Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Film Review: Scrooge (A Christmas Carol)

"Scrooge"  *** (out of ****)

Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" is a very familiar story yet it is one of the few stories that manages to "get me" every time. I have seen various adaptations of the story over the years, from "Mickey's Christmas Carol" (1983), live stage productions, here in Chicago it is a Chicago tradition to see the Goodman Theater's production during the Christmas season, to various film adaptations. And, no matter the adaptation, the story always brings me to tears.

Number one, it is not often I admit that and number two it is not often to come across a story that can do that. No matter how many times I see this story, it has that strong emotional effect on me. It would see to me, there just isn't any way you can get this story wrong. It is too good.

What effects me, and I would imagine effects others as well, is the message of the story. To show goodness and kindness towards man. Not just during Christmas but throughout the year. Life may deal us some serious blows, without question life is a miserable experience, a grueling struggle, but we cannot allow ourselves to become so jaded that hatred fills our hearts. Greed and corruption mustn't consume us (we aren't politicians after all). We must live a life of dignity and generosity.

Most American movie critics (sheep) and the public like to refer to this British adaptation as the definitive screen version. Released in Britain under the title "Scrooge" in 1951, it was released in the U.S. under the title "A Christmas Carol". Actually I am not as familiar with this version as I am the 1938 screen adaptation starring Reginald Owen. That was the version we would watch growing up. It was my late grandmother's favorite movie. She would watch it any time of the year. It became part of our Christmas tradition.

Nearly everyone should, on some level, be familiar with this classic Dickens story, so, I won't go into much detail over the plot. Instead I'll just focus on observations.

Initially the viewer notices the approach actor Alastair Sim has taken in his role of Ebenezer Scrooge. Sim, who was a well known character actor in British cinema, gives the character a bit of a comic, sardonic edge. Sim and director, Brian Desmond Hurst, try to find the comedic nature in the miserable old man. After Scrooge is met by the spirits does Sim give a more dramatic performance and by the end of the movie reverts back to a comical nature.

Something that really stuck out to me, and I am not sure why I hadn't noticed it before, is the lack of Liberal, secular Christmas symbols. There is no Santa Claus, no Frosty the Snowman. There is a moment when one of the spirits mentions a baby born in Bethlehem, of course a reference to Jesus Christ, which is suppose to be what Christmas is about, before retailers got their hands on it.

A lot of people mention the "dark nature" of this movie. They believe it is more mature than other adaptations. They believe it is more in-depth. I don't quite agree, but, I'm normally someone that doesn't follow the masses, so, I'm not the best barometer of public opinion.

"Scrooge" is a fine movie. As I say, it is difficult to not find the humanity in this story. The story is what carries each and every adaptation through.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Film Review: Eyes Wide Shut

"Eyes Wide Shut"  **** (out of ****)

Dreams. Fantasies. Sex. Jealousy. Temptation. Kubrick.

That about sums up Stanley Kubrick's misunderstood and sadly neglected masterpiece, "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999), which unfortunately turned out to be the director's final film.

The first time I saw "Eyes Wide Shut" I was 16 years old. The movie was still playing in theatres. Like many people at the time I was aware of the controversies surrounding the picture. Some suggested starring in this movie is what lead Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to get divorced. Others mentioned the film's initial NC-17 rating and edits which were made to secure a R rating. The movie holds the honor of having the longest continuous film shoot, 400 days and finally, Kubrick died prior to the film's release.

At it's time of release the sheep (movie critics) and the public could do little but talk about the erotic nature of the movie. They could do little but speculate on the effects the movie may have had on Cruise's and Kidman's marriage and people couldn't help but talk about the movie's initial NC-17 rating and the un-cut version which was going to be released in Europe. But, notice how no one paid attention to the movie itself. Few people tried to meet the movie half-way and attempt to interpret it, to understand what was Mr. Kubrick trying to tell us. What was the message being conveyed?

As a result, at best, "Eyes Wide Shut" has a mixed reputation. The 15 years which have followed after the film's release have not done much, in the circles I travel, to ease the movie's stigma as a cheap, vulgar, pornographic film.

"Eyes Wide Shut" was my first brush with Stanley Kubrick. As I sat in the movie theatre I was amazed. The music, the camera movements, the subject matter. At the time I said it was the best movie of 1999. I hadn't seen the movie again until recently, for this review. A total of 15 years passed and all I had to judge the movie on were my memories, which were still vivid and enthusiastic. I remembered my reaction to various scenes in the movie. I remembered the overall mood in the theatre. It was a fresh experience for me and afterwards I made sure I would see every movie Mr. Kubrick directed.

Watching "Eyes Wide Shut" again I was not filled the wide eye fascination I once was. Perhaps that's to be expected. But, I believe I understand deeper into the movie than I did at first viewing. "Eyes Wide Shut" now strikes me as a battle between the sexes. The fragility of marriage or relationships. The mind games genders play against each other.

The very first image we see in "Eyes Wide Shut" is as the opening credits play. The credits cut to an image of Nicole Kidman's backside. She takes off a dress and we see her standing naked in her bedroom. Then the credits continue. From this first image the viewer knows the movie is going to be about sex. However, I want to make it clear, this is not a pornographic film. Characters talk about sex, think about sex, fantasize about sex but no one actually has sex. Yes, there is the famous secret society orgy sequence, but, even there the camera is moving. We are seeing various acts. We aren't focuses on any one in particular except Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise), who does not belong there.

The movie is about sex. Yes, that is true. But, it is not about the physical act of sex. It is about how we use sex to our advantage or disadvantage.

My main thrust of the movie concerns Bill and his wife Alice (Kidman) smoking marijuana discussing a Christmas party they have attended the night before. While at the party the two were separated most of the night conversing with other guest. Soon their conversation turns to the subject of fidelity, jealousy and the nature of men and women.

During the conversation Bill admits he is not the jealous type. He trust his wife because he believes in the false stereotype society has perpetuated on us that women are more faithful. They want security and commitment, whereas men, by their nature have a desire to sleep with as many women as possible.

Alice is offended by Bill's remark, because, as she points out, that would mean the only reason Bill would not cheat on his wife is out of consideration for her not because he wouldn't want to.

As the conversation becomes more and more heated, Alice makes a revelation. The prior year, when on a Summer vacation, Alice fantasied about a navy officer she saw at a hotel they stood at. With this, Bill becomes racked with jealousy. He is obsessed with the idea his wife would actually cheat on him. He has a constant image in his head of his wife with another man, while his hands are all over her body.

In retaliation for this confession, Bill decides he too will succumb to temptation. If his wife thought about sleeping with another man, Bill will actually take that next step and will sleep with another woman. This, in his mind, will even the score. And so he sets out on a sexual odyssey, walking the street of New York, finding temptation all around him.

What is interesting however in Alice's confession, is why does she say what she does? A year has passed. She has kept this secret to herself all this time. The reason, one can assume, she finally confesses this secret fantasy is because she is mad at Bill. She deliberately wants to make Bill jealous. She wants a reaction out of him. And, thus, I feel we are exploring the fragility of marriage and relationships. One word, one action, one moment can change everything. It is that fine a line we are walking on when we are with someone. Alice wanted to hurt Bill and she succeeded. That is the power people close to us can have on us. There is the old, asinine saying "words can never hurt us". I don't know what numb skull came up with this saying, but, words can have a devastating effect on our mood and behavior.

Of course, one has to also consider, what if Alice is making this all up? Out of anger. Out of a feeling of neglect. This could be because in a sequence prior to attending the Christmas party, Alice asks Bill, how does she look. Bill says fine. Alice asks how is her hair. Bill says fine. Then Alice tells him, you aren't even looking at me. Has Bill taken Alice for granted? Does he not notice her any longer? What bothers him most about Alice's confession? Is he feeling betrayed that he could have lost the love of his life or is his ego hurt?

And if Alice did make up the story to hurt Bill, doesn't that comment on the power struggle relationships truly are? Someone always has to be in the vulnerable position while the other is in control. From the moment two people meet until the end of their relationship, everything is about power. A man approaches a woman and introduces himself. He is in a vulnerable position. The woman has all the power in this moment. She may either accept or reject his invitation. Sex is all about power. Women can manipulate men with sex by denying them it or engaging in it. Sex is rarely just sex. We may not like to think about these things in such stark terms but isn't that just too bad? Sometimes we have to face the ugly nature of things.

