Sunday, October 9, 2011

This Film is an Epitome of Classic

As far as classic musical films are concerned, or film in general for that matter, this one is very high up on most movie critics' lists, including mine. From 1952, and starring Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor, the classic "Singin' in the Rain."

Kelly (who also shares directing credit with Stanley Donen) stars as Don Lockwood, a silent era film star. Along with his childhood friend and fellow musician Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor)Don is thrust into the movies after a film set stunt knocks out the lead actor. There, he meets the films' actress, Lina Lamont. His star quickly rises, and he goes from silent film musician, to stunt man, and finally, to major star. It's 1927, and films are quickly beginning to talk on their own. As they are known, Lamont and Lockwood (the Pitt and Jolie of the time) are approached to turn their latest film into a "talkie". While Don makes the transition easily, Lina's natural voice (quite comically) does not make the transition into sound very smoothly. Enter Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds, in one of her first films), a young aspiring actress. Don and Kathy meet, quite auspiciously, as he is running from his adoring fans, and seemingly falls right into her lap. Much to Lina's dismay, and a plan is hatched to dub Lina's nasally, whining voice with Kathy's smooth and beautiful singing and speaking voice. Very quickly, a romance between Kathy and Don begins to bloom. This, in a nutshell, is an excellent example of musical film at it's finest.

To me, this film will never get old. Every aspect of it is fantastic. Much like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly was notorious for his perfectionist tendencies. Every step of every musical number had to be just so before he was satisfied. Of course, watching the film, everything looks flawless, except the things that aren't meant to look flawless, which is part of its genius. For example, the scene in which the actors are being wired for sound for the first time is great. We take sound in films for granted in this day and age, but at some point, somebody had to work out the kinks so that we may enjoy not only the look of the picture, but the sound that goes with it. Much like we would learn a new game, or new software, plenty of mistakes and kinks to iron out were made. It's one of my favorite parts of the film. As in any musical film, the music is essential. Aside from the title number, which Gene Kelly famously performed while he was very sick, one of my favorite numbers is "Make 'em Laugh". It shows off the talent of Donald O'Connor. It makes me smile every time. He did not use a stunt double, amazingly enough. That's him doing back flips off of the walls. According to his IMDB profile, O'Connor went on bed rest after performing this number, which is understandable. Nonetheless, it's certainly one of the more entertaining parts of the film. Of course, there is a love story here as well. It's more of a love triangle. Lina loves Don (almost as much as she loves herself) and once young Kathy enters the picture, Don falls for Kathy.

If a film is strictly a love story, that's one thing. That SHOULD be the film's focus. But if the film is anything other than that, the love story within the film can be its downfall. It can potentially overshadow everything else in the film, leaving the viewer to wonder what exactly happened to the other actors or stories in the film. Fortunately, this film is not such an offender. While a love story certainly becomes a very integral part of the film towards the latter half, it doesn't distract from the music or the comedy.

Films about the film industry are always interesting to me, because you get the feeling that you're getting the inside scoop on what really happens during the making of a film. On one hand, a film about the industry can be entertaining, funny and perhaps insightful. But on the other, it has the potential of becoming one dimensional and only focusing on one aspect of the process, or how the process affects just one person in the film. When this happens, the film becomes dry and boring. Finally the film could try and focus on too many issues and ways in which to solve those issues, thereby making the film muddled and confusing. This film is only guilty of the former. It's highly entertaining.

A good musical film does several things. First and foremost, it's entertaining, and you don't feel like you'd rather get a root canal than finish watching it. Secondly, it tells a story, be it one based in history (such as this one), or completely fictionalized. Finally, it integrates the music into the film in such a way so you don't feel like the film has completely stopped just for a song. As many times as I've seen this film, I have yet to catch any major flaws in it that would deter me from watching it again. It's one of my absolute favorite films, and it was a great one to include for my blog's big number 5-0 entry.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

"One Two Three" an Excellent Satire

It's no secret to those of you who read this blog, but James Cagney has recently shot up my list of favorite actors. His roles and different personas were often very complex. He was most famous for his "gangster" roles, but he often played gangsters who (although his character would NEVER admit it) may have a tough exterior, but his vulnerable side would often come through, albeit often in somewhat twisted ways. This film, written by Billy Wilder and released in 1961, was a departure for Cagney, but nonetheless, his portrayal was as brilliant as that of the other actors, and the script which they were given.

Cagney stars as C.R. "Mac" MacNamara, a Coca-Cola executive in charge of operations in West Berlin. Mac feels that he should be in London, as head of the entire European operation, whereas his wife Phyllis (Arlene Francis) feels he should take a nice executive position back at the home base in Atlanta. The back and forth between Cagney and Francis creates the first of the many hilarious conflicts of the film. His staff is very loyal. Perhaps too much so. With the exception of his beautiful secretary, his staff treats him as the dictator for whom they had previously worked. That would be a man named Adolf Hitler. This creates another hilarious wrinkle, one in which Mac makes no secret of his disdain for heel clicking, something that his assistant Schlemmer (Hans Lothar) doesn't seem to understand. Enter the largest (and prettiest) wrinkle of all. Her name is Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin), and she is the spoiled, somewhat dimwitted teenage daughter of Mac's boss, Wendell Hazeltine. Despite Mac's strict rules, Scarlett proceeds to do anything and everything she desires. When she disappears for days, Mac panics, fearing he may lose his job, and his hopes of advancement. When she returns, she's not alone. It turns out that during her outing, she has met and has intentions to marry a communist sympathizer named Otto (Horst Buchholz). Hilarity ensues and Mac and his staff attempt to stop the marriage before the arrival of the Hazeltines in Berlin.

This is one of my absolute favorite new films (new to me, that is). Billy Wilder was a master at very sophisticated, dry and sharp humor. This film has plenty of that. And this was an excellent vehicle for Cagney because, even in his gangster films, he had a very dry and sarcastic wit that translated beautifully into doing a straight comedic film. And while Scarlett may APPEAR to be dimwitted, well, as they say, appearances can be deceiving. The fast pace of the writing in this film, going from joke to joke so fast, your head will spin, was pulled off by every single actor in the film with great aplomb. It's almost absurd that a teenager would have such a large vocabulary when she's trying to convince a parental figure that marrying a man, and a communist at that, is the right thing to do. But it's the absurdity of the film's subject matter, not to mention the ability of each actor in the film to deliver their lines as if they were ordering a cup of coffee, that makes the film so brilliant.

As you may be able to tell, I LOVED this film. It's humor was dry, witty and sarcastic, which is right up my alley. Don't get me wrong. I absolutely love a film full of fart jokes and potty humor as much as the next guy. But every once and awhile, I need a break from all the gas and pratfalls to actually expand my mind and be entertained at the same time. This film is fantastic and HIGHLY recommended.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

It Doesn't Get Much More Epic, or Influential, Than This Classic

If you were to compile a list of quintessential films of the last one hundred years, which films would be on it? My list would include "Singin' In The Rain", "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", and the original three "Star Wars" films, to name a few. This film would certainly be near the top of my list. It's epic in scope, and influenced generations upon generations of filmmakers. The film I'm speaking of is a classic, made in 1933 by RKO pictures. It's none other than "King Kong".

