Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Gold Rush (Chaplin. 1925)

"Probably my fav silent movie ever made." - Sam Meister

It seems like I start every comedy write up with the same line. I am not a very big fan of comedy movies. After starting off with a rocky cinematic experience, I have come around to accepting one of Hollywood's most beloved funnymen, Buster Keaton. I consider that a personal victory. On the other hand, I am yet to really dive into the filmography of his heated rival, Charlie Chaplin.

Before now, I had only seen one film from Chaplin, The Great Dictator (1940). And though I thought that film was brilliant for political reason, I did not really appreciate its brand of comedy. I recently rented and watched another one of Chaplin's classics from the 1077, and I think it has helped me see what made him such a massive celebrity. The Gold Rush was an extremely pleasant film. It was not in the least bit hilarious, but it put a smile on my face.

The Gold Rush tells the story of Charlie's most famous character, the Tramp. After gold is discovered in Alaska, hundreds of prospectors head to the great white north looking to strike a fortune. Rather than gold, the Tramp finds an old cabin to live in, shoes to eat and a beautiful girl named Georgia. He falls head over heels for the beautiful socialite, but he is the Tramp. He is beneath the people of the higher social classes - even in Alaska.

It has been said that Charlie Chaplin tried very hard to make the audience like his character. This is very apparent in The Gold Rush. The Tramp is often humiliated, insulted, outmatched and stood-up in the film. The audience feels a massive amount of sympathy for him because he wins their hearts with good intentions. It is hard to not relate with the Tramp on some level. For me, he is the embodiment of my biggest social fear. He is unknowingly the butt of everyone's jokes. Who doesn't fear that happening to them?

On a more positive note, The Gold Rush is filled with very funny gags and stunts. In the early scenes, Chaplin is caught in a brutal wind storm. His inability to combat the wind is physical comedic brilliance. The moving house scene is a tad unbelievable, but it is the ridiculousness that makes it funny. It reminds me of the Buster Keaton film from a few years later, Steamboat Bill, Jr. In each of the films the moving house is my favorite bit of comedy.

The Gold Rush is a relatively simple picture. Chaplin stages his comedic efforts to look more like an on-screen vaudeville act. That is his signature brand of comedy. His physical prowess does not touch that of Buster Keaton, but so far his films have a much stronger emotional drawing power. Cute and ultimately happy, The Gold Rush is a must see film. I really loved it.

The Gold Rush: A-

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Meet the Parents (Roach. 2000)

"Are you a pothead, Focker?"

At this point my blog followers probably know that I am not a fan of awkward comedy. By rule, that means that I am not a huge Ben Stiller fan. One of his most famous movies, Meet the Parents, has been deemed significant by the 1077 for reasons that I will never understand. To get to the point, I hated it. I am still gonna write about it because that is my job, but this could be an offensive write up for a fan of the franchise.

Meet the Parents follows a comedic formula that I have never been interested in, the destination formula. This means that the film shows us a character who is trying to get something (or somewhere), but he just cannot seem to do things correctly. Like the title implies, the unfortunately named Gaylord Focker meets the parents of his girlfriend, Pam. Gaylord (Greg) is a seemingly normal man who is desperate for the approval of his in-laws-to-be, but this is a comedy film –or something like one. We know things will not go right for Focker, but even the audience is surprised by how downhill things go.

Ben Stiller plays our leading man. He is awkward, unlucky and cannot seem to do anything right. The problem I have with Stiller’s performance is that he never makes me care about him. He just stumbles through insistently stupid mishaps, one after another, so nonchalantly that I started to think he was just a stupid guy. Stupid things happen to stupid people. Therefore, I feel no sympathy for Focker. There is no realistic reason for a man to get himself into THAT MANY negative situations from just existing.

Robert De Niro is interesting in Meet the Parents. Though I already knew that he could do comedy, I was surprised at how easily he became Jack Byrnes. A former CIA agent, Byrnes is the nightmare of every hopeful husband. The things that he says are usually somewhat ridiculous, and he does not make you laugh. At his funniest, De Niro’s Byrnes can only make you chuckle. This is not enough to save the film for me.

