Saturday, July 30, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger


As part of Marvel Studios' buildup to the Avengers movie in 2012, they have released their final prequel movie Captain America: The First Avenger. Having not read a single issue of the comic, but only knowing his origin from the series and a couple of his enemies, I wasn't really sure what to expect. Thankfully, Captain America as an origin story works heavily in its favor and leaves a great impression in the future of superhero movies.

A grand majority of the movie's run time is dedicated to showing us what Captain America was like in his original time period, the early 1940's. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has been turned down by the U.S. Army five times due to his array of health issues. He is physically weak and can't do much of anything when he is bullied by those who are stronger, but he does have plenty of courage and bravery. Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) manages to catch wind of this and gets him into a "super soldier" program, where one man will be selected for a special treatment. Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) is unconvinced by Erskine's choice, but is convinced otherwise when Steve throws himself onto a dummy grenade, displaying bravery where others would cower. Rogers ends up being picked and undergoes the treatment, becoming taller and more muscular. His enhanced physical abilities are displayed when he takes down a Nazi, thus earning him fame. Steve is now a national hero, touring the country as Captain America to boost morale. This doesn't last long, as he eventually goes on the front lines to take down the organization known as Hydra. Led by Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), they possess advanced technology powered by something known as the tesseract, which is said to contain power from the Norse gods.

The movie as a whole is executed masterfully, with a great script and superb acting. Chris Evans and Hugo Weaving pull of their characters in a way that makes them believable, although Red Skull doesn't get too much of a spotlight. While it may have been better to see more of him, it's also fair to say that enough was shown for the audience to know who he is and what he is up to. Compared to previous Marvel Studios movies like Thor, I was actually able to get more emotionally invested in the characters and wonder what was going to happen to them next. However the movie seems to move at a quicker pace within the latter half, but the action that unfolds is amazing to watch, coupled with a great score that matches the mood.

In order to portray the young Steve Rogers, the studio needed to digitally make Chris Evans' body smaller. This amazingly went undetectable, which shows a lot of dedication in the special effects department. Speaking of which, every other effect in the movie was shown off with the same amazing attention to detail. It all looked and felt surprisingly realistic, especially for the setting, and I look forward to seeing the same treatment in future movies.

Another aspect that deserves equal praise is how the movie makes homages to the comic book, mainly for the costume. This is probably the only thing I would immediately recognize from Captain America, and they injected the original costume plus an older shield realistically into the plot. I also appreciated how they introduced his more iconic circular shield, which I thought was really cool to see in action. As for the new costume, I can't really complain about the design. When it comes down to something like that I normally just go along with it. I think it looks good anyway, and it was fun to see how they still integrated the wings into the helmet design.

The scene after the credits is worth staying around for, as it helps to set up the eventual crossover flick. However, the real meat comes from what follows immediately after: the first ever trailer for the Avengers movie. Just like Back to the Future Part II did for Part III, we get a first look at footage from the next movie, except here we see every character in the Marvel Movie Universe, sans Hulk, in the same room and even interacting with each other. It's well worth waiting through the credits to see.

Captain America: The First Avenger is an excellent movie filled with a nice blend of action and drama, and even the occasional humor. Fans of the actual comic may get the most enjoyment out of this, especially those who can spot references to the source material. Non-readers will also walk out of the theater happy since it also serves as a great summer blockbuster on its own. Either way, you won't regret going to see it.

Second Opinion - TRON: Legacy


As a fan of the original Tron movie, I was looking forward to its then-upcoming sequel, Tron: Legacy, last year. It was around this time that I discovered Daft Punk, and their involvement with the project got me even more excited for it. When I first saw this sequel in the theater, I left with the same feeling of amazement that I had when I saw the original when I was younger. Recently I watched this movie again, and I still enjoy it as much as I did the first time.

The story here is easier to follow than the first, though it admittedly has a few holes in it. For instance, they make the portal to the real world out to be difficult to reach, yet there's a Solar Sailer, a means of transport in the Grid, conveniently headed straight toward it. Otherwise, while it was a little predictable the first time around, I still liked the simplicity of the plot compared to the original.

The visual effects are among some of the best I have ever seen in a movie, especially one from 2010. Parts of the Grid felt more organic and free than in the first Tron, especially the beams emitted by various vehicles such as the iconic Light Cycle. On the other hand, the effects used to make C.L.U. appear as a younger Jeff Bridges dipped into uncanny valley quite a bit, but the effort shouldn't go unrecognized.

What really carries the movie is the music, made entirely by Daft Punk save for a couple existing songs. Their appearance in the actual film as a pair of DJ's in the End of Line Club makes their contribution a little more amazing, and I was really excited to see them on the big screen for the first time. The soundtrack by itself is a must-have for any Tron or Daft Punk fan, though I find it amazing how hard it is to acquire every track. In any case, it matched the events on-screen, especially inside the Grid, perfectly.

Tron: Legacy is a simply amazing sequel that outshines its predecessor in just about every way. The story and effects work really well, even with a few setbacks, and the music is a perfect blend of old and new that is a stunning listen by itself. If you are a fan of either Tron or Daft Punk, this a movie that should not be missed.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Catherine - A Good First Date


Atlus, a Japanese game developer best known for the Persona series, has recently released a new title known as Catherine. As more information about the game was revealed before its Japanese launch, it seemed like a pretty weird combination of a romance game and a puzzle game. However, I must admit that what really grabbed my attention was the puzzle segments. When the game recently came over to American shores, I decided to give it a try, and actually found myself enjoying it overall.

The story seems a bit odd in words: 32-year-old Vincent Brooks is in a relationship with a woman named Katherine McBride. They have been dating for a few years and the possibility of marriage is recently brought up by Katherine. After a night where Vincent drinks at the Stray Sheep bar, he wakes up with a younger girl named Catherine, bringing chaos into his current situation. Around this time, he's begun having nightmares wherein he runs away from something whilst climbing up a tower by moving blocks. As this is going on, there has been a string of mysterious deaths that only seem to involve young men. As Vincent goes through these nightmares, he must ultimately decide between Katherine and Catherine.

The plot is better understood during play, but it manages to keep you invested the entire time. It has some rather interesting twists and it makes you feel like you are Vincent whenever a new surprise shows up. However, these events are created mainly through a series of questions throughout the game, which in turn affect a karma meter. What makes it really unpredictable is that it's not the typical good/evil meter found in such games as the Infamous series, rather its weighed entirely on your personality. This leads ultimately to one of eight different endings, of which I ended up with one of the better ones. In terms of story, this game is unique and handles its concept rather excellently.