The story begins with a New York filmmaker named Carl Denham, played by Robert Armstrong. He's found a remote island (under mysterious circumstances), and has decided that he must find a female lead for his film. During a scouting mission, of sorts, in Manhatten, he walks by a fruit stand. There, he finds his leading lady, in the form of a beautiful, but nearly destitute woman named Ann Darrow, played by Fay Wray. They board a ship set to sail for the mysterious Skull Island. With them is a full crew, led by Captain Englehorn, and a man soon to become young Ann's love interest, Jack Driscoll. When they reach the island, which they believe to be uninhabited, they hear the mysterious sound of drums in the distance. With Denham in the lead, determined to finish his film, he and his crew, with his young actress, venture deep into the jungle, and discover that they are not alone. They soon encounter a tribe, native to the island. While their language is foreign and their rituals bizarre, one thing becomes clear. The tribe has come to worship one singular being on their mysterious piece of earth. This creature is only known to them as "Kong". Ann soon falls into the clutches of Kong, and it's up to the crew to save her. After a fatal trip deep into Kong's territory, only Denham and Jack survive. While he's deadly to everybody else, Kong is protective of his new love. Ultimately, Ann is saved, and the beast captured. What happens next, as they say, is history. This film is truly cinematic history at its zenith.

I'm always hesitant with films of such an epic scope. Films such as this have no doubt been held with such high regard, with such esteem, that it's hard not to go into a film like this for the first time with very high expectations. I've often found that if I enter into something with high expectations, I often end up disappointed, or even angry that what I've just seen didn't live up to the hype. So I went into seeing this film with trepidation. From the very beginning of the film, I knew that I would not be let down. The suspense builds, literally, from the opening overture. The film's score adds a aura of suspense, even though the first few minutes of the film are simply a gray screen with the word "Overture" written across it. And then the actors appear. Armstrong plays Carl Denham as somewhat of a cliche by Hollywood standards (or what we have come to know as standard). Carl is a famous (in his own mind) filmmaker that can do no wrong. Now, he's making a film that will make him millions. He believes he knows how to make this film, but those employing him want something that he's not sure if he can work with; a woman. Enter Ann Darrow. What can I say about Fay Wray? She was a stunning woman. She had large, gorgeous eyes, and flowing blond hair. Her acting wasn't campy and over the top like some actresses of the same era were guilty of. She was quiet and reserved, but when it was called for, she could be robust and dramatic. And perhaps, most famously, she was dubbed "The original Scream Queen". And rightfully so. She had a scream that could curdle milk and shatter crystal.

Of course, we can't forget to mention the star of the film, the big ape known as "King Kong". He begins as a mysterious figure, one whose very name conjures up the deepest of all goosebumps. This is a complex film. With the exception of Jack and Ann, all other characters act as both good and evil. For instance, Carl is a very strongly opinionated man. His opinion of using a woman in his film is, to say the least, unfavorable to the opposite sex. However, when Ann is kidnapped, and Jack ventures into the jungle to rescue her, Carl quickly turns from curmudgeonly filmmaker to a concerned friend. He tells his crew, "If we don't get Jack's signal by sunrise, we'll go ashore anyway." Another example is, of course, Kong. On one hand, he's a terror to the film's crew, and later, to the native villagers on Skull Island. However, he's willing to fight for Ann, fighting members of the "dinosaur family" as they're ignorantly called by Denham, and keep her safe by any means necessary, even at the cost of his own life.

I'd be remiss if I didn't briefly acknowledge the special effects in the film, which are spectacular, especially for a film made in the 1930s. The scenes in which Kong is fighting various predators, such as vicious dinosaurs and large snakes are stunning. The final scene (and one of the most famous in cinematic history)in which he sits atop the Empire State building to fight off the planes, and to protect a cowering Ann, is absolutely amazing. Not to mention it's the first time in the film that you feel a substantial shift in the film. No longer is Kong feared, but as he falls from the building to the street below, you can almost feel the emotion begin to build. The film then culminates with the shift from evil to good complete.

I LOVED this movie. Everything about it was stunning, all the way down to the sets, extras and lighting. And the final scene, in which Carl is standing, with the policemen in the street among a throng of onlookers as Kong plummets to earth, is spine tingling. And then there's the final line spoken in the film. The policeman leans in and says, "The planes got him." Carl returns with, " was beauty that killed the beast." It's powerful and deep. It's truly a beautiful culmination to a spectacular film.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Story of Prohibition Bootleggers is Fantastic

The 1920s is and was a very famous part of American history. It was an innovative decade in which music became more liberating, films began to talk, and a movement to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol, known as prohibition, began. Prohibition, in turn, gave rise to people known as bootleggers, who transported alcohol for profit, and the underground tavern, called the speakeasy. This also introduced much violence and competition, not only from the battle between the police and the bootleggers, but among regular citizens as well. "The Roaring Twenties" made in 1939, tells the story of warring factions of bootleggers.

James Cagney stars as Eddie Bartlett. Eddie comes home from Europe after fighting in World War One. He arrives, expecting for his life to pick up where it left off. But what he finds is that his world has changed. His job as an auto mechanic has been given to somebody else, and now he is out of work and nearly destitute. His friend and roommate Danny (played by frequent Cagney collaborator Frank McHugh) is a down and out taxi driver. Eddie begins to pick up twelve hour shifts as a driver to help make ends meet. Suddenly, he's thrust into the underground world of bootlegging. As business picks up, he builds a fleet of taxis, for the purpose of delivering the illegal substance. With the help of a his partner, an ex-saloon keeper named George, played by Humphrey Bogart, and a lawyer he's retained as is own, Lloyd, played by Jeffrey Hart, Bartlett begins to manufacture his own product for the sole purpose of selling to the speakeasies. It soon gets complicated when Eddie falls for a beautiful young actress and singer, Jean, played by Priscilla Lane. But she has eyes for Bartlett's lawyer, Lloyd. Enter speakeasy owner Panama Smith, played by Gladys George, who only has eyes for Eddie. Where as Jean is sweet and innocent, and perhaps a little naive (which may be why Eddie falls for her) Panama is more like Eddie. She's rough around the edges and fully aware of what Eddie and his crew are involved in. What ensues is a story of violence, love and betrayal. It's a complicated and beautiful film.

The film was based on a story by Mark Hellinger. As it's explained at the onset of the film, Hellinger lived a similar story to the one depicted in the film. To me, this makes it more real than other films I've seen about the prohibition era. While parts of the film are likely dramatized, the film possesses an authenticity that may be lacking in other similar films. It would have been a much different film without it's director, Raoul Walsh. He and Cagney (as well as other actors in the film, namely McHugh), were frequent collaborators. Walsh had many filming signatures. He loved long panoramic shots, and his female characters were often as hard and tough as the male leads. This can be seen in the character of Panama Smith. She's a complete contradiction to the other female lead in the film, Jean. She's outspoken, and hard living. Walsh also used this method in another film (one of my absolute favorites) "White Heat". The difference is that there is definitely a contrast to the two female characters in this film. In "White Heat" both of the women are strong and independent. In "The Roaring Twenties" the contrast between the two female leads adds even more to the authenticity of the film. Finally, it goes without saying, but Cagney is most definitely the star of this film. He is absolutely in his element in the gangster persona. Eddie is not pure evil though. We can see his human side. We can see that Eddie loves Jean, and we feel for him when she falls for Lloyd instead. He becomes despondent and throws himself into his work. At the end of the film, when he picks up Jean in his taxi, he's a regular guy. While it may be hard for him to face the love of his life, he's very genuine and kind-hearted. The scene in which he is meeting Jean and Lloyd's young son (who is supposedly four years old, but seems to be more like ten), is very touching, and Cagney does an excellent job of playing this type of role, then, in the next scene, playing the part of the fearless antagonist. Cagney was one of the few actors of his, or any era for that matter, who could achieve playing the role of both protagonist and antagonist in one character. He and the rest of the cast are fantastic.

