Sunday, November 22, 2015

Film Review: High Sierra

"High Sierra"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

The intensity reaches high heights in the Warner Brothers release "High Sierra" (1941).

It is the same old story of a guy with a troubled past caught between two women. One of them he views as "classy", the other is the same kind of woman he has always had in his life, the kind of woman with her own troubled past. The kind of woman that would accept him for who he is.

The "classy" woman represents a different kind of life for the man. She represents the "normal" life. The honest life. A life in which you don't have to worry about the police tracking you down. A life where you aren't constantly on the run. You can actually settle down somewhere and start a life with someone. The question is, would a woman like that accept a guy with his past?

The "other woman" represents more of the same. Life in a fast lane. A life where you are always looking over your shoulder. The question now becomes, does a guy like him deserve anything better? Can a guy like him relate to any other kind of woman than a woman with her own troubled past?

These are questions Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) must ask himself as he is caught between two women; Marie (Ida Lupino) and Velma (Joan Leslie). Roy has just served eight years in prison for a bank robbery heist. He was released thanks to a governor's pardon. Newly released from prison he finds himself on one more job. This time he is asked by an old mob boss Big Mac (Donald MacBride) to go up to a California mountain resort to heist a hotel bank which is supposed to have priceless jewelry. For Roy, in the twilight of his years, this could be his last heist. If things go well, it will be a good payoff. Maybe Roy won't have to worry about money or police any longer.

Assigned to the job with Roy are two younger guys; Red (Arthur Kennedy) and Babe (Alan Curtis). On their way to the resort Babe picked up a woman, Marie (Lupino) whom Roy objects to them bringing along. You don't want too many people around that will be able to identify the men after the heist is done. Marie is wise to them though. She is running away from her own past.

Also helping the three men is Mendoza (Cornel Wilde) who works at the front lobby of the resort. Mendoza will provide the men with a layout of the resort so they can plan their escape route. However Roy is not certain he can trust any of these people.

In "High Sierra" Bogart's character is a tough guy on the exterior who has a soft interior. He may act like he is the kind of guy that wouldn't stick his neck out for anyone, but, deep down we know that isn't true. He may be tough. He may be a killer. But, he's fair. He is a gangster with a code of honor. He won't kill unless provoked. He won't harm a woman or someone he knows is not able to defend himself. Audiences would see this screen person developed further in "Casablanca" (1942), "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) and "To Have and Have Not" (1944).

This character fits in nicely with the persona Humphrey Bogart would go out to create in film after film. In 1941 Humphrey Bogart wasn't quite Humphrey Bogart, a renowned movie star who would go on the represent a rugged, macho figure in cinema history. Bogart did receive some acclaim for his performance in movies such as "The Roaring Twenties" (1939) which starred James Cagney and was directed by Raoul Walsh, the same man that directed "High Sierra". Walsh, Lupino and Bogart would also collaborate on "They Drive By Night" (1940).

The characters Roy shows a soft spot for is a family that he nearly has a car accident with. A elderly Ohio farmer (Henry Travers) who has lost his farm and decided to drive out to California with his granddaughter Velma (Leslie). Rather abruptly Roy finds himself attracted to Velma, whom is presented to be Roy's junior by some 20 years. But Roy views her as a decent woman. She is young and innocent. Roy would like to marry her but would Velma like to marry Roy?

One could make the argument Mr. Walsh and "High Sierra" really don't offer anything new to this genre of storytelling. Perhaps. "High Sierra" works in spite of that. The characters are interesting to watch. What they represent and turn out to be is fascinating to uncover. The performances are very good with Bogart and Lupino the best of the pack. Both have movie star written all over them. In this context "High Sierra" works more as a character study than a gangster movie. Yes there are moments of suspense and intrigue but there is so much going on underneath the surface. It is those moments which are what is really interesting on-screen. The movie has a lot to say about women and the way men view them, what men expect from women. There is also something to be said about one trying to escape their destiny.

In what some may consider an odd metaphor, the presence of death is shown through the image of a dog. No man can escape his fate or death. Especially when you lead a life of crime.

That "High Sierra" is something more than a gangster movie shouldn't be much of a surprise when you consider the movie was co-written by John Huston. Mr. Huston, who would later go on to become a great filmmaker himself, his directorial debut was "The Maltese Falcon", started off in Hollywood as a screenwriter. One could argue Mr. Huston often told stories about masculinity and doomed characters. Characters that start off on one road and find themselves on another.

Filmmaker Raoul Walsh may not be very well remembered by today's younger movie fans however he was a diverse and extremely talented artist. Mr. Walsh directed musicals; "Going Hollywood" (1933) and "College Swing" (1938) as well as making a name for himself in the gangster genre; "The Roaring Twenties" and "White Heat" (1949) as well as westerns; "Colorado Territory" (1949, which some consider a remake of "High Sierra"), "Dark Command" (1940) and "The Tall Men" (1955). Shamefully Mr. Walsh was never nominated for a best director Academy Award and to this day has not been given a honorary award for his contribution to cinema.

"High Sierra" unfortunately lacks the reputation of "Key Largo" (1948) or "Casablanca" but it is a classic. Movie lovers should see it. The movie has secured its place in the history of cinema due to finally allowing Humphrey Bogart to break out into the mainstream as well as Ida Lupino. "High Sierra" is more than a gangster movie. It is a movie about people. Very flawed people that are trying to escape who they are and what they have become.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Film Review: The White Sheik

"The White Sheik"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Who doesn't dream of one day meeting the rich and famous? Who wouldn't like to run into a celebrity on a crowded street? Imagine being able to sit down and chat with that celebrity. Imagine if you were attracted to one another. The great Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini tells us what fools we are to think such things in his romantic comedy "The White Sheik" (1952).

"The White Sheik" was Mr. Fellini's first feature-length film he directed solo. His previous effort, which also marked his directorial debut, "Variety Lights" (1950), was co-directed by Alberto Lattuada. However, with "The White Sheik" Mr. Fellini firmly establishes ideas and themes which would would be addressed in future films.

The film focuses on a newly wed couple arriving in Rome for their honeymoon. They will only be in the city for two days, mostly to meet the groom's family. The husband is Ivan Cavalli (Leopoldo Trieste) and the bride is Wanda (Brunella Bovo). Ivan is the more level-headed of the two and perhaps a tad pretentious. Ivan is a worry wart. He wants to make sure everything on their honeymoon runs smoothly. He has every moment of their time together planned out. Mostly importantly however he wants to make sure neither he nor Wanda embarrass themselves in front of his family, especially his uncle (Ugo Attanasio), whom Ivan goes on and on about as being an important man in Rome. One day, Ivan believes he will be as important as his uncle.

Wanda on the other hand is shown to be a bit naive. She is a dreamer. She also has other plans, unbeknownst to Ivan, during their time in Rome. The audience slowly learns Wanda is a big fan of a comic strip character called the White Sheik (Alberto Sordi) and must see him during her visit.

The comic strip uses live actors to play the roles of various characters as a camera photographs the images which are collect for the strip. Unfortunately I cannot think of an American equivalent to compare it to.

Ivan and Wanda are separated when she sneaks out of their hotel room to visit the studio the strip is filmed at while Ivan must come up with excuses for Wanda's absence to his family. All Ivan knows is someone who signed a letter "the white sheik" has agreed to meet Wanda during her visit to Rome. Ivan, naturally concludes, "the white sheik" is a pet name and Wanda is having an affair. Pride however prevents him from admitting this to his family.

