Monthly Archives: January 2017

Tootsie Review

Because I’m a film student, and because I have a particular fascination with comedy films, I am sometimes asked which movies make me laugh out loud.  As much as I enjoy laughing, I must confess that very few comedy films – even the greats – consistently succeed at getting a big belly laugh out of me (purposely, that is).  Fortunately, I now have one more movie that does the trick for me, which shouldn’t be unexpected seeing as how Tootsie is considered one of the greatest and funniest comedies of all time.  With this in mind, it seems strange and surprising that Tootsie is such a cliché film, filled with most of the Hollywood tropes of comedy cinema from the past four decades.  I wasn’t sure I was in the mood to see another movie about a man dressing in drag, but somehow, in spite of its lack of originality (and perhaps general weakness) as a story, it’s one of the smartest movies I’ve seen in a long time.

I am a firm believer in the John Cleese doctrine that “all comedy is critical,” but this movie showed me just how well the “observational comedy” of the stand-up comedian – comedy that starts with “Have you ever noticed . . .” and ends with “What’s up with that?” – converts to cinema.  This film is a captivating study in the psychology of gender, revealing that the way we think about men, women, and romance is very different from the way that we think we think about them.  The story repeatedly emphasizes just how difficult it can be to be a woman, and better yet, it does so without being preachy.  Even with a too-familiar story and some really cruel characters – as are common for romantic comedies – the perfect performances by this stellar cast sell everything flawlessly.  While this is nothing ground-breaking, no proper study of the assumptions we make about gender is complete without viewing this film, and just importantly, Tootsie is purely and simply fun.

Heathers Review

MINOR SPOILERS

Lately, it seems I’ve been in the mood to watch movies about bad teenagers committing extreme crimes.  I recently watched The Bling Ring, which focuses on the least likable people on the planet breaking into the homes of celebrities and stealing their priceless belongings.  It’s fascinating because it has the feeling of an Animal Planet documentary, giving the viewer a mostly objective look at the lives of creatures that don’t seem to be humans – at least not if my friends, family, peers, and roommates are the standard for “human.”  I thought that I liked it, until I saw the ’80s classic (and life-long member of everyone’s Netflix watch-list) Heathers, which takes a far more interesting approach.  While just as much a satire, this film largely throws realism to the wind and thrusts the audience into a world of mercilessly dark comedy.  I’m not sure exactly how much it made me laugh, but I will say that, when watching this movie, I had more fun – just pure and simple childlike giddiness – than I’ve had watching any other since Suspiria or Animal House – or maybe even my beloved Phantom of the Paradise.

Part of what makes this movie work so well is that it embraces cinema’s area of expertise: not truth, but “truthiness.”  Anyone who knows what my high school was like knows that my experience there did not resemble that of this film’s characters in any way, and yet everything about this movie feels weirdly familiar.  I’ve never met characters like the Heathers, but it feels like I’ve encountered them countless times.  It feels like every high school in America has these same jocks, these same nerds, and this same staff.  It’s almost like a bizarre take on Carrie, offering a chance to see justice done to the people in high school we all kind of wish were dead.  I think that’s why it resonates with so many people, and why it’s a great example of how cinema ought to function, at least in its comedies.

Oddly enough, this film struck me as being the high school equivelent to a film noir.  Perhaps it’s because of the odd, awkward dark tone matched with a bit of expressionism, or maybe it’s because of the situation the protagonist finds herself in, or maybe it’s because of the ending, but the whole thing feels like the filmmakers had been watching a lot of old films noirs when developing this story.  It particularly feels like noir when Veronica looks down at the dead body of the man she just shot, seemingly realizing that she killed him and starting to feel bad, and then she proceeds to shoot the other jock, without explanation.  I got a similar vibe when the film awkwardly tried to work in a message about how bad teen suicide is, with several references throughout to a song entitled, “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It).”  This message feels clumsily shoe-horned in, and it reminds me of all the times when the police officers in movies from the 1940s and 1950s explained to the characters (and, more importantly, to the audience) that the actions of the criminals were bad.  These are just some of the ways in which Heathers is both strange and familiar for movie-lovers, and maybe that’s what makes it hit the spot for me.

