Tag: classic

The Silence of the Lambs


The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It seems everywhere she goes Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), one of the top students at the FBI training academy, feels the male gaze caressing her: the local cops who find a corpse that had been underwater for days; her fellow trainees and superiors; the director of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane (Anthony Health); even the serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), dubbed Hannibal the Cannibal by the media, the former psychiatrist Clarice has been assigned to interview in order to gather information about a recently infamous psychopath known as Buffalo Bill—whose M.O. involves removing women’s skin after murdering them. He intends to stitch the skins and wear them. “Are you about a size 14?”

“The Silence of the Lambs,” based on the screenplay by Ted Tally and directed by Jonathan Demme, is first-rate entertainment. It is filled to the brim with sharp, intelligent, and fluid dialogue; carefully calibrated performances that not only demand viewers not to blink but also invite us to lean in and listen more closely; and memorable images so graphic at times that when we close our eyes our brain traces the outlines of grotesque images in the back of our eyelids. It is a psychological thriller so potent, tension gathers every step of the way—and it doesn’t let go until Clarice’s gun is fired in the expertly paced final ten minutes.

The picture’s centerpiece is the interaction between earnest Clarice and cunning Dr. Lecter. The relationship is curious because it is strictly a business transaction, a bartering of crucial information: Clarice provides details—sometimes painful details—about her past, Lecter gives insight on how to detect and capture Buffalo Bill. There is no trace of romantic connection. Not even a twisted father-daughter connection. It is a thrilling chess match between two perceptive individuals must who must work together in order to achieve their goals.

I think deep down they like each other. Perhaps there is even respect there. This is a masterstroke in an already top notch material. It is a true horror film in that we are asked to identify with a serial killer who eats his victims and feels no remorse. There is no explanation offered regarding this compulsion. It just is. Hopkins appears on screen for less than fifteen minutes in total yet his presence can be felt throughout. The level of menace he injects in the Lecter character is so high that it is able to pierce through every scene with ease. He need not be mentioned because Foster carries Clarice’s exchanges with Dr. Lecter like a scar. She is challenged to think like him but at the same time overcome him in order to avoid being played.

Demme possesses an understanding of how to capture situational horror effectively. Forget corpses on a platter or blood spatters as security guards are beaten with a truncheon. Look at the way images are framed as Clarice walks down the hall seconds before she introduces herself to the notorious Dr. Lecter. Observe the manner in which Buffalo Bill interacts with his victims, particularly the scene where he tries to copy the way a woman screams. On the surface, it appears as though he’s simply mocking her misery. But no. Like Clarice and Dr. Lecter, Buffalo Bill is a person who studies, who yearns to be free through a kind of transformation.

Pay special attention to the finale when Clarice must make her way through the dark… while the killer, standing about five feet away from her, wears night vision goggles… gazing at her. All of these examples require patience to unfold so that they truly get under our skins. We remember them not necessarily for the images but how they make us feel, how anticipation grips us by the throat.

Friday the 13th


Friday the 13th (1980)
★★ / ★★★★

A drowning in 1957 and two kids murdered in 1958, it is no surprise that the locals refer to Camp Crystal Lake as Camp Blood. So when they learn that it is about to open for business in two weeks, they struggle to hide their disapproval. Sean S. Cunningham’s classic slasher picture “Friday the 13th” offers a mildly entertaining time, but it isn’t anything special. The body count is high, but the build-up toward the kills are not especially suspenseful or creative nor the kills themselves cathartic or thrilling. And with a short running time of ninety-five minutes, there are stretches here that drag.

The one neat thing about the film is that it does a good job in hiding who the final girl might be. I assumed it would be Annie (Robbies Morgan) given that she is first to be shown on screen and she exhibits a sort of independence and pluck. She claims to love children, and the rumors around town do not disturb her. She is even shown being nice to a dog on the street. Annie is one of the camp counselors, specifically the cook, on her way to the lake. The rest of the counselors (Adrienne King, Jeannine Taylor, Robbi Morgan, Kevin Bacon, Harry Crosby, Laurie Bartram, Mark Nelson) wonder what’s taking her so long to get there. It’s getting dark.

I appreciated that by end of the movie, we have an appreciation of the different spots of Camp Crystal Lake. For instance, where the dock is located relative to the cabins and the cabins relative to the archery range. It looks and feels like an actual camp instead of a set built for the sole purpose of making a horror movie. Over time, we grow familiar with these places. So when a camp counselor is killed at a certain location and another person visits that same place but the corpse is hidden somewhere nearby, we have a gut reaction to the scene in front of us. Most disappointing, however, is that the director does not seem to possess a keen or insightful eye on how to shoot a murder effectively. More thought is put into reaction shots.

