General, The (1926)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Johnny Gray (Buster Keaton), a train engineer, is in love with Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). When the Union declares war on the South by firing at Fort Sumter, Johnny tries to enlist to impress his one and only. However, he is turned down because his occupation is considered to be more valuable than having another man on the front line. This does not impress Annabelle. She tells Johnny that he should not speak to her unless he becomes a soldier. When Union spies steal Johnny’s beloved locomotive, The General, with Annabelle in it, Johnny does not think twice about coming after the train and the girl.
“The General,” written and directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton, is an energetic silent film that reminded me of the “Tom and Jerry” cartoons I adored watching during early mornings as a child. It adheres to a specific formula but it does not get stale because it is willing to increase the ante with each passing physical stunt.
In its first half, while heading to the Northern lines, the spies set up various traps for Johnny and he attempts to find a way to circumvent them. In its latter half, while heading to back to the South to let their people know of an impending sneak attack, Johnny and Annabelle end up the ones providing the traps. There is a wonderful balance in the entire arc and it is accomplished with comedic glee.
The picture does not just work because it is funny. There are real moments of peril when I was not quite sure whether I should laugh or take it seriously. But one thing is certain: I could not take my eyes off the screen. I constantly asked myself how one group will manage to extricate itself away from either being left behind or dying.
For instance, at one point, Johnny sets up a cannon which he hopes, upon firing, will derail the spies’ train. But his one silly mistake, the comedy, slowly changes the angle of the cannon, the danger, to the point where the mouth of the weapon is directly pointed at him. His situation turns for the worse when a rope somehow wraps around his foot and he has trouble loosening the knot. I was impressed; although not a word is uttered, every emotion is magnified by Keaton’s facial expression, body language, our knowledge of what is at stake, and the ever-present score.
The music adapts as the images on screen vary. For example, as the trains enthusiastically chug along the tracks, the music is upbeat and wild; as the trains slow to catch their breath, the music follows.
“The General” is pregnant with inspiration. I did not like the so-called romance between Johnny Gray and Annabelle Lee. I found the girl irksome and spoiled, a typical damsel-in-distress who needs to be rescued… even if she does not deserve it. When she gives him the cold shoulder because his attempt at enlistment was refused, I thought he needs a new girlfriend. Still, the film demands our interests by delivering one dangerous stunt after another without dialogue or CGI.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Jim Stark (James Dean) is taken to the police station because he is found drunk on the sidewalk. As the adults try to make sense of the situation, Jim meets Plato (Sal Mineo), a troubled young man with no friends and kills puppies out of frustration, and Judy (Natalie Wood), mistaken as a call girl after she decides to leave home in the middle of night after an argument with her father. In a span of just over twenty-four hours, the trio finds a sense of belongingness and family with each other, something they feel is missing at home.
Based on the screenplay by Stewart Stern and directed by Nicholas Ray, “Rebel Without a Cause” is a thoughtful examination of teen angst. What I loved most about the film is that it transcends its time. While the slangs, hairstyles, and styles of clothing has changed over the years, the inner turmoil that the characters feel remains accessible.
Jim yearns for a good role model. Though he is willing to turn to his parents to set an example for him, his father (Jim Backus) is very indecisive while his mother (Ann Doran) is very controlling. There is no balance in their household. More importantly, there is a lack of respect between husband and wife. In most movies about angry teenagers, parents are almost always portrayed as the ones willing to communicate. I’m not a parent but I wonder how that holds accuracy when, in reality, a lot of parents are too tired from work at the end of the day, let alone make an every day, genuine connection with their children.
The film also tackles how teenagers interact with each other, how they feel invincible, and the need to constantly increase the ante to remind themselves that they have control of their lives. Jim, a new kid in town, is challenged by one of Judy’s friends into a knife fight. But the measurement of machismo doesn’t end there. Later, he is challenged to a game called “Chicken Run,” where two people drive a car off a cliff; whoever jumps out of the car first is deemed as “chicken” or a coward. In either situation, no matter what the outcome, Jim knows he will lose but he participates anyway for, as he claims, the sake of honor.