Other sequences which elaborate on the movie's themes is the first opening Christmas party sequence being held by Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) and his wife Illona (Leslie Lowe). At the party we see well dressed, wealthy people talking among each other. There are three instances when the viewer is able to get a better understanding of what exactly these people are doing and saying to each other.

The first instance deals with Alice Harford. She is waiting for her husband at a bar, having a drink. A man standing next to her notices her and introduces himself. "My name is Sandor Szavost. I'm Hungarian" he says. From that moment Sandor (Sky du Mont) and Alice dance. And, as they dance, there is heavy flirtation. Sandor wants to sleep with Alice. She tells him she is married but that doesn't stop Sandor. They will continue this flirtation dance. And isn't that what flirtation is? A dance? Two people, generally mostly the man, moving around trying to verbally gauge if the woman in front of him is interested.

The second instance shows Bill with two young models. They too are engaged in a heavy flirtation. The two models want to take Bill where "the rainbow ends" and the viewer can only guess what that implies. Though we know if Alice finds out, she might kill the three of them.

The last instance at the Christmas party deals with Victor. He has been with a prostitute (Julienne Davis) in his bathroom. She has overdosed. Victor has secretly called Bill to help with the situation.

So, our nice little Christmas party with educated, well dressed, wealthy people, has now turned into something else. These people only think and talk about sex. Everyone is pretending to be something else. Their nice clothes are a facade. Their self-imposed intelligence is false. When it comes down to it all they are interested in is sex.

Now lets contrast this scene with the secret society orgy sequence. Here everyone is dressed in masks and wearing costumes. The few times we hear characters speak, they seem well-spoken. Could we perhaps be dealing with the same crowd as the Ziegler's Christmas party? The similarity is everyone is still hiding who they are. At the Christmas party the guest want to appear dignified so they wear nice clothes and are well-spoken but that does not represent their true self. They hide behind these things. Their nice clothes are in fact costumes. One person nearly died at the party and there was an attempt to sweep that under the rug. At the secret society party the people are still in disguise and they engage in the same activities they wanted to at the Christmas party.

I suppose the point behind both party scenes are, people and/or events are not what they seem. There is always a mask or a pretense in society. Bill meets an old medical school friend, Nick Nightingale (Todd Field) who dropped out of medical school and is now a jazz pianist. A piano player that studied medicine. Things aren't what they seem. Bill meets a costume shop owner that pimps his daughter. Things aren't what they seem. At the orgy party, a woman makes a sacrifice to protect Bill. But was it real or staged? Things aren't what they seem.

Like other Kubrick films; "Full Metal Jacket" (1987), "The Shining" (1980) and "A Clockwork Orange" (1973), "Eyes Wide Shut" is a movie about the mind, about the effects extreme situations have on us mentality, whether it is a drill Sargent verbally berating us, an old hotel taking possession of our mind or how far jealousy can drive us.

The mind is delicate. Individuals can drive themselves to obsession. We can be our own worst enemies.

"Eyes Wide Shut" requires multiple viewings. It has a lot to say. More than I have written about. It has ideas and makes a commentary. It is not a "dirty" movie. I hope with time audiences come back to this movie. As the years have passed the sensationalism of the backstage controversies will also fade. Then audiences will just judge the movie not its surroundings. I hope that day comes soon.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Film Review: Santa Claus: The Movie

"Santa Claus: The Movie"  ** (out of ****)

You better watch out, you better not cry, because if you do, I'll make you watch "Santa Claus: The Movie" (1985) then you'll really have something to cry about!

As I sat down watching "Santa Claus: The Movie" I simply couldn't believe how mis-guided and ill-conceived this movie is. The movie lacks joy and wonderment. There is no sense we are watching something magical and there is no significant plot.

"Santa Claus:The Movie" initially present itself as the story of Santa Claus. It explains the origins of how the man the world has come to know as Santa Claus came to be.

The movie takes place centuries ago as a heavy set man, with a white beard named Claus (David Huddleston), along with his wife Anya (Judy Cornwell) and their two reindeer, Donner and Blizten, deliver toys to children from a small village. We learn from one set of children, who call him Uncle Claus, though we are not sure if they are actual relations, that Claus and Anya have been doing this for years. Their gift giving has come to be expected on Christmas.

We hear a story the townsfolk have passed along involving a land at the top of the world that can only be seen at special moments, when the stars fill the sky and a giant bright star burst an elves or as they are called in this movie, vendegums, appear.

One Christmas Eve there is a terrible blizzard. It is not advised for Claus and Anya to travel around the village, but Claus insist. As they travel on, the snow and freezing weather take their effect on the reindeer, who simply can't go on. Stranded in the wilderness, alone, Claus and Anya huddle together for warmth in their sleigh, while Donner and Blizten, lay in the snow, freezing to death. And soon, it seems, so will Claus and Anya. Just when the weather turns for the worst, a giant star appears and burst and elves appear and approach Claus.

We slowly learn Claus is part of a prophecy, which gives the movie a religious feel. It is as if the filmmakers are turning Santa Claus into a Jesus like figure. The elves have been waiting for him. They have created a workshop and have made hundreds of toys. They have flying reindeer too to help Claus deliver toys, not just to children in the small village but to children all over the world, in a single night, Christmas Eve.

Claus and Anya are a bit perplexed at first and do not understand. And to be honest, neither does the viewer. Very little is explained. The viewer sense where all of this is going. We see the elves create a red suit for Claus, his is renamed Santa Claus. Their is discussion that naughty children will not receive toys and the elves, the keeper of a list separating children into naughty or nice categories, better watch out, because Santa Claus will be checking the list twice.

In the moments when the workshop is revealed to us and we see all the elves, it looks like more than a hundred of them exist, all I could think of was, these elves remind me of the seven dwarfs and I kept thinking of Babes in Toyland.

What I also thought during these moments is the movie is lifeless and lacks a spectacular feeling. I mean, we are seeing the North Pole and Santa's Workshop, and it all seems so ho-hum. The music, the cinematography, the effects, none of it puts us in the mood and fills our hearts with joy. We aren't excited seeing any of this.

And though I mentioned the seven dwarfs, those guys at least had personalities and their names defined their character traits. The elves in this movie aren't so lucky. None of the characters have distinct personalities. The only elf that is suppose to be any sort of developed character is Patch (Dudley Moore) the progressive inventor of the group. He has conceived such things as the alarm clock, the kettle and plumbing.

The centuries past until we reach the 20th century, as the movie mainly takes place in New York. We learn of a homeless boy, Joe (Christian Fitzpatrick) and a wealthy young girl, Corneila (Carrie Kei Heim) and her uncle, a mean (we can tell this because he smokes a cigar) toymaker, B.Z. (John Lithgow). These characters appear in the movie after an hour. The total running time of the movie is one hour and forty-eight minutes, and that includes credits. That is too long to introduce these characters.

Santa and Patch have a misunderstanding when Patch's latest invention, the assembly lines, creates unsafe toys, which fall apart, as an unknowing Santa delivers them, causing children to denounce Santa's toymanship abilities (the horror!). As a result of these actions, Patch leaves the North Pole and heads to New York and meets with B.Z. as the two will use Santa's methods of toymaking to compete with him for the affection of children and as far as B.Z. is concerned, he will make a lot of money.

The scenes with Joe, as far as I can tell, serve no other function than product placement. In one scene a hungry Joe walks around the street on Christmas Eve only to stare hungrily inside a McDonald's window, as he sees happy families eating big macs. This kind of scene is usually done as the homeless person walks pass an expensive restaurant while the wealthy people inside sip Chardonnay and laugh adoringly at each other, not noticing the hungry person standing outside staring at them through the giant glass window. But never have I seen a scene like this done with big macs. Exactly how much money did McDonald's pay to get to advertise in this movie?

