Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008)

Robert Wise's 1951 film The Day The Earth Stood Still is an acknowledged classic, a stirring sci-fi parable of Cold War paranoia. It was responsible for the creation of the iconic silver-steeled robot Gort, and the phrase "Klaatu barada nikto," one of the most recognizable quotes in movie history. Director Scott Derrickson's 2008 remake updates the story to the present day, and focuses on an environmental message. Needless to say, any remake faces quite high expectations from the original's legions of admirers. I must admit I feared the worst when I saw the trailer, which emphasized shots of massive computer-generated destruction more than the characters. Would the original's personal, human story be compromised for special effects? Well, the answer is yes...and no. There is a human element to the film, and talented actors like Jennifer Connelly and Kathy Bates give the film some weight. But in the end The Day The Earth Stood Still turns into a rather predictable - and boring - sci-fi disaster movie.

Jennifer Connelly is Helen Benson, an esteemed scientist who is part of a team called in to investigate an alien aircraft that is about to land in Manhattan. It arrives in Central Park in the form of a giant luminous sphere, and out comes a massive metallic robot, and an alien named Klaatu. GORT, as he is so nicknamed by the military, is detained, while Klaatu is taken to a hospital where he sheds his alien outer layer to become, well, Keanu Reeves. Although he asks to speak to the United Nations, Klaatu's request is denied. He eventually escapes, along with Helen and her stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith), and they spend the rest of the film on the run from the military. Soon, Klaatu's message becomes clear: his race will exterminate the humans to preserve the planet's capacity for sustaining life.

The cast of The Day The Earth Stood Still deserves far better than the film's script gives them. Jennifer Connelly's leading lady looks have served her well in movies like Dark City and Hulk, but she is above all an extremely talented actress. Her role in The Day The Earth Stood Still is surprisingly unglamorous - her Helen is a weary widow striving to make ends meet, and I believed every minute of it. Kathy Bates and John Cleese also show up - Cleese is mostly wasted in a cameo as a Nobel Prize winning scientist, but Bates gives an entertaining performance as a very commanding Secretary of Defense. As for Reeves, the best I can say is that he doesn't embarrass himself - most of the time. The performance calls for being emotionless, and to that extent Reeves succeeds. But not surprisingly, it is quite a dull performance.

The film is technically well-made - visually appealing, with a few outstanding setpieces. The first sequence, set in 1928, is intriguing and mysterious and captured my attention immediately. I was also impressed with the first arrival of the sphere in New York - a faithful, atmospheric recreation of the scene from the 1951 film. But the filmmakers don't know how to handle Gort, perhaps the most memorable character from the original. In the original, he was played by a man in a suit; in the remake he is a Godzilla-sized, computer-generated creation. The effect is not convincing, and the scenes with Gort are often unintentionally laughable - as are the military attack scenes, which interrupt the storyline and seem to belong in another film entirely.

Still, I must respect the film for keeping the main focus on the characters, as the 1951 version did. They may not be the most interesting characters - Jacob, Helen's stepson, is a particularly contrived and annoying character - but the cast does their best with the material. Only in the last half-hour or so does the film lose the human focus, as the director indulges in special effects extravaganzas showing buildings and stadiums being destroyed.

And then there is the message. I have no problem with an environmental message - my favorite film of 2008, Wall-E, had a strong environmental message but displayed it in an intelligent and elegant manner. In contrast, the message of The Day The Earth Stood Still is cumbersome to the story as well as being downright silly. The 1951 film was very humanistic, calling for an end to war and violence. The 2008 version seems to suggest that if we compromise the existence of other species on the planet, we deserve to die. I also find some hypocrisy in a movie that advocates environmental awareness but has blatant product placement for McDonalds.

The Day The Earth Stood Still is a competent but misguided remake of a classic. Despite the efforts of an able cast, and a few memorable sequences, the film ultimately falls on its face, with a preachy message and far too much emphasis on action. It is not a terrible film by any means, and might stand up better if not compared to the original. But any remake has to be compared to the original, and there really is no comparison. The main problem plaguing this version of The Day The Earth Stood Still is that it has no earthly reason to exist.