As I mentioned before, this game includes a puzzle element in the form of sliding blocks to ascend a tower. These occur between bits of the story within Vincent's nightmares, in which he must survive the climb or he dies in real life. Different types of blocks are introduced with every new section, as well as a myriad of techniques you can use to climb higher. Power-ups such as Mystic Pillows that give you more lives and Energy Drinks that let you climb more blocks at a time can help you advance further more safely, especially during boss stages, and sometimes you feel fortunate to have the right one at the right moment. I actually didn't mind these sections that much, seeing them more as a mildly frustrating challenge (I played on Easy), though it may be because I'm more of a casual gamer and I enjoy playing puzzle games.

In any case, an interesting way you can better at these portions is by playing the Rapunzel game while in the real world. It has similar gameplay to the nightmares, but on a smaller scale and with a limited number of moves. Once you learn new techniques you can use them to get farther in this minigame, which is also great practice for what lies ahead at the end of the day.

You can also drink and send text messages in the game, the latter of which can also influence the course of the game. When you drink enough, you not only can move faster in your nightmares, but you can also learn some interesting trivia about alcohol. It's amazing what you can learn on the subject from this game, assuming you didn't know some of it already.

Both visually and musically, Catherine further impresses. The anime-style cutscenes and graphics are pulled off fantastically, brought further to life by some amazing voice acting. The soundtrack, most of which you hear in the nightmare segments, is composed mainly of remixed classical music, such as "The Hut on Fowl's Legs (Baba-Yaga)" from Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition and the Hallelujah Chorus among others. This really adds to the atmosphere and is a rather interesting choice for a game.

Catherine's concept sounds weird at first, but it's a really enjoyable experience. I think anyone more adept at puzzle games will get more enjoyment out of this, the nightmare segments being just another puzzle to solve. I'm not sure I'd play Catherine again anytime soon, but I may give it another shot sometime in the future.

Stubs - Hannah And Her Sisters


HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986) Starring: Woody Allen, Michael Caine, Mia Farrow, Carrie Fisher, Barbara Hershey, Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O’Sullivan, Daniel Stern, Max Von Sydow, Dianne Wiest. Directed by Woody Allen. Written by Woody Allen. Produced by Robert Greenhut. Run Time: 103 minutes, Color. U.S. Comedy

Like Buster Keaton, there had to be a Woody Allen film on my list. Woody Allen has been one of my favorite directors for many years and I’m very happy to see the great reception MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011) has received.

While he has been making movies since the mid-1960’s, not all of his films have been well-received. After making his early “funny ones”, like TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (1969), BANANAS (1971) and perhaps the oddest adaptation: EVERY THING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX* (*BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK) (1972), Allen’s films started to turn a little more mature. SLEEPER (1973); LOVE AND DEATH (1975) and ANNIE HALL (1977) pointed to a maturing filmmaker. ANNIE HALL was at the time his most acclaimed movie and won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Allen’s first clunker came the following year with INTERIORS (1978) in which he tried to emulate the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. This was the first Allen directed film in which he did not appear. Allen came back to form with MANHATTAN (1979), a black and white feature, that was both funny and serious. And like ANNIE HALL, there were definite auto-biographical undertones as Allen’s character Isaac Davis’s relationship with Tracy (Muriel Hemingway) in many ways paralleled his own relationship with teenager Stacey Nelkin.

STARDUST MEMORIES (1980) was as much homage to Fellini as INTERIORS was to Bergman. In the film, Allen plays a filmmaker appearing at a weekend retrospective of his own films. When extraterrestrials land nearby, even their message to Allen is to go back to making funny films. But that return is A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S SEX COMEDY (1982), which doesn’t quite work. ZELIG (1983) is a Woody Allen type special effects film, in which fictional Leonard Zelig (Allen) is inserted into newsreel footage with the likes of Charles Lindbergh, Charlie Chaplin, Babe Ruth and other luminaries of the 1920’s and 1930’s.

BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984) was supposed to be funny and does have its moments. THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985) shows Allen’s inventiveness as a writer and director. In this film, one character in the movie within the movie, notices a woman in the audience and falls in love with her to the point that he actually comes off the screen and into reality.

Up to this point, Woody Allen’s films usually had a leading lady that was also romantically linked to the director in real life. Sometimes they work, Louise Lassiter (TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN) and Diane Keaton (ANNIE HALL). And sometimes they are more hit and miss. This for me is true with the films he made with Mia Farrow. I am not a big fan of her work and I don’t think she is always a good fit for his films.

With HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, though, that changed. The film revolves around three sisters, Hannah (Mia Farrow), Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Diane Wiest). The film takes place in the 12 months between Thanksgivings. In the film, Hannah is at once the hub of the story and at the same time not the focus of the film. 

Hannah is a successful actress, who her sisters come to for advice and money. Fortunately, for me at least, the film concentrates on the two other sisters, Lee and Holly. Lee is living with a reclusive artist, Frederick (Max von Sydow) but the intellectual and sexual spark have long since disappeared. Elliot (Michael Caine) Hannah’s husband is also dissatisfied with his relationship. Hannah is too self-sufficient and he doesn’t feel she really needs him. Elliott is attracted to Lee and the two have an affair that lasts for months.

Her other sister, Holly (Diane Wiest) is a cocaine-addicted unsuccessful actress, who tries many ways to express herself, from catering to acting and finally to writing. Her best friend and business partner, April (Carrie Fisher) is also her competition for both acting jobs and for the affection of David (Sam Waterston), a man they both met while catering a party. Holly loses out to April. With no future in acting, she turns to writing, which means she has to borrow more money from Hannah.

Mickey (Woody Allen) is a TV producer of a show that appears to be like Saturday Night Live. He is successful, but, as with any Woody Allen character, has his issues. Mickey is a hypochondriac who after given a clean bill of health, has a crisis of another kind. Looking for guidance, Mickey turns to religion, including a short lived conversion to Catholicism and flirtation with Hare Krishna. When he is unhappy with the answers religion offers, Mickey tries and fails to commit suicide. When he goes for a walk, he happens into a theater showing the Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP and while watching the over blown production number about the declaration of war, Mickey realizes that it is more important to live for the now and not worry about what comes after death.

This prepares Mickey for a second encounter with Holly. Previously, Hannah had set them up but the date was a disaster. Mickey took her to the Oak Room to see Bobby Short, and she in turn took him to a punk music club. It was clear to both of them that they were not right for one another. However, when the two of them meet again, in what appears to be a Tower Records store, they are both ready to try again. Holly insists on reading her screenplay to Mickey, who loves it. In a relationship that takes place mostly off screen, Mickey and Holly get married.

By the time of the second Thanksgiving, all the sisters are married and happy. Elliott’s affair with Lee has ended long ago and she has married someone else. Meantime, Elliott has reconciled himself with Hannah and it is never clear if she ever knew about his affair. And it is at this celebration that Holly tells Mickey that she is pregnant. The film ends with Woody Allen seemingly content.

