Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Film Review: Dick Tracy

"Dick Tracy"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

When Warren Beatty made "Dick Tracy" (1990) it was a perfect movie for someone like me. One reason was because I was the right age. In 1990 I was seven years old and the movie was marketed towards children. But, it was also a perfect movie for a kid like me because I grew up with my grandparents and would listen to "The Lone Ranger" radio program. I watched movie serials like "The Green Hornet" (1940) and "The Shadow" (1940). I even knew who Dick Tracy was. I never read the comic strip created by Chester Gould in 1931 because I never liked comics or comic books, but, I did see the early Dick Tracy movies; "Dick Tracy vs. Cueball" (1946) and "Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome" (1947) Boris Karloff was in that one.

"Dick Tracy" was released at a time when a lot of comic books and cartoons were being brought to the big screen (sound familiar?). A year earlier Tim Burton directed "Batman" (1989) with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. It was one of the most anticipated movies released that year. At the time it was felt the movie took a more serious tone. It was dark and was even considered not for kids. Also released in 1989 was "Ghostbusters 2" the sequel to "Ghostbusters" (1984). The first movie was an original concept by Dan Aykroyd, after the release of that movie a Saturday morning cartoon was created which meant a sequel would have to be made. In 1990 "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" was also released. It was based on a comic book later turned into another Saturday morning cartoon.

Where "Batman" was thought to be too dark and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" too comical, "Dick Tracy" walks that fine line and finds the perfect balance of making sure the movie has a comic look to it with amazing art direction, costume design, breathless cinematography, a color cast of characters, most with exaggerated facial features and cartoon violence it also respects its material, Beatty, as the movie's director, takes all of this serious and tries to give the plot some weight. There is great visual artistry to "Dick Tracy" and that is what separates it from other comic book movies, especially the ones made today. Today's comic book movies are dark, brooding and violent. They take the joy, bright, fun nature of the comics away. "Dick Tracy" wants to retain what makes comics special to a child but also try to make it about people faced with mature problems. For my money, few, if any, comic book movies have come close to this.

"Dick Tracy" was Warren Beatty's third movie as a director coming behind "Heaven Can Wait" (1978) and "Reds" (1981). It may not have seemed like something Beatty would be interested in making. But after you see it, who else could have played this part and who else could have directed it and give the movie this look? Maybe Steven Spielberg, who was considered for a time to direct it, but who else could have acted the role?

"Dick Tracy" also has one of the greatest acting ensembles ever put together; Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Sorvino, Dick Van Dyke, Henry Silva, Charles Durning, Seymour Cassel, James Caan and for pure eye candy we get Madonna doing her best Marilyn Monroe impression. How many other movies have been able to put together a cast like this? All that is missing is Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson.

Like Christopher Nolan's "Batman" movies Beatty makes "Dick Tracy" a contemporary man. He is weak, flawed and vulnerable. In this movie he is torn between his duty to fight crime and his desire to lead a normal life with the woman he loves, Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly). In fact much of the movie deals with Tracy torn between two women; the innocent Tess and the more sexy Breathless Mahoney (Madonna). Tess is the one you take home to meet your mother and Breathless is the one you want to keep as your own secret. Which one will Tracy chose? This premise takes up as much screen time as Tracy fighting the city's leading gangster, Big Boy (Al Pacino).

The movie is divided in two. One half is a homage to the great gangster films of the 1930s starring James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson and part romance. It is also a homage to the Dick Tracy comic strip of course. It has its own gangster story as two crime bosses, Lips Malis (Paul Sorvino) and Big Boy compete over territory. Dick Tracy sees this as his best opportunity to capture Big Boy, especially when Lips goes missing.

Lips was an owner of a nightclub where Breathless sang now Big Boy is running the club. Tracy feels Breathless knows where Lips is and if he can get her to testify against Big Boy he will finally be able to take him down. But Breathless won't do it. Her feelings for Tracy get in the way. She is attracted to him and wants a commitment from him. Tracy loves Tess though and doesn't want to hurt her, even though she is getting tired of waiting around for Tracy to ask her to marry him.

In order the humanize the Tracy character more a character called "The Kid" (Charlie Korsmo) is brought in. All we see Tracy do is fight crime and entertain the idea of cheating on Tess. Having Tracy interact with The Kid shows Tracy in a father figure role, which makes him more appealing to audiences.

But the most special thing about "Dick Tracy" is the world it creates. The movie went to great lengths creating this world. Based on the Chicago landscape Warren  Beatty's team developed new buildings, a new skyline, we see classic cars drive by. It almost, kind of, sort of resembles our world but lacks the vivid colors. The movie goes out of its way trying to have a cartoon look. Often the background looks animated.

And then you have the makeup used for the villains. Some of the more memorable characters include Mumbles (Dustin Hoffman) whose face is twisted and mumbles when he talks. There is Flattop (William Forsythe), "Itchy" (Ed O' Ross) and Influence (Henry Silva). Some of these people are barely recognizable.

The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won three; best art direction, best makeup and best song, "Sooner or Later" written by Stephen Sondheim, who wrote all the original songs.

"Dick Tracy" is a visual fest, a splendid blend of a live cartoon but takes its story serious. There is much to enjoy from the acting, the makeup, the cinematography and the costumes. "Dick Tracy" creates a new world of us to marvel at.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Film Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

After reviewing the original live action version of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (1990) I kind of painted myself in a corner. I recommended that movie because I said children who would have seen the movie at that time would be very excited seeing their favorite characters "come to life" on the big screen. I went on to write the original version was like a live action cartoon. It had a playful tone to it which children would find appealing.

I suppose on some level I can say the same about "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II" (1991) and by that logic I should be recommending it. So, I haven't given myself much wriggle room to justify my not liking this sequel very much.

The biggest difference between the two movies I feel is this sequel is actually a step down. It is a "dumb down" version. But, then I have to remind myself, I am talking about a movie involving four human size, English speaking turtles who have been mentored by a talking rat. Exactly how "intelligent" was the original to begin with? What I mean is the original ninja turtles movie seemed to be geared towards children who were fans of the cartoon series, which originally ran between 1987 - 1996. I would imagine the audience for the first movie was probably children aged between 5-7 years old. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II" seems geared towards children aged between 3-5 years old. The movie hasn't grown with its audience. Mind you only a year passed between the two films, but, who was this movie trying to reach?

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II" takes place where the first one left off. The turtles have killed Shredder (Francois Chau) the leader of a clan known as The Foot. They have been responsible for a rampant crime wave in New York City. Afraid The Foot might come after them, the turtles leave the sewer they lived in for 15 years and have moved in with their human friend, reporter April O' Neil (this time played by Paige Turco) while they look for a new place to live.

What our turtle friends don't realize is Shredder didn't die at the end of the first movie. He is alive and has discovered "the ooze" which have made the turtles what they are. Since The Foot and Shredder himself have failed to stop the turtles Shredder decides the best way to compete with the turtles is to create his own mutants.

Helping the turtles in this movie is another human, a pizza delivery boy, Keno (Ernie Reyes Jr.) he serves as a kind of replacement for Casey Jones, a character in the original movie played by Elias Koteas, who was a street thug that helped the turtles fight Shredder and The Foot.

