Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Singin' In the Rain (1952)

I would start out with some informal introduction, but let me get right smack to the point. I freaking love musicals. Call me gay if you must. I don’t care. I love ‘em. One studio whose musicals are the most distinct is MGM. Even while having the “honor” of having my least favorite film be on their filmography (still not telling what it is), MGM’s musicals, of the ones I’ve seen, are made with such chutzpah, exuberance, and euphoria that can, as one film critic once said, “tingle the most jaded moviegoer’s palate.”

 It only makes sense that when one is asked what their favorite movie musical is, it would be in the hands of MGM and that damn lion. One of the typical answers to this question is the sunny, good-hearted, and full-of-beans musical, Singin’ In the Rain. While it may not be MGM’s best musical, it is definitely one of their best.

The premise of the film occurs during the era of film where silent films have died down and talking pictures, or “talkies” if you will, are emerging and being intensely well-received by audiences. One of the people affected by this change is Don Lockwood, a movie star who has starred in countless pictures with his right-hand lady, Lina Lamont. Monumental Pictures, the film studio where many of Lockwood and Lamont’s pictures are distributed, makes the decision to start making talking pictures after The Jazz Singer became a cultural phenomenon.

However, one problem lies in their path: Lina, who has an Marilyn Monroe demeanor, but is unfortunately in possession of a less than compelling voice. I can only describe it as Minnie Mouse combined with Betty Boop. I apologize if that description causes your ears to start bleeding incessantly. There’s must be a solution to this situation.

Enter Kathy Seldon, an exquisite, aspiring actress, who meets Don Lockwood and is, at first repelled by him, but they soon fall for each other. While this part of the film is definitely familiar, this was around the time when that story was endearing and funny and not trite and predictable. The solution is to have her dub over Lina’s voice and hope no one will notice. I would say that no one would be that dumb, seeing how there is a scene where her real voice is revealed to the public earlier, but hell, we watch The Jerry Springer Show and Larry the Cable Guy movies. So, obviously, we’re not the most intelligent, discerning people on the planet.

One element that surprised me in the film was how impeccably the humor was executed. Slapstick, verbal play, and irony are used throughout the film in very clever and amusing ways, but the humor type that surprised me was the satire. The genius of this film is that is doesn’t rely heavily on the satire, per se. The filmmakers craft wildy funny situations and create satire that, while it is piercing and razor-sharp, is also oblique. It is plainly comedic on the surface, but satirical underneath.

Not only does it satirize the transitional era of silent films to talking, sound-infested films and the dubbing of voices, but, through witty, perceptive eyes, it also, slyly, satirizes elements such as the treatment of celebrities, the paparazzi (which is implemented in a very funny running joke revolving around Lina thinking Don is her fiancée, due to fan magazines), and the movie musicals of the 30s and 40s. While this may sound like they mutilate Hollywood and look at it through scornful eyes, that is most certainly not the case. The film works as a parody and a love letter to cinema.

The performances are outstanding. As a choreographer, Grace Kelly has more passion, grace, timing, and refinement that anybody else. As an actor, playing the aforesaid Don Lockwood, he evokes all those elements and another inherent one: charisma. The character of Kathy Seldon isn’t just some shallow damsel who needs a man. The script allows Kathy opportunities to be funny, intelligent, and opinioned, and Debbie Reynolds portrays her with every bit of realism and joy. As mentioned before, there is a romance between them and a great one at that. It manages to be warm, sweet, and have a great amount of emotional resonance.

Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont strikes the perfect balance of vulnerability and deviousness. One actor who I think is a teensy bit underrated in this film is Donald O’Connor, playing piano player and Don’s best friend, Cosmo Brown. He plays his role with such enthusiasm and commitment that he warrants comparisons with Jim Carrey, though I think Mr. O’Connor is funnier. Sorry if you don’t like my opinion, but as Jim Carrey would say, “Somebody stop me!”

I mentioned before how great a choreographer Gene Kelly is. In fact, he may be the best film choreographer, period. So I won’t bore with too many details about the dance sequences. As predicted, they are incredible and are filtered through lush, vivid cinematography. I heard from various sources that the dance numbers were somewhat improvised, but Gene Kelly has such an easy, natural way of dance that I can’t tell if it’s improvised or not.

Since it is a musical, one essential element that I’m sure you want to hear my opinion on is the music. This film is filled to the brim with infectious, catchy song numbers, all sung wonderfully, I might add. The songs have an eclectic array of execution methods, but the thematic element in all of them is happiness. No matter is the song is fast or slow, they encapsulate the joy of love and life. Hell, there’s a song called “Good Morning” present in the film. If that doesn’t convey how positive the music is, I don’t what does.

