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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Super 8

Summary: A perfect remix of classic Spielberg, rising auteur J.J. Abrams crafts a truly effective film for the next generation.

The Return of the Great Adventure

Review: There’s no time more important to a filmmaker than childhood. Most great filmmakers discover their passion early in life, and they often spend that time trying to emulate their favorite works, looking for that elusive magic, that feeling, that means “cinema” in their hearts. Some give up, and go on to craft stories wholly different from their initial inspiration, but some stick to it, and succeed in making a spiritual autobiography, sometimes over the course of several films.

For Steven Spielberg, many of his greatest films pay direct homage to inspirations from his youth: ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ for the matinée serials, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ for both the French New Wave and Cecil B. Demille, ‘Jurassic Park’ for the creature features blessed by Ray Harryhausen.  It is only natural that an auteur like Spielberg should provoke a kindred spirit of the next generation to emulate his films, and here the homage has the rare benefit of the inspiration’s creative involvement.  With ‘Super 8’, J.J. Abrams does far better than imitate his idol; he makes an entry worthy of the Spielberg canon.

Some have reacted negatively to the iconographic and stylistic tributes J.J. makes to Spielberg, as if it is cheap or creatively bankrupt to so effectively capture this magical tone.  The trouble is, as usual, a lack of perspective.  At the time of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’s release, it suffered some undue resentment from critics who felt that it was too much like the serials of yore, that it was a hollow, soulless exercise in something like “nostalgia porn”.  As the serials have dimmed in popular memory, ‘Raiders’ has only grown as a premier action-adventure, revealing the trouble with the criticism.  Such critics, then and now, are resisting the artist’s right to remix.  Nothing is truly original, after all — it is important that artists, critics, and audiences understand that what matters is an effective remix, a work that is simultaneously familiar and fresh.  Other auteurs, such as Quentin Tarantino or the brothers Coen, do works suspiciously similar to their inspirations with remarkable frequency, but they do not incur the critical penalties Spielberg and Abrams have had to endure, simply because the homage is more often obscure to the public.  Both Spielberg and Abrams remix the greater weight of popular imagination, but in truth all these artists are doing the same kind of work.

When a viewer rejects the homage, he or she will find it difficult, or perhaps impossible, to appreciate the uniqueness of films like ‘Super 8’, the qualities that ultimately set them apart as worthy, standalone stories.  ‘Super 8’, much like ‘Raiders’, is the return of the great adventure.  It isn’t meant for the pessimistic adult mind.  It’s meant, in the best possible way, for kids, or rather for the child in all of us.  I was privileged to meet a grandmother and her two preteen grandchildren at the theater of my employ as they were about to see ‘Super 8’.  When I praised the film and referenced Spielberg, the kids admitted they had no idea who he was, or if they had seen his movies.  The grandmother was rather taken aback, but I was strangely pleased.  It occurred to me, then, why Abrams made ‘Super 8’ at all — because Spielberg’s magic touch hadn’t transformed the minds of these kids, Abrams extended it to them.  He’s taken what was old and made it new again.  So in this way, it is simultaneously familiar and fresh, and some folks who grew up with Spielberg may never understand why.  More power to those who do.

I love this film. It’s addictive. It thrills me, makes me laugh, makes me cry, makes me contemplate the past and future with great clarity. Just as ‘Raiders’ and ‘Close Encounters’ changed my life, from now on I’ll be seeing the world through the lens of ‘Super 8’.

Classic Review: Jurassic Park

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Summary: A film with effects I can only describe as magical and which also changed the way movies are made.

Review: Well, since James quite literally stole my thunder by getting to ‘Thor’ before me, this week I’ll instead be reviewing the cinematic milestone of 1993, ‘Jurassic Park’.