Dark City Review

READ THIS REVIEW BEFORE SEEING THE FILM

For what it’s worth, I really tried to watch this movie the right way.  I had been warned that the film has an opening voiceover (added by the studio due to concerns that humans are stupid) which gives away many of the biggest surprises, reveals, and twists.  So, I did my filmic duty and muted everything up until the opening titles, which is what everyone who sees it ought to do.  Unfortunately, I forgot that I had the closed captions turned on, so I still had something important spoiled for me, but it wasn’t much more than had already been spoiled by the guy who had informed me about the voiceover in the first place.  I think the best way to avoid this issue is to just watch the director’s cut, which does not spoil itself at the start and remains more true to what the film was meant to be.  I eagerly look forward to watching the director’s cut for myself, if only because, in spite of its problems, I actually greatly enjoy this movie – so much so that I started watching it again from the beginning almost immediately after it ended.  No matter how many times the movie explains itself (and it is a lot), it manages to stay surprising and interesting, holding my attention from start to finish.

One of the things that makes it so captivating is the editing, which is incredibly fast.  When I started watching the movie from the beginning for a second time, it felt normal to me, but during my initial viewing, it threw me off with its rather awkward speed and tight transitions, throwing out so much of the space to catch one’s breath between cuts/scenes that other films offer.  It’s obviously visually outstanding – that’s arguably the point of the film – but I think there’s more to it than that.  Yes, it’s about getting lost in another world and exploring a strange, anxiety-inducing place, but it also makes an argument for how the human mind/soul works, and it makes it well.  Its story may be nothing remarkable, but that doesn’t matter – It’s still one of the most thrilling films I’ve ever seen.  If not for the film’s inability to keep its mouth shut and let me figure it out for myself, and if not for the film’s disinterest in making me feel emotion, I would be hailing it as practically perfect and as one of the all-time greatest movies ever made.

Carousel Review

The backlash to La La Land shouldn’t be nearly as surprising to me as it is – rejecting that which everyone else seems to uncritically adore is one of the ways that our species keeps itself from becoming too gullible, thoughtless, or monogamous.  While it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the critics who just want to seem/feel smarter than everyone else, whether they’re the posh elitists from the background of a Woody Allen movie or the hipsters in the nearby coffee shop, and the critics who genuinely wanted to appreciate the film for what it is rather than what it isn’t, but left the theater feeling unsatisfied.  For me, one of the key criticisms I keep hearing that I actually do find to be a valid one is the issue of the lack of a strong sense of focus and plot during many large portions of the film.  When I put the first third of the movie under a microscope, I find that there’s really not a lot of story here – or arguably not a lot of “movie” here – just spectacle and emotion.  There’s a time and place for spectacle and pure emotion in cinema, however, and this place generally is indeed found in the musical number, but my preferred explanation for why La La Land has this problem is that it becomes one of the ways the film address the problems that the musicals from the 1950s have.  In other words, there are times when La La Land seems like it offers nothing more than its genre as its entertainment, but this is justifiable in my view.  The film for which it is not so justifiable is 1956’s Carousel, which is purely a display of its genre and nothing more – purely flavors without substance.

All of the songs feel like usual Rogers and Hammerstein songs, but few of them are memorable.  All of the story beats feel just right for a standard stage musical, but none of them are interesting.  All of the performances are impressive and spot-on, but I couldn’t care less about the characters.  Perhaps it’s just because of the generation gap, but the way that the characters think, speak, and behave strikes me as being so different from my experience with being a human being and interacting with other human beings that I find it hard to believe these characters are even meant to represent our species.  Their expectations of how life works are so far away from contemporary progressive values that I was more bewildered by the characters’ emotions than I was invested in them.  The film almost made me care, however, simply by being so stylistically emotional, with music that, at the very least, saturates the conflict appropriately.  The visual style alone is enough to make the film worth watching in spite of all of its flaws, because this is the way that a movie is supposed to look and feel – this is the kind of thing I want to see when I look at a movie screen.

