A Star is Born (1937)

Directed by: William A. Wellman

Written by: Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell 

Note: New Zealand has recently issued a content warning to go with the 2018 remake of the film. I will not name it in the interest of dramatic surprise, however, those who would benefit from such warnings should know to look into it.

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While the fourth iteration of A Star is Born takes its turn on the big screen, I figured I should see the original picture. The 1937 piece has a perfect Rotten Tomatoes score, but it is undoubtedly an old movie. It opens in a somewhat over the top fairy tale fashion (think The Wizard of Oz without the magic), and doesn’t do much beyond telling its story along the way. Nonetheless, it is an enjoyable work and a telling historical document.

It would be a bit of a truism to call A Star is Born dated, so I say it, not to imply a limit, but simply to note one of the film’s interesting qualities. The titular star is a woman: Esther Blodgett aka Vicky Lester (Janet Gaynor), and from a distance it’s hard to say if the film’s gender politics are subversive or not. One of the film’s central themes is emasculation, as Lester’s star rises above that of established Hollywood icon Norman Maine (Frederic March). Whether audiences at the time were more likely to read this plot as an endorsement of women’s equality, or a tragic tale of a man losing his place (or none of the above) is unclear from the way the plot resolves itself. And perhaps this ambiguity is a good thing, adding tonal richness to a simple plot line.

While the film may be dated in its depiction of gendered relations, perhaps the more interesting way in which it’s dated is in its depiction of celebrity. When Vicky and Norman star alongside each other in the same picture, audiences leave praising Lester and laughing off Maine’s forgettable performances. One of the notable qualities of this scene (and of A Star is Born as a whole) is its expository dialogue: the characters tell you with painful bluntness what they think of Maine. The more important point, however, is the very fact that the audience obsesses with Maine’s perceived inferiority to Lester. While we still live in a world where actors are praised or critiqued for their craft, the weight of that critique is far less substantial than A Star is Born makes it out to be. Adam Sander hasn’t lost his stardom just because most of his roles don’t share the prestige of Punch Drunk Love or The Meyerowitz Stories. And Sandler isn’t even a great comparison here. As far we are lead to believe, Maine’s acting isn’t particularly bad: the audience has simply, with shocking unanimity, declared him Lester’s inferior.

A Star is Born is a satisfying Hollywood story with a pair of replicable and adaptable themes. As such it doesn’t surprise me that it has spawned three re-makes. Are the remakes justified? For now I’ll have to plead ignorance. Part of me wonders, however, whether contemporary stories can match the odd, yet somehow historically believeable melodrama contained in this simple 1930s tale.

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Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Directed by: Spike Jonze Written by: Jonze and Dave Eggers

WherethewildthingsareGiven all the movies that exist, I’m hesitant to say that there’s no film-adaptation out there like Spike Jonze’s take on Where the Wild Things Are, but needless to say, it’s a statement I’m highly tempted to make. Maurice Sendak’s children’s book of the same name is a simple story: a boy misbehaves, gets sent to his room without supper and eventually retreats into an imagined world of threatening-yet-befriendable monsters. Sendak’s tale in itself does not provide enough material for a direct screen adaptation. As such one could imagination this movie to take the form of a clichéd and mediocre kids film, or a movie aimed at older audiences with little resemblance to Sendak’s text. What Jonze did instead was create a work that was true to Sendak’s book, even as it took a lot of creative liberties.

Jonze’s story has some straightforward resemblances to Sendak’s. The “wild things” look the same as Sendak’s creations, though unfortunately the pink sea monster was omitted. Max, meanwhile, finds the wild things after being sent to his room for his own wild behaviour. His time spent with the wild things is memorable, but though it is more detailed than Sendak’s imagining, it is not in itself a complete story arc. As I watched the movie, however, one particular detail of Sendak’s book rang with me. I grew up with the message that kids of previous generations had it rougher than me: that when they were punished, they were really punished. For such kids, the idea of being sent to bed without supper was supposedly a real possibility. In Sendak’s book, Max suffers such a punishment, and yet, when he returns from the land of the wild things “his supper was still waiting.”

