Archive for the ‘1930s’ Category

The Hurricane (John Ford, 1937)

I actually think this would’ve worked better as a silent film.  There’re some magnificent images sprinkled throughout this simple little tale of a wrongfully-imprisoned South Islander committed to escaping his Tahitian prison to reunite with his lost love in the wake of an epically destructive storm.  The shot you see above, where Terangi (a most decidedly caucasian, most decidedly NOT native South Islander Jon Hall 😆 ) kneels before his loving wife Marama (Dorothy Lamour), with the musical score understated but emotional, is straight out of a typically great expressionistic silent film…as is a bizarre, and haunting, moment during the dreaded storm where the kindly Father Paul plays the organ as his church crumbles around him.  Terangi’s big escape is thrilling, on par with other prison films of the period like “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” as is a big emotional set-piece involving Terangi in the water, pursued by his captors as his barge, and freedom, are within his grasp.  As the music, typically bombastic for that period, swells, the scene is thrilling and tense – and it’s all about image and music, just like the best of silent cinema.  In fact, little moments like where Marama comforts her sleeping husband, lying shirtless on the ground, reminded me of “The Woman in the Dunes” of all things – a particularly exotic and interesting little moment.  And, perhaps the best shot in the entire film, and one that immediately convinced me of John Ford’s gifted eye, involved the dastardly governor confronting Father Paul (a sympathizer with Terangi) in the Father’s dark living quarters, lit only by a candle, with a giant cross between the two ideological opponents.  Magnificent. 

Did I mention how this would’ve worked better as a silent film?  ‘cuz once you add dialogue and plot to this minor visual feast, it’s a mess.  The de facto villain, the governor of the little island whose refusal to intercede on Terangi’s behalf out of principle turns into an all-out obsession with ruining the poor guy’s life, is little more than an over-the-top Snidely Whiplash.  Dorothy Lamour is cringe-inducing as Marama, Jon Hall…well, good luck just getting past his skin color for starters, and Mary Astor as the governor’s sympathetic wife, is, well, Mary Astor at her overacting-est worst (every painful thing about her performance in “The Maltese Falcon” came flooding back to me as I watched this).  Even if you dismiss the overacting as a product of 1930s cinema (the exaggerated, expressionistic acting another reason why this would’ve worked better as a silent film), the plot and its implications are just way too simple.  It’s your basic “true love = good, letter of the unfeeling law = bad” theme with not an ounce of complexity or nuance.  It’s all just set-up for the big set-piece, the dreaded hurricane.  The sequence, apparently exorbitantly expensive to accomplish, complete with winds, water, and destroying sets like they’re Lincoln Logs, is indeed epic in scope and looks GREAT, and is damned convincing even by today’s standards.  But, it goes on way, way, WAY too long.  If Ford took some time and effort out of the hurricane set-piece and devoted it to character development, who knows, maybe Tarangi would’ve been something more than a hyper-sympathetic (more like just plain pathetic, really) man-child, Marama would’ve been more than your stock worried wife, and the dreaded governor would’ve had SOME kind of nuance to him (I’m sorry, but a sudden, to say the least, change of heart seconds before the closing credits roll does not count as nuanced), and we would’ve actually cared about the lives hanging in the balance during the storm.

On the bright side, though, at least the Natives were portrayed positively in a Ford film, for once.  But then again, even when the Natives of a Ford film are the good guys, they’re still dehumanized, a giant entity with funny customs rather than a group of individuals, and still pretty helpless compared to the more “civilized” white contingent.  Just another instance of lack of nuance pretty much ruining as good-looking a movie you’ll see from the 1930s.

6.5/10

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Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931)

Look at this picture of Bela Lugosi in his signature role.  Study it well.  And most importantly, get used to it, because once you delve into “Dracula,” you’re gonna be seeing that face, that facial expression (complete with the Mr. Spock cynical raised eyebrow), and that head taking up that much of the screen a lot.  In this first official screen version of the Dracula tale (actually based more on the play than on Bram Stoker’s book), Tod Browning will lean on that face and the presence of that wily Hungarian Lugosi like a crutch, completely banking on the possibility that Lugosi has a kind of terrifying psychosexual aura that transcends a typical villainous performance.  So is it there?  I guess it is the first couple of times you see those hypnotically intense eyes staring you down, but after another 9 or 10 times, it gets stale.  Actually, other than the outstanding beginning passages in castle Dracula, “stale” is the perfect word to describe “Dracula.”

Here’s some irony for you: “Nosferatu,” made 9 years before “Dracula” when cinema was really on its first legs, was essentially a rip-off of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” because F.W. Murnau couldn’t secure the rights to the story and basically just changed the title and character names.  Despite that, “Nosferatu” was and is a masterpiece, perhaps the greatest horror film ever made.  And nine years later comes the official “Dracula” film, and what’s the verdict?  Well, it feels a lot like a rip-off of “Nosferatu,” the original rip-off.  But first, the good – the element of “Dracula” that’s most similar to “Nosferatu,” and therefore the best, and that’s the opening section where real estate agent Renfield ventures to the ominous Transylvanian castle to do business with the Count.  Plot-wise the two films are exactly the same here, all the way down to the agent in both films pricking his finger while eating, and the Count looking on ravenously.  The dread of the townspeople is just as exaggerated and laughable as in the silent “Nosferatu,” but you get past that once you see what everyone’s shitting their pants over.  The set design, and staging of the characters in it, of Dracula’s castle is magnificent.  Entering the castle, Renfield is but a tiny blip, swallowed up by the massive and dark hallway, complete with that grand staircase and the cobwebs to make it all the more ominous.  Bats can be seen and heard flying by the window, and cuts to rats, bats, and other vermin scuttling across the ground are frequent both here and in the Count’s coffin chamber, as if the awakening of he and his brides upset nature itself.  Lugosi’s entrance is appropriately celebrated and famous, with his stiff movement and extremely inflected speech, his words like macabre poetry (“Listen to them.  Children of the night.  What music they make!”).  When he ascends those stairs and that poor sap Renfield can only look on in confused terror, the Count seems to glide rather than walk…and notice how he starts walking toward those cobwebs, camera cuts to Renfield, and then back to the Count, now behind the undisturbed cobwebs.  It’s all very subtle stuff pulled off with grace by both Lugosi and Browning.

