Sunday, May 31, 2015

Classics: The Spies We Loved: Mata Hari vs. Dishonored By Lauren Ennis

At the height of the Hollywood studio system off the 1930’s and 1940’s the major studios developed fierce rivalries with one another. In order to draw audiences away from their rivals, studios would try to out-do one another by copying each other’s successes. As a result, for reach studio’s star, another studio had a star marketed for similar appeal, and for each box office hit another, almost identical film was released in hopes of luring the original film’s audience. One particularly interesting rivalry was the one that studios created between actresses Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. After Swedish starlet Garbo made the difficult transition to sound with her fan base intact, Paramount imported German screen sensation Dietrich in hopes of replicating MGM’s success. When Garbo continued to remain a fan favorite over her newly arrived competitor Paramount resorted to promoting Dietrich in films that directly mirrored Garbo’s despite the obvious differences between the two’s acting styles and screen personas. One such instance is Paramount’s 1931 release of Dishonored, a World War I spy thriller that followed in the footsteps of the MGM hit Mata Hari released earlier that same year. While both films provide interesting twists on the popular genre, which movie can claim the more adept agent, the more thrilling twists, and ultimately the sultrier spy?
The improvising strippers had to do before poles

Ladies With Pasts: Although both films focus upon their heroine’s spy-jinks, both also lend more credibility to their stories by providing their leading ladies with civilian lives outside of their intelligence work. Because Mata Hari was loosely inspired by a true story, screenwriters were forced to keep their script generally aligned with history. As a result Mata retains her larger than life persona as an exotic burlesque dancer and courtesan who conducts her top secret work under the watchful eyes of the very authorities who should be tracking her. Mata’s double life as a stage sensation lends the story a unique dynamic as her star status allows her to routinely break social norms and flaunt her scandalous behavior under the guise of being a temperamental artist without raising suspicion. Her stage success also places her in a position in which she can disobey her superiors’ orders with minimal consequences because her career allows her to travel across enemy lines with little difficulty, making her an agent with valuable leverage. Despite the story’s attention to the nuances of her double life, however, the script fails to explain why she, a Dutch citizen, would risk her life for Germany in an effort to betray France, the nation in which she has achieved her lavish lifestyle. There is also no motive to lend credibility to her willingness to engage in such dangerous work as she displays little allegiance to any nation. As a result, it is difficult to identify with Mata’s later crisis of conscience as she seems to be following orders more as an act of flippant rebellion than as matter of political or personal loyalty.

In Dishonored, Dietrich’s Maria, also known as Agent X27, is a far more ordinary woman caught up in extraordinary circumstances. At the film’s start, she is working as a prostitute after being left a destitute widow in the wake of World War I. When Austrian intelligence approaches her about using her seductive skills to help her country she accepts for lack of other options rather than out of a sense of patriotic duty. Although fictional, this scenario is far more believable than the sensationalized Mata Hari in its portrayal of its heroine’s hopeless desperation driving her into the dangerous would of international espionage. Maria’s existential quest through a world of deception and betrayal also reflects the void that modern life became for World War I’s ‘Lost Generation’ upon returning home, placing the story within the historical context of the era in which it takes place and the equally disillusioned era it was released in. Through its portrayal of the spy as just another disillusioned soldier, the film draws sympathy for its heroine without resorting to cliché twists and moral turns. For its hard-hitting portrayal of an average woman’s journey through the maze of modern warfare, dishonored wins the battle for most resonant and believable backstory.
Happy hour anyone?

