Monthly Archives: October 2016

Animal House Review

When I was a wee lad in the humble state of Delaware, I was a big fan of a certain kind of film – a kind that usually took the form of made-for-TV film.  Because I spent my whole childhood overwhelmed by the fact that I was forced to remain a child for years to come, and therefore would have no say in any decision-making and would never be able to get anyone to listen to me, I loved the films about kids who banded together to solve the problems adults couldn’t or wouldn’t, always in creative ways.  I think the best example of this is Max Keeble’s Big Move, but others include Recess: School’s Out and Gunther and the Paper Brigade.  It’s a cute genre that generally does not age well (in the sense that adults don’t like them as much as kids do), but it stays near and dear to my heart.  College comedies that try to offer the same experience to adults rarely interest me as much because they generally lack the same spirit or charm.  The one exception to this, of course, is Animal House, which both fills my heart with nostalgic warmth and fills my head with adult filth.

While the story is rather loose and the screenplay gives one the feeling that the film can be summed up as “stuff happening,” this is a solid piece of entertainment.  It manages to present very pathetic, stupid, un-relatable characters and still make them likable.  The performance from Belushi obviously steals the show, but Karen Allen brings the charm to the film, and Donald Sutherland blew my mind with how perfectly he was able to embody the epitome of nebbishness even though I’m used to thinking of him as an intimidating figure.  This movie kept impressing me with the depths to which it was willing to go just to be stupid, as was clearly demonstrated when it first established its cliché “weirdly extreme villain with the weak, dorky sidekick” dynamic.  The music is good too, as are most of the stylistic elements, and Landis proved himself once again to be a great cinematic craftsman.  The very end of the film felt a little weak, as there was really no resolution, but it did seem appropriate.  It may not be as pure as Some Like It Hot, but it still deserves its status as one of cinema’s finest comedies to date.144-animal-house

Singin’ in the Rain Review: Upon Further Consideration…

SPOILER ALERT

Anyone familiar with my “Upon Further Consideration…” series knows from the categorization of this article that I have already seen Singin’ in the Rain in the past.  I think this most recent viewing was my third or fourth one, and I enjoyed each and every previous viewing.  I’ve considered the film to be not only a must-see classic, but also one of my favorite films for many years, although in recent years I started to wonder how much of that might me my memory’s exaggeration based on my fondness for the classic musicals I watched with my family as a child.  I remembered that some parts of the movie felt slow or irrelevant, like the scene that presents all of the models in bizarre dresses – which has nothing to do with the story and does not get a laugh.  During this viewing, however, I was not only pleasantly surprised to see that my memories had not done the film justice, but also that this film is actually an outstanding work of absolute genius, with stunning talent and unbelievable near-perfection that frequently left me literally gaping.

Technically, this is not a perfect movie, but like most of the greats, its strength is in making the audience not care about its imperfections.  The film is loaded with musical numbers that contribute little or nothing to the plot and could have been replaced by just about any other song.  Fortunately, these musical numbers are, overall, so impressive and fun and entertaining as spectacles that no one could possibly complain that they interrupt the plot.  I don’t even mind the needless number about the fashion too much.  Even still, the plot doesn’t hold together perfectly.  Towards the end, Lena essentially takes over the studio simply by lying to the press, making the studio head too concerned that their movie will bomb if one of its stars is found to be a phony.  At the film’s closing, however, the studio head randomly decides that it’ll be perfectly okay to reveal Lena to be an untalented sham, which he obviously could have done sooner in a more professional manner.  The trick that the film pulls here is simply a bit of misdirection – they pull the viewer’s attention to the romantic sub-plot, which has by and large taken over the movie and become the A-plot at this point, so that we do not care what the motives are for giving us the happy ending.  I heard from a professor of mine that Terry Gilliam once said filmmakers could cut anything they wanted to from the last fifteen minutes of a film and not even the biggest fans of the movie would care so long as they got their happy ending, and while I’m not sure if the attribution is accurate, the principle is exemplified in Singin’ in the Rain.