The most moving scenes involve Plato’s infatuation for Jim. It’s a nice feeling when someone you’re attracted to doesn’t move away aggressively when your face inches that much closer to his. At that moment, you don’t feel so much like a freak. It becomes easier to imagine a future when you don’t have to worry about what others might think. Maybe if LGBT children and teens who had committed suicide and succeeded had experienced a small fraction of that feeling, perhaps a lot of them wouldn’t have decided to end their lives. The moments shared between Plato and Jim are handled with sensitivity instead of judgment. Does Jim share certain feelings with Plato? It doesn’t matter at all.
“Rebel Without a Cause” puts a spotlight on everyone’s imperfections: parents, children, figures of authority. Through the characters’ frustration, confusion, and dysfunction, the film makes a point that asking questions, demanding answers, and making unpopular decisions are a part of growing up.
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The Death Star was destroyed but the war between the Empire and the rebels was far from over. The rebels aggregated in Hoth, a planet covered in ice, and Darth Vader (David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones) had just found them. There was a full-on attack on our heroes and they lost. Upon their retreat, they were divided into two groups. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) traveled to Dagobah to find a master Jedi called Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) upon the request the ghostly Obi-wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Meanwhile, their ship unable to go into hyperdrive, with some amusing consequences, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) attempted navigate their way through an asteroid field in order to evade Vader and his pesky minions. “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back,” directed by Irvin Kershner and from the original mind of George Lucas, was a quintessential sequel: it proved that just because the special and visual effects were grander and the action-sequences were more heart-pounding, the story and character need not be sacrificed. Although the picture didn’t mention how many months or years had passed since we last saw our beloved characters, we didn’t need to. Luke was more mature and more confident in the way he approached problems, the robots were more useful and wise-cracking, Chewbacca was more lovable, and the arguments between Han Solo and Princess Leia felt more like necessary friendly bantering/flirtation instead a hindrance to the story’s mood and momentum. The sequel challenged itself by constantly offering us something new. Let’s take the environment. In its predecessor, the characters spent a third of its time navigating their way through a barren desert. In here, we were immersed in a chilly tundra. Instead of going straight to the action of Vader’s troops demolishing the rebel base, it wasn’t afraid to take some risks like Luke being kidnapped by the Abominable Snowman-looking creature. It had a sense of fun. We never truly believed that Luke was in real danger. However, it was a necessary scene because it reminded us of Luke’s increasing connection to The Force, a key element in eventually defeating the evil Empire, and that he was no longer just a farmer trying too hard to be a Jedi. There was also an interesting contrast between scenes of the swampy Dagobah where Luke trained and the futuristic floating city where Han Solo and company took refuge. Despite the differences in images, the alternating scenes didn’t feel forced because the characters were consistently working toward a common goal. “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back,” unafraid to explore its darker themes regarding loyalty and betrayal, unexpectedly romantic and chock full of surprises, was an adventure in the highest order.
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A young farmer named Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) found out that one of the two robots, R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), his uncle purchased contained a message from Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), one of the rebels who wanted to bring down the evil Empire, seeking help from a former Jedi knight named Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness). She was captured by Darth Vader (David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones) and was ordered to reveal the location of other rebels. Failure to do so on her part meant termination. Luke, Obi-Wan, and the two robots hired a mercenary named Han Solo (Harrison Ford), along with his friend Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), to infiltrate the Death Star, capable of destroying an entire planet, and save the princess. Written by directed by George Lucas, “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” was an ambitious and exciting picture, worthy of the reputation of being one of the most influential films ever made. I was impressed with the risks it took right from the beginning. For the first ten to fifteen minutes, we were asked to pay attention to the two robots. One of them could speak but other could only utter beeps and whistles. Somehow, the material was able to get away with it because, despite the two being non-living objects, they had chemistry. I’m doubtful if such a risk could be taken today and be as successful. I enjoyed that we were immediately taken in the middle of the warring members of the Empire and rebel groups. Background information were mostly revealed through conversations. Not only did it feel organic, it was efficient with its time. Although there was weakness in the dialogue at times like when Han Solo and Princess Leia would get into cheesy and sometimes cringe-inducing arguments, the tirades happened in the middle of action-packed sequences so it almost felt negligible. I especially liked the scene when the protagonists plunged into a garbage chute. We were led to believe that the threat was the creature that lived in there. It turned out that it was the least of their worries because the walls eventually started closing in. Lucas’ signature direction was always present. Every room revealed new surprises that ranged from soldiers of the Empire just waiting for a target to interesting- and tired-looking aliens just having a drink in the middle of the day in a hot desert town. The energy was palpable as if The Force, the spiritual energy in which the Jedi believed to bind everything in universe, compelled us to fixate our eyes on the screen. The first entry of the “Star Wars” saga was a prime example of the level of success a film could have when there was synergy among special and visual effects, an absorbing story, and adrenaline-fueled adventure of epic proportions.