And then there’s those eyes.  The first time we see Lugosi’s face up-close, shadows conceal his lower face, with his eyes, wide and terrifying, bathed in light.  It’s a startling shot that grabs Renfield, and grabs us.  It’s a testament to Browning’s outstanding use of lighting and shadows in an already ominous setting, maximizing the dread as Renfield becomes a small and cowering figure in the midst of the dark and unusually large castle, and the tall and confident Count Dracula.  This is horror-expressionism at its finest (it’s just too bad that “Nosferatu” staked a claim to this exact territory nine years earlier 😛 ).  It’s just a shame that that face is meant to be as deep as Lugosi’s performance will go.  First time, it was startling.  By the eight or ninth, I started chuckling, as Lugosi’s face of death just seemed to get more and more exaggerated.  And it’s when that face starts repeating, once Dracula moves to jolly ol’ England, when the movie comes crashing down.  

In Transylvania, Lugosi’s Dracula was a demigod in his macabre domain, as sinister as the castle around him.  Once in England, though, he just takes a back seat as others sit around and share stories about the biology, physiology, psychology, and consumer spending habits of the vampire.  Van Helsing’s there to lecture us on stuff we can pretty much pick up from what the movie shows us anyway, Mina’s the helpless, innocent victim, and John Harker’s her idiot Prince Valiant…all while a deranged, spider-eating Renfield (practically the one thing about the LONG England stretch of the film that was damn-near interesting) frequently interrupts their little closed-door meetings.  And the best part is, they’re basically offering themselves up buffet-style while they sit around planning this and that, and Dracula, who I guess is supposed to be immortal and super-strong or something, can come in and feast on some good old’ O-Neg whenever he likes.  Instead, we get a shitty-looking bat model hanging from a fishing line flying outside the window or, yes, shots of Lugosi’s intense-to-a-T face.  What’s he waiting for, the salt and pepper shakers to give his prospective victims some seasoning first?  And it doesn’t help matters that there’s no musical score.  Believe it or not, having no music actually works in the Transylvania scenes, as the deafening silence around that shrew Renfield makes you that much more apprehensive that something’s lurking in the shadows, and as a result, the emergence of Dracula’s brides from the hallway and the Count himself from the window, all descending upon the fainted Renfield to no music, no sound, is actually really creepy.  But cut back to England, where we basically have a parlor play that’s boring as all hell, and Tod Browning doesn’t even give us the courtesy of a score to take our mind off of the mind-numbing dialogue.  When you’ve got zero musical score, glaring plot holes (one subplot in particular involving an undead Lucy, first victim of the Count, kidnapping children in the night, one that I would’ve loved to explore deeper, is unforgivably glossed over after one mere mention), and a huge chunk of time where plot progression is stopped dead, a horror movie becomes an exercise in looking at your watch.

The idea of a regal, hyper-sexual bloodsucking demon ingratiating himself in a huge, unsuspecting society is a frightening one, but in Browning’s film that idea falls flat.  I want to be scared by a horror movie, but one extended scene of genuine tension at the beginning, followed by an hour of nothing ain’t gonna cut it.  In “Nosferatu,” Count Orlok was one of the most terrifying creatures ever put on screen just by look alone – the shriveled physique, the two front fangs, those HUGE eyes and fingernails, that ethereal rise from the coffin.  Just watching that…thing carry his coffin around gave me chills.  Here, though, I’m sorry, but I’m just not as intimidated by a handsome, well-spoken Eastern European who hob-nobs it with England’s elite.  There are moments where Lugosi is brilliant, especially when he is indeed the king of the castle, and others where he’s laughably over the top (as in his wide-eyed war of wills with Van Helsing, complete with forceful but mispronounced “Come HURR” 😆 …my apologies to any Hungarian who might be reading this).  It’s an elegant and commanding performance in the expressionistic realm of Transylvania, but in England he’s woefully out of place.  It’s funny, “Nosferatu” had all music and no dialogue, and was a brilliant bundle of tension with one of the most romantically surreal endings you’ll ever see, while “Dracula” has no music and a shitstorm of dialogue, and ends up collapsing within itself, complete with one of the most rushed and generic endings you’ll ever see.  Sorry, that face that’s launched a thousand vampiric imitators is great and all, but I guess I just prefer a hideous bat-like, pointy-earred abomination of a face to get my vampire kicks.

