Monthly Archives: June 2017

An American in Paris Review

Gene Kelly was working on this legendary musical at the same time as he was working on another: Singin’ in the Rain.  Unfortunately, it’s quite clear which of these two films had the most thought and work put into it – not American in Paris.  The film toggles between one story about Gene gaining recognition for his painting, which doesn’t really go anywhere, and another story about Gene falling in love with (and creepily forcing himself upon) a beautiful dancer, which is mysteriously resolved without explanation, all with unrelated musical numbers popping up throughout.  How charming.  Of course, one might say I’ve just described the average classic musical, and that may be true, but I wanted something better than average from a film with this level of status.  I wanted something more than an excuse for another jukebox musical for Gershwin songs, and this doesn’t offer that much more.

Yet, oddly, it still is charming and delightful.  Gene Kelly’s character, as much of a creep as he may be, is still likable, and his dances are still captivating.  The character dynamics and storytelling techniques are incredibly fascinating – has anyone ever heard of another film doing an opening voiceover like this film’s?  The visual styles used in some of the musical numbers are absolutely outstanding, with sets and color palettes that are not only gorgeous, but quite creatively and intelligently used.  I’m probably giving this film too much credit for its aesthetic accomplishments, but when a film knows how to do really cool ballets, that shouldn’t go unappreciated.  I can easily give the movie a hard time for being irritatingly flawed, but when a film has a great cast, likable characters, smart dialogue, lovely production design, careful artistry, and catchy music, I can’t help but give it my approval.

Cool Night – Show #2

Featured this week: Billy Joel, Electric Light Orchestra, and more!  Enjoy!

Midnight in Paris Review

MINOR SPOILER WARNING

I’ve been trying to think of how to best write about this film to make clear exactly what kind of fantasy film it is, but I’m having a hard time explaining with words (or even examples) what I feel to be distinct dichotomies and spectra.  What I can say clearly is what Midnight in Paris is like and what it is not like, as far as fantasy goes.

This isn’t a film about fantasy worlds or mythological creatures that use elements of high fantasy or fairy tales to conjure up a sense that the protagonist has found something “special” from another world.  It’s more like any given movie about talking animals (e.g. A Bug’s Life) in which we’re not inclined to think of the fantasy as fantasy, or even as part of some other world on another plane of existence.  This is in part due to the fact that the kind of fantasy Midnight in Paris presents is in the vein of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in that it offers no explanation for its fantasy.  That being said, Midnight in Paris and Metamorphosis differ from most films that don’t explain their fantasy by telling stories about a fantastic event that happens to someone, as opposed to an experience with a fantastic thing, being, or world.  Usually, I prefer fantasy stories that feel less random, that don’t prompt the viewer to ask what causes the magical occurrences, and that either put the protagonist in a fantasy world (see The Wizard of Oz) or otherwise engross the protagonist in fantasy elements (see Gremlins or Mary Poppins), but this movie somehow really works for me.

I think it works simply because it’s Woody Allen doing a very Woody Allen movie, in the best sense of the term.  Sure, the look of the film is different from that of his previous work, but it’s still one of the best examples of his post-Annie Hall productions, featuring his trademark mix of heartwarming romance, nostalgia for the jazz age, and pessimism.  He also shows off his dialogue skills at their finest, somehow writing dialogue for Jewish characters that translates naturally into other characters when in the hands of skilled (non-Jewish) actors – and surprisingly distinct characters at that.  His best writing, however, is probably for the characters from the past – particularly for Hemingway – which is some of his funniest writing to date.  This is not to discount the style, editing, and pacing, which are all perfectly fine, but they work because of how well they suit the writing.  Of course, I’ve always felt that Allen’s biggest problem is his endings, but the ending of this film is one that seems to necessarily follow from all that has been set up throughout the story, and it ties everything together with a nice little bow.

It’s not a conventional romantic comedy – in fact, I almost hesitate to call it one at all with how far it strays from the usual form – but it’s satisfying enough that I keep recommending it to people who want a nice and easy introduction to Woody, because this film is just that.

Roman Holiday Review

Roman Holiday defies traditional classification.  On the most basic level, it’s a romantic comedy – after all, it is romantic, and it is comedic.  That being said, it’s not like any romantic comedy I’ve ever seen.  At a certain point it becomes clear that, as much as the two leads love each other, they don’t see how it’s possible for them to live out the rest of their lives together since one of them is royalty and the other is not.  Because the rest of the film feels like a fun, happy romantic comedy about escapism, the audience expects that, by the end, everything will work out such that they can be happy together, but this doesn’t happen – and logically it’s a given that it couldn’t happen.  I find it difficult to decide whether or not this counts as an example of bad screenwriting.

Don’t think that I believe all movies should have happy endings.  I don’t even necessarily think all comedies must have happy endings to count as comedies.  My problem with Roman Holiday is the futility of its events.  The ending requires the audience to believe that Princess Ann is now content to return to her restrictive duties as Princess now that she’s had her one holiday, even though there is little evidence to suggest she is.  Joe Bradley actually ends up worse off than he was at the start, having upset his boss and landlord and having lost a lot of money (not to mention a big story that would have advanced his career).  Neither of them should be happy, but the film tries to argue that cherishing the memories of this one wonderful holiday offers enough lasting happiness for the both of them (it’s a “better to have loved and lost” kind of story) even though this conclusion simply isn’t supported anywhere in the film – the viewer must assume this to be true.

