The Fortune Cookie (1966)

The_Fortune_Cookie_(1966)_poster.jpg“You can fool all of the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.” ~ Inscription in the Fortune Cookie

For some inexplicable reason, I expected The Fortune Cookie to be in color. Maybe in some subliminal way, I assumed it would be like a dry run for the zany Odd Couple (1968), pairing the two stars who would make the most delightful comedic coupling in years. But once you get into the nitty-gritty and The Fortune Cookie is less of an intangible idea floating up in the sky, it’s very obvious that this is more akin to The Apartment (1960) and the obvious reason is Billy Wilder.

Once more he lets Jack Lemmon do his sympathetic role, that guy that we all know who is a bit of a loser but not a bad sort of fellow. From such a characterization Lemmon’s scintillating skill at both physical comedy and verbal jokes come off like they always seem to. You can’t help but smile. But Wilder places that same man — that sorry individual — a simple cameraman named Harry Hinkle, into a very cynical world indeed. It’s Wilder’s version of America.

While he unequivocally loves the country that welcomed him when he was an immigrant, that by no means suggests that Wilder is unwilling to satirize its very flaws. In fact, he relishes doing just that. Sometimes it feels like that was what Billy Wilder was put on this earth to do. Make people laugh and do it with a biting style that forces us to look a little closer at the incongruities around us.

You can easily make the case that the main attraction here are two noteworthy dynamic duos (although it’s slightly dependent on how you want to draw them up). First Billy Wilder paired with his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond yet again after their string of successes with Some Like it Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), and One, Two, Three (1961) among others.

But perhaps just as importantly we have the genesis of the longstanding comedic collaboration between Lemmon and Walter Matthau. It just works. It’s easy to see why they continued starring together because when they’re in the same room wonderfully hilarious things come into being.

Otherwise, the film takes a wacky premise involving a Cleveland Brown’s punt returner leveling a CBS cameraman and draws them out as far as they can possibly go. It’s actually rather impressive that this single spark of an idea gave way to a fairly substantial picture. Because all kidding aside, and without consideration of its title, the film is not unsurprisingly cut out of Billy Wilder’s cynical worldview as already acknowledged.

Yet again he finds his perspective of America derived from some combination of screwball comedy and a more downbeat, melancholy tone. True, he made some delightfully dark films-noir but this same malaise somehow worked fairly well in his comedies too.

Here it’s perfectly enhanced by world-class shyster Whiplash Willie (Walter Matthau) the conniving ambulance chaser who takes great interest in his brother-in-law’s purported injuries on the football field — even if they wind up being next to nothing. The insurance company doesn’t know that and that’s the key.

The periphery is complicated by a private investigator (Cliff Osmond) staked out across the way who has their room bugged and under surveillance. Harry’s mother is constantly bawling. The wife (Judi West) that he once loved and who ran off with another man is tantalizingly close to returning to him. Meanwhile, the soft-hearted football superstar who bulldozed him, Boom Boom Jackson (Ron Rich), looks for any way to make his little buddy’s life more comfortable and it’s taken a major toll on his success on the field.

It’s these very relationships that have Harry seesawing back and forth as his wily brother-in-law coaxes him to keep working the angle so they can nab their $200,000 in recompense. Watching Lemmon pirouette in his electric wheelchair, stiff-necked in a brace is priceless. Concurrently, Matthau seems to be limbering up for all his greatest roles from The Odd Couple to the Bad News Bears (1976) showing off his own impeccable adroitness with curmudgeon comedy — delivering dialogue in such a tone with such a way about him that’s at the same time devious and terribly hilarious. He even answers the phone like nobody’s business.

Lemmon owns the final scenes, however, as he must try and reconcile this lie he has been made to live — this charade he has been playing for the sake of $200,000. Perhaps even more troubling than Harry’s lie and less funny is what happens to Boom Boom. Because he’s such a kind soul even dangerously subservient in how he follows cinematic precedence. But we can make the case that this is part of what Wilder is poking at.

The one moment his protagonist shows any integrity, the one moment he stands up, literally, is in the face of a supposed bigot. Even if it says little, there’s no denying that it says something. Sometimes we don’t need comedies to win the big battles. A film called The Fortune Cookie is not going to garner a lot of respect (nor should it necessarily) but it can at least get us to stop and think. Maybe the utter absurdity in some ways isn’t all that far away from our own existence. That’s part of its charm. Crack it open if you’re so inclined.