Two other performances are noteworthy: Maureen O’Sullivan (Norma) and Lloyd Nolan (Evan) hit it out of the ball park, as the parents of the sisters. They, like Hannah, are actors with careers of their own and they squabble like an old married couple about Norma’s drinking and Evan’s past flirtations.

I was once told by a professor I had, Rick Jewell, that HANNAH AND HER SISTERS was the most life-reaffirming film that Woody Allen had ever made, up to that time. And I would have to agree with him. With a structure apparently borrowed from Ingmar Bergman’s FANNY AND ALEXANDER, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS is like watching a good novel. The characters are rich and developed. Allen manages to successfully go back and forth between comedy and pathos. In some ways this is the best film Allen has ever made.

Unlike others on my list, Allen is an active filmmaker and his career has continued since 1986. Some of his films have been great, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989) and some have been not so great HOLLYWOOD ENDING (2002) and THE CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION (2001). In some he has tried new ways to tell his story, DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (1997) with its use of jump cuts. Some have been funny and forgettable SMALL TOWN CROOKS (2000). One of the problems with Allen maybe that there is no one was editing him. He made the film with the script he had, whether it was fully developed or not. But you have to give Allen credit for never stopping making movies the way he wants to. This determination forced him to look for financing overseas and while that might have been the end of the line for some, it has actually given Allen new life.

His European filmmaking tour started with MATCH POINT (2005) and continues to this day. While he has returned to his beloved New York to make the solid WHATEVER WORKS (2009). It is hard to predict what the future holds for Woody Allen, but I will be watching.

Stubs - Sunrise


SUNRISE (1927) AKA SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS Starring: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor Margaret Livingston. Directed by F.W. Murnau. Written by Carl Meyer. Story by: Hermann Sudermann. Produced by William Fox. Run Time: 95 minutes, Black and White. U.S. Silent, Drama

Anyone who has been to Hollywood and Highland or who has knowledge of the Academy Awards will tell you that the first film to win Best Picture was WINGS (1927) a World War I actioner starring It girl Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Richard Arlen and a very young Gary Cooper. However, that first Academy Awards, held in 1929, had two categories for the top films: Best Picture and something they no longer give: Best Picture: Unique and Artistic Production. While WINGS is renowned for its realistic flying sequences, it is by and large a forgotten film. It is the only best picture film not to be released on DVD.

SUNRISE on the other hand is still considered a classic. Made by F.W. Murnau, SUNRISE clearly has its roots in German Expressionism, a post-world war I movement that used symbolism and mise en scene (design) to add mood and deeper meaning to a film. Because money was tight in the Weimar Republic, German directors were forced to develop their own style, rather than try and compete with the films coming out of Hollywood. Murnau, best known for his Dracula adaptation, NOSFERATU (1922) and THE LAST LAUGH (1924) starring Emil Jennings, was one of Germany’s most influential silent era directors and a prominent German expressionist. In 1926, William Fox, invited Murnau to come to America and the result is SUNRISE.

The plot of the movie is slight melodramatic. A Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston), travels to the countryside on vacation and meets the Man (George O’Brien). The two have an affair right under the nose of the Wife (Janet Gaynor). The Woman tells the Man to sell the farm and come back to the city with her. The Wife, the Woman suggests, can be drowned in the lake and made to look like an accident. While the Man protests, he ultimately capitulates.

The Wife suspects nothing when the Man suggests a trip to the City. However, she grows suspicious of her husband’s motives when he stands up menacingly in the boat to throw her overboard, but stops when he realizes he can’t go through with it. When the boat lands on shore, the Wife flees.

She catches a trolley to get away, but the Man catches it, too. In the City, she runs into traffic only to be saved by her husband. Slowly, as the walk through the City, the Wife forgives her husband. He buys her flowers; they go to a church and watch a wedding. The Man breaks down finally and the two of them have reconciliation. After which they only have eyes for each other.

They wander through the City doing rather mundane stuff. They get their photograph taken, he gets a haircut, they go to an amusement park, they play a game in the Midway and they dance. When darkness comes, they jump on a trolley to begin the journey back home.

On the lake, their lazy moonlight trip home is disrupted by a sudden and violent storm that capsizes the boat. The Man wakes up on shore, but there is no wife around. He gets help from the townspeople and they search the lake for her, but only find a broken bushel of reeds that he had wrapped around her.

The Man goes home to cry for his loss. But the Woman from the City, thinking her plan has worked, goes to the Man’s house. But instead of finding an accomplice in crime, she instead finds the Man grieving for his Wife. Instead a warm embrace, he has a murderous rage and chases her down. When his hands are around her neck, the Maid calls out that his wife is alive. She had survived by holding onto the reeds and had been pulled from the lake by a fisherman.

As Sunrise comes, the Man and the Wife are a loving couple and the Woman from the City leaves town on a cart.

The acting, despite Janet Gaynor’s Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, is a bit wooden. And the wig that Gaynor wears throughout is almost laughable. But it is not the acting or costume design that sets this film apart.

It is the style of the film and especially the cinematography by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss. The tracking shots are very impressive, with one of them lasting over four minutes. The most impressive to me was the shot when the Man is going to meet the Woman by the Lake. The camera starts out trailing after him and ends up in front.

Also, the use of sets. Not only did Murnau spend a lot on the sets for The City, but he made it seem even larger through the use of forced perspective. As an example, in the foreground will be normal-sized people and normal-sized sets, but in the background are little people and smaller sets.

Another thing that is noticeable is the infrequent title cards. Silent films and their audiences had developed a certain sophistication in story telling that did not require a title card for every piece of dialogue for the plot to be followed.

Watching SUNRISE is seeing an art form at its pinnacle right before it becomes obsolete. The same year SUNRISE was released, Warner Bros. released THE JAZZ SINGER and talkies became the rage. It would take Hollywood several years to regroup and in the meantime the artistry of films would also suffer. Some might say it never has fully recovered.

Stubs - Sherlock, Jr.



SHERLOCK, JR. (1924) Starring: Buster Keaton. Directed by Buster Keaton. Written by Jean Havez, Joseph Mitchell and Clyde Bruckman. Produced by Joseph M. Schenck Run Time: 44 minutes, Black and White. U.S. Silent, Comedy

This was perhaps the hardest film to pick. Not the position on the list, but I wanted to include one Buster Keaton title and choosing one, just one, is very hard. Like his contemporary, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton made a successful transition from stage, vaudeville, to screen. While Buster’s rise took a little longer and his stay at the top was shorter, Keaton is every bit his equal. Some would even say that Keaton was a better filmmaker.

Having seen every short Keaton made from ONE WEEK (1920) to THE LOVE NEST (1923) and every feature from THE SAPHEAD (1920) to THE CAMERAMAN (1928), it is hard to find a bad film in the bunch and hard not to find several gems. That’s nineteen shorts and twelve features in eight years. Now since this is supposed to be a list of features, that eliminates the shorts and leaves the features. In that collection of titles are such classics as THE GENERAL (1926), STEAMBOAT BILL JR. (1928) and SEVEN CHANCES (1925). So why pick SHERLOCK JR over these?

