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A marvelous visual inundation. Be ready to hold your breath and gape your eyes in awe. This is one for the ages.
At the beginning of this year, I had a pretty good idea that Peter Jackson's final film adaptation of Tolkien's trilogy would be a given for my year-end top-ten list. Still, I was not making any rash decisions and would not give The Return of the King praise if it was undeserved.
To say that my initial instincts were dead-on would be a monumental understatement. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is hands-down the best film I have seen this year. No other film on my current list comes close. Despite the enormous strengths of the previous two films, it is in this masterful conclusion that the emotional intensity, plot developments, and character arcs come pouring off the screen in a marvelous inundation.
The vision which Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie cast upon the besieged kingdoms of men and the growing plight of Frodo, the ringbearer, is uncompromisingly bleak. The lighting of The Fellowship of the Ring was lushly colorful and richly variegated, and despite the perils, the tone was not at all grave. With The Two Towers, the colors became increasingly desaturated, eliciting a much more grim and foreboding air.
In this film, the vibrancy has returned, only this time, there is heavy use of bright neutrals (whites and grays) and almost fluorescent greens. This vibrancy is not at all inviting, but instead invokes feelings of isolation, barrenness, and worst of all, hopelessness. As strange as it may sound, there is an agonizing darkness to these bright hues.
In talking with a friend, shortly after we had both seen the film, we concurred that The Return of the King is also the most Peter Jackson of the three films. Several of his previous outings (Meet the Feebles, The Frighteners, and Heavenly Creatures) had a penchant for the surreally gory, grotesque, and downright ugly, and it is in this Lord of the Rings movie (much more than the first two) that the phantasmagoria and horror-saturated imagery is at its most unrestrained.
In terms of story, things start out slowly, but only because things are being set up for an explosive, relentless climax. And oh my, what a climax! Some have called the Battle at Helm's Deep (from The Two Towers) one of the greatest battles ever put on film. In actor John Rhys-Davies' own words, "You ain't seen nothin' yet".
Maybe a little comparison might help. Helm's Deep was attacked by 10,000 evil Uruk-Hai soldiers and defended by a few hundred men and elves. In this film, the attack on the human city of Minas Tirith and the Battle of Pelennor Fields combine to pit the many combined forces of good against 200,000 Uruks, orcs, trolls, and corrupted men. The cinematic result is heartstopping, jawdropping, and completely engulfing. And once again, the creators have taken measures to ensure that CGI work acts as an enhancement, not as a sole force.
This is certainly the most violent and disturbing of the three films, and several horrifying images in the battles push the PG-13 rating as far as it can go. Honestly, I thought the film strayed into R-rated territory several times. This is not the fun-filled, innocent, child-friendly, family film the promoters might want you to believe it is. The emotional pitches that Jackson hits deserve comparison with the most brutal moments in dehumanizing war films. As an example, I can tell you that the fun-loving, bumbling hobbit, Pippin (played by Billy Boyd), goes through especially painful changes and has a vocal solo that made me gasp and hold my breath.
The acting for this film is by far the most difficult, and the cast of The Return of the King gives a collective performance that is simply incredible as an ensemble piece. Not often does a collection of performances result in something greater than the sum its parts, but such is unquestionably the case in this film.
There are several individual performances of note, however. As the white wizard Gandalf, Ian McKellan displays more authority and strength than the previous two films, and he has some moments during battle that will have you ready to leap from your seat (although not as much as Orlando Bloom's shining moment when his Legolas performs a maneuver that makes his surfboard move in The Two Towers look pathetic).
Legolas and the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) are still relegated mainly to their smile-inducing comic relief roles, but in context, this provides a perfect complement to (and sometimes, a welcome relief from) the ensuing chaos and devastation.
In the role of the heir to the throne of Gondor, kingdom of men, Viggo Mortensen must display more acceptance of Aragorn's fate as king, and the Aragorn we see in The Return of the King is a far cry from the reluctant ranger we first met in The Fellowship. His performance easily communicates the growing, steadfast self-confidence Aragorn develops.
As Merry and Pippin, two hobbits who have journeyed far from home and have since lost the innocence and care-free nature of hobbits, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd move beyond the comic-relief and supporting nature of their parts in the other two films and turn in wonderfully effective performances that require them to step forward and be leads for a short time.
The primary newcomer to this film (if you don't count his appearance in the extended edition of The Two Towers) is John Noble, who plays Denethor, steward of Gondor. His performance is menacing and reveals a man who may have good intentions, but is nonetheless clouded by an obsession with his family's claim to power and a broken psyche that has been perverted by the strife his people have had to endure. The scenes in which Denethor is at his most unbalanced are some of the most powerful in the film.
My favorite of the performances, however, belongs to the trio en route to Mordor. As the morally ambiguous Gollum, Andy Serkis gives a fantastic performance that is even darker and more frightening than his work in The Two Towers. As the hobbits Frodo and Sam, Elijah Wood and Sean Astin have some scenes that tear at the heart. (By the way, some of these scenes generated sniffles from several people around me). Frodo's degraded emotional and physical state is captured perfectly by Wood's contorted facial expressions and awkward movements. Meanwhile, Sam's unwavering loyalty to Frodo is tested, and Astin's work is amazingly poignant.
Like the other two films, The Return of the King has three hours of central story, but there is also a twenty-minute epilogue that chronicles events following the War of the Ring. This epilogue constitutes seventy pages (about one-third) of Tolkien's book, and therefore twenty minutes is actually quite short. So if you hear from critics (and you will) that the film "does not want to end" and goes on for too long, just know that you are listening to someone who has not read the books and is throwing shortsighted criticism at Jackson for a characteristic of Tolkien's work (which, by the way, I have no problems with).