3.5/5 Stars

Charade (1963)

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It’s easy to yearn for the days where they made stylish, amusing films like Charade which were equal parts charm, class, and wit all stirred together to perfection. Those were the days when two stars as beloved as Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn could carry a picture no questions asked because people would turn out to see them no matter the story. And it’s true, though they were never in another picture together, there’s a wonderful chemistry that builds between them and never ceases from the outset of this lithe thriller.

From their first exchange up until their last, it’s hard not to delight in their every interaction, every word, every smirk. There’s a consistent playful patter bubbling up that’s at times suggestive but never loses its sensibilities. There’s a constant twinkle in the eyes of our stars interrupted every now and again by brief moments of sheer terror. Hepburn playing her elegant self but perpetually frantic while Grant exudes his general charisma that sees him through peril as well as innumerable comic situations (ie. an awkward game of pass the orange as well as showers with his clothes on).

Of course, it hardly hurts a bit that Charade has a surprisingly tense plot that while a little flimsy in some areas still manages to have a plethora of twists, turns, and about-faces to come off generally befuddling like many of the most enjoyable thrillers out there.

It all begins with a body getting tossed from a passing train. Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is on a vacation on a snowy mountaintop away from her husband with a wistful sense that her marriage is done for. Little does she know how right she is. She returns to her residence in Paris only to find all her belongings gone and her husband dead. The police believe it has to do with a missing $250,000 that Lampert was purported to have absconded with during the war. Their guess is that one of his old platoon mates let him have it so they could get the payload for themselves. All of this is news to Regie who was painfully ignorant of her husband’s affairs. And now with it all dropped in her lap, she doesn’t quite know what to think.

The police inspector (Jacques Marin) on one side questioning her and the Federal Agent Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) frightening her out of her mind. The only real bright spot is her newest acquaintance Peter Joshua (Grant) and she’s bent on chasing after him before the people chasing after her catch up. Because life, even a spy life, is better with a companion.

Forget the fact that this film has often been attributed to Hitchcock. This is Stanley Donen’s creation and if nothing else it exhibits his admiration for the Master as well as his adaptability taking his own skills as a comedic and romantic director and adding a touch of the thriller to the mix.

He makes it work very well and paired with the typically jazzy score of Henry Mancini, a continually entertaining script by Peter Stone, and generally immaculate color cinematography by Charles Lang, Donen can’t miss.  If it’s not the greatest film if only for the very fact that it doesn’t take itself all that seriously, Charade uses that very quality to its advantage with plentiful splashes of fun and romance.

Audrey Hepburn robed as per usual in iconic creations by Givenchy looks to play the huntress on the prowl. While on his own admission Cary Grant takes the passive role as the pleasant older gentlemen who nevertheless wears many hats and many names. Though Hepburn and Grant undoubtedly take center stage and rightfully so,  that’s not to discount quality character actors like Walter Matthau, George Kennedy, and James Coburn filling in as the deceased Charles Lampert’s old war comrades each carrying a bit of a vendetta.

The surprisingly tense conclusion sweeps through the Parisian streets, subway stations, colonnades, and finally an abandoned theater. But, above all, Charade does well to neutralize its more intense or even grisly moments (at least by 60s standards) with its persistent charm. The type of charm that make those films of old so endearing much like the actors who starred in them.

It’s as if in the twilight years of the studio system some of the greatest names coalesced to gift the world another gem for the road. There certainly were signs of change with wistful mentions of Gene Kelly’s early classic An American in Paris or a passing remark about stamps commemorating Princess Grace’s coronation (which took her away from a brilliant film career). At 59 Cary Grant was aging gracefully but still near the end of his career with only two more pictures to follow. And Audrey Hepburn herself would finish out the 1960s with several notable classics and then she would all but conclude her illustrious career for good.With Stanley Donen still with us, he truly acts as one of the last strands connecting this generation with those Golden Years of Hollywood.

However, the most significant reality is that this film came out in December of 1963, a mere month after John F. Kennedy was assassinated near the Book Depository in Dallas Texas. That singular event more than any other was emblematic of the change that would surge through society and the world at large. That is the world that Charade was born into.

