The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz (1939) movie poster

(1939) director Victor Fleming
viewed: 03/26/11 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

We went off to see the wizard, the wonderful The Wizard of Oz.  And adding to its wonder, this was The Wizard of Oz “Sing-Along” hosted by the Castro Theatre, only the second “Sing-Along” that we’ve been to.  A couple years back, we went to The Little Mermaid (1989) “Sing-Along”, also at the Castro.  These events are like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) for kids, featuring goody bags with glow-sticks, plastic wands, bubbles to blow, and a golden crown.  Not only are you urged to sing along and dance (the lyrics are on the screen), but you are to wave your wands, blow your bubbles, and boo and hiss at the Wicked Witch of the West.

It was pretty much a blast.

For most, The Wizard of Oz is a well-known icon of a film, and for most attendees at the show could probably have acted out most of the film, so rich was their familiarity with the film.  Oddly enough, though I grew up in the years in which The Wizard of Oz was an annual television event, I had never really bonded with the film my kids had no real sense of the film before, particularly Clara.  The film is part of our cultural consciousness, nonetheless, and it struck me how much of the film still echoed with familiarity for me despite the fact that I haven’t watched it since I was a child.  And really, these sing-along’s are for the hardcore fans, I suppose, but are fun-fests nonetheless.

Not being Oz fanatics, we did however watch Return to Oz (1985) a few years back, actually having also read The Land of Oz, from which it was largely adapted.  Felix remembered it.  But Clara, who would have been 4 at the time we watched it, couldn’t call it to mind.  I, though, am becoming quite enamored with the Frank L. Baum series and its cinematic versions.

The Wizard of Oz is doubtlessly one of classic Hollywood’s greatest creations.  A vivid musical fantasy, with a fantastic cast, great songs, luminous Technicolor, it’s also possibly one of the weirdest mainstream musical as well.  I recall being frightened by the flying monkeys when I was a child.

The film is brilliant.  Judy Garland is perfect.  Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Burt Lahr are all terrific as the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion respectively.  The make-up and costume and art design is so rich, playing off the contrast with the film’s opening sequence in sepia-hued black-and-white.  It’s a vision like a dream, like the dream it pretends to be, it’s easy to understand why so many have fallen under its spell, why it’s made such an impression on so many, why it is the major cultural artifact that it is.

What can I add to the doubtlessly near-endless writings on the film?  I don’t know.  I won’t try.  It’s brilliant.  I loved it.  That is enough.

Oh yeah, the kids liked it too.

Battleship Potemkin

Battleship Potemkin (1925) movie poster

(1925) director Sergei Eisenstein
viewed: 03/20/11 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Most every film student is familiar with Battleship Potemkin, while people who have never set foot in a cinema studies classroom may never have heard of it.  Oddly enough, most of those same film students who are familiar with it probably haven’t actually seen the entire film.  Because, though the film itself has a running time of less than 90 minutes, the most typically excerpted sequence from the film, known as “the Odessa Step” sequence or “the Odessa Staircase” sequence, is the segment of the film that everybody knows and most everyone has seen.  And with good reason.

It’s amazing.  And it’s easy enough to view out of the context of the film and still understand the complexity of the montage sequence.  It really is a primer in film-making in itself.

Battleship Potemkin is essentially a propaganda film, made by Sergei Eisenstein in 1925, one of several features that he made that focused on aspects of the Bolshevik Revolution, including Strike (1924) and October (1927).  This film is based loosely on events of 1905, when the sailors on a battleship revolt against their cruel leaders who are trying to feed them rotten, maggot-infested meat.  They rally together as brothers and toss their oppressors into the drink.  The people of Odessa, where the ship is docked, support the sailors and their cause, offering them food and cheering for them.  Until the tsarist Cossacks are brought in to slaughter them, which is what takes place on the Odessa steps.

Frankly, as a former film student, I’ve seen the “Odessa Steps” sequence many times, but never then entire film.  So, this opportunity was prime.