In another scene with Joe, he stands outside the home of Corneila, who notices the hungry Joe. She prepares a plate of food for him but don't worry, in order to wash down all that food, she has given him a lovely, refreshing can of coca-cola, which is displayed prominently in both of their hands. In fact if you pay attention closely, you can see they use different cans. When the can is shot by itself, not being held, you see the letters 'coke' in bold white letters written on the red can. However, when Joe holds the can in his hand, as he drinks it, you see in smaller white letters 'coca-cola' is written. This is because consumers identify a red can with white lettering to be coca-cola, it is subliminal messaging. so there is no need to get a close up of the words written on the can when Joe is drinking it. But, when the can is by itself and you want to place emphasis on the brand, the larger, white bolder letters just saying 'coke' is used.

All of the dialogue in this movie is poorly written. It doesn't sound natural. The acting is over the top. The characters aren't fully dimensional people. There is little conflict and the point of the movie takes too long to establish itself.

Want to see a better movie on the origins of Santa Claus? Watch the classic animated movie "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" (1970) with the voices of Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney as Santa Claus or watch the more modern "The Santa Claus" (1994) with Tim Allen.

One terrible, twisted thought, that came in my head as I watched this movie, is what if this is all a dream sequence. Claus and Anya were about to die in the blizzard before the elves came. What if all the events that follow were part of Claus's dream and represent the things we would have liked to accomplish?

"Santa Claus: The Movie" doesn't strike me as a popular movie. I never hear anyone talk about it. I remember once seeing it on TV when I was a child. My nieces and nephews never heard of it. I hope it is something of a cult classic that the mainstream has forgotten about. Little children shouldn't have to sit through this movie. Childhood is bad enough.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Film Review: A.I. Artificial Intelligence

"A.I. Artificial Intelligence"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

In order to discuss "A.I." (2001) I feel we should start at 1999. That was the year the legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick passed away. "A.I." had been a project Kubrick was developing for more than a decade. The project never came to be because Kubrick felt no human could play the lead role believably. Instead he wanted to use CGI (computer generated imagery). However, Kubrick did release a movie in 1999, "Eyes Wide Shut" starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (whom at the time were married). Kubrick died prior to the film's release.

Unfortunately "Eyes Wide Shut" opened to mixed reviews. Some failed to see any artistic merit in Kubrick's film and thought it was nothing more than a kinky, fetish film. I, on the other hand, declared the movie, the best film of the year. I even named it one of the best films of the 1990s. Still, others felt it was not a worthy film be to Kubrick's last on-screen vision.

Prior to his death, some sources say, going as far back as 1995, Kubrick passed along his "A.I." story to Steven Spielberg. Now, with Kubrick's death, there was a renewed interest in the work of Kubrick, retrospectives and such. Spielberg could now sell the movie as, the picture Kubrick never got to make. If the movie was done successfully it would give the public and the sheep (movie critics) one more opportunity to praise Stanley Kubrick.

The movie is based on a short story by Brian Aldiss entitled "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" but some differences do exist as the movie also uses aspects of Pinocchio for inspiration. The story takes place late in the 21st century. Due to global warming the world as we know it does not exist. Flooding has submerged parts of the world. New York, for example, is now a fabled underwater city. Also, there has been a drop in the human population because of the government being involved in population control.

The original source material dealt with human loneliness in a world of intelligent machines and how humans use these machines as a source of companionship. I'm not sure what was going on in 1969, when this story was published, but what a commentary it makes on today's world. Both the short story and the film were in my opinion ahead of their time. We now live in a world where human interaction has been side stepped by social media. Only last year we had the movie "Her" (2013) released about a man who falls in love with a operating system based on Apple's Siri. In that movie a human fell in love with a machine in "A.I." a machine "loves" a human.

That of course leads to another question, what kind of companion can a machine make? You may think you are having a conversation but the machine has been programmed to pick up on certain words you say. It lack emotional understanding. It may process your words on a technical level but not the all important human level. You aren't really having a conversation at all.

In this futuristic world we learn of a company called Cybertronics headed by Professor Hobby (William Hurt) here they have been able to make a machine, known in the film as a "Mecha" that has the ability to love. A child mecha is created called "David" (played by Haley Joel Osment) which will help fill a void in the lonely lives of parents, who are unable to have a child.

To test the mecha, Cybertronics would like one of their employees to keep David. A perfect candidate is found in Henry Swinton (Sam Robards). Henry and his wife Monica (Frances O' Connor), have a son, Martin (Jake Thomas), who due to a rare disease has been frozen until a cure is found. Henry agrees to bring David home to see how his wife reacts.

Within time David fills the void he was created to do so and forms an attachment with Monica, who by this time has programmed David, by speaking a code which will activate the "love" mechanism in the machine. Now, instead of calling her Monica, David refers to her as "mommy". However, Henry never spoke the code to David and at all times refers to David as a toy. Therefore David does not have an attachment to Henry and never calls him "daddy".

This of course proves what the mecha is experiencing is not love. Maybe the parents loves the mecha but what the mecha is expressing is merely a program design. David doesn't know what "love" is but he has been given a function to "express" love. Because if the mecha truly understood love, why does he not love Henry? Why does he not call Henry "daddy". David spends just as much time with Henry as he does Monica. The difference is Henry didn't program David to love him.

Due to a scientific miracle, Henry and Monica's son Martin returns home and is now cured. Martin is a bit puzzled by David and the two begin to exhibit signs of jealousy towards each other. David was the son while Martin wasn't around. Martin has now replaced David. David doesn't receive the attention from Monica he once did. Martin slowly provokes bad behavior in David, daring him to do certain task which in return would gain the affection of Monica.

After several misunderstanding, Henry wants Monica to take David back to Cybertronics, where he will be destroyed. Once a mecha has been programmed to love an individual it can never be re-programmed and is rendered useless. But, in a sequence resembling Snow White, Monica is unable to take David to be destroyed at Cybertronics. Instead she leaves him alone in a forest with a "super-toy" known as Teddy. A walking, talking bear (which made me think of the comedy "Ted" (2012). Seth MacFarlane must have seen this movie and on some level been inspired by it). Teddy, in keeping with the Pinocchio parallel, acts as a Jiminy Cricket character, a conscience. Teddy, on a few occasions tries to warn David against his actions.

Remembering the story Pinocchio, which Monica read to both David and Martin, David decides to journey to find the "Blue Fairy", who will be able to turn him into a real boy, so Monica will love him.

And so David and Teddy head out on a journey to find the Blue Fairy. Events do not turn out as they had hoped when they meet Lord Johnson (Brendan Gleeson) who runs a Flesh Fair, an anti-mecha, carnival like attraction where humans watch broken down mechas be destroyed. The humans at the fair give speeches on the danger of mechas and how what man has done, by creating these machines, is evil. And here we have a commentary on man's desire to play God, which goes back to Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" to Professor Hobby in this movie and even Henry and Monica who have kept their son alive. They desire to create and preserve life, which in religious terms, goes against God's plan. There are some today that feel computers are taking over the world. Machines are replacing man. For that see Charlie Chaplin's masterpiece "Modern Times" (1936).

It is at the Flesh Fair David meets Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) another mecha created to express sensual love not emotional like David. Gigolo Joe agrees to help David find the Blue Fairy and serves as a father figure to David. Joe even suggest to David they give up on their search for the Blue Fairy and David come along with Joe. Joe warns David humans hate mechas because when the human race dies off, it will only be mechas that have survived. For that, humans resent mechas. While man may delude himself into believing he has created life, he has not been able to prolong his own.

In order for Spielberg's film to work on the viewer at an emotional level, the audience must accept the fact that David has human tendencies and is able to experience love as we humans know it. And at face value Spielberg presents his story as such. This was a cause of alarm for some in the public and the critical community because as they pointed out, each filmmaker; Kubrick and Spielberg, have different sensibilities. Spielberg has more of a "cutesy" approach to storytelling. His films can be described as "feel good". Kubrick was a more "cold" filmmaker by comparison. It is that "cold" message that never fully comes out unless the audience gives the movie the proper time to reflect upon what they saw and its meaning. But, most people will be content to accept the movie at face value if for no other reason than because it 'feels' better to do so.

