The King of Musicals: Arthur Freed

Whenever you think of musicals, especially in the modern age, you think of the 1950s and 60s, when musicals were full of lavish costumes, flashy dance numbers, and wonderful music servicing as backdrop to beautiful romance. The company largely responsible for some of the greatest musicals of all time is, without argument, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The studio which churned out timeless classics in the span of nearly forty-years: The Wizard of Oz, Showboat, Ziegfeld Follies, Meet Me in St. Louis, Singin’ in the Rain, and An American in Paris were all the brainchild in some capacity of Arthur Freed.

An often unsung hero in the world of film, Arthur Freed was a producer and lyricist, who mainly wrote love songs and popular jazz tunes from the 1920s and 30s – eventually became a producer. A majority of his tunes can be heard in his magnum opus “Singin’ in the Rain“, but it was his start with writing the songs to MGM’s “Broadway Melody of 1929” that made his mark in the company as a man who was able to get what he wanted.

His first major film of real note was “The Wizard of Oz”, though he was uncredited, he served as an executive producer. Legend has it, he championed the other producers of the film to keep Somewhere Over the Rainbow in the film, which was in danger of being scraped for slowing the film down in terms of pacing. This move not only cemented Freed’s producing decisions but helped kickstart Judy Garland’s career, of which Freed played a major part in. The relationship between Freed and Garland was largely positive, as Freed was perhaps the only adult that tried to help Judy with her various addictions to alcohol and barbiturates.

In 1944, Garland’s “Meet Me in St. Louis” which featured three songs that would become standards – “The Trolley Song” which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song, “The Boy Next Door”, and the Christmas classic, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”; the film shattered box office records, becoming the fastest box-office gross of the year with Arthur Freed being cemented as Hollywood’s premiere producer.

Throughout the 1950’s, Freed would produce some of Hollywood’s most beloved films, including Academy Award winners: “An American In Paris” (Best Picture, 1951), “Gigi” (Best Picture, 1958) bookending the decade. Telling the story of a young girl being brought up in high-class Parisian society and falling in love, “Gigi” is a lovely musical of costume and dry wit, that perhaps could have only been made in 1958. At the time of its release, “Gigi” held the record for most Academy Award wins 9 in total, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Song (for “Gigi”), Best Score, Best Costume Design, and Best Set Design; this record would stand for one year, being beaten out by Ben-Hur which received 11 Oscar wins.

Arthur Freed never duplicated “Gigi‘s” success, while he went on to produce several of the Academy Awards (33rd-35th, 40th respectively), Freed’s producer credits ended after the 40th Academy Awards; while he is still credited today for his lyrics and soundtracks (his IMDB page is continually updated, most notably for its use of “Singin’ in the Rain” tunes), his name is otherwise left to the pages of obscurity and cinephiles. Arthur Freed died in 1973 in his home at the age of 79.

All that I Have Ever Loved: The Reason There is Only One Good “Hunchback” Film

Victor Hugo, perhaps the most recognized French author in the world, wrote plays and novels that are still beloved by millions worldwide. While (arguably) his most famous work was, Les Misérables, has been an inspiration since its publication in 1862, from film to theater and political movements, Hugo’s other novel is perhaps more beautiful in language and scale because it is a smaller novel dealing with more personal themes of humanity and love. While Jean Valjean is perhaps the most well known Victor Hugo character to deal with those themes, it is Quasimodo who embodies those themes wholeheartedly.

The book, which was originally titled “Notre-Dame de Paris” is not about Quasimodo, but the cathedral itself. There are chapters solely dedicated to architecture and humanism, two of Hugo’s great loves combined into what he viewed as the idealistic city of Paris. It is perhaps the only instance where a novel shaped the exterior of a building; it is true that when Hugo wrote “Notre-Dame” the famed gothic cathedral was in disarray, clearly having seen better days – so, in his novel, Hugo described what he believed the cathedral should appear, and upon the book’s publication, which propelled Hugo from a mere playwright to an international opinion on social change, the cathedral was remodeled to fit Hugo’s description.