Federico Fellini conceived "The White Sheik" during a period in Italian cinema known as the "Neo-Realist" period, which began post-World War two up until 1952. Many film historians believe De Sica's "Umberto D." (1952) presented the end of the movement. The films were supposed to show the daily hardships of the working class after the war and comment on the destruction the war caused. Audiences wanted to see movies they could relate to. In order to make their movies more convincing non-actors were used.

Contrast this setting to Mr. Fellini's "The White Sheik". Here is a comedy showing society for the daydreamers we are. There is nothing realistic about the movie. There is no "white sheik", only an actor pretending to be him. There is no great romance, like the ones we read about in novels. People must settle for the Ivan's in the world, the serious minded, pretentious individuals we encounter on a daily basis. These characters represent the theme of fantasy vs reality, a dominate theme in the work of Mr. Fellini.

In Peter Bondanella's extremely valuable book "Italian Cinema: From the Neorealism to the Present" Mr. Bondanella's describes Mr. Fellini's uses of the main characters as symbols of this theme by writing about a "clash of reality and illusion and the tension between mask and face, Fellini uses the fastidious Ivan Cavalli and his wife Wanda to embody each aspect of this conflict." Mr. Bondanella further explains "Superficial piety and patriotism characterize Ivan's view of life" whereas "Wanda embodies a rather naive attempt to break out of provincial forms and her conventional marriage into a world of illusion and fantasy".

It is through this we can see a break from the neorealistic mindset. Mr. Fellini is not using cinema as a "break" from fantasy. Cinema is not something to use to show audiences the struggle of everyday living but rather cinema is something audiences use to escape the struggles of the everyday. People need fantasy in their lives. The difficult part is finding a proper balance. We all have a bit of Ivan in us (responsibility) and Wanda (escapism). Both are important to society as we deal with the misery of everyday life. One could argue "The White Sheik" is about finding the fantasy in reality.

What makes "The White Sheik" so enjoyable is the way it explores its ideas and theme. This could have been a serious movie but Mr. Fellini has a good sense of humor. It makes it all the more surprising Michelangelo Antonioni, another brilliant Italian filmmaker, helped with the story. Mr. Antonioni's films are not laugh riots. But this does make "The White Sheik" more than merely a "silly comedy". The movie does have strong ideas not only about fantasy vs reality but relationships and romance and an element of fantasy which goes into that. Plus in our celebrity obsessed world today's audiences should be able to relate to Wanda's desire to track down the white sheik.

Brunella Bovo was a nice choice to play Wanda. She was a young, somewhat pretty actress, whom audiences could perfectly accept in the role. Ms. Bovo conveys a child-like quality to her performance. I felt this aspect is the strongest quality of her performance. It reminded me of Mr. Fellini's wife, Giulietta Masina, whom in future movies would also exhibit a child-like quality in her performances. In fact, I wondered why didn't Mr. Fellini cast his wife in the lead role. Ms. Masina does briefly appear in the movie however as a prostitute named Cabiria, whom Mr. Fellini would later make a central character in his movie, "Nights of Cabiria" (1957).

Alberto Sordi on the other hand was well-known to audiences for his comedic roles even by 1952. His career dates back to 1937. Sordi finds humor in playing the white sheik by using a lot of exaggeration. There is nothing realistic about him. This acting choice also serves a purpose by promoting the movie's theme. Nothing is real. Sordi is not a sheik. He is a married man willing to cheat on his wife with Wanda. Sordi has that air of importance about himself that Leopoldo Trieste displays in his interpretation of Ivan. Both men pretend to be more than they are. Both want respect. And Wanda may be naive enough to believe both of them. But what will happen to her when she realizes things are not what they seem?

Federico Fellini, even at this young stage in his career, displays a great visual eye and a great ability to pace his story. "The White Sheik" doesn't feel long. It is never boring. It has an almost carnival or circus atmosphere to it, as do most of Mr. Fellini's movies. The musical score by long time collaborator Nino Rota only adds to that effect. Events seem to be spontaneous and heightened for comedic purposes.

"The White Sheik" may not immediately come to mind as one of Federico Fellini's great movies, as it is over shadowed by titles such as "La Strada" (1954), "La Dolce Vita" (1960) and "8 1/2" (1963) however it remains an important film giving us a look into the artistic mindset of a developing filmmaker. All of the elements which make a great Fellini film are here. Audiences should not forget "The White Sheik".

[P.S. one can also see the influence this movie had on Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love" (2012)]

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Film Review: The Little Foxes

"The Little Foxes"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Long before Michael Douglas taught us "greed is good" there was Bette Davis in "The Little Foxes" (1941).

"The Little Foxes" was directed by the legendary Hollywood filmmaker William Wyler and nominated for nine Academy Awards including best picture, director (Wyler), actress (Davis) and screenplay (Lillian Hellman). It was based on a 1939 stage play, also written by Hellman, and starred Tallulah Bankhead.

Although "The Little Foxes" is the story of family greed between two brothers (Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid) and a sister (Bette Davis) it is not much of a stretch to interpret "The Little Foxes" as a movie about the dangers of women.

Here is a movie that addresses the cliche all women are power hungry, desire good social standing, do not marry for love but are gold diggers and will use their femininity to their advantage against men.

Bette Davis stars as Regina Giddens, a woman who married a wealthy businessman, Horace (Herber Marshall), who suffers from a heart condition. The two appear to be in a loveless marriage, as Horace is away seeking medical care as Regina seems to hardly care. In fact, she has never once visited Horace at the hospital.

Regina is too busy conniving with her brothers; Benjamin (Dingle) and Oscar (Benton) regarding a business deal involving building and investing in a cotton mill. Once built the family will pay low wages to exploit the working class. In order to secure their dominance of the business and their share of profits, it is agreed each sibling put up a third of the cost, thus giving them full control of the company. Benjamin and Oscar have acquired their portion but will Regina, through her husband Horace, be able to put up her share? Time is running out and Horace is still in another state, dealing with his illness.

The plan is to use Regina and Horace's daughter, Alexandra (Teresa Wright), as a pawn to lure Horace back home so Regina and her power / money hungry brothers can prey upon him and convince him to invest in their scheme.

While "The Little Foxes" may show "the dangers of women" the male characters in the movie are not innocent either. The men are greedy and engage in questionable business practices. They are willing to manipulate people to further their own agenda. Regina may have married for money but so did her brother Oscar. He married Birdie (Patricia Collinge), whose family owns a plantation. Birdie has many regrets in her life, like once actually believing Oscar married her because he loved her, and so now, to deal with all of life's disappointments, including a son, Leo (Dan Duryea), she openly admits she doesn't love, she turns to drinking. This allows people to discredit anything she says by simply labeling her "a drunk". Would you listen to what a drunk has to say?

"The Little Foxes" becomes a story about more than men and woman and the gender stereotypes which follows them and a story about good old-fashion American greed. The thirst for power which consumes so many and the reckless depths to which they will immerse themselves to in order to achieve their goals. Everyone loves money and wants more of it but remember what the Bible tells us, "the love of money is the root of all evil".

It is also through the Bible the movie is given its title. In Song of Solomon it reads "Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes". Foxes are generally considered to be destructive animals, representing evil. Of course there is also the connotation that foxes are manipulative and sneaky, hence the saying, "sly as a fox". Therefore one may interpret the title of the movie as referring to the siblings, they are the little foxes, the sly manipulative foxes, which cause destruction.

Another interesting aspect of "The Little Foxes" also centers on female characters. If the Regina character represents all the negative female stereotypes than the daughter, Alexandra, is at a crossroads. If she listens to her mother, she will become another fox. Will Alexandra follow a different path? A path set forth by a male character, David (Richard Carlson), a journalist who has everyone's number. He is in love with Alexandra, and she with him, though both are too stubborn to admit it.

