Monday, December 29, 2014

PLAY IT AGAIN SAM (1972) – Woody Allen and Bogart

Woody Allen wrote the play and screenplay for Play It Again Sam.  Despite it being directed by Herbert Ross, this is Woody Allen’s film.  It contains similar plot and subplots that we already had seen in Take the Money and Run and that we are going to see again in Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters and a number of other Allen films. If I give it a bit more leeway, it’s only because this movie came so early in Woody Allen’s career.

Woody Allen plays a character named Allan, a neurotic writer who only seems to make a favorable impression on one particular woman – Linda (Diane Keaton), his best friend’s wife.  Allan bungles every other relationship he has including his own marriage.  Allan, by the way, is a Bogart fanatic and wishes above everything else to be like his idol.  He has imaginary discussions with Bogart who tries to advise Allan on how to approach relationships.  Nine times out of ten, due to his own personal clumsiness, Allan cannot heed Bogart’s advice.

Perhaps because Linda is almost as neurotic as Allan, somehow the two end up having a one-night stand.  Linda and the guilt-ridden Allan are now in love while Linda’s husband, Dick (Tony Robert’s), suspects that something is truly wrong in his marriage.  Like Bogart does at the end of the Casablanca, Allan goes to the airport and convinces Dick and Linda that they belong together.

I agree with Roger Ebert’s assessment that Play It Again Sam may seem too predictable.  Ebert forgives Allen because Ebert feels the movie is so ultimately funny.  If I forgive Allen, it’s only because no other talent has been able to come upon the scene that can duplicate what Allen has done.  
Even at this late date, Woody Allen is one of the most original of talents in the movie industry.  While his approach to film is due to his experience in Broadway rather than Hollywood, anything creative in the movies is a step above what we are mostly presented.  Allen good naturedly makes fun of himself. When the rest of the movie industry takes itself all too seriously, what Woody Allen has provided is extremely refreshing.

Unfortunately, when you do the same thing over and over, even with the kind of talent Woody Allen has, it begins to grow old.  Woody Allen will never be Bogart.  His movies will never demand of his viewers to do the impossible.  It’s only possible to see so many of his films.  Allen still is capable of making good movies as evidenced by Midnight In Paris, which came out in 2011.  If that film had been made at the same time as Play It Again Sam instead of in recent years, the critics may have rated it much higher.

December 29, 2014

© Robert S. Miller 2014

Sunday, November 30, 2014

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - Part 1 (2014): Judging a Franchise

I may be the only reviewer in America who has never watched the first two films in this series or ever read the The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins – while still deciding to go see The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.  Despite entreaties that the subject matter was too complex to watch the film without initiation, I bought a movie ticket and added a few more dollars to the $370 million in box office receipts this film has already received.

With assistance from a nephew and niece, I was able to figure out what was going on.  Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is still traumatized by her recent participation in the “Hunger Games” staging – a futuristic gladiator competition – and now only wants to spend time with her sister, Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) and their mother (Paula Malcomson) while they are forced to live underground.  Katniss is cajoled by Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), head of the rebel forces and Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Coin’s able assistant, to appear in some propaganda footage directed against the evil Capitol that is led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland).  The one complication is that Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who Katniss has previously fallen in love with, is still being held by the Capitol and apparently has been brainwashed as he does propaganda interviews for the other side.  The rebels eventually do some damage to the Capitol and are able to bring Peeta and other rebel members back.  However, rather than greet Katniss enthusiastically, Peeta tries to choke her to death on their first meeting.  We are left to guess what is to occur next (unless you’ve already read the books) when Katniss at the end of the film sees Peeta in a rubber room strapped to a table and obviously suffering from delusions.

Like the Star Wars movies, for which the Hunger Games series owes its very existence, this was never meant to be just a single film.  Yet despite Star Wars great success, Hunger Games are well on their way of becoming the most successful series of films in cinematic history – not to mention the substantial profits Ms. Collins has made off the sales of her books.  This is Hollywood at its money-making best.