In the modern age, there have been numerous film adaptations of Hugo’s work featuring the kind hunchback and the beautiful gypsy, but only one film version manages to do the source material justice. The Charles Laughton (Qausimodo) and Maureen O’Hara (Esmeralda) version from 1939, directed by William Dieterle.

The film is noted for having one of the largest sets in film history and was also the most expensive film for RKO Encino with a budget of $1.8 million. The cathedral and Paris sets were constructed for a cost of $250,000, or $4,500,000 in modern currency (when adjusted for inflation). With production issues and makeup horrors, the film was originally a remake of the 1923 Lon Chaney version, but studio hang-ups, recasts caused the film to be made in 1939. The script was written by Sonya Levien, a Russian-American screenwriter who adapted Hugo’s novel to fit with modern issues of the time – Sonya is noted for being one of the highest female scriptwriter in the 1930s.

The film was met with emotional moments during production. On September 1st, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, ushering the world into its deadliest conflict of World War II and it was because of the war that the film instilled emotion in the story that makes it appear timeless – as much as it is wishful thinking to believe that wars will cease, there is always going to be a war somewhere and this film will always be there to speak to the emotion that people go through during trying times – thus, making the film a timely, impactful viewing that creates emotional and spiritual weight.

While the Disney animated film from 1996 is certainly beautiful and carries the themes of spirituality and emotion (kindness), it lacks something that the 1939 Laughton possesses – weight. Perhaps it was the Disney-ifcation of the source material, or the omitting of characters (Pierre) and combining multiple characters into one or completely changing a character all together – regardless, the Disney film is not the definitive version. For starters, Frollo was portrayed to pure evil, while in the novel and in the 1939 version, he was not a particularly great person, he was not as evil as the Disney version portrays. Phoebus, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Adonis in the Disney film, is, for lack of a better description, an asshole, in the novel. He is selfish, manipulative, and is essentially another version of Frollo – the only difference between the two is simply Frollo is more redeemable than Phoebus. The gargoyles, which do not exist in any other version and serve as comic relief in the Disney film, bog the 1996 version down with unnecessary “jokes” and songs that ultimately serve no purpose beyond levity from the drama. Despite this, the Disney film seems to largely do Quasimodo justice, and the rendering of Paris is perfect, and yes, even the songs are fine (save for “A Guy Like You”), but overall, the Disney film seems too sanitized and extremely safe.

If one wishes to watch a novel accurate film with emotional weight that is nearly timeless, consider Laughton’s version. There is a reason it is the best version – it delivers the source material accurately in every aspect that an adaptation is supposed to – while there are no perfect adaptations and the novel is leaps and bounds better than any film just for Hugo’s prose alone, the 1939 film version is certainly a worthy addition in the halls of cinema.

Hitchcockian Psychology: The Invisible Man and How It Portrays Psychology

The beginning of a new year usually means one thing when it comes to film: studio dump – studios simply dump films that they foresee may not do as well; historically, this period occurs in January and February with the summer season effectively kicking off in early-to-mid March. The reasoning behind this is mainly due to holiday fatigue and spring fever – people just don’t go to the movies as much after the holidays or before Spring – it’s cold. While films usually do poorly in the first two months of the year, recently there have been blockbusters – for instance, 2018’s “Black Panther” shattered expectations with a $200 million budget, it grossed over $1 billion – partly due to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and also due to black audiences flocking to see a black superhero take center stage once again after a long stint from the Wesley Snipe Blade films. While box office numbers may be on the uptick for beginning of the year films in terms of recent years, 2020 so far hasn’t delivered a box office smash to say the least (save for Sonic the Hedgehog, which is still going fast toward the $3 million gross). With modest success of “Bad Boys for Life” and carryovers from the holiday and Award season still in theaters, the beginning of the year has been rather lackluster – with a slew of dismal horror films to show for it. “The Turning”, for instance, barely broke even with a $14 million budget and a gross of $18 million. “The Grudge” and “Underwater” pulled similar flops and with this weekend’s “The Invisible Man”, history suggests that it too will flop – but it’s actually a fine film.