Honestly, I just found the bumbling of Stiller’s character to be annoying. I also did not find any of the action very realistic, relatable or funny. In fact, most of it was very unfunny to me. The only realistic part of the film was when Focker finally snapped while on an airplane. I liked that scene a lot because it finally turned the punching bag into a character worth following. Sadly, it happened far too late in the picture.

Meet the Parents is not a funny movie. It is one of the least funny films that I have ever seen. Nothing that funny happens. It was just annoying. I hated it. I really really hated it. Maybe I just do not find awkwardness to be very funny. I chalk it up to not finding Ben Stiller very appealing.

One positive aspect of the film is the Oscar nominated song by Randy Newman, “A Fool in Love”. But in reality, I probably only noticed the song because it was playing during my favorite part of the film – the end credits.

Meet the Parents: D

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick. 1971)

"It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen."

As opposed to opening credits, the audience is immediately blasted with the peculiar visual of Alex DeLarge. A teenager with a strong interest in ultra-violence and Beethoven, Alex was not the hero in Anthony Burgess’s novel by the same name. Stanley Kubrick sees the mythos of A Clockwork Orange much differently than the writer of his source material. Burgess once said of the book/movie that “it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die.”

This does not sound like an author who is happy about the film adaptation of his most famous novel. As a major fan of the book, I can see why Burgess feels this way. Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange lacks the maturity that Burgess brought to the character of Alex. In the book, Alex is a disturbed sociopath and rapist who becomes a victim of an oppressive and Orwellian government mind-control project. Though his narration is unreliable, his lack of explanation and insistence on ultra-violence seem to shockingly relate to the readers. I’m not saying that his actions are relatable, but the way he goes about them seem to strike a chord.

In the film, Alex is just a monster. The government angle is quickly brushed aside as something necessary to push the plot and the character is reduced to that of an evil-for-no-reason type of bad guy. Then, all of a sudden, the theme of the film changes and makes the audience want to cheer for Alex. This is where you get people calling A Clockwork Orange a vehicle for sex and violence. Kubrick disregards the message and glorifies his “hero”. It is actually kind of twisted.

On another level, Kubrick’s futuristic vision is what makes A Clockwork Orange such a memorable experience. The legendary perfectionist director shot ever single moment of the film as if it were to be the climax. This meticulous attention to detail makes the film look different than anything that was previously made. Kubrick famously used a wide-angle lens for almost every shot in the film. This made objects seem distorted and longer than they actually are. This forces the audience to stay off balance through the entire runtime. For me, this is what makes A Clockwork Orange feel authentic. I almost wish that Kubrick would have been more surreal in his storytelling. I feel like Burgess would have approved.

As we all know, A Clockwork Orange is also famous for its use of experimental language techniques. Alex and his droogs speak in a language called Nadsat. Burgess was not only an author, but also a linguist. He combined English, Russian and British slang to make a frustrating and unfamiliar language. This may be the best known aspect of the entire film. Understanding the lingo is not very difficult, but it is tedious. You have to commit to wanting to decipher the code before you pop the DVD into your player. This is not a casual film experience.

It would be impossible for me to write about A Clockwork Orange without mentioning the most famous moment in the film. Near the beginning of the action, Alex and his gang engage in an extraordinarily violent home invasion and rape. This is set to the tune of Malcolm McDowell (Alex) crooning the Gene Kelly standard, "Singin’ in the Rain". Music plays a major role in all of Kubrick’s work, but this seems to be the cruelest working of the man. He singlehandedly turned one of the happiest and most beloved songs in film into an unlikely anthem of the rapist. In the film, Beethoven is inadvertently taken away from Alex. In reality, "Singin’ in the Rain" is taken from the audience.

So, here I sit on the fence over A Clockwork Orange. I hate comparing film to literature, but this is a very specific case. Like in my earlier review of Fight Club, I feel like this is a film that irresponsibly disregards the overall message. It glorifies violence and sexuality while never stopping to tell the audience that violence is wrong. We cheer for Alex when we should not. That is Kubrick’s design, not Burgess’s original intention.