The epilogue of the film, just like with the book, allows for celebration and rejoicing, but also a lingering sense of mourning, irony, and pain. Jackson gets the tone of the final five minutes absolutely right, and I doubt that anyone who has grown to love these characters will be able to keep a dry eye.
This is an astounding film, and without a doubt, a landmark in film history. Taken together, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King represent one of the greatest collective works of cinema ever made. Yes, you heard me right. No, I am not exaggerating. The Lord of the Rings easily represents the greatest cinematic fantasy work of all-time, but it also embodies much more than that.
Jackson's endlessly fertile imagination has shown that the "impossible" can be done and that sometimes, it is worth taking risks (Thank you, New Line). I don't think there will ever be a time again when a work of film extends beyond the nine-hour mark (ten, if you count extended editions), and yet manages not only to keep its audiences engrossed, but also successfully create compelling characters that people will be reluctant to say goodbye to.
After only one viewing, I consider The Return of the King the best film of 2003, and still, I feel I have not even begun to grasp how truly superior the work is. Bring lots of tissues, and be ready to hold your breath and gape your eyes in awe. This is one for the ages.
The Princess Bride (1987)
A transcendent, nostalgic, pervasively hilarious experience
I have been waiting for the right time to review this film. I did not feel until today that I was truly ready to say all I had to say about director Rob Reiner's unforgettable staple of 1980s pop culture. When I first saw The Princess Bride, I was only 7 years old, and hardly cognizant of film as anything but a pastime. While I remember the movie as being enjoyable, I did not have anywhere near as strong a liking or appreciation for it as I do now. I certainly did not remember the film as a theater-going experience, and recently, I got the chance to view it, on the big screen, with at least fifty others in attendance at a midnight screening.
Personally, I am one of those people who, by nature, absorbs memorable quotes, and by that token, the entirety of The Princess Bride is fair game. As I sat there watching, I could always hear somebody, if not more than one person, at least whispering along with the movie under his or her breath. Meanwhile, I noticed that there was a wide disparity of age groups. There were pre-teens, teens, people in their twenties, thirties, and some that looked well past forty. If the showing had not been at midnight, I do not doubt that there would have been pre-pre-teens as well.
With a screenplay written by William Goldman (based on his book), The Princess Bride is a classic, familiar story of a princess, her true love, and the forces that come between them. As is evidenced by those in attendance, this is a story for all ages. The manner in which this fairytale part of the story is executed by Goldman and Reiner is memorable enough to make this a great film. As any fan of the movie will tell you, however, it is the film's whimsical, irreverent, pervasive tongue-in-cheek antics that make it an unqualified masterpiece.
If you hang around people who love this film, do not be surprised if they react to unbelievable situations with the exclamation, "Inconceivable!" Likewise, if you tell them to just wait a minute, don't be thrown aback when they suddenly sport a Spanish accent in saying, "I hate waiting." And if you suddenly, from out of nowhere, hear, "Hello.my name is Inigo Montoya.you killed my father.prepare to die," don't worry. It's not your fault, and you're not going to die.
While The Princess Bride has the sort of satirical edge more geared towards adults, the film is equally effective as a pure fairytale, and for this reason, there is a little something for everyone. In addition, the film enacts a self-referential tribute to the power and beauty of fairytale stories, even in the current age in which many consider them archaic and obsolete.
A sick grandson (Fred Savage), who is spending his time mindlessly playing video games (of the nostalgic Atari 8-bit type), gets a visit from his grandfather (portrayed through a wonderful performance from Peter Falk). To the grandson's dismay, his elder has brought a book to read to him. When he expresses disapproval at his grandfather's old-fashioned ways, the grandfather's response is, "When I was your age, television was called books." Even this quote stands out as resonant and memorable.
The grandson starts out expressing skepticism and boredom, but of course, as the reading of the story progresses, this gradually gives way to captivation and praise. Buttercup (Robin Wright, in her breakthrough role) is a fair-haired, stunningly gorgeous maiden who has been engaged to the smug, cowardly Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), the prince who rules over the land of Florin. She of course does not love him, and she has been without joy since her true love, a farm boy named Wesley (Cary Elwes), was reportedly murdered on the seas.
Of course, without Wesley, there is no story of true love, and we know that he must miraculously return to her someday. This happens through an extraordinary, and increasingly hilarious, set of circumstances. A group of three bandits kidnap Buttercup with the intent of killing her to precipitate a war between Florin and its enemy, Guilder. These three are (in order of increasing stature) the intellectually pompous Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), the Spanish swordsman Inigo (Mandy Patinkin), and the big-hearted slow-witted giant Fezzik (the late Andre the Giant, in one of the most no-brainer casting decisions in all of film history).
During the kidnapping, however, a mysterious man in black closes in on the trail of the three abductors, and it is this man who takes on each of the three one by one in battles of skill, strength, smarts, and of course, deliciously witty repartee. There is something unusually extraordinary about these battles, however.
With the exception of Vezzini, the abductors are not villains as we might initially perceive them to be. The marvelously choreographed swordplay between the man in black and Inigo, and the hilarious absurdity of the handfight with Fezzik, are not at all about winning or losing. They embody a sense of honor, sportsmanship, and nobility that is rarely exemplified in competition (both fictional and real).
Inigo, Fezzik, and the man in black do not display their skills pretentiously or flauntingly. Instead, they take a strong sense of inner pride in the subtle mastery of their arts. As a result, when we see them engage in competition, there is not a sense of enmity, but a wonderful air of camaraderie.
