Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Great Dictator (1940)

Chaplin's The Great Dictator is a superb film with great comedy and a lot of heart. It succeeds in poking fun at a very serious situation without being disrespectful Granted at the time it was made the atrocities of the Nazi's were not known to the extent in which they existed, and had they been known perhaps this film would not have been made.

The film follows two main characters, both played by Chaplin of course. The first is a Jewish barber, a veteran of the first world war. He was injured at the end of the war in a plane crash. He was in a coma a very long time and awakened nearly a decade later into the Hynkel regime. Hynkel is the dictator of the Jewish barber's home country created by Chaplin meant to be a spoof on Hitler.

The barber returns to his shop (which is now covered in cobwebs and dust) and begins to set up when a couple of storm troopers come and begin to give him trouble. Not knowing what the current situation of his country is, the barber puts up a fight. He appears to be getting beaten, but a lovely neighbor girl (Paulette Goddard) gives the help of her frying pan for his rescue.

The second character is the dictator of Tomania, (the fictional country made to represent Nazi Germany) Adenoid Hynkel. Hynkel is not as ruthless as the real life Hitler, he is made to seem more like a puppet to his right hand man Garbitsch (pronounced garbage). Garbitsch is Hynkel's top advisor and does almost all the thinking for the dictator (reminded me a bit of the Bush-Cheney relationship as depicted in Oliver Stone's picture W.).

The film is really quite outstanding, with shining performances by Chaplin as usual as well as Ms. Goddard and Maurice Moscovitch as Mr. Jaeckel. You'll get a kick out of Chaplin's German as he often throws wiener schnitzel and sauerkraut into the Hynkel speeches. An outstanding script written by an amazingly talented individual, not since Chaplin has one man been able to do so much for the world of comedic films with the exception of maybe Woody Allen.

If you are a fan of classic films, but are unable to sit through a silent then I would recommend The Great Dictator as your introduction into Chaplin films. You'll certainly get a better since of who Charlie Chaplin was then you will in, say, A Countess from Hong Kong. Also an interesting look into a perception of Nazi Germany right in the heat of the war. Overall 3.5/4 Stars Grade = A-


Saturday, June 14, 2008

Lifeboat (1944)


Although I wouldn't consider Lifeboat to be one of Hitchcock's best films, it is still worth seeing. Straying away from his niche of suspenseful mysteries, Hitch goes into an examination of characters and human nature as he sticks seven survivors of a shipwreck on a lifeboat, as well as a survivor from the Nazi U-Boat that sunk them.

Tallulah Bankhead plays Connie Porter, a world famous photographer and reporter who was covering the war in Europe and traveling to Bermuda when the ship was sunk. She is seemingly very self-absorbed and the only thing that seems to matter to her is getting material for her book.

Gus Smith (William Bendix) was a crewman aboard the ship. He was at the wheel when the ship went down, and was hit in the leg with some shrapnel and is very worried about becoming gimpy if his leg doesn't heal. Gus has German heritage, and has changed his name from Schmidt to Smith out of embarrassment and shame of the Nazis. Back home he has a girl named Rosie whom he loves very much, and he is worried that if he returns a gimp that she may leave him for another man.

John Hodiak is John Kovac, an engine room worker and tattooed bad boy. He is a born leader, but his brash personality and attitude make the others distrust his judgment at times. When the Nazi is brought on board Kovac immediately distrusts him and wants him thrown overboard. Kovac also has an immediate strong distaste for Connie and her selfish attitude.

Charles Rittenhouse, or Ritt as he likes to be called (Henry Hull) is a self-made millionaire with many factories stateside. Ritt is friends with Connie from the ship, and they are very buddy-buddy with each other on the lifeboat. He loves to play poker, and passes his time on board the lifeboat by playing cards with Kovac.

Mary Anderson plays Alice MacKenzie, a medical officer in the U.S. Army. For her the shipwreck was a blessing in disguise because the boat was eventually going to take her to London where she had some trouble with a married man. Alice is a very pretty young woman, and there seems to be some kind of romance brewing between her and Sparks (Hume Cronyn). Sparks is a Merchant Marine whom you don't really learn much about. He seems to be a good man, and does a good job of keeping his cool in rough situations.

Joe (Canada Lee) is the last of the survivors from the ship. He is the only African-American on the lifeboat, and is a sympathetic and good-natured character; a rarity in films during this time period. He is an ex-pickpocket who is leading a good life with his wife and children. He also seems to have known Connie and Ritt from before, and spends a great deal of time playing the flute.

