Monday, 31 March 2014

King Kong (1933)

Country: USA
Director: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Producer: David O. Selznick
Screenplay: James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose
Starring: Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot, Edgar Wallace
Length: 100 minutes

A director and his film crew travel to a mysterious island and return to New York with a really big ape who just can't get enough of Fay Wray.

King Kong hit audiences at a time when nature documentaries (popularized by the Lumière brothers) and jungle adventure films were very much in vogue, including 1913’s Beasts in the Jungle, 1918’s Tarzan of the Apes, and 1925’s The Lost World. Inspired by the fantastical trick photography of director Georges Méliès in films like 1902’s Voyage dans la lune, Selznick and Cooper enlisted special effects guru Willis O’Brien and team to marry stunning matte-painted backgrounds with cutting edge stop-motion animation, finely-detailed miniatures (including animals, people, and entire sets), and robotics. Meanwhile, composer Max Steiner was paid $50,000 to write the original score.

Made in eight months on a budget of $672,000, King Kong earned $2.8 million at the box office. Canadian actress Fay Raye had the looks, charm, and scream to win her the part of Ann Darrow. Peter Jackson offered her a role in his 2005 remake but she passed away shortly before filming began. Two days after Wray’s death (Aug 8, 2004), the Empire State Building’s lights were dimmed in her memory. Kong was remade in 1976 with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, and again in 2005 with Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody.

As a movie about people making a movie and getting w-a-a-a-y more than they bargain for, King Kong is more than just the first great monster film; it’s also the first great meta-narrative monster film. (Say thank you, Blair Witch, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, et al!) As an example of early cinema’s radical visual evolution, few films equal Kong with its unprecedented special effects, groundbreaking shots of Kong in motion from inside plane cockpits, and seamless composite editing.

Story-wise, however, Kong is a mixed bag. Part of me loves the film and part of me is left scratching my head. Great pacing, wicked suspense, and wow, does this plot move! But, in the end, what is Kong about? What are the deeper meanings, the broader themes? The big ape’s journey is so firmly entrenched in pop culture, so revered and legendarily awesome(!), it’s a bit harrowing to critique, never mind imagining how audiences must have first reacted to the film's basic, central idea.

As our next few reviews will demonstrate, the “important” films of the 30s were awash in epic, eyeball-rolling sexism, Damsels-in-Distress (i.e. every woman) constantly requiring Savior-Rogues (i.e. any man), and such. With this in mind, lacking any definitive message aside from the weak and incomprehensible addendum, “it wasn’t the planes, it was beauty killed the beast”, King Kong may serve most significantly as an ironic if unintentional metaphor for the age: that men spent most too much of their time thumping their chests and protecting “their” women like mindless, macho animals, when they could have been behaving like human beings and enjoying something akin to functional, fulfilling relationships.

I get that the film is also trying to say something about the evils of western colonialism, capitalism gone wild, the exploitation of nature, and the disenfranchisement of those whom society deems unacceptable. But in the end, the film is a triumph of style – albeit wonderful, revolutionary style - over substance. Sure I was a little sad when (spoiler alert!) Kong fell to his death, but unlike Peter Jackson in 2005, director Merian Cooper hadn’t given me much of a reason to care about Mr. Big, so I didn’t. 

Having said that, I don’t doubt there would have been a rosebud or two in my pajamas when Kong first appeared had I been in the audience in 1933!  
First, the good news. Cool special effects!
Now for the fun part. I'm supposed to believe that, in the 30s at least, a man could easily find and lure a woman from a homeless shelter to his boat, destination unknown, simply by offering her a cup of coffee and a starring role in his "next big film"? And that this same woman would be subsequently treated like a princess by a boatload of sailors? How about no?

And then there are those wicked stereotypes about minorities (look, a "China Man" in "authentic" Chinatown regalia) and indigenous peoples (feast your eyes on these bloodthirsty island savages). That and the skipper's bizarre ability to suddenly speak the native language of an island he didn't even know existed ten minutes prior.

And the end of the story? In a word, totally unsatisfying. (Okay, two words.) I mean, what was this movie about? Big mechanical gorillias with bad hair and bristol board teeth? I get that it was supposed to be about a classic beast protecting a classic beauty, but I got no real sense of this until 45 seconds before the closing credits began to roll. Until then it just seemed that Kong saw her as a toy to play with, and one that he wasn't particularly interested in until the schoolyard bully came along, in this case, a T-Rex with those freakish carny arms.

In short, I felt King Kong lacked a meaningful theme, point, or redeeming lesson - except, of course, that if one lives on the twentieth floor of a luxury apartment, he or she should probably keep their bedroom window closed, lest they be plucked from their slumber by a giant, hairy hand and meet with an undesirable demise. 

Thursday, 27 March 2014

City Lights (1931)

Country:  USA
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Screenplay: Charlie Chaplin
Starring:  Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers
Length: 87 minutes 

A homeless man falls in love with a blind girl selling flowers and goes through hell to help her pay rent before she is evicted. 