Along with various Disney films, ‘Jurassic Park’ was my earliest movie experience, and it was by far cooler than anything Mickey Mouse could show me.  My parents had somehow glanced over the fact that it was, in fact, a PG-13 film, and so, at between the ages of, say, four and seven, I darn near wore out our VHS tape of it, engrossed in all its dinosaur-awesomeness.  Perhaps I’m getting a little ahead of myself, though…

‘Jurassic Park’ was based on the best-selling book of the same name by science fiction writer, Michael Crichton; it told the tale of a science project gone wrong as genetically engineered dinosaurs, bred for a theme park on a remote island, escaped and terrorized the visitors.  The book caught the interest of legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who spent the early 1990’s developing it for the silver screen.  In the process, he, along with Stan Winston and ILM, pioneered some of the most advanced special effects (most notably CGI) for their time to bring the film’s dinosaurs to life, forever changing the way Hollywood made films.

And what magic they brought to the screen.  As a kid, I was convinced that the creatures I was viewing on my television screen were real, living dinosaurs.  Everything from the first shot of the Brachiosaurus to the final shot of the T-rex looked alive, and to this day, even as computers have vastly increased in power, they still hold up.  It’s a testament to the craftsmanship of Spielberg himself, who worked painstakingly to ensure that these animals were as life-like as possible.  Everything from their movement, to the way they interacted with the physical world, to the way they sounded was undeniably polished, and the result was one of the most powerful experiences a child like myself could hope for.  And that’s really what makes this movie work so well: it’s the sense of child-like awe and wonder at these creatures.  There is a true sense of majesty, for instance, when the audience sees the Brachiosaurus for the first time, complete with one of John Williams’ most beautiful scores, as it grazes on a hill.  It’s a beautiful sequence that has the main characters, and the audience as well, frozen in amazement at the animal before us.  It’s a powerful sequence and one of my favorite film moments of all time.  It is moments like this that make the film work.

Now, I would be lying if I said that the film was flawless.  Unfortunately, by paying so much attention to the film’s dinosaurs, Spielberg and Co. didn’t focus enough on the human characters or the actual story.  The original book had a strong plot that was centered on the inner workings of Chaos Theory and the moral dilemma of pushing scientific boundaries: whether something as earth shattering as genetically engineering dinosaurs could ever be controlled or should ever even be done.  The characters as well, notably Alan Grant, Ian Malcolm, and even the two children, were all nicely fleshed out.  In the film…eh…. not so much.  There is great potential for the characters, and if the script had been brushed up a bit, they’d have really nice arcs; but as is they seem a tad underdeveloped and over-simplified.  In particular, Ian Malcolm, a witty mathematician who delivers the story’s central theme during a climactic speech half-way through the book, is reduced to a sarcastic jerk who gives a watered-down version of the same speech early in the movie.  After words the very theme of scientific morality itself gets buried under a wave of dinosaurs and chase scenes, and the characters boil down to the victims in a horror movie.  Don’t get me wrong, they’re cool dinosaurs and great chase scenes, directed under the skilled hand of Spielberg; but it does turn the plot into more of an amusement park thrill ride than an actual story.  There’s nothing wrong with that, in a sense, not every movie has to be ‘Citizen Kane’; some movies can just be fun (and this movie certainly is) and look cool (and this movie certainly does) but it does set a bad example for other filmmakers who don’t share Spielberg’s sense of wonder and awe.

You see, we live in something of a post-‘Jurassic Park’ movie world.  The blockbuster success of the movie changed the way Hollywood looked at special effects and stories, much the way ‘Star Wars’ had done 16 years earlier.  ‘Jurassic Park’ unlocked the true potential of the computer and ushered in a new era where CGI has made anything possible, but it also ushered in an era when some filmmakers believe special effects can tell their stories for them.  Think about it: how many movies since ‘Jurassic Park’ have come out that employ its same level of CGI?  A great many.  And how many of those movies have, unfortunately, relied on those effects to bolster an otherwise lousy or unfinished script?  Too many.  As it turns out, this sort of dilemma is not too dissimilar to the scientific dilemma depicted (unsuccessfully) in ‘Jurassic Park’.  How should this new technology be used? CGI is a powerful tool for filmmaking and has made some extraordinary films, but without a respect for it and knowledge of its limits, it’s too easily abused, and some very awful films have been the result.