While other films of this era, and of this subject can often just become convoluted and frustrating, this film is not one of them. It's filmed and acted brilliantly, and it's one of the best films I've seen recently.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is Excellent, Entertaining

George M. Cohan was a very prolific song writer, dancer, actor and producer in the early part of the twentieth century. He wrote many famous songs, among them, the title song for this film, "Give my Regards to Broadway" and many others. This is the story of his life.

James Cagney, in his Oscar winning role, plays Cohan. The film begins in Cohan's childhood, performing (with mild success) with his parents (played by Walter Huston and Rosemary DeCamp) and younger sister. Eventually, the troupe moves onto vaudeville, where young George really becomes enamored with show business. As he gets older, he begins to act as the group's manager, and in the process, becomes a bit of an ego-maniac. He ventures out on his own, leaving his parents and sister behind, but never forgetting where he came from. The film is told through flashback. Cohan is an old man now, looking to retire. He's summoned by the president of the United States to be given the Congressional Medal of Honor, as a result of his influence over American songwriting, among other things. He sits down with the president and begins to tell his story. So, the film, literally, begins and ends with Cagney.

It's pure irony that this role as a song and dance man earned Cagney the only Academy Award statue of his long career. He was probably most famous for his roles in gangster films. Nonetheless, at a certain level, Cagney brings that gangster mentality to this role as well. He plays Cohan as if he is very headstrong and stubborn. He knows what he wants, and he will stop at nothing to achieve his success. Also brought to the film was his unique dancing style. Cagney is graceful on his feet, but at times, his dancing looks like a newborn horse standing up for the first time. He's certainly not as elegant as Fred Astaire, but he brings his own elegance to his clipped style. It's as if he's galloping across the screen. His singing is in a similar style to that of Rex Harrison. He, more or less, speaks his way through a song, as if he's just telling a story. He does sing a few notes, but for the most part, he "sings" as if he's just delivering another one of his lines. The supporting cast is excellent and very complementary to Cagney. It's also worth noting that his adult sister in the film was played by Cagney's real-life sister, Jeanne Cagney. While actors can easily develop a rapport with one another, as you saw the Cagneys together, it was easy to see that their chemistry was something more than just two friends working together.

James Cagney's Oscar was very much deserved. The film was amazingly written, and the casting couldn't have been better. This film is very patriotic in it's general feeling and material. As a lover of the musical film, and of our country, I highly recommend this film.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Beatty and Benning, Rest of Cast Excellent in 'Bugsy'

Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel was one of the most notorious and ruthless killers of the 1940s. He killed and womanized. He was also a Las Vegas pioneer. He built what is now the multi-billion dollar Flamingo Hotel and Casino, one of the first of many that became the gambling mecca. Siegel, in essence, took a desert sand trap and turned it into what we know today as Las Vegas. Enter Warren Beatty. Beatty was, himself, a notorious Hollywood playboy. That is, until he met future wife Annette Bening (his co-star in this film, who played Virginia Hill, the love interest of Siegel). So in that sense, these two men, subject and actor, are similar. They couldn't have picked a better person to play Bugsy in Barry Levinson's violent 1991 bio-pic.

Beatty plays the titular role. He makes a splash upon arriving in Los Angeles from New York on "business". Along with his crisp suits and volitile temper, he soon purchases a home, and meets his match in Virginia Hill, a very glamorous (in her own mind) and perhaps, lascivious actress, played by Annette Bening. While his other life (a wife and two daughters) awaits him back in New York, Siegel becomes wrapped up in the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. He kills or hurts everyone who dares to cross him. When a trip to the Nevada desert and a run down casino with Hill gives him an idea, a worldwide phenomenon is soon born. With the help of fellow mobster Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) he acquires funds from the so called mob "kingpin" Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley), and the other crime family bosses. Costs begin to spiral out of control. Siegel sells his share, plus most of his possessions, in order to pay for these costs. Then, it's discovered that somebody has embezzled millions of dollars. What happens next, as it's said, is history.

The entire cast in this film is what makes it great. This is, as they say, a "star-studded" film, in more ways than one. Along with Beatty and Bening, Harvey Kietel, Ben Kingsley, Joe Mantegna and Elliot Gould, among others, round out the supporting cast of the Hollywood elite and mobsters. Films about the film industry are always intriguing because they may shed light on the inner workings of the industry, or the actors in it. For example, George Raft (Mantegna's character) was an A-List Hollywood actor in the 1930s and 40s. He later became famous for his association with Siegel. Virgina Hill also became famous for her infatuation with the mobster.

Beatty captured the eccentricities of Siegel eeriely well. Whether or not this was a trait of Bugsy's, I don't know, but Beatty makes him very eloquent and well spoken. Over and over in the film, he repeats a chant, perhaps a mantra, that keeps his tongue quick and relaxed. It goes, "Twenty dwarfs took turns doing hand stands on the carpet." It may sound benign, but said over and over, with Beatty steely eyed intensity, it becomes spine tingling.

It's a dark, eerie and intense film. But it's very captivating. Both the subjects and actors are excellent.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

"The Killers" An Excellent Example of Murder Mystery Noir Style

To those who read this blog (and I hope somebody does) you know by now that I'm a fan of the dark, Noir-style film, especially those made in the 1940s and 1950s. What I love about them is the writing. The dialogue, plots and characters are complex. But that's only half of what makes a good film. The other half of that equation is the actor chosen to play their respective role. This film from 1946 has both. The writing and the actors delivering those lines are both excellent in this story of mystery and murder.

At the onset of the film, two professional killers come to a small town, and kill the local gas station attendant, Ole "Swede" Anderson, played by the excellent Burt Lancaster. Enter insurance agent Jim Reardon, played by Edmond O'Brien. He takes the case in order to find the beneficiary of Anderson's insurance policy, against the advice of his boss, who believes the case is irrelevant. Reardon takes the case, and he begins to delve into Anderson's past, which becomes apparent through Reardon's interviews, aided by flashbacks. With the help of Anderson's childhood friend, Sam Lubinsky, now a police lieutenant, Reardon begins to collect all of the loose ends of Anderson's past. Reardon suspects that all of Anderson's past dealings, and perhaps, the reason he was killed, can be traced back to a beautiful, suspected femme-fatale, Kitty Collins, played by Ava Gardner. Several stories, told by the various people interviewed by Reardon and Lubinsky, are intertwined and linked back to Anderson's story. Telling a multilayer-ed story such as this can be dangerous, because when it's done poorly, when there's a loose end that's not addressed, the viewer knows it, and that's all they can focus on. Therefore, the film has failed. But this film succeeds in that respect. There are no loose ends left.

