Classics Corner: It’s a Wonderful Life

24 12 2014


Everyone, including people like me, has blind spots in their knowledge of classic films from the cinematic canon.  In the past few months, I have only just seen “Gone with the Wind,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Birds,” and “Dead Poets Society.”

Now, I am someone who loves Christmas movies (if you have any doubt, I’ll direct you to my insanely detailed moviegoer’s challenge for “Elf”) and Frank Capra films like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (though I am rather blasé about “It Happened One Night“).  So, you would expect that by now, I would have seen the holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  If you assumed I had, you would be wrong.

To be clear, it is not for lack of effort.  Two years ago, some friends and I attempted to see a screening held at a local theater.  We deduced that since it was readily available for people to watch at home, the theater would not be crowded.  And we were wrong.  (A humorous aside: they spelled the movie wrong on their marquee. It was a “wonderderful” life, apparently…)

I have also pretty much absorbed the story through cultural osmosis.  Everyone knows the story of “It’s a Wonderful Life” to some extent, just like they know the shower scene in “Psycho.”  My primary exposure to the film came through – and this will date me tremendously – the 2002 TV movie “It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas.”

(Oh, and “Shrek Forever After” too, I suppose.)

But last night, Christmas Eve Eve, I decided it was time to end my ignorance.  Armed with a copy of the DVD acquired from the Houston Public Library, I would finally figure out why the movie is a mainstay of the Christmas season on television.

How to turn it into an interesting blog post, though?  I had the epiphany to essentially live blog my viewing experience and then add in a reflection at the close.  All times listed are from the 60th anniversary DVD (unsure if that changes anything but thought it might be worth noting).  So, without further ado, enjoy my thought process as I experience “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the very first time…

Read the rest of this entry »

Classics Corner: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

6 11 2012

I wish I could have voted for Jefferson Smith today.

It’s rare that a movie rings as true today as when it was released and far less common for them to be even more relevant in the modern era, but “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” does the unthinkable.  Granted, that’s less of a compliment to Frank Capra’s superb morality tale and more of a disgrace on a country more divided than it has been since the Civil War.  Though perhaps the problem is that a post-Watergate world refuses to see a Capra-esque worldview as anything other than naive fantasy.

If that’s true, then bury this country.  I rarely engage in idealism, but these classics of a bygone era inspire those sensibilities to come flowing out of me.  The times then might have been more innocent, and the world now might be far more hostile.  But there are still Jefferson Smiths among us.  There might even be one in us.

And obviously, there’s no one better than Jimmy Stewart to play the best of us, Jefferson Smith.  As a non-politician transported to Washington as a thinly-veiled ploy, he’s a symbol of the purity of the common man.  Yet set against the backdrop of a systemic culture of corruption, his high hopes are quickly squelched.  He’s a big proponent of building a camp for boys in his unidentified home state; however, when it collides with the entrenched interest of the other Senators planning to build a dam on that land, Smith finds himself in hot water.

We all like to think we would do what Jefferson Smith does.  He stands up for what he believes in even when it’s unpopular.  He fights for what he believes in even when it collides with the wills of more powerful men than he.  He is not swayed by fickle public opinion or the press.

Yet most politicians today switch their positions as soon as a poll suggest their voting bloc opposes their position.  They might not be the best of us or even the best for us – just the best choice we have.  On this election day, my hope is that the vision Capra had for an America where the average American’s purity can inspire real change in a sick society can become less of a hope and more of a reality.  Regardless of what party you support, we should all aspire to have a candidate who fights for his convictions with all his might like Mr. Smith.  And if you can’t vote for Mr. Smith, then be one.

Classics Corner: Jaws

14 08 2012

Everyone thinks they know “Jaws” if they have ever stopped foot in water, be it a swimming pool or an ocean. There is always that joker who starts to hum two notes that speak volumes for the generations that grew up after 1975, inducing a sense of dread. John Williams’ iconic theme for “Jaws” has become synonymous with the menace of a shark attack, and it is remarkable to see how a simple theme can still be so evocative over three decades later.

However, to characterize an entire film by something so small is vastly unfair to the filmmaking expertise that provided the canvas for Williams to compose a masterstroke. Jaws derives its terror from places other than its non-diegetic soundtrack, namely the expert direction of Steven Spielberg. Watching his film in the present day might seem like an exercise in futility given how banal the plot seems to have become, yet it actually still plays quite well.

