Monthly Archives: September 2016

To Be or Not to Be (1942) Review

Many consider this to be one of the greatest comedy films of all time, and I am happy to say that I have joined the many in that opinion.  I’m afraid I have very little to add here that hasn’t been said, so I will keep my comments brief and simply urge all readers to watch this film.  While it may not be my favorite comedy, it is one that I greatly appreciate, and one that I intend to emulate.  It perfectly established so many great tricks to make a film extra-funny, and these are techniques that can still be employed today without losing much strength.  Much of its brilliance and beauty come from the fact that it’s a comedy about World War II that was made and released during World War II, and yet the really great thing about it is how well it plays with an audience of young people today (as I had the good fortune of witnessing myself).  Because I saw the Brooks film some years before seeing the Lubitsch original, there were some parts of the movie that annoyed me simply because I was hoping this film would offer more of the great moments I was used to seeing in the way I was used to seeing them.  That being said, this film takes everything a different direction – its own unique direction – that I think is worth a little analysis.

After reading an analysis of the film from a few decades ago by cultural theorist Mladen Dolar, and reading Ebert’s review of the Brooks/Johnson remake, I am fascinated by two elements of this film’s humor.  The first is the way it manages to be over-the-top without being over-the-top.  While watching this film, I was a little let down during the soliloquy sequences, because the remake made me expect Jack Benny to totally lose his cool on stage and follow the man in the audience to the edge of the stage.  This film doesn’t do that, instead focusing on understatement of big problems.  This is tied to my second note, which is how petty everyone is.  I think films are can be found on a rectangular spectrum-like chart with a particular type of fictional world in each corner:

  • Type A: The audience and the protagonist are sane, normal, and relatively smart people, but some people are inhuman, evil monsters.
  • Type B: All humans are inhuman, evil monsters.
  • Type C: The audience and the protagonist are sane, normal, and relatively smart people, but some people are short-sighted, ignorant, silly fools.
  • Type D: All humans are short-sighted, ignorant, silly fools.

I sorted them in order of popularity, and maybe I’ll make up a graphic representation later, but for now we can call our imaginary chart “The Fictional Cynicism Diagram.”  This film is noteworthy for being an early example (if not one of the only really good examples) of a film that belongs right in the last corner, Type D.  Most stories are somewhere in the middle, but this sets a tone that wouldn’t become more common until mockumentary shows and Tina Fey productions became popular.  For a film made during the second world war to have this approach to even the Nazis, refusing to let them be anything but flawed, foolish humans, just like our heroes, is amazing.  That’s what makes this a landmark film, and why its one of my favorites.

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Stranger on the Third Floor Review

This surely must be one of the most fascinating and strange films I have ever seen.

Stranger on the Third Floor is generally considered to be the first movie in the film noir genre, and yet it is very different from the standard conceptions that come to mind when most people think of noir (based on films like Out of the PastDouble Indemnity, or the Bogart films).  The lead in this story is no stone-faced, stoic Bogart type – he’s an emotional basket-case – and the relative normalcy of the characters makes the film feel very different from how I’d come to think of noir based on what I saw in Out of the Past.  It starts off like a simple enough old-timey Classical Hollywood story about two young lovebirds, but the second act takes a turn when it becomes an experiment in expressionism, before finally returning to reality for a third act that breaks Hollywood in the strangest way.

The second act features an elaborate and creative nightmare sequence, composed almost entirely of elements that were shown (or at least discussed) earlier in the film, now warped into something entirely unreal.  This sequence is expressionism gone wild, blatantly stealing from German, French, and Russian artistic styles, but clearly forming a new style of its own at the same time that would be very influential in future film noirs (not to mention Tim Burton films – even if indirectly – and other dark dramas).  Simply put, it all looks gorgeous, and its exaggerated theatrical style makes the whole nightmare scene explode with all the wild emotion that burns in the protagonist’s shredded heart.  I’m not sure I can think of any other film that manages to be so vibrant without having color, so over-the-top without getting silly, or so animated without being . . . well, literally animated.  Then comes the ending.