Also included in the mix are a sadistic count (Christopher Guest) with an odd physical characteristic and a penchant for pain, an albino (Mel Smith) with a stuffy throat, the deadly wrath of an R.O.U.S., and a clergyman (Peter Cook) who makes Elmer Fudd seem eloquently spoken. Most memorable, perhaps, is the appearance of Billy Crystal and Carol Kane as the miracle-man Max and his wife. It has been reported that in the middle of filming this scene, Reiner was forced to leave the set, because Crystal's improvisations were causing him to laugh to the point of being sick.
Regarding the film's casting, every single choice, without exception, is absolute perfection. Cary Elwes not only easily looks the part of a daring, ingenious hero, but as an actor, he has an incredible gift for a subtle mixture of drama and comedy, one that easily coincides with the film's sensibilities. Robin Wright easily essays the role of the headstrong princess, endlessly devoted to her love (with a convincing British accent, despite her American origins).
For the scene of swordplay, Elwes and Patinkin had to study fencing for months, which is impressive, but on-screen, I had no trouble believing that they were characters who had studied for at least several years. Despite his limited acting ability, wrestler Andre the Giant is perfect for the role of Fezzik, and something would be lost with any other actor in his place. And of course, Wallace Shawn is endlessly amusing to watch as the diminutive, perpetually exasperated Vezzini.
We also don't have to hear Christopher Guest and Chris Sarandon speak any lines to know they are portraying villains. The arrogance, callousness, and sliminess are readily apparent in their facial and bodily expressions.
When all is said and done, we have witnessed a wide variety of hilarity, captivating acts of love and heroism, and of course, one of the most satisfying acts of retribution ever put on film (one that immortalizes the film's most famous quote and chooses just the right time and placement for the film's sole swear word).
For someone who watches this film for the first time, and quickly catches on to the film's capricious mix of reverence and satire, the film is a marvel to watch simply for the knowledge that you do not know what will come next. Will there be a touching moment? A reflective one? An act of bravado? Or will our expectations be subverted in an act of comical subterfuge? The answer: any of them will do, as the film has a delectable variety of all of them.
From start to finish, The Princess Bride is a transcendent, magical experience that constantly elicits uproarious laughter and simultaneously immerses the audience in a rich, magnificent, and almost nostalgic world of folklore that, after the end credits roll, seems timeless and undying. In the years since its release in 1987, it has grown into a cult film of legendary status, and judging by the wide variety of ages I witnessed at the screening (as well as the endless barrage of quoting), it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that the film will endure for many years to come.
Wonderful Experimental Documentary
Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi (1983) is a film with no actors, no storyline, and no dialogue. The only things we see during the experimental documentary's 87 minutes are natural landscapes, images of cities, and real people going about their regular lives. Yet from the very beginning, when we see the title of the film appear in blood-red characters and hear the voice of a bass soloist chanting the title like an incantation, it is difficult not to be swept away in captivation.
Filmed between 1977 and 1982, Reggio's film was noticed by directing great Francis Ford Coppola who eventually agreed to finance the project and give it chances for distribution. Minimalist composer Philip Glass was optioned to compose the score, and the result was, quite simply, astounding.
Koyaanisqatsi is a collection of familiar images presented through tinted lenses (figuratively speaking). The experimental nature of the project can be seen in the reduced and augmented speeds of images, the use of carefully manipulated edits, and the use of Glass's score to create ambience. There are times when the film exhibits an almost surreal quality more indicative of a twisted, futuristic, dystopian sci-fi epic than of our mundane world.
This is, however, what makes Koyaanisqatsi so successful. In presenting our world in a disquieting, unflattering light, the film forces us to ruminate on our place in the universe and the consequences of many of our actions. The film starts with serene, austere images of mountains, oceans, and forests, and the repetitiveness of Glass's score does not bore us nor call attention to itself, but simply washes over us, entrancing us and instilling a sense of tranquility.
It is not long before the untainted images are replaced by nuclear power plants, highways, skyscrapers, rubble, fire and ash, and hoards of ant-like beings (humans, of course) scurrying through modern urbanity. Most times, humans are filmed at low-frame settings (making for faster speeds), and as a result, they seem frenzied, compulsively making their way through the cities in a manner that seems more conditioned than voluntary.
Glass's score responds by heightening its tension and adding a semi-brutal nature to its repetitiveness. It is somewhat aversive, but at the same time exhibits a humorous and mocking quality. By cramming together so many images of humans behaving more like lab rats than higher, thinking beings and increasing the satirical nature of the score, the film invites us to consider just how depersonalized, mechanized, and out-of-control many aspects of our life are.
The conclusion of the film contrasts against the blackly comic nature of the previous section by instilling a sense of mourning and warning. As such, there is undoubtedly a political and environmental component inherent in this film, but this is the aspect that is, in my mind, most often misunderstood. Many critics (mostly detractors) have interpreted Koyaanisqatsi as a call to action, an invective that demands that we atone for the rape-like pillaging the human race has thrusted upon the natural environment. Following from this, these critics claim that the film's message is that we would enjoy the planet more if we were not here at all, thus presenting a contradiction, since we would not be here to enjoy it.
In my own personal view, the flaw here resides in viewing the film as a tirade and a call to action. I find Koyaanisqatsi very clearly to be not a cry for reform, but a demand for awareness and meditation. There is an inevitability in the actions of human beings and their disregard for the care of their surroundings, and the wonderful thing about this film is that it forces you to experience the consequences and at least take notice of what each of us is contributing. It does not let you get away with indifference and nonchalance.
