Archive for June, 2012

Young Frankenstein

Year of Release: 1974     Directed by Mel Brooks.      Starring Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr, Kenneth Mars, Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn, and Peter Boyle.

“It could be worse.  It could be raining.”  And on cue thunder and lightning strike and it begins pouring.  This is a typical joke in Mel Brooks’ zany horror movie spoof, Young Frankenstein.

Gene Wilder plays Dr. Frederick Frankenstein.  That’s pronounced Fronkensteen, NOT Frankenstein.  His relation to his crazy grandfather is purely accidental and he need to be remembered for his own unique contributions to science.  It is strange, then, that upon receiving his grandfather’s will, Frederick travels to the Transylvanian estate and his path there strangely mirrors the scientific path of his famous/infamous grandfather.

Mel Brooks creates hysterical jokes while mocking the original Frankenstein monster movies.  The opening music sets a somber and creepy mood, yet it contains a humorously clichéd sound that sets up much of the humor in the film.  Naturally the film is shot in black and white, as old horror films were, and in order to add to the dreary atmosphere.  The dichotomy between the bleak sets and silly spoof only serves to highlight the jokes, making then even funnier.

Brooks does not miss an opportunity for a joke.  From the name of the sinister maid to the construction of the monster to witty puns and to classical culture, Young Frankenstein contains it all.  The right jokes reoccur throughout the movie with proper placement and results.  The laughs are humorously foreshadowed, such as the entrance to the secret passageway.  References to the monster’s very large size and his consequent popularity, which initially occurred at the inception of the action, the creation of the monster,  return towards the very end of the film as the story climaxes.  Puns such as: “Werewolf!”  “Where wolf?”  “There wolf.” abound throughout the entire movie.  In addition to the homage to old monster movies, Brooks pays tribute to early musicals, with an hilarious rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

Nothing in the film is ever taken seriously.  When the villagers attempt to destroy the kind monster, any threat that may have arisen is mitigated by their leader: the irate town constable. (Kenneth Mars in a very similar role to his irate Nazi playwright in The Producers)  Gene Wilder is just as talented and impressive as the assertive and daring Dr. Frankenstein as he was as the nervous and shy Leo Bloom and as the reserved Waco Kid.  Young Frankenstein is not only a technically successful film with good acting, directing and editing, it is also a comic gem that garners laughs with spoofs, absurdities, and clever word plays.  It is arguably Mel Brooks’ best film.

Content Advisory: Some sexual humor, including humorously implied off-screen orgasms and references to abnormally large male anatomy, profanity, mildly crass language, and slapstick violence.                       MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A-

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Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Year of Release: 2007     Directed by Tim Burton.  Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener, and Ed Sanders.

With the opening credits, director Tim Burton captures the dark, foreboding aura of Stephen Sondheim’s macabre musical, Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and it is clear that the film is in good hands.  As the camera focuses on Todd’s barber shop, a trickle of blood flows across the screen with the credits appearing next to it.  The blood flows down the walls, into the basement, down into the sewers, and out into a London harbor.  Meanwhile through this entire sequence the orchestra plays an instrumental version of Sondheim’s ominous “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”  The small stream of blood and the rooms devoid of people foreshadow the storyline of Sondheim’s musical that shows the evil of revenge.

The camera follows the blood into a harbor, and the mood of the music changes as the blood is diluted in the water.  The comforting song, “There’s no Place Like London,” begins as the young sailor Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) sings of his joy at returning home.  Along with him is the less than enthusiastic Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp), who is returning home for the first time in fifteen years.  Formerly a barber named Benjamin Barker, he has changed his name since he was supposed to be exiled for life.  Todd is clearly bitter, anxious, and preoccupied stating, “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit/And the vermin of the world inhabit it/And its morals aren’t worth what a pig could spit/And it goes by the name of London.”  He expresses his gratitude to Anthony for rescuing him from drowning, but walks off, ignoring Anthony’s extended hand.

Todd gives some reason for his bitterness, singing “There was a Barber and his Wife,” whose blissful marriage was destroyed by a lecherous Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who exiled the barber in order to satiate his lust for the wife, Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly).  But his knowledge ends there, and he seeks out his old neighbor, Mrs. Lovett, (Helena Bonham Carter) to finish the story.  When she informs him that after the Judge exiled the barber, he then raped the wife and raised the daughter (Jayne Wisener) as his own, Todd gives himself away through his emotions.  Once she recognizes him, she informs him Lucy poisoned herself.  At this point, Todd vows he will destroy the Judge and his equally malevolent assistant Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall).  Mrs. Lovett had saved his razors which she then returns to him, so he can be a barber again.  When she returns the razors, Todd begins his quest for revenge.