The final act is incredibly bizarre seeing as how the protagonist vanishes from the movie, leaving his girlfriend to take over the role of being a hero (of sorts).  This is not so much a feminist move as a clumsy one, because this was not done to make any sort of statement about gender equality, from what I saw/heard in my repeated viewings and careful reading, but I’m not sure what exactly it really is supposed to be.  This move seems to serve little purpose and just make the narrative awkward.  Even more awkward is the conversation the leading lady has with the insane antagonist, which had so little logic to it that there were multiple moments of laughter in the screening room when I saw it.  Then, at the end, the antagonist is randomly hit by a car and presumed dead, only for the police to look at him and start talking to him as his body lies in the street, revealing he is alive.  This is finished off with one of the most forced “tag endings” in movie history, making for an overly cheery, cheesy conclusion that just doesn’t feel human.

On the whole, however, the film is very strong.  The expressionist visuals are used not just for show, but to saturate the conflict, making the emotions of the protagonist that much stronger and the drama of the story that much more powerful.  Its commentary on how flawed the American justice system may very well be is truly chilling.  The performances by some of the actors, particularly the great Peter Lorre, served the film very well, making for a very special mood to the work overall.  I recommend this film not only because it was inspirational for filmmakers historically, but because it is inspirational to me.  It’s weaknesses may be absurd, but its strengths win me over, and I cannot help but have a massive crush on this gorgeous, gorgeous film.

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Contact Review

Please, please read this review.

I don’t think the star rating is an accurate picture of what I think of this movie.  It is an absolutely brilliant drama, clearly showing off the storytelling skills of Carl Sagan, Robert Zemeckis, and Alan Silvestri at their finest.  At the same time, I don’t think this review is adequate either.  I sort of have a hatred for this film.  It’s one of those movies that I want to either give a very high rating or a very low rating, but I can’t decide which.  What makes the movie so difficult for me to process is this: Carl Sagan – one of the greatest champions of scientific, skeptical thinking – gave the world a story that makes a case for faith, and seems to make the case against skepticism itself.

This feels like an abominable treachery from one of the last men I would ever expect to be a turncoat in the movement for scientific reasoning.  While the very, very end of the movie seems to suggest that skepticism isn’t a bad thing, the conclusion of the movie essentially does.  The viewer is put in the position of assuming that the protagonist’s experience, for which she has no evidence, is entirely real, and not at all of her own imagination.  The skeptics, however, decide that her experience must be considered invalid.  We see the believers with their signs outside the courthouse claiming that she really did “contact” alien life, but these people (whom we are led to believe are correct) have no good evidence for their stance.  They are right by happenstance – because their unwarranted belief just so happened to be true – and that is not a healthy way to think.  The messages that this film promotes and the way in which it promotes them may be detrimental to the intellectual safety of anyone who takes this film seriously, which is a prospect that I frankly find horrifying and enraging.

The worst part of all this is that the film is perfect up until the ending.  It is one of the most thoughtful, provocative, intellectual, creative, realistic, imaginative, clever, emotional, smart, gripping, fun, and serious films I have ever seen.  It looks at the idea of alien contact in a way that makes it seem very, very real – both intellectually and emotionally.  I was completely sucked in, on the edge of my seat with my jaw on the floor for most of the film, and I was overwhelmingly impressed with perfect marriage of the screenplay Sagan and his wife had fashioned and the cinematic craftsmanship of Zemeckis.  When one considers that this is a drama, which I see as a genre that is generally intellectually inferior to comedy, it is amazing that its first two acts won me over to the extent that they did.  All it needed to do to be one of my top 25 favorite films of all time was show that the beauty of scientific discovery is directly linked to the beauty of skepticism, but instead its ending turned the film into the same drivel that most sappy dramedies end with: “no matter what anyone says, all that matters is that you believe in yourself.”  No, that’s not an actual quote from the film, but frankly it would have been fitting for the closing credits to feature this exact address from one of the Care Bears.

