Comedy Monday: Manhattan (1979)

25 07 2011

In 1977 Woody Allen directed the comedy classic “Annie Hall” and following up such a movie would be a daunting task. Of course in 1978 he released “Interiors” which went in a slightly different direction but a year later he would come out with the, spiritually closer, film “Manhattan” which is much less a film as a love letter to New York. In it Allen plays Isaac, a 42 year old writer, twice divorced and dating a 17 year old girl. His married friend Yale (Michael Murphy) begins to have an affair with the lovely and smart Mary played unsurprisingly by Diane Keaton. As this relationship begins to unravel due to it’s complexity Isaac and Mary start to form one of their own. The dialogue comes fast and witty as only Woody Allen can make it and the cinematography highlights the iconic setting of Manhattan. Although Isaac is your classic neurotic lead his character arc is not as substantial as in “Annie Hall” yet everything else is so great that it more than makes up for it.

“Chapter One. He adored New York City.”

This isn’t the first, nor will it be the last, of Woody Allen’s films set in New York, but it is definitely one of his films that best exemplifies the city. In the first lines of the film Isaac has an monologue stating his very personal feelings for it and throughout the film simple parts like Isaac and Mary enjoyment of walks, his outright refusal of the concept to go to London, and the several locations visited of art and culture show aspects that he adores the most . Never overly upfront yet Allen constantly peppers in these odes to the city he idealizes and frames it wonderfully.

“It’s an interesting group of people, your friends are.”

Idealization and escapism are two key concepts in cinema and it can be created in several different ways. Woody Allen does it in his dialogue, he creates distinct, interesting, and strangely likeable characters. Although they all live fucked up lives and have more problems than junkie on a bender, you like them, you want to be friends with them, and heck you may even want to be them. Woody Allen’s characters are funny, insightful, intelligent to some degree, and while they may drive you crazy in real life, on screen they are delightful.

“Manhattan” is a fantastic film, Woody Allen’s wonderful dialogue and endearing cinematography make this really a picture to remember. I would have to say it isn’t quite as good as “Annie Hall”, but very close to nonetheless. It is a comedy to remember, delightful in its presentation and containing plenty of laughs, it is unique in nature as even 32 years later the closest thing to it is perhaps Allen’s latest; “Midnight in Paris”. Truly no one can make these types of movies nearly as good as he can.

Score: 96/100


Comedy Monday: The Great Dictator (1940)

4 07 2011

In Charlie Chaplin’s next feature film after “Modern Times” he collaborates once again with the spunky Paulette Goddard whom he had since married. This time around Chaplin moves on from the depression to World War II in which he plays two roles: Adenoid Hynkel the dictator of Tomainia, and a Jewish barber. The plot appropriately focuses on the two characters switching back and forth throughout the film. This is a large departure from Chaplin’s previous work that would focus on just one character, this results in two stories that get half the screen time and consequently aren’t as developed. In addition, even though many comedic scenes work several are also just off despite being very Chaplin in nature. With “Modern Times” he made a small commentary on the depression and “The Great Dictator” allows Chaplin to take it even farther, creating a movie in which the comedy comes second to what is being depicted and this isn’t a bad thing. I found Chaplin’s two previous films “City Lights” and “Modern Times” both to be near perfect, unfortunately the same cannot be said of “The Great Dictator”. It is funny and interesting but a little too underdeveloped and inconsistent to be put with Chaplin’s best.

“We’ve just discovered the most wonderful, the most marvelous poisinous gas. It will kill everybody.”

The film starts with a great scene taking place in 1918 during WWI. This whole opening is one of the comedic highlights of the film. From the Big Bertha cannon to the fantastic escape flight it is Chaplin at his finest. It isn’t the high point of the film but is a great opening to set the movie up, after that though some parts work out great and other overstay their welcome or were just off the mark creating a good yet inconsistent comedy.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor.”

“The Great Dictator” shows a move to providing a commentary or purpose beyond the laughter. Strangely enough the two best scenes in the film come from this source. The first of which is this fantastic scene where after a discussion about world domination Hynkel plays with a balloon globe. It is light and funny but most importantly poetic in that the second he grasps it, the globe pops. The other really has no humor at all, and that is the final speech. Near the end the barber gets confused for the Dictator and after accidentally declaring war on another country he is asked to give a speech. What he comes up with is a passionate plea advocating the morals and values of what it is to be human, which hits even harder with the 1940 release and what was happening at the time. This moment is, without a doubt, one of the greatest screen speeches as well as one of the greatest endings to a film.

Overall, “The Great Dictator” does not live up the impeccable standards that Chaplin set for himself. Nevertheless it has enough humor to keep the story going and has perhaps the most going on outside of the comedy of any Chaplin film. Definitely not his best work but something that should be watched and will be greatly appreciated by all.


