Sunday, February 7, 2016

Film Review: Heist

"Heist"  **** (out of ****)

Master of deception.

Ask any con artist and they will tell you the trick of a good con is to distract you. The right hand never knows what the left hand is doing. As long as you, the sucker, is not aware of what is going on around all sides of you, you will be easily taken.

David Mamet's "Heist" (2001) is a nearly flawless masterwork demonstrating this concept.

Playwright, director and screenwriter, David Mamet, may be best know to audiences for creating stories dealing with cons and con artists. Most sheep (movie critics) declare the best movie he ever directed was his directorial debut, "House of Games" (1987). For example the late film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert, listed the movie as the best film of 1987. An honor he would never again bestow upon any David Mamet movie.

I have always been luke-warm to "House of Games". It was clever and did have interesting moments but it did not have characters the viewer could ever come to care about. There is too little of a plot and too many twist and turns. "Heist" on the other hand, along with "The Spanish Prisoner" (1997), for me are among Mr. Mamet's very best films. In the case of both movies Mr. Mamet has given the viewer something and more importantly someone to care about. There is an emotional investment in what the audience is watching. How will everything end up? Will the hero get away with it all? We ask because we care.

Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) is an old, professional thief. He knows his business. There is nothing Joe hasn't seen. Joe has all the angels figured out. But one day Joe makes a mistake. He and his crew attempt to rob a jewelry store in broad daylight. The plan nearly goes perfect except for the fact the store's security camera captures Joe's face. He's burnt he tells his crew. Whether he likes it or not this will have to be Joe's last job.

As with everything else in "Heist" things aren't what they seem and very little goes as some characters have planned. Joe may have thought retirement is in his future but his fence, Mickey (Danny DeVito) refuses to pay Joe and his crew; Bobby (Delroy Lindo), Pinky (Ricky Jay) and Joe's wife Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon) until they complete another job involving a Swiss bank. Joe tells Mickey he was seen on a security camera and has to go into hiding but Mickey won't hear of it. The plan has already been set in motion. Joe and his crew will have to go through with the heist as previously planned.

Some readers will immediately think to themselves "oh boy! Here is another one of those "last heist" movies". It is true Mr. Mamet and "Heist" go through a well known story-line; old criminal wants to call it quits but needs to go through one last heist before he can retire. "Heist" however is not a movie to be enjoyed because it gives the viewer something they have never seen before.

Critics of the movie have expressed the problem with "Heist" is it does not go through any new material for Mr. Mamet. It is the same kind of argument made against filmmakers like Woody Allen; he simply makes the same movie over and over again. In the case of both men the criticism is balderdash.

"Heist" may not break any new ground regarding its plot but it is well made. Mr. Mamet's dialogue is always a pleasure to listen to. The actors are extremely enjoyable to watch. Watching "Heist" the viewer should feel they are in good hands. In the hands of a man who knows this genre inside-out. They should not complain "Heist" is another con movie directed and written by David Mamet but feel confident here is man who knows how to tell these kind of stories.

Instead of categorizing "Heist" as a con movie some viewers may want to consider "Heist" as a noir movie. It may not seem to neatly fit into the genre as "Double Indemnity" (1945) does but "Heist" also deals with back room deals, double-crosses and a femme fatale in the Fran character. In fact it is the relationship between Joe and Fran which is one of the more interesting aspects of the movie.

You just never quite know what is real in "Heist". Are these events really happening or is it part of the con? Without revealing too much Joe decides to send Fran to speak to Mickey and Mickey's nephew, Jimmy (Sam Rockwell) to tell them Joe has decided to go forward with the Swiss bank job but the question more than once comes up is Fran playing Joe? What exactly is Joe and Fran's relationship? They are supposed to be married but they do not ever seem to show great affection towards one another. With leads us to the age old question in noir movies, can you ever trust a woman? Trust is a key question in any David Mamet movie. Do we ever really know anyone?

The one person Joe does trust however is Bobby. Their relationship is interesting because here are two men the viewer suspects have known each other for many years. They speak in a kind of code. Most of the characters in "Heist" speak in code. Only those "in the know" really know what is being said.

And that is one of the other great things about "Heist" - the fantastic cast and the wonderful interplay they have with one another. I don't know how believable Gene Hackman and Delroy Lindo are as con-artist, I've never met a con-artist, but they are sure entertaining. The same goes for Danny DeVito. He may not act the way a real fence would but Mr. DeVito gives a very lively performance and adds humor to the movie. Both Mr. DeVito and Mr. Hackman are well suited to deliver the cynical, short-hand dialogue Mr. Mamet writes.

David Mamet writes some of the best dialogue you will hear in modern cinema. It is said Mamet uses a metronome when he writes so his words flow to a certain rhythm. Viewer should love the intricacy of his choice of words. Everything is so deliberate. There is no excess in his dialogue. Everything written serves a purpose.

To be honest there are things in "Heist" which may have went over my head. I may have missed some things in "Heist". This is a movie you have to watch more than once. They may notice clues in the dialogue and the glances characters gives one another. This is a movie which makes the audience think. But, that is also the fun watching "Heist". There is a lot going on. This is not a cookie cutter, second-rate movie. This is top of the line entertainment from a truly gifted writer.

"Heist" was released two months after America suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history. In some ways it is interesting since here is a movie which tells us don't trust anyone. Be suspicious of everyone. People aren't what they seem. There was a lot of paranoia in this country shortly after what happened that September. "Heist" reflects that mentality.

I first saw "Heist" in a theatre when it was released. At that time I was impressed with the movie and eagerly declared it one of the best films of 2001. On my top ten list of that year I placed it in the number four spot. Watching "Heist" again, 15 years later, I find that I am incline to agree with my original assessment of the movie. In fact, if anything, I find that I enjoyed the movie more a second time around.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Film Review: At Long Last Love

"At Long Last Love"  *** (out of ****)

It has finally arrived in "At Long Last Love" (1975)!

The lead characters in Peter Bogdanovich's musical "At Long Last Love" stagger into their lavish apartments one by one after spending an entire night out drinking and partying. The characters are millionaire playboy; Michael Olivier Pritchard III (Burt Reynolds), spoiled rich girl; Brooke Carter (Cybill Shepherd), chorus girl Kitty O' Kelly (Madeline Khan) and the poor but happy lucky gambler and Italian lover Johnny (Duilio Del Prete).

For them life is something to enjoy. They are able to return to their homes at 6am and not worry about going to a 9am - 5pm job. They have enough money to lead a carefree lifestyle.

That is how it was in the Hollywood musicals of the 1930s that those of us grew up watching. We saw rich people travel to Europe for weekend getaways, never worry about money despite the fact there was a depression going on or have any responsibilities to speak of. The characters spent their time singing songs and looking for love.

This is what director Peter Bogdanovich is paying homage to - that wonderful era of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals or Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell pairings. Mr. Bogdanovich even has his characters sing the songs of Cole Porter, just as Fred and Ginger did in various movies and Broadway plays.

When "At Long Last Love" was originally released in theaters the sheep (movie critics) crushed the movie. Perhaps "modern" critics were too "hip" to appreciate Mr. Bogdanovich's old-fashion sensibilities and the nostalgia found in "At Long Last Love" however a studio editor at 20th Century Fox, who distributed the movie, named Jim Blakely had re-edited the movie without Mr. Bogdanovich's consent. This re-edited version was played on television and received positive audience reaction. In fact according to Mr. Bogdanovich people would walk up to him on the street and tell him how much they enjoyed watching the movie, which Mr. Bogdanovich couldn't understand due to the movie's initial reception. Later it was revealed to Mr. Bogdanovich what Mr. Blakely did. The changes were approved by Mr. Bogdanovich and it is this version which plays on occasion on the Fox Movie Channel, where I first saw the movie, and the version which I am reviewing. It has also been released on blu-ray.

