the weakest character in the movie is Jenny (Cameron Diaz) a pickpocket that Amsterdam falls in love with who had a relationship with Bill. She adds very little to the film and seems to mostly be a symbol to show a "softer" side of Bill and Amsterdam. I guess you need a female character in a movie to tell a man, just as he is about to go into battle, that war is a bad idea. Then the man will tell the woman he will come back alive. If every scene between Jenny and Amsterdam was cut out, you might even have a better movie.

There is however a great group of supporting characters including including political boss, William Tweed (Jim Broadbent), Happy Jack (John C. Reily), an Irishman who fought along side Priest Vallon and in the passing years becomes a policemen, under the thumb of Bill. And "Monk" McGinn (Brendan Gleeson), a man for hire who also fought along side Vallon and knows Amsterdam is up to something.

"Gangs of New York" is also a visual masterwork, as everything you see was created on a sound stage at Cinecitta, the famous Italian studio where Federico Fellini shot his movies. How the art-direction and set-direction didn't win an Academy Award is a mystery and a shame. It was one of the most impressive elements to me, when I first saw the movie. I still think it is one of Mr. Scorsese's best looking movies.

Now, 15 year after its release, and with the gossip of the day behind it, Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" holds up well. It's themes of political corruption, loyalty and history is the work of a passionate filmmaker. Mr. Scorsese had wanted to tell this story on the big screen for more than 20 years. If Woody Allen shows us a romanticize view of New York, Mr. Scorsese gets down to the gritty side of the city. He shows us the blood, sweat and tears that went into making New York what is it. That's what "Gangs of New York" is, a crash course in American history.

I wouldn't say this movie is as influential as Mr. Scorsese's other films, such as "GoodFellas" (1990), "Raging Bull" (1980) or "Taxi Driver" (1976) but "Gangs of New York" is a masterpiece nevertheless. I called it one of the best films of 2002 (I placed it in the number three spot) and declared it one of the best films of the first decade of the 21st century. Watching it again, my mind has not changed.

"Gangs of New York" is a rewarding experience, worthy of multiple viewings. Daniel Day-Lewis gives the most effective performance and is in some ways, the center of the movie. Time has not dulled this movie. If anything, it has proven to be a "timeless" movie, still relevant today.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Film Review: A Day at the Races

"A Day at the Races"  *** (out of ****)

All bets are off with the Marx Brothers and "A Day at the Races" (1937).

For years I believed "A Day at the Races", MGM's Marx Brothers follow-up to "A Night at the Opera" (1935), the brothers first movie at the studio, was a "lesser" comedy, one that lacked the zest and zingers of their earlier comedies. Watching it again I find my memory wasn't too far off however the movie is better than I remembered and there are laughs to be had.

This seems to be a slightly different opinion compared to other modern Marx Brothers fans, who over the years I have always heard say, "A Day at the Races" ranks among their best. While I firmly believe one should not criticize the Marx Brothers (they are simply too funny) I also believe nothing quite compares to their earlier Paramount comedies like "Duck Soup" (1933) or "Horse Feathers" (1932) and should be the standard bearer that all other Marx Brothers comedies are ranked against. By comparison, "A Day at the Races" doesn't reach the apex.

Watching "A Day at the Races", the seventh Marx Brothers comedy, the team appears to be slowing down a bit and their age is showing. That by itself is no reason to dismiss any comedy, as I am someone who frequently argues against ageism. Great comedians don't stop being funny because they get older. If "A Day at the Races" is a "lesser" comedy it is only in comparison to what the Marx Brothers had previously accomplished. Excluding that, it is an entertaining movie worthy of an audience. In fact, the movie was a box-office success when first released.

"A Day at the Races" feels comfortably familiar in its plot with Groucho playing Dr. Hackenbush, who has been hired as chief of staff at the Standish Sanitarium, in an attempt to keep the sanitarium's only patient, Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont), who is convinced she is ill, content. However unknown to everyone, Dr. Hackenbush is a veterinarian. But, with business so bad the sanitarium cannot afford to lose its patient. Judy (Maureen O' Sullivan) owns the sanitarium and would like to ask Ms. Upjohn for financial help or else she will be forced to sell the property to J.D. Morgan (hmm, if you replace that "D". Played by Douglas Dumbrille) who owns a nearby casino and race track.

