Blazing Saddles (1974)

Blazing_saddles_movie_posterThough it’s easy to be a proponent of Support your Local Sheriff for its sheer scatterbrained zaniness, Blazing Saddles has that and something more to offer, making it arguably the greatest western satire of all time. Brooks took part in all facets of the film as was his normal prerogative and he sets up the introduction with Frankie Laine belting out the main theme with a tremendous gusto that evokes the grandeur of the West. It makes it ten times funnier when the film actually begins to hit its stride. Because it sounds like a western in the beginning, it even looks like a western, and it goes through many of the plot cycles that we’ve grown used to, but in other ways, it’s so fundamentally different.

The most obvious demarcation Blazing Saddles takes in telling its tale of the Old West involves the very fact that Bart (Cleavon Little) is made acting sheriff of the quaint frontier town of  Rock Ridge. In actuality, it’s all part of a nefarious scheme by the local man in black Hedley Lamarr and his right-hand thug Taggart (the iconic Slim Pickens). Hedley Lamarr uses the incompetent, womanizing governor as his pawn to get the new sheriff installed so the town will be sent in an uproar and he can swoop in and buy off all their land. After all, none of the white folk could possibly hope to live in a town with a black sheriff.

So that is the main conflict at the center of Blazing Saddles and it’s absolutely ludicrous and at the same time still somewhat unnerving and telling about American society. Mainstream white society did not really know how to cope with African-Americans and other racial minorities in some ways and even more so they didn’t know what to do with their own amount of messy history. Because it’s true that even in film, the mythic Old West was not very good to Native Americans or Asians and African-Americans were all but nonexistent. And in his film, Brooks takes all of that on thumbing his nose at every archetype as well as political correctness (although that term undoubtedly did not exist as prevalently as it now does throughout our culture).

Supposedly the writer’s room was utter mayhem for this film with Brooks certainly at the center of the mix with the likes of Richard Pryor and Andrew Bergman also heavily involved. No matter the amount of chaos, however, the film does come off fairly well. It’s laden with purposely absurd anachronisms like Count Basie’s orchestra, for instance, a medieval hangman’s noose complete with a medieval hangman, and of course, droves and droves of Nazis and other baddies who answer Hedley Lamarr’s call for criminal types of all descriptions.

There’s a local dance hall singer (Madeline Kahn) who does her best Marlena Dietrich knockoff from Destry Rides Again, while Mel Brooks even manages to portray a Yiddish-speaking Native American who allows the segregated black wagon train to pass as the whites get attacked.

Gene Wilder takes on a typically understated role as the town drunk and deputy who shares some traces of Dean Martin’s role in Rio Bravo. Meanwhile, the locals (all named Johnson) gather at their place of worship to have a plaintive dialogue about what they are to do to protect their good names a la High Noon. So there you have it. That’s the film in a very small nutshell as Bart must try to calm the townsfolks fears and quell his enemy all the while trying to not go crazy with all the racist white folk.

Be warned that this film does have funny segments but it also happens to be fairly crude which is not necessarily a surprise. Still, it’s obviously something to consider before watching. But it does seem that sometimes comedy such as this is able to enter territory that we’re squeamish to go in our everyday conversations and more serious moments. Because in some sense maybe comedy can poke fun at all the things we take so seriously — the things we need to lighten up about and connect over by the very fact that we’re all human beings.

However, it can also be pointed, ribbing its audience as it highlights the very things problematic not only in our past but in our present too. And that’s one of the most redeeming things that can be taken out of Blazing Saddles. Sure, you can take it simply as a raucous, inane, often vulgar western comedy from the estimable nut Mel Brooks, but it also speaks a little bit to film’s ability to enter into areas that we as a society still need to address.

The use of the “N” word throughout the film personally makes me tense as that word has so much history and a racial charge going through it. But when Brooks used it, apparently with the vehement backing of Cleavon Little and Richard Pryor, you could even argue that its very use takes some of the power away from those who wish to use it perniciously. But that’s necessary dialogue to have.

The best scene in the film has to be near the end, at the studio, as the camera pulls back and we realize we’re only on a film set. An absolute doozie of a pie fight ensues at the commissary to punctuate the utter tumult that is going down thus far and Hedley is pursued by Sheriff Bart and the Waco Kid to the film’s premiere. In the end, they get their man and ride, err, are driven off into the sunset. The fitting ending to arguably Mel Brooks greatest cinematic achievement.  If John Wayne’s any litmus test, Duke famously told Brooks being in the film didn’t fit his image, but he would be the first in line to see it. That gives you a good idea of what you’re in for.