To begin with I have it on good authority that Keaton himself was tired of THE GENERAL. Seems whenever they wanted to pay tribute to him, they would trot out this film. STEAMBOAT BILL JR. has some truly unbelievable scenes of Keaton being pushed and pulled through falling buildings and scenery as a major windstorm hits, you get a shorter version of that in such shorts as ONE WEEK. And SEVEN CHANCES has one of the great chase scenes of all time, as Keaton has to outrun a city worth of would-be-brides and then a hillside of rolling rocks and boulders, but while funny it isn’t really groundbreaking.

And while all of these are great films, none of them are quite as inventive as SHERLOCK, JR. Now I will admit that the first time I saw this film was during my doctoral studies at U.S.C., the one that was more esoteric B.S. than actual history. I’m sure the reason we were shown this particular film to illustrate way of reading films using someone like Karl Jung or Jacques Lacan’s theories. But despite that, I really love this film.

The plot is rather simple: Keaton plays the projectionist and janitor at a movie theater who is studying to be a detective. He falls in love with a girl (Kathryn McGuire). One day he is accused of stealing the girlfriend father’s watch. Falling asleep on the job, Keaton dreams that he is a Sherlock Holmes-type detective and solving a case of who stole a pearl necklace.

But what separates this film from the other Keaton and any other film out there is a sequence where in it appears that Keaton steps into a movie and once in the film the setting changes taking his character from drawing room, to front steps to garden bench to busy street to mountain cliff in rapid fashion. This early special effect required precision in all phases of filmmaking and was apparently achieved by using surveyor’s tools to place the actor and the camera. The result is one of the most imaginative and surreal sequences ever put to celluloid.

Watching this film is to watch one of the great comedic geniuses at his creative best. No one is funnier and no one is more creative than Buster Keaton when he had total control of his work. And this film is one of his best. SHERLOCK, JR. should be considered a gateway film into the work of one of the great silent film comedians.

Stubs - The Wizard of Oz

File:WIZARD OF OZ ORIGINAL POSTER 1939.jpg

THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) Starring: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin and the Munchkins. Directed by Victor Fleming. Screenplay by Noel Langley, based on the novel: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L, Frank Baum. Music Composed by Herbert Stothart. Songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. Produced by Mervin LeRoy. Run Time: 103 minutes, Sepia and Color. U.S. Musical, Fantasy

I hope I never meet someone that doesn’t like THE WIZARD OF OZ. It may not be your favorite film of all time, but it is hard to find one that is as creative and as fun as this one. More than most films from the same era, this film has survived through the ages. No one may want to spend the time watching GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), but they will sit with their children and grandchildren to watch this movie. If you grew up when I did, THE WIZARD OF OZ was as much a part of Easter as colored eggs, as CBS would annually show on that night.

At school the next day, children would no doubt wonder if this was the first color film ever made. I remember one fellow student wondering if they had run out of color film and had to use black and white. To this day, I have had heated debates with adults over whether this was the first color film from Hollywood. (BTW: The first Technicolor feature was the now lost THE GULF BETWEEN (1917).)

THE WIZARD OF OZ tells the story of Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) who hates her gray (sepia) life in Kansas. In the good old the grass is always greener approach, Dorothy longs for life somewhere over the rainbow. No wonder, she is stuck on a dusty farm with her Auntie Em (Clara Blandick); Uncle Harry (Charley Grapewin) and three goofy helpers, Hunk (Ray Bolger), Zeke (Bert Lahr) and Hickory (Jack Haley). And to top it off her only true companion, the dog Toto is being persecuted by local old maid Miss Alma Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) who wants the dog turned over the sheriff for disposal.


Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
When Dorothy goes to her Aunt and Uncle for help, all they do is capitulate to Miss Gulch and who rides off with little Toto in her bicycle basket. No wonder when Toto escapes, Dorothy decides to run away from home. On the road, she runs into Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan) a shister fortune teller, who takes her in only long enough to make her decide she had better return home just ahead of a tornado. One of the better 1930’s special effects is the tornado who continues to weave a path of destruction while Dorothy runs home. (I find this tornado more believable than any that I saw in TWISTER (1996).)


A twister is about to change Dorothy's life forever.
As luck would have it Dorothy arrives just in time to miss out on everyone running to shelter. And try as she might to get in, her loving Aunt and Uncle leave her out in the elements. Running inside the house for cover, Dorothy rides the house up into the air. There (with less believable special effects) Dorothy watches as others are sucked into the vortex, including Miss Gulch who pedals along, turning into a witch before Dorothy’s eyes. Knocked out by flying debris, Dorothy wakes up after the house has returned to earth.

But she, as she apply tells her dog, is not in Kansas anymore. Instead of gray old Kansas, Dorothy walks out into the Technicolor overkill of Munchkinland. And she may have left Kansas as a nobody, but she arrives in Oz a hero. For when her house came down in Munchkinland, it took out the Wicked Witch of the East. She is informed of this by Glinda, the Good Witch (Billie Burke). Glinda also rouses the Munchkins (credited as the Singer Midgets) who celebrate their new found freedom in song. But the celebration is cut short by the arrival of the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), who has come to retrieve the ruby slippers worn by her now deceased sister. But Glinda makes sure they end up on Dorothy’s feet instead and thus puts Dorothy in mortal danger. Foiled, the Wicked Witch retreats, but not before promising to get even with Dorothy.


After killing the Wicked Witch of the East, Dorothy is given her red ruby slippers.
Now that Dorothy has arrived over the rainbow her first course of business is to return home to drab ‘ol Kansas. She is told that the Wonderful Wizard of Oz can help her and he can be found in the Emerald City and to get there all she and Toto have to do is follow the Yellow Brick Road.

Free advice turns out to be less than reliable, when Dorothy finds the Yellow Brick road is not a straight shot. At the proverbial fork in the road, Dorothy meets Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) who is as helpful as someone without a brain can be. Dorothy offers to let him go with her to see the Wizard in hopes that he can give him a brain.


The Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) offers advice to Dorothy.
Next, they come across the Tin Man (Jack Haley) who is rusted in place and missing a heart. While oil works to free him, the heart may be provided by the Wizard and off the three of them go to the Emerald CIty. They are confronted by a Lion (Bert Lahr) who acts tough because he lacks courage. And who better to give him courage than the Wizard.


The Tin Man (Jack Haley) has rusted in place before Dorothy and the Scarecrow free him.
When the foursome finally makes it to the Emerald City, and get their audience with the Wizard, who appears as a disembodied head. He will consider granting their wishes if they bring him the Wicked Witch’s broomstick. And off they go to find her.