At the center of its success is obviously its young star, Jennifer Lawrence.  She is its main and possibly only significant attribute of the whole film series.  At 24-years of age, she can right now demand almost anything she wants.  At least in the only movie I’ve ever seen her in, she introduces the closest authentic component in its 123 minutes of viewing.  She is believably tough and vulnerable at the same time.  Other than when they doll her up in required costume to shoot her arrows at airplanes and all the other nonsense, she looks and behaves surprisingly like a courageous young adult girl.  They’ve thankfully downplayed the romance element (which, though the romance angle introduced so far is not believable, I suppose it will inevitably become a greater focus in Part 2) and instead show a girl understandably trying to cope with nightmares from what has previously occurred.  While supporting parts played by Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks bring a bit of humor to the movie, these roles are extremely limited.  The talent of Phillip Seymour Hoffman is largely wasted in this film by playing such a generic character.  Julianne Moore does nothing for me one way or the other.  And Donald Sutherland plays the same kind of tyrant we've seen many times in film, and he does it without a great deal of flare.

The fanfare surrounding this movie is more interesting than the film itself.  Beyond smashing box office records, many political commentators on both the right and left, desperate to seek validation for their beliefs, have been trying to claim the film as their own.  Protesters in Thailand and Ferguson, Missouri have made reference to this film or used “Mockingjay” three finger salutes (though in Ferguson they've now decided to go with the more understandable gesture of holding their hands up in the air).  Still other commentators have criticized the film story for not taking a more explicit political stand.  I don’t think I have ever seen so many calls to “revolution” used in relation to any film as individuals have directed towards the entire Hunger Games series – references made without exception by na├»ve people who have no idea what revolution entails, what they really would want out of the chaos that would ensue, or what they could stomach.

For whatever it’s worth from someone who has never read her novels, I don’t think that Collins’ dystopia will make us forget the one that Orwell put into place.  Collins’ novels, as the novels of Margaret Mitchell or Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain, will be remembered because of the films the books inspired.  Just as occurred with Chandler and Cain's novels, no one will be interested in reading her works anymore. 

What’s notable about The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is that it doesn’t even come close to being a complete work in and of itself.  We’re watching a young girl’s struggle only as a lead up to the next film - so more money can be spent by moviegoers on this series.  There’s extremely little humor and almost no one else to care about.  I liked portions of the film because of the acting of Jennifer Lawrence.  There are small portions of the film such as the references to the ambiguities of war and peace and revolt that come close to being intelligently stated.  The best that can be said is that the upcoming movie will probably be more entertaining.

November 30, 2014

© Robert S. Miller 2014

Saturday, August 30, 2014

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013): “Maybe in America”

The core story of Captain Phillips is well known.  The ship led by Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) is overtaken by a handful of Somali pirates led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi).  We learn quite early in the film that Muse is probably too decent of an individual to be heading up such an undertaking.  He frankly had little choice given the extreme poverty he lived under in his homeland and given the power the warlords have to take revenge on one’s loved ones if you do not do their bidding.

The boat leaving from Oman to Kenya was easy picking for the pirates.  Why the boat was so isolated from other American ships in the region is never explained.  Overcoming one challenge after another, the pirates eventually get on board.  Though the Americans are able to put up a resistance and manage to badly cut the foot of a teenage pirate named Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman) by planting broken glass in a dark corridor, the pirates do eventually force Captain Phillips to go with them within the pirates’ smaller boat.  The plan is now to hold Captain Phillips for ransom.

The kidnapping generates a U.S. naval response and this response causes the Somali warlord in charge of the operation to abandon Muse and the three other pirates on board.  Though Captain Phillips fate remains uncertain at this point, there is little chance left that the four pirates will ever see their homeland again.  Muse does what he can.  At the same time the tension is becoming so unbearable on board his small boat that he has to do all he can to prevent another pirate named Najee (Faysal Ahmed) from killing Captain Phillips.  In many respects Najee is more realistic about the circumstances than is Muse.  He knows that the chances of the pirates surviving this ordeal are extremely slim and that killing Captain Phillips may be the only small satisfaction for revenge that he has left.  Still, Najee holds off on any killing.  Najee is intelligent enough to understand that there would be no chance of survival if Captain Phillips was killed. 

