Sunday, July 17, 2011

No. 81: Modern Times

Silent films: I think it's fair to say they're an acquired taste. One of the first movies I ever saw was my mom's scratchy VHS tape of Charlie Chaplin's "The Gold Rush." I didn't care that it was silent; my eyes were glued to the screen as I watched him skip around in his Little Tramp suit, dancing with potatoes in his hands. Ever since then, I've had a weakness for silent films. There's just something special about the ability to communicate a movie's story without ever speaking a word.

I love The Gold Rush - but my preferred Chaplin movie is actually Modern Times (1936) - AFI film #81. What makes Modern Times even more impressive is the year it was made; 1936. I have to say, Charlie Chaplin was pretty gutsy to release a silent film in the middle of the 1930's. Today's flick also stars Paulette Goddard - at the time, Chaplin's scandalous, live-in girlfriend.

Chaplin plays an incompetent (but hilarious!) factory worker, who often finds himself in jail or unemployed due to various mishaps involving - among other things - Communists, cocaine, and jailbreaks. He meets the orphaned, runaway "Gamine" (Goddard) and together, they struggle against a hard, industrialized society, trying to make a better life. They don't quite succeed, but eventually they do escape - and in the movie's last, warily hopeful scene, Chaplin takes the Gamine's arm like a gentleman, and carrying hobo's bindle sticks, they walk out of the city into the early dawn light.

One reason some silent movies feel boring: by today’s standards, the acting seems so campy. That’s not the case with Modern Times. Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp is over-the-top, but that’s why his movies are fun. Would Chaplin still be as revered today if he hadn’t created this larger-then-life persona, dancing like a marionette with a cane and bowler hat? I don’t think so. I love the Little Tramp character in all his films, but especially in Modern Times.

There are so many good things about this film. The comedy is definitely slapstick but it’s hilarious and cleverly staged, as well as pretty risqué for the 1930’s, with sexual innuendo, a cocaine gag, and other sly jokes. Chaplin and Goddard give simply wonderful performances, perfectly balancing joy and sadness. Add in memorable scenes like Chaplin singing his famous “nonsense song” in a mix of French and Italian - which was also notable for being the first time he spoke on film - and you’ve got one great film.

So, if you like...

* Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character. If you don’t, I don’t even know what to say.
* An engaging mix of slapstick gags and tender (non-verbal!) moments between Chaplin and Goddard.
* Cool set design, including gigantic, super-stylized factory machines.
* The catchiest French-Italian nonsense song ever. Hands down. I’m whistling it right now.
* A truly hilarious take on a serious topic: the employment and financial issues faced by Americans during the Great Depression.

..then you’ll love Modern Times.

Next up: a not-so-comedic film - Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 Western epic and AFI #80, The Wild Bunch. It features great actors like William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, so I’m excited. Stick around and read about it!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

No. 82: Giant

Readers, let me tell you something: I like the films of director George Stevens. I like Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and I especially like James Dean. I like melodrama and “epic” style. So why didn’t today’s film - AFI No. 82, Giant - appeal to me? Well, there are reasons. A long, negative list of reasons.

Negatives aside, I’ll give you the standard briefing. Directed by the usually-fabulous George Stevens and starring Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean, Giant (1956) clocks in at almost three hours. I nearly turned it off around the two-and-a-half mark, but showed remarkable strength and left it on. I’m proud of myself.

Conservative Texas rancher Jordan Benedict (Hudson) meets and marries the spirited Leslie (Taylor). The film chronicles their family’s rivalry with Jett Rink (Dean) - Jordan’s former ranch hand who made his own fortune in oil. Years pass, and when the now wealthy-and-sleazy Jett starts dating Jordan and Leslie’s grown daughter, old tensions flare again. More family drama: when the Benedict’s only son chooses to marry a Mexican woman, Jordan must confront his conservative nature. Eventually Jett gets his comeuppance, Jordan overcomes his prejudice, and all ends well.

No, I didn’t like Giant – but it has its good points. The best part of the film was easily James Dean. And I’m not just saying that because he’s adorable and he’s my computer wallpaper. The energy and charisma in his performance show exactly why, even though he starred in only three films, he’s still an icon today. In Giant, Dean made his character seem raw and pitiable one moment, abruptly greedy and power-hungry the next. The film also featured a supporting cast filled with then up-and-coming great actors, like Dennis Hopper, (delightfully angsty) Sal Mineo, and Carroll Baker.

And now, the not-so-good points.

1) Giant was advertised as “the next Gone With The Wind.” I don’t know who came up with that. Giant is like a bad GWTW with cattle.

2) It’s far too long. I have no problem with long movies - the aforementioned GWTW is one of my favorites. But Giant was much longer than necessary and honestly, I might have enjoyed it more if the editors had used sharper scissors.

3) Not all the acting is great. I love both Rock and Liz, but their performances were a little wooden. Liz isn’t very convincing in chaps and a cowboy hat, and for most of the film, Rock manages to make his character wholly unlikeable.

4) My biggest issue: the film didn’t live up to my expectations. When they name an epic melodrama Giant you expect it to be, well - giant? It wasn’t over-the-top enough to be epic, and not cozy enough for small-scale drama. George Stevens could have used a touch of David Selznick or a bit of John Ford; it felt like he didn’t know which direction to take the film.

And thus ends my thoroughly negative review. My next post promises to be far more positive - AFI No. 81, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). I love that movie. Love love love. Stick around and read about it!