There is not much of a plot in "At Long Last Love" unfortunately. Michael, while being driven home by his chauffeur, Rodney James (John Hillerman), nearly runs over the pretty chorus girl Kitty. There is an instant attraction on both of their parts although one has to wonder if Kitty isn't also attracted to Michael's money. Next there is Brooke, who lives with her maid, Elizabeth ( Ellen Brenan). Brooke doesn't have a job and lives off her mother who provides her with an allowance. Currently the mother is in another country and for the past three months has not sent Brooke any money. Normally Brooke wouldn't mind but the hotel she is living at would like their money. While at the race track, in a last ditch effort to win some money, Brooke and Elizabeth meet Johnny, who seems to have a lot and picks the winning horse in the race. This, more than anything, is what both ladies find attractive about Johnny.

For the next hour of "At Long Last Love" not much happens. The characters sing a lot of songs including " Friendship", "Down in the Depths on the 90th Floor", "But In The Morning No", "From Alpha to Omega", "Tomorrow" and "Find Me A Primitive Man". But not much else happens. Nothing is really developed between the would-be lovers, no further character development is provided and there is no conflict established. We are watching a bunch of people sing songs and nothing is really advancing a plot.

One can make the point none of that was important to Mr. Bogdanovich when he made this movie. And it may very well be true. One can argue the pleasure to be had in watching "At Long Last Love" is in the music, the nostalgia for classic Hollywood cinema,the costume and production designs and the cinematography. But will that be enough for the majority of audiences, especially younger audiences which may not be familiar with the musicals of the 1930s or any Hollywood movies of the era?

It is only after the first hour of the movie something happens and the lovers are separated and now it becomes a story of true love trying to find its way. Without revealing too much, none of this really makes any sense. The characters never seemed to be in love in the first place. It is hard to believe they would fight and scheme to be together and after watching so many movies from the era, as has Mr. Bogdanovich, you wonder if he didn't make a mistake and had the wrong characters get together by the end of the movie.

The performances in the movie are interesting at best. Everyone in the movie is attempting to act in a carefree, naturalistic manner, smiling and goofing around as they sing and dance. Not everyone comes out looking good. Burt Reynolds, who one can assume is meant to channel Clark Gable, fairs the worst. Mr. Reynolds was not a singer and depending on who you speak to, was not much of an actor either. Mr. Reynolds though has a lot of charisma on-screen and you have to remember in the 1970s and 80s was a major Hollywood star. Instead of singing he mostly speaks the lyrics.

The ladies in the movie; Ms. Shepherd and Ms. Khan come out looking better. Ms. Khan was a singer and Ms. Shepherd sang as well. Prior to the release of "At Long Last Love" Ms. Shepherd released an album singing Cole Porter songs, which may have served as an inspiration for this movie since Ms Shepherd and Mr. Bogdanovich were romantically involved.

Duilio Del Prete has good screen presence and at first I thought was meant to serve as the kind of character Erik Rhodes played in a pair of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals; the foreigner (Italian) who fashions himself a lover but no one else does. Thinking it over though his character may have been more inspired by Maurice Chevalier, who played a cliche French lover with a weakness for beautiful women. Mr. Chevalier also acted in several Ernst Lubitsch musicals and Mr. Bogdanovich is a great admirer of Mr. Lubitsch.

Given that "At Long Last Love" was meant to be a homage to the Hollywood musicals of the 1930s one wishes Mr. Bodganovich and his cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs would have shot the movie in black and white. The two men had previously collaborated on "Paper Moon" (1973) which was shot in black and white and would follow-up on this movie with "Nickelodeon" (1976), which was filmed in both color and black and white. Though "At Long Last Love" looks great the black and white cinematography would have been the icing on the cake fully setting the mood and nostalgia the movie was going for. But, Mr. Bogdanovich ruled against this since he had already made movies in black and white and didn't wish to continue.

Only a filmmaker such as Peter Bogdanovich could have given us a movie like "At Long Last Love". Here was a director who had a great admiration for Hollywood cinema of the 1930s and 40s. His prior movies were all in one way or another homages to classic cinema. His "What's Up, Doc?"  (1972) was heavily inspired by "Bringing Up Baby" (1938), "The Last Picture Show" (1971) was inspired by John Ford, "Nickelodeon" was about the early days of cinema and inspired by the great artist who tried to turn movies into an art form. Even today Mr. Bogdanovich tells stories with an old-fashion sensibility. His most recent release was "She's Funny That Way" (2015).

Unfortunately, for all his good intentions "At Long Last Love" cemented the end for Mr. Bogdanovich. Released before this movie was "Daisy Miller" (1974) also starring Cybill Shepherd. It was a box-office failure and with "At Long Last Love" it was a one-two punch. Two failures in a row. Nearly everything Mr. Bogdanovich released after this movie was met with poor critical and commercial success.

"At Long Last Love" is not a great movie but it is one to be appreciated. You have to admire what Mr. Bogdanovich was attempting to do. The movie does have a good musical score, mixing well-known Cole Porter standards along side lesser known tunes, very good cinematography and good production and costume designs.

How would a movie like "At Long Last Love" be greeted today? The movie was a bit ahead of its time. In the late 90s Woody Allen released his own movie musical, "Everyone Says I Love You" (1996), which was flooded with classic songs but took place in modern day Manhattan and Paris. Of course there was also "Moulin Rouge!" (2001), "Chicago" (2002) and "Nine" (2009) which tried to revitalize the genre. Only Mr. Bogdanovich went back to the genre's roots however.

"At Long Last Love" is worth seeing if you appreciate classic Hollywood cinema as you will be better able to acknowledge what Mr. Bogdanovich was aiming for. The movie is not so much a celebration of love as it is the musical genre.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Film Review: Jules & Jim

"Jules & Jim"  *** (out of ****)

When I first saw Francois Truffaut's "Jules & Jim" (1962) I was teenager. I didn't particularly enjoy the movie and thought it was over-rated. It is generally considered one of Mr. Truffaut's most influential movies. Of course at that time I hadn't experienced love. I had never been in a serious relationship. I didn't know what it was to love someone and fear losing them. I hadn't faced the fragility and complications of love. I understand Mr. Truffaut's movie now. I see intelligence in its observations.

In 1960 American audiences had experienced their first French New Wave film, Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless" (1960). For many the movie symbolized a new direction for cinema. It was like a hurricane. An entirely fresh, invigorating new way to tell stories. There is a sense of that excitement in "Jules & Jim".

The French New Wave was a rebellious, avant garde movement which attempted to break free from the traditional story narrative. It broke the fourth wall - bringing attention to itself that it is a movie. The films introduced the term jump cut - an edit which gave the impression of a jump in time. They featured long tracking shots as well and sometimes focused on existential themes.

"Jules & Jim" begins with an almost circus theme score playing over a montage of images as movie credits appear on-screen. The music may remind someone of what you would hear in a Federico Fellini movie. The music suggest a fast-paced comedy. Something lighthearted and exaggerated. However the music doesn't match the images. As we begin to watch the movie we will also notice, the music doesn't match the tone of the movie either.

The movie, based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Henri-Pierre Roche, published when he was 74, is set in Paris in 1912 and follows Jules (Oskar Werner), an Austrian writer living in France, and his friendship with Jim (Henri Serre). Despite their contradictions or maybe because of them, the two men compliment each other's personalities and are inseparable. Jules is shy whereas Jim is an extrovert. Jules is looking for love as Jim is a ladies man.

The two men lead an extremely carefree lifestyle. They often meet at a local pub to discuss writing and women but never mention money or getting 9 - 5 jobs. Such realities of life are of no concern to the men. They are primarily interested in women. One woman however, Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) may cause a riff in their friendship and come between.

