Monday, February 20, 2017

Film Review: The Last Command

The website Third Coast Review published my review of the classic silent film, "The Last Command" (1928) directed by Josef von Sternberg. The movie will be screened in Chicago this Wednesday at the Music Box Theatre.

Click here to read my review.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Film Review: 23 Paces to Baker Street

"23 Paces to Baker Street"  *** (out of ****)

Although not as well remembered as it should be the murder mystery "23 Paces to Baker Street" (1956) is a combination of Sherlock Holmes (Baker Street is where the famed detective lived) meets Alfred Hitchcock.

Van Johnson stars Phillip Hannon, an American playwright staying in London, where his latest play is a smash hit. Phillip, is a bitter man who seems to have lost the will to live. It is slowly revealed to the audience Phillip left a woman he loved behind in America, Jean (Vera Miles), because he went blind, another slow reveal to the audience. Phillip believed because of his disability the two could never live a "normal" life together. Jean however follows him to London and gives the impression she still loves him.

Love however is not on Phillip's mind as he believes he may have overheard a possible kidnapping attempt, while sitting in a local pub, listening in on a conversation between two people nearby. After reporting the conversation to the police, Phillip is convinced no one believes him and it is now up to him to solve the case.

"23 Paces to Baker Street" wants to utilize the gimmick of Phillip being blind and put him in danger. Over the years several movies have focused on this from Dario Argento's classic, "The Cat O' Nine Tails" (1971), "Wait Until Dark" (1967) and recent movies like "Don't Breathe" (2016). The suspense is supposed to come from a person, unable to properly defend them self, put in danger.

One example of this, and maybe the best sequence in the film, involves Phillip arranging to meet the woman, he believes, is involved in the kidnapping scheme. Her father is supposed to meet Phillip at the same pub as before. The man is not the woman's father but instead has been sent to kill Phillip and leads him to a building destroyed during the war. The entire front of the building is missing as Phillip comes dangerously close to reaching the edge. If it was Chaplin, it would be comedy. Here is it one of the most suspenseful moments in the movie.

Some have compared the movie to Hitchcock's "Rear Window" (1954) as both movies revolve around two people with limitations (one blind, the other in a wheelchair) who believe they have uncovered a crime no one else is paying attention to. Both men want out of relationships with the women in their lives and it takes a murder to bring the couples back together. Also, like a Hitchcock movie, there is a lot of humor. Not the dry, dark humor often found in Hitchcock movies but rather a sarcastic humor with Phillip throwing out one liners, that I must admit had me laughing.

But, to compare "23 Paces to Baker Street" to "Rear Window" or any other movie isn't fair as it may imply "Baker Street" can't stand on its own and / or is a lesser film by comparison. "23 Paces to Baker Street" is an entertaining movie that features a very good performance by Van Johnson.

Seeing Van Johnson here initially seemed strange. Johnson became famous in the 1940s because of his matinee looks and "boy next door" roles. That is missing here as the character is a wise-cracking smart-alec who is always sympathetic. It reminded me of his performance in "Brigadoon" (1954).

The movie, based on the novel "Warrant for X" written by Philip MacDonald, who worked primarily in the mystery / thriller genre, writing Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto mysteries, was adapted to the screen by Nigel Balchin and directed by Henry Hathaway, who once received a best director Academy Award nomination for "The Lives of Bengal Lancer" (1935). I've never thought of Mr. Hathaway as a great filmmaker. For me he lacked a distinct style, which served him well as he directed many different genre movies. His best known movies are "True Grit" (1969) for which John Wayne won an Academy Award (some say this was a pity Oscar, since Mr. Wayne had never won before), "Call Northside 777" (1948) with Jimmy Stewart, "The Dark Corner" (1946) with a pre - "I Love Lucy" Lucille Ball and "Niagara" (1953) with Marilyn Monroe.

"23 Paces to Baker Street" doesn't do anything terribly original but what it does, it does well.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Film Review: Sicko

**** (out of ****)

When documentary filmmaker, Michael Moore, released "Sicko" (2007), his cynical / satirical "editorial" on the American healthcare system, we were getting ready for a presidential election. Healthcare, at the time, wasn't the major issue for voters. If you remember correctly, the 2008 presidential election was supposed to be about the Iraq War, that is why to two leading candidates, for their "respected" parties were Barack Obama and John McCain, men that were opposed to (Obama) and supportive (McCain) of the war. But then a "funny" thing happened, George W. Bush and the Republican party bankrupted the country.

