Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Maltese Falcon **** (1941)

I've always admired The Maltese Falcon and yet I find it oddly elusive.  A great film for sure, but what exactly makes it great?  

The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane were both released in the fall of 1941.  Those two movies were highly influential on American cinema, I would argue The Maltese Falcon offered something just as unique as Citizen Kane.  The tone, look, and most importantly the attitude of The Maltese Falcon are 20th century all the way.  While Citizen Kane was more cinematic and inventive, the story of a media mogul's demise feels moldy, a heavy handed morality tale.  Meanwhile The Maltese Falcon explores moral ambiguity with a razor sharp, almost clinical precision.  

Sam Spade and Charles Foster Kane are flip sides of the American character. Kane's all bluster and wit, a hollow man impossible to like. Spade despises such people, he's a cynic, all too knowing observer of human nature.  He's got a chip on his shoulder.  Spade could care less if you like him, he comes from a cold world.

The Maltese Falcon, set in the urban jungle of San Francisco, a mid 20th Century Megalopolis with stone buildings and bridges, swanky hotels and apartments, wide streets bulging with automobiles, stark offices where history moves on.  The verisimilitude verges on Sci-Fi; Bogart's detachment borders upon alien.  

The supporting characters are a panorama of slightly askew humanity: Mary Astor's "school girl" take on the femme fatale, Peter Lorre as the shifty Joel Cairo, Sydney Greenstreet stands out in particular with his continental charm as a contrast Spade's hard edged philosophy, and who can forget Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer, the most ineffectual toady in movie history (if you want to be impressed look at Cook's filmography on IMDB he acted steadily from the 30s to the 80s.)  

Speaking of longevity, The Maltese Falcon marked the directorial review of John Huston, the first of 47 he went on to direct.  Few American filmmakers excelled more at adapting classic literature. Some of favorites include the underrated The Red Badge of Courage, Under the Volcano, and his elegiac final film The Dead.  

Humphrey Bogart created a new type of male protagonist; a world weary cynic. In Casablanca, Bogart plays a Romantic disguised as a Cynic. There's no sentimentality to Sam Spade, you must accept him at face value.

Perhaps the elusive nature of The Maltese Falcon lies in the convoluted plot. Most of the important action takes place off camera. The plot itself, intrigue surrounding a priceless historical artifact, spirals into something close to incoherence.  But the plot is the least important element of the film.  What we see happening on the screen is just as compelling as what happens off it.  Even though the film states they were arrested, due to Hollywood code regarding morality, I'd like to think they are all still out there in pursuit of the object "dreams are made of."

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Witch (2016) ***

If a film terrifies Stephen King you know they did something right.  The few reviews I skimmed are hailing The Witch as a horror classic along side the giants in the genre.  I'm not sure I would go that far, but the film certainly achieves a unique atmosphere. Set in 1630, a family is cast out out of the Massachusetts Colony by the authorities. The hardworking father and religiously devout mother must struggle to raise their five children in a hostile environment.  After their baby goes missing, paranoia and terror consume the family.  The Witch is equally a period piece and therein lies its originality.  Horror films that establish reality work on a whole other level than most.  Like in The Revenant, nature's brutality is on full display. And the puritan obsession with prayer and sin borders on psychosis.  It's no wonder Americans are consumed with anxiety. The music and cinematography work in perfect tandem.  Directed by Robert Eggers, there's an intimacy to the way the story is told, very similar to an Ingmar Bergman picture with hints of George Romero's zombie cinema.  I don't recommend watching alone.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Where To Invade Next (2016) ***1/2

Michael Moore's poignant Where To Invade Next asks American to take a look in the mirror and think about what kind of society they want to pass on to their children.  Do they want one based on selfish individual pursuits?  Or one where we consider ways to build a more compassionate society?

The film consists of Moore's personal "invasion" of Europe to observe and learn about their approach to work, education, criminal justice, and gender equality.  I suppose most Americans recoil at the idea of Europeans challenging their values, but they should at least listen.  

Moore's films usually preach to the choir and that's unfortunate.

In Italy he spends time with a working class couple who get 8 weeks of vacation pay, large holiday bonuses, and multiple weeks off for maternity leave. He speaks with Italian CEO's who believe their workers deserve extra pay and vacation.  Workers sit on the board of directors along side their corporate bosses.  In America, there is a clear line between management and workers.  Mass media champions millionaires and their flashy lifestyles, while workers in service jobs must make ends meet through long hours and lousy pay.  

Moore visited elementary schools in France where students only go to school a few hours a day.  Educators believe children should have fun at school. Rich kids must share the classroom with those less fortunate (unlike ugly class division in the US)  In one of the funnier scenes, Moore observes a French school cafeteria where the kids are served gourmet meals every day!  In Finland, homework is never assigned!  Once again a contrast to America where young people are pressured into standardized testing and come out of school feeling shell shocked.  Our schools aren't about turning out decent human beings, but automatons who desire high grades.

Europeans make compassion the cornerstone of their criminal justice system.  Convicted criminals are not treated like animals or kept in small cells.  In Norway, they work in cooperation with guards who treat them with dignity. The idea is not to punish prisoners, but to help them adjust to society.

In Iceland, women hold leadership positions in business and government.  Men are encouraged to see the world from a women's point of view.  In America boys are often taught to fear the authority of women, but in Europe there's a more balanced attitude among men and women on gender issues.

I know all that sounds great. Europe is no utopia.  After all, two world wars began in Europe.  In Germany, citizens are constantly reminded of their history.  They have social issues I'm sure.  America's an increasingly diverse nation with fluctuating demographics, a drama playing itself out in this election cycle.  That's a factor the film does not address.

