Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Two Very Long and Unfunny Reviews

            Before I forget, congratulations to Devin Sloane whose book project Anagrin: The Escape recently reached its goal on Kickstarter meaning that it is one step closer to being published.  For more info check his blog here.
            Well another month has passed and I still have not started a second Great Movies of the Decade.  I actually have two excuses as to why I have not got any work on this blog done, my best excuse is that finals week is looming, and the other one is Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition.

Minecraft: It's the best way to ruin your life.

            Anyway, I do plan on continuing with my Decades series though at this point it will be done when it is done. But never fear, here are two reviews that wrote during the semester. The first one is about the original King Kong, which is admittedly a personal favorite of mine.  It may seem too formal for its own good, but who cares, King Kong is awesome. 
King Kong
            King Kong is the classic adventure-horror film about a film director Carl Denham and his lead actress Ann Darrow who travel to a mysterious island to film an adventure film.  The natives on the island worship the mythical Kong, a giant ape that requires a mate.  When the crew least expected it, the natives capture the Ann Darrow and they give her to Kong as a sacrifice.  Carl Denham and Jack Driscoll the first mate, rescue Ann Darrow, capture Kong and send him to New York City for exhibition.  The story of King Kong is iconic almost to a detriment with the final climax on the Empire State Building stamped into the collective psyche. Yet the best aspects of King Kong are some of the most under-appreciated in both the film and filmmaking in general. Aspects like the music, cinematography and the editing provide greater drama in the picture better than the script or actors can ever achieve. Even more astonishing is the art direction and the creature effects, which were made with such immaculate detail and they only look better with age.
            King Kong is a film that has a deceptively simple structure, with the narrative having traditional structure and many actor giving bland performances, but the other elements transcend these minor faults.  The art direction of King Kong is impressive even by contemporary standards. There are an eclectic number of settings in King Kong, including rooms in the cruise ship, the village on the island, the sacrificial alter, the caves in Skull Mountain and of course, the Empire State Building.  The art direction appears to be inspired by the German Expressionist style, which was a design philosophy that called for the sets, costumes and make-up to be immaculately detailed and stylized so that the overall aesthetic reflected personality of the characters.  For example, there is one scene where Ann Darrow has to perform a screen test in what Denham calls the Beauty and the Beast costume. Beauty and the Beast is recurring theme in King Kong that is used to symbolize, or in this case foreshadow, the forceful relationship between Kong and Ann Darrow.  The costume is a very silky and delicate design that complements the pale, blonde look of Ann Darrow. The costume essentially portrays her as a defenseless character. Her defenseless demeanor is further emphasized when Carl Denham tells her to scream for the camera.
            The cinematography in King Kong is deceptively simple because aside from the climax in the final act, it is not flashy.  The camera rarely moves in King Kong, but with scenery as finely crafted as this, movement is really not required.  The majority of the action is shown with thorough long shots and establishing shots that are meant to flaunt the set designs, and it works beautifully. It is clear that the cinematographers put much thought into the position of the camera because the shots provide a nuanced look at the horror.  Each scene of Kong on the island is shot in the perspective of him as the largest predator while the people look to be nothing more than ants. It also helps that the shots in King Kong were edited with a tight, fast pace and so seamlessly.  The finest combination of both the cinematography and editing is when the ship crew and the island natives try fruitlessly to keep Kong from breaking through the ancient gate.  The scene is structured at first with a cross-cut between shots of Kong trying to punch down the door and people pushing the door back.  The crowd of people is filmed intimately through mediums shots and close ups which convey their chaotic desperation to save themselves.  There is even one shot in this scene where a sailor tries to shoot Kong with a gun through a hole in a gate, as if that one bullet would hit an unforeseen weak point. When the lock finally breaks, it cuts to a long shot of the gate opening, revealing Kong at his most horrifying.  The humans have never looked as small as they do in this powerful shot.
