The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter is one of the most bizarre movies I’ve seen, operating mostly as a crime thriller but also with elements of religious allegory, horror, and laugh-out-loud camp (an old lady walking down the street wielding an ax?).

In very basic terms, this movie has the always creepy Robert Mitchum as an ex-con who is after two children in possession of a doll stuffed with thousands of dollars. The Night of the Hunter gets its real scares from this narrative element, often suddenly shifting to realism in which Mitchum’s character pulls out a switchblade knife in hot pursuit of these young children. These disturbing images are not accompanied by fast editing or stylized music, making the effect all the more chilling and genuinely scary.

Another interesting aspect for this film is the prevalence of religious motifs. The movie starts out with something out of a Twilight Zone episode, us looking at a night sky with faces floating around recounting a Biblical story, and this theme continues through the film’s climax. In one of The Night of the Hunter’s most powerful moments, the children’s caretaker Mrs. Cooper tells the story of baby Moses in a reed boat floating up the Nile. This parallels beautifully with the two children, particularly the older son John, who themselves escaped their abusive household; this also proposes John as a savior figure, who has some greater destiny to protect others, as Mrs. Cooper does now. These are thought-provoking and engaging scenes that elevate The Night of the Hunter to more than your typical crime thriller.

I am eager to revisit this film so I am hesitant to give it a letter grade review. Much of this movie was all over the place, and I was focusing more on what was going on than evaluating it for sheer quality. I can tell you, however, that it is a very scary and engaging thriller, and is definitely worth watching. Almost 60 years later, there still haven’t been movies that go where The Night of the Hunter has.

Company (2007)

The 2007 revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical Company, and likely the original as well, is a show peppered with painful truths and emotional heartbreak, but filled mostly with caricature. The serious subject matter is unfortunately often reduced to cartoonish images of marriage, which bog down the true heart and ambition of this musical.

Company explores the lives of white upper-middle class New Yorkers and their relationship problems. The dialogue is typically blunt and up-front about this subject matter, which already sets the tone for an unrealistically ambitious musical; either Sondheim or book writer George Furth must view married people as constantly discussing their marriage, and how their lives are different relative to single people. This creates a very interesting commentary on contemporary romance, but also subverts who should be very real, three-dimensional people, into individuals who speak of themselves in the broad, sweeping strokes of marital status and love in the urban world.

The excellent score, with witty lyrics and uncharacteristically catchy music (by Sondheim’s standards), is broken down by clunky, unrealistic dialogue by Furth. There is a particular sequence towards the beginning, in which a playful ditty is broken up by a facepalm-worthy series of karate moves by one of the couples. The audience in the PBS recording ofCompany was roaring with laughter, so at least somebody liked it.

Granted, this is a show about unhappy New Yorkers meant for an audience of middle-class, likely married, and probably cynical New Yorkers. Maybe I’m just the wrong demo for a musical like this, but even as a young man I recognize there is more to marriage than the caricature it is reduced to throughout most of the show.

About halfway through, however, Company takes a sudden turn for the mature, with fantastic introspective songs such as “Marry Me a Little,” revealing the protagonist Bobby’s inability both to commit and to find someone that would even have him. This, in my opinion, is the real heart of this show, of striking the balance between wanting independence and just finding somebody who’s willing to have you. This sense of loneliness is what really hits home, for me at least, certainly more so than the bickering and unrelatable couples we deal with for most of the show.

And maybe that’s the point. Maybe Bobby starts out seeing his married friends as these cartoonish buffoons and he matures and sees that there is more to marriage than this ridiculous display (though that would be weirdly postmodern?). By the end of the show, Bobby and the quality of the script have both matured, hitting this emotionally tragic theme much stronger, such as in the excellent finale “Being Alive.”

My disappointment in Company is mostly from the fact that the show does hit these wonderful strong notes, and I wish this strength pervaded throughout the entire musical. It is certainly a very good play, but it only grazes the greatness that it could and should have achieved.

Bikini Beach (1964)

Bikini Beach may be the Beach Party series at its camp best, with the one-two punch of over-the-top humor and some fantastic songs. While not the very best Beach Party film, it has all the trademarks of a classic and reminds us why this series is so special.

The plot is similar in structure to all the other movies, with the beach bunnies and the hot dogs doing to the beach (this year, Bikini Beach!) for the summer. Fortunately, the narrative is diluted with overlapping and over-the-top elements, including a grumpy old man who chronicles the kids’ exploits in the local paper (the Bikini Bugle), the arrival of British rock star the Potato Bug, and Frankie’s sudden interest in drag racing.

Everything is ridiculous, which is exactly as it should be. This film series works best when we get layers upon layers of chaos, which come together beautifully in the film’s climax, as a standard fight scene where all the narrative elements come together in a battle royale rich with gags.

More than the other Beach Party films though (as far as I’ve noticed), Bikini Beach has very interesting recurring themes. We see several different binaries of young vs. old, from the old man vs. the beach kids, the British Potato Bug to the American Frankie, the senior citizens at the Sea-esta by the Sea at the drag race filled with kids. Like the cleavage nestled within a bikini, these divisions persist for most of the film, but in the finale, all comes together in climactic chaos.

