Thursday, April 25, 2019

Movie Review - "Gone with the Wind" (1939)

So it's finally come to this.

I've been putting off watching "Gone with the Wind" for the better part of ten years, seemingly ignoring one of the most important movies ever made and the highest grossing when adjusted for inflation. And it wasn't because I thought I'd hate it or that it wouldn't live up to the hype, and it certainly wasn't because of the subject matter, but simply because of its length. At just slightly under four hours, I think it's safe to say "Gone with the Wind" is the longest film I've ever watched, while still firmly holding the belief that any movie over three hours becomes a chore after a while. However, never watching "Gone with the Wind" would be like never watching "Citizen Kane," so despite my reservations, I felt now was finally the time to sit down and watch this sprawling civil war epic and see just how this film has mesmerized audiences for 80 years.

And after those four hours just flew by, it is hard to argue against "Gone with the Wind" being one of the greatest films ever made. There's such a massive sense of awe and wonder in this brightly colored film, giving the movie the look of a classical painting come to life. At times, it feels like cinema was invented solely for this kind of movie, with its gorgeous back drops, breathtaking cinematography accompanied by a flurry of a score from Max Steiner, all while these larger than life characters shine brighter than the sun as their egos threaten to extinguish each other in a brilliant display that would rival a supernova. The only other movie that accomplishes all of this amazement just as well is "The Wizard of Oz," both released in 1939, though "Gone with the Wind" somehow feels even more fantastical than the land of Oz through the romance between it's two leads, Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable).

There is so much to love about these endearing characters, not the least of which being Leigh and Gable's witty banter and their undeniable fiery chemistry, but what I took away more than anything else was their authenticity. Despite the amazing production design, colorful dialogue and the many detailed depictions of the south during this conflicted time, none of that worked quite as well as the flawed yet strong characters of Scarlett and Rhett, how they always fumed and battled for supremacy like it was the only thing that mattered. They live every moment like it was their last, and we watch the highs and lows of that play out like any great tragedy with the most sincerity ever shown on screen.

Ultimately, "Gone with the Wind" is the ultimate cinematic epic, capturing a moment in time that was beloved and treasured, yet can never be again. The length doesn't feel nearly as awful as I thought, because no moment in this movie is wasted, adding to this grand picture that only cinema can offer. It is both sprawling, yet personal, covering an entire society while feeling like it was made for these two egotistical characters. To me, this film is the definition of "larger than life."

Final Grade: A

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Movie Review - "The Leopard" (1963)

"The Leopard" is an Italian period piece about a revolution in Sicily in 1860 where the middle class became the dominant power instead of the high society royalty that was as ancient as the city itself. The main character is played by Burt Lancaster, an aging prince who enjoys the lavish lifestyle he's been able to live proudly and arrogantly, believing more in the city of Sicily than its people, but slowly comes to realize that his reign and enjoyment is coming to an end. The soundtrack was composed by Mario Luoz, who also created the unforgettable sounds of "The Godfather," and his work here adds a lavish yet decaying atmosphere to the film that it so desperately needed, striking just the right emotional note.

I've been hesitant to watch "The Leopard" after I learned the version I have dubbed over all of Lancaster's lines in Italian, and it certainly hurt this version of the movie. While Lancaster conveys so much heartache and loss through just his intense facial expressions, something he has always been stellar at, his performance doesn't hit quite the right emotional notes due to his dubbing not always having the same intensity he would. No actor has ever been quite as passionate and outspoken in his roles as Burt Lancaster, and it feels like something is missing when it's not his voice.

Overall, "The Leopard" is a serviceable period piece. It captures the heartache of the upper class and the joy of the middle class wonderfully, achieved through production design, music and cinematography. Lancaster's performance works at certain moments, especially in the quieter scenes, but it doesn't work as well as it could have. The pacing is slow and arduous at times, and the fact that its over three hours can make this one a chore to sit through. Still, as far as Italian period pieces go, this is still elaborate and lavish.

Final Grade: C+

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Movie Review - "Akira" (1988)

If I had to describe "Akira" in one word, it would be "influential."

That might seem like an easy word to throw around for a 1988 film, but that doesn't make it any less true. Every single frame of "Akira" is dripping with life and vibrant colors that every animated film since then has aspired to be like. Most animations try desperately to capture the movement of life, but "Akira" is soaking in it, where every piece of animation practically jumps off the screen. Whether that's the dominating neon landscape of Neo Tokyo, the breakneck yet fluent motion of its high-speed motorbike chases, or just the way its many characters move like real people instead of imitations.

