Classic Review: Twelve Angry Men

Summary: An absolutely boiling drama that has stood the test of time, and goes to show that great cinema thrives under limitations.

Review: Great films don’t stand only as examples of what films can or should be; they stand also to condemn every film produced with venal intentions for apathetic audiences.  This is not because a great film would attract audiences if it were released instead, but because far too often lesser material is rewarded while exceptional work is ignored.  What matters, however, is the pictures’ enduring memory.  ‘Twelve Angry Men’, the first film directed by Sidney Lumet, was released in April 1957 to critical acclaim but box office disappointment.  I ask you, what else came out on the thirteenth of that month in that year that is as enduring as this film?  Why would a screenplay this electric with a cast this matchless go without popular response?  I have no clue.  The good news is that popular and critical reaction would soon match up.  The bad news, at least for whatever stood in competition for its box office dollars, is that apparently only ‘Twelve Angry Men’ survived.

Some films demand spectacle, action, sexual chemistry and endless stanzas of visual poetry.  They need these things to exist.  What ‘Twelve Angry Men’ proves is that the most essential dramatic element, stakes that create suspense, can thrive in a visual environment as small as a single room.  The story doesn’t demand more, but it puts other stories that have more but lack legitimate tension to shame.  ‘Twelve Angry Men’ is nothing but dialog, but it has more impact than a dozen car crashes in a brainless, gutless action movie.  With actions as simple as frowns and glances, a war wages in this single room that captivates the viewer, with compelling moral, logical arguments and severe emotional consequences.  Every character is challenged, so that everyone in the audience is challenged.  You will question yourself, your prejudices, and your approach to justice.  The screenplay almost guarantees that.

And perhaps this is why it was not a box office success.  We like to pretend that audiences have grown more or less sophisticated over the years, depending on the arguments we are making at the moment, but in fact people have not changed.  By and large, sophisticated stories are ignored, only for word-of-mouth to redeem them at a later time when it is too late to reward the producers for their financial risk.  While it is true that filmmakers are getting their money back from home video sales, producers still view the box office as the measure of a film’s worth.  This is changing, but the push for 3D and IMAX technologies shows that filmmakers want theatrical vindication of their investment.  So many, arguably most, future classics are small features, like ants carrying many times their own weight.  Truly exceptional movies that also make hundreds of millions in box office are rare.  Most hits are, ironically, forgettable.

But I digress.  The reason for my tangents is that it is difficult to say more about ‘Twelve Angry Men’ than has already been said by much sharper analysts.  What I can say is this: the cast and crew worked with a smaller toolbox than are afforded most projects, and they delivered something truly special.  Its intimacy and emphasis on character gives an immersion that 3D technology can never match.  It is so true to life and so damn engaging that there is nothing left to improve, except perhaps removing the superfluous musical score, which intrudes a couple of times and doesn’t add anything of substance.  This makes for an ironic flaw in contrast to other films and their poor use of musical resources; ‘Twelve Angry Men’ had a limited toolbox, and ended up with just one tool too many!  The harmony between Sidney Lumet’s direction and Reginald Rose’s screenplay makes the real music here.

This movie should be required viewing for up-and-coming filmmakers.  If you’re interested in writing screenplays, I urge you to watch this film and study the most insignificant details.  This is a taut, perfectly calibrated symphony of cinema.  If you can do as well, do so, and don’t compromise.  History will vindicate you.

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Cult Classic: The Rocketeer

Summary: A good, classy adventure with an excellent cast and loads of heart, but with a deficiency of nail-biting suspense, hard-hitting action, and unique spectacle.

Review: If there’s any proof that I’m a full-blooded American fellow, it’s my love of two-fisted tales and cinematic adventures owing to the cliffhanger serials of yore.  They tend to show great heart and idealism, allowing a greater capacity for laughter, tears, and screams than run-of-the-mill action pictures.  Most folks know ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Zorro’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, but there have been many efforts to bring their more obscure relatives to the screen.  Most of these films, I’m sorry to say, were overlooked, only to be rediscovered and appreciated by cinephiles with the advent of home video.  ‘The Rocketeer’, adapted from Dave Stevens’ comic book, was Disney’s 1991 attempt to create a cash cow franchise comparable to Paramount’s ‘Indiana Jones’.  It failed, possibly due to mismarketing, but the film has gained a well-deserved cult following.

