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 men 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.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Film Review: Shock

*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Italian horror filmmaker Mario Bava gives us one final jolt with "Shock" (1977).

It is a debatable point but fellow Italian filmmaker Dario Argento may be the name most synonymous with the sub-genre of horror films known as giallo however you will find many that credit Bava as the master of giallo and is recognized as having directed the first giallo film, "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" (1963).

The term "giallo" (meaning yellow in Italian) initially referred to novels which combined elements of thrillers, horror, crime and the supernatural. They were called "giallo" because that was the color of the book covers.

To American movie fans "giallo" almost exclusively means "Italian horror". The closest American equivalent would be the slasher movie.

When released in America, "Shock" was released under the title "Beyond the Door II" implying it was a sequel to another Italian horror movie, "Beyond the Door" (1974),  which was one of several demonic possession movies made after the success of "The Exorcist" (1973). However Bava's movie is a stand alone and was not intend as a sequel. "Shock" deals with different characters, is not about a demon taking possession of a body but does deal with the supernatural and does suggest one character has been taken over by a spirit.

The movie begins with Dora (Daria Nicolodi, once romantically linked to Dario Argento) her son Marco (David Colin Jr.) and her second husband Bruno (John Steiner) moving into Dora's old home, where she lived with her first husband. Dora, it is said, has been living in an institution the past few years, recuperating after the death of her first husband, a drug addict, believed to have killed himself although the body has never been found.

Moving back into the house seems to have a strange effect on Marco, who always seems to be in conversation with an invisible friend. Marco's behavior soon becomes violent towards his mother, at one point telling her he must kill her. The young boy also shows signs of sexual resentment towards his mother. In one scene he awakes from his sleep, sits up in his bed and in a strange voice starts calling out "pigs" while we cut to Bruno and Dora making love. In another scene Dora finds her underwear in Marco's dresser, ripped to shreds.

The movie does more than suggest Marco has been taking over by the spirit of Dora's first husband, who seems to want revenge against Bruno and Dora. This is established in a scene where Marco seems to be performing black magic on Bruno, an airline pilot. Marco has cut Bruno out of a picture with his mother and tapes the picture to a swing. When Marco pushes the swing, causing it to sway back and forth, Bruno, flying a plane at the time, experiences a great deal of turbulence in the air nearly causing the plane to crash.

"Shock" is often considered a "lesser" Bava movie not up to the visual aesthetics of his earlier movies. On that count one must agree however I find "Shock" to be a very involving movie that really kicks into high gear by the third act with strange going ons in the house with Dora hearing noises, having disturbing flashbacks of the night her husband died and slowly suspecting there is something wrong with her son.

If you are familiar with Bava and his movies that may make "Shock" sound like a typical horror movie rather than a "Mario Bava movie", which is why fans never fully embraced it. "Shock" doesn't drench itself in atmosphere the way "Kill, Baby, Kill" (1966) did for example. As its title suggest "Shock" is out to shock us and throw scares our way using now cliche horror techniques. Some of those cliches still work on audiences and me in particular, when done correctly. Bava is too good a filmmaker not to know how to use this cliches correctly and so everything works.

The two things I usually don't like about Italian horror movies is the acting, which I often find amateur at best, and the music, which has a very distinct 70s rock sound to it that now seems terribly out of place and doesn't compliment the scenes the music is behind, creating the proper mood. "Shock" suffers from both of these problems. Daria Nicolodi I've usually felt has a tendency to over act and here she does nothing to change my opinion of her, especially in the scenes where she is suppose to express hysteria and fear. Also, John Steiner feels a little bland. You don't feel he has created a real character with a full range of emotions.

Despite all that "Shock" is a movie that deserves a second chance. It plays around with some of the themes often found in Bava's movies but has more of a psychological twist to it, sometimes making the viewer question what is real and what isn't. And it has an ending that may make some think of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat". It is not a great introduction into the work of Bava but is one you should build yourself up to seeing.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Film Reviews: Murders in the Rue Morgue & The Black Cat

"Murders in the Rue Morgue*** (out of ****)

Bela Lugosi gets mixed up in a lot of monkey business in "Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1932).

In the space between Universal Pictures release of "Dracula" (1931) and "Murders in the Rue Morgue" Bela Lugosi had appeared in a few movies, in insignificant roles including an appearance in the Olsen & Johnson comedy "50 Million Frenchmen" (1931) and a Joe E. Brown comedy, "Broadminded" (1931). However it was here that Lugosi was given his first prominent role since playing the iconic character that defined the rest of his career.