The Lion (Bert Lahr) (far right) joins the Tin Man, the
Scarecrow and Dorothy on their way to the Emerald City.
However, the Witch is already watching Dorothy and she dispatches her army of Flying Monkeys to bring Dorothy and the dog to her. Using the dog as a bargaining chip, the Witch convinces Dorothy to give up the slippers. But they won’t come off. The witch decides Dorothy will have to die, but has to figure out how to do that without diminishing the slipper’s power.


The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) has
flying monkeys she sends after Dorothy and friends.
Plucky Toto escapes and the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion follow the dog back to the witch’s castle. Their attempted rescue goes awry and they find themselves cornered by the Witch and her henchmen. The witch even goes so far as to set the Scarecrow’s straw body on fire. When Dorothy throws water on him, some of it accidentally splashes on the Witch, who melts away. Like the Munchkins before them, the Witch’s soldiers celebrate and give Dorothy the broomstick she has come for.

Returning to the Emerald City, Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal the Mighty Oz is nothing more than an old man (Frank Morgan) who is turning dials, pulling levers and speaking into a microphone. He tells the group that what they are looking for they already have, The Scarecrow has brains, but doesn’t have a diploma. The Tin Man has a heart, but doesn’t have a testimonial, Likewise, the Lion has courage, he just doesn’t have a metal to prove it. The last one to get helped is Dorothy. And the Wizard, who like her was born in Kansas and brought to Oz by the winds, promises to take her home in the hot air balloon he was flying in when he came.


Dorothy is about to leave with the Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan) when Toto jumps out of the basket.
The departure set and the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion to stand in for the Wizard, Dorothy is about to go home when Toto jumps from the balloon’s basket. Dorothy goes after him, but no one, not even the Wizard can stop the balloon. Just when all seems lost, re-enter Glinda, who tells Dorothy all she has to do to go home is click her heels and wish.

Waking up back home, Dorothy tries to get her Aunt and Uncle to believe her, but in the end it doesn’t matter. There is no place like home.


Dorothy wakes up with Professor Marvel, Hickory, Hunk and Zeke watching over her.
There is little not to like about this movie .Showcasing Judy Garland’s singing talents, THE WIZARD OF OZ is like comfort food. It is something that you want to go back to again and again. Maybe not because it the greatest movie ever made, just like mom’s meatloaf isn’t the greatest dish ever created. But like Mom’s meat loaf, THE WIZARD OF OZ reminds you of home. And home, despite its shortcomings of excitement is where the people that love you are. THE WIZARD OF OZ is one of those films that stirs the imagination and takes you on a ride that you want to go on again and again.

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 - A Satisfying Conclusion That Out-Does The Book


The epic tale of Harry Potter has finally come to an end this week with the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. The year-long gap between this and Part 1 not only served to extend the series' lifespan, but also increased the build-up to the inevitable final battle between the titular character and Lord Voldemort. After all of this time with the franchise, it's send-off has a very satisfying conclusion.

The movie continues exactly after Part 1 left off. After that it's a bit tricky to describe what happens without giving away anything major, since it's continuing a singular story. All I can say is that it's really amazing in the way it wraps up the events of a series that has lasted over a decade.

The acting and special effects are at their best in this film, making the climactic battle more epic with all the spells being cast left and right. There are also some humorous moments spread throughout, which serve to prevent the story from becoming too serious, but the dark tone is still evident. The 3D version of the movie actually seems to work, though it was difficult to tell what was or wasn't in 3D. In any case, I don't really have any complaints about this option.

Though I can't think of any real changes made between the book and film, there's one big change that actually makes the movie BETTER than the source material: *Spoiler Alert* In the original book, the final battle between Harry and Lord Voldemort lasts two paragraphs and each character casts only one spell, making the decade or so of build-up excruciatingly anti-climactic. The battle in the movie is extended a bit, with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) firing several spells at each other and moving all over the place. On top of this, Voldemort appears to be genuinely surprised at Harry being alive compared to his immediate acceptance of this event in the book. *End Spoiler Alert*

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is a very satisfying movie and brings an epic end to a long-running franchise. Fans that have grown up with Harry Potter from the very beginning will enjoy seeing Harry for the last time, as will casual movie-goers who have already seen Part 1 along with the other movies. Whether the 3D is good or not depends on the viewer, but it's worth seeing it this way at least once.

Having been invested in the Harry Potter franchise from the very beginning, it's almost a little sad to see Harry go. From seeing the first movie as a child to the last one as a young adult, I feel as if I've grown up along with the younger cast, and thus I feel closer to what their characters have gone through over the years. It's satisfying to know what happens to them in the end in the story, but despite this, it's time for me to say goodbye to Harry and move on with my own life.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1


After 10 years the Harry Potter film series is drawing to a close. Fans of the series have been waiting eagerly for this moment to come, when the seventh and final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, would adapted to the screen. In an interesting move, Warner Bros. decided to release the film adaptation in two parts, Part 1 in 2010 and Part 2 in 2011, both parts directed by David Yates. Part 1 shows that this was actually a good idea, since it is the most accurate translation of a Harry Potter book I have yet seen.

The story takes place a year after the sixth installment, with the Dursleys vacating their home and leaving Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) behind. Later the Order of the Phoenix arrives to transport him to another location, using Polyjuice Potion (a potion that allows you to briefly become someone else) to make decoy Harrys so that the Ministry doesn't track him. They later arrive at the Burrow, where a wedding is planned to take place. Rufus Scrimgeour (Bill Nighy), the new Minister of Magic, appears there to read Dumbledore's will to Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson); they are each willed a supposedly useful item, though the last item, the Sword of Gryffindor, is ineligible for Harry to receive. The aforementioned wedding later occurs, only to be interrupted by a Death Eater attack. After the main trio escape, they make it their duty to find and destroy remaining Horcruxes in order to weaken Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).

While this installment actually has one of the more straight-forward plots of the movie series, nearly everything in it impacts the Harry Potter universe in some way. That said, I won't give anything major away for those who haven't seen Part 1 of the final story yet, since it's still fairly new. However, I can say this: Even though far more happens here than in the last movie, a lot of the events felt a little like padding, even if they were taken from the book. Otherwise, it had decent pacing.

The events of the story are carried expertly by superb acting that really shows how experienced each and every main actor has gotten over the years. You really get a sense of what each of the three main characters is going through, especially their personal emotional conflicts. The magic of the movie is not lost under any of this, as the special effects appear to be at their best in this movie, and I expect plenty more in the sequel. I especially praise one scene that tells a story from an in-universe book, wherein some of the best animation I have ever seen in a movie is used very dynamically.