In an age saturated with horror films that substitute gore for thrills, Jaws scares all the more because Spielberg refuses to take the easy way out. While there is plenty of blood to still freak out the faint at heart, Spielberg opts for a much more deliberate, methodical approach that recalls Hitchcock more than it does Saw. Once the shark’s theme cues up, it is inevitable that someone is about to die … but Spielberg never lets the audience know when they are going to die until the Great White sinks its fangs into their flesh. He does not even reveal the shark in its entirety almost until the climax, slowly providing clues as to just how big the beast really is. His precision pays dividends, just as it did for Hitchcock and just as it still does for directors willing to take the time to get it right, such as J.J. Abrams in “Super 8.”

Although the shark may be the most recognizable part of Jaws, the attacks really only punctuate the domestic drama occurring ashore on the island of Amity. Police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), a cop from the city taking refuge in what he thought would be the quiescence of a small town, is tasked with maintaining order and calm when the massacres create massive unrest. The mayor tells him to do whatever it takes to keep the people safe, short of closing the beaches and running their summer’s economy. They hire scientist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to help catch the beast, but it ultimately requires the expertise of marginalized seaman Quint (Robert Shaw), himself a shark attack survivor. The three men come from vastly different backgrounds, but their unlikely camaraderie provides a refreshingly human aspect to a movie otherwise defined by the atrocities of nature.

While it may be easy to think of Jaws as little more than just the two notes of terror, it is worth a first watch or rewatch to let the true horror and humanity shine through.

Classics Corner: Singin’ in the Rain

11 03 2012

What a glorious feeling it was to behold the Best Picture win for “The Artist!”  A celebration of the glory of silent film, a look at the industry’s apprehension during the pioneering days of the talkies, and an ultimate wide-faced grin at what film would become … sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  Benjamin Sutton of The L Magazine wrote this in a column back in December: “[T]he lion’s share of ‘The Artist”s many narrative and aesthetic quotations allude to films of the sound era,”specifically naming “Singin’ in the Rain” as a movie he constantly saw parallels to within Hazanavicius’ movie.

I saw “Singin’ in the Rain” a few weeks before watching “The Artist,” and perhaps part of the reason why I felt the movie suffered a slight dearth of originality was because it was so obviously inspired by Gene Kelly’s classic musical.  I don’t, however, intend to judge the original solely in terms of the knock-off.  Such would hardly do justice to a movie that has stood the test of time and is still a fun romp six decades after release.

As a riotously fun musical in its own right and a parody of the overblown proclivities of the genre’s early classics, “Singin’ in the Rain” follows Kelly’s Don Lockwood, a silent film star who exudes more charisma than George Valentin, as he is forced unwillingly by his studio into talking movies.  When he is shown a demonstration of the new technology at a party, he scoffingly laughs it off.  But with the success of “The Jazz Singer,” Kelly has no choice but to add sound to his latest picture.

That brings up a unique problem though: his leading lady Lina Lamont has a grating and screeching voice that would totally destroy her image and the film.  Quick thinking leads him to bring on Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), a songbird if ever there were one, to provide dubbing services for Lina.  The zany, crazy situations that follow are as numerous as Gene Kelly’s overblown dance numbers – that man REALLY loves to dance, and darned if we don’t leave this movie knowing it!  And beyond the titular song that everyone knows from rainy days or “A Clockwork Orange,” the film also boasts great tunes like “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Good Morning” that will have you whistling for days.

While the pleasures that exist within the frames of “Singin’ in the Rain” have made it an endearing audience favorite for years, it remains thematically relevant because it speaks to the common fear of technology displacing us.  With 3D, video-on-demand, and streaming services bringing about a new sea change in moviemaking, Kelly’s film speaks loudly to filmmakers past, present, and future.  As A.O. Scott so perfectly put it in his piece “Film Technology Advances, Inspiring a Sense of Loss” back in November 2011:

“The birth of the talkies, it goes without saying, represents the first death of cinema […] The movies survived sound, just as they survived television, the VCR and every other terminal diagnosis. And they will survive the current upheavals as well. How can I be sure? Because 10, 20, or 50 years from now someone will certainly be complaining that they don’t make them like they used to. Which is to say, like they do right now.”

Classics Corner: It Happened One Night

12 10 2011

According to the American Film Institute, it’s the eighth funniest movie and third best romantic comedy ever.  The Library of Congress has added it to the National Film Registry of movies deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”  It was the first movie to win the “Big Five” Academy Awards: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay.  By all measures, Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” is a movie for the books.

So then why was I so unaffected by it?  Is the movie really so seminal that it feels hackneyed and trite in retrospect?