Sondheim has said that one of the reasons he was attracted to story of Sweeney Todd was that he wished to show the evil of revenge, which he said he believes is a universal evil.  Many people claim to be forgiving, but when faced with a grave evil, personified by Judge Turpin in the film, the notion of an “eye of an eye” often wins out.  Refusing to forgive is unhealthy, and the film clearly shows Todd’s obsession with revenge leads to his descent from bitterness to hatred to insanity.  The dark dream sequence of “Epiphany” and the warped obsession of Todd’s “Joanna” are brilliantly filmed.  Although gory, the scene in which Todd thinks he has succeeded reveals that he has turned into what he set out to destroy, which the following scene confirms.

The Oscar winning set design and art direction splendidly reinforce the tragic consequences of Todd’s choices.  The vibrant red-orange blood copiously gushes over the bleak sets that are composed of dull blues, browns, and grays.  As Todd removes himself further from the world and from his daughter, the only joy of his life is reveling in bloodshed.  The two alternating chords of “Johanna” represent Todd’s actions that are mechanically driven by his obsession with revenge.  He does not realize how revenge has replaced his daughter as the light of his life.  He sings that he is a loving father, while casually ending the lives of other fathers.  The blood serves to reinforce his shifting priorities.

The film is well cast.  Depp is sullen and brooding, and he portrays the insanity and hatred of Todd well.  His singing is not Broadway quality, but it is good enough for a film, especially since he acts the songs so well, reminding the audience that the music and lyrics are meant to complement the story and not overshadow it.  Jayne Wisener portrays the innocence and longing of Joanna well.  Her solo, “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” is a vivid contrast to the darkness of Todd’s world.  Bonham Carter is good as the quirky, sinister Mrs. Lovett.  She captures the comedy of “The Worst Pies in London,” the cunning of “Not While I’m Around,” and the selfishness of “By the Sea” very well.  Alan Rickman is superb as Judge Turpin.  Although the Judge’s solo, which gives him humanity as he struggles to repent, was cut from the film, Rickman is a skilled enough actor to show that the Judge is a deeply flawed human being, not a monster.

The same can be said for all the characters.  The audience is privileged to understand the flawed mentality of these people and is shown how their choice to sin destroys them.  One sin leads to others, and Todd is soon killing many more people than just the Judge and the Beadle.  Mrs. Lovett’s choice to be infatuated with a married man and to make advances towards him leads to her assistance with Todd’s bloody work.  Tim Burton has done an excellent job of bringing Sondheim’s musical to the silver screen.  Attend this tale of Sweeney Todd.

Content Advisory: The focus on blood at the beginning of the film is indicative of the graphic, bloody violence that this film contains.  The violence is brief and is not presented as glamorous, but as part of a twisted man’s obsession.  There is implied cannibalism, an off-screen rape, some off-color humor, underage drinking, and a couple vulgarities.                       MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment (mature teens might be okay with it)

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Romeo and Juliet

Year of Release: 1968     Directed by Franco Zeffirelli.  Starring Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey, Milo O’Shea, Pat Heywood, Michael York, and John McEnery.

Why is the romance of Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet doomed?  Yes, their quarreling families do contribute to their tragic end.  But an even more important and oft overlooked reason is the wrathful, impatient, and impulsive nature of their families.  This nature has been passed on to both Romeo and Juliet from their parents, the heads of the warring families.  In Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968, the rash decisions of both protagonists are portrayed and emphasized just as much as the conflict between the families.  By doing so,  Zeffirelli’s film underscores the tragic role that Romeo and Juliet play in incurring their own downfall.

Romeo (Leonard Whiting)  first meets Juliet (Olivia Hussey) at a masked ball he impetuously attended to meet his former love, Rosaline.  However, when Juliet and Romeo see one another, they instantly fall in love.  Considering the quickness and lack of foresight with which they make other decisions, this love at first sight is believable.  After Tybalt  (Michael York) kills his best friend Mercutio, (John McEnery) Romeo rushes against Tybalt in a swordfight without having a sword.  In the play he presumably has his own sword; in the film his family members hand him one.  Juliet eagerly grabs for the dial of medication to induce her deathlike state, whereas she could have allowed her father disown her, in which case she would have been free to leave the city and go be with Romeo.  She also risks their love being discovered on several occasions by encouraging Romeo to stay with her for longer periods of time.  Of course, their most tragic and most rash act is the climax of the film.

All of these actions are in the same spirit of their families.  The opening scene is fight caused by the refusal of both sides to let the other one have the final word or blow.  The fight is caused by slight aggravations such as tripping someone.