All put together, the different elements work in tandem to make it abundantly clear that the viewer is watching a Rogers and Hammerstein musical, and in a sense, this film can be used as a benchmark to see how close a film comes to feeling like a mid-century musical – to capturing the genre.  There’s a good bit of Oklahoma in here, a piece of South Pacific, a touch of the yet-to-be-produced Sound of Music, and resemblance to Singin’ in the Rain or Bye Bye Birdie at times.  In this sense, the movie is like a “Greatest Hits: Volume 3” for its genre: it’s the same style we expect and all the same stuff we’ve heard before, but more boring now.  I think it works better as a stencil than a movie, allowing other films to use its tricks and tropes to properly stylize other films in the genre, hopefully helping the next director who tries to do something like La La Land perfect all of the little things that make a musical truly feel musical.

La La Land Review

SPOILER WARNING

I should not be writing this review.  I am not capable of doing the film justice having only seen it once.  There are many movies that have left my friends, family, and peers thinking they ought to watch them multiple times to make sure that they’ve taken everything in, and usually these are either mind-bending thrillers (think The Matrix or Spy Game) or pseudo-intellectual Oscar-bait like Mulholland Drive.  Most of the time, I feel no need to see these movies again – I tend to pick up on everything I want to upon my first viewing – but for La La Land, I think I’d need many more viewings before I can fully comprehend the scope of its intellectual assessment of its own situation.  As I’ve written about before, we are in a time in film history when cinema is growing more reflective than ever before, submerging itself further into the worlds it has already created to find the nooks and crannies of the Wizard World or the Death Star that it may have missed at first.  This applies to genres as well.  When the romantic comedy was revamped with When Harry Met Sally, the “rom coms” that followed in the 1990s clearly confronted the movies of Classical Hollywood and addressed “the compatibilism question” – how do we bring together the people of today with the genres of yesterday in a way that feels believable?  The musicals of today, such as Into the Woods, Muppets Most Wanted, and The Jungle Book, haven’t really addressed this question head-on, resulting in an embarrassingly awkward transition in Jungle Book from a dark, ominous shot of a giant, scary ape to a bouncy little ukulele song.  La La Land has the intelligence to recognize that we actually need to sit down and talk about the compatibilism question, but I don’t think it’s very sure of what the answer is.

It’s interesting to me that Rotten Tomatoes describes the film as having “thrillingly assured direction,” because the nature of the director’s assurance is fairly complex.  To me he seems unsure as to what the movie ought to be exactly, yet he refuses to allow it to be anything other than what it is.  The film is very technically impressive and is shot with great care, but just because he understands the film’s essence on a technical level does not mean he has a grip on what it is as a story (or as an argument).  The film is fairly insecure, sometimes suggesting that it will do a certain musical number a certain way, then backing out of it as though it would be too corny for 2016, before finally overcoming its skepticism (and embarrassment) and diving into theatricality.  Still, there is always a sense that Classical Hollywood is watching over the characters in this film, waiting to see what they’ll do with a genre that doesn’t belong to them, showing that the director knows exactly where his film stands: it is being scrutinized closely by both the past and the future, wondering if it is truly capable of pleasing both masters.

The compatibilism question takes three forms in the movie, first asking how an old-fashioned musical film can succeed today, then asking how jazz can continue to thrive, and finally asking if two different dreamers of two different dreams can have a lasting partnership.  As for question one, its answer seems to be that the contemporary drama and the classical musical are, inevitably, an awkward pairing, but it’s decided that this awkwardness is okay.  There are times when a jazzy musical number ends with a ringtone, or an old cartoonish iris-opening transition presents a profane term that would never have been used in the days of Singin’ in the Rain.  It’s an odd clash, but a cute and coquettish clash, not unlike a couple in a romantic comedy.  The film also has elements of the mid-19th century musical that don’t work very well today, and these can stir up debate and arguments among viewers pertaining to the issue of how this genre should be handled in the new century.  For example, consider how the film might be asking questions about race in much the same way that musicals like Singin’ in the Rain feature white men borrowing from black dance, and La La Land features a white man explaining black music.  The film goes so far as to include musical numbers that contribute nothing to the plot at all – an often forgotten element of the mid-century musical – and this is part of what makes the film so divisive: it has flaws built in that I suspect were carefully designed to make some viewers hate it (and make most viewers debate it).