In the brutal aftermath of another presidential election I thought about Michael Moore's documentary. Now healthcare is on a lot of people's mind. The current chancellor vowed to repeal and replace Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) and replace it "with something terrific" (whatever that means). But, things aren't going as well as the Republicans and the chancellor would have liked.

"Sicko" represents a system we might go back to if Republicans repeal the current healthcare law without replacing it, or at least that is everyone's fear.

When "Sicko" was first released I enjoyed it quite a bit. I called it one of the best movies of 2007, the second time Michael Moore made a documentary which made my top ten list, "Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004) was the first. As a fan of it, I remembered a lot of what was in it and how angry it made me. Watching "Sicko" again, it affected me the same way. It is still powerful, persuasive and informative. It argues in defense of free, universal healthcare, as America is the only country in the Western world without it. On a personal level, for me, there is no good reason to argue against it and Mr. Moore hits on some of the standard talking points fed (brainwashed) to the public over the decades of why such a system wouldn't work in the greatest country in the world.

To clarify a point, Mr. Moore's documentary is not about the, at the time, 50 million uninsured Americans, instead "Sicko" is about those that have insurance and the cracks within the system which benefit the insurance companies that love taking your money but aren't too keen on paying your medical bills when you need them to.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem and the main point, of "Sicko". The United States healthcare system is based on a profit modem. Money and greed is what is preventing this country from giving its citizens free healthcare as the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to "buy" elected officials and send their lobbyist to do their bidding. It is not about all the other BS one hears concerning this debate. Free healthcare will not result in limited choices (anymore than what they are now) and people dying because of long wait lines. For years I used to hear Americans can't get medicine from Canada because it hasn't been approved by our government and could be dangerous. Of course the Canadians taking the same prescription drugs seem to be alive but who knows. It couldn't have anything to do with money, right?

So, how does Mr. Moore and "Sicko" prove their point? First Mr. Moore shows us some Americans without insurance and terrible accidents they have faced. One man cut off the tip of two of his fingers on a table saw blade. He was told by the hospital it would cost $12,000 to fix one finger (his ring finger) and $60,000 to fix the other (his index finger). The choice was his. He took the cheaper option. And then we hear horror stories from those with insurance. One woman was in a car accident that resulted in her becoming unconscious as an ambulance drove her to a hospital but her insurance company wouldn't pay for the it because it wasn't authorized by the woman, while she was unconscious.

Next, Mr. Moore speaks to people who used to work for insurance companies, who have since left, because they did not approve of how the industry was run and the lack of care. They explain insurance companies are not in the business of providing care. At one point it is explained if doctors deny treatment to patients they are rewarded with bonus. Why? No treatment means the insurance company doesn't have to pay anything. We discover all the loopholes companies use to their advantage to deny coverage (pre-existing conditions). This is then countered by Mr. Moore's visits to countries such as Canada, England, France and yes, Cuba. In each country Mr. Moore paints a picture of their system being better than the one in America. Everything is free. In England the people laugh at Mr. Moore when he keeps asking how much does everything cost. In France Mr. Moore speaks to Americans living abroad. They speak of five week paid vacations (standard) a 35 hour work week (standard. Although in the country's upcoming election a right-wing candidate wants to change this), a week off for your honeymoon (paid) and even doctors that make house calls.

Yes, there are manipulative moments. In one scene an insurance company employee is crying thinking about a couple she knew would be denied. As she is crying the camera moves in for a close-up of her face so we can get a good look at those tears. In another scene a mother is sitting in a playground speaking about her daughter, who died, because of lack of treatment. Why place this poor woman in a playground? There is a stunt where Mr. Moore takes some people to Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, telling the guards he brought some Americans who only want to same, universal coverage, as the terrorist.

But, none of this really matters because it doesn't change the underlying point, the healthcare system, even with the Affordable Care Act, is not good in this country. The ACA is a big wet kiss to the insurance companies since it mandates everyone must have insurance. The money and greed is still not out of the system. Meanwhile, the cost of prescription drugs continues to rise. And what can stop this from happening? Money must be taken out of the system. Mr. Moore even shows us the amount of money that has been donated to various politicians by these industries who continue to argue in the defense of the current system.