Opting to stay silent when sound films were already popular (Chaplin believed “talkies” were merely a fad), City Lights was an instant box office smash, earning over $5 million or more than three times what it cost to make. Albert Einstein was at the premiere. Chaplin was beloved of directors like Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini and Woody Allen. His mother Hannah died during pre-production and the film was put on hold. Some have suggested that the film is partially autobiographical, with the flower girl representing Chaplin’s mother.

Chaplin's signature character, The Tramp, had already appeared in Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914) and served as the comical heart of dozens more films to follow. But he was more than the guy with the little moustache and cane: Chaplin was a Hollywood powerhouse for decades as actor, producer, distributor, part owner of United Artists, and if that weren't enough, composer for his 1931 classic with Arthur Johnston. 

City Lights is pure joy from start to finish. At a time when special effects and sound were radically transforming what audiences could expect from movies, Chaplin chose to make a simple film with (get this) strong characters, great pacing, unforgettable sight gags, choreographed sequences that didn't waste a single prop, and most importantly, a deeply touching human story. And at the center of it all, history’s most unsung hero and undisputed king of unlucky coincidences, The Tramp.  

Here, our boy's heart is stolen by a blind flower vender whose heart he tries to win in return, if only he could get away from the drunk Jekyll-and-Hyde millionaire who can’t decide whether or not the Trampster is his new best friend. As my dear wife will no doubt attest below, not everyone is a fan of silent films. But whereas some non-talkies are arguably diminished by a lack of sound, the dance-like pantomime comedy of City Lights thrives on it. Take the Cigar-at-the-Dance scene, the Suicide-Prevention-at-the-River scene, or the Boxing Jitterbug scene. Instant classics, all. 

But it’s the gorgeous story in the middle of everything that finally pulls your heart out and gives it a big, gooey, and, somehow, totally genuine hug. Easily my favourite film among the Hundred so far.
I don’t usually like slapstick comedy - i.e. can’t stand it. But the laughs came so fast and furiously, and Chaplin made me love him so completely, I simply couldn’t resist. And you're right, darling, I didn’t give a tinker's cuss that it was silent! 

Of course, it didn’t hurt that I likes me a good underdog story and loves me a good love story. And what’s with that ending? Totally took me off guard and had me weeping! City Lights is sweet, funny, honest stuff!

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Country: USA
Based on: The 1928 novel by Erich Maria Remarque
Director: Lewis Milestone
Screenplay: George Abbott & Maxwell Anderson
Starring: Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres
Length: 138 minutes

Seduced by the “glories” of war and zealous to defend the Fatherland, a group of young German enlistees have their illusions tragically crushed and find the post-war adjustment to everyday life nearly impossible. 

A veteran of the First World War, writer Erich Maria Remarque experienced firsthand the grim realities of war and the lonely, often misunderstood challenges of returning to "normal" life. As a result, he desired to draw public attention to post-traumatic stress disorder decades before it was given a name. Steven Spielberg cites the benchmark film as a key source of inspiration for 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, and many of its most memorable scenes have influenced - or been copied outright - by other directors. After serial publication in the German newspaper Vossiche Zeitung in 1928, the novel was published as a book in 1929. Produced on a budget of $1.2 million, the film earned $3 million at the box office. The first "talkie" war film to win Oscars (Best Director, Outstanding Production), All Quiet on the Western Front was re-released in 1939 to remind audiences of the evils of war as World War I ramped up across the Atlantic. German screenings in the early 1930s were broken up by Nazis throwing mice and stink bombs into theatres. 

Despite his victory over the forces of evil, when Frodo Baggins returns to the Shire after going to hell and back in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he finds himself forever scarred, an empty shell of a hobbit no longer able to find joy in old comforts or consolation from neighbours unable to relate. Christopher Walken's Nick shares a similar fate in The Deer Hunter, as does Tom Cruise's Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July and Jeremy Renner's Sgt. James in The Hurt Locker. But before all of them came German private Paul Baumer, the man to whom every other cinematic soldier of misfortune owes a melancholy 21-gun salute. 

All Quiet on the Western Front is as relevant today as it was 84 years ago. Not merely because war is still very much with us but also because, as the film poignantly highlights, governments still struggle to adequately provide a soldier's basic needs, naive young minds still fall prey to dubious appeals to national pride, and wars are still predicated on the questionable objectives of businessmen and politicians safely removed from the battlefield. 

But it's Remarque's focus on the long-term psychological impact of war that makes the novel and film both groundbreaking and enduring. (For a more recent and personal take on the subject, read Kristi Anne Rasppery's heartbreaking article detailing her nightmarish struggle to reconnect with her Iraq war vet dad.) And by inviting us to explore a soldier's harrowing journey from the German point of view, the film forces us to reflect on our common humanity and the universality of fear and sacrifice.

Apart from its powerful psycho-social commentary, All Quiet is also a brilliant bit of storytelling. Opening on a classroom full of young men who take the bait and sign up for duty, the film then never leaves their side. We follow them through basic training, watch the traumas of war cement them into a band of brothers as if we ourselves are on the front lines. We march with them, fight with them, shiver and cry in claustrophobic bunkers beside them, and as a result, share in their madness and despair. The conspicuous absence of music throughout most of the film simultaneously builds suspense and honours our intelligence by allowing us to absorb the horror and heartbreak without any hokey, superfluous melodrama. 