It's worth noting that this was Lancaster's first screen role. In total, he's not in the film more than twenty minutes or so, but the entire film revolves around Anderson's death. We see him briefly at the beginning of the film, which begins with his death, and through back tracking and flashback, as Anderson's story unfolds, the viewer sees Lancaster, and the great acting ability he had, for the first time. He hardly had to act. It seems like he merely spoke his lines as if he were speaking to a close friend or family member, and they put him on film and called him an actor. Edmond O'Brien, perhaps most famous for his pairing with James Cagney in several films, was an equally important part of the film, but you could tell he was an actor. The way his lines were delivered seemed very natural within the context of the film, but at the same time, you know that this isn't the way he would have spoken to a friend when the camera was off. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, the writing of this film was excellent as well. Very rarely does this film seem like it's too complicated, with too many plots at play at one time. It is guilty of being a little complex at times, but ultimately, the film culminates with the mystery of Anderson's death no longer a mystery, and each of the different plots are brought together in a clean and succinct resolution by films' end.

This film was a pleasure to watch. There was enough mystery and suspense to keep the viewer interested, the acting was excellent, and not at all over the top (as some film's of the era were guilty of) and the writing was well thought out and executed. I'd highly recommend this one.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Grant and Rodgers are Good In An Otherwise Labored Film

Ginger Rodgers was perhaps best known for her partnership over a span of almost twenty years, and ten films with Fred Astaire. But she also had a very successful, Oscar-winning solo career. Cary Grant was a very suave, English actor known for his roles in "North by Northwest" and "Arsenic and Old Lace". Together, they have a very natural chemistry, but this film, an R.K.O. film from 1942, is not the best vehicle to showcase that chemistry. For me, it was lost somewhere in the very busy film.

Rodgers stars as Kathie O'Hara, a.k.a Katherine Butt-Smith (pronounced like 'Butte'...this becomes a somewhat monotonous running joke in the film), a.k.a. Baroness Katherine Von Luber, an American burlesque performer who marries an Austrian Baron, Baron Franz Von Luber, in hopes of climbing the social ladder. Enter reporter Patrick O'Toole (Grant) who begins to suspect the Baron of having ties to Adolf Hitler in a pre-World War Two Europe. He begins his investigation by traveling to Europe, in a quest to follow the Baron to break the biggest story of his career. Gradually, his intentions are swayed. He begins to fall in love with the Baroness. Eventually, when she learns of her husband's involvement with the Nazis, now under the name of Kathie O'Hara, she fakes her own death in order to flee Europe and return to the United States with O'Toole. With their inside knowledge (the Baron is fifth in line behind Hitler), once in Paris, O'Hara and O'Toole are used as spies for the allied party, and go to the airwaves to discredit Von Luber and the Nazis. This story has a heart. It has potential. But ultimately, it falls flat.

The film on the whole didn't work for me, but through no fault of the actors. Rodgers and Grant compliment each other quite well. They both have a sarcastic sense of humor, and can easily take barbs from one another. Rodgers was a beautiful woman, a very in demand actress at the time this film was made, and Grant was a very good looking actor. So in those senses, the film was excellent. The idea of the film was excellent as well, but where it failed for me was in the execution. Once it was written on the page, it became the sort of muddled mess that made it to the screen. We have the one main story, which is an American woman marrying an Austrian Baron to climb the social ladder. Then we have a love story, between the two leads. There's an act of betrayal, of sacrifice, name it. While some films can execute such a multilayer-ed story, this one wasn't so lucky. The film tried in earnest to meld all of its components. But it became very uneven and choppy as a result.

Films made about the Nazis that were actually filmed during Hitler's reign have always been strange to me. This film was made in 1942, at the height of the Third Reich, and Hitler's onslaught of Europe. In this day and age, a film that would take a so called "industry" and make fun, or in any way try to discredit it, would undoubtedly be subject to an attempt at being shelved and never seeing the light of day by those looking to uphold their reputation. I can only guess, but with the power and influence that Hitler had during this period, a film such as this, that was defamatory in any way, probably wasn't even allowed to be shown.

While I didn't enjoy this film very much, I did enjoy the aforementioned chemistry between Grant and Rodgers. They seemed very comfortable with each other on screen. Beyond that, this film failed on multiple levels for me. If I were to put a rating on it, I would give it two out of four stars. It's not unbearable to watch, but after I finished it, I couldn't help but say "I'm glad it's over." It's certainly not my favorite film that I've seen recently, but it's worth watching for the acting and the two leads.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

"The Ratpack" Are Entertaining In 'Robin'

I wasn't expecting what I saw in this film. A description of "Robin and the 7 Hoods" called it "A cross between 'mobster drama' and 'Guys and Dolls'. I've seen several mobster dramas. I've never seen "Guys and Dolls", but, having watched this film, I can say that the description is probably very apropos. It takes a hard edged story of two mobsters looking for total control, and combines it with musical numbers and elaborate sets.

The film is a story of the 1920's, in prohibition-era Chicago. At the beginning of the film, the man who controls the mob activity in South Chicago, a man named Guy Gisborne (played by a very young Peter Falk), and a corrupt police chief, to use the vernacular,whack the city's big mob boss, known as "Big Jim", played by Edward G. Robinson. From the first scene, we see two genres come together. In the scene, Big Jim commands a long table of corrupt cops, city officials, and mobsters. After a seemingly random musical number, the scene culminates in simultaneous gunfire, and the death of their leader. With hopes of total control, the south-side boss tries to take over the north side of Chicago, and gain total control. The problem (and herein lies the conflict of the film), is that the north side is controlled by a man only known as Robbo, played by Frank Sinatra (who also acted as producer of the film), and his friend and accomplice, Will, played by Sammy Davis Jr. Knowing that they're outnumbered by Gisborne, Robbo and Will enlist the help of an Indiana pool shark, John, played by Dean Martin, and the director of a city orphanage, Allen Dale, played by Bing Crosby. Together, Robbo, Dale, Will and John, begin donating money to the orphanage to make them appear as generous philanthropists, much like Robin Hood and his merry men. With this cover, they can continue running the illegal dealings of peddling alcohol for profit. If this weren't enough, and third party is looking for total control. She happens to be the daughter of slain mob boss Big Jim, Marian, played by Barbara Rush. She plays both bosses of Chicago, in her quest to replace her father as the omnipotent mob boss.

This film is intriguing for many reasons, but namely, the joining of two very different film styles. A story of the mob starring these very famous faces would have been enough, albeit very strange. While adding musical numbers, elaborate sets and choreography seems strange, it actually works well. Some films have tried, unsuccessfully, to pair one genre with a musical. When it's done poorly, the story line isn't enhanced by the music. When a film has to completely stop for a musical number, it doesn't work. While the musical numbers in this film may seem random (and some of them the number in which Davis performs a number about the joy he gets from the sound of a pistol makes when it's fired after he and the rest of his cronies smash up Gisborne's bar), you don't get the feeling that it is just a random occurrence. A mobster probably WOULD get immense joy from firing a gun, or destroying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property (although perhaps not enough to break into a musical interlude). But I digress. The film switches relatively seamlessly from a dark, almost noir-style film to lighthearted musical and vice-versa. Also present is the very easy going rapport between the members of the rat-pack. Each of them, Sinatra, Martin, Davis, and, in this film, Bing Crosby, have a very easy going nature with each other, trading the jibes and sarcasm that became ubiquitous in their other movies, as well as in their famous stage act. Being a lover of biting sarcastic humor (I know...hard to believe, but it's true), this chemistry alone made the film enjoyable for me to watch. If this had been the same film, but with a different cast, it would have been unwatchable.

