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Angels & Demons (2009)
Adequate & Dull
You just can't keep a good symbologist down, apparently, no matter how hard the religious ne'er-do-wells try. Dr. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is back to decoding religious symbols in an attempt to save the world, or some aspect of it at the very least. This time he is helping the Vatican decode a plot hatched by the Illuminati against the Catholic Church (timed with the Pope's death) as retribution for the church's mistreatment of the secret society centuries ago. Now they are wreaking their revenge by threatening the lives of four cardinals, and ultimately, blowing up Vatican City with a nifty little stolen gadget called anti- matter and it's up to Langdon to find and solve the clues in a four hour time span.
With all due respect to the millions of people who read this book and went nuts for it, there was absolutely nothing about this story that I found interesting. Though I actually really enjoyed reading The Da Vinci Code (and this is the first and last time I'll compare the two novels/movies) and had high hopes for this book, when I tried reading Angels and Demons I couldn't get through the first 30 pages without giving up because I found it to be incredibly boring. I can barely even keep my eyes open reading the synopsis I wrote about the movie and that's my own writing. I didn't buy that they were working urgently (it seemed like an hour was more like a "movie hour" of about an hour and a half at least) and found the developments and "twists" so obvious that I entertained myself by pretending I was as smart as Langdon and could figure out the riddles just because the camera pointed out the answer to me. ("Of course it's under the floor one of the three dozen angels' arrows is pointing right at the spot!") And speaking of predictability, I was once again intellectually offended by a filmmaker forcing several possible villains down my throat in a bid to be suspenseful. Honestly, good writing and direction is all you need, not five people giving furtive sidelong glances like the shifty-eyed dog on The Simpsons.
The acting in the film was decent, though certainly not inspired. Tom Hanks always seems very natural in his films, and I was pleased to see one of my favorite contemporary actors, the under-valued Stellan Skarsgard in the film. Once again, however, the female lead (Ayelet Zurer) was completely ineffectual and Ewan McGregor simply chewed scenery without a lot of panache. I also don't know when Armin Mueller-Stahl become completely unintelligible, but I couldn't tell you most of what he said in the film because I couldn't understand a word he said.
Having completely bagged on the story and an elderly German actor, I do now have to admit that the movie was actually somewhat easy to watch, if only in an "I don't feel like I'm completely wasting my time" way, the same way I will watch a Lifetime Movie Network flick to fall asleep. Realizing this sounds fairly negative, one has to look at Ron Howard's films in general: They are always easy to watch but not challenging, and adequate but not exciting. Unless someone is really interested in a subject matter that he covers, I think that his films tend to be the culinary equivalent of a Little Debbie snack cake. They are good when you're hungry, but other things are so much better; yet, you know what you're getting into when you take a bite. I really enjoyed Frost/Nixon after seeing it, but I'm also a history nerd, and the interesting thing about that movie was after seeing all of the other Best Picture nominees of last year, it quickly fell to a definite last place in the running for me. On a definite positive note, however, I can say that, whether the locations were simulated or not, as an art and architecture lover I thought the location shots were great, and my experience was further enhanced by my parents leaning over occasionally to whisper, "We were there!"
I can't completely pan Angels and Demons, but I also don't have a lot of good things to say about it either. The best thing I can truly say about it is that it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, which is sometimes all you can ask for in a summer popcorn flick.
The Common Law (1931)
Refreshing pre-code fare
In Paul L. Stein's 1931 film "The Common Law", Constance Bennett plays Valerie West, a "kept woman" who decides that she needs to leave her sugar-daddy boyfriend Nick and make a go of it on her own. She ends up working as an artist's model for painter John Neville, Jr. (McCrea), and while they begin their relationship as friends, the two soon become lovers. Unfortunately, there are a number of factors against them, namely Valerie's past as a kept woman and John's sister Claire (Hopper), who believes that Valerie is less than acceptable for their blue blood family. During his bouts of indecision, he succumbs to fits of jealousy about Valerie's past and finds it hard to trust her to be true to him, especially when she suggests they wait until they are absolutely sure of their love before they get married. Valerie, on the other hand, knows that she loves John but is afraid she will get hurt, particularly when she sees the rich life of which John's family are members.