Verdict: B -

Sunday, December 28, 2008

My Darling Clementine (1946)

There is a certain old-fashioned sensibility about John Ford's My Darling Clementine that is charming in this day and age. The few modern Westerns that do exist tend to be grim and serious and violent, but My Darling Clementine is an entirely different beast. It is an almost genteel film, where the characters and comedic moments take precedence over the violence. I mean this only as a compliment; John Ford wrote the book on how to make Westerns, and by all accounts this is one of his finest. While not as serious or artful a work as The Searchers, the movie is a near-perfect example of studio film-making by one of the great American directors.

Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp, who along with his three brothers is hustling cattle to California. They decide to stop at a small town named Tombstone for the night, leaving behind the youngest brother, James, to watch the cattle. Upon their return, the Earp brothers find James dead and the cattle stolen. Wyatt decides to take the job of marshall in Tombstone, in an attempt to bring law to the untamed town and to avenge his brother's death. Soon enough, though, he runs into trouble with the local powers, like Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) and Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan), both of whom Wyatt suspects might have been involved in James' death.

Intercut with all of this is the love story between Wyatt and Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs), a schoolteacher from Boston who arrives in Tombstone chasing her old flame Doc Holliday. Clementine, though, has deceptively little screen time in the film that is named after her. She arrives almost 40 minutes into the film, and shares very few scenes with Fonda. Still, her presence is key. Her shy, sweet character is contrasted with the saucy yet disloyal Chihuahua (Linda Darnell), a saloon singer and Holliday's current plaything. Clementine also gives the film its emotional center, and despite little screen time, provides the film with one of its most memorable scenes. At a community dance, Wyatt seems unsure whether to ask Clementine to dance, but eventually sums up the courage, tossing aside his hat in resolve and bringing her to the floor. What is at first a stiff and awkward dance turns into a dance of joy as the town's residents cheer on the marshall and his "lady fair." It is a simple and joyous scene, the kind that would never be found in today's Westerns.

My Darling Clementine tells an essentially violent story of revenge and corruption, though, and there are many of the typical Western conventions - bar fights, shootouts, riots, and wonderfully politically incorrect dialogue ("What kind of town is this anyway, selling liquor to Indians?"). But still, Ford is more interested in the characters than in any conventions or setpieces. The climatic gunfight at the OK Corral is over quickly, and rather forgettable. Rather, the most memorable moments in My Darling Clementine are the simplest ones - like the dance scene, or the scene where an actor drunkenly recites from Hamlet in a bar, or Wyatt's farewell to Clementine at the end of the film. The beautiful vistas of Monument Valley, as photographed by Joseph MacDonald, are also impressive.

The story of Wyatt Earp has been retold numerous times in various films. Ford's was not even the first one - that distinction goes to 1939's Frontier Marshall. Since then, films like Gunfight at the OK Corral, Tombstone, Doc, and Wyatt Earp have all been versions of the same tale. From what I gather, these films are more historically accurate than Ford's version. But I would be surprised if any is as effective and enjoyable a piece of cinema as My Darling Clementine. The movie is lush, gorgeously photographed, joyful, and entertaining from beginning to end. Is it a fictionalized, inaccurate, sentimental piece of romanticism? Absolutely. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Verdict: A

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Bride Wore Black (1968)

What happens when one acclaimed director deliberately styles his film after another? That is one question answered by The Bride Wore Black, Fran├žois Truffaut's tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. Although the two directors worked in very different genres and styles (not to mention countries), they had great admiration for each other's work - Truffaut even published a book of his interviews with Hitchcock. But imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Truffaut decided to film a deliberately Hitchcockian thriller. The resulting film is not as inventive or influential as some of Truffaut's other films, like The 400 Blows or Shoot the Piano Player, nor does it rise to the heights of Hitchcock's greatest films. But it is a perfectly effective and clever little film about a woman set on revenge at any cost.

We are first introduced to the titular bride, Julie Kohler (Jeanne Moreau), when her mother foils her clumsy suicide attempt. Soon after, she leaves on a revenge mission to kill the five men who accidentally shot her husband. This motive is not revealed immediately - Truffaut makes an effective use of flashbacks at different stages in the story to slowly reveal the connections between the men, and to display the awful truth behind what happened that wedding day.