You may read this and say to yourself "It sounds too strange to actually work", and, at first, I did too. But something about it was too fascinating to simply delete it off my list. Perhaps it was the A-List cast, or the fact that I am a sucker for a good musical. While this isn't a musical the caliber of a "Singin' in the Rain", just watching the chemistry between the four big stars in the film makes it a worthwhile, and entertaining film. I recommend it.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Benny is Excellent in an Otherwise Strange Film

Jack Benny was one of the finest comedic performers in his, or any other, generation before him or since. In my opinion, he was just as clever as Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin before him. And like Keaton and Chaplin, Benny didn't need elaborate story lines and props to make us laugh. This film, from 1945, actually contradicts what I just wrote, but I believe it's still relevant. The story is complex, and there is a prop involved. First and foremost, it's a film centered around the talents of Jack Benny.

The film opens with Jack Benny as a trumpeter in the orchestra of the Paradise Coffee Program. The program's slogan is "Paradise Coffee...the coffee that makes you sleep." And that's just what happens. Benny falls asleep, and therin lies the film, an elaborate dream sequence. In the dream, Benny plays Athaniel, an angel in heaven who is given a mission. He's sent to earth to blow his trumpet promptly at midnight, in order to destroy earth. When they find out of this plan, two gentleman, Osidro and Doremus, two fallen angels who have stayed on earth to enjoy an extravagent life, enlist the help of debonair jewel thief Archie Dexter to steal the trumpet, therefore making it impossible for Athaniel to return to heaven. His first attempt, however, is foiled by Archie's beautiful accomplice, Fran, played by Delores Moran. Fran is desondent over a botched jewel heist, and she ends up on the same roof where Athaniel is about to carry out his plan, intending to commit suicide. Little does she know that the man who saves her is a so-called "angel of death". Athaniel decides to enjoy earth for one day, until midnight of the following night. The first thing he does is to do what mortals call "eating". Unknowing of our ways, when asked to pay his bill with something called "dollas" (the waiter is equipped with a thick New York accent), his trumpet is held in lieu of payment. Hilarity ensues. Athaniel gets his trumpet back, and then, with the help of fellow angel Elizabeth (who is also the harp player in his reality) he continues to carry out his mission. The climax of the film has the film's entire cast hanging from a high rise building, as midnight approaches. At the bottom of the chain of mortals and angels hanging from the building is Athaniel, desperately hanging to the legs of those above him with one arm, and clutching his beloved trumpet in the other.

I can only speculate, as this film was made nearly fourty years before I was born, but it seems to me that this film inspired the stories of films about angels sent to earth. The one that immediately comes to mind is John Travolta's "Michael", or even the Disney film "Angels in the Outfield". But neither of those films have the dark undertones of this film. While it's certainly a comedy, as one would expect from a film starring Jack Benny, it's really more of a dark comedy, a film that begins as a film centering around the idea of destruction and death. The look and aura of the film is also worth noting. It has a very noir-ish style to it. This is thanks to director Raoul Walsh, who was also the man behind one of my absolute favorite films "White Heat". This film, as well as "White Heat" use very strong female characters. Both female roles, Fran and Elizabeth are very strong and outspoken. This was one of Walsh's signatures. He always wrote female roles so they wouldn't just fade away behind their male counterparts, but instead, they would lend support and be able to stand their own ground next to the male leads. They were both ultimately able to lend comedic support to Jack Benny, one of the most excellent comedic talents of the twentieth century.

The film is a bit conviluted, and, without Jack Benny, it would have just been that, and I wouldn't be writing about it right now. But Jack Benny made a strange film about an elaborate dream, and made it worth watching. It's worth watching just to see Jack Benny crack a joke, but not cracking a smile. His deadpan delivery makes the joke all the more hilarious. This film is strange, but very intriguing.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

"Bye, Bye Birdie" is an Exceptional Musical Adaptation

There have been many successful Broadway-to-film transitions made in the last six decades; Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music, to name a few. As you, the reader, may know by now, I am a fan of a musical. But it has to have a good story behind it. While this story isn't exactly original (it was based on Elvis Presley's drafting into the army), the music is toe-tapping and the cast, for the most part, is excellent.

Dick Van Dyke reprises his stage role as Albert Peterson, a chemist turned song writer at the behest of his over-bearing mother, Mae (played by Maureen Stapleton). The work has dried up, and his secretary Rosie (played by Janet Leigh), is hoping for a marriage proposal. But Albert is reluctant. He wants his work to pick up, and he wants the approval of his dear mother. Enter Conrad Birdie, an Elvis-esque rock-star who has been drafted. Upon hearing the news, Rosie develops a plan to help Albert revive his career. He is to write a song for Conrad, called "One Last Kiss", at the end of which, Conrad is to kiss a lucky young fan. Enter the town of Sweet Apple, Ohio and the McAfee family. Young Kim McAfee (played by Ann-Margret, who would later star with the real Elvis Presley) is Conrad Birdie's number one fan. This film launched Ann's career, and, for a time, type-cast her into the certain type of sweet and sultry roles. Kim's father, played by Paul Lynde (who also reprises his original Broadway role) is understandably reluctant. That is until he finds out that the big event is to take place on the "Ed Sullivan Show", one that he greatly adores. Sullivan makes a cameo as himself. Sweet Apple is turned on it's ear, as news of Conrad Birdie's "One Last Kiss" spreads like wild fire.

For me, when I watch a musical, I don't watch it as such. I watch it as I would any other film. To me, the music and the score is secondary. The story, the acting, chemistry between the actors, and how well an actor can perform in a musical without coming across to the viewer as being uncomfortable doing so is paramount. Dick Van Dyke is a natural in a musical setting. This was one of his first films. After winning the Tony Award for his performance in the stage production, he was undoubtedly a natural choice to reprise the role in the film. Ann Margret, with this also being one of her first films, is also very natural. The fact that she's absolutely stunning and easy to look at certainly helps as well. With the exception of Paul Lynde, the rest of the cast seems like they don't really know what to do in a musical setting, and they seem a little uneasy. I would admittedly be a little intimidated by the prospect of being in a musical. But I would approach it as I do when I watch them. I would approach doing a musical as I would any other film. The most important thing for an actor to do, in any role, in any genre, is to understand that particular character, and once they do that, they come off believable, and more importantly, likable to the rest of us, the viewers.

One thing a film cannot do, and especially a musical film, is to pair an entire cast of actors which their audience wouldn't want to see in such a setting with a hard to follow story-line. "Moulin Rouge" to me is one of the worst offenders. I can't say I really care that Nicole Kidman's character is sick, or that Ewan MacGregor's character is in love with her character. Both Kidman and MacGregor are excellent actors in their own rights, but under different circumstances. Their respective agents obviously had no idea what it was they were getting their clients into. The story is so convoluted, it's frustrating. But, I digress. "Bye Bye Birdie" is not such a musical. It's well done and entertaining.