There is, however, one thing I wish to bring up with a Spoiler tag: *Spoiler Alert* There appears to be a sort of subtext in the movie with Nazi Germany. Specifically, the Ministry of Magic is against Mudbloods, the wizarding slur for Muggle-borns, to the point where a pillar in the Ministry depicts them in their "proper place," being crushed underneath it. I couldn't help but compare this to the ideology of WWII Germany and I felt sorry for Hermione when she was labeled (quite literally) as a Mublood. *End Spoiler Alert*

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is an excellent lead-in to Harry's final battle and is a definite must-see for anyone wishing to see Part 2. I would recommend definitely seeing all the other movies beforehand in order to further build up the story and have a better sense of continuity. Here's hoping the Harry Potter franchise gets the send-off it really deserves.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Stubs - Notorious

NOTORIOUS (1946) Starring: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Ben Hecht. Produced by Alfred Hitchcock. Run Time 101 minutes, Black and White. U.S. Drama, Espionage, Suspense

Any serious top ten list should have at least one Alfred Hitchcock film on it. He made so many films over his half century career that to pick only one is hard. However, while STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951) maybe a close second, NOTORIOUS makes my list as my favorite Hitchcock film. Hitchcock developed a very distinctive directorial style, which may, today, seem dated. The pace is much slower than films are now. Things are allowed to develop, even if it seems too long. VERTIGO (1958) is a great movie, but at times the viewer might feel like they are on a sightseeing bus in San Francisco, as Scottie (James Stewart) tails Madeline Elster (Kim Novak) through the streets.

It is also easy to think of great scenes in many of Hitchcock’s movies. In the above mentioned VERTIGO the way the camera zooms in and pulls out at the same time to show the effects of Scottie’s disorder. The fight scene on the statue of liberty in SABOTUER (1942), the hide and seek on top of Mount Rushmore in NORTH BY NORTHWEST(1959), the discovery of Norman’s dead mother in PSYCHO (1960), and the list goes on. But NOTORIOUS is more than a great scene.

When Cary Grant’s name is mentioned, it is hard to think of a bad film that he was in. He is the ultimate movie star from the golden era of Hollywood. He seemingly could do it all, from screwball comedies BRINGING UP BABY (1938), to action GUNGA DIN (1939), to comedy HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940), to film noir SUSPICION (1941) to war films DESTINATION TOKYO (1943) and the list goes on and on: ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944), THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBY SOXER (1947), THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1947), THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937), TO CATCH A THIEF (1955) and those are just a handful of the 74 films he was in from 1932 to 1966. In this film, Grant plays T.R. Devlin, a U.S. government agent who is the contact and love interest of Alicia Huberman, played by Ingrid Bergman.

Arguably the most beautiful actress ever to come from Sweden, Bergman was on a roll role wise. Four years earlier, she had played Ilsa Lund opposite Humphrey Bogart in CASABLANCA (1942). After that she had played Maria in FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (1943), which earned her an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress. The next year, she played Paula Alquist Anton in GASLIGHT (1944), for which she did win an Oscar. In 1945, she played Sister Mary Benedict in THE BELLS OF ST. MARYS, a role for which she received yet another Academy nomination as Best Actress. No actress was hotter or prettier, than Ingrid when she signed on to play the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy in NOTORIOUS.

Rounding out the cast is Claude Rains. In this film he plays Alexander Sebastian, a rich, urbane, momma’s boy who also happened to be a Nazi. He plays the leader of the Brazil based Nazis who are still working to bring back the Third Reich, even though the war is over. There are of course, plenty of great supporting cast members: Leopoldine Konstantin as Madame Anna Sebastian, Alex’s mother, Louis Calhern as Captain Paul Prescott, an officer in the U.S. Secret Service and Ivan Triesault, as Eric Mathis, perhaps the wickedest of the Nazis.

The plot of NOTORIOUS revolves around the relationship between Devlin and Huberman. He is the one that recruits her to help the U.S. government and it is the two of them that fall in love while they await word on her assignment. But Devlin becomes all work when Huberman is sent to seduce Sebastian, one of her father’s friends. Sebastian has been carrying a torch for Huberman all this time, so he quickly brings her into his world. At a dinner, Alicia notices that one of the other dinner guests becomes hysterical when a certain bottle of wine is brought out and the man has to be ushered away by Mathis. This becomes a key plot point later, especially when that dinner guest is never heard from again.

When Sebastian proposes, Devlin does not interfere, letting Huberman decide what she wants to do. Thinking it is all part of the job, she accepts.

Returning from her honeymoon, Huberman tries to find anything she can about what is going on at the house. The one thing she notices is missing is the key to the wine cellar, a key only Sebastian has. That news along with the wine bottle incident she has told him, leads Devlin to request that she through a grand party and invite him. Before the party, she slips the wine cellar key off of Sebastian’s key chain and together with Devlin, they go down to the wine cellar to investigate. They are working against time, as upstairs, they are running out of champagne faster than they expected. Sooner or later, Sebastian will have to go the wine cellar for more bubbly.

Accidentally, Devlin breaks one of the bottles, but rather than wine, the bottle is filled with black sand, a sample of which Devlin takes to get analyzed. They quickly clean up and leave the cellar just ahead of Sebastian coming down. He can’t find his key, but he does see Devlin and Huberman kissing as cover for why they were on their own. Still Sebastian is suspicious and it grows worse when he finds the key has been returned to his chain the next morning.

Knowing he has a problem, Sebastian turns to his mother for advice. They both know that the other Nazis would not take kindly to finding out that Sebastian has brought a spy into their midst. The best solution they come up with is to poison Huberman and have her die slowly. However, when she misses her rendezvous with Devlin, he becomes worried. Breaking into Sebastian’s home, Devlin finds her. After confessing his love for her, he carries her out, only to be discovered by Sebastian and his Nazi cronies.

In the film’s great final scene, Sebastian, knowing the fate that awaits him, begs Devlin to take him, too. But Devlin leaves him behind to face the consequences.

NOTORIOUS is one of those films that have it all: a great director, a great cast and a great story. There is real suspense and there is romance between two of the best looking people who ever walked the planet. This is a movie that I enjoy every time I see it and I would suggest if you haven’t seen it, you make the effort.

Stubs - City Lights

CITY LIGHTS (1931) Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee and Harry Meyers. Directed by Charlie Chaplin. Screenplay by Charlie Chaplin. Music Composed by Charlie Chaplin. Produced by Charlie Chaplin (uncredited). Run Time 87 minutes, Black and White. U.S. Silent, Romantic Comedy


The first of the three silent films on this list and perhaps the best, if not one of the best films of all time. This was a silent film that came out after everyone else had turned to sound. But seeing as Chaplin was his own producer and distributor, through United Artists, he could do what he liked and apparently the rest of the world loved it, too, as this was one of his bigger commercial successes.