4/5 Stars

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

Monsieur_verdoux57Prior to the making and release of Monsieur Verdoux Charlie Chaplin had undoubtedly hit the most turbulent patch in his historic career and not even he could come out of scandal and political upheaval unscathed. To put it lightly his stock in the United States plummeted.

You would think that he more than anyone would have been aware of his current state of affairs. It’s a plausible assumption and yet that’s precisely what makes the release of his latest film during that very climate all the more remarkable.

Chaplin always had a handle on emotional clout and he was the king of pathos but with time as film evolved he did evolve with it and it could easily be said that his sound pictures were imbued with much more prominent political overtones, most notably in The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. The first was a blatant lambast of the world’s resident tyrannical dictator and his cronies with a tremendous bite that goes beyond simple comedy. The latter film takes a broader scope that’s not quite as evident at first.

It shares similarities with Shadow of a Doubt, Kind Hearts of Coronets, or even The Bigamist and it took inspiration from a passing whim of Orson Welles. But Chaplin plants his particular drama in the previous decade–the age of poverty and depression and that allows him to relate his protagonist once more to the plight of man as the Tramp did perennially. However, Chaplin’s latest incarnation is a far cry from the Tramp and no doubt on purpose. Chaplin had officially retired the character after Modern Times, but with the similarly depicted Jewish Barber in The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux was a character with no semblance of his predecessors.

For lack of a better term, he is a wife killer, a Bluebeard, a gentleman murderer and there’s no other way to put it. Yes, he began as a bank teller with an invalid wife and little boy who hit hard times following the crash. True, he maintains his pretenses at civility and yet here is a character so vastly different from all others because for once Chaplin is making his hero difficult for the audience to like. At the very least, he’s a conflicted hero and as such the contemporary viewer was not about to pity him given Chaplin’s already muddied reputation. This was another nail in the coffin and it’s probably part of the reason Verdoux was generally scorned by the American Public at the time. But now, with the clouds of the cultural moment dissipated we can look at Chaplin’s blackest of comedies without the established biases.

The narrative is comprised mostly of Verdoux cycling from wife to wife, town to town, identity to identity with such fluidity it’s mindboggling. Our only indication that he’s moved is the ubiquitous image of the locomotive always chugging along to the next destination. But we’re introduced to this whole charade through the most curmudgeon, bickering household ever known to man in the Courvais.

The only reason they matter for this story is that Verdoux has married their sister who has just recently taken all her money out of the bank and vanished. Only the culprit knows what happened but presently he busies himself with tidying up his affairs in one location so he can check in on his other “business endeavors.” To Annabelle (Martha Raye) he is a sea captain away months at a time which explains his frequent absences.

Consequently, his Pigeon also has to be one of the most annoying chatterboxes of all time. It makes sense he’s crafting a poison to kill her even if it’s not quite forgivable.  He also calls upon his second asset the rightfully suspicious Lydia while looking to woo the affluent Marie Grosnay who happens to be less of a boob than the rest of his conquests. Though he is a persistent devil. Soon enough wedding bells chime again and that becomes the fateful day when his many strands get tangled in one brief moment at his latest marriage ceremony.

If nothing else it suggests that the time is running out as global tensions rise and Verdoux finds his fortunes dwindle in the wake of his imprisonment. But now on trial, he’s allowed to be up on the stand and mount his final defense–his rebuttal against the indiscretions of mankind. Ultimately, it’s an invariably cynical take on the ways of the world comparing his spree of mass killing to the prospects of the very scientific mass destruction of the world at present. It’s all business, war and anything else you can imagine, merely profiteering endeavors to get ahead. As he walks off to the guillotine the Priest asks him if he has anything to confess and strikingly he asserts, “I am at peace with God, my conflict is with man.”

This is where we overtly see Chaplin’s stance once more as he stands up on his soapbox as it were but he gave us some indications earlier on as well. Verdoux’s most telling interactions come in the form of chance encounters with a particular young woman. At first, he sees her as a test case for his poison, but soon he’s taken with her words, the way she sees the world. It affects him deeply (You better go before your philosophy corrupts me ). And in a striking parallel to Limelight several years later, Chaplin’s character falls to his demise as this young woman’s fortunes increase. She doesn’t forget him. But the rest of the world isn’t quite so kind.

Monsieur Verdoux goes to the chopping block deservedly so as did Chaplin but the verdict’s still out on whether he deserved it all. Perhaps that’s what his film is getting at. He was full of faults as a human being but then again we all are. It makes sense that God is other, perfect, and outside of our messiness. It’s the rest of us that cause ruin, pain, and suffering. That’s where the blackness of this comedy finds its source and it’s something to ponder and then resolve to allay with doses of love and compassion.