Catherine, like the two men, is a free spirit and not interested in a bourgeois lifestyle. As such both men are fascinated by her and would like to win her affection. The three are now inseparable. The "competition" among Jules and Jim for Catherine's heart never becomes vicious. There are no sneaky plans with each man trying to humiliate the other in front of Catherine. When Jules introduces Jim to Catherine he explicitly tells him "not this one", meaning, Catherine is mine. I have feelings for her. Don't try to steal her away.

In the end Catherine chooses Jules and the two agree to get married. As this happens war is declared. Jules fights in the Austrian army while Jim fights for France. Both are are afraid they might unknowingly kill the other on the battlefield since both men have lost contact with each other.

The war ends and Jules and Jim somehow are able to find one another. At this time Catherine and Jules have a daughter while Jim has never married. Jim visits the married couple in Austria. Catherine and Jules both reveal to Jim, separately, the marriage is in trouble. Catherine has a lover. She is bored with married life and with Jules. Jules however is still in love with her and can't let her go. Catherine is ready to get married to her lover and have a child. Jules gives Jim permission to seduce Catherine so at least Jules will be able to see Catherine now and then.

Feelings come and go. People say things and then wish they could take them back. Everyone thinks they understand their feelings but they don't. The one thing for certain though is Catherine doesn't love Jules anymore but is Jim the man for her?

This type of set-up would normally be the basis of a noir story. A woman who comes between two men, marries one of them and after being "domesticated" wants out of the marriage and tries to escape with another man. "Jules & Jim" isn't a noir story though. It is not a "happily ever after" love story either though it is a love story. What is interesting about it is the movie is named after the two men. The movie is just as much the story about the two men's friendship, their love for each other as it is about Catherine and either one of the men. The movie is about young love and facing the disappointment it brings. It is about friendship. It is about youth in general.

One problem some viewers may have is there is not really a likeable character. Catherine is somewhat likeable when first introduced and seems a perfect fit for the men but she never becomes a sympathetic figure. The audience feels for Jules. But the movie never pushes us too hard to really care of any one character in particular.

The performances by the three leads are good but honestly no one stands out. They are all essentially the same character. I could not say I enjoyed one performance more than another. When one character is happy all of them are happy. When one character is sad all are sad. There are very few moments when one actor is given a moment to individually shine in a scene. That is not a criticism of the actors as one must assume this was done deliberately by Mr. Truffaut.

What may distinguish "Jules & Jim" is the camerawork. The camera seems to flow and be as free-spirited as the characters. One of the most famous sequences involves a comparison between a Roman statute and Catherine's face. The camera breaks all conventional rules and photographys Catherine from her left and right side. It focuses on her lips and eyes. It is a duplicate shot of how a statute is captured. The sequence is meant to imply Catherine resembles the statue. A statute which both Jules and Jim became infatuated with.

Though I am able to appreciate "Jules & Jim" more now that I am older, as usual, I don't find myself in agreement with the general public. I would not agree this is one of Mr. Truffaut's best films. Of the movies released during this time in Mr. Truaffut's career I would have to say his debut film, "400 Blows" (1959) would be my favorite. I might even go as far as saying it is my all-time favorite of his movies.

"Jules & Jim" nevertheless is a movie worth watching. It has an important place in the history of cinema and those that consider themselves serious movie lovers should see the movie. If you chose to make this your first experience seeing a movie directed by Mr. Truffaut it may intrigue you to see what else he has directed. This is a smart movie about love and friendship.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Film Review: Fit For A King

"Fit For A King"  *** (out of ****)

Joe E. Brown makes headlines in "Fit For A King" (1937).

Born Joseph Evans Brown in 1891, Joe E. Brown left his childhood home in Holgate, Ohio at the age of nine to join the circus with a tumblers act. As he got older he became a baseball player and allegedly declined an opportunity to play professional baseball with the New York Yankees, so he could start a career as an entertainer on the vaudeville circuit.

Joe E. Brown would incorporate his athletic ability and love of sports into his comedies, not unlike the better known comedian Buster Keaton, who was also known for his athletic ability and being capable of doing his own stunts.

Mr. Brown would usually play an "all-American" character. The kind of guy that followed the American dream, liked to watch baseball, had plenty of get rich schemes, a "go-getter" attitude and wanted to get married to a pretty girl. In many ways this "everyday guy" persona was comparable to Harold Lloyd. The best way to describe the comedy style of Joe E. Brown would be to say it was a mix of Buster Keaton meets Harold Lloyd. But, was Joe E. Brown as good as a comedian as those men? The general public of today, who probably don't know who Joe E. Brown was, would say no. However, in his day, Joe E. Brown was quite popular. Today unfortunately he is forgotten. To some it wouldn't matter but to us old-timers, those who love Hollywood movies from the 1930s & 40s, every now and then it is nice to watch a comedy starring Joe E. Brown.

"Fit For A King" unfortunately does not show Joe E. Brown at the top of his game. The best comedies starring Mr. Brown were released in the early 1930s by Warner Brothers. By the time "Fit For A King" was released Mr. Brown was no longer at Warner Brothers. RKO released "Fit For A King" and kept it on what would have to be considered a "B" movie budget.

Mr. Brown plays Virgil Jones, who has given himself the nickname "Scoops". He is the nephew of the New York Blade newspaper's publisher. Through this connection he has been given a job at the paper in the attempt of learning the business. The newspaper's editor, Hardwick (Russell Hicks) doesn't believe Virgil has the brains and ability to be a newspaper man. Instead Hardwick gives Virgil assignments such as getting his lunch.

But, Virgil is eager to learn the business and become a great reporter. If he is just given a chance Virgil is sure through his determination and hard work he can become a reporter. His opportunity arrives when Hardwick learns there have been failed assassination attempts made on the British Archduke Julio (Harry Davenport), who has been visiting in New York. Initially Hardwick doesn't think much of the story since he cannot figure out when anyone would want to assassinate the Archduke, so he gives the story to Virgil. However, Hardwick comes to regret the decision once he learns a rival newspaper has put their best reporter, Briggs (Paul Kelly) on the assignment. By this time it is too late as the story has taken Virgil to Paris.

When in Paris Virgil meets Jane Hamilton (Helen Mack), a small town girl from Nebreska who is on vacation. What Virgil doesn't realize is she is really a princess and the assassination attempts have not been for Archduke Julio, with whom she is traveling, but for her. The question is, is Virgil smart enough to figure all of this out or will Briggs beat him to the story.

"Fit For A King" has a modest running time of 73 minutes. It is too short. One can tell there has been much left out as sometimes it is confusing figuring out what everyone's motivations are. The movie does not make everything abundantly clear.

"Fit For A King" wants to be something of a slapstick comedy mixed with romance. In the hands of Harold Lloyd it may work. Lloyd had a team of good gag writers working for him however. Joe E. Brown isn't as lucky. The movie was written by Richard Flournoy who is best known (?) for writing the Blondie movie series. Mr. Flournoy doesn't take advantage of Joe E. Brown's talents and incorporate them into his story.

For a man with a good athletic ability there is nothing physical for Mr. Brown to do in the movie. The best gag involves Virgil arrested on a ship and put in the brig. At this particular time there are choppy waves, causing the ship to sway left to right. Virgil glides side to side in the brig where fate would have it there is water pouring into one of the portholes in the brig which will not close shut. It is one of the few times in the movie Mr. Brown is able to engage in any slapstick comedy.

Even in this sequence though other opportunities for humor are missed. The sequence is shot in a long shot. There is no music and strangely no dialogue. Imagine how much funnier the sequence would play with music behind it, close-ups of the water splashing into Virgil's face as he yells (his wide-mouth yell was one of Mr. Brown's trademarks) for someone to help him. Instead what we have is a static shot with everything in frame. We don't even get to see Virgil's facial expressions.

The movie was directed by Edward Sedgwick who worked often with Buster Keaton at MGM. Mr. Sedgwick directed Mr. Keaton in "The Cameraman" (1928), which "Fit For A King" resembles very little. That movie should have been the inspiration for this Joe E. Brown vehicle. Mr. Sedgwick would work with Mr, Brown on a total on five comedies including "Riding On Air" (1937) and "Gladiator" (1938).