To be sure, ‘The Rocketeer’ is not a spectacular film.  It lacks exactly that: Really great spectacle.  That’s the sort of thing that its successful brethren have in spades.  But what ‘The Rocketeer’ has is the most important thing — an adventurous spirit that provokes wide-eyed wonder and that infection that makes you want to jump into the screen and join in, despite the danger.  This aspect of the screenplay, coupled with perfect casting and very good character direction, makes the film worth watching.

Then-unknown Billy Campbell plays the lead, Cliff Secord, and he is perfect.  He has tangible chemistry with the leading lady, a very young and extraordinarily gorgeous Jennifer Connelly, and stands in stark contrast to the typically brilliant Timothy Dalton, his adversary.  The story takes a lot of time to stack the deck against Cliff, and his tenacity makes us want him to win.  That tenacious nobility, balanced with crucial character flaws, is the soul of the two-fisted tale.  We see it in Indy when he climbs onto the submarine in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, in Luke when he lets himself fall out of the Cloud City in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, in Will when he breaks Jack out of prison in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl’, and in Cliff when he chooses to strap on the mysterious jetpack for the first time.  It’s a simple equation, yet one that’s easily ignored — the hero must get his/her ass kicked before she/he can kick ass.  The more devastating an emotional and physical beatdown the hero receives, the more devastating their vengeance.

The effects by ILM are as good as they had circa 1991, and that’s certainly not the reason that it fails in terms of spectacle.  The rocket effects and the flying sequences have charm, style, and a certain boyish glory.  The movie makes flight in general extremely appealing.  Parts of the ending fight on top of a zeppelin over Hollywood are adventurous gold, mostly due to the setting and Cliff’s simple but ingenious solution.  What undoes it is the lack of impact.  The action is competently directed, but for helmsman Joe Johnston this was only his second feature, and he had not yet evolved proper action chops.  The gunfights are pedestrian, there are no great fisticuffs, and there’s not enough suspense to drive us to the edge of our seats.  For a film based on cliffhanger serials, there’s not a lot of cliffhanging.  It’s not for a lack of running time.  It’s a short movie, clocking in at just about 100 minutes plus credits.  It needs at least a singular, iconic set piece that rivets audiences and demands repeat viewings.

Taken as a sum, ‘The Rocketeer’ works.  The story brings a smile to my face.  The characters are magnetic and make me wish for further adventures.  What this film needs is guts.  I speak of it in the present tense because I believe that the right creative team can improve on this film with an affectionate remake.  ‘The Rocketeer’ deserves to be a classic, but until it can be retold with as much visceral impact as it has heart, it’s stuck as an object of cultish affection.  If you enjoy these sorts of films, however, I’d urge you to see this film and love it for what it is, and what it can be.

The Tree of Life

Summary: A highly emotional, philosophically rich story, beautifully told with all the subjectivity and hypnotic effects of a dream.  It is not for amateurs.

Review: Films run along a spectrum of complexity.  On the one end, there stands the average romantic comedy or action film, with a plot recycled with new faces, locations and set pieces; the outcome is predictable, the box office dollars practically guaranteed, and its only goal is to entertain for a couple of hours.  On the other end, there is pure creativity, meat so rare it is nigh-impossible for average moviegoers to digest; this is film as dream and art, a trip of the mind and soul, and its goal is to baptize the viewer.  Here stands ‘The Tree of Life’.

Now to clarify, a film closer to the entertainment side is not necessarily any less a valuable work of art.  A light adventure like the original ‘Star Wars’ is impossible to compare with a philosophical journey like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.  They are both perfect, though one is comparable to a circle and the other to a sphere.  This is why I abandoned quantitative rating systems, as they end up cutting apples and oranges with the same slicer, so to speak.  There are now two films that stand as my favorites of the summer, and they cover the spectrum — one is ‘Super 8’, previously reviewed, and the other is ‘The Tree of Life’.  Both are emotionally powerful, but they access different parts of my spirit.

