Saturday, May 25, 2013

Showdown: Gene Kelly v. Fred Astaire

Two of the greatest dancers in movie history, both of them experts at the "triple threat": singing, dancing and acting-- Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire go head to head as I watch them each at the height of their abilities, the early 50s.

An American In Paris
Some brilliant sets, especially when ballet is thrown into the mix. Gene Kelly is at his dancing fool best, and I especially loved his banter with Oscar Levant. But if nothing else, this film must be watched for the Gershwin. Some of the best songs in any musical.

Still, I was disappointed by the ending, which seemed thrown on and unreasonable, given all the set up of characters. And what happened to Nina Fonch? I think the film needed another five minutes or so.

I think my favorite part of the film is the ballet sequence introducing Lesie Caron.  Although she doesn't have much of a character in the film, this sequence allows her to dance out her boyfriend's ideal woman.  Each sequence is unique and expressive.  My greatest disappointment (besides the ending) is the long American in Paris ballet.  Although the music is exquisite and the sets wonderful, I felt that Kelly didn't have that much to do.  It was kind of dull.  

Daddy Long Legs
Of all the MGM musicals I have seen, I appreciate this 20th Century Fox one the best.

The story is simple, filled with the obvious complications that a rom com would have with a May-December romance. But as with all the older musicals, it is not the plot that is significant, but what surrounds it. Not only is Astaire my favorite leading man of this genre-- with his smooth dancing style and his decided charm-- but Leslie Caron is a wonderful actress pulling in her ballet to give a unique style.

But the two together have a balance that can be seen in Astaire's dancing with Ginger Rogers, with both displaying their individuality. I love Caron's performance as a headstrong young woman who knows what she want, but underneath isn't confident that she will receive it.

Yes, we know where this movie is going, just like American in Paris, but unlike the Gene Kelly film that this one borrows from heavily, Daddy Long Legs takes it's time, and gives a decent, believable ending. It follows through on the set up in a perfectly timed fashion that most of these musicals do not, rushing to end the film without allowing the characters a believable end.

I loved all the songs, especially Dream and Somethings Gotta Give. And they are fit perfectly into the story. Thank you, Mr. Astaire, for finishing this film, despite the difficult death of your wife. You can see the sadness in your eyes, but it plays perfectly with the doubts of your characters, and deepens his soul.

The Standoff
Watch the brilliant short where the two masters dance together for the only time, in the film Zigfield Folllies.

My Real Question

Especially in watching these two films back-to-back and having the same leading lady in both, I am clear about my preference of Astaire over Kelly.

Why? I ask myself.

Both are excellent dancers, and about the same ability in acting.  Kelly is probably the better singer.  Certainly they have different styles of dancing, with Kelly being more athletic and energetic, while Astaire is more suave and probably more versatile.  

I think it has more to do with the personas each of them present.  The form of acting school they represent is to find a charismatic character and stick with that persona, no matter what occupation or class change you go through.  But since all of these movies are essentially romantic comedies with music and dancing, I want my leading man to be attractive-- not physically, but in character.

Kelly's character has a certain naivete, but essentially he is a forceful person who thinks that his blind enthusiasm will get him what he wants (the girl).  In the end, that assumption puts me off.  I know that some girls go for that kind of guy, but he isn't attractive to me.  Or, more to the point, I wouldn't want my daughter marrying this kind of guy.  (Which will probably be my fate.)

Astaire is not only suave on the dance floor, he is also humble in persona.  He is more forward in his earlier films, but in his later films-- Daddy Long Legs and Funny Face, for example, he is thoughtful and concerned about his girl's place in society.  He is bold, but also kind.  Perhaps this has to do with his age (it certainly does in Daddy Long Legs),  but I find watching his antics and misunderstandings to simply be more comfortable, and thus more entertaining, to watch.

