Wednesday, May 13, 2009


War of the Worlds is probably one of (if not the) first sci-fi event movies. It's the Independence Day of its era. There's a lot to like about the movie, and for the most part it holds up extremely well. It's hard to imagine how completely flippin' old this movie is when you consider that it was originally released more than half a century ago. Something about that fact just does not compute. I remember seeing this on t.v. as a kid and being impressed more than I ever was with Godzilla movies, which I actually enjoyed was just that the aliens in this movie were so menacing, and I remember wondering how they made everything look so real. Well, now that I'm an old middle-aged fart living in the age of CGI, the efx in this movie aren't quite as impressive today...but when you consider this flick on its own terms and in the context of when it was made and released, you can't help but be totally blown away.

The first thing to know about the movie is that it clearly signals to its audience the cold war gender roles of the 50s. Now, as you can probably tell from this cap, the film was made in the early 50s, which means the 40s are still a heavy influence. Look at that unsuspecting crowd noticing what looks like a meteor as it falls from the sky and lands in a fiery blast of light just over the first hill on the horizon outside of town. There isn't a juvenile delinquent among them, no rock-n-roll influence, no black people. (There is, to be fair, a latino, which is a step in the right direction). This movie is telegraphing a new society that is post WWII, Cold War, Christian (notice the priest) conformist culture. An idealized conformist culture under attack by EVIL ALIENS!!!
I imagine the character of Sylvia Van Buren must have been cringe-inducing to the many women who had worked during the war years only to be forced back into the kitchen and motherhood once their husbands returned and the war was over. Even though she's got an advanced degree, she spends the movie either (when she's being productive) praising the male characters, serving coffee and donuts, or (when she's not being productive) fainting, screaming and having hysterics. Now, not to bag on the actress that plays Sylvia, she does a great job. It's just that Sylvia is most definitely a woman of the 50s: no femme fatale, no gritty know it all, none of that 40s b.s. Like I said it's all about the new conformism, and Sylvia conforms quite perfectly.

Believe it or not, there is a QUEER QUOTIENT in this film and if you blink you'll miss it. It's at the beginning, right before the crowd outside the theater reacts to the falling meteorite. Look at that big hunk of early 50s man working the marquee! Look at the ass on that guy! Not to mention the legs just itching to burst out of those painted-on jeans. YUM!
Here's the hapless trio of volunteers who are charged with keeping an eye on the smoldering rock overnight, who decide that, once the rock opens up and an alien being comes out, that being friendly is the best way to respond. Comic relief abounds. One guy says, "What do you say to an alien from another planet?" or something to that effect, to which the other guy replies "Welcome to California." The commentary comes in handy during moments like these to shet some light on how impressive, scary and spectacular this movie was in its day. Joe Dante (director of Gremlins) provides commentary along with some older guys who saw the film upon its initial release when they were like 12, the perfect age for boys to see a movie like this.

Of course, we all know what happens when those peace-loving, tree-hugging, commie pacifist namby-pambies try to make nice with the alien invaders: THEY GET DISINTEGRATED by the ALIEN HEAT RAY! Let the attack begin!
The attack sequences are still pretty impressive even if you can tell they're done with miniatures. Still, even in this age of CGI perfection, it's fun to watch a movie like this made so long ago and see what a great job they did of pulling off such visual illusions. The commentary, again, comes in handy in explaining how they made those death rays shoot out, how big the space ships were, etc. Remember, this is 1953. These efx, while dated, are certainly nothing to sneeze at and are quite impressive and deserving of admiration.
Unfortunately, somehow in the digital transfer and stuff, the contrast is different and in some scenes you can clearly see the strings holding up the spaceships, even though according to the commentary they were not visible on the film when the movie played in theaters.
But onto some of the more successful efx. Here's a general getting zapped and disintegrated by one of the mysterious green SKELETON BEAMS that shoot out of the alien ships.

Here's a tasty breakfast Sylvia manages to whip up while she and the hot scientist she's got a crush on hide out in an abandoned house. Of course, bacon and eggs are the perfect relief when the end of the world happens! In fact, I'll just take the bacon, thanks, that'll be enough for me. And I don't need the end of the world to happen. I'll just take the bacon. Please.
Oh, but damn! Before bacon can be consumed, another of those pesky alien meteorites nearly destroys the house, trapping Sylvia and the hot scientist inside. Again, an impressive effect for its time and for several decades after, IMO.
Then there's the whole "beat the clock" portion of the flick, where humanity tries to figure out how to beat the aliens once they (humanity) have realized that conventional weapons don't work. Here they've hooked up a camera and monitor to a severed alien eye/anal probe thingy, and so they get to "see what the aliens see." It's a cheesy scene that borders on the psychedelic but you can just imagine how hi-tech it must have seemed at the time.