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turles II" suffers from the same problem all sequels suffer from. It is basically a rehash of the original. It has little new to offer. It follows the formula of the first film, which was a box-office success grossing more than $100 million dollars. I would even go as far as saying a sequel wasn't necessary. It was all just an attempt to cash in and make more money off these characters, which was why the first movie was created, to capitalize off the success of the Saturday morning cartoon and all the merchandise associated with it.

The humor in this is juvenile and repetitive. It is a collection of pizza jokes expressing how much the turtles like to eat pizza. The director, Michael Pressman, and the writers couldn't even have the decency to make the movie somewhat interesting for mom and dad sitting in the audience.

This sequel gives Donatello (Mark Caso/ Adam Carl voice) and Leonardo (David Forman / Brian Tochi voice) a little more to do, which I felt was a problem with the original. It was difficult separate which turtle was which. Only Raphael (Kenn Troum / Laurie Fasco voice) and Michelangelo (Michelan Sisti / Robbie Rist) were given much to do in the first one and helped distinguish their personality traits.

The movie's original director Steve Barron, for whatever reason was not brought back. Michael Pressman seems to have suffered after directing this movie. He only directed one more feature film, a Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle, "To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday" (1996). After that he has only directed TV show episodes on programs such as "Weeds", "Law & Order" and "Blue Bloods". As is the case with Elias Koteas, Judith Hoag, who played April O' Neil is missing. She has said in interviews she was not asked to appear in this movie.

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II" has a more playful tone than the Michael Bay remake it, which I think is the right choice but this one just feels too silly and goofy. You can't take a story like this too serious, I understand that, but, this movie gives us nothing to really root for. It is just a collection of bad jokes, mostly delivered by the Michelangelo character and an opportunity to see Vanilla Ice. If you are too young to remember this movie's original release and/or are too young to remember Vanilla Ice, consider yourself lucky. The rest of us had to endure a time when a song called "Ice, Ice Baby" was popular.

While the first ninja turtles movie was no masterpiece, the sequel feels like an unnecessary retread. If you want to watch the turtles in a live action movie, just watch the first one. Also interesting is this sequel made less money than the first one. This sequel grossed $78 million perhaps suggesting audiences were a bit "turtled out". Cowabunga dude!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Film Review: Fading Gigolo

"Fading Gigolo"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

After I watch any movie I always start off by asking myself a very simple question. Did I like the movie I just saw? It has to be an absolute answer. It can't be maybe. Either yes or no. After I answer that question the next one I ask myself is more difficult. Why? Why did I like the movie? Why didn't I like the movie? And the answer can't be a simple "because". What kind of review would that make? This is a good movie because. Thank you and good night.

I mention all of this because after watching John Turturro's "Fading Gigolo" (2014) I had a more difficult time than usual answering the questions. I was somehow stuck in the middle. Initially I was going to give the movie three stars but it didn't feel right to me. I couldn't justify a recommendation. What would it be based upon? I didn't find the movie to be completely entertaining or satisfying. But why?

In "Fading Gigolo" Turturro stars as Fioravante. He works part time in a flower shop. His best friend is Murray (Woody Allen). Murray owns a bookstore that after years of business, he inherited the store form his father, must close its doors. Both men are strapped for cash.

During a visit to Murray's dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), she mentions to him in passing that her and her friend, Selima (Sofia Vergara) were talking about how they would like to have a menage a trois. She asks Murray if he knows anyone that would be interested. Now, why a dermatologist is speaking this way to a patient is beyond me and why she would ask him to help is a another story. All I can say is, I better start going to see a dermatologist. Who knows what can happen!

Murray suggest his friend Fioravante would be able to do it. Fioravante is shocked. He is an older man. He doesn't consider himself attractive. And, he has never done anything like this before. Murray suggest they ask the women to pay a fee, thus making Murray Fioravante's pimp.

At this point you really don't know what to expect from "Fading Gigolo". Is it going to turn into a raunchy sex comedy? It is going to tell us you can't have sex without love? Is there some moral to this story?

That's largely the problem with "Fading Gigolo". I could never tell its intentions. What is the purpose of this story? What did John Turturro want the audience to think after the picture?

The plot soon focuses on a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn (the film takes place in New York) and a widow named Avigal (Vanessa Paradis, who I first noticed in the movie "Cafe de Flore" (2011), she is a well known singer in France). Her husband has been dead for two years. Together they had six children. Also in the community is Dovi (Liev Schreiber) he patrols the neighborhood. We also catch him staring at Avigal. He admires her from afar.

Murray, sensing Avigal's loneliness, suggest she meet his friend, who now calls himself Virgil. The movie now is about the difference in culture between Hasidic Jews and the Gentiles. The Hasidic community, in particular Dovi frown upon "their women" mixing with non-Jews.

It's not exactly clear what any of this has to be with Turturro's original concept? Turturro has said in interviews, one of the original ideas to intrigue him to make this movie was the idea of people paying someone to be with them because they are lonely. But, I just feel there were other ways Turturro could have given that theme across without involving Hasidic Jews and getting bogged down in explaining this community (which the movie never does).

When I first saw the trailers for "Fading Gigolo" I thought it seemed like a vanity project for Turturro. An older guy having the opportunity to film sex scenes with beautiful women. In this one movie Turturro would position himself as a handsome man. Women would throw themselves at him and call him a great lover.

After watching "Fading Gigolo" my original thought may not have been too far off. "Fading Gigolo" seems to have nothing to say about these characters or sex. It throws a twist late in the game at us which comes out of nowhere and gave the audience no prior warning as to the characters feelings for one another.

Does "Fading Gigolo" want to say something about women? What goes on in their heads? How do they view love and sex? The movie almost makes no comment on any character's behavior. Nothing is learned.

Turturro is a talented actor. He may be best known to the public for his work with the Coen Brothers in movies like "The Big Lebowski" (1998) and Spike Lee movies; "Girl, 6" (1996) and "Clockers" (1995). He was also in Robert Redford's great "Quiz Show" (1994) and co-starred with Woody Allen in the "comedy" "Company Man" (2000), which neither man directed.

Woody Allen on the other hand is the greatest comedy filmmaker since Charlie Chaplin. He usually doesn't appear in other director's movies (Allen says because no one asks). Though his role here reminded me of the character he played in "The Front" (1976). That movie was about communism and the blacklist, but, Allen played a bookie.

It is always a pleasure to see Allen onscreen but he actually isn't that funny in this movie. He is doing his usual schtick, the stuttering, the wild hand gestures, the cowardice behavior, but it doesn't translate as well because Turturro hasn't given him much to work it. Though between Allen and Turturro, Allen has the better character and is more pleasurable to watch onscreen. At least Allen gave us "Magic in the Moonlight" (2014) this year, which is more entertaining to watch than this.

"Fading Gigolo" feels like a missed opportunity. It could have used a few more re-writes. It needed a definite position. It needed to make a statement. To better understand its characters. And to have better jokes.  

Film Review: World's Greatest Dad

"World's Greatest Dad"  *** (out of ****)

This review is dedicated to Robin Williams, who died on August 11, 2014. He was 64 years old.

When it was revealed Robin Williams had died, I, like most people, was sad and shocked. I didn't expect it. I didn't see it coming. And, while everyone started re-watching "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993) or "Aladdin" (1992) or "Good Will Hunting" (1997), for which he won an Academy Award for best supporting actor, another movie came to mind, this Bobcat Goldthwait dark comedy, "World's Greatest Dad" (2009).