For me, however, the political component is less important than the stylistic component, which is one near and dear to my heart: the use of music to enhance the forcefulness of images. I acknowledge the fact that some will not be able to stand the repetitiveness of Philip Glass's score (and it is very repetitive at some points). But if one can consider the motive behind the repetition, the music ceases to be oppressive and becomes sublime and entrancing. The score adds impact to an already stunning array of unforgettable images, the details of which I will not go into, so that one may see the film with fresh eyes.
I saw Koyaanisqatsi for the first time at a performance in which the visuals were projected onto a giant screen with the soundtrack being supplied by Glass and his ensemble, who had come for a live performance. I had barely made it in time, since I struggled to find a parking space and was drenched from running in the rain. The moment the film started, however, all of the accumulated tensions in my body completely dissipated. It was not at all a cerebral experience, but an instinctive one in which I enjoyed the images and sounds for their own sakes.
When I left the performance, I was in a hypnotic daze, transfixed by what I had just seen. My initial impressions haven't changed to this day. I loved this film, and while the political and environmental concerns it addresses are important, what really makes this film for me is the instinctive, visceral power of its images and sounds. Koyaanisqatsi maroons its audience in an alternate version of reality that sheds disturbing light on our lives, and yet at the same time, it produces an unforgettable cinematic experience that is pervasively engrossing.
The Godfather (1972)
Epic Journey into the History and Culture of the Mafia
Spoiler Alert!! "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse."
And with those words, Marlon Brando cemented his claim of film immortality. Many have imitated his cold, calculating stare, his borderline incoherent mumbling, and his movements which are, on the surface, awkward and elderly, but have an inexplicable gracefulness to them. But none will ever truly become Don Vito Corleone the way Brando did.
His mere physical presence depicts years of harsh dealings with unscrupulous types, and yet somehow, we see honor, loyalty, and a sense of family devotion that is to be praised, not lamented. Roger Ebert, in his analysis of The Godfather, eloquently explains that part of the film's resounding charm and success is that it "tricks" you into sympathizing with people who commit unspeakable acts.
Indeed, several have had their disagreements with the Godfather series because of its "overly romantic" portrayal of one of the most notorious groups in American history, the Sicilian Mafia. These people kill, cheat, lie, and scheme. And yet here lies the key as to why this film is one of the greatest ever made. Yes, many of the characters with whom we are supposed to identify are corrupt in many ways. But the further we are drawn into the microcosm of the Corleone family, the more we learn about these individuals that we initially shun as pure evil. The more we learn, the more human they seem, and we begin to see many signs of redeeming values.
Mixed in with the lies, the crime, the deceit is a rich cultural history, and even more immediately, an ongoing battle for a piece of the coveted American Dream. Amongst the violent background, there can be honor and virtue, and with so many gray areas, we wonder if these supposedly horrible people are really evil, or whether they might be unwitting byproducts of a ruthlessly violent tradition that does not allow them for any alternatives.
This particular point applies much more to Vito himself in The Godfather Part II. In this first installment, it is his son Michael (Al Pacino) that is the true tragic character of circumstance. Being the youngest of three male children, Michael begins the story as the only one with no ties to the nefarious dealings of the Corleone family. The eldest son, Sonny (James Caan), is a perpetual time bomb waiting to explode and does not have Michael's scruples. The middle son, Fredo (John Cazale) is much more passive, but not very intelligent.
It is for these reasons that Vito sees Michael as the key to legitimizing the family and washing away the blood of years past. We will come to recognize, however, one of the themes that echoes relentlessly throughout all three films: the sins of the past can never be fully purged.
Now knowing what happens in all three films, it is painful for me to watch the monumental opening wedding sequence of The Godfather and hear Pacino speak the words, "That's my family, Kay, that's not me." This comes, of course, following Michael's conversation with his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) regarding one of his father's involvements with crime. We then see Michael insist that Kay join the family picture, despite her protests. This subtle shot suggests a symbolism that will become indicative of their relationship (one of the few subplots that extends through all three films).
The opening sequence, which lasts for almost a full half-hour, is the wedding of Vito's youngest child and only daughter, Connie (Talia Shire). Yet this half-hour flies by effortlessly as it introduces all the major characters fluidly and economically. Everything we need to know is expressed, often without dialogue (a tribute to the fantastic performances). And there is still time to revel in the joys of a rich cultural tradition, expressed by the myriad festivities.
Shortly thereafter, however, the joy is replaced by dread, as we begin to learn of trouble brewing for the Corleone family. A powerful drug supplier named Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) presents the heads of the "five families" (those with Mafia ties) with deals that will create huge profits. Only Vito refuses the deal, which also entails refusal to give aid to the other families through use of politicians, police, and members of the press that Vito has power over. His reasoning is that drugs is a "dirty business" that will destroy the families in the years to come. The public turns a blind eye towards duplicitous activities like gambling, liquor, and prostitution, but narcotics, he feels, is different.
This refusal stirs up the beginnings of bloodshed and engenders nothing short of a violent tribal feud that will claim several lives. At great risk, of course, is Vito himself, and Michael becomes torn between his desire for a normal, legitimate life with Kay and devotion and care for his father and family. Unfortunately, his father's immediate danger causes his concern for the family to win out, and we begin to watch the great tragedy of Michael turning from innocent outsider to ruthless manipulator, even more so than his father. This happens following his guarantee that he would never follow in his father's ways.
Along the way, we become witness to some of the most suspenseful and well-thought out scenes in cinematic history, not the least of which is the scene almost directly in the middle of the film. In this scene, which excruciatingly defies time and seems to extend indefinitely, Michael must choose whether or not he will commit the final act that will secure him as a participating member in the family's illegal ways.