The Company They Keep: While spy thrillers are known for their roguish heroes and vampish heroines, they are also equally known for their lackluster love-interests. Long before interchangeable Bond-girls became synonymous with the genre, spy thrillers had been filling screens with romantic leads whose roles were as flimsy as the special effects that they worked with. Unfortunately, Dishonored falls into this all too common trap by having Maria meet her match in a male spy from an enemy nation. While the idea of two agents brought together by the very work that threatens to tear them apart has the potential to create an interesting dynamic, the plot fails to bring them together so much as have them occasionally bump into each other. While the two do meet several times during their missions, their interactions are always cut short and their exchanges are limited to shop-talk and innuendo. As a result, the pair are little more than acquaintances when the plot calls for them to be tragic lovers. This forced plot twist is made even more obvious by the lack of chemistry between Victor McLaglen’s Colonel Kranau, whose attempts to woo his fellow spy consist primarily of grinning lasciviously, and Dietrich’s Maria, whose cool sex appeal better fits the detached prostitute that she begins the film as. By the time that the film reaches a truly unique climax it is difficult for audiences to remain invested in its heroine, whose downfall seems to be an illogical surrender to temporary lust rather than a self-sacrificing love.

While Mata Hari’s naïve Alexis (Ramon Navarro) appears to be a strange choice to catch the notorious Mata’s eye, it is the offbeat nature of their relationship that makes it endearing. Rather than a conventional, macho, leading man he is instead a star struck fan who worships Mata to the point of becoming a pest. While he is repeatedly referenced to be a hero in the Russian air force, he seems to be in more need of rescuing than her. She initially goes out with him to spite her superiors and only allows him to spend the night with her as an act of pity, certain that he’ll return to the front and never see her again. When she is assigned to obtain information from him, however, she is forced to spend more time with him and eventually develops a friendly fondness for him that threatens to develop into something more. While the spy who falls for their assignment was already an established cliché, Mata Hari provided a logical backstory to make the relationship credible and just enough original flair to make the plot almost feel fresh. Unlike Maria and Colonel Kranau’s convenient change of heart, Mata and Alexis’ relationship follows a natural trajectory with her feelings developing from pity and guilt to respect and genuine affection and Alexis’ idolizing of her evolving into understanding and real romance. Although Ramon Novarro is less than convincing as a Russian pilot with his heavy Spanish accent, he imbues Alexis with an innocence, kindness, and goofy charm that could soften even the most cynical secret agent. For its quirky take on what could have been a tired story, Mata Hari claims victory for the more memorable relationship and a truly lovable love-interest.
The best spies shoot from the hip!

Star Quality: In casting Greta Garbo as Mata Hari, MGM made a wise business decision. Mata Hari went on to become one of the top box-office hits of 1931 and continues to be a favorite of Garbo fans, even making cameos in more recent releases. While Mata could have easily been a stereotypical femme fatale, Garbo instead gave audiences the multifaceted performance that they had come to expect of her. Rather than the extremes of the haughty vamp and the self-sacrificing lover that the script alternates between portraying her as, Garbo’s Mata is a complex character who shifts from glamour girl, to enticing agent, to stifled celebrity, to devoted companion without hitting a single false note. As a result, she is a character whom audiences can come to know and root for because of her many strengths and despite her many faults. Paramount was equally business savvy when they cast Dietrich in Dishonored. Dietrich possesses just the right blend of smoldering sex appeal and cool detachment to portray her own enigmatic agent. Unfortunately, while Maria makes for an ideal blank slate, she is also in many ways reduced to a type. While viewers get to see the desolation of WWI Vienna that drives her first to prostitution and then to espionage we are never able to see what beyond her reduced circumstances motivates her. As a result, the audience is shown her actions but never the emotional or psychological reasoning behind those actions. Thus, audiences are forced to settle for Dietrich’s usual, albeit thoroughly entertaining persona just when the story begins to demand the presence of a full-fleshed character. Dietrich’s mystique, while befitting for a spy, fails to provide viewers with any real insight into the woman behind the code name, making it difficult to be fully invested in Maria’s adventures or their consequences.