That all said though, perhaps I am, again, getting a little ahead of myself here.  Who am I to judge something as vast and varied as the way special effects are used in film or what films ought to focus on?  Especially since it has allowed for the creation of so many that I love, including ‘Jurassic Park’.  And that brings me back to my main point, which is that ‘Jurassic Park’ is ultimately a great film.  It’s great because Steven Spielberg maintains at its core, the marvel and imagination for dinosaurs that only children can experience.  These were truly the most amazing creatures to ever walk the earth, and Spielberg captures their mystery beautifully.  As a kid I loved this film, and today I still do.  Whatever the long-lasting impact of this film is or will be, better or worse, the film itself is a winner.

So, if by chance you, the movie-goer, haven’t seen this modern-day classic, rent it, Netflix it, borrow it, buy it, whatever.  Give it a watch, and you too will see a truly awesome piece of cinematic history, 65 million years in the making (drum and crash cymbal!)

Thor

A Note from James: I will no longer be rating by stars, or any other quantitative system.  It’s an awfully rigid way to measure a fluid, dreamlike medium.

Summary: A solid, fun fantasy film with impressive performances, Marvel’s best cinematic villain to date, and the promise of a lot more to come.

Review:  Through its recently formed Studios branch, comic book giant Marvel is putting together the most ambitious sci-fi/fantasy effort since Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.  Four superheroes — Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, and Thor — are getting solo cinematic treatments, then being tied together in next year’s ‘The Avengers’, which is shooting under Joss Whedon’s direction now.  While Captain America has yet to debut, Iron Man and The Hulk performed well, and now the burden falls to Thor.

With a rich fantasy backstory drawn from Norse mythology comes an inherit risk of camp.  Director Kenneth Branagh and Marvel’s team of writers crafted an effective, if not terribly fresh, story, but what sells the film is its leads.  Newcomer Chris Hemsworth — who previously provided a tear-jerkingly heroic performance as George Kirk in J.J. Abram’s ‘Star Trek’ — simply kicks ass as Thor.  He’s a miraculously good actor, someone who can sell subtle emotional changes and go toe-to-toe with great hams like Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Natalie Portman is his earthbound love interest,  physicist Jane Foster, and she refuses to play her as a typical determined scientist, instead letting her dissolve into a giggling schoolgirl around Thor, an amusing and sympathetic reaction.  Given her brief screentime, she deserves a good deal of praise.

Of course, no comic book film excels without a good villain, and the true distinctive of ‘Thor’ is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.  He’s a truly Shakespearean baddie, a guy who thinks of himself as the hero of his story, a good guy gone bad by going mad.  While another villain might cackle and spit out threats with an uncompromised glee, Loki actually weeps when he confronts his heroic brother in the final battle, even as he laughs and snarls and throws down with the best of them.  He’s a manipulative liar, but he believes he’s doing the right thing, and we feel his pain.

Most of the film takes place on a cosmic stage, as war brews between noble Asgard and bitter Jotunheim, the home of the Frost Giants.  With fantastic CGI and refreshingly tangible sets, I found myself believing in it.  The action has a real weight to it, and while Branagh isn’t the best action director around, he and his team still know that matters is clarity and impact.  When it desperately needs to work, it does.  This isn’t the best superhero action, but it is on a larger canvas than most, and deserves recognition.

As excited as I am for ‘The Avengers’, even if that wasn’t on the horizon, I’d be game for a ‘Thor’ sequel, a chance to cut loose from the trappings of an origin story and really let the “God of Thunder” loose in an even bigger conflict.  I really hope they do.

The Adjustment Bureau

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A rare cerebral and hearty science fiction film with charm and thrills, though weakened by the demands of standard Hollywood plotting.

Review:  Here is a movie that works on levels usually rendered inaccessible by genre-specific direction.  It’s got brains, drama, thrills, and most refreshingly, heart.  Capraesque Americana, Kafkaesque paranoia and classic Hollywood romance blend together with surprising smoothness.  It reaches sci-fi conceptual heights, but remains accessible to a wide audience.  It’s heartwarming, entertaining, intriguing and memorable.