I remember when this movie was released in theatres but I never got around to seeing it. I thought of the movie in reference to Williams' death only because it deals with death and suicide. I wondered, if now, after Williams death, we could read something into the movie. Were the signs of depression there in Williams? What type of projects were interesting him to work on?

A lot of people fail to realize or chose not to think about it, but, comedy is very dark. Happy people usually don't become famous comedians. Whether it is Richard Lewis, Woody Allen or Charlie Chaplin, comedians have been known to deal with personal demons. They are sad people. Richard Lewis, for example, wrote a book about his problems called "The Other Great Depression".

Comedy can touch on serious subjects. Comedy takes real issues, real problems, and tweaks it here and there to find humor. Comedy can deal with death, divorce and even suicide as in the case of "World's Greatest Dad". Comedy comes from a dark corner in people's souls. It doesn't surprise me to know Robin Williams was depressed. It is the nature of comedy. Only after going through pain can you begin to laugh. Comedy shows us the world and human nature in a gentle way but makes us face our faults.

In "World's Greatest Dad" Williams plays Lance Clayton, a poetry teacher (perhaps a nod to "Dead Poets Society" (1989), his Oscar nominated role) who has never been published. He has written a few novels but has had no success. He wants to become famous, the creative process is not enough for him. He wants to make money and be loved by the public.

Lance has a son, Kyle (Danyl Sabara). Kyle is a loner. He stays in his room and watches porn mostly. He only has one friend, Andrew (Evan Martin), who he bosses around. Kyle wants nothing to do with his father. Whenever Lance makes a suggestion for the two of them to hang out, Kyle rejects it as a dumb idea. The two have nothing in common and each day it becomes a little harder for the two to communicate.

If his relationship with his son isn't difficult enough, Lance must also contend with his "girlfriend", Claire (Alexie Gilmore). Both are teachers at the same school and must keep their relationship hidden. Claire does such a good job of hiding their relationship she doesn't even have time for Lance. Instead Claire spends all her time with another male teacher, Mike (Henry Simmons). Claire says the two are just friends, but, when was the last time you could trust a woman? Lance has eyes and can see what is going on, even if sometimes he won't admit it to himself.

Lance has a job he doesn't like, surrounded by people he doesn't like, a girlfriend he can't trust and a son that doesn't seem to like him. Why can't Lance get ahead? Why does it always seem to be to other people that have good things happen to them? Why do other people always seem happier? When will our time come? When will life ease up on us and stop being such a miserable, gruesome, challenging experience?

As faith would have it, Lance's son would have to kill himself before good things begin to happen. One day, Lance finds Kyle accidentally killed himself while masturbating. Kyle liked to put a belt around his neck and choke himself before reaching climax. Something went wrong and now Kyle is dead. Wanting to protect his son's image, Lance rearranges things so it looks as if Kyle hanged himself and left a suicide note.

The note goes public and is published in the school paper. Soon, people who never liked Kyle, now feel a connection with him. Kyle was "one of them". Kyle represented every person that ever felt like an outsider. Lance's poetry class becomes popular as all the other students want to ask Lance about Kyle's likes. The school library will be named after Kyle, when it is discovered Kyle had a love of writing. Actually, Lance wrote a pretend diary for Kyle, representing his daily struggle.

Lance is asked to be on TV shows, Claire starts paying more attention to him, life finally seems good. People notice Lance, but, it is Kyle that is getting all the attention. And people only want to be close to Lance to feed off of his 15 minutes of fame.

And here "World's Greatest Dad" hits on some uncomfortable truths about people and society. People are no good. They are evil, jealous and greedy. People are only interested in filling their own pockets. People will latch themselves on to other's success. They will exploit someone's grief for their own gain. And, we turn the dead into symbols. We champion causes in their honor. As a way to remember someone. But, half the time, we don't know these people. We project ourselves onto them. They become what we want them to be. In the end, it all boils down to, everything is about us.

"World Greatest Dad" hits its mark. It presents its ideas clearly. It makes its social commentary in a non-threatening way. It is subtle. The performance given by Robin Williams is subtle. He is a man defeated. Life has beaten him up. There is anger and hostility there but Williams keeps it all inside. This is not one of his "maniac" roles. This is not the genie in "Aladdin", or his character in "The Birdcage" (1996). He doesn't do voices and impressions here. There is despair hidden in this character.

My biggest problem however with "World's Greatest Dad" is it is not funny enough. There were no big laughs. I smile and nodded at the picture. I may have chuckled (do people still chuckle?) once or twice but a big belly laugh? No. Not for me. The comedy in this comedy is wanting. The social message in this comedy is strong for the most part. That is what makes the movie work. It has something to say and says it, despite coping out a bit at the end. I would have preferred a darker ending. I don't want to see characters have a moment of clarity. I don't believe that exist. I liked the more cynical nature of the film.

The fact that Robin Williams could do a movie like this and "Jumanji" (1995) says something about his talents. He could be bright and bouncy in one movie and dark in another. He plays a serial killer in Christopher Nolan's brilliant "Insomnia" (2002) with Al Pacino, a remake of an equally great Scandinavian film. But then he acted in another dark comedy, directed by Danny DeVito, "Death to Smoochy" (2002) or what about his role in "One Hour Photo" (2002)?

Williams didn't seem to have a middle ground. It is either a maniac character or a reclusive, tormented person. Was the real Williams like that? Happy one moment, sad the next. I don't know and it would be foolish for me to "read" into the man.

Born Robin McLaurin Williams on July 21, 1951, Williams first came to the public's attention playing one of those maniac, bright and bouncy characters, an alien named Mork on the television show "Mork & Mindy". The series ran from 1978 until 1982. Williams even won a Golden Globe after the show's first year for best actor. He would also get to work with one of his comedy heroes, Jonathan Winters, on the show.

The TV success lead to his first major starring role in a movie, working with the legendary director, Robert Altman, on "Popeye" (1980), with Williams in the title role. From there Williams would go on to receive a total of four Oscar nominations. Three of them would be in the best actor category for his roles in "Good Morning Vietnam" (1987), "The Dead Poets Society" and "The Fisher King" (1991). The one time he won was in the best supporting actor category for "Good Will Hunting".

Williams' incredible improv skills and rapid wit will truly be missed. He was always "on", always funny. Always doing anything for a laugh when he was in front of an audience. He was a brave performer, willing to walk to the edge and then deciding to go a little further.

I only know Bobcat Goldthwait on the other hand from his work in "Police Academy 2" (1985) and its sequel "Police Academy 3" (1986). I wasn't expecting this type of movie from him, both in humor and commentary. He is an interesting voice. It will be interesting to see what else he has in store for us.

Film Review: Goldfinger

"Goldfinger"  *** (out of ****)

"Goldfinger" (1964) was the third Ian Fleming novel to be made into a motion picture after "Dr. No" (1962) and "From Russia With Love" (1963) and is considered by many to be the standard of excellence all other Bond films must be compared to.

"From Russia With Love" established the Bond formula as we knew it pre-Daniel Craig but "Goldfinger" may have perfected it.

As with the two previous Bond films this one stars Sean Connery as secret agent 007, who is widely believed to have been the best James Bond.