★★★★ / ★★★★
When a group of American bombers, led by Colonel Grady (Edward Binns), received a false transmission that they were to obliterate Moscow, leaders from the Strategic Air Command, like General Black (Dan O’Herlihy), a scientist (Walter Matthau), and the president of the United States (Henry Fonda) struggled to come up with ways to avoid World War III with the Soviet Union. Based on a novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, “Fail-Safe” was a gripping exercise in what soldiers and politicians were forced to do to delay a war when they could no longer stop it. Under Sidney Lumet’s focused and assured direction, the film successfully highlighted the fears of three groups of men confined in one place. All three were fascinating but I found the room where the president, with the help of his interpreter (Larry Hagman), tried to convince the Premier of the Soviet Union to be most sublime. The conversation occurred via telephone but from the minute the president picked up the telephone and a voice from the other line answered, it felt like watching two leaders looking intensely into each other’s eyes and weighing whether to trust the words they heard through a machine. After all, the president warned his translator to be very wary of certain intonations of the Premier’s voice. He could be saying one thing with words but the fluctuations in his voice could mean something else entirely. So I inched toward the screen and listened closely. I had a laugh at myself for realizing a couple of seconds later that I didn’t speak or understand Russian. Fonda was excellent in the role because the air of confidence he carried around with him, combined with his character’s intelligence, made us hope and believe that the mistake’s repercussions had a chance to be circumvented. I also admired Matthau’s turn as the scientist with extreme ideas. I didn’t always agree with his negative vision of society, applicable just to Americans or otherwise, but his sharp insight was undeniable. The film asked a lot of questions about responsibility in terms of human or mechanical error. If the transmission was a simple mechanical error with disastrous consequences, in technical terms, wasn’t it still considered human error because we were the ones who designed (and ultimately relied on) the machines? What I loved was the material didn’t get stuck on who or what to blame. Tragedy was embedded in the images of planes falling from the sky and the fear reflected in the soldiers’ eyes as they obeyed commands that they knew would lead to their deaths. “Fail-Safe,” purposefully claustrophobic so we were forced to look inwards, is more relevant than ever with our reliance in technology and the seeming lack of accountability just because we can hide behind clever inventions and foolish notions of anonymity.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes) decided to move into a New York City apartment with a strange past involving women who ate children. Rosemary was enamored with the decor and Guy thought the area was a premiere place for his career as a budding actor. They lived next to Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer), an elderly couple with whom Rosemary and Guy quickly grew fond of because they were so friendly and accommodating. But the couple’s happy existence was shattered when Rosemary had a dream of being raped by Satan and learned some time later that she was pregnant. Based on a novel by Ira Levin and directed by Roman Polanski, “Rosemary’s Baby” was a masterful understated horror film with a possibility of witchcraft at its center. It worked in two ways: Either Rosemary’s suspicion that the apartment complex was full of devil worshippers was indeed correct or it was simply that Rosemary didn’t know how to handle her pregnancy (after all, it was her first child) so her mind succumbed to paranoia over a period of nine months. Its brilliance was in the fact that we didn’t know which possibility was true until the final few scenes. When we finally found out, it almost didn’t matter because Rosemary’s journey felt complete. The picture capitalized on expertly rendered scenes of increasing creepiness. It ranged from Rosemary hearing weird chanting from behind the walls of their bedroom, her husband’s increasingly suspicious behavior, to our protagonist actually eating raw meat without her conscious mind’s control. I loved the scenes when the very pregnant Rosemary ran around New York City in broad daylight yet so much tension and horror surrounded her. With most horror pictures being set at night, especially their climax, Polanski proved that being surrounded by people in the middle of the day could be as terrifying as long as the elements were perfectly aligned. When the main character was in a phone booth waiting for an important call, we felt right there with her, wishing the phone would ring as soon as possible. We cared for the main character because Farrow instilled a certain fragility in Rosemary, not just because she was carrying a child, but because it felt like everyone wanted to control her. This was clearly shown when Minnie would imposingly wait for Rosemary to drink a special brew she made using plants from her herbal garden. We felt, like Rosemary, that there was something seriously wrong especially when the obstetrician, Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy), wouldn’t prescribe her any pills after months of feeling pain in her stomach. “Rosemary’s Baby” is a thinking person’s horror film and the rewards are found in the way we interpret the images we see and sounds we hear. Imagine looking at the portrait of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. You stare long enough and you get the unsettling feeling she might be staring back.