Monday, September 29, 2014

The Elephant Man

           David Lynch is a director who is, to put lightly, difficult to write about.  Like the works of Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, Lynch’s films are surreal and ambiguous art that are genuinely unforgettable.  That being stated, most of his films are so surreal that they feel alienating.  They are also so divisive that most people, including critics, cannot agree on what are his classic films. It is maddening, even for me. Nevertheless, The Elephant Man is a straightforward film by Lynch’s standards but his surreal flourishes make this film very unique.  The Elephant Man is a biographical film about John Merrick, a man famous for being horrifically disfigured and disabled by a series of enormous tumors. Specifically, the film is about Merrick’s transition from a carnival attraction to a source of medical studying at the London Hospital for his remaining years. The premise alone is heartbreaking but what make this film unique is how David Lynch stylized the picture.
            To put simply, David Lynch made The Elephant Man to look like Frankenstein. It was shot in black and white, thick shadows that cover lavish sets, and has a string based musical score that evokes ideas of fear and loneliness. The idea sound exploitive but it works because Lynch intelligently uses this style reveal the exploitation of Merrick. Since Frankenstein’s Creature and Merrick a born to a world that is violently fearful to things they do not understand, whether it is science or physical defects, one cannot watch this film without recognizing a tragic parallel.
            Of course the film is not just Lynch implicitly waging a finger at those who have laugh and mocked a person’s appearance for two hours, the tale is more nuanced than that thanks to a fantastic acting ensemble.  John Hurt is unrecognizable as John Merrick but he never lets his elaborate make up do the acting for him; through a carefully soft tone of voice and use of his environment, Hurt portrays the modest yet self-aware Merrick perfectly. The best of all is Anthony Hopkins portrayal as Merrick’s doctor Frederick Treves. Hopkins’ Treves is fascinating because conflicted he of his own method. Treves is a man who thought he did the right thing by taking Merrick out of the circus, but he still on display in the hospital, it is just a cleaner circus.  To see Hopkins’ character begin to realize his own hypocrisy is a morose but subtle transformation.

            Even though it is one of David Lynch’s simpler films The Elephant Man is still a difficult film to watch.  It could have easily gone down the path of Radio or Rain Man by appraising a Merrick for merely existing but instead it dabbles into the implications of how people interact with people him.  Was he being exploited?  Did people truly love him as a person? Do such implications even matter as long as Merrick is happy?  The Elephant Man is sad and at times uncomfortable to watch but it is also a poetic and beautifully acted film that deserves to be seen.  
           (The Elephant Man is available on Netflix, Blu-ray/DVD and Amazon Prime)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Big Trouble in Little China

           Many years ago an evil magical warlord named Lo Pan ruled the distant land of San Francisco, with an iron fist.  For plot reasons Lo Pan kidnaps the fiancé of Wang Chi, a restaurant owner who knows kung fu.  But in doing so Lo Pan and his army make the mistake of stealing the big-rig truck of the most stubborn, crazy, and mullet-wearing truck driver in America, Jack Burton.  As one might expect, Big Trouble in Little China is no Oscar contender but whatever the film lacks in class it easily makes up for it with a sense of adventure, bombast, and self-parody.
            Big Trouble in Little China is essentially director John Carpenter’s comedic ode to martial arts movies.  As seen in his previous works (The Thing, Halloween, and Assault on Precinct 13) Carpenter is a straightforward director but he is also a very rowdy one as well and it shows in Big Trouble in Little China.  More than just massive fight sequences and stale fortune cookie joke, the film is loaded with bright magic, wonderfully ridiculous costumes, explosions, skeletons, and there is even a cave troll, it just randomly appears but at that point the film already had me hooked in its lunacy.  Such random spectacle would reduce lesser films to a rambling mess but Carpenter keeps the story in focus, making it feel like an Indiana Jones film on coke.
            The anchor that keeps the film grounded is Kurt Russell’s self-effacing yet charming performance as Jack Burton.  What makes Jack Burton so funny and fascinating is how clumsy and out of place he is in the story.  The thing with Jack Burton is that thinks he is an action hero but is about as effective as a truck driver can be against an army of kung fu fighters.  If anything Wang Chi does all of the hard work while Burton trips through most of the conflict.  Kurt Russell plays up his goofy action star persona to emphasize Jack Burton’s ineptitude and he never loses his charm or composure in the process.  Jack Burton could easily look like a stubborn jackass but Russell’s natural self-aware charm lightens the character into an ineffectual hero that anyone can root for.  Burton is cocky but he knows that he is out of his depth, which makes his willingness to help his friend Wang Chi even more admirable.
            Big Trouble in Little China is a film that merely aims to please and that is perfectly fine because of how much it gets right.  It is loaded with fantastical Jackie Chan style action and with enough magic to blow up a circus tent.  Best of all is that it is all anchored by a funny self-deprecating performance by Kurt Russell. If there is a major flaw with the film is that it offers little depth beyond Russell, the action, and the special effects but at least it has a sense of adventure.  To this day, bad blockbusters like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and The Expendables have this problem of being made by filmmakers that coast on the momentum of their newest special effects tools. Things like 3D cameras, CGI, and Smell-O-Vision can only engage the audience for so long if the plot and characters are treated like an afterthought. This is why I love John Carpenter’s work because at his peak he always found adventure in the stories he worked on.  Sure the whole plot of Big Trouble in Little China stems from some jerk trying to get his truck back but he is an endearing and fun jerk to hang out with.  Ultimately, Big Trouble in Little China is like a hilarious tall tale being told by a very close and possibly drunk friend at a party and who does not love that?

