Friday, February 25, 2011

Duck Soup

Happy birthday to Zeppo!

Anarchy. It is the only word to describe the Marx Brothers. You either love them or hate them. Just like with all things uncontrolled, there is no middle ground. Personally, I appreciate anarchy. Ever since I was a kid I enjoyed the unstructured life. And I deeply appreciate the Marx Brothers. The constant sarcasm and in-your-face one-liners are fantastic. If you are looking for a coherent plot or linear storytelling, skip this movie. It is 68 minutes of sarcasm, jokes and anarchy.

Duck Soup has the thinnest of plots. Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) is appointed Head of State of Freedonia. He decides that war with the neighboring country of Sylvania is needed. Chico and Harpo play spies that constantly switch sides. Zeppo, the "fourth" Marx Brother, portrays Firefly's aide. This is the last of the films in which Zeppo appears on screen. The point of the film is to provide each brother their opportunity to wreak havoc upon the audience. No moment is too precious to escape the jokes, insults and/or sarcasm. Politics, romance, movie musicals, government and war itself are all insulted and ridiculed at one point or another. Looking back, many critics reference Duck Soup for its anti-establishment humor. The Marx Brothers used this film to satirize European Dictatorships, Western governmental policies and all forms of authoritarian regimes. They were so effective that Mussolini banned this film in Italy. Groucho is later quoted as saying he just wanted to make a funny movie and that they had no plan to make some grand statement. I think both attitudes are true. The Marx Brothers did seem to want to make "just a funny movie", but they did so by poking fun at so many of the troubles of the 1930s.

One other bit of information that I find intriguing. Duck Soup was released in 1933 to critical disdain and was a bomb at the box office. Now, almost 80 years later, it is listed in most of the greatest film lists. It is hailed as "satiric masterpiece" and "quintessential Marx Brothers". The brothers just wanted to make a funny movie and, initially, were most disappointed with the public reaction. This film was, at first, a total flop. But by now I am sure that they would be proud of the movie and how the audience has connected with the message and humor of Duck Soup.

There are a few scenes in this film that have been copied many times. The most famous of which is the "mirror" scene. In this scene, Harpo has broken a mirror and attempts to mirror the image of Groucho move-for-move. Harpo later recreated this scene on 'I Love Lucy', but with the roles reversed. On the tv show, Lucy attempts to mirror Harpo. Also, classic jokes that have been repeated millions of times find their fame in this film. Lines like "any four year-old could understand this report. Go out and find me a four year-old because I can't make heads or tails of it." That joke has been used, in one form or another, in movies, tv and on stage ever since.

Filmed in 1933, directed by Leo McCarey, written by about a dozen people, starring the Marx Brothers.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me

If this story were fiction you would laugh it off as ridiculous. Because this is the true story of a one-man, three year trek across Siberia it is compelling and powerful. As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me tells the true story of an escaped prisoner of war after World War Two. The Russians have captured this German soldier and sentenced him to 25 years of hard labor. He is shipped off to a mine located in the farthest reaches of Eastern Siberia. After being there for over 3 years he escapes. He must then travel over 3,000 miles in a desperate search for freedom and a return to his home and family. Most of that voyage is spent alone and on foot. In some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth.

Director Hardy Martins does some fine work with an extremely small cast. Screen writers Bastian Cleve and Bernd Schwamm, along with Hardy Martins, use the facts of the day to tell a powerful story. But it is the acting of Bernhard Betterman, as Clemens Forrell, that carries this film. He is on-screen in almost every shot and is, of course, the focus of the movie. Much like Tom Hanks in 'Castaway' Betterman must grab our attention and our sympathy for us to enjoy the film. And he does. Having done most of his work on German television Betterman is up to the task of carry the film.

Along with Betterman's performance, the director deserves kudos for going to Siberia to shoot much of the film on location. It is truly a beautiful place, at least when the weather isn't horrible. Gorgeous mountains, rivers and fields dot the film as we make the difficult journey towards freedom.

As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me is a powerful true story of the human spirit. The dedication and effort put for by Forrell to return to his family is amazing. I also found the fact that many people in Soviet Russia were willing to help him to be inspiring. Even under the oppression of Stalin and the dangers of death or Gulag imprisonment many individuals endangered themselves to help this lonely man. It is wonderful that people can find others to help in their most desperate of hours.

Directed by Hardy Martins, written by Martins, Bastian Cleve and Bernd Schwamm, starring Bernhard Betterman, Mcihael Mendl, Anatoliy Kotenyov and Irina Pantaeva. If you find the film compelling, get the book upon which the film is based. The book goes into greater detail of his journey across Siberia.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

After viewing this magnificent film again just last night, I found it necessary to publish this article today.

"Money is the root of all evil". Or the saying goes. But this film illustrates how money reveals our true nature. It does not corrupt, money just provides corrupt people with opportunities. Just like alcohol, money is a truth serum. It reveals the darkest depths of your being.

