The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951): It hardly seems coincidental that the director of photography, Leo Tover, and the composer, Bernard Herrmann share a title card in the opening credits to The Day the Earth Stood Still. Both of those elements, together, help push Robert Wise’s Cold War allegory above much of the other science fiction fare from the 1950s.
Tover delivers moody, saturated tones of light and dark, and Herrmann’s use of theramins and electric organs created the archetypal alien film score that would be emulated for years.
The Day the Earth Stood Still was among the first — and remains among of the best — of those sci-fi message films, tackling the complicated issues of paranoia, international policy, war, security, destruction, and humankind’s decidedly prickly relationship with advances in technology.
The film is clear in its politics (unapologetically pro-U.N.) and equally apparent in its religious overtones (Michael Rennie’s Klaatu, on a mission of save the people of Earth, assumes the name “Mr. Carpenter” at one point and experiences overt resurrection). But it’s Wise’s direction and synthesis of the elements that helps deliver a thrilling, suspenseful film.
★★★★½ (of five)
The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993): If I were asked to select films that demonstrate the importance of a director, one of those films would have to be Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. Here is a film, a period piece based on Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, that rises far above most others in its genre due to Scorsese’s choices and eye for cinematic majesty.
The art direction (by Scorsese regular Dante Ferretti) is impeccable, the cinematography of Michael Bellhaus is wonderfully relaxed and picaresque, and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing keeps the film running smoothly.
But important to mention too is that Scorsese and co-screenwriter Jay Cocks give themselves time to explore Wharton’s novel and don’t feel rushed to compression (The Age of Innocence would also figure into any list of good films adapted from novels).
And the cast, from Daniel Day-Lewis to Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder, bring a simmering quality to the suppressed emotions of turn-of-the-century New York. Day-Lews in particular captures the torn quality of a man caught in a difficult situation, and fits right in among Scorsese’s many other protagonists.
★★★★½ (of five)
Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944): This twisty and mysterious noir has remained one of the genre’s most watched, thanks in no small part to Otto Preminger’s able direction and a screenplay that keeps the viewer guessing throughout. The titular Laura (Gene Tierney) is the stated victim in a murder investigation conducted by a hard-nosed NYPD detective (Dana Andrews).
As his investigation continues he encounters Laura’s fiance (Vincent Price) and her wealthy, foppish menor, an influential newspaper column played by Clifton Webb in a steal-every-scene-you’re-in performance. But things are not as they seem, and far be it from me to disclose anything further to those unacquainted with the film.
Part of the strength to Laura is that not only does it take risks involving story twists and rounding unforseen corners, but it does so with a sense of utmost confidence. And as anyone ever caught in a noirish web knows, confidence can be ensnarling.
★★★★ (of five)
Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986): The driving force of Oliver Stone’s Platoon is the unspoken phrase “war is hell.” It’s manifested well as visual and aural elements: the film’s great success is portraying what the Vietnam War was like from the perspective of the “grunts,” the men in the jungle who faced not only the stated enemies but their inner demons, their fellow troops, and skin-crawling residents of the jungle.
The cinematography by Robert Richardson provides for a panoramic view of war, and wisely eclipses and obscures the Viet Cong from the audience, delivering a sense of constant confusion and forcing eyes to explore the screen. Less impressive, however, is that the film’s philosophical and political inclinations also boil down to “war is hell,” as brief and as shallow as that phrase is.
Perhaps war films do not need to have a great, ambitious message — and I think there’s an argument to be made that they don’t — but Platoon could have knocked me over completely if its tatement didn’t seem subordinate to its technical achievements.
★★★★ (of five)
Gojira (Ishirô Honda, 1954): Despite its many flaws, the first Godzilla film still comes together — barely. The key, or glue you might call it, is the metaphoric potency that gives the film a startling sense of power; watching it almost sixty years after its initial release, and almost seventy years after the atomic bombs decimated two Japanese cities, the fear (and the failure of anyone to do anything to alleviate or cure that fear) weighs heavy on the viewer.
This pre-personality Godzilla, stirred awake through nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean, is a fire-breathing killing machine, as apathetic to its victims as an insentient object, and scenes of the victims and destroyed objects are eerily reminiscent of post-Nagasaki documentary footage.