It is the painful watershed, and again, knowing what happens down the road, I often find myself wanting to scream out, "No, don't do it!" To be compelled to do this towards a movie I have seen repeatedly means two things. First, yes I know, I am a freak. But what an achievement it is to have a film so well directed, shot, lit, and written that it stops being fiction and takes over you, despite repeated viewings.
In addition to these moments of suspense, The Godfather also has one of the most romantic sequences I have ever seen on film. This is, of course, Michael's encounter with the young Sicilian girl, Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli). The breathtaking cinematography of the Sicilian countryside and the exquisite melodies of Nino Rota's Sicilian Pastorale perfectly capture the ambience of Michael's capricious affair.
Needless to say, The Godfather is filled with memorable performances. Of the five nominees for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscar ceremony for the films of 1972, three of them belonged to The Godfather. These belonged to Al Pacino, James Caan (for his explosive performance as Sonny), and Robert Duvall (with a low-key, but highly effective performance as Michael's half-brother and consigliere to the family).
None of the three won, but Marlon Brando did win the Best Actor Oscar (and later declined to accept it as a gesture against the poor treatment of Native Americans by the industry at the time). There are also a number of memorable smaller roles, such as Lenny Montana as the oafish Luca Brasi; Abe Vigoda and Richard Castellano as Vito's assistants, Tessio and Clemenza; and Sterling Hayden as the corrupt police captain, McCluskey.
Despite a monumental directorial effort, Francis Ford Coppola did not receive the Best Director Oscar, but he did share the screenwriting Oscar with Mario Puzo for the adaptation of Puzo's novel. Special note should be given to cinematographer Gordon Willis for his phenomenal use of lighting. Few films I have seen make such heavy use of shadows and darkness (there are a number of medium and close shots in which we cannot see the subjects' eyes), and Willis's work here leaves an easily distinguishable impression.
Then, of course, there's the climax during the final 20 minutes of the film, which is nothing short of a masterwork of editing, cross-cutting, pacing, timing, and style. The music during this sequence is so perfectly chosen that it never gets old no matter how many times I watch it. The sequence drips with an irony of the highest magnitude. Some have cited it as their favorite moment in film history.
The Godfather truly is a film unlike any other. Some films make good epics, some good character studies, some good tragedies, some good action or suspense films, and some good historical dramas. It is hard make a single great film in any of these categories. The Godfather does it in all of them.
By the end of the film's 170-minute length, we have witnessed a complete 180-degree shift in several characters' lives. Yet still, only part of the story has been told. The harsh sense of tragedy, loss, and deceit that accompanies the end of this film is something that only expands and deepens with an even greater destructive resonance in The Godfather Part II.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Kubrick and Clarke team to form a poetic sci-fi marvel
The first time I ever saw 2001: A Space Odyssey was when I was in middle school. It was on network television, and my father grabbed me just in time to see two apes using bones to bludgeon another ape to death in the middle of a large puddle of water. "Watch what happens next," he said, sounding rather dramatic. Of course looking back on this, I know why this was so important to him. What I was about to see was one of the most memorable visual transitions in film history. An ape tosses his bone in the air. It rotates in slow motion, before succumbing to gravity, and as it falls, there is an abrupt cut to, of all places, outer space. In place of the bone is a spaceship, an exact graphic match.
Not quite understanding what I had just seen, and being the inquisitive kid that I was, I found a copy of Arthur C. Clarke's novel of same name, and attempted to read it before I saw the complete film. After finishing the book, I was amazed by the ideas it put forth, and felt I was ready to view the film. I watched it in its entirety, and I again saw the bone to spaceship transition, but I still did not feel confident that I knew what the hell was going on.
The significance of this startling image was not immediately apparent to me until I viewed the film again recently on the big screen. The abrupt nature of the transition serves to make the passage of time seem relatively insignificant, and in doing so, suggests that what we see as marvelous innovation (i.e.--technology and space exploration) is actually just a drop in the bucket in the greater universal scheme. Although this transition is the most memorable in the film, it represents only one of its several visual and aural matches that reflect upon the film's fictional exploration of the story behind human evolution.
The film begins with a section entitled "The Dawn of Man". We are introduced to a pack of apes who wander around their grounds doing nothing but seeking food and water. When other apes intrude, they fill the air with wild shrieks, attempting to scare off the invaders. They have no way to hunt, and no way to defend themselves against predators. It is a very primitive existence.
Then one night, the apes are awoken by an eerie, otherworldly sound. They emerge from their cave and find in front of it a giant black slab, perfectly smooth and sturdy. They are wary at first, but one by one, they gradually crowd around the monolith, as the sound grows louder and more discordant. Later, we see a single ape fidgeting aimlessly with an animal skeleton. Suddenly, the ape's face lights up with a sudden understanding. The air begins to fill with the music of Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra", a musical selection which this film immortalized (and is often referred to as "The 2001 song"). We quickly see a close image of the monolith with the sun centered high above it, and we now see the monolith's results. The ape lifts one of the animal's bones high above his head and makes brutal clubbing motions. He has found his weapon.
The next time another pack of apes threatens, he takes his newfound discovery, and uses it to beat one of the pack members to death. Thus, the dawn of man arrives, and the monolith's work has begun.