"Akira" is what all Japanese animations aspire to be - cool yet sophisticated, thought-provoking while always trying to entertain, fun yet there's always a dark side lurking nearby. And with the post-apocalyptic world this film creates and its no-nonsense characters that take life by the reins, it's not hard to see why this style of storytelling is so successful. This is the moment when the world could finally start taking anime seriously, and see it as its own art form, different from any other style of animation from the rest of the world.

The film is bold and grotesque, but in the same way as other post-apocalyptic films like "Blade Runner" depicting how messy and cluttered the future would be. What separates "Akira" from those films is how well it uses the fluent, descriptive animation to showcase this world, doing things that no other movie can do. For this reason, I respect "Akira" more than any other animated movie for doing something so adult with animation, yet it always looks so stunning.

Final Grade: A-

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Movie Review - "Pet Semetary" (2019)

Despite having never seen the original "Pet Semetary" or having read Stephen King's novel, I do have an interesting history with this story. My mother swears that the scariest movie-going experience of her life was seeing the 1989 "Pet Semetary" when she was pregnant with me. She swears to having nightmares for weeks after watching this desperate man do everything he can to give his children a fair chance at life like every other kid, only for it to end horrifically. In some way, I think it scared her so much because she could see herself in the father's position, understanding the lengths that he goes to for his children. Much like "The Exorcist," I feel both the 1989 film and this movie become frequent but deeply personal nightmares when seen from a parent's perspective.

And while the newest "Pet Semetary" does a fine job of conveying this fear and showing the cogs turning in the head of Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), the impact and weight of his decision doesn't carry as well as it should. The film instead gets lost in a lot of horror clich├ęs and tropes, especially jump scares and fake outs, especially in the third act. By the end of the movie, it all feels so distant from its cautionary tale and instead feels like a zombie movie gone wrong. The acting from Clarke and Amy Seimetz, who plays Louis' wife Rachel, often feel lost or uninterested in all the death that surrounds them. The only actor who turns in a worthwhile performance is John Lithgow as the old but experienced Jud Crandall, as Lithgow conveys just how conflicted and torn-up his character is.

Overall, there are some things "Pet Semetary" does nail, especially the unsettling atmosphere and Louis' character progression. The slow pace works in the first half of the movie, as Louis comes to grip with the world he now finds himself in, but that same pace doesn't work as it builds towards a climax. I don't think this film hits nearly as hard as it could have, and instead goes for quick shock value far too often, which it didn't need to.

Final Grade: C

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Movie Review - "Shazam!" (2019)

After years of superhero movies being as adult and mature as they can be, it is refreshing to have one about the joys and wonder of being adolescence and having fun. The best way to describe "Shazam!" is if "Big" was a superhero movie, taking every opportunity it can to use its unique premise of a kid in an adult body. The best part of the movie is Zachary Levi as the adult version of Billy Batson, who nails the excitement and whimsy of a child having this amazing gift thrust upon him, with moments of extreme excitement as he learns what his powers are, while other times he's overcome with giddiness when he realizes he can buy beer, only for that moment to be soured when he tastes beer.

"Shazam!" never loses sight of its childish view of the world, always optimistic with its many characters looking before they leap. Yet at the same time, Asher Angel's performance as a young Billy Batson elevates this above childhood wish fulfillment, delivering in the more emotional moments of this unique coming-of-age story, making "Shazam!" optimistically naive, without ever venturing into being juvenile. The film is light on drama, but high on playfulness, fantasy, action, and of course, fun. When you picture an servicable yet enjoyable superhero movie for people of all ages, it'll probably be "Shazam!" that comes to mind now.

Final Grade: B+

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Movie Review - "Great Expectations" (1946)

David Lean's "Great Expectations" is the definition of charm and class without ever having a character I would consider "classy." Lean's gothic take on Charles Dickens novel envokes haunting imagery of broken people trying to find a place in the world. At times, the film is tragic and bleak, especially in the decaying mansion of Miss Havisham that acts more like a graveyard for the living, where Miss Havisham can spend her time stewing and spinning her spiderweb. While other times, the film is rather corny when it focuses on the simple life of Joe the blacksmith, dim-witted and loyal, as he never stops praising his wife and adopted son, Pip (John Mills). But in the middle of all this is Pip, boy who starts out with nothing, becomes a man who gets everything he ever wanted, and yet never loses sight of his joy for life. Pip's journey is charming in how it plays with both of these vastly different worlds, turning what would have been another period piece into a timeless tale of what it really takes to be a gentleman.