4/5 Stars

Divorce Italian Style (1961)

Divorceitalian.jpgI never thought I’d get so fed up with hearing the name “Fefe.” But it’s true. There’s a first time for everything. In fact, Fefe is the name of our main character played so magnificently by Italian icon Marcello Mastroianni. In my very narrow view, he still very much epitomizes Italian cinema for me.

As for the film, a Sicilian Baron Ferdinando finds himself in rather an unfortunate conundrum — at least from his point of view. He relates through voice-over his family dynamic, with his parents, his soon to be engaged sister, his doting wife (Daniela Rocca), and of course his beautiful ingenue cousin Angela (Stefania Sandrelli). Aside from not being particularly enthralled with married life, the bigger problem is that Ferdinando is infatuated with Angela. He can’t take his eyes off her.

For those who are paying attention this comedy from director Pietro Germi, at times feels strikingly similar to the screwball comedies of Classic Hollywood where men such as Preston Sturges made light work of society by skirting censorship and building a barrage of gags almost to the point of being incomprehensible. But they might also conjure up comparisons with the darkly funny Ealing comedies out of England. And it’s true that films like Divorce Italian Style also carry a very particular name, “Commedia all’italiana” or comedy in the Italian way.

What becomes evident in a film such as Divorce Italian Style is the pointed attack on Italian social mores — the very framework that the culture is built on — and all involved are poking fun. Morality, class distinction, even the institution of marriage, are all dissected satirically as our protagonist goes through his life dreaming of knocking his wife off and living happily ever after with Angela — a girl that shares his affection — if only society didn’t say otherwise (she gets whisked to a life in a convent to maintain her purity).  Not to be deterred, the Baron attempts to hitch his wife up with a suitable suitor and as the shameful scandal finally breaks over his wife, he secretly jumps for joy. He’s getting a step closer to what he wants.

Meanwhile, the men about town all ogle at every girl that happens to walk by. Fefe’s old man is constantly harassing the maid, and more than once he walks in on his sister and her beau making out passionately.  There’s even a theatrical screening of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (also starring Mastroianni) which literally seems to break any form of censorship in the town. The crowds flock to it joyously — men and women alike — because they want to see the lavish romance projected up onto the screen.

Mastroianni is not surprisingly a long way off from his debonair lovers taken the likes of La Dolce Vita, La Notte or 8 and 1/2. He goes through the film with a certain comedic despondency. He’s hardly a real figure. Comic and dismal with overblown ideas of how to make his existence invariably better. It’s quite a display because while it’s easy to laugh it’s also rather pitiful.

So Divorce Italian Style is perhaps even more audacious than the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s. Because it gives the plotting Fefe the “happy” ending he was hoping for. It actually gives it to him, but the comic (or sad) thing, in the end, is that his girl is already playing footsies with another man. You see if we look at what is going on here,  he’s never going to find contentment. The ultimate irony, if there was a sequel, is that it would probably show Fefe actually trying to kill his wife because she’s cheating on him. Then it wouldn’t be so funny.

Yes, the strict societal pressures put on the members of this Sicilian community undoubtedly deserve to be questioned. There is so much obvious hypocrisy bubbling up through the layers of society and it makes for provocative comedy. But also there’s something to be said for living life under some sort of moral framework. Otherwise, life is purely about our pleasures, what makes us feel good, what our desires are and oftentimes those fail to regard what is beneficial for others. Needless to say, I’m partial to “Marriage,” not “Divorce” Italian Style — or any other way for that matter. However, I won’t even try to tackle the whole marrying your cousin thing. This is a comedy after all and Stefania Sandrelli is quite pretty. I don’t blame “Fefe” too much. He’s only human.

4/5 Stars

Weekend (1967)

weekend1One of Jean-Luc Godard’s strengths is his capability of feigning pretentiousness, while still simultaneously articulating humor. His film opens with its first of many inter-titles, “A film adrift in the cosmos,” followed by the equally poignant “A film found in a dump.”

Our protagonists Roland (Jean Yanne) and Corrinne (Mireille Darc) are hardly protagonists at all, but curmudgeon bourgeoisie couple both caught up in affairs and preparing to out into the country in order to acquire Corinne’s rightful inheritance from her dying father. But this is never a character study and the actual arrival at the home of her parents is of little consequence. It’s another occurrence in a long string of events that Godard plays at with acerbic wit.

We are constantly reminded that this is an age of sexual revolution and political unrest–the class struggle against the tyranny of the powers that. In foreshadowing the events of the 68ers or even putting a finger to the social unrest, Godard is not alone. It’s how he does it that should be of note.