Perhaps it has something to do with the limited budget. But I’m not convinced. You see, in John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” which was released two years prior and also under a limited budget, every scene comes across as focused and polished. There is a sense of control, as though its aim is to deliver a specific experience and mood. “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” even open in a similar way: We see through the eyes of a killer. But the former has an extra detail to it: We see through the killer’s eyes who happens to be wearing a mask. It is off-putting, especially when we are shown a tiny hand—a child’s hand—grabbing a knife. In this film, by comparison, the execution is painfully ordinary, generic. The camera takes on the first person perspective as it observes women sleeping. It is uninspired and cheap.

The kills are violent and gruesome, but not one of them invokes a strong visceral reaction. For instance, when a throat is cut with a blade or when a spear pierces through someone’s throat, the practical effects are all too apparent. This is a movie drenched in shadows (there is an issue with the camp generator eventually) yet when it is time to cut someone open, the money shot is always—always—well-lit. There is irony there. But I think the intention is not to generate irony but rather cheers or gasps of horror. Cue the overbearing musical score when a counselor is just about to bite the dust. I was not impressed or moved by this consistently obvious approach.

“Friday the 13th” is written by Victor Miller. The story is straightforward, but the dialogue underachieves in that everybody seems to talk the same way. There is a hint thrown in that at least a few of the counselors have come from different parts of the country. And yet they are not written with enough specificity so that we are able to discern among them with ease. While not necessary that we learn their backstories—it is a slasher film after all—it is important that we know them a little bit outside of their physicality.

The Black Stallion


The Black Stallion (1979)
★★★★ / ★★★★

If there were more movies released on a yearly basis which dare to be on the level of ambition, imagination, craft, and execution of “The Black Stallion,” I am convinced there would be more intellectually curious children who would grow up to love and respect animals, the environment, and nature. The work, directed by Carroll Ballard and based on the novel by Walter Farley, without question, is cream of the crop, providing one astonishing visual right after another with seeming ease and endless amount of energy. It invites us to look at every frame and appreciate each choice as one would a most engaging book about adventures, life’s mysteries, and longings.

Right from the opening sequence the camera communicates that it understands children. It involves an American boy named Alec (Kelly Reno) observing men speaking a foreign tongue who are forcing a black desert horse into a tiny stable aboard a ship. Notice the placement of the camera: how it is on the level of the child’s eye coupled with how efficient it is in capturing every emotion from the boy’s freckled and expressive face. He is curious, afraid, excited, and entertained by the level of danger unfolding before him. Despite the foreign language, there is no subtitle. It trusts whoever is watching to be able to read the scene simply by listening closely to the emphases and intonations of words of phrases and by observing that the body movements are filled with purpose. It effectively sets the tone for the rest of the picture.

Eventually, the boy and the horse find themselves stranded on a deserted island. Words are rarely used and this is the point when the film is required to hold the most universal appeal—and it does. The images must speak for themselves. Achingly beautiful are sequences involving the two beings having to learn to trust one another. It is done with suspense, humor, and, yes, even horror. I admired the decision to show that the wild horse is incredibly dangerous: one simply should not run up to one with the intention of petting it, expecting it would be friendly.

Sound effects are utilized in such a way to highlight the dangers: the panicked neighing of the animal, its hooves bashing onto various objects and destroying them, the weight of its humongous body being thrown about. Couple these sounds and accompanying images as the boy slowly approaches Black… it is near impossible not to hold one’s breath. There is no special or visual effects. At times the confused horse and the boy are literally only three feet apart. I found it scary, concerning, and, admittedly, highly entertaining. At one point, I found myself throwing instructions at the screen (“No, don’t do it. Just please walk away!”).

Casting Reno is the correct choice because he has grown up with horses; he gives Alec a certain calm that cannot be edited or constructed or bought. It is amazing how the young performer is able to ride the horse as it runs along the shore without a saddle, strap, or stirrup. He must simply hold onto the mane of the horse as his tiny, fragile human frame bounces about. It must be seen to be believed; I had never seen anything like it.

