Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Film Reviews: Oh, Sailor Behave! & Gold Dust Gertie

"Oh, Sailor Behave!** (out of ****)

Billed as "America's funniest clowns" the comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson made their screen debut in the feature length musical - comedy, "Oh, Sailor Behave!" (1930).

I'm not sure who came up with the billing of this movie or why Olsen & Johnson are referred to as being any country's "funniest clowns". The comedy team even gets top billing when they are far from being the stars of the movie.

"Oh, Sailor Behave!" is one of many 1930s pre-code movie musicals made to capitalize on the success of Hollywood's newest genre, the musical, thanks to the movies now being able to "talk" with the introduction of sound. However, as is often the case with Hollywood's unquenchable thirst for money, they over saturated the market place and audiences quickly became tired of Hollywood's latest gimmick. In today's terms think of 3-D movies. They aren't as popular as they were say five years ago, when every other movie was being released in 3-D. Unlike some other musicals of the era however "Oh, Sailor Behave!" was released with songs intact. Many movies had all their songs scrapped, releasing some movies as straight comedies.

Based on a stage play "See Naples and Die", written by Elmer Rice, "Oh, Sailor Behave!" stars Charles King (Hollywood's first leading man in musicals) as reporter Charlie Carroll. He has been sent to Naples to interview a General (Noah Berry) but instead finds love and courts Nancy Dodge (Irene Delroy).

Without revealing too much, Nancy is called to London to help her sister, putting the brake on her romance with Charlie. A misunderstanding occurs (they usually do) and Charlie is left heartbroken and rebounds with a woman he believes is the General's mistress, Kunegundi (Vivien Oakland). If Charlie can gain the lady's trust, maybe he can get an interview.

Today's audience may only be interested in the movie, if they are at all, because it is an Olsen & Johnson comedy. The boys play two sailors, Simon (Olsen) and Peter (Johnson) sent to find a man with a wooden leg who has stolen from the Navy's storehouse. This portion of the movie actually has nothing to do with the rest of the movie and is used primarily as comic relief. The boys are given screenwriting credit but most likely because they wrote their own material but had nothing to do with the rest of the movie.

With a running time of approximately 67 minutes "Oh, Sailor Behave!" doesn't feel like a "complete" movie. Some story lines are never resolved and other story lines you simply don't care if they are. I also can't honestly say I cared much for the musical numbers despite normally liking Charles King as a performer.

Intending to have Olsen & Johnson only appear on-screen when they have funny material, I can't say I laughed much watching this movie. And I am by most standard's an easy target. I like other Olsen & Johnson comedies such as "All Over Town" (1937) and "Hellzapoppin'" (1941). I'm a fan of so-called "dated humor" and get a kick out of Wheeler & Woolsey, Joe E. Brown and the Ritz Brothers. But "Oh, Sailor Behave!" strikes me as an ill conceived project. By the time of the movie's release musicals had fallen out of fashion. Given the final product we see now, it feels like the Olsen & Johnson material was added on so Warner Brothers could call the movie a comedy. Heck, it even stars "America's funniest clowns"!

It is not that the humor in the movie is "dated", corny" or "offensive", as modern audiences sadly often accuse movies of this era of being, it is just that it lacks a wallop. There was no moment I found myself laughing out loud. If this movie serves as your introduction to Olsen & Johnson it is understandable why someone wouldn't find them funny. The movie does little to establish them as characters. It would be difficult to say who is the straight man and who is the comic. The answer by the way is Olsen is the straight man and Johnson, with his high pitch laugh, the comic.

The romance in the movie doesn't fare much better either. Charlie and Nancy aren't well defined characters. Though they may sing songs to each other, there is little romance between them and not enough for audiences to latch on to, to make us care about seeing them stay together by the end of the movie. According to IMDb, King would star in one more movie and then appear in some short subjects.

"Oh, Sailor Behave!" is a "tough sell". A lot seems to have been cut from the plot. The comedy doesn't gel and the songs aren't memorable. The characters aren't defined and the actors themselves don't appear to click with one another. There's no chemistry. This is a curiosity piece for those that like either early Hollywood musicals and / or Olsen & Johnson fans.

 "Gold Dust Gertie"
** (out of ****)

"Gold Dust Gertie" (1931) was the third comedy to feature Olsen & Johnson and are given larger roles than the previous two movies they appeared in.

Like "Oh, Sailor Behave" and "50 Million Frenchmen" (1931) this too was a musical. The latter was a Cole Porter musical which due to the public's negative reaction to musicals, had all of its songs scrapped. "Gold Dust Gertie" would find the same fate and be released as a straight forward pre-code comedy, which is pretty risque (so is "Oh, Sailor Behave"). The boys play a more intricate part in the plot of the movie but are still second fiddles as the movie is pushed as a Winnie Lightner vehicle.

I honestly can't say I am much of a fan of Lightner. You may also know her for appearing in "Sit Tight" (1931) with Joe E. Brown. Lightner plays Gertie, a gold digger quick with the get rich schemes and wise-cracks. Lightner just isn't funny to me. I prefer Eve Arden, who played similar wise-cracking smart-alec characters.

Gertie is a gold digger that has been married multiple times only so she can get divorced to collect alimony. Two of the men she has married are George (Olsen) and Elmer (Johnson), best friends that work at a bathing suit company.  How Gertie met the men is not explained. If the men are best friends, why did they both marry the same woman? Was Gertie cheating with one of them? We don't know. Maybe there was a song cut out explaining it.

George and Elmer remarry as well, since their boss places a high value on employing respectable, family men. Neither man however has been keeping up with his alimony payments causing Gertie to stopped by their job to collect payment. She will even expose the men as having been married before to their boss. Gertie however finally decides on trying to trick their boss, John Arnold (Claude Gillingwater) into marrying her, as she pretends to be an innocent old-fashion woman.

This set-up has comedic potential and there are some laughs however with Lightner at the helm, I was just never fully engaged. Olsen & Johnson fare much better in this movie than "Oh, Sailor Behave!" but if you are a fan of the team I can see someone feeling "Gold Dust Gertie" is too restrictive for the team, not allowing them to branch out and really invoke their style of humor, which has been described as "nut humor". A lot of "Gold Dust Gertie" plays as bedroom farce. Both movies make a lot of sex jokes as well.

The movie was directed by Lloyd Bacon, who had a lot of success with movie musicals such as "42nd Street" (1933), "Footlight Parade" (1933) and "The Gold Diggers of 1937" (1936). He also had a long career in comedy, starting off as a actor and directing Joe E. Brown comedies: "You Said A Mouthful" (1932) and "Son of A Sailor" (1933).

A lot of "Gold Dust Gertie" moves fast and has some laughs. Olsen & Johnson are funny, at times, but Winnie Lightner never becomes a likable character and just isn't funny.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Film Review: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

"National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation"
** 1\2 out of (****)

It's home for the holidays with the Griswold's in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" (1989).

A lot of people I think like the idea of the holiday season and what it represents but when you get down to the gift buying, decorating a Christmas tree, cooking a Christmas dinner, preparing to host a dinner party, you realize geez this is a lot of work. Is it worth it? And do you really want to spend the day with family and in-laws that may begin to fight?

I think somewhere in "Christmas Vacation" that idea is lurking around. We all want a perfect Christmas but family, decorations and gifts get in the way.

"Christmas Vacation" isn't really a "Christmas movie". But Alex, you will say, the word "Christmas" is in the title. Thank you for pointing that out. I was wondering what that word was. It doesn't matter however. "Christmas Vacation" is primarily about the difficulty of dealing with family and trying to create the perfect experience. It is no different than the previous National Lampoon vacation movies with the Griswolds. This movie just happens to take place around Christmas. The setting could have also been Thanksgiving and little would have to be changed. Of course screenwriter and producer John Hughes had already given us his Thanksgiving adventure, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" (1987).

"Christmas Vacation" was the third vacation movie in the series, coming after "National Lampoon's Vacation" (1983) and "National Lampoon's European Vacation" (1985), and had already established the characters in the Griswold family and father Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) in particular. Clark prides himself on being a family man and wants to give his children wonderful memories of their time spent together. He is good-natured and well meaning but of course, as is the nature of comedy, his plans don't always work out.

Placing the Clark character in this Christmas setting could provide a lot of comedy potential with the character trying to make the "perfect Christmas", whether it is picking out the right Christmas tree, decorating their home with a lights display or buying gifts. In these moments the movie is able to find laughs and provides Chase the opportunity to engage in a lot of comedy high-jinx, a staple of a John Hughes comedy.