The remainder of the film focuses on where man has gone since then, and towards the end, delves into where man might be going. And the monolith is omnipresent. The pacing is slow and deliberate, as one would expect from a Kubrick film, and while some might view it as cumbersome, others will revel in it due to the unforgettable imagery. Due to zero gravity environments, we see people walking on all four walls, and there are several shots in which people seem to walk upside down and around rooms. We again see the spaceships which resemble the bone and also giant space stations which revolve like a wheel, yet another symbol of human innovation.
The amazing feat which Kubrick pulls off, however, is making it seem very real and plausible, rather than something purely science fictional. The shots seem almost like a ballet rather than an innovative sci-fi effect. Of course, having Johann Strauss's "Blue Danube Waltz" in the background helps with this, and I'd guess that the music was chosen for just that purpose.
Following the stunning "Blue Danube" sequence, we are introduced to Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) of the National Council of Aeronautics. He is heading to a base on the moon to investigate a finding which has been kept secret from the public. Along the way, we see more futuristic signs of innovation: an orbiting Hilton Hotel and a video phone. A foreshadowing dialogue with other doctors in the hotel relates just how secret and important the investigation is.
When Dr. Floyd reaches the moon, we find out what the secret is. He and several other scientists descend into a giant trench which holds another monolith, identical to the one which catalyzed the ape transformations. Again, we hear the eerie discordant sounds (excerpts from "Lux Aeterna" by György Ligeti, one of Kubrick's favorite composers). The humans crowd around the strange monolith to take a picture, and although it feels much more civilized, there is an unsettling resemblance to the primitive apes throwing themselves at the earlier monolith, all clawing for their own touch. Just at that moment, a deafening, high-pitched tone pierces the scientists' ears, and this section of the story suddenly concludes.
The middle section of the film takes place 18 months later on the ship Discovery, which is bound for Jupiter. The crew includes David Bowman (Keir Dullea), Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), three other doctors who are in hibernation chambers, and the HAL 9000 computer (voiced by Douglas Rain). HAL is a marvel of modern computer technology. He has a perfect operational record, speaks with seemingly genuine emotion, and acts as another member of the crew. There is a very revealing moment when Bowman discusses his view on whether or not HAL has true emotions.
But when something goes wrong with HAL, and Bowman and Poole decide to disconnect him, HAL fights back, and along the way becomes one of the most monstrous villains in film history. We fear HAL so greatly not because he has a booming voice or a cruel heart, but for the exact opposite reason. He speaks quietly and calmly in a detached manner and is merely ensuring that he can do the job he was programmed to do: stay functional and make sure the mission is complete. As a computer, he does not understand the terrible things he is doing, and this makes him all the more terrifying. (It is interesting to note that Anthony Hopkins used HAL as his model when trying to create his interpretation of the cold and monstrous Hannibal Lecter).
When Bowman finally gets into the chamber housing the equipment of HAL's central functions, HAL quickly turns from villain to tragic figure. He begs in the same calm voice for Bowman to stop destroying his memory. He says he can "feel" his mind going. When Bowman persists, HAL recites one of the most heartbreaking lines in film: "I'm afraid, Dave." This sheds a haunting light on the question of HAL's emotional capability.
For the sake of preserving novelty, I will not reveal much about the film's final half hour. I will say two things however. One: It represents some of the most brilliant cinema I have ever seen. Two: If you do not read the book, you will be extremely perplexed by what transpires. Suffice it to say that the monolith's role in human evolution is finally brought to the forefront. In addition, the aesthetics and suspense of the last ten minutes are, simply put, beautiful and awe-inspiring.
It is hard to imagine any director other than Kubrick at the helm of this project. The misanthropic undercurrents regarding technological innovation reflect upon Kubrick's persistent interest in the dehumanization of society (e.g.--A Clockwork Orange, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket). Kubrick's meticulous, deliberate directing caters perfectly to the vast emptiness and solitude of space. His sense of composition provides for striking, often disturbing imagery (consider the sun towering directly over the center of the monolith, or Bowman and Poole conversing on opposite ends of the frame with HAL in the background exactly in the middle of the frame). The visual effects, designed by Kubrick himself, are a testament to how creativity can rise above technological limitation, considering that there was no such thing as digital manipulation.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about 2001: A Space Odyssey is that despite the fact that it is almost 35 years old, and despite the fact that its vision of the future was not entirely accurate, it does not seem at all dated. The issues raised in the film are as relevant now as they were then. Certainly, human evolution is an issue that will continue to be debated for many years to come. Due to its unforgettable imagery, its novel use of classical music, and its brilliant conclusion, 2001: A Space Odyssey will not soon be forgotten.
The Birds (1963)
Hitchcock's Apocalyptic Poem
Ask different people what the best Alfred Hitchcock film is, and you will hear a variety of responses. Some will say Vertigo, some Rear Window, some Notorious, some Psycho, some North by Northwest.some may even go for his earlier works, like Shadow of a Doubt, The 39 Steps, or The Lady Vanishes.
One title you do not often hear is The Birds. Many regard it as an inferior film, because it does not have the character or plot complexities of any of the aforementioned films. There is a difference, however, between choosing a "best" film and a "favorite" one. It's easy to make a statement such as "Citizen Kane is a better movie than Gigli". As far as objective criteria go (if there really are such things in film), the disparity is obvious.
However, you cannot as easily make a statement like "Citizen Kane is a better movie than Casablanca". Where is the basis for calling one better than the other? In terms of character development, plot, theme, direction, and cinematography, both are superior films. Beyond that, there are too many intangibles and qualities left to subjective fancy. For that reason, it is much more sensible to say, "I enjoy Citizen Kane more than Casablanca", or vice versa.