“The Black Stallion” does not tell the entirety of its story on the island. Most refreshing is that the work does not become about trauma or mourning. It remains to possess a high level of drama, but the emotions behind them are optimistic, full of hope and possibilities. Still, there are unexpected moments when characters get a chance to recognize their losses. Again, words need not be utilized; silence is enough. The camera resting on a face as memories come to the foreground accomplishes more than having to explain how one feels or what one thinks about the preceding action. Here is a movie aimed for children that does not condescend—not even once.

Lacombe, Lucien


Lacombe, Lucien (1974)
★★★★ / ★★★★

I find Louis Malle’s “Lacombe Lucien” to be a particularly brave drama set during 1944 as World War II nears its closing chapters because the material is honest about the number of French people who were actually willing to collaborate with the Nazis. To paint a pretty picture may help to make the viewer feel good, but to tell the truth is patriotic. On the surface, the film parades a series of events as the titular seventeen-year-old country boy joins a French branch of the Gestapo. But look closer and one is bound to recognize the story is a more personal kind; it is about the yearning to belong—somewhere, anywhere, with anyone who would pay even the slightest attention. That group just so happens to be those who hate Jews and are willing to send millions of them to be exterminated.

Lucien Lacombe is portrayed by Pierre Blaise in his first role on film. It is the correct decision to cast a non-actor because, in a way, we must consider the character to be an enigma. You see, more experienced actors tend to employ behavior to sell a thought or an idea—an approach that may not have worked in this role. It is demanded that Lucien be as raw as possible, for the viewer to wonder constantly why he is doing the things he does. Is he even aware that what he is doing is morally wrong? And if he did, does he care? Pay attention to how he kills animals like chicken and rabbits. The look in his eyes does not change as he kills people. The only difference is how he is dressed for the occasion.

Look closely during captured moments when Blaise is simply being himself, perhaps hanging out on set while waiting for his cue to utter lines provided on the script. Malle is wise to include the in-between moments because it is a way to capture’s one’s soul and then manipulate it through the scope of the story being told. But because Malle is a master at creating human portraits, he does not turn Lucien into a monster. We despise the protagonist’s actions but not the protagonist himself. Without Malle’s careful, intelligent, and humanistic direction, the work could have been reduced to a story of a stereotype.

The picture is beautifully photographed, particularly scenes shot outdoors. The grassy villages where animals roam and the majority of people work with their hands put us into a particular headspace—serenity and freedom—before Lucien joins the German police. Images shot indoors, too, are interesting but in a different way. Notice the high ceilings of the Gestapo headquarters, the well-decorated rooms, the expensive figurines and paintings. And yet—listen to what the conversations are composed of: trivialities, hatred, drunken babbling. Interactions are cold, unsafe, driven by the next opportunity to wield power and murder.

Unlike Malle’s other works (“Murmur of the Heart,” “My Dinner with Andre,” “Au revoir les enfants”), “Lacombe Lucien” did not move me emotionally. But perhaps that isn’t the point. So many movies with stories that take place during World War II are designed to get an emotional reaction from the audience. This one, however, is impersonal in that it appears to only be interested in showing reality, specifically one person’s reality, Lucien’s desperation to belong. We wish to understand him rather than to empathize with him. After all, how could we empathize with somebody who is so ignorant that he hasn’t got the slightest awareness—curiosity, even—of what’s being done to the Jews? For him, the Jews, being stripped from their homes and families, are merely going on a train ride.

Sunset Boulevard


Sunset Boulevard (1950)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The corpse of Joe Gillis (William Holden), a screenwriter, floats on the swimming pool of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an actress whose career flourished in the era of silent film but is no longer under the spotlight because talkies has become all the rage in Hollywood. Six months prior, Norma hires Gillis to be a ghostwriter for the unorganized screenplay she has written. Although he is reluctant to take the job initially, he agrees eventually because he is in dire need of money, being in debt with a financial company which threatens to take his car and all. But soon their professional relationship turns into something more when Norma insists on giving Gillis a taste of wealth. Gillis, however, is unable to reciprocate her affections.

Directed by Billy Wilder, “Sunset Blvd.” is beautifully shot, particularly in the contrast between the opulence of the mansion and the internal emptiness that characters try to cover up. Intelligence can be felt from the meticulous script because it is able to offer insight about the human condition that is passion while at the same time functioning as a satire of the machinery that governs Hollywood’s businessmen, writers, and performers.

Its main characters are possessed by their occupations. We get the feeling that being a writer is a part of Gillis’ genes in the way he speaks—whether with another person or via narration. Hearing the latter is especially enjoyable because his thoughts tend to enhance the images that we see for ourselves. For instance, when he lays eyes on Norma’s white mansion for the first time, he makes an allusion to David Lean’s “Great Expectations” and compares the place to a tattered dress of an old woman in that film.