One would have thought Mr. Sedgwick  would have known how to properly film a comedy. "For For A King" does nothing visual. The camera merely keeps everything in frame, brightly lit. No one, the cinematographer or the director wanted to raise the level of production here from average, at times even slightly below, to something more arresting.

You may want to write this all off by saying both Mr. Brown and Mr. Sedgwick were at the end of their careers. Mr. Brown would continue acting in movies and television shows for roughly another 30 years but the quality of his movies greatly declined around this time. The only big break he received was when Billy Wilder cast him in the comedy "Some Like It Hot" (1959), which may have helped introduce Mr. Brown to a whole new generation of audiences.

Besides missing comedy opportunities the acting is not exceptional either. Helen Mack, who did have some choice moments in her career, such as roles in "His Girl Friday" (1940) and the Harold Lloyd comedy "The Milky Way" (1936) doesn't have much of a presence and is not believable in the romance aspect of the movie.

The only performance in the movie worth anything is the one given by Joe E. Brown, whom depsite the quality of the script gives the movie everything he has.

If I seem somewhat critical of "Fit For A King" you may ask, why the three star rating? You have to put things into perspective. If "Fit For A King" is not a great comedy or one of Mr. Brown's better comedies, it is an improvement on the movies Mr. Brown was starring in at this time. For that reason it is worth seeing. If you are going to watch later Joe E. Brown comedies, this one, while a mid-range comedy, is one of the better ones.

Those interested in seeing Mr. Brown in better comedies should watch "Local Boy Makes Good" (1932), "You Said A Mouthful" (1932) and "A Very Honorable Guy" (1934). Watch "Fit For A King" after you have watched those.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Film Review: Star Wars

"Star Wars"
*** 1/2 (out of ****)

May the Force be with you!

George Lucas' "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope" (1977) was one of my childhood favorites growing up. I didn't discover the "Star Wars Trilogy" until my teens. Like those that first saw the series, upon its theatrical release, I became obsessed with all things "Star Wars" and trying to unravel the mystery of the Force.

As the years passed I hadn't thought much about "Star Wars". I was initially excited when plans were announced by George Lucas that he was going to create a new trilogy, this time explaining the origins of Anakin Skywalker, as now I would be able to see a "Star Wars" movie in a theatre myself. I liked the movies more than the general public, which engaged in their usual over-reacting and condemned the new trilogy as  inferior to the original films.

After that time "Star Wars" had almost completely left my mind. It was an after thought. And then news was released Disney had bought the franchise from Mr. Lucas and a whole new series of movies were going to be released. Fans greatly anticipated the release of a new "Star Wars". The marketing was overwhelming. You couldn't escape "Star Wars". That of course brought back attention to the original movies. The new series of films would take place after "Return of the Jedi" (1983). And that is where I find myself. I have seen "The Force Awakens" (2015), thought it was a good movie but wanted to re-watch the original trilogy. For all the praise "The Force Awakens" has received, I remembered the original movies being much, much more enjoyable.

Watching "Star Wars" again I see my memory played tricks on me. I had to watch the movie twice to fully appreciate it. I had originally remembered "Star Wars" being a more emotional movie, creating a full background for the character Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), which is why I didn't like "The Force Awakens" as much as other movies. I felt we didn't get to know the characters. I now see Mr. Lucas doesn't nearly tell us enough about the characters he has created in this universal either.

"Stars Wars" essentially is a "B" movie but it has much better production values than any "B" movie you will have ever seen. Us old timers can see the influence of "Flash Gordon" (1936) and "Buck Rogers" (1939), rousing space adventures which placed characters in life and death situations, as movie audiences would return to theatres week after week to see if the heroes would escape. That I believe more than anything is supposed to be the magic of "Star Wars".

This movie is more about the adventure than the characters. There is minimal background provided. But that is besides the point. It is what the characters do. Their interaction with one another that makes the movie special. Watching "Star Wars" again, I could almost see this as a 1930s or 40s movie serial. The acting is nearly at the same level and the dialogue is only slightly better. Still the movie is fun with its blend of science-fiction, action, lighthearted humor and adventure.

We meet a young man named Luke Skywalker. He is a late teenager, eager to leave the home of his aunt (Shelagh Fraser) and uncle (Phil Brown) and attend an Academy, where most of his friends are. However, the uncle needs Luke to help him tend to their farm and promises Luke the following year he may leave.

On this particular day two droids; R2-D2 and C-3PO have escaped a spaceship in which Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) was aboard. She is the leader of a Rebel Alliance, which has stolen plans to the Death Star, a space station capable of destroying planets. It is the creation of the Galactic Empire. The Princess has inserted the plans as well as a secret message in R2-D2 with instructions for a Jedi Knight named Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) to help.

The droids have been kidnapped by Jawa traders and are sold to Luke's uncle. But R2-D2 is determined to reach Obi-Wan Kenobi, who lives on the same planet as Luke. Eventually Obi-Wan receives the message from R2-D2 and introduced to Luke, who's father, Anakin, was also a Jedi Knight and knew Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan, wanting to respect the wishes of the Princess, wants to help deliver the plans of the Death Star to the Rebel Alliance but requires the help of Luke Skywalker. And so our adventure begins.

There is not much of a plot to "Star Wars" but the movie is unrelenting in introducing us to new characters and creating fighting sequences. The plot is just enough to carry some level of importance but is merely a flimsy excuse to bring all these characters together.

Of all the actors in "Star Wars" it is Sir Alec Guinness who seems the most uncomfortable. One could imagine the reason Mr. Lucas would cast the famous actor would be because Sir Guinness would add respectability to the story. Sir Guinness, for younger audiences unaware, was a very distinguished English actor known for his roles in both comedies and dramatic films. In the years after the release of "Star Wars" Sir Guinness would admit his dislike for the character Obi-Wan Kenobi and resented the fact he became so strongly identified with the character. Sir Guinness feels this is all beneath him. The audience can clearly tell he is having trouble delivering the dialogue. Oddly enough Sir Guinness would received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor for his performance.

The actor who comes out looking the best is Harrison Ford as a hot-shot pilot Han Solo. It is the Han Solo character that most resembles a Buck Rogers type. He adds much of the lighthearted humor to the movie. He is the only male character that routinely engages in fighting sequences and has the screen presence of a hero.

Although the series would be centered on the Luke Skywalker character (were audiences aware this would be a trilogy in 1977?), Skywalker is the most bland of all the characters. There is nothing special about him. Luke Skywalker is surrounded by extraordinary people. He is a nobody at this point. He is learning the ways of the Force. He is not a great fighter either. He doesn't possess heroic qualities. That is why there is a sequence at the end of the movie where Skywalker  and other Rebel fighters try to destroy the Death Star. It is to help the audience see Skywalker as a hero. The movie had to allow him to accomplish something while every other character does something heroic.

But the real fun in watching "Star Wars" is to see George Lucas' imagination and the creation of all the creatures shown in the movie. The best scene is a sequence where Obi-Wan and Luke go to a dangerous meeting ground hoping to find a pilot. In this scene we see several scary looking aliens. How on earth did George Lucas create these characters?

Despite the lack of a strong plot the viewer also enjoys the action sequences and light saber flights. Just as one would watching "Flash Gordon". The movie creates one action scene after another in an attempt to draw the viewer into the story and make us care about the characters.

Upon its release "Star Wars" was at once a nostalgic throwback to early movie serials of the 1930s and a groundbreaking movie which has inspired sci-fi movies ever since. It was one of those rare critical and commercial darlings. At its time of release it was the highest grossing movie of all time (although when adjusted for inflation, no movie has grossed more than "Gone With the Wind" (1939) an amazing feat when you think about it) and would go on to earn 10 Academy Award nominations including best picture, director, screenplay and naturally visual effects.