This was directed by Gene Kelly (surprise, surprise) and Stanley Donen. I haven’t seen any of their other films, whether filmed together or individually, but I don’t need to see them, in order to say that this is the pinnacle of their careers; a masterful virtuoso of music, color, rhythm, movement, humor, wit, charm, and performances. At times, the film could pick up the pace a little bit, but that is a minor flaw in a grand, lavish, extravagant spectacle of a musical. Like the songs, I can’t get this film out of my head. And thank God for that.

RATING: Four stars out of four!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Kids in America (2005)

Ah, high school. It is said by many that high school is the best years of anyone’s life. While I can’t confirm that statement, seeing how I am only 16, I can say that it is an exciting experience. The rigorous schedule, the extracurricular activities, and the camaraderie between classmates can elicit a sense of mirth. It can, also, elicit stress. The amount of homework, particularly as a junior, and lack of time at home can be stressful to someone.

Coincidentally, the most exhausted, trite film genre present…is the romantic comedy. But the high school comedy is the definite silver medallist. Most high school comedies provide shallow representations of teens and wear a blanket of drug references, particularly marijuana, bathroom and sexual humor, and shopworn clichés. PG-rated high school comedies are pretty much the aforementioned description, minus the drug references and sex jokes.

There are usually two subdivisions of PG-rated high school comedies: 1) the geeky, awkward, or unique boy who is, either in love with the hottest girl in the school or is just trying to fit in. Oh, and don’t forget the one-dimensional, cardboard cutout bullies. 2) the new girl meets up with the popular girls, who allegedly run the school, but the new girl ends up being popular herself, or some version of it. Oh, and don’t forget the bland, inane pseudo-snappy repartee and obligatory hair whipping. Oh, and also, don’t forget the bland hunky male lead, who falls for the new girl, and is played by some narcissistic, “good-looking” actor, who will never have a career again.

As you can see, whether a high school comedy is PG-rated or R-rated, it’s a formula. However, occasionally, a movie will break from the chains of the conformist, Conservative standards of high school comedies and do something different. 2004 saw that with Mean Girls and 2005 saw it with an obscure, little-seen film, Kids in America, and, dare I say it, Kids in America is better than Mean Girls. I know that may shock you, but there it is.

This is a modest effort than centers around a high school with a wide variety of kids. I’ll do a role call of the characters and, while I do, I’m gonna create a drinking game. Take a shot every time you hear a character archetype that’s been in other high school comedies. OK, here we go.

You have Holden, who is the rebellious type. You have Charlotte Pratt, the hot love interest, who is strong-minded and wants to take a stand. You have Chuck, who is a fat, awkward teen, who plays video games. You have Katie Carmichael and Kelly Stepford, the cheerleaders. You have Emily Chua, the Asian. You have Lawrence Reitzer, the flamboyantly gay dude. You have Walanda Jenkins, who is the sassy African-American chick. You have Wee-Man, the midget, and the rest are on Gilligan’s Island. (the whole Wee-Man thing is made up).

Anywho, they all have one thing in common: the principal, played by Julie Bowen (I mentioned her name because I feel that someone will eviscerate me if I don’t), who is also running for superintendent, chastises them for freedom of expression. She suspends a girl for promoting safe sex, expells Holden for telling the flaws of the school at a Holiday Hoopla and slashing one of his wrists, and suspends Lawrence for kissing his male partner (he’s the gay dude!). The students are outraged and decided to hold an Animal Farm-esque rebellion, supported by Mr. Drucker, one of their teachers. The rebellion is complete with walking out of classes, holding protests, burning the football field, and dumping the school’s tea into the Boston Harbor. (OK, that last one didn’t happen. God, you guys are so easily duped).

Yes, this story’s been done repeatedly. Even the poster for the film looks like it was a rejected Van Wilder poster. However, what makes this film a standout is Andy Shaifer and director Josh Stolberg’s nimble script. Sure, the characters are clichéd, but they don’t act clichéd. In fact, the film never veers into the most obvious stereotypes for the African-American, Asian, and gay characters. These trope characters are infused with intelligence, humanity, and wit. They are allowed to deliver sassy, acerbic, and authentic dialogue.

Even the adults are humane, which almost never happens in the typical high school comedies, which usually portray them as relentlessly evil or ironically hip, oblivious morons who stray distant from their children. In this film, the parents are echt, quick-witted, and funny. Even the principal is logical and mortal, instead of being a Hitler-esque ringleader. The film portrays the relationships of everyone in that same genuine tone. Plus, finally a high school comedy without a bully in sight. Can someone give this Josh Stolberg dude an award? Please?