Well, and I find his dancing to simply be more expressive, and better suited to a partner.  Kelly is a brilliant dancer, but usually on his own.  Astaire is the perfect partner for a rom com musical, because he makes the woman look better by him dancing with her.  Now that's romantic. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Passion Without Prejudice: The Mortal Storm

Frank Borzage is the master of melodrama, and who better to direct the forerunner to many of the best dramas that take place in Nazi Germany.  I could see this movie's touch on many other great films: The Sound of Music, Cabaret and Schindler's List among others.  Yet this film both deserves to stand with those films and is to be honored as a special film in it's own right.

The surprising thing is that despite it being a melodrama about Nazi Germany, there is almost not a single stereotypical character, or a character that doesn't have its own strengths and weaknesses.  There are bad guys, but the biggest evil is narrow minded ideology, or fundamentalism as we call it today.  Truly, this is an honest film and a bold one at any time, let alone a year before the U.S. entered WWII.  It is clearly anti-Nazi, but all the characters are German, whether good or bad or mixed.  And many of the Nazis are sympathetic.  Even though this was made before the propagandistic push of later years, it is still a strong statement.

In this way, it is also the forerunner to films like, say, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Zero Dark Thirty, or The Visitor, in which we are allowed to look into the face of a Muslim, even one who has some agreement with terrorism and to see different sides. It is a powerful experience when a film can take the prejudices of one's culture and say, "But wait, there's a human being under there."

In comparing it to the other Borzage films I've seen, it hits the same notes of effective melodrama.  I knew the scene with the bridal cup was coming, but when it came it still got dusty in the room.  I didn't expect the end, though I could have.

Great filmmaking.  I also recommend Borgaze's other films, especially Seventh Heaven (1927) and Lucky Star (1929)

The Tale of a Man: Barry Lyndon

Stanley Kubrick is the master of the hypnotic film.  I didn't really know what to expect into his excursion across the classes of the 18th century, but like The Shining and 2001 and Eyes Wide Open, his set pieces and long takes and paced action by worn people can't be set aside easily.  They lull you into a trance, so that the whole experience just washes over you until it's done and you say, "What was that about?"

One of the great aspects of this film that is different than others is his beautiful, natural scenes capped with gorgeous architecture.  So many scenes open with a picture that is a piece of art.  That only preps us for the orderly, mannered society that we are to enter into.  Mind you, the world is terribly violent, immoral and, at times horrifying, but it is all done in a stately manner, paced, even and polite.

What is the film about?  Honestly, I think I'd have to watch it again to give a semi-complete response.  But, as the title suggests, it is about a man-- and, in a sense, all men.  We see the rash nature of a young man both at the beginning and the end, implying that this is a cycle that is repeated in many men-- perhaps all men.

We begin our manhood in youth as rash, bold creatures, not really knowing what we want or what our lives are going to be about, but we are ready to commit our lives and make any sacrifice (even others' sacrifice) for our whims.  When we fail, as we inevitably do, we seek stability, but by our own terms, no matter how unwise we are.  If we are uncomfortable, we rush to the next opportunity.  Soon, we seek ambition.  This ambition might be power or lust or wealth or notoriety, but we claw for it, and hurt others to obtain our ultimate desire.

Finally, after some ambition has been reached, we might give in to our most hidden fantasies, but then we will seek to establish the stability we sought for all along.  We might be harsh in this action, and we might whittle away what good will and resources we have in this endeavor, but the long term goals will be reached by hook or by crook.

Some men actually achieve their long term goals, the stability they have worked so hard toward.  But many men only obtain the wisdom gained through the attempt.  The wisdom that to create something long lasting in the world, the main tool we must hone first is ourselves.  Because without that disciplined, forged and sometimes tarnished tool, made to build others, not ourselves, then we will ultimately fail.

The amazing thing to me is that every step of Redman Barry's story is not just foreshadowed, but foretold, but this practice did not hamper the tale at all.  The voiceover narrative was soothing yet sobering, even as the rest of the story was.  This is master storytelling.  A tale-weaver who is so confident at his skill, that he can break one rule after another and yet still succeed.  This is easily one of Kubrick's best, if not his very best.