Spike Jonze’s movie is an exploration of anger and wildness. Its characters lash out and get angry at other characters with none exactly sure as to where the line between playfulness and wrong lies. The film opens with Max pelting his sister and his friends with snowballs. Max runs into his “igloo” where he grins blissfully. His sister’s friends subsequently smash his igloo, and as Max looks on devastated his sister indifferently walks away. To Max, this is an injustice. His playfighting should not have led to something that mattered to him being destroyed, and yet it’s completely plausible that this logic did not occur to him and his friends. When Max ventures into the land of the wild things this logic almost exactly reproduces itself. He befriends various monsters including the brooding and particular Carol (James Gandolfini), Alexander the little guy with a sense that he’s being picked on (Paul Dano), the gentle but eccentric and free spirited KW (Lauren Ambrose) ,etc.

As the film progresses Max experiences the anger and anxiety of these characters. Despite being “adults,” the monsters are like children in that their desires and concerns are not always coherent to the outside world. Some of this may be because the monsters simply have unique priorities (like Max uniquely prioritizes his igloo) and some of it may be because the monsters are not saying what is truly on their mind (Max, for instance, is shown to have coherent, mature apocalyptic anxieties, though he never discusses them out loud).

If Where the Wild Things Are (the book) is a fable, its message is that you can be wild and still be loved (your supper will still be waiting). It also teaches one can have bursts of wildness and still love others. Near the end of the book the monsters roared at Max “we’ll eat you up we love you so,” a line that’s repurposed somewhat in the movie. Jonze’s film is undoubtedly an extension of these morals. A question I’m left with, however, is how much it extends them. Should the wild things in Jonze’s movie be interpreted adult-children in the vein of characters like Spongebob Squarepants, or should they be interpreted as adults? And does the impulse to go wild ever die, and how should that influence how we relate to one another?

Oh God! (1977)

Directed by: Carl Reiner Written by: Larry Gelbert

Based on the Novel by Avery Chapman

Oh,_God!_(movie_poster)As a product of the internet age, I’m vaguely aware of a social media account called “God.” It includes a picture of a cartoonish but typical-western-imagining of God and it posts liberal statements. In other words it exists to undermine the Christian right. The idea of God actually being a liberal, socialist, etc. is an appealing one and it can make for good humor. It’s also unfortunately an idea that I feel all too familiar with by now. One of my anxieties about the era we live in is that its an era that kills humor. The internet allows for the rapid proliferation of jokes by amateurs. This saturation of our comic minds leads to humorous tropes becoming unfunny at a worrying pac-

This is the context with which I viewed Oh God! The movie tells the story of Jerry Landers (played by quasi-country musician John Denver), a father of two, grocery store manager and “non-believer” who is invited to have a meeting with God. God (George Burns) is indeed an all powerful creator, however he opts to communicate with his latest prophet, Jerry, with a relatable voice and body. The film thus follows Jerry’s awkward struggle of having to spread the word of God without being dismissed as delusional. The story ultimately pits Jerry against the Evangelical community, as the down-to-earth, non -denominational, vaguely-leftist God Jerry speaks of does not exactly jive with their vision.

There’s not much more to Oh God! than that, and it in fact ends (in a relatively well executed) anti-climactic manner. It’s for that reason that I can’t call the film a favorite. As I said: the God-is-a-progressive trope feels all too familiar. I can’t help but wonder, however, how much I would have liked the movie when it first came out. The film’s Evangelical Pastor (Paul Sorvino) is booked to preach at a football game. His character is thus in a way a stand in for a segment of conservative America, one that in the post-Bush era is all too recognizable. In 1977, however, such a character may have seemed more prophetic.

This criticism aside, I was still quite able to enjoy Oh God!, largely because of its cast. John Denver’s voice and gentle features make him an ideal awkward male lead, while Burns’ ordinary yet charming grandpa affect is a good fit for this conception of God. Burns is infectious but never over the top. The result of this approach is that none of his scenes in Oh God! stand out as particularly memorable, yet the overall portrayal is a strong one. Oh God! might not be the best comedy you’ll ever see, but Burns and Denver still make it worthy of recommendation.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

Written and directed by: Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement

What_We_Do_in_the_Shadows_posterIf you haven’t seen it, you should check out a short (two-season) television series called Flight of the Concords. It’s the tale of two New Zealand folk singers trying to make it in New York. While not over-the-top with its jokes, the show charms through the banter-y dynamic of its stars: shy and clueless musicians Brett and Jemaine; and ambitious-but-even-more clueless manager Murray.

