Ninotchka (1939)

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Communism: A Load of Bolshevik

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Does communism have a moral equivalency to Nazism? Conservatives have long complained of a double stand for Nazi and communist crimes. Nazism is based on heinous sounding ideas; communism is based on nice sounding ideas. However, that makes communism and left-wing radicalism more appealing to people of good intentions and perhaps that makes communism more dangerous and an evil in disguise. I’m undecided on this question myself but regardless of which ideology is worse, there is one thing I’m certain about: communism sucks and the fact that it has nowhere near the reputation of Nazism is disturbing. This is an ideology which was responsible for the deaths of 100 million in the 20th century yet I am able to buy t-shirts featuring its dictators in pop culture stores.

The 1939 Ernst Lubitish directed and Billy Wilder penned comedy Ninotchka is reflective of this lack of moral equivalency between Nazism and communism despite the film clearly being anti-communist (apparently the film was responsible for communists losing an Italian election in 1947). The scenes in Ninotchka which take place in Russia are grim. The complete censorship of information, the regimented support of the regime, the asphyxiating and claustrophobic living conditions, rationed food, fear of spying neighbours and the overall lack of personal freedoms. Yet despite critique such as this which the film levels against communism, Ninotchka does not present communism as the utterly monstrous belief system that Hollywood suggested Nazism was. When I first watched Ninothcka as a politically lay viewer that’s the impression I got – “communism isn’t great but Nazism is worse”. That’s not to say Ninotchka would be so much better a film if it went the full throttle and showed us the gulags and mass starvation but would a film like Ninotchka transposed to Nazi Germany ever get made with the same comic and tonal approach, one which doesn’t go the full throttle by mentioning concentration camps and persecution of Jews and other minorities. Would it even be morally appropriate to do so? – Food for thought.

One of the ways in which Ninotchka jabs at the Soviets is through the Russian characters skewered thinking. In the opening scene the three comrades on a mission in Paris attempt to justify choosing an expensive hotel over a cheap one because apparently, it’s what Lenin would have wanted and refusing to simply admit they really just want the royal suite (“but who said we had to have an idea”). In another scene in the film, Ninotchka explains why Soviet Russia is “peddling our precious possessions to the world at this time”. She goes onto say, “Our next year’s crop is in danger, and you know it. Unless we can get foreign currency to buy tractors, there’ll not be enough bread for our people and you comrades.” As if tractors could overcome a drought and famine. Likewise, there is Leon’s (Melvyn Douglas) statement in regards to Russia, “I’ve been interested in your five-year plan for the last 15 years”.

I do find much of the Ninotchka’s first 18 minutes prior to the introduction of Garbo to be a bit flat even with some humorous scenes in which the three comrades are being seduced by capitalistic decadence and start fawning over Leon. The setting up of the background behind the jewels as a plot device and the scenes between Melvyn Douglas and Ina Claire are not terribly interesting. Once Garbo appears, however, the film is on fire.

Greta Garbo is not one of my favourite actresses but I totally understand the appeal. Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova Envoy Extraordinaire is one badass. She claims to have been a sergeant in Third Cavalry Brigade and she is certainly one with the ability to convince the uninitiated to communist ideals. Lines such as “I have heard of the arrogant male in capitalistic society” and “That’s no business, that’s social injustice” don’t sound too different from talking points by modern lefties. Ninotchka is driven by facts and statistics in comparison to Leon who is more driven by emotion (although I guess the fact of communism’s failure is one for her to ignore). The Soviet State as represented by the figure of Ninotchka is genuinely concerned with the great mass of its people but it is so interested in their statistical well being that is has forgotten their emotional needs and has become cold, oppressive and inhuman. Garbo’s cold emotionless voice and her stone face are fully utilised in a faultless deadpan, comic performance. However, when she finally laughs for the first time and unleashes her endearing side, it feels so genuine and uplifting. At the heart of romance in Ninotchka is that of love triumphing over opposing ideologies.

Ninotchka’s communist ideology does rub off on Leon as he becomes somewhat of a campaign socialist and humorously turns to violence in order to track down Ninotchka later in the film. As good as Melvyn Douglas is in the role of Leon, I can’t help but wish William Powell could have performed the role as no one does suave cynicism like Powell. Regardless Douglas does deliver one of my all-time favourite set of movie lines in which he tells Ninotchka to just smile “At the whole ridiculous spectacle of life, at people being so serious”; I like to remind myself of this whenever I feel frustrated at the state of the world we live in.