Many literary scholars believe Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue", published in 1841, was the first modern detective story. A lot of Poe's short story was changed for this screen adaptation, changing it from a procedural detective story to a horror / mystery movie with the usual anti-science theme.

It is 1845 Paris and Lugosi plays Dr. Mirakle, a scientist that has a side show at a carnival. His attraction is Erik the Ape. According to Dr. Mirakle he has re-learned Erik's language and is able to communicate with the ape. You see, Dr. Mirakle believes humans are descendants of apes through the process of evolution. His audience strongly rejects this theory which forces the doctor to prove his ideas. He wants to mix the ape's blood with that of a woman, hoping this would create a female companion for Erik. In other words, we are almost dealing with bestiality. Remember this is a pre-code movie and is a bit racy.

Dr. Mirakle has set his sights on Camille (Sidney Fox). She and her fiancee, Pierre (Leon Waycoff, later known as Leon Ames) attend the carnival one night, with some friends, and catch the doctor's show. Camille and Pierre walk up to Erik's cage where he takes Camille's bonnet and tries to strangle Pierre. At this moment Dr. Mirakle is sure Camille would be the perfect selection for Erik.

One of the most notable scenes in the movie involves Dr. Mirakle kidnapping a prostitute (played by Arlene Francis in her screen debut) and discovers her blood is "rotten", which I guess means she has a sexual disease. When the doctor finds this out he yells at her, her "beauty was a lie", suggesting she isn't "pure".

Another interesting scene has Pierre at home trying to solve the murder of the prostitute and two other woman that have been murdered (which are not shown on-screen). His roommate, Paul (Bert Roach) is making lunch and begins to complain when Pierre doesn't come to the table to eat. Obviously this has homosexual undertones with Paul playing the nagging wife and Pierre the neglectful husband. Paul even has an apron on which is a symbol of emasculating the character.

There is also an interesting camera technique used in a scene when Camille is on a swing. As Camille swings back and forth, the camera sways as well. The cinematographer was Karl Freund, who is credited as the inventor of the unchained camera, providing more mobility. This scene is an example of that. Freund was also the cinematographer on "Dracula" and directed "The Mummy" (1932).

So many of the Universal horror movies of the 1930s have a strong anti-science theme to them. Here of course the characters reject the theory of evolution. The character that does believe in it is presented as a "mad scientist". The doctor character also wants to interfere with biology implying science should just leave everything alone, much like a later Universal movie, "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" (1954). Science is meddling in things it should not and ambition is getting the best of scientist.

And although it was made in 1932, the idea of an ape being attracted to a woman made me think of "King Kong" (1933) which of course is impossible, since "Kong" hadn't been released yet. But we even see the ape climb up the side of a building to enter the bedroom of the woman.

If I had to guess what prevents this movie was being better it would be it needed more for the Pierre character investigating. It needed more of the slow build-up that Dr. Mirakle is behind the murders. It would have also been nice to show the murders on-screen rather than talk about them in the past tense. Supposedly nearly twenty minutes of this movie cut to tone down the violence.

Directed by Robert Florey, "Murders in the Rue Morgue" may not be able to scare audiences it does however do a nice job of creating mood and suspense. The performance by Lugosi is good but at times its a bit over dramatic. Still, Lugosi has been in worse movies with primates, "Bela Lugosi Meets The Brooklyn Gorilla" (1952) comes to mind.

"The Black Cat"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

The honeymoon in Hungary turns into a honeymoon from hell for the newlyweds in "The Black Cat" (1934).

"The Black Cat" has the honorable distinction of the being the first of several movies to co-star Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, the two men who starred in arguably Universal's two best horror movies, "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" (1931).

For marketing purposes alone you could see why this pairing would be considered a big deal, Dracula meets Frankenstein's Monster. In fact the movie was a box-office hit and is even today considered a classic horror movie and usually ends up on lists of the best horror movies ever made.

Starting off on a dark and rainy night, a car accident leads a group of passengers into the home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), a famous architect however it may not have been a coincidence.

This set-up is not unlike other movies which focus on a big scary house with people trapped inside it. In fact Karloff starred in one himself, "The Old Dark House" (1932). By comparison, that is the better movie and is one that serves up more freights and makes better advantage of its setting.

