Monthly Archives: July 2014

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

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*. The novel had been a political cause célèbre, and won the Nobel Prize for literature. The film went on to do blockbuster box office (as of 2010 it ranked as the eighth-highest grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation) and was nominated for ten Academy Awards (winning for cinematography, screenplay, art direction, score, and costumes). Even the music (the hideous, tingling “Lara’s Theme”) topped the charts. And yet today I think Doctor Zhivago is mainly looked upon as a tedious monstrosity, if not a joke.
*. Well, it has been fifty years. That’s a very long time. But it’s worth noting that even on its release it was met with generally negative reviews that complained of its soap-opera sensibility and curiously ineffective use of a whale of a budget.
*. Overture? Intermezzo? Entr-acte? What year is this?
*. It had to come to this: the sort of movie that makes you think David Lean should have just become a second unit director for the latter half of his career. Did he ever see a train he didn’t want to shoot? And what’s with all the people gazing out of windows? I think this reflects Lean’s own touristy, sightseeing sensibility. There’s nothing interesting happening inside, so let’s cut to another postcard.
*. 200 minutes. I passed on listening to the full DVD commentary. I couldn’t take another slog through Yuri and Lara’s not-so-brief encounter.
*. It’s amazing how Klaus Kinski manages to steal the show during his brief appearance. No matter how big the production, there’s one actor who was never stuffy!

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*. There’s no sense of real history happening, and no politics worth the mention. How could a movie like this be so bland, inoffensive, and non-controversial?
*. The novel (I am told) is quite freely adapted. Did Pasternak ever explain why they were bothering to lug that balalaika around? Was that Yuri’s Rosebud? It seems an inconvenience more than an item with any personal meaning. No one even plays it!
*. Pauline Kael: “It isn’t shoddy . . . it’s stately, respectable, and dead.” David Thomson: “it is beautiful, but worse than that, things are arranged in order to be beautiful.”
*. Do note, however, that Kael singles out the final shot of the rainbow as being particularly disgraceful, a point Thomson thinks so good he repeats it. The rainbow, however, is in the novel, so don’t hang that one on Hollywood.
*. Robert Bolt’s script is Masterpiece Melodrama, but given Lean’s completely insensitive direction I’m not sure it even makes a difference. There are two early moments, for example, that could have been effective: Guiness tearing the flower apart as he marches along, and the rebellious soldiers killing their officers. But neither scene registers any emotional force.

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*. Omar Sharif. He has no chemistry with either of his leading ladies. He has watery eyes and that’s it. But you can’t put all the blame for his performance on him. Lean told him to “do nothing” on screen: to not act or emote at all. He was simply to be the film’s “observer.” This in a love story!
*. Alec Guinness is ridiculous as a Soviet commissar. And Tom Courtenay only a little less so.

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*. I suppose the art direction is top drawer, but much of it looks fake. Because much of it was. The interior of the “ice palace” is probably the worst of it. Beeswax, apparently, with acres of white plastic stretched outside for snow. Was it really necessary to go through so much trouble and expense to create a pseudo-realistic effect? Why not just shoot someplace where there was a lot of real snow? Logistics, I suppose.
*. There’s not much more you can say about a three-hour Russian winter that isn’t even effective as a soap opera. And the film’s most glaring weaknesses – its pace and sentimentality – are also the qualities that have dated it the most. As bad as it is, I’m afaid it’s getting worse all the time.

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Hangover Square (1945)

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*. I keep wanting to write the title of this movie as Hanover Square. Hangover Square sounds a bit too much like Gin Alley.
*. Here’s the explanation: The novel (by Patrick Hamilton, a now mostly forgotten figure who also wrote the source works for Rope and Gaslight) is set in “darkest Earls Court,” a place that goes by the local nickname of Hangover Square because it has so many late-night drinking establishments. This means something because in the book George Bone is an alcoholic. In the movie this meaning is lost and the title is explained by a street sign that tells us the address really is “Hangover Square.”
*. What a terrific opening crane shot, following the action of the lamplighter from the street, up the lamppost, and then diving through the window into the antique dealer’s shop. Indeed, the crane shots throughout this movie are terrific, as are all of the exaggerated and expressive camera angles.
*. Why Brahm didn’t go on to greater things is a mystery. He kept busy, mostly in television, but without anything to match his work in the ’40s.