My conclusion is yes, “It Happened One Night” is a movie that contributed so much to the medium of cinema that Frank Capra’s film itself looks so small in comparison.  The fact that the “opposites attract” premise is still the dominant plot point of romantic comedy over 75 years later should serve as testament enough to the movie’s influence.  While my lack of definitive cinematic knowledge prohibits me from declaring with certainty that this is the first movie to introduce the idea, I think the movie’s widespread industry and critical acclaim cemented that the formula was acceptable.

I wouldn’t DARE compare a Frank Capra movie to a horrible Jennifer Aniston movie, but I will say that “The Bounty Hunter” sure did rip off this classic.  The romantic comedy babe, played here by a star of the century, Claudette Colbert as Ellie Andrews, is a spoiled brat running away from her tyrannical father.  The hunk is the great Clark Gable as Peter Warne, a rogue reporter looking for a story … and finds one in her.  The story is amusing enough, but it’s very cut and dry.  I’m happy to call it generational differences because I sure can respect “It Happened One Night,” but that doesn’t mean I have to be head over heels for it.

Classics Corner: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

29 09 2011

Much of the U.S. racial history that I learned as a kid in school could be summed up with this sentence: “Then Martin Luther King had a dream, he made the civil rights movement happen, and suddenly everyone could go to school together and racism wasn’t a problem anymore.”

There’s so much wrong with that statement, but I’ll start out by pointing out that racial tensions can never be covered up, erased, or eradicated; they can only be soothed and toned down to the point that they no longer present a basis for discrimination.  And the tensions cannot be controlled by the government; they can play a significant role in the process, but racial tensions have to be fixed by society because that’s the place from where they were derived in the first place.  The Civil Rights Act and Brown v. Board of Education were important steps on the way to deinstitutionalizing racism, but they did not magically make the problem disappear.

It’s a quick, easy pat on the back to say that since there was once a time when segregation in schools existed, we are a progressive and equal society.  The fact is, however, that we are not a society void of discrimination.  It still exists.  Whether it’s directed towards homosexuals, blacks, whites, Hispanics, Christians, Muslims, Jews – it is still out there, and it’s still a big problem.

Not to digress too much, but that’s why I think “The Help” was such an important discussion piece over the summer.  By showing us how backwards the Southern attitudes towards their African-American maids were, dehumanizing them to the point that they needed separate toilets, it reminded us of how horrible discrimination is.  If you really wanted to meditate on the late summer breakout hit,  you could think about how much discrimination still exists in our society (positive or negative) on the basis of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or just about any other categorical distinction you can make.

So now to the main point of discussion, the 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”  Stanley Kramer’s film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards in a legendary year for cinema, winning a third Best Actress trophy for Katharine Hepburn and another trophy for Best Original Screenplay.  The film deals with one question: is it actually acceptable for Joey, an upper-class white woman (Katharine Houghton), to marry John Prentice, a black man (Sidney Poitier) even if he is extremely well-off and accomplished?

The question is directed at three groups.  The first is Joey’s parents, well-off California liberals Christina (Hepburn) and Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy in his final film). The issue tests how committed they are to their ideals by muddling their interests in with the final product.  The second is the other African-Americans in the film, John’s parents and the Drayton’s maid Tillie.  They seem to doubt the sincerity of the gesture, wondering if the move is motivated by power rather than love.

And the third group is us, the audience, be it in 1967 or 2011 or 2100.  Some considered it dated even upon release, according to The New York Times‘ Frank Rich.  “What couple would not want him as a son-in-law,” he asks upon restating John’s impressive résumé.  Some critics have said that he was too white and have thus dulled the movie’s impact.  But as Rich said, “[W]hat’s most startling about this archaic film is the sole element in it that proves inadvertently contemporary. Faced with a black man in the mold of the Poitier character — one who appears ‘so calm’ and without ‘tensions’ — white liberals can make utter fools of themselves. When Joe Biden spoke of Obama being ‘clean’ and ‘articulate,’ he might have been recycling Spencer Tracy’s lines of 41 years ago.”

We can pretend that by electing a black President, we’ve purged ourselves of a long history and assuaged our guilt (an explanation that many have proffered now that his approval rating hovers in the low 40% range), but movies like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” remind us never to stop questioning our values.  Taking place after the passage of civil rights legislation, I can assume many people would have liked to put their feet up and pretend equality had been achieved.

Sure, its script may not have much to offer, the music may be brutal, and it lingers for too long.  But amidst all of that, there are numerous challenges to think about our notions of equality that society needs to continue to ponder on if we ever intend to keep moving forwards.