What is interesting within the dynamic between Alexandra and David and Regina and Horace is the man represents logic and knowledge. They want to set the female characters on the right path. The men want to offer their knowledge and wisdom to the female characters but will Regina's greed and feelings of resent of being a woman prevent her from taking a man's advice? Regina's resentment stems from the fact she must rely upon a male for financial security. Her brothers are capable of controlling money. They are able to put up their third for the investment but in order for Regina to become involved in the scheme she must get the money from a man, her husband. Regina is not in a position to make business deals. Business is not considered a woman's place.

Alexandra on the other hand is naive. She is not wise to the ways of the world. David is. That is why the character is given a profession of journalist. Journalist, in movies at least, have usually been presented as cynical figures. They know all about the corruption and crooked politicians. David, though a young character, is one of the wisest in the movie. The question is will Alexandra copy her mother and show resentment towards a male figure or learn from his knowledge?

What makes "The Little Foxes" so enjoyable to watch are the fine performances given by this cast. Bette Davis plays the kind of character audiences had grown to expect from her. A woman that is a bit cold. A woman that dares to challenge society's conventions. A woman that dances to the beat of her own drum. Watch Davis in "Jezebel" (1939), "The Letter" (1940) or "Mr. Skeffington" (1944). In none of those movies is Bette Davis playing a sweet, innocent "feminine" character. That was not Davis' style.

Also worth noting is "The Little Foxes" was the third and final collaboration between William Wyler and Bette Davis. Their previous movies were "Jezebel" and "The Letter". Mr. Wyler has the prestige of being the most nominated filmmaker in the history of the Academy Awards. Mr. Wyler received a total of 12 nominations and won on three occasions for "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946), "Mrs. Miniver" (1942) and "Ben-Hur" (1959). Mr. Wyler is routinely mentioned among the greatest American filmmakers of his era alongside John Ford and Orson Welles.

"The Little Foxes" is a Hollywood classic that every film lover should see. Open your eyes to the performances given by Bette Davis and the work of William Wyler. If you love movies you should be able to appreciate each of these artist's talents. I worry today's younger movie fans don't acknowledge back in the golden era of Hollywood films, these movies were about something. Hollywood movies were challenging ideas society had. Yes, there was a censorship code being enforced but the great movies found ways to work around that. Movies like "The Little Foxes" managed to be about ideas. Thought-provoking ideas. I ask today's movie fans, yes, censorship may be more lenient today. Artists are able to express themselves more freely then 70 years ago. But, I ask you, how many of these Hollywood movies are about something?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Film Review: She's Funny That Way

"She's Funny That Way"  ** 1\2 (out of ****)

It is so difficult not to admire a filmmaker like Peter Bogdanovich and a movie like "She's Funny That Way" (2015). It is because of that level of admiration one may feel that it is so disappointing Peter Bogdanovich's "She's Funny That Way" doesn't completely succeed.

Back in the 1970s Peter Bogdanovich was considered a new emerging talent in American cinema. Whereas his contemporaries such as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola were interested in making movies dealing with the issues of the day by changing the landscape of cinema with their fresh visual style. Mr. Bogdanovich was interested in reliving the past and mimicking his heroes like Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles and John Ford. Mr. Bogdanovich wanted to bring back the style and sensibilities of the 1930s and 40s to cinema of the 1970s. For a while it worked. Audiences and movie critics (sheep) championed movies such as "The Last Picture Show" (1971), which scored a total of eight Academy Award nominations, wining two awards, "What's Up, Doc?" (1972) and "Paper Moon" (1973), which picked up four Academy Award nominations. But then the audience lost interest.

American film goers changed their taste. Movies became political, often displaying an anti-Vietnam sentiment, or commenting on a corrupt political system. In short, audiences wanted to see movies they could relate to. Movies which felt contemporary. Watching movies which were homages to the silent era of filmmaking, "Nickelodeon" (1976) or inspired by Fred Astaire / Ginger Rogers musicals of the 1930s, "At Long Last Love" (1975) with a Cole Porter score, weren't of interest to the general public. So, audiences turned their back on Mr. Bogdanovich. Audiences no longer went to see his movies. They weren't interested in what Mr. Bogdanovich had to say. He was too old-fashion, a dirty word to modern thinking people. The wrap against him was, Mr. Bogdanovich lacked a personal style. Martin Scorsese had a vision and a unique storytelling ability. Francis Ford Coppola, John Cassevettes, Woody Allen, all unique individuals that had a personal style. Their own style. Mr. Bogdanovich though, well, he was a copy-cat. He wanted to be Howard Hawks. He stole someone else's vision.

Lets for the sake of argument assume that it is true Peter Bogdanovich was a copy-cat. Do you have any idea what kind of talent it takes to copy to style of John Ford or Orson Welles? Try it. Even an art forger has talent. To suggest Mr. Bogdanovich's movies aren't personal isn't fair either. They are personal. He is making the movies he wants to make. The movies he grew up with. The movies he wishes more people were making. The movies he wishes more people were seeing. That makes them personal. Mr. Bogdanovich's movies are an extension of his personality. That should be clear to anyone that has ever seen him give an interview.

No one could deny Peter Bogdanovich's love of movies. In his youth Mr. Bogdanovich wrote movies reviews and interviewed several of the greats from Hollywood's golden era. He even became a film programmer at the Museum of Modern Art in New York showcasing the work of Welles and Ford.

This all leads us to "She's Funny That Way", the first theatrical movie Mr. Bogdanovich has released since "The Cat's Meow" (2001). Although "She's Funny That Way" is set in modern day New York and all the characters dress in modern clothes and go to modern restaurants and speak in modern slang, the movie really wants to be a 1930s sophisticated screwball comedy. The movie hints at Ernst Lubitsch but never quite reaches that level, mostly because it lacks witty dialogue and clever zingers. And it doesn't quite reach the level of Preston Sturges either because there isn't enough broad physical comedy. That's what makes "She's Funny That Way" disappointing. You know what the movie wants to stylistically accomplish, its goals are within its grasp but it never reaches its potential. "She's Funny That Way" doesn't clearly define itself and establish the correct tone and what it wants to be about.

Owen Wilson stars as Arnold Albertson, a Broadway director who is married, to an actress, and has two children. One day, on the night before rehearsals for his latest play, Arnold finds himself in New York a day before his wife and children will arrive. He checks into a hotel and hires an escort. He selects a woman named Glo (Imogen Poots), a young 20-something girl from Brooklyn, who lives with her parents (Cybill Shepherd and Richard Lewis) and dreams of one day becoming an actress. Arnold, who is going by a different name, and Glo, experience a romantic evening together. They go out for dinner, take a horse and carriage ride and eventually sleep together. It is after Arnold learns about Glo's dreams he offers her money to stop living as a prostitute and start her acting career. Arnold wants nothing in return. Not even to keep in touch. Glo agrees.

Time passes and Arnold is beginning casting for his next play "A Grecian Evening" written by playwright Joshua Fleet (Will Forte). It is agreed Arnold's wife, Delta (Kathryn Hahn) will star in it along with Seth (Rhys Ifans) but unexpectedly Glo, now going by the name Isabella, auditions for the role of a call girl in the play. Arnold is not interested at all in casting her, despite everyone else very enthusiastic about her.

This aspect of the movie has possibilities and could have made for a funny, screwball, sex farce, with people running in and out of bedrooms and lots of physical comedy. But, that's not what "She's Funny That Way" is about.