America lost its heart at some point. There's a tendency to blame people if they cannot make a living wage.  Most of the taxes Americans pay goes to military spending and little to social welfare programs in health care and education.  As a result, there's anger and suffering everywhere.

As Where to Invade Next points out American used to be a nation of reformers.  Think of Jane Adams and Hull House.  Theodore Roosevelt being inspired by Jacob Riis's photography of urban squalor as a basis for moral action.  A vibrant union movement won the eight hour day and fought for the dignity of the worker.  In the 1970s the Equal RIghts Amendment (ERA) missed ratification by three states (a law conservative presidents Nixon and Ford supported!).  

Moore's critics typically dismiss him as a propagandist for the left.  I argue Moore has more in common with the "muckrakers"of the early 20th century.  People like Ida Tarbell who wrote about corporate greed or Lincoln Steffens who wrote about the exploitation of immigrants.  Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle exposed the meat packing industry.  Their writings led to real social change.  Like the muckrakers, Moore makes his movies as a generator for change, even in a time when the 99% feel defeated. His critics tend to nit pick logical inconsistencies, but never address the larger questions.

Moore deeply loves America and hates to see where its going.  If anything, Where to Invade Next is a plea to reevaluate American values and to consider alternative ways of solving problems. That's all.

William F. Buckley liked to say a conservative "stands athwart history and yells STOP! Ironically, Moore is doing the same thing here.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Star Trek Franchise Review

Over the past month, I went back and revisited the Star Trek movies.  The initial movie franchise ran from 1979-1994 remain highly popular.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)  Directed by Robert Wise  **1/2

Star Trek's big screen debut went for big ideas and baroque special effects.  As a probe named V'GER is racing towards earth Admiral Kirk is recalled from desk duty to investigate.  Set a decade after the original series, Star Trek: The Motion Picture cobbled together plot elements from a proposed TV series that never aired, entitled Star Trek: Phase II.  The tone of the first film significantly varies from the sequels.  The impressive effects failed to compensate for a dry as dust script.  Star Trek works best when the stories are character driven.  In The Motion Picture, the characters feel more like bystanders to the story.  Nevertheless I have gained more respect for this film over the years for its willingness to explore big ideas.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) Directed by Nicholas Meyer  ****

The sequel emphasized character driven space adventure and includd an unforgettable villain. Producer Harve Bennett watched every Star Trek episode and wisely decided "Space Seed" would make a wonderful basis for a movie. Nicholas Meyer's smart script and exuberant direction achieved the feel of the original series.  In "Space Seed" Kirk and crew stumble upon Khan, a genetically engineered super human who led a revolt on earth.  Like Lucifer he was cast out and left adrift in space. When a resurgent Khan attempts to gain revenge on Kirk- all hell breaks loose. Themes of aging and rebirth are intricately woven into the script.  Arguably, the best Star Trek movie ever made.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)  Directed by Leonard Nimoy ***

A direct continuation of the story from Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock follows the crew's mission to bring Spock back to life. The camaraderie of the characters carries the movie.  Kirk's decision to scuttle the Enterprise is a dramatic high point. Unfortunately the ending on planet Vulcan never worked for me. Nevertheless, a first rate entertainment.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) Directed by Leonard Nimoy ***1/2

By far the most crowd pleasing entry of the franchise, The Voyage Home used one of the best tropes of Star Trek: time travel. When a hostile probe threatens to destroy the earth's atmosphere, Kirk and company travel back to 1986 to save the whales and bring them to the future.  Shatner and the cast were really hitting a stride: it's one of the best Comedy-Sci-Fi films ever made.  Nearly 30 years later the jokes still work. Don't miss Kirk explaining the concept of profanity to Spock - and then Spock's hilarious attempts to use it!  

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) Directed by William Shatner **

Here the franchise began to show its age.  With Shatner taking over directing duties, Star Trek V came out during the busy summer of 1989.  Unfortunately a wildly uneven script made for a muddled mess of a film.  Watching The Final Frontier it appears Shatner wanted to split the difference between a high concept Roddenberry story with the goofy humor from The Voyage Home. We learn of Spock's long lost brother, a charismatic holy man who hijacks the new Enterprise. There are some interesting moments and the film remains oddly watchable, despite all the clunky plot devices.  The Final Frontier bookends with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy sitting around a camp fire: now I would watch an entire movie with those guys shooting the breeze.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1992) Directed by Nicholas Meyer ***

The last film with the original crew slyly begins with McCoy sarcastically asking, "Is this a retirement party?"  Yes, indeed.  By the sixth outing, the aging cast were the laughing stock of pop culture.  In retrospect it's refreshing the studio had the courage to make an action film with a senior citizen cast.  With the Klingon empire in desperate straights and ready to make peace we get a fitting "end of history" Cold War allegory. Not perfect by any means, but not embarrassing either. Nicholas Meyer's direction and writing held everything together. Instead of limping to the finish line, as many franchises tend to do, Star Trek ended on a tasteful and fitting note.

Star Trek: Generations (1994) Directed by David Carson **

Star Trek: Generations holds an odd niche in the Star Trek universe. Generations tried to bring closure to the story of Captain Kirk and introduce the TNG crew to the big screen. Granted, screenwriters Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, who both went on to successful careers in the Sci-Fi genre, were given an impossible task: How to bring Captain Kirk and Picard together? Unfortunately, Kirk and Picard were not given much to do and their final confrontation with the villain Soran (Malcolm McDowell) felt anti-climatic.  Meanwhile, the rest of the TNG crew were relegated to the background.


More Star Trek films followed including the dismal TNG films and the ambitious reboots of J.J. Abrams.  The success of the movies paved the way for several spin off series on television and the franchise remains a fixture in the universe of American pop culture. Live long and prosper.