Monday, September 29, 2014

Laina At the Movies

By Laina Farhat-Holzman
September 2014


My movie-going buddy and I were the only Anglo faces in the theater showing this Mexican-American bio-pic about Cantiflas, the delightful Mexican cinema comic who played Passepartout (pass-key), the valet in the great old classic, Around the World in Eighty Days.

Cantiflas (meaning Bar Fly) was the stage name of Mario Moreno (1911-1993), a street clown who through luck and talent became the Latino version of Charlie Chaplain. His particular comedy included sight gags, physicality, and nonstop cheeky improvisation, much like the later Groucho Marx. He punned and delighted audiences in Mexico by boldly sassing the strong and powerful.

With subtitles alternately in Spanish and English, I found myself reading each while listening to the other. It took a few minutes to catch up to the obvious roaring delight of the Watsonville Hispanic audience, but it did happen.

Cantiflas was played by Oscar Jaenada, an actor I have never seen before, but will again. He was delightful, and watching him rise from lowly clown to great film star was great fun. It was illuminating to realize how much interaction there was between the rising Mexican film industry at the same time that American movies were at their best, from the time that sound was introduced. In the movie, we saw a roster of famous Mexican stars who also crossed over into American film, such as Delores del Rio, Pedro Amandariz, Arturo de Cordova, Katy Jurado, and Ricardo Montalban, among many.

The famous Mike Todd (played by Michael Imperioli) had the vision of producing Around the World in Eighty Days with very little money, famous actors doing cameo roles, trying to conn the moneymen in Hollywood into backing him. Nothing much was coming together until he met Charlie Chaplain at lunch who encouraged the venture. He also met Elizabeth Taylor, after offering her a cameo role, who married him. He approached Cantiflas with a cameo role, was rejected, but after Cantiflas read the script, he offered to play Passepartout, which he played with great genius.

Listening to the laughter of the Mexican-Spanish speakers in the audience, it was apparent that even subtitles did not catch what made Cantiflas so funny: the salty character of Mexican Spanish.

Considering all the other silly extravaganzas in the cinemas this summer, this was a charming, quality little film and I hope it does well.


An Irish priest sits listening to a confession: a man who confesses that he was abused during his entire childhood by priests from the age of seven. He tells the priest that he is going to murder him in one week, and that because he knows that this particular priest is a good man, the murder will have even more significance.

The priest does not know whom among his congregation the prospective murder will be, so he spends the next week visiting the usual places: the pub, where he gets very drunk and gets into a fight with the bartender and another client. The two men reveal their enormous distaste for the church and tell the priest horrible stories that would make him question his faith.

He tries leaving town before the deadline, but thinks better of it and returns to meet his killer on Sunday on the beach.

The film is indeed like Calvary, the period during which the devil tempted Jesus to abandon his faith to God and go with him instead.

This is a great little movie with wonderful acting and much to think about afterwards. Brendan Gleeson, who plays the Priest, is a wonder to behold.

Magic in the Moonlight

After seeing the painful Calvary, Woody Allen's latest, Magic in the Moonlight, proved to be a silly creampuff of a movie.  I was mildly amused and equally annoyed, as I always am, at Allen's dialogues.  Somehow, he always writes dialogue typical of how he speaks (a tiresome shtick), even when it seems stilted when his actors speak those lines.

However, for reasons mysterious to me, actors of great stature are eager to work in his movies. This one was no exception. The wonderful Colin Firth played a world famous magician (the setting was Germany and the Provence in the late 1920s) who is also noted as a debunker of mediums and other fraudulent psychics. A colleague asks him to visit a family in the south of France in which a young American medium has enchanted them all: a gullible widow who thinks she is taking to her dead husband and a banjo-playing lovesick heir to the family's wealth.

Of course, this is the usual conflict of reason and feeling. Allen shamefully provides a take on the famous scene in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice in which Mr. Darcey (also played by Colin Firth in the latest film version) makes an obnoxious marriage proposal to the young medium (played by Emma Stone) in which he tells her that despite all reason and despite her lowly origins and mediocre intellect he is madly in love with her and wants to marry her. She responds as did Austen's heroine in her novel.

If you have a few idle hours and if you like the music of the 1920s (as I do) and the scenery of the south of France (as I do), go for it. I wouldn't look for any profundity from the always-nihilistic Woody Allen.

A Walk Among the Tombstones

I remember seeing B-movies in my childhood when an afternoon at the local cinema included the feature, a secondary (B) movie, a newsreel, cartoon, and serial. Whew!  That is movie stamina that only a 10-year-old can have.

A Walk Among the Tombstones reminded me of the old B movies, often called Film Noir (dark movie), except that it was far more explicit and bloody than Hollywood used to permit. For the faint of heart, I cannot recommend this, but  for the toughies among us, it was terrific.

Who wouldn't enjoy watching Liam Neeson, a man who can play President Lincoln and a burnt-out former detective equally well.  The movie is based on a popular detective novel by Lawrence Block, about a former NYPD detective, Matthew Scudder, a recovering alcoholic, haunted by a righteous shooting of bad guys that went astray and killed a child. He became a drunk, left the police force, and then went sober and solitary, taking occasional cases from people who preferred having an un-licensed private eye.

His client is a very prosperous drug dealer whose wife has been kidnapped. Although he paid the ransom, they killed his wife anyway and sent her body back in pieces.  Scudder does a little research and finds that other drug dealers have had the same experience. The serial sadism of the killers prompts him to take the cases.

Kidnapping for ransom is bad enough, but these two monsters are psychopaths whose delight in inflicting pain can only be matched by today's ISIS, who justify their actions through religious sanction. The two psychopaths have no such justification. They just love mayhem.

Having a man like Scudder on your side is certainly a good thing. He administers appropriate justice in this very good thriller.

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