Is David human? For what it is worth my answer is no. Who does David show compassion towards? Only the mother he was programmed to. David never once mentions "his father". He never once shows compassion towards Teddy, whom he treats as a toy, a machine, which is after all, what David is. David doesn't accept Joe as a father figure. David never acknowledges anyone's help.

David does show moments of anger, hopelessness, jealousy and selfishness. So, in that sense, he fits right in with the rest of the world. But, he is not human. He does not love or understand love.

What is the ultimate message of "A.I."? I'll be honest, I'm not 100% sure myself. But it is a dark disturbing tale if we think about it, at least in terms of how David sees the world. There is no love. Only hate. His "parents" don't love him. They reject him. Leaving him on his own, as Monica does, was far crueler than having him destroyed. Now he faces rejection. Not just rejection from Monica, but a society that views mechas as evil.

Even if we accept the premise that David has human emotions, I thought of the child that yells at his parents, I never asked to be born. A child doesn't get to chose its parents. And like David, he didn't ask to be made. He didn't ask to be programmed by a particular person. In fact it was selfishness, we find out, that lead to the creation of David.

I must for a moment though talk about the performance given by Haley Joel Osment. I must, once again, go back to 1999 when he starred in "The Sixth Sense". At the time there was talk Osment should have been nominated and won an Academy Award (he did receive the nomination but did not win). Others felt he was far too young. Since he was so young he would have time, later in his career, to win an Academy Award. But after watching "A.I." this is the movie the young man should have won an Academy Award for. It is a shame he didn't even receive a nomination. Though the movie did win two nominations for its effects and music.

But Osment dominates the movie and has to go through such complex emotions. There was a reason Kubrick felt no child actor could play this role. It is a very demanding role for a child. The fact that Osment does such a wonderful job only speaks to his talent.

When "A.I." was first released I said it was the third best film Spielberg had made behind "Schindler's List" (1993) and "Saving Private Ryan" (1998). I no longer feel that way as I appreciate titles like "Munich" (2005) and "Minority Report" (2002), which were released after this movie, but "A.I." is a strong film. It holds up on a second viewing. It raises a lot of philosophical and psychological questions. Questions, I admit, I don't have the answers to. But, this is a dark tale. This is a fairy tale gone wrong. And while the tone of the movie may at times, hide that fact, the bleakness comes out. This was a movie ahead of its time. I wonder what the reaction would be if it was release now, 13 years later?

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Film Review: A Christmas Story

"A Christmas Story"  ** (out of ****)

It is such a simple idea for a movie. A young boy tells the story of a must have Christmas gift. Of course, when you are a child, is there any story more important? Getting the perfect Christmas gift, when you are a child, is perhaps one of the single most important moments in your life, with a great birthday gift coming in second.

The viewer realizes this simple truth as we watch "A Christmas Story" (1983), a movie, that with time, has become a holiday classic and, as a result of this understanding, may find themselves able to relate to our hero's story. Who among us has not had a "must have" Christmas toy our lives utterly depending upon having? Who among us cannot recall the feeling of joy when we woke up Christmas morning and saw Santa had gotten us that special gift? On the other hand, how many of us can remember the feeling of disappointment when Santa didn't bring us that gift? You felt a pain in the pit of your stomach. How could Santa let you down?

I too am able to relate to this story. I had my own special gift that I wanted for Christmas. I was five years old and desperately wanted a pair of Laurel & Hardy (a popular comedy team in the 1920s & 30s) ventriloquist dolls. They were my childhood heroes. When I found out such a gift existed, I knew, then and there, I would have to have it. The days and month leading up to Christmas I pleaded with my parents, please, please buy me the Laurel & Hardy ventriloquist dolls. But, they told me, it was too much money. My heart was broken. I simply couldn't accept such an answer. What child would? So, I kept pleading. Eventually I decided to ask Santa. He was at the neighborhood mall. I asked my father if I could wait in line and tell Santa what I wanted for Christmas. He agreed. And so we stood in line. The excitement grew the closer and closer I got to the front of the line. Asking Santa for the gift was a sure fired way of getting it. What did Santa care about money? Soon it was my turn to sit on Santa's lap and ask for the Laurel & Hardy ventriloquist dolls. But, a strange thing happened as I sat on Santa's lap. I was frightened to death! I couldn't speak a word. I sat on Santa's lap silently as he asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I forgot how to speak! My father, standing beside me, stepped in and told Santa about the ventriloquist dolls. Santa, at first was a bit surprised a five year old knew who Laurel & Hardy was but told me afterwards I would get the gift. Joy!

There is a moment in "A Christmas Story" when the lead character, a boy named Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) waits in line to tell a department store Santa what he wants for Christmas, a Red-Ryder Carbine Action 200 shot Range Model air riffle. When he finally gets his chance to tell Santa what he wants for Christmas, he too freezes and can't remember what he wanted for Christmas. Other children in line start to cry as soon as they sit on Santa's lap.

"A Christmas Story" remembers childhood. Why is it so many children eagerly wait in line to sit on Santa's lap to tell him what they want for Christmas and they start to cry when they get their chance? There is something scary about that moment. "A Christmas Story" knows this fact. That is one of the things I like about the movie.

The movie was directed by Bob Clark, who was actually an odd choice for this kind of movie. His previous directing credits include "Black Christmas" (1974) and the teen sex comedy "Porky's" (1982) and its sequel, "Porky's II:The Next Day" (1983) and was based on the book "In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash" by Jean Shepard, who was a radio and television personality. Mr. Shepard adapted the book into the movie's screenplay, along with his wife, Leigh Brown and Mr. Clark.

When "A Christmas Story" was originally released it was not a box-office hit. It grossed a little more than $19 million dollars and opened to moderate reviews. It has only become a Christmas favorite because of multiple airings on TV in the late 80s, early 90s, which have helped the film reach a new audience year after year and entertain older audiences.

We follow a young boy named Ralphie, who wants a BB gun, which his mother (Melinda Dillon) will not buy him because she warns him "you'll shoot your eye out". The story takes place sometime in the 1940s in a small town in Indiana.

"A Christmas Story" has a very anecdotal structure to it. Yes, Ralphie wants a BB gun, but, the movie gets side tracked with other going ons.This lessened my experience watching the movie. I would have preferred a stronger, narrative structure of the boy wanting a BB gun. If it was just going to be about his family and their day to day activity that's fine. They made that movie. It too is based on Shepard's work and is called "It Runs in the Family" (1994), which is generally considered not as good as this movie and deals with a lot of the same situations.

Watching this movie I couldn't help but think of Woody Allen's "Radio Days" (1987) also about a young boy in the 1940s telling anecdotal stories about his family. I love the Allen movie. While that too is anecdotal the difference is, "Radio Days" makes more use of its time period. It places a great emphasis on the music of the era and popular radio programs, all of which I also grew up with. The characters in that movie remind me of my family. I cared more about those characters than I do any character in "A Christmas Story". I find some of the stories in "Radio Days" funny. Nothing in "A Christmas Story" made me laugh out loud. In fact, for all the years I have watched this movie, I don't think I ever really laughed out loud at any scene. Maybe when the father (Darren McGavin) wins a prize that is delivered to their house. It arrives in a crate with the words "fragile" written on it. The father mispronounces the word mistaking it for Italian as the wife corrects him.

One thing I did find interesting about the movie is the relationship between the mother and father. It is a very interesting dynamic. Pay attention to the mother. She has a passive-aggressive streak in her towards the husband. She is always ready to cut him down to size. To burst his bubble. There is a scene when the family is driving home and they get a flat tire. The husband likes to pretend he is in the pit stop at the Indy 500 and bets his wife he can change the tire in four minutes flat. She purposely sends Ralphie to help out, knowing Ralphie will just slow down her husband and then she can tell him he didn't change the tire in four minutes flat.

"A Christmas Story" is well meaning. It is difficult to flat out hate the movie. But it feels too slight. I don't like the structure of the movie. I didn't warm up to the characters. And, mostly importantly, I didn't laugh out loud. Nothing I say will stop this from being a Christmas favorite and that's fine. I have no intention of changing people's mind. I'd rather watch "The Polar Express" (2004) about a young boy who questions whether or not Santa exist and the journey that takes him on. Simple story but told with greater importance.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Film Review: Hunger Games: Catching Fire

"Hunger Games: Catching Fire"  *** (out of ****)

Things are heating up in "Catching Fire" (2013), the second installment of the Hunger Games trilogy.

