Thursday, February 23, 2012

My Man Godfrey (La Cava. 1936)

"Stand still, Godfrey, it'll all be over in a minute."

Screwball comedy seems to be the gem-genre in the early days of cinema. With a runtime of only one and a half hours, I was holding off on watching My Man Godfrey because I figured it would be a simple and enjoyable watch. A couple of nights ago I realized that I was not in a place to try and watch a four hour Indian movie, so I knew it was time for the Criterion Collection edition of an Oscar nominated classic.

What I love most about screwball comedy is that it has no other purpose than to make the audience feel good. Movies in this genre are usually short, sweet and extremely easy to follow. My Man Godfrey is no exception to this rule. It is a cliché-ridden exercise is pop-ridiculousness, but it still remains a popular movie because it features some hilarious moments, great performances and is incredibly well made.

William Powell plays a “forgotten man” named Godfrey who is found living in a dump by a couple of wealthy sisters. This is taking place in the middle of the Great Depression, so you can imagine how well these sisters were received in the dump. Why were they there in the first place? They were on a God awful scavenger hunt where the winner had to find a homeless man and take him to the ballroom of the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel. The first sister to approach Godfrey, Cornelia (Gail Patrick) tries to bribe Godfrey with five dollars. When he refuses to go she accosts him. As he approaches her in his defense, she steps backwards and falls into a pile of ashes and then storms off from embarrassment.

All of this happens much to the delight of Cornelia’s younger sister, Irene. She is a blonde, light-headed, beautiful young woman (Carole Lumbard) who does not understand that this game is horribly offensive. Seeing her charm and wanting to help her beat Cornelia, Godfrey agrees to play along for Irene. Because of this, she offers him a job as a butler for her family. He gratefully accepts.

Powell and Lumbard have impeccable chemistry on the screen. This makes sense considering they were briefly married and then divorced by the time My Man Godfrey was being made. Powell is the much needed wise-cracking “straight man” who serves as an anchor to the outlandish performance by Lumbard. Irene eventually, to the chagrin of Godfrey, takes the butler under her wing and makes him her “protégé”. The audience never really figures out what she means by that, but she is determined to be a mentor to the already-classy-seeming Godfrey.

Of course, Irene falls in love with Godfrey and hilarity ensues. Her family is practically nuts. Her father is played be a personal favorite actor of mine, Eugene Pallette, who I have previously seen in other screwball comedies like The Lady Eve. He, like Godfrey, is a defeated man. Though he is very rich, he is desperately trying to get his family to understand that he is hemorrhaging money. But the three women of the house are somehow able to drown out the chainsaw-like voice of Pallette. The mother of the family, played by Alice Brady, is virtually out of her mind. She wakes up every morning seeing fairies dancing around her room. She is consistently hung over and lacks any understanding of her daughter’s behavior.

Cornelia, the sister, is a bitch. Like, it is very difficult to try and describe her any differently. She decided that she was not going to like Godfrey from the start and tries almost anything to get him into trouble. She tries to frame him as a jewelry thief. When that fails, she tries to seduce him. I am not sure what her motivation is for this sort of behavior, but she really is an awful person. Played brilliantly by the strikingly gorgeous Gail Patrick, Cornelia is the untamed villain in My Man Godfrey. But she gets humbled by the end.

The movie itself is shot in a glimmering black and white. I was lucky enough to get my hands on the Criterion DVD and I strongly recommend you do the same thing. In its restored form, everything from Irene’s diamonds to the tile kitchen floors seems to have an appropriate radiance that advances the mythos of the ridiculous story. The family that Godfrey works for is flamboyant, showy and figuratively (and literally) loud. The restored black and white and creative cinematography advance these characteristics through flamboyant, showy and loud aesthetics. I feel that I should tell readers that a color version of the film does exist. Please ignore it. It dulls everything down.

It turns out that Godfrey is much more complicated than he originally seemed, but Irene’s love for him remains unscathed. After he is able to save the day, he somewhat reluctantly gets the girl. I have read some people criticizing the film for having an unrealistic solution at the end. But who wants realism in their 1930s comedy?

My Man Godfrey was the first movie to have an Oscar nomination in all four acting categories. The cast is truly brilliant. It is a short, funny, quirky and fast-paced comedy that I strongly recommend.