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*. In the opening murder we also see a very early use of the killer’s POV. The movie that’s usually credited with the first extensive use of this technique is The Spiral Staircase, which came out the same year. Who gets bragging rights?
*. Speaking of the opening murder, why does George kill the antique dealer anyway? Did he just happen to be in the shop when he had an episode? We don’t know.
*. Perhaps a better question is why he tries to kill Barbara directly after being rejected by Netta. I suppose it’s because Barbara had just been “badgering” him about Netta, but it still doesn’t seem right.
*. Kim Newman refers to this as basically a remake of The Lodger, and that’s not far from the truth. Zanuck definitely wanted more of the same, and what he got in this case was a similiar story with the same cast, same producer, same director, same screenwriter, and even the same sets.

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*. The disposal of Netta’s body is pure genius, and creepy, but how the hell did it get by the Breen Office? Even today it seems shocking.
*. Not only is the bonfire huge, but according to the promotional material it was built indoors! How the hell did that get by the fire office?
*. It’s very neat how the film’s actual score, by Bernard Hermann, doubles as Bone’s final concerto. Hermann’s work throughout is standout.
*. It’s hard to believe George is such a sap, but Linda Darnell does a great job as the scheming slut. It’s a conventional role, but she manages to give it some curves. Trivia: Marlene Dietrich was originally slated for the part but it didn’t happen.
*. It’s interesting to note that Cregar and Sanders weren’t particularly thrilled about working on this picture (though Cregar had originally campaigned for it), and both gave Brahm and Fox all kinds of trouble. But they were still professionals and turned in good performances.

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*. What a great bit of composition in depth as we look POV through the piano, past the conductor, past where Barbara is sitting in the front row, and then following her as she looks behind herself when George Sanders’s Dr. Middleton enters the hall outside the concert room.
*. You can tell Cregar had lost a lot of weight since The Lodger. He doesn’t look healthy at all. Which I guess adds to the role, but was unfortunate.
*. It’s a minor point, but Cregar really doesn’t know how to lift or hold on to a cat, does he? I thought that was something everybody knew how to do, but the poor cross-eyed Siamese here really has to put up with some awkward manhandling.
*. This was Cregar’s last role and you do have to wonder what sort of career he would have had. I can’t help comparing him to Victor Buono, and not just because they were both big men who died young and who were gay. They both landed in similar type material, and seemed capable of much more.
*. I’m not sure I enjoy this film as much as I do The Lodger, but I think it’s probably Brahm’s best work. Looking at the cast, the direction, the music, and the overall atmosphere, I think it’s one of the real hidden gems of 1940’s cinema.

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The Lodger (1944)

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*. They made Lowndes’s book into a movie five times. This was the third. Hitch’s was the first, and he always wanted to take another crack at it.
*. Brahm had done a good job with bad material in The Undying Monster so he was given this as a sort of reward. And he didn’t disappoint. Indeed, it was so successful they decided they had to do it again, which led to Hangover Square a year later.
*. This is a movie that still doesn’t receive a lot of love. You won’t even find much information on it online. And yet it’s nicely shot, well paced, well acted, and well directed.