While I was impressed with the sheer size of the manor upon first glance, after the comparison is expressed, I began to see its flaws like the front yard being filled with overgrown weeds, an unkempt pool, and stairs full dead leaves. It helps that Holden’s voice is smooth; listening to him is comforting. The narration becomes an active participant in telling the story, shedding light to certain corners we might overlook instead of simply being there to further the plot.

Meanwhile, it is interesting how Norma is introduced as a mysterious (and somewhat scary) lady of the house who then later turns into a figure most of us might feel pity toward. Swanson makes the most out of her character by pulling us in so that we wish to know what she is capable of and pushing us away just when we are about to get too close. I was most mesmerized by her eyes. I noticed that she does not blink for long intervals as to hold onto that fire that makes Norma so angry and frustrated at the modernization of movies.

Equally fascinating is in the way Swanson uses her fingers, similar to the evil witch in Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwafs,” very branch-like and reflecting her character’s true age. Though there are artists that can help to make Norma’s face appear younger, the illusion is lifted the moment her fingers are revealed.

Written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D.M. Marshman Jr., “Sunset Boulevard” has a great sense of humor running alongside the characters struggling to define or make sense of their respective passions. Because Norma, Gillis, and, to some extent, Betty (Nancy Olson), who shares the same drive as Gillis to catch her big break, are given plenty of time to express what is important to them, when humor, like a sarcastic remark, is utilized, it works equally well as entertainment and as defense mechanism. It can be used as a reference point for us to gauge how much a particular character has changed over time. From the opening scene, we know that the story is not going to end happily. And yet when it starts tie its loose ends, we cling to the possibility that the corpse is all part of a bad dream.

The Gold Rush


The Gold Rush (1925)
★★★ / ★★★★

The 1898 Gold Rush in Alaska has attracted all sorts of chaps from across the globe with hopes of becoming a multimillionaire. The Lone Prospector (Charles Chaplin) is one of these hopefuls, but, like his fellow searchers, he proves unprepared for the ferocious and bone-chilling weather of the land. The Lone Prospector ends up in a cabin with Black Larsen (Tom Murrary), a wanted criminal, and Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), with an equally bad reputation because of his build. Eventually, the unlikely trio run out of food. Drawing the lowest card, Black Larsen is forced to search outside while Big Jim McKay eyes The Lone Prospector as a potential meal.

About three-quarters through “The Gold Rush,” written and directed by Charles Chaplin, I noticed a lack of feeling in my cheeks. It guess it turned out that up until that point, I had been smiling my ear to ear, in complete rapture of the images on screen. Creativity pulses through its veins with many scenes that are short but each packing a punch.

In silent films, it is a requirement that we feel a certain level of energy behind the performances. In here, although the characters get into unlikely situations like a two-hundred-pound person being blown away by a blizzard, they are rooted in the universe’s reality through believable body languages and facial expressions. For example, communicating fear is not restricted to bulging eyes, eyebrows in the heavens, or mouth wide open. The camera shows the quivering of the body or a certain reluctance to embrace a course of action. The title cards are utilized not to tell a story but to fill in the gaps relative to what is not or cannot be expressed through faces and body movements.

Absurdist humor is one of its strengths and they almost always come from left field. I was especially entertained by the scene where The Lone Prospector and Big Jim McKay decide to eat a shoe over Thanksgiving dinner. The way the camera lingers on the characters examining the shoe and eventually putting various parts onto their tongues is as funny as it is uncomfortable. I almost felt the taste and texture of the rubber against my palate. Of course, no one can eat that much amount of rubber and live to tell the tale but the idea is executed so well that we buy into it completely.

Less engrossing is the would-be romantic relationship between The Lone Prospector and Georgia (Georgia Hale). Perhaps because genuine affection is played too one-sidedly. Right from the moment they share a frame in a dance hall, it is difficult to believe that they can or will share something meaningful. Georgia is a bit of a snob. She consistently fails to notice The Lone Prospector, looking at everything and everyone else but him. But how can one miss someone with that mustache while sporting very strange shoes? If that is meant to be funny in an ironic way, it just did not work for me.