We learn about a former client of Glo's a judge (the always reliable Austin Pendleton) who is obsessed with her and desperately wants to see her again. He even goes as far as hiring a detective (George Morfogen) to track her down and he isn't even every good at keeping his presence unknown. To help the judge get control of his emotions he begins to see a therapist (Jennifer Aniston) who proves not to be much help at all.

The twist to "She's Funny That Way" is all these characters will intersect and in one way or another they all unknowingly know each other.

The choice of Owen Wilson is an interesting one, especially since he starred in Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" (2011) another comedy with an old-fashion sensibility. I wonder if Mr. Bogdanovich saw that movie and it in some way inspired him to cast Mr. Wilson.

Owen Wilson isn't as charming this time around as he was in Mr. Allen's movie. Mostly because he has less to work with and is not given a clearly defined character. What makes his character cheat on his wife? What makes him offer Glo money to change her life? We even learn Glo is not the first women the Arnold character has done this for. What is Arnold trying to accomplish? Does he see himself as some sort of savior figure? He is a protector of women? Why couldn't Arnold just be a horny Broadway director that seduces young wannabe actresses with the promise of making them stars? It may not be original but it would be much easier to relate to the character and give Owen Wilson more to work with as an actor.

Imogen Poots is supposed to be the scene stealer in "She's Funny That Way". This should have been a breakout role for her. Instead, once again, the character falls short. The audience isn't rooting for her. This isn't the hooker with a heart of gold character. It may have been Mr. Bogdanovich's intention to make the Glo character something of a Cinderella type of character, a poor girl who dreams big but again, our sympathy is not with her. At no point in the movie did I relate to her. I never felt sorry for her or was inspired by her. And, I'm sorry, I found the Brooklyn accent annoying.

Cybill Shepherd, Richard Lewis and Judy Punch are all wasted. Judy Punch once again plays a prostitute, as she did in Woody Allen's "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" (2010). This time around Ms. Punch plays less of a character and more of a caricature while Ms. Shepherd and Mr. Lewis are wallpaper,

Surprisingly I would say the person that comes out looking the best is Jennifer Aniston. Her role as a therapist who is more neurotic than her patients is thoroughly enjoyable to watch, There was so much that could have been done with this character. An entire movie could have been built around her. There are very humorous scenes revolving around her therapy sessions with patients as other patients are calling her, leaving voice message on her answering machine for all to hear, leading her to briefly discuss her patients with other patients. It is priceless. It is also a shame Ms. Aniston has not been receiving critical acclaim from the sheep (movie critics). I guess no one told them to. A shame. It is one of the best roles Ms. Aniston has had in quite some time.

For as much as I may enjoy Ms. Aniston's performace or admire Peter Bogdanovich or even appreciate moments of "She's Funny That Way" in the end it is not enough. There is something missing. More laughs, better defined characters, more physical comedy. Peter Bogdanovich is a talented filmmaker. Young movie fans should watch his movies. All of them. But "She's Funny That Way" doesn't come close to the movies it is inspired by and doesn't come close to Mr. Bogdanovich's best. It lacks charm. I am certain though Mr. Bogdanovich still has a great movie in him to come. This was almost it.

P.S. - Too bad Mr. Bodganovich never uses the classic song "She's Funny That Way" as part of the soundtrack. Granted the lyrics have nothing to do with the movie (it is a love song about a man wondering why a "good woman" is standing by him when he has nothing to offer her, finally stating, "she's funny that way") but maybe an instrumental would have worked.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Film Review: The Crowd

"The Crowd"  **** (out of ****)

Filmmaker King Vidor tells us, sometimes it is difficult to stand out in life and so we all must join "The Crowd" (1928).

"The Crowd" is generally considered to be one of the best films made during the silent era. I would like to take that compliment one step further. "The Crowd" is one of the greatest films of all-time. Unfortunately I can sing the movie's praises from now until my face turns blue but you aren't going to be able to see this masterpiece. Shamefully the movie has not been put on DVD as of the time of this review. I personally have been unable to find a VHS copy of the movie in recent years. This leads me to ask, when will this highly influential film be put on DVD? What is taking so long?

Vidor's "The Crowd", despite being made in 1928, is a movie all people can relate to. Trust me, people's hopes and dreams and ambitions have not changed since then. The movie follows a young man, born on the fourth of July in 1900. The boy believes one day he will grow up and do great things. His father makes sure his son knows what a bright future lies ahead of him.

Who among us has not thought such things at one time? How many of us thought we could change the world? We would become rich and famous? And what happened? Well, the same thing happens to the young man in this movie. That thing is called life. Boy is it difficult! The rules aren't fair. It is too difficult to get ahead. Hard work and playing by the rules doesn't get you anywhere. Better to have a rich uncle that leaves you their inheritance. The get rich scheme of so many working class people, the lottery, isn't even a possibility in Illinois anymore (where I live). The state is giving IOUs out to winners. That's not a joke. Look it up.

The young man is John Sims (James Murray). Like so many others he sets out to New York, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. John ends up being one of many, many employees at an insurance company. The camera shows us mile high skyscrapers, taking the viewer up to the top of the building floor by floor, showing us countless windows. The image of the windows dissolves and we see workers at their desks, plugging in numbers. For as many windows as there were on the building, there are just as many workers. This visual aesthetic helps to reinforce the idea we are all part of a crowd. One of many people unable to stand out. John has not given up hope yet. He still believes in the pipe dream that hard work will get him ahead. He will not be part of the crowd, struggling to get ahead. One day, he repeatedly says, his ship will come in. It is that carrot stick placed in front of all of us which keeps us going, right? One day we'll win the lottery. One day we'll get a raise. One day things will get better.

As we all wait for our ship to come in we need to distract ourselves. John meets Mary (Eleanor Boardman) when he is asked by a fellow employee if he would like to go on a double date with him at Coney Island. John and Mary immediately hit it off. The date sequence is wonderful to watch if for no other reason than we simply get to see Coney Island in the 1920s. Watching the movie again I thought of another movie which shows us Coney Island in the 1920s. In fact the movie came out the same year as "The Crowd". It is the Harold Lloyd comedy "Speedy" (1928). I wonder if Lloyd was paying homage to "The Crowd". In both movies the sequence is awfully similar.

John and Mary are eventually married. Young and in love but no money. Love motives John. He will succeed and one day, after his ship comes in, the two of them will move out of the small, crowded apartment they live in, which is directly across from an el train. When you are in love though you are willing to put up with most things, like a small apartment. Mary encourages John and shares in his dream. Her husband will make good. She believes in him. Now it is no longer one man against the world but two against the world. Better odds, right?

Soon John and Mary's family grows and they are blessed with two children; a son and a daughter. While children may be considered a blessing, they are also two more mouths to feed. What will John do? His ship still hasn't come in yet. What John and Mary learn is whenever there is sunshine the night must fall as well. That means, all good things come to an end. Sadness follows happiness.

What is "The Crowd" ultimately trying to tell its audience? Is it a story of conformity? We all need to learn our place in the world? Understand you won't be successful in material things so settle for the other "riches" life offers; love, marriage, children. We all need to understand our limitations in life. Everyone can't be rich.

King Vidor made two other movies in 1928. Both of them were comedies starring Marion Davies. One of them is called "Show People" (1928). It too is a story of people wanting to achieve great things. People dreaming of a better life. One deals with Hollywood, the other with everyday living. It is in the Hollywood story where the person succeeds in materialist terms. What does that tell us? One theory could be Hollywood wants to keep the idea alive that it is a "dream factory" and anyone can make it in Hollywood whereas "life" is a bit more difficult and may not always have a "Hollywood ending". It reinforces the concept that Hollywood is the place where dreams come true and movies serve as a form of escapism from the turmoil of everyday living. This would explain the ending of "The Crowd" where we see a crowd of people watching a movie in a theater laughing.