As I began to watch "Catching Fire" I quickly realized, in the time between seeing "The Hunger Games" (2012) and this movie, I had forgotten much. My mind had to play a lot of catch up. I couldn't remember crucial moments of that movie. All I could remember was my over all feeling. I found the image of young children savagely killing each other disturbing. I also remember thinking there was room for a social and economic commentary with this story of young, working class people, killing each other in a game for the amusement of the rich.

Unfortunately I couldn't remember the moments "Catching Fire" required me to remember. Normally, I suppose, that would be the fault of the critic, the individual. Just because I can't remember the first movie, that doesn't mean you don't remember it. True enough. But, may I suggest another perspective? Shouldn't "Catching Fire" have been a stand alone movie?

What I mean by "stand alone" is, shouldn't the movie have succeeded on it own merits? Shouldn't the movie simply tell its own story and not rely so heavily on what was done previously? The story should be moving forward. Not looking backwards. I saw the first movie but I just don't remember it. It didn't make a lasting impression. However, don't you think it is entirely possible that people who never saw the first movie may have seen this movie first? Given all the media attention, I'm willing to bet there were "casual" movie fans who entered a movie theatre not knowing what "The Hunger Games" were about or saw the first movie.

Fans of the book, which was written by Suzanne Collins, may object and say it doesn't matter. This movie is not for people who have never read the books, never seen the first movie and people who can't remember the first movie. All I can say is, you go right on believing what you want even though you are wrong. Hollywood wants to make money. They want everyone  to see this movie. People who never read the book. People who never saw the movie or can't remember it even. Hollywood isn't interested in your feelings of whether or not the movie was faithfully adapted. Or if the "wrong" audience goes to see this movie. Any audience that goes to see it is the right audience because they bought a ticket. So, get over yourself.

But, as I sat watching "Catching Fire" I just kept feeling this movie couldn't exist without a first one being made. It relies so heavily on the viewer's knowledge of the first movie. It cannot stand on its own as a great movie. And, by the time we get to the end of the movie, it offers no conclusion. No satisfaction. It merely sets it self up as a starting point for a third movie, which is now in theatres, "Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1" (2014). They even had to divide the movie into two parts to cash in and make even more money, just as they did with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, though I did enjoy part two of that series quite a bit. The entire movie feels like a sell out. It feels hollow and shallow.

After I saw the first movie and I explained to people how I felt there was an opportunity to engage in a political and social message that the movie did not take. People who saw the movie agreed with me and assured me, because they had read the books, this theme would be picked up in part two and three. There is no great social message, well not really, in "Catching Fire". Its attempts at offering a deeper message are half-baked at best. I actually think "Divergent" (2014) had a smarter screenplay. Even "The Giver" (2014) had better ideas but it turned into a mishmash of "The Hunger Games", "Divergent" and "Pleasantville" (1998).

One thing however that I do like about this movie is the violence has been toned down and we are no longer dealing with children killing each other. That was a welcomed turn of events. "Catching Fire" wants to be more about characters. This dystopian world has already been established in the first movie and we understand what the "hunger games" are so now that everything is out of the way, more focus can be given to the growth of the characters and their continuation of this journey.

In "Catching Fire" we once again follow Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the winners of the 74th Hunger Games, who caught the attention of the world with their love story, when in reality they do not even like each other. Now, they must go on a winning tour and convince the world they are madly in love.

Brewing beneath the surface however is talk of a revolution. People at the Capital, including President Snow (Donald Sutherland) are worried of a revolution. The public looks to Katniss as a figure of hope. Katniss is afraid President Snow will kill her and her family, including her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) and her true love, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), whom she can never be with, as the world is under the impression she is in love with Peeta.

The remaining moments of the movie are a psychological cat and mouse game between President Snow and Katniss. At first Katniss wants to convince the President she is not part of a rebellion and the President wants her dead, before a rebellion becomes wide spread.

The sheep (movie critics) actually threw a lot of praise at the movie claiming it was a better movie than the first and that Jennifer Lawrence brings a great intensity to the character. Lawrence and the cast, consisting of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Jena Malone, Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks are quite good.

Mainly I've mentioned what I didn't like about the movie and yet I've given it three out of four stars. After my initial reaction to feeling I had to play catch up, once the movie settles, somewhat, into its plot, I was interested and found some sequences enjoyable and interesting. This is a well made, slick Hollywood product. The director of the film, Francis Lawrence, who did not direct the first movie, has worked on other big budget science fiction films before; "Constantine" (2005) and "I Am Legend" (2007).

"Catching Fire" is not a great movie. It is not a personal movie. It is not a movie with much to say, other than to hint at larger issues concerning poverty, the theatrics of politics, and class-warfare, but it doesn't take a strong stance. The movie is not about ideas but action.

Perhaps in the third installment all of these social issues will arise more strongly and directly, maybe not. "Catching Fire" almost feels like a bridge to nowhere, with its ending, but perhaps it will lead us to something important.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Film Review: Miracle on 34th Street

"Miracle on 34th Street"  **** (out of ****)

As has been tradition since the inception of this blog, during the month of December, Christmas themed movies will be reviewed through the month.

Throughout the years, as I reviewed Christmas themed movies in the month of December, I thought I had reviewed all of the contemporary Christmas classics and the new favorites. Over the years I have reviewed "A Christmas Carol" (1938), "White Christmas" (1954), "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946), "The Polar Express" (2004), "The Bishop's Wife" (1947) and religious themed movies such as "The Nativity Story" (2006) among them. And, as I started to beat my head thinking of titles to review this year, it dawned on me. I haven't reviewed the original "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947). How could I over look it?

"Miracle on 34th Street" is a holiday classic. It is one of those movies young and old movie fans alike enjoy. You don't have to be a movie buff to have seen it. It is a movie like "It's A Wonderful Life" in that, I've never met anyone that didn't like it. No matter how casual a movie fan you are, there is a very good chance you saw "Miracle on 34th Street" at one time during your childhood.

In our house "Miracle on 34th Street" wasn't one of our annual traditions but it is a movie I have fond memories of watching as a child.

What makes "Miracle of 34th Street" so special is it is a genuine feel good movie. As an adult, the movie makes you remember the joy of being a child. The movie is about faith. A kind of faith only a child has. It tells its story through such likable characters and with such good cheer, it becomes infectious. It makes you want to believe. Maybe not believe in Santa Claus but believe that wonderful things are capable of happening. It makes you believe in the value of kindness and generosity. And it makes you admire the innocence of childhood.

However, "Miracle on 34th Street" doesn't have to be watched only at Christmas time. Like any good movie it can be watched any time of year. This is a well-written, superbly acted movie. A remake of this movie was made in 1994. It was not a bad movie mind you. It did most of the things this movie did. But, there was a difference. You can't remake the charm of this movie. You can't find actors better than the ones used here. This will always be the definitive version of this movie. That's not necessarily a put down of remakes of this movie but a comment on the special quality this movie has.

Maureen O' Hara stars as Doris Walker. She works at Macy's Department store. As the movie opens she is planning the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. She finds out the person hired to portray Santa Claus is drunk and not able to participate in the parade. Caught in a bind, on the spot she hires an elderly gentlemen, who pointed out the condition of the drunken Santa. The man goes by the name Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) and he truly believes he is Santa Claus. He is originally from the North Pole and knows the position of all of his flying reindeer that pull his sled.

Doris however doesn't believe the man. Doris is a rational, sensible, young, attractive, modern, independent woman. She has a daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood) and teaches the child not to believe in Santa Claus. There are no such thing as fairy tales either. Doris wants to be completely honest with her child and not put foolish ideas in her head.

We learn the reason for this behavior on Doris's part is because of a failed love life. When Susan was a little girl, her parents divorced. When Doris explains to a neighbor, Fred (John Payne), why she has raised her child not to believe in Santa, she goes off on a tirade about Prince Charming, and the audience knows all they need to know. Of course it goes back to an old, cliche notion, that the root of a woman's problem is always a man. A woman's happiness or sadness is dependent on a man.