What I dislike about the movie is Groucho doesn't play Dr. Hackenbush with the same brash confidence he played his other memorable characters. This time around Groucho is worried about being discovered as a veterinarian. Normally Groucho would pretend to be the foremost authority on the issue of his choosing. This attitude plays better for Groucho's persona and allows him to get more laughs.

As is usually the case, some of the best scenes involve Groucho interacting with Margaret Dumont. As in their other comedies together Groucho would flirt with Ms. Dumont's character because of her great wealth despite not being physically attracted to her. In "Duck Soup" Groucho discovers Ms. Dumont is a rich widow. Groucho ask her "will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first."

This leads to a great sequence with Groucho and Ms. Upjohn dancing. Groucho notices a good looking blonde, Flo (Esther Muir, who you may recognize from Wheeler & Woolsey comedies) and begins flirting with her behind Ms. Upjohn's back and sometimes in front of her. What Groucho doesn't realize is Flo has been hired by Whitmore (Leonard Ceeley), Judy's business manager, to catch Groucho in a compromising situation which would turn Ms. Upjohn against Groucho and result in her leaving the sanitarium.

Another memorable sequence involves Chico and Groucho with Groucho trying to place a bet at the race track. Chico, wanting to con a few dollars out of Groucho, pretends he has a hot tip for Groucho in one of the races however the tip is in code and instead of simply telling Groucho its meaning he must buy book after book in order to de-code the code.

We also get to hear two staples of Marx Brothers movies, Chico at the piano. This time he uses Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody as an introduction (he does this in "A Night in Casablanca" (1946) as well) to "On the Beach At Bali-Bali" while Harpo plays some Rachmaninoff for us.

Unfortunately as is the case with several comedies of this era the comedy is mixed up with a romantic sub-plot. This time it involves Judy and her singing boyfriend Gill (Allan Jones). In an effort to help Judy, Gill, along with some friends, Tony (Chico Marx) and Stuffy (Harpo Marx), have bought a race horse. Gill hopes if his horse wins a big race Judy's financial problems will be over.

For a Marx Brothers comedy the movie is unusually long, 111 minutes. It is the longest comedy the boys appeared in. It is too long. The movie was going to be longer but musical numbers were cut out (one of them was sung by Groucho). One more song could have been cut in my opinion, "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm". Though it features Ivie Anderson (who was part of Duke Ellington's orchestra) it does nothing for the picture and wouldn't interfere with the rest of the plot if it was cut. It would however spare us seeing the brothers in blackface. Comedies like "Horse Feathers" and "Duck Soup" were only 68 minutes. They focused exclusively on the comedy which may explain their shorter running time and why I find them funnier.

The movie was directed by Sam Wood, perhaps best known for the dramas he directed including "Kitty Foyle" (1940) starring Ginger Rogers, in a role she would win an Academy Award for, and Ronald Reagan's best movie, "King's Row" (1942). It was said Mr. Wood, who also directed "A Night at the Opera", didn't understand the Marx Brothers' style of comedy and supposedly lacked a sense of humor. Rumor has it he and Groucho did not see eye to eye.

While there is a definite shift in tone in "A Day at the Races" compared to the Paramount comedies one has to admit there are funny moments in the movie. It is much better than later efforts like "The Big Store" (1941) and "Love Happy" (1949). Worth watching.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Film Review: Citizenfour

**** (out of ****)

Is truth stranger than fiction?

It is, unfortunately, a questions many people have to ask themselves given the political climate of the last couple of years, especially since the last U.S. Presidential election. Everything in the news seems so "fantastic", outrageous, that if someone told you these things 20 - 25 years ago you would have said to yourself, it's not possible.

Back when the story of the over reaching efforts of NSA surveillance and its illegal invasion of privacy towards United States citizens, many people were appalled. How on Earth could the government do this? The head of the agency went before congress and said "no". Information is not being collected on citizens concerning tracking on telephone calls and their duration, recordings of their conversations, knowledge of web search history...ect. Others however knew what was going on. It was called the Patriotic Act and was put into legislation after the terror attacks on 9/11.