"The Crowd" was not a financial success upon its original release but the concept of "Hollywood escapism" would become more prominent during the Great Depression, a year later. In 1928 audiences were not in the mood for a realistic portrait of the misery of life and the struggle for survival. When are audiences ever in the mood for that? But the movie did enjoy critical success. It was nominated for two Academy Awards one for best director (Vidor) and best picture, unique and artistic production, a category which was abandoned the following year.

What makes "The Crowd" such an outstanding motion picture is the honesty in which it tells its story. Audiences can relate to the struggles these characters face. We can see ourselves in them. Heck, we are them. The world hasn't changed much. "The Crowd" hits on universal themes. It shows everyday life but still has a poetic streak to it with some impressive visuals. "The Crowd" should be able to stir strong emotions from today's movie audiences. It is a timeless tale told with great style and sincerity. It remains King Vidor's greatest film.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Film Review: The Gold Rush

"The Gold Rush"  **** (out of ****)

Eureka! Charlie Chaplin strikes comedy gold in his silent comedy classic "The Gold Rush" (1925).

The inter titles for "The Gold Rush" describe it as a "dramatic comedy". "The Gold Rush", like other Charlie Chaplin comedies, takes dramatic themes and finds the humor in them. Comedy, it is said, deals with the extremes. It exaggerates situations for comedic effect. "The Gold Rush" is a comedy which is in a constant conflict of extremes. Chaplin balances his movie between extreme danger and comedy, extreme poverty and comedy, heartache and comedy.

As "The Gold Rush" opens we see a row of men on an Alaskan trail in the mountains searching for gold. Although the movie was made in the mid-20s, a time of economic wealth in America, one cannot help but feel seeing a long line of desperate men struggling to survive as foreshadowing what was ahead by the end of the decade as men stood in bread lines waiting for food in a desperate attempt to survive. Is that the history of America? A history of the working class struggling to survive?

"The Gold Rush" contrast the image of men in a long line, climbing up a mountain peak with the Tramp (Chaplin) by himself, also out to discover gold in the Alaskan mountains. The little Tramp is braving the elements but as usual for him, he must face life alone. As the Tramp walks along a mountain cliff a bear follows him. The Tramp doesn't realize it but it establishes the concept of danger versus comedy, which runs nearly constantly through-out the movie.

The Tramp confronts two other gold prospectors, Black Larsen (Tom Murray) a man on the run from the law, and Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), who has discovered a huge gold mine. Larsen has found a log cabin to stay warm, which the Tramp happens to spot. Larsen doesn't want the Tramp to occupy the cabin and orders him to leave. Larsen opens the cabin door as a powerful burst of wind and snow blows onto the Tramp, who at this point is not able to move forward against the strong force of the wind.

Already the viewer can see the elements of danger surrounding the Tramp. Larsen himself is a threat. The brutal cold is a threat. The Tramp we learn is hungry and hasn't eaten. This lends itself to the most prominent theme in all of Charlie Chaplin's movies; hunger.

The strong wind however blows Big Jim into the cabin. He too is cold and hungry. Unlike the Tramp though, Larsen cannot boss Big Jim around and force him to leave. After a brief showdown between the two men, as they fight over control of a rifle, which no matter where the Tramp goes in the cabin, the rifle is always aimed in his direction, it is decided the three of them will stay in the cabin.

Eventually the food runs out and the weather has not let up. The three men are on the brink of starvation and are about to go delirious. Here we have extreme poverty versus comedy. As the men draw straws to determine who will face the elements to find food, Big Jim begins to imagine the Tramp is actually a human sized chicken and threaten his life in an effort to kill him and cook him. The Tramp pleads for his life, trying snap Big Jim to his senses. Here we see both extreme danger and extreme hunger played against comedy. In a compromise, and a desperate attempt to eat, the Tramp cooks one of his shoes for the both of them to eat.

This comedy sequence establishes what was so unique about Charlie Chaplin and his approach to comedy. This scene represents two men starving. They are so hungry, so desperate, that in order to survive one of the men actually cooks his own shoe for the both of them to eat. In another movie, made by another director, this could be heartbreaking. The lows people fall to. But no. Chaplin finds humor in this situation. He plays it out to the extremes. The little Tramp twirls his shoelace up like spaghetti and eats it. He carves his shoe as you would a Thanksgiving turkey. The audience laughs and may not think of the dramatic depths we are watching.

While preparing the shoe, the Tramp is handed a plate by Big Jim. The Tramp notices their is a speck of dirt on the plate and wipes it clean before placing the cooked shoe on it. It all happens quickly and audiences may not pay attention to the gesture however it is a revealing character trait of the Tramp character. The Tramp may be a tramp but he doesn't not view himself that way. The Tramp believes he is a gentleman. He may not wear nice clothes. He may not have a home, money or food but the Tramp has self-respect. While he may be hungry, he may be desperate, he may have cooked his own shoe and is about to eat it, he will not eat on a dirty plate. Some things are just not done!

Soon Chaplin's episodic tale of the search for gold becomes a more conventional boy meets girl romance when the Tramp notices a woman named Georgia (Georgia Hale) at a local dance hall. Georgia has caught the attention of Jack (Malcolm Waite), the local playboy. Although Georgia may act as if she is not interested in Jack, deep down the audience knows she welcomes the attention.

When the Tramp enters the hall you will notice the camera films the Tramp from behind. He is in the forefront while the locals are dancing in the background. This perfectly illustrates the concept of the Tramp as the outsider, the spectator, always watching society from a distance. So many people often feel the Tramp wanted to be an outsider. Audiences often compare and contrast the Tramp character to the Great Stoneface played by Buster Keaton and come to the assessment, Keaton was the active participant in society not the Tramp. This is not fair. The Tramp wants to participate in society. He wants to find love. He wants to be a gentleman. A person of respect. The problem is, society looks down on the little Tramp or often completely over looks him as the Georgia character initially does at the local dance hall.

The second half of the movie, which centers on the conventional romance, allows Charlie Chaplin to engage in what he is best known for; pathos. "The Gold Rush" begins to blend comedy and heartache. Chaplin has often been accused of wanting the audience to "love" his character, he accomplishes that in this movie. The difference is, I do not feel that is a flaw of Chaplin or the movie. The audience goes through moments of heartache and humiliation with the Tramp. He has gained all of our sympathy. We see how cruelly society, including Georgia, treats the Tramp based on his appearance.

If there is a problem with "The Gold Rush" I would contend there are two issues. One, the movie feels a bit too episodic. I find Charlie Chaplin usually has a better sense of story in his movies. There is not a strong plot. The first half of the movie is built around comedic set-pieces. Granted they are very funny set-pieces, but, if you were to ask people what their favorite moments of the movie are. you'll find they are individual sequences. There is the famous dance of the rolls, the cabin tilting side to side, the wind pushing against the Tramp, preventing him from leaving and the eating of the shoe. These sequences don't necessarily help progress the plot from point "A" to point "B".

The other problem with "The Gold Rush" is the Big Jim character. He does not appear constantly through-out the movie. You may even forget about his story and feel the movie has abandon him altogether only to find the character reappear and drop out again.