By that token, I could easily argue that The Birds is inferior to many other Hitchcocks. However (and I'm sure this will outrage many Hitchcock cinéastes), no Hitchcock film I have seen thus far has entranced me and hit me at a gut level the way The Birds has.
Federico Fellini (who places The Birds among his top ten favorite films) dubbed it an "apocalyptic poem"; an appropriate phrase, because the film has an uncanny ability to ostracize the normal world to which we are accustomed and eerily suggest the world's end. As soon as we follow Tippi Hedren (as Melanie Daniels) into the confines of Bodega Bay, we pass through a membrane into an alternate reality. There is something removed and quiet about this seaside town...too quiet.
As with Psycho, Hitchcock was less concerned with complex character and plot, and much more interested in brutally invading the viewer's consciousness. And as with Psycho, he starts with a seemingly innocent premise, drops in subtle, disquieting shards of foreboding, and takes things in shocking new directions.
I still remember the chills that went up my spine when I first saw Melanie, early in the film, alone in her boat, quietly paddling through the bay. The air was still, the breeze gentle...but I couldn't help feeling that this was a tranquility that was not meant to last.
As suspense goes, this is Hitchcock in top form. He foreshadows in small bits that make tiny increments as the film progresses, and each increment gives an air of impending doom, but also cinematic beauty.
At one point in the film, when a front door is opened to reveal a dead bird on the front porch (the result of a kamikaze flight), there is certainly a sense of dread, but also of a perverse aesthetic. We know this is a moment planted for the purpose of scaring us (and preparing us for greater terror), and yet remarkably, even this knowledge is useless in detaching ourselves from the raw power of the image.
The storyline and acting quality of the two leads are mediocre, but deliberately so. Tippi Hedren, whose Melanie opens the film as a spoiled, upper-class brat (complete with a history of capricious sojourns in Europe), engages in a pathetically adolescent game of one-upmanship with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), who begins by making a fool out of her in a bird shop. The so-called MacGuffin (a term coined by Hitchcock to describe a device for catalyzing plot advancement) is a cage of lovebirds, a seemingly innocent symbol at the center of Melanie's childish games, but one that will have surprising resonance by film's end.
The intonation of the dialogue between Melanie and Mitch is flat and dry, delivered with little dramatic impact, yet in its own quirky way, it is charming. It is interesting to ponder where this relationship will take us. Consider Jimmy Stewart's first encounter with Kim Novak in Vertigo, Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins in Psycho, or Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotton in Shadow of a Doubt. When considering Hitchcock's repertoire, the initial tension between Melanie and Mitch suggests a relationship through which the story will weave its themes and plot twists.
Yet in true Hitchcock fashion, he is seducing us into following a certain path with the intention of yanking us in a completely different direction. Of course, this is partially due to the influence of Daphne Du Maurier's short story (of same title), but it is through Hitchcock's vision that events come to life in ways no written word could express.
The initial tension, the lovebirds, the flirty games are all tools used to the end of getting us (through Melanie) to Bodega Bay, where Mitch resides with his mother (Jessica Tandy) and child sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright, in one of her first film roles). Once there, we anticipate the expected plot advancement. Wait a minute...why is it so quiet? I haven't heard much dialogue. And where is the background score?
***Spoiler Point!! Do not read on if you haven't seen the film!!!!***
This is exactly where Hitchcock wants us to be. When we first see gulls appear (just a few, which are suddenly dropped into the frame), it feels unnatural, as if they are invading on the movie. And when a single gull swoops down and takes a chunk out of Melanie's head, it is like a sudden electric shock that tweaks us out of our comfortable premonitions.
From here on out, everyone is a victim of circumstance. The most important issue at hand is no longer the relationship between Melanie and Mitch, but the fight against a primal force of unimaginable horror.
While the two leading performances are not well-acted (again, deliberately so), the three most prominent supporting roles are intensely satisfying from a dramatic point of view.
Veronica Cartwright's initial acting presence seems forced, but one must keep in mind that Hitchcock is presenting her as a typical pre-teen. As such, the seemingly contrived nature of Cathy's initial dialogue deceives us. When Cartwright must transform Cathy into a girl suddenly in the midst of horrors that no child should have to witness, the result is frightening. Her terror and hysteria are completely convincing.
Jessica Tandy and Suzanne Pleshette (as Annie Hayworth, a former love interest of Mitch) add fascinating layers of depth to Bodega Bay and enhance the town's otherworldly ambience with details of their pasts. We initially attribute their struggles to Mitch, but as the film goes on, we see that the town itself has as much of a role as Mitch does.
I could talk about the cutting-edge special effects by which Hitchcock and his team created the illusion of several bird attacks (and the effects are indeed impressive), but I would be beating a dead horse, since this is the area of the film that draws repeated attention.
Instead, I'll refer to my favorite scene in the entire film, which ironically is one that does not feature a single bird. It is the diner scene in which all of the important characters gather in the midst of the frenzied bird attacks and attempt to deliberate as to what has happened and what action should be taken. This scene is remarkably trenchant and powerful in an almost allegorical fashion.
Among others, we have a blithering drunk who recites apocalyptic Biblical passages, an overly cerebral ornithologist who denies the attacks simply because they do not adhere to logic, an overprotective mother who demands silence because her children are getting scared (thus attempting to deny what is really happening and sheltering her feeble notion of a perfect world).
Later, after another attack transpires and denial is no longer an option, the mother panics and irrationally pins the blame Melanie, attacking her as a supernatural curse, a witch that has bedeviled the community. Melanie's immediate response constitutes one of my favorite moments in the film.