I will need to consider the film further and read more about Sagan’s view of skepticism, but from what I’ve read in interviews and articles thus far, he lacks a basic understanding of what skepticism is, what atheism is, and how to think with rationality about matters of faith in general.  I must concede, however, that the film is deserving of much praise for being incredibly well-made, and I would have to rate it fairly well.  At least it can be seen as inspirational to young women and girls who may leave this film with an eagerness to go into the scientific field, and whom I sincerely hope will learn for themselves just how beautiful true skepticism really is.

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Mad Max Review

What . . . the what?  I’m very confused about what on earth this movie is supposed to be.  The entire selling point of Mad Max – and the story synopsis on the back of the DVD case – is Max’s revenge plot.  But this plot is just the third act.  The entirety of acts one and two is spent setting up a conflict, rather than following one.  I’m not saying that every film must follow the standard Hollywood narrative format, but the best deviations from this format are the ones that deviate to saturate the conflict, not distract from it.  In comparison to my expectations, most of Mad Max just feels dull and pointless.

This film raises the usual questions that I struggle to answer when writing on a film I don’t like:

  1. Is it a good film even though it’s not my cup of tea?
  2. Can it be held accountable for not living up to its marketing if the film’s marketing is the problematic part?
  3. And is it really a bad thing when a film does not make it clear how it should be approached/read?

To answer the first question, I do think it is possible for me to recognize films that have many positive elements, even if I don’t particularly like them.  I have spent far too much time writing about Pan’s Labyrinth because I know that it is a very impressive film, yet somehow I hate it immensely.  I’m not sure that this movie is the same kind of situation.  Mad Max does not strike me as remarkably well-crafted, even for what it’s trying to be, regardless of whether or not I happen to like what it’s trying to be.  Perhaps the problem is that I cannot tell what it is that I was supposed to be getting out of it, but now that I know what the movie is about and what it spends its time focused on, I still don’t think I’d appreciate it more on my second viewing.  Its story is simply lacking.

For the second question, I don’t think I have a good answer.  If a movie’s marketing is really bad, but the film itself ends up being spectacular, I don’t think I could fault it much for the marketing.  After all, the marketing is not necessarily apart of the film itself, and is generally not really controlled (or even influenced much) by what the director and producer say.  On the other hand, if a film gives me less than what the marketing had me expecting, that’s a negative thing.  It shows that there’s potential there for a good movie, but the filmmakers didn’t make something as good as what the film could have been.  On the other other hand,  what’s especially difficult here is discerning when a film is just “different” from its marketing, but not particularly better or worse.  With Mad Max, it’s clear to me that all of the time spent “world building” in the first hour could have been spent on an exciting plot that properly mixed in the world building, sort of like The Princess Bride, and that would’ve been far more entertaining (without deviating from what was advertised or what the movie promised).

The last question is perhaps the most controversial, and what could easily make me seem like an idiot to a heck of a lot of people.  I’m going to answer this question with a yes, but I’m not sure that it’s a yes in every case.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my review of Pulp Fiction, which I have come to disagree with over time.  It seems to me that I only liked the film because I had heard Tarantino explain in an interview how to approach and/or process it.  I have come to recognize that, without an explanation of how to approach it, I couldn’t have understood it.  Not only that, but I couldn’t have understood how to understand it.  That, I think, is the key – I don’t need a filmmaker to hold my hand and explain everything to me, but I need to know what language I’m seeing before I can read it, or what game I’m playing before I can win it; the difficulty of the game is irrelevant.

I don’t really know if this review will make sense to anyone else.  I’m not even sure that it makes sense to me.  My goal has simply been to explore why I feel the way I do about this movie, and hopefully to understand myself (and cinema) better for having done so.  Mad Max is certainly a special film that has some value to it, but the vast majority of the film did not grab me, and I was left wanting much, much more.  Perhaps my problem is not so much the film as it is the glimpses it shows of what it could have been.

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