While Chaplin did make a few sound films or talkies, he is best remembered as a silent filmmaker and star. He is no doubt the best known of all the silent comedians and stars for that matter. While he joined forces with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in forming United Artists, he is really the only one of the three who’s films get regular viewing today. While Buster Keaton may have arguably made funnier films, Chaplin was a better filmmaker as this film shows.

Raised with his brother Sydney in poverty by a mentally challenged single mother, Chaplin rose to become the first great media star of the 20th century and perhaps the most recognizable man in the world. Chaplin came over to the U.S. on tour with a comedy troupe from England. His portrayal of a drunkard caught the eye of silent movie mogul Mack Sennett and the rest they say is history. Signed to a contract with Keystone, Chaplin developed his the little Tramp which went on to become one of the best loved characters ever to show on a silver screen. He managed to turn his popularity into power, moving quickly from starring in shorts, to directing them, to eventually having his own movie studio.

And Chaplin grew as an artist as well, moving from slapstick shorts to longer films and became perhaps one of the great directors of all time. Many of his movies, including this one, regularly land on lists of the greatest films ever made. THE GOLD RUSH (1925); THE CIRCUS (1928); MODERN TIMES (1936), THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) are all features that stand the test of time and are testament to his genius. But none affected me the same way that CITY LIGHTS did.

CITY LIGHTS, as with most Chaplin films, centers around the antics of the Tramp (Chaplin) and while there are funny moments throughout, the Tramp is a little more serious this time around. He goes out of his way to help a young, blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). When they first meet, the tramp buys flowers from her, but while waiting for his change, a man gets into a nearby car and drives away. Thinking that the Tramp has left, she keeps the change and the Tramp lets her.

When he finds out that there is an operation that could restore her eyesight, he decides to raise the money. First he takes a job as a street sweeper, but he gets fired when he returns late from lunch after seeing the girl. Then he tries his hand at throwing a prize fight, but when his co-conspirator can’t make the fight, the Tramp is trashed by a no-holds barred opponent. Finally, the Tramp turns to a millionaire (Harry Meyers) who, when drunk is carefree, fun-loving and generous. But when he sobers up kicks the Tramp to the curb.

On his last outing with the drunken millionaire, the Tramp asks and receives the $1000 that would be necessary for the girl’s operation. But as luck would have it, the millionaire is robbed by two men when he is drunk. Sober, he points the finger at the Tramp. The Tramp eludes police just long enough to deliver the money. Then he is arrested and sent to jail.

Returning years later, an even more disheveled Tramp goes to the spot where the blind girl had sold her flowers, but she is not there. With her sight restored, she has opened a flower shop with her grandmother (Florence Lee). After being tormented by newsboys, the Tramp finds himself staring through the shop window at the girl. When she sees that the flower on his lapel is falling apart, she offers him a new one and a coin. While at first he turns to leave, he comes back to take the flower. When she reaches for his hand to give him the coin, and feels him, she realizes that he is her benefactor. "You?" she says, and he nods, asking, "You can see now?" She replies, "Yes, I can see now" and holds his hand to her heart. The film closes on Chaplin smiling back at her.

There shouldn’t be a dry eye in the house at this point. I was getting teary eyed just writing about it.

Now for the personal bit and why this film is on my top ten. This is one film that when I saw it for the first time really moved me. I saw this for the first time in college. I had decided a few years before that I liked Chaplin and wanted to see as many of his films as I could. I remember driving up to school to see a screening. The film really touched me and it was all I could think about on the way home. The next morning when I went to get into my car, I realized I had driven to school, but walked home. I had never done that before or since.

This film is one of the best examples of how the language of silent film had grown and how the director had grown as well. Chaplin had moved from strictly slapstick to slapstick with pathos. As one of the last silent films made in Hollywood, this is also one of the best. Chaplin touches the audience the way only a great director can. CITY LIGHTS will never dim.

Stubs - Double Indemnity

File:Double indemnity.jpg


DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson. Directed by Billy Wilder. Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Based on the novel by James M. Cain. Produced by Joseph Sistrom. Run Time: 107 minutes. Black and White. U.S. Film Noir, Crime

For anyone who remembers the TV series MY THREE SONS or the original Disney movies about Flubber, seeing Fred MacMurray playing a cunning killer and adulterer is a bit of a shock. But it is the latter work that goes against type, not the other way around. MacMurray does not get credit today for being a good actor and movie star. He had a diverse career, spanning almost 50 years. He appeared in such films as REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940) with Barbara Stanwyck; THE EGG AND I (1947) with Claudette Colbert; THE CAINE MUTINY (1954) and THE APARTMENT (1960). In DOUBLE INDEMINITY, MacMurray plays Walter Neff, a too clever for himself insurance salesman, who unfortunately knows all the angles. It’s the type of knowledge he can keep to himself, that is until he meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck), a ruthless femme fatale, who has been keeping time as the neglected and possibly abused wife of Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers).

While Barbara Stanwyck should need no introduction, she is, like MacMurray, best known to many for television roles that came late in her career; most notably on the western-themed THE BIG VALLEY as matriarch Victoria Barkley. With a career that went back to the very beginnings of sound, Stanwyck starred in such films as NIGHT NURSE (1931); BABY FACE (1933); ANNIE OAKLEY (1935); STELLA DALLAS (1937); THE LADY EVE (1941); MEET JOHN DOE (1941); BALL OF FIRE (1941); THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (1947); SORRY WRONG NUMBER (1948); the highly under-rated WITNESS TO MURDER (1954) and CRIME OF PASSION (1957). In most of them, Stanwyck gets by on a combination of wit and sex appeal. It is the same with her turn as Phyllis in DOUBLE INDEMINITY.

Rounding out the cast is one of the all time great actors, Edward G. Robinson. One of the original movie gangsters, LITTLE CAESAR (1931), Robinson was able, like Cagney and Bogart, to rise above that stereotype. While he definitely played gangsters throughout his career, THE LAST GANGSTER (1937); BROTHER ORCHID (1940); and KEY LARGO (1947); he also starred in a variety of other films: CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY (1939); THE SEA WOLF (1941); THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1945); THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956); and SOYLENT GREEN (1973). In DOUBLE INDEMNITY he plays Barton Keyes, an insurance investigator at Pacific All-Risk, the same firm where Neff works. Keyes likes Neff and wants him to give up sales and work with him. Keyes works on not only facts, but also feelings. There is a little man inside him that helps him figure out if someone is trying to scam Pacific All-Risk or not.

Told through flashback as Neff leaves a Dictaphone message for Keyes, the film tells the story of Walter Neff a successful, though perhaps lackadaisical, insurance salesman. He does all-right for the effort he puts in, but he doesn’t seem to have grand ambition. His life is perhaps a little aimless, when he meets Phyllis, the lonely wife with a heart of coal. Walter is attracted to Phyllis and she plays along. The dialogue they have at this point of the film is some of the best ever written during the production code. They may be talking about motorcycle cops and speeding drivers, but everyone really knows what the subtext is.