Despite the casting hiccups in this film, it's very enjoyable, and one that I recommend.

"Sin City" is a Brilliant, Visually Stunning albeit Bloody Film

While his face may not be well known, his name is synonymous with dark and gritty graphic novels. Frank Miller has been around for nearly fourty years as an comic book writer and illustrator. He was also responsible for penning the screenplays for two of the "Robocop" films, and spent years working for DC Comics, the company responsible for the "Batman" and "Robocop" comic series. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino are both innovative and creative filmmakers with their own recognizable visual styles of film-making. This film does not belong to just one of these men. It's a seamless collaboration of the three. It's a dark, violent, star-studded and noir-style film, based on the graphic novel of the same name, written by Miller.

"Sin City" is a story about a run down, fictional locale, Basin City. There are several story lines at work in the film, but each story line is from a central character, who is, in some way, caught up in Basin City's corruption. The three principle characters represent three story lines.

John Hartigan, played by Bruce Willis, is a soon to be retired police officer who is called back into duty on his last night on the force. He takes it upon himself to rescue a young girl from the wrath of a spoiled young man, and the son of the corrupt Senator Roarke, who also happens to be a masochist and a rapist. After rescuing the young girl, Nancy, he cripples Roarke Jr. in such a way that would make any man bawl like a baby. After the rescue, he's shot and left for dead by his partner, Bob (played by Tarantino regular Michael Madsen) and falsely accused of raping young Nancy Callahan. After spending time in the hospital, he goes away to prison for eight years, letters written by Nancy under an alias being the only thing keeping him from committing suicide. He's then paroled, and sensing that Nancy is in trouble, finds her. Unbeknown-st to them, the young Roarke Jr. has also found Nancy. He's now a more masochistic, jaundiced version of his former self.

The next story involves a man with two strikes against him named Marv, played by Mickey Rourke. Marv is framed for the murder of a prostitute named Goldie, a leader of the "Old Town" district of Basin City, a "red-light" district of sorts that has long been self governed by the prostitutes who work the streets there. Marv's violent investigation leads him to an old farm on the edge of town. Come to find out that the farm belongs to the powerful Roarke family. He finds that this is a place of gruesome murder and mutilation.

The final story is one that doesn't have the parallels of the first two, but still tells of the corruption and seemingly lawless Basin City. Dwight (played by Clive Owen) is what you may call a freedom fighter, a protector of the ladies in Old Town. As it's explained in the film, a truce of sorts had been reached long ago between the police, politicians and working girls of old town. The ladies are allowed to govern and police themselves with no interference from the police.

At times, the three story lines briefly intersect, with the secondary characters interacting with the primary ones. For example, when Hartigan is paroled and finds out where Nancy works, he asks a waitress holding a tray of drinks where he might find Nancy. The waitress, Shellie (the late Brittany Murphy) directs Hartigan in Nancy's direction, to the stage on which Nancy performs for the pleasure of a crowded bar. Shellie is Dwight's lover. But the primary characters from each story line, at least in the film, never have a scene together.

While I've seen this film many times, and continue to watch in awe, I can't help but cringe at some of the dialogue. There are a few scenes in the film in which an actor, who may or may not be an intrinsic part of the scene, looks on while another actor is performing a particularly gruesome act, and simply says "Eeeeesh", as in, "I can't believe this is the only line they gave me to say in this scene." While this gives the film a certain "pulp" comic appeal, it can be tedious at times. It's a film with very dark and dramatic subject matter, but that doesn't mean that the actors have to amp up their acting to such a degree that it becomes campy. There's a lot to be said for subtlety. This is probably one of my biggest pet peeves of any actor, male or female. While some actors can "over-act" and in the next scene, even it out with a subtle action or line or combination of both, others aren't skilled enough to do this, and just end up being just outrageous and over the top. This may be seen in the form of an exaggerated facial expression, or an inflection put into a line when one isn't warranted. Some films may call for outrageous and over the top, and if it's appropriate, I love it. But if it's uncalled for, then it ruins a film for me. At times, this film is guilty of that, but it's not enough to turn me away.

This IS NOT a family friendly film. It will give young children and squeamish adults alike nightmares. But if you're looking for something uniquely beautiful, in all of it's gory and pulpy splendor, then this film is one for you.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"Daddy Long Legs' Is Excellent, Despite Being A Departure for Astaire

It's no secret that I'm a fan of a good musical. For the most part, they were backed by a good story and decent acting. But, especially in the Astaire/Rodgers era, they could become monotonous and formulaic. It's hard to take the song and dance out of a song and dance man like Astaire. He was often cast in a facet of show business, persuing somebody else in show business, or somebody aspiring to be in show business. This film, however, is not such a story. It was a departure for Astaire, but, of the post Astaire/Rodger's films, this was one of the best.

Astaire plays Jervis Pendleton III. Now here's where the film becomes an original Astaire film. Pendelton is not in show business. He is, in fact, a very wealthy and shrewd New York businessman. While traveling in France with his entourage, their car breaks down, and Jervis takes it upon himself to go for help, and get away from his headache that is everybody who has become dependant on him. He arrives at a large country home, looking for assistance. What he finds is an enchanting eighteen year old orphan, Julie (Leslie Caron), acting as school teacher for the other orphans. He soon finds out that she longs to attend college in America, but does not have the means to do so. Enchanted, but very aware of their age difference, he becomes her benefactor and anonymously sends her to a prestigious college in New England. She takes it upon herself to write her benefactor and thank him for his generosity, and keep him updated on her progress. For three years, she doesn't receive the response that she so richly desires. Then, fate injects. Pendleton arrives from New York to chaperone a dance at the behest of his sister and long lost (to him) niece. Julie just happens to be his niece's roommate. Unaware that Jervis is the "John Smith" to which she's been writing , Julie falls for this "Daddy Long Legs" as she describes him (from the shadow he cast on the wall at the orphanage where she first meets him), and he, in turn falls for her. It's not until the finale of the film that Julie's mysterious "John Smith" is revealed.

There's not an Astaire film that I've met that I haven't liked. I undoubtedly have my favorites, but the ones that I've seen have been excellent. It's true that, at times, the story lines to these films were recycled, with only the details and names changed. But each of these films have become classic examples of story telling. Modern day stars of the "Great White Way" have no doubt studied Astaire and his choreography and nuance. He was notorious for being a perfectionist when staging a dance, often pushing the other actors to the point of exhaustion. There are several complex dances in this film, most of which were choreographed by Astaire himself. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that his films have gone down in cinematic history as some of the best. He was an early version of Christopher Walken. In that, I mean that his acting didn't really change from one film to the next, except in rare instances within the context of the film. He didn't have to adapt to a film. The film and it's actors would adapt to him. While Astaire can be credited for this, the same can be said for the other actors in his films. They also have to adapt to his style of acting, his drive to make everything perfect, and his particular style of choreography. Leslie Caron was famously discovered by Gene Kelly when he was casting for "An American in Paris". Kelly and Astaire are excellent dancers in their own rights, but Caron is equally, if not more amazing, because she danced with both men, and she had to adapt her style to match her respective partner. Certainly, no easy task, but she was able to do it as well as anybody else.