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*, Laird Cregar. He was huge. 6’3″ and over 300 pounds. He looks like a double-breasted zeppelin, especially with all those low angle shots (I don’t think he’s ever shot from above). And I guess it was his weight that led to his tragic demise at the age of 31 (following stomach surgery just after he completed his next movie, which was Hangover Square).
*. Even his voice fits the film’ s atmosphere: deep and foggy like a soft air horn of warning.
*. Usually I’m not keen on the camera tricks of this era, but I like what Brahm does here. The frequent high- and low-angle shots work nicely even if they are finally overdone. There are also a lot of really nice bits of composition. I love the scene near the beginning where the silhouettes of the policemen are placed in front of the dance on the corner, and the one where Cregar (as if he wasn’t imposing enough!) is multiplied in the mirrors surrounding Merle Oberon, and the light coming up from the slats of the catwalk painting Cregar’s face in animal stripes.

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*. Brahm uses bars of shadows as a recurring motif. Note the one odd scene near the end where he even has them placed at the top of the stairs. What could be throwing such shadows? I have a feeling Brahm just wanted them there.
*. A movie ahead of its time in the presentation of a psychosexual serial killer. How many were there before this. M?
*. I don’t agree with Silver and Ursini (who do the DVD commentary) saying that we know from Cregar’s first appearance that he’s the Ripper, that he’s “completely and totally guilty.” I’ll grant the fact that he takes an assumed name is suspicious, but it seems to me that Cregar projects ambiguity and vulnerability, and that the audience feels some sympathy toward him. I do remember thinking that, as with Hithcock’s earlier version, there was a chance he might be innocent. He had some reason for wanting to get rid of his black bag, as Cedrick Hardwicke points out. But you can’t see a movie again for the first time.

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*. While Slade may be a killer, he does have a crush on Merle Oberon’s Kitty Langley. And that always seems to count for something. As with all the classic movie monsters, we have to love a lover.
*. Slade is a complex, sympathetic figure: tortured, and then finally hounded to his death. He has a depth you don’t often find in today’s psycho slashers. Imagined today, the Ripper would only be an inhuman force of evil, a comic book villain without conscience or indeed anything that could be called a personal psychology. The big difference between then and now may be less the advent of gore than the erasure of any sense of individual moral character. Now there’s a cultural shift worth reflecting on.
*. George Sanders is just one of those people you can’t stop watching. Even when, as here, he has very little to say or do.
*. The ending strikes me as ahead of its time in the isolation of Slade’s heavy breathing on the soundtrack.
*. There’s a weird homoerotic subtext. Is Slade gay? Was he in love with his brother (whose somewhat androgynous picture he finds “more beautiful than any woman”)? Is there an incest angle as well? How messed up can a person get?

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The Great Train Robbery (1903)

*. What’s so “Great” about it? Why not just call it The Train Robbery?
*. Because it was only 1903 but the movies were already into the big sell. It wasn’t enough that you were looking at moving pictures. You had to be seeing something really special.
*. It’s sometimes said that the Western was America’s only native dramatic genre. The movies certainly weren’t American, at least in the early days, but they would be. It seems a good fit then that, in terms of narrative film, this is how it all began.
*. There’s a hell of a lot of plot for ten and a half minutes, isn’t there? You could make a feature out of as much today.
*. I don’t much mind the fact that the body thrown from the train is obviously a dummy, or that the dead guard can’t keep still. These are rookie mistakes. But why are the robbers so worried about getting their feet wet in that shallow stream? One of them slips and falls into it and the water barely rises above his ankles.
*. What did movie audiences want to see? Violence. People getting killed. People dying, in dramatic fashion. Just look at the poor engineer’s assistant getting his face beaten in with a rock! And don’t laugh at the conventions that had them expiring in such eloquently physical ways. Those gestures, in particular the dramatic reaching for the sky, were all they had before exploding packets of blood and CGI. Or sound.
*. Back projection was probably the key technical development here, and I think it works quite well even if the images don’t always seem to line up properly. The pans are also effective, demonstrating one of the ways you had to tell a story on film before a real grammar of editing had been formulated. The camera carries us along, for example, through the woods, across the stream, onto the horses. It’s a seamless narrative flow.
*. Filmmakers just love trains, don’t they? It’s like the tracks are a strip of film and the movie is a fairground ride.
*. An ending, or a beginning? Porter apparently didn’t care whether the cowboy shooting at the camera played before or after the little narrative that it has no real relation to. I think it’s better at the end (where it’s always put), even if it does seem enigmatic.
*. The cowboy at the end is Justus D. Barnes, who also plays the leader of the outlaws. Are we not meant to recognize him? Scorsese was right to resurrect Joe Pesci at the end of Goodfellas as an act of homage, as it has the same effect. Is he really dead, or was it all just a movie?
*. I get a bit of a kick out of the hand-coloured prints, but this was a dead end, an arts-and-crafts carryover into the industrial age that doesn’t quite fit. But also, it isn’t very good. There are other hand-coloured prints from this era that look much better. This was a rough job.