If I am on the fence then I must be forced to pick a side. Am I for or against A Clockwork Orange? Honestly, I find the film to be overlong, talky and irresponsible. In a nutshell, I often find the film to be incredibly boring. Though the importance of the film is undeniable, I cannot rank a film too highly when I rarely find myself in the mood to watch it.

Maybe A Clockwork Orange was a product of its own hype. Maybe I am missing what Kubrick so desperately wants me to see. There is even a chance that I have let my love for the novel blind myself from accepting any outside adaptation. Regardless of reasons, I am leaning toward negative.

A Clockwork Orange: C-

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Dracula (Browning. 1931)

"For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you're a wise man, Van Helsing."

Dracula is a flawed film because it has become much more famous than it ever was decent. Not to say that the film is bad, but it does nothing for the audience in terms of horror. Maybe this can be blamed on the 1931 budget and shooting style, but then what keeps Nosferatu (1922) so terrifying? Bela Lugosi used this performance as a catapult to B-movie fame and Todd Browning used its success to justify the making of an extremely controversial film, Freaks. Though these names do resonate in countless horror blogs, it is hard to say that Dracula is not a classic work in style over substance. That could have easily been Browning’s desire as Freaks is hardly a different story.

The most famous and lasting aspect of the film is Bela Lugosi’s landmark performance as the apex of evil, Count Dracula. He became famous by playing the Count in the acclaimed Broadway adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, and (according to Hollywood folklore) it was Lugosi’s selfish desire to get his famed role onto the big screen that jumpstarted the entire project.

With that being said, he had every right to be selfish. Unlike the devilish Max Scherck, Lugosi played Dracula as a sexy, domineering and confident creature of the night. Turning into animals, mind control and the desperation for blood were all urgently added back to the character as if to separate itself from Nosferatu comparisons. It worked. This version of Dracula is the version that we all have seen imitated or parodied in everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) to children’s breakfast cereal.

This signature performance was a blessing at the time for Lugosi, but it ended up causing countless typecasts and ultimately ruined his film career. The man who invented the cold-faced creature of the night was later reduced to making low grade crap from the “worst director of all time”, Edward Wood. This may be unfortunate, but it can also be rightfully pinned on Bela Lugosi for his inability to turn down a script as bad as Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).

Of course, Dracula is a cornerstone in the Universal horror catalogue because it showcases, like a majority of their horror flicks, one of the most famous monsters in cinema history. It is also directed by one of the Mt. Rushmore figures in cult film. But still, something is missing in Browning’s approach to the character and the mythos in general. The pacing is appropriately slow, but the editing and framing seem to be off. There are tons of extreme close-ups that work for the film, but any other shot seems to cut off some of the action. We are missing feet, hands and tops of heads throughout the picture to the point of almost feeling claustrophobic on our own couch.

Like Lon Cheney Jr in The Wolf Man or his father in The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula is solely about the leading actor’s characterization of the monster. This is a film that flourishes from a great performance, but falters due its overall dated approach and mock-worthy melodrama. I hate to say it, but this is my least favorite Universal horror so far….

Dracula: C

All That Heaven Allows (Sirk. 1955)

"Then talk not of inconstancy, false hearts, and broken vows. If I by miracle can be this live-long minute true to thee. 'Tis all that heaven allows."

Rock Hudson is gorgeous. If I were a female, or more suitably a homosexual man, I would be all about him. I am secure with saying this because it is true. He is super good looking and unmistakably cool.

That being said, my first encounter with Rock from the 1077 is a simple and heartwarming film called All That Heaven Allows. Made in the conformity obsessed American 1950’s, this is a film that stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause in terms of historical significance. It has been said that Rebel catches the truest essence of the 50’s by portraying the frustration of the disconnected youth, but what about the misunderstood and nonconformist grown-ups? This is their outlet.

We have all taken a history class in our academic lives, so we all know that the 50’s was a time that seemingly glistened with convention. But underneath all of that was a much darker and more frustrated reality. Like Ray did with Rebel, Sirk managed to film the essence of two separate movements. Conformity is more the bad guy than any antagonist while self-serving almost becomes the heroic ethos. I believe that All That Heaven Allows is an extremely underrated and overlooked portrayal of this combustible time period.