            The musical score in King Kong is a fascinating gem because it is too eloquent for a film with this premise.  King Kong even begins with an overture, which would be a baffling idea in any other giant ape picture, but the score in the film still succeeds in conveying mood.  One of the reasons that Max Steiner’s composition in King Kong is so great is that in order to enhance the emotional experience he uses recurring musical passages, also known as leitmotifs. An example of this is the sequence where the ship is finding the island and the crew hears tribal drums.  As the ship gets closer the drums get louder until they finally reach land.  At this point, Max Steiner’s orchestration is brought into the foreground, completing the leitmotif of the tribal dance. What makes this sequence so brilliant is that the music incites tension through its increasing tempo. Since the audience does not know what is on the island the music assures them that the characters are going further into dangerous territory.  
            The most talked about feature of King Kong is the special effects then state of the art that made Kong, the dinosaurs and the jungle come alive.  An underrated aspect of the special effects is the use of matte paintings and projection in order to create the expansive jungle possible, which were blended seamlessly even by after eighty plus years of age.  Of course the famous special effect is Kong and the dinosaurs, which were made with stop motion animation. The process of stop motion animation involved the use of miniature puppets, the problem with it is that Kong and the dinosaurs look like puppets.
            Sadly, the painstaking animation of these creatures is not is considered realistic by modern standards.  In an age of computer generated imaging, the animation in King Kong has not aged well, but it still succeeds as animation.  Stop motion animation wizard Willis O’Brien animated these creatures in such way as to have actual character; or in short O’Brien made them act.  The dinosaurs in King Kong move with great fluidity and genuine menace.  As spectacular as Kong appears it is easy to miss the quirks that O’Brien gives him.  When pricked in the finger by Jack Driscoll, Kong reacts by the moving his hand away and examining the wound. After breaking the jaw and killing a Tyrannosaurus, he plays with the jaws of the corpse. These idiosyncrasies of Kong in particular are very interesting because they show him to be more than the just a killing machine, he is a round character. Probably the most bizarre moment of characterization is when Kong is alone with Ann Darrow in his cave. While Ann Darrow is unconscious Kong picks her up and starts peeling off her clothes. He examines the clothes with a strangely gleeful curiosity as he keeps stripping off her dress, piece by piece. When Darrow finally wakes up he decides to be even more lecherous as rubs his fingers on her body and smells them.  The reason why stop motion animation of Kong is so effective is not because it was realistic; but because the animation made him a character, and a perverse one at that. 
            King Kong is a fantastic film because it is essentially a silly horror story made with the sophistication of an epic, which would not have been possible if it were not for the work done behind the camera. The animation by Willis O’Brien is unquestionably amazing in that he made the titular character into more than just a killing machine.  Any tension in the plot would have been weakened or lost if Max Steiner had not composed the music with such showmanship.  The combination of the art direction and cinematography are used perfectly to highlight the drama on screen. The story of King Kong is one of grand spectacle and the fact that so much effort was put into creating this is why it is such an iconic film.