For a film with such a modest budget ($700,000) and restrained execution, it still manages to be funny. Really funny, to be exact. Consider a scene where Lawrence got suspended from kissing his male partner. This angers Holden, so he rigs the cafetorium, so it will display a video of him from his camera. Through the video, he tells everyone in the cafetorium to kiss someone of the same sex out of rebellion, to which everyone proceeds to do so. Sure it’s bizarre, but it’s also refreshingly inventive and downright hilarious.

In addition, this is a movie that loves movies. Consider a scene where Chuck comments Holden on his Hoopla performance, going so far as to compare him to various horror film performances. There are various pop cultural references in this film, but there aren’t labored into the screenplay to give the younger generation a cheap laugh. If you do find it forced, at least they aren’t referencing a film just for the sake of referencing it and calling it a joke. I’m looking at you, Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer.

One scene that really touched me is a scene where Holden and Charlotte are talking about movies. It, eventually, leads to a montage of them re-enacting famous movie kisses. Sure, it’s witty, but it’s also sweet, sincere and poignant. That romantic subplot, in addition, doesn’t really play a huge part in the movie. It is downplayed, never losing sight of the main theme. There are, thankfully, no dramatic beats. Also, it is cathartic to see a high school comedy where men view women in the eyes of love, not sex.

The actors don’t particularly look like teenagers, but they display such conviction in their mannerisms that we still buy them as teenagers. The only person we don’t buy as a teenager is Nicole Richie. However, I believe it’s actually funnier that she doesn’t look like a teenager. She plays one of the cheerleaders. We know she was cast as a cheerleader because cheerleaders are thought to be bubble-brained and shallow, and no one’s more bubble-brained and shallow than Nicole Richie (no offense). However, she manages to be funny and sharp. It’s the perfect juxtaposition of her character with her actual self.

Nicole Richie, dare I say it, actually gives a good performance. How is it that Nicole Richie only starred in one film and is useful and yet her female counterpart and best friend, Paris Hilton, has been in several films and yet can’t act worth crap? Take that, Mrs. Hilton, even I do want to spend One Night in Paris. Funny, no? To be fair, all of the performances in this film are uniformly natural and good. Furthermore, earnest cinematography and a great soundtrack deeply augments the film.

It’s not a great film and, at times, the acting is a little lackluster. The only other flaw I have with the film doesn’t come from the film. It comes from the audience. This movie underwhelmed at the box office, grossing only $537, 667. To be fair, this could stem from poor marketing, but people don’t really even acknowledge that this film exists. Maybe it’s because people are apprehensive of it. Maybe they’ve been brainwashed to buy into formulaic, by the numbers, high school comedy fare that anything that thinks outside the box of Hollywood and doesn’t have an all-star cast will be pushed to the side. That would be a mistake. This is a refreshing, enterprising film that I urge you to see, no matter how much homework you have.

RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four

Friday, October 5, 2012

Animal Farm (1954)

The George Orwell oeuvre is strong enough to provoke giddy approval from even the most cynical critics. For me, that feeling arises whenever I think about his 1945 novel, Animal Farm. This audacious, sardonic, and sly novel holds such a dear place in my heart because of its deep layer of allegory and its morals pertaining to greed. In the novel, the way a simple, earnest idea unravels into a fierce, oppressive Fascist government draws uncanny parallels to Communism during the Stalinist Era. Even if you don’t get the symbolism, it is well written with a beautifully off the wall premise and well-rounded characters. While I don’t personally believe that the world was clamoring for a film based on this source material, we got one, anyways. An ambitious one, at that.

I think many of us already know the plot to Animal Farm, but if you don’t, let me fill you in. The animals on Manor Farm feel untreated by the farmer, Mr. Jones. This causes Old Major, the eldest pig on the farm, to make a proposal that one of these days animals must rebel. After Old Major, finally, squeals (I would say croaked, but that’d be stupid), the animals, eventually, rebel against Mr. Jones and take over the farm. They create their own government, entitled Animalism, and appoint Snowball, one of the pigs, as leader, until power-hungry pig, Napoleon, takes over and havoc and amendments ensue.

Anyone who has read and analyzed this book or people who are constant thinkers probably can point out the present symbolism. I won’t reveal all of it or go into too much depth about it. All I’ll say is Mr. Jones represents Czar Nicholas II, Snowball represents Leon Trotsky, Napoleon represents Josef Stalin, and the dogs that Napoleon appoints as his security represent the NKVD. Grasp onto that information and let history tell you the rest.

I can recall my sister being given a copy of this film on one of those dollar DVDs you get at Wal-Mart (name drop). It, eventually, ended up being sold, simply because neither my sister nor me were old enough to handle the grim material and understand what the heck was going on. I can comprehend the material currently as a 16-year-old, but to people who haven’t heard of this film or novel and just see the title and image of it on a DVD copy, be warned. This is most definitely not for kids.