Watching "Goldfinger" again I noticed something that first caught my eye when I re-watched "The Spy Who Loved Me" (1977) with Roger Moore (my favorite Bond). The public's general perception of James Bond is that he is basically an adolescent, always chasing after pretty girls. That simply is not true. Pay attention to a moment  early on in "Goldfinger". We see Bond (Connery) on a mission. He is in a hotel room with a pretty girl. He can see a man approaching him from behind with a gun. He notices this in a reflection of the girl's eye. Without thinking twice about it Bond uses the girl as a shield and she takes a hit on the head as the man strikes her instead. Then Bond throws an electric fan in a bathtub and electrocutes the man stating that the situation is "shocking".

In this moment we notice two things. One is Bond is always focused on his mission. Women aren't a distraction to him. They are a tool to be used to gather information. Bond flirts with women the way a femme fatale lures men into committing murder. It's not personal, its business. Bond would never allow a women to interfere with his mission. His assignment is always his main goal. Remember, Bond usually can't charm the male villains the way he does the female characters.

The second thing you notice is the humor of Connery's Bond. People used to (and some still do) complain about Roger Moore's interpretation of Bond as being "too comical". The late Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel used to say Moore looked like a guy who didn't want to get his tuxedo messed up. His clothes were always perfectly in place. But, that is not fair. Pay attention to Connery. After every fight Connery's hair never moves. His clothes are always in place. It rarely looks like anything phases him. He is cool, calm and collected. It is comical and Connery seems to be more of an action star compared to Moore.

When the plot demands it though Connery takes it all very serious. The best example would be the famous scene where Bond is tied down to a table as a gold laser is about to cut him in half. "Do you expect me to talk?" Bond asks Goldfinger (Gert Frobe). "No Mr. Bond. I expect you to die." is his reply. In that moment there is genuine suspense. Will Bond die? Is this the end of the Bond franchise? Audiences in 1964 may not have been sure of the answer to those questions. And Connery plays it for all its worth.

"Goldfinger" really has a rather simple plot. A man named Goldfinger wants to break into Fort Knox and make the world's gold supply radio-active, thus increasing the value of his gold supply and causing economic chaos world wide. And that is only revealed to us an hour into the movie. But, plot isn't what makes "Goldfinger" fun to watch or memorable. You could argue the same is true for a number of Bond films.

What makes "Goldfinger" fun to watch is the beautiful women, the gadgets, the cars, the villains and the wise-cracks. It is style over substance. It is all atmosphere. It enjoys the conventions of the Bond formula.

"Goldfinger" has a lot of "first". It was the first time Guy Hamilton directed a Bond film. He would go on to direct "Live and Let Die" (1973), which marked Roger Moore's debut as Bond, "The Man With the Golden Gun" (1974), another Roger Moore Bond movie and "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971) again with Sean Connery.

It was also the first time Shirley Bassey would sing a Bond song. "Goldfinger" may be the most memorable of all the Bond songs. Perhaps only "Nobody Does It Better", from "The Spy Who Loved Me", is as popular. Bassey would go on to sing the title song for "Diamonds Are Forever" and "Moonraker" (1979), which is better than most people give it credit for.

And, most importantly it was the first time we see Bond drive an Aston Martin. The only other time would be in "Skyfall" (2012). I remember seeing "Skyfall" in a movie theatre and the crowd cheered when they saw the car.

"Goldfinger" probably has the greatest name of all time for a Bond girl, Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) who works as a pilot for Goldfinger. But, she is not the greatest Bond girl of all time. She is not given much to do in the film. She is not really an active participant in a large majority of the plot. The name is what makes her memorable. Not her acting.

I used to think "Goldfinger" was the greatest of all the James Bond movies. But, watching it again prior to this review, my feelings changed. I don't see it as a great piece of cinematic art. I see it as a good action movie. Connery is fun to watch. The Bond girls are pretty. I like the Goldfinger character and his henchman, Oddjob (Harold Sakata). There are things that are fun to watch. There are moments of enjoyment. But, a great movie? I'm not so sure of that anymore.

As I say, plot isn't the driving factor in this movie. It is style over substance. And, that hurts the movie for me a bit. I'm not actively involved myself. Oh, there is a scene or two that I have mentioned when Connery creates suspense as to the faith of the character but overall you aren't rooting for much.

There will be those that my say I am being too harsh. I am expecting too much from the movie. I should enjoy it for what it is. I do enjoy it for what it is. A decent action movie. I like the movie. I recommend seeing it. The movie was even nominated for an Academy Award in the best sound effects category. Of all the categories this movie could have been nominated in, the Academy chose best sound effects. Not even best song at least.

"Goldfinger" has a lot that makes it memorable. Good villains, beautiful women, a great car and a terrific song.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Film Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"  *** (out of ****)

After watching the latest live action movie adaptation of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (2014) and the huge amount of disappointment I felt afterwards, it seemed like a good idea to go back to watch the original live action movie version, the 1990 adaptation.

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" originally began as a comic book published by Mirage Studios in 1984 by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. It was intended to be a parody of existing comic book superheroes such as Marvel Comics' Daredevil character and New Mutants as well as Frank Miller's Ronin.

While I have never read these comic books (comics was never really my thing) I have been told these comics had a very dark and serious tone to them.

In 1987 a Saturday morning cartoon adaptation was created, which lasted until 1996. Other versions followed, but, for the purpose of this review we will only discuss the original cartoon series. It became very popular with young children. An impressive marketing line was created featuring action figures, t-shirts, bedding, lunchboxes, pencils, Halloween costumes and video games. Even I must admit to having these products when I was younger and was a fan of the Saturday morning cartoon.

With all of this marketing in place and a built-in fan base a live action motion picture only seemed natural. Even if the movie was bad it was going to make money because children would be excited to see the ninja turtles "come to life" on the movie screen. And, you wouldn't know the movie is bad until after you've seen it and spent your money. I also remember when this movie was released and pleaded with my parents to take me to see it.

This version of ninja turtles is much more playful and comical compared to the Michael Bay over-budgeted remake. In my review of Bay's adaptation I wrote the movie takes itself too serious. You have to have a sense of humor when dealing with a movie about human sized, English speaking, pizza loving ninja turtles. I also wrote all I saw on screen when watching the new version was an over budgeted silly story.

Make no mistake about it, this 1990 version is not a great movie. It is not as intellectually stimulating to me as watching an Ingmar Bergman or Akiria Kurosawa film, but, it has fun with the concept. It is basically a live cartoon. Children who walked into this movie would be pleased. They are familiar with the characters, their personalities are presented faithfully and they will laugh at Michelangelo's wise-cracks. He is usually the favorite character of any young boy.

As I watched Bay's version I felt the idea of humans talking to giant turtles and a rat was just too bizarre. I suggested the movie should have been done in animation. When a movie is animated there is a greater level of suspension of belief. You can get away with more. You can ask more of your audience because it is not a reflection of the real world. We understand that walking into the movie. Having live actors interact with turtles and rats was too much for me to accept.

And that is an important difference between the 1990 movie and the 2014 movie. In the 1990 version, the turtles aren't meant to look real. In the 2014 movie they are. Some Hollywood genius got the idea, hey, why don't we remake the ninja turtles. There have been so many technical advancements with computers we could surely make the ninja turtles look more realistic than the human sized puppets used in the original.

This was the same problem I had with Peter Jackson when he remade "King Kong" (2005). Yes, Kong looks better. They threw a lot of money into the production. But, does that mean it was necessary? The 1933 version of Kong was fine. Yes, it looked fake but it was a fantasy adventure movie. Kong didn't have to look real. The same principle applies to the ninja turtles. The turtles don't have to look real in order for the movie to work.