For whatever reason, Muse feels that he can negotiate with naval personnel to arrange for a pickup of a supposed ransom.  Najee tells him it is an ambush, but Muse goes with American personnel.  Muse never sees his three companions again.  Snipers eventually get their scopes on the three remaining pirates and take them all out at once.  This had been the strategy of the navy almost from the beginning because they never intended to allow the Somalis to reach the shore.  We learn that Muse – the lone surviving pirate – is eventually sentenced to 33 years in prison.

As much as a movie is probably capable of doing, the film Captain Phillips almost can make American audiences feel sympathy for what might seem like lawless Somali’ pirates.  Muse is portrayed as humane as one possibly could be under his circumstances.  When Captain Phillips attempts to suggest to Muse that there has to be more for someone like him than kidnapping other people, Muse thoughtfully responds: “Maybe in America.” Because Captain Phillips provides first aid to Bilal concerning his infected foot, Bilal in turn appears sorry for the predicament that Captain Phillips has been placed.  We even understand the anger and frustration of Najee when we view the stark circumstances he is facing.

The force of this movie owes almost everything to the acting ability of Barkhad Abdi (a newcomer to film) as Muse.  Right from the beginning of the movie we understand what he is thinking and what motivates him.  Also, the story and dialogue at least let us know the extreme poverty these pirates have faced.  And though I’ve often questioned the type of roles that Tom Hanks has taken on, his depiction of Captain Phillips – especially at the end of the film when he is shaken up by the killing of the three pirates – lets us know that there was a connection between him and his captors.

America has now been going on for decades struggling with questions concerning our involvement in the Mideast and North African region.  The official response has been mostly muddled at best.  Attempts to be saviors in the region have been met with scorn.  Efforts to withdraw our presence have proven futile.  There should be no self-assurance on the part of anyone when it comes to such baffling circumstances.

Because so much of our attention has continued to be focused upon foreign policy in this region since at least September 11, 2001, I’d suggest that the three most important movies released during the last half-dozen years would be The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty and now Captain Phillips.  All three films focused upon international terrorism and the U.S. military’s response.  The first two were directed by Kathryn Bigelow and generated about as much controversy as success.  Captain Phillips, a 134 minute film that moves well and was directed by Paul Greengrass, has been much more popular for moviegoers than these other two because it has not taken nearly as many risks. At the same time, the film doesn’t dehumanize the Somali pirates.  The attempt to look at the story from both sides makes it an exception among most movies.

August 30, 2014

© Robert S. Miller 2014

Monday, June 30, 2014

FIVE EASY PIECES (1970): Story of an Unhappy Man

Five Easy Pieces is a 98 minute movie directed by Bob Rafelson that was just one in a series of depressing films featuring Jack Nicholson back in the early 1970s.  It’s often described as a piece of brilliant filmmaking for movies of this genre.  It just happens to be a genre that fails to edify.

Nicholson plays Robert Eroica Dupea, a former classical pianist who decides to instead to take on a blue collar job in the oil fields.  Robert spends his time with his friend Elton (Billy Green Bush) and his girlfriend, Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black).  Any satisfaction he apparently hoped for by withdrawing from his musical career is sadly lacking.  He spends much of his life drinking and pursuing other women. 

His occasional attempts to be patient with Rayette, who we soon discover is pregnant, almost always lead to Robert losing his temper with her.  Rayette is not his intellectual equivalent, but this does not explain Robert’s rancor.  It seems more likely that her personality and disposition do not fit in nicely with Robert’s black moods.

Robert makes a trip from California where he is working as an oil worker to his home state of Washington to visit with his ailing father.  In fact his father has had a series of strokes and is uncommunicative.  Robert gets along with the rest of his family just about as well as he gets along with anyone else.  While himself off-put by the Rayette’s simplicity of manner, he is also off-put by his highly cultured family.  This does not prevent Robert from pursuing and, for a short time, participating in a sexual liaison with a woman named Catherine (Susan Anspach), who is engaged to Robert’s brother played by Ralph Waite.