There are a few notable things about "The Common Law", despite its relatively simple plot and short running time. Being a Pre-Code film, the role of Valerie is juicy without being compromised and saddled with social morays. It is clear that Valerie lived with both Nick and John and was married to neither of them, something that just was not expressed in post 1934 films. (The irony of this censorship doesn't escape me either; one would think that there would be a progression as the medium grows and not a recession.) This is where the title "The Common Law" is derived, and it is only near the end of the film when Valerie begins to feel personal and social pressure that she acquiesces to marry. It is left to the audience to interpret whether she is entirely comfortable with the situation, but she does not hide her apparent joy over her ultimate decision; it almost seems like a weight has been lifted off her shoulders.
Also notable are various obvious innuendos (like when Valerie is leaving Nick and he suggests, not cruelly, that she could perhaps survive well as a call girl) and the first scene in which Valerie poses nude for John, not five minutes after he hires her as a model. She is clearly uncomfortable, but loses her inhibitions quickly and though her form is not clear, the scene ends with a long shot showing her lying naked on the platform. This would have been unheard of in a post-code era where even the amorous Nick and Nora Charles were relegated to twin beds.
Constance Bennett, one of the most popular screen sirens of the pre-code Hollywood era, plays Valerie as tough, savvy and intelligent, but with one look she is able to express vulnerability and sadness. Her incredible beauty and impeccable style (her clothes not only look like they were made specifically for her, but are timeless as well) are literally breathtaking. There is no doubt that she is a star of enormous quality and talent. Particularly during this early period of "talkies", there were a plethora of actors and actresses who may have looked gorgeous but couldn't act their way out of a paper bag. It was those who could that became immortalized and revered, and Bennett more than deserves a place in this upper echelon. Unfortunately, this praise can't extend to the rest of the featured cast. Joel McCrea obviously hadn't hit his stride yet, though he had made over a dozen pictures before this one. Though he plays his usual role, the handsome, earnest and ruffled hero, it would be a few more years before he shows some of the greatness that he exhibited in films like "These Three" or a decade later in "Sullivan's Travels". While he is likable in this film (other than when he is being a jealous ass) it is obvious that there are times when he is waiting for his cues, and the delivery is wooden. I have never seen Hedda Hopper in a film other than when she had a cameo in "Sunset Boulevard", so I was first surprised when I saw her name in the credits and even more surprised when I did more research and saw that she actually did 82 other films BEFORE this one was released. And here I thought she was simply a gossip columnist though if her work in "The Common Law" is indicative of the rest of her repertoire, then she found her true calling about 130 films too late. Unfortunately, her nosiness and rumored bitchiness in real life could not be channeled into her role as McCrea's bitchy and nosy sister because she was just terrible.
"The Common Law" is a fine example of Hollywood's pre-code era, when women didn't have to be saints, or if they were "subversive" (by Hays Code standards) they would be punished in the end. Instead we have a strong female role in which her strength is complimented by moments of vulnerability, and despite a non-adherence to a strict moral code dictated by some sects of society, there is a happy ending after all. 6/10 --Shelly
Wise Girl (1937)
Simple, yet delightful
Society heiress Susan Fletcher (Hopkins) and her wealthy father Simon Fletcher (Henry Stephenson) are vexed that their young nieces Joan (Betty Philson) and Katie (Marianna Strelby) are living a Bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village with their artist uncle John (Milland) after the death of their parents (Susan's sister and John's brother). Simon has given up trying to convince John to allow he and Susan to take care of the children and have resorted to using private detectives to catch him in either unbecoming behavior or unemployed and therefore unable to care for the children properly. Susan finally decides to take matters into her own hands and goes to Greenwich Village herself, posing as an actress, to try to gain information and/or persuade him to see reason. What she discovers however, is that she not only likes the free and artistic lifestyle John and his friends are living and that the girls are being brought up well, but that she is quickly falling in love with John. Inevitably, her true identity is discovered and she is faced with the task of convincing everyone on both sides of the custody debate who should belong with whom.