Yeah, you’re supposed to be at the edge of your seat, concerned about Mina and her waning health as the Count, as a man, wolf, or bat might be right around the corner, but when all was said and done, all I could think about was how when the Count didn’t have a reflection in the mirror and somehow his tux also managed to vanish in that mirror.  Obviously vampires have no reflection, but what about a vampire’s tuxedo?  Does anything even touching a vampire not have a reflection?  Was it a special Transylvania-brand tux that conforms to a busy vampire’s non-reflection needs?  Did Tod Browning just get lazy?  Of all the things to get bothered about with “Dracula,” this of all things bothered me the most, and boy is this a pointless way to end everything I have to say about the movie.  But I just had to get it off my chest, it pissed me off that much 😆 .

6.5/10

Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932)

Oh, what a disturbing but fascinating contradiction of a movie.  An endless disclaimer before the film tells us that the titular freaks and those like them are no less human than you and I, and yet at the same time we’re basically told to pity them, for they can’t help their lot in life.  I suppose we’re supposed to see the humanity in these people, and yet Tod Browning shows you their physical abnormalities completely unabashed, their Otherness 100% in the forefront.  And most distressing, we’re clearly meant to empathize with them, and yet their final act of vengeance on the greedy and conniving trapeze artist is cruel and terrible (she did have it coming, but still, her final fate is absolutely shocking – the result of an act you’d hope no human would commit on another, no matter how warranted).  “Freaks” is flawed, and uncomfortable to watch, and wildly politically incorrect, even (or perhaps especially) by today’s standards, and morally ambiguous…but damned if it isn’t an incredibly interesting early piece of cinema.

To be fair, I do think Browning was sincere in trying to portray his ragtag group of “actors” in a positive light and proving them to be much more than unfortunate losers of the genetic lottery, which is why I’m hesitant to call “Freaks” an “exploitation film.”  And indeed, “Freaks” is only an hour long, and yet the majority of that is devoted to simple scenes of the typical domesticity of these people going through their everyday lives.  We see the child-like dwarves Hans and Frieda going through the daily squabbles of an engaged couple as Frieda chastises Hans and his amorous eye towards the lovely trapeze artist.  We see the siamese twins Daisy and Violet and their cynical treatment of one’s jealous fiance.  We see one man, essentially nothing more than a head attached to a giant sock, roll and light a cigarette with his mouth while chatting with his buddy.  We see the “pinhead” sisters, a dwarf and a legless man (the “children”) as they play and frolic amongst nature.  We see everyone united in celebration on Hans and Cleopatra’s (the villianous trapeze artist) wedding night, drinking and carousing as one.  They’ve become such a close-knit community, a unit of one, that the commonality of physical abnormality has become irrelevant: they’re just friends and neighbors, carnival wagons subbing for traditional houses, and that’s where Browning’s original goal succeeds.  If so many scenes of banal daily life among friends and family become dull and repetitive (which they do), perhaps that’s the highest compliment one can give to Browning’s vision – an absolute inundation of everyday foibles of the residents of a particular neighborhood would indeed be boring as hell, and the foibles of those in this neighborhood of traveling wagons ain’t that far off.  So looking at it that way, a veil has been lifted and we see these “freaks” as relatively normal, dull people with normal, dull problems.

But then, you remember that you are looking at some pretty fucked up things.  As soon as you think your mind has humanized these people, you see “Freaks” for what it is: an incredibly bizarre little movie where deformed people are dancing and giggling in a country glen, Hans and Frieda have those high, elf-like voices that just make you giggle, and these “freaks” whom Browning’s worked so hard to humanize go into the famous “gooble gobble, gooble gobble, we accept you one of us!” chant…and oh yeah, set out to viciously cripple a cruel yet defenseless woman.  I ask you, am I cruel or politically incorrect for finding images like the one above jarringly surreal or bizarre (and effectively so when put in context)?  Browning can admirably try to humanize these so-called freaks all he wants, but in the end they’re still portrayed as Others, especially after finding out about Cleopatra and the strongman Hercules’ scheme to steal Hans’ inherited fortune and really bare their teeth (quite literally in the case of that sock-man, knife-in-mouth as he slithers with his companions in pursuit of Cleopatra…I mean really, what the fuck is he gonna do with a knife? 😆 ).  Humanized friends and neighbors become a vengeful, animal-like mob; their vengeance is stomach-churning, and yet we’re supposed to root for them all the way.  Earlier boring scenes of banal conversations allegedly signify the inner humanity of the freaks.  The late climax of the mob pursuing Cleopatra through the pouring rain is an outstanding piece of expressionist, frightening filmmaking by Browning…but one whose effectiveness mainly relies on the sudden intimidating fearsomeness of the crawling, funny looking characters we were until this point supposed to see as fully human.  Notice all the contradictions yet?  “Freaks” is pretty much one big contradiction of ideology, which is probably why it’s so controversial even to this day.  

But, in a way, isn’t it great that you can see a movie from so many different angles, from the physical vileness of the freaks, especially as vigilante mob, to the emotional vileness of Cleopatra?   Wade through a terrible script, terrible acting (though not at all the fault of the performers, none of them professional actors), and a slow, awkward pace (for an hour-long movie no less!), and you can see “Freaks” as flawed but attention-grabbing… and whatever your mindset for the day tells you to see.  It could be a love-thy-neighbor message movie, revenge movie, horror flick, romance, or exploitative “monster” movie, with an ending either uplifting or unsettling, all depending on your mood or pleasure.  Beauty really can come in any shape or size.