Both Dietrich and Garbo bring their full talents to the table in two of the better performances of their lengthy careers, making for a tight competition. This final category, even more so than the previous two, comes down to a matter of personal taste. Personally, I prefer to know what makes a character tick rather than be kept constantly guessing as to why as well as what they’ll do next. For her three-dimensional performance of what easily could have been a cardboard character, I give Garbo the slight edge, leaving Mata Hari the victor to whom goes the bragging rights. Tell me what your favorite spy films are in the comments!
Think twice before you steal Greta's spotlight!
If you'd like more on seductive spying check out my full-length stage drama Through Enemy Eyes

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Screening of "Mad Max: Fury Road"

Confessions of a Film Junkie: A Screening of "Mad Max: Fury Road"

A Video Review by Brian Cotnoir

This week I am reviewing the 2015 Post-Apocalyptic Action-Drama "Mad Max: Fury Road".  I apologize in advance for the poor quality of this video (did it in one take--I explain why in the video)

My Review

"Mad Max: Fury Road" Trailer

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Classics: A Review of Arthur By Lauren Ennis

In fashion as in history trends that were previously forgotten return to repeat themselves once again. The old adage that ‘what once was old is now new’ also holds true for cinema, as sequels and remakes are routinely released as new despite their recycled themes and plots. Another way that Hollywood makes the retro trendy is by reviving styles and genres long since fallen out of favor. One genre that Hollywood has routinely attempted to remarket is the screwball comedy. Due to its effervescent nature and Depression-era origins the screwball comedy, while always entertaining is difficult to modernize. One film, however, managed to successfully pay homage to the screwball comedies of Hollywood’s Golden Age while adding its own modern twist; the 1981 Arthur.
Nightcap anyone?

Like many of the 1930’s comedies that inspired, Arthur follows the hijinks of a wealthy eccentric whose unique world view is beyond the comprehension of either his healthy family or working class friends. Unlike those earlier films which left their protagonists’ unconventional lifestyles without motive or explanation, Arthur delves into the psyche of its loveable oddball, making the film both a hilarious genre throwback and a surprisingly heartfelt character study. The story begins with Arthur (Dudley Moore) aimlessly pursuing whatever thrills he can find or buy as his best friend and butler, Hobson (Sir John Geilgud), does his best to keep Arthur out of trouble and Arthur’s name out of the newspapers. Conflict enters when Arthur’s stern tycoon father (Thomas Barbour) demands that Arthur marry Susan (Jill Eikenberry), the mousy daughter of his best friend ruthless businessman Burt Johnson (Stephen Elliott). When Arthur refuses, his father threatens to cut Arthur off from all family funds. Still childishly dependent upon his family’s money, Arthur finds himself unable to fathom life beyond the family estate and reluctantly agrees to his father’s demands, resigning himself to a loveless marriage. Just as Susan prepares to reform her playboy fiancée, however, fate intervenes in the form of charismatic waitress and aspiring actress Linda Marolla (Liza Minnelli). As the wedding draws near, Arthur is forced to choose between a hard-working but fun-loving life with Linda and the emotionally void but financially secure life that Susan and his family offer, and begins to grow-up in the process.

While at first glance, Arthur may appear to be a frivolous comedy, the film successfully blends lessons about, love, family, the search for meaning and growing up between its many laughs. Although endearingly zany until the film’s final frame, Arthur is for much of the story a tragic character. Despite, and in large part because of his wealth, he leads a life that is almost entirely devoid of connection or meaning. After regular rejection by his family and constant reminders from his fiancée of the many ways in which he needs to change he realizes that the people who are supposed to be closest to him are close to him in proximity only. Compounding his isolation is the fact that his sheltered existence has left him unprepared to do anything except follow his father’s orders. As a result, he is a mean without passion or interests beyond the temporary thrills that his parent’ money affords him. Fully aware of the emptiness of his lie, he self-medicates, relying upon alcohol to dull the ache of his loneliness and distract him just long enough to maintain the illusion of his carefree existence. Through his budding romance with the equally quirky Linda, however, he eventually finds understanding and begins to see how fulfilling adult relationships can be. When the father-son relationship between Arthur and Hobson is reversed by Hobson’s failing health, he learns the value of helping others and begins to find meaning in give back to, rather than always taking from, his relationships. Although the script acknowledges the necessity of money to sustain life, by the film’s finish Arthur finally realizes that it is only by living with purpose amongst those you care about that makes life truly worth living for.
You could almost swear they're related!