            The next review is actually a about a screening of Daisies, which  I recommended last month, but I felt like I was too vague in explaining why it was so great.  Hopefully this recollection of my experience will give you better insight as to why this film is so funny, weird and cool.  Also I wanted a good excuse to show this picture again.

Look at it. It's like every episode of Family Guy was distilled into one image.

Watching Daisies at the LACMA

            A fun little art film called Daises was screened at the Los Angeles County of Modern Art on April 7, or more specifically in the Bing Theater.  The theater building is deceptively simple in design with mostly wooden walls, a stage curtain covering the screen, and the overall interior seems to be very dusty.  But after walking around the building, looking at the posters, photo stills and the various displays of actual celluloid, it is clear that this building was built with a love for cinema.  There was a very large, but organized crowd at the theater with many of them appearing to be film aficionados , or a bunch of hipsters and teachers.  The host of the screening was Bernardo Rondeau, an assistant curator of the theater.  He talked for a couple minutes about the history of Daises and Fruits of Paradise, another film being screened that day, and also about the prints themselves.  He commented about a woman named Vera Chytilová, who is known for being part of the Czech New Wave and directed both films.  Apparently, Daisies was banned in the then Czech Slovakia due to offensive content.  Now only one print of Daisies exists in the world and was shipped from a cinematheque in the Czech Republic to the Bing Theater.  The history of Daisies is interesting; but the film itself is very strange.
            The premise of Daisies is very simple with two teenage girls, played by Ivana Karbanova and Jitka Cerhova, who believe that since the entire world is going bad then they shall act bad in return.  This vow leads them on a series of comedy pranks, gags and misadventures that can be compared to the anarchic stunts of the Marx Brothers.  Highlights of this film include getting drunk at a nightclub while heckling the dancers, doing a mock fashion show on top of a feast, and cutting phallic foods with scissors while a bachelor is trying to talk on the phone.  While these comedy sketches can be dismissed as grotesque but they are far from nonsensical.  The overall point of Daisies is to be a political and feminist riddle where each of these comedy vignettes express, satirize or express a political ideal while the whole film maintains one idea in order to maintain some logic. 
            The idea the director Vera Chytilová is expressing with Daisies is to point out how women are taught to conform under very strict and superficial ideals that contradict with a barbaric contemporary society.  The opening sequence, which is a montage of a spinning flywheel and archive footage from World War II establishes the state of society.  The repetitive spinning of the flywheel represent the machine-like authority of society while the war footage represents the cruelty of it all.  The acts of anarchy that these girls commit provide visual metaphors that satirize class and standards.  It is implied that society expects these girls to act like a demure, submissive figure but they refuse to conform to that ideal.  Instead the girls act purely on instinct, without worrying about others questioning their actions.
            Another fascinating aspect of Daisies is that it has a very innovative audio and visual style that is just as surreal as the characters themselves.  Characters will creak like a wind-up toy, the picture constantly changes colors and there are many stylish camera shots throughout, but the highlight of picture is the editing.  Vera Chytilová uses what would seem to be every known editing trick in order to keep up with the frenetic pace of the performers.  One noteworthy editing technique used in Daisies is a smash cut in action, which works by having one cut end with a character starting to perform an action and completing the action in the next cut, but in a different location.  Chytilová uses this smash cut as an efficient way to establishing a new location.  A notable example of this cut comes at the beginning of the film when one girl slaps another hard enough to fly into the next scene.
            Unfortunately, as entertaining as Daisies is, the film has some unavoidable flaws with the most glaring being the actual print.  The print is in dire need of restoration because it has a lot of damage.  It is understandable to use the print, since it is the only one of Daisies in existence; yet it does not seem healthy to project celluloid that old because there are many seconds of frames that are terribly worn.  Another problem is that the overall theme of feminism and non-conformity is held by a foundation of confusing symbolism.  Since Chytilová intentionally structured Daisies to not have a traditional plot, then it would imply that all of these many vignettes would hold some sort of symbolic meaning, but that is not always the case.  There are many moments in the film that the visual metaphors are either stretched, confusing or just ring false.  It was funny to see the girls cut each other’s limbs off with scissors and watch their limbs float in the air; but this scene provide no statement aside from that fact it looks funny, thus the scene feels pointless.  However, even with this irregular political tone Daisies is still a fun film to watch.
            The fascinating thing about Daisies is that it has this provocative political allegory, which calls for people to question their roles in society, yet it never ceases to entertain the audience. The crowd at the Bing Theater, as intellectual as they appeared, was laughing like kids throughout the entire screening.  What Vera Chytilová succeeds with Daisies is that she does not fall into that trap of avant-garde filmmaking where the film becomes an incomprehensible exercise of self-indulgence. It is true that Daisies has no plot and some gags do not contribute to the themes of the film, but the surreal humor of the film is too captivating and entertaining to detract. 

Well that was longer than I thought, see you next month.


  1. Thanks for the shout-out man. And btw, if Minecraft is consuming your life, why have I not seen you on, hmmmm????? I expect some more quality minecraft time shortly! :D.

    1. I'm a Minecraft ninja. I redecorate your @#$% when you least expect it.