Classics Corner: “Some Like It Hot”

24 08 2011

As I talked about in my “Weekend Update” column two weeks ago, comedy with lasting cultural value is few and far between at the movies nowadays.  The genre has become heavily manufactured, producing standard-order products that entertain at the most basic level to turn a quick profit.  Ben Fritz of The Los Angeles Times wrote this about the state of the movies in July: “Increasing concern about the economics of comedies has also led studios to increasingly rely on well-known names with track records. That’s why Apatow, Adam Sandler and ‘Hangover’ director Todd Phillips remain among the busiest people on Hollywood’s comedy circuit.”

But as I am quite notorious for insisting, the instant gratification culture that began in earnest with the proliferation of the Internet is truly far-reaching, changing the way that the industry makes movies.  They want movies to make money so they can appear to be in the black for their shareholders.  The easiest way to do that is by producing a movie that barely has enough laughs to sustain a 150 second trailer and then building clichéd tropes as filler around it.  This makes for instant gratification, sure, but how many of our comedy favorites of this decade will be not only memorable but still funny in 50 years?  “The Hangover?”  “Superbad?”  “Wedding Crashers?”

To keep viewers for many years to come, studios should be patterning their comedies more like “Some Like It Hot,” Billy Wilder’s classic that was ranked the funniest American film ever by the American Film Institute in 2000.  I don’t know if I wholeheartedly espouse this choice, but I will say this: on first view at home, it made me laugh more than most modern comedies make me laugh in the theaters.  And on second viewing, it held up better than any recent genre effort.

The key is this, in my opinion: it’s all in the nuances.  Humor calibrated to please the culture of its time will rise and fade like a setting sun; take for instance 1973’s “Blazing Saddles.”  Yes, it’s absolutely a riot, but a scene of flatulence which was shocking then is now commonplace and incredibly tame compared to the nonstop easy scatological humor that Hollywood comedians insist on throwing at us like we’re nine years old.  (Looking at you, Happy Madison.)

It all starts at the grassroots, namely with the writers and the actors.  This is where comedy flourishes, when everyone is game to generate something hilarious once and just as good afterwards.  Billy Wilder, perhaps one of the most diversified figures in cinematic history, co-wrote this story that lovingly pastiches multiple movie archetypes – the gangster flick, the screwball sex comedy, the slapstick humor popularized in the silent era by Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, and a non-tailored romance with some interesting twists and turns.  His excellent cast, which includes the enchanting Marilyn Monroe and “her bosom companions” played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, carries the movie to comedic transcendance.

Not too unlike “The Hangover,” Wilder’s film begins with a crazy premise: Curtis and Lemmon’s macho Prohibition-era Chicago musicians, fleeing the scene of a gang massacre, get in drag to join a women’s band on the road.  They fit in rather nicely on just appearance, but that’s the least of their problems.  There’s the issue of another smoking hot singer in the group (Marilyn Monroe) who’s voice is as stunning as her face.  There’s also the problem of them attracting other men to their new personas as the billionaire Osgood Fielding takes a special interest in one of them.

It’s a movie of twists and turns, mistaken identities, hilarious physicality, snappy dialogue, and just plain fun.  Now doesn’t THAT sound like the type of comedy you’d pay to see?

Classics Corner: “Blazing Saddles”

30 07 2011

In need of a Western without any pesky aliens?  Perhaps it’s time to revisit the good old faithful “Blazing Saddles,” Mel Brooks’ 1974 sendup of the genre as well as the racism that they, whether blatantly or inadvertently, often promoted.  Comedy usually shares very little in common with wine – while the beverage gets better with age, the movies normally don’t – but here is one glorious exception.  The humor is very fresh, rooted in a very rich cinematic source rather than in shallow contemporary waters.

Brooks deconstructs the mythologized West by pointing out the stereotypes that we have assumed to be factual, when in reality, they may amount to little more than a representation to the attitudes of the filmmakers or the time.  He brings out hilarious, borderline self-aware, archetypes such as the down-and-out gunslinger (played here by Gene Wilder), the seductress (Madeline Kahn in a hysterical Oscar-nominated performance), and the power-crazy governor (Harvey Korman in all hilarity).  But Brooks turns the tables and makes another hallmark character from western films, the sheriff, an African-American (Cleavon Little), thus exposing the true attitudes of the town which looked so perfect and ideal.

The classic scene showing the revelation of this fact is funny not only because of Brooks’ clever wordplay but also because it rings true of the post-Civil Rights America.  While everything on the surface looked equal in 1974, there was still a ways to go, largely in terms of changing the racist attitudes that had been ingrained in people’s minds.  Through his tenure as sheriff, comedy ensues from all sorts of presumptions of race.