"The Black Cat" has a nice look to it but doesn't give the house enough personality to create a menacing presence, the same with Karloff's performance. The character has an interesting look but Karloff plays the character too stiff and doesn't really interact with the other actors, feeding off one another. And Lugosi is just way over-the-top.

The newlyweds are Peter (David Manners, who played Harker in "Dracula") and Joan (Julie Bishop, billed as Jacqueline Wells, who appeared in "The Bohemian Girl" (1936) with Laurel & Hardy). This nice American couple is taken to Poelzig's home by Dr. Werdegast (Lugosi), a psychiatrist who fought in World War I and for the last 15 years was in a prison camp. He now vows revenge on his old commanding officer, Poelzig, who the doctor believes was in love with his wife and told her the doctor had died. Now this innocent couple will be caught in the middle of their feud.

We discover Poelzig married Werdegast's wife, who is now dead, and has kept her body in his basement along with several other women. Why? Who are these other women? The movie doesn't explain any of it. We further learn after his wife died Poelzig then married Werdegast's daughter. This is too much even for Freud. You couldn't get away with this once the production code was being strictly enforced.

The movie also has nothing in common with Poe's story, "The Black Cat", other than the appearance of a black cat. Poe's story was about guilt associated with murder. This movie is about revenge and a man that collects dead bodies and makes questionable marriage choices.

To say "The Black Cat" is an oddity is putting it nicely. The movie does have bizarre startling images, the dead women in glass cases and a Satanic ritual. There is a scene where Werdegast and Poelzig play a game of chess to determine the fate of the young married couple, which adds no dramatic impact at all. We don't even get to see the moves they are making.

Some have suggested the movie can even be interpreted as a commentary on the effects of World War I and the rise of Hitler in Germany. Prior to their accident, the young couple was on their way to the town of Gombos, which as a Hungarian myself, I never heard of. Gombos was however the name of the Prime Minister of Hungary, who was one of the first foreign heads of state to meet with Hitler. Geographically the only Gombos I know of is a river in Romania.

"The Black Cat" lacks thrills but does make an effort. I just don't understand the praise that has been thrown at this movie. A minor effort.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Film Review: Psycho

**** (out of ****)

It's all about a mother's love in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960)

"Psycho" is generally regarded as Alfred Hitchcock's greatest film, his crowning achievement. It is without question a well made film featuring two magnificent performances from Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh at its center. This is not to mention the iconic score composed by Bernard Herrmann, which has become something of the quintessential slasher movie theme.

But, as many times as I have seen it, I simply can't avoid the fact I am ahead of the characters. I know exactly where it will lead. I know all the masterful twist and turns Hitchcock has in store for the audience. And that doesn't keep "Psycho" "fresh" in my opinion.

I can, as most film lovers do, watch movies over and over again, even some of Hitchcock's. I love "Rear Window" (1954) and "Vertigo" (1958). Naturally I know how those movies end as well yet I am involved in their story and the characters. "Psycho" by comparison seems so reliant on its twist ending that once you know the secret it can never grip you with suspense as it did the first time you saw it. I cannot think of many modern movies that I feel fall into the same category. Maybe "The Sixth Sense" (1999) which is another movie where it all leads up to a twist ending.

"Psycho" has become such a major part of popular culture it is difficult to find someone that doesn't know anything about it. If you have never seen the movie before I bet you know about the shower scene. We associate the very name Norman Bates with a crazy person. How can someone have a "pure" movie going experience and walk into the movie cold? I wish I could.

This may make it sound to some like I don't like "Psycho". Not true. But my reaction to the film will never be what it was the first time I saw it. I can only imagine the thrill audiences in 1960 must have experienced when they first saw the film.

"Psycho" is unique. Hitchcock does do something amazing with this movie. Hitchcock proves that he was not only the master of suspense but a master manipulator as well. "Psycho" doesn't just play with our emotions, the way all films do, but it also plays with our expectations of what movies are and how they function. It is a well told story, "Psycho" changed movie going habits. Hitchcock warned audiences they must see "Psycho" from the beginning otherwise they would not be admitted into the theater.

For me "Psycho" is all about the manipulation. I can think of no other American movie that does what it does. It establishes a character that we think will be the star of the movie only to kill that character less than half-way through the movie. The movie is about two crimes only one of which is resolved.

Hitchcock didn't want "Psycho" to be like his other movies. This one looks different. It wasn't made with his usual crew. It is in black & white. It looks like a cheap exploitative movie with a plot that matches it. In the end it beat the odds and became something special. A work of art to some.

