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.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Film Review: Heaven Is For Real

"Heaven Is For Real"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Just in time for Easter Sunday TriStar pictures has released "Heaven Is For Real" (2014) a movie adaptation of the New York Times bestselling book of the same title written in 2010 by Pastor Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent based on Burpo's four year old son's near death experience as he claims he went to Heaven and came back.

Since the movie's release this past Wednesday it has opened to mixed critical reviews and public reaction. Unfortunately, though perhaps obviously, the dividing lines don't necessarily have to do with cinematic taste but rather your level of faith. If you are a believer, you will probably like the movie as it will confirm your beliefs. If you are not a religious person you may not be comfortable or enjoy the movie's religious themes as it supports the young boy, Colton Burpo's claim that he did in fact go to Heaven and return.

Ever since the book's release it has been a hot topic of conversation, which the movie will only reignite as a larger audience may find it. Did young Colton actually go to Heaven? Not only Colton, but, is anyone's claim that they died, went to Heaven and returned true? Non-believers say it is all hallucination and there are logical reasons why a person may believe such claims. The funny thing though is, so many people, from all parts of the world, all tell the same story, share the same vision. How can all these people have the same hallucination?

The film follows the Burpo family headed by Pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly, seen most recently in "Flight" (2012) with Denzel Washington) their daughter Cassie (Lane Styles) and their son Colton (Connor Corum). They are your average Nebraskan family. Besides being a Pastor, Todd also volunteers with the fire department and is a very active member of the community.

The first 30 minutes of the movie goes through great lengths to show us the Burpo's are just like any other family. The children are just like yours. They deal with the same problems all families deal with; worrying if they have enough money to pay the bills, making sure their kids don't fight with each other and where to go on vacation.

It is when they return from a vacation that both children get sick. As the days pass Cassie is fine but Colton is running a 104 temperature for four days, vomits and has no energy. After they rush him to the hospital they discover the boy has a ruptured appendix and surgery is required. Fearing the worst Sonja calls friends to pray for Colton. Todd goes to the hospital's chapel and has an angry conversation with God, asking how can He take away his son?

The surgery turns out to be a success and has time passes by Colton slowing reveals his near death experience with his parents though mostly with his father. Colton tells his father during the surgery he left his body and saw his mother calling friends asking them to pray and he saw his father in the chapel yelling at God. Colton also reveals he went to Heaven and saw Jesus. He saw Todd's grandfather, who died before Colton was born. And young Colton even saw his unborn sister, who died before he was born. A story his parents never told him.

Colton can describe his experience with such vivid details that it throws Todd into a state of confusion. Even though he is a pastor and believes in God and Heaven, is his son telling the truth? Did his son really go to Heaven and see Jesus? It all test Todd and this small community's faith. Which creates an interesting question and an interesting dilemma. Why is it, all throughout history, whenever anyone from Joan of Arc to Bernadette ever claimed to see God or have a vision, it is always the church which is first to deny the claim? As believers we are now taught to trust in these things. God speaks to us. His sends messengers to us. The Archangel spoke to Mary and told her she would give birth to God's son for example. Yet, when confronted by people who share stories of vision no one believes them.

When I was a young boy there was a cemetery, just outside of Chicago, where I grew up, where there were reported vision of the Virgin Mary showing herself inside the trunk of a tree. My parents took me to the cemetery. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people were there all taking photos of the tree and this was in the old days of Polaroid cameras when the film would instantly came out of the camera and on the film you would see a vision of Mary. The church questioned the vision. My parents still have the photo though. The vision would only show up on the film. If you merely looked at the tree you wouldn't see anything.

I tell you that story because if your immediate reaction is, well, it was trick photography. Or, it had something to do with the way the sun hit the tree. Or any other explanation you can think of, you aren't the right audience for this movie. If your mind tells your heart you mustn't believe, the charms of the movie will not work on you.