However there is a minuscule plot in "Christmas Vacation". The movie is basically a series of comedy sketches that when put together I think don't add up to much and never gives us a big payoff, emotionally or laugh-wise. A rewrite would be needed. Perhaps have the Clark character narrate the story or have the movie take place during the course of one day. There is a neighboring yuppie couple (Nicholas Guest and Julia-Louis Dreyfus) that isn't into Christmas and think the Griswolds are losers. What if the neighbors were into the holidays and "competed" with Clark. Alex, you'll say, these ideas are predictable and cliche. What, you think "Christmas Vacation" is an original work of art?!

Again, this is not to imply some won't laugh at "Christmas Vacation". You will. But take a scene where Clark goes Christmas shopping for his wife and is in the lingerie section. An attractive young female sales clerk approaches Clark. He becomes hot and bothered staring at her and her cleavage and trips over his words. It is funny. I smiled. But this scene doesn't advance the plot of the movie at all. Had this scene be deleted nothing important would have been left out. At that goes for multiple comedy sequences. If you are a fan of this movie and remember this scene or that scene as being funny, yes, the individual sequences on their own are funny but in the context of the movie as a whole they do nothing plot-wise.

The movie does have a very good cast of character actors including William Hickey as Uncle Lewis, who had been appearing in movies since the 1950s and was nominated for an Academy Award for his supporting role in "Prizzi's Honor" (1985). Here he plays an absent minded character that unknowingly causes great destruction. His wife in the movie, Aunt Bethany, is played by Mae Questel, who us old timers will remember as the voice of Betty Boop. Do younger children know who Betty Boop is anymore? Her character is similar to Uncle Lewis, playing a forgetful old lady who even wraps her pet cat up as a Christmas present. Rounding things out is Doris Roberts, best known as the mother on the TV show "Everybody Loves Raymond", Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, Randy Quaid and Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill's brother). Each character is meant to be "colorful" and provide an obstacle for the Clark character, testing his holiday cheer. All of the actors are very good in the roles. They aren't believable characters but they are funny.

"Christmas Vacation" even finds time to make a slight social commentary on big business and the importance of a holiday bonus. I've been in the situation and can relate to the drama of waiting for it and the crushing effect it can have when you don't receive one. That's one thing about "Christmas Vacation" that is actually believable. The other commentary is the reason a boss may or may not give out a bonus, because it would affect the company's bottom-line. From the CEO's perspective a Christmas card would serve just as well. It's the thought that counts right?

Of course the humor arises from this situation when the characters exaggerate their reaction and do what the rest of us in the audience would only dream of doing as retaliation.

Is there a Christmas message in "Christmas Vacation"? Perhaps something about spending time with family. The holiday miracle of receiving a Christmas bonus. And the dangers of having a real Christmas tree in your home.

This isn't a movie that will give you a warm fuzzy feeling inside. That's fine. This is a comedy with the word "Christmas" in the title. It has plenty of physical comedy and some good performances. The movie as a whole doesn't add up to me but you will find yourself laughing. For something more heartfelt, go watch "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946).

Merry Christmas everyone!

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Film Review: Wonder Wheel

"Wonder Wheel"
*** (out of ****)

Woody Allen's "Wonder Wheel" (2017) unfortunately, for the Mr. Allen and the movie, has been released at a time when the country is going through a major national dialogue concerning sexual harassment. Many women have come forward with stories "outing" film producer Harvey Weinstein, news anchors Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer, comedian Louis C.K., TV host Tavis Smiley, Garrison Keiller and Dustin Hoffman for their inexcusable behavior. Somehow or another Woody Allen's name has been thrown into the fire. And so "Wonder Wheel" is at a cultural disadvantage. To review this movie you need to talk about Mr. Allen the man and the movie.

The Man & the Culture

Every year I hate to read what the sheep (movie critics) have to say about the latest Woody Allen movie. Lets be honest. A lot of people don't like Woody Allen. A lot of that has to do with allegations Mr. Allen molested one of his ex-lover's, Mia Farrow, adopted children. Mr. Allen then dated and eventually married another of Ms. Farrow's adopted daughters. There may have been those in the public that didn't like Mr. Allen even before this scandal broke out in 1992. They may have thought Mr. Allen simply wasn't funny and / or narcissistic. Or create any reason and justification for a feeling they couldn't quite put in any language.

These feelings, even held by "professional critics" find their way into "reviews" of Mr. Allen's movies. Usually not to Mr. Allen's advantage. Naturally people don't have to like Woody Allen or his movies. People don't even have to come up with good reasons not to like him. The general public is under no obligation to see Mr. Allen's movies. What I personally object to, year in and year out, is the unprofessional manner in which "movie critics" conduct themselves spewing their personal feelings against Mr. Allen into their "reviews" criticizing his every movie. Rarely, nothing in life is 100%, do critics stick to discussing the acting, editing, cinematography, writing and directing in Mr. Allen's movies exclusively. A Woody Allen movie doesn't fail or succeed based on its merits. It all comes down to your personal opinion of the man. Not the movie but the man behind the camera.

Within itself that is an obstacle Mr. Allen must overcome film after film. Yes, there are exceptions. Mr. Allen's "Midnight in Paris" (2011) was well received by "movie critics" and embraced by the public. But, in this current social climate "Wonder Wheel" and Mr. Allen are up against even larger odds. This climate gives the "movie critics" and the public another opportunity to sharpen their knives and attack Woody Allen the man. The quality of the movie is immaterial just as long as the individual gets to throw in their jabs against Mr. Allen.

You see there are those in the media, in their attempt to be movers and shakers, that have tried to stir a debate around Mr. Allen. Why, they say, have Charlie Rose and Harvey Weinstein and others been immediately outcasted from society but Mr. Allen is given a pass. The accusations against people like Mr. Weinstein, Mr. Rose, Mr. Hoffman...ect are much different than the accusation against Mr. Allen. No actress has come forward to state Mr. Allen molested them on-set. No actress has come forward to state Mr. Allen called someone in his dressing room and then exposed himself. No actress has suggested they were declined a role in one of his movies because they would not grant Mr. Allen sexual favors. That is a major difference. I thought that is what we are all talking about. Sexual harassment. Men pressuring women into concerns engaging in inappropriate behavior.

In the case of Mr. Allen he was accused of molesting Ms. Farrow's adopted daughter. An investigation ensued and charges against Mr. Allen were dropped. Others claim Mr. Allen married his daughter. First, there are laws against such things. When presented with this fact, those that don't like Mr. Allen will say, well, I meant he married his step-daughter. Again, not true. Mr. Allen and Ms. Farrow were never married. Mr. Allen did not live with Ms. Farrow and her children. Mr. Allen did not adopt Soon-Yi, whom he did marry.

Would I want Mr. Allen to babysit my children? No. But, that has nothing to do with Mr. Allen's movies. If you cannot separate your personal feelings towards Mr. Allen and his movies then you should recluse yourself from reviewing one of his movies. Those in the public that do not like Mr. Allen, that's fine. Don't see his movies. But, don't use this serious moment in the culture and our discussion of sexual harassment as an opportunity for you to air your grievances against Mr. Allen.

This is all unfortunate that someone has to discuss all of this in order to simply write a movie review. Artist in general may sometimes not be nice people. Should we, as an audience, use their personal lives against them and have our own feelings cloud our judgement when assessing their work? For me the answer is no. But I understand for some the answer is yes. That's fine but don't conflate Mr. Allen with those that have been accused of sexual harassment. Even if you don't like him personally.

The Movie

"Wonder Wheel" is one of Mr. Allen's period pieces and admittedly goes over similar ideas presented in Mr. Allen's previous films. That doesn't bother me as much as it does other "critics". Various filmmakers (Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorsese, Eric Rohmer, Alfred Hitchcock and Quentin Tarantino) can be accused of making the same movie over and over again. Of course, their names aren't Woody Allen, which makes a big difference. Artist sometimes like to work with familiar themes and find new ways to ultimately convey the same message. That is how I interpret Mr. Allen's movies.

The setting is 1950s New York and largely takes place in Coney Island, the famed amusement park. An onscreen narrator (Justin Timberlake) tells of the story of Ginny (Kate Winslet), a waitress. The narrator, Mickey, is a lifeguard, that begins a love affair with Ginny.

Ginny is on her second husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), and has a child from her first marriage, Richie (Jack Gore). Ginny was an aspiring actress in school who met a jazz drummer, whom she had a child with, and eventually cheated on. She now regrets that action as she realizes he was the love of her life. Since that time life has not turned out as Ginny would have liked. She wants more out of life. She doesn't want to be a waitress forever. She is in a loveless marriage. Ginny desperately seeks someone to carry her away. To show her the world. She wants to find someone she can give all the love she has inside her, just waiting for the right person to come along.