So if you were to use the unforgivable cliche at this point that they “just don’t make movies like they used to,” you probably would be correct because that’s close to the truth. Films like Charade are all but gone and when you actually consider the joy of watching Hepburn and Grant together, it really is a terrible shame, though it simply seems a testament to the rolling tides of change.

Still, there’s something truly magical that occurs when they’re together. They were an altogether different breed of star. Maybe it’s the way they carry themselves, dress, or speak. Maybe it’s the way they look at each other. Maybe it’s their quips. Maybe it’s something else entirely. But they’re two of the greatest we’ll ever know for the simple fact that they were so beloved. They made us love them and as a result, we buy into this entire film. We bought into their charade and enjoyed every last minute of it.

4/5 Stars

4 Star Films’ Favorite Movies: 16-20

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Okay, here we go with the next installment in the series of my favorite films. But, in case you missed #21-#25 and have a passing fancy to see what I fancy,  check them out Here…

Otherwise, enjoy part II!

16. Back to the Future (1985)
Doc Brown and Marty McFly. A delorean time machine. Awkward mother, son relationships. High School Dances circa 1955. Good ol’ fashioned rock n’ roll. These are only a few of the reasons that Back to the Future is a perennial classic and the best time travel film around. Two more installments followed re-teaming Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, but it’s hard to top the original Sci-Fi classic.

17. Shane (1953)
There are numerous classic westerns from the Golden Age, but Shane is one of the most unassuming. It’s a treasure of a film, revolving around of the great iconic heroes of cinema, the eponymous Shane. He’s a gunslinger, upright and kind, but he’s also deadly. Within the expanse of George Stevens’s tale of the untamed West, is a human heart and also foreboding moments of darkness. It’s the complexities of this film that bring me back to it time and time again. Its main character being a fascinating man indeed.

18. Chariots of Fire (1981)
Walking on that beach in St. Andrews Scotland was one of the most enjoyable things in my life thus far. Partially because it’s so incredibly gorgeous in a raw, untouched sort of way. But the other reason is due to this film, full of heart and some of the most inspiring music ever. By telling the biographical story of the likes of world class sprinters Eric Liddel and Harold Abrahams, it successfully blends so many things that I like. Sports, history, Great Britain, and deep spiritual dilemmas. Let us remember those few men with hope in their hearts and wings on their heels.

19. The Odd Couple (1968)
I’m a fan of comedies that boast good unadulterated fun. The Odd Couple is one such film born of a Neil Simon play and subsequently turned into a successful television show. This is the rendition starring the bickering duo of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, both in fine form. They take this simple tale about two divorced men living together and make it a bellyful of laughs. Their poker playing buddies are a gas as well. It remains a classic with renewed value each and every time.

20. The Dark Knight (2008)
I am a product of the age of superhero films. Some mediocre, some simply run-of-the-mill, but few have left such an indelible mark as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight. What sets it apart is a villain, a most worthy adversary for the cape crusader. Heath Ledger’s Joker is the creme de la creme of cinematic bad guys, and he elevates this film to be one of the most intriguing moral tales released in the last decade. This is far more than a superficial action flick.

Review: The Odd Couple (1968)

8ca16-oddcouple1By now The Odd Couple is rather like returning to an old group of friends. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau never had a better pairing than their turns as Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison. The roles seem to fit each man to the tee or at least they make them their own. Lemmon is as hilarious as ever playing the neat freak, hypochondriac who was recently divorced. He drove his wife crazy because he cooked better than her, cleaned more, and was allergic to her perfume. She had to put on his aftershave instead. Then, there’s Matthau reprising his stage role of Oscar the slob of a sportswriter with an affinity for messiness. Droopy jowls courtesy of Matthau. Put them together and you have some of the greatest comedic fireworks ever, and it’s so simple. You see, all the poker playing gang is nervous that Felix will commit suicide, which he attempts during the film’s opening sequence, but he cannot get the window open. Thus, Oscar obliges to take in his buddy with the rest of the buddies keeping a wary eye on Felix. It’s hilarious to watch them because they really care about Felix, but they have no idea how to act around him. They think every move will be his last.