One of the best moments in the documentary is when Mr. Moore is in England and speaks to a former Labour party politician who explains the two ways in which a government can make its people feel oppressed. One is by fear (the examples of this are too numerous for me to mention) and debt. When are are in debt (student loans, hospital bills, credit cards) you feel helpless and demoralized. That will stop you from fighting back. It is still true today.

Michael Moore is without question a controversial figure and there will be "people"; Republicans, insurance company executives, greedy doctors...ect who will argue against everything in this movie and give us the same old lines over and over again. It is socialized medicine, a slippery slope to Communism / Socialism, long wait lines, death panels, lack of care, lack of doctors...ect, ect. They will use fear (see paragraph above) but that's all they have. Fear and check donations of the insurance companies. "Sicko" shows us there is a better option.

Nominated for an Oscar in the best documentary category, "Sicko" is one of Michael Moore's best documentaries.

Film Review: The Obama Years: The Power of Words

"The Obama Years: The Power of Words"  *** (out of ****)

Words. Words are important. Words have meaning. Words shape our view of history and our vision of the future. Words are what the documentary “The Obama Years: The Power of Words” (2017) is about.

Scheduled to air on the Smithsonian channel on February 27th, as part of Black History month, this hour-long documentary focuses on a select few, of the more than 3,500, speeches former President Barack Obama gave during his eight years in the White House.

“The Obama Years” is by no means a definitive look at the Obama presidency. It does not offer a critical view or even a balanced tone. It is, without compromise, a full-fledged endorsement of the man and his oratorical skills.

Through the course of the documentary, seven speeches (the press kit says six but I counted seven) are presented and their historical significance explained. They include Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, where he gave the keynote speech. At the time, he was a state senator, who was running for the Illinois U.S. senate seat. The speech brought him national prominence. One anecdote told is the party’s presidential nominee, John Kerry, liked a passage so much from the speech, he asked if he could use it instead of Obama. The other speeches discussed are Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, his first “race speech”, during the presidential campaign, when the news media was reporting on remarks made by Rev. Jerimiah Wright, the President’s eulogy after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, the 50th anniversary speech on the civil rights march in Selma and the eulogy after the 2015 shooting in Charleston, South Carolina at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The “seventh” speech highlighted is his 2011 speech at the White House Correspondence Dinner, showcasing the president’s sense of humor.

It can be considered a strange topic for a documentary on a president, speeches. Why not one which takes us inside the White House and shows us key decisions made during his two terms like the killing of Osama bin Laden, his Supreme Court nominees and a behind-the-scenes look at how the Affordable Care Act came to be? But, you can’t fault the documentary for something it doesn’t want to be. You can only review it on what it is and how well it presents its ideas.

With that in mind, one must admit “The Obama Years” is an entertaining and emotional (I heard a few sniffles at the press screening I attended) look at the country’s first black president. You also become aware of how much history we have all lived through during the past eight years and how much the country has changed from the time Obama first ran for office. It also cannot escape anyone’s mind the difference between Obama and the current man in the White House, at least as far as their communication and speech making skills are concerned.

The documentary is highlighted by on-screen interviews given by the people who worked on Obama’s campaign; David Axelrod, Jon Favreau and Cody Keenan as well as historians; Douglas Brinkley and Doris Kearns Goodwin, who attempt to flesh out the man by discussing Obama’s writing style and comparing it to other presidents. 

Unfortunately, as with most things today, the documentary’s appeal will depend on your politics. Those that admire Barack Obama will feel “The Obama Years” reaffirms what made him a great man, while those that opposed his presidency, may feel Obama was all talk. Just words.

Film Review: Sophie and the Rising Sun

"Sophie and the Rising Sun"
*** (out of ****)

In the autumn of 1941, Grover Ohta (Takashi Yamaguchi), a Japanese-American, is found nearly beaten to death, in a small town in South Carolina. He cannot recall how he arrived in the town or who beat him up but his presence will set off a chain of tumultuous events in the social drama, “Sophie and the Rising Sun” (2016).