Watching "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" it wasn't strange for me to see the turtles interact with humans. It was like watching "The Muppet Movie" (1979). In fact, Jim Henson was responsible for the ninja turtle costumes in the movie. The look of the turtles help add to the cartoon effect of the movie. The fact that the turtles don't look real makes it okay when you see humans talk back. Though, for a child, it would be very exciting to see the turtles presented this way because this is how they would envision the cartoon characters looking in "the real world".

The movie takes place in 1990 New York City. Crime is rampant. A group known as The Foot is suspected of being behind recent robberies. Nothing is safe. We see televisions stolen, people being pick-pocketed and delivery trucks stolen within the blink of an eye. A news reporter, April O' Neil (Judith Hoag) reports on these daily activities and blames the police chief, Sterns (Raymond Serra), who has no clues on The Foot and is not able to stop them.

April's boss, Charles (Jay Patterson) is getting pressure from Sterns and the Mayor to tell April to lay off. Her reports only make the people angry and the police cannot stop the crime. They want April off the story. Plus, Charles has his own problems trying to raise his teenage son, Danny (Michael Turney) who is going through that whole angst period.

One day April is attacked by The Foot, a clan that dresses like ninjas and is comprised of young boys. Coming to April's defense, from the sewers, is four human sized turtles who are ninjas themselves. They attack the clan without April seeing who did it however one of the turtles leaves their weapon behind.

In order to get the weapon back, Raphael (Josh Pais, who sounds a lot like Andrew Dice Clay) follows April, who is attacked once again, as the clan suspects she is in with the turtles, and rescues her, bringing her to the sewer where the turtles and their father figure, a human sized, English speaking with a Japanese accent, rat named Splinter (Kevin Clash) lives.

Splinter explains how he was the pet of a ninja back in Japan. They came to New York where Splinter was left on his own. While in a sewer he noticed four turtles in a radioactive substance. He gathered the turtles together for protection and noticed the next day they had grown in size and spoke English. He decided to teach the turtles the way of the ninja and gave them names; Leonardo (David Forman / Brian Tochi voice), Donatello (Leif Tilden / Corey Feldman voice), Raphael and Michelangelo (Michelan Sisti/ Robbie Rist voice).

The head of the clan, Shredder (James Saito) learns about the turtles and how they are interfering with his crime wave. He wants to capture the turtles and kill them.

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" does a pretty bad job developing characters. The human characters fare the worst. Not much is really known about April O' Neil but the worst is Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) a street thug who becomes friends with the turtles and serves as an eventual love interest for April. When Casey first sees the turtles he doesn't even question their appearance. He never asks for an explanation. He doesn't seem surprised. Have New Yorkers really seen it all? No real back story for him is given. And, if he is to serve as the love interest, nothing is developed between him and April. We never sense any chemistry between them. We don't see love blossom between them.

Only two of the turtles are shown as having distinct personalities which helps us separate them. Raphael is the rebel, the teen with a chip on his shoulder. He likes to beat people up and ask questions later. Michelangelo on the other hand is seen as the wise-cracking party guy. The other two turtles; Donatello and Leonardo aren't given much to work with. I was never sure which is which. Fans will argue it is easy to tell which turtle is which by the color of the mask they wear. I am color blind so I can't tell based on that alone. I need a personality to tell them apart. A filmmaker or screenwriter should not rely on the color of a mask to help its audience tell which character is which. Work on development of character. Give them something to do.

It is silly to wonder if this movie is trying to make some sort of social statement. It is a movie about turtles. But, what is/was the point of all of this? Why make this movie? Does it say anything? Or, was it all just an attempt to make money and cash in on the marketing success already established by the Saturday morning cartoon? It was clearly an attempt to make money. Notice the product placement; Burger King, Domino's Pizza. But is there anything to the story?

It is interesting the younger characters are products of a broken home. Danny doesn't seem to have a mother. It is only his father we see take care of him. We suspect the teenagers we see working for The Foot come from broken homes. The turtles have a father figure but no mother figure. There is no Mrs. Splinter. This makes the young boys feel like outsiders.

I would imagine one theme of the movie is families stick together. To follow the old cliche, the family that plays together, stays together. When people work together they are at their strongest. As individuals we all have something that makes us special but when people work as a unit, they are unbeatable.

The movie was directed by Steve Barron. He worked on music videos prior to the movie. He directed the video Burning Up for Madonna and Reckless for Bryan Adams. He also directed the SNL movie adaptation of "The Coneheads" (1993). Nothing in this movie suggest the work of a truly talented filmmaker, a visionary. Just about anyone could have directed this. Just don't try to do anything fancy and keep the actors in focus. To Barron's credit, he does just that.

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" was a hit at the box-office, grossing more than a $100 million dollars. Two more sequels followed. This is the movie version I would recommend watching if you want to see the ninja turtles brought to life. Leave the Michael Bay adaptation alone.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Film Review: Dark Passage


This review is dedicated to Lauren Bacall, who died on August 12, 2014. She was 89 years old.

"Dark Passage"  **** (out of ****)

"Dark Passage" (1947) was the third film, out of four, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall acted alongside each other in. It is also considered the weakest of the four. The others were; "To Have and Have Not" (1944), where Bacall made her film debut, "The Big Sleep" (1946) and "Key Largo" (1948).

Those movies had the benefit of having major directors behind them. Howard Hawks directed "To Have and Have Not" and "The Big Sleep". John Huston was the man behind "Key Largo". For "Dark Passage" however Delmar Davis is the director. For me, the weakest of the three directors.

Davis directed  some good movies such as the classic western "3:10 To Yuma" (1957) and the Cary Grant vehicle "Destination Tokyo" (1943). He started off in Hollywood as a screenwriter at Warner Brothers, writing musicals like "Dames" (1934) with Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. He also wrote "The Petrified Forest" (1936) with Leslie Howard, Bette Davis and a young Humphrey Bogart. But a better director behind "Dark Passage" may have preserve its reputation a bit more. Funny enough, it is because of its reputation I chose this film to serve as my tribute to Lauren Bacall. I wanted to bring more attention to it.

"Dark Passage" is also known for the gimmick of not showing Bogart's face until 62 minutes into this 106 minute film. In the first 20 or so minutes of the film it is told from a first person perspective, meaning the camera itself is the Bogart character and the viewer watches the movie through his eyes. Oddly enough another movie released in 1947, "Lady in the Lake" directed by Robert Montgomery, took this idea one step further and told the entire picture in a first person perspective.

"Dark Passage" starts off with Vincent Parry (Bogart) escaping San Quentin prison by rolling off a truck in a barrel. We hear the police sirens in the background. Parry figures, at best, he has 15 minutes before the police catch up with him. He tries to hitch a ride. A young man named Baker (Clifton Young, best known for his work in the "Our Gang" series, going back to 1926) stops for him but begins asking a lot of questions. Soon there is a police bulletin on the radio about an escaped convict on the loose. Baker puts the pieces together and knows who he has just picked up. But, before Baker can turn him in, Parry beats the man up and steals his clothes.

Soon another vehicle passes on the road and notices the abandon car Parry was driving in, he is still changing his clothes. Irene Jansen (Bacall) was the one who passed him on the road. She instantly recognizes Parry but wants to help him instead. She tells Parry to hide in the backseat of her car and she will take him to San Francisco.