Score: 85/100


Comedy Monday: Our Hospitality (1923)

20 06 2011

With the playoffs over, my slight hiatus is done. Starting off is this early silent Buster Keaton film.

“Our Hospitality” starts off in 1810, where the McKay and Canfield families have a bitter feud. One night the two patriarchs of the families clash resulting in both of their deaths, McKay’s wife decides she wants her son, Willie, to live without any knowledge of this rivalry, so she sends him off to live with her sister in New York. Twenty years pass and Willie McKay (Buster Keaton) has grown up just as his mother intended until one day he receives a letter, it tells Willie that he has come into possession of his father’s estate. So, he decides to go and claim it and meets a beautiful woman on train there. Little does he know this is Virginia Canfield (Natalie Talmadge), and although they both care for each other quite a bit, Willie now needs to deal with her family who are adamantly trying to kill him. The story of lovers from rival families is far from new, but luckily “Our Hospitality” has a lot more going for it. It has several terrific scenes and great physical comedy. In the moments between where directors Keaton and Blystone allow the story to unfold it is handled very delicately giving this film the boost it needs due to its occasional unevenness.

One of the standout elements of “Our Hospitality” has to be in it’s set pieces, and by that I mean the smaller details placed in scenes and single locations where events unfold. The first is most highly attributed to the attention to detail. The New York set is based off an early painting and it is fascinating to see it compared to what we know now of the city. A bike that Willie McKay rides early on is an exact replica of the time, as is the train they ride. All of this gave me not only a sense of authenticity that would pay dividends later, but allowed it to be a fascinating film to be introduced to before the real events started to take place. Of the event pieces there are two that stand out; one would be the train sequence and the other is of course the infamous waterfall scene. The train allows for many scenes of comedy and really works to help the movie pick up steam (no pun intended). It builds from there up to the climactic waterfall in which the authenticity of the movie becomes extremely effective. Now, while also being funny, this scene is also quite tense and despite being mild for today’s standards it is filmed in such a way that you actually believe Keaton is at the top of a waterfall, giving this key scene in impact it definitely needs. “Our Hospitality” builds to that moment and it does not disappoint, drawing on everything that came before and creating one of the best scenes in comedic history.    

The only real downfall of the film is in the beginning. With a silent film, it is hard to give the audience the necessary backstory without it feeling slow and overwhelming. Such is the case here. In the beginning the audience is bombarded with information so that we are playing catch-up to an extent until Willie receives the letter and things cool down. The film is fairly short so the fast pace of the beginning works as a double edged sword; we move past the uneven parts quicker, but they become more uneven due to it. Like I said, once Willie McKay leaves New York the movie takes off and is incredibly enjoyable the rest of the way, yet even after this point the comedic bits are not always as consistent as a later Chaplin film would be for example. It should be noted that the high parts of this movie are as good as any silent comedy out there.

“Our Hospitality” is a great film. It starts off just alright but grows into something incredible. It has iconic scenes, a fantastic soundtrack, and great bits of comedy. If you’re a fan of silent films or old physical comedies you would be doing a disservice to yourself to miss this early one.

Score: 90/100

Comedy Monday: The Rules of the Game (1939)

6 06 2011

The critically acclaimed “The Rules of the Game” is widely regarded as not only one of France’s greatest films, but one of the best of all time. Needless to say I was quite excited at the prospect of finally getting to watch it. So much occurs throughout Jean Renoir’s classic that even having just watched it find myself wondering what actually just happened. The best summary I can provide would be that it begins with a man, Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain), who just set a record for crossing the Atlantic. At the celebration of his landing he finds that the woman he loves and inspired him to take up such a feat is not there. This woman, Christine (Nora Gregor), is married and embarrassed by the whole situation so she convinces her husband to to invite him out into the country with them and their friends to bury the hatchet. From this point on Renoir masterfully constructs this astute and provocative satire of the Parisian upper class.

“Love, as it exists in society, is merely the mingling of two whims and the contact of two skins.”

Perhaps the most noticeable  aspect of “The Rules of the Game” is it’s complexity due to the number of central characters to the story’s plot. Now there are obviously some more developed than others but there are at least eight characters that we observe and come to know. They range from Christine and her husband Robert (Marcel Dalio) to the servants in their house. With so many characters and a story inhabiting a restricted space we constantly see multiple storylines invading the same scene, we will see something occurring in the background that is a continuation of a completely different scene. This type of film-making was not only revolutionary at the time but keeps the pace going and makes every scene engrossing at the same time.