Given the recent headlines in the newspaper, concerning travel bans and indefinite suspension of Syrian refugees from entering the country, it is unfortunate that “Sophie and the Rising Sun” will seem relevant to audiences, illustrating there as always been a fear of “the other”, in director Maggie Greenwald’s tale of xenophobia, interracial love and racism set against the backdrop of America entering World War II.

In a town, unsure what to do with him and suspicious of “foreigners”, it is decided the best place for Grover to heal is in the home of the town’s widower, Anne (Margo Martindale), who is herself initially hesitant to be burdened with such a duty but reluctantly agrees, positioning her to be the movie’s moral center.

The “Sophie” referred to in the title is a young woman with a mysterious past (played by Julianne Nicholson) whom at first, we suspect may also be prejudice against foreigners and Grover in particular. It is Sophie and Grover’s identity the movie will take its time revealing.

“Sophie and the Rising Sun” is well intended and a modest movie but in its third act, feels as if it loses some of its focus. Much is made of Anne listening to news on the radio of war in Europe and when Pearl Harbor is attacked, the town, which thought Grover was Chinese, learns he is Japanese, proclaims him the enemy, while misguided patriotic pride causes violence. At this point the interracial romance is given more screen time, pushing the war time sentiment aside and becomes one of those movies about a small town and a nosey neighbor (played by Diane Ladd) interfering in the love affair of two people, spreading gossip the woman isn’t “acting like a lady”.

There is much to enjoy during the movie’s first two acts, especially the social message, and the wonderful performances given by Martindale, Nicholson and Ladd. While neither Martindale or Nicholson, who co-starred in “August: Osage County” (2013), are leading ladies, the movie allows them the opportunity to shine. It is worth the price of admission just to see the performances.

Director Greenwald, may be best known for “Songcatcher” (2000), which had some similar themes, including prejudice of the other, in that movie’s case people of the Appalachian Mountains, gives her movie a sensitive, romantic quality which seems much more interested in its female characters and their relationships rather than the romance between the male and female character.

Those with a knowledge of film history, may watch “Sophie and the Rising Sun” and think of the multiple Academy Award nominated film, “Sayonara” (1957) starring Marlon Brando, about an Air Force pilot who falls in love with a Japanese woman. That movie is a classic, often considered one of the most significant Hollywood movies of its time to address interracial romance, and deals with the topic head on. I can’t really say the same about “Sophie and the Rising Sun”. This is more of a movie about the bond between women with war and prejudice in the background.

Film Review: Alone in Berlin

"Alone in Berlin"
*** 1/2 (out of ****)

Vincent Perez’s “Alone in Berlin” (2016), is a World War II themed drama centering on a working-class German couple (played by Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson) that finds out their only child has died in combat. Consumed with grief and anger they become part of the German Resistance, placing anonymous postcards, with anti-Hitler, anti-Nazi sentiments, throughout the city. In total, more than 280 postcards are written.

The film is based on the novel Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada published in 1947. It is considered to be one of the first anti-Nazi novels to be published after the war in Germany. It was made available in the United States, for the first time, in 2009. Even more astonishing is the novel was based on a true story and the actions of Otto and Elise Hampel. 

The novel has been adapted to the screen previously on a few occasions, once as a West German television movie in 1962 and again in 1970 as an East German television miniseries, among them.

Screened at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it was nominated for a Golden Bear (the festival’s top prize), “Alone in Berlin” begins as an emotional drama that slowly turns into a thriller with the Gestapo enraged and furiously conducting an investigation, which provides a nice role for Daniel Bruhl as Escherich, a police inspector, under pressure to deliver results and find the perpetrator.

Audiences are asked to draw a parallel, as is usually the case in these kind of movies, between the person being hunted and the hunter. Can Otto (Gleeson) influence Escherich and persuade him, by reading his postcards, to see what Hitler and the Nazi party really stand for?

What would have made “Alone in Berlin” a stronger movie would have been if Otto was a true Nazi sympathizer. A man who believed in what Hitler was doing and was proud of his son for fighting. Then, when he turns against it, it would have more dramatic effect. As it stands now Otto and his wife, Ann (Thompson), are like so many other people who see terrible things happen in the world and are silent, if for no other reason than tragedy has not struck them personally. It is only when it does that it opens their eyes.