Anyhow, Flight of the Concords writer Taika Waititi and star Jemaine Clement teamed up to repurpose that style of humor and apply it to vampires with What We Do in the Shadows. The film is a “documentary” about a household of four vampires, Viago (Waiti), Vladislav (Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and Petyr (Ben Fransham) in the lead up to a local monster convention. This documentary is “filmed” by humans, a fact occasionally played with in fourth-wall breaking fashion.

Our culture inevitably gets confused when it falls in love with “bad guy” archetypes. Can pirates be heroes and still be pirates, for instance? Vampires provide a unique version of this problem due to, well, their diets. The Twilight saga notably worked around this problem by featuring “vegetarian vampire” (which confusingly means they do drink animal blood, just not human blood). What We Do in the Shadows however, does not try to work itself around the awkwardness. Its vampires indeed eat humans (“victims” being the appropriate parlance), and do so in decently grotesque fashion given the movie’s overall adorable tone. At the same time, vampires are former humans themselves and, therefore, do maintain relationships with living society. This means certain humans, such as the camera crew, are safer than others.

Making nice of, but not toning down the dark, is an approach What We Do in the Shadows uses to deal with issues beyond human-eating. The film makes reference to a number of elements of vampire lore, including the idea that the vampires want to drink the blood of virgins. When asked why this is Deacon says “I think it’s because it sounds cool.” With this line, the film acknowledges the problematic gender politics of established lore, but rather than simply avoiding it, it tastefully embraces the awkwardness. The film also deals with the issue of gender through Jackie (Jackie van Beek), Deacon’s servant and an aspiring vampire, who complains about the vampires being a boys’ club. While her presence in the film may not be enough to make up for the lack of a prominent female vampire in the gang, her protests are a key component of the film’s unique banter-landscape.

What We Do in the Shadows is not a high-action film, and there were times watching it where I wondered whether this was a problem. Ultimately however, each of its characters is well enough established (silly as they are) that they remain endearing long after the credits role. Viago is sweet for a vampire, contrasting nicely with the formerly macabre Vladislav. The cast also includes a cocky victim named Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), a pair of very competent police officers (Karen O’Leary and Mike Minogue) (who now have their own spinoff) and a character named Stu (Stu Rutherford) (I won’t say more except, you WILL love Stu). The film also features a gang of wearwolves (look out for a familiar face amongst them). This scene was no doubt a nod to Twilight, but it remains funny despite its inspiration having faded out of popular culture.

What We Do in the Shadows may make you afraid to walk the streets of Wellington at night. It may, if you are not in fact intrigued by the novelty of being eaten by one of the film’s charming bloodsuckers. In all seriousness, however, if romance and horror are not your cups of tea, rest assured there’s another kind of vampire movie out there, and it may be the best of them all.

 

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

Written and directed by: François Truffaut

Tirez_sur_le_pianisteIf I had not taken on the project of watching the films of Truffaut and Godard side by side, I might not have found things to say about Shoot the Piano Player. A critic at the time of its release said it would only please “true lovers of movies, ” and as someone not even watching Truffaut’s homage to American noir and comedy films in its proper historical context I am more removed from it than lay-viewers of the 60s. Nonetheless, there’s an interesting trait in both Shoot the Piano Player and The Little Soldier (Godard’s sophmore release from the same year) that is a bit more universal in nature.

The implication of the film’s title, an implication better spelled out by Elton John’s album title Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, is that the piano player is an innocent figure. All the pianist does is make music, and life happens around them. Moral philosophers can debate whether such a figure is truly innocent (how can one be passive in a world of injustice, they ask), but such a debate is not what this film is about. Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour) begins the film as such a pianist, but quickly becomes a slightly-modified version of the figure.