Meanwhile, the terror that this film so poetically elicits can be attributed to the ornithologist's claim; in fact, on more than one occasion, someone mentions that the attacks just don't make "logical sense". The birds attack without reason. We are not enemies, aggressors, or threats of any kind. It does not seem to matter. We just know that they are killers, and they apparently have their sights set on us, releasing their fury in a primal catharsis of Freudian proportions.
When logic can no longer explain surrounding phenomenon, what does one turn to for explanation? There is no single right answer, but you will find an almost clinical depiction of human attempts at a right answer in that diner scene.
As a result, there is again a perverse beauty to our voyeuristic views of human struggle against the end of the world, which the uncontrollable bird attacks so blatantly suggest. We see the superficialities of day-to-day existence broken down, and when the veneer disappears, we are witness to the most instinctive, genuine facets of human nature.
Modern Times (1936)
The Farewell Performance of The Tramp
Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) is the final film to feature the great actor/director/writer's most easily recognizable incarnation: The Tramp. Here is a character that is so ingrained in the collective conscious of modern film audiences that many recognize him despite the fact that they have not seen a single Chaplin film. Indeed, several iconographic studies have labeled The Tramp (with his worn hat, distinctive mustache, dusty suit, cane, and trademark waddle) as the single most identifiable fictional image in history.
Still, the film that perhaps most influenced the creation and thematic realization of Modern Times was not even a silent one. The Jazz Singer, which debuted in 1927, five years before Modern Times began production, is perhaps the most important watershed film in the industry's century-old history. In the film, comic great Al Jolson stands up in front of the audience and...sings. And as Millard Mitchell said in Singin' in the Rain, the public was suddenly in a frenzy for "Talking pictures! Talking pictures!" Sadly, with the advent of synchronized sound and dialogue, the world of silent filmmaking began to slip into obscurity with audiences and studios now viewing it as obsolete and undesirable. Nevertheless, Chaplin continued his passion for the subtle craft by creating City Lights (1931), which many critics and academics consider one of the greatest films ever made, but by the time Modern Times was released, Chaplin was one of the last directors left clinging to a dying art.
Modern Times is not an entirely silent film, (there are dialogue snippets and sound effects), but if you look closely, every character with dialogue (excluding Chaplin himself) is being mocked. Even when The Tramp opens his mouth (the only time he ever did so in a film), the words are nonsensical, defying the burgeoning convention that dialogue is mandatory for substance, entertainment, and quality.
Despite the film's status as one of the greatest comedies of all-time, it is hard to ignore the political component. In his movies, Chaplin often exhibited a great mistrust for authority and progress, as often embodied through the social elite, the police, and wealthy entrepreneurs. The irony of the film's title, then, is two-fold. It connects with Chaplin's own bitter feelings regarding his moribund art form, but also refers to the plight of the working classes during the Great Depression (long working hours with little job security and meager salary, while the upper classes remain wealthy and bide their idle time) The world was changing fast, and Chaplin foresaw that many of these changes were far from beneficial.
As we watch The Tramp struggle through the modern, mechanized world, we laugh at his antics and the absurdity of their results, but we can also feel pain and pity. He is clearly a man who does not belong. Indeed, The Tramp can almost be thought of as a misfit who has passed through a membrane from some alternate reality and unwittingly fallen into our familiar world (notice that he does not have a name or identification of any kind, and as far as we know, he has no friends, family, funds, or history).
He takes on assembly lines, feeding machines, department stores, policemen and various other mass-oriented aspects of the industrialized world (all which demand and exhibit sameness and conformity), but The Tramp (and his symbolic extension, the individual) never seem to fit.
This is, consequently, why Modern Times is also one of the most poignant love stories ever put on film. The only character who is on the same level as The Tramp is a young, homeless woman who is referred to as "The Gamin" and is played by Chaplin's then-wife, Paulette Goddard. These two are brought together by the fact they have almost nothing except the will to live and continue forward, despite adversity. Both are nameless, neither has a home, and they each have no money or material possessions.
It is here that Chaplin makes his most poignant and saddening statement about modern living. The Tramp and The Gamin are the only characters who exhibit individuality and idealism, yet they are also the ones lowest on the social and economic food chain. The conclusion of the film, which most likely reflects upon Chaplin's own emotions, is tinged with sadness, but also a lingering hopefulness that resonates as loudly and clearly today as it did more than sixty years ago.
Then there is, of course, the comedy, which is the stuff of legendary status. Some of the most memorable comic images in film history are found in Modern Times. These include The Tramp's bout with an assembly line (and his resulting twitches), his unfortunate encounter with "nose-powder", the moment when he quite literally becomes a cog in the wheels of industry, and his epic struggle to bring roast duck to an angry customer.
In my opinion, however, the two standout moments are the scene in a department store involving a blindfold and some rollerskates (the most exquisite moment of comedy in the film) and the sequence where The Tramp is submitted to the mad whim of an out-of-control feeding machine (the most uproarious moment in the film).
These are just a handful of moments that make Modern Times the enduring masterpiece that it is. On a personal level, the aspect of the film that resonates strongest with me is its appeal to the idealistic misfit in all of us. In our hearts, many of us long for the simplicity and exuberance with which The Tramp and The Gamin live life (with attention to the bare essentials and an absence of need for materialism and modern trappings).
As Chaplin so skillfully shows, however, our modern times make this lifestyle a faded dream, lost among the sheep-like herds of men and women scurrying through a modern metropolis that only Fritz Lang could make seem darker and more devoid of true humanity. Still, the final image of Modern Times refuses to let the film end on an exclusively tragic note and demonstrates that the individual is still alive and may yet find his way in an ever-changing world.