But if you want to just enjoy it as a surface level comedy, there are plenty of chances for you to do that as well.  Brooks’ unwillingness to subscribe to propriety or political correctness results in a ruckus of a movie which still produces belly laughs over 35 years later.  Be it through anachronisms, crafty inversions of genre expectations, toying with the limits of cinema, or good old-fashioned actor-driven humor, it could almost have a seal guaranteeing laughs on its poster.

I’d give anything to see Mel Brooks make another movie; it would be so refreshing amidst a sea of forgettable and immature comedies.  If only the sophomoric “Scary Movie” series hadn’t convinced everyone that genre spoofs have to be stupid, then the angels would herald his return.  But for now, I think every comedy writer would do well to watch “Blazing Saddles” again before they send off their script because, quite frankly, no one is coming close to this standard blazed by Brooks.

Classics Corner: “High Noon”

7 06 2011

After the Coen Brothers made the Western cool again with their remake of “True Grit,” I decided it was about time I brushed up on some classics of the fabled American genre.  And, unsurprisingly, I was reminded of why so many of them bear the label classic – because they actually are timeless, with lessons and ideas that can apply to any generation of moviewatchers.  From what I saw, the best of the bunch has to be “High Noon,” a movie that in time could join my all-time favorites.

The premise is simple (and very unlike most movies the genre); the set-up, short and sweet.  Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is the retiring marshal of the town of Hadleyville, and at noon, three criminals will return to his town with the intent to kill him for putting them away.  The townspeople encourage him to hurry out in the hope that his departure will keep them out of harm’s way.  But Kane sees it as his problem to solve, and he stays put to face the imminent challenge.

Kane then goes through the town, looking for citizens willing to help him stop the criminals.  While everyone wants to keep their town safe and on principle want to give aid, ultimately no one will pick up their gun and defend their town.  As the high noon shadow falls over the town, it is Kane alone who must stand and fight for the lives of the people he no longer has to protect.

Just like “Modern Times,” the subject of last month’s Classics Corner column, “High Noon” is such an incredibly rewarding movie to watch because it captures a moment in time and then uses that moment to highlight some universally timeless truths about the human condition.  When analyzed against the backdrop of 1952, the year it was released, the allegory is very clear.  The people of Hadleyville are representative of another western community beginning with the letter H, Hollywood, who were afraid to stand up for themselves and their basic rights when Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee were sanctioning an era of blacklisting in the industry.

Looking back in hindsight, it’s easy to see that McCarthyism is a stain on our history and anyone in 2011 would stand up to such violations of civil rights.  But with McCarthy at the height of his power at the time of the movie’s release, it was certainly easier said than done.  Kane embodies the spirit of the times – a man who wants to protect the livelihood of his fellow townspeople but cannot get them to stop cowering in fear.  As the saying goes, freedom doesn’t come free, and Kane is the only one who seems to understand that.

But Kane is more than just the unspoken thoughts of screenwriters in 1952; however, in the moment, the heated political debates surrounding McCarthyism and blacklisting clouded people’s view of it.  Kane is not a sheriff embodying the liberal ideas of the time – and in case you are narrow-minded enough to be fooled, this was a favorite movie of Republican Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan.  He is a man driven by duty even when it isn’t necessary.  He is a protector of liberty even when he stands alone.  He puts his life on the line even when the people he protects have left him out to dry.

More than just a vision of 1952, Sheriff Will Kane is the paradigm of American citizenship and virtue, a champion of the blessings of democracy willing to make sacrifices to ensure its efficacy.  Such uprightness is what all of us should aspire to achieve, be we American or of any other nationality (the Polish democratic group Solidarity used Kane as a powerful image in the country’s first free elections).  And when the movie comes to a halt, I like to imagine that if Kane had a last line, he’d reiterate the words of the great Benjamin Franklin: “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”

Classics Corner: “Modern Times”

29 05 2011

I don’t know why I still manage to get so awestruck when an old movie manages to feel as relevant as this morning’s edition of The New York Times, but Charlie Chaplin’s 75-year-old “Modern Times” applies just as much to 1936’s factory work as it does to 2011’s technological work.  It will forever be a prophetically prescient social commentary on progress and modernity as long as it continues to dehumanize us.  (Not to mention it’s also a fantastic movie with a thoroughly captivating story to tell!)

In the film, Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp character hits the assembly line and encounters the problem many of us face today: with technology making us move so quickly, the way that we live in the real world inevitably takes the form of our dealings with technology.  Chaplin communicates this idea in a very literal way that is at once hilarious and haunting – his arms can’t stop screwing nuts, acting as if there were an assembly line in front of them at all times.  Modernism has invaded his subconscious behaviors, and work is no longer something confined to the workplace.  Sounds scary, right?