This film has been seen by far too few people.  I hope that will change as time goes on.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Keep It Real, Dave

My friend Alex recently wrote about pessimism in movie culture.   About how movies are all blockbusters or mindless fare, or that movies aren’t what they used to be in the 70’s or whatever.  Certainly these folks are out there.  People who decry the state of cinema or claim that film is dead. 

The folks who watch films a few times a year couldn’t possibly understand what this means.  After all, they say, “look at the charts!  Movies are making more money than ever!  You can’t tell me that film is dead.”

Let’s suppose that this occasional film watcher, or the one who will watch Star Trek: Into Darkness ten times this summer, decides to delve a little deeper.  Perhaps he--we’ll call him Dave-- goes out with his girlfriend to see The Master (wow, was she in for a surprise).  Suddenly, he realizes that there’s more to film than he had ever seen before.  Perhaps he gets caught by the beautiful portraits, or by the depth of characterization.  Perhaps he understands himself a little better, or the world around him. 

After this, Dave seeks out different kinds of film.  At the recommendation of a friend, he might watch There Will Be Blood, another Paul Thomas Anderson film.  He is amazed.  He’d never seen a film like this before.  So intense, so thoughtful.  After that he might check out other artistic westerns like Unforgiven or The Assassination of Jesse James.  Maybe he’ll even delve into Dead Man.  He’s beginning to get some basics of how film works.

As Dave watches more in depth films, he might seem to be a little pretentious to his friends.  He differentiates between “movies” and “film.”  Perhaps he might throw the word “cinema” around.  Sure, he still likes the occasional summer blockbuster, but he’s a lot more picky.  Of the movies he watches, there are fewer he can talk about with his friends.  But he’s enjoying a broader array of film, which he enjoys.

As time goes on, Dave joins a movie club, and they introduce him to a variety of genres, and some of the vocabulary of film buffs.  He wants to explore the films of other decades, and of other nations.  After a number of years, he’s got more than a thousand films under his belt, and he is as knowledgeable about film as your average film student.  It is a complete world to him, and he can’t talk to his wife about it anymore, because it’s too far beyond her.  He listens to podcasts and reads books about film, and he gets together with his film club group to talk about his new passion on and actually be understood.

At one of these meetings, he hears a couple of his friends pontificate:

“Look at the garbage they are putting into theatres today.  Nothing like Apocalypse Now, that’s for sure.”

“I know.  All the studios are selling out, releasing one brain dead film after another.  Even the upper level of films are just pandering to the Oscar.  It’s all about fame and money.”

“Where is the art?  Why can’t they just give money to artists and let them create?  That’s where the real brilliance is.”

Now that Dave has watched so many films, he is tempted to agree with them.  The older films were better.  Movies were fresh then, less producer-controlled, more open to the unique artist.   He goes home and thinks about it.

Dave, let me give you a piece of advice.  First of all, every era had their movies that were just focused on money, and their movies that were made for art.  For every Metropolis, there are a hundred Charlie Chaplain shorts with the same little tramp doing the same stunts.  For every Vertigo, there are a hundred films that were made for the broadest audience possible.  Nothing has changed.  There are movies made for money in every era, and in every era movies that were made for the joy of making something new on film.  In the last year you could probably name more art films than you can in the whole of the sixties.  It’s not just that you haven’t seen them.  Frankly, we have access to more movies than ever—both good and bad.

And don’t let these film critics trick you into thinking you don’t like what you do. There's a lot of great Charlie Chaplain shorts.  You are still the guy who loves the Star Trek franchise.  Didn’t you just go in secret to watch the latest superhero film?  And wasn’t it the best one yet?  C’mon.  Be who you are.  Like what you like.  If your pretentious friends think that is too low class, that’s their problem.  They are the ones limiting film, not you.

And don’t go the other way, either.  Keep seeking out new film.  There are a lot of good films you still have to watch.  Seek out what sounds interesting, but don’t feel bad if you don’t watch it all.  There are bad art films out there, even ones that are highly praised.  There are ones you’ll really love, as well.   There are some really stupid Oscar-pandering films, but even the Oscars get it right sometimes.  Don’t let anyone else make your mind for you.