The film pulls a bit of a bait and switch, opening with an appearance by a character named Chico (Albert Rémy—the father from The 400 Blows) a comedic, likeable-criminal. Chico, it turns out, is not the film’s focus, his brother (Charlie) is. We are introduced to Charlie when Edward tells him he needs help evading a pair of mildly goofy, but ultimately still dangerous gangsters. While Charlie initially expresses his refusal to get enmeshed in Chico’s world, it soon becomes apparent he has little other option.

Charlie’s story then essentially follows a cynical path: one of finding and losing love, and one of trying to maintain a family that doesn’t exactly help itself. He exists on the cusp of having a fine-to-easy life as a pianist, but misfortune keeps him from finding such a life. He is a calm figure a rocky world. This is where Shoot the Pianist and The Little Soldier overlap. These protagonists are not mischief-makers like Antoine Doinel or reality-denying rebels like Michel Poicard but neutral figures, undone by the mischief and tragedy of others. Of course, in ways they are very different characters. For Charlie Kohler, neutrality is a very natural way to be, whereas Bruno Forestier is someone who has come to adopt a more neutral existence via philosophizing. This difference also highlights the unique ways in which the two films may fall short at pleasing audiences.

As I noted in my review, The Little Soldier, quite simply is a very philosophical film, its not everyone’s cup of tea. Shoot the Piano Player has no such problem. It is accessible, has funny moments and good lines and establishes a simple but effective backstory for its protagonist. Its featuring a mild-mannered protagonist is an idea with great potential. When agreeable people are exposed to a cruel, unreasonable world, their agreeableness stands out, nicely highlighting the silliness, absurdity and/or cruelty of how others treat them. Shoot the Piano Player achieves this objective, but barely.

I would thus conclude that its weakness as a film is not reducable to any one of its traits: its more a matter of fine tuning. Perhaps Chico and the gangsters should have been given bigger roles to play up the film’s black-comic side. Perhaps Charlie’s back-story sequence should have been more extended to play him up as an innocent-but tragic figure. These too are criticisms I raise with caution. Shoot the Piano Player is an economical film, and that too I think is a trait worth praising. Is Shoot the Piano Player my favourite Truffaut film, no? Does it offer excellent source material for other stories to spring from? Absolutely

The Little Soldier (1960)

Written and directed by: Jean-Luc Godard

Le_Petit_Soldat“Ethics are the aesthetic of the future,” is perhaps the most memorable line of Godard’s The Little Soldier: a line that begs to be viewed in context. The Little Soldier is Godard’s second feature film and his first as writer-director. While Godard undoubtedly left his artistic stamp on his first film, Breathless, it was written by François Truffaut, and as such, lacked Godard’s signature pastiche of political references.

The Little Soldier is not a complete break from Breathless as a story. It’s protagonist, like the star of Breathless tries to escape a life of violence by throwing himself into romance: a romance that is at once sleazily-superficial and full of ideas. At times this similarity does not reflect well on The Little Soldier. Whereas female protagonist of Breathless is a journalist who challenges her male counterpart in more ways than one, her counterpart in The Little Soldier is presented as comparatively quiet and devoid of critical thought, at least in the first part of the movie.

One of Godard’s motifs is characters making comments about political (often leftist) ideology. The Little Soldier consciously introduces this theme. Early in the film some characters are listening to a radio broadcast. One comments wryly: “This show’s called a neutral person talks. That kills me.” This foreshadows the development of the film’s protagonist and perhaps numerous other figures in Godardian cinema. The world is full of beautiful and important ideas, worthy of articulation. Articulating them and knowing how to act on them are very different things, however.

Another way to explain The Little Soldier is as a film of genre transition. While Breathless was already an offbeat noir, The Little Soldier turns from a noir into something else: a story of a political moment. Godard would go on to challenge conventions of cinema seeing much of established film as incongruent with political progress. The Little Soldier is reflective of such a criticism, but in a far subtler fashion. It subverts expectations, but not in a way that will leave viewers flabbergasted.