“Corneille! Put an end to this farce! “

Jean Renoir’s satire is a about the indulgent, care-free nature of the French upper-class. They do things that will obviously hurt someone else but with a mind only for their own desires. Weirdly enough they also have a bizarre system of honor to go with it, or the rules of the game that they play. The whole affair is contrasted by several effective scenes such as the mass killing of wildlife on a hunting outing. With the way Renoir presents the characters in his film it is easy to see the original outrage that was produced when it was first released. It would have been very controversial at the time but time often does good things to these types of movies, especially those that focus on an aspect of society. This is one of the reasons why “The Rules of the Game” is regarded so well today, it pushed boundaries that may not have been popular at the time but in retrospect those people were just too close to what the film portrays to be comfortable.

“The Rules of the Game” is a very fun and often funny satire, combining that with something a little deeper to say. The character interactions are complex and Jean Renoir weaves a narrative which involves all of them to almost an overwhelming point. Nevertheless Renoir’s classic is a timeless work of cinema and deserves a place among the best satires made.

Score: 94/100

Comedy Monday: Love Me Tonight (1932)

23 05 2011

For the second time I am doing an older musical on Monday, but that is where the similarities between “Love Me Tonight” and “Gold Diggers of 1933” end. This week we follow the upbeat Parisian tailor Maurice Courtelin, played by Maurice Chevalier. He has recently opened a shop in a neighborhood which some has had trouble keeping businesses afloat. Of course that is of no concern for our hero since he has the business of the Viscount (Charles Ruggles), the finest dressed man in town. The Viscount racks up quite the debt but before he can pay it his uncle, the Duke (C. Aubrey Smith), grounds him within the chateau. Maurice, in need of the money, is forced to go to him and the Viscount give his the disguise of being a baron so Maurice can stay there while he conjures up the money he owes. Maurice ends up falling for the Princess (Jeanette MacDonald) during his stay, but will their love be able to survive when all the cards are laid out.

“A peach must be eaten, a drum must be beaten, and a woman needs something like that. “

Last week “Gold Diggers of 1933” exceeded all expectations in the musical department and the story was a bit of a mess, this week it is the exact opposite. The story is fine, charming even, and it also says alot about this film when you can identify several story mechanics still in place in today’s romantic comedies. Although it does seem a little tired for today’s standards credit must be given where credit is due. The movie is still funny by today’s standards, although most of the jokes are hit or miss and the same can be said of the musical numbers. They fit seamlessly into scenes and a number of them are quite catchy, the only complaint I would have is that many of them revolve clever wordplay which, as someone looking back in retrospect, seems used and somewhat predictable. There are well documented issues that “Love Me Tonight” had with the censors due to its racy topics. Today it all seems fairly tame, but it is also a very refreshing movie to watch from that time period since it did decide to push boundaries.

Maurice Chevalier is truly the driving force of this movie. He is energetic, charismatic, and is not only the life of the film but he keeps the movie going at a tremendous pace. Although I think much of the movie is hit or miss, his performance along with what works, makes it still a very enjoyable movie to watch as well as an extremely interesting look at how little the romantic comedy genre has changed.

Score 78/100

Comedy Monday: Modern Times (1936)

16 05 2011

With Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” we see the end of a genre. Yes, this was the very last silent movie ever made, although there was still some spoken word it is used sparingly and under certain guidelines. Nevertheless “Modern Times” is a classic Chaplin movie; the Tramp is down on his luck and gets himself into several confusing yet hilarious situations. In his final foray as the tramp, Chaplin is a factory worker who obviously messes things up and ends up getting arrested. In jail he helps thwart a break-out and is granted early release, only he doesn’t want to leave. He likes it in jail. So he does his very best to get arrested again causing him to meet the lovely Paulette Goddard. She plays a feisty Gamin, living on the streets before getting caught in an attempt to steal bread. The Tramp helps her escape and they join up, dreaming of living in a house together and finding a way to get by. There are several twists and turns along the way, as well as many great Chaplin moments, giving us one of the best movies of the silent genre. It is funny, makes commentary on the advancement of technology, and shows us that some times we don’t need a lot to be happy.

Hey you! Get back to work!

Charlie Chaplin films all have much more to say beyond the exceptional physical comedy they possess, and “Modern Times” is no different. In the beginning Chaplin works in an assembly line and acts exactly like a machine, seeming like it is only a matter of time before that job closes up to be replaced by one. Soon after he gets to witness the Billows Feeding Machine firsthand, a machine made to help one with eating… hilarity ensues. With the Tramp constantly attempting to find a job and disasters occurring every time machinery is used one can’t help to come away with anti-technology feel. Despite his trouble with technology, the Tramp is still looking for jobs in factories to help get him and the Gamin a house to live in. When she finds a place; a small, broken down house on the water, they are both very happy, just as happy as the Tramp’s fantasy of this moment was. Echoing these sentiments was the very final words shown: “Buck up – never say die. We’ll get along!”