Weekend quickly becomes a discordant cacophony of sound and image that immaculately illustrates the dissonance of the decade.  Rather like a Tati film, Godard uses color prolifically, but it’s hardly as innocent as the former. The colors show the pools of blood and piles of wreckage scattered across the land–In one instance inane and another horrifying.

It’s the emblematic film of the modern age of noise pollution where Godard practically tortures us with the sound of car horns. Constantly adding to the general din. Not to mention the universal, ubiquitous road rage that overtakes everyone and leads to heavy carnage. Some seen, some unseen. Meanwhile, actors or real-life historical figures–the distinction is difficult–including St. Just (Jean-Pierre Leaud) wander the wasteland spouting off inconsequential rubbish in anachronistic garb.

weekend2Conflagrations engulf cars and human bodies while above the din comes the piercing screams of a woman bemoaning the loss of her Hermes handbag. We cannot take this anyway but humorous because it once again is yet another moment of utter insanity.

The French countryside becomes the perfect locale for an apocalypse mixed with a modern coup de’tait. There’s a call to arms for guerrilla tactics–a new French Revolution. Still, Roland and Corinne frantically hurtle towards their destination of Oinville. Their actions there are far from unexpected highlighting the baseness running through the entire film.

Once again it feels of little consequence that the pair is captured by a band of cannibalistic, free-loving revolutionaries. Cracking eggs on lifeless bodies and painting on naked ones. It’s pretty strange. Godard slips in a bit of love of the cinema as their call names include Battleship Potemkin, The Searchers, and Johnny Guitar. But there’s little point to it, only another pointless attribute in this narrative of volatile absurdity. But in that respect, Godard has hit his point home, by spurning convention as always and supercharging his film with political chops. It drags a bit in the second half, but he salvages it with the utter insanity of it all.

Furthermore, Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard are absolutely fabulous at utilization tracking shots to the nth degree in several instances, namely with the initial traffic jam extending for what feels like eons and then camera cycling through the town as the music plays in the background and our two travelers wait for their next ride. Let’s not forget the final moments of Weekend either, where Corinne has been transformed into a fellow commune member feasting on a scrumptious piece of meat with a fellow hippie. Her husband was not so lucky. There’s little to no need to say what happened to him.

4/5 Stars

Catch-22 (1970)

catch221It’s the bane of my literary existence, but I must admit that I have never read Joseph Heller’s seminal novel Catch-22. Please refrain from berating me right now, perhaps deservedly so, because at least I have acknowledged my ignorance. True, I can only take Mike Nichol’s adaptation at face value, but given this film, that still seems worthwhile. I’m not condoning my own failures, but this satirical anti-war film does have two feet to stand on.

It reads like a cast of millions: Alan Arkin, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Jack Gilford, Buck Henry, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Bob Balaban, Peter Bonerz, Felice Orlandi, Jack Riley, Marcel Dalio, and even Orson Welles. And in truth, no one character disappoints, because no one character has to carry the brunt of this narrative.

Certainly, Yossarian (Alan Arkin), the disillusioned WWII bombardier, is our protagonist, but he needs people to react to and bounce off of. It’s the likes of Colonel Cathcart (Balsam) and Lt. Colonel Korn (screenwriter Buck Henry) his neurotic superiors and the pragmatic wheeler-dealer Milo Minderbender (Jon Voight) who make him that way.

Their world of bombing missions, valor, medals, and “The Syndicate” are utterly absurd just as they are, but they don’t seem to recognize it. That’s where the satire stems from, the critique of war, and all the wit. It seems like no coincidence that Mike Nichols released this film during the Vietnam Era. Like its compatriot, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, it finds a wickedly dark sense of humor in war. Because what is there to do with death and violence, but laugh and try to find some way to grapple with it?

catch222The Chaplain (Anthony Perkins) doesn’t feel like a man of the cloth at all, but a nervously subservient trying to carry out his duties. An agitated laundry officer (Bob Newhart) gets arbitrarily promoted to Squadron Commander, and he ducks out whenever duty calls. Finally, the Chief Surgeon (Jack Gilford) has no power to get Yossarian sent home because as he explains, Yossarian “would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he’d have to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t, he was sane and had to.” This is the mind-bending logic at the core of Catch-22, and it continues to manifest itself over and over again until it is simply too much. It’s a vicious cycle you can never beat.