Fred has taking a liking to Doris and to Susan. But, with her broken heart, how can Fred ever get Doris to give him a chance? If Doris can't open her heart to believe in Santa Claus, and accept the possibility that all things are possible if we have faith, then Fred doesn't stand a chance. And that's the theme of the film. Believe. Don't ever stop believing good things can happen.

If there is something "Miracle on 34th Street" doesn't do well it is the way it handles the love interest between Doris and Fred. In one scene they aren't a couple and the next time we see them together Doris mentions they have spent the last few days together and have discussed building a future together. The audience hasn't seen any of those scenes or heard the two of them talk about being a couple. Heck, I didn't even know Doris was interested in Fred.

The movie also doesn't show her heart warming towards Kris. She makes declarations in two scenes about growing fond of him, but, the audience hasn't seen a slow, steady build-up to that statement. These kind of scenes may very well have been written in the script and may have even been filmed. The problem may have been in the editing room. These are important scenes which would have establish characters. Sadly they are missing.

Instead of scenes between Doris and Fred or Doris and Kris, the movie settles for a trial sub-plot with Kris on trial and must prove he is a sane person and the real Santa Claus. This takes up a majority of the picture.

Still, these scenes are very funny. The judge for the hearing, Judge Harper (Gene Lockhart) begins to worry about the political implications of the hearings if he should have to declare Kris insane. What would the papers say? Judge declares Santa Claus crazy! The Judge is up for re-election and his campaign manager (William Frawley) warns him not to rule against the kind old man who believes he is Santa Claus. It would cause a union backlash against the Judge.

Because so much time is spent on this angle of the plot, with Kris as the center of attention, one thing that bothers me is the billing for the movie. Maureen O' Hara and John Payne are given top billing, above the title of the movie. Edmund Gwenn is listed with the supporting characters. This isn't fair in my opinion. When I think of this movie, to be honest, I don't think of Maureen O' Hara or John Payne. I think of Edmund Gwenn first. The movie is about Santa Claus. It is not a screwball comedy between O' Hara and Payne. It could have been. They could have taken the "Adam's Rib" (1949) approach. Payne's character is a lawyer who defends Kris during the hearing, O' Hara's character could have been the prosecutor, and during the hearing, while they are fighting, they fall in love. But that's not the case. At the very least Gwenn's name should have been billed equally with O' Hara and Payne. I understand, O' Hara and Payne were the box-office names but Gwenn's role is equally important to the movie.

"Miracle on 34th Street" was directed by George Seaton. Prior to this movie he directed the entertaining Betty Grable vehicle "The Shocking Miss Pilgrim" (1947). He would go on to direct "The Country Girl" (1954) with Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby, a movie which I believe is a masterpiece. Seaton was nominated for a best director Academy Award. He did win the best screenplay award for that picture and Kelly won the best actress award that year. Seaton would also go on to direct "Teacher's Pet" (1958) with Clark Gable and Doris Day.

The movie also has a terrific supporting cast; Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, Jerome Cowan and William Frawley (also spot Thelma Ritter in a brief role). This could have been the supporting cast for a Preston Sturges comedy!

"Miracle on 34th Street" received a total of four Academy Award nominations including best picture. It won three of the nominations; best supporting actor (Gwenn), best original story (Valentine Davies) and best screenplay (Seaton). It lost the best picture Oscar that year to "A Gentlemen's Agreement" (1947). Also nominated that year for best picture was another film that has become a holiday favorite, "The Bishop's Wife".

"Miracle on 34th Street" is a wonderful film to watch any time of the year. It holds up to repeated viewings and would be a great movie to introduce younger children to.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Film Review: The Bullfighters

"The Bullfighters"  *** (out of ****)

Laurel & Hardy put the bull in bullfighting in the 20th Century Fox comedy "The Bullfighters" (1945).

"The Bullfighters" has a special place in the cannon of Laurel & Hardy comedies. It was the last American movie the legendary comedy team starred in.

At the peak of their popularity in the 1920s & 30s Laurel & Hardy worked for comedy producer Hal Roach. It was there the team, mainly Stan Laurel, had creative control of their movies, often with Laurel as an uncredited director or writer. In 1940 however the comedy team left Hal Roach after releasing "Saps at Sea" (1940) and signed a contract with 20th Century Fox. Fans of the team, film historians and movie critics (sheep) often state their work at Fox doesn't compare to what they did at the Roach studio.

I agree and don't agree. Those that are critics of me often feel I allow sentimentality to interfere with my reviews and I "go easy" on things I find important. I admit I am reluctant to criticize the work of Laurel & Hardy. They were my childhood heroes and I believe were the greatest comedy team in the history of film. As a result, the work they did in the 1940s at Fox and MGM does not strike me as disappointing. I don't mind watching "Nothing But Trouble" (1944), "A-Haunting We Will Go" (1942) or "Jitterbugs" (1943). Do I believe these are great comedies? No. But I find them to be decent, harmless, entertaining pictures and they give me an opportunity to spend an hour with two characters I enjoy spending time with. So, in the end, I'm not complaining. Is that a good justification for everyone to watch their movies? Probably not.

Of their work in the 1940s I would elect "The Bullfighters" and "Air Raid Wardens" (1943) as the best of this period. That is not the popular choice. Public opinion dictates that "Jitterbugs" is their best movie of the 1940s.

My reason for disagreeing is I feel "The Bullfighters" gives "the boys" more opportunity to engage in classic comedy routines. Since this was their last American film and one of the last "B" pictures 20th Century Fox was going to release (they had decide to close down their "B" movie division) there weren't studio executives over their shoulders and Stan was able to write some material and have more creative input. It shows. "The Bullfighters" has the feel of an older Laurel & Hardy comedy. Too bad they didn't make this in the 1930s when they were a little younger and had the benefit of using great supporting cast characters that the Roach Studio allowed. And that's the biggest problem with "The Bullfighters". It is too little, too late. The boys could have made this material sing but it was made at the wrong time in their careers.

Still I recommend seeing "The Bullfighters". The moments that work in the picture are funny and you will laugh. All I ask of a comedy is that is makes me laugh. If I laugh then I must be honest and say I did and recommend the movie. If I didn't laugh I won't recommend it. It is that simple. I laugh when I watch "The Bullfighters". Case closed.

Laurel & Hardy play two American detectives sent to Mexico to arrest a known convict, Hattie Blake (Carol Andrews). When things don't go quite as planned the two find themselves caught in a case of mistaken identity as Stan is a dead ringer for a famous Spanish bullfighter, Don Sebastian, who will arrive in Mexico for a heavily promoted bullfight being put on by "Hot Shot" Coleman (Richard Lane) and Richard K. Muldoon (Ralph Sanford, who suspiciously goes uncredited). This leads to trouble as Muldoon was falsely accused of a crime and sentenced to 20 years in prison because of testimony by Laurel & Hardy. After serving his sentence for five years, Muldoon was released after the real criminal confessed. In an attempt to start a new life Muldoon moved to Mexico but swore, if he ever saw Laurel & Hardy again, he would skin them alive.

Right from the very beginning of the picture Laurel & Hardy keep the laughs coming. As they arrive in Mexico they stand in line waiting for a taxi. As soon as a taxi arrives a crowd appears out of nowhere pushing their way into the taxi leaving Laurel & Hardy unable to enter.

When they finally reach the hotel the boy engage in two "tit for tat" sequences. One involves the boys sitting in the hotel lobby. There is a fountain. Stan notices a knob and turns it. Water shoots out of the sitting and unknown to Stan the water hits Oliver. Sitting next to the boys is a man practicing a speech (Edward Gargan, an old character actor who mostly played cops and detectives), Oliver thinks this man splashed the water on him as the two proceed to splash water on each other back and forth.

The next "tit for tat" sequence involves the boys finally catching up with Hattie Blake. She will not willfully turn herself over to the law. The three are in the cocktail lounge of the hotel as suspiciously there is a bowl of eggs on the bar stool(!) the sequence is a repeat of a routine Laurel & Hardy did in the MGM all-star comedy "Hollywood Party" (1934) where Stan and Hattie each take an egg and smash it on each other.

