Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bonnie and Clyde

Year: 1967
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 42
Writer: David Newman, Robert Benton
Director: Arthur Penn
Star: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman

“Bonnie and Clyde” bears a striking similarity to 1967’s other killers-on-the-loose saga, “In Cold Blood.” Both were based on true stories and featured two none-too-bright murderers on the run from the law. We don’t sympathize with either duo of killers and both end with the main characters paying for their crimes with their lives. But where “In Cold Blood,” shot in stark black-and-white in a time when color was the norm, embraces the grittiness and realism of its story, “Bonnie and Clyde” romanticizes everything about its journey, from the first meeting of its characters to their final moments.

Our first encounters with the main characters sums them up perfectly. We first see Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) naked in her room at the height of her beauty and sexuality, but unable to feel satisfied in her existence. She meets Clyde (Warren Beatty), who may or may not be about to steal her Mother’s car, and doggedly pursues him until he shows her his gun. Literally. He holds the gun low, over his crotch, and Bonnie playfully grabs the pistol.

Clyde is impotent and director Arthur Penn’s placement of his gun is only the first of several none-too-subtle metaphors about the adrenaline rush of robbery and murder being the only way to get his rocks off. Later in the film, Bonnie desperately tries to get him to have sex with her, and when he cannot perform adequately, Bonnie reaches over to the gun (which magically appears on the bed) and begins to lovingly stroke it once more. Seriously.

They’ve robbed their first bank within the first ten minutes of the film. Bonnie pretends to put up a fight after the fact (more because Clyde refuses to have sex with her immediately after the robbery than because of the crime itself), but it hardly takes any convincing to get her back in the getaway car. Neither character could ever be defined as smart, and if not for the robbing and murdering, neither would be interesting enough to hold a conversation of more than a few seconds with.

Together they form a gang after picking up a gas station attendant named C.W. (Michael J. Pollard) who is savvy with cars, but not much else, and then bring onboard Clyde’s brother (Gene Hackman) and sister-in-law (Estelle Parsons). All the people in the Barrow Gang are insufferable to one point or another, but as annoying as it is to watch these unlikable characters interact with one another, there is also something hypnotic about the experience of watching them annoy one another. There might be five people in the getaway car at any given time, but “Bonnie and Clyde” soon proves itself to be a meditation about human loneliness.

Parsons’ character doesn’t want to be involved at all in the robberies and makes the fact known as often as possible (and that’s very, very often). But, as long as she’s there, she thinks she should get a share anyway. Hackman’s character is torn between loyalty to his wife and loyalty to his brother and never can make anyone happy. There’s an interesting beat between Hackman and Beatty right after their reunion where they try to communicate with each other about their women and the robberies, and neither really has anything to say except half-truths and sickening boasts. C.W. is just too dim to understand what’s going on around him. And the title characters are definitely in whatever definition of love they have for themselves, but neither can fulfill the other’s needs, emotionally or sexually.

It’s not as if they don’t try to get along. Bonnie reaches her emotional breaking point one night (she can’t stand Parsons and I don’t blame her. I blame her character for many things, but not that) and runs away. Clyde finds her running through a corn field (the shot of Beatty pursuing Dunaway into the field is phenomenal thanks to a happy mistake of nature which sees the field being draped in shadows because a cloud covered the sun) and she begs to see her Mother. Clyde takes her back to her family, but Bonnie’s mother is not impressed with Clyde’s charms or their assurance that they’ll come back and live near her.

Serving as the backdrop to all of this is, of course, the robberies and murder. The gang is barely capable of bathing themselves in the morning, so many of the robberies are horribly calculated (at one point they attempt to rob a bank that has been out of business for weeks). But Penn makes the sequences a visual feast, never moreso than the moments leading up to Clyde’s first murder. C.W. has, for reasons known only to him, parallel parked the getaway car during the robbery and as he tries to get the car out of town they almost hit several other cars in a crowded street. Finally an old man jumps on the getaway car and Clyde shoots him in the face through the window. The window glass cracks in a morbidly beautiful way and the man’s eyes glaze. It’s an indelible, unforgettable moment in the movie.