7.5/10

Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)

The opening intertitle tells us that “Vampyr”‘s protagonist, Allan Grey, is a young adventurer whose studies of devil worship and “vampire terror of earlier centuries” have made him a “dreamer, for whom the boundary between the real and the unreal has become dim.”  Well, clearly that’s what Dreyer was going for, but there is a point where the dimming of the boundary between the real and unreal just becomes utter chaos on the screen.  Allan Grey’s little adventure through that funhouse that I guess is supposed to be a haunted inn or something is meant to abandon all sense of logical time progression in favor of bizarre, inexplicable images that are the stuff of subconscious nightmares, but to pull that off (a compelling abandonment of all logic), you at least need images and situations that are interesting and stick with you, and for me “Vampyr” failed in that department.

I guess some images are interesting, like the staging of that scythe wielder in the image I posted, or the shadow of the peg-legged guy moving independently of the actual person…but honestly, not that interesting.  I mean, Freder’s nightmare in “Metropolis” did the scythe-wielding harbinger of death thousands of times better years before “Vampyr,” and countless horror movies after “Vampyr” would establish a mood of suspense and foreboding thousands of times better.  And it doesn’t help matters when our protagonist, Allan Grey, is just going from room to room or reading a book with that same George W. Bush look of apathetic stupidity for 75 minutes (had to get a political jab in there with the election a couple weeks away 😛 ).  I guess that’s what you get when your movie’s producer, Baron Nicholas De Gunzberg, anoints himself with the sexier name of “Julian West” and buys himself the lead role.  Seriously, if the Razzies existed in 1932, our good Baron would be the frontrunner.  If Allan Grey is truly supposed to be the audience’s stand-in as observer of “Vampyr”‘s bizarre goings-on, then I guess Dreyer succeeded, because I was as bored as the main character seemed to be.  

What “Vampyr” was was a bit of a benchmark in technique, using clever lighting and camera angles to make shadows move without their hosts, or conceptually interesting scenes like when Allan’s ghost (don’t tell me why his spirit separated from his body, though, because I didn’t understand the reason, nor did I really care) watches his own body being moved in a coffin, the camera switching between the ghost’s and the body’s point of view.  They’re interesting ideas and try to establish mood, but really nothing eye-popping.  When a movie devotes almost a fourth of its run-time to the protagonist just reading a book about vampires, no shots, no matter how interesting, can save pacing that’s that terrible.  A boring protagonist, boring quasi-romance story with the bitten sisters, shots that’re interesting on paper but end up…boring, and intertitles of that vampire book and exaggerated acting/staging that tell you that Dreyer was hesitant to leave the safe confines of silent cinema.  If “Vampyr” is supposed to be the stuff of nightmares, all it did was put me into a dreamless sleep 😦 .

3.5/10

The Golden Age (Luis Buñuel, 1930)

Well, the “Man” and “Young Girl” (this IS an early Buñuel, after all, so names mean nothing 😛 ) had nice chemistry, and crap like a cow in a master bed, shooting a kid in the back and a swank party bursting into flames are all attention-grabbing (whether that’s a positive thing or not…).  Otherwise “The Golden Age” was pure rubbish.  It’s a shame, really, because I was looking forward to returning to Luis Buñuel’s surrealist roots after I began his filmography with the early complete mindfuck “Un chien andalou,” followed by the contemporary, “conventional” (at least in Buñuel’s terms) “The Exterminating Angel” and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.”  I suppose “The Golden Age” is supposed to be a middle ground between them: slightly more plot-driven than “Un chien andalou,” but far more visually surreal than the later films.  Well, Buñuel was quite the extreme filmmaker, and turns out his films are better the more extreme they are in terms of the direction he takes them in.  “Un chien andalou” was so wonderful because it made absolutely no sense, except for the simple fact that your mind makes sense out of the random images coherently put together through match cuts.  It combined simple images of cloud slicing moon / knife slicing eye, and a man pining for a woman, and the utter bizarre like ants crawling out of a hand and dead cows on a piano being pulled by the man, and Buñuel absolutely nailed the dream aesthetic and the scary world of the subconscious.

But now comes “The Golden Age,” and the ultimate irony comes when you compare it to Buñuel’s later films.  You’d think the later films, complete with distinct characters and situations (albeit bizarre, dream-like situations that only Buñuel could think of, but still coherent in a film as a whole), would have a message that’s obvious as hell compared to something much more in the vein of surrealism.  Turns out, the opposite is true.  “The Exterminating Angel” and “Discreet Charm” are brilliantly clever satires criticizing the hoity-toity middle class: a message that’s obvious, but also as subtle as the little “what the fuck” moments that Buñuel intersperses throughout.  “The Golden Age,” though?  The poor little movie can’t win either way.  When it’s utterly bizarre, with nonsensical images like the cow on the bed or the long National Geographic-like introduction about scorpions or the Girl basically fellating a statue’s big toe, sure it grabbed my attention, but my eyes were rolling far more than they were bugging out. 