Perhaps I should explain what "tit for tat" is to non-Laurel & Hardy fans. Tit for tat was the team's most famous comedy routine. The boys would accidentally offend someone. In retaliation the individual would destroy something of the boys, whether it was an article of clothing or personal property. The boys would look on silently as the individual did this. Then the boys would destroy something of the individual while he or she looked on silently. The point was to up the ante at each turn. The best example of this is in the silent comedy "Big Business" (1929) where the boys destroy an entire house.

There is a lot fun to be had with the mistaken identity bit as beautiful women keep approaching Stan wishing him good luck and kiss him as Oliver looks on puzzled.

The entire situation escalates as Don Sebastian is having problems with his passport and there is a chance he will not be able to make the bullfight. Having seen Laurel & Hardy at the hotel (Don Sebastian was also booked at the same hotel) "Hot Shot" gets an idea. Why not have Stan pose as Don Sebastian? He is even willing to pay the boys for their trouble and warns them about Muldoon. The boys agree after being blackmailed. If they didn't agree "Hot Shot" would call Muldoon.

This whole business of the boys testifying at a trial putting Muldoon in prison and him vowing revenge was done before in the Laurel & Hardy comedy short "Going Bye-Bye" (1934) where the boys testify against a criminal known as Butch (Walter Long) who vows if and when he escapes from prison he will find the boys and rip off their legs and wrap them around their necks.

Laurel & Hardy would often find themselves the victim of gruesome, freak accidents as seen in "Going Bye-Bye", "Bohemian Girl" (1936), "The Live Ghost" (1934) and this picture.

Ralph Sanford however is not a good substitute for Walter Long, who had a better tough guy image. He also appeared in "Pardon Us" (1931), the first Laurel & Hardy feature length comedy, as a convict who shares the same cell with the boys.

The movie was directed by Malcom St. Clair, who had directed a few of the boys later pictures including "The Big Noise" (1944) and "The Dancing Masters" (1943) but his career went back to the silent era. He co-wrote and co-directed the Buster Keaton comedy "The Goat" (1921) and directed "The Show Off" (1926) with Louise Brooks and Ford Sterling.

The script was written by W. Scott Darling. His career also went back to the silent era. He wrote the funny Joel McCrea comedy "He Married His Wife" (1940) and he wrote 'The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942) as well as the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Jitterbugs".

Laurel & Hardy do what they can in "The Bullfighters". The material is the kind of stuff they would be working with at Hal Roach Studio. The boys still play well off each other but others feel the boys were too old to be doing this kind of thing. They should have retired after "Saps at Sea". I don't completely agree. I don't believe the boys embarrass themselves in this movie.

I keep referring to this as their last American movie and their is a reason for that. The boys made one more feature film, "Utopia" (1951) a French/Italian co-production which went under the original title "Atoll K". In that picture the boys are visibly in bad health. Oliver is probably at his heaviest and Stan is at his skinniest. He looks very fragile and you worry when Oliver hits him. Yet, I'm still reluctant to fully criticize that movie as well.

In the 1940s the public lost interest in the comedy of Laurel & Hardy, thanks to Abbott & Costello. But, for me, Laurel & Hardy were always watchable and had a great screen presence. "The Bullfighters" is not their best movie, no one is mistaking it for that, but it is a nice pleasant diversion. A harmless, silly comedy.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Film Review: Speedy

"Speedy"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Lately I have spent a lot of time revisiting the comedy world of silent screen icon Harold Lloyd. I have re-watched several Lloyd comedies including "The Freshman" (1925), "Girl Shy" (1924), "Hot Water" (1924), "The Kid Brother" (1927) and "Why Worry?" (1923).

The reason for the renewal interest in the work of Harold Lloyd is because I feel I have neglected discussing the films this comedy legend appeared in. I have review nearly all the feature length films by Chaplin; "Modern Times" (1936), "The Kid" (1921), "City Lights" (1932) and "The Great Dictator" (1940) among them. I have reviewed all of the available silent feature length films starring the forgotten comedy clown, Harry Langdon. That leaves us with Buster Keaton and Harold  Lloyd. Of the Keaton comedies I have only reviewed "Sherlock, Jr." (1924). Of the Harold Lloyd comedies I have reviewed "Safety Last" (1923) and "Movie Crazy" (1932). But, I needed to review more.

Now the question becomes, what to review? So, I started re-watching the Harold Lloyd comedies I own, which is all of his feature length comedies. I remember the last time I saw them, for some it was as long as 10 years ago, I really enjoyed them. Lloyd was a childhood favorite of mine. Often referred to as "the third genius" I took pity on him. I didn't think it was fair he should be referred to as the third best silent comedian behind Chaplin and Keaton. Since I was always someone that championed the underdog I figured someone should say Harold  Lloyd is their favorite silent comedian, so, I decided that person will be me.

The first time I saw comedies such as "The Freshman", perhaps his most famous comedy, AFI named it one of the 100 best films of all time in their original list, and "Girl Shy" and "Grandma's Boy" (1922) I was just blown away. What a truly brilliant, innovative comedian he was. Each film thrilled me through and through and inspired me, as an amateur filmmaker himself.

But, a funny thing happened as I began re-watching these Lloyd comedies. They didn't excite me the way they once did. Oh, sure, there were funny sequences, I would never suggest a Harold Lloyd comedy is dull and/or boring, but, I wasn't an active participant in the movie. There was something about the Lloyd character, commonly referred to as "glasses", that I wasn't responding to. It took a while for me to figure out what it was as I watched movie after movie. Then it hit me.

Harold Lloyd didn't make the kind of silent comedies Chaplin or Keaton did. Harold Lloyd was essentially a leading man in disguise and his pictures were more so romantic comedies than anything else. Watch "Girl Shy" and tell me that's not the case. It has a formula very similar to romantic comedies made today.

The other thing I began to notice was Lloyd often was a victim of the plot. He wasn't an active character. Bad things happened to him and he responded to the situation but he wasn't a performer the way Chaplin was. Lloyd didn't do funny things in his pictures, funny things happened to him. For some reason that lessened my enjoyment and I didn't feel like writing about any of the movies I was watching. In a last ditch effort I watched "Speedy" (1928), a comedy I remembered as being a minor, funny, effort. For me, it held up better than any of the comedies I re-watched and my opinion of it improved.

The major difference this time around is the romance isn't given as much screen time. I like this because it gives us more time for comedy instead. Also, as is the case with most silent comedies, the plot isn't sidetracked by a comedy routine that comes out of nowhere and takes up 15 minutes. "Speedy" is a pretty well structured story that narrows its focus and sticks to the outline of the plot. It is consistent.

In "Speedy" Lloyd plays Harold "Speedy" Swift. Reminiscent of the characters Lloyd usually played "Speedy" is a young all-American boy who loves baseball (what's more American than that?), especially the New York Yankees and their ace outfielder, Babe Ruth, and yes, "the bambino" makes an appearance in the picture (!).

The problem with "Speedy" however is he can't hold a job. He is too preoccupied with baseball and keeping up with the latest scores to focus on his work. There are more important things in life than a job after all. But this lack of financial security is a problem for the girl he loves, Jane Dillon (Ann Christy). She lives with her grandfather (Bert Woodruff) who runs the last horse drawn streetcar in New York. Major streetcar companies want to merge together and buy out small independent owned streetcars. But "Pops" is holding out to sell his, especially after "Speedy" tells him of the planned merger. It would be in "Pops" benefit to hold out and ask for more money.

Meanwhile, "Speedy" needs to find a job and keep it, so he can follow the American dream and marry the woman he loves so they may start a family together.

Getting in the way of that simply dream of "Speedy"'s however is "Pops". Jane won't marry Speedy until her grandfather's financial affairs are in order. "Speedy" over hears the head of a streetcar company devise a plan that will stop "Pops" from being able to run his horse drawn streetcar. A fight will be planned to happen on the streetcar and the thugs will steal it. Under the law, as long as the streetcar operates once every 24 hours the horse drawn streetcar belongs to "Pops" and no one can take it away from.