One of the most interesting scenes in the film involves Leon’s butler Gaston (Richard Carle) telling his master about his concern regarding Ninotchka’s (or simply the Bolshevik Lady) influence over him;  Gaston as much as refuses to dust Leon’s copy of Karl Marx’s Capital as it is a socialistic volume. Gaston also mentions how Leon has not paid him two months in the movie suggesting that capitalism isn’t perfect; however, Gaston finds the prospect of sharing belongings with Leon and being on an equal footing as him to be terrifying. By the end of the film, neither Ninotchka nor Leon directly renounces communism but I doubt they will be returning to Russia any time soon.

Rocky IV (1985)

80’s: The Movie

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Rocky IV is one of the most entertaining movies ever made. If there was ever a movie I can turn to for just 90 minutes of pure, immense, adrenaline filled, inspirational entertainment, it’s Rocky IV. The runtime is the shortest of the series, but those 90 minutes are perfect. The poster for Rocky IV is displayed proudly in my bedroom, and every now and then I look at it in all its majesty with Rocky sticking his glove up in the air while draped in the stars and stripes. I feel the Rocky movies had the ideal lifespan for a movie franchise; start off serious, goof out for some fun, but then end again on a serious note.

There’s no question about it, Rocky IV is the most 80’s movie ever. Case in point:

– Synthesized rock soundtrack.

-Cold war propaganda.

-Conservative, Reagan era values.

-MTV music video style montages.

-Larger than life villain.

-It’s a sequel of a long-running franchise.

-There’s a robot.

-Rocky drives a sports car.

-Display of decadence.

-Brigitte Nielsen, star of other very 80’s movies Red Sonja and Cobra.

-Action movie revenge plot.

-Full of cheesy/corny quotable lines (“If he dies, he dies”, “Whatever he hits, he destroys”).

Stallone’s inspiration for Rocky IV came from the two fights between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling in 1936 and 1938 respectively; two fights which embodied the political and social conflict of the time – an African American taking on a supposed representation of Aryan superiority. Thus in Rocky IV we get Ivan Drago, the terrifying Aryan superman Rocky must challenge to avenge the death of his friend (could that sound more 80’s?).  Ivan Drago is a terminator; the strongest opponent humanly possible; however is Drago an interesting villain? I say yes; one of my favourite screen villains of all time as a matter of fact. In a memorable Siskel & Ebert moment, Roger Ebert described Drago as a “moderately interesting villain” but complained “how come he never has a single scene alone with his wife” and “why does she have nine times more dialogue than he has?”. Drago doesn’t speak for himself as there is no individualism in communism. I feel Dolph Lundgren gives a great physical performance, playing a character who is the opposite of Clubber Lang in that he speaks few words; succeeding in being an intimidating monster with his physical presence alone. I also love Drago’s reaction to Apollo’s entrance at the exhibition fight; that of a Soviet being welcomed to America.

Ivan Drago is a product of a state that sponsors his training as exemplified in the movie’s two training montages. Drago’s music theme is cold, intimidating and mechanical, just like his training. He is given steroids by his trainers and at a press conference an American reporter says “There have been rumors of blood doping and widespread distribution of anabolic steroids in the Soviet Union”; feels like an eerie foreshadowing to the state-operated Russian doping scandal of 2016. Following the boycotts at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, Rocky IV couldn’t have come at a better time when sports and politics were going hand in hand. Drago’s fit of rage near the end of the fight in which he proclaims “I fight to win. For me! For me!”, is clearly a jab at communism as he wants to work for himself and not for the glory of the country. Likewise, when he lifts up and throws the Russian official who criticises him, it’s a classic Frankenstein moment; the monster turning on its creator.

Apollo Creed’s entrance, on the other hand, is one of the most capitalistic things ever put on film, with James Brown singing Living In America among Belly Dancers and Apollo Creed dressed in stars and stripes; and to top it all off, it’s in Las Vegas. A stark contrast to the Russians who open the Rocky-Drago fight later in the movie to their national anthem (yet another awe-inspiring musical highlight in the film). Did Apollo’s ego untimely kill him? Apollo’s patriotic egotism clouded his better judgment and no idea just how strong Drago would be. The sheer power of Drago’s punches during the fight with Creed (if you could even call it that) is exemplified by the sound effects. Also, why does Drago receives no punishment for throwing the referee aside, but if I was going to point out every little thing in this movie which makes no sense I’d be here all day. There’s such brutality to Creed’s death; such slow motion brutality. I’ll never forget my mum’s reaction the first time I watched Rocky IV, a gasping “oh my God!”.