As "Psycho" begins, we are in a hotel room. We see Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in her white bra as she is getting dressed after spending her lunch hour with her boyfriend, Sam (John Gavin). It is not the only time we see Marion in her bra getting dressed. It happens one more time, this time she is wearing a black bra, meant to signify "good" (white) and "bad" (black), before we see a famous scene of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) peeping through a hole into her hotel room as she undresses before taking a shower. Here we are all voyeurs staring at a woman getting dressed. It is only when we are watching someone else watch the woman do we feel the act of watching is cheap.

Marion and Sam are talking about their future together. Sam is divorced and paying alimony. He has nothing to offer Marion. Marion feels cheap meeting Sam in hotel rooms and wants a "respectable" relationship. Money is the cause of their problems.

Through a strange coincidence Marion finds an opportunity to solve the money problem. It won't be legal but it will achieve the desired result. She will steal $40,000, that was part of a real estate transaction, and split the money with Sam so they may start a life together.

She drives from Arizona to California to meet Sam. Along the way however, after causing some suspicion and tired from the long drive, she pulls off the road to spend the night at a motel, the Bates Motel. There she finds the lonely owner of the motel, Norman, a young man who finds himself instantly attracted to Marion.

In desperate need of the company, Norman asks Marion if she would like to have dinner with him. She agrees. The two eat in his parlor, where Norman, who has an interest in taxidermy, has a collection of stuffed birds. They talk about Norman and his mother, whom Marion overheard arguing with Norman. Norman implies his mother is ill and belittles him. Marion defends Norman and tells him he should put his mother in an institution. This upsets Norman greatly.

What is interesting about the way this scene is shot is at one point the camera is placed near the floor, looking up at Norman, sitting in his chair. In the background is one of the stuffed birds with its wings spread out. It looks like it is about to swoop down on Norman as if he is prey. And Norman is his mother's prey, just as Marion turns out to be prey for Norman.

After this scene comes the famous shower scene. For a slasher movie what is interesting is we never see the knife touch Marion's body and never see full frontal nudity. The amount of blood is limited. This is in complete contrast to today's slasher movies which seem to almost pride themselves on trying to disgust the audience. Again, Hitchcock is manipulating the audience. He isn't going to give us what we expect.

Many have commented on Norman's actions after the shower scene, where he cleans up after his mother's murder, disposing of Marion's body. Some have suggested in this scene Norman is actually sympathetic, playing the role of the good son, protecting his mother. I can't say I had the same reaction. Maybe because I know the truth but Norman's behavior is very mechanical in this scene. He appears to be acting out a familiar scene. He never flinches when he sees the body and knows exactly what to do. It is also difficult to sympathize with someone covering up a murder, no matter what his motive is.

Hitchcock has a little fun at one point in the movie creating suspense as Norman tries to sink Marion's car in a swamp. At one point it looks as if the car won't. What will happen if the car doesn't sink? What will Norman do? It has been suggested again the audience is to sympathize with Norman and we want the car to sink. Again, that wasn't my reaction. It just felt like a moment of black humor to me. 

If there is one scene audiences agree seems a little out of place it is an explanation scene at the end describing Norman's personality and behavior. It goes on a bit too long and become redundant. It wants to perfectly wrap everything up with a bow, just to make sure everyone in the audience perfectly understands what they have just seen.

Watching "Psycho" again I thought of a movie directed by the great Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, "L'Avventura" (1960). Ironically both movies were released in the same year and have a similar structure in the sense both manipulate our expectations. In "L'Avventura" a woman disappears during a boat trip. We suspect the movie will be about her recovery and rescue. It isn't.

Even though "Psycho" doesn't shock me as it once did there is no denying the movie is one of Hitchcock's signature films and perhaps the last one he made to make a mark on pop culture, though "The Birds" (1963) may also be a contender. If you've never seen the movie before, you truly are in store for a treat. And remember, be good to your mother, she's been good to you.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Film Review: Images

**** (out of ****)

Watching Robert Altman's "Images" (1972) you never know what is real and what isn't. That is mostly because the lead character doesn't know what is reality and fantasy.

I must be honest and fully disclose, I cannot with any confidence state I know what "Images" is about. I'm not sure I am able to "read" the movie and "decode" it. But, that is what makes the movie so enjoyable to me. It is one hell of a ride. Some of the fun watching it, is trying to figure it all out.