My Man Godfrey: A

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Saturday Night Fever (Badham. 1977)

"Some of these girls think when you make it with them it means you have to dance with them"

When we first meet Tony Manero he is strutting down the streets of a run-down Brooklyn area wearing perfectly shined shoes and an outfit that hit fashion standards for the time. The audience is treated to the ever pleasing sound of “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees as opening credits roll in simple bolded red lettering. At fist, it is just Tony’s feet we see walking to the beat of the music. I almost expected to see him holding a tape player or something in his hands. But as the camera moves up – you see that he is simply strutting. This is an important moment in understanding Tony’s motivations. He cannot hear the background score, but the music is still in his head. And it dominates his future desires.

Of course, Tony is played by the Oscar nominated John Travolta. His aforementioned strut has become engraved in the great American pop-culture lexicon along with his disco dancing. But to say that Saturday Night Fever is all about style and dancing would be irresponsibly disregarding what really makes the film great. In doing some individual research (by that I mean asking a number of my peers at a private university), I have found that most young people have no real idea what Saturday Night Fever is about. “Isn’t that the disco movie”? Is it okay to answer that with “kind of”?

Admittedly, I had no idea that this movie had any substance until I actually sat down and watched it for myself. I was excited to see Travolta in his classic white disco suit pointing his fingers to the sky to the sultry disco sound of the Gibb brothers (not); I wanted to see what the fuss was about. After seeing it, I decided that the film’s reputation has been damaged through iconic disco imagery.

Saturday Night Fever tells the story of an Italian-American teenager from Brooklyn who has a gift for dancing and a mouth that would offend Lenny Bruce. Tony lives at home with his unsupportive (abusive?) family, works at a dead-end hardware store and spends all of his money on Saturdays at a cruddy disco called 2001 Odyssey. He spends hours combing, gelling and blow-drying his hair. He spends even more time talking about it. At the dinner table, his father slaps the back of his head. This is a major crime in Tony’s eyes. He is nineteen years old and image is everything.

Unlike his rag-tag group of cronies who prowl the club for women, Tony spends his time on the dance floor impressing everyone with his elongated solo dance numbers to some now-classic disco beats. There is a woman in the club, Annette (Donna Pescow) who is practically throwing herself at him, but he is focused. His life outside of that club seems meaningless to him. Dancing is his outlet. It is what makes him feel important. And to the people in 2001, Tony IS important.

In a predictable turn of events, a dance contest is going to be held and Tony needs a partner. He initially agrees to dance with Annette under the condition that she doesn’t start to think they’re dating, but then dumps her for the new girl at the club, Stephanie. She is a dancer on the same level as Tony. I think that is his primary attraction. After creeping on her for a while, Tony gets her to agree to get some coffee.

The audience is (or maybe should be) immediately aware of Steph's bologna. She portrays herself as a classy girl who is looking to officially move across the Brooklyn Bridge and into Manhattan. She has a bit a grandeur dilution over her typing job at a talent agency and fabricates stories over her interactions with famous people. Though it is hinted that Tony knows she is lying, he is immediately attracted to her because they share the same dreams. He also wants to cross that bridge. He has no business wasting his life in Brooklyn with his goofball friends. He, in his mind, deserves to dance.

For me, I see no appeal in Stephanie. She is harsh, mean and overly-judgmental of Tony and his life. She may have a job, but her position is not much “better” than Tony’s. But Tony is wide-eyed at her stories of living in the greatest city in the world. He wants to be a part of that and Steph’s grandeur pulls him into it. Tony has no idea how to act with women. He is still so young and inhabits a world where chicks seem to be a right and not a privilege. His mind astounds me at some points.

With the opening hour of Saturday Night Fever, the audience is treated to stylistic dancing, acting and filmmaking. The second hour? Tragedy. One of Tony’s friends, Bobby, has gotten a girl pregnant and has no idea what to do. She will not get an abortion, but he does not want to be married. Bobby seems to have less structure and support at home than even Tony. With nobody to talk to and a huge decision looming over him, Bobby makes a drastic move with which Tony may have contributed.

Annette is heartbroken at Tony’s refusal to love her. High and drunk she agrees to sleep with two of Tony’s buddies in the back of the car while he sits in the front seat. She wants to make him jealous. About halfway through the first guy, her high fades and she no longer wants to go through with it. She is then raped.