Adding the Ginny's problems is the return of Humpty's estrange daughter, Caroline (Juno Temple), whom he had from a prior marriage. Caroline married a mobster against her father's wishes and is now on the run from him. The return of Caroline changes Humpty. All is forgiven and he becomes a new man. He saves the money he earns working the carousel ride at Coney Island so his daughter can go to night school and not be a waitress the rest of her life, after Ginny gets her a job in a restaurant.

The movie's title comes from the giant ferris wheel in the amusement park that obstructs the view in Ginny and Humpty's apartment, which is also in Coney Island. 

If you are a Woody Allen fan you can see how "Wonder Wheel" combines ideas and characters from other movies. In "Annie Hall" (1977) Allen's character believed he grew up in a house underneath a roller coaster in an amusement park. In "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1984) the lead character is a woman unhappy with her life who finds escape in the movies. Humpty accuses  Ginny of the same thing. Humpty likes to go fishing and bring home what he catches for Ginny to clean. This is similar to a character in "Radio Days" (1987). How many of Mr. Allen's movies have had gangster characters? Too many to list here. The character Richie likes to start fires, something Mr. Allen says he used to do as a child. And finally, luck plays a part in the movie just as it did in "Match Point" (2005).

Although I was never one to call Kate Winslet a great actress, she does give an excellent performance. The kind of performance that should garner an Academy Award nomination. Technically the story is Mickey's, since he's the narrator. but Ginny (and Ms. Winslet's performance) carries the movie. We understand Ginny's problems and we believe Ms. Winslet is Ginny. The character requires a performance that covers an emotional range. "Critics" can write it all off as saying, Ginny is just a typical neurotic Woody Allen female character but they are missing out on a lot if that is all they see.

Mr. Allen usually gets exceptional performances from his actors and often is able to show us actors in a new light. I am reminded of Andrew Dice Clay in "Blue Jasmine" (2013). This time around it is Jim Belushi that deserves a second look. You may not think Mr. Belushi can act but often all it takes is the right script to come along to bring out an actor's talent. "Wonder Wheel" is such a script for Mr. Belushi who plays the working class slob perfectly and has moments of intense drama. Who knew Mr. Belushi could act?

Even though I am color blind I could still tell "Wonder Wheel" is a marvel to look at thanks to the cinematography of Vittoria Storaro, my favorite cinematographer, who worked on Mr. Allen's "Cafe Society" (2016) as well as "The Last Emperor" (1987), "Apocalypse Now" (1979) and "Last Tango in Paris" (1972). I can't tell you all the colors in the movie but I enjoyed the lighting and the way shadows are used.

In fact the cinematography and the subject matter should remind some of the films of Douglas Sirk and titles like "All That Heaven Allows" (1955) and "Written on the Wind" (1956).

Some have complained "Wonder Wheel" feels like a stage play and the dialogue isn't good. That last point was a major concern for the Chicago Tribune "movie critic" who gave the movie one star. Lets assume the movie does feel like a play. So what? Did that stop anyone from appreciating "Fences" (2016) with Denzel Washington? I thought it was a wonderful movie. I even placed it on my top ten list. Was their a strong critical backlash because it too felt like a play? Not that I can recall. It was even nominated for Academy Awards. As for the dialogue, I never felt Woody Allen wrote great dramatic dialogue. I prefer his comedy writing. However, it also depends on what the dialogue wants to achieve. The dialogue in "Wonder Wheel" isn't meant to sound realistic. It is poetic. Some "critics" couldn't / can't wrap their minds around this concept. The characters throw out references to Hamlet and Eugene O' Neil. Those references aren't thrown out that just for the Hell of it. They are supposed to mean something. Allen's screenplay is "poetic". If you don't like that kind of dialogue, fine. But don't fault it for not being what you wanted it to be.

"Wonder Wheel" isn't one of Allen's great dramas but it is a pretty darn good one. I liked it a bit more than "Cafe Society" and "Irrational Man" (2015) but don't think it is as good as "Blue Jasmine" or "Midnight in Paris". It just lacked an emotional connection for me even though I could relate to the Ginny character. There is more to the movie than audiences are giving it credit for. It was just released at the wrong time. As Mr. Allen would say, luck plays a bigger part in our life than we would like to admit. "Wonder Wheel" wasn't lucky with its release date.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Film Review: Saving Capitalism

"Saving Capitalism**** (out of ****)

In "honor" of the recent Republican "tax plan" that has passed the Senate (at 2am this morning. Good thing they weren't trying to hide anything) and another version of the "tax plan" that passed the House of Representatives, it seemed like a good time to review the Netflix original documentary, and one of the year's best films, "Saving Capitalism" (2017).

"Saving Capitalism", directed by Jacob Kornbluth and Sari Gilman, follows former Secretary of Labor during the Clinton administration Robert Reich, as he explains how our capitalist economic system is rigged due to corporate interest and the lack of individual power.

Kornbluth had previously followed Reich in the documentary "Inequality For All" (2013), which I also called one of the best films of the year. If you saw "Inequality", which focused more on the topic of income inequality and its widening gap, "Saving Capitalism" serves as a nice companion piece to it.

The documentary begins with Reich on something of a book tour, promoting his new book, also called Saving Capitalism. However, Reich wants to do more than go on a tour to promote his book, he wants to actually speak to people about the economy and get their ideas on how well they think the government and capitalism are working for them.

Given the current political times it is an interesting idea and one which most people know the answer to. The government is not working within the interest of the people and capitalism leaves too many people far behind as corporate greed has made the system rotten to its core. Neither of which has changed or will change in the era of Chancellor Trump. Hence the redistribution of wealth known as the GOP (Grand Old Party) "tax plan" which takes from the working class to give to the wealthy. If that sounds strange to you, "Saving Capitalism" will explain how we arrived at this moment.

"Saving Capitalism" throws a lot of data at the viewer, so be prepared to take notes. Because it is going to be fresh on a lot of people's minds, lets talk about corporate taxes. In the news we hear about how America is at a terrible disadvantage because of the current corporate tax rate which is 35%. To hear Republicans tell the story, this creates a heavy burden on corporations. Did you know that because of this tax rate corporations can't pay their employees a higher wage? It's true. Just ask a Republican. The tax rate effects productivity, investment, profit, wages and innovation. Plenty of CEOs and shareholders cry themselves to sleep thinking about how powerless they are in helping their employees make a living wage and promote the working class. All because of the corporate tax rate! Did you also know that is all a lot of balderdash? As "Saving Capitalism" explains, corporations receive huge tax subsidies. Some estimates go as far as stating near $100 billion goes towards corporate welfare a year. Some recipients are the top four oil companies. They received $4 billion in subsidies. Google received $632 million. And $20 billion went to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). A tax cut was not needed for corporations because of these subsidies. Corporations aren't paying a 35% tax rate. What will happen now when the rate will drop to 20%?

If that's the case then how do pieces of "legislation" like the GOP "tax plan" pass chambers of Congress? I'm glad you asked. "Saving Capitalism" goes on to explain the influence of money in politics. Did you know corporations make donations to political campaigns? According to "Saving Capitalism" corporate interest groups spend $34 for every $1 unions and public interest groups spend combined. In 2016 alone, corporations spent $3.15 billion on lobbying, equaling $5.9 million per member of Congress. Those donations influence policy. Hence the GOP "tax plan".

But just because corporations give money to politicians, that doesn't mean politicians act in the interest of corporations. Right? Our government is a system of the people, for the people, by the people. We, the people, elect the politicians and they know they work for us! Boy, today is just not your day is it? As "Saving Capitalism" reveals, a study was conducted putting this theory to the test. How much influence do individuals have on laws passed? Researchers at Princeton and Northwestern University found when corporations do not want a piece of legislation to become law, 100% of the time it doesn't. Legislation corporations want passed has a 60% chance of becoming law. On the opposite side, legislation the public does want passed has a 30% chance of becoming law. It is the same percentage as laws being passed that the public does not support. Hence the GOP "tax plan".

These are just some of the tidbits of information "Saving Capitalism" provides. The documentary is a wealth of information which will make your blood boil, if you are paying attention.

Unlike "Inequality For All", "Saving Capitalism" has more of a human interest angle. We get to meet some of the people Reich speaks to on his tour, ranging from a farmer to lobbyist. This gives the documentary an opportunity to briefly provide a counter point to Reich's argument. One lobbyist becomes very defensive as he believes Reich's argument demonizes people who own companies and pay their employees good wages and provide decent benefits. But we also meet a lady who works in the fast food industry in California and her struggle to survive and pay all her bills and rent and still have money left over. She and others are fighting for a $15 minimum wage. While another person believes the country needs Donald Trump and praises Trump's honesty.