Hitchcock's influence is readily apparent throughout The Bride Wore Black. The plot itself is pure Hitchcock, and Jeanne Moreau's icy protagonist (or antagonist, depending on how you see it) would be perfectly at home in any of his films. The movie is also stylistically similar to much of Hitchcock's work, using bright colors and employing a Bernard Herrmann score (Herrmann was Hitchcock's main composer). Individual scenes, as well, struck me as possible homages. The first victim's death (by plunging from a high building) is rather clumsily filmed, but no doubt inspired by Vertigo. And a scene at a classical concert struck me as a possible nod to the climax of The Man Who Knew Too Much. But beyond any superficial homages, The Bride Wore Black is most closely related to Hitchcock in the way it finds the terrifying in the ordinary. Like Hitchcock, Truffaut establishes his characters very slowly. A scene at the beginning, where two friends are conversing about women and love, reminded me of The Birds, which is basically a romance story before the bird attacks ravage the town. Similarly, Truffaut establishes a seemingly banal setting and then startles us by introducing violence.

The Bride Wore Black may be effective as an homage, but it is not as effective as a thriller unto itself. At times the film limps on rather slowly without much of a point. There is one scene that achieves a high level of suspense, but there are few genuinely frightening moments. Perhaps I am wrong, though, in even classifying the film as a thriller. One could easily argue that the movie is a black comedy. Many scenes have an ironic or even comic overtone, particularly the brilliant final scene.

The Bride Wore Black is a modest little film. It was not career-defining for Truffaut, nor will it be life-changing for anybody. It was, perhaps, more of an experiment for Truffaut than anything. But the film has its fair share of merits. It is an entertaining revenge film, anchored by a strong lead performance, capped off with a nice dose of black humor.

Verdict: B

Monday, December 22, 2008

L'avventura (1960)

L'avventura (English title: The Adventure) is a strange title for any film. It is certainly a nondescript title, and it implies a sort of light-hearted escapism. But Michelangelo Antonioni's 1960 film offers nothing of the sort. It is a film where the "adventure" - namely the disappearance of a wealthy socialite on an island - plays second fiddle to the characters and their relationships. This deception initially led to a vitriolic public reaction, and the film was booed by the audience when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1960. But two years later it was voted by Sight & Sound as the second greatest film of all time, and it is regarded as a milestone in foreign cinema today.

The story begins with two wealthy friends, Anna (Lea Massari) and Claudia (Monica Vitti) leaving to go on a yacht trip. Anna brings her boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), whom she feels frustrated with and distant from. The three depart, along with two other couples, for their excursion. After making a stop at an island, the company soon discovers that Anna is missing. They search the island and call in the police, but to no avail. After a few days worrying, everyone goes on with their lives - including Sandro and Claudia, who are beginning to fall in love.

L'avventura never resolves the mystery of what happened to Anna. It doesn't need to, because that is not what the film is about. Anna's disappearance only sets the stage to illuminate the shallowness of the main characters' lives. Days after his girlfriend's disappearance, Sandro and Claudia share a kiss, and proclaim their love for one another. In the same period of time, Giulia (Dominique Blanchar), another friend of Anna's, begins to crack jokes about her disappearance. She has also begun dating a 17 year-old painter, seemingly bored with her previous squeeze, an older man named Corrado. Immediately we begin to understand one of the points of L'avventura - friendships mean nothing to these people. They lead perfectly comfortable yet incredibly empty lives. Pauline Kael put it better than I ever could: "Too shallow to be truly lonely, they are people trying to escape their boredom by reaching out to one another and finding only boredom once again.'' In this way, the themes of L'avventura are very similar to those in La Dolce Vita, another Italian film released the same year.

L'avventura is also notable for its beautiful cinematography. In fact, the film won a special jury prize at Cannes in part for "the beauty of its images." Yet the cinematography did not inspire me in the way that films like Lawrence of Arabia do. It is perfectly adequate, even above average, but I think almost anyone can make shots of Italian islands and crashing waves look appealing. Few images stayed with me, with the exception of the last scene. It is an exquisite, silent scene that relies on the power of images rather than dialogue to bring the film full circle. That is the second reason why the film won the jury prize - it was cited for the creation of a "new cinematic language." The film did not rely on plot gimmicks, narration, or even much dialogue to tell its story, preferring instead to focus on the images.

L'avventura is a very accomplished and influential film, but it did not resonate with me the way that La Dolce Vita did. I found La Dolce Vita a more profound film, with deeper themes. Yet a comparison between the two may be unfair, and I have found that many foreign films require at least two viewings before full appreciation sets in. On its own terms, L'avventura is a fascinating and intelligent film as well as an important landmark of cinema.