The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

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*. This is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom, and that’s not a good thing. I’m not a music critic, and indeed I’m not even all that musically inclined, but I find the music here to be lugubrious and the lyrics beyond (or beneath) insipid. At times they are unintentionally quite funny (e.g.: “Am I to risk my life / To win the chance to live?”). There are a couple of nice movements in some of the songs, but that’s it.
*. The most memorable bits of ear candy are also the parts that Webber has been accused of plagiarizing (“Music of the Night” is said to derive from Puccini and “The Phantom of the Opera” from Pink Floyd). In short, I don’t think Webber was a musical genius. As an impresario, however, he has quite a track record.
*. I kept thinking that at some point we’d get at least one snappy show tune to liven things up, but the closest we get is with the gossip and scandal number (the opening part of “Notes”), and that is quickly shut down.
*. To be fair, I think it’s true that for most operas, musicals, and even albums, there are only a couple of highlights set among a load of fill. Even Wagner’s audience was only interested in “bleeding chunks” torn from his scores. And we are a long way from having the attention spans of nineteenth-century opera-goers.
*. As a film of the musical, director Joel Schumacher (not one of the greats, even on his best days, see below) is put in a lyric straitjacket. A number of scenes have to be padded out with visual stuffing just to keep things moving along until the song ends (see, for example, the characters who run through various sets during the two “Phantom of the Opera” numbers). Other set pieces like the “Masquerade” bit, seem totally pointless to me, with lyrics not worth the repeating (or writing, in the first place).
*. Horror has left the building. The phantom isn’t all that threatening or disfigured (he just looks like he has some burns around his one eye, which is odd given the backstory that introduces him as a kind of Elephant Boy). In fact, he doesn’t seem that masculine either. But then all of the leads here appear to have just stepped off the cover of a paperback romance novel. The hairstylists on this shoot must have put in some major overtime.
*. It’s not much of a mask, is it? But it’s interesting how such a minimal design became so iconic. It went well with the marketing.
*. Despite this being a filmed play, I still think Chaney’s 1925 version was more theatrical.
*. The story doesn’t make sense. Why would the owners of the Opera Populaire make such a big to-do to get their old diva back when (a) nobody seems to think she can sing; (b) she’s a total head case and impossible to work with; and (c) the public has already moved on and embraced her replacement, Christine Daaé?
*. Back to Joel Schumacher. There was no excuse for Batman Forever, and Batman & Robin almost single-handedly crushed any faith I had left in the film industry. Honest. If you want a director who can waste, and I mean really waste, a huge amount of money then I don’t think anyone can top Schumacher. He isn’t even a decent engineer of spectacle, on the level of a James Cameron or Peter Jackson. This movie is another example of his inadequacy. He tries to overwhelm the audience, but that was easier on stage, where Webber really ushered in an era of spectacular musical theatre. In film, it’s just not as impressive. The falling chandelier could wow a live audience, but it had been done on screen just as well eighty years earlier.

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Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

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*. A postmodern Phantom, with a backstory that drops Leroux’s original completely for something more along the lines of the 1962 version, then throws in Faust, A Star is Born, some Hitch, some Poe, some Wilde, some drugs, and . . . we’re not at the Paris Opera any more.
*. A grab-bag of odds-n-ends, and that’s not an accident. De Palma loves to compose through a montage of influences, and the results are better than most of the in-jokery you get from similarly inclined directors.