"Saving Capitalism" however also presents Reich as a likeable man who truly wants to help people and inform them. He goes into some detail about his time working in the Clinton administration and how he didn't always agree with policies implemented. Eventually he resigned.

Remember the documentary is called "Saving Capitalism". The word "saving" is in the title. As Reich explains, capitalism within itself is not a moral or immoral system. Neither good or bad. The problem, as I interpret Reich's position, is how people use and abuse the system. It is a system that only works for a few. Reich isn't advocating for doing away with capitalism but improving it, expanding it so more people may benefit from it. To Reich that means citizens must participate and hold their government responsible. To make this point we see clips of TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party protest and Occupy Wall Street.

But, he also warns against misguided anger and the two faces of populism. Trump, he indirectly implies, is "authoritarian populism". This is when society, so fed-up with the system, wants someone to act like a dictator or "strongman" to fix everything. Or populism reform, which rebuilds the system in a democratic way, which Bernie Sanders represented.

There are those that will complain the movie offers a rather generic solution of engagement and activism. That generally is what all political documentaries leave us with. Things can change if the public fights for that change. The system will have in place is fine but merely needs to be improved upon on. I suppose what else can a documentary or public figure tell us?

Still "Saving Capitalism" offers a lot of good information and presents that information in an entertaining way while stirring up a lot of emotion and possibly anger in the viewer. It will result in some good conversations afterwards and get people talking about important issues. For that reason it is one of the year's best.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Film Review: Sons of the Desert

"Sons of the Desert*** (out of ****)

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy prove to be a couple of sons of a gun in the feature length comedy "Sons of the Desert" (1933).

It is often agreed upon by film historians and comedy fans that "Sons of the Desert" is Laurel & Hardy's best movie together. It was even included in the American Film Institute's (AFI) list of the 100 funniest comedies of all time (placing at number 96 on the list).

The reason is because it is believed if you never heard of or seen a Laurel & Hardy comedy (which may not be a religious sin but must be some sort of cinematic sin) "Sons of the Desert" would be the best movie to showcase their relationship and the role each man played in the team.

To a certain extent I agree as well however I am reluctant to call "Sons of the Desert" the best Laurel & Hardy movie. First, the movie "feels" like sitcom material and plot-wise is not strong enough to sustain a 64 minute feature. Secondly the movie goes over familiar ground. As a long time Laurel & Hardy fan (my earliest childhood memories involve watching the boys) I have seen the team in similar situations in their two reeler comedies namely their silent comedy, "We Faw Down" (1928), which features an ending the boys would later reuse in "Block-Heads" (1938), and their talking comedy, "Be Big!" (1931).

To beat my critics to the punch, in the movie's defense, one doesn't walk into a Laurel & Hardy comedy for plot. The boys very often appeared in comedies with minimal plots however those were usually their two or three reeler comedies. The best example may be the Academy Award winning comedy short, "The Music Box" (1932). Essentially it is about the boys delivering a piano up 100 plus stairs. This was actually a remake of one of their silent comedies, "Hats Off!" (1927), a lost comedy where the boys must take a washing machine up a large amount of stairs. "Be Big!" is another example as it largely centers on Oliver accidentally putting Stan's boot on his foot and needs help getting it off. Which leads to the second point, the boys often reworked material, as did many other comedy teams and comedians. If it is funny, you as the viewer, don't mind.

"Sons of the Desert" begins with Laurel & Hardy attending their fraternity lodge of the same name. There is going to be an annual convention in Chicago (The boys live in L.A.) which all members take a oath pledging to attend. It is an oath that has never been broken in the fraternity's history. Stan however is hesitant to take it. He is not sure his wife will allow him to go. Although Oliver claims he doesn't need his wife's permission to go to Chicago, he too is not allowed to go after his wife violently objects stating they are going on a vacation to the mountains instead.

Not wanting to break the oath they have taken Oliver hatches a plan making his wife believe he is terribly ill and a restful vacation to Honolulu is needed. Since Oliver's wife doesn't like to travel by sea, Stan will accompany him. Thus the two men will go to the annual convention in Chicago without their wives knowing.

It is clearly established Oliver is the "leader" of the team and Stan is his faithful friend. Oliver may claim intelligence over Stan but in reality neither man is the brains to the other's brawn. Oliver is what is known as "the big idea man". He cooks up the schemes which get the two of them in trouble which he then blames on Stan, allowing Oliver to air his signature grievance "here's another nice mess you've gotten me into". This relationship is defined within the first two scenes of the movie, eliminating any further need of character development and allows the movie to focus on its plot.

My problem with this is there are no memorable comedy routines for the boys to engage in. A Laurel & Hardy comedy I prefer is "Way Out West" (1937). This also has a minimal plot and could be describe as a series of comedy vignettes strung together yet the boys have several memorable moments in the movie. I can't recite classic comedy routines in "Sons of the Desert". That, for me, is what prevents the movie from being a great comedy instead of a good one.

I have seen "Sons of the Desert" numerous times since I was a child and for me the standout moment is not a comedy sequence but a musical one (you read that right!). Outside of the team's musical / operetta inspired adaptations; "The Devil's Brother" (1934), "Bohemian Girl" (1936) and "Babes in Toyland" (1934), "Sons of the Desert" is their only comedy I can instantly recall to feature a musical number. The song heard here is "Honolulu Baby" sung by Ty Parvis and features a risque dressed group of chorus girls dancing in a poor man's Busby Berkeley choreographed sequence.

Also memorable is the appearance of comedian Charley Chase. In a strange twist of fate, Chase was the popular comedian during the silent era working for producer Hal Roach (whom Laurel & Hardy also worked for at this time until 1940). Oliver used to play the "heavy" (no pun intended) in Chase's two reelers prior to his teaming with Stan Laurel. By the 1930s it was Laurel & Hardy who were the major stars and Roach's biggest audience attraction. Chase unfortunately didn't star in his own feature length comedies and for many viewers this may be the only time they get to see him.

The last thing I distinctly remembered about the movie was Oliver teaching Stan how to correctly say the expression, two peas in a pod, with Stan over emphasizing the word "pod".

Plentiful memorable comedy routines are not, I'd still recommend "Sons of the Desert" to a younger audience not familiar with the team. In Laurel & Hardy the viewer is going to watch the greatest comedy team of all-time. Why? Rarely have two actors fed off each other as brilliantly. Laurel & Hardy had amazing chemistry. Stan Laurel once said of the characters they played, they were two minds without a single thought. While Stan was being funny, the heart of what he was saying was true. The two men were one. In fact, I'm reluctant to call one of them the straight man of the team, though I guess by strict definition Oliver Hardy would assume this role. But, in his own subtle way, Hardy could be very funny.

Some movie fans tend not to give comedians much credit as actors. That is unfortunate. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were good actors. You believe they are these characters when in fact they were nothing like them in real life. That speaks to the effectiveness of their performances. Stan Laurel was not a simpleton man-child. He was actually the creative brains behind the team.

The strength of "Sons of the Desert" lies in Laurel & Hardy. Because we like their characters and laugh at them, we continue to watch. They make the movie work. That speaks to their acting and their star power. They each also had a natural screen presence. Maybe that is why we take their acting for granted. They made it look so easy.

Because of this movie in 1965 a society devoted to preserving the work of Laurel & Hardy was created. The name of the society is Sons of the Desert. Currently 32 states have a society (or tent as they are called). There is even one in Chicago.

While it is true "Sons of the Desert" is not my favorite Laurel & Hardy comedy, watching the boys is too much of a pleasure to avoid it. Don't let this be the only Laurel & Hardy comedy you ever see or it will be another nice mess you've gotten yourself into.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Film Review: The Wizard of Oz

"The Wizard of Oz*** (out of ****)

Most fans of classic Hollywood movies, and even some who aren't, are familiar with
the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland, "The Wizard of Oz". For many it is the greatest movie of all-time. However what some may not know is the 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum's novel was not the first screen adaptation. In fact there are a handful of live action adaptations still in existence. Of these adaptations, the best may be this silent version from 1925 starring and directed by Larry Semon.

The name Larry Semon doesn't mean much to movie fans today. Semon was a popular comedian during the silent era. His name hasn't lived on as well as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. Heck, even Harry Langdon has had his comedies put on DVD. But Larry Semon hasn't been as lucky. There are no DVD comedy collections of Semon's comedies that I know of. His two reeler comedies and feature films are not shown on Turner Classic Movies. Harry Langdon may have been nicknamed "the forgotten clown" but it is a title that suits Larry Semon better.

