Monthly Archives: June 2017

Escape from New York Review

I’ve heard it said that nearly every movie about a future urban dystopia steals its style from Blade Runner.  While I can certainly see the resemblance between the aesthetic of Blade Runner and that of many later films about the future, it’s worth noting that many ’80s movies were portraying cities with the same darkness, theatricality, vivid color, and nods to film noir cinematography as Blade Runner.  What’s interesting is how using a theatrical and colorful style in both visuals and characters was very common in horror films in the 1970s, but then somehow moved into the mainstream in the 1980s, seemingly without reason.  It makes sense for a horror film to have a mixture of darkness and theatricality, but why did this become a part of the styles of all ’80s movies?

I think the answer is Escape from New York, which I see as a more or less direct predecessor to Blade Runner.  Released in 1981, this movie shows horror director John Carpenter bringing the stylistic elements of horror – including the visual style, the acting style, and the writing style – to both the dystopian sci-fi genre and the action genre.  I suspect that this film took part in making over-the-top lighting more mainstream, but as much as I appreciate this, I think what’s particularly impressive about this film is how it brings much cleverness to the action genre.  Most action movies are just looking for an excuse to fire a gun or set off a bomb, but this movie is interested in creating situations that make the viewer really want to see the action hero – or anti-hero – take action.  There’s a wonderful scene with a street that everyone tries to avoid driving down at night because lines of people on either side of the road wait for unsuspecting cars, line up, and smash the car as it goes along their little conveyor-belt of doom.  There’s technically no reason for this to be considered a “horror” scene since there’s nothing supernatural about it and there’s arguably no suggestion of insanity (merely desperation), but it’s certainly the kind of scene that only a horror filmmaker would write.

Of course, there are other aspects of the writing that are more conventional for the genre – a rescue mission, a countdown, etc. – but even these are done in a way that somehow creates more intensity than most action films.  This makes Escape from New York a thrilling, chilling, and exciting film that’s sure to make the viewer rethink film genres altogether.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

When I was a kid, I remember feeling torn about old movies – and by that I mean Classical Hollywood-era movies.  I liked a fair amount of the musicals and family films, but for the most part, I just found old movies to be too boring.  When I tried watching Casablanca, I wasn’t just bored – I was terribly confused.  I couldn’t keep track of the politics, I didn’t understand the history, and I struggled to discern what the characters were really communicating through all their ’40s slang and discreet language.  It took me many years of watching many films from different time periods before I got to the point that I could easily follow the story of the average classic movie, but by now I really feel like I speak the language . . . and then there’s The Maltese Falcon.

When I watched this movie, I had to repeat certain parts of it (particularly in the early scenes) in order to make sure I was picking up on everything.  That’s unusual for me.  I can stay ahead of most other viewers when I watch an episode of Sherlock, but this movie is, for the first third or so, quite difficult to follow.  Even once it gets going, it’s a little bit boring, and it doesn’t help that the ending can be predicted from a mile away, taking away the dramatic suspense.  What makes up for all this is the characters.  Not only does Maltese Falcon offer a classic Bogart performance, but it features Peter Lorre in one of his funniest roles and Sydney Greenstreet as one of the most fun (and best written) antagonists I’ve seen in film.  Because none of the characters are all that likable or relatable in the sense one would expect from Hollywood, I’m not too inclined to root for anyone to “win,” which hurts this particular story, but there’s still plenty of intrigue to keep the viewer interested.  It’s not entirely my kind of thing, but I can always appreciate a movie that’s simply good at being film noir, and this film is just that.

Batman Returns Review

MINOR SPOILERS

A few years ago, I was browsing through channels to find something to watch while doing laundry when I put on a marathon of Batman movies on some cable channel, just so I could educate myself about the hero.  It included Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman Begins, and possibly one or two more, but this was before I cared about watching movies properly, so I didn’t make sure I’d seen each one of them all the way through.  I caught a significant portion of Batman Begins and most if not all of Batman Forever, but since I was occupied with some chores at the time, I wasn’t really paying much attention.  Batman Returns stuck out to me though.  I think I came in somewhere in the middle and checked out somewhere near the end, but I really liked the idea of a superhero and a villain falling in love out of costume and not knowing what to do once they figured out each other’s secret identity (all in a public place where they can’t fight, no less).  While this dramatic device may be the film’s greatest contribution to cinema, and it’s probably the most brilliant aspect of the film (if not of the franchise), I think there’s a lot more where that came from throughout the film.