Eisenstein, who was not only an innovator in cinema through his work but was also one of the earliest and foremost film theorists uses film as a tool.   For Eisenstein, the language of cinema was a set of constructs, and he believed in an almost scientific system of montage, cutting images and movements together to evoke specific effects.  And thusly, the entire film, is an amazing array of images, juxtapositions, movement, shapes, machines, and men.

On the ship, building the story before the mutiny, each shot is posed in the machinery or might of the battleship, contrasted with the human forms, moving about through its passageways, working alongside the pumping mechanisms, in rhythm and measure.  Shots are composed like Constructivist  art, patterns of shadows fall across faces, angles of light all fit into each mise-en-scene, each composition.  Every shot is striking.

And the use of montage is dramatic and amazingly formalized.  The “Odessa Steps” sequence is truly the film’s highlight, it really is one of the most remarkable scenes ever created in film, often imitated (or homaged) but never equaled, the movement of the soldiers down the steps, firing on the innocent, young, elderly, the fleeing horde, the mother killed, the baby carriage pushed to fall, the elderly woman with her eye shot out…it’s cinema in one of its purist forms.  And whereas Eisenstein’s theories proved brilliant as ideas, though perhaps not a rigorous science of language, it’s easy to see what one would hope a film student could learn from such an amazing, innovative and novel piece of film-making.

It was cool to finally see the film as a whole, though the ending does have a sense of anti-climax given the massive build-up of drama around the famous massacre scene (which was a fictionalized narrative point — the Odessa steps were not the scene of a brutal quelling of uprising).  The red-tinted flag, the symbol of the revolution and the brotherhood, however, looked badly hand-painted, more like a magic-marker and someone without enough time to stay in the lines.

The other aspect of the film was the sense of revolution, not so specific to the mistreated sailors or the oppressive tsarist regime, but simply that of a people rising together to protest and to overthrow their oppressors.  It seemed poignant in many ways to the events that have been going on throughout the Middle East over the past several months, a metaphor of solidarity against oppression.  A hopeful note, not one tied purely to the specific history that was the film’s primary goal in its propaganda.

Duck Soup

Duck Soup (1933) movie poster

(1933) director Leo McCrary
viewed: 03/18/11

It was only a couple of months ago, New Year’s Eve, that I watched Duck Soup, but after having initiated my kids to the Marx Brothers, first through YouTube, then via A Night at the Opera (1935), they were clambering for more.  Namely, Duck Soup, whose two most famous sequences, the mirror scene and the hat scene were already embedded in their minds by way of the YouTube clips.  A great feeling of smug, fatherly pride comes across me.

I’m still struck, though by no means surprised by how much the Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes co-opted the Marx Brothers’ multiple schticks, a merging of Groucho and Harpo, in particular, in the fast-talking, yet very physical humor.  But I have to say, the kids totally love it.

Groucho’s one-liners and zingers fly a little fast for even a keen-eared adult, especially with some of their more painful or out-dated puns, but even if only a couple of them land appropriately in the kids’ ears, it’s totally worth it for their laughing reactions.  I’ve self-satisfyingly touted their appreciation of Chaplin, Keaton and even Fatty Arbuckle, but this has a whole charm unique to itself.

Felix proclaimed Duck Soup a preference above A Night at the Opera, but it’s probably safe to say that the variance is a bit sophisticated for a 9 year old.  I, myself, definitely prefer the earlier, chaotic, antic, insanity and chaos of the earlier films, rather than their later more codified, though still remarkably excellent later films.  It’s still awesome.  Awesome, awesome, awesome to watch this film with the kids and for them to just dig it straight-up.  Awesome.