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*. The Faust story was there from the beginning. It’s the Paris Opera’s big production in both Leroux’s novel and the 1925 film. So in some ways De Palma was going back to the story’s roots.
*. Perhaps the most dramatic shift is that the Phantom isn’t in love with Phoenix at all. He just thinks she’s got a great voice for singing his music, which in turn is the only thing he seems to care about. A true artist.
*. Or perhaps an even greater change is making William Finley’s Phantom into a secondary character. Let’s face it, this is Paul Williams’s movie, and his Swan is a character with no relation to anyone in the original story.
*. Poor Phoenix. As noted, Winslow Leach isn’t in love with her. And neither is Swan, who just wants to quickly exploit and discard her, executing her on live TV for ratings. A true artist. Hey, this is a movie with a message!

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*. Doing some background on the film I’ll admit to being surprised when I found out that Paul Williams was still alive. And indeed in 2011 there was a documentary made about him titled Paul Williams Still Alive. He was only 34 when he made this movie. I thought he was older.
*. A movie that flopped at the box office (but not in Winnipeg!). I find this hard to understand. Over its full length it’s easily as good a movie as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which came out a year later.
*. I don’t know why de Palma likes split screens (or screens within screens) so much. Most of the time it just seems like he’s trying to be clever. In Dressed to Kill it really got on my nerves. Here, however, following the bomb in the car trunk in two parallel continuous shots (an homage to Touch of Evil) is pretty impressive.

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*. The Undeads look like Kiss or Alice Cooper on a Caligari set. De Palma always seems quoting someone. As with the rather tedious parody shower scene, which I don’t know why he bothered with.

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*. Explain this again to me. Swan makes a deal with the devil, and records a video of the whole thing (which even includes cuts from different angles). Then the video is supposed to get old (a la Dorian Gray’s picture) while he stays young? But he’s not getting older on the video. And what if the film is copied? Does it carry a curse like that video in Ringu? I don’t get it. It all seems like a really awkward way to introduce a flashback.
*. Did they actually film at Sing-Sing? That warden’s office looks identical to the one in Kiss of Death.
*. If Leach had really got his head stuck in a record press I suspect he would have had more damage done than just some burns on the side of his face.
*. I think the real testament to De Palma’s achievement is the fact that this film has held up so well. You’d think such hip and trendy material would date very quickly and seem entirely ridiculous today. But, at least for me, this movie doesn’t seem to get old. It has a lot of life in it with every re-viewing.

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The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

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*. Hammer was grave-robbing Universal throughout this period, so doing the Phantom was inevitable.
*. Originally this was a project scripted for Cary Grant as the romantic lead (it’s sometimes said that Grant was set to play the Phantom, but this is wrong). Grant’s agent had other ideas.
*. Some people really like Herbert Lom in this role. I think he doesn’t have much to do. The same goes for the stars of a lot of the Hammer/Universal adaptations. Christopher Lee barely had to show up to play Dracula for Hammer. But I digress.
*. Lord Ambrose D’Arcy, meet Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber. Talk about a role model. That’s influence!