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Jaws,” based on a novel by Peter Benchley, started off like a romance picture with two teenagers eyeing each other by a bonfire and their eventual decision to swim in the ocean. The boy, drunk, never made it in the water and the girl never made it out because a shark had taken ahold of her lower limbs. We observed her being dragged across the water like a ragdoll as her high-pitched screams turned into deafening silence. Directed by Steven Spielberg, “Jaws” was a success because the horrific images we saw matched the horror of images we did not see. Sometimes we relied on the characters’ expressions and the words they used to describe what they saw. It was the Fourth of July and Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) was asked to look into the dead body. His instinct told him it was a shark attack but the mayor (Murray Hamilton) was convinced it was just a boating accident. The mayor wanted to protect Amity Island because its economy relied on summer vacationers. The cop was more concerned about people being shark bait. Spielberg was careful with revealing too much early on. For instance, when the girl’s mangled body was washed along the shore, we could only see her hand surrounded by small crabs and the rest were covered in sand. A less controlled film would have showed blood and intestines all over the place. We didn’t lay eyes on the shark until an hour into the film. It gathered tension by allowing us to imagine how big the shark was especially since it could easily take down jetties and small boats. After a few more victims, ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) was called to help with the investigation. He clashed with Sam Quint (Robert Shaw), a local fisherman who agreed to catch or kill the shark for the right price, in terms of how to deal with the situation. Quint didn’t like what to be told especially by someone who was educated. He saw it as a sign of condescension. Their interactions were often amusing which served as a nice contrast with the horror surrounding them. The humor found a way to sneak up from behind us and just when we thought it was safe, the shark appeared and we were back to being wide-eyed and gripping onto whatever was near. I admired the progression in the shark attacks. In the beginning, we couldn’t see the shark at all. Toward the end, our characters were literally inches away from it and, with John Williams’ memorable score, we could see its gargantuan stature and the power it generated in such close proximity. If I were to make a list of must-see summer movies, “Jaws” would be on top. I was impressed not only because of the horror, but because it captured how it was like to relax at the beach. It got the small details right like the sounds of the wind blowing in our direction, the screams of joy when children played, and the way the sounds were muffled when we dunked our heads underwater. I love being in the ocean but one of my biggest fears, reiterated every time I see this film, is opening my eyes in the water and there happened to be a hungry shark coming my way.
Paths of Glory (1957)
★★★★ / ★★★★
In World War I, a French general (Adolphe Menjou) ordered his men to make their way through German fires and seize the Ant Hill from the enemy. General Broulard thought such an action would be the key to victory and his glory. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) rebelled against the idea because he knew it would be a suicide mission, but since he was lower in the ranks, he had no choice but to lead his men in the attempt. In the thick of battle, some of the troops refused to leave their trenches and in doing so resulted to the failure in capturing the coveted Ant Hill. General Broulard, in blind fury, decided to make an example of the troops, a lesson in the repercussion of cowardice, by selecting three random men (Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel, and Richard Anderson) to be assassinated through a firing squad. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, “Paths of Glory” surprised me in many ways. It was a moving story because it dealt with humanity’s place in the chaos of war and the powers that controlled or motivated them. There was a divide between the good and the bad. The good were the troops miserably placed in those trenches as they endured the flying bullets and the explosions of the grenades. They saw their friends meet their demise in one incorrect move or a major miscalculation by their officers. The officers were the bad. They enjoyed parties, dancing, and eating succulent meals in elegantly decorated rooms. They discussed about their triumphs in the battlefield despite the fact that they observed from a distance. When they did visit the trenches, they exuded an air of confidence; when a soldier expressed his fear about the war, he deserved to be slapped around like a child or an animal. Kubrick knew the importance of images and he used such contrasting elements to make a powerful anti-war statement. As we plunged into the battlefield, all we could distinctly hear were the firing of the guns, men’s bodies hitting the ground, and yells to improve morale or perhaps to mask their fear of death. The extended scene in which the troops made their way toward enemy lines was especially memorable. The director framed the scene in such a way that it felt like we were there with the dispensable men. One way I could describe it was like being stuck in the middle of two big waves in the ocean. There was anticipation mixed with a sense of panic and dread amidst the heavy confusion. I would most likely have stayed in the trenches as well if I was one of those soldiers. The last scene with the German woman singing and the soldiers joined in was a very touching moment and it was a perfect way to end an ultimately tragic reflected reality. “Paths of Glory” is a great example of how powerful war pictures can be. Indeed, a great leader is defined by the way he treats his inferiors, not his equals.