Willy the Nazi (Walter Slezak) is the only survivor from the U-Boat that shot down the ship. No one really knows whether to trust him or not at the beginning, or whether or not to even let him live. He seems like an all-right fellow but you really can't trust a Nazi. He is only able to communicate through Connie who is the only one aboard who speaks German.

Lifeboat is worth watching, especially if you're a Hitchcock fan who would like to see something different. Hitch does a great job of giving us unique characters and unique reactions to a group mentality as well as difficult moral situations. William Bendix is the brightest star of the picture in my opinion, he gained my respect as an actor in his debut role in Woman of the Year and he is just as superb in Lifeboat as he is in the previously mentioned.

If you have yet to see a Hitchcock picture, I would not start with Lifeboat, as you will not get a good feel for his directorial style. I would definitely recommend it for future viewing, but I would get you started with Vertigo or North by Northwest (which happen to be two of my all-time favorite films).

Lifeboat is based off of a novella by John Steinbeck, which alone is reason enough to see the film. It is impossible for me to say whether or not Hitch stuck to Steinbeck's story because the Steinbeck story has never been published. I have been led to understand however that if you would like to view a copy of it then you can make an appointment at the National Steinbeck Center in Carmel, California. Worth watching, especially if you're a fan of Hitchcock or Steinbeck. Overall 3.0/4 Stars Grade = B+

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Circus (1928)


In The Circus Charlie Chaplin yet again demonstrates just why he is one of the most talented people to ever live. Chaplin was recognized as such for his work writing, directing and producing this film by the first Academy Awards in 1929. They bestowed upon him and honorary award "For versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus". Chaplin also wrote the score, and sang the title song in the 1969 re-release.

Chaplin stars as his trademark character The Tramp. The circus is currently in town, and The Tramp is visiting. While he is standing watching a side show a pickpocket is doing his work. When the pickpocket is confronted, he slips the stolen wallet and watch into The Tramp's pocket. Later on, when The Tramp notices is spending some of his newfound wealth the wallet's original owner shows up and attempts to have The Tramp arrested. The Tramp flees, and the police officer chases after him through the circus in a bout of hilarity which is so humorous that the Ring Master (Al Ernest Garcia) offers him a job.

Since The Tramp has no job and no money, he accepts the Ring Master's offer and sets up a tryout for the following morning. Unfortunately since The Tramp was not intending to be funny when he was fleeing the law, he fails miserably at his audition and the job offer is revoked. But when the disgruntled property men quit, the Ring Master must find someone quick and the only man around is The Tramp. However every time The Tramp goes on stage to bring out a prop he fails and ends up flopping around and the crowd goes nuts with laughter. The Tramp has no idea, but he is the big draw to the shows and the big moneymaker for the circus.

The Circus then continues with comedic genius as The Tramp steals the show, falls for the girl (Ring Master's abused step-daughter played by Merna Kennedy) and fights the boss. This is really one of Chaplin's most underrated films. I personally enjoyed it more so than City Lights and almost as much as Modern Times. I certainly don't consider myself a Chaplin expert, but this movie is great. He not only comes up with a wonderful story of love and sacrifice, but he sustains a great amount of humor throughout the picture that is sure to bring a smile to anyone's face young and old, and at only 68 minutes long it's a much better hour spent than say watching an episode of CSI: Miami. Overall 3.5/4 Stars Grade = A

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Free Money (1998)


I went in to Free Money thinking that it was going to be another bad comedy from the nineties, and I was actually quite pleasantly surprised. It’s really not that bad of a movie. Admittedly it is very dumb, and rather unoriginal but there was something about it that I really found rather charming.

The movie starts out with teenage identical twins daughters Inga and Liv (Christin and Holly Watson in their only roles, cinematic or otherwise) telling their father (Marlon Brando) that they are pregnant. The soon to be fathers are lifetime losers Bud (Charlie Sheen) and Larry (Thomas Haden Church). Bud and Larry are terrified of the girls' father, who is the warden of the state prison and nicknamed The Swede. The Swede has a reputation for his brutality, and is currently being investigated by beautiful FBI agent Karen Polarski (Mira Sorvino) for the death of an attempted escapee.