Final Grade: A-

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Movie Review - "The Sea Hawk" (1940)

If you loved "Captain Blood," then "The Sea Hawk" has all of the same pirate loving qualities, as well as a charismatic yet sophisticated performance from Errol Flynn. "The Sea Hawk" also benefits from having captivatingly villains with some cunning strategic plans, while also being elevated by some gleefully evil acting from Claude Rains and Henry Daniell. And despite this being a black-and-white movie, there is some wonderful and surprising use of color in this movie that threw me for a loop. But the crowning achievement of "The Sea Hawk" is certainly its score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and how it perfectly captures the awe and majesty of swashbuckling and adventures on the high sea. Korngold's scores influenced many of today's great composers, in particular John Williams, and you can hear just how much Korngold influenced scores like "Star Wars" and the Indiana Jones movie just by listening to the bold, sweeping music of "The Sea Hawk."

Final Grade: B+

Friday, April 5, 2019

Movie Review - "Easter Parade" (1948)

When I learned that Gene Kelly was originally given the lead role in "Easter Parade" but had to step out when he broke his ankle, and would instead be replaced by Fred Astaire, I realized just how different Kelly and Astaire's acting styles are, and how Kelly's forceful chauvanistic attitude would have made this movie insufferable. And yet, Astaire's grace and drive to focus on the show over romance makes the lead character so much more compelling after losing his broadway dance partner and gets so fed up with her that he's convinced he could pick a random chorus girl and make her the next big star, though it certainly helps that he "randomly" picked Judy Garland.

The plot reminded me a bit of "My Fair Lady," plucking one "nobody" off the street and turning them into a somebody. It also has a very similar feel to Garland's "A Star Is Born" as it chronicles her rise from learning the basics of Broadway to becoming the talk of the town. But "Easter Parade" benefits from a rather odd set of romances that at least one party always seems to be ignorant of. Along with Astaire and Garland, you also have his former dance partner (Ann Miller) and his best friend (Peter Lawford) who instantly falls for Garland. It's not so much a love triangle, as much as a love rhombus. This certainly adds another dimension to an otherwise average musical, with Astaire and Garland both in their element.

Final Grade: C+

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Movie Review - "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex" (1939)

I never thought I'd see a 1939 film were one of the biggest stars at the time would completely disappear in a role like it was the worlds greatest magic trick. But "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex" certainily proved me wrong by turning Bette Davis into the living embodiment of Queen Elizabeth I. From the makeup and costumes to the mannerisms to the subtle way she holds herself around her subjects and around Lord Essex (Errol Flynn) in private, I never once thought I was watching an actress trying to imitate one of the most famous English queens. But what really sold me was her dialogue, how it was practically dripping with regret and loss, how it was killing her to be queen and how much she wants to just be a woman. There is so much heartache in those words and so much passion in Davis' performance that it makes her one of the most tragic characters in all of cinema.

It's too bad Errol Flynn's performance as her forbidden lover does not reflect this towering performance from Davis. Flynn gives the same type of macho, chauvinistic performance we've seen in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and "Captain Blood," and his action hero one-liners and witty comments do not mix with Davis acting her heart out. At times, he feels like a child trying to perform Shakespeare alongside a professionally trained actress. I never once felt like these two were truly in love, though it was always Flynn at fault, never Davis. Overall, if you want to check out "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex," watch it for Davis' performance, the beautiful technicolor cinematography and the elaborate outfits and makeup that all truly capture a more elegant time period.

Final Grade: C+

Movie Review - "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (1949)

"Take Me Out to the Ball Game" feels like a strange mix of "On the Town" and "An American In Paris" - it has the wit, style and dance moves of "On the Town" but Gene Kelly is back to being the creepiest guy in the world that can't stay away from women. As great as his dance moves are here, Kelly is so unlikable in how he treats other people, especially the female owner (Esther Williams) of the baseball team he plays for. He makes Pepe Le Pew look subtle and sophisticated by comparison. Beyond that though, the musical numbers are wonderfully choreographed and the songs are catchy and whimsical, so I can't say this is a bad movie. It's just that, of all the musicals Gene Kelly did, especially with films like "Singin' in the Rain" and "On the Town," this isn't his finest work, but is certainly still enjoyable.

Final Grade: C+

Monday, April 1, 2019

Movie Review - "The Long, Long Trailer" (1954)

Despite having never seen a full episode of "I Love Lucy," one thing that certainly comes across in "The Long, Long Trailer" is the love and admiration that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz have for one another. The chemistry between these two as they attempt to haul an ungodly long trailer through the Colorado mountains on their honeymoon is vibrant and so lively that they can turn something as simple as backing a trailer up into an uproarious affair. Of course, Ball and Arnaz were married in real life, so the duo bickering and whining comes across as genuine, but with that same charm that only Lucille Ball could bring. This is the perfect showcase of Ball's comedic timing and witty personality that made her a household name, while also having some of the best slapstick outside of a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton film. A wonderful film to relax and unwind to, where the biggest stakes are worrying if the trailer will make it to the top of the mountain.

Final Grade: B+