A continuation of Universal’s reboot of The Dark Universe, or more accurately, a restart to The Dark Universe, (as the studio would probably want to distance themselves from the recent “Mummy” remake with Tom Cruise) – “The Invisible Man” follows a woman who escapes her abusive husband, when he dies, she is stalked by what appears to be a ghostly form of him, an Invisible Man. Without giving major plot points away (as the trailer does an excellent job of doing), what this film does phenomenally well is how to showcase abuse without actively showing abuse – this is done in a very Hitchcockian method. Elizabeth Moss delivers a stellar performance that wretches your psychosis on the same level that Anthony Perkins did in “Psycho”.

Currently, “The Invisible Man” has a box office of over $100 million.

The Year of Blood, Sweat, and Music: Remembering Jiri Trnka 50 Years Later

New Year’s Eve, 1969

The year of blood, sweat, and music came to grissly, dismal end. In 1969, man had ventured onto the lunar surface, the Beatles disbanded, and a series of murders occurred in Los Angeles. As the world celebrated the end of a decade of peace, love, and death, one man passed away into virtual obscurity.

On December 30th, a day prior, Jiri Trnka passed away at the age of 57. A man of incredible strength, talent, and chrisma, Trnka charmed and moved audiences with a humanist approach to animation that invited intellectual conversation and family discussion. The Walt Disney of Europe recieved international accolades until his death in his native Czech Republic, but as awards and praise continued, criticism never ceased. Even in his final days, Trnka’s finest achievements were kept under close inspection by a government refusing to acknowledge simple truths – that humanity was born to create without restirction.

His work demanded from the audience a certain decorum, a mutual understanding of humanity – that it was capable of fantastic good as well as great evil; for Trnka knew as well as anyone that wolves hunt in packs and there were wolves from all sides calmoring for his success, acclaim, and prestige – fortunately for the wolves, none were lucky.

Trnka began his career as an illustrator of children’s books, receiving acclaim for his human characters and use of watercolor. After World War II, Trnka began his animation career, first turning to cel animation, but quickly transitioned to puppet animation, a medium long adored in Europe through the likes of Polish animator and filmmaker, Valdislav Starevich, who charmed the courts of aristocratic Europe in the early 20th century before the Russian Revolution. Now, it was Trnka’s turn to make a mark on history.

During decade following World War II, animation studios in Europe, particularly in the Eastern block controlled by the Soviet Union, looked to Disney for models of animation, particularly in terms of technique and style. Perhaps one of the most notable animators from the period to employ the “Disney style”; or, the use of traditional cel animation, charicatures, and “funny animals”, was Fyodor Khitruk (“The Story of a Crime”, “Film, Film, Film”) who received influence from Friz Freleng of Looney Tunes and Pink Panther fame and UPA (“Gerald McBoing Boing” and “Mr. Magoo”). Studios, most famously the Russian studio of Soyuzmultfilm, produced content to rival Disney, using the techniques pioneered by the American filmmakers in Los Angeles – the model was used so frequently that it was sanctioned by the state and, for a period, was the only style permitted to be preformed. Enter the puppet master.

Trnka entered the film stage with “Darek” (The Gift) which premiered at Cannes in 1946. The film influneced UPA, with UPA Co-Founder Stephen Bosustow expressing that Trnka was “the first rebel against Disney’s omnipotence.” When Czechoslovakia fell to the Soviet Union in 1948, Trnka’s rebellious nature was tested, as he wanted to be free to make his own films his own way, but due to his popularity with audiences, the state subsidized his output, thus, becoming a literal puppet of the regime. So, Trnka turned to fairy tales – a form of storytelling that was approved by the state, to get his message of creative freedom across.

“Ruka” (The Hand) (1964), Trnka’s crowning achievement and final work, challenged the very idea of creative freedom by making the issue of state controlled media the main theme. The film centers on a potter, content with his work, as he makes a flower pot for a flower that sits on the windowsill. He is interrupted when a large hand appears and orders him to make an image of the hand, but the potter refuses, ultimately resulting in the potter’s grim demise by the hand.

“Ruka” received the Cristal for Short Film, the highest praise for the Annecy Animation Film Festival, but was banned in the Soviet Union and is still censored in many communist and former Eastern Bloc countries due to its controversial content.