When I was studying for my GCSE examinations, the Rocky IV soundtrack was one of my primary sources of music listening. Whenever I have a stressful day of work I listen to the Rocky IV soundtrack when I need that extra bit of adrenaline to make me go on. Feeling down? Rocky IV soundtrack! Need inspiration?  Rocky IV soundtrack! Having a workout? Rocky IV soundtrack! 20% of the Rocky IV or 23 minutes is comprised montages with songs which can make anything look epic in one of the epitomes of the 1980’s soundtrack; everything you would expect from a score which won the Razzi for worst music score. The score by Vince diCola has been officially released but copies are not easy to come by. The actual Rocky IV soundtrack features different versions of War and Training Montage than those which appear in the film, although these variants are good in their own right.

If there is one word associated with Rocky IV, its montage. I can watch these montages over and over again and still be enthralled by them. The first training montage is heavy on its symbolism of nature vs. machine and showcases the beauty of the Russian wilderness. Ok, it’s actually Wyoming but I can buy into it being a vast frozen expanse of the Soviet Union. But it’s training montage number 2 which has to be my favourite training montage in film history. This is partly due to John Cafferty’s Hearts on Fire – a motivating, pumping song if there ever was one. That synth, god I love it! In the spirit of everything in Rocky IV being larger than life, instead of running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the montage ends with Rocky climbing a mountain.

The editing of Rocky IV also contributes to the film’s bombastic nature. The transitional shots of magazine covers and newspaper articles make the film play out like more of a comic book than it already is. Likewise, shots such as that of Rocky’s Russian chaperone looking into binoculars gets repeated three times within a few seconds but zoomed in further each time and edited to the rhythm of the score; it’s just so cool. On the other hand, I even recall a review I heard for Star Wars: The Forces Awakens refer the final shot of that movie as a Rocky IV shot, in reference to the aerial shot of Rocky on top of the mountain. Is Rocky IV a more influential than the history books say?

Rocky IV is incredibly distant from the first movie but this is appropriate as Rocky is out of his element and in a foreign land. This is the only film in the series not to take place in Philadelphia unless you include the scene in the Balboa mansion although it’s never made clear where the mansion is located. The No Easy Way Out montage provides you with clips from the first movie, so it the film itself allows you to bask in the stark contrast between the movies; a man who used to be a not very intelligent nobody and made money from prizefighting and working for a loan shark is now at the center of international politics.

Even the sheer predictably of Rocky IV is wonderful, such as when Adrian shows up in Russia to support Rocky; it’s all cliché but in the best sense of the word. The build-up to the final fight and the atmosphere is so immense; there could never be a Rocky film more epic than this. By this point, I’m actually scared for Rocky and fearful for his life, and Paulie’s emotional outpour before the fight, it gets me every time. I don’t care what anyone says, this is the greatest fight in film history. Rules don’t apply and Rocky somehow lasts the 15 rounds and even wins over the crowd (“Suddenly Moscow is pro-Rocky!”). This isn’t just Rocky against another opponent, this is Rocky against a superhuman, a hostile crowd, a Mikhail Gorbachev lookalike and an entire world superpower. Keep your superhero movies with their city-destroying battles; this is what I call a duel! Rocky’s final speech is naive in the most wonderful way. The words of the speech are so juvenile, yet when I hear Stallone utter them in the movie; it brings a tear to my eye. Did Rocky IV really help end the cold war? Who knows? Oh, and the end credits provide us with yet another awesome montage!

Rocky IV embodies the essence of capitalism the American Dream; if you work hard, success is attainable. I know many would just look at the movie and scoff at it as a simplified look at the Cold War with an “us and them” mentality. But as a piece of propaganda does it work? Oh, you bet it does. Rocky IV, I salute you to your over the top, cheesy 80’s perfection.

Rocky IV > Citizen Kane

Silk Stockings (1957)

In Soviet Russia, Stockings Wear You!

I’m rather disappointed with the latter era MGM musicals. High Society, Les Girls, Gigi; as one of the numbers in Gigi sums it up: “It’s a bore!” Silk Stockings is one of the better ones, not perfect but it shows this now increasingly outdated style of musical could still be glorious, despite their lack of economic viability from the rise of television. Whereas High Society came off to me as an unneeded remake of The Philadelphia Story, Silk Stockings manages to hold its own and not come off as a cheap remake Ninotchka, which was released prior to the cold war in 1939 (and not doing much good for American-Soviet relations). Silk Stockings was made right during the cold war and towards the end of the McCarthy years. It’s interesting seeing the story of love overcoming ideology retold from the cold war perspective in this critique of communism just like Ninotchka before it favours the gayety and decadence of the west to the rigid and gray world of the Soviet Union. While Silk Stockings may be moving denouncing communism it does paint a positive picture of Russian arts. The movie, however, is self-aware its propaganda, with the film being made within the film described as “The iron curtain dissolved by music” and Astaire gleefully proclaiming the film within a film as “what propaganda!”

