Charlie Chaplin Month – The Great Dictator



The Great Dictator (1940)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Reginald Gardiner

The comparison was all because of the toothbrush mustache. That little flourish is what linked Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler at the time. Chaplin was disgusted by Hitler, and the way the American and British governments tried to keep him happy or ignore what he was doing at the time. It was also noted that Hitler was jealous of Chaplin’s popularity during a Berlin visit the actor made. To further rub it in, Chaplin wrote, directed and produced The Great Dictator, a send up of the Nazi actions in the build up to World War II.

The Little Tramp is now a Jew living in the fictional nation of Tomainia, fighting against the Americans in World War I. He’s clunked on the head and ends up in a military hospital unaware that on the outside dictator Adenoid Hynkel has come to power and is blaming the Jews of his nation for the post-War depression. The Tramp is eventually released from the hospital and is disheartend by the world he discovers on the outside. He eventually falls in love with fellow resident of the ghetto, Hannah and is spared execution by a Tomainian whose life he saved in the War. All along the way the film bounces back and forth with the Hitler parody of Hynkel, leading up to a Prince and the Pauper-esque role reversal.

This was probably the least funny of all Chaplin’s films I have seen, and most definitely the longest, hitting the two hour mark. I can see the challenge Chaplin would have making this picture, because he wants to make a comedy but he also wants to skewer Hitler and convey some sense of the pain being inflicted on the Jewish people. Later Chaplin admitted if he had known the extent of the treatment of the Jews and in particular the Holocaust he would have never made this film. Interestingly, the Jewish community was very welcoming to the film and its portrayal of their people despite Chaplin’s injection of comedy into the proceedings. The jokes in the film never create the sense of hilarity of early works because they typically involve the Little Tramp being brutalized by Tomainan storm troopers.

The film has a lot of heart and that hurts its comedy in comparison to the earlier films. The chief redeeming moment is one where Chaplin is playing the Tramp and completely drops the persona and it is Chaplin speaking. He conveys his concerns with the direction of humanity and reaffirms his belief that we are capable of so much more. While definitely harmful to the picture as a film, it is a very strong and well thought out political statement.

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Newbie Wednesday – Kick Ass



Kick Ass (2010, dir. Matthew Vaughn)
Starring Aaron Johnson, Nicolas Cage, Chloe Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mark Strong

There’s a sort of geek wish deep down in those that read comics that somehow, someway they could don a cape and cowl and fight the criminal element of this world. The superhero idea goes all to the mythological heroes and into figures like King Arthur and Robin Hood to the Three Musketeers and the pulp mystery men and finally into comics. So our protagonist proposes a very legitimate question early on “How come no one has ever tried to be superhero?” It’s obvious that there are plenty of crazy people in this world and it comes as no surprise that there actually *are* people who have tried this. You can check them out at the World Superhero Registry. So how does the hero of our film try to tackle the nuances of masked crime fighting?

Dave is a high school student who is invisible to the opposite sex, but very visible to the bullies and street thugs of his city. After being robbed one to many times, Dave purchases a few essential components and becomes the mystery man known as “Kick Ass”. Kick Ass is immediately sent to the emergency room after his first battle and has steel rods and plates put in him that ironically grant him a certain level of invulnerability. And this is where the film completely goes off the tracks of its premise “What if superheroes were real?” and decides to be no more different than any other comic book flick. The duo of Big Daddy and Hit Girl are introduced, a father-daughter team of armed to the teeth avengers as well as The Red Mist, the son of a local mafia don who suckers his pop into stocking him up. The film goes through a lot of tonal changes and shifts, finally settling into a fairly predictable final battle sequence.

The movie is only shades different than Superhero Movie, a descendant of the Scary Movie parody genre. Whereas that film knew it was a comedy and behaved thusly, Kick Ass seems to want to be aloof and post-modernly ironic, yet still be a “bad ass” super hero movie. I’m not willing to go as far as Roger Ebert in his review, calling the film “morally reprehensible”. After watching the 2006 remake of Hills Have Eyes I think it could serve as a contender for that. I didn’t have a problem with the concept of this young girl, trained to be a super soldier by her father, slaughter masses of mob men on screen.

My problem with the film came from a couple elements that diverged from the comics which actually lent it real world credence. If you know me well, you know that I am not one of those comic book geeks who natters on about minutiae that differs slightly from the source material. I’m a geek who can be reasonable about conceits that have to be made in the process of adaptation. However, the first divergence from the original mini-series that irked me was when Dave reveals he is not truly gay to his love interest, she has mistaken him as such for the majority of the film. In the film, she is unnaturally forgiving and its implied the two have sex, after which they are a couple. In the comic book, she is pissed and eventually has her new boyfriend beat Dave up. That would be the actual real world way the story would play out. So while the film wants to be a wry commentary on the implausibility of superheroes in the real world, through this change it actually invalidated its premise to me.