In fact, each man involved must cope with their duties one way or another oftentimes through prostitution, jokes, or an obsessive almost numb commitment to duty. Yossarian tries all of the above rendezvousing with an Italian beauty and receiving a medal without any clothes on.

catch224But the tonal shift of Catch-22 is important to note because while it can remain absurdly funny for some time, there is a point of no return. Yossarian constantly relives the moments he watched his young comrade die, and Nately (Art Garfunkel) ends up being killed by his own side. It’s a haunting turn and by the second half, the film is almost hollow. But we are left with one giant aerial shot that quickly pulls away from a flailing Yossarian as he tries to feebly escape this insanity in a flimsy lifeboat headed for Sweden. It’s the final exclamation point in this farcical tale.

M*A*S*H  certainly deserves a reevaluation, but Catch-22 just might be the best, or at least one of the best, anti-war films of the 1970s. Mike Nichols delivers once more with a wickedly funny indictment of global conflict using a classic of American literature for inspiration.

4/5 Stars

Review: Nashville (1975)

nashville3What to say about Robert Altman’s Nashville? It has a lot of songs and music so it’s technically a musical. It has its smattering politics and Altman is typically one for subverting the norm so you could call it a satire. There’s romance, drama, in-fighting, and star power certainly, but that hardly gets to the heart of the film.

In fact, Nashville has an ensemble bulging at the seams with 24 individuals billed in alphabetical order and their names called out at the beginning of the film as if someone is trying to sell us an album. It’s a little over the top, feels superficial, and it’s a little pretentious. Maybe the director’s trying to tell us something. Over the course of the following minutes, Altman gives us a picture of a few days in the life of the country music capital of the world, and he shows us all sorts of people.

nashville1To name all of them would be tedious and would not give a whole lot of illumination as far as the plotting, but a few of the more prominent names are as follows: Barbara Jean, the sweetheart of Nashville, who opens the film receiving a warm welcome at the airport from her adoring public. But she is physically and emotionally fragile after recovering from a traumatic injury. Then there’s Haven Hamilton, who is an established country star, who still enjoys large popularity and political ambitions are on his radar. Jeff Goldblum, Lily Tomlin, Karen Black, Ned Beatty, and even Keenan Wynn all make appearances. So as you can see the cast is oozing through the cracks.

Their stories are constantly colliding, intertwining, and weaving in and out of each other. Making for a type of narrative that feels organic despite having a script. It feels like a realistic and truthful immersion into Tennessee reality. We even get appearances from a couple Altman regulars Elliot Gould and Julie Christie. Furthermore, it wasn’t much of a secret that the industry in Nashville did not take a liking to the film, but really is that any surprise?

Going into the film we already expect to get a look at the industry’s underbelly and we do, but it’s hardly seems sensationalized; it almost feels commonplace until the final moments. Singers griping, sleeping around, reporters ingratiating themselves to whoever they can find, and the general public coming from far and wide to be a part of the spectacle. It’s about what you expect from an industry that can be ruthless, superficial, and very rewarding to some. To those on the outside, it’s something to be fawned over.

nashville2The story is framed with the political campaign of the unconventional Hal Philip Walker of the Replacement Party. You can see his van going all across town proclaiming his wisdom to the honest citizens of Nashville. Most of them could care less about politics. Even in the closing moments at a concert in the park with a big flag patriotically displayed on stage with a giant campaign banner underneath, you get the sense that no one has gone there for political reasons. They want to hear Barbara Jean, Haven Hamilton, and maybe tolerate anyone else who comes up on stage. In a sense, that’s the American way wrapped up in a nutshell.  Taken in that light, the way that Altman ends his film is not all that surprising. There has to be something to break up the normalcy. Subvert all that is good and patriotic. Throw a wrench in the every day, because after all his whole film has revealed everything that besmirches the industry. It’s just that it usually stays under the surface or is thrown away to be trampled on or forgotten. Take the no-talent Sueleen Gay, who stubbornly tries to make it in an industry that doesn’t want her.

I’m the first to acknowledge that I’m not much of a fan of country, except if it’s someone like Johnny Cash. So overall I find the tunes of Nashville to be homely and often tiresome, although I do appreciate the fact the actors wrote most of their own songs supposedly. The one exception I cite is Keith Carradine’s memorable tune “I’m Easy” which works as a simple ballad reminiscent of a Jim Croce-type singer-songwriter.

However, I don’t get hung up on Nashville‘s music too much, because this film represents so much more to me. It’s about the intermingling of people and the analysis and dissection of the relationships that are so closely entwined with the country music industry. Whether it’s the insiders or the fans who make them big, Nashville is a thoroughly interesting view of America circa 1975. Some things have certainly changed, fashion-related and otherwise, but I think we can all agree that a lot of things certainly have not. Politics, music, and most certainly people essentially exist as they always have.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Dr._StrangeloveHow to speak of Dr. Strangelove? To clarify I mean the film and not the character. First and foremost, it’s one of those films that has so much significance, because of the era it came out of and for the way it represents that time and space. It’s the defining film about the Cold War, much in the same way All the President’s Men is identified with Watergate and the sentiments at the time.