Which, of course, is the entire point of the movie. Even the murders are lovely. It glamorizes every part of these unlikable characters’ lives to the point where Bonnie actually writes poetry about her time on the run and submits it to newspapers across the country. Dunaway and Beatty had quite a tightrope to walk. Both are almost too pretty, and that could easily work against the movie, but both actors saw that as an opportunity to embrace the more annoying characteristics of the characters since they knew the audience would forgive a pretty person longer than a less-than-pretty person. Sad, but true. Even their deaths are romanticized, with the characters writhing sexually as they are riddled with dozens of bullets.

“Bonnie and Clyde” is a movie I respect more than like. “In cold Blood” goes out of its to show no romanticism or beauty in its wickedness, and oddly enough develops a soul somewhere along the way. Here, I appreciate the great pains the filmmakers took to glamorize sex and violence while still making the main characters unlikable, but that ultimately means the movie is a beautiful, hollow piece of art.

My Score (out of 5): ****

Thursday, August 12, 2010

City Lights

Year: 1931
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 11
Writer/Director: Charlie Chaplin
Star: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers

Were any of the characters in “City Lights” to speak, even a word or two, the movie would implode. The film is a celebration of humanity and the triumph of love over cynicism—those emotions that make so much sense when we feel them but become so convoluted and skeptical when spoken aloud. The film allows itself to be unabashedly sentimental and is smart enough to know that we all are as well, but refuse to admit it and mock sentimentality whenever possible. Here the Tramp character (Chaplin, of course) is so brave and so willing to sacrifice everything for the woman he loves that it is impossible not to fall for the film. Dialogue would have destroyed that.

Unsurprisingly, Hollywood has become so in love with its own voice that it has allowed needless dialogue to destroy so many almost-perfect moments in almost-great films. Look at the finale to “The Notebook,” which is heartbreaking until the characters open their mouths about “miracles.” Or “Dead Man Walking,” where Matthew feels the need to apologize. And what filmmaker doesn’t have their own Web site, blog (whoops) or blathers on during film commentary instead of letting the work speak for itself?

Chaplin (also the writer/director) opens “City Lights” mocking dialogue by having several politicians speak, but all we can hear is squawking. The moment must have been funny when the film was first released, but the moment has inspired (or has been ripped-off in, whichever fits your fancy) so many other films and television (most memorably the adults in the “Peanuts” cartoons) that it has lost all its power. Immediately following this is one of Chaplin’s rare comedic misfires, as we find the Tramp asleep in the arms of a statue and attempting (unsuccessfully) to climb his way down.

But from the moment the Tramp encounters a poor blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill) who supports her elderly Grandmother by selling flowers on a street corner, the movie has us under its spell. While Chaplin is more known for his broad comedy, in “City Lights” it’s the small expressions on his face or the little moments that convince us almost immediately that he is in love. Take the moment the Tramp turns and picks up the flower he bought from the Girl with his last coin even though we have all but forgotten about it, or the joy in the Tramp’s eyes when a drunken millionaire gives him ten dollars to buy all of the Girl’s flowers.

Though there are epic moments of broad humor (I’ll talk about the boxing match in a bit), “City Lights” is the most subtle of Chaplin’s films, unafraid to let the jokes breathe or allow the characters time to develop their specific personalities. Even the reactions here aren’t as big as other Chaplin films. When the Girl is creating a knitting ball of thread and accidentally begins pulling string from Chaplin’s shirt, he does not jump, cackle or make enormous hand motions. He smiles and let’s her do it, only allowing the smallest bit of unease cross his face. We expect him to go bigger, and so the surprisingly intimacy of his moments with the Girl give them all the more impact.

Chaplin juxtaposes these with some great, bigger comedy beats. The Tramp befriends a suicidal Millionaire who only remembers him after having a few drinks, and much crackerjack comedy stems from several of their scenes together, the best being when the Millionaire jumps in a river with a rock tied to his neck. The Tramp rescues him, of course, but not before somehow getting the rope around his own neck.