The second divergence colors the audience’s entire perceptions of a character in a disturbing manner. In the film, Big Daddy was a police officer whose career was ruined by the mob, sending him to prison, while his wife went broke and died on the table giving birth to Hit Girl. Once out of prison, Big Daddy began training Hit Girl. In the comics, Big Daddy raised Hit Girl with this story. In reality, he was a no body, an accountant who had a mid-life crisis and kidnapped his daughter to create this more exciting existence. Once again, the film compromises its original intent for the sake of “superhero-ing” it up. I found the film to be enjoyable, but nothing I would watch again. Because it is too scared to make its characters truly real and give then the downbeat ending that naturally would happen it ultimately fails and ends up being yet another generic comic book movie.

Wild Card Tuesday – The Last Days of Disco



The Last Days of Disco (1998, dir. Whit Stillman)
Starring Chloe Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Robert Sean Leonard, Mackenzie Astin, Chris Eigeman, Tara Subkoff, Matt Keeslar, Jennifer Beals

If watching the burgeoning yuppies of early 1980s Manhattan sitting around vapidly waxing philosophic about the inanities of their lives doesn’t sound appealing to you then you may want to skip this film. Despite its title its not at all about disco really. Its about a generation of people who came of age in the 1970s and are focused on self-gratification and the hierarchies and status related to social life in New York. Another of way of looking at it, and how director Whit Stillman was thinking when he made the film, is that this is contemporary take on the comedy of manners genre.


The protagonists of the film are Alice (Sevigny), a recent college grad and an assistant publishing editor and Des (Eigeman), the employee of a disco club which bears a more than passing resemblance to Studio 54. Alice balances a tenuous friendship with snarky roommate Charlotte (Beckinsale) and ending up in awkward social situations with immature men. One of these men is a manic-depressive FBI agent (Keeslar) who becomes a part of a sting on Des’ nightclub which has been funneling cash to a Swiss bank account and failing to report millions the IRS. The characters meander through the film, talking in a completely artificial manner and nothing really seems to happen.

It’s apparent that Stillman’s work (Metropolitan, Barcelona) had a profound impact on the filmmaking of Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. Stillman’s characters aren’t so much people as they are roughly painted facsimiles of humans who carry on in conversations peppered with Tarantino-esque pop culture references. One character explains that the reason why so many of his own generation are environmentalists is because of the 1958 re-release of Bambi in theaters. Another conversation involves how Lady and the Tramp teaches women to pursue the bad boy and is at fault for a multitude of bad relationships in their generation.

The characters are dull as hell though. They barely even qualify as characters, as Stillman loves introducing a new and even quirkier one as the film progresses. Yet we get nothing past their surface eccentricities and Stillman struggles to manage any sense of a narrative. He tries to create a partial drama with the illegal business practices of the nightclub but even when the arrests go down all parties involved seem aloof and uninterested. The first hour of the film has potential but the second goes off the rails and becomes a chore to wade through. Much like the decade it highlights the start of, its incredibly shallow with nothing to really say.

DocuMondays – Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth



Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth (2008, dir. Erik Nelson)
Featuring Harlan Ellison, Robin Williams, Neil Gaiman, Peter David, Ronald D. Moore

One of the first things you learn about Ellison in this documentary is that once he was so pissed with a television executive that he boxed up a dead groundhog and mailed it to the man. Ellison made sure that he paid the cheapest postage possibly so that it would take upwards of a week to reach the man and be sufficiently bloated and rotting. This is tempered with his friend Neil Gaiman saying that Ellison’s entire life’s work is one large piece of performance art. That it is not about his 1000+ short stories or numerous award-winning teleplays, but its about the cultivation of this quick-witted curmudgeonly persona.

For those of you not in the know, Harlan Ellison is an acclaimed author of literature both of the science fiction genre and not. He’s actually famous for calling the “sci-fi” abbreviation a “hideous neologism” that “sounds like crickets fucking”. Needless to say, he is a very opinionated man and any attempt to make a documentary about him is going to be caught up in his fiery and impassioned rantful nature. Ellison was responsible for the classic “City on the Edge of Forever” episode of the original Star Trek, “Demon With a Glass Hand” episode of The Outer Limits (which he sued James Cameron for ripping off to make The Terminator), and for much script work on Babylon 5.

The film focuses on exploring the history and personal philosophy of Ellison. It is near impossible to get the experience of prose across on screen, though the film attempts it by having Ellison recite a few passages from his more famous work against the backdrop of incredibly shitty lava lamp-esque green screen backgrounds. The more interesting pieces are of Ellison expounding on his personal beliefs. He his passionate about writers not being treated like second class citizens by the studios. Ellison tells of how he received a call from woman who told him that on an upcoming Babylon 5 DVD they were wanting to make an extending interview with him a special feature and he agreed, with the stipulation that he receive a paycheck. She replied that everyone else just said yes and did it for free, resulting in a verbal lashing from Ellison about how she and the others in the business side of things wouldn’t work for a second if they weren’t getting paid.