And lastly, the songs. My goodness, the songs! Both songs by the Potato Bug, “Gimme Your Love” and “How About That” are standouts (with the latter featuring a wild dance breakdown by Annette), with the gorgeous “Because You’re You” shining as possibly the best Frankie-Annette love ballad.

This film barely grazes the genius of Beach Blanket Bingo, a beach adventure yet to come at the time of Bikini Beach’s release in ‘64, but it is still great entertainment, rich with fantastic songs and hilarious camp.

The Great Gatsby (2013)

Like the tragic characters and stories that light up the screen and wrench up our hearts, The Great Gatsby 2013 film adaptation is almost more devastating for how great it could have been. Baz Luhrmann’s film is a very, very good one. But it is not great.

The performances are excellent. Reviews have been somewhat mixed on Leonardo DiCaprio, but I think he gives us a perfect Gatsby, who pairs beautifully with the always-exceptional Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, rounded out by the superb Tobey Maguire, in one of his first noteworthy roles in years.

Luhrmann has achieved something few film adaptations of classic literature have; he has taken a work, the F. Scott Fitzergerald novel, which is of course rich with symbolism and meaning, and maintained all these complex themes that your high school English teacher beat into you, without feeling remotely forced or condescending. He allows the audience to reach their own conclusions, both about the characters (particularly Gatsby and Daisy, whom polarize audiences in both their novel and film representations) as well as the iconic symbolism (THE GREEN LIGHT, T.J. Eckleberg).

This is where The Great Gatsby succeeds the most; when taking the source material at its most shallow surface, the story could be represented just as carelessly and giddy as the characters pretend to be. Yet, behind every line and every action, there is an air of tragedy, and Luhrmann knows how to bring that out to great effect.

Luhrmann also does what he usually does best, through the noticeably anachronistic soundtrack. The setting may look like the 1920s, but it sure doesn’t sound like it, with an urban soundscape rich with beats by Jay-Z and a haunting love theme by Lana Del Rey.

While Luhrmann employs many of his old tricks, they do not feel as over-the-top or cinematically overwhelming as they could be taken in other films. I love Moulin Rouge with all my heart, but the fast editing and goofy humor could understandably turn some audiences off; The Great Gatsby feels so much more grown-up, as a Luhrmann film free of the cartoonish qualities that may have dampered his prior works.

Where the film disappoints though is through its pacing, especially towards the end; the scenes, while visually stunning and often emotionally compelling through the stellar performances and soundtrack, but so much of film’s motion is through mood, not action, which weighed me down by the end of this 2 1/2 hour epic. There are also some odd choices with visual effects, which you will likely know when you see them (re: the film’s narrative structure).

These slight disappointments make me hesitant in my review of this film; much of it, particularly the scene when Gatsby and Nick Carroway make their deal, and the montage of Gatsby and Daisy reunited, are excellent and still stick with me long after leaving the theater. These kinds of moments are Baz Luhrmann at his best, and I wish The Great Gatsby, for all the time and effort put into it, was as sharp as these glorious scenes in the middle were.

It is still a very good movie and I recommend seeing on the big screen in gorgeous, colorful 3D. I will likely be revisiting The Great Gatsby and am anxious to see how my opinion develops as my relationship with this film continues through repeat viewings.

The Impossible (2012)

Disaster movies usually have a two-pronged challenge: to make a believable film, and to make an effective film. The surprisingly good The Impossible achieves both, through amazingly realistic sets and special effects and through the intense family drama of the narrative.

It recounts the true story of a Spanish family of tourists in Thailand for Christmas 2004, right as the devastating tsunami that affected thousands hit the shores. These scenes, which actually hit pretty early on the film, are very frightening and come about as close as I can possibly imagine the true experience of living through a tragedy like that could be. The sheer force of water plunging characters below, paired with the pounding sound design (with one character momentarily deafened) contribute to the sense of horror that these characters, and real people, had to face.

In addition to the sheer technical feat of successfully recreating such a massive and devastating event, The Impossible succeeds by telling the story of a disaster so well. Like with other mass tragedies, such as the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima, and many others, it is nearly impossible for any of us to fathom the loss and devastation behind the staggering numbers of fatalities. The Impossible doesn’t try to do that. It follows in the tradition of other great disaster movies by focusing on a handful of people, in this instance a family, making the tragedy something we can relate to and empathize with.

This is also where the movie gets its strong suit. Sure, it’s about the tsunami and the devastating effect it has on Asia, but the disaster is over 30 minutes into the film. The bulk of it, and the emotional punch of this film, is how this family and those affected in a broader sense, deal with this catastrophe. The Impossible is, at its core, a testament to the ability of a family to maintain hope and love in the most dire of circumstances. It is a less hyperbolic version of Poltergeist (a movie which I frankly don’t like), to test the love of a family against true, devastating events.

We get great performances all around, especially from Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and fresh face Tom Holland as the family’s eldest son. The Impossible is definitely one of the better movies of 2012 and serves as a nice spiritual companion to Beasts of the Southern Wild as a film about disaster and how the human spirit maintains strength even when facing the most dire of circumstances.