Its chief flaws are trade-offs due to this balancing act.  The paranoid elements gradually soften as the plot mechanics make the titular organization more familiar, and even somewhat friendly.  The Americana of its protagonist’s political ambitions fades out as he falls in love.  So while it lets down two parts in favor of the whole, the film still works because of the strong relationship at its center.  Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have great chemistry and elevate writer-director George Nolfi’s script, which is not bad on its own, into something more believable.  Because we can so easily sympathize with them, the Bureau’s effort to keep them apart — for reasons not unsympathetic on their end — creates real tension.  We may be torn between the Bureau’s point-of-view and our hope for the lovers, but we are never confused.  We know how we want this story to end, and Nolfi executes this dramatic dénouement quite well.  He picks the perfect moment to fade to black.

On top of everything, he manages to invoke an oft-derided (for good reason) but classic plot twist, the Deus Ex Machina, in just the right way.  Done badly, the Deus Ex Machina cheats us, but done well, it seals the story with mystery.  Consider ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and the wrath of God sequence — any other ending, including the one the filmmakers had originally planned, would lack punch and punctuation.

Philosophically, the film’s free will vs. determinism narrative presents a reasonable compromise.  It works as less of a dialog and more of a polemical allegory with obvious Judeo-Christian influences.  This is not necessarily a weakness, as this particular story begs for a conclusion, but there are films that handle the issues in a more compelling way.

Overall, the film is an above-average success.  What it lacks in subtlety and impact it makes up for in entertainment value.  This is sci-fi done right.

Not-So-Classic Review: The Village

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★☆☆

Summary: A film with the best intentions that, in the end, simply doesn’t deliver.

Review:  M. Night Shyamalan, once an acclaimed young filmmaker, has gradually become something of a joke in Hollywood, thanks to a string of subpar films that wrap themselves in a cloak of unfulfilling mystery.  It’s a shame too, as early on in his career, he was responsible for ‘The Sixth Sense’, ‘Unbreakable’, and ‘Signs’, which encompass a trinity of good, suspenseful filmmaking and are among my favorite films to watch.  By most accounts his problems began with his follow-up to ‘Signs’, a little film called ‘The Village’ which, while interesting, ultimately set itself up for disaster.

To reference something James once said, the ‘The Village’ isn’t half bad, it’s just a little under three-fourths good.  It suffers from two major issues. First, it was marketed as a strict horror movie.  I remember the commercials for this movie attempted to portray it in a shocking, frightening manner, comparing it to ‘Signs’ in much the same, unfair way that ‘Unbreakable’ was compared to ‘The Sixth Sense’ upon its release.  The truth is that, while there are elements of horror in ‘The Village’, its much more of slow-paced mystery than simple terror.  Those who went in expecting ‘Signs’ found themselves disappointed when they realized they were dealing with a very different animal.

For being a slow-paced mystery with a touch of terror, though, it isn’t badly done… at first.  The turn of the century town in which the film takes place is guarded on all sides by evil spirits in the surrounding forest, or so the elders say, and so the town folk can never leave, forced to remain locked in forever.  Of course, it wouldn’t be hard to guess that this film would have someone, that someone being a girl, daring to venture into the forest and the outside world, and therefore confronting these alleged demons.

All that is fine and dandy, but now we must get to the second problem.  ‘The Village’ banks on a plot twist that doesn’t really work.  I won’t tell you what it is, for the sake of seeing the film, but rest assured, it doesn’t help the story.  The issue is this; a plot twist, when used well, ought to really add something to the story.  It ought to show things in a new light and give new meaning and perspective to the events of the film.  It should give depth. This is the sort of twist M. Night Shyamalan gave us in ‘The Sixth Sense’.

In ‘The Village’ however, the plot twist that comes devalues a lot of the film’s previous moments.  The sense of mystery that worked well enough earlier seems pointless afterword.  It raises too many questions that the film vaguely answers at best, and it leaves the audience feeling empty inside.  Instead of some needed depth for the film, it makes it seem shallower.  As Roger Ebert put it (though he disliked this film much more than I did) it was little better than saying that everything that happened up to that point was a dream.

That all said, its obvious Shyamalan had a lot of faith in this story.  He does show strong direction in this film, and by that I mean he does a good job of setting things up early in the film.  He does spark our interest in what’s going on and we do care about what happens to the people of this town.  The initial ideas we are presented with are strong enough; they just get derailed and don’t wind up paying off.  An audience should feel challenged, but never alienated, and unfortunately there’s more of the latter than the former by the time the credits roll.