This film is wickedly funny, and yet I never found myself laughing out loud. There was more often a smirk slowly forming on my face. This film is a landmark and an important piece of cinema and yet I could never say I have a passionate love for it. What sets it apart is the way that Kubrick is able to tackle the paranoia at the time.

His plot is utterly ridiculous and absurd and yet in anything, there is always a sliver of truth that seems all too real. A film throwing around talk of nuclear war and doomsday devices is rather bleak and so I suppose Dr. Strangelove is a type of morbid humor. Certainly a black, satirical comedy.

Kubrick’s story is split into three sections: There the B-52 bomber where the crew including Slim Pickens and a young James Earl Jones patrol the skies until they get the unmistakable order to proceed with “Plan R” which begins an attack on Russia. Slim Pickens is an inspired piece of casting with his iconic southern drawl because he plays everything straight, but you cannot help find it funny. He sticks out like a sore thumb in the cockpit and then there’s, of course, his mounting the bucking bomb, but that comes later…

The order was given on the command of a General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) after he ordered his aide British officer Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) to put their base on high alert. All this came about because of Ripper’s fears about fluoridation and bodily fluids. He’s sure the Commies have infiltrated and so he prepares to decimate them. He bypasses the president, all communication is cut off, and he locks himself and Mandrake up in his office. As far as he’s concerned the deed is done. He can just go on chomping on his cigar while comforting Mandrake. Because there’s no way that he would ever disclose the three-letter code so his aide can warn the Pentagon.

The final setting of the film takes place in the legendary war room which feels rather like a velodrome with a table in the center. There the highest officials of the nation gather round to try and figure out what to do about this national crisis. General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) advises the president on what to do about the situation while chewing away at a wad of gum. President Merkin Muffley (Sellers once more), is far from pleased and he even sends a call over “the hotline,” to the Russian Premier. He shares his deep regrets about the situation with Dimitri and it gives Seller a stage on which to work his deadpan humor. Muffley also tries to maintain order after Turgidson and the Russian Ambassador get in a scuffle (Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!).

Meanwhile, a battle ensues at Ripper’s base as the apt billboard inscribed “Peace is our Program” sits in the background. This is an utterly ludicrous firefight and it ends with an appearance by Keenan Wynn ready to take Mandrake and Ripper captive. However, the general has already kicked the bucket and Mandrake attempts to use a payphone to reach the Pentagon.

But the best advice the president gets comes from Nazi-defector Dr. Strangelove (Sellers number three), who is restricted to a wheelchair and still has trouble stifling his “Heil Hitler” and “Mein Fuhrer.” His final solution is to gather a few hundred people in mine shafts underground, away from the radiation, where they can procreate. The female to male ratio optimally would be 10:1 and that starts Turgidson salivating. We don’t quite know how it ends, but Kubrick ends with the iconic juxtaposition of nuclear bombs exploding as “We’ll Meet Again” wafts through the air. It’s the last brilliant piece of humor.

Dr. Strangelove is a great film in part because of its performances beginning with Seller. We’re used to his lovable buffoon Inspector Clouseau and yet he’s quite different here. Each character is starkly different in fact, but each one is played straight with their assorted quirks laid out for us.  Slim Pickens, a man also known for his comedic sidekick roles is playing it straight which is also funny in itself.

Finally, George C. Scott is one of the stars that we would label a dramatic actor and yet this is probably the most over the top and odd performance of his career. It’s wonderfully vibrant in all respects from the gesticulation of his body to his facial expressions.

Everything’s an odd mix where hysteria with global consequence is matter-of-fact. There’s no fighting in war rooms. There are Cold Wars and Hotlines. Nazi Doctors advise the president and Russian ambassadors are tackled to the ground. It’s pointing to the inconsistencies in this world that we live in. It’s a satire about the absurdity of nuclear deterrence in an age where that was in vogue.

4.5/5 Stars

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

allthatheaven4When I first saw the work of Douglas Sirk, I was immediately struck by how well it seemed to personify 1950s Hollywood. All That Heaven Allows (1955) is little different in its opulence and superficial soap opera tonalities. Except for this one, at times, feels a little like it should be a part of a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover. Perhaps it glides a slightly more interesting line between high society country club members and quintessential middle America.