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*. I really like Michael Gough as the villainous and lecherous D’Arcy, but he doesn’t exactly get his comeuppance at the end, does he? Surely he’ll be back to lay claim to his opera.
*. From Paris to London, home of cockney wenches and leering rat-catchers. Christine’s last name is now “Charles.” Everyone should be able to pronounce that.
*. The flashback is left too late (until after we’ve already figured out everything that happened for ourselves), and goes on too long. I do like the use of the Dutch tilt for flashbacks though. So much better than framing everything in a mist.
*. The usual explanation for the addition of Igor (I’m using a conventional name since he doesn’t have one in the movie, where he is only credited as “The Dwarf,” despite not being one), is that he’s there to do the killing in order to make the Phantom seem more sympathetic. I don’t buy this. Surely the Phantom is ordering the killings done and so is responsible. And the Phantom isn’t that sympathetic anyway, especially given how he slaps poor Christine around.
*. There is some parallel between Joan of Arc’s story and the Phantom’s. Both feature women who hear voices. Both have heroes who get torched. But I wonder if the St. Joan opera was meant to be taken seriously. It seems almost Pythonesque.
*. I like this film a bit more than the 1943 version, but that isn’t saying much. The Phantom’s grotto is a definite upgrade. The mask was just some rag they improvised with, but still works pretty well. The falling chandelier is kept for the end, where it disappoints. Worse, even at 84 minutes the whole thing drags. The male and female leads are blanks, the Phantom doesn’t have enough to do, and the conflict with Lord D’Arcy isn’t resolved. Overall, this is quite a disappointment.

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Phantom of the Opera (1943)

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*. Too much opera. Way too much (tedious, ersatz) opera. And not nearly enough Phantom.
*. Director Lubin wanted a horror film but apparently the studio wanted a musical. No surprise, the studio got the movie they wanted.
*. In Technicolor! How beautiful early colour looked! And they gave it a workout here with the sumptuous furnishings and enough costume changes to fill a warehouse of wardrobes. Not to mention how red they painted Susanna Foster’s lips.
*. All Foster’s make-up actually makes her look older. She had just turned 18 when production on this film began. Nelson Eddy, by the way, would have been 42. That age differential is about right for Hollywood, then and now.
*. “Based on the composition by Gaston Leroux.” I wonder what that means.

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*. It’s interesting that Claude Rains, best known for his distinctive voice, had to work so hard to train his voice for acting (he had a speech impediment and a strong Cockney accent). Is this ironic? Or perhaps what you would expect from someone who put a lot of work into it?
*. Pauline Kael: “there’s something in this morbid kitschy material that really hooks people, and there was a surprisingly scared, enthusiastic response to this bummer.” The contemporary response was mixed. Audiences ate it up, but also laughed at it. Still, there was singing, and colour, and a bit of pretty tame horror. That was all you needed.
*. The female lead’s name has changed from Daaé to DuBois. I think because American audiences had an easier time pronouncing the latter.
*. Fritz Feld comes close to stealing all his scenes as Lecours. So indolent at times he seems almost incapable of standing, or even sitting upright.
*. How tight-ass was the Breen Office at enforcing the film code? They had major problems with some of the costumes in this film showing too much cleavage. Some scenes had to be cut and others re-shot. That’s tight.
*. In the original script Claudin was going to be revealed as Christine’s father. This was later scrapped because of the incest angle. Enough traces are left behind, however, to make the whole thing seem odd, awkward, and (in director Lubin’s estimation) “a little nasty.”
*. Claudin doesn’t want Christina to be a star, or to steal her love. He wants to keep her locked away in the vaults, where she can sing to him forever.

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*. I like it that Christine doesn’t scream when she sees the Phantom’s face. In truth, it’s not so bad. Just some skin damage. Not a very demanding job for the legendary Jack Pierce, who wanted to do a lot more.
*. Notice the complete absence of emotion on Pleyel’s secretary’s face after she throws the acid on Claudin. I don’t know what happened there. It’s like she didn’t think she was in the shot.
*. That’s the same opera set that they built for the 1925 version, and it was recycled again (along with Susanna Foster) just a year later for a lousy Phantom rip-off called The Climax. I believe the set is still there.
*. I was sure I’d seen the actor playing Franz Liszt before, and recently. A family resemblance had fooled me. Turns out the part was played by Fritz Leiber, father of Fritz Leiber, Jr., the SF writer who had a non-speaking cameo in Equinox.