‘The Village’ was a box office success, though not to the degree its predecessors had been.  Critically it was mostly negative or, at best, mixed.  I think most people would agree that this is where M. Night Shyamalan began descending into the hole from which he has yet to stop digging.  Still, I have hope that he has good filmmaking left in him, provided he neither gives in to the demands of Hollywood nor his own established tropes (he really should stop putting plot twists in his films).  I happened to like the first half of ‘The Village’, and so I recommend this movie for one full watch.  Come to think of it, maybe less than a full watch — when you come to the part where the female protagonist decides to leave the village, you may just want to stop it there, avoid the plot twist, and leave well enough alone.

Classic Review: Eyes Wide Shut

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A Kafkaesque, terrifying exposé of sexual hypocrisy that stands with the best of Kubrick’s work.

Fair warning:  Because of the film’s disturbing subject, I will be handling mature sexual topics.  Be advised.

Review:  Stanley Kubrick’s acclaimed filmography is largely composed of intelligent, penetrating meditations on human nature.  Perhaps the most prominent subject is hypocrisy.  ‘The Shining’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’ explored our hypocrisy of violence; famously and controversially, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ extended this critique to sexual violence in a disturbingly graphic fashion.  ‘Dr. Strangelove’ satirically blamed its nuclear holocaust on sexually dysfunctional leaders; ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ again attacks the American elite by way of a bizarre conspiracy of cloak-and-dagger sexual politics, and in the process levels a pointed accusation at humanity in general.  We like to think we’re above the basic instincts of our species, but Kubrick would have us know that we’re walking about with our eyes wide shut.  We are sexual creatures, and we’d better be honest about it.

Kubrick’s cinematic swan song is appropriately meta, to great effect.  The first step is to present audiences with an erotic thriller headlined by two attractive, bankable stars in a well-known relationship.  This draws folks in to see their fantasies realized in a carefully controlled environment.  The next step is to pull the rug out from under their feet, by refusing to show the leads having Hollywood sex with each other, and by forcing the viewer to share the protagonist’s confusion and frustration up to the last moment.  Just as ‘The Shining’ carefully condemns its gorehound audience, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ reminds viewers of their mental promiscuity and love of Hollywood exploitation.  The film’s loveless eroticism serves to put off viewers who are uninterested in this critique.  Instead of a sanitized, pleasant experience, the film’s orgy centerpiece is a flat-out terrifying, Kafkaesque nightmare — to me, it was scarier than ‘The Shining’ — so when the protagonist flees home to his wife, we’re right there with him.

‘Eyes Wide Shut’ defends monogamy, doubtless to the surprise of many self-appointed moral guardians, provided they could settle down for a few minutes to hear it out.  The carefully constructed sexual mythology of human society, and American culture in particular, squeezes the love and life out of monogamous relationships.  For reasons of class and religion, people lie about their most powerful undercurrent, and this results in mutually destructive hypocrisies.  The narrative hangs on two upscale parties held at mansions, the first masking its abusive sexual commerce in hollow pleasantries, the second reveling in open displays cloaked in ritual and threat — the point being, in a dream logic sense, they are the same event.  The multilayered narrative repeats images and themes in a lyrical way, uncovering the uncomfortable truth of each episode.  In the end, the couple has to come to terms with their desires to heal.  To experience true sexual union, stripping to the skin is not enough — they have to strip down to the heart.  Leave it to Kubrick to transform exploitative nudity into an artful statement of the human condition!

Kubrick is often labelled “cold”, but in truth he’s simply objective, standing apart from traditional Aristotelian storytelling because he refuses to digest a given film’s ideas into cheap, predictable, marketable patterns.  This is a film with a happy ending and a clear moral conclusion, but we have to go on an unusual journey to find it.  It was misunderstood in its theatrical release, but like most of Kubrick’s work from ‘2001’ on it has gradually won over critics and cinephiles.  For this reason, I call it a classic — a truly adult film.