But thanks to Chaplin’s charm, the movie is hardly a rant about how factory work kills the soul (something that would have been all too easy to do in 1936 when America was still in the midst of the Great Depression).  Despite all the troubles that the Little Tramp endures from the challenges of living in a modern world, his misfortunes lead him to the gamine (played by Chaplin’s future wife, Paulette Goddard), who turns out to be the love of his life.  Together, they endure whatever the world might throw at them.  Things will never be perfect, but they are hopeful because they know that they will always have each other’s love.

And it is precisely this aspect that makes “Modern Times” such a rewarding movie to watch in the present.  In an era where social commentary in art and film are almost inevitably wrapped in a thick coat of cynicism, Chaplin reminds us of the power of a human connection and how it can provide comfort in times when industrial advancement threatens to make humans virtually obsolete.  This (almost-)silent film had volumes more to say about culture and humanity than most movies with words say nowadays.  I’m certainly glad that I put aside my hesitancy to watch silent movies because Chaplin’s vision truly is timeless and transcends the barriers that cinematic progress inevitably erects.

Classics Corner: “From Here to Eternity”

24 02 2011

(This post first appeared as part of Stephanie’s Best Picture marathon over at “The Flick Chick.” Go check out the series as all 82 Best Picture nominees are being reviewed leading up to the big day.)

It’s easy to see why a movie like “From Here to Eternity” could take the Oscars by storm back in 1953. In the midst of a post-war baby boom, patriotism was still running high after our victory in World War II and tension with the USSR were at a simmer, not a boil. We had yet to be mired in the Vietnam War or have our nation’s highest office be tainted by the Watergate scandal. It was a different world, and movies fictionalizing these times have a mentality that reflects the times.

So when I watched the movie in an attempt to understand why it won Best Picture, I had to move myself out of our current times where last year’s winner, “The Hurt Locker,” conveys a stark pessimism about military maneuvers. So while I might see the movie as an excessively romanticized portrait of the American soldier, they saw it as a rousing tribute to the men who served their country with honor and courage. And while I might see the movie’s characters and plot as being a touch over-melodramatic, audiences were totally won over by their personification of military values. (This is not meant as a criticism of older generations, more a generalization of how audiences have changed over the decades.)

The movie follows two storylines: the tenacious Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) transfers to Hawaii after missing out on an unfair promotion. He was once a prized boxer and finds himself being hazed by his comrades to join their ranks, authorized from high-ranking officers. To cope, he befriends Maggio (Frank Sinatra) and romances Lorene (Donna Reed). Meanwhile, his superior, First Sgt. Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), begins an affair with the captain’s wife (Deborah Kerr) that gave us one of the most iconic love scenes ever shot. So iconic, in fact, that it had to parodied in “Shrek 2.”

I’d be lying if I said I loved “From Here to Eternity.” While it might capture the isolation of the soldiers in Hawaii and their humdrum routine existence at times, it felt like a more idealized portrait of military stereotypes. It’s an interesting story (one good enough to be repeated a few times), but aside from Prewitt’s erratic personality, I didn’t find myself engaged in the characters at all. This is a very different kind of American war movie than is being made nowadays – chalk it up to generational differences.

Classics Corner: “Rosemary’s Baby”

30 01 2011

I find that when it comes to watching horror classics, I’m generally not as scared as I’m told I should be.  Perhaps it’s just expectations being set sky-high, or maybe I’m just really not freaked out by horror movies at all.  Roman Polanski’s most famous entry into the genre, 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby” is no exception.  Thanks to some eerie Satanic twists and some very well-directed realism, it did manage to creep me out on levels I didn’t think it would.

I think the hardest thing about looking retrospectively at horror movies is changing the mindset of what to expect.  Several decades ago, filmmakers styled horror in a much more ambient and cerebral manner.  These made for some very traumatizing experiences for moviegoers in those times because that was all they could expect.  Thanks to advances in technology, horror has now been taken to different levels, usually preying more on suspense and cheap thrills to get an audience reaction.

I’m not quite sure when the turning point came (“Final Destination,” perhaps?), but sometime between 1968 and 2011, genre movies like “Rosemary’s Baby” became considered more artistic films than horror flicks.  That’s why “Black Swan,” a movie with a few similarities, is such a hard sell as a horror movie to many people nowadays.   Horror has been redefined, and anything that doesn’t fit into the narrow box of predictability and jump-out surprises is dismissed.

But this sort of “old horror,” as I’ll call it, is so much more affecting.  It’s truly a shame that the Hollywood system has turned away from making them in favor of five entries into the “Final Destination” series while visionary cinema like “Black Swan” has to be produced on scraps outside the established order.  Roman Polanski’s movie kicks the butt of any sort of horror movie you’ll see at the multiplex nowadays.