The influence of the director Rouben Mamoulian is one of the aspects which helps elevate Silk Stockings. Mamoulian was one of the most innovative directors of the 1930’s, whose credits include the ground-breaking musicals Applause and Love Me Tonight. Although this was 1957 and his final film, he was an innovator of the genre and his handsome direction is apparent throughout the film. The musical numbers take full advantage of the Cinemascope frame, such as the number ‘We Can’t Go Back to Russia’ which features multiple people dancing at once in a long, unbroken shot. While Fred Astaire is dancing, Peter Lorre might be doing something amusing in the background. The dancing on display in the film is not Astaire’s most accomplished but is entertaining none the less. Mamoulian never worked with Ninotchka director Ernst Lubitsch, although Love Me Tonight did feature Lubitsch elements, as well as regular Lubitsch stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. Elements of the famous Lubitsch Touch are present throughout Silk Stockings; for example, when the Soviet commissar has just finished his first encounter with Ninotchka and is surprised to discover she is a woman, his secretary then bursts into the room to tell him this very fact, very much a Lubitsch inspired gag.

Cyd Charisse succeeds in holding her own, not merely doing an imitation of Greta Garbo; showing that she was an underrated actress as well as a great dancer. Plus it simply a pleasure seeing Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse reunited again after The Band Wagon. Astaire could have conceivably played Melvyn Douglas’ role back in 1939 (I often wish the man could have done more non-musical comedic roles) so his casting does work; plus I’ve always championed Astaire’s for his unsung comic abilities. The casting of Peter Lorre as one of the three operatives is a brilliant decision, while Janis Page is also very entertaining as the uncultured actress Peggy Dayton.

The film’s selection of songs written by Cole Porter are very good. ‘Stereophonic Sound’ is a satire on the habits of moviegoers more concerned with a film’s technical aspects over the content of the film itself, while Cyd Charrise’s solo dance number captures the decadence of capitalism in the form of dance. The ‘Ritz Roll n’ Rock’ reflects the changing musical landscape from jazz to rock n’roll and appropriately so as this marked Astaire’s retirement from musicals, in the final number of the film dressed in his trademark top hat, white tie, and tails; what a send-off! Although my favourite number in the film is Astaire and Charisse dancing on a film set in ‘All You Dance’, simply beautiful. The big flaw I have with Silk Stockings, however, is the length; at the two hours the movie is too long and some trimming could have gone a long way. With thirty minutes chopped out, Silk Stockings could go from a good movie to a great one.

The Prize (1963)

A Different Kind of Stockholm Syndrome

The Prize is my second favourite Hitchcock film he didn’t direct (my favourite being 1941’s All Through the Night). It’s not instantly engaging from the start as there is a lot of setting up to do but becomes more and more tense as the film progresses. In classic Hitchcock fashion, once the mystery kicks in your left scratching your head wondering if the protagonist just paranoid or is something fishy really going on.

I consider The Prize one of Paul Newman’s best films, giving him the opportunity to show off his not often exposed comedic chops. Newman is one of few select actors in which I can ask the question, “honestly, who doesn’t like Paul Newman?”; does there exist a more likable screen presence?  Likewise, Edward G. Robinson’s role is reminiscent of his part in The Whole Town’s Talking, playing a dual role of characters identical in appearance but with polar opposite personalities; while the hotel setting rings a bell of MGM’s own Grand Hotel some 31 years prior. plus when you set your movie in Sweden it seems inevitable that someone will mention Greta Garbo along the way. Hitchcock himself also never fully took advantage of the cold war. Torn Curtain, although I do think is underrated, is imperfect while Topaz is one of his dullest outings. It’s satisfying to see a superb Hitchcockian thriller with a plot about West vs. East.

North By Northwest has the auction scene in which Cary Grant makes a fool of himself to get caught by the police in order to get away from the bad guys; The Prize has the same scene but ups the ante with having it taking place during a nudist meeting and of course naturally of all the countries in the world to a nudist meeting, where else but Sweden. The Prize is not quite Hitchcock’s greatest hits but it’s the closet a film comes to being so. There are other allusions to other Hitchcock films including The Lady Vanishes, Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, and Torn Curtain. Hang on, that one didn’t come until three years after this movie. Huh, was Hitchcock inspired by this Hitchcock clone/rip-off/ homage/whatever you want to call it. As far as imitations of someone else’s work goes it doesn’t get pulled off any better than this.