The film’s writer and director, Terrence Malick, has a simple method of breaking a potentially rudimentary plot down into a meditation — instead of following a three-act structure, he explores every moment as a memory, fragmented and disorganized, overlapping and meandering, not even coming together in the end to form a cohesive whole.  The structure, in short, belongs to the viewer.  We have to assemble the film into a story, much as we do our own memories.  The beauty of this is that there is never a single beat of Hollywood artificiality to shield us from the action.  It is there, as frustrating as life, engaging us.   The picture is hypnotic, even when you feel its length.  Malick’s fluid narrative allows him to duck in and out of perspectives and realities, sometimes jumping into dreams and fantasies without warning, presenting everything as an immediate, pressing question.  These questions pack the film, without answers, from start to finish.  To say ‘The Tree of Life’ is challenging is to say that fish swim in the sea.  Not everyone is a fisherman, and not everyone will be up for ‘The Tree of Life’.

If acting were my profession, there are several auteurs I’d love to work with — Scorsese, Nolan, Spielberg, Tarantino, and now I can add Malick to that list.  Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain, not to mention the remarkable child actors who anchor the picture, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan, never once blandly read their lines or strike an artificial pose for a composition.  They simply live in the frame, buoyed by the organic nature of Malick’s direction and Emmanuel Lubezki‘s cinematography.  This is a surely a dream for any performer, the chance to disappear completely into a person who, interpreted by the randomness of Malick’s narrative, is at once naked and mysterious.

Usually I try to explore the philosophical themes of films I review, but in this instance I think it’s better for the film itself to pose its questions.  That is, after all, the entire point behind it.  I can’t sufficiently answer them, either, and even if I could, I doubt that articulating it here would affect anything of your potential experience.  The movie is a paradox, a story without a moral conclusion that forces you to make one, but lacks the hopelessness of ambiguity.  This is why it is an artistic experience and not entertainment; it does not check boxes.  It forces you to change to better appreciate it, or simply discard it in disgust.  Fools will complain about the money they wasted on admission; they are free to spend it on ‘Transformers’, next time, and be all the poorer for it.

As you can imagine, it’s almost impossible not to have a visceral response to a film like this.  To carry my meat analogy further, if a person with an immature taste in movies tries to chew ‘The Tree of Life’, they are likely to spit it out and complain.  Steak is not for babies.  You need teeth and knives to take in an experience like this, and it helps if it’s not your first meal.  It is, even for an experienced cinephile, positively dizzying.  There are many “gateway drugs” I’d recommend before taking the plunge, among them the works of Christopher Nolan, Charlie Kaufman, Frederico Fellini, Stanley Kubrick and the Brothers Coen, though the latter four all have advanced entries in their filmographies that stand right alongside ‘The Tree of Life’.

In short, this is a film I recommend for people who unabashedly love movies as an art form, not a diversion.  It is almost guaranteed to surprise you.  It will, one way or another, move you.

Classic Review: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Summary:  A superb adaptation, the most suitable cinematic echo of Tolkien’s immutable trilogy, and one of the greatest epics ever put to film.

Review: In setting out to review Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s supreme fantasy epic, I’m forced to consider the three films in their entirety (i.e. the extended editions) and as one work, because unlike other famous trilogies such as, say, ‘Star Wars’, the studio didn’t wait to pursue a sequel after a successful first installment — it was a single gamble from the beginning, and divided only by marketing and logistical necessity, as with the source material.

But to tackle such a monumental work, something that is so inseparable from my personal development, a little biographical reflection is necessary.