What I found to be particularly remarkable about the movie was the sense of tension that he builds.  Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) is just an ordinary woman with a workaholic husband and two neighbors (including Ruth Gordon in an Academy Award-winning role) who redefine overbearing.  She gets pregnant just like she wants, but there’s an sense of foreboding doom accompanying her pregnancy.  We are never quite sure of what it is, and we don’t have to know for it to be chilling.  It could be the apartment, where most of the movie takes place, and the sense of claustrophobia it provides.  It could just be nerves.  But whatever is going on, it drives Rosemary over the edge.

It’s the psychological collapse of Rosemary that makes the movie a fascinating and interesting watch.  It all leads up to a climax that’s good for a jaw-drop but ultimately kind of underwhelms in terms of aesthetics.  The plot, based on a novel by Ira Levin, is good enough to be regurgitated by filmmakers consistently for over four decades.  Yet the movie isn’t a classic because of the story; it’s a classic because of Polanski’s knack for bringing the terror of the mind out onto the screen.

Classics Corner: “The Red Shoes”

29 12 2010

After seeing “Black Swan” and being totally captivated, I decided it was about high time that I caught up with “The Red Shoes,” a classic movie about ballet.  Turns out, I was missing quite a bit.  Hopefully the ballet fever inspires other curious film lovers to check out this 1948 British film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

At their core, the movies aren’t that different.  Both are movies about a dancer torn by how far they want to sacrifice themselves to their art.  Much like “Black Swan” put on an outstanding visual show for audiences today, “The Red Shoes” was – and still is – a Technicolor feast that’s vividly and brightly illuminated visuals that wowed audiences six decades ago.  But while Darren Aronofsky’s latest film is best viewed by artists or cinephiles, “The Red Shoes” is completely relevant to anyone caught by two conflicting desires in their life.

For Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), it’s her heart and her feet.  A promising ballet dancer who’s good but not great, she’s taken on by Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) the same day he hires a new composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring), to coach the orchestra.  Her natural grace wins over Lermontov, who casts her as the lead in his new ballet, “The Red Shoes.”

An adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale (like the movie itself), the ballet tells the story of a dancer who receives a pair of red ballet shoes.  Eager to dance, she takes off across the world in the shoes.  But when she tires, the red shoes don’t and keep on dancing.  Craster is hired to compose the music for the ballet, and the nearly 20-minute dance sequence is a joyous and transcendent exaltation of the power of orchestra and dance.

What comes out of the ballet is more than just praise for Victoria and Craster; the two fall madly in love.  The business-focused Lermontov sees their affair as a distraction to Victoria’s dancing, claiming that she can never reach her full potential if love holds her down.  He fires Craster only to have Victoria walk out on the company.  She’s happy in marriage yet still longs to dance “The Red Shoes” again, never finding the satisfaction in other ballets that she found in that role.  But since Lermontov owns the rights, she’s forced to make a clear-cut decision of love or career with heartbreaking implications.

The beginning of “The Red Shoes” is a little too expository for me, and the whole thing is a touch too melodramatic.  But compared to some of the classic movies I’ve watched recently, this rings very true and feels hardly dated at all.  As a story of choices and commitment, there’s nothing classic about it – this is just as contemporary as anything nowadays.

Classics Corner: “Rebel Without a Cause”

30 11 2010

There’s an immediate resonance for any teenager who watches “Rebel Without a Cause” as youth rebellion feels eerily reminiscent to anyone experiencing it no matter how dated the story.  Sure, certain rituals have become obsolete and various practices have become laughably obscure.  The entire nature of being a teenager has changed dramatically even over the past decade, not to mention 55 years.  But the very fact that this movie can communicate its message in spite of the generational disparity really does stand substantiate the case that “Rebel Without a Cause” is a classic.

The movie looks at the nonconformity emerging among the youth in the 1950s, a topic of much controversy at the time.  For those whose history is a little rusty, this was the time of great American post-war optimism.  This was the era of the American Dream, and no matter what “Death of a Salesman” tells us, they bought into it.  When we look back at this decade, most of us think of the “Happy Days” paradigm.

So when a movie dared to explore the culture of youth rebellion, naturally it got people talking.  No one wanted their child to be “that kid,” the one stirring up the trouble, and the mindset of the time was that these types of influences were only prevalent among a lower class of people.  But the three troubled souls of “Rebel Without a Cause” all come from affluent, well-to-do families, making the social statement that much more powerful back in the 1950s.