And on the other side of the spectrum, when Buñuel’s trying to painstakingly show you his negative views of how religion and the bourgeoisie drown out freedom of expression, the results are even worse.  It got to the point where the end was basically Let’s Make a Deal, where Door # 1 and Door # 2 contained Jesus and, well, the middle class themselves, acting like buffoons.  Buñuel doesn’t just hit you over the head with his anti-establishment message here, he peckerslaps you with it (for lack of a better term 😛 ).  I mean c’mon, this had the makings of a cute little story of lustful, unrefined starcrossed lovers hopelessly separated by the humorless powers that be, what with the nice chemistry between the lead actors (their scenes together are bizarre, but unusually sensual, and even a little innocent and touching), but instead that basic framework of a “plot” is surrounded by random crap like cows, explosions, Jesus, scorpions, a suddenly-bleeding face, and our anti-hero kicking a little dog and a blind man.  It’s funny how stuff like that grabbed my attention on the spot, but at this very moment, not even a half hour – 45 minutes after the movie’s over, I have to rack my brain like I never have to remember any of it.  “Un chien andalou” tapped into the frightening purety of man’s subconscious, and Buñuel’s later films made their surrealism more subtle, and thereby possibly more relevant to our everyday experiences.  “The Golden Age’s” random surreal shit, though?  On-the-spot shock value that pretty much fails to shock anyway, in a film where that anti-establishment message could have been, and eventually was, handled better by this growing, experimental filmmaker.

5/10

A Dual-Entry: Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin, 1936) and WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

I’ve done dual entries before, namely with remakes (like “Scarface” vs. “Scarface” and the original and remake of Nosferatu), and even taken liberties like including “Shadow of the Vampire” in my “Nosferatu” remake special.  But now Chaplin’s “Modern Times”…and “WALL-E”?!?!  Obviously one’s not a direct remake of the other, and after watching both I realize that there are less direct similarities between the two than I was originally banking on.  But here we are, at the dual-entry I was planning all along, so allow me to explain.  I saw the trailer for “WALL-E” in front of “Indiana Jones,” and even that little 2-minute trailer had me in awe, for the incredible visuals, for just a glimpse of the incredibly expressive title character, and his zany antics and run-ins with futuristic things way out of his league.  That was the only glimpse I had of “WALL-E.”  The only glimpse I had had of “Modern Times” was the one scene from the beginning of that movie, where Chaplin wreaks havoc, and wonderfully so, as an assemblyline man in a terrifyingly industrial factory.  Chaplin wreaks havoc in a factory, WALL-E wreaks havoc in a factory.  I looked at these two images and thought hey, why not watch the two and act all smart in critically analyzing the similarities between the two, how “WALL-E” is a postmodern take on the modernist “Modern Times,” and an update on “Modern Times'” theme of capitalistic and machinistic dehumanization using similar slapstick technique.

Well fuck that.

OK, that’s rough, because all of that is certainly there, but after actually, you know, WATCHING these movies from start to finish, It’s plain as day that both of these movies are so much more than that.  “Modern Times” goes WAY beyond the satirical yet one-dimensional feel of that first segment in the factory, eventually churning out a story and narrative that rivals the great “City Lights.”  And “WALL-E”…well, I’m gonna concentrate most of what I have to say here on “WALL-E” and how profoundly it affected me, but that’s coming up soon.  First, of course, I have to give the classic “Modern Times” its due and at least devote a paragraph or two on what was supposed to be nothing more than my own little personal homework assignment leading up to “WALL-E”, but ended up as something damn near great.

Really, was there ever a more life-affirming filmmaker than Charlie Chaplin?  Of his work I’ve only seen the masterpiece “City Lights” and now “Modern Times”, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such consistently innocent, lovable, and indeed life-affirming work from one man.  Even in the bleak industrial world of “Modern Times” resides the Tramp, clumsy and hilarious as ever…and also just as selfless.  From the start, especially with the famous first segment in the factory, “Modern Times” is pretty much “Metropolis” lite.  The first thing we see is a limitless group of sheep, which dissolves into a limitless group of lifeless workers headed for the factory.  Well, there’s your lifeless workers from “Metropolis” right there, and indeed both that film and “Modern Times” deal mainly with the dehumanization of a capitalistic, urban, and machine-dependent culture.  And while “Metropolis” is dead-serious with the god-like giant machine and the ravenous robot-turned-woman, “Modern Times” basically starts off as a face-off between the Tramp and the world around him in general.  His dealings with the assembly-line (as machine-like as the machine itself) and a malfunctioning automatic feeding machine are wonderful and show Chaplin at the height of his physical and facial prowess as a movement-based comedian.  But of course, “Modern Times” is more than just a criticism of industrial factories, and soon enough, after a nervous breakdown and wreaking all kinds of havoc in the factory, the Tramp is back in his signature too-small suit and bowler hat, being his clumsy self as he pretty much…goes places and ruins things.  Chaplin was the master of being some homeless dude who goes places and ruins things, and I never thought he could make such a shallow character type so vivid each time out.  This time, he and the “gamin” wreak havoc in a department store, in a shed on the outskirts of the advanced society, and at a sing-and-dance night club.  Much of it is vignettes showing Chaplin’s incredible physical ability as he skates, dances, wobbles, and even SINGS (this being his first talkie…and naturally he sings gibberish) his way through varied situations, but like “City Lights,” all these situations are connected by a story and by a relationship.  

I said before that the Tramp is one of the most selfless and innocent of all characters in cinema (look no further than what he does for the flower girl at the end of “City Lights”, in one of cinema’s greatest and most heart-wrenching endings), and there’s no exception here.  In the midst of factories, department stores, and a culture that endlessly buys, here are the Tramp and the gamin, situating themselves on the outskirts of society itself, literally living in a shack that’s falling apart at the seams.  And yet, they’ve made it into a home, not unlike the rundown house that’s unequivocally a home made out of love in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  The relationship between the Tramp and this young girl is one of survival, but also one of utter innocence and friendship and finding value in one’s fellow human being in a society where that’s been drowned out by the value of objects.  In such a soulless and stiff setting, it’s refreshing to see a figure as unstiff and unique and physically expressive as the Tramp.