It has been said "The Gold Rush" was the movie Charlie Chaplin wanted to be remembered for. The movie is a comedy classic but, I am not sure I would call it Chaplin's "strongest" picture and the best representation of Chaplin and his Tramp character. I don't even believe it has his most memorable message. But, you cannot deny the movie has many funny sequences and remains one of Chaplin's most popular films. When the American Film Institute (AFI) conducted its list of the 100 greatest movies "The Gold Rush" made its list. It even ranked higher on AFI's 10 anniversary list and was included it their 100 funniest comedies list.

For all the praise one can (and should) throw at the movie it was also the result of a very bad time in Charlie Chaplin's personal life. Chaplin was married at the time and was going to cast his wife in the lead but Chaplin developed a relationship with Georgia Hale which caused his marriage to end and lead to a very bitter (and expensive) divorce settlement..

None of that should matter while watching "The Gold Rush" however. The movie does contain the usual balance between comedy and pathos you expect from Chaplin and really makes the audience care for the little Tramp character. I'm not sure if I would call "The Gold Rush" Chaplin's best movie but that is only because Chaplin is the greatest comedy filmmaker of all-time and has directed so many comedy masterpieces. Whether it is Chaplin's greatest film or not, make sure you see "The Gold Rush".

Monday, November 2, 2015

Film Review: The Court Jester

"The Court Jester"  *** (out of ****)

Danny Kaye makes a fool out of himself as "The Court Jester" (1956).

It may be my own prejudice but Danny Kaye comedies have not seemed to age well. You really don't hear anyone talk about Danny Kaye anymore. You never hear any comedian say Danny Kaye was an inspiration to them. Honestly, I'm not quite sure how to describe his screen persona to someone not familiar with him.

Danny Kaye wasn't really a comedian. He would be better described as an "entertainer". He could sing a little, dance little and he had a light-hearted nature to him which lent itself to comedic material. Singing and dancing was his strong suite. He could double-talk (speak in gibberish) and sing songs at a rapid speed. Almost comparable to Charlie Chaplin he had a balletic movement in his gestures. If I had to guess I would say Mr. Kaye must have been an admirer of the Ritz Brothers in particular Harry Ritz. The Ritz Brothers, a comedy team in the 1930s, were also known for their singing and dancing to comedic material.

"The Court Jester" is usually considered to be one of the better movies Mr. Kaye starred in and was listed on the American Film Institute's (AFI) list of the 100 best comedies. It is a kind of Robin Hood story mixed with religious undertones of a baby that is a royal heir and uncrowned king.

Danny Kaye stars as Hubert Hawkins, a one time carnival performer, that has joined forces with the Black Fox (Edward Ashley), a Robin Hood type who lives in the forest with his own merry men and claims to fight for justice. The Black Fox and his followers believe King Roderick (Cecil Parker) is not the rightful heir to the thrown. King Roderick is believed to have ordered the murder of all lineage to the thrown, except for an infant, who the Black Fox and his followers protect.

Hubert is not much of a fighter. The Black Fox keeps him around to entertain the men. But Hubert dreams of being a hero and fighting side by side with the Black Fox against King Roderick and his men. Hubert would also like to impress Jean (Glynis Johns), a captain among the group. In order to win Jean's heart Hubert believes he must show his bravery.

The Hubert character is your standard comedic character you may find Bob Hope or Woody Allen play. A well-meaning, timid, socially awkward man that secretly loves the pretty girl but she doesn't notice him. He lacks bravery but knows in order the win the hand of the pretty girl he must "prove" himself as masculine.

That opportunity will present itself when Hubert must disguise himself as a Court Jester in order to get close to King Roderick so the Black Fox and his men may attack the King by entering the caste through a secret passage.

This is a theme Danny Kaye comedies often deal with, mistaken identity. You will notice it in "The Inspector General" (1949), "Wonder Man" (1945), where he plays duel roles as twin brothers. You know the routine, one was good and the other was bad, and "On the Double" (1961).

There is a lot going on plot-wise in the movie. Hubert finds himself as part of a plot to assassinate the King, as Lord Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone) wants to overthrow the King and believes Hubert is an assassin he has hired. Meanwhile the King's daughter, Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury) believes Hubert is the great love her maid (Mildred Natwick), who is also a witch, has spoken to her of. In order to protect her life the maid hypnotizes Hubert into believing he is in love with Gwendolyn.

There are plenty of moments when "The Court Jester" resembles a bedroom farce with characters running in and out of bedrooms, planning secret get-a-ways. Unfortunately there is also a lot of singing and dancing which is not needed and interrupts the flow of the movie. At one hour and 41 minutes "The Court Jester" feels long.

For whatever reason several comedians have starred in period pieces. The appeal was supposed to be the contrast of the "modern" comedian in a historical setting which allows for anachronistic humor. This may also allow for satirical social observations. "The Court Jester" reminds me of a Bob Hope comedy like "Casanova's Big Night" (1954). This could be explained by the fact "The Court Jester" was co-written and co-directed by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama. Together the two men wrote several Bob Hope comedies such as "Monsieur Beaucaire" (1946) and "Road to Utopia" (1945) as well as other Danny Kaye comedies like "Knock on Wood" (1954).

However one must admit "The Court Jester" does have some entertaining moments which allow Mr. Kaye to shine in certain sequences. While I don't care for a large majority of the songs Mr. Kaye performs an exuberant number called "The Maladjuster Jester" but it is the verbal gags that I enjoy the most. The most famous may be the "Pellet with the Poison" routine as Hubert tries to remember which cup has poison in it so he doesn't drink it.

It is not only Mr. Kaye though that is fun to watch. The movie has a fairly good cast. The appearance of Basil Rathbone should be especially noted. Since elements of the movie do resemble the Robin Hood legend, the casting of Mr. Rathbone serves almost as an "in joke". Basil Rathbone was also in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938) which starred Errol Flynn in the title role. Mr. Rathbone played a similar role in that movie as the right hand man of Prince John. "The Court Jester" also has fencing scenes between Basil Rathbone and Danny Kaye. Mr. Rathbone was an accomplished fencer in real life. You can also see Mr. Rathbone show off his fencing skills in "The Mark of Zorro" (1940).

If you are not familiar with Danny Kaye "The Court Jester" may serve as a good introduction into what made him popular at one time. The movie is funny and does have some very good verbal gags and physical comedy sequences which make up for the so-so songs. Although I feel the movie goes on a bit too long I'd still recommend seeing "The Court Jester".

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Film Review: Dr. No

"Dr. No"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Have no fear, James Bond is here in "Dr. No" (1962).

"Dr. No" was the first theatrical released feature-length film adaptation based on novelist Ian Fleming's British secret service agent, 007 James Bond (there was a made for television adaptation of "Casino Royal" made in 1954). The novels were published between 1953 - 1966 (two years after Mr. Fleming's death). "Dr. No" was actually the sixth novel published in the series. The first was "Casino Royale".

In anticipation of the upcoming James Bond adventure, "Spectre" (2015), starring Daniel Craig, I thought it would be a good idea and go back to the original. Watching "Dr. No" I actually did something I normally don't do watching a James Bond movie. I sat in excitement. There is an intensity to "Dr. No". You wonder who is this mysterious doctor? Will James Bond (Sean Connery) be able to find him? Will Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman) kill him? Nowadays viewers don't think about such things. James Bond is a larger than life figure. Of course James Bond will save the day and live to have his story told in another adventure. But when "Dr. No" was released audiences may not have known 23 more films would follow. That is what sets "Dr. No" apart from the rest of the movies. "Dr. No" is actually a good spy thriller.