I really enjoyed this film, and found that its very short running time (70 minutes) was the perfect length to spin this simple but endearing story. Miriam Hopkins, one of the great 1930's-1940's actresses is delightful in this film. Her energy, style and wholesome beauty really lend themselves to creating an endearing character, even though you know that she's pulling a fast one on the people she quickly befriends. This is the earliest film I've seen Ray Milland in, and he was actually young and non-patrician looking. (And apparently three years younger than his co-star) His energy and carefree manner in "Wise Girl" were a refreshing change to the demeanor he affects in his usual, darker, films. Honestly, though I am usually not remotely a fan of child actors, I really enjoyed the two young girls who played Susan's nieces. They were endearingly precocious, and were really the jewels of the film. Unfortunately, I can't dig up any other films that either of them were subsequently in after this one, which is a shame since both exhibited a large amount of natural talent.
"Wise Girl" was a film that was made three years after the Hollywood Code was instated, and to some extent, this was abundantly clear by the quick, happy ending, and the pie in the sky loftiness and ease with which the characters lived. The alleged Bohemian co-op was in fact a gorgeous cul-de-sac where the artists lived for free or for trade, and everything is tied up very nicely throughout. Fortunately, this was a light enough film and the characters were charming enough to make allowances for its fluffiness and short-comings and I was able to just take "Wise Girl" for what it was; a good old-fashioned love story that was as entertaining as it was endearing. Unfortunately, films of the romantic comedy/drama genre today are considerably less intelligent and entertaining, or I wouldn't find myself continuously returning to the classics. 7/10
Now THIS is romance
Now THIS is romance Back in the mid-late 1930's, when Katherine Hepburn, though she had already won an Oscar, was labeled (along with several other actresses) "box office poison", it was Hollywood that suffered. Unfortunately, after the Production Code blasted out full throttle, strong roles for women disappeared because women no longer had a strong voice in cinema, so a lot of the heavier-hitters (Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Miriam Hopkins) ended up foundering in what they were given. In the case of George Cukor's 1938 film "Holiday", she had a couple of friends involved with the picture who insisted that she be used (she had been the understudy of her film counterpart on the stage) which turned out to be an excellent plan since she is one of the many great things about this film.
Set in New York, "Holiday" stars Carey Grant as Johnny Case, a fledgling businessman who is more concerned about making a career out of something he wants to do, and not what he should do in order to make a lot of money. He has a plan; he has been working hard at a job that he doesn't particularly like to save enough money to take an indeterminate time off to figure out what he wants to do with himself. While he takes a holiday, he meets Julia Seton (Nolan), the two fall in love and go back to New York to tell Julia's father. What Johnny doesn't know is that Julia comes from an extremely wealthy family, and while he is shocked and bemused by this fact, he finds himself taken with the other members of Julia's family; Linda Seton (Hepburn), Julia's free-thinking and dramatic sister, and brother Ned Seton (Ayres) a kind but dour alcoholic. Both siblings are discontented with being under their father's thumb (while he is not a bad person, Edward Seton has strong feelings about how things should be handled) and both take an instant liking to Johnny, particularly Linda who finds herself falling in love with him. As plans for the marriage begin to solidify, it becomes clear that Johnny is being forced to quash his dreams, not only to gain the approval of their father, but because Julia thinks it is the way to go as well.
Having never even heard of this film, I wasn't sure what to expect out of "Holiday"; I figured it might either be a screwball comedy (based on the Hepburn/Grant collaboration in "Bringing up Baby") or maybe a regular romantic comedy. What I got was actually a romantic dramedy that was not only charming but heartfelt as well. George Cukor's direction (as usual) is wonderful and the chemistry between Hepburn and Grant is simply electric. Hepburn, clearly the star of this production, acts each scene with an emotion and charm that is almost unheard of in the mainstream cinema of the present. While I watched the film, I found myself becoming so endeared to her character that I probably would have been completely devastated if she didn't get some sort of happiness in the end, probably one of the highest compliments that I can give to an actor's performance since I mainly pay attention to the story and the film itself primarily and the characters are important, but seem to be secondary. Grant, who is probably most famous for being debonair and dashing, often played the goofball in his films of the 30's and early 40's, and this was another one of those roles for him. He is such a fresh and passionate character however, (he often finds himself doing various acrobatic stunts with glee) that he quickly proves himself to be more than just the handsome doofus who makes bug eyes at the camera when he's confused. He and Hepburn actually look like they're having a good time together in this film; a wonderful thing to see when it seems that 90% of collaborations look like they are phoned in nowadays. If Doris Nolan isn't unremarkable and bland all the time, she did a really great job in her role as fiancée Julia at some point you're really wondering what Johnny ever really saw in her and made him declare his bachelorhood over with at the age of 30. Lew Ayres, a name I had heard before, but didn't recognize by face was also very charming as the alcoholic brother. I found his character to be incredibly endearing, especially as the film progressed. A mention also has to be made of the actors who played Johnny's best friends, the Potters. (Edward Everett Horton & Jean Dixon) Anyone would be hard pressed to dislike these two intellectuals with senses of humor that are more arid than the Mojave. Every scene they were in became even more enjoyable.