And here's the money shot, that of L.A. City Hall being blasted to smithereens. Didn't I tell ya it's just like Independence Day? Except no African Americans. None. We've come a long way!

At the end of the day, humanity is saved when the aliens dare to try destroying a church in downtown L.A. were our protagonists have managed to reunite after a long, horrific separation. As the heterosexual couple embraces inside the church, and as the alien beings aim their deadly weapons, something...MIRACULUOUS happens. All of a sudden, the aliens succumb to GERMS and they all simultaneously die. Humanity, heterosexuality and cold-war conformity are all SAVED by the implied hand of a Christian God, who apparently has all the other religions of the world under his umbrella of safety as well.
There's also a gorgeous shot of the building I work in, which is always fun for me. Being the old War Dept. Building in L.A. it tends to pop up in films from back then and it's always a thrill to see it. I think I'll start a collection of screen caps from old movies, just to see how many I can collect.

Overall, this movie is a classic sci-fi popcorn blockbuster event and it's definitely worth watching on a Saturday afternoon when you have no errands to run and nothing else you feel like doing but sitting around in your undies, eating popcorn, forsaking the gym and vedging out. The commentary track is definitely worth checking out if you are a film buff, sci-fi fan, or some other geek who likes to hear other people discuss a movie as you watch it with them. There's also a well-made documentary that is typical of its kind...not exactly ground-breaking, but you do get to see many of the film's leads and production staff and hear a lot of anectdotes about acting in the movie, and how they made the special effects, and reactions to the film at the time it was released. Hey, if you've read this far, renting this flick if probably a no-brainer. Or you can buy it for $6.99. There's not really anything wrong with it. It's perfect, distinctly American, crowd-pleasing sci-fi popcorn fare from another era.
And how can you pass up a chance to experience Sylvia's many hysterical outbursts?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE (1931)

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931) is a dazzling gem from old Hollywood that surprised me in so many exciting ways. It's one of those stories that is so embedded in our cultural history that you just assume you know everything there is to know about it. What I didn't know was how sophisticated this movie is, both in content and execution. Frederic March plays the title role, for which he won an Oscar, so that gives you a sense of the prestige the film had at the time. The director is Rouben Mamoulian, someone I never heard of but will definitely make a point of investigating. (It turns out I have seen one of his other films and enjoyed it: Blood and Sand starring Tyrone Power). Of course, the story is about a respected gentleman who, constrained by the social mores of Victorian society, decides that the only way to rid oneself of one's inner "nasty" urges is to bring them out, and then let them go. Conveniently, he is a doctor who has discovered a potion that he believes will do just that.Now, Dr. Jekyll is engaged to a beautiful, prim, respectable, rich girl and they love each other dearly. He's pressuring her to marry him right away despite her father's insistence that they wait for several months. The sexual tension is apparent in their first scene together, or, at least Jekyll's sexual tension is apparent. The subtext here is that he wants to have sex with her ASAP, and screw convention and screw her father, and he does a good job of trying to talk her into it. Of course, her virtue is stronger than his lust, and eventually wins out. The early scenes in the movie are so idyllic and stylized, the characters so noble and virtuous, and it's a great set up. It's beautiful, but it's also suffocating.

Another fabulous discovery I made watching this movie is an actress by the name of Miriam Hopkins, who plays a low class wench who's all too willing to provide sexual company in exchange for some money. Dr. Jekyll saves her from her brutish boyfriend, and she proceeds to seduce him in the first of several fantastic scenes these two have together. This movie is post Hays Code, so the overt sexual behavior and symbolism in this scene is quite a surprise. On the commentary you find out that much of it was excised for many years in subsequent releases of the film, and even upon its initial release in certain parts of the country. This is the scene in which Dr. Jekyll's inner demon is summoned, and unfortunately for the seductive summoner (Ivy is her character's name), the demon doesn't forget her.