The two alternatives are contrasted in our screen couple played by Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson.

Cary Scott (Wyman) is a well to do, middle-aged widow with two grown kids off at school. She is often lonely and always sensible when it comes to the life decisions she makes. After all, she doesn’t want the local gossip blabbing about her life to all their society friends.

That changes rather gradually thanks to her seasonal gardener and professional tree-trimmer Ron Kirby (Hudson). He is a different sort of spirit who seems to be content with nature and his place in it as nurturer. Their acquaintance begins over a harmless cup of coffee and turns into an excursion to his humble abode. Over time, Cary is introduced to Ron’s brands of friends who are all charming, down-to-earth folk who live life to the fullest without worrying about wealth or societal pressures. This is what she has been looking for and he is the man who she needs. So when Ron proposes marriage she readily accepts.

Now comes the task of putting it before the kids and then showing Ron to the local snarks. The socialites are no different with their sniggering and pointed remarks. There is no mercy for Cary and Ron. In fact, they are appalled by such a scandalous romance. The children who normally are rational and kind, do not mince words with their mother. Ned talks about the family honor, the legacy of their father, and their home. He cannot bear for his mother to supposedly throw all that away. Kay, on her part, is always getting caught up in psychoanalysis, but this time all rationale goes out the window after her boyfriend breaks up with her.  Under this built-in pressure, Cary reluctantly breaks off their marriage, mostly for the sake of the children.

allthatheaven2Except she is never quite the same and never feels like she did with Ron. Cary is resigned to staying in her lavish home, while reluctantly accepting the newest form of modern entertainment — a television. Christmas time is especially hard when she runs into Ron, but then the kids come home. That’s when she realizes her grave error and what comes next is exactly what you expect, with a few small diversions. Cary turns back to Ron, who has been in a funk of his own. Following an accident that was induced by Cary’s presence, Ron is bedridden and Cary rushes to his aid. This is the life she was meant for no matter what society says of her.

It’s pretty mushy, weepy stuff in a sense. That’s the superficial level of second-rate romance and picture-perfect technicolor. In fact, All That Heaven Allows is visually beautiful in a sickening sort of way. The town is too pristine, the seasons too perfect, the snow too puffy. And yet it all seems to be an impeccable supplement to Sirk’s moral drama. Ironically, this is not a moral tale about unbridled love between a woman and her younger lover. That would make complete sense. Instead, Sirk subverts that wonderfully, by suggesting the weight of the blame is on society and the peer pressure that permeates the upper crust.

Even if this film is a little too syrupy in its sweetness, I can manage a spoonful or two because there is a greater meaning to this frivolity. All That Heaven Allows is certainly an acquired taste, but it’s worth taking a chance on.

4/5 Stars

The Long Goodbye (1973)

LongposterIn the storied tradition of film-noir comes another film in the canon and yet another depiction of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe. However, the world with which Robert Altman places his private eye is far different than any place the character has ever inhabited before. Whereas another neo-noir such as Chinatown followed the storied tradition of noir in many ways, The Long Goodbye is often more of a satire than a new addition to the genre.

Elliott Gould as Phillip Marlowe has the smoking down like Bogart or Dick Powell, the garb, and even the car, but his environment is the 1970s, making him quite anachronistic, and that seems to be just fine with Altman. He subverts the genre by placing Marlowe in a world he does not seem to fit in and yet he himself does not seem to question it.

The girls next door are hardly your typical girls-next-door. The police station looks like it could be out of The Rockford Files. John Williams and Johnny Mercer’s title song pops up in all places from the elevator to the car radio. His tail Harry is an incompetent joke. Passing cars give the security guard time to practice his best movie star impressions. Marlowe as well proves he is not much of an animal guy with a cat that he loses and a dog that hates him.

The drama is not much better in that regard. Two murders take place (including the death of a friend), which are later followed by a man’s suicide and his beautiful wife fleeing the country. All the while, on the case Marlowe is scrounging around and coming up mostly empty. The cops bring him in, an unhappy thug roughs him up over some money, and he can get very little out of the drunken writer Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) or his wife (Nina van Pallandt) before she disappears.

By now we know better than to compare this Marlowe to any predecessor. He gets smashed about by the waves trying to stop a suicide and ends up in the hospital after getting bowled over by a car. He seemingly does his best detective work in a stupor, and he somehow escapes a chilling confrontation where everyone is removing their clothes. All these scenarios make little sense and even with the twisted conclusion to the mystery, there still is no explanation for the way things are. Altman gives us a surprising end but no answers as we watch Gould dance off into the distance playing a mini harmonica. Marlowe can often be heard saying, “It’s okay with me.” It’s the story of his life and if he is fine with it, I suppose his audience will just have to accept it too, even if they do not quite like it.