Annie Hall (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Annie Hall,” written, directed and starring Woody Allen, is considered one of the best romantic comedies in film history even though the couple did not end up together in the end. Alvy (Allen) wanted to determine what went wrong in his relationship with Annie (Diane Keaton) so we were taken back in time and given the chance to observe the major and minor events in their journey. The film was undoubtedly quirky but its intelligence and insight about how it was like to be in a relationship was what took this film from greatness to being a pop icon classic. My favorite scenes were when Allen decided to use elements that could have disrupted the narrative. For instance, I had loads of fun with the split-screen when the director wanted to compare Annie’s WASP family to Alvy’s Jewish family during a meal. The former was reserved, everyone masticated with their mouths closed, and had perfect posture at the table. On the other hand, the latter, like my family, consisted of many overlapping voices, gossip became a source of entertainment, and all sorts of etiquette was thrown out the window. Allen’s willingness to take risks showed me that he was confident about his project and that’s a key ingredient to make a successful picture. I also admired the film’s many references to pop culture and literature and the energy that drove them forward. I did not live in the 70s nor do I read a lot of classic novels. I did understand more than half the jokes but when I did not, I did not feel dumb or left out. That was when the energy became essential because there were about ten jokes in under a minute so I didn’t have a chance to linger on the fact that I did not “get” something. Furthermore, I loved that the director injected various types of comedy in the material. Some of the comedy were slapstick (the lobster scene), anecdotes (when Alvy vividly described his childhood experiences), blunders (a Freudian slip by Annie), and even some repartee between the two leads in the bedroom and the issue of sex and gender roles were put under the spotlight. Alvy and Annie could have easily been caricatures in less capable direction. Instead, the protagonists had great depth. They surprised us because of the inconsistencies in their beliefs and actions, they kept us watching because they spoke of and did things we, one way or another, had thought of and done, and they moved us because it was like watching two good friends deciding to go their separate ways. Clever in its approach in which irony penetrated every scene, “Annie Hall” was not simply as ode to romance but also an absolute love for creative and inspired filmmaking.
Diaboliques, Les (1955)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The wife (Véra Clouzot) of a boarding school principal (Paul Meurisse) and the mistress (Simone Signoret) concocted a plan to murder the man between them. Each had their motives. The wife realized that they were only married because he enjoyed spending her money, while the mistress was tired of being in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. But after the two women went through with their plan, the body mysteriously disappeared. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film was smart and precise. With a relatively simple premise, he was successful with accomplishing so much. Each scene had something to do with the murder and we learned a great deal about the women as they tried to wrestle with their own conscience. I was very curious about what was happening on screen and it did not answer the mystery immediately. With each scene, I found myself not only paying attention to the main characters’ words and mannerisms, but also the people on the background. I thought that perhaps one of them, especially the members of the faculty, had something to do with the missing corpse. While I did not find the picture particularly scary, there were some superbly effective thrills. For instance, days after principal went missing, a little boy claimed that he encountered the man in question and had given him a punishment for breaking a window. Despite being slapped and yelled at, the boy, on the verge of tears, insisted that he was telling the truth. I enjoyed that the material kept itself open to many possible explanations. In this instance, perhaps we were dealing with a ghost story because up until that point, nothing seemed to explain the sudden disappeance of the dead body. “Les diaboliques,” or “The Devils,” was stunningly shot in black-and-white embedded with a spice of great acting from the two leading ladies. I had fun observing their differences and, more importantly, their similarities. The tension between them was palpable and the way in which they transported the body from one place after another was unbearable. It certainly did not help that the wife was in a fragile state due to her heart condition. Even though the ladies committed a crime, I didn’t want them to get caught. How far were they willing to go to keep their dark secret hidden? As the film showed, as far as they possibly could. Comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s best thrillers are not only understandable but highly deserved.