Friday, February 22, 2013

Singin' in the Rain (Donen. Kelly. 1952)

"What a glorious feeling. I'm happy again..."

Singin’ in the Rain is a movie that supplies more energy than maybe any other I have seen. The entire ordeal takes place amongst splendid colors and the vast, if not overzealous, landscapes on which some scenes were set remain not only memorable, but also extremely impressive. The cast includes a few of MGM’s biggest Hollywood stars in an era where movie icons were being molded and thrown away at a rapid pace.The music, of course, stands the test of time as proven by the numerous retellings of the classic story on stages from Broadway to The Little Theatre on the Square. What might surprise you is the fact that Singin’ in the Rain was never really meant to be a national treasure. In fact, only one of the ever so famous musical numbers was written specifically for the film in the first place. 

After the incredible success of the Best Picture winning An American in Paris, the figureheads at MGM wanted to crank out another musical vehicle for Gene Kelly as soon as they could. This meant searching the warehouses for any old sets they could find, and revamping some tunes that were already owned by the studio. The Criterion special features even include scenes from other MGM works with lesser known talents singing “Make ‘Em Laugh” and the film’s title song. The movie was not as critically successful upon release as many people may assume. It only garnered two Oscar nominations in 1952 and went home with no trophies. As many films have proved in the past, time is a much better measuring stick for greatness than Oscar will ever be. 

The year is 1927 and Don Lockwood (Kelly) has made a slew of successful silent love stories alongside his ditsy and vindictive costar Lena Lamont (Jean Hagan). Lockwood’s beaming charisma and Lena’s beauty make them the perfect silent film duo, but (note the year) things are about to change. Hollywood is taken over by a new trend called “talkies”. Lena’s voice is far too….wowbad…to ever be realistically featured on the screen, but the studio insists that they must transition into the talking phenomenon. They enlist the talents of an upstart named Kathy Selden who, unbeknownst to Lena, will be providing the speaking and singing voice for the already cemented star as they move on to make “The Dueling Cavalier”. 

Selden is played by a 19 year old Debbie Reynolds who was not a dancer before she was cast in Singin’ in the Rain. Her task was to keep up alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor during some of the most athletic dance sequences ever filmed. Though the whole production has a very improvisational feel, it is obvious that these dance scenes were very heavily rehearsed.  Just watch “Good Morning” and see how Reynolds never seems out of place. I obviously do not know either of them, but Kelly and O’Connor seem like a decent sort. I have a feeling that she got some hefty tutoring. 

It has been said by critics that Kelly’s performance in the “Singin’ in the Rain” number is the single greatest musical moment captured on film. Simply put, I agree. In a moment of pure, unfiltered happiness we see Don Lockwood put on an impromptu song and dance during a rainstorm. He does not mind getting drenched because he is overcome by love and romance. This, kids, is what we like to call the “Honeymoon Phase”. The dancing includes significant prop usage including an umbrella and a streetlamp on which the most famous moment of the film is captured. According to legend, Kelly had a bad fever when he did the scene. I do not know if it is true, but for some reason I believe it. The whole film has that sort of magical feeling. Almost as if nothing could stop it. 

It would be silly to not mention the breathtaking and stunt-filled “Make ‘Em Laugh” number that is perfectly performed by Donald O’Connor. In this funny scene the great entertainer throws himself into walls, rolls all over the floor and utilizes the now cliché ability to do a backwards flip. The entire scene adds to the idea that Singin’ in the Rain must have been a gruelingly rehearsed feature, but the scene is staged so perfectly that It seems really cluttered and hectic. This is movie-staging at the highest level. 

The time of the original Hollywood musical seems to be very much in the past. Singin’ in the Rain shines through as the best film from that era because it is less structured and more charismatic. What it lacked in original music it made up for with technical masterwork and exuberant entertainment value. The dancing is some of the best on film and each actor makes it obvious that they are having the time of their life. Some movies have too many scenes. Some do not have enough. Singin’ in the Rain is a rare film in which every scene is an individual treat. It is not just the best musical ever made. It is also one of the greatest movies ever made. 

Singin' in the Rain: A

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Rock (Bay. 1996)

"I was trained by the best. British intelligence. But in retrospect I would rather have been a poet. Or a farmer."