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*. The comic subplot of the two suitors is painful. Since only Nelson Eddy gets star billing, my money would be on him getting the girl. Poor Edgar Barrier.
*. In the big unmasking scene there is a sudden zoom out of focus that I think is borrowed from the original. But I’m just not sure how intentional it was.
*. Overall, this is one of the weaker Phantoms. The plot is padded, awkward, and dull. You just have the sense that no one was quite sure what they wanted the movie to be. It was a successful entertainment in its time, but hard to recommend today.

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The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

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*. A movie with far too tortured a production history to get into here. For what it’s worth, I watched the 92-minute version, which itself is a pastiche of various efforts.
*. As the earliest film version of this story (Leroux was still alive) it’s also the closest to the original source. There are changes, but later interpretations would stray much further. Only the two signature moments – the falling chandelier and the unmasking – would remain constant.
*. Were the 1920s the golden age of film sets? I don’t (just) mean for their monumental scale, but for their atmosphere, shaping of space, and sheer loveliness.

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*. Perhaps it was the carryover from the world of the stage, but there also seems to have been a big step beyond this as well. For whatever reason, the sets here, designed by E. E. Sheeley, Sidney Ullman, and Ben Carre, are marvelous. Just look at that bedroom Erik has set up for Christine — while he sleeps in a coffin next door! The waterways are particular lovely (in the book it’s described as a lake, but it’s usually interpreted as an underground canal system). The opera set (on Universal’s sound stage 28) is the oldest surviving structure in the world built specifically for a movie. You really feel you are visiting another world here, and not just another time and place.
*. Speaking of the sewer system, the business with Chaney launching a submarine attack on the man in the boat is amazing. The basic idea is in Leroux’s novel, but it’s re-interpreted and made more effective. Indeed, at nearly every turn the events of the novel are tweaked to be made more powerful visually, the eavesdropping scene on the roof of the Opera being the best example. That’s just a bit of filler in the book, but here it’s one of the highlights, with the Phantom a work of living sculpture in his flowing cape and oversized gestures.

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*. It’s hard to figure out just what Erik’s point is. Unlike other versions of the story, we don’t see how he has “made” Christine as a star aside from dissuading her competition from taking the stage. Does he see her as a means to some sort of end, or as an end in herself?
*. But then the Phantom is a complex figure, one who has never been presented consistently, even in Leroux. In the novel he is a resentful, sadistic polymath, albeit one with an overriding need to be loved due to having been despised and abandoned by his mother. In later iterations he was more fully associated with his music, a Svengali-like impresario. He also became more romanticized (and less disfigured). In the original, as here, he is both dangerous and pathetic.

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*. The Technicolor Bal Masque sequence (shot in a two-colour system) looks fabulous, though I’m not sure I’d want the whole movie to look the same way. One can imagine the producers going overboard, given the baroque setting. I like it as is: a strange interruption.

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*. Indeed, it looks so good it makes you wonder why colour wasn’t used more at the time (and in 1925 Technicolor had already been around for a decade). The short answer is that it was very expensive and difficult, involving very large cameras, powerful (and cruel) lighting, and a complicated process of print production.
*. What an odd introduction: the man with the lamp and the Phantom’s shadow. It’s like the frontispiece for a book. Or, I suppose, a visual overture. It has no narrative or informational purpose, but does present what will be the dominant imagery of the film, the language of shadows.
*. I love the ballerinas who twirl when they get frightened or excited. I guess it’s the only way they know how to express themselves.
*. I wonder if it was intentional that the big unmasking scene take place at the exact mid-point of the movie. Probably not, since there were so many different cuts and versions of the film. Still, it strikes me as somehow significant.
*. I’ll give the final word to Freud, by way of David J. Skal’s The Monster Show: “Erik’s bulging head and stiff carriage give him the aspect of a ruined penis that can no longer seduce, only repulse the beloved.” As a bald man with a big head, I’m not sure how this makes me feel. Not very sexy, I guess.