"The Wizard of Oz" was intended by Semon to be his signature movie. It was going to be the movie he was remembered for. To an extent, it is. If you have heard of Larry Semon, "The Wizard of Oz" is probably the only movie you have seen him in. However the movie has not been embraced by the general public to live on as a great comedy from the silent era.

If audiences know anything else about this version of "The Wizard of Oz" it is that Oliver Hardy co-stars in this as the Tin Man. This is of interest to movie fans that would like to see Hardy in comedies pre-Laurel & Hardy. In fact Oliver Hardy often appeared in Larry Semon two reelers playing the bully intimidating Semon. To the extent Larry Semon is known to movie fans today, it would be because he co-starred in comedies with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy before they were a team.

This all makes "The Wizard of Oz" sound like a curiosity piece. A movie not necessarily to be enjoyed but watched because of what it represents. Many that chose to watch this movie will be those that are fans of the 1939 movie and will simply not be able to accept any other movie as "The Wizard of Oz". This means the odds are staked against this version. Unfortunately the movie will never find an audience willing to give it a fighting chance and put aside their admiration and sentimental affection for the popular 39 version and accept this movie for what it attempts.

Larry Semon's version of "Oz", which is credited as having been co-written by L. Frank Baum Jr., is very different from the story audiences are familiar with. This adaptation seems to combine elements of other Oz stories Baum wrote in the series.

This movie begins with Semon playing a toymaker (one of his dual roles), who is visited by his granddaughter, who ask him to read her the story of the Wizard of Oz. The movie cuts back to this image repeatedly, reminding us (?) it is all only a story.

We learn many years ago a baby princess was kidnapped from Oz. The townspeople eagerly await her return to take the throne while an evil Prime Minister named Kruel (Josef Swickard) rules the land with help from Lady Vishuss (Virginia Pearson) and Ambassador Wikked (Otto Lederer). However Prince Kynd (Bryant Washburn) reassures the people of Oz they must have faith. One day the princess will return.

While this goes on we meet a young girl named Dorothy (Dorothy Dwan, Semon's wife) who lives in Kansas on a farm with her Aunt (Mary Carr) and Uncle Henry (Frank Alexander) and the farm workers, two of whom love Dorothy (Semon and Hardy).

The farm sequence focuses mostly on Semon's character and involve plenty of good visual gags including a swarm of bees chasing after him, collecting a bunch of chicken eggs in his back pocket only to get kicked in the behind and running away from an angry Oliver Hardy.

This establishes the real star of the movie is going to be Semon's character not Dorothy. Nearly all of the comedy is performed by Semon. Having seen a few of Semon's two reeler comedies and feature length comedies like "The Perfect Clown" (1925), I must say, Semon is his most likeable in "The Wizard of Oz". I was also struck by how much he resembles Ray Bolger, who played the Scarecrow in the 39 movie.

While I appreciate all the great comedians during the silent era and into the early sound era, Semon never struck me as a great comedian. I don't believe he deserves to be forgotten but the character he played in the two reelers I have seen doesn't strike me as an enduring persona. He essentially played an every man with the typical cowardly tendencies. Lloyd by contrast did a much better job playing the every man character gaining our sympathy.

But this is what makes "The Wizard of Oz" stand out to me in relation to Semon's character. I laughed at his character. I enjoyed the physical comedy and routines. I would even go as far as to say, "The Wizard of Oz" may serve as a good introduction to Larry Semon and his brand of comedy.

Semon does seem to fall victim to the temptation so many other comedians have fallen for, wanting to add a dash of heartbreak to his story by creating pathos for his character, who proves to be unlucky in love. Perhaps because of the success of Chaplin, Semon thought he would try as well. It doesn't exactly work however. Semon, as actor and director, doesn't earn our tears.

To his benefit Semon keeps these moments few and far between and instead turns this story of Oz into slapstick comedy. One good (if not predictable) routine has Semon mistake a friend disguised in a lion's costume with a real lion, that begins to attack him. There is also a good chase sequence with Semon hiding from Oliver Hardy under boxes. It seems there are multiple Semons as several boxes are seen moving in different directions at the same time. It is never explained how Semon does this.

Of course, in the end, none of this matters. No one is going to watch a movie called "The Wizard of Oz" to enjoy the comedy antics of Larry Semon. You simply cannot ask an audience to "forget" the 1939 version and not make comparisons. I can. But how many people are there like me?

"The Wizard of Oz" is a funny comedy featuring a good performance from Larry Semon, who may be at his most likeable. The movie is filled with slapstick, physical comedy and will lack in any "magical" quality audiences may be expecting. It does however have impressive visual effects for the time period suggesting this was a rather expensive movie to make.

This version of "The Wizard of Oz" is clearly not for everyone. The majority are going to say it is a waste of time and a failure compared to the version released 14 years later. Modern audiences aren't going to like the comedy as well and complain it is "dated" and perhaps even "corny". Though they may not come out and say it as directly, modern audiences simply aren't going to like this movie because it isn't the 1939 version. And there's nothing this 1925 version can do about that.

If you are able to tolerate silent movies and silent comedies in particular, I'd say check out "The Wizard of Oz". If names like Harry Langdon and Charley Chase mean something to you, I'd definitely say check out this movie. Or, if you have an open mind, check it out.

There are some public domain copies on DVD of this movie however the copy I own was part of a three disc collector's set celebrating the 1939 version of "The Wizard of Oz". This silent version was added on as one of the special features. It was restored and given a musical score by the great Robert Israel. This is the version to see.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Film Review: Hold 'Em Jail

"Hold 'Em Jail"
*** (out of ****)

The comedy team Wheeler & Woolsey score a touchdown in RKO's "Hold 'Em Jail" (1932).

"Hold 'Em Jail" is really two different movies combined into one. It is half prison comedy and half college sports comedy. Both genres provide interesting material for comedians and comedy teams as seen in movies such as the Marx Brothers comedy "Horse Feathers" (1932), the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Pardon Us" (1931) and the Harold Lloyd classic "The Freshman" (1925).

One can see why a prison setting would serve as comedy inspiration for the right comedian. A prison is known for having rough and tough inmates. Violent killers. A prison is built on order as the guards discipline the inmates. Now imagine a comedian talking back to the guards, dishing out wisecracks. Imagine the comedian afraid of the other inmates, who would be stronger. Finally imagine the comedian getting accidentally mixed up in a prison break. It would all be funny and a lot of it is in "Hold 'Em Jail".

You can make the same case for sports. Athletes are thought to be very masculine. Certain sports can be dangerous. Throw in a wimpy, cowardly comedian and again you can imagine opportunities a good comedian can get laughs.

However one wouldn't think the two genres are easily combined and to a certain extent they are correct. "Hold 'Em Jail" isn't a great movie. It isn't Wheeler & Woolsey's best comedy. I can't even pretend the movie makes much sense. But, I did laugh. Wheeler and Woolsey are funny in this. The movie has a devil-may-care attitude that works to its advantage and is able to easily slip into a football sports comedy even though it starts off as a prison comedy.

The movie takes place in Bidemore Prison where the warden, Elmer Jones (Edgar Kennedy) is more concerned about the prison's football team than the prison itself. The main concern of Elmer is the big game against Lynnwood, a rival prison, and a $1,000 bet he made with that prison's warden. Elmer needs some good football players. But, how does a prison get good football players? According to the football captain, the prison needs to arrest a better class of people.

In an effort to help the prison, a gangster and former inmate, has one of his henchman frame two men he believes know a lot about football, Curley (Bert Wheeler) and Spider (Robert Woolsey), two salesmen who sell novelty gags and know nothing about football.

Oddly enough neither Curley or Spider show much fear when entering the big house instead they proceed to engage in as much mischief as possible as Curley instantly finds himself attracted to the warden's daughter, Barbara (Betty Grable) and Spider flirts with the warden's sister, Violet (Edna May Oliver).

This causes the movie to miss out on several opportunities for laughs. No one intimidates Wheeler and Woolsey. Elmer doesn't object strongly to his daughter falling for an inmate nor does Violet. And Violet doesn't seem to mind Spider's advances towards her. This all allows the movie to find laughs in different ways. Now Barbara and Violet gang up on Elmer to be nice to Curley and Spider. Curley and Spider act like they are running the prison.

All of this slips into a football comedy when the prison's star quarterback is released from jail after the governor pardons him when new evidence proves his innocence. What will the prison do now? Naturally recruit Curley and Spider to play on their team.