When Trnka died just shy of seeing a new decade, he was ironically given a state funeral and was laid in state. Trnka’s ability to criticize the state while working within the means of restriction resulted in Trnka maintaining a legacy of rebellion and creative insight. In a Europe dominated by Disney and UPA look-alikes, Trnka sought to change the medium, and set into motion the idea of creative freedom and liberty.

So, if you are an artist, be it a filmmaker, a painter, a writer, or whatever, if you ever feel like you’re in a position of creative limitations. As one journalist beautifully observed: “Trnka – the very name conjures up childhood and poetry.”

Jiri Trnka (1912-1969)

The Goldfinch: From Fabritius to Crowley

Centered around a young man who steals Fabritius’ 1654 magum opus, “The Goldfinch”, the film of the same name opened to lackluster reviews on September 13th, 2019 after a premiere in the Toronto Film Festival. While the film is expertly crafted in a cinematic sense from Roger Deakins, the man of Blade Runner 2049 fame that won him the Oscar this previous awards season, it suffers from a brutal runtime – which, in the grand scheme of context and reason, is not an unfortunate thing to bear.

In 1654, Carel Fabritius was at the height of his career – a pupil of fellow Dutch master Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, he was a member of the Delft school, a school of painting thought throughout the mid-17th century that was based in Delft, which dealt with peasant life, cities, still life, and subjects that would generally be considered ‘mundane’ by a modern lens. Fabritius, his pupil, Mattias Spoors, and Simon Decker, a church deacon, died when he was thirty on October 12th, 1654, when a local gunpowder store exploded, killing hundreds and destroying portions of the city – in the explosion, most of Fabritius’ work was destroyed, leaving behind only a few – one of them, namely, The Goldfinch.

The Goldfinch, 1654 (Carel Fabritius)
oil on panel (33.5 by 22.8 cm)
Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands

It is only fitting and proper, that Ms. Donna Tartt would name her protagonist, Theo Decker, after Simon, and that a mirror situation would occur to him. While the film does not provide details of the bombing at the museum, we are given enough information so that we understand Theo’s perspective – the confusion, the chaos, and then the immortal painting that is The Goldfinch.

What the film does remarkably well is showcase emotion through the camera lens. Every shot contains meaning and purpose, beyond driving the character motivation or plot, but it allows the audience to visually experience the essence of what the painting represents. Later in the film, Theo is talking to his mentor and now business partner, Hobie, an antique shop owner, and Hobie reveals the nature of the painting and the eternity and meaning of art. It is an incredible speech that is expertly given. The composition of the film is internal – we are essentially looking into Theo’s life through the eyes of Fabritius’ little bird. Despite never saying anything, The Goldfinch itself, speaks more about the nature of humanity than any of the human characters. Perhaps it was the filmmakers’ intentions, or Deakin’s cinematography direction, but whatever the case – the golden color motif, the claustrophobic framing, accompanied with the piano heavy, haunting music by Trevor Gureckis, illustrates what every artist in history has ever attempted to convey and what Tartt understood perfectly well – art is “the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire”

Despite the well intentioned efforts of the filmmakers, the film received negative reviews from critics and resulted in $50 million loss for Amazon. The cinematography and writing aside, the film is almost needlessly long, and some of the acting is insufferable – namely, Natalie Portman, who delivers a bland, forgettable, wooden performance as Mrs. Barbour. Luke Wilson delivers a strong performance, but sometimes overbearing. While Finn Wolfhard is charming as Boris, as to be expected, his accent is sometimes lost and is rather inconsistent. The myriad of issues with this film mainly lie in the complexities of its source material being condensed into a lengthy, detailed, but simultaneously vague adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel that results in a beautifully shot, lavishly written, but poorly managed film that is, not horrible, but lacking clarity as to what it wants to be. The film has merits in cinematography, writing, and overall design, but falters in the acting and pacing department.

Overall, while not a dismal viewing, The Goldfinch is a film that marvels at art and was expertly taking care of the look of the film, but forgot to tell its story.