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War of the Worlds (2005)

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*. Another remake. Why? Because they could. Because CGI makes everything better.
*. Why Steven Spielberg wanted to do it is harder to figure out. He just takes the material and overlays his abiding preoccupation with the suburban nuclear family under siege. That’s an angle that’s unnecessary here and doesn’t work.
*. I don’t want to hate on Spielberg, but has it come to this? What we have here is the kind of project you assign to a J. J. Abrams or a Paul W. S. Anderson, and expect them to do a better job of it. There’s no magic here at all.
*. I don’t want to hate on Tom Cruise, but he seems to just be posing all the time now. Not only does he have a strut to his walk, he even looks awkward just standing in place. I get the same vibe from Brad Pitt at times. There’s something self-conscious and un-actorly about it. They have the look of flowers that are being looked at.

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*. The special effects look much like every other CGI movie. I wonder when audiences are going to get tired of it, having reached a point where they’ve seen it all before. We’ve seen cities destroyed, bodies torn apart, and monsters and robots of all shapes and sizes. Next!
*. In the featurette “Designing the Enemy” the animators throw around the word “iconic” a lot to describe what they wanted their aliens to be. I suppose because the aliens in the 1953 edition really were iconic. But here there doesn’t seem to be any particularly bold conception to them. If anything they appear retro. The only thing I liked was their foghorn trumpeting (suitable for what appear to be walking lighthouses).
*. This made me wonder: what was the last truly “iconic” SF design? Giger’s Alien? And that was a long time ago.
*. I thought it was a mistake to show the Martians in the original, in part because they didn’t look very convincing. Here they had more time and money but the aliens still look silly. This is taking homage too far.
*. I do think the art direction and photography are nice. There’s something painterly about the proceedings, like vintage SF cover art. And the colour schemes are nice. For some reason Hollywood in the first decade of the twenty-first century had a love affair with washed-out and earth-tone palettes, but mixed with a lot of flashing lights they really work well here.

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*. Of course it’s ludicrous that the highway is jammed but a convenient lane has been left so that Tom Cruise can slalom through the hordes of refugees at top speed. It comes with the genre. Like a lot of end-of-the-world movies, only one person (and anyone else who happens to be holding on to him at the time) matters. Here, that person is Tom Cruise. He must be the last person on the ferry. He must be the only survivor. He must be the only one who can observe the birds landing on the tripod and understand what this means. And so it goes. We’re not that far from the solipsism of the zombie genre.
*. Poor Dakota Fanning. She has talent, but she’s given too large a role here and not nearly enough help from the script. Most of the time she’s left to scream.
*. Ray kills Ogilvy? For what? For digging a tunnel? For talking too loud? For just being crazy? Did I miss something, because that seemed way out of line.
*. The script is idiotic, the drama so forced and artificial it physically hurts. Take the scene where they lose Robbie. Why does Robbie want to run away and join the army when he can see they’re just getting nuked? He doesn’t even have a gun! Why does he have to yoke his father’s abandonment of him into his reasoning? Why is that couple so insistent on dragging Rachel off when she (a) clearly doesn’t want to go with them; (b) is pointing to her father, who is right over there; and (c) they may have other things they should have been thinking of, like running away from the tripods.
*. The bloody business of turning humans into mulch surprised me. In Wells’s novel the Martians are vampires from outer space, feeding on human blood, but there’s no basis for this twist. And it doesn’t make sense. The value of human offal as fertilizer would be negligible and the Martians just seem to be spraying it around everywhere anyway.
*. This has to be one of the most contrived endings in all of film history. First, it’s not enough that the aliens are killed by bacteria. No, we have to see their shields go down and let the U.S. Army blow one of the tripods up with their rocket launchers, just to show that they can! Think about it: there’s no point to that scene at all except to give the audience an excuse to cheer.
*. And then the reunion. Robbie is alive! How did he survive getting blasted by the tripods and make it all the way to his mom’s house? Don’t ask because there is no credible answer. But do note that he calls Ray “Dad” now. And also note how mom’s new boyfriend Tim has been shoved into the background. How convenient!

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