It goes without saying that even the snobbiest of film snobs has a guilty pleasure. Of course, sometimes that pleasure may not seem very guilty to the casual filmgoer. “Me? Oh, my guilty pleasure is Rudy (1993)”. But like, that’s a pretty good movie. That might be the line at which you can assume someone really is a cinema-prick. Guilty pleasures make movie-watching a much more tolerable experience. I mean, I love The Red and the White, but I very rarely have a desire to watch it recreationally. I may be a glutton, but I am not a masochist.

Though I only came across it recently, I believe that I have found a socially acceptable guilty pleasure. I am aware of how far behind the time I am with this realization, and for that I will admit to being a tad embarrassed. If you have read this blog in the past then you are aware that I have always been a major Nicolas Cage supporter. My love for the most insane actor alive does not cause guilt, but sitting through his movies has not always been a positive experience. With that being said, I was extremely reluctant to potentially poison my love for Hollywood’s creepy uncle by seeing him paired with a director like Michael Bay.

If money is the stick with which you measure success, then Mr. Bay may be one of the greatest directors of all time. If you measure success by the amount of personal reflection a director is able to mix into his art, then Magic Michael is the cinematic equivalent of Madonna’s British accent - fake and unnecessary. I have often said that his filmography is mostly too mind-numbing to watch, yet way too loud to sleep through. The Rock is the exception to this rule. Though the film has massively significant flaws, the whole thing kinda plays out like a sweet action-dream that you never want to wake up from. Are there plot holes? Sure. Does it matter?

The film stars the aforementioned Nicolas Cage as a biochemist who works for the FBI named Stanley Goodspeed. After finding out that he is going to be a father, the government calls him in to help with a very serious situation. General Francis X. Hummel (Ed Harris) and a band of renegade Marines take hostages on San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island and threaten to unleash chemical warfare if their demands are not met. What do they want? Well, Hummel is upset that men have died under his command on secret, government-denied, missions and therefore their families were never compensated for their loses. He demands that the government pay 100 million dollars to the soldier’s families. Is that really such a bad idea?

Though his stance probably could have been spotlighted more…legally…by an “Occupy”-esque demonstration, the chemical warfare thing works too. Hummel has three Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor. The government takes his threat very seriously. Why do they need Goodspeed? He can dismantle the bombs. But how does he get to them?

Sean Connery may be the best part of the movie, though his character his extremely thinly defined. His name is Mason. He has been in prison for 30 years and he is the only man to ever escape Alcatraz. He is released from prison to use his skills for accomplishing the opposite. Mason will lead Goodspeed into the maximum security prison using the route on which he escaped many years ago.

Like most action films, The Rock is a wham-bam, blink and you’ll miss it mashing of hardly related scenes of violence, catchphrases and unsubtle humor. What makes the film stand out is the three performances by the talented leads. Cage and Connery have a chemistry that makes the viewer forget that the government never even briefed Mason on the mission. They do throw in a half-hearted attempt at motive – Mason has a daughter living in San Francisco, but they obviously saw that as a burden to the pace of the film because the sub-plot never really developed. The Oscar winning duo also has their share of lines and dialogue which can be quoted in almost any stressful circumstance. A certain reference to the prom queen comes directly to mind. It is a far cry from your average “look out!”’s and “get down!”’s that usually dominate action thrillers.

Ed Harris is a sympathetic villain, but he also oozes with crazy. The audience is immediately brought into the action because Harris makes the action believable. The Rock quickly becomes a rollercoaster, but on this particular rollercoaster the participants are forced to wear blindfolds. It is a thrill-ride with unexpected ups and downs, but if you could see what was coming, you would realize that it is a little bit shallow.

Film svengali Roger Ebert once accused Michael Bay of selling his soul to the Devil in exchange for The Rock. This is because there has been a massive drop off in his critical acclaim over the years. This is what caused my initial uncertainty leading up to watching this movie. I assure you, I feel silly for liking it as much as I do. It has action, cheap laughs and great performances. It isn’t a great movie. But I would watch it with a group of friends on a random night. And there is something about that which I admire.

The Rock: B