Regarding the jazz question, the film shows its hand a bit more, presenting an explicit answer to the question through John Legend’s dialogue, and thus revealing the film’s intellectual pursuit to viewers who haven’t yet caught on.  Here too, however, the film is somewhat ambiguous, presenting the contemporary jazz music as unsatisfactory, impure, and greatly problematic for our characters.  Even the song it uses to represent the future of jazz (“Start a Fire”) is mostly comprised of pieces of older genres, mixing jazz, Motown, soul, funk, disco, and ‘80s pop, revealing a reticence to accept the modern even from the characters that claim to embrace it.  On the other hand, this choice may have just been made so that the director, who seems to prefer older music himself, can tolerate it.

The third question – the question of the couple – is the area where I am most critical of and disappointed with the film’s argumentation.  This is the reason why I almost deducted half a star (or even four of the stars) from my rating.  The problem here has to do with the logic of cinema, which generally ought to resemble a symbolic logical sentence (A ⋀ B → C → D, for example).  This is the basis for one of the holy and unbreakable rules of screenwriting: the ending may be unexpected, yet it must be set up and inevitable.  Obviously, La La Land does not follow this rule, because the decision for Mia to end up with another man comes out of the blue and seems entirely arbitrary.  There is no rational reason for her to choose to be with someone other than her true love, nor is there anything in the film’s plot that suggests she would forgo the rational/emotional/intuitive choice to serve some other purpose.  This ending is ultimately a non-sequitur, so the film’s conclusion that Mia and Sebastian’s romance cannot work is seemingly a random one with little or no basis in the logic of the story.

What makes this so frustrating is that the film seems to make the case that their romance could have worked had they made better choices.  This is, of course, suggested by the fantasy sequence in the film’s final act, during which Mia imagines the better way the story could have gone had things been just slightly different . . . or so it seems.  What seems hard for some viewers to notice is that this fantasy is actually a completely impossible one – their story could not have gone this way.  Sebastian could not have known that Mia wanted him to kiss her after she first heard him play their song; he could not have attended Mia’s play and remained dedicated to the source of his income that was required in order for him to open his jazz club; he could not have veered off the main road at the end and coincidentally stumble upon his own jazz club (which somehow managed to exist without him).  This is only Mia’s fantasy of what life could have been like if she had magically gotten every little thing she wanted regardless of how much it cost Sebastian and regardless of whether or not it was even humanly possible.

The reason why this ending is so important is that it relates to questions about the musical romance as a genre.  Traditionally, the Classical Hollywood romance story exists almost solely for the formation of the heterosexual couple – to convince its audience for the thousandth time that the formation of a happy and healthy romance between a man and a woman is possible.  If the film has not made this case in such a way that the viewer believes it, the narrative and/or genre does not function.  The fact that Mia and Sebastian were not able to form a lasting romantic couple means that the genre has failed – it tells us that Classical Hollywood’s way of forming a couple does not work for people in the modern world.  In other words, the fact that the genre could not serve its function today answers the first compatibilism question with a definite negative.  Whether he meant to or not, the director told us that his attempt at making a mid-20th century musical in the 20th century was a failure, regardless of how well the film has been received.  The problem with his answer, of course, is that he did not show his work, instead selecting an arbitrary ending that gives his argument a random conclusion rather than a logical and satisfactory one.

As much as I detest this laziness of writing, I still must give this movie the highest of praises because I believe it is very, very good for the future of cinema.  Even if its logical argument is very poor, at least this film is different from most of the films that the “cinematic elite” embrace in that, rather than prompting the viewer to ask meaningless questions the way that Mulholland Drive does, this film uses the argumentative power of cinema to get the audience thinking about real and important questions (in this case pertaining to the future of media).  This could lead to other films that can ask the viewer questions about ethics, laws, cultures, progress, the environment, and any intellectual topic imaginable, all without sounding preachy.  In this sense, La La Land has the potential to shape this century’s cinema into something great – something that is highly intelligent and that is beneficial to humankind.  (It’s worth noting that the film’s ending is an attempt to do the kind of “open to interpretation” endings that Lynch and other “art film” directors love, so this film’s director clearly has a fondness for the kind of pseudo-intellectual ambiguity that the “cinema elite” adores, but this element of the film hopefully won’t hinder the potential positive effects that I have outlined in this paragraph.)