The poor suffering Rayette does show up at Robert’s family home after having been abandoned at a motel for two weeks.  Robert for once even sticks up for her by defending her to a family friend.  Robert even unburdens himself to his father who may or may not have understood a word he said.  Still, after Robert leaves with Rayette, he abandons her at a gas station and hitches a ride on a logging truck that is going to Canada.

One understands why Robert would be put-off by pretension epitomized by much that his family represents.  One also understands why he wouldn’t be happy with the work of an oil rigger and the life that follows.  One just wishes there would be more.  We can’t say that Robert has even struggled because he makes no effort to improve his circumstances.  No doubt he has fallen short of what was expected of him and he remains a child until the very end. 

Nicholson is capable of bringing life to a script in a movie such as One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest or The Last Detail.  In both of those films he was fighting for something worthwhile.  In Five Easy Pieces, on the other hand, we see Nicholson reprise the almost identical role he played a few years later in Carnal Knowledge.  And as in Carnal Knowledge, the most sympathetic and alive character in the entire movie is the one that is abused the most (Ann Margaret in Carnal Knowledge and Karen Black in this film).

This movie is all about how good an actor Nicholson is – it’s not about a complete film telling a compelling story.  The previews of this movie were probably convincing.  The diner scene or the playing of the piano on the back of a moving truck make it appear like we are about to watch a movie that makes a strong statement.  Viewing the entire film, however, is less than satisfying. 

June 30, 2014

 © Robert S. Miller 2014

Saturday, May 31, 2014

CHINATOWN (1974): Personal and Political Corruption

Chinatown, directed by the notorious Roman Polanski, is not light viewing.  This 130 minute movie tells a devastating story about a woman living in the 1940s who is just one of many that is destroyed by the intrigues of her politically powerful father.  Such a matter comes to the attention of an investigator named Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a sleuth with anything but a decent reputation.

Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) was married to a man named Hollis (Darrell Zwerling).  Hollis is a decent man who cares deeply for his wife and Evelyn’s daughter, Katherine.  Hollis is also an incorruptible chief engineer for the water department in the city of Los Angeles.  When Hollis turns up dead, the mortician gives his official version of the death as follows: “Only in L.A., can the Water Commissioner drown in the middle of a drought.”  First hired on to discover if Hollis is having an affair, Jake turns his attention to Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross (John Huston), to determine if he murdered Hollis.

Noah is no ordinary villain.  He essentially owns the city of Los Angeles and doesn’t know how much money he really has.  Noah isn’t satisfied with just having money, however.  As he tells Jake later in the film, “most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything.”  For Noah, this even includes sleeping with and impregnating his own daughter, Evelyn.

It is late in the movie when Evelyn utters the horrible truth to Jake that Katherine is both her sister and her daughter.  Evelyn’s life comes to an end in Chinatown where the police are corrupt and just do not care.  Evelyn’s in Chinatown in an attempt to escape Noah Cross and to protect Katherine from discovering who her father really is.

When this film first came out it was considered a modernized version of the Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett stories of the 1940s where virtually no one but a select few actually care about what the truth really is.  As a reincarnated Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, Jake Gittes does not inspire us as someone who should carry on such a task.  Jake has made a career investigating infidelities for questionable clients and now is expected to protect people like Evelyn who he has come to care for.  

It a film with an already intricate plot, Chinatown satirizes an establishment who will readily bow down to someone as sadistic as Noah Cross.  Anyone like Hollis or Evelyn who dares protest such a farce ends up being dead.  The film’s conclusion that such a power inevitably prevails over justice is in almost every respect a somber and hopeless one.

Unfortunately, the storyline is magnificently convincing and few in Hollywood have ever had the skills let alone integrity to make a more positive film any better.

May 31, 2014

© Robert S. Miller 2014