As the fun-loving woman and the tramp spend more time together, the experience of watching them does not get any better. She is always making fun of him and pulling practical jokes with her girlfriends that are not at all amusing. So what makes her worth his time and attention? If it is solely because she is beautiful, then perhaps the conceit has become a product of its time. Considering that the picture is a comedy, all signs point to the man and the woman being together in the end. I disliked them as a couple so much, I wished for the words “The End” before that happened.

Despite its cripplingly poor romantic subplot, “The Gold Rush” is rich with pathos coupled with memorable images, from the captivating bread dance to The Lone Prospector shoveling snow in order to earn some cash for New Year’s Eve dinner (with hilarious results). Its use of animals, too, is inspired. Each time the giant chicken makes an appearance, my mind jumped back to childhood as my eyes transfixed on Big Bird with each episode of “Sesame Street.”

Kes


Kes (1969)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Billy (Dai Bradley), a fifteen-year-old with a history of theft, wakes up at six o’clock every morning and delivers newspapers before heading to school. Once there, however, he does not exhibit much interest. Within a few months, he knows he will have to get a job though his interests lack range and focus. Most of his energy is directed toward surviving bullies, often kids who are older than him, and adults on a power trip. His life at home is not any better. His mother, Mrs. Casper (Lynne Perrie), and his brother, Jud (Freddie Fletcher), are on each other’s throats constantly. When he ends up at a neighboring farm one afternoon and notices birds hovering about, something about them, perhaps their freedom, captures his interest. He hopes to have a kestrel that he can train.

It is convenient to label “Kes,” based on the book “A Kestrel for a Knave” by Barry Hines, as another film about a young person who learns the importance of taking responsibility after having and relating to an animal, but the picture is far deeper than a familiar template. Propelled by naturalistic performances, the story gathers power, first slowly and then suddenly, through the events of every day, from the mundane to the memorable and life-changing. At its best, it is feverish poetry, so relatable to those aware of the seed from which one’s passion in life has sprouted.

Billy looking for a book about falconry that details how to take care of the animal and train it, reminded me of the time when I was about seven years of age and stumbled upon a green Biology textbook in a dilapidated house with mountains of sand inside. The way the camera lingers on Billy being so transfixed on that book is a sure signal that he is not a hopeless case, despite his tiresome environment and people who treat him as if he were of little value.

Not one picture or word is shown on the book he deeply covets so I turned to my own memory, to try to imagine how it must be like for him. Maybe he struggles to make sense of certain words as I did when I read alien language in my precious book like “osmosis,” “ependyma,” and “neuroglia.” Maybe he is mesmerized by the pictures of falcons or how a trainer should hold one’s arm when summoning the bird as I did when I stared at an image of a worm’s internal anatomy. I felt him thinking, absorbing, and trying to make sense of things that may not quite match up.

Billy has a lot of anger simmering below the surface. The picture places captures human behavior with accuracy and efficiency. This is a young man so used to taking without earning. He takes the bird from its nest. He takes the book from the store. He takes money that does not belong to him. He is not surrounded by people who strive to lead by example. Many of the adults are also in the habit of taking: taking jabs in the form punishment as well as taking a private shame and letting others have it in order to experience an evanescent feeling of superiority. Notice how a hilarious football game led by the mercurial gym teacher (Brian Glover) is turned into a portrait of maddening cruelty in the locker room.

The next two memorable scenes contrast each other. Several kids are sent to Mr. Gryce’s office, the headmaster played by Bob Bowes, for being caught smoking. A tiny boy, not part of the group that has been caught, is sent by his teacher with a message for the headmaster. Mr. Gryce mistakes the boy’s purpose in being there so he, too, gets a lecture and the stick, ordered to shut his mouth every time he starts to explain. Though this boy gets only one scene, I related to him completely. I have been in a similar situation when I was a kid and it is the kind of thing I will carry with me, the anger within for being punished despite not doing anything wrong, for the rest of my life. In Mr. Farthing’s class, on the other hand, emphasis is placed on being allowed to speak, which is so important, so much more meaningful than simply telling students what to do or by censuring them. This leads to a most moving scene involving Billy and his newfound passion.

Once in a while a movie comes along, grabs you, and does not let go. “Kes,” directed by Ken Loach, is a perfect example for it demands not just to be seen but to be experienced and thought about afterwards. Many will see this and consider it old-fashioned, from the discipline imposed by authority figures to what the bird symbolizes, which may hold some weight given the right set of arguments, but what it offers transcends what is right and what is wrong by focusing on what is and its consequences.

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.

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.

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.

Paths of Glory


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


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.

Diabolique


Diabolique (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.