They throw together a shotgun wedding, and Bud and Larry are now in it for better or worse (pardon the PUN) with the twins and The Swede. The girls insist they move in with their father, and there are strict rules placed on the new husbands. Bud and Larry end up hating their lives living with The Swede so much that they hatch a plan to hold up a train coming through the area. The train is transporting old worn out money that is being taken out of circulation. The train engineers are local idiots Louis and Dwayne, and Bud is able to get inside information out of them because of their naivety and ignorance. Bud insists that his plan is flawless and that it will have them set for life so they can take Inga and Liv and get as far away from The Swede and humanly possible. Of course everything goes awry.

There are definitely a lot of things that this movie needs to improve on. For example director Yves Simoneau lacks any real directional skill. He has no distinguishing trademarks, he seems to just set up a camera and shoot. Absolutely no artistry. Also, as I mentioned before, the story is completely unoriginal. There are some new aspects to it, like the daughters still being in high school, but for the most part it's nothing we haven't seen before.

I think what really made me enjoy the movie though is the performance by Charlie Sheen. Personally I consider Sheen to be a great comedic actor, as he has proven in such movies as Major League and television programs Spin City and Two and a Half Men. Thomas Haden Church is also quite funny; he really does a great job in this film with outstanding comedic timing and a spot-on midwestern accent.

Free Money really has gotten a bad rap, undeservedly so in my opinion. I think that when people saw Oscar winners Marlon Brando and Mira Sorvino attached they went in expecting something great, but that's not what they got. If you go in to this movie just looking for a fairly good time then you won't be disappointed. Overall 2.0/4 Stars Grade = C

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)


John Frankenheimer's The Island of Dr. Moreau is not a terrible picture, as I had been led to believe by other reviews and an abysmal 3.9 rating on IMDb. It is merely a very mediocre film, with its good moments and it's bad moments.

David Thewlis stars as Edward Douglas, a man whose airplane crashed at sea and after the two fellow survivors murdered each other, he became the lone survivor. A boat transporting animals to an island picked up Douglas adrift and an American on board the ship then nursed him back to health. The man being an eccentric doctor (or veterinarian) named Montgomery (Val Kilmer).

When the ship reaches Montgomery's destination, Douglas is persuaded to come ashore and stay on the island in waiting to be rescued and returned home. However, it is not long after the ship is gone that Douglas realizes he is captive on the island as he is locked in his room by Montgomery from the outside.

After Douglas picks the lock in his room, he starts doing some exploring. He ventures his way into an old military hanger where he finds lots of cages filled with exotic animals. There is also some kind of surgery going on in the center of the room, and as Douglas gets closer he realizes that it is some kind of half-man half-animal mutant giving birth. Douglas is so disgusted that he allows himself to utter "Oh my God" which attracts the attention of the men performing the operation. You notice that these "people" are also mutations.

Douglas makes a run for it, and he is helped out by Aissa (Fairuza Balk, whom he had met briefly upon his arrival) who tells him that she can get him off the island so long as he doesn't do anything to hurt her father Dr. Moreau. Douglas agrees, and she leads him through the jungle to a community of these creatures living inside old WWII aircraft wreckage. He is lead to the Sayer of the Law (Ron Perlman), and it appears that the Sayer is going to help Douglas when Montgomery and Dr. Moreau (Marlon Brando) show up in search for Douglas. Douglas is lead back to the main compound where Moreau explains to him exactly what his experiment is and how he plans to save humanity with his results.

As I mentioned before, The Island of Dr. Moreau is not a terrible film. H.G. Wells' story is so strong that no matter what the cast and crew did to try to destroy it there were still remnants of quality left over. The story is so original and compelling that it is my belief that no matter what is done it is not possible to butcher it to the point of being unwatchable.

The make-up work in The Island of Dr. Moreau is superb. If it were not for the arms and legs you would have no way of telling that there was an actual human actor behind some of the creatures. If this film deserved any recognition, it should have been for make-up at the Academy Awards.

There is no doubt that John Frankenheimer has made far superior pictures (ie. The Manchurian Candidate, Ronin) and he didn't seem to have any control over the script or the cast of this film. I have read that he butted heads with both Kilmer and Brando who have been known to be very hard to work with and egotistical, and instead of really dealing with it the two of them were allowed to portray their characters in any way they saw fit and run wild on set. This is something that should have been righted, but was not and the film suffered because of it. I certainly wouldn't go out of my way to see this film, but it really doesn't deserve the harsh reputation that it has. It will soon be forgotten (if it hasn't been already), and mixed in with all the other examples of mediocrity in mainstream cinema over the years. Overall 1.5/4 Stars Grade = C-

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sullivan's Travels (1941)



Sullivan's Travels is really a wonderful film, it has great writing and direction and it does a fantastic job of mixing intellectuality with comedy.