There’s also a lot more cleverness to this film than I remembered.  Heck, the opening shot of the film is a way of doing the credits that I haven’t seen done in any other film, and it’s one of the best beginnings a movie’s ever had.  They also take great care in the film’s first act to save the reveal of Lena’s voice for just the right moment, which is all handled very “stealthily” in a way, in that they make sure the audience doesn’t suspect the whopper of a gag that the movie has planned with her.  Cosmo’s dialogue is superb, and clearly set the tone for all the “comedic sidekick” characters to come.  There are a few elements of the film that seem to borrow from, or perhaps pay homage to, Babes in Arms – particularly the scene showing the industry’s sudden transition from silent films to sound films.  Parts of the movie are significantly more over-the-top and theatrical than I remembered, but the theatricality is at its peak during the “Broadway Melody” number, which just might be the most gorgeous scene in all of cinema – it’s sort of like expressionism on steroids.  It all comes together to make for a delightful experience that no one should miss.

ufc-03-singin-in-the-rain

Raw Deal Review

SPOILER ALERT

Unlike many of my fellow millennials, I have no reservations or concerns about watching films from Classical Hollywood, because I do not share in their fears that old movies are “too boring.”  My issue with classic cinema is that it can be uncomfortable recommending or showing older films to friends of mine without explaining to them beforehand that I don’t condone the sexism or racism that sometimes appears in these classic films.  When I heard that Raw Deal brings a female perspective to film noir by having a woman narrate, I was hoping that it would be a film noir I could show to friends with no such concerns.  Better yet, the professor of the class that was screening Raw Deal said it was his favorite film noir, which sounded like a good sign (as he was also a big fan of Double Indemnity, which I find excellent).  Regrettably, I not only greatly disliked the film, but was very disappointed to find no trace of feminism or anything of the sort.  While I do think the recurring theme throughout the film is the theme of the choice(s) of its women, I do not think that the film presents the women’s freedom to choose in a positive light.

Most scenes in Raw Deal are part of a set up for the main female choices in the film: Pat’s choice to lie to Joe about Rick’s goon’s phone call concerning Ann, and then her choice tell him the truth.  Pat is the character who is most clearly being silenced throughout the film, never getting the chance to take part in the decision-making in her and Joe’s relationship during the first two acts.  She’s actually being told what to do by men even before Joe starts – at the prison, she’s told she’ll have to wait to see Joe, which is just the first of many moments in the film that focus on how she’s forced to wait, and then she and Joe are commanded by the security guard to keep their voices up.  When Joe starts, if Pat’s narration is to be trusted, the commanding gets alarmingly strict.  She hardly gets to finish one sentence once he gets in the car before he tells her to focus on the wheel, and then when she tells him he doesn’t like his plan to use her and Ann to get through the dragnet, he dismisses her concerns immediately and tells her to get dressed.  She is similarly told what to do and/or silenced when speaking her mind – either on screen or according to her voiceover – in their car ride to the border, just after they pass the dragnet, at the campfire, when they make their way to Walt’s bar by the beach, and repeatedly throughout their whole discussion when he decides to leave her behind and go to Rick’s.  Pat’s narration makes it seem almost as though it’s the story of a woman who’s trapped in a film that’s about her lover’s love story, not hers.

From the perspective of screenwriting theory, it seems like this would be the obvious set-up for a story about a woman who finally learns to make her own choice.  While Joe may be the protagonist and dominate the film’s climax, Pat has her own semi-climactic moment when she decides to lie about the phone call.  However, the liberation that seems to be displayed in this scene is undercut by her more climactic scene, when she realizes her one big decision in the film was a mistake.  If she learns any moral lesson – although that’s debatable – it’s that she should have done as Joe told her in the first place and told him what the man said on the phone call.