Perhaps more importantly, I think this film just might be a greater movie experience than nearly any other film made within the past ten years because this movie is alive!  In a time when nearly every movie released from Hollywood is hideously drab, gray, and monochromatic, this film has color!  In a time when nearly every filmmaker tries to capture an almost depressing realism with the camera, this film has theatricality!  In a time when nearly every Hollywood soundtrack sounds like a collection of durges, this film has boogie!  Director Damien Chazelle has found that the perfect combination of visual beauty and musical beauty can sometimes be enough to form emotional beauty, using pure spectacle and unfiltered passion to overpower and enthrall me, filling me with bubbly excitement and childlike wonder from the very first scene.  Never before have I found myself tearing up within the first few minutes of a movie, and never have I given myself over to a musical number the way I did with “Fools Who Dream.”  It’s true that not every moment in the film is captivating, and I may have checked my watch over a dozen times while watching it, but its best scenes were so riveting, enchanting, and divine that its flaws are forgivable, and I may never have had so many tears fill my eyes from just one film in my entire lifetime.

Therefore, I must give this film the highest of praises – long live La La Land, the greatest work of art of this century!

City Lights Review

It’s often said that “film is a visual medium,” and I’m starting to think that, if cinema were a religion, this would be its most holy of dogmas.  One of the marks of someone who’s trying to create the sense that he/she is an expert on film is an insistence that the most impressive and most pure filmmaking is that which focuses on visual storytelling.  The trailer for STAR WARS: The Old Republic was immediately hailed as an excellent short film upon its release both on the web and at my college because it told a story using hardly any dialogue.  Surely the success of films from companies like PIXAR that like to show off their ability to tell stories this way (think of the first twenty minutes of UP) tells us that film is indeed a visual medium and that its storytelling must be primarily visual, right?

No.  This idea is a load of elitist bull-crap that should have died with Epstein.  My evidence for this is obvious: no one today wants to watch silent films.  No one.  I know because I spent my autumn semester at the University of Maryland sitting in a classroom filled with film students taking a course on silent cinema, and they skipped whichever films they could, trying to watch as few as possible.  These are the film majors – the next generation of movie critics, movie-makers, and movie-lovers – and they did not have the patience for any silent films longer than fifteen minutes.  On the other hand, the film that does get a positive reaction – and is even shown to non-film students in classes in other departments from what I hear – is Modern Times.

Modern Times works well because, in spite of the fact that it has hardly any spoken dialogue, Chaplin had complete control over the soundtrack, and the same is true for City Lights.  While storytelling without dialogue is often very impressive, it’s not the same as visual storytelling so long as it incorporates a soundtrack that’s controlled by the filmmakers.  Ever since Eisenstein first wrote about vertical montage, filmmakers and film critics should have accepted that sight and sound work together in film to create the cinematic experience, playing off of each other even in the presence of dialogue, constantly changing each other’s meaning, value, and power.  I think Chaplin understood this, and this understanding makes City Lights far better than any silent film I’ve ever seen.  Actually, I think some of the film’s strongest jokes are the ones built around audio, such as the part when the Tramp swallows the whistle or the opening scene that casts kazoos as the voices of the churlish officials and aristocrats – each of which I have seen imitated in one form or another in later comedy productions (The Three Stooges and the Charlie Brown specials, respectively).

I think this film is just barely better than Modern Times, although I think I should have given that film I higher rating than I did now that I’ve seen it twice and appreciate it more, if only because City Lights has a stronger plot.  Modern Times has a very loose narrative structure, as if Chaplin wrote the screenplay saying, “And now we’re going over here to do this gag, and now we’re going over there to do that routine.”  With City Lights, there’s a bit more focus on two main storylines, and the film’s primary weakness is the separation of these two plotlines, almost making me wonder why this is one feature-length film instead of two different short films.  Still, they’re tied together just enough that the story is engaging and entertaining, even if it is a little bit too dramatic and depressing at times given how much suffering our beloved Tramp endures.  It’s worth noting that each of these two storylines is based on a brilliant idea, the first being a man who’s the Tramp’s best friend when drunk but a stranger to him when sober, and the second – the one that’s so intelligently stupid it seems like it must have come from the Monty Python troupe – a blind girl falls in love with a silent comic.  In the end, with its heartwarming charm, captivating romance, clever comedy, unique potpourri of cities, smart use of sound effects, and enthralling musical score, City Lights is one of the greatest displays of Chaplin’s genius as a cinematic craftsman.