And Tony does not get out of this unscathed. He makes a huge error in judgement and loses Stephanie as a possible romantic interest. But in these tragedies he learns that it is time to move on. Tony grows in the movie and learns something by the end. It is not about dancing anymore; it is about living life, escaping mediocrity and being something better. How deep is your love? How "deep" is Saturday Night Fever? Much deeper than disco....

Saturday Night Fever: B+

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Red and the White (Jancsó. 1967)

"No one can be forced into treason!"

The Red and the White is a movie that could have easily been named Gunshot. It purposely runs without any sort of central character, and almost everyone the audience meets is, at some point, shot to death. With very little important dialogue, it seems like Jancsó was more interested in letting guns do the talking. Which, considering the magnitude of his project, was a bold move.

Miklós Jancsó is a Hungarian filmmaker who was granted funding from the Soviet Union to make a tribute to the 1917 Russian Revolution. Rather than make a film that praised the Bolsheviks, Jancsó aimed his efforts toward a project that played no favorites. He wanted the audience to know that war is wrong, arbitrary and absurd.

The Red and the White takes place two years after the October Revolution, 1919, in the hills overlooking Volga. The “Red” Army is made up of Hungarians who support the communist movement. The “Whites” represent the Tsarist that is fighting to remain in power over Russia. There are no main characters in the film; Jancsó chose to show both sides represented through nameless men and women for the purpose of keeping the audience at the distance. It is a film without heroes, kind of like war.

As you might have imagined, a Russian-produced, anti-heroic film about the atrocities of war was not what the Soviet’s had in mind. The film was quickly reedited before its release in the Motherland, and then eventually banned for several years. Outside of the Union, The Red and the White went on to become Jancsó’s most praised and popular film.

The subject matter is grittier than your average war film from the time period. It features scenes of attempted rape, killing of innocent people, humiliation and death in abundance. In one scene, Hungarian men are forced, shoulder to shoulder, onto the ground and shot, one-by-one, in the head. Each time, the next person in line is forced to witness a comrade die. And that is just one example. Death is the theme. And for what? The audience never really knows….

One heavy criticism of The Red and the White is that it can be very difficult to follow at times. Characters are constantly being introduced, killed and replaced at an extremely rapid pace. It is impossible to become attached to anyone in the film because no person is alive long enough to develop an on-screen personality. For me, this is a perfect compliment to the feeling of despair that Jancsó was trying to achieve. I am of the anti-war sort. One interesting thing about war film is that, no matter how hard they try, a filmmaker will almost always make war look like fun. I highly doubt it is fun. The Red and the White looks awful, so it does its job. I do not need a hero, I need reality.

Aside from the daring concept, the film is also shot in a visually interesting style. The camera lenses get a hefty workout of quick-zooms in and out of focus. Some character’s deaths are sharply detached from the audience after an unexpected fade or blur. The black and white is crisp and clean (though I would like to see a Criterion release) with well placed shading and emotionally appropriate shadows over hauntingly violent moments. The looming insanity of war is palpable from the overcastting darkness of the open hills.

If I have to admit a flaw in The Red and the White I would say that there is not enough (any) blood. I am not sure if this was an artistic choice, a budget restriction or if it had something to do with the Soviet’s overhead – but with the amount of people being shot in the film, you’d think there’d be some blood.

Maybe I am a little too American in my taste for cinematic violence, but if you want to push the absurdity of wartime there is no better strategy than showing an audience exactly what happens during wartime. When a person is shot, their bones break, their muscles tear and blood spills out of the wound. There is a visible entry and exist wound. But not in The Red and the White. Rather, people merely grab their stomach in pain and fall to the ground. They kinda look like they have gas…

In terms of a “war film”, The Red and the White is a unique look through the eyes of soldiers. It is a strong anti-war statement that hides under the guise of a Soviet bandwagon film. Though it was dry at times, I still found it to be visually striking and emotionally compelling. It is black and white. It is in Russian/Hungarian. I recommend you watch it anyway.

The Red and the White: B+

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Big (Marshall. 1988)

"I wish I were big...."