We get a football practice sequence which reminds us of Lloyd's "The Freshman" but never quite reaches those heights of comedic brilliance. But, it should be good enough to get some laughs out of an audience, especially fans of classic comedy, whom I assume would be the only ones watching this movie.

One thing that makes "Hold 'Em Jail" stand out compared to other Wheeler & Woolsey comedies is the absence of frequent co-star, Dorothy Lee, who would play Wheeler's love interest. She would also not appear in the next two movies the comedy team starred in, though one was made at a different studio, Columbia. The role she would normally have played went to a very young Betty Grable, who isn't given much to work with. When Dorothy Lee would co-star, she and Wheeler would often sing and dance a duet together. In "Hold 'Em Jail" there are no musical numbers.

The lack of musical numbers however allows more time for comedy which isn't just provided by Wheeler and Woolsey. Veteran Edgar Kennedy, known for his frustrated slow burn, starred in several of his own comedy shorts and played foil to Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Charley Chase. Edna May Oliver was a funny character actress who had also appeared in Wheeler and Woolsey's comedy "Cracked Nuts" (1931).

Unfortunately the movie doesn't provide much of a courtship between Spider and Violet to exchange witty insults and double entendres to each other in the tradition of Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont. Though there is one good sequence with Spider and Violet playing the piano.

The funniest moments may come during the big football game with Spider and Curley causing mishap after mishap and creating new ways to play the game. Although other good sequences involve a character trying to serenade his love while a prison breakout is going on and the boy's unknowingly destroying the warden's office.

The movie was directed by Norman Taurog, who had never directed a Wheeler and Woolsey comedy prior nor would he direct any of their future comedies. Taurog did have a long career in comedy and may be best known for directing a few Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedies such as "The Stooge" (1951) and "Living It Up" (1954). He was also twice nominated for a best directing Academy Award, both were for dramas he directed including "Boys Town" (1938).

More notably, one of the movie's co-writers was the great American humorist, S.J. Perelman who wrote Marx Brother comedies; "Horse Feathers" and "Monkey Business" (1931) and had several short pieces published in the New Yorker magazine.

"Hold 'Em Jail" isn't as funny as "Diplomaniacs" (1933), for me the funniest comedy Wheeler & Woolsey appeared in, "Peach-O-Reno" (1931) or "Hips, Hips, Hooray!" (1934) but is funnier than "The Rainmakers" (1935) and "Silly Billies" (1936).

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Film Review: Toy Story

"Toy Story"
*** (out of ****)

A toy is a boy's best friend in the Pixar animated movie, "Toy Story" (1995)

"Toy Story" is a movie that can appeal to children on multiple levels. On one hand it shows the relationship between children and toys. Toys are a special part of a child's life. Even as you grow older, you'll remember what your favorite toy was. Yet, on another level, "Toy Story" is a story about the fear of the unknown or being replaced and learning to fit in.

"Toy Story" was the first feature-length movie released by Pixar (which at the time was a separate from Disney) and revolutionized animated movies as we know it because of its computer animation. Today, every animated movie is done with computers but back in 1995 it wasn't the norm. "Toy Story" was the first computer animated movie released in feature length form.

When initially released most of the public and sheep (movie critics) spent a majority of their time talking about the computer animation and how different "Toy Story" looked from every other animated movie before it. Unfortunately, the story was neglected. The praise for "Toy Story" was largely based on its place in history and what it would mean for animation going forward.

You can't deny "Toy Story" is a technical marvel but its story is a little weak. Mainly what I dislike about "Toy Story" and all subsequent Pixar movies is they become action / comedies. Do children have such short attention spans that they can't sit down and watch a movie where there isn't running and jumping? Sometimes the action sequences interfere with the stories as in "Up!" (2009), which could have been a very dramatic movie. Movies like "Toy Story" or "Finding Nemo" (2003) could have had strong enough stories that action chase scenes weren't needed.

"Toy Story" is comparable to a buddy cop movie. You have two opposites that must learn to co-exist and eventually depend on each other. In the case of "Toy Story" we are talking about toys, an old-fashion pull string cowboy doll named Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) and an astronaut action figure named Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen).

Woody is six year old Andy's (John Morris) favorite toy. Because of that, in the world of toys, Woody is the leader. Woody receives special treatment from Andy, such as being the toy placed on Andy's bed as oposed to being left on the floor. Woody gets the leave the bedroom as Andy carries him around, while the other toys are confined to the bedroom. But all of that changes on Andy's birthday when he gets the coolest toy a kid could ask for, the space ranger action figure, Buzz Lightyear. Could Buzz replace Woody as Andy's favorite toy? Signs seem to point to yes as Andy's bedroom, which once had a cowboy western theme to it, is now filled with space related posters and bedsheets. What will this mean for Woody?

The comedic twist to this story and plot-wise the best thing the script writers do, is Buzz Lightyear doesn't know he is a toy. He honestly believes he is a space ranger on a mission to save his planet and he awoken only after a crash landing, Andy throws him and the cardboard box he came in, on the bed.

Part of what makes this story so fascinating for children is it confirms what all children already know. Secretly their toys are alive. In "Toy Story" all of Andy's toys come to life after he leaves a room. Every child has had a suspicion a toy has moved from the last spot they left it in. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you must have never played with toys. What is strange and I have a difficult time believing is merely a coincidence is Andy was the name of the boy in the horror movie "Child's Play" (1988) also about a toy that comes to life. That movie takes a child's joy in believing their toys are alive and turns it into a nightmare. Their toys are alive and out to kill them. Why did the people at Pixar pick the name Andy? Was it a joke?

Children however will be able to relate to Woody's fear. The most popular kid in school might feel threatened when a new student enrolls, as all the attention is on the new kid. Siblings often believe the other one is their parents favorite. Being liked, having the admiration of your peers, is very important to children (and some adults). It can make your early school years very difficult. But, "Toy Story" teaches children, no one can be replaced. Each person (or toy) is unique and serves a purpose. And, we are stronger when we work together, as Buzz and Woody eventually learn and become best friends. This is also reinforced in the Randy Newman song written for the movie, "You've Got A Friend In Me".

There are many that believe great animated movies have the capability to appeal not only to children but adults as well. If that is the metric to use when rating an animated movie, "Toy Story" definitely has that ability. There is a lot of humor in the movie that will appeal to adults. The best example of this was the decision to cast the late Don Rickles as the voice of Mr. Potato Head. Young children won't know who Don Rickles is but adults will appreciate the script allows him to insult the other  characters in the movie.                                                                                                                                                                                                   
The movie also makes, not too subtle, references to Woody being attracted to Little Bo Peep (Annie Potts). One line has her tell Woody, how about she find someone else to watch her sheep tonight. I'm not sure how children will interpret that line but adults will understand what is implied.

The animators of "Toy Story" also throw in a lot pop culture references and refer back to Pixar's own short films. In one scene there is a book shelf with various book titles shown. The book titles are names of previous Pixar shorts. There is also a scene that draws a reference to "Night of the Living Dead" (1968). And within the "Pixar Universe" we get an introduction to Pizza Planet restaurant and the gas station Dinoco. Both of which will reappear in other Pixar movies.

Of course the two final things worth discussing is the voice work of all the actors and the look of the movie. It has been said that Buzz and Woody may be the best characters Tom Hanks and Tim Allen ever played. Their voices seem perfectly matched for the characters which is odd given that Allen wasn't even the original choice for Buzz. Billy Crystal was. But it is not just Allen and Hanks that do wonderful work, Rickles is great as Mr. Potato Head. The late Jim Varney (of "Ernest" fame) as Slinky Dog, Wallace Shawn as Rex, a Tyrannosaurus Rex figure, that feels he just isn't scary enough. And Pixar favorite John Ratzenberger, who has done voice work for for all of Pixar's movies, as a piggy bank named Hamm.

And of course the look of "Toy Story" is amazing. For those of us old enough to have grown up with traditional hand drawn animation, we naturally had never seen anything like "Toy Story" before. It looked "real". And the amount of detail Pixar provides is impressive. You can shut the volume off and simply look at the movie and pay attention to the small corners of the frame and you notice something with each viewing. Look at the light smudge marks on the bottom of doors, the chipped paint on furniture, the cracks and marks on the trim of the wall. That is a lot of detail that honestly wasn't necessary. It speaks to Pixar's high standards. There is still a part of me that misses hand drawn animation however.