James Dean plays the titular rebel, Jim Stark, in the second of the three major screen roles he completed before his death at age 24 in a car accident.  I had always associated Dean with the 1950s as a sort of mystical counterculture figure running against the cookie-cutter American image, and he certainly still has a large cult following from teens today.  It’s a lot easier to be rebellious in this modern time with so many forums open for dissent, but back in Dean’s time, there wasn’t much of a place for it, and this has made him all the more powerful a symbol.

I watched the movie to make Dean more than an image in my mind; I wanted to see what skills he possessed that have allowed him to become one of cinema’s most enduring figures.  He delivers, packing a performance full of internal conflict that ultimately manifests itself in shocking ways.  It’s particularly interesting to watch him struggle with the adult authorities who simply don’t understand him.

I found some striking parallels in the story to “Spring Awakening,” the play banned in Germany for nearly a century due to the inappropriateness of youth going unhinged.  In the musical adaptation, all adults are played by one male and one female, and this could certainly work for “Rebel Without a Cause” (not necessarily the musical) because all of the movie’s adults are aloof and lacking in any sort of understanding of the new generation of youth.  All form a brick wall of intolerance, and darned if Dean’s Stark can’t pound that wall down with his fists.

Stark also makes ties with two other teens living on the outskirts of decorum: a friendship with Plato (Sal Mineo), a virtually orphaned loner who is probably a closeted homosexual, and hints at romance with Judy (Natalie Wood), a girl struggling to make her transition to womanhood in the eyes of her family.  On one fateful night, together they form a kinship outside of the narrow-mindedness of their adult and teenage oppressors.  Since it is a melodrama, there may not be as much character development as there could be, yet their journeys are each so distinct and telling of the new directions of society that you can’t help but be glued to every exciting minute of it.

Classics Corner: “The Exorcist”

31 10 2010

I know that the technical cutoff for classic movies is 1968, but I’m making an exception for 1973’s “The Exorcist” seeing as it’s Halloween and I’m still trying to atone for missing this column back in August.  I know I said that I never wanted to see this movie, but given the season, I was a little curious.  And as a movie buff, how could I not see a movie that was for a time the highest-grossing film ever?

I’m not a fan of horror, particularly the Satanic sub-genre.  I have just begun slowly introducing myself to these movies, largely because I feared them so much even into my teenage years.  At first, I discovered I wasn’t really that scared at all.  I thought it was a fluke, so I watched a few more.  Turns out, I’m really not that affected by horror unless something jumps out of nowhere and the volume shoots up.

“The Exorcist” is really no different.  It’s eerie and creepy, particularly Regan’s transformation from a sweet, innocent child to the Devil incarnate, complete with a tattered face and green vomit.  But on a scare level, it really isn’t very frightening.  The movie doesn’t give any indication that anyone we know could become the Devil at a moment’s notice, so what reason do I have to fear?

Perhaps I speak as the product of a dulled, jaded generation.  In my lifetime, horror has two camps: ultra-sadistic blood and guts to the point of excess, or subtle haunting.  There really is no middle ground, yet that is exactly where William Friedkin’s Oscar-nominated horror tale seems to fall.  The demonic child scenes are about as close to horror porn as I imagine the 1970s could produce, and everything else (including the exorcism) seems to be the movie’s subtler side.

I think my biggest issue with the movie was the enormous amount of exposition provided.  We get the characters set up and learn their situations for about an hour.  Usually the tacit contract between filmmakers and moviegoers states that if you give a lot of exposition, the movie needs to vamp up to a climax that much more.  “The Exorcist” doesn’t really build much, and for all we sit back and wait for the action to come, the payoff isn’t all that satisfying.

The movie all leads up to, you guessed it, the exorcism of the demonic child.  The word gets tossed around so much nowadays, and the ritual has certainly lost some of its mystical power with each haphazard exorcism movie thrown into production.  Regan’s exorcism, however, lasts for a disturbingly and unsettlingly long amount of time.  If it doesn’t affect you at first, it will after the ten millionth time the two priests shout out “the power of Christ compels you!”

As a a sort of origin for a lot of horror movies that have frightened audiences for the last 30 years, “The Exorcist” proves to be an interesting watch.  An Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, though, seems a little bit much.  This is a good movie, don’t get me wrong, but just because a horror movie has a plot, good performances, and a few chills doesn’t mean it deserves a shot at Hollywood’s highest honor.  Maybe it’s all the crummy rip-offs that the movie inspired that make feel so nonplussed by the movie, but according to Tim Dirks, “its tale of the devil came at a difficult and disordered time when the world had just experienced the end of the Vietnam War … and at the time of the coverup of the Watergate office break-in.”  Times have changed, and it could be a good sign that I can’t match the devil to any current events.