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.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Upon Further Consideration…

NOTE: This is an amendment to a previous review of the same film.

When I first reviewed this movie, I don’t think I gave it nearly enough credit for how important it is as a film.  In a way, it may be the most important film of 2014.

One reason I feel this way is that it presents a very different kind of comic book movie – one that doesn’t need to be taken seriously the way The Dark Knight does (in fact, its inclusion of Howard the Duck shows just how little it wants to be taken seriously) and that combines many genres.  It proves that a good Marvel comic book movie can also be a very good comedy film, without either genre taking away from the other, thus paving the way to Deadpool.  Its aim is to have a lot of fun exploring a cool, interesting, and fully-developed sci-fi world.  Consequently, and perhaps paradoxically, Guardians of the Galaxy is great sci-fi even though it isn’t great science fiction.  By that I mean it doesn’t present viewers with new and interesting concepts that scientists or philosophers may be interested in exploring the way that Jurassic Park, Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and Ex Machina do, but it does present viewers with a world in which they’ll want to become fully immersed – we all want to live in that galaxy.  The action sequences are also quite impressive, making Guardians precisely the kind of action movie that I can get behind.

Another reason why Guardians is important is that it uses music differently from other films.  Obviously, most movies today (particularly family films) rely heavily on recognizable pop songs, and it is by no means uncommon for them to be songs from the 1970s – consider how Despicable Me uses “You Should Be Dancing” in its final scene even though the filmmakers had contemporary pop artists at their disposal.  What makes the use of music in Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel so interesting is that there is never a sense that the music is something added once the scene has already been shot; the songs in these films were famously written into the screenplays and woven into the plot.  This is generally considered a big no-no in Hollywood: every screenwriter who’s made it in the business knows the rule that specific songs are never named in screenplays because it makes the producers, studio heads, directors, readers, etc. think about how much it would cost to buy the rights to those songs.  I think this used to be a bigger issue than it is now because films rely on expensive pop songs more and more, so producers know to put them into the budget, but it can still be difficult to get the rights to specific songs since some artists require a lot of convincing (see this article and read about getting the rights to “Mr. Blue Sky” for Vol. 2).  For this reason it is a very big deal that Gunn has set precedents for successful screenwriters scripting the songs they need to make the scene work best, allowing for more carefully-tailored soundtracks in films to come.

This isn’t the only interesting aspect of Gunn’s use of music in the Guardians films.  The reason why most filmmakers and film studios haven’t seen much of a problem with making music choices an afterthought, I think, comes from the line of thinking that film is a visual medium.  Usually, a film’s score is seen as something meant to enhance what the characters are doing on screen, and this makes sense in the context of film history since silent films were often shown with a live pianist offering an accompaniment.  Disney’s Fantasia, on the other hand, runs contrary to this thinking about film – rather than making the soundtrack subservient to visuals, Disney made a whole movie out of visuals that are subservient to the soundtrack.  I argue that the Guardians movies work in part because the characters are listening to the music as they fight, fly, work, and play, letting the music guide them.  Both the characters in the film and the makers of the film are using their experiences to celebrate the music itself, and the audience is invited to join in that celebration.  This idea that the scene is subservient to the music and that the music itself is sort of the main attraction (almost something to be glorified) is explored most explicitly in the second film, but I’ll explore that more in my separate review dedicated to Vol. 2.

The importance of the Guardians series in terms of its visual/aesthetic contributions to cinema must not be overlooked either.  I’m sure a lot of critics think the main way in which this film is visually impressive is in its use of CGI, with Rocket Raccoon looking remarkably believable in most of his scenes, but I’m more interested in Gunn’s use of color.  Most movies (made for adults) from the past decade or so have had very muted palettes, whereas the color palette of this film is, while too digital to have all the warmth I might like, more vivid and beautiful than that of most contemporary fantasy films.  Most of Disney’s live-action films today look frighteningly cold and lifeless, with the Beauty and the Beast remake resembling the rotting corpse of its animated predecessor, but Guardians isn’t afraid to fill the screen with bright blues and purples, swirling around like a friggin’ van Gogh.  This, I think, is why more films from the past two or three years have started moving away from the gray pseudo-realism that has consumed so much of Hollywood cinema: Gunn tried being colorful and succeeded, so other directors are finally feeling free to use pretty pinks and deep blues again, sometimes openly contrasting them with the look that most films have had as of late.  Between Guardians and La La Land, I might see cinema come alive again within my lifetime, and that’s a very exciting thing.

As important as I believe Guardians is, what I realized when I watched it for my second time is just how much I simply love it as a movie.  I love the characters and the comedy, and I want to spend all the time I can in this world.  I consider the opening titles sequence to Guardians to be one of the best in history because of how joyous it is, and for that matter, there are very few films that manage to be as joyous throughout at Guardians.  Unfortunately, I found myself checking my watch a few times since the film feels rather long, which is something that hasn’t changed since I first saw the film in the theater, but my appreciation for the film still keeps growing anyway.  It’s truly amazing to me that a film this silly, this fun, and this special was made in such a boring time for cinema, and I’ll gladly keep tipping my hat to Perlman and Gunn ‘til my hand falls off.  Sure it has its problems, but it’s a true gem of cinema for which I’m forever grateful.