The only way Parry will ever escape the police is if he changes his face and gets plastic surgery. At the suggestion of a cab driver, who knows a guy, Parry agrees to have the work done. With his new face Parry is a dead ringer for Humphrey Bogart.

Irene Jansen wants to help Parry by giving him a place to stay before he makes his next move. She has sympathy for him because she attended his trial every day. She thinks Parry is innocent. Parry was convicted of murdering his wife. What Parry doesn't know is Irene is "friends" with Madge Rapf (Agnes Moorehead, known for her roles in "Citizen Kane" (1941), "Jane Eyre" (1943) and "Show Boat" (1951), she is the woman that testified against Parry. He blames her for his conviction. He believes she did what she did out of spite since Parry was not interested in dating her.

Everything I have described to you takes place within the first hour of the film. These moments work best. There is some suspense. Will the police find Parry? There is intrigue. Who exactly is Parry? Is he really a killer? Who is Irene? Will Parry kill Irene? And there is a lot of chemistry between Parry and Irene (Bogart and Bacall were married at this time). In fact, I would go as far as saying Lauren Bacall is the reason the movie works. Her presence makes the movie feel alive. Her interaction with Bogart is what gives the movie its spark. Bacall lightens up the screen with her elegance and beauty. But she has more than that. She could act. And she makes us believe in her character. There is a lot there that is not being said about her character in the movie.

But then "Dark Passage" shifts gears just a bit. Parry, with his new face, must find out who really killed his wife. And when he does this, the Irene character is dropped. From this point on, I find the remaining 40 not as strong as the first hour.

"Dark Passage" isn't really a "detective story". Parry isn't putting together a puzzle piece by piece, bringing him one step closer to the killer. There is not a gang of suspects. "Dark Passage" is the story of a man on the run from his past. It makes some interesting  decisions and may not give some viewers the satisfying ending you'd expect from a Hollywood picture.

At first I thought one of the problems with "Dark Passage" is it takes too long to set-up the plastic surgery gimmick, unless you were going to make to the movie longer. I felt everything would have to be rushed. You've taken one hour to show Parry's face, which inhibited him from actively pursuing his wife's killer, and left us with about 40 minutes or less to solve this mystery. You can't go into details at this time. You can only focus on the big picture and draw quick conclusions.

But that was me expecting "Dark Passage" to be one type of movie when it isn't. I wasn't accepting the movie on its own terms. "Dark Passage" isn't really a "dark" film the way we think of other noir films. Some of the beginning is, only because of the gimmick to hide Bogart's face, but after a while the movie doesn't take place in dark alleys.There is no detective character hot on Parry's trail.

Yes, there is a scene or two when someone might suspect who Parry is but overall I think that is the point. It is the story of a man in a constant state of fear. Afraid of being discovered, of being outed.

What is also interesting to discuss is, what is the film's theme? What is it trying to tell us about society, if anything? I would say clearly we are dealing with a theme of identity. Who is Vincent Parry? He must change who he is in order to survive. What about the fact the movie was made after WW2. Is there any connection to that? Men came back from a war. Some had to kill. Sure, they were defending their country. They weren't convicted murders. They were innocent. But war changes a man. What if some wished they could change their face and become a different person?

Also, around this time the House of Un-American Activities was starting to turn to Hollywood. According to Wikipedia "in 1947, the committee held nine days of hearing into alleged communist propaganda and influence in the Hollywood motion picture industry." What I can also tell you is both Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart were outspoken critics of the committee.

So, a story about a person afraid of being "outed" could have connected with the time period. The story of a person living in shadows, having to change their identity. The idea of being falsely accused of an action you didn't commit.

Having seen "Dark Passage" three times now, it has grown on me more and more after each viewing. I like Bogart, who could play the hero and the murderer in movies. I like the inventiveness of the first person perspective gimmick. I enjoy the banter between Lauren Bacall and Bogart. I like the set-up to the surgery. I like the ending. I appreciate it didn't go in another direction. The more "safe" and "happy" ending. And I think Bacall steals the show.

Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske on September 16, 1924 in the Bronx, New York, to a Romanian-Jewish mother and a Polish-Jewish father. When Bacall was a teenager she became a fashion model appearing on the cover of Harper's Bazaar and Vogue.

At age 17, in 1942 Bacall made her Broadway debut, after taking classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in a walk-on role in the play "Johnny 2x4".

In the 1950s onward Lauren Bacall became much more selective about the roles she accepted and kind of went away. Also, Bogart died in 1957, which was a struggle for her to deal with, though she did remarry to Jason Robards, another wonderful actor. Their marriage lasted from 1961 until 1969.

It wasn't until later on in life her career came into something of a second wind. At the 2010 Academy Awards she was given an honorary award. It is a shame this ceremony is no longer part of the telecast. It would give younger audiences the opportunity to discover some great names from Hollywood's past. Her career started moving again in 1996 when she was given a role in the Barbara Streisand film, "The Mirror Has Two Faces" (1996), which was kind of an update on the Spencer Tracey / Katherine Hepburn vehicle "Without Love" (1945). For that movie, Bacall won a Golden Globe for best supporting actress and a Screen Actors Guild Award. She was considered a favorite to win the Academy Award that year for best supporting actress as well, but, "The English Patient" (1996) swept that year.

Besides her work with Humphrey Bogart she appeared in such films as "How To Marry A Millionaire" (1953) and John Wayne's last movie, "The Shootist" (1976). In more recent years she was in Robert Altman's "Ready-To-Wear" (1994) and Lars von Trier's masterpiece "Dogville" (2004).

Lauren Bacall was a wonderful talent who will be missed by film fans all over the world. She could play the elegant screen beauty but she had a bit of the street smart tough girl in her. It was a nice and interesting contrast. A movie such as "Dark Passage" displays these traits. To quote a song, which plays repeatedly, in "Dark Passage" she was "too marvelous for words".

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Film Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"  * (out of ****)

When you are a child, it seems, you are capable of accepting more. For example, children watch Mickey Mouse and I believe few question how it is possible that a mouse is able to speak. It simply is what it is. As a child you have a vivid imagination. All things seem possible.

I mention this because when I was a child I remember "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" as a Saturday morning cartoon series (though it started as a comic book a few years prior). The original series aired between 1987-1996. In 1987 I was four years old. I had all the merchandise associated with the show; action figures, cars, t-shirts, blankets and video games. As a child I never really questioned how the turtles became human sized, learn to speak English and developed a taste for pizza. I am sure some explanation was given in the series, I don't remember what it was, but, whatever it was, as a child I didn't question it. If you were to ask me how it came to be I could have probably told you verbatim what the explanation was that was provided.

But, as an adult, watching this movie, it all seems odd. There really is no good explanation that can be provided to serve as a justification for how four turtles grew six feet tall, speak English, understand pop culture, eat pizza, know how to work computers and were taught to be ninjas by a rat, that has also grown to human size and speaks English.

Yes, this is a movie. And while watching a movie you have to accept certain things as what I call "movie logic". It may not make sense in the "real world" but within the world created by a movie, its logic is sound. I have been able to accept Vincent Price turning into a fly, dinosaurs coming out an extinction and killing humans, robots taking over Earth and apes being human. But, for some reason the image of a rat, acting like a samurai warrior, speaking English to six foot tall turtles just became too much for me. I couldn't accept it. And that, among other things, prevented me from enjoying this movie as I watched it with my nephew, who wasn't as familiar with the ninja turtles as I was.