Ladyhawke Review

One of the personal projects I’ve been meaning to start working on recently is writing an analysis of a sub-genre of fantasy.  I call it the “Eighties Fantasy Quest”, and it’s basically a genre for films that feel very much like ’80s movies, yet focus on an adventure through a world full of mythological characters, fairy tale creatures, “high fantasy” concepts, or new things that feel like they spring from one of these three territories.  Think of The NeverEnding StoryThe Dark CrystalWillowTime BanditsReturn to OzLegendConan the Barbarian, and any other films from the ’80s that don’t just have a fantasy element but in fact seem to drown the viewer in magic, mythology, darkness, and dragons.  Obviously, this is a very diverse group of films, so I’ve been trying to find a way to map them out – separating the little girls from the big brutes and the films from Pythoners from the serious adventure thrillers.  To help me with this, I decided to watch a film that seems related to this genre and that’s considered an ’80s classic: Big Trouble in Little China.

I thought Big Trouble was fun and all, but I don’t think it was quite what I had in mind.  It fits into the genre, but for the most part, I didn’t feel like I was “taken away” to another world – and even Masters of the Universe, which largely takes place in our world, managed to give me that feeling.  As much as I enjoyed how immensely ’80s it is, I needed something with more magic, whimsy, and fairy tale-like qualities.  It also has a protagonist that’s more on the “barbarian” end of the spectrum of the EFQ genre – the place where hyper-masculinity is sold to the male viewers, although I couldn’t tell if the film was sincere about it.  Big Trouble has an odd tonal inconsistency in that Jack Burton is sometimes a joke – an American stereotype who thinks he’s invincible, unbeatable, and irresistible, but is actually an ignorant clown – and sometimes he’s genuinely cool.  Regardless, I needed something a little less macho and a little more “classical.”

Enter Ladyhawke, the high-fructose corn syrup to sugar’s Princess Bride – I know it’s not really quite as good, but at times it’s surprisingly very satisfying.  The Princess Bride certainly has the more memorable scenes, quotes, and characters, but Ladyhawke has a lot in its corner as well.  Conceptually, this is the kind of story one wants from a fantasy romance – something more than the usual “long-lost lover rescues damsel in distress from evil royal person” bit – offering a clever set-up for romantic tension and a unique reason for the audience to be concerned with the characters.  This movie doesn’t have as many fairy tale tropes as Princess Bride, or even Labyrinth, but the high concept at its core (which I refuse to spoil for those who haven’t seen the film yet) puts a distinctly “fairy tale” kind of magic at the heart of the story, making the film feel like a fairy tale storybook for adults.  I think with the benefit of a few trolls, wizards, giants, dwarfs, fairies, centaurs, goblins, or dragons, it would be just the kind of fantasy story I adore.

With that said, if we shift the focus away from what the film does not do and towards what the film does do, it doesn’t do anything too badly.  It’s playful with the “hero’s journey” arc, giving two (or perhaps three) characters the role of the hero against a villain whom the audience really wants to see killed.  Matthew Broderick’s accent is hilariously inconsistent, but that actually seems to add to the charm of his character, who has some very good dialogue and a cleverly-written ongoing chat with God.  The romance is completely believable, and the movie’s closing has just the right amount of heart in just the right way.  What really sells the story, however, is the score by Alan Parsons, whose band has recorded some of my favorite songs.  The music Parsons brings to the film makes excellent use of the ’80s synthesizer, giving the film that special quality of being both very timeless and very dated in the best way possible.  When all of its odd ingredients are put together, the result is an ’80s classic that will probably hit the spot for anyone in the mood for a truly magical love story.