Joel McCrea is John L. Sullivan, a rich Hollywood director who wants to venture away from comedies and make a serious picture about poverty in America based off of O Brother, Where Art Thou. Problem is though that his producers don't think he has it in him to make a good picture about poverty. They tell him he hasn't had a moment of trouble in his life, and they're right so Sullivan decides to embark on an adventure across the country disguising himself as a transient in order to learn the life of the less fortunate.

The following day Sullivan heads out, but unfortunately the studio heads have decided to follow him in a giant land yacht documenting his adventure. He is finally able to shake them, and ends up hitching a ride in the back of a semi-truck.

Much to Sullivan's dismay, he wakes up the following morning in the back of the truck back in Hollywood. He makes his way into a diner to grab some breakfast, and that is where we meet The Girl, played by the lovely Veronica Lake. She buys him some food, and he offers to give her a ride back home in his "friends" car. Problem is, he forgets to tell anyone he's taking out his car and it's reported stolen so before too long they are pulled over and arrested. In order to get himself out of jail, he has not choice but to reveal his real identity to the girl.

At first she's hostile towards Sullivan for having tricked her, but she quickly grows to like him and insists on joining him for his experiment. Of course Sullivan is against her accompaniment, he tells her to either stay at his house or go home but she is very persistent and ends up joining him anyways. Along the voyage it seems that every time they get into any trouble his people keep coming to the rescue, whether he wants it or not (and believe it or not sometimes he wants it), so he really doesn't get any tough experience at all... not yet at least.

Sullivan's Travels is probably one of the best comedies I have ever seen. It's able to not only show us the world of the less fortunate, but it is able to show us how they are able to get by day to day and their simple pleasures in life that the rich can't understand.

Preston Sturges' writing is absolutely magnificent; he is able to give us just the right doses of comedy and just the right amount of seriousness. His direction is also incredible; he gets the maximum performances out of the bit players and just the right amount of hopelessness from the actors portraying the poor. Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake also give outstanding performances, all-in-all Sullivan's Travels is really a masterpiece. Definitely worth checking out. Overall 4.0/4 Stars Grade = A

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

21 Grams (2003)


21 Grams is a very good picture with many strong points, however it was Naomi Watts' performance as Cristina that really shone through and impressed me.

The film is really extremely complex, following three different story lines as they intersect and become one. The director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu jumps in between the three stories as well as many different time zones in order to tell you what is happening, what has already happened and what is going to happen all at once. This is very confusing for the first half of the film, you really don't get a good idea of what is going on, but it all comes together in the second half.

Normally, I give you a fairly detailed synopsis of the plot of a film in my reviews however I feel that that is impossible for this film without including major spoilers. All I can give you is a brief summary of the characters involved.

Cristina is a grieving mother who has recently lost her husband and two daughters and is turning to drugs and alcohol in order to cope with her pain. Paul (Sean Penn) is a terminally ill mathematician who is married to a woman he doesn't love who wants to have his child while he waits for a heart donation and tries to deal with the concept of what's going to happen when the time comes and he actually dies. And then there's Jack (Benicio Del Toro). Jack is an ex-con who has been in and out of prison since he was sixteen for everything from drugs to grand theft auto. Jack has turned his life over to the Lord and is clean of drugs and alcohol as he tries to keep his life in order and raise his family. A freak accident resulting in tragedy brings these three people and their problems together.

21 Grams is really a film that you have to pay extra close attention to, if your mind wanders at all you will get lost and quite possibly never find your way back in. The way the times move around, it will get you wondering if Alejandro just shuffled the scenes together and threw them in. I am being facisous of course, it becomes obvious about an hour into the film that Alejandro knew exactly what he was doing and he knew exactly where he wanted every scene to be.

The acting is incredible, especially by Naomi Watts as I mentioned earlier. The grief she brings to the screen is so powerful and so convincing you'd think she had lost her own family. Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro also give strong performances, not nearly as strong as Watts however but their roles were not as demanding.

21 Grams is definitely a depressing film, I've even heard some people say that it is the most depressing film ever, but I question that. Many of Ingmar Bergman's films alone are much more depressing than this one not to mention some of Lars Von Trier's work. I would recommend 21 Grams to anyone who considers themselves a cinemaphile, however if you consider yourself a philistine then this film is probably far too complex for your tastes. Overall 3.5/4 Stars Grade = B+