The best comedic sequence of “City Lights” (and, dare I say, the funniest sequence in all of film?) comes when The Tramp enters himself into a boxing match to raise the money for the Girl’s rent. He thinks that his opponent will throw the match and they’ll split the profit, but (of course) he ends up against some dangerous brute. While he waits for the match, he notices another boxer rubbing his lucky rabbit foot and lucky horseshoe, and Chaplin does the same after the boxer goes up for his match. When the boxer is carried back barely conscious, Chaplin immediately begins trying to wipe the luck off of him.

The match is shot in long, unmoving takes that statically record the boxing, and this approach makes it all the funnier. We see the Tramp keeping perfectly in step behind the Referee in order to stop himself from being punched. We see the Tramp and his opponent each falling as soon as the other begins to get up. The sequence reaches its manic high-point when Chaplin accidentally gets the bell’s chord wrapped around his neck and it keeps abruptly stopping the match for a few seconds every time he’s knocked down.

Even during this chaos, Chaplin still allows for a small interlude where the Tramp imagines the Girl next to him and supporting him. It’s always about the Girl, after all. The Tramp loses the boxing match, but still manages to get the Girl the money for rent and an operation (he originally intends to keep some for himself, but selflessly gives her everything) to restore her sight. The moment they part choked me up, and I noticed a wonderful little alteration in one of the dialogue cards as the Tramp is about to leave the Girl, afraid she will abandon him when she realizes he is a tramp. The Girl’s final words to the man who has been nothing than kind to her are “But you’re coming back!” It was originally supposed to be a question mark at the end of the sentence (you can barely see it on the card), but Chaplin changed it to an exclamation point. That subtle change means so much for the character of the Girl. It means she needs him and cannot fathom her life without him.

The Tramp ends up in prison, and months later is released but cannot find the Girl on her usual corner. She has opened a flower shop with her Grandmother, her eyesight restored, and The Tramp wanders toward the store and their eyes meet. Though she (of course) does not recognize him, she senses…something…in him and offers him a coin and a flower. Their hands touch…she recognizes him…and the tears begin to flow. From my eyes, not theirs.

The moment in the film is played with such subtle beauty. The Tramp is scared of how she will react, but she doesn’t pull away. It is one of the great moments in all of film, and Chaplin wisely fades out quickly. We do not see a kiss. We do not see her introduce him to her Grandmother. Not even an embrace. Just The Tramp’s hopeful smile. Anything more would be a cheat. It’s a moment that, like all of “City Lights,” works because of its elegant, heart-warming simplicity.

My Score (out of 5):

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Searchers

Year: 1956
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 12
Writer: Frank S. Nugent
Director: John Ford
Star: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles

“The Searchers” is a deeply flawed film that reaches emotional highs rarely felt in any movie, emotions that have only deepened as the decades have passed. John Wayne creates a fully realized central character in Ethan who might have been a villain in many other, lesser films, and the passages focusing on him and his quest are some of the best in all of film. It’s too bad about that light comic subplot that threatens to de-rail the movie whenever it shoves its way onscreen.

When the focus is on Ethan and his in-name-only nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), it is aces. Ethan is an unapologetic racist when it comes to his opinion of Native Americans, and as the movie opens we see him still carrying the saber he wore when fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War, boasting to his brother and sister-in-law that he never surrendered it. Ethan has returned home to Texas three years after the war has concluded and we have many questions about him, questions that the movie wisely does not answer. How did he get all that new money he has, and what’s with all the subtextual stares he’s giving his sister-in-law? Ethan found Martin in a village after a tribe of Native Americans had massacred it, and brought him to his brother to care for. Ethan openly dislikes Martin, and their relationship remains one of antagonism throughout the film. Why? Martin says he is one-eighth Native American, and that appears to be one-eighth too much for Ethan, who remarks that he looks like a “half-breed.” But it can’t be that simple, can it?

The family is massacred by a group of Comanche. Martin and Ethan survive because they were away at the time, and a group forms to track down the kidnapped young girls of the family. The group soon calls off the search, but Martin and Ethan continue. They find one of the sisters dead, but continue the search for the younger sister, named Debbie. Five years later, they still have not found her, despite several close calls.