Gold is the Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt play two down-on-their-luck Americans looking for opportunity in rural, mountainous Mexico. They are great buddies looking for work. Any work to keep food in their stomachs and beer in their bellies. After being cheated out of their pay they find solace in a flophouse. There they meet Walter Huston. In his Oscar-winning performance, Huston portrays Howard, the grizzled old prospector. After forcefully collecting their owed wages Dobbs (Bogart) and Curtain (Holt) decide to team up with the prospector and find their fortune.

The first half of the film is an adventure film as the 3 leads search for gold. The second half is a drama. The effect of wealth and gold upon our characters is the true genius of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Each of the three must deal with the effects of greed, suspicions, mistrust and paranoia. All these emotions rise in our trio of prospectors as they find gold. Can their partnership and friendship survive this new found wealth? Can they trust each other? How do their relationships change? The gold reveals their true personalities. How would you deal with a windfall? Would you be any different than you are today?

Written and directed by John Huston. He received academy awards for both of these efforts. They are well-deserved. Treasure lost the Best Picture Oscar to 'Hamlet'. I challenge you to find anyone who would rather watch Olivier overact in 'Hamlet' than relish Bogart and company in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I doubt any such person exists. Except for, maybe, Olivier's Mom.

This is an adventure film with a challenging message. It is both an exciting movie to watch and a movie that can cause some introspection. Enjoy both activities!

Notes: Headline followers may want to pay close attention to the young boy selling lottery tickets. That is a very young Robert Blake. Also, this film is based on the fabulous novel by B. Traven. We are unsure of the author's birth name. He spent most of his life in Mexico, fighting for the rights of the indigenous peoples. The story goes that he was invited to visit the set. He refused, but said he would send his assistant. He then pretended to be the assistant while using one of his many assumed names. This is most ironic because he was offered $1,000 per week to be an advisor on the set. He turned it down to keep his anonymity.

Filmed in 1948, written and directed by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, Walter Huston and Bruce Bennett.

The movie's oft-quoted line "Badges? We ain't got no badges! We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinking badges!" was voted as the #36 movie quote by the American Film Institute (out of 100).

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


This fabulous film is on TCM tonight. Enjoy it again or for the first-time!

Robert Shaw was a Massachusetts born abolitionist during the Civil War. He volunteered to be the commanding officer a the first all-black unit of volunteers that would fight for the United States against the Confederacy. This unit, the 54th Mass. Regiment, would fight in major moments through-out the Civil War. Glory tells their amazing and moving story.

Director Edward Zwick combines two traditional movie genres in this film. We have an epic war film with battles that seem life-like. And we have a wonderful character film that shows us so much about the individuals that made up the 54th Massachusetts. The movie's cast helps to make the film so powerful. Matthew Broderick, as Col. Shaw, does a first-rate job. This is one of the few times that Broderick branches out into serious drama. He should consider it more often. He provides us with insight into the difficulties of a white officer leading a group of black soldiers during the Civil War. He faced prejudice from his Southern adversaries and fellow officers and enlisted men from the North. Shaw's personal letters make up a large source material for this movie. It definitely shows.

Also in this amazing cast are some leading black actors. Morgan Freeman, as the sergeant who leads the men through training and battle, gives his usual strong performance. A very young Andre Braugher is terrific as is Jihmi Kennedy. But Denzel Washington stands out among the fabulous portrayals. He would win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. His work in Glory is some of the finest acting you will ever see. The range of emotions experienced by his character, Private Trip, is vast. Denzel definitely deserved the award. As I talk to people no one can think about his character without mentioning the effect that Pvt. Trip and Glory made upon them.

This is a deeply moving film, filled with emotion, and it is a well-crafted war movie. See it for both of those reasons.

Filmed in 1989, directed by Edward Zwick, written by Kevin Jarre from the books 'One Gallant Rush' by Peter Burchard and 'Lay This Laurel' by Lincoln Kirstien and Richard Benson as well as the letters of Robert Gould Shaw, starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Cary Elwes, Jihmi Kennedy and Andre Braugher.

One personal note: There was some questioning of casting Denzel Washington. At the time he was best known for his work on television in a show called 'St. Elsewhere'. I loved that show and was glad that some of the cast was getting major attention. 'St. Elsewhere' also featured future headliners Howie Mandel, Ed Begley, Jr., David Morse, Mark Harmon and Alfre Woodard. I am not sure why, but most of the show is unavailable on DVD. Also, Washington had also done a wonderful movie entitled 'Cry Freedom'.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Dawn of the Dead

Note: This blog is referring to the classic 1978 original and not the remake. Also, today is director George Romero's birthday!