Now did I say that the Tramp was expressive?  Because put him next to WALL-E and he’s about as expressive as a guard at Buckingham Palace 😛 .  Yeah, I just did a complete 180 by throwing Chaplin under the bus, and that’s not really a great transition to “WALL-E”, but after the wake-up call I got at just how unique “WALL-E” is from “Modern Times”, I don’t know if a smooth transition between the two was possible.  Yes, there’s the Tramp’s antics in the factory, basically remade as WALL-E’s antics in the robot repair shop more than 70 years later, so of course a lot of “WALL-E” uses Chaplin-esque slapstick humor as a launching point.  And it’s just that: a launching point, because “WALL-E” isn’t just an homage to “Modern Times” both in tone and message, but an amalgamation of so many great cinematic devices of the past used to perfection in one 90 minute animated film.

I went into “WALL-E” with just about the worst mindset I could possibly be in: looking for similarities to “Modern Times.”  Well, five minutes in, I see a lonely little robot toiling to collect garbage in an abandoned metropolis.  “Hey!”, I thought, “this is just like 28 Days Later or I Am Legend.”  I see long-abandoned video ads for a five-year luxury cruise aboard the Axiom.  “Hey!,” I thought, “this IS the off-world colonies of “Blade Runner,” promising a chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure!”  When WALL-E finds his way aboard the Axiom, the “people,” uniform in appearance, hover around and buy things like “Blue” for the sake of buying.  “Hey!”, I thought, “this is just like the dystopic future of THX 1138!”  My first impression about “WALL-E” was that it was the most un-original original movie I’ve ever seen.  Or maybe the most original un-original movie.  Either way, I mean that it’s incorporated so many visual and plot elements from many, many great movies of the past so that, in a way, you’ve seen much of it before.  And yet, these elements, whether they’re simple homages or critical plot points, are used in conjunction with one another so creatively that it somehow transcends the status of homage into pure, unabashed creativity.  “Modern Times” is there, both in the over-his-head little robot WALL-E’s antics aboard the immense and awe-inspiring starship Axiom as well as the wonderful relationship with fellow robot EVE.  I already mentioned the post-apocalyptic / class-based society influenced by “Blade Runner”  “Hello, Dolly!”‘s probably never had as much press as here, with a VHS of that musical being WALL-E’s prized possession.  And nods to “2001” are all over the fucking place, from the villainous red eye to the simply awesome images of space to the president’s secret video message to the corpulent captain’s moment of “glory” set to Also Sprach Zarathustra 😆 .  All homages, yes, and some would criticize that as a lack of creativity, but I say, why not mention the best of the best that cinema’s had to offer?  

Bottom-line, what Pixar has done for their latest effort was very brave and very risky.  After the kid-friendly “Toy Story” and “Finding Nemo” and the brilliant stories of “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” here they are with a movie with very little dialogue, who’s two main characters speak in beeps and whistles, and a G-rated movie concerning, oh, just that little issue of the APOCALYPSE.  The director and animators had the audacity of interspersing live-action footage of “Hello, Dolly!” and circa-22nd century snobs and president Fred Willard amongst the CGI animation.  Already it had the makings of Pixar’s most mature film, and in a way that’s certainly what it is, but it’s also certainly for the little one’s with how lovable a figure WALL-E is.  What started as risk becomes pure reward, and I have no reservation in saying that “WALL-E” is Pixar’s most universal movie, that can speak to children, adults, and everybody in-between.

A word must be said for the now-well known pro-environment, anti-corporation message that abounds throughout “WALL-E”, great for some, far too simplistic for others.  There are those who loved the first segment of the movie, with WALL-E’s curiosity-filled isolation on an abandoned earth, only to lose that love once he jumps ship for the Axiom, filled with what remains of humanity: fat, lazy, hedonistic blobs with not a shred of individuality.  Is it an overly-simple message to the viewer to get out more, to buy less, and to treat the earth with some respect?  Of course it is, but I didn’t have a problem with that.  C’mon, this is a G-rated movie geared toward the little ones, you can’t exactly have the intellectual complexity of a “2001.”  It was straight and to-the-point, but it wasn’t exactly “An Inconvenient Truth” either.  It was a simply moral of the story, set against the backdrop of an incredible setting and incredible story.  No problem.