Neff knows to get out of there, but Phyllis pursues him to his apartment and lays out the plan. Neff may know better, but his libido does the talking and he’s in. Not only will they kill her husband, but they’re going to go all the way and collect double indemnity, by making it look like an accident.

Little does Mr. Dietrichson know it, but the copy of the policy he’s signing, when Neff comes back to the house, is really his death warrant. The wheels are in motion and there is no stopping it now. The murder is set up to appear that Dietrichson has fallen off a train as it pulls out of the station, with Neff subbing for the deceased.

While the insurance company is ready to pay off, Mr. Keyes little man knows that there is something wrong. Keyes comes to the conclusion that Phyllis and someone else have murdered her husband. Little does he know or suspect that the”someone else” is his friend and colleague Neff.

Neff’s life is further complicated when Dietrichson’s daughter Lola (Jean Heather) comes to him, concerned that Phyllis has killed her father. She tells Neff that her mother died suspiciously when Phyllis was her nurse. Neff takes to spending time with Lola, keeping an eye on her and keeping her from going to the police.

When Neff finds out that Phyllis is seeing Lola’s boyfriend, Nino, he sees his chance to get out of the dire situation he finds himself in. Going to Phyllis’s house to kill her, Neff is shot by her before he does. Waiting outside the house, he intercepts Nino on his way in and convinces him to leave and go to Lola. Nino wisely agrees.

Then Neff goes to his office and puts his confession down on a dictaphone. Just as he finishes, Keyes walks in. He has heard enough to understand what has been going on. Neff is too wounded to escape and Keyes calls the police.

There are two things this film shows. First, what a great director Billy Wilder was (more on that later) and secondly, what a fool George Raft must have been when it came to picking parts. Not only did he turn down the role of Rick in CASABLANCA, he also turned down the role of Walter Neff, unless major changes were made that would have ruined the story. Can Raft not pick ‘em? Maybe if he had been in CASABLANCA and DOUBLE INDEMNITY, they wouldn’t be on this or any one else’s top ten list.

James M. Cain must also get some mention, as the writer of the book from which the movie is based. Like all his famous books turned into movies, including MILDRED PIERCE and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, there are differences between the source and the movie. Most of the time the changes made in adaptation has made them better movies. If you need proof of this, watch the HBO miniseries MILDRED PIERCE, which is very faithful to the book and takes hours to tell a not as compelling story as the 90 minute movie starring Joan Crawford did. But you can’t deny that Cain was a great source of material for Hollywood.

Another great novelist, Raymond Chandler, served as a co-writer on the screenplay with Billy Wilder. Chandler the author of such classics as THE BIG SLEEP; FAREWELL, MY LOVELY; and THE LADY IN THE LAKE, created one of the great private detective characters of all time, Phillip Marlowe. He also saw many of this own books turned into classic cinema. In addition, Chandler like many novelists of his day wrote screenplays in Hollywood. Besides DOUBLE INDEMINITY, he worked on screenplays for THE BLUE DAHLIA, starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, the classic Hitchcock film starring Farley Granger and Robert Walker.

But film is ultimately a director’s medium and this film had one of the best. It is hard to think of a bad Billy Wilder film. Besides this one, he directed such classic films as STALOG 17 (1953), SABRINA (1954); THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955); WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957); SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959); THE APARTMENT (1960); ONE, TWO, THREE (1961) and THE FORTUNE COOKIE (1967). The Polish born Wilder, began work in films in Europe as a writer in the 1930’s, before emigrating to the Hollywood. He worked in a variety of genres, but appeared to be most comfortable in comedy. But a film like DOUBLE INDEMNITY shows that he was more than capable of working with darker material with the same success.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - Half-Baked Filler


Two years after the popular Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in 2007, the adaptation of the sixth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, was released by Warner Bros. in 2009, directed by David Yates. The series remained extremely popular with this film's positive reception and I remember liking it when I first saw it. My opinion changed when I saw it again, and after paying closer attention to what happens, this is my least favorite of the Harry Potter movies.

The story begins with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) at a train station, where Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) arrives, soon transporting Harry to a house where they find Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbend), a former Hogwarts potions professor, disguised as an armchair. Using Harry, Dumbledore convinces Slughorn to return to Hogwarts, after which Harry is teleported to the Weasley house, where his belongings are waiting for him. After leaving Fred and George's (James and Oliver Phelps) new shop in Diagon Alley, Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) follow Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) to another shop, Borgin and Burkes, where they see him negotiating with Death Eaters. After an unsuccessful attempt later on the Hogwarts train to listen in on Malfoy, Harry attends potions class during a free period without a book. He takes a spare from a cabinet, in which the inside text is written on all over and the first page declares it belongs to the Half-Blood Prince. Though this book helps Harry pass through the class, he is curious as to who the Half-Blood Prince is, and also learns along the way how to defeat Voldemort once and for all.

The plot is one of the easiest to follow, but this is because hardly anything happens in it to impact the overall continuity. There are, as usual for an adaptation, changes made for the movie from the book, such as the depiction of the destruction of the Millenium Bridge as opposed to a simple description and the exclusion of a couple characters, namely the Muggle Prime Minister and Rufus Scrimgeour, the new United Kingdom Minister of Magic. The changes overall make the movie more simplistic, but again nothing really happens to the overarching plot until the third act, and even that can be a little grating.

For instance, when Harry and Dumbledore figure out that Voldemort split his soul into 7 pieces, or Horcruxes, Dumbledore appears to just instantly know where one Horcrux is and how to obtain it. This involves some sort of liquid that Dumbledore had to drink for some reason, making one wonder why they couldn't just get rid of the liquid another way. From what I remember, this whole scene is better explained in the book, but it still makes very little sense in the film. Another thing is the plot thread of the Half-Blood Prince, the revelation of it being Snape utterly pointless to the ongoing narrative. In fact, the only really impacting events are Horcruxes and the fact that Snape kills Dumbledore.

The acting is still as amazing as it ever was and you get the feeling that the characters have grown much like the three main actors themselves. Rupert Grint does a good job of displaying Ron's character development, as does Emma Watson for Hermione. Though we don't get to see very much of him, Jim Broadbend made the new character Slughorn interesting.

While the effects of the movie are much improved over the last one, there isn't much of anything noteworthy. However, I did like it during the scene in the cave with a Horcux, wherein Dumbledore uses fire from his wand to protect him and Harry from a horde of creatures.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is an overall mess. The character development and effects are spectacular, but the plot is very paper-thin and has little incentive to watch it. I would only recommend this movie to Harry Potter fans or people preparing to watch the seventh and eigth installments. Otherwise, there's really no reason to watch it more than once.