Having seen several Astaire musicals, I would say that I enjoyed this one very much. It has a different feel than his films he made with Ginger Rodgers did ten to twenty years before, but this was nonetheless an excellent film that has endured in the last fifty-plus years since it's debut. Great story and acting make this film a must see for the fan of the nearly bygone musical film.

83rd Academy Awards Were Mostly a Bomb

As a film critic, of sorts, I would be remiss if I didn't talk about this year's Academy Awards. Every year, the who's who of Hollywood and abroad come together to honor each other's accomplishments in film in the past year. Film veterans and newcomers alike sit together as if they have always known one another. Each year, the rest of us sit at home, possibly having watched the honored films. We are entertained, amused, and, at times, moved to tears. But rarely are we inclined to praise such achievements as a digital video recorder (DVR). Sure, it moves through pesky commercials with ease, but using it to fast forward through long rambling speeches of the honorees, not to mention the seemingly lackluster chemistry of the hosts. This year, while parts of the broadcast were entertaining and moving, I couldn't understand what the show's producers were thinking this year.

In past years, such entertainers such as Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg, just to name a few, have adorned the stage at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood. Apparently everybody else was busy this year. I found that Anne Hathaway (who is usually likeable) and Academy Award nominee James Franco (for his performance in "127 Hours") didn't rise to the occasion. It felt like watching an elementary school version of a Shakespeare play. Sure, there were some laughs. Most of them came with James Franco trying not to appear inebriated on stage. At one point, Anne Hathaway broke into song, preluding it with the fact that her performance was supposed to be a duo with Aussie actor Hugh Jackman, who backed out at the last minute. Whether or not this is true is beside the point. Going back to the elementary school analogy, it was like watching your child break character in the middle of the play and say, "Hi mommy...hi daddy...". It's kind of cute, yes, but at a certain point, you can't help but being a little embarrassed, for them, and for yourself.

Shall we talk about the acceptance speeches and statuette presentations? While the broadcast has become famous over the years for long acceptance speeches, the award-winning actor or actress being gradually interrupted by a swelling orchestra, informing them that they've over stayed their welcome, the award presenters, who are often past award winners, were somewhat flat this year. I do enjoy when a host or presenter interjects their own personal stories of an actor or nominee. This was present this year, but as the saying goes, "too little, too late." The barbs came late in the broadcast, as the "Best Actor/Actress" awards were being given out. Nonagenerian Kirk Douglas presented the award for "Best Supporting Actress" (Melissa Leo for "The Fighter". It was well deserved). As enduring as it is to see somebody come back from a debilatating stroke, it was painful to see Douglas struggle through his speech. He was un-intelligible at times, often slurring his words. He appeared to be man of a hundred and twenty, rather than one of his nearly ninety five years. I will concede that he was an excellent actor in his day, just as his son is now. He received a well deserved standing ovation upon his entrance. Many of the long rambling acceptance speeches often come from the winners of the "Foreign Film" category, evidenced by Roberto Benigni's win in 1998 for "Life is Beautiful". I must have blocked this part out from this year's show, but suffice it to say, there were plenty of orchestral interruptions this year, which made me love my DVR even more.

Things weren't certainly all thorns this year. There were a few roses. The "In Memoriam" segment in which the Academy honors those actors who have passed away in the last year is always touching. Colin Firth and Natalie Portman both deservedly won in their respective categories, he for "The King's Speech", she for "Black Swan". "Inception", which I thought was one the best films of years past, won for visual effects and cinematography, certainly both well deserved. Randy Newman won for best song. When he stepped on stage to give his acceptance speech, he facetiously acknowledged his poor track record, this being only his second win in a staggering twenty nominations. These were a few gems in a broadcast which was otherwise plagued with oscar winners overstaying their welcome, and seemingly uncomfortable first time hosts.

This is probably the only awards show I look forward to. Being such a large fan of cinema, it's hard not to get wrapped up in the glitz that is Hollywood's biggest night. But number eighty three fell short in many ways. I, along with nearly a third of the entire world's population will be back next year. Hopefully, they will have ironed out the kinks from this year.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

RED, While Somewhat Fomulaic, is Funny, Action Packed.

We have nearly been inundated with action comedies over the years. The "Lethal Weapon" "Die Hard" and "Beverly Hills Cop" franchises, among others, helped join what were once two seperate genres into one that has become one of the most prolific in recent years. In an earlier entry, I spoke of the film "The Expendables" which brought together many of our action heroes of the last two decades. This film is similar, in that it brings together many top stars. But that's where the similarity ends. The stars in this film, while some are known for their roles in action films, others are not. So, this film would seemingly come off as ridiculous. One may ask themselves why an actress such as Helen Mirren (who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth) would play a former assassin. But she does here, quite well.

Bruce Willis, who IS known for his role in one of the best action franchises of all time "Die Hard" plays Frank Moses, a former CIA black-ops agent who is now living a quiet suburban life. The highlight of his days are speaking to a young pension case worker, Sarah, played by the gorgeous Mary Louise Parker. Sarah and Frank don't know each other from adam. But they soon discover that while Frank's life is boring and consists of speaking to a lovely young woman, the highlight of Sarah's life is the reading of her romance novels. Finding that they have their dreary mondaine lives in common, the grow to admire each other. That's soon to change. Frank's past catches up with him, and he's forced back into service, only to find himself and Sarah caught up in a conspiracy. In order to save their lives, Frank must re-unite with his old black ops team, which include Helen Mirren, the incomparable Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich, each of whom have been classified RED, Retired and Extremely Dangerous. What ensues is a mixture of typical action comedy fare, and entertainment and originality stemming from the actors' portrayals.

Bruce Willis is an actor, much like Christopher Walken, in that his acting style is nearly the same in every film. He has a very monotone, stony delivery with the occasional emotional outburst that will sometimes catch the viewer off guard. This is not a bad thing. It's just his style, and it works well. He doesn't have to be emotionally over the top. His monotonous tone will convey any emotion. He has a very expressive face, and that's where the variety his acting takes place. His tone doesn't have to change. His eyes will say what his voice does not. Another actor in the film, John Malkovich, is notorious for playing quirky, off beat characters. Perhaps the man himself is just a little quirky. But he's one of my favorite actors because of it. In this film, he plays a crazy, paranoid weapons expert who has typical bouts of paranoia, saying that "they" are after him, and "they're" spying on him from the satellites in space. You almost get the feeling that perhaps Malkovich has the same ideas. His characterization is fitting of the man.

The story itself seems familiar. A retired agent is all of the sudden sprung back into action because of his past. It sounds like an episode of "24". But, bringing together a group of actors who you would not normally see in a film such as this is what makes this film refreshing and original. You would believe that this group would have worked together in the past, and will continue to work together. This can be credited to the versatility of the actors themselves. Normally, you would not see a group of actors with such varied backgrounds, but they all work together, and they look like they've been doing so for years.

Overall, I enjoyed this film. Only occasionally did I feel that it wasn't worth my time. But it wasn't enough to turn me off of it completely. It was a good cast, decent script, and passable acting. I'd recommend it for those who are looking to be entertained. I definitely was.