Mamoulian used a lot of symbolism and directing techniques that frankly I had no idea were in existence at the time this film was made. Think about it: this film was shot just after the stock market crash of '29 during the Great Depression. It was practically the 20s, as the 30s had just started. And yet, this director is using techniques I thought were invented by the likes of Jonathan Demme, Hitchcock and Brian DePalma. The cap above is one example, which happens right after Jekyll and his colleague leave Ivy's apartment. As they leave, she whispers to Jekyll "Come back!" in a seductive whisper as she dangles her bare leg over the side of the bed. The men leave, continue walking down the street, discuss the business of keeping onseself respectable, and all the while her voice continues to whisper its invitation, and the image of her dangling leg never leaves the screen. The men have left her apartment, but she hasn't left their heads.

Another interesting technique the director uses is that of a subjective camera. The first time we see both Jekyll and Hyde, we see them as reflections of themselves in mirrors. Mirrors, as a matter of fact, figure prominently throughout the movie. It really is an interesting (not to mention effective) method of making the viewer identify with both the good and evil personas of the main character.

Another interesting aspect of this film is that Hyde is not a monster, as I had always assumed, but a man. He's just a man who is not constrained by the social and moral rules of society. So when he first makes his transformations, he is presented as an almost comical figure, not a monster. He's like a big kid acting out on his impulses without restraint. And this, at first, isn't scary. This part of the movie also delivers one of its best elements: the acting fireworks that goes on between March and Hopkins. Hyde tracks her down and meets her on her own turf (a tavern), where he basically overpowers her and makes her his own. The verbal and physical sparring between the two is a sight to behold. On the commentary track you learn that Hopkins was quite the diva, hated by the likes of Bette Davis and tons of other actors of her era due to her tendency to upstage everyone else. She's amazing in this flick, however, and the energy between her and March is electric.

One quick note about these subjective shots of characters looking directly into the camera at various points throughout the film to convey a wide range of emotions. I thought Demme used it to great effect in Philadephia as a way to make the viewer feel the pain of homophobia and prejudice face to face. Here, it's used to much greater effect because of the wide range of emotions the actors show you: fear, seduction, love, lust, it's all here.

Eventually, Ivy becomes Hyde's kept woman in an apartment in SoHo. This cap is great for showing how, even though he becomes uglier and more wild with each transformation, so does he become more vain and cocky. I can't say enough about the acting dynamic between these two actors in every scene they share. There are about 5 or 6 of them and they are all magnificent to behold. This film really belongs to these two characters, and specifically, to these two actors.

Mamoulian also makes use of the split screen throughout the film to highlight the dual nature of Jekyll/Hyde and the compartmentalization of his life as his two selves live out their roles. Of course, what happens is that, once Hyde is let out, Jekyll loses control of him and the two lives threaten to collide. I, as a gay man (and I doubt I'm alone in this), can definitely relate to this aspect of the story. But it's men in general who feel this type of duality, which I find interesting. I wonder if women just don't, as a rule, deal with the same type of issues of needing to control their inner wild animal, or if as a society we're just taught (and therefore assume) that it isn't an issue for them. Note that the women are not having any struggle with who they are: the virgin and the whore are separate characters who never try to escape their assigned roles. It's the men who talk about the struggle, and it's Jekyll/Hyde who acts it out. And yet, it's the women who come to represent each side of the male's identity.

This cap is from March's and Hopkins' final scene together, and it's amazing: melodramatic and brutal, it's when Hyde's emotions and instincts boil over into something beyond human. There have already been allusions to the sadistic sexual nature of Hyde and we know by this point that Ivy suffers at his hands as he satiates his perverse desires. Nevertheless, even though she's a bad girl, we've come to empathize with her and it's sad to see her demise.Going back to the idea of the women representing the male's indentities, it's interesting that the male decides to destroy that which represents his wicked self rather than the actual wicked self...

This flick is a really great rental. The commentary by Greg Mank is informative and entertaining, not just about the film but about the actors and the era. The 1941 version of the film starring Spencer Tracy is also on the disc, and it's sadly inferior in almost every way (in spite of its stellar cast, which includes Ingrid Bergman as Ivy and Lana Turner as Jekyll's virtuous fiancee). The gem here is the 1931 version, and it's certainly a sight to behold. It includes restored scenes that were thought to have been lost for decades (which you'll only know about if you listen to the commentary). Considering that this film is nearly a century old, it's amazing how well it holds up and still resonates. Aside from the obvious theatricality of it and the slower pacing of the era, it's an outstanding movie and I highly recommend it.