Rick goes further in his mistreatment of women, as I suppose one would expect of the villain, and he shows this by keeping his cool after he’s lost his poker game and found out that Joe successfully escaped, but losing it when his lady friend accidentally spills a little bit of her drink on him.  (That’s rather small in comparison, even if it is supposed to be the last straw.)  Still, it’s ultimately Pat’s narrative that reveals time and time again that she lives in a world in which women’s views aren’t as important as men’s, and I don’t see how her decision to withhold information from Joe changes that.  Ann’s choice to shoot a man, which is also set up earlier in the film (with her mentioning in her apartment that she’d be able to stop Joe if she had a gun), but this choice leads to her overwhelming guilt, and ultimately Joe ends up dying hours later anyway.  Add this to the number of times they use the word dame and the way the whistle blows when Ann walks out of the prison and it’s clear that the film does not play as well as one would hope to younger audiences who find anti-feminism in film morally unsatisfactory.  While I’ve heard some make the case today that the way women are presented and/or treated in film today seems worse that it was back in the days of Classical Hollywood, this is clearly the kind of movie that people are afraid to find when they watch classic films because it perpetuates the view that it is the woman’s place to shut up and obey.  At the end of the day, as much as I really appreciate the film’s charmingly “Noir-Expressionist” visual style, I have found nothing else about the film which is particularly noteworthy or memorable, which presents me in the Song of the South conundrum – if all that’s really memorable about the film are the few parts that seem particularly politically inappropriate, should those alone be the memorable part of its reception and ratings?

In this case, I vote yes.

143-raw-deal

Terminator Review

MINOR SPOILER ALERT

Oh, how I love the ’80s.  The ’80s developed the styles of particular cult ’70s musicals into a New Expressionism – one that emphasized deep, vivid colors and bright lights flashing through dark, gray cities.  This mix of warm grays, cold blues, and hot reds spread across theatrical sets was complimented by over-the-top acting of Lloyd, Fox, Moranis, Curry, and others, bringing a theatrical quality to cinema that had not been seen since the days of German Expressionism.  The use of electronic music made everyone feel like the future was just around the corner, but whether that future was exciting or dystopian depended on the movie.  There is, of course, a spectrum to ’80s cinema, and much of it was very light and clean and harmless, but the darker end of the spectrum was home to the dark, dystopian action films: Blade RunnerRoboCopAliens, Batman, and perhaps the most emblematic of them all, Terminator.

Regrettably, I didn’t love Terminator quite as much as I’d hoped.  I liked it just fine, but since I’m not usually a big fan of an action movie for action’s sake, I found it somewhat lacking.  Its characters could have been a little bit more interesting, although Schwarzenegger was about as fun to watch as I had expected, and the story could have been a little bit more dramatic or devious.  The ending left me a bit unsatisfied because it means that very little was actually accomplished apart from that which was necessitated by the rules of time – all of the events of the film (that take place in the ’80s) are already predestined, and couldn’t have possibly gone any other way.  The ending would have been more satisfying if their actions in the ’80s somehow prevented all the horrible robot wars of the future or had caused all of the horrible robot wars, but as it was it felt weak.  I don’t really consider this film to be a disappointment, however, because it was exactly what it needed to be – an excursion into fun science fiction with that beautiful ’80s charm.

142-terminator

Barry Lyndon Review

In my recent review of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, I explained that I finally understood just how impressive a director Kubrick was, and had come to respect him much more than I had after seeing 2001.  While 2001 was agony, I have found that I enjoy some of his other films, such as Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket, and Killer’s Kiss isn’t all that bad either.  Better yet, if I found 2001 to be so devastatingly lacking in both emotional satisfaction and intellectual satisfaction, Paths of Glory has made up for the emotional lack in spades, and A Clockwork Orange has done the same for the intellectual lack, with both of these films being brilliant, powerful masterpieces that redeemed him in my eyes.  Unfortunately, just as the Israelites of the Old Testament made right with God just before they wandered back into their sinful ways, I was bound to find another Kubrick film that brought his score back down into the negative.  This film is Barry Lyndon.

Conceptually, this film is essentially a remake of 2001, only this time it’s set in the world of old paintings instead of the future.  Visually, it is absolutely stunning, and his technical innovating that allowed him to create such a fascinating visual experience is evidence of the man’s genius.  Once again, however, Kubrick shows his taste for making human characters less and less human in a way that does not serve his film well.  His characters are, as one would expect after 2001, mechanical and uninteresting, which I think it is safe to say was his goal.  Also like 2001, the run-time is far too long for a story so incoherent and pointless, and there is really only one scene in the film that is particularly good (and emotionally captivating) as far as the characters are concerned.  Naturally, these reasons I give for hating the film are, as I expected, exactly the same reasons that others love it.