This storyarc, with the men searching for ghosts and shadows, it powerful stuff, and it’s shocking to think how much the meaning of this tale has changed since the film was first released. I’m guessing that most viewers waved off, or didn’t even think about, Ethan’s proud racism and saw his search and, ultimately, rescue of Debbie (played as a teenager by Natalie Wood) as a triumph. I don’t think that was what Nugent, Ford and Wayne were intending for the character, but they were smart enough to dress the film up as a classic-style Western to get their point across.

Today, Ethan’s arc is one of tragedy, and the final shot of the film that once gave viewers elation now seems ominous. Wayne goes a long way in trying to make Ethan unlikable despite being one of the most likable leading actors of all time, and here his mannerisms and line delivery are more malicious, more sinister, than any other performance of his career. He walks away from his own family’s funeral in order to get vengeance, and doesn’t even let the token old woman get through her speech to not embrace violence before riding off. As the hunt for Debbie becomes more desperate, it becomes apparent that Ethan is chasing a ghost. His trek becomes less of a search and more of a way for him to embrace and flaunt his hatred. In one sequence, Ethan continues to shoot buffalo he doesn’t need to, his excuse being that there are now less for the Comanche tribe. In the most powerful moment of the film, Ethan shoots the corpse of a Comanche in his eyes so that his spirit will not be able to cross over.

Even after five years, Ethan finds excuses and stubbornly continues his hunt. When he finally finds Debbie, who has become part of the Comanche tribe that abducted her, it is clear that he wants to kill her. Before the film’s climax, he ignores that Debbie might be killed during an about-to-happen battle and only wants the blood of the Native Americans on his hand. When Martin protests, Ethan tells Martin that one of the scalps Martin saw earlier was that of Martin’s mother in a desperate attempt to get Martin on his side. Is this a desperate lie? Of course. Until he finally embraces Debbie, we are certain that he is chasing her down to kill her.

And after he slaughters the tribe Debbie came to call family and returns Debbie to the remainder of her real “family,” Ethan has nothing left. All the other characters embrace and enter a house hand-in-hand, but Ethan hesitates, staying outside. He has no place there and never had one, only using Debbie’s kidnapping as an excuse for a purpose. We realize that this story is a tragedy, and Ethan is just as isolated as he ever was, and something inside us knows that this is the last time he will ever set eyes on them.

I really doubt this is what the original audience of “The Searchers” took from it in 1956, and how odd it is to realize that time and our collective consciousness can alter our perception of an unaltered presentation. The movie has gone from being a triumph of one man’s persistence and hope to a tragedy of a man unable to cope with his own demons and racist tendencies.

As the other half of the title searchers, Hunter’s performance is a revelation. I’m not familiar with his other work, but he does a great job of letting Wayne take control of most scenes but still developing a character of enough power to stand up to Wayne when necessary. Martin could easily come off as comic relief, but Hunter gives him an extra dimension. Alas, he’s also saddled with the unfortunate subplot that almost sinks the film.

It’s something to do with his love for Vera Miles and how she is her own woman and doesn’t want to keep waiting for him so she almost marries some boring guy and blahblahblah. The storyline is well-acted and nothing about it is horribly done, and yet it is just so unnecessary and throws the film into a tailspin whenever it is touched upon. The “hilarity” of Martin’s inability to write a love letter or the slow “Aww…shucks!” gravelly voice of Miles’ other suitor have no place in the movie. The whole thing comes to its climax with a comical fistfight in front of the entire cast that is strangely reminiscent (and inferior to) a fight in Ford’s earlier film “The Quiet Man.”

But when the movie is good, it’s great. There are indelible moments in cinema sprinkled throughout, as when the group of avengers is surrounded by two lines of Comanche riders. Or the moment I mentioned earlier where Wayne shoots out the eyes of a corpse. “The Searchers” is the best looking Western ever filmed, though the competition is mainly other movies Ford directed. The Technicolor skies and brown vistas are breathtaking.