Verdict: B+

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Raging Bull (1980)

We all know the classic underdog story - a young, up-and-coming athlete with a troubled past upsets a formidable opponent to be crowned the new champion. Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull turns this formula on its head, depicting a talented boxer who wins the championship but alienates his friends and family, eventually becoming a fat drunkard who performs terrible nightclub acts. Raging Bull is a biopic, telling the true story of Jake LaMotta, but it is so much more than a simple memoir. It is a story about failure to communicate, and about sexism, and about family. It is also a textbook example of acting, editing, and cinematography - all in service of a deeply human story.

After a brief scene in 1964, in which LaMotta (Robert De Niro) rehearses his nightclub routine, the film cuts to a fight in 1941 between LaMotta and Jimmy Reeves. Immediately we can see that Scorsese is not interested in toning down the violence. The fights in the film are brutal - blood flies, sweat drips, smoke drifts, and lightbulbs flash. At times, unconventional sound effects like swooping birds are used as LaMotta closes in on his prey. Slow-motion is used to great effect, and the sheer violence is striking - not only for the combatants, but for the fight's audience as well. After a controversial decision in the first fight, a brawl erupts in the audience that culminates in several women being trampled by men. In another fight, LaMotta throws a punch that sends blood splattering into several spectators' faces. But even in their brutality, many of the images in the fight scenes have a certain beauty to them. In one slo-mo shot, water is poured over LaMotta and it gently cascades downward. In another shot, the rope boundaries of the ring literally drip with blood. These masterful, unrelenting sequences lose little of their effectiveness today, even though they have been aped countless times in other films.

Soon after the first fight, Jake's brother and manager Joey (Joe Pesci) introduces him to Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), a beautiful 15 year-old whom Jake becomes infatuated with, despite having a wife at home. Jake's relationship with his wife is abusive - he screams at her for overcooking his steak, throws tables around the house, and threatens her. His relationship with Vickie is downright gentle compared to his abusive relationship with his wife. It is only when he actually marries Vickie that his attitude changes. Jake expects Vickie to obey him blindly - to fetch him coffee and be a nice little housewife with no social life of her own. When his brother Joey asks Jake to apologize to Vickie, Jake can't do it. He doesn't understand that Vickie feels like a prisoner, and instead of apologizing he just starts making out with her. To Jake Vickie is just an object, a disposable pleasure rather than a serious partner. Needless to say, the marriage turns to distrust, abuse, and eventually separation by the end of the movie.

Another pivotal relationship in the film is the one between Jake and his brother Joey. On the surface, the two are very similar, with hot tempers and loud mouths. But Joey is fundamentally different from his brother. He cares more deeply about his family and is far more reasonable than Jake. At one point, though, Joey's temper gets the better of him, and he gets into a huge bar brawl with a man he suspects of sleeping with Vickie. It is abundantly clear that Joey deeply loves his brother, but it seems that the only way he can express this love is through blind rage. The same is true of Jake. In one scene, Jake has the preposterous idea that Joey slept with Vickie, and he barges into his house to fight him. When Vickie later urges Jake to apologize for this misunderstanding, Jake can't do it - even over the phone. There is a real inability to communicate between these two characters, and by the end of the film Jake has completely alienated Joey.

De Niro is fascinating to watch in the scenes that depict Jake's later years. It is well-known cinematic lore that De Niro put on a significant amount of weight to play this role, but the performance goes beyond physical transformation. De Niro perfectly expresses a sort of phoned-in happiness that masks a layer of sorrow. In his later years, Jake fools himself into believing that he is happy, when it is clear to everyone else that he is not. We first see the older Jake in 1956 Miami being photographed for a newspaper. He sits by a pool, explaining why he is happiest in retirement - how he doesn't have to worry about weight and can spend more time with his family. Minutes later, of course, we see a drunken Jake telling unfunny jokes at his nightclub, we see Vickie finally announce that she will leave him, and we see Jake thrown into a jail cell, where he smashes his head against the wall, screaming "Why? Why? Why?" And in the final scene, before he goes on stage, he addresses himself in the mirror: "Go get 'em, champ." He still thinks he's a champion, even when no one else does.

I notice that I have spent a lot of time describing the characters and relationships of Raging Bull without critiquing it very much. But there is really not a whole lot to criticize about the movie. My only gripe, perhaps is that the film feels disjointed at times. The storyline skips years at a time without seeming like any time has passed at all. This is particularly problematic for Cathy Moriarty, who plays the crucial role of Vickie. The actress, who was 19 at the time of shooting, seems far older than 15 in the early scenes and far younger than 30 or so in the later scenes. Still, her performance itself cannot be faulted.