This is the sequel to one of the most successful films ever made, George Romero's 'Night of the Living Dead'. Dawn of the Dead was filmed 10 years after the release of 'Night', but is set in the weeks following the first film. For those who don't know, 'Night' is the story of zombies and their rise in rural Pennsylvania. Zombies are human beings who have died and returned to a new "life". They have no emotions, little coordination and lots of hunger for human flesh.

Our film opens upon a television station that is attempting to cover the rise of the zombies. The personnel are laboring to show this event and provide survival information for the station's audience. But society in general and the station in particular are breaking down. The pressure of a world in which the dead rise to attack and devour the living is too much for most to bear. Dawn of the Dead focuses upon four individuals looking to survive; 2 SWAT team policeman, a traffic copter pilot and his tv executive girlfriend. These four fly off in his helicopter for Canada. They hope to escape the horror that has spread across the U.S.

They eventually decide to take respite in a large shopping mall. The four decide to land and look for supplies. But upon reflection they realize that they have no where to go. The mall will become their home. A battle with the zombies that inhabit the mall and then with a gang of thugs results in the deaths of some of the party and the attempted escape of others.

I remember walking out of the theater, in 1978, after the debut of this film. I was eager to see this sequel, having so respected and enjoyed the first film. Upon exiting the movie I turned to my friend, Jordy Long, and said "this is one of the best statements on America's consumer society I have ever seen". After watching the film again this week I come to the same conclusion. Writer/Director George Romero uses zombies and science fiction/horror to share a viewpoint on the commercial nature of American society. In the film the zombies are compelled, by some unknown instinct, to return to the shopping mall. As is said in the film "instinct, memory, this place was important in their lives". The zombies have died and returned to life, but they want to return to what was important-The Mall.

For me, the final credits make the point. After some of the survivors escape the mall the final credits roll. They overlay a shot of the interior of the mall. The zombies are wandering the stores, looking for nothing. They don't sleep, care about their appearance or need anything, but they still wander the mall. This metaphor for our consumer society could not be more evident. Just change the make-up and the zombies become some of the people wandering any mall. Looking for something, but they don't know what.

Tom Savini is credited with the make-up and cosmetic special effects for Dawn of the Dead. Much of his work is trailblazing and is still being copied today. His work makes this film the "apocalyptic horror masterpiece" that Leonard Maltin so appreciates. The real gory parts come mainly in the first and last 20 minutes, but pop-up occasionally in the rest of the film. Dawn of the Dead is not for the squeamish! Even though I know it's a movie, and I have seen it before, I still cringe when the zombies start eating a person's intestines while they are still attached.

Romero also goes for the dark comedic effect. The sight of the blue-skinned Hara Krishna zombie, with his tamborine, is a riot. He does not take things too seriously. It is, after all, a movie. Also, George Romero should be credited for creating a cottage industry. There have been dozens of zombie movies, tv shows and books. 2009's 'Zombieland' film and bestselling book 'World War Z', among many others, owe their success to Mr. Romero.

Filmed in 1978, directed and written by George Romero, starring David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger and Gaylen Ross. Look for a cameo by George Romero. He plays the television director in the opening sequence.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


"How far would you go for the ultimate job?"

Simple plot filled with thousands of twists. Minimal costumes, sets, cameras. Lots of possibilities, but what will be the outcome? Exam tells the story of the 8 finalists for one of the best jobs in the world. They have fought their way over hundreds of applicants, interviewed, tested and auditioned to narrow the field to these final 8. They are brought together, in one claustrophobic room, for the final step in the hiring process. An exam. The exam has just one question and only one answer. They have 80 minutes. The exam begins. The applicant's blood pressure and competitive juices rise as they turn over their exam papers. All have fought long and hard to get this fantastic job and all the income and prestige that comes with it. One thing. As they turn over their exams the papers are blank. Nothing is written upon them. If they leave to room or ask a question of the officials they are immediately disqualified. What to do? How do I offer an answer and get the job, with its fame and fortune, if I don't know the question? What would you do?

Exam is a very simple premise done with a psychological thriller attitude. You can feel the pressure building amongst the applicants as the clock ticks down towards the end of the exam. And, perhaps, the end of their dreams. Writer/Director Stuart Hazeldine allows that pressure to build to an intriguing ending. But the missing question on the minds of the applicant is the question for the film's viewers as well. We are presented with a riddle and allowed time to consider its answer. Will you notice the possible answers along the way and which one will you choose?

Will you "pass" the exam and become rich and famous? Or will you fall-by-the-wayside and miss out on the opportunity? I found the riddle concept of Exam to be worth the viewing. However, this film is very simple. Simple characters, only one set and fairly predictable dialogue. If riddles and their answers don't intrigue you, avoid this film. It is the possibilities offered that make this movie worth seeing, not the answer.

Filmed in 2009, written and directed by Stuart Hazeldine, starring Adar Beck, Gemma Chan, Luke Mably and Nathalie Cox.