At its heart, “The Searchers” is a brave motion picture that is still brave and shocking today. But it’s a movie that shies away from the darkness in moments when it should embrace it, and that prevents it from being the movie it could have been.

My Score (out of 5): ****

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Year: 1942
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 98
Writer: Robert Buckner, Edmund Joseph
Director: Michael Curtiz
Star: James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston

“Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a perfectly harmless musical portraying the life of a genius writer/composer/director/producer/actor/choreographer. It's enjoyable, but never manages to give us much insight into why its subject, George M. Cohen, was such a unsinkable legend. The movie tricks the viewer into thinking he or she has witnessed something monumental thanks to the indelible performance of James Cagney as Cohen, but everything else is just surface. I would have traded almost every elaborately staged musical number for a single quiet scene of Cohen speaking frankly about the creation of his music and why he has been so consistently inspired by America and its citizens.

The film opens with Cohen as an old-but-still-vivacious performer portraying FDR in a musical extravaganza before being summoned by the real FDR to the White House. Cohen arrives and decides to tell the President his life story. Sure, the President is overseeing America’s involvement in WWII at the time, but he’s got a few hours to kill. We cut to scenes of Cohen’s birth (the first thing he does is hold the American flag) and witness scenes of him as a young performer. He was part of a family acting troupe with his Father (Walter Houston), Mother (Rosemary DeCamp) and Sister (Jeanne Cagney) and learned to be stuck up because of his talent at a very young age.

These early sequences are some of the strongest in the film because they are in such a stark contrast to the humble version of the character we meet in the first moments. We begin to really dislike Cohen thanks to his bratty persona as a child. In one hilarious moment after Cohen has lost his parents a job because they weren’t giving him enough star credit (that’s not the funny part), Cohen’s father decides to discipline him. But, darn it, he can’t smack the kid in the face without making a bruise big enough to be noticeable on stage the next day. A jack to the jaw might hinder his singing. What to do?

Cagney takes over the role with inspired vivacity, putting his all into dancing (not bad) and singing (not good, but he fakes it well) when necessary, and bouncing off the walls with energy in scenes where he does not sing. There is a beautiful early scene where he is so good at portraying an old man onstage that when he meets his future wife when she comes to him seeking the advice of a seasoned performer about whether she should move to New York. His early cockiness is put to rest after he spends years pounding the pavement with good material only to discover no one in town will hire him because he has such a bad reputation. After a lucky encounter, he gets not only a show onstage but a producing partner, and faster than a screen wipe he becomes a sensation.

As Cohen’s success becomes more established the movie becomes less about the character’s life and more reliant on musical numbers. According to the film, Cohen only created one flop, a straight play with no national undertones, and on opening night he sent a wire to all the New York newspapers jokingly apologizing for the mistake and promising never to do it again. He loses all of his blood family, including his sister, but we don’t see how this affects his work or state of mind, though the movie does make time for a tearful goodbye to Cohen’s father on his death bed.

Look, I know absolutely nothing about Cohen’s life and how closely the movie held true to his life story. I make a point of doing no research or reading any critical analysis before writing the articles because it’s extremely important for any classic film to stand on its own. But I can safely assume that the real Cohen was alive when the film was produced and released, and that might be why the second half of the film portrays him so blandly and turns him into a two-dimensional hero. I believe that is why the film laughs off his one flop and does not linger on the tragedies in his family. Whatever the case, I wanted more and I wanted to see Cohen’s inner struggle balanced with his outer gaiety. Cagney is a fantastic dramatic actor and he could have easily handled darker scenes, but alas that did not happen.

Michael Curtiz never really made a point of showing off in his films, and the results were good (sometimes great), craftsmen pieces with a nice emotional core thanks to his penchant for perfection in his casting choices. There are one or two technically accomplished moments in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” like where we catch snippets of Cohen and his wife’s travels around the world by looking at the stamps on their traveling trunks, or when Curtis sums up nearly a decade of Cohen’s creative output by panning from show-name to show-name up in lights on Broadway. But mostly he keeps his camera steady and fixed on Cagney’s face and body, and he was smart to do it. Cagney is just aces here, emoting the quiet soul of his character (something not in any dialogue) and balancing it with his over-the-top public persona.