Although initially criticized for playing alcoholism for laughs, Arthur actually provides a more realistic depiction of alcoholism, albeit from the perspective of an alcoholic. At the film’s start, Arthur is happily engaging in inebriated antics, leading the more entertaining and social life that alcoholics convince themselves drinking provides. As the story continues, however, and his addiction begins to take its toll, he becomes isolated from those around him and begins to see how his addiction has actually added to rather than cured his problems. Finally, it is only when personal loss gives him the courage to live a full and sober life while he still can that he is able to regain control of his life and earn Linda’s love. Thus, while its story ultimately ends with its glass half-full, Arthur uses its hero’s struggles to show the lure of addiction and its consequences.

While Arthur’s screwball take on a Don Quixote-esque quest for a better world is an enticing premise, the script alone could not have made the film the enduring fan favorite that it is. The cast turn in uniformly superb performances, with the tree central players creating characters that remain highlights in each of their lengthy careers. Through a unique balance of slapstick comedy and poignant emotion Dudley Moore brings Arthur, a character that easily could have been a one-dimensional role, roaring off of the screen and straight into audiences’ hearts. Similarly, Sir John Geilgud rises above the stereotype of the devoted and proper butler through his by turns caustic and emotionally resonant portrayal of Arthur’s mentor, father-figure, and unwilling partner in shenanigans, Hobson. Liza Minnelli completes the trio in her portrayal of the outwardly tough and sassy, but inwardly vulnerable Linda, in a performance that is reminiscent of her Oscar-winning work as Sally Bowels in Cabaret. The supporting cast perfectly complement the performances of the leads with Stephen Elliott and Geraldine Fitzgerald earning particular notice in their side-splitting turns as Arthur’s volatile future father-in-law and saucy grandmother.

Life, love, and the pursuit of happiness; through his whimsical journey Arthur Bach learns the meaning of all these things and more. Through its winning combination of comedy, romance, and life lessons, Arthur is a film that defies both genre definitions and audience expectations. Just ‘once around the park’ with Arthur, Hobson, and Linda and you too will be feeling a buzz that will linger long after the final reel.
Laughter and tears; the formula for any lasting relationship

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Screening of "Avengers: Age of Ultron"

Confessions of a Film Junkie: A Screening of "Avengers: Age of Ultron"

By Brian Cotnoir

This week I take a look at Marvel's latest Blockbuster film, "Avengers: Age of Ultron".  It wasn't easy, but I was able to keep my fan boy Rapture in check so I could give you this SPOILER FREE Review.  Be sure to check out "Avengers: Age of Ultron" in a theater near you!

My Review

Monday, May 4, 2015

Mom in the Movies: Three Movies to Celebrate Mother’s Day By Lauren Ennis

Each year, we celebrate motherhood in its many forms and the influence of mother figures upon our lives. While motherhood is truly something to be celebrated, it is impossible for any single film to fully capture the experience of motherhood in all of its complexity, heartache, and fulfillment. This week, I will be featuring three films to honor those most special of ladies in our lives. Please let me know what your favorite mother’s day movie is in the comments!