What stuck with me is that between the script and the actors, I felt like I was actually watching a real slice of life, kind of like Booth Tarkington without the depression. "Holiday" is a fantastic hidden gem in the classic film catalogue and I would recommend it very highly. Not only is it short in length, but also its engaging story, steady pacing and brilliant actors made me wish it were longer. Watch this wonderful movie if you have any ounce of appreciation for classic film. 8/10 --Shelly
Tell Them Who You Are (2004)
A fascinating subject
"Tell Them Who You Are", Mark Wexler's 2004 documentary about his father, Oscar winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler derives its title from a story told by a fellow documentarian in which Mark was with his father when he came across someone he wanted to meet. When he showed reservations about introducing himself, Haskell simply said "Tell them who you are", which, in essence meant, "Tell them you are Haskell Wexler's son." This self-assurance and some would say egotistical manner with which Wexler conducts himself is prevalent throughout the film, and makes for a fascinating documentary.
Haskell Wexler, who won Academy Awards for his work on "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Bound for Glory" and has been nominated for and won many other awards, came from a privileged background in which he wanted for nothing, but was constantly rebelling in some fashion. A leftist from the start, he started a newsletter in his teens with a friend titled "Against Everything" and went on to start a union walkout for the workers in his father's factory before joining the army. After a distinguished military stint, he expressed a strong interest in film-making and began his career making short films for corporations and private groups. When Hollywood took notice, his career skyrocketed, and he went on to shoot films for such directors as Elia Kazan, Milos Foreman, John Sayles, Mike Nichols and Norman Jewison. He directed several documentaries and a couple of feature films himself, most notably 1969's "Medium Cool" which placed actors in the middle of the very real action of the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots.
"Tell Them Who You Are" is more than a chronicle of Wexler's filmography, however. It is equal parts a study of a very contentious relationship between a father and a son. Mark, Wexler's son from his second marriage, has directed one other documentary and admits he is fairly green when it comes to the medium, but whether the two are squabbling over politics, (Mark is a conservative and his father is a devout leftist) or Wexler is trying to direct his son (which is occurring throughout the film) the tension is almost tangible. No one who is interviewed denies the genius of Haskell Wexler's work, but no one also will say that he is easy to work with. Even the many still photograph of Wexler from various movie sets show him gesturing madly, which lend credence to the claim by several that he simply wanted to direct the films himself. Even Wexler will admit this, and say that he probably could have done a better job himself, a claim that isn't entirely refuted by some directors. (Though while most directors and producers admit that they could easily put up with Wexler's manner because of the work he produces, director Elia Kazan and producer Michael Douglas basically said they had horrible experiences with him and neither would work with him again.) This stubbornness and alpha dog manner also translates into his personal life, which lead to some pretty tense moments when Mark is trying to set up a shot with Wexler hollering to him that the lighting is going to be bad, etc. He even refuses to sign the release form his son gives him until later on in the film. But for every seemingly obnoxious trait, there is an endearing element to Wexler's personality. Whether one leans to the right or left, his political convictions are admirable, if not possibly annoying in their omnipresence. His incredible talent almost makes one forgive the way he bosses his son around, until you realize something that the son does; this is Wexler's at times not-so-diplomatic way of sharing something with his son, with whom he has never had a close relationship, and of teaching him and passing on his legacy. Though Mark never actually says, "I don't like my father", his discomfort is clear, as is his realization that his Dad isn't the jerk he and everyone thought he was. One of the most interesting (and in my opinion, heartbreaking) moments of the film occurred near the end. Earlier in the film, Mark was talking to Conrad W. Hall, the son of the late, famed cinematographer Conrad L. Hall ("American Beauty", "In Cold Blood") who was one of Wexler's best friends. During the conversation, Mark tells Conrad Jr. that he felt like Conrad Sr. was a surrogate father growing up, and that he often wished that Conrad Sr. was his father instead of Haskell. Then later in the film, at a tribute for Conrad Hall Sr., Haskell Wexler is addressing the crowd and essentially admits that he knew this about his son, and that was always one of the reasons he was jealous of Hall throughout their friendship. For someone as abrasive and seemingly unfeeling as Wexler sometimes portends to be, this was a really big moment, though the crowd, not knowing the truth behind Wexler's words, all chuckled.