The actors are all convincing.  They handle the Shakespearean dialogue very well; it flows naturally from their tongues with properly placed pauses and correct emphases.  The decision to cast age appropriate actors paid off in spades.  Whiting and Hussey were sixteen and fifteen respectively when the movie was filmed.  Both of them capture the passion and impetuousness of the young lovers.  The romance, which can seem incredulous in some productions, is believable and realistic here.

The choreography of the dances and of the fights shows a direct influence from the film of West Side Story seven years earlier.  At the ball where Romeo and Juliet meet, the girls dance in an inner circle; the boys surround them; they move in opposite directions; and then they dance with their partners.  Romeo intervenes in the fatal fight in a very similar way to Tony’s intervention in West Side Story.  In both films, the members of both sides advance and retreat as a unit.

Zeffirelli’s sets and costumes are colorful and engaging.  The beauty and art of the medieval setting, along with the Italian countryside, is captured with gorgeous cinematography.

Nina Rota composed an lively and romantic score, which is fitting for the young lovers.  Interestingly, he gives the romantic theme to Romeo and the bubbly, energetic, frolicking theme to Juliet.  This decision is appropriate since Romeo is lovesick and Juliet is a whimsical girl full of vigor.  The contrasting themes never completely reconcile, foreshadowing the end of the film.  Much of the score is the style of Italian folk song, like his most famous score for The Godfather.

The decision of later Shakespeare films to modernize the setting is not employed in this film, which is refreshing.  In my opinion, that has only worked once, and it was only partial modernization.  I do not mind modernization if the story is changed and the new work is clearly an adaptation, such as West Side Story.  However, I do find it strange when the Shakespearean dialogue and names are placed in a modern day setting.  With an authentic atmosphere, impressive camera work, a good score, and incredible performances, Zeffirelli crafted the definitive film version of Romeo and Juliet.

It is also worth mentioning that the film is often shown in high school English classes to students who have read Shakespeare’s play.  While it is an excellent adaptation that would certainly help the students understand the plot, the film is best for adult Shakespeare lovers, and possibly similarly minded mature teens.  There is a brief scene the morning after Romeo and Juliet have consummated their wedding vows, in which both are briefly shown naked.  Juliet refused to do this until they were married, and it was nice to see that respect for marriage and sex in the film.  If a teenager has a mature understanding of sexuality, this scene should not be problematic.  However, a class of high school students will normally not exercise the necessary maturity and critical discernment.

Content Advisory: Brief post-marital nude scene, fatal swordplay, mild gore, and some veiled sexual dialogue.                  MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with much discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A

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Gaslight

Year of Release: 1944     Directed by George Cukor.      Starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotton, Angela Lansbury, Barbara Everest, and Dame May Whitty.

Gaslight won Ingrid Bergman her first Oscar in 1944, one year after her performances in Casablanca and For Whom the Bell Tolls.  And Bergman’s performance is well deserving of the award she won.  She captures a wide range of emotions very convincingly, running the gamut from uncertain fear to carefree delight to nervous mental instability and finally to strong willed resolution.

Bergman plays Paula Alquist, the niece of renowned opera singer Alice Alquist.  The opening scene shows the police unable to solve the mystery of her aunt’s murder and Paula’s consequent trauma.  She is sent away from London, and she studies abroad for several years and marries the charming Gregory Anton. (Charles Boyer)  In order to please him, she offers that they move into her aunt’s old home, which was bequeathed to her.

As soon as they arrive back in London, Gregory is no longer the charming devoted lover he once was.  He insists Paula is losing her mind, and he is hiding her things and deliberately misplacing objects to make her think so.  All of this begins when Paula discovers a letter from Sergis Bower among her aunt’s belongings.

From Gregory’s reaction on Paula’s discovery of the letter, it is fairly clear that Sergis Bower and Gergory Anton are the same person.  And it is no spoiler to say that he murdered Paula’s aunt, and he is trying to drive Paula out of her mind.  The real mystery is his motive for the murder and for deceiving his wife.  Additionally his method for making his wife lose her sanity, while partially hinted at, is kept hidden until the end of the movie.

There is nothing in Gaslight that most twenty-first century viewers will not have seen in countless other mysteries on television, on film, or in books.  The movie follows the standard rules and procedures for most mysteries.  I do not know whether or not it would have been considered groundbreaking in 1944.  Important clues are obvious as soon as they are introduced.  For instance, the detective picks up a note from Gregory and the viewer knows his handwriting will be identical to the note from Sergis Bower.  When the detective draws up a possible plan to explain Gregory’s plot, it is correct without any editing.  At the very beginning of the film, the camera focuses on the street gaslight after the murder.  The house gaslight, as the title suggests, also plays an important role in Gregory’s plot.