"Heaven Is For Real" is a very emotional story. Watching this family trying to accept their son's stories, defending him against the skeptics, is able to touch your heart. Hearing him describe his visions will put a smile on your face and give you a warm feeling inside. But, only if you are a believer.

The movie is finely acted with Kinnear leading the pack. I have always liked Greg Kinnear ever since I saw him in his breakout role in the James L. Brooks Oscar winning romantic comedy "As Good As It Gets" (1997). Kinnear has an old-fashion sensibility which I respond to. I can picture him in a 1930s or 1940s screwball comedy. Watch him in "Ghost Town" (2008), which some have compared to "Topper" (1937) that Cary Grant, Roland Young comedy about a man who sees ghost. It was a favorite of mine when I was a child.

The movie was directed by Randall Wallace, best known for "Secretariat" (2010), another "feel good" movie and the war themed movies; "Pearl Harbor" (2001) and "We Were Soldiers" (2002), also with Kinnear and Mel Gibson, which on placed on my "top ten" list that year. He finds all the right spots to pull at our heartstrings and creates a tone nice tone throughout the movie.

This Easter weekend "Heaven Is For Real" is a nice choice for families to go and see. And after Easter, it will still be a good movie for people to see. This is a very emotional, life affirming movie with a wonderful message.
   

Monday, April 14, 2014

Film Reviews: Dom Hemingway & Under the Skin

"Dom Hemingway"  *** (out of ****)

Dom Hemingway (Jude Law) is a guy every thug knows. He served a 12 year prison sentence. He did a good thing though. He lived by the code of ethics among thugs, he didn't rat anyone out. He was a goodfella. No, wait, sorry, wrong movie. Well, sorta.

Now that Dom has been released from his sentence he wants payback. During those 12 years he was away his wife died of cancer, he never had the chance to say goodbye and he never got the chance to see his daughter, Evelyn (Emilia Clarke) grow up. Now she has a son which Dom never knew about. In fact she doesn't even meet Dom when he is released. Instead his old friend Dickie Black (Richard E. Grant) picks him up.

Given all that has happened to him, Dom expects Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir) to pay him back. Mr. Fontaine is a top thug. The man Dom protected. All Dom had to do was give the police a name and his sentence may have been reduced. But, then that would have made Dom a rat. Which is unacceptable. Mr. Fontaine knows he owes Dom.

"Dom Hemingway" is a Guy Ritchie / Quentin Tarantino-esque movie that was directed by Richard Shepard who also directed "The Matador" (2005) and a few episodes of the HBO telelvision show "Girls". And that's largely the problem. Shepard is no Ritchie or Tarantino. He lacks their visual flair. Their inventiveness.

Though "Dom Hemingway" has its own charms. Jude Law is very good in the lead. Some of the dialogue is good. But the movie feels slight. It shifts tone. It goes from a revenge thug almost comical story to a sentimental tone dealing with a man trying to reconnect with the daughter he never knew.

"Dom Hemingway" is no classic but it puts on an entertaining show and has a good performance by Jude Law, who really carries the movie.



"Under the Skin"
 * 1\2 (out of ****)

Jonathan Glazer's science-fiction adaptation of Michel Faber's novel of the same title was the big art house movie release over the weekend.

Many people were greatly looking forward to this film. Glazer has previously directed "Sexy Beast" (2001) the fantastic gangster film with Ben Kingsley and "Birth" (2004) the divisive reincarnation movie starring Nicole Kidman. I personally enjoyed both and was also looking forward to "Under the Skin".

"Under the Skin" has opened to mainly positive reviews both in the U.K., where it was released a month earlier and the U.S. But if people thought "Birth" was an audience divider wait until they see "Under the Skin" (2014).