It would take a very special circumstance for me to want to see a grown man act like a child. I seem to be in the minority, but I do not find it funny. In fact, it is something that makes me rather sad. Big is a movie that solely depends on its leading man to act like a child. Do I hate it? Well, I certainly don't like it. But there is something about Tom Hanks' enthusiasm that makes this particular performance bearable.

Admitting to being drawn-in by a Tom Hanks performance is about as compelling as telling a reader that I like cake. But then again, I don’t like cake. There is just an undeniable exuberance in his character that captures the extremely exaggerated world of a thirteen year old boy. His body language is awkwardly pre-pubescent and his voice is shaky with upward inflection. Hanks brings life to a character that desperately needs life to even seem remotely believable.

Big follows that story of a young boy named Josh Baskins (Hanks). After being turned down by everything from the pretty girl to the hot new roller coaster, Josh is feeling a tad inadequate. He ventures off on his own around the carnival in an adolescent fit of self-pity. I challenge a filmmaker to find a more depressing place than a carnival. All that was missing in this scene was Eric Carmen’s “All by Myself” blaring Clueless-style in the background.

Eventually, Josh comes across a strange wish-granting carnival game called Zoltar. He inserts a quarter and vaguely wishes to be “big”. We found our movie title. When he wakes up the next morning he finds that his wish has come true. Josh is now in the body of a 30 year old man. But Josh is not in the future; it is not the simple. Everyone sees him as a 30 year old, but he is still 13 on the inside. After trying to explain the transformation to his mother, she threatens to stab him in disbelief – forcing him to find help in another place.

Josh’s best friend, Billy (Jared Rushton), believes his friend and the two sneak off to New York to hide away for a while. As straightforward as this may seem, screenwriter Gray Ross is missing a major point in his own plot. The police are shown to be looking for Josh. He is considered a missing child. We watch as his mother cries for her lost son. But Josh is much more concerned with blowing silly string from his nose. I could not laugh at the action because I was concerned for the mental health of that poor mother.

Of course Big becomes even more complicated when Josh realizes he will need an adult job to survive in New York. He uses a fake social security number (his friend’s locker combination, plus 12) on his application and unknowingly tricks the human resources manager into thinking he went to George Washington University. He gets the job working in computers for a toy company, and uses his child-like approach to business to immediately catch the attention of his boss.

Josh also gets the attention of one of his co-workers, Susan. At first, she sees him as a one night stand, but his quirky apartment furnishes get in the way of her plans. To be honest, after a date like that, I would be worried that Josh was a pedophile. His apartment is cluttered with toys. If you do not know about the whole…bein’ 13 thing…the toy obsession should seem a little strange.

Like with Josh’s mother, I am forced to feel a little bad for Susan. Played by Elizabeth Perkins (in one of her first attractive roles), Susan is a woman who uses sex to gain work-place status. It is said that she has slept with a chain of her co-workers, but Josh is different to her. She loves that he has a lust for life. And yes, it is hinted that they do eventually sleep together. Am I the only one that finds that weird? Josh does finally tell her that he is a child trapped in an adult body, but she does not know the extent of what he is saying. Then, all of a sudden and for virtually no reason, she believes him. She fell in love with a child, yet shows no sign of emotional disgrace or embarrassment? Nobody thinks that is weird but me? Really….

In a nutshell, Josh Baskins is an incredibly selfish character. I understand that he is 13, but there have been some smart children in film. Instead of blaming his shortcomings on age, blame them on a narrow and thoughtless screenplay. He emotionally damages his poor mother, disregards the feelings of his best friend and stomps on the heart of a skank trying to reform for him. Yet the audience is supposed to feel bad when he finally starts to miss his home?!

Outside of Hanks’ performance, there is nothing particularly good about Big. In fact, I think the story being told is actually kinda bad. Not only is Josh an unappealing character, but I think he is on his way to having some significantly negative psychological issues. A movie is good when it can sweep you away into its own universe. That is what makes it believable. Big takes place in our own backyard, and that, for me, makes it difficult to enjoy.

Big: C

Monday, February 6, 2012

Toy Story (Lasseter. 1995)

"To infinity, and beyond!"

I remember when I was in kindergarten and all of my friends were talking about this movie that I had never seen. In the basic vernacular of a child, they all told me how it was the greatest movie in history. Everyone had t-shirts. lunchboxes and action figures while I was still without a clue.