Milestone knows when to take a breath, too. A midpoint supper conversation among the troops raises perennial questions about how wars get started and to what degree soldiers even comprehend what they are fighting for. “One country offends another,” posits one soldier. “What," another responds, "you mean there’s a mountain over in Germany gets mad at a field over in France?” “Maybe it was the English," offers another. "I don’t want to shoot any Englishmen. I never saw one till I came over here.” “Well someone must have wanted it!” In the end, the boys conclude that wars are largely generated by politicians wanting to leave legacies and manufacturers wanting to get rich, and decide that the world's leaders should be corralled in a pen without weapons and forced to fight their own wars. Simplistic perhaps, but not far from the truth.

On the technical front, All Quiet is a marvel to behold. 42 minutes in, our boys watch helplessly from the trenches as airstrikes move closer and closer, followed by waves of enemy combatants whom they mow down in a blaze of machine gun fire before dispatching with rifle butts and bayonets. Between the scenes of carnage, the camera stops to capture the men's horrified screams and expressions: tragic snapshots of an entire generation forever ruined by a few minutes of senseless, outrageous violence. Few war films have been able to duplicate the raw and grizzly trauma of this, the first and arguably most realistic battle scene ever filmed. Indeed, I find it difficult to imagine how Milestone was able to achieve such cinematic realism, replete with explosions, close-ups, and unrestrained performances, without half of the cast actually dying. 

In the end, the film brings us back to the classroom where it all began. Paul's teacher asks the returning vet to encourage a fresh group of students to sign up for war, but he can't and is decried as a coward for insisting that  it's better to live and let live than to kill for some misplaced sense of national pride. In the end, he chooses to return to the front lines rather than live in a society that considers war glorious. In a bittersweet coda, Paul inadvertently seals his fate by reaching out from the trenches to touch a butterfly, a symbolic search for beauty in world poisoned by war. It's a perfect ending to a near-perfect film.

I am no fan of war and I generally don’t find watching movies about war, or ones loaded front to back with violence, entertaining. So you can imagine that, after reading the logline for All Quiet on the Western Front, I wasn't particularly fired up about watching this one. (Forgive the gun pun.)

However, this isn't a film that sensationalizes war. On the contrary, All Quiet is a staunchly anti-war film. If we have children, they will be watching this movie. I especially love that the writer chose to tell the story from the German point of view, forcing us to recognize the universal human impact (and therefore the madness) of war.

Oh, and by the way, it's not silent!! Endlich! Perfekt!

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Our Predictions: The 2014 Oscars

Tonight, the red carpet rolls out, the tents go up (here comes the rain again, L.A.), and the Oscars are handed out for the best films and performances of 2013!

Here's who we would like to win: 

Nominees: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Nebraska, Philomena, 12 Years A Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street
Him: I'm split between Dallas Buyers Club and Wolf of Wall Street
Her: Dallas Buyers Club
Will Win: 12 Years A Slave.

Nominees: Christian Bale, Bruce Dern, Leonardo DiCaprio, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew McConaughey
Him: Matthew McConaughey
Her: Matthew McConaughey
Will Win: Chiwetel Ejiofor

Nominees: Amy Adams, Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep 
Him: Cate Blanchett
Her: Cate Blanchett
Will Win: Cate Blanchett

Nominees: Barkhad Abdi, Bradley Cooper, Michael Fassbender, Jonah Hill, Jared Leto 
Him: Michael Fassbender
Her: Jared Leto
Will Win: Jared Leto 

Nominees: Sally Hawkins, Jennifer Lawrence, Lupita Nyong'o, Julia Roberts, June Squibb 
Him: Lupita Nyong'o
Her: Lupita Nyong'o
Will Win: Lupita Nyong'o

Nominees: Steve McQueen, David O. Russell, Alfonso Cuaron, Alexander Payne, Martin Scorsese 
Him: Alfonso Cuaron
Her: Steve McQueen
Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron

Nominees: Eric Warren Singer & David O. Russell (American Hustle), Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine), Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack (Dallas Buyers Club), Spike Jonze (Her), Bob Nelson (Nebraska) 
Him: Woody Allen
Her: Woody Allen
Will Win: Eric Warren Singer & David O. Russell

Nominees: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight), Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope (Philomena), John Ridley (12 Years A Slave), Terrence Winter (The Wolf of Wall Street) 
Him: Terrence Winter
Her: John Ridley
Will Win: John Ridley

Nominees: John Williams (The Book Thief), Steven Price (Gravity), William Butler & Owen Pallett (Her), Alexandre Desplat (Philomena), Thomas Newman (Saving Mr. Banks) 
Him: Wishboned between Steven Price (Gravity) and Butler/Pallett (Her)
Her: Butler/Pallett (Her)
Will Win: Steven Price