A British secret service agent, Strangways (Timothy Moxon), stationed in Jamaica, is murdered. When news reaches London, secret agent James Bond, is informed by his superior, M (Bernard Lee), he must go to Jamaica and investigate.

We learn Strangways was working with the American CIA on a case involving the disruption of rocket launches. Is this why Strangways was killed? What could Strangways have discovered that would be considered a threat? The answer may have to do with an island called Crab Key and a mysterious man known as Dr. No.

Getting to Crab Key though won't be easy. Dr. No does not allow anyone onto the island. In an attempt to keep visitors off there is a local legend a dragon occupies the island.

James Bond learns one of the CIA operatives Strangway was working with was Felix Leiter (Jack Lord, many years before he would star on the television series "Hawaii Five-O") and a local fisherman known as Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), who once took Strangway to Crab Key to collect rocks, sand and water for testing. Bond learns the rocks are radioactive and would like Quarrel to take him to Crab Key. It is one the island of Crab Key viewers are introduced to the first "Bond girl", Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), who is on the island to collect sea shells and finds herself involved in the game between Dr. No and James Bond.

There may be some younger movie fans that will feel "Dr. No" is too simple. There aren't enough fight scenes or explosions. How sad that this is what people need in order to be entertained. However it would seem the objective of "Dr. No" is to introduce the character of James Bond to the audience and show his style and approach to solving cases. The movie gets the point across that Bond enjoys the company of beautiful women, likes his martini shaken, not stirred, wears tailor-made suits and when the situation calls for it, can be deadly. It is true there are no high-tech gadgets or Aston Martins to drive but "Dr. No" is more about the personality of James Bond than anything else.

"Dr. No" also establishes the way James Bond uses women. I believe audiences largely misinterpret Bonds encounters with women. So many believe the character is sex obsessed and spends the large majority of his time chasing after or sleeping with women. That is not entirely true. Bond manipulates women into believing he is interested in them to extort any and all information he can out of them. Bond uses sex appeal the same way a femme fatale does. Pay attention to the scenes involving Miss Taro (Zena Marshall) she is a secretary at an government building but is actually a spy working for Dr. No. Bond knows this but still makes a pass at her and suggest they go out for dinner. There is a method to his madness. Bond is not distracted by a beautiful woman. Bond only allows the beautiful woman to think he is distracted. Notice, in every Bond movie, James Bond's charm does not work on the male characters only the female characters.

It is interesting to study Sean Connery's approach to the character. Mr. Connery seems to be taking the role rather serious and does not allow the subtle hints of a playful comic nature to dominate his interpretation of the character as some viewers may expect. Especially in the later movies when Roger Moore played the character. Mr. Connery portrays the character as an action star and at the same time makes the character appear to be somewhat believable. There is still time for a wise-crack or two but not many. The James Bond presented here is focused on his mission, with few disturbances.

The movie was directed by Terence Young, who would be brought back to direct two more Bond movies, "From Russia With Love" (1963) and "Thunderball" (1965), both starring Sean Connery. Young set the formula for future Bond movies. He keeps the story moving along at a good pace and allows the movie to have hints of playfulness and sexuality.

I don't know if I would call "Dr. No" the best of all the Bond movies but "Dr. No" certainly ranks among the all-time best. Watching "Dr. No" again, in some respects, I prefer it over the much more popular "Goldfinger" (1964), which is often considered to have set the standard of what a Bond movie should be. "Dr. No" gives it a run for its money.

If all you know is Daniel Craig as James Bond, watch "Dr. No" and see how James Bond is supposed to be played.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Film Review: Bridge of Spies

"Bridge of Spies"  *** (out of ****)

Steven Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies" (2015) is two movies in one. One half of the movie is a commentary on American morality and our belief we have moral authority over the world and the importance of due process. The second half of the movie is rather conventional spy fluff.

If only "Bridge of Spies" would have focused on the issues in the first half I might have considered it one of the year's best films.

Walking into "Bridge of Spies" I wasn't exactly sure what to expect. I thought it was going to be an intense Cold War spy thriller and then we get this commentary on due process and civil liberties and American hypocrisy regarding these issues. For a while I thought to myself, Steven Spielberg is becoming the moral, liberal conscience of this country! But then "Bridge of Spies" backs away from this point and Mr. Spielberg goes back to the idea of Americanism prominent in "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), which shows Americans are brave heroes that always do the right thing, which is what made the first half of this movie so remarkable to me. Mr. Spielberg was showing the dirt under the carpet.

Tom Hanks stars as James B. Donovan, an attorney that deals mostly with insurance claims. He is asked by the U.S. government to defend a man believed to be a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Initially Donovan is reluctant to take on the case. He does not want the bad press. He is worried about what the community and the nation will say about him for defending a Soviet spy in court. But, the U.S. government is determined to show the world in America everyone is entitled to due process. And so Donovan agrees as he sees this to be his patriotic duty.

Upon taking the case all of Donovan's fears have come true. People look at him with suspicion. Why defend a spy? A Soviet spy nonetheless. Everyone, the government and the public, believes the man is guilty and a trial is pointless but Donovan sees it as his duty to provide the best legal counsel he can. Slowly he begins to notice from the judge presiding over the case to the American public that no one wants to give this man a fair trial. The whole legal system is a farce. It is pretend. This is all being done so the public can see a trial was given, a defense was provided and Abel was found guilty. However Donovan learns the government never had a search warrant, the judge will not allow a continuance so Donovan may build a case, the government wants Donovan to revoke his attorney / client privilege and inform them of what Abel says.

This should generate with the American public. Our society has had to deal with these issues since September 11, 2001. Should those that were responsible for those attacks be given a trial? Many Americans felt they shouldn't. Should those in Guantanamo Bay be given a trial and for that matter, many there haven't even been charge with anything. Many Americans feel they are not entitled to a trial. Should the Boston bomber have been given a trial and any other individual responsible for such acts? Many Americans feel the answer is no. Society talks about innocent until proven guilty and due process but those are just words, right? There are limitations, right? Not all people are entitled to civil liberties, right? It is this asinine hypocrisy that Mr.Spielberg is pointing a finger at. Americans believe they are exceptional, Americans believe in their moral authority, but, you know what? Doing the right thing is a burden sometimes. It is too difficult. Why go to all that trouble? Lets just say and feel we are great and not live by our words. That is so much easier and then we can all have time to do nothing and watch television, okay?

You wouldn't expect a message like this from Steven Spielberg. Mr. Spielberg always seemed so safe to me politically. He made movies where the Nazis were the bad guys. That's not daring. But then Mr. Spielberg started taking more chances. He started making bold movies. "Munich" (2005) argued violence will only lead to more violence, as the Iraq war was being fought. Not to mention Jewish groups were angry with him for this message. "Lincoln" (2012) showed a dirty side to politics and how sometimes great men have to bend the rules to reach their goals. Now comes "Bridge of Spies" with its indictment against American hypocrisy on civil liberties.

But, Mr. Spielberg can't help himself and he reverts back to his old ways. This is when we enter the second half of the movie. A U.S. pilot (Austin Stowell), working as a spy for the C.I.A. is captured to sentenced to prison. The pilot was given orders to kill himself if he believed he would be captured when he did not do that the U.S. government would like to arrange an exchange between the pilot and Abel. Once again Donovan is brought into the circle and asked to negotiate the exchange.

Plot-wise this makes a lot of sense. The audience has seen Donovan argue on behalf of a Soviet spy for an hour. You can't leave the audience with that. You have to make some effort to show Donovan is an American. You must show him actively participating the defend an American solider to help balance his behavior and show the audience all Donovan cares about is doing the right thing.