In "Under the Skin" Scarlett Johansson plays an alien, who isn't given a name. She takes the form of an attractive young woman who is an uncanny double for Scarlett Johansson. She prowls the streets of Glasgow in a van looking for unsuspecting lonely young men, who no one would miss if they should disappear. When she finds a potential victim she brings them back to her secret hideaway where the men mysteriously vanish in a black liquid which is almost like quicksand. The men eventually evaporate and only their skin remains.

Not much is thoroughly explained in this movie. What is the ultimate goal of these aliens? What is this black liquid? Why only go after young men?

The movie seems to hit on some themes concerning beauty, being human and the powerless nature men face when confronted by a beautiful woman.

The alien played by Johansson goes through a shift and starts to show compassion towards humans after she meets a young man who suffers from neurofibromatosis, played by Adam Pearson. Initially she picks him up with the intention of taking him to the hideway but she lets him escape. It is what I like to call "the beauty and the beast" syndrome. The beautiful woman takes compassion on the ugly male. Examples are of course "Beauty and the Beast", "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "The Kings of Queens". It reinforces the concept the media and society has tried to shove down our throats that women are compassionate. They have a maternal instinct. And Johannson isn't even human in this movie yet exhibits "typical" female traits.

These moments clash with earlier scenes where Johansson leads these men to their demise and a scene on a beach involving a baby.

Those that like this movie say they enjoyed the style of the movie. They like the cinematography, the music and the eerie quality Glazer gives the movie. But no one talks about the substance. Every critic that I have read says they don't quite understand the movie but to them it doesn't matter. The style is so overwhelming. To me this is a typical example of style over substance. If critics didn't feel this is an "important", "artistic" movie they would say "Under the Skin" is a mis-guided convoluted mess.

Yes, you can sense the movie wants to be about something. There is some sort of commentary going on but I am not convinced the movie goes about presenting those themes in the best way possible.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Letterboxd.com

I thought my readers would be interested to know a new movie site I joined - letterboxd.com

On this site you can keep a movie diary of when you see movie, give them a star rating and write reviews. You can also make friends on the site and follow individuals with similar movie taste.

I have always said I never review every movie I have ever seen on this blog. But, on letterboxd.com you can now see all the movies I have seen and my ratings for them, even if I don't write a review. I am still updating everything but already I have rated more than 3,500 films compared to the 600 I have reviewed on here.

If you'd like to join the site and follow me on there here is a link to my profile:
http://letterboxd.com/alexudvary/

Film Review: Jodorowsky's Dune

"Jodorowsky's Dune"  **** (out of ****)

What if. It is a favorite question we all like to ask ourselves. What if I had done this. What if I had done that. Movie lovers have a lot of "what ifs" too. What if we could see Jerry Lewis' "The Day the Clown Cried" (1972) or what if we could see Erich von Stroheim's original "Greed" (1924) or Orson Welles' original cut of "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942) or F.W. Murnau's "4 Devils" (1928). To that list we can now add another. What if Alejandro Jodorowsky had made Dune?

"Jodorowsky's Dune" (2014) is a documentary directed by Frank Pavich which explores this concept. Jodorowsky sits down with Pavich to discuss all the preparation he had begun - storyboards, casting, costume designs, camera movements, production designs, all to have the project scraped due to finances.

For those unaware of the name, Alejandro Jodorowsky is a cult favorite filmmaker born in Chile. Before making films he joined the circus and performed as a clown. He was a puppeteer. He studied mime with Marcel Marceau and was involved with the surrealist movement. He directed avant garde theatre. All of this was brought with him when he started to make films.

He is best known for two movies; "El Topo" (1971) a spiritual spaghetti western and "The Holy Mountain" (1973) another film with spiritual themes. His last major work released in America was "Santa Sangre" (1990), the first film I ever saw by him. At its time of release the late film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert, said "this is a movie like none I have seen before, a wild kaleidoscope of images and outrages, a collision between Freud and Fellini." He even placed it on his "top ten" list that year.