Clearly, making me dislike the characters is the point, and in a way, making it boring is part of the point as well, which many professional critics have conceded.  “[F]or all its dry wit and visual splendor,” wrote Time Out in a recent review, “this 1975 adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel might be the great director’s least satisfying, most disconcerting film – and that’s what makes it extraordinary.”  The film is considered fascinating because Kubrick uses the fact that the character has nothing that any sensible person would recognize as a “personality” (for most of the film) as his social criticism on how pathetic humans are.  “Barry Lyndon isn’t a great success, and it’s not a great entertainment,” Roger Ebert adds in one of his two reviews of the film, “but it’s a great example of directorial vision: Kubrick saying he’s going to make this material function as an illustration of the way he sees the world.”  I can understand and appreciate this effort, and I think I even strongly agree with Kubrick’s thesis – people really are pathetic machines with an utter lack of any devotion to living a good, reasonable life, and are hopelessly seeking a nonexistent state of total happiness; but even if I agree with his thesis, and even if I am impressed with what he’s done to achieve his goal for the film, I do not think that his goal for the film (making the audience annoyed, uncomfortable, and bored for three hours) is either a good goal for a movie or an effective goal for the purpose of supporting his thesis.

The fact of the matter is that critics do not really want what they say they want.  Their desire for a blunt critique of how pathetic humans are and how meaningless their lives are, there is a well-known technique for doing that effectively while keeping the audience entertained.  It’s called comedy.  Comedy, when done properly, shows all intentions to be selfish, all ideas to be myopic, all peoples to be primitive, all societal conventions to be fragile, all masculinity to be non-existent, all propriety to be a joke, all nations to be powerless, all genius to be craziness, all traditions to be childish, all pride to be arrogant, wars to be inconsequential, all actions to be futile, and all humans to be stupid as swine.  Yet somehow this is of no interest to critics, who are uncomfortable awarding films of this nature when they could instead award the dramas, which always pretend the feelings of one good individual can make all the difference in the world and which relentlessly hammer in the message that some people are simply bad people because they do bad things because they are bad people because they do bad things.  (For more on this subject, I recommend Mladen Dolar’s essay “To Be or Not to Be?  No, Thank You,” which explains this concept far better than I.)  Dramas are allowed to be fatalistic or libertarian in philosophy, but the realm of determinism has always belonged to the comedy.  This is why the most popular kind of film right now in critical, academic, and pseudo-intellectual circles seems to be, from what I’ve seen recently, the dramedy.

The modern dramedy attempts to make a drama film while borrowing the element of “pathetic determinism” from comedy.  This offers the intellectual criticism of comedy with the sense of emotional weight and significance brought to a subject by drama.  This, I argue, presents the sort of film that Barry Lyndon is – it is a predecessor to the contemporary dramedy in that it presents hopelessly pathetic, semi-mechanical humans (like characters out of a Coen brothers film) in the guise of drama, giving critics everything they say they want.  I argue, however, that what they want may in fact be simply comedy: after all, it seems as though it has been much easier for a comedy to get a high score on Rotten Tomatoes recently than it has been for the dramas.  I think that drama is not what they want, and it is not even necessarily what they say they want – it’s what they say they say they want.  The numbers show that what they want is comedy, but have been trained by tradition to think they must want drama if they’re smart.

What critics (and perhaps most other people) truly want, or so it seems to me, is the chance to seem thoughtful while experiencing the thoughtless.  This is what many dramedies do, but it is also what I think many practices in the world of “mindfulness” do.  In short, people like to reach a “zen” state of hypnosis or “zoning out” in which they feel like they’re having an experience that is somehow elevated to a higher level of human consciousness.  This is why critics have described it as “hypnotic” – it has a mesmerizing quality, and that is something that does not particularly appeal to me, but it appeals to a great many individuals who want to seem intelligent, wise, and/or spiritual.  A hypnotic experience is not the same as experiencing genius, insight, or elevation.  The problem is that people associate the significance and meaningfulness of something with emotion, and so we feel like something but be especially meaningful if it gives us a special, “higher” kind of emotional experience.  For this reason, an emotionally distant comedy that’s very intellectual is often not as desirable to critics or audiences as a drama on the same subject would be or as a hypnotic film would be, simply because it is an emotional experience that makes us feel as though we are watching something important.