4/5 Stars

Birdman (2014)

Birdman_posterIn the opening shot, a man is in his tidy-whities levitating in midair. This is one of those films that can never be figured out completely or never fully dissected in its entirety. It’s a meta film on a whole lot of levels. You could say that Michael Keaton is playing a version of himself named Riggan Thomson. He used to be a superstar in the popular superhero series Birdman. That ended back in 1992. Now he’s old and washed up attempting to revive himself in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver play. Robert Downey Jr. is the guy with the type of box office draw that he used to have.  He is constantly fighting his own inner demons that play like the voice of the Birdman in his head. The character he used to be is so closely tied to his identity that Riggan has trouble getting away from it.

The film follows the loss of one of their lead actors to an accident, and there is a rush to find someone else before their first preview showing. They want Michael Fassbender or Jeremy Renner and yet they do get lucky in Mike Shiner (Edward Shiner). However, much like Norton in real life, Shiner proves to be a handful, but also a star performer who the public love. Riggan needs him and his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) pleads with him to say with Shiner. All the previews are a disaster: Mike breaks character over some gin and he tries to have sex with actress and former lover Lesley (Naomi Watts) on stage. To add insult to injury, Riggans locks himself out of the theater and thus begins his frantic pilgrimage through Time Square in only his underwear.

birdman1Riggans wrote, directed, and acts in this play to overcompensate for all his failures. He even refinances his house to cover the cost. He’s spent. His daughter and former drug addict Sam (Emma Stone) is his assistant, and although they don’t see eye to eye, they try to be real with each other. She too is a screw-up, but she sees in him someone who confuses love for adoration. He worries about relevancy, fading away, and he is scared to death that he might not matter. In as many words, she tells him to join the club because every member of humanity has these same fears nearly every day of their existence. He is no different.

Following the final preview, critic Tabitha Dickinson says she will tear his play apart because he is one of those Hollywood celebrities masquerading as an actor. After a rough evening, the Birdman comes back to haunt him before the big opening.

Then, opening night comes and Riggan seems strangely aloof on a night with so much riding on it. He does the unthinkable when in his final scene he uses a real gun and points and fires it at himself. The crowds are as surprised as the viewer before bursting into thunderous applause. Riggan has unwittingly become a sensation on Twitter and on the theater circuit.

The story ends in the hospital with Riggan reconciling himself with his daughter Sam. It looks like it could take a fatal turn because the specter of Birdman still remains, and yet along with Sam we get to see something extraordinary, and at the same time ridiculous, happen. They don’t call him Birdman for nothing.

Birdman has received a great deal of notice for its cinematography that was spliced together to look like one continuous shot. At first, it feels a bit gimmicky watching the camera self-consciously spiral around the actors, but it slowly becomes the routine. It feels like a Goodfellas tracking shot on steroids, and it certainly hearkens back to Hitchcock’s Rope as we often find ourselves following characters from behind down hallways or going from interiors to exteriors. It’s certainly a different perspective of the world.

birdman3There are moments that it looked like Edward Norton or Emma Stone might steal the show, but by the end, it is still evident that this is Michael Keaton’s film. This is a story about his struggle. This is his version of Sunset Boulevard that he must overcome. It also has an overarching blend of magic and realism that makes it hard to parse through what the true reality is. But by the end that is far from necessary, because this is a meta experience that is layered and inverted in such a way that makes it fascinating. We think we have our feet on the ground, firmly planted, but we never do, and we are never allowed to.

At times it feels rather like we are in Manet’s painting Bar at the Folies Bergere. It becomes difficult to tell if we are in the audience are simply part of the film. We lose our self in the metaness that acts as the thin dividing line between what is real and what is fictitious. There is a cinematic magic in that just as there is a kind of supernatural energy in Riggan Thomson himself. However, he does not get wholly lost in that, because he is a messed-up human being like the rest of us. No matter how mystical he is, there still is an unmistakable resonance to his story. Thomson would be happy to know that he is relevant just like we are all relevant in some way, shape, or form. It’s all subjective. It just depends on who you ask or what critic says what. In reality, it doesn’t really matter a whole lot.

Honestly, it failed to hit me until afterward,  Birdman is a humorous film where the humor often gets forgotten behind the more philosophical and human aspects. There’s nothing quite like it. It takes its cues from Sunset Boulevard, Jean-Luc Godard, Dr. Strangelove, Batman and undoubtedly so much more, but it is distinctively the creation of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

4.5/5 Stars