Many of the musical numbers are, of course, still standards most people are familiar with, and all of them are hummable, but the film often focuses on them for much too long. We don’t need to see the entire five-minute song with choreography when we can get everything we need from the performance from one chorus and a verse. We get two major songs and a whole slice of the plot from Cohen’s first major hit “Little Johnny Jones” and though it might not be 20 minutes long, it certainly feels that way.

“Yankee Doodle Dandy” acts as the blue-print to almost every major bio-pic released on the market today. The movies are almost never very good, but the actors at the center are just so charismatic and embody their characters so well that the movie seems much better than it actually is. “Dandy,” I’m sorry to say, is no exception to that rule.

My score (out of 5): ***

King Kong

Year: 1933
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 41
Writer: James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose
Director: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Star: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot

In comparison to the special effects of today, the effects that bring King Kong and his world to life are rudimentary, and yet they still work better than many modern visual effects. Viewing Kong, the dinosaurs and how they interact with the human cast is fascinating, and you get a charge out of watching the hair on Kong’s back alter with each frame or seeing Kong throw something on what is obviously a projection screen only to have a real prop land on an actor running for his life. Seeing how the special effects wizards went all out to bring the giant ape to life and utilizing every trick available to them at the time is great fun. Yes, Kong still works.

But the movie does not.

It takes almost forty-five minutes for Kong to make his first appearance, and up until that point, watching “King Kong” is like having several teeth pulled without anesthetic. The acting of the three leads and the supporting cast seems about on par with that of a PRC film around tax time and the script seems to have been cobbled together by two writers who don’t speak English and are trying to create dialogue from a translation dictionary with several pages missing. And the less said about the racist portrayal of the black islanders (complete with coconut bras for the women) the better.

Obviously, the filmmakers were completely investing all of their time and energy into delivering a crackerjack Kong to viewers, but then why did they make us wade through endless patches of connect-the-dots storytelling, gigantic plot holes and sleep-inducing characterization? We meet eccentric (i.e. psychotic) film director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), who picks up poor, distraught Anne (Fay Wray) off the street and invites her to star in his next film. The catch is that she has to board a steamer ship that night, and of course she does. She meets Armstrong’s right hand man Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), a character so wooden if you threw darts at him all he would do is tell you how many points you got with the shot. They fall immediately, disgustingly, in love and then the crew reaches an island not on any map except the one Denham magically has found. There’s a lost tribe on the island who guard a huge wall with a big door that leads into the kingdom of Kong.

While waiting for that damn big door to open we get lines like the following:

Anne: How will we know it’s the right island?
Denham: The mountain looks like a skull.
Anne: Oh, I’d forgotten, you had told me. Skull mountain.

And this one:

Anne: Anybody would think I’ve been a lot of trouble. Well I haven’t. I haven’t been a bit of trouble to anyone. Have I?
Driscoll: Sure you have.
Anne: How?
Driscoll: Just being around is trouble.
Anne: Oh dear, and I thought everything was going so nicely.
Driscoll: Oh, you are alright. Women just can’t help being a bother. Made that way I guess.
Anne: Well, anyhow…

If feminism had existed in 1933, Anne’s character would have set it back thirty years. In fact, this role might have prevented it happening for thirty years. Then she (of course) falls for Driscoll, who has done nothing but insult her the entire journey. I’d rather not think about the scene where they declare their love for one another, but I will say that it’s akin to watching two store mannequins being pressed up against one another.

The odd thing is that I know Fay Wray can act. I recently saw the 1932 film “The Most Dangerous Game,” which stars Wray as a resourceful, interesting heroine in a situation very similar to the one she finds herself in during “King Kong.” As an actress, she does quite well and holds her own in every scene. In “Kong,” all she does is scream.

And scream.

And scream.