And anyway, that message played complete second-fiddle to me.  I’ve seen that anti-consumer / industry, pro-environment message too much lately to care much.  Yeah, “WALL-E” does it well, but what I zoned in on was what turned out to be two of the most emotionally-resonant and fully-realized characters I have EVER seen.  It’s just too bad animated robots can’t get Academy Award nominations (I suppose the great sound editor Ben Burtt’s incredible work with WALL-E’s “voice” practically being a shoe-in for best Sound makes up for it 😕 ), because WALL-E and EVE form a bond that rivals any seen on-screen, including, well, the Tramp and the gamin in “Modern Times.”  You can feel the child-like exuberance oozing from WALL-E as he shows the wary EVE around his hovel, and his glee upon putting on the VHS of “Hello, Dolly!”.  You feel the desperation in the little guy to revive his new friend when she unexpectedly shuts down (and the same in her later on, representing the height of character maturation that you couldn’t even get out of a live performance).  I mean, those big, reflective eyes are so expressive the kids watching the movie will fall in love immediately.  And on the flip-side there’s EVE, so visibly angry at WALL-E for one clumsy, Chaplin-like mix-up after another aboard the Axiom, so visibly relieved to see her friend and dare I say, romantic interest, in one piece as they dance in the emptiness of space.  In a setting where the biological humans are gelatinous shells of their former selves, it’s these two robots who are the most human figures this movie, any Pixar movie, and for my money any animated movie altogether, has shelled out.  Conversations made up of nothing more than a computerized “EVAAAA” and “DIRECTIVE” contain as much emotional truth as each robot’s expressive eyes, movement and very nature, and as much love and humanity as your prototypical award-winning live performance, if not more.  And THAT’s where I make the ultimate comparison between “WALL-E” and “Modern Times”: not in the slapstick humor in a mechanistic setting, but in the relationship of pure love and selflessness and innocence between first the Tramp and the gamin, now WALL-E and EVE: each time, two individuals more human than the uniform, soulless consumers around them.  Yes, that environment and industry-related message is an important one, but the ultimate meaning that I got out of “WALL-E” involved learning how to be human, how to be selfless, and how to love, and it only took a couple of cute little robots to get that across.

You really gotta wonder how Pixar is doing this.  “Toy Story” had all the animated innovations and an incredibly clever script, “Finding Nemo” was unparalleled at the time with its beautiful visuals, “The Incredibles” turned out to be a brilliant satire disguised as an action movie, and maybe all of those were topped by the wonderful “Ratatouille.”  And now comes “WALL-E”.  The visuals alone, both with WALL-E’s isolation on a desolate Earth and then the awesome magnitude of space and the hedonistic, futuristic pleasures within the Axiom, are like nothing I’ve ever seen or will ever see.  And the performances (yes, I feel totally comfortable calling the actions of animated robots “performances”) and story are more intelligent, more moving, and more appealing to any age group than in anything Pixar’s churned out before.  Each of those Pixar movies that I’ve loved so much have revolutionized animation in the 21st century, but I truly believe that “WALL-E” has revolutionized cinema in general.  In “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” and “Ratatouille,” Pixar created great, great movies.  With “WALL-E”, they’ve done what not even I thought they could do: they’ve created a masterpiece.

Modern Times: 9/10
WALL-E: 10/10

Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932 & Brian De Palma, 1983)

 

Remake special, round 3:

Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932)

 

vs.

Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983)

I had a yen for early 1930s film noir (since my noir expertise is pretty much confined to the names Humphrey Bogart and Billy Wilder and the decade of the 1940s), so I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone and take on one of the most famous early noirs and also get the remake out of the way since I’m pretty much the last person on earth to see it. Truth be told, I almost regretted it in the first 2 minutes of the original with that message that gang violence = bad and we have to do something about it…it was basically a P.S.A. to guilt-trip you into writing to your congressman. But I decided to give it a chance…it was the Hayes Code era, after all, and people were uber-puritan back then. And ideologically, story-wise and dialogue-wise at least, this was basically Reefer Madness, replacing weed with gangsters. There were points where the narrative just came to a complete halt so that some cops and other upstanding citizens can basically talk right to the audience, giving advice on how the common man can put an end to gangland culture, and that was absolutely infuriating.

Other than that, there were two redeeming qualities of Scarface that I thought made it the noir/crime classic that it is: Paul Muni’s wonderful performance, and the overall look and feel of the film. Thank god I watched this before Pacino’s performance in the remake, so that I was able to appreciate Muni’s Tony as a character who, granted, is portrayed as over-the-top, but whose range of emotions are also great and varied. He’ll push you around and definitely gives off an air of confidence about him, but also has his concealed weaknesses, namely his obsession with his sister. Of course his performance, like all the others, are chock full of circa-1930s clichés like the fake macho language, but I thought it was a surprisingly layered performance for the time, especially his final violent spree of both agony and glee with his equally agonized/gleeful sister.

As for the look and feel, the image I’ve included pretty much says it all. For a film from the 1930s, Scarface really pulls few punches when it comes to spurts of violence. They’re quick, non-glamorized (except maybe for that little bit with the comic relief of Tony’s inept secretary, which I happened to like a lot), and if Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht had only relied on this unglamorous portrayal of violence and the layered characters to get across their criticism of gang culture instead of the Sunday sermon technique, this film would’ve been a masterpiece. There were also wonderfully moody images (like the one included of course), especially with that implicitly frequent incorporation of the cross and the letter X. That last confrontation between Tony and his sister, with the light and shadows, was perfect, and like I said, the absolutely manic feel of that and the following shoot-out, leading up to the “The World is Yours” phrase made famous by the remake, shows a filmmaker at his very finest. I’d say in terms of the visuals and mood, this was a step or so below Fritz Lang’s “M”, and that’s still really saying something, some terrible writing (even for the ‘30s) aside.