Raging Bull is truly a film where all of the elements come together. De Niro is rightly praised for his performance, but the film's success belongs equally to Scorsese, to the other cast members, to the screenwriters, to the editor, and to the cinematographer. It is rightly revered as a masterpiece, and 28 years later it regularly tops lists of the greatest films of all time. Funny, then, to think that Raging Bull nearly never got made. Scorsese repeatedly turned it down, and fell far behind schedule during production. But he prevailed, and delivered a true masterpiece.

Verdict: A

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Cool Hand Luke is about a young war veteran who is forced into a chain gang for a petty crime. There, he is tormented and abused by the tyrants who run the place. By this description alone, one could safely assume that Cool Hand Luke is a tragic, gritty drama. Yet I found the film strangely optimistic, a stirring affirmation of the human spirit in the face of adversity. And who better to embody such a spirit than Paul Newman, who exudes both a tough manliness and tender humanity in the role of Luke. It is perhaps his most fondly remembered role, and not without reason. Newman is Luke, and to imagine anyone else in the role is nearly impossible.

Lucas Jackson is first arrested at the beginning of the film for cutting off the heads of parking meters (as he explains later, "Small town, not much to do in the evenin'"). For this petty crime, Luke is forced to join a chain gang for two years. His fellow convicts, particularly a character named Dragline (George Kennedy) are at first put off by his status as a war vet and his outspoken attitude. But they begin to admire him for his bravery and free spirit at the same time that the prison wardens begin to punish him for it. "What we have here is...failure to communicate," Strother Martin's Captain famously tells Luke. But what they really have is a clash of wills, a clash of ideals, a clash of attitudes that eventually leads to untold suffering for Luke.

Cool Hand Luke has a strongly anti-authoritarian message. The prison guards are, for the most part, portrayed as sadistic tyrants who are obsessed with rules. One intimidating character, referred to as the "Man with No Eyes," wears reflective sunglasses and carries a shotgun everywhere he goes. He is the symbol of authority in the film. Yet the movie never bashes you over the head with its message, and there is some moral ambiguity. When one guard is forced to put Luke in the dreaded "box" for the night, he confesses that he doesn't want to do it, but is just doing his job. This line shows that the guards may simply be acting on orders, rather than actively trying to make the convicts' lives miserable.

Cool Hand Luke also functions as a Christ metaphor. Subtlety is not the key word here, however. After the egg-eating contest, Luke lies sprawled on a table in the crucified position. Luke refers to God as "Old Man." And like Jesus, Luke is a good person who endures suffering at the hands of those who misunderstand him.

There I go again, making Cool Hand Luke sound far more depressing than it really is. It is true that the story has many tragic elements, and great critics like Roger Ebert have argued that it is a deeply pessimistic movie. But I think they are missing the point. Even the sad, poignant scenes have a strong dose of humor and warmth.

Take, for example, the scene where Luke's mother Arletta (Jo Van Pleet) comes to visit. There are, of course, the moments of regret and sorrow, like when Arletta confesses to Luke how she always wanted to see him have grandchildren. But even though Arletta is close to death, her spirit is fully intact. This is no frail old woman. She sits in the back of a truck, cracking jokes, swearing, and puffing on a cigarette. She never once scolds Luke, but rather tries to enjoy the little remaining time she has with her son. Even on the tender subject of Luke's father, who apparently left years ago, Arletta finds the humor. "Your old man, Luke. He wasn't much good for sticking around, but dammit he made me laugh!"

That sort of optimism pervades the film from the start. When Luke is first arrested, he flashes a drunken grin at the officers. When he is beaten to a bloody pulp by Dragline, he determinedly keeps fighting. When he takes on the sickening challenge of eating 50 eggs in an hour, he fulfills the task with bravado. And even after he has been captured by the prison wardens for the second time, when it seems like his spirit has been broken, he flashes a weak smile. Newman has a sort of quiet strength that carries these scenes. After all that he has suffered, both physically and emotionally, Luke's spirit is intact to the end. It's all summed up perfectly by Dragline at the end of the film - "That old Luke smile. Oh, Luke. He was some boy. Cool Hand Luke. Hell, he's a natural-born world-shaker."

Verdict: A -