Is "Star Wars" one of the greatest movies of all-time? Not really. But boy is it fun to watch. I really admire the spirit of the movie and where it draws its influence from. Even in 2016 I look at the movie and think it is a great visual feast. Based on its cultural impact and influence any serious movie lover has to see this movie as well as its sequels.

[Note: This review is a reaction to the original theatrical version released on VHS. I absolutely refuse to watch the "Special Edition" versions in which George Lucas added scenes and special effects.]

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Film Review: Double Indemnity

"Double Indemnity"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

It's murder in Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" (1944).

"Double Indemnity" is widely considered one of, if not the greatest, of all the American noir movies. It is difficult to disagree. "Double Indemnity" set the standard for the genre. Anything else to comes along is an imitator. Every story about a couple murdering someone for love owes something to this Billy Wilder classic, written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on a novel by James M. Cain.

Of course, is it love? Does the fast talking dame with the flirty eyes and murder on her mind really love the fast talking guy with lust in his eyes? She may have all the angles figured out but does he know what is going on?

It is a question to ask when watching "Double Indemnity" and a question to ask when watching any noir story. Can you trust women? Do women simply use men to push their own agenda and show their dominance over men, who are too naive and busy looking at a set of pretty legs and a cute smile?

It is a chance meeting for the two of them. They didn't know the other existed. One was unhappy, in a loveless marriage, the other seems content. Has a nice job, makes good money and has no troubles to speak of. When they meet there is sex in the air. The first time he sees her she just got out of a shower and is wrapped in a towel. From that moment he has only one thing on his mind. She sees the look in his eyes and figures she has him just where she wants him. Neither one of them admit it though. To hear them tell the story there was electric in the air. Sparks where flying. It may have been lust or love but whatever it was, it was real. They both felt something in that moment.

"He" is Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman. "She" is Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the wife of man Walter was meeting about an auto insurance policy renewal. The husband isn't home and so Walter lays on the one-lines and flirty talk while Phyllis plays back. She asks him about accident insurance. Walter tells her he can offer her husband a good policy. He can mention to it him when they discuss the auto policy. But, Phyllis wants to get the policy without her husband knowing it.

At that moment, although no one has said the word "murder" Walter knows what is going on and sees right through Phyllis. Walter tells her as much and storms out of her home. But, Phyllis is just his type. He can't shake her off and he can't shake off their conversation. He's hooked.

Walter is mostly afraid of the insurance claims adjuster, Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). He's smart and knows a phony claim when it hits his desk. If Walter and Phyllis are going to murder her husband, after he signs up for an insurance policy, they have to make sure it looks like an accident, in which case Phyllis will get a double payment. And hope Keyes won't suspect the wife of murder.

Walter takes it upon himself to be the brains. He has everything worked on and demands Phyllis follows his instructions to the "tee". Walter is going to try and think like Keyes. Anticipate all the questions Keyes would ask and come up with the answers.

For what was supposed to bring the two together, they are now more apart then ever. They can't be seen together. They can't speak on the phone. Nothing can link them together before or after the murder. And as for the money, they still have to wait for the claim to be approved.

Whenever any two people, who are romantic, don't spend a lot of time together, jealousy will set in. What is the other one doing? Do they still love me? Have they forgotten me? Are they seeing someone else? Paranoia sets in or maybe a cold smack of reality.

Walter has killed Phyllis' husband. She is free of him. She has to wait for the money. But what then? Does Phyllis really love Walter? Does Walter really love Phyllis? Can they trust each other? Will one of them confess and develop a guilty conscience?

Raymond Chandler was a novelist who created Phillip Marlowe, the hard-boiled, tough as nails detective played by Humphrey Bogart in "The Big Sleep" (1946). Cain also would become associated with crime novels. Prior to writing "Double Indemnity", Cain wrote "The Postman Always Rings Twice", which would later be turned into a movie as well, and "Mildred Pierce".

These two men are largely responsible for what makes "Double Indemnity" a classic. They helped establish the romantic, cinematic images audiences associate with tough talking detective and smooth, fast talking guys. The dialogue in "Double Indemnity" has been the source of parody. It is filled with 1940s slang. It has a certain rhythm to it. It is fast and quick-witted. It is full of double-entendres.

While the words do have a rhythm to them the musical score by the Hungarian composer Miklos Rozsa should also be noted. To me it sounds as if doom is approaching. It signifies the relationship between the two characters and their fate. The music sounds as if it is passing judgement.

Another memorable trait of the movie is the lighting which gives the impression it is coming through venetian blinds, which makes it appear as if the characters are trapped in prison, as the lines run across them. This is something you will find in multiple noir films to follow.

"Double Indemnity" also establishes the concept of telling its story in flashback. Only the beginning and end of the movie are in the present, as our lead character walks us through everything that has lead up to this event.

What surprises me most about "Double Indemnity" is that Billy Wilder directed it. He was such a versatile talent. I often associate him with comedy. But he directed movies from multiple genres including "Stalag 17" (1953) a WW2 POW story, "The Lost Weekend" (1945), one of the first Hollywood movies to deal with alcoholism and the courtroom drama "Witness of the Prosecution" (1957). That Mr. Wilder was able to direct all these different movies, with their different styles and sensibilities, is a comment on this man's talent.

The casting of Fred MacMurray may seem a little strange to some, depending upon your age. A lot of us may remember Mr. MacMurray from the television show "My Three Sons" as well as his role in Disney comedies like "The Absent-Minded Professor" (1961). In the mid-to-late 1930s he was put in lighthearted romantic comedies, like the wonderful "Hands Across the Table" (1935) and "True Confession" (1937) it was not often audiences had the opportunity to see Mr. MacMurray play such a character as Walter, who may not be entirely likable.

Barbara Stanwyck wasn't a stranger to playing a temptress. She appeared in the pre-code movie "Baby Face" (1933) but also poked fun at this persona in the Preston Sturges comedy "The Lady Eve" (1941).

If Walter didn't work in insurance the Keyes character would most definitely have been a detective and that is how Edward G. Robinson plays him but also adds a touch of humor. Keyes complains he is overworked and not paid enough. But Keyes trusts his instincts. He will follow this claim through until the end. This is in contrast to the tough gangsters Mr. Robinson gained fame playing in the 1930s like in "Little Caesar" (1931).

It is difficult to overstate the influence "Double Indemnity" has had on American films and the noir genre in particular. The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards including best picture, director, screenplay and actress (Stanwyck). It was also selected as one of the best American films of all-time as part of the American Film Institutes (AFI) 100 Years...100 Movies list. "Double Indemnity" is truly a landmark film. All film lovers should see it.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Film Review: It's A Gift

"It's A Gift"  **** (out of ****)

W.C. Fields. He built a career on a comedic persona as a man who hated dogs, women and children. In "It's A Gift" (1934) he takes full advantage of his public persona.

"The American Dream". One aspect of it goes something like this; we will all live in a nice big house with a white picket fence around it. We will get married and have two adorable children. One son and one daughter. We will work hard, save money and provide for our families. We will always have the love and support of our families.


Out of this idyllic sentiment, created to turn people into work slaves and give them a false sense of accomplishment, came W.C. Fields.

In 1934, as "It's A Gift" was being released, Hollywood, was beginning to enforce the Production Code - a set of guidelines aimed at promoting decent, American values. One of the institutions Hollywood would have liked to preserve was domestic life. It is supposed to be bliss. With that in mind it is astonishing W.C. Fields was able to make any movies at all, let alone become one of the greatest comedians of all-time, a legend. Mr. Fields was a slap in the face to the code and the American way of life.

Often movies tell us the two lovers kiss and the movie ends happily ever after. Well, what's next? Enter W.C. Fields. In "It's A Gift" Mr. Fields plays his usual character of a man who lives in a household where he is unappreciated. He has a nagging wife, who even complains in her sleep (!) and two children that generally regard him as inferior. Mr. Fields is a man uncomfortable in his own home. The home is not his castle.