Dune is a science fiction novel written by Frank Herbert in 1965. It became a world-wide best seller and received much critical praise, even winning a Hugo award in 1966. Herbert would go on to write five more sequels. According to Wikipedia the plot is described as "set in the distant future amidst a feudal interstellar society in which noble houses, in control of individual planets, owe allegiance to the Padishah Emperor, Dune tells the story of young Paul Atreides, whose noble family accepts the stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis. As this planet is the only source of the "spice" melange, the most important and valuable substance in the universe, control of Arrakis is a coveted — and dangerous — undertaking. The story explores the multi-layered interactions of politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion, as the forces of the empire confront each other in a struggle for the control of Arrakis and its "spice".

Pavich interviews Michel Seydoux, a producer who worked with Jodorowsky on preparing "Dune" as well as storyboard artist Chris Foss and H.R. Giger, who created production designs. Dan O'Bannon, a special effects artist passed away but his wife is interviewed. Each express disappointment the film was never made and tell funny stories of their first impression of Jodorowsky who is a bit eccentric.

People can argue if Jodorowsky would have made a great film or not. If he was the right director for such a film or if he casted it right. Set to act in the movie was Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and David Carradine. But what one comes away with watching "Jodorowsky's Dune" is the joy of the creative process, the power of imagination and an artist love of cinema. Even though Jodorowsky's adaptation was never made, this documentary is still a celebration of cinema. It explores an artist desire to be heard. This is what makes this documentary so fascinating and enjoyable to watch.

Jodorowsky is a great subject to interview. He is wildly expressive and tells many anecdotes. The best of them is how he was able to get Orson Welles and Salvador Dali to agree to appear in the movie and his reaction to David Lynch's 1984 adaptation of "Dune". Just interviewing Jodorowsky on his career would have made an interesting documentary. He is a man with a lot to say.

There are those who may feel this documentary is slight. It has a limited appeal. They aren't being fair. The movie is about more than just this one movie or one man. Because of that it is one of the year's best films.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Film Review: Look Who's Laughing

"Look Who's Laughing"
** 1/2 (out of ****)

I was really looking forward to seeing "Look Who's Laughing" (1941). It seemed like the type of movie which would appeal to my cinematic taste buds. In fact it is a movie which should appeal to a lot of us old-timers, those of us who grew up with the movies and radio programs of the 1930s and 40s. But, for some reason the movie didn't fully work for me.

"Look Who's Laughing" stars Edgar Bergen and his alter-ego Charlie McCarthy (I always found it funny that McCarthy gets a separate billing and would be listed as playing "himself"), Jim Jordan and Marian Jordan as Fibber McGee and Molly, Harold Peary as Gildersleeve and Lucille Ball as Julie, Edgar's assistant.

For those unaware Fibber McGee and Molly was a popular radio show airing between 1935 through 1959. A popular side character on the show was Gildersleeve which eventually had a spin off program in 1941 and in 1955 made it to television for one season. Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were also on radio which they own extremely successful program and appeared in two-reelers and feature films. If you know all of this information and are familiar with these actors and their programs, "Look Who's Laughing" has a special appeal. All of our "friends" have gathered together for a movie.

Basically "Look Who's Laughing" is half Edgar Bergen comedy meets Fibber McGee and Molly. It primarily feels like an extended Fibber McGee program with Bergen as the special guest.

Bergen plays himself, a popular radio ventriloquist, who is about to go on vacation while his assistant, Julie, is about to get married. Bergen is also something of a pilot and as he and McCarthy are in the air, they get lost and land in a small town where Fibber McGee and Molly live.

In this small town there is a lot happening. Currently the town is trying to get Hilary Horton (Neil Hamilton) to buy a piece of land in order to build an airport. If this happens there will be a great many new jobs which will be created. Also, the piece of land proposed is own by Fibber. But Gildersleeve has a deal with a competitor to build the land in a neighboring town and will receive a cut if the deal falls through. It just so happens Edgar Bergen knows Horton and would be more than happy to show him the land since we has taken a liking to Fibber McGee and Molly.