“Tolkien” (2019) Review

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

A strangely immortal, simple sentence of literature. First penned in 1937 by John Ronald Ruel Tolkien, “The Hobbit” is of course, the story of Bilbo Baggins’ adventure of Middle Earth, with a dragon, a wizard, and dwarves. Dome Karukoski directs a mild version of Tolkien’s life, particularly his formative years before World War I in “Tolkien” – a film with the tagline – A Life of Love, Courage, and Fellowship – appropriately fitting. While superbly written, wonderfully acted, and masterfully shot, the biopic falls shorter than a hobbit’s stature – mostly has to do with sluggish pacing marked with strenuous editing and story decisions that ultimately lead to this film falling into Mount Doom quicker than the One Ring can.

“Tolkien” clocks in at just under two-hours (1 hr. 52 mins.), but feels remarkably longer; while in some cases this may be welcome, the film felt incredibly long barely thirty minutes in. The reasoning for this drag is largely because of the editing choices – a few scenes could have been trimmed to an extensive degree and even then, trimmed significantly more.

Tolkien in War (Tolkien, 2019, Karukoski)

The film is essentially an intercut between Tolkien’s life before World War I, where he met his friends that would later inspire him to write his magnum opus, and during World War I, which was the turning point in his life. The problem with this film, is that World War I was more of an after thought, and Sam, the solider that aides him throughout the war scenes, is even less than that – characters are written superbly and built up to mean something – until they are written off with little regard for our time spent with them.

While the cinematography is excellent and imaginative, much like the man himself was, full of references and beautiful imagery – the intercuts effect how the film is watched, they are jarring and unnecessary – it would have made more sense to have this be in chronological order so that not only we gain a sense of time and space, but also character development. In the World War I segments, even in the beginning of the film, we see a changed Tolkien, but we don’t know how or why – perhaps that is the point, but it still feels odd to have a developed character, or at least, the idea of a developed character, intercut with a character that is supposed to be the same person, but ultimately isn’t.

The truth of the matter is that J.R.R. Tolkien molded Mordor after his experiences in World War I, and while the film touches on this in an interestingly visual way, it seems to be a remarkably depressing sad footnote. The film should have either done all or nothing – it was instead, trying to paint Tolkien with broad strokes for an audience who knows nothing about the man. While the film does a service to that particular audience – it would have been of better use to showcase Tolkien’s time in the trenches in a way that mattered and was clear – this changed his life. The film does not do the war justice at all.

The TCBS, (Tolkien, 2019)

The majority of our time is spent here, and while the pacing here isn’t horrible, it is clunky and slow in multiple places, particularly, the romance between Tolkien and Edith. The film was trying too hard in making us care for the two love-birds that it felt cheap, lazy, and cliched. While the cinematography is to be praised, the editing is far too removed – shots seemed to last forever to the point where the viewer escapes into neorealism and we realize that we are watching a film instead of… well, not remembering that we are indeed watching a film.

The TCBS (Tea Club, Barrovian Society), which consisted of Tolkien and his friends: Geoffrey Bache Smith, Christopher Weisman, and Robert Gilson were well developed – later; early on, the film rushed itself – going from immediate dislike to immediate friendship – it felt as if the filmmakers were trying to tell us everything, when they could have sufficed for something good – instead, we were given something decent that was trying to tell both stories.

“Tolkien” is essentially two films slapped together – a war film and a coming of age film and even then, the coming of age film is again, two films – one in youth, and one in young adulthood. The filmmakers chose to combine all of this into one, when they should have settled for one (the coming of age film set in young adulthood). Personally, a better Tolkien film can be made here – with just a little more time and patience.

Tolkien writing “The Hobbit”, (Tolkien, 2019)

While this film does have problems, there are merits. The cinematography is stunning, the music is expertly composed by Thomas Newman, and it is visually striking – however, as Roger Deakin points out:

People confuse ‘pretty’ with good cinematography.

While the cinematography is pretty and good for the most part, there are times when even this lags – as if the editor and the cinematographer co-conspired to have every second of every shot be included.

Overall, while not completely unwatchable, “Tolkien” is not a film that is neither good nor bad, just simply… passable, and for a man as great as Tolkien to have a passable film instead of one that is worthy of the subject, is perhaps the greatest pitfall.

Well, at least the poster is beautiful. If only there was a film to match it.

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