"Tell Them Who You Are" is not the greatest documentary I have ever seen, and it is a little messy, technically. But when one begins to wrap their brains around what Mark Wexler is trying to do with his film, it is easy to see that if these "messy" issues weren't actually intended, they fit in perfectly with the theme of the film itself. Whether you approach it from a film history standpoint, or from the total picture of film and family relationships, you will not be disappointed either way. I'm not sure how available this film is (it has a one week engagement at the classic/art house movie theater I frequent) but if you enjoy film, and particularly some daring and innovative films of the late 60's to mid-70's, I strongly recommend you seek this film out. And check out IMDb.com to see Wexler's filmography I'm sure that even if you didn't know his name before reading this review, you're well aware of his work.
I've often said that if I had the use of a time machine that probably the first place I would go would be California in the 1970's, when filmmakers like Polanski, Altman, Spielberg and even George Lucas were in full swing in their crafts. The 1970's was possibly the last fantastic decade of cinema, where the films were adventurous and the directors were iconoclastic. One of the most revered and famous films from this great decade is Roman Polanski's 1974 crime thriller "Chinatown".
Set in the 1930's, "Chinatown" stars Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, a private detective who with two associates, seems to specialize mostly in adultery cases. When a woman comes into his offices and introduces herself as Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray, he initially turns down her request to tail her husband. He finally gives in, however, and begins to look into Mulwray's deal. It turns out that he is the chief engineer of the water department, and times are tough right now because of a drought. Jake is confused when he sees Mulwray looking at several parcels of land, but finally meets his objective when he is able to photograph Mulwray with another woman. When the story breaks that Mulwray (currently a controversial figure because he refuses to build an unsafe structure that the public at large thinks is a good idea) is stepping out on his wife, Jake gets a visit from Evelyn Mulwray threatening to sue. Except this Mrs. Mulwray (Dunaway) is completely different, and is the "real Mrs. Mulwray". When Mr. Mulwray turns up dead shortly thereafter, Jake finds himself in the middle of several mysteries, all which seem to point toward the direction of Evelyn and her father, one of the city's richest and most corrupt businessmen, Noah Cross. (John Huston) The greatest element of "Chinatown" is in my opinion, also something that could serve as a deterrent to some. I really liked the slow, drawn out plot. Polanski and Towne did not seem to have a problem taking their time with the pacing on the film, something that I personally found to be refreshing. Instead of rushing to the conclusion, or having fantastic fillers, it is clear how comfortable Polanski is with the material and his actors in that he takes as much time as needed to provide pertinent backgrounds and details. The decision to remove Nicholson's narration and simply have the audience discovering all of the clues along with him was brilliant. Though narration can be a very effective tool, unfortunately it is a device that was done to perfection in the 1940's (and some of the films of the 50's) and emulators don't always do the best job with it. Anyone who is looking for flash and rapid-fire cuts are not going to get that with this film. What one gets is a bright and colorful California setting, where some scenes look like Hockney paintings if they were set in the 1930's. It is hard to describe how lush the cinematography is, but if I had to put it into words, non-sensically I would compare it to butter; that everything looks velvety and soft. Only at night does the scenery turn sharp and slightly harsh.
The acting in "Chinatown" was as good as I expected, and that is to say superior. Nicholson, one of the greatest actors of the past four decades, put together a low key, almost introspective performance as Gittes. Though he is indeed mischievous (how could he not be with those eyebrows and that grin, used to full effect in this film) Nicholson seems to temper his normally explosive style. Faye Dunaway, an incredibly talented actress, who, even if she hadn't played her in an infamous film, evokes the memory of Joan Crawford before she started doing her weird films in the 1950's & 1960's, was the perfect counterpart to Gittes. At times icy enough that you would expect her to spit cubes, and other times violently passionate, she shows some of her best work in this film and is achingly gorgeous to boot. The third main figure is probably the best because his performance was most surprising, and that was John Huston's. He not only directed one of the greatest early noir films ("The Maltese Falcon") and is one of the greatest directors of the 20th century, but he really puts in a dark and gritty performance as Noah Cross; and he's REALLY convincing. I was absolutely delighted in the choice to cast him, because while there are admittedly a lot of actors who could have done this role, it was still really cool to see Huston do it.