And then comes De Palma’s remake: the seminal gangster film of the last 30 years, the seminal role of Al Pacino post-Godfather, and the seminal influence of hip-hop artists near and far…so famous that the reason I’d avoided it until now was because it was so famous and I just knew it was going to be overrated. And 3 hours later, it’s definitely overrated when considering there are those who call it an all-time great film, and it’s far too long, but fuck it, I liked it. I liked it a lot, actually…for some right reasons and for some wrong reasons. Just like with just about every De Palma film, the word subtlety is thrown out the window from the first frame, from Pacino who chews more scenery than even Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole to the unbelievably exorbitant colors and settings, especially after Tony’s rise to power. It’s probably one of the most over-the-top movies I’ve ever seen, but it actually works, mainly because it’s a picture-perfect product of its times. If the original Scarface defined the gangland / Hayes code culture of the 1930s, then the remake is the 1980s, from the leisure suits to the nightclubs to the Karate Kid-like “Take it to the Limit” montage to Tony’s mansion to Giorgio Moroder’s synthesizer score to F. Murray Abraham just…being in a movie at all: all ridiculous, but all fitting perfectly into the culture that thrived around the movie. A lot of Oliver Stone’s screenplay and dialogue is cheesy, but like everything else, it fits right in with the values and culture of the 80s, and with the just-as exorbitant characters saying them, and in that regard and others, a lot of that screenplay actually felt natural to me, and really worked.

Like it or not Godfather fans (especially myself), this is going to be the role that defines Al Pacino’s long and distinguished career, and while Michael Corleone is certainly the more layered and complex performance, this is certainly his most memorable. Tony Montana is, easily and without question, the most over-the-top main character and performance I’ve seen in a very long time, but as over-the-top as it is, I think it worked so well just because it’s so memorable. Screw poignancy and realism, that’s not Tony’s m.o., and it’s certainly not what Pacino’s going for. Tony wants the world and everything in it, whether it’s within his reach or not, and likely not even he knows why or how he’ll get it, other than through pure impulse. A movie as flamboyant as this needs a pro/antagonist just as flamboyant, and Tony Montana fills that role perfectly. From the first moment I know that I shouldn’t, and in fact don’t even want to, look for a performance invoking internal conflict and realism. This is a film relying on raw energy and pure exaggeration to get its point across, in a way that the preachy original failed to do. Scenes of Tony in a ridiculously huge bathtub and even more ridiculously over-made office and mansion, mounds of coke and all, invoke laughs, sure, but also comment on such an overly-exorbitant and greedy lifestyle without quite stating it explicitly…that one image of a coked-out Tony, powder covering his nose as he simply sits slumped in his desk chair as Moroder’s depressing synthesizer track plays in the background, says everything the film needs to about hubris, a greedy man’s rise and fall, and wanting the world and losing it.

Too long? Absolutely. Flamboyant and over-the-top? Brian De Palma wouldn’t have it any other way. Clearly it’s not a prototypical “masterpiece” like you’d expect out of a depressing, introspective Bergman drama or a masterfully-written neo-noir a la Chinatown, but something about it completely clicked with me, so the planets must’ve aligned somehow. You never know sometimes.

 

Scarface (1932): 8/10

Scarface (1983): 8.5/10

Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)

Just about every performance is so over-the-top it’s embarrassing (with Dr. Praetorious and that maid taking the cake).  The plot structure’s an absolute mess, from that shoddy prologue with Lord Byron and Friends to an ending that even Hitchcock would call abrupt.  The decision to have Karloff speak was so stupid you can’t help but roll your eyes when he puts together those sentences in broken English monster-ese.  All these flaws, and one has to ask why it’s considered perhaps the best and most enthralling of all horror films, and better yet, why I was so completely enthralled by such a flawed film.  To say that realism in the situations and performances aren’t suited for this material is obviously an understatement.  This movie is expressionism defined.  Scenes like the monster’s visit with the blind man and the unveiling of the Bride (one of the most famous images in all of cinema, and yet she has less than 5 minutes of screen time) are completely burned into our heads by now, whether we’ve seen the movie or not, not because of some unifying story, but because of the mood that it all conveys.  Those little people in Praetorious’ bottles, for example: so pointless to the plot, and so silly with their appearance and the music in today’s context, but like so many other scenes, it’s all for mood, for a state of mind, and sacrifices logic to simply show us something we’ve never seen before.  Sure, some of the humor, like Praetorious himself, those little people, and the monster becoming a wino just falls flat, but put together with the stark surrealism of these two mad scientists and their quest to become gods (namely the purely expressionistic visual process of creating life) creates a mood that, like the deepest recesses of our minds, defies all logic but affects us in ways that logical thought cannot.  The final sequence, with the lightning and all the gadgets splayed in darkness, the huge lightning rod ascending into the heavens, the Bride’s heartbeat acting as a perfectly ominous drumbeat: it’s a scene of such visual beauty and perfection that I was completely drawn in by the moment, rather than a unifying story.  The themes of misunderstanding those different from you and the perils of playing god are of course made obvious by the form of the movie, but in a purely visual and expressionistic way that feels oddly natural in the world we’re presented with.

I’m making no sense, rambling on and on.  😦   I guess that’s exactly what Bride of Frankenstein does if you look at it as a narrative by today’s standards.  Those stupid performances and story, along with the visuals and feel that’re stunning in a way i never could’ve anticipated after watching the first 20 minutes or so, probably make this the best “bad” movie I’ve ever seen  😛

9/10

Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939)

Some incredible moments, namely the big chase scene (some unbelievable shots in there), John Wayne’s entrance, and the final stand-off (excellent use of shadows and camerawork there)…even if that whole final stand-off and the last part of the movie were the very definition of ‘tacked on.’  And yes, I actually liked the Doc character’s little evolution (probably because I had to watch this for my film studies class and we have to say which character “evolved” or something like that…).  As dated as it is, the movie pretty much set the stage for the quintissential Western in the decades to follow, evil and non-speaking Indians and all…not sure whether that’s a good or bad thing  😕

8.5/10