Since the story broke it has never really stopped being discussed in the news and we find ourselves discussing it more frequently thanks to comments made by Donald Trump, claiming the former president, Barack Obama, issued wire taps on Trump Tower in New York. Also, a law was recently passed making it okay for search engine sites (Google) to sell your browsing history to corporations for advertising purposes.

With all this in mind and with last year's release of the Oliver Stone movie "Snowden" (2016) I thought it would be a good time to revisit the documentary "Citizenfour" (2014), a documentary I placed on my top ten list upon its release.

From a story-arc perspective "Citizenfour" is lacking. There isn't really a linear story being told. This has no beginning, middle and end. But, there is powerful information here. Crucial information every American, every person in the world, should know. Your government is spying on you. Everything you do is being seen by someone. That is no longer science-fiction or a conspiracy theory but has become "the new normal". Some people merely accept it. It is what it is. How can you stop it? But if it doesn't give you pause, quite frankly, there is something wrong with you. Why should we be watched? Why should the government know my location at all times? Why should the government know my purchase history? Read my emails, the duration of my telephone calls or my browsing history? The defense is, it is all in the name of national defense. It is how we fight terror. That is of course a blanket statement in which anything can fall under it and what has lead us to where we are. Some people rationalize and tell themselves, I have nothing to hide. Let the government spy on me. One, that is exactly what the government wants you to say and think. For them it is better if citizens are complicit and do not protest. It is also because of this train of thought, the rest of us must suffer.

That rationalization however is the product of fear. In theory bad things can happen anywhere. A terror attack can happen in a small rural town or a metropolitan city. In actuality though, it doesn't. But just as long as you are in a state of fear you will allow your government the 'freedom' to do whatever it has to in order to keep you safe. The extent of which includes being watched 24/7.

"Citizenfour" doesn't necessarily make these connections and instead argues the viewpoint, it is best to get all of this information out to the public in order to allow a debate. The debate is one-sided however. The media interviews politicians and intelligence officials, all who the share the opinion what Snowden did was wrong. As such society cannot have a proper debate. I would guess even with documentaries and news reports and legislation passed there are still Americans that don't understand the extent of the government's spying on citizens.

The value of "Citizenfour" is in its small way informs us of the scope of what is being done in the name of "national defense". It attempts to pull the curtain down and expose the men (peeping toms) behind it. It doesn't do this in a flashy way. Essentially "Citizenfour" is a conversation between Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald, who is writing articles for the British newspaper, The Guardian, as Snowden is in hiding in a hotel in Hong Kong.

Even with the limited locations and flashy visuals, "Citizenfour" still remains captivating and frightening. It has the makings of a really good spy novel but it is not fiction. It is reality. Once the viewer allows the implications of what is being said to settle in and think about it, it can make you uncomfortable. Everything you do, the government knows about it. Just think about that. You have no privacy. I don't know if your microwave is taking picture of you (as suggested by Kellyanne Conway) but it doesn't need to because your television is storing your data (this it true! Look it up).

Of course the ultimate fear people have is, with all of this capability, what if people abuse this power? What if people use surveillance for revenge? That is essentially what Donald Trump was implying was President Obama's motivation. Could we / would we trust Trump to make these decisions to not abuse power?

Directed by Laura Poitras, "Citizenfour" received much critical acclaim when released and won the Academy Award for best documentary. Ms. Poitras considers this part of a trilogy she has made on the "war on terror" since 9/11 and it is probably the most accomplished documentary of her career and the one that has had the most far reaching effect.

For its ability to incite and provoke discussion, "Citizenfour" should not be missed. This is a topic that will be with us for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Film Review: History of the World Pt. 1

"History of the World Pt. 1"  **** (out of ****)

It's good to be Mel Brooks in the audacious comedy "History of the World - Part 1" (1981)

Mr. Brooks' comedy is a combination of everything you love and hate about the filmmaker's comedies. It is a smorgasbord of ideas and jokes that don't always blend well together. Not all of the jokes work. Many are vulgar and could be considered "tasteless". Some have said the movie lacks a coherent structure. Mr. Brooks takes the old Mack Sennett approach to comedy and throws in every joke he thought was funny. Yet, here I am recommending it. What could possibly be my defense for recommending a movie that makes homosexual jokes, sex jokes and makes fun of Jews? I laughed!