All of this is not to say that I adored "Chinatown". Frankly, I thought it was a good movie, but probably in the same way that people scratch their head at why "Citizen Kane" is often called the best film of all time, I kind of did the same in terms of why say, Entertainment Weekly would name it the #4 film of all time. However, even though I definitely liked it, despite not loving it, I can see its importance in film history and I can really appreciate the technical aspects that made up the film. That is why I have no problem rating it a 7/10.
Best role for Madonna
I used to think that there were a couple of absolutes in this world other than the standard issue ones. One is that I will always hate Andrew Lloyd Webber and another is that Madonna will never be a good actress. After seeing Alan Parker's 1996 musical "Evita" however, starring Madonna and featuring the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, I have had to amend those two statements slightly.
"Evita" tells the true story of Eva Peron, the wife of Argentina's former president (and dictator) Juan Peron. In a story that was ready-made for Hollywood, she started out as the illegitimate and poor daughter of a man who dies when she is very young, sleeps with a mediocre nightclub singer at the age of 15 in order to gain passage to Buenos Aires, and from there begins her struggle to reach whatever achievements her ambitions require (which is a lot). Using her body to gain important friends (because, frankly, she didn't have any acting talent) she becomes an actress and radio star before she meets Juan Peron, at the time, an up and coming politician. They get married and the two work to get him elected as the president of Argentina on the platform that "they are workers too". When he is elected, Evita's popularity grows even more, to the point where her dreams of becoming the vice president of the country could be realized, until she is stricken with cancer and dies, essentially with the image of a saint, at the age of 32.
"Evita" is a gorgeous, lush film, full of thousands of extras, great location scenes and features a very talented cast. It acts almost as an incredibly big budgeted and elaborate music video, mainly because it features almost constant singing, and well, it stars one of the most visible music video stars of all time. Madonna finally found her part in this film, and no, it wasn't just easier because she didn't have a lot of speaking lines. It is clear that not only did she take voice lessons (which actually is true) because her voice quality was better than "normal", and has stayed that way since the making of this film, but she was able to knock off some decent dramatic moments. Banderas, though he spent a lot of the film looking pretty furious with the camera, doesn't have to prove any acting mettle (anyone who has seen him in an Almodovar film can attest to this) but did come up with a surprisingly good singing voice. Jonathan Pryce, who was curiously cast as Peron also did a good job, though his part was fairly minor, and even at that he was relegated to giving Evita a lot of loving looks. All in all, however, the slick production, some catchy music (I cannot believe I am actually saying that I actually really like a film featuring the music of the insipid, mainstream, gnome-like Webber) that is good enough to listen to extra-curricularly and performances that weren't bad made for a pretty good and very entertaining viewing.
Don't get me wrong there are more than a few eye-rolling moments in "Evita", but the good definitely outweighs the bad, exponentially. The story, while coherent, was pretty mediocre, and I found that I felt that there were some things that were glossed over or trivialized with a cute musical number. Admittedly, however, this IS a musical and you don't sign up for a hard-hitting knowledge fest when you watch one. This wasn't the first time I had seen this film, and yet I still end up getting so wrapped up in the action that I end up bawling a couple of times, and this viewing was no exception. More importantly, though, I didn't feel like a doofus when I recommended it as a movie that three guys and I should watch together, because while it's slick and a musical, (and therefore, traditionally, a chick film) there's enough compelling elements to the film that will keep some guys happy as well. Good job, Parker and thanks a lot for blowing two of the absolutes I normally stand by. 6/10 --Shelly
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Robert Hamer's 1949 film "Kind Hearts & Coronets" is the epitome of British humor, from start to finish. Louis Mazzini (Price) is a descendant of the D'Ascoyne family, a family of royals, but unfortunately his mother has been disowned by the family for taking up with and marrying Louis Mazzini Sr., an Italian singer whom the family highly disapproves of. When Mazzini Sr. meets an untimely death early in young Louis' life, he sees his mother struggle to give him everything he needs, so after she dies, he vows revenge. He decides that he will get his birthright and become the Duke of Chalfont, except he has to get through the eight people ahead of him (all members of the D'Ascoyne family are played by Alec Guinness) who are in line for the title. Meanwhile, while he is calculating how he is going to commit cold-blooded murder to knock off each heir, he carries on a sort of double affair with Sibella (Greenwood), a woman who he has been enamored with since they were children and is now married to a former classmate of theirs, and Edith (Hobson), the young widow of one of the D'Ascoyne heirs that Louis offs. The story is told in flashbacks as Louis sits in a jail cell, awaiting his execution and writing his memoirs.