Tolkien first captured my imagination when I was about 9 years old, as I read his playful ‘The Hobbit’, the witty, straightforward adventure that serves as the prelude to ‘The Lord of the Rings’.  As anticipation built for the upcoming film trilogy, I absorbed the giddy excitement of my friends through osmosis, and plunged into the thick prose of the greater work with gusto.  I came out the other side somewhat changed, in ways I of course can only now appreciate.  Being an imaginative boy, I had always loved fantasy, but Tolkien’s lengendarium was different — it had substance, having in fact less in common with strict fantasy than history.  What Middle-Earth lacked in physical reality in made up for in spiritual truth — both in the religious sense and the broader rational sense.  I would never touch The Shire, but it was nevertheless solid to me.

When ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ hit theaters, I was simply too young to handle the emotional intensity of it, and so I had to rely on the secondhand experience of my older brother, my parents, and my friends.  To me, it was like hearing from people who had visited Middle-Earth, and could describe it as fresh observers.  I relived the book, again, from the perspective of a witness.

A habit of mine at the time was to stay up way too late and wait for the creative part of my brain, perhaps in want of the dream-state, to be released.  Then I would write, draw, and imagine with the freedom only a child can possess.  As if I needed any more motivation, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in its two forms, literary and witnessed, inspired a new burst of creativity, as I intuitively sought to capture the emotions of reading the novels, the anticipation of revisiting the world in a new way, hearing about it from friends, and finally seeing it.  To the point, Jackson wasn’t just adapting the story I loved, he was adapting me — into a filmmaker.

My fate was sealed when ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ was released on DVD.  The experience was everything I wanted, and more.  It was actually not as though the filmmakers had reached into my imagination and created my vision of Middle-Earth — the dissonance, in fact, made it more profound.  The emotional intensity was great, but my absorption into the world was complete, and I believed once again.  A great film is like a stage magic act — you know that somehow the artist has fabricated what you are seeing, but the method escapes your notice, and the thrill of magic, the mystery of it, appears.  The magician is at the top of his form when you most want to be like him.  The best thing a magician or a filmmaker can win is not applause, nor critical adulation, nor an apostle, but an apprentice.

The second most beautiful thing about ‘The Lord of the Rings’ films is that the filmmakers never compromise on the level of graphic detail that is present in the source material.  The plot is highly condensed, and with good reason; Tolkien’s dense, meandering prose is impossible to translate beat-for-beat to cinema.  What works for an invented history does not work for narrative film, even one that stretches 726 minutes.  The story itself survives.  Filmmakers should always understand story in the sense of a retelling, as if you had to explain everything that really mattered in a short amount of time.  Proper film craft stresses  economy and emotion.  When the key emotions are tied up in how real the world feels, it takes a special effort to achieve immersion.  Here Tolkien’s description and the filmmakers’ production design synchronize; the visuals suggest all the depth of history that Jackson never has a chance to share with us.

By far the best quality of the trilogy is the cast.  Their chemistry is fantastic.  Not a single actor is miscast.  It’s clear from the extensive behind-the-scenes material that they grew into a family.  There’s not a relationship, scene, or line that feels wrong.  If life did not so directly compliment the art, these films would not work.  There’s no such thing as a flawless film, only a film you can’t quit.  ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is highly addictive.  Like the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, the people give this production, which could have easily collapsed under its own weight, such soul that the story transcends standard cinematic storytelling.  In this way, its emotional detail alone equals the historical detail of the novels.  You couldn’t hope for a better adaptation.

Considering the films as a single experience, it becomes much more difficult to criticize the weaker sections of the narrative, in particular the ending.  In the theater, I did not begrudge Jackson’s decision to follow Tolkien to the Grey Havens.  Later on, as other viewers complained that it was too long and perhaps too sad, I flipped over.  Now I’ve flopped back.  I understand why the long ending is the right one.  After all the darkness and despair, to transform the final section of the film into a potion of joy through a veil of sadness  — well, I think it’s obvious that it’s poetry.  Heck, the ending is kind of short in the proper perspective.

‘The Lord of the Rings’ is the ‘Star Wars’ of my generation, because obviously the ill-conceived prequels were not.  All things considered, I’m pretty happy with that.  ‘The Lord of the Rings’ pushed filmmaking craft forward in all the right ways, with a timeless story at its core, and it is undoubtedly a classic, one epic to rule them all.