Why is it so often overlooked? On the surface, All That Heaven Allows is one of the simplest films I have seen. This feature screamed Lifetime Movie long before Lifetime ever existed. We are following the story of a well-to-do widow named Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) who falls in love with her gardener, Ron Kirby.

Hudson plays the rugged and free spirited gardener who also cannot help but to fall for the MUCH older Scott. As family and friends continuously try to stifle Scott’s feelings for the young suitor, the audience is made to feel sorry for the widow. Her country club brethren refuses to accept the scandalous new relationship. Worst of all, Cary’s children refuse to accept the scandalous new relationship. Everything is so scandalous in the 50’s.

In terms of storytelling qualities, All That Heaven Allows barrels through love story clichés, one after another, in an attempt to hurry the audience into a happy ending. And though the pacing may seem frantic, the story is very sweet in a meant-to-be-taken-seriously sort of way. When Cary is unhappy – the audience is unhappy. We want our couple to fight for love. As corny as that sounds, it has proven to be a working formula. It is simplistic, but also very emotional.

All That Heaven Allows is not on the same mark as Rebel Without a Cause; it is not even close. But it does posses the same ignitable anti-picket fence underground bubbling that made both films work. As the immediate precursor to the free-lovin' counter-culture decade, the 50’s annoyed a lot of people. All That Heaven Allows shows us that exact thing. It is a film made in the 50’s that is about the 50’s and the people who inhabit that time period. That is what makes the film interesting.

All That Heaven Allows: C

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Wizard of Oz (Fleming. 1939)

"There's no place like home.."

At some point a film simply transcends anything that a film critic can say about it. There are some films that are so well-loved and respected that bashing it would be unbelievable. One of those films is the classic epic fantasy, The Wizard of Oz. Virtually on every greatest ever list, this is such a significant film to history that it was actually named the most seen film in the world by the Library of Congress. Obviously, I love this movie. I am not going to review it on this blog because that would almost be arrogant. Instead I am just going to tell you about how great it really is, and maybe you will learn something.

At this point we all know what story is told in The Wizard of Oz. Based on the children’s fantasy novel by L. Frank Baum, this American fairytale gives us some of the most recognizable characters in all of history. These characters have been ingrained into our brains since adolescence, and we can still shout out their names in a role call fashion. Dorothy, the Wicked Witch, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the cowardly Lion all have played their part in the cinematic development of our young minds. They each have their respective memorable line or song that keeps them significant in the eyes of modern popular culture consumers.

The incomparable Judy Garland plays Dorothy. She is transported from her impoverished Kansas home into a vibrant fantasyland called Oz. It is here that we see the extraordinary switch from sepia-tone to a brightened three-strip Technicolor. This may be what The Wizard of Oz is best known for from a technical standpoint. MGM famously struggled with the use of color for the film, even having it take more than a week to select the right shade of yellow for the brick road. Ingeniously, the use of sepia-tone over black and white was an artistic choice by Fleming for the purpose of living up to the image that Baum tried to create. He described Kansas as being “in shades of grey.”

And this grey is the backdrop for the Academy Award winning, and crazy famous, song that launched the film into the household vernacular (along with television), “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” One of the most loved and known songs in musical film, Garland nails the ethos behind the song with pleasing vocals and a naïve Kansas charm. There have been countless covers of this song, but nobody has captured the hearts of the American cinophile quite like Ms. Garland.

My favorite moment of the film is when the Scarecrow, played by Ray Bolger, sings the second most memorable song in the production – “If I Only had a Brain”. I think this is particularly fun because of how many outlets it has been used in. This is a song that we still hear on commercials and television soundtracks, and every single time it is instantly recognized. My mother, in the least insulting way imaginable, used to sing it to me when I was a child. It is one of my first memories as a young movie enthusiast.

It would be excruciatingly ambitious for me to try and write something original or groundbreaking about the most seen film in the world. My snobbery will never rise to the level of dismissing The Wizard of Oz. This is a great movie. Some sequences are frightening, but I cannot wait until my nephew is old enough to enjoy this timeless (72 year old) classic with me.