This was one of the most clever and wickedly funny films I had seen in a long time. I honestly had no idea what to expect from it when I started watching; I only knew that it was an IMDb Top 250 film and it starred Alec Guinness. I didn't have a clue that it was going to turn out to be one of the greatest examples of British comedy I've seen this side of Monty Python. The gags in the film are so dry and subtle (at one point, Louis causes an explosion that means the demise of one of the D'Ascoyne heirs, yet when it goes off while he and the heir's wife are sitting in the garden having tea, neither of them even flinch, and she doesn't notice something is wrong until she actually turns around and sees the plumes of black smoke) and the theme so dark that it could theoretically be easy to forget that one is actually watching a comedy. There are no sight gags, double takes or high hilarity present, which makes this film all the more appealing, because it elicited huge laughs without stooping to typical elements of comedy.
I thought that Guinness was going to be the breakout guy in "Kind Hearts and Coronets", and believe me, it's certainly noteworthy to see him dressed in drag as Lady Agatha, but the real star of the film was the fantastic Dennis Price. He plays Louis with the slick charm of a Rex Harrison, but it is clear that his heart and temperament is far more nefarious than anything Harrison could drum up, even when he was plotting to kill his wife in "Unfaithfully Yours". When he utters lines like "The next morning I went out shooting with Ethelred - or rather, to watch Ethelred shooting; for my principles will not allow me to take a direct part in blood sports" when he has not only already killed several, but is planning on killing Ethelred himself, his aplomb yet sincere delivery is comic gold.
I really enjoyed "Kind Hearts and Coronets" and sincerely hope that even though it seems to be slipping more and more to the bottom of the IMDb Top 250 list after an initial strong appearance, its placement on the list will make more people seek it out. Frankly, I had never heard of the film before seeing it appear on the list, and I consider myself to be fairly adequate in my knowledge of classic film. And you'd be hard pressed to find a better classic film comedy than this one; it is ahead of its time in its clever wickedness. I would be willing to bet the Coen Brothers are fans of this film. 8/10 --Shelly
Duck Soup (1933)
They say that in the world there are two kinds of people: Those who like Elvis, and those who like The Beatles. (Don't ask what category those who don't like either fall into.) A similar analogy that I like to use involving classic film comedies is that there are Marx Brothers people and there are Three Stooges people, and ne'er the two shall meet. Being a Marx Brothers person myself, I watched Leo McCarey's 1933 film "Duck Soup" with great delight.
Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) is named the president of a small city/state called Freedonia, which has just been hauled out of bankruptcy by the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (longtime Marx Bros. foil Margaret Dumont). Firefly has been appointed the president because of Mrs. Teasdale's devotion to him, much to the chagrin of Ambassador Trentino (Calhern), a man who wants control of Freedonia and the hand of wealthy Mrs. Teasdale. He hires Chicolini (Chico, natch) and Pinky (Harpo) to spy on Firefly so that Trentino can not only become Mrs. Teasdale's husband, but president himself. Because they are the Marx Bros. alliance lines are blurry, and Chicolini and Pinky end up on both sides of the fence. War breaks out and hilarity ensues.