Oscar does not know what he’s gotten into since Felix cleans up after him, follows him with an ashtray when he smokes, does the dishes, vacuums, sprays air freshener incessantly, and even distracts Oscar from a triple pay while telling him the evening’s dinner plans. Then there’s Felix allergies, his high maintenance, and yes, his pouting. He even ruins weekly poker night with cigar smoke replaced by fresh air and disinfected playing cards.

Bring in the twittering Pigeon Sisters Gwendolyn and Cecily and you’re bound to have more laughs, until Felix the killjoy hurts the mood. Now we truly begin to see Oscar’s sour side which was mostly saved for his former wife Blanche. Now it is specially reserved for Felix and his maddening cleanliness that’s gone too far. Oscar has a nervous breakdown and blows his top chasing Felix out. But Oscar is not a bad guy, Felix is his friend after all, and so enter the poker buddies once more to go searching for Felix. He has been taken in by the Pigeons and the two friends make up. As it turns out, the two men rubbed off on each other, but there’ no chance of completely changing them. They will always be The Odd Couple, just separate now.

The Odd Couple has such a wonderful mythology surrounding it thanks to Neil Simon’s play, the film adaption, and then the television show. Furthermore, it is one of those very special cases that was great on both the big and small screen, since Jack Klugman and Tony Randall were wonderful in their own right. Focusing on this film, the dialogue is not forcing the humor, and it ultimately leads to genuinely funny lines coming out of the circumstances. The poker playing buddies are a riot from Florida-bound Vinnie (John Fielder) to nervous cop Murray (Herb Edelman). The opening of the film is made by Neal Hefti’s theme, and I’ve got to say, the sequence where Felix has his sinus attack is priceless. Without fail it puts me in stitches everytime as the weirded out Oscar looks on along with everyone else. I cannot help but love The Odd Couple. By now it’s too ingrained in me and that’s fine by me.

4.5/5 Stars

A New Leaf (1971)

0a2a4-anewleaf1Elaine May garnered fame in the early 1960s as the female half of the comedy duo alongside Mike Nichols, who later directed such classics as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. This was May’s film debut, and she did everything; directing, writing, and of course acting as Henrietta Lowell. Interestingly enough, the film we see is not necessarily the film she wanted, but it is what it is I suppose.

Obviously, Elaine May did a lot for this film, but the story starts with Walter Matthau who gives another memorable turn playing a variation on his prototypical grumpy grouch of a character. This time he’s stuffy Henry Graham who lives beyond his means riding horses, driving a Ferrari, and keeping servants. But he is very bad at what he does…which is nothing. His Ferrari suffers from carbon on the valves, his latest check has bounced, and Mr. Graham is not a happy camper much to the chagrin of his long-suffering lawyer Beckett (William Redfield). His only hope is to get his uncle to bail him out one last time, but it does not come without a price. $50,000 with interest unless Henry can find a wife lickety-split. The prospects seem grim and both men know it. On the urging of his faithful manservant Harold it becomes a mad race against the clock to find a lady with money to spare.

At a social gathering, he finds the perfect object for his mock affection. Clumsy, bespectacled, messy, and filthy rich botany professor Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May). The courtship is quick and as clumsy as ever because Henrietta is present. Henry only has one objective: get the girl and get the money with her. A little glass in the knee and wine on the rug means little. The wedding happens and what ensues is strangely comedic. Henry has outwitted his uncle and Henrietta’s shady lawyer with his own intentions ahead of him. Soon he is running his wife’s home, firing her servants, putting her life in order and generally being condescending. He even dabbles in toxicology over their honeymoon, because a nice simple murder would be nice.

But in a sentimental moment, Henrietta names her new species after her hubby who actually is touched by the honor. On a camping and canoe trip in the Adirondacks, Graham is as miffed as ever as he prepares to get rid of his wifey. Their canoe capsizes and it’s the opportune moment since she cannot swim. In a moment of weakness, he goes to her rescue and resigns himself to be a professor as she has always dreamed. He’s a married man now. He’ll need to leave the pesticides alone at least for awhile.

This is far from your typical comedy and yet Walter Matthau is quite enjoyable as he navigates the upper echelon with an air of snootiness and bother. In some strange sense, I suppose it’s even a love story because in a weird way Henry Graham needs Henrietta. She for one fell in love with him. But as Harold notes, she has caused Henry to be far more competent than he has ever been in his life. By the end, we’re not really sure what to think. In some indirect way, they are a perfect match because they seem oh so wrong.