I remember seeing the first two live action ninja turtle movies in the early 90s. The first one was simply titled "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (1990) and the sequel was "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze" (1991). I can barely remember the plot to those movies but I do remember the tone of those films. They were much more playful. The superhero movies of my youth were much different than the ones being released today. I remember "The Flash" TV show (1990-91), "Batman Forever" (1995) and other movies as having a more "comedic", "playful" some would even say "campy" tone. Today, these movies take themselves so serious. They are dark and brooding. Fanboys read social and political messages in them. And they are violent. But that is an old criticism. I remember people saying the first live action Ninja Turtle movie was violent. It was one of the reasons Siskel & Ebert gave it a thumbs down.

When you are dealing with a movie about talking ninja turtles you have to have a sense of humor about it. A lot in this movie takes itself serious and wants to set-up exciting action sequences (thanks Michael Bay!) which are over the top!

Besides my youth, another reason why I feel this concept worked in the past and not now is because it was animated. Your suspension of belief is greater when you see an animated movie. In the past I have referred to animated movies as the stuff dreams are made of. When watching animation anything seems possible. I remember the old cartoon series dealing with  space and time travel and why not! Our heroes are four talking turtles. In the world created in an animated series this all seems possible. Even watching the 1990 live action movie is a bit strange because you have human actors speaking directly to turtles and rats. It worked in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988) but for some reason "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" can't pull it off. And Roger Rabbit also had a lighter tone.

Megan Fox plays April O'Neil, a young journalism major who wants to cover serious news. Instead she does fluff pieces. There has been a recent crime wave in New York (go figure) by a group of people known as the foot clan. O'Neil thinks she may be on to a story as she discovers there is a vigilante group fighting back against the foot clan. What O'Neil finds out is the group fighting back is four over grown English speaking turtles. When she tries to run this story on the news, she is fired.

Though these aren't just any turtles. The back story informs us, O'Neil actually knew these turtles when she was a girl (I don't remember any of this being part of the original story). Her father, a scientist,  used the turtles and splinter, as part of a lab experiment in an attempt to create a mutagen used for healing powers.

One day there is a terrible fire in the lab and young O'Neil rescues her turtle friends, whom she has named Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello and Raphael, by taking them out of the lab and placing them in a sewer with splinter. While in the sewer the turtles and splinter become mutants, growing in size and learn to speak English. The turtles love of pizza comes from O'Neil who would feed the turtles pizza crust.

The man in charge of the foot clan is Shredder (Tohoru Masamune). His ultimate plan is to release a deadly toxin in the air killing nearly everyone, bringing New York down.

But what am I talking about here? Does anyone care? Does the plot matter? Who is going to see this movie, which is doing very well this weekend. The screening I attended, on a Saturday morning, wasn't filled with children as I thought it would be. It was filled with people my age, thirty-somethings, who I guess wanted to see the movie for nostalgia sake.

So, the important stuff. How do the turtles look? I suppose good. They look more "realistic" than the turtles in the 1990 movie. Now, my question is, is that a good thing? Do you want to see realistic six foot turtles talking? This version is darker, Megan Fox is taking her role very serious. Shredder is a dark character, which tries to give the movie a realistic tone as well. The fight scenes go on too long. About 15 minutes of this movie could have been cut. The film is one hour and 45 minutes. It was difficult for me to remember which turtle is which. I guess when you've seen one turtle you've seen 'em all. And, I'm sorry, I just couldn't buy into the premise. I'm not a child any more. All I saw on that movie screen was a giant, overblown, over budgeted, silly story.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Film Review: Radio Days

"Radio Days"  **** (out of ****)

Of every movie I've ever seen, Woody Allen's "Radio Days" (1987) comes the closest to showing what my childhood was like. For that reason, among others, I enjoy watching it and it is one of my favorite Woody Allen movies.

I grew up in 1980's America in a Hungarian family. I lived with my grandparents (on my mother's side), my parents, two sisters, my aunt and on occasion (three times) we had a dog.

My grandparents were born in the mid 1920's in the small town of Szeged, Hungary. My grandmother got a job working as a movie usher and became a movie buff. Both of my grandparents loved the movies and music of their youth - both American culture of the time period and Hungarian.

Because I lived with them, when I was born they would share with me all of their favorite movies and music. As a result I grew up listening to all the music of the 1930's & 1940's. By the time I went to school I knew all the big band leaders - Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Leo Reisman and Glenn Miller. I knew all the American movie stars of the period too - Clark Gable, Fred Astaire, Jean Harlow, Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Veronica Lake. Because Hungarian movies and music were hard to come by in those days (and they still are) I didn't have much exposure to those things, only my grandparents and my father's stories. They would tell me about Pal Javor (considered the first leading man in Hungarian cinema in the 1930's) and the movies he made with Karady Katalin. We would listen to music by Sandor Lakatos and Lajos Boross, two of the greatest Hungarian violinist in the 1950's.

Sharing these stories with friends, it wouldn't seem I grew up in the 1980's. My family and I seemed trapped in a time warp. In our house we were stuck in 1930's and 40's American culture and 1950's Hungarian culture. In Chicago there is a radio program, which comes on every Saturday between 1pm - 5pm, called "Those Were The Days", I would listen to it (and I still do) with my grandparents and I would hear Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Eddie Cantor and Phil Harris with his wife Alice Faye. They would also play shows like "The Lone Ranger". And I would get to see movie serials like "Flash Gordon" (1936) with Buster Crabbe, "The Green Hornet" (1940) and "The Shadow" (1940). My father and I would watch the TV show "The Lone Ranger" with Clayton Moore together on Saturday afternoons.

I remember the first time I dressed up for Halloween. There was going to be a neighborhood party, so all the kids would get to show off their costumes. I was four years old and decided to dress up as the Lone Ranger. None of the other kids knew who I was supposed to be. At that time the popular costume was Freddie Krueger from the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series of movies. I didn't know what that was at the time for two reasons. One, I didn't like to watch horror movies when I was younger because, of course, they scared me. And my parents wouldn't let me watch them anyway. Number two was because it was too modern for me to know about. I saw about five or six other kids dressed as this character and not knowing what it was, it scared the life out of me. I started crying and my parents had to take me home. No one was scared of my Lone Ranger costume, in case you were wondering.

I share these stories with readers so you have some perspective when I say "Radio Days" represents my childhood too. I know every song Woody Allen uses in the movie. They played (loudly) at our house too. The tunes include "Body & Soul", "I Double Dare You", "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You", "You & I", "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" and "September Song" among others. In a direct connection to my childhood Allen also uses "South American Way" by Carmen Miranda, it is a favorite song of one of the characters in the movie and was a favorite of my grandmother's. I remember the first time I saw Carmen Miranda in the movie "The Gang's All Here" (1943). There was never a character like her. She completely amazed me with her costumes.