Nope, there's not much to the plot, but "Duck Soup" is an absolutely riotous film that was almost as surreal as it was funny. Enormous musical numbers that seem to come out of nowhere certainly contribute to the bizarre theme, and this film is even more manic than other Marx Brothers films. Part of the appeal of their brand of comedy is their rapid-fire delivery, sometimes so fast that you don't realize that you've actually heard what you just heard. Teeming with double entendres, (" ") and featuring the wonderful "mirror gag" that somehow gets me every time, I find that there isn't actually a lot to say about the film because it is truly a simple little gem. Barely an hour long, I suspect it contains the most gags in ten minutes that are truly funny than an entire two hour comedic production from the last twenty years. And this comedy is whip-smart and damned funny. This may not be the best Marx Bros. film to initiate someone with, ("A Night at the Opera" may be just a tad less manic and a little more "user-friendly) but it is a bona fide comedy classic that exudes relevancy a whopping 72 years after its original release. 7/10 --Shelly
Jackie Brown (1997)
Decent, but don't expect a Pulp Fiction sequel
"Jackie Brown", the 1997 film starring Pam Grier as the title character, a flight attendant who smuggles cash into the country for a shady associate, Ordell (Jackson) is the third film directed by Quentin Tarantino. When Jackie is tagged by the feds, (played by Keaton and Michael Bowen) she is willing to give up Ordell because she has a plan of her own. Meanwhile, Ordell has proved himself to be a pretty nasty character, killing associates without even a hint of betrayal, so to say that Jackie is walking a tightrope is an understatement. Rounding out the cast is Robert Forster as Max Cherry, Jackie's bail bondsman hired by Ordell when Jackie is initially arrested by the feds, and eventual love interest, Robert DeNiro as Louis, an associate of Ordell's who is fresh out of jail and about to buy in on one of Ordell's gun selling schemes and Bridget Fonda as Melanie, one of Ordell's women, and object of both fascination and irritation for Louis.
"Jackie Brown" features many "Tarantinoisms" that we have come to expect from his films; slick cinematography, a soundtrack that is perfect for the film (in this case, 1970's R&B) a rich cast of eccentric characters, a solid amount of violence and even more profanity. If there was a Tarantino film that DIDN'T include these elements, I would be disappointed. As John Travolta was dug up to star in "Pulp Fiction", Tarantino resurrects two 1970's actors, Robert Forster and Pam Grier, and both prove once again that there are few contemporary directors around who have better gut instincts and an eye for casting than he. Although there could have been many other bigger name, safer choices that would have jumped to be in Tarantino's perceived follow-up to "Fiction", the film geek once again proves that he knows best. Grier is absolutely luminous, and looks at least 10 years younger than her actual age. Better than that, she is sexy, spunky and knows what she wants. The supporting cast is also excellent, and while it's definitely film geeky to admit it, like the actors who appear in the ensemble films of Paul Thomas Anderson or Wes Anderson, I always admire the cast of Tarantino's film because while they may not have a large or prestigious role in the film, they are always juicy characters that are sometimes played against type. I loved seeing Michael Keaton as a hard-faced, leather jacket clad fed, and Robert DeNiro, who can chew scenery better than a lot is fantastic as the quiet, shlubby and slobby sidekick.
Anyone who approached "Jackie Brown" looking for a Pulp Fiction sequel was probably either somewhat disappointed or, like me, encouraged that Tarantino can not only do flashy, but can spin a good story as well. And perhaps even more importantly, he wasn't a two-trick pony with the inspired films "Pulp Fiction" and "Reservoir Dogs". While I have mixed feelings about Tarantino the man, (I am endeared to his almost autistic-knowledge of film and his inherent film geekiness, but I am both fascinated and repelled by his almost constant hysteria and, particularly in the infancy of his fame, his inability to turn down an acting job or engage in ceaseless self-promotion) I certainly count him among my favorite directors and anytime he releases a film, it's an event. Before seeing his latest releases, "Kill Bill Vol. 1 & Vol. 2" I lamented that he possibly took too much time off between projects, but after seeing "Vol. 1" I quickly reconsidered, saying that if he is going to consistently put out superior product, he can take as much time as he wants.
And that is why I look at "Jackie Brown", a film that wasn't quite as stellar or lauded as his others with a certain amount of fondness, because it is a great piece of work, without all of the flash, bells and whistles of its predecessor. Knowing that a "Pulp Fiction 2" would be an instant hit, Tarantino decided to go in a different direction, and it's that willingness to take a chance, even if it's not a huge leap, that makes me appreciate it that much more. It's probably my least favorite Tarantino film, but even my least favorite Tarantino film garners a better rating than 80% of contemporary cinema. Even Tarantino fans that I know let this film go under their radar, so if you are in the same boat, seek this one out; it is well worth it. 7/10 --Shelly