Though the film possesses this undeniable urgency, the problems still abound; the scenes of destruction could use some editing, the cinematography is murky and dank (no doubt to conceal the seams on the rubber suit), and by relying on the single metaphor to carry the film, the actual screenplay doesn’t do much work. Still, there is an impressive score by Akira Ifukube, and if the scenes of the monster in action don’t quite deliver, there’s always the memorable, chilling sound of its scream.
★★★½ (of five)
Walk the Line (James Mangold, 2005): I’ve always been a bit of a biopic apologist, but in order to succeed, the film must avoid the trap of simply showcasing an individual’s life and instead have something insightful to demonstrate about its subject and the way the audience, or society at large, is reflected in her or him.
James Mangold’s study of Johnny Cash provides moments of sheer delight — a penniless and desperate Cash auditioning for Sam Philips, a rousing recreation of the live show at Folsom Prison, the way Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) plays off of, and deeply frustrates, June Carter (a magnetic Reese Witherspoon) in their pre-marital days — but it avoids the difficult aspects of exploring its subject with much more than a cursory survey.
The result is a typical Hollywood gloss of an infinitely more fascinating person, a film that adheres too rigidly to the five-act narrative structure. Great soundtrack, though.
★★★½ (of five)
Interiors (Woody Allen, 1978): After a string of successful comedies, Woody Allen branched into drama with Interiors, the story of three sisters and the disillusion of their parents’ marriage. The film has been criticized for being too “Bermanesque,” which I don’t necessarily think is a problem; in fact, I think it was a bold and noble move for Allen to channel a cinematic hero.
The problem as I see it is that Allen loses himself in the material, and the resulting film — rigid, chilly, intriguing — is unfulfilling precisely because it has no voice of its own.
The characters come across as rough drafts of the sort of upper crust, erudite, artistic personalities that Allen would write much better in the 1980s. Diane Keaton and Richard Jordan provide an exaggerated, though engaging, portrait of depressive writers struggling to balance family with art.
★★½ (of five)
The Lost World (Harry O. Hoyt, 1925): The tremendous history surrounding this film — an early experiment in feature-length stop-motion animation by the special effects guru who would later spearhead the animation in the vastly superior King Kong (1933) — makes The Lost World more of a necessity to view from the vantage point of history instead of entertainment.
The truth is while The Lost World brings with it many silent cinema charms, it lacks any compelling storytelling aspect to balance the draw of the technical work.
★★ (of five)
Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid To Ask) (Woody Allen, 1972): Once-controversial questions about human sexuality are isolated and ridiculed in seven vignettes under the direction of Woody Allen.
A Medieval fool tries to seduce a queen with an aphrodisiac, a mad scientist conducts strange sex experiments, Jack Barry hosts “What’s My Perversion?” — all ambitious in their attempted anesthetization of sex and fetishes, but in the end also painfully unfunny.
Most famous perhaps is the final vignette, which illustrates a “mission control”-like center inside a man’s brain that prepares, puts into action, and calls the shots as the man struggles to have sex. Tony Randall plays The Operator in sterling deadpan; Allen himself plays a sperm who’s afraid of looming death — no surprise. This vignette is rightly remembered as the closest the film comes to actual comedy.
★★ (of five)
The Greatest Story Ever Told (George Stevens, 1965): This bloodless and passionless (I don’t use those terms ironically) rendering of the Gospels fails to fully capture the aspects that make Christ — purely from a narrative and character standpoint, with all religiosity aside — such an engaging and powerful individual.
Part of the problem is definitely Max von Sydow’s robotic interpretation of Christ, but the entire film is stagey, stodgy, and disjointed. Perhaps it is best known today for the cavalcade of celebrity cameos (most famously John Wayne’s appearance as a centurion with a single line of dialogue).
Charlton Heston appears as John the Baptist, but for some reason outfitted as if he was a caveman. He plays the camp card infinitely well, though. When confronted by a soldier who says “I have orders to bring you Herod,” Heston seems primed for Planet of the Apes as he calls back, “I have orders to bring you to God … heathen.”
★½ (of five)