Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: The General (1926)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #34

In the discussion of City Lights in this column, Charlie Chaplin was identified as a standout director and silent film star who managed to retain creative control and box office success after the genesis of the sound era. His contemporary, Buster Keaton, the auteur and star behind The General, was one of the silent era's greatest innovators, pushing the medium forward through technical daring and elaborate action sequences. However, unlike Chaplin, Keaton fell victim to the changing times, only being re-evaluated in recent years as a unique talent.


The General, his 1926 film co-directed by Clyde Bruckman, was the film that, perhaps paradoxically, saw him operating at the peak of his artistic abilities and marked the beginning of the end for his career. The film follows Johnnie Gray (Keaton), a railroad engineer who tries to enlist for the Confederacy at the start of the American Civil War. He is denied, however, because his job is considered too valuable; his fiance, Annabelle (Marion Mack), refuses to speak with him until he's in uniform. When a group of Union officers steals his train, Johnnie accidentally stumbles upon a Union plan for attack, and must race against them to warn the Confederate troops and save Annabelle's life.

What the film does most impressively is in its technical aspects. Keaton was never one to shy away from going for big moments, and The General has several, serving as a silent would-be blockbuster had it not flopped.

More after the jump.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #6

The reputation for 2001: A Space Odyssey often precedes the film these days. The same can be said of director Stanley Kubrick, as well. Before making his science-fiction opus, Kubrick was already a known commodity, coming off a streak of well-recieved films that included the enormous Spartacus (1960), the controversial Lolita (1962), and the satirical Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). He was already becoming notorious for his perfectionist process of filming and desire to be in complete control of the project. In most ways, he was very close to becoming "Stanley Kubrick," the much-celebrated ideal of a great filmmaker.


It was 2001: A Space Odyssey that brought him to that level. The film is famous for its four-part structure, two of which feature no dialogue at all. It's best-known segment is the third, in which, on a mission to Jupiter, the ship's artificial intelligence HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) rebels against the ship's crew, including astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). It's also well-known for its visual effects, then revolutionary and earned Kubrick his only Oscar win. But it is perhaps most notorious for how the film raises more questions than it answers, with a loose narrative spanning millions of years and only connected by large, black, rectangular monoliths.

Over the years, there have been numerous interpretations to what Kubrick's epic is really about. These interpretations range from the possibility/impossibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe to more bizarre theories, including proof that Kubrick helped fake the 1969 Apollo moon landing. A lot of the talk about "what it all means," though, causes some of Kubrick's more formal achievements to be overlooked. Particularly, the film's editing - courtesy of credited editor Gary Lovejoy - is remarkable in how it subverts conventional editing techniques, sticking to one crucial type of cut.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Short Takes: Godzilla, Belle, and Other Films Viewed October/November, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted (dir. James Bobin, 2014)


Truth be told, the Muppets' movies - much like The Muppet Show itself - have always been hit-or-miss,  living or dying by their human co-stars and impish humor in equal parts. The Muppets, the 2011 Disney reboot, succeeded largely thanks to the film's engagements with the Muppets' history and the affably goofy performances of Jason Segal and Amy Adams (themselves real-life Muppets). Muppets Most Wanted, the sequel to that film, doesn't quite fare as well.

Now reunited, the Muppets agree to stage a world tour with the help of Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais). Dominic, however, is in cahoots with Constantine, "the world's most dangerous frog" who bears an uncanny resemblance to Kermit the Frog. Constantine swaps places with Kermit, landing the latter in a Russian gulag run by Nadya (Tina Fey) while the former uses the tour as a front to stage a number of heists.

As before, there are songs courtesy of Bret McKenzie, the best being "I'll Give It To You (Cockatoo in Malibu)," a goofy lite-disco number. But there's little in the way of the anarchic glee that is the Muppets' hallmark, replaced by gentle gags attached to a thin plot that's been stretched to its breaking point. Of the human performers, Ty Burrell fares the best, playing an thoroughly incompetent Interpol agent who has charming buddy-comedy chemistry with Sam the Eagle (now with the CIA). Fey and Gervais, on the other hand, never quite fit in, perhaps because their brands of humor aren't quite suited for the Muppet brand. The Muppets never fail to get a laugh; there just aren't enough in this film to earn the title "most wanted." C+

More after the jump.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: City Lights (1931)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #50 (tied with Ugetsu monogatari and La Jetée)

By 1931, when multi-hypenate talent Charlie Chaplin finished City Lights, Hollywood had undergone the most seismic shift in film history. Al Jolson sang and danced his way into the national consciousness with The Jazz Singer in 1927, the first "talkie" picture, a film with synchronized sound (now the norm). In an instant, silent film stars were rendered obsolete. Theaters across the country began removing their orchestra pits as audiences demanded talkies. Musical extravaganzas became the norm, fully capitalizing on the popularity of sound. And with them came a new breed of movie star: theater actors suddenly made the jump to film, becoming bigger sensations than ever. Meanwhile, silent stars such as Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and others found themselves out of work, their voices becoming liabilities rather than assets to their schtick.


Chaplin, however, stubbornly refused to change. He insisted that City Lights be produced as a silent film, even as the form was virtually extinct. The film underwent multiple changes, beginning production in 1928, but one thing remained the same: it starred the Little Tramp, his incredibly popular comic creation. Even then, though, the film was never guaranteed to be a success; between City Lights and his previous film, The Circus (1928), the United States had fallen into the midst of the Great Depression, in addition to the rise of sound cinema. Nothing was certain for Chaplin.

And yet, the film ended up being one of Chaplin's most successful, both commercially and critically. By asserting himself as an artist in a nearly-extinct art form, Chaplin bloomed into his peak form.

More after the jump.