Although Henry Lehrman is little remembered today, he was as much of a comedy film pioneer as his associate Mack Sennett. During his time working for Sennett's Keystone studios, Lehrman helped mold an...
In the 2006 animated blockbuster Happy Feet an alienated emperor penguin named Mumbles found empowerment through tap-dancing and in so doing managed to both attract a mate and stop the overfishing that imperiled his Antarctic habitat. Directed by George Mitchell – the same George Mitchell who gave us the post-apocalyptic Mad Max trilogy and the almost despairingly bleak Babe: Pig in the City – Happy Feet paired its broadly conventional narrative with a darker sensibility not often seen in talking-animal fare.
The film’s sequel Happy Feet Two finds Mitchell (co-directing with Gary Eck) both more jovial and more easily distracted. The story begins straightforwardly enough with Mumbles (Elijah Wood) now grown-up and by all appearances well-adjusted ceding the mantle of self-discovery to his son Erik (Ava Acres). Boogie fever has swept the once dance-averse penguin nation but in a cruelly ironic twist Erik has inherited none of his father’s nifty moves. But just as Happy Feet Two appears intent on recycling its predecessor’s basic storyline the film abruptly changes course and embarks on a series of detours that seemed geared more as fodder for throwaway gags and showy set pieces than anything else. The disparate narrative elements while enjoyable in isolation never quite coalesce into a meaningful whole leaving us entertained but unfulfilled.
As before Happy Feet Two features a variety of buoyant song-and-dance numbers with Alecia Moore (aka P!nk) lending her formidable pipes to spirited re-workings of “Rhythm Nation” and “Under Pressure ” among others. Robin Williams returns for double duty as both Ramon a diminutive oversexed Latin lover and Lovelace a fiery Southern-preacher type. (Lovelace later adopts a Rastafarian dialect allowing Williams to achieve the rare culture-caricature trifecta.) His voracious scenery-devouring is all the more impressive given the grandeur of the scenery. Not to be left out of the quasi-Vaudevillian comic shenanigans Hank Azaria lays on a thick Scandinavian shtick as Sven a charismatic Arctic émigré who presents himself as the only penguin in the world who can fly. Azaria is a hoot but the film’s best moments come courtesy of the cast’s highest-profile additions Matt Damon and Brad Pitt voicing Bill and Will (respectively) two tiny krill in search of meaning at the bottom of the food chain.
October 19, 2001 5:57am EST
The film opens with prison warden Colonel Winter (Robert Redford) greeting the highly respected General Irwin (James Gandolfini) at the start of his 10-year sentence for disobeying a presidential order. When they meet Irwin makes a snide remark about Winter--a non combatant--proudly showcasing military trinkets and memorabilia in his office. The comment instantly touches off a power war between the two which ends with Irwin threatening to take over the prison and flying the American flag upside down--a symbol that the castle has fallen. Winter rises to the challenge and the two begin their strategic plotting. Irwin wins the respect of his fellow inmates in an overly drawn scene where he is forced to carry large stones from one pile to another in the prison courtyard and forms an army of inmates using clichéd chess tactics to demonstrate his assault plans. Winter meanwhile watches from his cozy office overlooking the courtyard as if he was watching a reality series on a big-screen TV.
The highly regarded General Irwin is a simple solemn type which unfortunately is what is fundamentally wrong with the film. While Redford does the brooding thing quite well the script never calls for him to do anything more than that. James Gandolfini takes on the role of prison warden Colonel Winter with fitting simplicity. He accentuates Winter's dumb-thug persona by over-enunciating his words and speaking in an unnaturally slow manner. Redford and Gandolfini both churn out great performances but it would have been more rewarding had the script called for their characters to be more well-rounded. Steve Burton plays Winter's right hand man Captain Peretz convincingly considering what few lines he has. His body language facial expressions and dialogue manage to convey his character's thoughts even when his lines don't.
Directed by Rod Lurie (The Contender) The Last Castle is a well-paced story without a dull moment. It concludes with a dramatic and exciting climax but the problem is it's just too simple. While it's easy to get caught up in the story it's hard to buy how easily the inmates are able to take control of such a heavily guarded maximum-security prison. Using cafeteria trays as shields is one thing but hurling stones using a giant catapult that somehow went unnoticed by prison security is hard to swallow. So is the fact that these inmates a group of hardened criminals cooperate so easily with hardly any friction. While it could have been a very emotional story it fails because the characters are one-dimensional and never really explored including the two main characters played by Redford and Gandolfini. One is a great strategist and the other draconian but viewers are left to guess why and how they got that way.
Although Henry Lehrman is little remembered today, he was as much of a comedy film pioneer as his associate Mack Sennett. During his time working for Sennett's Keystone studios, Lehrman helped mold an enduring, albeit crude, brand of slapstick that made the transition into the sound era, even if Lehrman's career had already faltered by then. Like many of his contemporaries, Lehrman frequently seemed to change the story of his early life. Facts about his beginnings in Vienna, Austria, and even the year of his birth are sketchy. Obituaries state he was born on March 30, 1886, but judging from his early press, it may have been 1883. Lehrman claimed he was educated at Vienna's Commercial University and served as a Lieutenant in the Austrian army, both questionable assertions. He came to the United States sometime between 1905 and 1908, and most likely worked as a trolley conductor. When he arrived at the Biograph studios in search of a job, he told director D.W. Griffith that he was an agent for the prestigious Pathe Freres. Griffith saw through the pose and christened him with the snide nickname "Pathe" Lehrman. But he also gave the gutsy Austrian work as an extra. Lehrman made more of an impression on Mack Sennett who was also employed at Biograph at the time. When Sennett left the company in 1912 to form Keystone he brought Lehrman with him as his staff director. The biggest comedy names of the 1910s -- Mabel Normand, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Ford Sterling among them -- were directed in dozens upon dozens of films by Lehrman. He also directed film great Charles Chaplin in his first few featured roles at Keystone including Making a Living and Kid Auto Races at Venice. Lehrman, however, didn't win many friends at Keystone. He earned yet another nickname, "Suicide," because of the dangerous stunts he would goad his actors into performing. Arbuckle refused to work with him after a while and the animosity between the two men would explode a few years later. In 1914, Lehrman and Sterling both left Keystone for Universal, to found Sterling Comedies. The director was there only a few months before forming his own production company L-KO, short for Lehrman Knock-Outs. He spent the next several years filming competently-made shorts and in 1917 he joined Fox where he was in charge of their Sunshine Comedy division. While they never equaled his work at Sennett's and didn't endure like Hal Roach's comedies, Lehrman's films were well-made and quite funny. Beginning in 1921, he began directing features for various studios, which he continued doing throughout most of the 1920s. Comedy producer Jack White learned about the business from Lehrman and he passed this knowledge along to his brother Jules White who later became head of Columbia's shorts department. Thus, the comedies of the Three Stooges owe something to Lehrman's influence. In September 1921, Lehrman's fiancée, starlet Virginia Rappe, died under mysterious circumstances after attending a San Francisco Labor Day party held by Roscoe Arbuckle. Although he had no proof Lehrman blamed Arbuckle for Rappe's death and vilified him in the press. However, less than nine months later Lehrman wed another actress, Jocelyn Leigh. This, and one other marriage, both ended in divorce. After the 1920s, Lehrman's career went downhill. He worked at Fox throughout the 1930s and early '40s in various capacities, mostly as a writer and gagman. But his personal life was a mess and he declared bankruptcy in 1941. Lehrman died in 1946, of either a heart attack or a stroke (both were reported as his cause of death). He is buried next to his erstwhile fiancée, Virginia Rappe.