While I recognize that this review probably comes across to many readers as an arrogant, ignorant, and even sanctimonious display of hubris, I see no other way to write this review.  Think about it: if I am to maintain my view that one’s assessment of a film is not merely a subjective feeling, as anyone who appreciates the function of the film critics ought to understand, but I am also to argue that I do not support the enormous (and almost unanimous) critical acclaim that this film has come to receive, I am logically required to explain some sort of reasoning for how it’s possible that I am right and all the professional critics are wrong.  I regrettably have no other choice – without this explanation of my views, anyone could compare the number of stars I have given this film to the number that one finds in a Google search and immediately deem me a thoughtless fool.  All of my above writing on the “critics’ delusion” is not to be taken as dogmatic facts from a know-it-all, but as a working thesis I have for what the many worshipers of the films I hate might be missing.  At the same time, I obviously don’t mind if other people like films that I don’t, so long as I am not considered thoughtless for hating a film that the “cinema elect” has decided is perfect.  I do believe that a large amount of diversity in tastes is healthy for a culture, but this notion that the dramatic and the hypnotic are (by default) artwork of a higher caliber than fun, entertaining artwork is one that I must militantly oppose.

141-barry-lyndon

Sherlock Jr. Review

Well, I suppose I couldn’t avoid it forever.  I always knew that I would eventually have to start reviewing silent films.  Sure, I did review Metropolis, but that was the Giorgio Moroder version, so I was largely reviewing an audio storyteller’s work with re-interpreting older visual material, making it more similar to an ordinary sound film.  The reason why that is the only silent film I have reviewed thus far is because it was a way of cheating – I just don’t know how to review a pure silent film.  At the end of the day, sound cinema isn’t just a different kind of storytelling or a different stage of the history of the same medium – it’s a fundamentally different medium.  Ever since Sergei Eisenstein penned his essay on “vertical montage,” cinema as we know it has been an art of both sight and sound, and I would even go so far as to say that the sound film is more like the television show than it is to the silent film.  Because of the radical difference, I have been far too scared of reviewing a true silent film in my writings thus far, largely due to the fact that my attention is always, always, always drawn first to the contemporary soundtracks that have been added to the silent films I’ve seen, and the sound determines a huge percentage of my experience.  Nevertheless, I shall attempt to focus this review on what it is I see that I find fascinating.

For his day, I think what Buster Keaton created here was a very good mix of spectacle (or “attraction”) and story.  The story is interesting and clever, although it is structured strangely, and it does leave much of the most interesting actions in the story up to secondary characters, all while Buster is asleep.  Keaton’s character in the film is exceptionally likable – the kind of daydreamer that the ideal “Walter Mitty” ought to be – and the way this character concludes the film is one of the greatest combinations of clever comedy and romantic charm I have ever seen.  His playfulness with the medium is equally clever, resulting in some exceptional special effects that have truly stumped be.  The silent slapstick may not be my cup of tea, but I think that the film works fairly well with audiences today on the whole, at least as far as its comedy goes, and I do consider it a very impressive achievement of the silent age.

140-sherlock-jr

Batman Begins Review: Upon Further Consideration…

Most of the time when I review a movie on this website, I’m doing it because I hadn’t seen the film before.  “Upon Further Consideration…” is the series I use once in a blue moon when I feel like sharing my thoughts on a film I haven’t seen in a long while.

Since I talk too much about how I generally disapprove of what Christopher Nolan did with Batman, I thought it would be best for me to finally sit down and watch The Dark Knight all the way through – which I probably should have done before I started complaining about how it’s the film that’s ruined the theatrical beauty of cinema.  However, when I went to the library to pick up a copy of The Dark Knight, I realized that I was uncertain as to whether or not I had seen its predecessor, Batman Begins, also by Nolan.  For this reason, I picked up Batman Begins and watched that instead.  As I watched the film, I continued to be unsure as to whether or not I’d seen it before, because the beginning was very familiar, but I didn’t recognize much of what happened after Bruce went back to Gotham.  Since I knew the ending and seemed to recall various parts scattered throughout, I came to realize that I must have seen it before – or at least most of it – but it’s just a really forgettable film.