This plot takes up a majority of the movie. If you don't know much about Fibber McGee and Molly the movie does a somewhat decent job introducing them. You will come to know they are a happy but poor mid-west couple. Fibber is a bit of a dreamer and has grand ambition of perhaps one day becoming president. He likes to think of himself as a businessman. Molly stands by his stand but is critical of his schemes but doesn't prevent him from going forward. She just sort of "puts up" with him. Surprising one thing the movie doesn't do is bring their 'closet" gag to the screen. This was a running joke on the radio show. McGee had a closet full of items he has completely forgotten about and every time he would open the closet door, against Molly's protest, everything would fall on top of Fibber.

Near the end of the movie is starts to suggest Julie, who is about to marry Jerry (Lee Bonnell) is really in love with Edgar and he is really in love with her. But Edgar Bergen was not really a leading man type and so this isn't played as a straight romance. We don't even see the two of them kiss (!).

The movie, which was directed by Allan Dwan, who's career goes back to the silent era, has what used to be called a "mid western homespun" sense of humor. It is very genteel. It should be pointed out Bergen, Jim Jordan and Marian Jordan were all from Illinois. That may be why I don't like it. I can handle Fibber McGee and Molly for about 30 minutes, small doses, but a feature film is too much for me. Bergen can be very funny but needs someone to play off of. Bergen and McCarthy had a good "rival" in W.C. Fields, who would often appear on Bergen's radio show and had a "feud" with McCarthy, threatening to turn him into fire wood. They also appeared in the feature film "You Can't Cheat An Honest Man" (1939) which I strongly recommend seeing, especially if you want to see Bergen in a better movie.

The sensibility of the characters here is a little too "goody goody" for me. I like it sometimes when watching Will Rogers who had a "aw-shucks" personality, another mid-western trait. I would recommend watching his movies over this as well. See "They Had To See Paris" (1929), its sequel "Down To Earth" (1932) and "A Connecticut Yankee" (1931).

Dwan does an adequate job directing this. Peter Bogdanovich wrote about him in one of his book but I never thought much of Dwan. He also directed the Ritz Brothers in "The Gorilla" (1939), which is better than its reputation would have you believe and "The Three Musketeers" (1939). He directed a rather bland WW2 comedy "Around the World" starring band leader Kay Kyser and directed a somewhat sequel to "Look Who's Laughing" called "Here We Go Again" (1942).

Though the genteel, mid-western humor, doesn't completely appeal to me, the movie is fun to watch if only to see all these characters together. I find it difficult believing this movie would have much cross over appeal to younger audience members of today's generation but you never know.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Film Review: The Maltese Falcon

"The Maltese Falcon"  *** (out of ****)

Not so fast! It's not "The Maltese Falcon" you are thinking of. This is the 1931 film version of Dashiell Hammett's novel directed by Roy Del Ruth starring Richard Cortez and Bebe Daniels.

Of course when film lovers hear "The Maltese Falcon" they think of the 1941 version directed by John Huston (his directorial debut) starring Humphrey Bogart. That version is great. A classic. But, I thought it would be interesting to review this version instead, if, for any other reason, it is rare and is a curiosity piece.

The danger in discussing this movie as well as seeing it, is most people have seen the Humphrey Bogart version first and will compare this movie to that one. If you do that, many will say this 1931 isn't as good. That's a mistake. I know it's difficult, but, try not to think of the other version. Watch this movie on its own merits. Accept the actors in these roles. If you are able to do that then this version is entertaining and not without its own charm.

Richard Cortez plays detective Samuel Spade who runs an agency with this partner, Miles Archer (Walter Long, a familiar face to Laurel & Hardy fans. Long would play the "heavy" against them). One day a woman, Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels, best know for her role in the musical "42nd Street" (1933), she comes into their office with a story about her sister who has run off with a man she fears is holding her hostage. She would like Spade or Archer to trail the man in order to find her sister. Spade and Archer are skeptical of her story but when she offers to pay them two hundred dollars for the job, they agree.