"Radio Days" is Woody Allen's nostalgic look at his childhood, growing up in the 1940's in New York. The movie ends on New Year's Eve 1944, taking us through the war years. Allen serves as the movie's narrator and shows us a middle-class Jewish family. Living together is Joe (Seth Green), the "Woody Allen" character as a seven year old boy, his parents (Julie Kavner and Michael Tucker), his Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest), his grandparents (Leah Carrey and William Magerman) and various cousins (Josh Mostel and Renee Lippin). They are cramped together but happy, when not arguing with each other. They all listen to the radio, which provides them with great music, a glimpse into how the rich and famous live, adventure by listening to shows like "The Masked Advenger" (voiced in the movie by Wallace Shawn), a favorite of Joe and gives them important news, both abroad, hearing stories about the war and locally, a young girl falls into a well and a rescue mission which ensues. The radio was an extended member of the family. It created a sense of community. Everyone was hearing the same thing. For the next generation television would have the same effect.

Some have said "Radio Days" was Allen's attempt at making his own "Amarcord" (1973) the entertaining Fellini film about life in 1930's Italy. It was supposed to be based on Fellini's childhood, but, with Fellini you can never be sure what is fact and what is fiction. If you have seen both movies you can see the connection. It is no secret Woody Allen is a fan of Fellini. His "Stardust Memories" (1980) was said to be inspired by Fellini's "8  1/2" (1963). But, "Radio Days" feels personal. Perhaps Allen borrowed the structure, which is a loose episodic film, but the memories are Allen's.

As is usually the case when Allen makes a period film - "Sweet and Lowdon" (1999), "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994), "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985) and "Midnight in Paris" (2011), Allen gets the "feel" of the times correct. Although this is a sentimental look at the past, Allen isn't playing around with the facts too much. The costume and production design is fairly accurate. The music fits the time period, in fact Allen often plays it really safe and uses a lot of songs from the late 1930's and goes right up to 1943 with songs like "You'll Never Know".

Allen does have some fun though with radio myths and famous personalities. He has some fun with Orson Welles famous "War of the Worlds" broadcast and popular shows at the time. Allen creates a character, Sally White (Mia Farrow) who some have suggested is based on Hedda Hopper. Sally is a young woman who greatly wants to break into radio though she really doesn't have the talent.

The movie was fairly successful critically. It was nominated for two Academy Awards - "Best Original Screenplay" and "Best Art Direction". It lost both awards but was also placed on Siskel & Ebert's "top ten" list that year. Allen fans generally consider the soundtrack to be one of his best.

"Radio Days" is a great look back at a special time in American culture. If you are familiar with this time period you should enjoy it. If you aren't it might prove to be interesting though you won't have the emotional connection the rest of us have.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Film Review: The Ghost Goes West

"The Ghost Goes West"  *** (out of ****)

"The Ghost Goes West" (1935) is a supernatural romantic comedy starring Robert Donat and Jean Parker directed by that great French filmmaker, Rene Clair.

Sadly Rene Clair is all but forgotten in the U.S. a shame. Today's younger generation of movie fans are not familiar with his charming, humorous, light-hearted supernatural comedies and sometime homages to the silent films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

Clair was a favorite filmmaker of mine in my youth. I remember seeing his "I Married A Witch" (1942), which "The Ghost Goes West" shares some traits with, when I was a young boy with my grandmother, who in our family was the movie buff and shared her love of American and Hungarian movies of the 1930s and 1940s with me. When I got a little older, in my teens, I saw Clair's early French films - "Under the Roofs of Paris" (1930), "A Nous la Liberte" (1931) and my favorite "Le Million" (1931). As if it weren't already possible, I fell in love with his movies even more. Such style! Such charm! So wonderfully paced! It was hard not to be impressed with Clair's body of films.

"The Ghost Goes West" was the first film Clair made outside of France. This is a British comedy, produced by a man many consider "the father of British cinema", the famous Hungarian Sandor (Alexander in English) Korda. The movie takes place in Scotland as the Scots are about to go into battle against the English but more importantly there is a war brewing between two Scottish clans - the Glourie family and the MacClaggan family. Murdoch Glourie (Robert Donat) is considered a ladies man and not a fighter. This brings shame to the name of Glourie as the father (Morton Selten) proudly says his son will fight in battle but before he does he will get his revenge on the MacClaggan family for their harsh words. But it is never to be. The young Glourie is killed when a cannon is mistakenly fired in his direction. Murdoch dies a coward's death, never getting justice. His soul is now stuck in a state of limbo. He must stay on Earth as a ghost and haunt the Glourie castle in search of a MacClaggan to get his revenge.

After two hundred years pass the legend of the Glourie ghost grows. It is now something every villager knows about. The current occupant, Donald Glourie (also played by Donat) is broke and desperately wants to sell the castle. He may get his chance when a pretty American woman, Peggy Martin (Jean Parker, best known for her roles in the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Flying Deuces" (1939) and the Oliver Hardy / Harry Langdon comedy "Zenobia" (1939) made when Laurel & Hardy were in a contract dispute with Hal Roach). With Peggy are her mother and father - Joe (Eugene Pallette) and Gladys (Everley Gregg). They want to buy the caste and return it to America.

Comedic chaos ensues when Peggy meets the ghost of the Glourie Castle believing it is really Donald. The ghost takes a liking to Peg and innocently flirts with her while Peg thinks it is Donald coming on to her, but, Donald is too shy to let his feelings known, leaving Peg confused wondering what Donald's true feelings are.

"The Ghost Goes West" set-ups up many humorous situations involving the ghost and the romantic sub-plot is nicely done. The film's total running time is 78 minutes leaving the audience wanting more. And more should have been done with the ghost romantic sub-plot. It takes too long to establish the relationship of all the characters and doesn't dig Donald into a big enough hole while the ghost gets into all sorts of trouble as Murdoch flirts with all the pretty girls causing the women to think it is really Donald. These are missed comedic opportunities. Still, "The Ghost Goes West" is a charming comedy filled with plenty of visual gags. It could have used more one-liners as well but that was never a staple of Rene Clair's films to begin with.

The plot involving a ghost seeking revenge reminds me of the equally charming and funny French comedy "Sylvia and the Phantom" (1946) another sadly forgotten film, Clair's "I Married A Witch" dealt with a witch putting a curse on the family that burnt her family at the stake. There was also the Abbott & Costello comedy "The Time of Their Lives" (1946), one of the team's finest comedies. "The Ghost Goes West" lacks some of the big laughs of these other films or even "Topper" (1937) with Cary Grant.

Although I like Robert Donat as an actor, he is probably best known for his Academy Award winning performance in "Goodbye Mr. Chips" (1939) and the Alfred Hitchcock thriller, "The 39 Steps" (1935), often considered Hitchcock's best British film, he wasn't, for me, a comedic actor. There is some dry wit to his performance in "The 39 Steps" but it is lacking in "The Ghost Goes West". Cary Grant may have had more fun with a role like this or maybe Robert Montgomery. Both men I find more suitable to comedy and light-hearted romance. And Montgomery was in his own movie playing a spirit, "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" (1941).

Still I am afraid this all makes it sound as if I didn't enjoy watching "The Ghost Goes West". I did enjoy it. The plot is funny. There are some nice visual gags. There is some comedic tension which rises. I personally like the two lead actors and this may be one of the few movies I can think of where Eugene Pallette is given such a larger role to play. He was a character actor best known for playing sugar daddy types. When given a little more to work with, as in this movie, Pallette was quite funny.

"The Ghost Goes West" has not properly been put on DVD but it is a nice example of the type of English language comedies Rene Clair was making with its supernatural theme as seen in "I Married A Witch" and "It Happened Tomorrow" (1944). Please seek it out.