This theme is immediately established in an opening sequence as Harold Bissonette (Fields) is trying to shave. His daughter, Mildred (Jean Rouverol) wants him to hurry up so she may enter. Harold tells her she may as he is only shaving. The daughter immediately hogs the mirror, brushing her teeth, her hair, gargling and putting on lipstick. Meanwhile Harold is desperately trying to shave.

While the audience is supposed to laugh at this, at the same time, we are to sympathize with Harold. The poor man can't even shave in his own home. Despite whatever the flaws of his character, Mr. Fields always presented him as a sympathetic character, the hero of the story. Another slap in the face of the Production Code. Mr. Fields, including his Harold character, we not sinners seeking redemption. There is no life lesson for them to learn.

Next we are treated to a sequence involving the family about to eat breakfast. Harold trips and falls down on one of his son's (Tom Bupp) roller skates, as his wife, Amelia (Kathleen Howard) warns him about not breaking their son's skates. It cost a lot of money to have them repaired. Arms start flying, as everyone is grabbing food off the table, all before Harold can grab a piece of anything. Then Amelia informs Harold of a telegram they received. Harold's uncle is on his death bed. Harold doesn't show much emotion however the prospect of the uncle's passing opens the door of an inheritance. With this money Harold secretly wants to buy a orange grove.

Here is something a depression era audience could relate to; a working class man coming up with a get rich quick scheme. A poor man dreaming of a better life. Audiences today could relate to that story, couldn't they? I would have even been willing to bet this orange grove was a nod to John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath", another story about an American family heading west, believing a better life waits for them as fruit pickers. It would have made a nice theory and a good inside joke unfortunately Mr. Steinbeck's novel was published in 1939.

None of the family wants to travel to California, where the orange grove is. Amelia opposes because she doubts Harold knows anything about the orange business. She would rather spend the money on improving their house. Mildred doesn't want to go to California because it would mean an end to her relationship with John (Julian Madison), who sold the deed to the orange grove to Harold.

But, Harold stands firm and takes all of their criticism. He knows better than them. He has a vision, a dream. He is positive the orange grove will lead to prosperity.

"It's A Gift" is rather light on plot. Nearly everything described to you takes place in the first 15 minutes of the movie. The rest of the movie is comprised of comedy sequences.

Harold owns a grocery store and a large amount of time is devoted to hijinks which ensues in the store from one man waiting for someone to take his order of kumquats to a blind man who enters and nearly destroys everything in sight with his walking cane. No doubt liberals today would not approve of this, stating the movie is making fun of the handicap, the blind in particular.

Another funny sequence has Harold trying to get some sleep on his back porch. Amelia has been nagging the whole night, so Harold decides to lie down on their swing hanging up on the porch. As soon as he lies down a parade of noise begins from the milkman, a traveling salesman selling insurance and two people shouting at each other. Not to mention the swing doesn't seem strong enough to hold Harold.

I can see why the absence of a stronger plot would lead some to dislike "It's A Gift". It lacks a central conflict. There is no antagonist they will say. I can see their point. In another movie I might agree but that doesn't seem to apply to "It's A Gift". The antagonist is the family. The American way of life. The conflict is Harold trying to get to California and if the orange grove will be as Harold expected. The purpose of the movie is to showcase Mr. Fields. That is why the movie is a collection of comedy sequences instead of a three act traditional narrative.

This was quite common in the 1920s and 30s in American comedies. The movies didn't have strong plots they were just might to be potboilers for the star. It doesn't matter whether it was Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy or the Marx Brothers. The movies were just strung along by a series of comedy routines. What makes one movie better than the next is how funny it is.

"It's A Gift", for me, is the best comedy W.C. Fields starred in. Unfortunately I am not sure it is well remembered. The sheep (movie critics) and the general public only seemed concerned with throwing praise at "The Bank Dick" (1940). While that is a fine movie, one which you will see many of the same themes explored, "It's A Gift" I find to be funnier and it takes a sharper aim at domestic life. The story seems more appropriate for the curmudgeon Mr. Fields play.

Still I must admit, W.C. Fields usually works better when he is playing against someone, hence the appearance of Baby LeRoy, who has a very small role in the movie, which makes it all the more amazing the top billing he receives. Mr. Fields was very good when appearing opposite Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. McCarthy and Mr. Fields were "rivals" on the radio, with Mr. Fields often threatening to turn McCarthy into firewood. A good straight man in "It's A Gift" may have only added to the humor.

"It's A Gift" was directed by Norman Z. McLeod, who also worked with the Marx Brothers on "Horse Feathers" (1932) and several Bob Hope comedies including "The Paleface" (1948) and "Casanova's Big Night" (1954) and based on a story by Charles Bogle (W.C. Fields) with a screenplay by Jack Cunningham, who also wrote another W.C. Fields comedy, "The Old Fashioned Way" (1934).

I am usually slightly hesitant to credit directors and writers on W.C. Fields movies because I believe Mr. Fields had total control of his comedies. No one was going to "direct" W.C. Fields.

However, if you are unfamiliar with the comedy of this great man, "It's A Gift" is a fine example of his comedy persona and the themes usually found in his comedies. It is a comedy masterpiece.

Film Review: The Big Clock

"The Big Clock"  **** (out of ****)

Time is running out for Ray Milland in "The Big Clock" (1948).

"The Big Clock", directed by John Farrow with a cast including Ray Milland, Charles Laughton and Maureen O' Sullivan, is not a very well remembered noir picture, released by Paramount, but it sure is a lot of fun to watch and worthy of the public's attention.

Based on a novel written by Kenneth Fearing, "The Big Clock" tells the story of an editor, George Stroud (Milland), who works for Janoth Publishing on a crime magazine entitled "Crimeways". "Crimeways", in the past, has managed to solve murders before the police do. Stroud has created a system in which he and his researchers follow "irrelevant" clues, the clues the police don't bother to investigate.

George is a happily married man. He and his wife, Georgette (O' Sullivan), along with their son (B.G. Norman) are about to go on a long overdue honeymoon. When George and Georgette were first married, George's boss, Earl Janoth (Laughton), called the couple on their honeymoon, informing George he wanted him to be the editor of "Crimeway" and his presence was needed immediately. That was seven years ago.

Will George and Georgette finally get their honeymoon? Not if Janoth has anything to say about it. Janoth, a married man as well, was spotted at the apartment of his mistress, Pauline (Rita Johnson), where that very night, in a fit of rage Janoth killed her. In order to protect himself, Janoth wants George to find the man who spotted him and blame the murder on the mysterious individual. The problem? George was the man who spotted Janoth. What will George do when all the clues to the murder will lead to him?

"The Big Clock" is an exciting genre exercise. What sets the movie apart is the fine cast and good script, written by Jonathan Latimer, which creates a labyrinth of intrigue and does so with lighthearted humor.

Like several other noir movies, the story of "The Big Clock" is told in flashback. When the movie opens it is late at night, we are in he lobby of the Janoth building, when we see George hiding from a security guard, as George races to the top of the building, in the control room of the big clock, the largest clock ever built, it is able to tell you the time of any place in the world, through a voice-over, we hear George inform the audience how different life was for him only 36 hours ago. What happened? How did George find himself in this predicament, fearing for his life, with a murder charge hanging over his head.

Pauline and George spent a night drinking together after George threatens to quit his job if Janoth doesn't allow him time off to have a honeymoon and Pauline and Janoth are on the outs, with a break-up expected. Pauline happens to spot George at the office and believes she and George may be able to blackmail Janoth, if it is revealed he has a mistress. At the end of the night, George takes Pauline home and that is when he spots Janoth getting off an elevator walking into Pauline's apartment.