3.5/5 Stars

The Bad News Bears (1976)

c75ba-bad_news_bears_1976The Bad News Bears is the quintessential sports movies about a ragtag group of misfits and losers. If there was ever a worthy heir to Charlie Brown’s club it was these fellows, but that’s not the end of it. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the Bears pick up the slack after numerous drubbings. They somehow acquire Morris Buttermaker’s reluctant pitching prodigy Amanda (Tatum O’Neal), and their new star is town delinquent Kelly Leak (a boy who smokes cigarettes and rides a Harley). They begin to climb the ranks, and Buttermaker realizes his squad has a fighting chance to make it to the championship game.

Things become more and more competitive culminating in the final showdown against the hated Yankees, coached by Roy Turner (Vic Morrow). Buttermaker has recently become a hard-nosed jerk solely focused on winning, but he has a mid-game change of heart. He lets his boys play, clears his bench, and the results are good if not great. However, The Bad News Bears can be proud that they left their heart out on the field, and the Yankees will be going down the next year for sure. The most important thing is that they played together as a team with a lot to be proud of.

Walter Matthau has enough of the lovable grouch in him to make it work, although he does have the foul mouth to go with it. Amanda is the perfect counter for Buttermaker because they both have spirit and fiery impudence. O’Neal perfected the pout after Paper Moon (1973) and it’s still going strong here. However, she is not the only one. On a team that is populated by a few nerds and weaklings, there also are a share of sharp tongues and real potty mouths.

Carmen is a nice touch during the rout scenes,  and it makes me think they never heard of the mercy rule, but I guess it is the 1970s and we have to have drama after all. This is far from a kids movie, but it probably resonates with the many adults who played organized baseball as kids.

The film is a satire of American’s Pastime for this audience because even on the smaller stage of Little League the game often gets blown way out of proportion. It becomes a question of are we playing it for the love of the game or to win at all costs (even if it means family turmoil). Morrow’s character epitomizes just how far parents will go because they become so involved in the lives of their kids. Wanting to live vicariously through them, they push their children until they can no longer be kids, but must be perfect instead. The Bad News Bears choose to play the game for fun as it was meant to be played, and that is partly thanks to Buttermaker. They are not done yet though because there are still many more life lessons to be learned. I’m not sure if I said this yet, but this film actually made me laugh a lot since it began as a comedy of errors and only then did it turn into a satire. The comedy was certainly present, but not the most important.

4/5 Stars

The Odd Couple (1968)

This film adapted from the Neil Simon play and spawning an award-winning TV show, is great in its own right. In probably their greatest and most hilarious pairing, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison respectively. Both men are divorced and after Felix almost commits suicide, Oscar allows his friend to live with him. Felix is a neat freak and Oscar is a slob creating conflict and many comedic moments along the way. Besides the main stars who are great, their poker playing buddies add to the humor. To round out the film there is the fantastic theme song which you cannot help from humming. Not to mention the comical Pigeon sisters either. There is no denying that this is a very funny film.

4.5/5 Stars

Charade (1963)

Starring the romantic pair of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, with Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy, this film is considered the best “Hitchcock film” which the director did not make. While on vacation, Grant and Hepburn first meet briefly and then she returns to her home Paris. Hepburn goes there only to find out her husband, who she wanted to divorce, has been murdered. When meeting with a CIA man (Matthau), she learns that her husband and three buddies stole some money during a war but the three chums never got their shares. Upon meeting Grant again, he agrees to help Regina (Hepburn) and also says he is looking for the money. Through a series of events the three other men are all killed and everything seems to point to Grant. Hepburn runs for her life with Grant close behind and winds up meeting the CIA man. However, everything is not as it seems and after a shoot out Hepburn finally realizes the truth. Along with the thrills this movie has a nice score and a touch of playful comedy (including Grant’s many aliases including Peter Joshua, Alexander Dyle, Adam Canfield, etc.). Cary Grant was hesitant of playing opposite Hepburn since he was quite a bit older, but that is used nicely in the film as a source of even more comedy. Furthermore, Mancini’s score gives the film a 1960s spy vibe or I guess I should say agent… Hope you enjoy Stanley Donen‘s Charade.

4/5 Stars