"Toy Story" will please children, as has already been proven, and adults will like it too. It has a sweet message but I think relies too much on action sequences when a simple sweet story about children and their toys would have suffice. Time has proven "Toy Story" to be a classic in the animation genre however despite my feelings.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Film Review: A Gorgeous Girl Like Me

"A Gorgeous Girl Like Me"
*** (out of **** )

Beautiful women. There is something about beautiful women. Men, mostly lonely or sexually inexperienced men, will do anything to make beautiful women smile. They will do anything just to talk to beautiful women. Men only want to spend time with women. They will shower them with gifts, give them money and delude themselves into thinking their actions will "buy" a woman's affections. Most people (men and women) live under the fallacy if a person will just get to know them, they will see how special they are.

No, I'm not reading my diary smartalec. These were my thoughts watching the French comedy directed by Francois Truffaut, "A Gorgeous Girl Like Me" (1972). It seems to be what Truffaut was going after.

By the time Truffaut directed this movie he was a well established figure in the French New Wave, having directed "400 Blows" (1959), "Jules & Jim" (1962) and "Shoot the Piano Player" (1960). After directing this movie Truffaut's follow-up would be "Day For Night" (1973), perhaps one of his most popular films. It was very well received earning Academy Award nominations, even winning one for the best foreign language film. The late movie critic Gene Siskel called it the best movie of the year. It may be because of this "A Gorgeous Girl Like Me" (AKA "Such A Gorgeous Kid Like Me") gets lost in the shuffle of Truffaut's films and is rarely discussed. It doesn't help that the movie is not available on DVD in the U.S. and back in the days of VHS was out of circulation.

Stanislas Previne (Andre Dussollier) is a sociologist who visits a prison in order to interview Camille Bliss (Bernadette Lafont), a convicted murderer, for a thesis he is writing on criminal women. As soon as Camille sees Stanislas she plays him for a fool. Stanislas may be meeting her for an interview but he may have other motives. One of the prison guards tells him there are far more interesting women in the prison he can interview but Stanislas insist on Camille. Why? It is because she is an exceptionally beautiful woman? Or is her criminal profile truly fascinating?

During their several meetings Camille compliments Stanislas on his appearance, his constantly asks for favors, wanting him to buy her gifts and she even makes wardrobe suggestions to Stanislas, commenting on his tie. Stanislas may not be aware but the viewer can sense she is buttering him up. In the moment however all Stanislas knows is a beautiful woman is paying attention to him and he likes it.

Truffaut doesn't tell Camille's background story in a linear narrative. Instead it plays like vignettes as Camille tells us about her relationship with men and the real story on how certain men died that she has been accused of killing. Naturally her version of events is a little different from the truth. This is also an interesting commentary adding to the theme of delusion. Not only do we delude ourselves into thinking members of the opposite sex find us attractive, we also delude ourselves into thinking we are good people and create our own history of events, justifying our behavior.

In Camille's for eyes for example, is it her fault her father died after she moved a ladder which caused him to fall to his death? Shouldn't he have known the ladder was missing? And its not like she did it on purpose or anything. She needed the ladder to do chores.

Then there is the issue of her sexual relationship with men, which seems to be an endless list but as she tells the story, the men were using her. At one point she even refers to herself as an "almost virgin". Whatever that means. And Stanislas falls for it all believing she is "pure" an innocent girl that has been taken advantage of.

This seems to reflect an old belief that all men want to "save" the bad girl. The bad girl is fun. She has an outgoing personality. She can make men feel attractive and good about themselves. She's not above flirting with strangers and telling a mildly dirty joke, allowing the hint of sex to fill the air. At the same time every man believes the "bad girl" is misunderstood and just needs a good man to take care of her and love her. That will change her.

It is what seems to be happening to Stanislas. He always defends Camille's behavior to his secretary, Helene (Anne Kreis), who has a crush on Stanislas, and can see right through Camille and sees the effect she has on Stanislas. Again, its the old story of a person ignoring the one who loves them for someone more exciting. Or a case of, the person we like, never likes us back.

What makes "A Gorgeous Girl Like Me" so entertaining is the performance given by Bernadette Lafont. Truffaut is able to do to the audience what Camille does to Stanislas, make us fall in love with her. Much is made of Camille's beauty and Lafont is a beautiful woman. Truffaut creates a lot of scenes with Camille wearing very little clothing which stirs up a sexual excitement among the male viewers. This is to say nothing of Lafont's charisma and natural screen presence and the fact she has good comic timing. We believe she is this character.

Lafont, who died in 2013, had a long career in French cinema, working often with Claude Chabrol, appearing in his first feature film, "Le Beau Serge" (1959), considered by many film historians as the first film in the French New Wave movement. But it is her performance in "A Gorgeous Girl Like Me" that was a star making turn.

While I wouldn't consider this a satire of film noir, Truffaut does have some fun creating a comedic femme fatale character in Camille. Like all femme fatales, Camille is a dangerous woman who will bring men to their downfall. She knows how to play against their weakness. Truffaut, who started his career as a movie critic, may have been thinking of Barbara Stanwyck or Marlene Dietrich when he wrote this character. In the end the message in "A Gorgeous Girl Like Me" is the same, beautiful women make men do stupid things.

Truffaut's movie does comment somewhat on human behavior and is funny to watch, it only hits the surface and doesn't really examine these characters. It probably wasn't Truffaut's intention to do that anyway but his minor ambition prevents the movie from being something greater. Comedy can hit on basic human truths but "A Gorgeous Girl Like Me" almost seems more motivated to go for silliness and play around with movie genres, particularly noir and mysteries.

On the other hand it achieves what it set out to do and for that you must give Truffaut credit. By not setting the bar high that most likely is why the movie is not well remembered. But, we must accept the movie on its own terms and in that context the movie is rewarding.

If after watching this you want to see more of Truffaut's comic side, find "The Man Who Loved Women" (1977).

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Film Review: The Last Witch

"The Last Witch"
** (out of ****)

Watching the Spanish horror movie "The Last Witch" (2015) makes you realize just how influential "The Blair Witch Project" (1999) was and how it created a whole new sub-genre of horror movies - the found footage movie.

To be honest, I never found "The Blair Witch Project" scary or interesting. I also didn't care for last year's sequel / reboot, "Blair Witch" (2016). I don't find the concept of the found footage movie scary in general. The gimmick is more of a distraction than anything else. The hand-held camera work is bad. The "naturalistic" acting is bad. The dialogue is bad and never comes across as natural, especially when it needs to get across certain plot details. And finally, the movies aren't scary. Listening to a group of characters talking about noises they hear in the wind is not my idea of a good time.

On the flip side though the movies are inexpensive. Young filmmakers can easily make one of these movies. You don't need well known actors to appear in them, it defeats the "this is real life not a movie" illusion. You can use natural lightening and don't have to worry if anything is properly lit. You can shot on location, like in a forest, and don't need to build sets. You don't need a musical soundtrack, so you don't have to worry about copyright laws. In general, if someone really wanted to make a movie, the found footage movie would be a cheap way to go.

This is what I thought about watching "The Last Witch", the feature-length directorial debut of Carlos Almon Munoz. Munoz, a horror movie enthusiast, is only 25 years old and 23 when he made "The Last Witch". Within itself, that's great. A young man was able to make a movie and fulfill a dream.

But does that make "The Last Witch" interesting to watch? This is essentially a rip-off of "The Blair Witch Project" in Spanish. Three young friends decide to investigate the legend of "the last witch". In 1619 six women were accused of witchcraft. They were tortured and hung, all except for one. What happened to the last witch? Our three lead characters will head out to a forest to find the home of the witch, Joanna Toy (Clara Gayo).

This part of the story is supposed to be based on fact. In Spain, in the town of Terrassa, there were witch trails, just as there were in other parts of Europe, and five women were executed. The twist to Munoz's story is there was a witch that got away.

And with this set-up we get the predictable hike in the woods, riveting shots of trees and leaves and the characters' shoes. We get the dialogue about noises in the wind but to the movie's credit, we can actually hear the noises too. There also isn't much of the "I feel strange standing here" dialogue. Where one character tells another character he has a bad feeling and can sense something is wrong. Cinematically, that isn't scary.

The problem however is the plot isn't developed enough to sustain a nearly 90 minute movie. By the end of "The Last Witch" I was more confused than anything else, questioning characters' motivations. Some of those motivations seem to come out of left field. Director Munoz doesn't offer any clues to build suspense.

There is also the issue of the characters. They do not feel complete and distinctive from one another. We follow Sandra (Paula Pier), Mario (Alfonso Romeo) and Eduardo (Jorge Gallardo). With the exception that Sandra is a woman, you can't really tell these characters apart. The movie doesn't take its time to establish them as people. The main objective of the movie is merely to place these pawns in scary situations.