Dogtooth

Dogtooth (2009) movie poster

(2009) director Yorgos Lanthimos
viewed: 03/15/11

Dogtooth is a strange, affecting Greek film about a family that takes isolationism to bizarre extremes.  The father and mother have kept their three children locked inside their remote compound their entire lives.  They are now adults, but have been taught that leaving the compound (before having lost one’s dogtooth, “canine”) will result in sudden death.  And that cats are the killers.  And that airplanes are actually toys that occasionally fall in the yard.

They have isolated their children through the fears that they have taught them, the depiction of the world that they have painted, a mixture of lies and fabrications, including telling them that the names of some objects are different from normal usage.  They are utterly controlled by their understanding of the world.  And the father perpetuates this to keep them close and under control, much like the dog that he is having trained.  The trainer tells him, “Do you want a dog or do you want a friend?”

There is great absurdity in the world of Dogtooth, but its critique of paternalism is keen.  While most people do not teach their children such blatant lies, each parent does teach their children about the world in their own terms.  It also struck me regarding the Saussure-ian idea of how culture and ideology begin to be taught at the moment that language is learned.  The control of the mind is a structure of society, and so the father in Dogtooth uses language as well as lies to exact control over his adult children.

The director has suggested that the idea burgeoned from a thought of a future society where protecting one’s family required taking things to extreme.  This seems to indicate that the mother and father’s bizarre control over their children arises from a desire to protect and keep them together.  Perhaps that is what gives the film its odd sensibility that doesn’t utterly condemn their actions, but rather exposes the impossibility of controlling the minds and lives of other people, no matter how “out there” their world is.

The film has a outré quality, not like any one director or film that I can think of.  The visual style is very clean and straightforward, almost bland and banal, in contrast to the strange ways that the characters act.  It’s also not without discomfort, distress and displeasure, as it focuses on this strange psychological abuse, incest, and occasional violence.  It’s hardly a laugh riot, though much of the contrasts of the characters’ odd behavior make for some pretty funny scenes.

Really, I have to say that this is one of the best films that I’ve seen this year.  Unique in vision and surprising and weird, this is a truly interesting film.

Lebanon

Lebanon (2009) movie poster

(2009) director Samuel Maoz
viewed: 03/14/11

Referred to as “Das Boot (1981) in a tank”, director Samuel Maoz’s film shares a confined location with the German submarine thriller, setting the near entirety of the film inside the tank.  The outside world is only viewed through the gunman’s viewer, in a constant bullseye.  And like Das Boot, there is a war going on outside the claustrophobic setting.  But this is Lebanon, this is 1982, these are Israeli soldiers.

The real parallel for me is not so much Wolfgang Peterson’s much-praised WWII film, but rather another Israeli film about the same war, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008).  But there the commonality is the broader setting and subject matter, the 1982 Lebanon War.  The film itself is, despite its caprice of keeping the whole of the story trapped within the tank’s confines, is a much more straight-forward, if a tense and experiential affair.

The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival and has gotten solid reviews.  But frankly, I found it a bit overwrought.  It was a mixture of the acting and the dialog, maybe really the entire thing.  You can just see everybody “acting”.  Maybe that is just to say that I wasn’t really drawn into it for whatever other reasons, but it simply didn’t work for me.

I did like the final image of the tank in the sunflower field, as well, perhaps, as the opening image of the sunflower field with the wind blowing over it, causing you to wonder if people were moving through it, was something approaching?  Or was it just the wind?  This seemed to betoken of good things to come.  But it was pretty ham-fisted in my mind.

The story starts when a new guy gets pulled into the tank.  There is a driver, a gunman, a guy to load the bombs, a leader and a driver.  They don’t have much of an idea of what’s going on, but they are to roll alongside a troop into this town and ferret out the bad guys.  An early incident on the road proves that the gunman is gunshy, and his slow trigger work winds up with killed and maimed soldiers.  Another event winds up with an innocent man being killed.  It’s clear that they are better off following orders than figuring out what it’s all about.

In that sense, it’s not given to a specific history.  And the chaos and badness that they go through is like some living nightmare.