The Wizard of Oz: A

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Delicatessen (Caro. Jeunet. 1991)

"Nobody is entirely evil: it's that circumstances that make them evil, or they don't know they are doing evil."

In a post-apocalyptic world, food is such a delicacy that people are using it as currency over conventional money. A butcher and apartment tenant is selling butchered human beings to his strange residents in return for large quantities of grain. A group of grain-eating criminals, the troglodytes, live underground and try to stop the mad butcher from killing his new maintenance man. A former circus clown, the maintenance man is in love with the butcher’s daughter. She is responsible for hiring the troglodytes.

This is the utterly ridiculous plot of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s surrealist fantasy, Delicatessen. One of the most visually pleasing and stupidly original films that I have ever seen, it serves as a neat counterpart to the much more famous, Amelie (2001). This is a film that seems to have a desire to confuse, amuse and astound the audience with quirky characters and snappy dialogue. The obvious working aspects of the film would be the entertaining, but bizarre, premise and the meticulous cinematography.

Starting with the former, Delicatessen tells the story from the opening paragraph. That seems like it should be enough to make you understand its originality and absurdity, but this film takes everything to another level of insanity. Even the filler is written to be so strange that a viewer has no choice but to believe the film’s mythos. When a director is dealing with such strange subject matter, producing a believable mythos may be the hardest task to achieve. This is what Jeunet does so well.

Cinematography is what makes Delicatessen a special picture. Every moment seems to be perfectly and urgently framed to portray the exact message that was needed per scene. The settings are dark and all is eventually destroyed in the fray of the action. Though the film is extremely character driven, the plot desperately needs the sophisticated centering that directs the audience to exactly where they should be looking.

Delicatessen is a witty and unusual dark comedy that is much lighter than its subject matter would suggest. It is not one of the best films that I have seen, but I would recommend it to anyone who is trying to ease in to world cinema. Funny at times, hectic throughout the entirety and immediately memorable, Delicatessen is interesting right away. That makes it worth seeing.

Delicatessen: B

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Nanook of the North (Flaherty. 1922)

"The truest and most human story of the Great White Snows."

For most movie geeks, Robert Flaherty is an interesting director to discuss. It is true that he directed the first commercially successful documentary feature film ever made, Nanook of the North, but some do not see his importance to the genre. Flaherty was not a director who worked with facts. Rather, he created manipulated reenactments of reality to show the audience a romanticized version of their already existing notions toward the subject matter. This is what sparks debate between us geek types. Is Nanook a documentary or not? Let’s try to work this out…

Webster’s dictionary defines a documentary film as a film or TV program presenting the facts about a person or event. If this is your criteria then Nanook fails on almost every level. The film supposedly tells the story of an Inuit hunter named Nanook and his struggles to provide for his family. Here is your first factual error as Nanook is not even close to the main character’s actual name, Allakarialla. Also, Nanook is seen hunting with spears when it is obvious that guns have become part of the Eskimo culture. Unbelievably, Flaherty even introduces two female wives of Nanook who are actually not married to the hunter at all. It almost seems like nothing in the film is real.

The biggest factual error is seen at the very end of the film when Flaherty tell us that Nanook died of starvation just two years after the film was shot. In reality, Allakarialla died in his home of tuberculosis.

Before you completely dismiss Nanook’s merits as a documentary film, it is important to know that staging reality was the norm for documentary filmmakers of the time. The rules of documentary had not yet been written, but there was no other way for Flaherty to market the film. He has said that he was merely concerned with showing the plight of the Inuit to the more evolved cultures of the world. Flaherty argued that “a filmmaker must often distort a thing to catch its true spirit.” He was simply doing something remarkable with very not-remarkable equipment. I see it as an extraordinary success in filmmaking.

From an entertainment standpoint, Nanook of the North is not on the top of my list of favorites to watch. It features some really interesting shots from inside a three sided igloo. It also has some charming moments where Nanook over exaggerates his misunderstandings of the surrounding world. Still, I would be fibbing if I said that I found every part as interesting as I found the whole.

Nanook of the North: B