Audiences should pretty much know what they are walking into before the movie starts, if you are at all familiar with Mel Brooks. If not, the opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie. It is a "Dawn of Man" scene, as a narrator (Orson Welles), tells us an ape like creature stood up and became man. The group of men quickly discover they have penises and begin to masturbate at a frantic speed. It is first and foremost a parody of a scene in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). And that is often what we are dealing with. Not so much comedic interpretations of historical events but rather parodies of famous scenes from historical movies. The joke is everything is presented serious, heck, Orson Welles is narrating the movie (which may be a reference to "King of Kings" (1961), which Mr. Welles also narrated) but the action on-screen doesn't match the seriousness of the narration, catching the audience off-guard.

The movie is an episodic comedy featuring five vignette segments that include the Stone Age, the Old Testament, the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution. The Stone Age doesn't have a plot and instead is a series of set-up and punchlines focused on historical "first" such as explaining how man created fire, created music, the first homo sapiens marriage, which are are told was quickly followed by the first homosexual marriage. This segment stars Sid Caesar as the chief caveman. The Old Testament is nothing more than a one joke musing considering what would happen if Moises was unable to hold all the tablets with God's laws on them.

The two segments that take up the majority of the movie are the Roman Empire and the French Revolution. The French Revolution episode borrows not from history but mainly Mark Twain's "The Prince and the Pauper". King Louis XVI (Brooks) learns of a revolt being brewed by the working class of France, headed by Madame Defarge (Cloris Leachman). Many will recognize the character's name from Charles Dicken's "A Tale of Two Cities". One of the King's advisors, Count de Monet (Harvey Korman), who is consistently called "count the money", notices a strong resemblance between the King and what is known as "the piss boy" (Brooks again). The plan is to disguise the piss boy as the King and allow the mob to kill him instead of the real King, who will be out of the country.

Whereas the Roman Empire segment is not based on any particular moment in history with Mr. Brooks playing a stand-up philosopher, Comicus, who thanks to his agent, Swiftus (Ron Carey) gets a job playing in the main room at Caesar's Palace to perform for Emperor Nero (Dom DeLuise). A funny thing happens to Comicus on the way to the palace, he meets a slave, Josephus (Gregory Hines, in the his screen debut), who thanks to a sex craved empress, named Nympho (Madeline Khan) wins his freedom and gets a job at the palace.

Mr. Brooks is undoubtedly best known for directing "Blazing Saddles" (1974) and "Young Frankenstein" (1974), two movies routinely listed among the funniest comedies ever made. I admire both very much but I have a fondness for "History of the World" and consider it my favorite comedy by Mr. Brooks. If filmmakers are artist then Mr. Brooks has given myself a large canvass to poke comedic fun at, no less than the history of the world. It provides a lot of room for satire and anachronistic humor. For that reason it is my favorite. The screenplay was written by Mr. Brooks alone, a feat he had not done since his second film, "The Twelve Chairs" (1970). Because of that I find this to be the most "pure Brooks" comedy. It may also be the reason the comedy goes in plenty of different directors. Without a Gene Wilder or gang of comedy writers collaborating with him, there is no one to tell Mr. Brooks something is a bad idea or doesn't fit. 

Yet I can't deny I laugh when watching the movie. I failed to describe the Spanish Inquisition segment which once again doesn't focus on a plot but becomes an Esther Williams song and dance sequence. It is comedic brilliance, that like the best of Mr. Brooks' comedies, holds nothing sacred. The Inquisition itself was a dark time in history dealing with religious intolerance and torture. It doesn't lend itself to song and dance but that is what makes it funny IF you are in tune with Mr. Brooks' sensibilities. Otherwise it is simply bad taste. And that goes for the rest of the picture.

I often feel "History of the World" is overlooked because of "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" and so when I say this is my favorite Brooks comedy it may seem to be an odd choice, not the "correct" choice by society's standards. I'm not sure how others view the move's reputation today or how well it has aged but upon watching it again I find it holds up well.

I'm not sure if I would say "History of the World" should be an introduction into Mr. Brooks' comedies but it definitely should be in the top three movies you see as one ventures into these comedies as it is "typical" of Mr. Brooks' humor.