Meeting Ruth turns out to be the worst thing that can happen to the detectives. Later that night Archer is killed, which is convenient for Spade, who was fooling around with Archer's wife, Iva (Thelma Todd). Archer was killed following the man Ruth told them about. Who killed Archer? Adding more mystery to the situation Ruth admits she lied about having a sister and wanted the men to scare this secret man.

The plot thickens when Sr. Cairo (Otto Matieson) and Casper Gutman (Dudley Diggos) enter the picture. They both inform Spade of a "black bird" they are searching for which they believe Spade is in possession of. It is a valuable statute which Spade suspects Ruth has and is the real reason she wanted his help.

As detective stories of the 1930s go, there were also Philo Vance stories such as "The Kennel Murder Case" (1933) and a little later the "Thin Man" series, "The Maltese Falcon" is worth watching. Because it was made in 1931 it is "pre-code", a time when movies were able to get away with more sexually suggestive material. The first scene in the movie shows a woman walking out of Spade's office. The camera go in for a close up of her legs as she adjust her stockings. Another scene shows Ruth taking a bath. It is implied she has slept with Spade. And it is implied Spade has or had a relationship with his secretary, Effie (Una Merkel). Some have even suggested there are homosexual undertones, though I reject that notion.

Though I wouldn't call "The Maltese Falcon" a great movie. Some of it has to do with the director Roy Del Ruth. Del Ruth was a good studio director churning out several movies a year. He is mostly known for the musicals he directed such as "Kid Millions" (1934) with Eddie Cantor and "Happy Landing" (1938) with Sonja Henie. He also directed a Joel McCrea comedy "He Married His Wife" (1940)  and he directed another "pre-code" goodie, "Blonde Crazy" (1931) with James Cagney and Joan Blondell. But I don't think he was the right director for this. He doesn't get the most out of this material. He doesn't create much suspense or get much out of his actors. He doesn't have a great artistic eye, which is why I prefer his lighter fare.

Cortez and Daniels are good together but I didn't feel chemistry between them. You don't really believe the two are in love with each other.

What viewers will like about this movie is a suggestive sexual nature of it. I have heard some say Cortez was better in this role than Bogart because his character is more ruthless whereas Boagrt was more sensitive. I didn't see it that way. I think Bogart was a better actor than Cortez and was more interesting to watch on-screen. Maybe if "The Maltese Falcon" had better, more famous actors I might have enjoyed it more.

Still, the movie has its own charms. It is not a waste of time. It is a quaint detective story with little suspense and decent acting.

[Interesting Note: In order to avoid confusion with the 1941 version, the movie was re-titled "The Dangerous Female". If you are looking to buy the movie search both titles.]

Monday, March 24, 2014

Film Review: Our Women

"Our Women"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Relationships are pretty difficult to sustain. We seem to live in a culture where everyone is looking for love but no one can find it. People are too busy with their careers. They aren't over an ex. They aren't ready to commit. They need more "me" time, there are so many things they want to do. They don't want to "settle". And yet for others they feel they are getting older. Time is running out.

The Hungarian comedy "Our Women" (Nejem, nom, csajom, 2014) deals with these issues but does so from a female perspective. It is the women that want the relationships. They are the ones looking for love. They are the ones that go to great lengths to maintain happy relationships as they deal with difficult men. Women are the ones that make all the sacrifices.

I reject this notion as a single thirty-something male living in a big city. My own experiences have shaped the opinion it is the women that aren't ready to commit. The only reason I am single is because I meet women who aren't ready to commit. They don't know who they are or what they want out of life yet. They want to focus on their career. They aren't over an ex. Though, I suppose that doesn't sell movie tickets. It doesn't feed into the stereotype the media has been feeding us for years. Men are suppose to be the ones that are afraid to commit and women are the delicate ones looking for love.