            (Big Trouble in Little China is available on DVD/Blu-ray and it is streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Big Parade

            A challenge for many critics is to convince their audience to watch a silent film. This is not to say said audience is impatient (please don’t leave) it is just difficult to gauge whether a film works as entertainment or as just a relic.  Like, “sure Grandpa, you played with sticks as a kid but that doesn’t mean I should trade my Kindle for one.” That is why I tend to recommend silent comedies or things like Triplets of Belleville; visual humor is more appealing than say: German Expressionism, Soviet films, or D.W Griffith’s aggressively controversial work.  Nevertheless, there are is a group of “pre-Talkie” Hollywood films that are both grand, deep, and fun to watch, among them is King Vidor’s World War I epic The Big Parade.
            One thing to keep in mind with The Big Parade is that was made in 1925, a raucous moment of peacetime in America, meaning that King Vidor was never had a reason to make a propaganda.  Therefore, so he had the freedom to say whatever he wanted with The Big Parade.  This makes The Big Parade very unique because not only is it a WWI film, a rarity these days, but a contemporary WWI that is as brutally honest as The Hurt Locker was about the Iraq War.  Nevertheless, the film is much breezier than most war films due to having a night and day structure.
            Tonally, The Big Parade can be split into two films; the first half is a romantic comedy of manners about a three American soldiers stuck in reserve in a French village, trying to woo a village girl.  The other half being a horrific melodrama about said soldiers marching to the frontlines with the entire platoon slowly being picked off.  Surprisingly this structure works because both halves are strong in their own right but also due to the way comedy aspect linger and then suddenly vanishes.  During the first half of the story it is easy to forget that the war is spreading across the setting, making the violent second half all the more terrifying and tragic.
            That being said The Big Parade would have fallen apart if not for its fantastic main cast and their chemistry within the film.  John Gilbert was an absolute star for his time and it shows here, he is a charming and versatile lead that can play comedy and drama with graceful ease.  Renée Adorée is a hidden gem, in this film she is proves to be a stronger performer than the likes of Lillian Gish. The chemistry between Gilbert and Adorée, as a soldier and French villager who fall in love, is both gleeful and passionate; they are so delightful to watch that to see them get separated is almost too cruel. The supporting cast is also sublime; Karl Dane and Tom O’Brien in particular are unique as both comic relief and as military archetypes. Dane essentially plays Forrest Gump but with a goofy pretense for honor, O’Brien is a cocky blowhard who fears the frontline, meanwhile Gilbert is fearfully stuck between their viewpoints.  Ultimately these characters are scared; regardless of whether it is concealed, stated, or forgotten, they are trapped together in the same hell and the entire cast sells that idea perfectly.  
            The funny thing about The Big Parade is that it is a glamorous Hollywood war film about how unglamorous war is. It was as epic as any film could have been back then; it featured the biggest stars in the world, and had fantastic moments of fun.  But it is clear all of this escapist fantasy stuff could not hide the horror that was The Great War.  The Big Parade essentially an admission that the idea of glory died amongst those millions, if it was not a lie in the first place. The film is very brave but it is a warm and glossy experience that one will gladly get immersed. Anyone who loves period melodramas like Atonement, War Horse, or even Titanic should check this out. Beyond just hugely influential, The Big Parade proves to be a surprisingly entertaining, graceful, and modern film after nearly 90 years.

            (The Big Parade is available on Blu-ray and DVD)