1. The Joy Luck Club: Adapted from the best-selling Amy Tan novel of the same name, The Joy Luck Club interweaves the stories of four Chinese women in San Francisco as they struggle to raise their American-born daughters. Through its portrayal of the misunderstandings and insecurities that plague the women’s relationships, the film expertly captures the contradictions of the immigrant experience. By framing its tales through flashbacks from each character’s perspective the film also conveys the complexities of relationships between cultures and generations, as each pair of mothers and daughters strive to understand and relate to one another. Throughout its eight vignettes, the film maintains an uncompromising honesty in its depiction of the ways that families hurt and betray each other, sometimes without even realizing that they are doing so. After years of unfulfilled hopes and unsaid grievances, however, each pair ultimately realizes that although they may not always understand one another there’s a lot that they could learn from each other. Through all of the turmoil both personal and political that both generations endure, two things about these women remain unchanging; their resilience and their devotion to their families. At once a cross-cultural period piece and a modern character study, The Joy Luck Club is a must see for anyone who grew up thinking they were so different from their parents only to grow up and learn otherwise.
A picture that tells a thousand stories

2. Two Women: Released in 1961, Two Women was the film that shot Italian starlet Sophia Loren to international stardom. Prior to the film’s production, Loren had starred in several Italian films as well as a handful of Hollywood romantic comedies. It was only when she acted against the sexy type that studios had tried to pigeonhole her in, however, that she achieved what was perhaps her greatest cinematic success and became the first actress in a foreign film to win Hollywood’s coveted Best Actress Oscar. The film chronicles the efforts of a widowed shopkeeper to shield her pre-teen daughter from the horrors surrounding them in war-torn Italy. After the allies begin bombing Rome, Cesira (Loren), decides to seek refuge in the mountain village she grew up in. Upon reestablishing themselves in the village, however, mother and daughter are confronted with the reality of war once again with the arrival a regiment of Nazis departing the country. The Nazis demand that the village school-teacher (Jean-Paul Belmondo) whom Cesira has begun a romance with and her daughter, Rosetta, (Eleanora Brown) has developed a crush on act as their guide and take him as a prisoner, devastating both women. After she learns that the German occupation of Rome has nearly ended Cesira determines to return home and rebuild her business. This decision proves to be a fateful one as it leads them on a grueling journey that results in the pair being attacked by a group of Moroccan soldiers in one of the most brutal (although not especially graphic) scenes in cinematic history. Although desperation and trauma threaten to shatter their relationship along with their innocence, the two manage to find their way back to each other in time to realize that their greatest strength and solace is in each other. Through its unflinching depiction of World War II and its atrocities, Two Women is a compelling argument against war and a powerful testament to the ultimate triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity, which perfectly captures the sacrifice of a mother’s love.
Motherhood: a true balancing act

3. Volver: Made in many ways as a nod to one of director Pedro Almodovar’s favorite icons, Two Women star Sophia Loren, Volver is a modern Spanish take on the neorealist films of ‘50’s and ‘60’s Italian cinema. The film begins with sisters Soledad (Lola Duenas) and Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) visiting their ailing aunt where they are told that their aunt’s neighbors claim to have been visited by the ghost of their deceased mother. Soledad is shaken by the visit, but working mother Raimunda pays it little mind as she returns home to her unemployed husband, Paco (Antonio de la Torre) and teenage daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo). The paranormal stir soon becomes the least of Raimunda’s worries after Paula stabs Paco to death when he attempts to rape her. As she scrambles to cover up the murder, Raimunda is forced to reflect upon the sexual abuse that led to her estrangement from her own mother, Irene, (Carmen Maura) and the mysterious circumstances surrounding Irene’s death. Complications both dramatic and comic ensue as the ‘deceased’ Irene returns and takes up residence in Soledad’s apartment and the sisters’ friend and former neighbor, Augustina, turns to a sleazy day-time talk show to investigate Irene’s death. While the film’s various elements seem incompatible on paper, the story successfully weaves elements of gritty drama, supernatural fantasy, and absurd comedy to compromise a cohesive and endlessly entertaining narrative that is almost as complicated as family life itself. The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent with Cruz earning particular note in her multifaceted role that is both an artistically original performance and an affectionate tribute to the stars of yesterday. Part surreal comedy and part poignant family drama, Volver is a film that defies conventional definition in its telling of a tale that is both entirely unique and universally relateable.
You're never too old to need your mother