In "Our Women", which played at the 17th annual European Union Film Festival in Chicago, we follow four women in interconnecting story-lines, as each tries to maintain a relationship and keep domestic bliss. There is Helga (Judit Schell) a newsreporter who has been dating Jozsef (Peter Rudolf) for two months. They have not slept together yet and it is driving Helga crazy. What is he hiding? Is he married? But Helga is of a certain age and wants to have a child. Whatever Jozsef's secret is he better tell her quickly because her biological clock is ticking and she can't waste her time with a man that is available and doesn't want to have children.

Next there is Vera (Agi Gubik) who is married to Attila (Andras Stohl). They have a five year old son together and it has dawn on Attila the child is nothing like him. Their son gets beat up in school and paints pictures of flowers. Attila begins to wonder if the child is his. Does Vera have some secret she is keeping from Attila? Did she cheat on him?

Rounding out the two remaining stories are Szilvi (Rozi Lovas) and Flora (Katya Tompos). Szilvi lives with Balint (Bela Meszaros). She wants to have a baby but Balint thinks they should get married first. And before they get married Balint wants to sleep with other women first. He can't imagine himself sleeping with only one woman for the rest of his sleep. Instead he wants them to become swingers. They meet another couple; Emma (Patricia Kovacs) and Robert (Zoltan Schmied). Flora is married to Peter (Tamas Keresztes). Both are very conservative and religious. Flora however suspects Peter may be seeing a prostitute. He leaves in the afternoon on unexpected appointments.

The movie was directed by Peter Szajki and is only his second feature film. "Our Women" was quite the success in Hungary and it is easy to see why. This is a funny, light-hearted romantic comedy. It tries to create a balance and explore some issues in a more dramatic detail while finding the humor in what we all go through to fall in love.

Americans might recognize Judit Schell from everyone in the cast. She was in another Hungarian romantic comedy "Just Sex and Nothing Else" (Csak szex es mas semmi, 2006) which was released in America. And in some ways the movies are similar. In both movies she plays a older woman looking for love, wanting to have a baby. While the other actors are not known to us, they are quite good. I especially like Agi Gubik and Rozi Lovas. Gubik adds a little more dramatic depth to her character and Lovas seems perfectly suited for romantic comedy.

The weakest story of the bunch may be Flora and Peter's. Their plot isn't really terribly interesting when compared to the others and isn't given as much screen time and detail as the other stories.

"Our Women" is the kind of movie which should have a cross-over appeal and entertain American audiences. It is disappointing the movie has not been distributed in America yet. The movie was released in Hungary two years ago. Sadly there is no market here for Hungarian movies. Over the years I have seen several Hungarian movies at the EU Film Festival and the Chicago International Film Festival which have been very entertaining and powerful films and unfortunately none of them have been released here. People don't know what they are missing out on. Too bad. "Our Women" is a delightful romantic comedy with some laughs.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Film Review: Nymphomaniac Vol. 1

"Nymphomaniac"  *** (out of ****)

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier has released another controversial film, "Nymphomaniac" (2014). The film has been divided into two parts or volumes. Volume one has been released this weekend.

Once upon a time Lars von Trier was a filmmaker I respected a great deal. He rattled me. He makes bold, daring films which challenge the conventions of what cinema can show us, themes to explore. He hit "mainstream" with "Breaking the Waves" (1996) a very engaging film about love, sex and God, though not in that order. He followed up with "Dancer in the Dark" (2000), "Dogville" (2004) and "Antichrist" (2009). I was an admirer of "Waves", "Dancer", "Dogville"- I placed it on my top ten list that year and "Manderlay" (2006) his sequel to "Dogville", he lost me with "Antichrist" which just pushed me a bit too far. For example there were scenes of genital mutilation which disturbed me but at least he got a reaction out of me. Then he released "Melancholia" (2011) which, well, there's no other way to say it, bored the life out of me. And now we have "Nymphomaniac".