The best decision Munoz makes however is we actually see the witch. We see what the lead characters are afraid of. Some won't like that decision. The idea behind "The Blair Witch Project" was, what we don't see is what scares us. But what we saw (the wind and leaves) bored me. Being able to see a villain added slightly to my involvement.

The problem becomes overkill. Munoz creates the idea of a cult that worships Joanna Toy. Members of the cult follow the three young friends in the forest. They seem to appear out of nowhere and rarely speak. The majority of the time they are figures seen at a distance. However this is done too often. I find in horror movies, less is more. The threat of the villain should always loom over the characters but you shouldn't see the villain too often. It diminishes the character and takes away from the suspense. The more times you see something, the less scary it becomes.

We see the witch too as she directly speaks to one of the characters, explaining her revenge. It may have been a better idea if the character didn't speak. Joanna's motivation for revenge is well explained by the other characters. There is no need for an additional speech from Joanna.

Munoz describes "The Last Witch" as a labor of love. It very well may have been but the movie never seems to rise above amateur level, and I don't think that was deliberate. A found footage movie is difficult to pull off. The odds are against it succeeding. When it works, as in the case of "Paranormal Activity" (2009), it can be very effective. When it doesn't work the leaves a viewer feeling unsatisfied and exposes how silly the entire found footage concept really is. Unfortunately, "The Last Witch" falls into the latter category.

The movie can currently be seen on Amazon Video, POV Horror Roku and POV Horror Amazon Fire TV.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Film Review: Dracula: Dead & Loving It

"Dracula: Dead & Loving It*** (out of ****)

Mel Brooks takes the bite out of vampire movies in "Dracula: Dead & Loving It" (1995).

"Dracula: Dead & Loving It" turned out to be the final feature-length comedy written and directed by Mel Brooks. By the time "Dracula" was made the public attitude towards Brooks had changed. Once believed to be one of the funniest men making movies, Brooks' best days were behind him. He repeated gags from previous movies. He got by on reputation alone. Audiences didn't flock to see his movies anymore.

Within this context you can see what Brooks was hoping for with "Dracula". Many consider "Young Frankenstein" (1974) to not only be one of Mel Brooks' best movies but one of the funniest comedies of all-time. What if Brooks could strike lightening twice? What if he could do to Dracula what he did to Frankenstein? If nothing else it would serve as a nice companion piece.

Unfortunately "Dracula" didn't restore the Brooks brand. The movie wasn't a comeback. Not that it matters but the box-office was poor and critical reaction was negative. "Dracula" would prove to be a rehash of Brooks jokes from better movies. Even the title of the movie is recycled from one of Brooks' comedies, the television show, "Get Smart", which Brooks was a co-creator of and co-wrote the series pilot. "And loving it" was a catchphrase of the Maxwell Smart character used to emphasis his approval of something. For example, if Smart was told he would be in great danger on a mission, he would respond by saying "and loving it".

It's not a good idea but if we were to compare "Young Frankenstein" and "Dracula" you would see a major difference in the approach to comedy. With "Young Frankenstein", perhaps because of Gene Wilder, more attention was paid to the story. The movie is funny but the jokes naturally arise from the situations and characters. It doesn't feel forced. "Young Frankenstein", like other successful comedy / horror movies, takes the horror part serious and understands you essentially have two movies in one. "Young Frankenstein" treats the Frankenstein background story serious. With "Dracula" the movie throws five jokes a minute at the dart board hoping one will hit the bullseye. Eventually one will hit but you have to sit through a lot of failed attempts. Brooks makes no attempt to show Dracula as a menacing figure. He doesn't create atmosphere.

Mel Brooks is well known for satirizing movie genres, i.e. the western, science-fiction, horror, Hitchcockian suspense, but, with "Dracula" Brooks isn't creating a satire of the horror genre, he is merely making fun of a specific movie. That is the key difference. Brooks has created a cartoon version of Dracula.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. There is something about "Dracula" that makes it worth watching. Yes, its true, this is not a great Brooks comedy. And, yes, it is true this is not a great example of comedy / horror. But, I laugh and smile at the movie. It is silly. It is silly for the sake of being silly. That's an approach that doesn't always work. But when it does, it can really make you laugh. Think "Airplane" (1980) , "The Naked Gun" (1988) or "Scary Movie" (2000).

"Dracula" gets most of its visually cues from the classic 1931 version starring Bela Lugosi and (at the time) the more contemporary version directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1992. In large part Brooks uses these two movies to make his casting choices. For example Brooks, who plays Van Helsing, looks like a lot like Anthony Hopkins take on the character from the Coppola version. Peter MacNicol, who plays Renfield, directly channels Dwight Frye who played the role in the original. Among the cast, it is MacNicol that stands out. 

This is an example of something other Mel Brooks comedies are guilty of as well. The audience must have a good understanding of what is being spoofed. You have to be familiar with the 1931 movie and know the famous lines to get the joke in Brooks' movie. When we first see Count Dracula (Leslie Nielsen) in his castle, standing atop of flight of stairs, greeting Renfield, a bat flies pass Dracula, and in typical Brooks fashion, poops next to Dracula's shoe. Dracula tells Renfield, "children of the night. What a mess they make." Funny? Maybe if you knew the original line it might be. In the original Dracula hears a wolf howl and says, "children of the night. What music they make." Funny now? There's also the famous mirror scene in the original version which Brooks magnifies and creates one of the best comedy sequences in the movie. The sequence, like the movie as a whole, is funny on its own but funnier if you know the source of inspiration.

From a narrative standpoint "Dracula" nearly follows the original version exclusively, except for a scene where a vampire is killed by a stake in the heart, which recalls Coppola's version. It is also a stand out comedy sequence.

Renfield arrives by stagecoach to Transylvania where he learns about the legend of Count Dracula, whom he is supposed to visit, regarding a real estate transaction. The villagers believe Dracula is a vampire and beg Renfield not to travel further once the sunsets. That is the time Dracula roams the country side looking for blood. Renfield will not be persuaded and travels on.

Dracula puts a spells on Renfield, turning him into his slave. Together they travel to London, where Dracula has just purchased property. Here he meets Dr. Seward (Harvey Korman, doing a Nigel Bruce impression), his daughter Mina (Amy Yasbeck), her fiance, Jonathan Harker (Steven Weber) and Dr. Seward's ward, Lucy (Lysette Anthony).

Lucy has fallen terribly ill and when two small puncture marks are discovered on her neck, Dr. Seward calls his old friend, Professor Van Helsing, for help. It is Van Helsing's belief, this is the work of a vampire. And so the hunt begins.

It is a well known story that actor Leslie Nielsen began his career appearing in dramatic movies, undoubtedly best known for his roles in "Forbidden Planet" (1956) and "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972) and late in life made a change to comedy, after appearing in "Airplane", which lead to starring in a series of "Naked Gun" movies and other similarly styled comedies such as "Spy Hard" (1996) and "Wrongfully Accused" (1998).

On paper a pairing between Brooks and Nielsen would seem to be comedy gold. Two men with a strong reputation in the spoof genre should have been able to make comedy magic happen. I can't say Nielsen does anything wrong performance wise here. Besides a bad Hungarian accent (why do my people have to be forever associated with vampires?) Nielsen plays Dracula no different than he played Frank Drebin although I sense Nielsen is "winking" more at the camera here. He shows he is in on the joke. Most of the actors do the same. No one is playing it straight, except at times MacNicol, but when playing a character that eats insects, it is hard not to play it broadly.

As he does in other movies, Brooks also throws in references to things unrelated to the genre being spoofed. The Nigel Bruce impression for example. Movie fans will know Bruce as Dr. Watson from the Sherlock Holmes movies of the 40s with Basil Rathbone. Brooks' wife, the late Anne Bancroft, makes a cameo appearance as a gypsy who warns Renfield not to travel to Dracula's castle. Her name in the movie? Madame Ouspenskaya. Why you ask. Because that was the last name of Maria Ouspenskaya who played a gypsy in "The Wolf Man" (1941). Brooks even throws in 1920s pop culture references when a character delivers his lines in the style of the song, "Yes! We Have No Bananas". But, will anyone under 80 years old get these jokes?

"Dracula: Dead & Loving It" was written by Brooks along with Rudy De Luca, who often worked with Brooks, co-writing "Silent Movie" (1976) and "High Anxiety" (1977), and Steve Haberman, who co-write the Brooks comedy, "Life Stinks" (1991). It lacks a lot of big laughs but has enough small laughs that it serves as a guilty pleasure. This is not Brooks at the top of his game but I admire the silly nature of the movie. I saw this movie opening day when I was 12 years old. It really appealed to me back then. That should tell you all you need to know.