Discovering the plan "Speedy" offers to run the streetcar for a couple of days and rounds up a bunch of elderly business owners in the neighborhood to help him fight off the thugs and save the horse drawn streetcar.

What I enjoy most about watching "Speedy" is we get to see Coney Island. There is a date sequence as Speedy and Jane go on a Sunday date. We see them go on all the rides and eat hot dogs and a lot of other food. It adds a historical purpose, the viewer actually gets to see footage of what Coney Island in the 1920s looked like and it is fun to see. I liked the sequence of sentimental reasons. I love the era of the 1920s and what seemed to be such a simple lifestyle. Even the working class could go out and have a night on the town. Of course by the end of the night Speedy is completely broke.

We also get to see footage of Yankee Stadium and Babe Ruth hit a home run. Ruth plays a passenger in Speedy'a cab, in another job that Speedy can't hold as a cabdriver this time. We see Speedy zig-zag through the streets of New York narrowly missing cars left and and right because he is too busy with his head turned to Ruth expressing his admiration.

A funny sequence occurs at the beginning of the movie as Speedy works as a soda jerk. He keeps calling a friend who tells him the score of the Yankee's game while Speedy tells the other employees the score. But, because he is at work and doesn't want the boss to know what he is up too he must find clever ways to tell everyone the inning and the score.

The movie feels a bit different compared to other Lloyd comedies yet keeps some of the characteristic of his screen persona.

Lloyd wanted to play a character that could be described as an "every man". Someone who looked like your next door neighbor. Of course Chaplin played the tramp, Harry Langdon was a man-child, Keaton never smiled and always fought with technology but Lloyd didn't wear baggy pants, have a funny walk or wear exaggerated make-up. He was an all-round American go-getter. He always fought to achieve the American Dream. He wanted to win the girl's heart and get married. He wanted to be a success at business and make lots of money. He was just like the people watching his movies, in search of a better life. And, if he believed in himself and went after something, he would get it, because that's what America is all about, right? Well, at least that is what we are told. If you work hard and go after what you want you will be a success. Forget climbing the corporate ladder, why, if Harold had to, he would climb the side of a building to reach the top.

Although "Speedy" may not have the popularity of "The Freshman" or "Safety Last", I believe it is an enjoyable comedy that works just as well as any other Lloyd comedy. It takes out a lot of what I find unnecessary in most of Lloyd's pictures and just gives us the goods. There is a consistent plot, funny routines and a thrill sequence at the end, which was typical of Lloyd's comedies. And, Lloyd is more active in the plot, making things happen instead of always being the victim of someone else's actions.

Who knows, maybe after I re-watch Lloyd's comedies again my opinion will change yet again but for now I  say watch "Speedy" and appreciate the comedy world of Harold Lloyd.

Some other interesting notes about the film is this was Harold Lloyd's last silent comedy. After this picture he would start to make sound pictures. His first was "Welcome Danger" (1929). "Speedy" was also nominated for an Academy Award in the now defunct category of Best Director, Comedy Picture for Ted Wilde, who had previously directed Lloyd in "The Kid Brother" and worked as a writer on a few other Lloyd comedies.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Film Review: Le Boucher

"Le Boucher"  *** (out of ****)

Claude Chabrol's "Le Boucher" ( The Butcher; 1972) is often considered by sheep (er movie critics) as the best film the great French filmmaker ever made.

I first saw this often called classic several years ago when I was in my early twenties. I had just discovered the work of this brilliant and sometimes neglected filmmaker, referred to as "the French Hitchcock", and at the time I admired the movie. If I am honest with myself, I think I enjoyed it because I felt "pressured" to do so. The American movie critics throw a lot of praise at this film and you will find some in the general public praise it as well, so, I felt a certain "obligation" to like the movie as strongly as others have as well. But, as I watched "Le Boucher" again and being older and less concerned with how my opinions correlate with that of the general public, I find the movie to be lacking.

Claude Chabrol was known for making films which involved murder. His films mainly focused on the bourgeois and tried to expose the friendly, respectable facade they have created for themselves as family secrets were exposed and psychological conflicts were revealed and it usually ended in murder.

He directed what is generally considered the first film in the Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) movement, "Le Beau Serge" (1958). He, along with Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, wrote for the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinema. With time, as I have already mentioned, he earned the nickname, "the French Hitchcock", though Chabrol felt it was not an apt comparison.

"Le Boucher", like a few of Chabrol's early films ("Le Beau Serge" among them) focuses on the working class. Here we follow a school teacher, Helene (Stephane Audran, whom at one time was married to Chabrol) and a butcher, Paul (Jean Yanne). They both live in a small, quiet town, and as in other Chabrol films, things aren't what they seem. The small town will turn out not to be the idyllic, gentle place its surroundings would have you believe. For that matter, the characters are not as innocent as they appear either.

The movie begins by showing us the good times, a wedding, as we see Helene and Paul meet and strike up a conversation. We learn Paul has been in the army. He has not been back to this small town since his mother died seven years ago. He didn't get along with his father, who was also the town's butcher, now Paul has filled those shoes. We learn very little about Helene. All we know is she has been living in this town for three years and knew Paul's father.

At first "Le Boucher" doesn't seem to be about much. We just follow these characters and suspect perhaps a romance will develop between them. But, this is a Claude Chabrol film. Something has to happen. And that's my problem with "Le Boucher". Not enough happens and it takes too long for something to begin to happen.

We slowly learn one of the townspeople has been murdered. The police have no suspects. The victim was a young woman. The same woman who was married at the beginning of the movie. Next we learn of another murder. The police suspect it was done by the same killer since the deaths were similar.

But, there are only two main characters in "Le Boucher", so, it must be one of them. Paul talks about death a lot. He saw a lot of dead bodies in the army. That has an effect on a man. Helene may be a bit "too good". Is anyone really that perfect and innocent? But, our main suspect is the butcher if for no other good reason then the movie is named after him.

"Le Boucher" is not like your conventional mystery/thriller though. It doesn't slowly build suspense. There isn't a group of suspects. The movie doesn't earn our interest. It is too subtle. It doesn't develop a strong relationship between the audience and the characters. I never felt Chabrol, as a director, was guiding the audience in a certain direction. The movie seems to be about atmosphere and giving the town a sense of personality. There are also undertones of repression. But, it wasn't enough to make me care much about the characters and the situations unfolding.

I have read some claim the strength of the film is Helene. Does she know Paul is the murderer? Is she protecting him? It is an interesting concept but an unwarranted one. This is someone trying to make the movie more important than it is. I feel that way because, at no point is this a "woman in peril" movie. At no point do we feel Helene is in any danger. At no point is this idea suggested that Helene is protecting Paul. I simply look at the movie and take it at face value. There are no "clues" being dropped. The movie spells things out in the last 15 minutes or so of the movie. Prior to that, any evidence that Helene knows more than she is letting on is purely in your mind and was not put there by Chabrol.

It seems to me Chabrol works at his best when he is looking and the rich and powerful and attacks them. When he takes the same approach with the working class, it is not as interesting to me. Working class people aren't hiding as much as the rich. The rich are a better target because they are in a position where they have more to lose because I doubt they became rich by being honest, decent, hard working citizens. Save the fairy tale for someone dumb enough to believe it.

"Le Boucher" is not a bad movie. The ingredients for a great Chabrol film are here but they are not used properly. The performances by Audran and Yanne are effective, I especially like Audran, she was one of Chabrol's great muses. She had a wonderful look for Chabrol's films. She always had a "poker face". You never knew what she was thinking.

For as great as Claude Chabrol was, "Le Boucher" doesn't deserve the reputation it has gained over the years. I firmly believe Chabrol made better films; "The Unfaithful Wife" (1969), "Les Biches" (1968), "Merci Pour Le Chocolat" (2002) and "Wedding in Blood" (1974) among them. "Le Boucher" is kind of a let down after you have seen those movies. "Le Boucher" should be seen. You should see all of the movies directed by Claude Chabrol but "Le Boucher" should not be seen as Chabrol's definitive work. It is a popular minor effort.