Dave, one more thing.  Don’t let movies take over your life like these guys.  Their particular brand of film has so blinded them, that they feel free to knock down other kinds of film.  They so need to get a life.  Perhaps they need to experience more of real life, which film is only an image of.  Perhaps if they saw more real sunsets they’d better appreciate the ones that are at the end of the “pandering” film.  Film is there to help us appreciate life better, and more life can help us appreciate art and film better.  Keep it balanced.

Now next week, Dave, go back there and tell them about how much you loved the latest superhero film.  Go ahead.  They’ll roll their eyes, perhaps even try to convince you at how wrong you are.  But maybe it will help them see that it’s okay to enjoy life once in a while.

Summer Blockbusters, or Why Iron Man 3 is Better Than Inception

Yep it’s that time of year again.  Time for the Midwest to get thawed out.  Nope, just joking (sorry, Midwest).  It’s summer movie time!

Summer movie blockbusters have been a tradition since 1975 when Jaws came out, and the tradition was solidified with the first Star Wars in 1977.  There have been some movement in the kinds of summer blockbusters.  There’s always been the monster flick (Jaws to Cloverfield), the science fiction flick (Star Wars to Looper), the Superhero flick (Superman to The Dark Knight Rises), the action flick (Raiders of the Lost Ark to the Pirates franchise), and the high-level comedy (Ghostbusters to… well, who could beat Ghostbusters?) and animated (from Little Mermaid to Brave).

A summer blockbuster has to be made for a lot of money (a hundred million dollars isn’t too much to ask, and it could be too little), is hugely promoted as an “event” and makes a lot of box office money (hopefully) and even more money in DVD sales and action dolls.

Summer blockbusters try to meet the entertainment needs of the broadest possible audience.  So it will include a lot of elements: laughs (good to have a well-known comic), action (need at least a couple ‘splodies), high stakes (life and death is preferable), surprise (plot twists if you can, but a good jump if nothing else), and visual spectacle (pretty colors and special effects).

Mix it up, and you’ve got your blockbuster. 

There are certainly some that are better than others.  I don’t know of anyone who has Cutthroat Island on their top list.  But a film being good or bad has nothing to do with sales.  Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was pretty much panned by all critics, both professional and amateur, yet it grossed 836 million dollars worldwide, making it (currently) the 34th highest-grossing movie of all time. 

I’ve often wondered why a movie that is so loudly disliked makes so much money.  This means that some people—heck, an awful LOT of people—liked this movie enough to not only like it, but watch it a number of times while it was still in the theatre.  Perhaps some of this is because of the visual spectacle, which is tough to repeat at home.  But some of it is because the likes and dislikes of the person who watches a number of films (e.g. critics) differs from the person who only watches a few movies a year.  But more on that another time.

There is also a discussion about what actually makes a summer blockbuster “good”.  We all recognize the genre that includes the elements I listed in the first few paragraphs.   But what makes a “good” one?
Recently, many people have pointed to the movie Inception as beginning a trend of blockbusters that are good, by which they mean “smart.”  Certainly with Inception there is a lot to take in, especially in the first half, and it is a visual feast.  It is a deeply complex world, with psychological insight, and with much of the mind-bendy stuff that I think is just wonderful.  (I’ve loved that ever since Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day turned the book sideways to get Tigger down from the tree.  Oh, sorry: Spoiler alert).  

But frankly, for a person who is used to mind-bendy stuff, Inception was just okay.  They laid out the plot of the second half before you got there and didn’t divert from that outline.  Despite the difficulties to overcome, none of us really thought there was any real danger.  To me, the stakes just weren’t high enough, and despite the visual feast, it just wasn’t enough to keep me interested.  We’ve got exposition the first half and no new ideas in the second half, which just isn’t enough for someone who is used to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  This doesn’t mean that we don’t have smart summer blockbusters.  I think Nolan already made his smart summer blockbuster with The Dark Knight, a year before Inception.  While plot-wise it is a bit of a grab-bag, there are some great, thoughtful ideas and philosophical parables galore.