Every time Anne sees Kong, she screams. This is troubling since she spends most of the second and third act of the film with Kong. At one point, when someone just says the word “Kong” she screams. Later, we hear screams on the soundtrack even though we can plainly see that Wray’s mouth is closed. Whoops. Perhaps the sound designers and editors realizes that, years after they completed the movie, it would be a great drinking game. You’d think at some point perhaps Anne would realize that if she just stopped screaming then perhaps a) all these monsters would stop finding her and attacking her and b) she could quietly slip away from Kong.

Ah well, what’s logic in this film? If I bring logic into the mix, then I’d have to ask why those villagers spent all that time building a wall to keep Kong out and then decided to put a door in the wall. Or why Denham didn’t bring any other cast on his epic film shoot. Or how he got that map. Or why he has no fallout for basically getting a dozen men killed. Or how…but stop me before I get started.

Denham, not Kong, is the villain of the film. He single-mindedly drives two dozen innocent lives into horrible danger by taking them to skull island. Then dozens of deaths in New York by bringing Kong home with him. The fact that he gets no punishment (morally or physically) in the film is shocking, almost as shocking as the fact that “King Kong” eagerly brushes away these sins with a wave of its hand. Denham is portrayed as one of the film’s heroes. Why? No idea.

The movie gets better once the crew gets to Skull Island and Kong is introduced. The pace quickens immensely and its easier to ignore the plot inconsistencies and horrible acting (save for Wray’s screams) because everything is just moving too fast to notice. There are actually (shockingly) several moments with Kong that work on a deeper level than one would expect. I’m thinking of the smaller moments, like where Kong playfully undresses Anne then rubs her and smells his finger. Or the moment where Kong grabs a sleeping woman from her bed, realizes it is not Anne and send her falling dozens of stories to her death.

In fact, the carnage and cold-heartedness of Kong’s actions are the best part of the movie. Seeing Kong bust his way through the village, stepping on villagers and casually biting others in half is still rather shocking, as is the moment mentioned above and when Kong attacks a subway car. His battles with the other inhabitants of Skull Island (before they get repetitive) are quite engaging because they are very, very violent (Kong kills an Allosaurus by pulling its jaw open until it breaks apart). I’m not saying I like the violence, but it made me react to it, which is more than could be said for the rest of the movie.

Monster movies are one of the most interesting sub-sects of cinema because their monsters are more memorable than their heroes. Films like “The Bride of Frankenstein” and “The Black Cat” understand this and have fun by trying to blur the lines between hero and villain. “King Kong” had every chance to embrace that by making Denham the true villain of the piece. But it does not, and as a result we have a three-dimensional giant ape chasing cardboard cutouts. What a pity.

My Score (out of 5): **

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Sixth Sense

Year: 1999
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 89
Writer/Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Star: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette

Oh, what I would give to go back and watch “The Sixth Sense” for the first time again. I can only imagine the astonishment of a viewer discovering the film, knowing absolutely nothing about the premise or the now-infamous twist. I went to the movie opening weekend and can still remember the gasps and “Holy Shits” being screamed in the theatre during the closing minutes of the movie.

Reexamining the film today, it’s shocking to see how little the twist actually matters to the story itself. If the movie would have faded to black after Haley Joel Osment’s character Cole confesses to his mother (Toni Collette) that he can see dead people and has a message for her from her own mother, “The Sixth Sense” would still be one of the best thrillers of all time. But those final moments make the movie transcendent.

Setting the twist aside, the movie works beautifully as both a drama and a supernatural thriller, and of course those two components are closely connected. Hell, we don’t know ghosts are involved until 45 minutes into the film. Until then, Shyamalan takes great pain to create a complete world for Osment and Collette to inhabit and, just as interestingly, a void of a world for Bruce Willis’ child therapist Malcolm. Shyamalan paints in all the edges. At first Osment just seems like an odd, troubled child, and (almost) everything supernatural that happens around him could easily be explained away. Everything except several passages of Latin that he has memorized and that he somehow knows that his teacher was tortured for his stutter in his youth.