First of all, there’s that blasted visual style.  In this movie, it’s not quite as gray as I expected, instead focusing a lot on brown, but it seems the color scheme turns to the Nolan light-bluish-gray for Dark Knight, and finally to blackness for Dark Knight Rises, giving each film in the trio its own color.  It’s a neat way of doing it, but what it’s made me realize is that my conception of the “Nolanization of cinema” is not entirely accurate – while I had always assumed that Nolan’s grayed out Batman update was responsible for the rest of cinema turning gray, I know understand that this does not work out chronologically.  Batman Begins came out in 2005, and Dark Knight came out in 2008, while Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was released in 2004.  This means that I have been incorrect in accusing Nolan of leading to franchises getting retooled for the worse the way that the Potter franchise was, when in fact it was Azkaban that can be blamed for what Nolan did to Batman, and arguably Pan’s Labyrinth is another of the first main culprits.  For this reason it is no surprise that the movie is forgettable – it was just following a trend by adding grays and browns and killing the greatest hits of the color spectrum.  Some shots in the film, on the other hand, surprised me by looking very good, but these were interestingly the shots that very closely resembled Tim Burton’s first imagining of Gotham, and I must ask: what is the point of making a new visual style that looks its best only when it closely copies the old visual style?

Not only is it visually forgettable, but its characters are forgettable.  I really like Morgan Freeman’s character in the movie, but that’s only because he’s Morgan Freeman, and there is nothing special about that character on paper – his only value is the actor who plays him.  The villains are threatening and mildly scary, but overall they lack some sort of villainous “it factor.”  I could see myself wearing a T-shirt bearing the face of The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin, or any number of other DC villains, but not The Scarecrow, and certainly not whatever Liam Neeson’s character is supposed to be called.  Don’t even get me started on Katie Holmes’ portrayal of Rachel Dawes, which I mostly blame on the writing, but there is no excuse for how insufferably bland she is.  Dawes is a device, and one that I never cared about.  At all.  Part of the problem with Dawes is that she’s primarily designed to spew out cat-poster morality at are morally confused protagonist, which gets old and feels preachy.

This leads to one of the film’s greatest weaknesses: its moral confusion.  Never before have I seen a film that spends so much time exploring morality without having any coherence in moral philosophy by the end of the film.  One could argue that this just means the film is “complex” or “complicated,” but it doesn’t have an intelligent kind of incoherence at the end of the film, like what is presented just before the closing credits of Do the Right Thing.  Instead, it feels like listening to a sermon written by a child who just took different moral sayings he heard and threw them all together, without any clue what he was talking about.  Example: at the end of the film, Dawes kisses Bruce, but then says she can’t love him because he has become Batman, while she’s in love with the good man he was before he became Batman, but then she say’s she’s proud of what he’s done as Batman.  So . . . does she like his personality and behavior or not?!  What’s worse is that the film celebrates Bruce for having empathy when he saves Neeson from falling off the cliff in the first part of the film, even when the villains try to convince him that empathy is bad, but at the end of the film – after all this talk about how wrong it is for good people to do nothing – he decides he will not save Neeson from dying in the train.  It is now his choice to withhold his empathy and his goodness that is considered a positive trait, which makes the film give out more mixed signals than Dawes does.

I think it goes without saying that I think this movie is, in many respects, a train wreck.  Nolan tried to make the audience take Batman very seriously, but, ya know . . . HE’S A GUY IN A BAT COSTUME – it’s inevitably going to be either campy or awkward, so he should have had more fun with the character.  So, so much of this film just feels off, strange, flat, or inconsistent, and the film adds virtually nothing of value to what Burton had so perfectly established as the cinematic Batman in 1989.  Yet, in a way, it still feels like a Batman movie, and that makes it fun.  Not as fun as it could be, but fun.  It’s interesting and amusing enough to be enjoyable, so I think that, all things considered, it’s okay.  Not great – maybe not even good – but okay.  I’ll give it a good rating because I find it entertaining enough, but does this mean I’ll have to stop giving Nolan such a hard time?  Oh, wait – no it does not – I still have to watch The Dark Knight . . . .

ufc-02-batman-begins