Apart from this, however, the film is put together brilliantly.  Right from the very first scene (not counting the newsreel), the writing, camerawork, editing, and acting are all excellent, establishing the character with a carefully paced and wildly funny opening.  The rest of the film continues this high-level of craftsmanship and fun, making for one of the smartest romantic comedy films I’ve seen to date.  What’s particularly likeable about it is Audrey Hepburn’s performance – the only film of hers I’d seen before was Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and I’d always wondered why she was considered such a great actress.  I wonder no more, and I now look forward to seeing more of her work.

Dracula (1931) Review

This is a fun one, folks.  Scary?  On occasion, but it’s mostly just bizarre.  It’s just strange watching one of the first sound horror films because it’s difficult to tell how I’m supposed to react to each scene – I don’t know what’s supposed to be chilling, what’s supposed to be funny, and what’s supposed to be somewhere in between.  I think most of the film is meant to be in the middle – it knows not to take itself too seriously seeing as how it is about Count Dracula, after all.  If it were remade today, it would have to either be completely changed into an entirely different (and probably greatly inferior) thriller, or it would have to be a comedy, because too much of it is just plain silly.

The film’s plot is a little hard to follow at times, and by the end of it I’m left with more questions than answers.  How does his hypnotism work?  Shouldn’t his life be a breeze if he can just hypnotize people into doing whatever he wants?  How does he always manage to stay away from mirrors?  Does he ask how many mirrors there are in any location he plans to enter before his arrival?  And since when can vampires turn into wolves?  Most importantly, how is turning into a bat helpful when you’re pulling a carriage?

But hey, I had a good time – at least when I followed along and when I wasn’t bored – so who am I to complain?  Besides, who doesn’t love Bela Lugosi?  THAT is a fun performance to watch.  The smartest move on the part of the filmmakers was making the movie short, and most other horror films from the time followed suit, making them very easy watches that can easily be squeezed into the schedule of even the busiest movie buff.  This leaves me very interested in watching more of the classic Universal Monster films, if only because the visual style helped establish Hollywood Expressionism, so naturally I find it visually enthralling.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 Review

In my recent UFC on the first guardians film, I mentioned that this movie went an extra mile in its celebration, or perhaps I should say “glorification,” of ’70s pop music in comparison to Volume 1.  So, I’m going to take a look at this in a little more depth.  My spoiler-free version of the review is: it’s really, really fun.  I had a great time.  See it.  Now here come some minor spoilers.

MINOR SPOILER WARNING

The very first scene in the film shows Peter’s mother singing along to the radio while on the road.  Ordinarily, songs playing on the radio, whether in movies or in real life, are seen as mere accompaniments not meant to steal the focus, but the way she throws herself into the song makes the important part of her experience of driving (that is, the part of the experience being celebrated) the song itself.  This is reflected on a larger scale in the next scene as a gigantic action sequence takes place in the background, with Groot in the foreground as he dances to “Mr. Blue Sky.”  This places what any film student raised on “visual medium” thinking would consider the point of the scene, the fight scene, in the role of adding ambiance (which is normally the role of the soundtrack) while the soundtrack takes the foreground.  In a later fight scene, Gunn is so intent on glorifying the song being played, “Come a Little Bit Closer,” that the orchestra and choir used for the score – which, in any other movie, would serve to add weight and scope only to visuals – actually play and sing along with “Come a Little Bit Closer,” making the song sound enormous.

This role-reversal of sight and sound is, in some respects, groundbreaking, but as I suggested in my UFC, one might look at it as a modern reworking of film theory explored in Disney’s Fantasia.  Rather than making the soundtrack subservient to visuals, Walt Disney made a whole movie out of visuals that are subservient to the soundtrack.  Gunn, in a sense, has done the same.  In Guardians 2, every song (if memory serves) is, at one point or another, diegetic, so the characters are generally acting in response to and in accord with the songs.  Furthermore, the songs on the soundtrack are not always entirely fitting for the scenes with which they are paired, instead contrasting with the visuals such that the soundtrack and the video track change each other’s meaning, arguably conforming to Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of “vertical montage.”

Why does this matter?  Because the first movie uses the glorification of the soundtrack as a celebratory experience binding us only to Peter Quill.  In this film, the music has had an effect on the whole guardians family, and it’s not only something that binds them, but binds us to them.  This makes us feel like we’re part of the family, and like we’re joining a ’70s music dance party with the guardians, which heightens the fun – even in comparison to the first film.  This is also helpful because this is meant to be the movie that lets us see how the guardians function now that they have spent more time bonding together and becoming a family, so using the music for this purpose seems just perfect.  (The soundtrack to this film is, for the record, just as good as the soundtrack to the first – if not better – this time using more tracks that are either very well-known or not very famous at all, which has introduced me to some of my new favorite songs.)

This film actually seems a little less slow and boring than the first, even though it engages in more “family drama.”  I think part of the reason why it can get away with this is that the family dynamics in this film are oddly very fascinating and lend themselves to captivating drama.  Another reason why this works is that Gunn carefully threw imagery relating to family, parenthood, and reproduction all throughout this film, making for a very adult commentary on these issues that seems smart, without losing its sense of fun.  Of course, all of this is balanced out with immature jokes and nods to ’80s nostalgia, so everything comes together here absolutely beautifully.  This is surely one of the best sequels to have ever come from Hollywood.