Images of mournful or spiteful animals, aggressive-looking people, and non-antiseptic scenes of attacks between these two groups will most likely confuse or frighten young kids. Around this time period, many animated Disney films were released in the 1950s. This was released after Peter Pan, but before Lady and the Tramp, so many people most likely made the assumption that all animation was clean, wholesome entertainment. Wrong. Wrong! This film purchases a stark, grave tone that occasionally surrounds itself in dark, shadowy color schemes.

The tone and color scheme aren’t the only things that contribute to its brilliant sense of atmosphere. Only about 20% of the film has dialogue from the animals or humans. This minimal amount of dialogue, along with the expressive faces of the characters and the expressive score allows the anger and tension to stay constant and increase when necessary. Any humor present in the film is natural, if not always subtle.

The film does, meticulously and painstakingly, translate George Orwell’s satire to film. What I love about the satire in both the book and film is that the story is prioritized more than the satire. The characters don’t become a part of the satire. The satire becomes a part of the characters. By that I mean, George Orwell’s satirical ambitions are executed subtly. The characters aren’t blatantly the people being mocked. They are distinct, three-dimensional beings and the satire becomes an underlying element, if you so chose to look for it. The story would be just as exceptional without the satire. One scene in the film that stood out to me was a scene where the animals were using sickles for farm work. That image is so disdainfully symbolic and yet so modestly and precisely controlled that it sent chills down my spine.

As much as I am going into depth about the film, I have yet to mention two essential elements that warrant discussing: the animation and voice work. After all, this film was the first feature-length theatrical British animated film (the first full-length British animated film, period, was the wartime instructional, Handling Ships). This is to the British what Snow White is to us.

How is the animation? I believe it’s on a level between those 7-minute cartoons before movies and Disney films. The characters are animated with shrewd restraint. At times, the animation even reminded me of the hand-drawn animated films of the late 1990s, in the sense of how the faces looked and how crisp the lines could be. The landscapes are beautifully drawn and the exterior and interior designs of buildings looked quite detailed, at times.

The voice work is masterful. Gordon Heath is intensely intimidating as the narrator of this work. His voice contains such commitment and conviction that it contains similarities to the narration of a 1930s radio drama. However, perhaps, in one of the largest voiceover feats in animated film history, Maurice Denham voices every single, solitary animal in the movie and I wouldn’t be surprised if he voiced all of the humans. It mystifies me that he didn’t become a more bankable or popular voice artist, in the vein of Frank Welker or Jeff Bennett. He gives every animal a dissimilar voice and it is simply marvelous. The filmmakers, also, got real barnyard sounds for each of the animal’s noises, which work brilliantly. That donkey’s fearful and mournful cries manage to be profoundly haunting.

Now, as much as I give praise to this film, I have a couple of quibbles with this film, and I do mean only a couple. My first issue with the film is the pace. The film runs at a brief 71 minutes and manages to feel like a 10 minute animated newsreel about Communism. The brevity makes the film feel rushed.

I guess they just wanted to get the overall jist of the novel and I guess if it were longer, they wouldn’t have been able to put in a lot of the minimal dialogue sequences, but I, at least, want more cohesive character development. I don’t expect it to be a character study and I’m not yearning for dialogue in every scene, but a few silent, character-oriented beats would’ve sufficed. I guess all I’m saying is that 90 minutes would’ve been better than 71 minutes. At the same time, it was the 1950s, so what are you gonna do?

My second issue with the film is the ending. I will not reveal the ending of the book or the film. However, I will say that the book’s ending is one of the most perfect ways to end a book. Sure it’s pessimistic, but it’s also poetic and symbolic. It symbolizes not only the evidence that Communism will never work, but it also symbolizes greed and the flaws and evils of human nature. The ending for the film is too optimistic. Not don’t get me wrong, it is by no means a bad ending. It manages to sustain the angry tone present throughout the film and the final image is freaking awesome, but, to me, substituting pessimism for optimism or even merely hinting at a happy ending does not represent George Orwell’s vision. Period.

However, regardless of its flaws, this is an ambitious project that captures most of the elements that made the novel really freaking good. Now, I feel it is important that the year accompanies the film titles in my headings. I say this because another Animal Farm adaptation was made in 1999. While it is certainly tolerable, it doesn’t have the nuances, drive, or alluring power that this version has. And yes, that version has a happy ending, too. While it mildly works in the context of that film, it’s still too optimistic and cheerful. Note to anyone who may want to attempt a third adaptation of Animal Farm: they do not assuredly, or allegedly, live happily ever after.

RATING: Three and three-quarters stars out of four

(P.S. To clear up any confusion, I don’t think the 1999 version of Animal Farm is good. It almost works, but not quite. I’d give that version two and three-quarters stars out of four, seeing how I will most likely not review that version.)