It’s interesting to me that there have been two film in the last couple of years that have come to the fore (who knows there may have been many more) regarding this conflict.  Waltz with Bashir was a bit like psychoanalysis, coming to terms with a repressed history, memories of violence and unjust brutality.  Lebanon, like Waltz with Bashir, is made by a film-maker who experienced the conflict, and while his story is more straight-forward, there is also a sense of coming to terms with some scarring event.  It’s been referred to as an anti-war film, but it is clearly a personal film, too.

Oddly enough, I’ve never seen Das Boot. But I’m willing to guess that it’s a bit stronger of a thriller and a more successful film.  And further, I’d recommend Waltz with Bashir 10 times before recommending Lebanon.  They’re not at all the same film nor could stand in for one another, but one thing that sets them apart is the Waltz with Bashir is very good.

 

Friday the 13th

Friday the 13th (2009) movie poster

(2009) director Marcus Nispel
viewed: 03/12/11

Once upon a time, there was a kid named Jason who drowned at Camp Crystal Lake while his camp counselors were busy getting it on and not minding the child.  In the original Friday the 13th (1980), horny young camp counselors were finding themselves slashed and skewered as a vengeful mysterious figure doled out the punishment for their sinful ways, accompanied by that weird “ch-ch-ch” soundtrack element, indicating the killer is near.  And in that original film, it turned out to be Jason’s mother who was killing the naughty generation and eventually is killed for her efforts.  But at the end of that film, a hand bursts from the lake, suggesting that Jason would pick up his mother’s mantle.

And for the next nine to ten installments (indeed, it spawned that many sequels), Jason did just that.  Donning a hockey mask and moving into 3-D, New York City, outer space, and eventually into a confrontation with another popular horror figure of the 1980’s, Freddy Kreuger in Freddy vs. Jason (2003).

Now, I’d really have to say that a hockey mask-wearing fiend who never speaks a word, just appears ominously, with the accompanying “ch-ch-ch” isn’t so much of an iconic “character” as he is an iconic image.  He’s got an origin story, meant to evoke some sympathy, and really, in the first film, in which he’s not even the killer, the narrative has more of a pronounced twist…and a narrative.

While a number of 1980’s slasher films have been re-made of late, A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), My Bloody Valentine (2009), Halloween (2007), Dawn of the Dead (2004) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), an increasingly popular approach to movie franchises is not simply to re-make them, but to “re-boot” them.

Director Marcus Nispel directed the re-make of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but here with the Friday the 13th film, the film is neither a pure re-make or a pure sequel, adapting the narrative that evolved over the first four of the 1980’s series and setting the events in action in the present day.  So, the film opens with the “once upon a time”, Jason drowns, horny counselors, vengeful mom, skewering, slicing, cutting, and a hockey mask and now we have a new group of ethnically diverse young adults, horny and pot-smoking, or perhaps more “good”, getting chopped, sliced, eviscerated by the giant lump named Jason.

I liked the reversioning of the story (it’s hardly a sacred text), but what we’re left with is more modern slasher film in which the characters are all quickly drawn “types”, so generic film to film, you could possibly intercut them in any of the other re-makes and have a hard time telling which character got killed in which movie.  And with a villain who never speaks, merely menaces and then kills, you find yourself looking for something more substantial to hang the reasoning on.

The slasher films of the late 1970’s – 1980’s were an interesting study in fears and violence, but also depicted often a very puritanical vengeance on the nubile young people.  The naughty ones always got killed.  The goody-goodies, virginal heroine was the usual survivor.  There have been analyses about the subconscious messages about punishments.  And from those earlier films, the modern bogyman was crystalized.  I have questioned what the significance of this wave of re-makes could come to represent, but it seems mostly that it’s mere cashing in on name brands, modernizing films that might seem too “antique” perhaps to a young contemporary audience, and perhaps at the least cynical, somewhat of homage.  But these films have been so corporate, so uninspired, I don’t think that there has been a single one that has really risen to any true level of merit.