As George's staff of researchers hunt down the mysterious stranger who may have killed Pauline, George must come up with a way to expose Janoth, but, do so in a way he brings attention to himself and allows the evidence to naturally lead to Janoth. But, how can it, when George was seen in public with Pauline.

Playing Janoth, Charles Laughton is a man who knows he is important. Janoth has no problem throwing his weight around, intimidating employees, testing their loyalty. At the same time there is something subtly humorous in Laughton's performance. The conceited air which Laughton carries himself with a constant brushing of his mustache.

Milland plays George as one might expect. He is smart, quick on his feet, but trapped. Milland was one of those actors that could walk that fine line and be both wryly comical and serious. Milland has some comical moments, especially when he has been drinking and searches the city for a green clock, but, he does make the audience believe he is a man on the run and the audience eagerly awaits, trying to figure out how this mystery will end.

Additional comic touches are presented by Elsa Lanchester, as a painter who believes a great deal in herself and her talent, even if the public hasn't discovered her yet. One of her painting was discovered being carried by the mysterious man that was with Pauline.

But it is not all fun and games in "The Big Clock". Director, John Farrow, does all the things we expect a noir movie to do. Characters walk in shadows, there is suspense, murder and an innocent man on the run, trying to clear his name. The movie does a lot with lighting, usually keeping George in the dark.

Farrow may not be very well remembered today but he was nominated once for a best director Academy Award for the war movie, "Wake Island" (1942) and did direct Robert Mitchum in the decent noir movie, "Where Danger Lives" (1950) but for me, "The Big Clock" is Farrow's best movie. In one respect the movie resembles an Alfred Hitchcock movie, in the way it injects humor into its story of a man wrongly accused.

However I have a feeling the humor in the movie is what has kept it from finding a larger audience and being revered as a classic noir story. Some may be put off by the humor and not take the movie serious. Noir, some will say, should not have humor. "The Big Clock" is not laugh out loud funny but I appreciate the script writer saw comedic possibilities in this story and decided to give the characters a sense of humor.

"The Big Clock" is a very good piece of Hollywood escapism. An intriguing story with good performances by a talented cast. "The Big Clock" deserves a second chance and in some cases a first chance.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Film Review: The Freshman

"The Freshman"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Harold Lloyd scores a touchdown with his silent, college themed, comedy "The Freshman" (1925).

"The Freshman", with the exception of "Safety Last" (1923), might be the most popular comedy Harold Lloyd ever appeared in. When the American Film Institute (AFI) comprised a list of the 100 greatest American movie comedies of all-time, this Harold Lloyd comedy made the list. Unfortunately, when a list was made of the 100 greatest movies, the comedy classic didn't make the cut.

Harold Lloyd often played a very American character in his comedies. He accepted and aspired to achieve the "American Dream". Mr. Lloyd had a "go-getter" attitude. He believed if he worked hard, nothing could hold him back. All he had to do was believe in himself.

The character was referred to as "glasses". Mr. Lloyd wanted the character to be an every man. Someone audiences could instantly relate to and someone female audiences in particular could accept in a romance.

This was in contrast to the characters other silent comedians played such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harry Langdon. Mr. Chaplin played a tramp, who was an outcast in society. Mr. Keaton struggled for acceptance. Mr. Langdon played a man-child, that hadn't quite matured yet. Mr. Lloyd on the other hand could have been your next door neighbor.

The challenge for Harold Lloyd was to come up with stories which would properly serve purpose for the "glasses" character. In "The Freshman" Mr. Lloyd had found a good backdrop. Comedians have often had fun with the college setting. Most silent comedians told stories which dealt with acceptance. In college every freshman feels like an outcast. A lot of that is because the older students make them feel that way but also because the students are unsure of themselves and want to make a good impression. Every student quickly learns of a hierarchy of power and different "clicks" to fit into. This opens the door for a lot of comedic possibilities.

"The Freshman" also serves as a timely comedy. During the 1920s statics show college enrollment doubled when compared to the previous decade. College sports were at the height of their popularity, especially football.

In "The Freshman" Mr. Lloyd plays Harold Lamb. A young man eagerly waiting to attended college. All he knows of college life is what he reads in books and sees in movies. He accepts everything he sees and reads at face value. In order to fit in, Harold has devised a plan. He will imitate a character he saw in a movie. That should make him make a splash at college. Harold even dreams of being voted the most popular student of the year.

The opening introduction of the character is supposed to make the audience sympathize with Harold. He is supposed to be a nice, kind, well-meaning young man though a bit naive, which makes the audience wonder, will Harold be able to fit in?

College isn't exactly what Harold had planned as the audience suspected. His fellow students aren't as willing to accept him as Harold would like. A character credited as "The College Cad" (Brooks Benedict) repeatedly makes fun of Harold behind his back and places Harold in embarrassing situations. One involves tricking Harold into giving a speech before the entire school, because "all freshman are required to do it". In reality the school was waiting to hear from the dean of the university.

However Harold remains unaware of what is going on behind his back and believes he may be a popularity rival to Chet Trask (James Anderson), the most popular student in school and captain of the football team. To further solidify his popularity Harold wants to join the football team as well.

No Harold Lloyd comedy would be complete without a romantic sub-plot. This time around Harold likes Peggy (Jobyna Ralston). Peggy works with her mother at the Hotel Tate, where Harold is staying.

Most silent comedies, including those with Mr. Lloyd, would usually sacrifice plot for gags. The comedies were mostly comprised of comedy sequences strung together by a very thin plot. "Safety Last" would be an example. "The Freshman" however is different. The movie actually has a decent story and the humor grow from the plot. Jokes do not come out of left field and distract us from the main plot of the movie but help advance the plot.

Oddly enough, the weak link in the plot is the romance. Most of Harold Lloyd's comedies were really romantic-comedies. They were simple stories of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl in the end. This time around Harold gets the girl at the beginning. The movie is not concerned with their romance. There is not much for the Peggy character to do as a result. Though by the end of the movie the character provides Harold with a much needed pep talk, and is another example of an old cliche, behind every good man is a good woman. A woman inspires a man.

Usually what would happen in a movie like this, the comedian plays a shy, timid young man who dreams of becoming popular. Secretly he has a crush on the most popular girl in school, who doesn't notice him and is dating the captain of the football team. In order to prove himself the comedian would join the football and prove himself at the end of the movie during a big game sequence and score a winning touchdown. At at once, proving he his a "man" and getting the girl.

"The Freshman" is not entirely interested in telling that story, though it does hit on most of those plot points. What makes "The Freshman" really stand out among his other comedies are the number of really good comedy sequences. One involves Harold trying out for the football team and having great difficulty tackling a dummy during practice. Another good sequence has Harold at a fancy school dance while his tuxedo slowly comes apart at the seams.

The quality of "The Freshman" shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Mr. Lloyd's comedies. The movie was co-directed by Sam Taylor and Fred C. Newmeyer, two of Mr. Lloyd's trusted writers. Together Mr. Taylor and Mr. Newmeyer co-directed five Harold Lloyd comedies including "Safety Last" and "Girl Shy" (1924).

Among the writers, besides Sam Taylor, they included Harold Lloyd regulars such as Ted Wilde, who co-wrote "The Kid Brother" (1927) and directed "Speedy" (1928), for which Mr. Wilde's directing received an Academy Award nomination. Another writer was Tim Whelan, who worked on "Girl Shy" and "Hot Water" (1924).

Because these men worked with Mr. Lloyd in the past they knew what was expected of them. They saw the "glasses" character as Mr. Lloyd did and understood where the humor should come from in relation to the character and plot advancement.

I'm not sure though if I would refer to "The Freshman" as Harold Lloyd's best comedy but it is one of his funniest and one of his better structured movies. It is able to find a better balance between gags and plot than most of Harold Lloyd's other comedies. If only there was a way to balance the romance aspect of the movie better.