Given the title it shouldn't surprise anyone when I say the movie is about a nymphomaniac named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg). She is lying on the ground bloody and beaten in a courtyard when a resident, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) notices her and offers to bring her into his apartment for a cup of tea, at her request. There in his apartment she tells him her story. Not just why she was lying on the ground in the courtyard, they never get to that, I presume that will be discussed in volume two, but the story of her life is told in relation to her sexuality and multiple sexual encounters and her meeting what may prove to be the love of her life, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf).

The movie is released as "not rated" though if it were it would most definitely receive an NC-17 rating due to the explicit sexual nature of the film. Though it is the cause of the controversy surrounding the picture, I was left indifferent. Not just indifferent to the sex scenes but to the picture as a whole. That is very surprising. Lars von Trier doesn't normally make movies which don't get a reaction out of you. Either you love them or hate him. You don't sit there in the middle pondering both sides yet that's my reaction to this film.

The movie is neither interesting nor boring to me. It is neither erotic or titillating to me yet I wouldn't say it is neither of those things to someone else. It goes on too long yet I felt it ended too abruptly. The sexual scenes didn't shock though I could see how they might shock others. The movie merely exist to look at but I felt nothing as I sat in the movie theatre. I wasn't as bored as I was watching "Melancholia", "Nymphomaniac" is told with a bit more energy, but like the main character in the movie, I was left wanting more.

Joe tells us about her parents (Christian Slater and Connie Nielsen) and her relationship with them. She loved her father, a doctor, who thought her about nature, in particular ash trees, his favorite. She disliked her mother whom she describes as "cold" and "cowardly" among other adjectives I'm not allowed to print. She tells us the early age she discovered her "female parts" (age two) and her first sexual experience (age 15) with Jerome. We learn of a game she and her best friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) played to see which one would sleep with the most boys in a single day. They would board a train and try to get men to take them to the bathroom to have sex with. Whoever slept with the most men by the time they reached their destination would win a bag full of chocolates. I always knew women liked chocolate but I guess I didn't realize how much.

We learn how Joe is unable to keep track of all the men in her life. Within one day she could sleep with as many as five people. They just wait their turn, like taking a number at a deli. Sometimes situations get ugly, like when one of the men Joe has been sleeping with leaves his wife and children for her. The wife, Mrs. H. (Uma Thurman) arrives at Joe's apartment, with her children, to introduce them to Joe and to make sure the children understand what their father is doing. To some this would be an example of "dark humor" which von Trier is engaging in. We can understand Mrs. H's feelings but we also look on with pity. She is causing emotion scars her children may never forget.

And so it continues for two hours. A couple of sex scenes followed by some scenes with Joe and her father and then a few more sex scenes. During all of this Joe and Seligman will interrupt the flow of the story and try to show correlations between Joe's behavior and fly fishing or musical composition. These moments are a little heavy-handed as if trying to make Joe's behavior poetic. There is art to what she is doing. It is like the story of the director who likes to shoot movies of pretty girls naked and says, it is not porn, it's art. And so it is with Lars von Trier. "Nymphomaniac" is not porn. I'll admit that but it is not great art to me either and when he tries to draw all these connections it seems a bit pretentious.

It may be unfair to review this movie while volume two is yet to be released but is that my fault or Lars von Trier's? Why not just release the movie as one four hour long feature film? It is a nice way to make double the money as now we all have to go back and buy another ticket. Still, I have to admit volume one made no real lasting impression on me. Individuals who declare "masterpiece" are over selling the film. Those that declare the movie is "trash" and / or "porn" aren't being fair. I'm somewhere in the middle. That's not a good place to be when watching a Lars von Trier movie. We'll see what volume two brings us.