"Images" was released at a time when the public was just starting to notice Robert Altman. By 1972 Altman had completed "M*A*S*H" (1970) and "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971), two hallmarks of the 70s. But "Images" was dismissed by much of the public upon its initial release and today is a lesser known Altman movie that gets lost in the shuffle of what was clearly a decade when Altman was at his creative peak. Although Susannah York won a best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance.

In the wonderful book by David Thompson, "Altman on Altman", the two men discuss Altman's career film by film, ending with the television series, "Tanner on Tanner" (2004). Altman says the idea for "Images" was one that had been floating around in his head since 1968 and he originally wanted Sandy Dennis for the lead. Over the years, other actresses considered for the role were Julie Christie and Sophia Loren.

It is no accident Altman conceived the idea of the movie after Ingmar Bergman's "Persona" (1967) was released in America. Altman admits in the book "Persona" was an influence stating the movie impressed him a lot. "I'm sure that film was largely responsible for Images and 3 Women. There was a power in Persona". And like "Persona", I believe "Images" is largely about a traumatic sexual experience. For me, "Persona" is about guilt associated with a woman's choice to have an abortion. In "Images" there is talk about a woman wanting to have children and it is hinted at she may have had a daughter outside of her marriage. At the very least "Images" is a story about a woman's guilt in having an extramarital affair.

Altman presents these ideas within the confines of a psychological suspense film as we follow Cathryn (York) a middle-aged woman who seems to be spiraling into madness. It all begins late one night when she is home alone. The telephone rings and another woman is on the other line. The woman implies Cathryn's husband, Hugh (Rene Auberjonois) is cheating on her.

From this moment on the movie begins its descent into Cathryn's disturbed mind as she and Hugh head for their secluded cabin where Cathryn can finish a children's book she is writing and rest. Characters are introduced to the story that we are never sure if they are real or not. One is supposed to be a dead lover, Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi) and the other a friend of the couple, who it is implied had an affair with Cathryn, Marcel (Hugh Millais). Do you see how Altman is adding to the confusion naming characters after the actors? Cathryn even sees her own doppelganger, who at one point in the movie we follow and switch point of view.

What is so impressive about Ms. York's performance is we can see the terror and confusion on her face as she struggles to determine what is real and what isn't. Many times while talking to her husband his appearance will change into one of the other men causing her to scream in horror. This is a demanding role which is tricky to play because so much of the movie is about the character's mind and her psychology. That is not always easy to translate on the screen.

This leads to some very suspenseful sequences. In one scene Cathryn kills Marcel, or at least his apparition, late at night after Marcel makes sexual advances at her. The next morning we see Marcel's bloody body lying on the floor. Did she really kill Marcel? We know Cathryn can see Marcel's body, as she walks over him to get to the kitchen to make her morning tea, but she is purposely avoiding the body. Soon people approach the home, a local elderly man and his dog and Marcel's teen daughter, Susannah (Cathryn Harrison). Cathryn invites them all inside for a drink. We sit in anticipation. What is Cathryn doing? She is going to be discovered. She killed a man.

Altman throws visual clues and metaphors at us, one of which is a puzzle, what is exactly what this movie is. Some of the characters try to put together a puzzle they have found in the cabin. The puzzle represents Cathryn, something that is fragmented and needs to be arranged in order to create an coherent image. Before the puzzle is assembled it is disjointed pieces, just like Cathryn's mind and the pieces are the characters in her head.

The fragmented quality is also present in the Oscar nominated score by John Williams which isn't melodic and lyrical but rather the score is comprised of  fragmented "sounds" and sound effects. The score really heightens our suspense and involvement in the movie.

It should be rather obvious but this is not your typical Robert Altman picture. It doesn't have a large ensemble cast. It doesn't have that wonderful overlapping, seemingly improvised dialogue. And it isn't the antithesis of its genre the way "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" was to the western or "Popeye" (1980) the musical. "Images" works rather well in the thriller / suspense genre.

"Images" is better, much better than the movie going public will have you believe. It doesn't deserve to be seen as a "lesser" Robert Altman movie. You can't even buy a new copy of it on amazon. You can't rent it on Netflix and it is not streaming on their site. "Images" is a bit of a challenging movie but that shouldn't scare an audience away. This is a well made, wonderfully acted and photographed movie. This is first-rate filmmaking. For me, it is one of Altman's best. Try and find a copy of it.