Story of Facebook is Excellent, Worthy of It's Praise

It's amazing how quickly something comes about, and how quickly we all take it for granted. Facebook seems as common now as McDonalds, or Google. Only twenty short years ago, the Internet was a foreign concept. These days, Google and Facebook are common verbs in our vernacular. Phrases such as "Google it", or "Facebohok me" are commonplace. What began as a drunken tirade in a Harvard dorm room in 2003 has become a billion dollar internet monopoly, and giving it's founder, Mark Zuckerberg the title of youngest billionaire in the world. David Fincher, best known for directing films such as "Fight Club" and "Zodiac" expertly directs this young cast.

Zuckerberg, as he's portrayed (excellently by Jesse Eisenberg) in the film, was a genius, a fact of which he was well aware. He seemed to be bored in his classes. At the onset of the film, he and his girlfriend Erica are sitting in a campus coffeeshop. Erica tells Mark that she no longer wants to be in a relationship with him. Zuckerberg, heart broken, returns to his dorm room and begins to exact his revenge. He furiously begins to write programming and posts unflattering pictures and comments of his ex-girlfriend. With the help of his roommate, Eduardo, played by Andrew Garfield, this initial programming eventually becomes an international phenomenon. But, with his success, he ironically becomes somewhat of a social piriah. His fellow Harvard students and rivals, twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, both played by Armie Hammer, appeal to the president on the university that this "code" was actually their idea, and that they'd been ripped off by Zuckerberg. This eventually leads to litigation, not only by the Winklevoss brothers, but by Eduardo as well. The story moves back and forth between the trial that took place recently, and the use of flashback. While Zuckerberg made enemies in the process, he also gained allies, namely investor and troubled co-founder of Napster, Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake, who seems to have come into his own as an actor, and not just a former boybander.

If I were to change anything about the film, it would have been the constant moving between past and present. While it was certainly effective in telling the story, I felt that a telling of the story, and leading up to the litigation and ensuing trial would have been just as equally effective. However, in the way it was presented, it was almost as if you were watching two seperate stories on a split screen. In this way, the viewer doesn't feel as though they'd have to go back in the film to understand what it is they are watching now. Each point that is made in the courtroom is explained in the telling of the story through flashback.

I didn't find the acting of the young cast pretentious in anyway. Often, I've noticed, in a film consisting of young up and comers, a good story can be overshadowed by inexperience of either the actor or the director, who try to do too much. This can often ruin a film for me. This was my fear with this film, but any apprehension I had was relieved and I was able to enjoy this film.

This story of an internet phenomenon that many of us now take for granted was well written, acted and portrayed. It is predicted to do well this awards season, and rightly so.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

"Salt" is Action-Packed, Entertaining

Nobody will accuse Angelina Jolie of being in excellent films as of late. She is certainly famous, or infamous, for her philanthropy, marriage and family, and certain attributes. Her acting has been proven, certainly by her Academy Award winning role in "Girl, Interrupted", and then a turn in the action saga "Lara Croft: Tombraider". This latest film is not spectacular by any means, but it's entertaining.

Jolie plays the titular character Evelyn Salt, an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency. When they capture a Russian defector, she is brought in to interrogate him. But she is given some startling news in the process. She is accused of being a Russian spy, a sleeper spy. In any event, she could be re-activated, and her elaborate "cover" life left behind. So begins a raucous action packed film. Salt goes on the run, proclaiming her innocence. There are certainly the usual plot twists along the way. Friends become enemies. The good guy turns out to be the villian, and so on. This certainly wasn't an original story, but it was entertaining nonetheless.

You know, just by watching any of Jolie's films, that she puts herself whole-heartedly into a role. She's a very intense actress. Her facial expressions alone are that of an actress who commits to a role with everything she has. When one watches an action sequence in the film, one would believe that she is really causing a car to crash, not just on a stage in front of a green screen. This same intensity can often back fire though. Sometimes you will see an actor or actress, one that is perhaps less seasoned that Jolie, put themselves into a role with every fiber of their being. But often that intensity is unwarrented. Nobody should have a look on their face of wanting to rip apart the next person who walks through the door if they're merely cooking a meal. While Jolie, at times, can be guilty of a mis-placed aggression, she is understandably intense in this one.

Another actor in the film that I enjoyed was Liev Schreiber, who begins the film playing Jolie's fellow agent, Ted Winter. He has a very commanding prescence, but at the same time, he can be funny without trying. As you're watching the film, you'd almost be like, "Wait...was that a JOKE??" His delivery is deadpan and dry. Aside from the sprinkling of comedy that seems ubiquitous in every action film, his skills as an actor in an action film are very good as well.

Never let it be said that this film will go down in history with some of the action genre's greatest films like the "Indiana Jones" films. It won't. But it was entertaining enough. It didn't recycle old stale story lines typical of several action films. The acting wasn't great, but we didn't expect it to be. This was a good, entertaining action film.

"Sound of Music" Sing Along Very Entertaining

It's an interesting experience. When watching a classic film such as "The Sound of Music", have you ever found yourself thinking about somebody else in another part of the world doing the same thing at the same time? Or have you ever thought that telling somebody of a film like this one will elicit a confused response, as if they have no clue what you're talking about? Not only are there people out there who enjoy this film as I do, but there are people who have gone to lengths to put on events such as this one.

When I arrived with my family and friends to the Fifth Avenue theater in downtown Seattle, I had no idea what to expect. Once we showed our tickets at the door, we were given a plastic bag with various items in it, including, a swatch of fabric, two double-sided cards, a small noisemaker, and a twig of Edelweiss. Now I was really scared, intrigued, excited...there were some mixed emotions going through me. But once we were in the theater, everything was made clear. We began our night with a costume contest. This being our first sing along experience, we went dressed as ourselves. But once there, one almost felt like dropping to their knees in prayer in the presense of so many nuns. Those who dressed up came in everything from the obvious nun or lederhosen, to the more obscure marinettes. Two ladies even came as "the solution to the problem that is Maria" (remember the song "How do you Solve a Problem Like Maria"?)After the costume contest had finished and the winner crowned (a man dressed as a goat herder), our emcee, clad in lederhosen, took the stage to prepare us for the ensuing insanity. We were taken through the meaning of the various items in our bag. We were also told that we were encouraged to comment during the movie. How cool is that? How many times have you gone to a movie, and had to bite your tongue out of fear that you'd be asked to leave? Well, comment we did. We booed. We cheered. We even barked (Rolf...Rolf...grrr...Rolf, Rolf). We sang along to "Do-Re-Mi" complete with hand gestures. It was as if we were in the audience at a taping of "The Jerry Springer" show, except what we were watching was decidedly less trashy.

Finally, in that scene where Maria and Captain Von Trapp profess their love for one another, the fireworks began...literally. The noisemakers that were given to us were to use at the first moment that they kissed on screen, perhaps to represent the electricity of such a moment. However, they were somewhat abused. Everytime something was merely suggested, a look exchanged, or even so much as a romantic subtext mentioned, a "POP" could be heard in one corner of the theater.

When we left the theater, we left with a feeling of accomplishment. We had just helped the Von Trapp family escape the Nazis. Any doubt of young children not being able to sit still through the nearly three hour film was put to rest. This was one of the best times I've had seeing a movie in recent years. No doubt, a very memorable experience, and one that I would do again.