Other people like there to be solid, well rounded characters in their movies, and I have to say that these are hard to find in summer blockbusters.   As entertaining as Captain Jack Sparrow or Peter Venkman are, there isn’t any kind of a character arc, and their characters just have a few tricks that they keep us entertained by.  Usually the heroes and heroines of the summer blockbuster doesn’t have enough time to think, let alone develop as a character. But this is where Pixar has often given us an option.  Although often in a fantasy realm, Pixar gives us character development we can believe, notably Woody in Toy Story.  He turns from a jerk to a likable, sympathetic character that we are 100 percent behind by the end of the film.  Frankly, those toys are some of the most believable characters in movie history.

Another mark of an excellent summer blockbuster is a coherent plot.  All blockbusters have plots, but in the effort to stuff as much heart-racing, belly-laughs, and eye-popping in a couple hours or so as possible, the plot often becomes convoluted or just lost.  Occasionally a piece of a plot just gets dropped, as if the filmmakers forgot that it was there.

I think this is why Inception spends so much time on exposition, to help us keep the plot in mind amidst all the rolling and scene-changes.  The trend is to go to more complicated plots.  I could point to Pixar again, but people could say, “Well, those are kids movies.  They HAVE to make sense.”  Okay, I’m leaving that one alone.  But what about Back to the Future?  That’s a time travel movie that made sense to all of us.  Everything made sense, it was smart and had fun (if not deep) characters.   It was really entertaining, and it all made sense.  Classic plotting, really.

I know that most of you have gone through all this text and are saying: What about Iron Man 3?  Well, let’s see how Iron Man 3 goes on my scorecard of what the best summer movies include (mild spoilers below):

Laughs: 9/10—Shane Black, the writer, really gave it his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang best here, and Downey Jr. handled the lines very well.  Lots of laughs in this movie.

Plot:  7/9 Generally good, but there is a long section in the middle of Tennessee that we seemed to have forgotten why we were there, as the “discovery” in that place was just lost.

Character: 7/9  They really tried hard on this level.  They gave Tony Stark some PTSD, and some relationship troubles.  I wish they would give Gwyneth Paltrow more to do, because if she was given more depth they could hit it out of the park, I think.  On the other hand, the kid in Tennessee had a great rapport with Stark, and I’d love to see him come back into the franchise.

Smart: 5/7  Tony is smart, but here they are trying to make him out to be Bruce Willis more than the genius he was made out to be in the first Iron Man film.  Not that I mind, but it’s not an especially smart film.

Surprise: 10/10  Here is where I will disagree with a number of my friends who panned this film, I think.  I went into the film having missed the trailer and reviews—right where I like to be.  And I was surprised again and again.  There were a lot of twists and turns.  Sure, the army of robots wasn’t interesting, but they didn’t spend a lot of time on it in all the energy turning Tony Stark into a bare-fisted action hero.

Stakes: 8/10—Pretty high, in as much as they were believable.  A new kind of super power, in the hands of people with a seemingly endless bankroll.   Yeah, kind of scary.  And to see Stark face real danger was excellent.

'Splodies?  Check.
Action: 8/10—The action is up and down.  Buildings explode, characters are in serious danger.  Frankly, I’d rank the action in this film as higher than the first two Iron Man films.

Visual: 5/10 There’s very little here that we didn’t see in the first two films.

Overall, though, Iron Man 3 gave me what I wanted: entertainment.  Lots of laughs and surprises and I can forgive a couple missteps in the plot.  Frankly, I had a good time.  While I might expect something different from an art film or a smart sci-fi, I got more than I hoped for in a superhero film. 

And that’s why I think Iron Man 3 is better than Inception.  Because, as a summer blockbuster, it was fun.  I smiled, I laughed, I was surprised.  I really enjoyed myself.  And that’s good enough.