The documentary suffers due to the absence of any counter to Ellison. He is infamous for public spats and lawsuits and it would have given a interesting balance to the film to have a group of people who disliked the man. Instead all we get is fawning praise and admiration from people who grew up reading his work. Ellison’s writing is wonderful, and he is one of the best writers of the late 20th century. The film just hurts from not having those voices to temper Ellison’s oft loud and bombastic one.

Hypothetical Film Festival #12 – 80s Comedies for Grown-Ups

A major part of 1980s cinema were high school comedies. From Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Ferris Bueller, teens were a prominent element of the successful comedy films. However, there are a lot of comedies, often overlooked, from the 1980s that stand as some of the best ever made. This film festival is devoted those movies:



All of Me (1984, dir. Carl Reiner)
Starring Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, Victoria Tennant

Roger Cobb (Martin) is a successful lawyer who is called in to help with the final arrangements of the eccentric, dying heiress Edwina (Tomlin). Through a mystic mix-up Edwina’s dying soul ends up taking over the right side of Roger’s body. The rest of the film hinges on Martin’s excellent physical comedy chops. While Tomlin provides the voice in Roger’s head, there are moments where Martin must switch back and forth between Edwina and Roger in an argument, and then have them physically fight. All of this takes place with just Martin on screen. It was also the fourth teaming of Martin and director Carl Reiner, and the two work wonderfully together.



Lost in America (1985, dir. Albert Brooks)
Starring Albert Brooks, Julie Hagerty

In my opinion, one of the best comedies ever made! Brooks doesn’t always succeed with his very specific style of humor, but all the elements come together here. David Howard (Brooks) has crunched the numbers and found that he and his wife Linda (Hagerty) can quit their jobs, buy an RV, and travel the country, with plenty of money to start them up where ever they decide to settle. However, one night in a casino and things go downhill. Brooks is absolutely hysterical in this film, but Hagerty matches him as well. Julie Hagerty has always been one of the most overlooked female comedy talents and this film showcases why is right up there at the top.



Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987, dir. John Hughes)
Starring Steve Martin, John Candy

John Hughes, most well known for his high school comedies, employed the talents of John Candy in many of his late 80s films. This picture, set around Thanksgiving, follows Neal Page (Martin) and Del Griffith (Candy) as two business whose fates become entangled as they try to make their way home for the holiday. The conceptual nature of the humor isn’t revolutionary, its basically the Odd Couple formula, but its the chops of its leads that make it good. This is also the first film I can recall where we are introduced to the curmudgeonly Martin persona. Typically he played the goofball, but here we get the easily irritated character to play off of Candy’s happy go lucky everyman.



Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988, dir. Frank Oz)
Starring Michael Caine, Steve Martin, Glenne Headly

Lawrence Jamieson (Caine) is a con man who has full control of his territory, the French Riviera. That is until brash and crude American Freddie Benson (Martin) shows up in town. At first, Lawrence tries to scare him out of town, then volunteers to teach him what he knows. They partner for awhile till an incredibly wealthy mark hits the scene and then its every man for himself. Martin definitely gets the bigger comedy bits in the film, but don’t underestimate Caine. He is forced to be more subtle, but delivers huge laughs of his own. Frank Oz, is a director with major ups and downs in his career but this is definitely the high point of all his work. The comedy feels classy, yet not pretentious. And I’ve always been surprised that no one thought to team Caine and Martin together in at least one more picture after this.



A Fish Called Wanda (1988, dir. Charles Crichton)
Starring John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin

The greatest thing this film did was was introduce us to the comedy power of Kevin Kline. Kline plays Otto, a parody of American arrogance who is helping mob moll Wanda (Curtis) plot against her criminal boyfriend, abscond with the cash he stole, and flee the UK. Her boyfriend’s attorney, Archie Leach (Cleese) proves to be a nuisance and she attempts to seduce him. There’s also Michael Palin as chronic stutterer Ken Pile, a man who loves his exotic fish more than life itself. All of these characters mingle in a film that reaches the thresholds of great farce. The script was penned by Cleese and works on the same level of intelligence as Monty Python, yet grounds itself in a real world that is slightly off. The highlight is Kline though, who typifies the way Americans come off to their British cousins.

Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Obsession



Obsession (1976)
Starring Cliff Robertson, Genevieve Bujold, John Lithgow

Throughout his early career, de Palma was either referred to as a director who made homages to Hitchcock, or was blatantly ripping the master director of thrillers off. And its a very fine line de Palma walks, particularly in this melodrama that is an obvious reference to both Rebecca and Vertigo. In fact, Hitchcock himself was reportedly furious that de Palma’s Obsession was so incredibly close to Rebecca. And its interesting to note that Hitch’s trademark composer, Bernard Herrmann, once again composes the score to a de Palma thriller. So how does this furiously melodramatic Hitchcock knock-off stack up?

The story opens in New Orleans in 1959, where land developer Michael Courtland’s wife and daughter are kidnapped and held for ransom. Courtland’s business partner, Robert Lasalle helps him raise the money, but at the last minute the police decide to drop a phony suitcase with a homing device in it. The kidnappers find out they have been duped and escape their hideout with police in pursuit. Courtland watches from the back of the lead detective’s car as the vehicle carrying his wife and daughter explodes in a ball of flame. Jump to 17 years later, and Courtland is still haunted by this incident. He takes a trip to Italy where, while touring a cathedral, he happens upon a woman who is the spitting image of his late wife. A romance begins, but Courtland’s intentions sink further and further into reshaping this new woman into a facsimile of his wife.

The soundtrack to this film never lets up. From the opening title to the closing credits, the music is not present maybe three times, and those are only for a minute or two. The rest of the film is filled with the rise cry of despair from a choir or the operatic dissonance of a church organ. The music compliments the plot of the film which is an over the top, melodramatic gothic tragedy. At points the melodrama can become so overblown its laughable and the actors play along with this tone. John Lithgow in particular is some times comical with Foghorn Leghorn-esque take on a New Orleans businessman.

Courtland’s wife, Elizabeth feels like a non-character. She appears on screen for all of 6 minutes and never speaks and so it was hard for me to buy into Courtland’s undying love for her. Though, this could be an intentional choice, by not making her an actual character it passes judgment on Courtland. At one point in the film, Sandra, the new wife discovers Elizabeth’s journal and learns that her predecessor saw Courtland as uninterested in his family, and more concerned with his land developments. The final brutal twist of the film operates on two levels, as well, and recalled the 2006 South Korean mind twister of a film Oldboy. Courtland ends up in an embrace that can be read as a beautiful denouement or as a disgusting and bizarre finale.

Import Fridays – Lilya-4-Ever



Lilya-4-Ever (2002, dir. Lukas Moodysson)
Starring Oksana Akinshina, Artyom Bogucharsky, Pavel Ponomaryov

A young girl, face swollen with bruises, cut across her lip, runs through the overcast streets of an anonymous European city. The streets are littered with refuse; broken bottles, crumpled and empty chip bags. She stops on an overpass and stares down at the cars zooming by below. This is how director Lukas Moodysson introduces us to Lilya, an 16 year old Estonian girl trying to overcome a hopeless existence she was born into and unlikely to get out of. Moodysson is grabbing the audience by the scruff of the neck and forcing them to watch this very real tragedy unfolding before their eyes.

Lilya’s mother and stepfather are leaving Estonia, but promise they will send for her once they are settled there. As soon as they leave, Lilya’s aunt claims the girl must leave the flat she shared with her parents for a smaller, more affordable apartment. She ends up in a rundown tenement and befriends Volodya, a boy thrown out of his house by his parents. Lilya is tempted into prostitution as her money and hopes dwindle down. Eventually, she meets Andrei, a man who shows genuine interest in her and gives her hope of leaving this place where she has no chance to better herself.

The film feels completely honest in its characters and the universe it builds around them. Lilya feels painfully real and could be one of millions of teenagers in any country across the globe living in abject poverty. The film doesn’t leave anyone out as responsible for the situation either. The entire system in place to protect children like Lilya is a farce. Teachers ridicule her intelligence so its no surprise she has no interest in finishing school. Her parents abandon her and her only relative, her aunt, dumps her on her own with no money or food. Every adult she comes in contact with wants to use her for sex or abandon her. Its no surprise that she resorts to prostitution as a means to survive. What is interesting is how her mother and her aunt are also sympathetic in their own ways. The women in this culture are fighting to survive, they may have to hurt another in the process, but they have been conditioned to fight tooth and nail. Even Lilya ends up committing the same betrayal when she has an opportunity to leave Eastern Europe.

Lilya-4-Ever could just as easily be remade in the United States and feature the oft vilified Hispanic population. Immigrants are people looking for hope that their homeland couldn’t provide. They fall into crime many times because they are reaching out for anything to hold onto so they don’t sink further. What is most touching about the film are the dream sequences Lilya has in the days where life has gotten the worst. She dreams of having wings, righting the wrongs she made in her past, fixing her life so none of this has happened. That painful regret is what tears at you the most in the end, and breaks your heart to see a life of such potential destroyed.