Unfortunately this part of the movie is not as interesting as the first half. It goes into standard spy cliches and has less of a voice. What is "Bridge of Spies" telling us now? From this point forward there is nothing new and / or fresh "Bridge of Spies" has to add to this genre.

"Bridge of Spies" is a well made movie. Steven Spielberg knows his craft. Tom Hanks is a very good actor. He fleshes out Donovan and makes him a man the audience can respect and presents his emotions and logic in a realistic fashion. We would like to believe men like Donovan exist in today's world.

What is surprisingly missing is a overwhelming feeling of sentimentality. That is unusual for Mr. Spielberg. There is an attempt by the end of the movie but by that point it is too late. The audience may like the idea of the characters and what they present but emotionally I was never completely involved. I sat back and watched what was going on but didn't feel like an activate participant.

This may be explained by the fact Joel & Ethan Coen had a hand in the movie's screenplay. I don't normally warm up to any character in any of their movies. They are also not known for sentimentally in their movies. They have a very pessimistic view of society, which can be seen in any number of their movies. This creates an interesting clash of styles between the Coen Brothers and Spielberg.

Audiences should see "Bridge of Spies". I wouldn't be surprised if the movie earns several Academy Award nominations but "Bridge of Spies" is not Steven Spielberg at his best. It is a decent, well made movie with a very good performance given by Tom Hanks with a strong social conscience in the first half. But then "Bridge of Spies" falls into standard spy material, despite the fact it is based on real events.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Film Review: Young Frankenstein

"Young Frankenstein"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks bring the comedy / horror genre back to life in "Young Frankenstein" (1974).

What first and foremost allows "Young Frankenstein" to succeed as a motion picture is the fact both Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks have respect for the source material. Only because they present the Frankenstein story properly and follow it closely does "Young Frankenstein" work as a whole and is a prime example of how to make a comedy / horror movie.

"Young Frankenstein" understands you need to have a balancing act between the comedy and horror. You need to work within the confines of the horror genre and gently poke fun at it. If you don't treat the horror part somewhat seriously and play into the now standard horror cliches then what you have is an entire movie that is a joke and seems silly and childish.

It has been said, by Gene Wilder nonetheless, that going into pre-production for "Young
Frankenstein", Mr. Wilder did not want this movie to be another typical Mel Brooks comedy, meaning vulgar sex jokes and a comedic style which throws 50 jokes at a dart board in the hopes one of them will hit the bullseye. Mr. Wilder even told Mel Brooks he did not want him to appear in the movie. Mr. Brooks, wanting to be like Alfred Hitchcock, used to write small cameos for himself in his previous movies; "The Twelve Chairs" (1970) and "Blazing Saddles" (1974).

"Young Frankenstein" follows the Gene Wilder approach to comedy moreso than the Mel Brooks approach. The "Wilder style" is to take your time to explain the plot and the jokes will come later. Mr. Wilder feels once you get the basic plot points out to the audience then you can tell a joke. Pay attention to the structure of "Young Frankenstein". Events and situations are introduced and then comes the punchline. While the style is not typical for Mr. Brooks "Young Frankenstein" however is able to get many laughs and create several funny sequences.

Mel Brooks often gets a bad rap. When people think of a "Mel Brooks comedy" no one thinks of what goes into it. Very few people give Mr. Brooks credit as a talented filmmaker and an artist. I guess it is difficult to think of someone as an artist when they put fart jokes into their movies but "Young Frankenstein" is a "mature" movie. The movie does display Mr. Brooks' ability as a director. He knows where to put his camera. He understands the fundamentals of filmmaking. If you believe all Mel Brooks can do is make a movie where a guy punches a horse watch "Young Frankenstein" and you will see there is more to the man than that.

The main sources of inspiration for "Young Frankenstein", besides Mary Shelley's novel "Frankenstein", are the Universal Studio 1930s horror movies in particular "Frankenstein" (1931), "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) and the lesser known "Son of Frankenstein" (1939). It is mainly "Frankenstein" and "Son of Frankenstein" which Mr. Brooks and Mr. Wilder target.

Although it is not required that someone be well acquainted with the earlier "Frankenstein" movies to enjoy "Young Frankenstein" I believe, as is the case with most spoofs and the movies of Mr. Brooks, the more familiar you are with the source material the funnier you will find Mr. Brooks' movies. If only because you will be able to tell how Mr. Brooks is making fun of the original. You will have a reference point. For example, when I first saw "High Anxiety" (1977) I laughed but I wasn't terribly familiar with the work of Alfred Hitchcock, it wasn't until I saw more of Mr. Hitchcock's movies that I was able to see how clever "High Anxiety" is and the many ways the movie incorporates different Hitchcock movies together.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder) learns he has inherited the estate of his grandfather Dr. Victor Frankenstein (in the original movie his name is Henry Frankenstein) and must travel to Transylvania to claim it. Frederick though has tried to distance himself from his famous grandfather and his work, going as far as saying his last name is pronounced Fronk-en-steen and dismissing the very notion that it is possible to bring dead tissue back to life.

When arriving in Transylvania Frederick is greeted by Igor (Marty Feldman) and Inga (Terri Garr), both of whom will serve as his assistants, and taken to the Frankenstein Castle where the three of them meet the housekeeper Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman).

The arrival of Frederick causes suspicion among the townspeople who worry Frederick will follow in his grandfather's footsteps and create another monster. Of course, they are right to be suspicious. After reading his grandfather's manual entitled "How I Did It", Frederick begins to believe his grandfather was right. It is possible to create life. This allows for the introduction of the character Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) whom the townspeople ask to meet with Frederick and inquire about his intentions.

While "Young Frankenstein" may seem to take a slower approach than is usual for Mr. Brooks audiences need to keep their eyes open for all the subtle gags flowing through-out the picture. Pay attention to the moment Frau Blucher greets Frederick, Igor and Inga. She is holding a candelabra and ask the three of them to stay close to her as they walk up a staircase. If you are paying attention you will notice not one of the candles in the candelabra is lit! If you look closely at the Monster (Peter Boyle) you will notice he has a zipper on the side of his neck instead of stitches. When Frederick is attempting to generate life into the Monster he ask Igor to pull three switches. The third switch is labeled "the works". Finally as Frederick arrives in Transylvania he spots a shoeshine boy and says "pardon me boy, is this the Transylvania station?" To which the boy replies "ja, ja, track 29. Oh, can I give you a shine?" These are actually lyrics to a song "Chattanooga Choo Choo" made popular by bandleader Glenn Miller.

Another reason why "Young Frankenstein" works is because the actors are playing it straight. There is very little of performers "winking at the camera". Gene Wilder possesses a cool demeanor as he seems to be channeling Basil Rathbone, who starred in "Son of Frankenstein". Mr. Wilder never goes in for the obvious laugh. Only Marty Feldman I would dare say is visibly having a good time and wants the audience to know he is in on the joke. He may be the character children respond to most. Mr. Feldman and Mr. Wilder do have a good amount of chemistry in their scenes together. The contrast of their styles works to their advantage.

The movie was nominated for two Academy Awards; best sound and best adapted screenplay (Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks) unfortunately though the cinematography was not nominated. "Young Frankenstein" also remains one of Mel Brooks' most popular movies and is routinely listed among the funniest comedies of all-time.

"Young Frankenstein" is a showcase of Mr. Brooks' talents as a filmmaker. The movie shows restraint but is still able to produce big laughs.The jokes generate from the characters and grow from the plot, not bombastic, out of left field, breaking the fourth wall kind of jokes.