If you fast-forward almost 20 years, the Toy Story franchise is still one of the biggest draws at the box office. Both of the sequels have gone on to gain unprecedented success for an animated feature, but nothing can touch the impact of the original. As the first movie to be completely computer animated, Toy Story is something that had a considerable cultural reaction. The universe was made primarily out of two bedrooms, but the journey takes place in the human imagination.

If you were to go back and watch some of the hand-drawn Disney classics - you may find that the world surrounding the characters is dull, uninhabited or stuffy. In Toy Story, almost everything is (literally) alive. There are scenes that twist, swoop and turn to show the audience that a new animation style has taken over. John Lasseter, a visionary in computer animation, deserves most of the credit. Lasseter is obviously a computer visionary and was able to make a movie where each frame required as much as 300 MBs of information.

Toy Story tells the story of a group of toys who come to life when their owner is out of the room. In this universe, all toys are alive. They have personalities that may not match their appearance, and have formed friendships with each other. The leader of the toys is their owner's (Andy) favorite - a draw-string cowboy named Woody. Voiced brilliantly by Tom Hanks, Woody's world is turned upside down when a state-of-the-art space ranger action figure named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) enters the mix. What makes Buzz such a compelling character is that he, unlike the rest of the toys, is not in on the joke. He actually believes that he is a space ranger and scrambles to fix his ship (his cardboard packaging) in order to return home.

So we have a fancy new action figure and the jealous "favorite toy" battling for the affection of their peers - though Buzz seems to be unknowing. After a series of events, the two end up stranded at a gas station with no idea how to get home. Andy's horrible neighbor, Sid, finds Buzz and Woody and takes them to his demented bedroom that is littered with disfigured toys. You see, Sid is a psychopath who rips the heads off of his sister's dolls just so he can place them on other torn apart toys. If we as an audience are meant to give into the premise that toys are alive - that makes Sid's entire mythos horrifying. This kid is sick.

One thing that does stand out in an otherwise conventional "buddy-movie" is the scene where Buzz finds out that he is, in fact, just a toy. He looks up at the television screen and sees a commercial for his line of action figures. Hie face is dim with humiliation. He is not a space ranger. His life is a lie, and the audience feels for him. I may be digging here, but I think we all have that "just a toy" moment. It is a scene that thins that line between animated reality and deep, human self-reflection. It is more human than human.

Anyways, eventually the toys win in the end and Sid learns his lesson. But at the cost of how many killed toys? We are not supposed to look that deeply into it, I guess. The voice work is incredibly enjoyable, but the story may be unsophisticated and fluffy. It does offer enough gags to keep a child interested, and it is certainly entertaining enough for an adult audience. I feel weird even trying to say something original about Toy Story. This movie was a game-changer.

Toy Story: A

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Trip to the Moon (Méliès. 1902)

“It has set the course for cinema’s love affair with the impossible.”

Remember those daydreams you had when you were a child? Well, so does the 1077 Films to See Before You Die. One of the things that make filmmaking the greatest art form in the world is that it has the ability to make your dreams visible. Though novels and stories had been able to realize daydreams for years, nothing had ever been given an astounding visual. This is exactly what Georges Méliès accomplishes in his 1902 short film, A Trip to the Moon.

Yes, A Trip to the Moon was released in the humbling year of 1902, and the visuals are excruciatingly dated. But that is not what makes the film memorable. The film follows the story of some eccentric astronomers that ride a bullet-like spaceship all the way to the moon. In under fifteen minutes the astronomers land on the moon’s surface, battle aliens and journey, although accidentally, to the bottom of the ocean.

Of course the entire concept makes everyone’s scientific mind explode, but A Trip to the Moon is not for those minds. The film directly relates to the exploratory minds of that early century. And that relation has not been lost in modern times. After watching the film, take a look back to the dreams you used to have as a child. Only then will you appreciate the kookiness of Méliès’ vision. This is the earliest example of dreams coming to life.

A Trip to the Moon is a short film with a very fluffy premise, but this does not mean its significance should be taken lightly. The oldest film on the 1077 Films to See Before You Die is also one of the most playful, inspirational and influential triumphs in the history of film. I very much encourage you to take 10 minutes out of your day to watch this smile-inducing work of art.

A Trip to the Moon: A