“The Mechanical Salesman”

“Modern Times” features some of the most elaborate of Chaplin’s gags and some of the best. His humor starts off with a bang from the very first scene and carries throughout the rest of the movie. Some were very simple while others extremely elaborate like when he dives down a mechanical shoot and we see the cross-section of him traveling through gears. Another time we see an excellent roller-blading scene that gets a small nod in the “It’s A Wonderful Life”. Chaplin is certainly on top of his game and every scene gets at least one memorable moment of great comedy. “Modern Times” marked the end of an era, not just the end of the Silent Film genre but also one of the most iconic characters in cinematic history as this would be the last movie to feature the Tramp, and he goes out with a bang.

It is amazing to think that in only two short years the colorful “The Adventure of Robin Hood” would come along. The ’30s were an extraordinary decade in film and Modern Times is one of the best from it. It may not have the sentimentalism that “City Lights” does but it still has a lot to say beyond the gags.

Score: 97/100

Comedy Monday: Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

9 05 2011

Keep your chin up. Although it is the beginning of the week there’s no reason not to have a few laughs to ease the pain. This week’s comedy is the depression-era musical Gold Diggers of 1933.

Going into this movie I was not very familiar with the work of Busby Berkeley. I knew who he was and but had just never seen anything he did, so when I was looking this movie up I was surprised that the main focal point was his involvement. I started thinking that the choreography of four musical numbers couldn’t possibly be what made this movie into a classic and there had to be something else to it. It turns out I was half right, the musical numbers blew me away but what is happening outside of them is only a shadow of what it could have been.

“It’s all about the depression.”

Well not all of it Barney. Gold Diggers of 1933 is about three showgirls (Carol, Trixie, and Polly) who are without a job and barely scrapping by, nothing too serious yet of course as they are still living in a large hotel suite, but the once top-of-the-town girls and now without work. Top producer Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks) is putting together a new play after his last one got shut down days before it was set to go on Broadway due to unpaid expenses. He agrees to bring on all the girls but there is only one problem… he has no money. He describes the play with the above quote, and up until that point it quite accurately described the movie. Unfortunately that is the last we see of this topic until the final five minutes. Barney finally finds the funding he is looking for from the girls’ next door neighbor; the young, handsome songwriter Brad (Dick Powell). Barney hears him playing from the apartment and insists that he does the music for it, Brad then offers to give Barney 15,000 dollars for the play on the condition that Polly, played by Ruby Keeler and the girl he happens to be infatuated with, gets a lead part. On their opening night the lead male singer injures himself forcing Brad to step in, who was previously very opposed to the idea. The night turns out great but the news comes out that Brad is actually the son of a very wealthy Boston family solving the mystery of where his money came from. This news prompts his elder brother Lawrence (Warren William) to come and put an end to his relationship with Polly citing that Showgirls tend to be nothing but gold diggers. A case of mistaken identity and several scenes of comedic set ups occur and we forget all about the depression sub-plot as they all take part in very lavish situations. This theme disappears until the end with a very powerful musical number that would have been a perfect ending to the movie the first 15 minutes set up, alas it is not. The movie is funny but fails in a central category: conflict. Many of the characters are very opposed to one another but all have the back-bone of a jellyfish. Brad insists that he cannot perform on stage even when the lead hurts himself but ask him one more time and he jumps eagerly on the chance, and at the end of the movie Carol (Joan Blondell) adamantly states that she would never marry Lawrence if he was the last man on earth and then suddenly agrees to marry him right after with no change in character except perhaps more reassurance that Lawrence is a hypocritical ass. Ask any character something twice and you are almost always assured to get a more favorable response.

Singing! Dancing! Music!

The true highlight of Gold Diggers of 1933 are the musical performances. The writing and composing pair of Harry Warren and Al Dublin hit gold yet again with several hits including the now infamous ‘The Gold Diggers’ Song (We’re In the Money)’ along with ‘Pettin’ In the Park’, ‘Shadow Waltz’, and ‘Remember My Forgotten Man’. Each of these performances are extravagant and extremely well shot. It is very easy to see why Busby Berkeley is so highly regarded. Every performances combines Warren and Dublin’s catchy music and captures the viewer with such scale and complexity that every one is joy to watch whether musicals are your cup of tea or not.

Although Gold Rush of 1933 exceeds all expectations as a musical, the music is still only a small part of the movie. I would have liked to see more focus of the depression aspect of it and less manipulation gags but luckily the interludes between songs were funny enough with a, mostly, likeable cast to keep the movie going. The end resolution was unfortunately a mess but it was picked up with the performance of ‘Remember My Forgotten Man’ which, although great, was also a reminder of how far the movie strayed from its beginning and potential greatness.

Score: 77/100