It’s difficult however to find much else to fault with the movie. It is one of the best films released this year, thanks largely to Brendan Gleeson’s performance, as a solemn, calm and meticulous (trying to hide his handwriting, he spends up to an hour writing the postcard) man, who while driven by a purpose somehow seems apathetic about life and the consequences of his actions. This is countered by Emma Thompson’s performance, which is overwrought as she expresses her concern over the couple being caught and has moments where she lashes out demonstrating her grief. All of which emphasizes the separate ways the couple copes with their feelings, which will in turn bring them together again.

In only his third feature length film, Perez (who has spent most of his career as an actor), shows a sure hand as a director, avoiding much of the schmaltz another director may have brought out of the story, his weakness though is he needs to improve on creating suspense. 

At its core “Alone in Berlin” is a story that tells us all it takes is one person to stand up for what is right. One person can make a difference and change the minds of many. It is a nice message for the world we live in.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Festival of Films from Iran

Billed as the longest running showcase for Iranian cinema in North America, the 27th annual Festival of Films from Iran begins February 4th – 25th at the Gene Siskel Film Center, where each weekend audiences will see films highlighting modern day Iranian culture.

With a total of seven films being presented during the festival, the event will kick off with screenings of “Lantouri” (2016) and “Me” (2016), while later in the month, also pay tribute to the late filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami, who died last year. Kiarostami was perhaps the best known of contemporary Iranian filmmakers to Western audiences. His Palme d’Or winning drama at the Cannes Film Festival, “Taste of Cherry” (1998), will be screened on February 17, 18 and 19 as well as a screening of a documentary featuring the filmmaker, “76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami” (2016), which will be followed by a discussion of the filmmaker’s work with film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and professor and author Mehrnaz Saeedvafa in attendance. 

According to the Barbara Scharres, Director of Programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, it was Saeedvafa who approached her with the idea of the festival. Now, 27 years later, Scharres says of Iran “this is a nation and a culture that is unfamiliar, largely misunderstood, and often maligned in the U.S.” Yet, through cinema and its ability to show audiences other cultures, this can change.

Here are mini-reviews for movies to be screened opening night.

Directed and written by Reza Dormishian, the young filmmaker’s fourth directorial effort, “Lantouri” is a smorgasbord commentary on various social injustices endured in Iran, women’s rights, anti-intellectualism, censorship and criminal justice. It may have been better served narrowing its scope focusing on one specific issue or using an Altman-esque interconnected storyline featuring multiple characters, each confronted by an injustice, nonetheless “Lantouri” is an entertaining and socially aware film.

Starring Maryam Palizban as a persistent journalist driven by criminal justice reform, also named Maryam, who meets an activist and agitator played by Navid Mohammadzadeh, who loves her from afar. Depending on whose version of the story you are hearing Maryam may or may not love him back, leading to both of their downfall.   

Using a mockumentary format within an unrequited love story, sometimes it feels as if the conventions of the love story interfere with the social message. It is only until the last 40 minutes of “Lantouri” that it makes its greatest point, remarking on the power of forgiveness and the retaliation laws used in Iran’s courts, which only lead to more violence. 

Screening February 4th @ 6pm and February 5th @ 4:45pm

If “Lantouri” shows us the ugliness of a society on the outside, then “Me” shows us what happens in the shadows.

Azar (Leila Hatami) is a go-to person on all issues concerning the black-market. Need a fake passport? Azar can help. Need to get out of military duty? Azar can help. She even exports alcohol in water bottles. She is by all measures a fascinating character. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t do enough with her.

There are subtle moments when male figures question Azar’s authority over them suggesting as a woman she is a bit out of place but Azar is a fighter and puts the men back in their place. Meanwhile there is building suspicion authorities may be on to her with spies all around.

The threat of this however never escalates into rising dramatic tension which ultimately creates a weak second and third act for “Me”. Hatami dominates the movie with her screen presence and whatever entertainment value derives from watching it is a result of her performance.

As for a social critique, first time director Soheil Beiraghi, paints a portrait of the limited roles available for women in an oppressive society.  

Screening February 4th @ 8:15pm and February 5 @ 3pm