And that is true for this one as well.  It’s neither utterly dire nor reasonably decent.  More than anything it just makes me say, “Why?”  And when it comes down to it, that it’s just cynical moviemaking aiming at the marketing buck rather than half a notion of an idea, I just have to say, “Bleah”.

Kings of Pastry

Kings of Pastry (2009) movie poster

(2009) directors Chris Hegedus, D. A. Pennebaker
viewed: 03/11/11

Kings of Pastry is a documentary that focuses on a couple of pastry chefs who yearn for and compete for the Meilleur Ouvrier de France in the category of Pastry-making and candy-making, an elite tradesperson award in France acknowledging an prestigious status in their field.  For the film, unlike so many popular food preparation television shows, it’s not a winner-take-all scenario.  Each of the chefs may pass the rigorous three day examination and become honored with the medal and the “collar” that denotes them as the best of the best.  But certainly, not everyone succeeds.

The film primarily focuses on chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, who runs a French Pastry school in Chicago.  He’s a good-natured, hard-working chef, who is striving for his first attempt at the award.  The film also spends time with two other French pastry chefs who also are vying in the competition for which 16 are selected for the final trial of fire.  Each of the three is a affable family man, a professional chef in good standing, but for each of them, this is the ultimate honor of respect in their field and is something that they want very, very much.

Over the three days, they will have to prepare a series of presentations including a wedding cake and a sugar sculpture, and in watching the artistry and expertise of the men as they prepare for the event, one becomes keenly aware that they are also plainly honest about their criticism and their potentials of success and failure.  One of the chefs, who is going for his third try for the award, recounts how he had a great shot in the prior attempt (the tests are run every four years), but in carrying his sugar sculpture to the presentation table, he slipped, it crashed, and was as shattered as his hopes for success.

You know that someone’s sugar sculpture is going to break.  Someone’s world is going to be likewise shattered.

And directors Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker manage to get you pulling for all three of the men.  They’re all nice guys, seem very talented and capable, so when the final call of the names is read, in which even the head of the jury tears up over the limited list of winners, you want them all to have made it.

Pennebaker has been making documentaries since the 1950’s and reached great fame for films such as the Bob Dylan film Don’t Look Back (1967), Monterey Pop (1968), and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973).  He began working with Hegedus on the 1993 film The War Room, which focused on James Carville and George Stephanopolus and the way they worked around the clock to help Bill Clinton win his first term in office.  They adept at zoning in on the story in a variety of subject.

It’s typical of me, but probably odd on the whole but I don’t have a sweet tooth, so nothing that was created in the film had any appeal as food.  I had a girlfriend who became a pastry chef and much of her experiments, of which she would taste one piece, would have to be pawned off on friends.  And I am not a foodie aficionado, nor do I watch the popular competitions food shows, the cooking shows, nor the Food Network.  But I certainly could appreciate the artistry and craft and dedication on display.  I wonder how appetizing these constructs are for  the average viewer.

As art goes, the sugar sculptures are gaudy constructions of kitsch and abstraction (in my opinion), whose prime charm is in the delicacy of the medium.  The amount of talent it takes to make one pristine, luminous rose or a ribbon or a spun curlicue, it’s easy to appreciate.  And those constructions are indeed delicate.  And they do shatter.  And one major catastrophe brings about the film’s best moment, when the fellow chefs, the critics, the jury console the distraught chef as he goes from a moment of glory to a pile of broken pieces of hardened sugar swept up and dumped in the trash.

Oddly enough, a film that focuses its eye upon these meticulous perfectionists, the film itself is not a work of art on its own.  Shot on digital video, with a lot of handheld camera following the workers around and interviewing them, the film is just next to a student production when it comes to its presentation of text on the screen.  The film opens with some text about the event, cuts between locations, between the days and times of the events but with a look that is just plain cheap-looking.