Even more important than Cole’s relationship to Malcolm is Cole’s relationship with his mother Lynn. There’s a moment early in the movie that tells us everything about those characters and how they relate to one another. Cole walks in from school, and Lynn kneels in front of him, smiles and tells him how she won the lottery, quit her jobs (yes, plural) and swam in the fountain. Cole grins and tells his mother how he was picked first for kickball, made the winning play and was hoisted onto the shoulders of his teammates. Both are lying, of course, but something about the lies gives both characters the strength to go on. There’s a moment later in the movie, just as beautiful, when Lynn races across the parking lot of a local Acme while pushing her son, who puts his hands up as if he on a rollercoaster. Both of their lives are trainwrecks, but they will always be there for one another, and that element informs everything Cole does in the movie.

When the supernatural is finally introduced after a shattering, now much-parodied, scene of Osment admitting that he sees dead people, the movie doesn’t change its tone or pacing. Yes, we can now see the ghosts Osment has been speaking of, but we are more interested in how Willis’ character can help Osment with his gift/curse. Shyamalan uses the ghosts as a nice way to keep viewers alert with several nice boo-scares, though. My favorite is when Osment is in a hallway and, out of nowhere, a teenage boy walks through the end of the hallway into the library. It’s a scare he would closely repeat in “Signs,” but works better here. There is gore, but it’s never gratuitous. In fact, the most stomach-churning moment doesn’t even involve ghosts, but when we watch a video tape of a Mother poisoning her daughter’s soup with Pine-Sol.

The scenes between Willis and his wife are the only time the film cracks a bit. Once you know Willis is dead and haunting his wife (Olivia Williams), you can’t help but pay attention to everything in the scene except Willis and how he interacts with his environment. Even though I have seem the movie several times before and know that it doesn’t cheat, that didn’t stop me from missing whole passages of dialogue because I was seeing whether or not Bruce Willis moved a chair when he sat down. Shyamalan goes to such great lengths to make it flawless that he inserts off-screen giggling behind Willis on the soundtrack in the half-second Williams (probably accidentally) looks at her husband in a crowded restaurant.

That can’t be helped. Shyamalan’s script is razor sharp throughout, ensuring that we understand that Cole is a gifted child who is much smarter than older children his age, but never letting us forget that he is, in fact, a kid. This is underlined in a scene where Willis loses his senses for a moment in front of Osment, and Osment responds by saying “You said the ‘s’ word.” Looking at it as a whole, and seeing just how much trouble Shyamalan went through not only to hide his secrets but also make it seem like he had no secrets to hide, and you have something very special. Shyamalan always seems to write best when he focuses on smaller casts. Between this film, “Unbreakable” and “Signs” he has made three masterpieces, and all of them have very small casts. His later films, though all interesting and full of ideas, lack the focus of his earlier work because of the larger ensembles.

As a visual director, Shyamalan is unmatched. He keeps showing us unexpected angles and new ways to approach even the most normal scene. “The Sixth Sense” looks and feels like one of Val Lewton’s best horror efforts from the ‘40s, with a sense of tension palpable throughout and the more chilling sights just out of view. Sure, he uses red a little (okay, a lot) too much in the film for added impact, but that is forgivable.

The acting throughout is nothing short of amazing. Osment’s face seems to hold all the pain of a man three times his age, and Willis is one of those actors who can hold his own with a child actor. Collette was the standout for me here. I remember the other two performances as being great, but Collette manages to create a fully-understandable, completely relatable three-dimensional character in (comparatively) little screen time.

And then there’s that ending. As I said earlier, the film would still be a classic without the twist, but the dimension that it adds to what we’ve seen before is palpable. Did Cole know that Malcolm was a ghost? If so, why did he talk to him? Does that matter? And Shyamalan takes his time after the revelation to give not only Malcolm the peace the character deserves, but also his long-suffering wife. After “The Sixth Sense,” almost every thriller or supernatural drama has had some sort of surprise, some to great effect (“The Others”, Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable”) and others notsomuch (everything else). “The Sixth Sense” is still the best of the bunch and remains one of the best thrillers I’ve ever seen, mostly because it knows that the best way to take our breath away is make us care about the characters we are about to see go through hell.

My Score (out of 5): *****