The Little Soldier is perhaps less well known than the film proceeded it because, while weird it is not “quirky.” While I do not want to say its characters are not memorable, I am comfortable saying its characters are not memorable unless one reflects on them. Love-interest Veronica Dreyer (Anna Karina) is subtle in every line she delivers, a trait that perhaps takes away from her potential legacy as distinct, an politically important new imagining of the heroine.

The protagonist, Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) meanwhile, is similarly subtle, and is even harder than Dreyer to remember as an individual persona. Granted, I say this in a deeply contextual light. At the time of the film’s release it was banned in France as it implicates the French for their use of torture as a means to suppress the Algerian independence movement, and the film indeed includes graphic (though somehow not emotionally high-strung) depictions of torture. Nonetheless, Godard’s writing style is so ideas driven, its easy for viewers to miss what is right before their eyes.

The Little Soldier offers viewers a lot to talk about. It doesn’t have the straightforward appeal of Breathless, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating.

The 400 Blows (1959)

Directed by: François Truffaut Written by: Truffaut and Marcel Moussy

Quatre_coups2Historically the concept of the child did not always exist everywhere. Children were seen as little adults, and treated as such as much as physically possible. They were castigated, overworked, and at times executed. Such cruelty is a key characteristic of Dickensian fiction.

My first instinct upon seeing Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, a story of childhood and punishment was to describe it as a Dickensian work: albeit a less harsh one. I soon came to realize, however, that such a desciptor, without appropriate nuance, fails to capture what makes The 400 Blows so engaging. The film is not Dickensian: rather, it depicts an evolutionary link between Dickensian times and the present.

Loosely based on the adolescent experience of writer-director François Truffaut, The 400 Blows tells the story of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) a pre-teen boy with a penchant for mischief. Antoine’s teacher (Guy Decomble) is strict and derogatory and employs corporal punishment. His mother (Claire Maurier) seems to regret his existence, while his father (Albert Rémy) is affectionate but not beyond period-strictness, issuing some of the 400 blows himself.

There are strong grounds to describe The 400 Blows as a realist work. It is aesthetically striking, as are many black and white works seen through contemporary eyes, yet it also embraces the limits on the beauty of black and white film. In a scene in which Antonie skips school he is seen spinning around on a carnival ride. The spinning piece of metal is about as plain-industrial as it gets. It’s as if this scene is saying: there is no truly magical space to escape to, hard as Antoine may try.

The film is also realistic when it comes to character development. Antoine’s teacher is no one I’d want teaching me, but he’s no Dickensian villain either. His parents have a combination of pleasant and unpleasant traits. Antoine, most importantly, is not innocent. He does commit petty wrong. The 400 Blows thematic success, however, comes through in that it makes plain to viewers that they should sympathize with over-disciplined children even when they are not little angels.

Finally, the film’s ending contributes to its realist air. Without being specific, I’ll say it’s a non-ending ending, one that reminds us that in real-life, over-punished children are not subjects of Dickensian misery waiting to be saved by Mr. Brownlow’s, but rather subjects of a subtler injustice that they will simply have to escape with age. The film’s may very well have influenced one of my favourite recent film, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. There is a tonal difference, however, in that Truffaut’s work and ending reinforces his realism, whereas Baker’s tows the line between gritty and magical-realism (is this difference largely the result of shooting in black and white vs color, you be the judge?).

It would be inaccurate to entirely label The 400 Blows’ affect as realism driven. Another key part of the film’s aesthetic is shots that feature a crisp images of characters’ heads with little in the way of background. These shots reinforce the fact that this is a film with relatively few characters, and with the exception perhaps of Antonie’s friend René (Patrick Auffay), the characters are stand ins for ideas: the troubled boy, the strict teacher, and unprotective parents.

The 400 Blows manages to be a number of things at once, and that is why it is so satisfying despite being a simple, some might say incomplete, story. Antoine is both an everyboy and a well defined character (as illustrated in the scenes when he gets to talk about himself). It is a film about human coldness that nonetheless maintains a constant airs of mundanity and escapism. It is a film that can be widely enjoyed, just maybe don’t show it to those you don’t want to set a bad example for: you don’t want your preteen to go around stealing typewriters!