Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Kid (1921)

            The Little Tramp is now a father? The nerve of it all! It is amusing yet frustrating to find comedies about dads because they always seem to be about giving some random movie star bachelor a baby and praying nothing catches fire. The Kid is probably the film that started this clich├ęd storyline yet there is still magic to be found in this ancient comedy. Clocked at almost an hour, The Kid is one of Charlie Chaplin’s shortest yet more accomplished films, which shows him fully developing that complex mix of comedy and empathy that would make him so beloved. 
            The film admittedly begins like a horrific melodrama, a poor single mother leaves her infant son in a the backseat of an expensive car, which is then stolen by two carjackers, who then discover the crying baby and then leave him in a garbage filled alley. One could forget that they are watching a comedy before the Little Tramp even shows up. Shocking prologue aside, the film itself revolves around a series of set pieces of the Tramp as a single father and the charming hijinks between him and his newly adopted son. Their lives are shown to be difficult as the Tramp struggles to feed each other but his ingenuity reveals some hilarious brilliance. Who knew a kettle could be made into a durable milk bottle? The film gets even better when it jumps forward to when the baby turns five, becoming Jackie Coogan, who is a goofy little straight man for Chaplin. They are both partners-in-crime and father-and-son, which is both endearing and fun to watch.
            There is also a subtle grace to Chaplin that not only makes the Tramp believable as a father but also a good one at that. This grace can be found in quiet moments like when he makes sure the Kid doesn’t hurt himself when he licks maple syrup from a knife during breakfast or when cleans his face before work. Within the comical mugging is a patient, caring and loving father figure who would devote his entire life just to see this kid live well. The Tramp could be a charming bum or a goofy accountant, but the character and the film would be empty schmaltz without these qualities. While The Kid is not as elaborate or cohesive Chaplin’s later works like The Gold Rush or Modern Times, this is a uniquely beautiful film that stands among his best comedies. Father’s Day or not, The Kid is a must see for those how love good family comedies.

            For Dad, a goofy accountant, patient enough to deal with my weird obsession with the movies.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Martian

            The Martian is one of the films that escaped me in 2015, which is insane because it became one of the biggest hits of the year, a popular Oscar contender, a hated Oscar contender, and a Golden Globe winning comedy, somehow. Yet I ultimately saw it for the first time this month. Better late than never. The Martian in question actually an earthling astronaut and botanist named Mark Watney who is stranded on Mars after getting swept away during a very convenient storm and he must survive for at least 4 years before his rescue. Annoying weather aside the film is actually a fun and well-made survival tale and space procedural that recalls Apollo 13 but replaces the sentimentality with witty optimism.
            The key to a great procedural, especially one revolving around hypothetical science, is that the procedure—in this case, the science behind traveling to and surviving on Mars—must be engaging without compromising the details, and The Martian succeeds wonderfully. The use of Mark Watney’s web cam footage allows the character to essentially breathe exposition without feeling invasive, it also helps that Matt Damon’s performance of Watney sells the techno-babble with a funny and laid back persona, think Chris Hadfield meets Tony Stark. This expands further in the scenes in NASA where plain terms and “show & tell” rule the day.
            Another key factor is the art direction and aesthetics of the film. Like in Ridley Scott’s films Blade Runner and Alien, the art direction is impeccably immersive, but in contrast to the bleak space of those films, every piece of scenery of The Martian builds a world where science is building the future. Earth in this film is a grounded interpretation of future; the future tech is clean and simple, which exemplifies the efficient nature of NASA. The space ship calls back to the sterile layouts of Discovery One in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The best sequences are still the ones that take place on Mars, which looks like the Monument Valley in a John Ford western. When Watney walks along the red foothills, he is the loneliest frontiersman imaginable, but each step also feels so triumphant because of where he is standing.
            The Martian is a solid film, and one that was arguably unfairly scrutinized during that chaotic awards season. It is unassuming compared to traditional Oscar fare—especially to self-important junk like The Revenant—which is often confused for being workmanlike. Nevertheless, The Martian is good blockbuster that feels wonderfully familiar and inspired at the same time. It would not have changed my annual top ten, but it stands comfortably next to Bridge of Spies as a classically made film that is worth remembering.
            (The Martian is available on Blu-ray/DVD. It also recently came out in the newfangled 4K disc format, which is ultra-high definition. 4K is a tempting purchase but please make sure that your television and player is actually physically capable of playing in this format before buying the film.)

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Comic Book Movies, French Style

            So it has come to my attention that comic book movies are all the rage during the summer. Heck, they are so popular that it is for these films are evolving into a multi-billion industry. Captain America: Civil War and Deadpool are undeniably fun films but I also enjoy the films that are made in reaction to said comic-book films. At the 2016 Florida Film Festival, I had the pleasure of watching two French animated films that play with the style and tone colorful of comic book adventures that provide nice alternative programming to the latest blockbusters.

Phantom Boy
            Phantom Boy is a fun little film that is unique hybrid between 1920s French serials and modern super heroism drawn in the style of a children’s book. The film is a about a young cancer-stricken boy who can become a ghost whenever he sleeps. He uses his powers to fly around New York City and spy on his family but once a Picasso-faced fiend hacks the city he joins a cop and reporter in order to save the day. The story is a brisk adventure at heart but it becomes very dramatic when it explores the child’s disease. One scene where the boy uses his power to spy on his mom right after she visit him in the hospital is rather gut wrenching. The drama itself is a bit formulaic, however this does not diminish the classic thrills and humor that Phantom Boy provides in abundance. Regardless whether one prefers Judex or Iron Man, this is the type of film that can recall the magic of playing masked vigilantes as a kid.

April and The Extraordinary World
            In contrast, April and The Extraordinary World is a rather ambitious piece of odd and marvelous spectacle. Based on the comic stories of Jacques Tardi, the film is a hand-drawn adventure that takes place in the 1940s, yet the world still fueled by coal and steam, and famous scientists are going missing. When a conspiracy reaches April, aspiring scientist and hero, enlists the help of a thief named Julius and her talking cat Darwin (it makes sense in context) and goes on a wonderfully strange journey to save the day.  The story is too hectic to for a summary to do it justice but what is clear that the film is pure sci-fi bliss, loaded with steam-punk machinery, laser beams, and two Eiffel Towers all sketched with vibrant style that evokes Tintin, Dick Tracy and Studio Ghibli. The storytelling is also stellar as it can dynamically blends comedy and intense action without losing rhythm.
            The escapism alone makes the film worth seeing yet what is so fascinating how it is anchored on humanity’s relationship with science. It is shown that science is not inherently evil, but a tool that could be used for violent means by the fearful and ignorant.  However when treated with care and respect, science can heal the world. It is a refreshing take on a classic Sci-fi dilemma, especially in a time when even the best superhero films still use science stuff as a means to heroically punch people down. 

            As of this writing, neither film is out on video or streaming yet, which makes them difficult to find for now, I’ll try to keep track of release schedules. However, this is also a good time as any to check out your local independent theaters or film festivals where films like Phantom Boy and April and the Extraordinary World thrive. Sure one has to deal with subtitles but these are just as fun, as any superhero film released this year, if not more. Besides, buying tickets to a family outing at an indie theater is a far better deal than a Blu-ray of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice: Ultimate Edition.

If at first you don't succeed, drag it out for 30 more minutes.