The film’s strength is in the story, in the recording, the editing and the piecing  together, and it’s an enjoyable and interesting narrative.  But it does seem odd that the film has such an unpolished, low-budget  feel when regarding a subject of such rich detail, meticulousness, craftsmanship and perfection.

But maybe that’s just me.  I actually thought of a number of people who I thought would enjoy this film, and I think that’s a notable takeaway.  And I do believe that I will recommend it to others.

Rango

Rango (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Gore Verbinski
viewed: 03/06/11 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Rango is one of the better-looking and vaguely more “original” of feature digital animation films to hit the big screen in the last year or so.  Starring Johnny Depp as the chameleon in the desert and directed by Gore Verbinski (who directed the Pirates of the Caribbean series, which propelled Depp to his highest points of commercial success), the film, being an animation, is a bit of a departure.  In the past, some animation directors moved into live action, but rarely, if at all, the other way around.

Rango channels the Spaghetti Western, but also pulls from several spheres, casting asides to the Pirates series, the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone series of films, even Depp’s portrayal of Hunter S.  Thompson gets a nod.  In fact, it’s a very post-modern film, almost “meta” in a sense.  The film also verges frequently into the strange and surreal, something Verbinski flirted annoyingly with in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007), but here is often a site of some of the films most amusing moments.  However, these self-aware, reflective, and bizarre characteristics ultimately accompany a fairly traditional plot with the typically over-stated and painfully obvious “messages” and morals that so much popular cinema likes to spell out with damning clarity as if children couldn’t interpret anything on their own.

The character design and personae are sharper and more unique than the average animated film.  The aesthetic is, while cartoonish and not purely naturalistic, does lean toward a hyper-realistic three-dimensionality to the characters.  All the reptiles have very defined bumps on their skins, textures are rich, and details are deep.  The characters are less rote perhaps to the animated feature (with the exception of Rango himself, Beans (the female lead), and the main villains of the film, Tortoise John and Rattlesnake Jake).  The smaller roles are more caricatures of Western film types, devised and developed in their character design, not as much stand-ins for characters that populate the majority of animated films.

The film is a lot of fun.  It’s funny and lively (Felix liked it a lot), and Verbinski definitely handles the action sequences with a lot of verve.  The audience seemed to think it was pretty great.

Rango is a caged chameleon with no real life, until he is accidentally spilled out into the desert, where he finds his way to the throwback town of Dirt.  Dirt is a town with a diminishing water supply (a line of social criticism the movie opens about irrigated deserts — but doesn’t fully explore), and its people are poor and oppressed.  When Rango blusters and BS’s his way into the town as a tough guy and winds up sheriff, telling tall tales and keeping them going with clumsy luck, you can easily foresee the scene in which is charade is exposed and he “lets everyone down” that he is really a “nobody”, not a hero.  And beyond that, you know that he’ll overcome that all in the end as well.

This is the film’s great weakness, its standard core of a story arc and the moral that accompanies it.  I didn’t want to film to verge into indulgence, but I would have liked it to stay a bit weirder, more unpredictable, and to be as clever as its character designs and certain set pieces.  Not that I was expecting it; I had a sense of its approach from its trailers.

But of all of the animated features that have been running as trailers for this year, it’s been the only one that I looked at thinking that I’d like to see it.  I know I’ll end up seeing others, but this was a case of one that actually looked good to me.  And it is pretty good.  It’s funny, it’s fun, and it’s got quirks and excitement.  The whole little animal kingdom of Dirt was an odd mixture of creatures.  I don’t doubt that it will be one of the better mainstream animated features of 2011.

The Big Doll House

The Big Doll House (1971) movie poster

(1971) director Jack Hill
viewed: 03/05/11

After re-watching Jack Hill’s Spider Baby (1964) last year, I decided it was high time that I catch up on more of his oeuvre.  Sadly, most of his films aren’t available on Netflix.  I actually got The Big Doll House from GreenCine, though I’ve now pared down to just Netflix as my rental source.  Not sure why Hill’s films aren’t available there, and maybe it’s just that they’ve gone out of print.