Film Review: Rashomon

"Rashomon"  **** (out of ****)

[Note: This review will contain spoilers without proper spoiler alerts. Please do not read this review if you have not seen this movie.]

Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" (1950) is often described as being a story about perspective. Even the sheep (movie critics) explain the plot as such. If I ever hear one more person say this about the movie I am going to wonder if anyone has ever seen the movie.

"Rashomon" does tell us a story repeatedly from the viewpoint of different characters. But that isn't what the movie is about. What is being said during these multiple tellings of the story? That is what "Rashomon" is about.

"Rashomon" is a morality tale. It is a story about lies, honor, the human condition. A story commentating on evil in society. Human nature.

In "Rashomon" the viewer is told a murder has been committed. Three people were involved. A husband, wife and a bandit. The husband (Masayuki Mori) was mudered. But how he died is a mystery. Was it the bandit (Toshiro Mifune)? The wife (Machiko Kyo)? Or suicide?

The movie begins with a heavy rainstorm. Two men; a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) seek shelter underneath the Rashomon gate. They sit bewildered. The woodcutter mutters to himself he doesn't understand. The priest has a defeated expression on his face. Soon a third man (Kichijiro Ueda) runs towards them, also seeking shelter.

The third man immediately notices the state of the other two men. He inquires what is wrong. Both the priest and the woodcutter confide in the third man, they have heard an amazing story. A story only amazing because of the horror it reveals about people. Intrigued by such a description the third man again asks them what happened. A man was murdered they reveal. The third man bushes this off. Only one? Big deal. Just beyond where they are he tells them they will find five or six unclaimed bodies. The priest concurs, yes, violence is everywhere; war, earthquakes, famine, fire, plagues. Here Akira Kurosawa is making a point. The destructive nature of the world. However, keep in mind "Rashomon" was released post-World War II. Remember the destruction Japan had to endure with the dropping of the bomb. Keep in mind the number of lives lost. The psychological effects it had on the survivors. This conversation between the three men about destruction and evil in the world would resonate with audiences.

The priest and the woodcutter explain they have just come from the court garden where they have testified about the murder. The woodcutter found the dead body while the priest was the last man to see the husband alive, with the exception of the wife and bandit.

While at the court garden the two men heard three different versions of what happened. The bandit's story, the wife's story and the husband's story - through a medium that has channeled his spirit. All three versions are different with some themes overlapping. The three stories however share themes of honor, saving face and sacrifice. In each story the person telling their recollection of events presents them-self as the honorable one.

The first story we hear is that of the bandit. In this version the bandit was taken by the beauty of the wife. He was determined to "have" her but wanted to do so without killing the husband. The bandit, named Tajomaru, devises a plan to take the husband and wife off a busy trail. He lies to the husband, telling him he has found many swords and mirrors and asks the husband if he would like to buy some. The husband and wife follow. Tajomaru overpowers the husband and ties him up. In order to embarrass the husband, Tajomaru brings the wife to witness the spectacle and then rapes the woman.

As Tajomaru is about to leave, the wife pleads with him not to. One of the men must die. She simply cannot live knowing two men will be aware of her shame. She must save face. The two men must fight. Tajomaru, in his defense to the court, presents his actions as honorable. He did not murder the man. The husband defending himself. The husband wanted to protect the honor of his wife. But, Tajomaru was just too strong, too clever. But, he still admits the husband was a worthy opponent.

In this version we will notice the one who comes out looking the best is the bandit. His story emphasizes his strength and cunning. He tricked the husband, raped the wife, accepting her plea to save face, allowed the husband the opportunity to defend himself, but in the end the bandit kills him. Within these actions, the bandit wants to suggest he was honorable. He did allow the husband to defend himself. He did take pity on the wife's plea.

The next version we hear is the wife's. Now it is explained to us after Tajomaru rapes her he runs away laughing while the husband is still tied up. She cuts the rope with her dagger, which she offers to her husband. She asks that he kill her. She has been disgraced in front of her husband and now must present herself as a sacrificial lamb. The disapproving look on her husband's face is too much for her to bear.

The husband doesn't kill her though. She is still holding on to the dagger when suddenly her memory goes blank. She cannot remember what happened next because she fainted. When she wakes up her dagger mysteriously stabbed her husband.

Of course here all the honor belong to the wife. She knew what happened was wrong and her husband could never love her the same way again, knowing another man had slept with her. She is willing to sacrifice herself for her husband's honor.

What is interesting here between the two version of the stories are the gender stereotypes in play, especially concerning women. Although the movie is Japaneses, American audiences should been able to compare this story to a noir movie. The woman is the cause of violence. She is pitting the two men against each other. This will become more prominent in the husband's version of the story. Mr. Kurosawa was often accused, in his homeland, of not telling stories based on Japanese tradition. His stories were too "Western". One could definitely see "Rashomon" being remade in America as a noir movie.

The last story heard in court is the husband's. In this variation of the story after the rape of the wife, the bandit tries to console the wife. The bandit tells the wife, he did what he did out of love. Upon hearing this the wife tells the bandit she will go away with him but first he must kill the husband.

The bandit is taken aback by the wife's cruel request. Turned off by her hateful way, the bandit tells the husband he will tell the woman for him, all the husband need do is give the word. The wife runs away and the bandit it unable to catch her. He cuts the ropes off the husband and leaves.

The husband feels betrayed. His wife had asked another man to kill him. His wife was prepared to leave him. Feeling he has nothing left to live for the husband picks up his wife's dagger and kills himself.

This time around it is the husband that is the sacrificial lamb. Each spouse viewed their death as a way to preserve honor. And of course, each person was prepared to make that sacrifice because of how bound to tradition they were. Really hitting home the point they are honor to those hearing the story.

So, which version was true? How did the husband die? The woodcutter doesn't believe any of the stories. But how is he so sure? After repeated questioning, he finally reveals to the two men, he lied. He didn't just happen to discover the body but witnessed the murder.

In the woodcutter's version, elements of the previous stories are intertwined. Now after having raped the wife the bandit is pleading with the woman to come with him. He loves her. But, she says she is a woman. It is not her decision. The men must fight. She will go with the winner. So, the bandit unties the husband but, the husband doesn't want to fight. He is disgusted by her. He refuses to defend her honor after she has been been intimate with two men. The husband tells the bandit, he can have his wife.

The wife however tries to use reverse psychology and questions what kind of men are they? How could a husband not defend his wife's honor? And what kind of tough man does the bandit think he is, raping a woman and then not being man enough to kill the husband and take what he wants.

In three of the four stories the woman pitted the men against each other. Only in her version was their no fight. What does this tell us about the nature of women?

"Rashomon" tries to redeem some of the characters by the end of the movie by having the three men discover a baby, that has been abandon. One of them steals the blanket covering the child while the other two condemn the man.

After hearing a story about murder and betray and lies, as human try to cover their tracks and justify their evil behavior, we ask ourselves, is their any good in the world? Mr. Kurosawa cannot leave us with a story that tells us there is no hope for the world, can he?

In order to capture the element of truth and lies, good and evil, Mr. Kurosawa makes interesting lighting choices. Some scenes in "Rashomon" are bright, the court scenes for example, while others are darker and have a melancholy feel, the husband's version of events for example. Light symbolizing truth and darkness serving as evil.

Acting wise it is interesting to see characters act out different scenarios of the same story giving them the opportunity to display their range. However, none of the acting impressed me. What I come away with most watching "Rashomon" are ideas. That is why I have reviewed the movie as I have, running through the plot and interpreting the character's actions, hoping to get across how the themes of lies, truth, honor and morality are present.

"Rashomon" is an interesting movie but it may require multiple viewings. That may be too much of a challenge for some viewers but this is a thought-provoking film. One can also see the Western influence on Mr. Kurosawa's work, which may make his movies easy for Americans to digest. If you are willing to give "Rashomon" a chance, you will find it to be a rewarding experience. It is one of the great master's best films.