Tag: classic movies

Leave Her to Heaven


Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Richard (Cornel Wilde), a successful writer, is on his way to meet a friend in New Mexico. While on the train, he cannot help but admire a woman sitting right across his seat. It is perfect timing that she drops her book so he rushes to pick it up for her. Her name is Ellen (Gene Tierney) and she has family in Rancho Jacinto. A few more words are exchanged and, as is usually the case with strangers, the conversation dies down. Despite the silence, Ellen stares at Richard; she reminds him of her father as a young man.

From watching the chance meeting unfold, one might assume that “Leave Her to Heaven,” based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams and adapted to the screen by Jo Swerling, is some kind of a goofball comedy. On the contrary, it is a noir picture that contains one of the most despicable and unapologetic villains: Ellen, a very jealous woman who will go as far as killing another person just so she can have the unsuspecting writer all to herself.

To less observant viewers, Tierney’s performance might appear one-note. When the man she loves is looking right at her, she adopts the mannerisms of what she might consider to be a girl so deeply in love. But when he is not looking, her body stiffens and there is a coldness in her eyes. But what Tierney does is smart: by playing within what seems to be a limited range of emotions, her presence becomes all the more chilling. Her eyes are never warm—only less cold. When she is sad, perhaps genuinely, her eyes are hidden by shadows or the camera is so far that a precise emotion cannot be read. I enjoyed that there is room to wonder if she is a true sociopath.

Suspense bubbles underneath but the film offers some amusing turns. For example, when Ellen does not get what she wants and the exact way she wants to have attained it, I was tickled by the way she tries to suppress being upset. Because she is so vile, I wondered if it was kind of rotten of me to root for bad things to happen to her. Ellen is consistently under control of her comportment. When she appears to be losing control, is she really? It will take multiple viewings to know for sure.

The film is a walking contradiction. The choice to show the images in color allows an already compelling material to have more depth. The colors pop but the content is dark. It offers many beautiful images—the performers’ faces, what they wear, interior and exterior decors—but it is filled with deplorable behavior and sadness.

Everyone appears to be living wealthy lifestyles, from a well-decorated vacation home in the desert to a posh cabin by the lake, initially inviting, sure, but many of us will probably not want to live their lives. There is a lot of repressed animosity and therefore a lack of communication. Inevitably, this leads to problems. The relationships among Ellen, her mother (Mary Philips), and adopted sister (Jeanne Crain) are especially awkward. When there is laughter, it feels superficial—not at all the type we have—boisterous, silly, unrestrained—in our own homes, happy homes.

“Leaver Her to Heaven,” directed by John M. Stahl, is almost like—and I mean this without being snide—a very good soap opera. I make that comparison because dramatic soaps almost always showcase a villain we love to hate. We want her to get caught and it is so frustrating that she gets away with being so evil until—maybe—the end of the story. But the story here separates itself from a soap opera by not giving easy answers. It does not let the characters get away so easily. The ending feels exactly right but it is, in its core, bittersweet.

The General


The General (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


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


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


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.

Fail-Safe


Fail-Safe (1964)
★★★★ / ★★★★

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.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind


Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When a group of spacecrafts were seen by residents of a small Indiana town, a few of them were given an obsession involving an image where something great was about to happen. One of them was Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), a family man with an ordinary job. The night in question left half of his face sunburnt, a symbol of his broken psyche. His scary obsession eventually drove his family away. And then there was Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), a single mother whose son, Barry (Cary Guffey), was taken by the unidentified flying objects. She, too, although to a lesser extent, obsessed with the image of a flat mountain. Written and directed by Steven Spielberg, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was a collection of wonderful sights and sounds. It focused on these two elements because if extra-terrestrial life were to make contact with us, it was most likely that we would communicate via images and sounds, not words. The film captured a dynamic intensity from beginning to end because Spielberg was consistent in allowing his audiences to feel an array of emotions in just one scene. Take Barry waking up in the middle of the night when his toys started to move on their own. There were strange noises. Lights were flickering on and off without someone touching the switch. We felt fear but the child felt curiosity. In his attempt to explore his surroundings, we slowly realized that perhaps there was nothing to fear but we were still wary. There was one shot I particularly loved. After finding out that the refrigerator had been ransacked, the boy saw the aliens from a corner and smiled. He saw the aliens because he wasn’t afraid. We felt fear, or at least initially, and so we didn’t get a chance to see the aliens. Seeing the boy’s expression was enough because we weren’t ready. In a way, watching Roy and Jillian’s journey wasn’t just about how far they would go to find out the truth. It was also about us and our willingness to look through the other side without fear, which I thought was expertly symbolized by one of the scenes when Barry opened the front door, saw something very strange on the other side, and his mother taking him away for safety. Another strand involved a French scientist (François Truffaut) who led the government to communicate with the aliens. He, too, had his own share of obsession. I was immersed in the film because the varying stories were in a collision course. But unlike movies about strangers finding their way so that all of them would meet in the end, this picture had a natural flow yet the events always felt bigger than the individuals we had a chance to observe. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” a movie that had aliens in it, was ultimately about humanity and the fact that we will always have something more to learn, whether from each other or something far away. It had a beautiful and humbling message aided by unwavering and fully realized vision.