The Big Doll House is a “women in prison” film that Hill made for Roger Corman.  Corman wrangled a deal to get the film shot in the Phillipines, so it’s women in prison in an unnamed “banana republic” in which the abuse and weirdness are even more extreme since it’s setting is some faraway place with no connections to “civilization”.  Why there are so many Americans in jail there…well, this is an exploitation film.  Generally, you just go for the sex and violence and turn a blind eye to the gaps in logic.

The film’s most notable star is Pam Grier who would go on to other Women in Prison films and become one of the biggest stars of Blacksploitation, making several other films with Hill including The Big Bird Cage (1972), Coffy (1973), and Foxy Brown (1974).  Actually, the film also features Hill himself as the sympathetic physician at the hospital as well as Spider Baby alum Sid Haig as a horny food supplier to the strange prison.

The film opens with the introduction of the latest prisoner, Collier, to the cell.  The person who had held her bunk prior to her arrival had died from implied torture.  There is lesbian sex, a brutal butch prison guard, heroin addiction, moderate gratuitous nudity, and even mud wrestling.  Titillation 1970’s-style.  And the torture, when someone steps out of line, is overseen by a mysterious figure (assumed to be a man in military clothing) and involves electrocution and cobras, among other things.

I’m not sure that Women in Prison is a particular favorite genre of mine, which is probably why I never did see this before.  The film has its charms, but probably is most interesting from a Jack Hill perspective.  His films seemed to live in exploitation yet offered leading roles and narrative focus to women by and large.  I’d certainly need to see more of his work before being able to draw any major conclusions.  But with only a couple of his films available on DVD from Netflix, it will probably take a while to get around to all of them.

A Night at the Opera

A Night at the Opera (1935) movie poster

(1935) director Sam Wood
viewed: 03/04/11

Via YouTube, I introduced the kids to the Marx Brothers the other night, showing clips of some of their more famous moments.  They were so enthused that they eagerly wanted to watch a Marx Brothers movie for our Friday night movie night.  Felix was actually keen on Duck Soup (1933), having really liked the “mirror scene” and the “hat bit”.  But as it was last minute, I had to hit the video store and so A Night at the Opera it was.  And it was a total hit.

Considered by many aficionados one of the best of the Marx Brothers films, it was their first without Zeppo and their first for MGM.  Duck Soup had been a commercial bomb at the time of its release, and when the brothers were welcomed to MGM by producer Irving Thalberg, he helped to evolve their cinematic style from more purely antic, anarchic chaos into a more solid narrative, adding a more concrete romantic arc, to which the brothers are attached as helpful comic characters, taking out their nuttiness more on the villains than just on the general public.  This is on clear display in A Night at the Opera.

Allan Jones steps in as the handsome straight man, filling in a type of role that Zeppo had played before, with Kitty Carlisle as his opera-signing love.  Moved from Italy to New York by the imrpessario of the New York Opera Company, along with the villainous Lassparri, the big opera star, the story includes a big dance number, along with a couple of musical numbers (MGM’s specialty of the day), it’s all about bringing the good guys to the top and toppling the pompous, nasty, rich, and the establishment.

And the film’s most famous and celebrated scenes, the overcrowded state room sequence, the contract scene (“You can’t fool me.  There ain’t no sanity clause.”), and the hotel room scene, are all tops.

And Felix and Clara loved it.  We had to pause the film once or twice to make sure that some of the fast-paced dialog was fully digested.  But it was a huge hit with them.  Felix is requesting Duck Soup for our next Friday night film.

For my money, I would fall on the side of other Marx Brothers purists, who find the style a little watered down, though indeed the high points are total classic.  Still, it’s just awesome stuff.  And I was utterly gratified that the kids were so into it.  Awesome.