This movie is probably one of the greatest sequels of all time because it doesn’t feel the need to repeat everything from the first film, nor does it just try to take everything to a much bigger scale like many sequels do – it just plays to the strengths and dynamics of a different set of characters.  True, the idea of the villain tricking “the people” into thinking the hero has turned on them is now a somewhat common sequel trope, but like most of the tropes in the movie, it’s all handled very well.  It helps that Danny DeVito is a practically perfect Penguin, and the rest of the cast is spot-on as well, making for a Gotham City that’s very much . . . itself.  I think that’s what I like about this movie – it loves being what it is, so it goes to the extreme.  Tim Burton also takes his style to an extreme here, showing his ability to capture the eerie quality of simple things, bring the maximum amount of “creepy” out of any scary things, find the beauty in fakeness, carefully integrate models with full-size sets, and light Batman perfectly.  What’s particularly impressive is how a movie filled with so much gray manages to retain warmth, theatricality, and a striking amount of vivid color, making for one of the best aesthetics any film has ever had and possibly surpassing its predecessor in its visual style.

While its ending is a little underwhelming for me and Burton’s pacing is typically slow, most of my problems with the film are mere nitpicks – in the end, this is what a Batman movie is supposed to feel like.  One thing that I think the film could use a little bit more of, however, is camp.  The movie certainly engages in over-the-top theatricality and a little silliness, but I think the Batman I best understand is Adam West’s.  Part of why the news of his passing has been harder for me to take than that of most other recent celebrity deaths is that I know we’ll never have another actor who can play a superhero in a way that makes you take him seriously when he needs to be taken seriously while also keeping him incredibly light, fun, silly, and jaunty.  Maybe we’ll never get another movie that captures the theatricality of Gotham the way the West, Burton, and Schumacher productions did either, but they’ve all been really inspirational to me.  I’ve always considered Spider-Man/Peter Parker to be the hero with whom I best relate, but it’s Batman productions like this one that fill me with excitement and enthusiasm for becoming a filmmaker, and for that I’m very thankful.

An American Tail Review

MINOR SPOILER WARNING

Sometimes the union of two great artists makes for a film with twice the power of a regular film, whereas other times something just isn’t quite working.  We get a little bit of both here with An American Tail, which is a Don Bluth film that Steven Spielberg commissioned.  I haven’t done enough research on the film to say what exactly the conflicts were between them, but I think some of them may be revealed by the parts of the film that seem a little off.  The choice to go with a child actor with no singing ability for the lead vocalist in a musical seems fine if you’re going for a certain sentiment, but the audience certainly pays the price for that sentimentality when he tries to hit the high notes.  Parts of it are a bit dark and/or adult for a G-rated children’s film, even for the ‘80s – I’m always surprised by how much smoking and profanity makes its way into these films.  I’m very confused about how an animal four times the size of a rat manages to disguise itself as a rat without anyone noticing, and the animators’ answer to this puzzle seems to be just making the size really inconsistent from scene to scene, but what’s more confusing here is the nature of the story.

In this film, characters are introduced only to be abandoned until another scene.  Our protagonist may make a friend and, with little warning, immediately break into song about how they’re best friends.  Everything seems to come out of the blue, making the film feel clunky.  Everything seems rushed, taking away the weight of each scene.  In terms of plot, the story is mostly fine, apart from its mild sense of arbitrarity  – it’s just the way it’s written that doesn’t work right.  The one big problem with the plot is how little the protagonist does to successfully accomplish his goal.  That being said, other aspects of the story are really quite smart, like the irony that comes from how easily Fievel and his family could have found each other if not for slightly bad timing, or the way the mice romanticize America only to have their hopes destroyed by reality.  Between the story, the great soundtrack, and the hilarious voice cast (because everybody likes Madeline Kahn) An American Tail is a perfectly fine film for children . . . it’s just a little irritating for screenwriters.

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.