The film would have been even more suspenseful had more of Gregory’s plot been kept secret, and if he had seemed kinder and more genuine.  If there were a real possibility that Paula was losing her mind, the viewer would be as unsure as Paula and the mystery would have been much more successful, and much harder to solve.

Although the details are somewhat obvious, Cukor makes the most of the mystery and maintains a decent level of suspense.  The early hints all reoccur at the proper moment towards the end as the mystery is solved.  A friendly older lady on a train informs Paula of a murder mystery she is reading.  Naturally, there are many similarities between her story and the film.  There is also a nice twist when Gregory’s plot is twice used to undo him.

Despite the somewhat predictable elements, good performances from a cast headed by Ingrid Bergman and George Cukor’s sold directing create an atmosphere of suspense that makes a mostly successful mystery thriller.

Content Advisory: Some menace and suspense.                               Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Kids and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: B+

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La vie en rose

Year of Release: 2007     Directed by Olivier Dahan.    Starring Marion Cotillard, Sylvie Testud, Pascal Greggory, Emmanuelle Seigner, Gerard Depardieu, and Jean-Pierre Martins.

The life of Edith Piaf is an ambitious topic for a single movie.  It is one that French director Olivier Dahan handles with mixed results.  The strongest asset of the film is Marion Cotillard’s stunning, pitch-perfect, well-deserved Academy Award winning performance as French singer Edith Piaf.  Cotillard completely captivates the viewer, drawing him into the film, Piaf’s struggles, triumphs, and downfalls.  Her performance is empathetic and engages the viewer.  When she screams against her injustices, one pities Piaf.  When she her career flourishes and triumphs, one feels a sense of relief and excitement for her and is glad she overcame her tentativeness.  All of Piaf’s actions and emotions: her arrogance, insecurity,  excitement, regret, and joy are believable and portrayed with aplomb by Cotillard, who quickly shifts from one mood to another as Piaf becomes increasingly unstable.

The film’s only major drawback is that at two hours and twenty minutes, it is overlong.  The first hour enraptures the viewer, but then the middle act of the film dwells too long on Piaf’s instability, and it also introduces new plot points that are not given enough time to be fully developed and related to the story.  Near the end, Piaf recalls a momentous earlier incidence in her life, which no one would see coming, and then this tragic, possibly life altering occurrence is set aside and forgotten.  The film would have been much stronger had a few of these story threads been tied up a little tighter.  A clearer story arch would have also helped shape the storyline.  Albeit, the most important climax does occur right before the film’s end, but there are several big climactic moments earlier in the film that seem to indicate that the end of the film is approaching.  As a result, what immediately follows these climactic moments is often anticlimactic.

There are two simultaneous storylines throughout the film.  The film opens in 1959 with an aging Edith Piaf performing in front of a packed house.  She collapses and is taken to the hospital.  After this, the film cuts to 1918 when Piaf was a young girl.  The film casually cuts between these two storylines until Piaf’s childhood merges with the opening performance, which occurs when the opening storyline ends with Piaf’s death.  I greatly appreciated this approach.  It captured the fluctuating moods of Piaf and the ups and downs of her career.  In addition, this method of filming clearly related events of her childhood to her decisions and actions later in life.

Another aspect of the film that I appreciated was the clear religious content.  Prayer is respected and a natural part of life.  Whenever a tragedy threatens someone, the first response is to turn to God or one of the saints in prayer.  Even when characters are in the midst of despair or committing a grievous sin, God is still foremost in their thoughts, and they ask for His guidance.  Even when they believe He is blessing their poor decisions, it is still nice to see characters acknowledging God’s presence.

The title of the film roughly translates, “The Life in Pink.”  Edith Piaf’s life was certainly tinted pink, meaning that everything was overshadowed by the glamour of performing.  She was raised in a brothel where she saw women perform for their customers.  She became caught up in the fame of performing and other fantasies, which nearly destroyed her when she learned they were false.  There was an early blessing, where St. Therese of Liseux cured her of near blindness, which gave Piaf a lifelong devotion to St. Therese, which influences Piaf’s life.  However, the glamour of performing ultimately takes front seat to religious devotion for most of her life.

The final song that Piaf learns and performs is “Non, je ne regrette rien,” which translates, “No, I Regret Nothing.”  At the end of her life, Piaf will face what she’s done and failed to do without regrets.  She will live in the present and prepare for death.  Even after her poor choices and the tragedies she has suffered, she will do her best to focus on the present.  She knows it is time for her to move on from this life.  Her devotion to St. Therese may have helped her after all.

Content Advisory: Fleeting nudity, implied sexual content, drug abuse, and some rough language.                           MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Adults.

Personal Recommendation: B

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