The Wet Parade (1932)

Drink!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Wet Parade is unusually long for a pre-code film at 2 hours resulting in a real mini-epic and an informative history lesson on the topic of the prohibition of alcohol in The United States by people who had just lived through it. Whereas most films on the topic focus on the criminal side of prohibition, The Wet Parade focuses on how it affected regular law abiding people.

The first act of The Wet Parade takes places in the American south and this portion of the film does meander a bit (also what is up with that cut made 19 minutes into the movie? – It couldn’t have been less jarring if they tried). None the less it’s worth patient wait for the shocking, pre-code melodramatics this act has to offer as Lewis Stone in the role of a southern gentleman succumbs to the bottle in the most over the top fashion. It’s not enough that he ends up victim to alcoholism; he has to be found dead in a literal pigsty. After the proceeding funeral his daughter Maggie (Dorothy Jordan) offers a beautiful, histrionic breakdown after seeing her father’s friends using whiskey have a toast to their departed friend (“And I only hope I live to see the day, that every bit that was ever made is poured into a cesspool where it belongs”). So yes, just blame the drink and not place any personal responsibility on her father’s lack of self-control. – More on this later.

The remainder of The Wet Parade takes place in New York City in which Maggie is introduced to the hotel owning Tarleton family and their son Kip (Robert Young). Walter Houston as the father of the family couldn’t ham it up more if he tried in the role of Pow Tarleton with his manly, Victorian demeanor. Pow is a hardcore Democrat and Woodrow Wilson fanboy as he drunkenly fawns over the commander in chief. Early in the film, he is seen giving a rousing political speech on the street which is contrast to a Republican elsewhere as it intercuts to both sides accusing the other of infringing on people’s liberates. –  Huston himself would go on to portray a fictional POTUS himself the following year in Gabriel Over the White House.

Films dealing with politics in Hollywood’s golden age rarely would mention actual political parties and by extension not identify characters as being associated with actual real-life parties (at most they would imply party connections). The Wet Parade is an exception to this as various characters are identified as being either Republican or Democrat. There is no clear political alliance The Wet Parade sides with yet it is an interesting observation that all the identified Democrats in the film are rowdy men’s men and heavy drinkers (“I never knew a Republican that could hold more than a pint”) while the two identified Republicans are pretty boys who don’t drink.

The Wet Parade provides an overview of the events which eventually leads to prohibition being enacted. This begins with the re-election of Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and immediately after the results come in on election night, a group of Democrats sing a loud isolationism chant which dissolves into stock footage of marching troops to George M. Cohen’s ‘Over There’. – Nice one. With the US involved in the Great War we see the food control act introduced which Pow refers to as “the hick towns of the Bible belt are behind this, a snide blue-nosed trick to force the county into prohibition”. The Anti-Saloon League then begins pushing to get the Food Control Act into permanent, national law. This is followed by a scene in which we see the angry reaction from the soldiers in the trenches on whom it’s supposed to benefit, frustrated that they won’t be able to get a drink once they return home.

Following the introduction of prohibition, Pow’s wife catches him with a drink in the basement and grabs the bottle off him before smashing it on the floor. Pow strangles her then proceeds to beat her up, killing the poor woman in one of the most shocking moments in pre-code cinema. As a result, Kip and Maggie unite to crusade against the illegal alcohol trade, united by the damage and death alcohol has brought upon both their families. There is a historical analogy in this as long-time leader of the Anti-Saloon League Wayne Wheeler was himself was motivated by his disdain for alcohol due to a childhood incident in which an intoxicated hired hand accidentally stabbed Wheeler with a hayfork.

The Wet Parade showcases the negative effect alcohol can have on people’s lives but more importantly demonstrates how prohibition caused more problems than it solves, removing the tool rather than going to the root of the problem. As one of the gangsters in the film describes the illegal trade, “An industry bigger than the one they abolished”. The film even goes as far as acknowledging the government was behind the poisoning alcohol which made drinkers lose their sight. In one scene Kip and Maggie are given a good talking down by a friend (Neil Hamilton) in a line which best sums up the moral crusade which was prohibition; “People have been drinking for thousands of years, you can’t keep liquor away from people that want it. The minute you tell them they can’t have it more of them are going to stop drinking and get drunk instead.”

Rounding out the large cast of The Wet Parade is Myrna Loy during her bad girl phase. Her character is based on actress and speakeasy owner Texas Guinan and she even utters Guinan’s catchphrase “Give the little lady a big hand!”. The movie does not let down in its Loy factor and she has a satisfying amount of screen time even if it takes an hour until she first appears.

The Wet Parade is directed by Victor Fleming, most famous for directing The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind both in the same year. I think The Wet Parade may be the most interesting film he’s done outside of that. Outside of the film’s opening act in the American south, the remainder of the picture moves at a very brisk pace and features a large number of long takes. The Wet Parade is one of the most informative films on this period of American history and makes for a great double feature with the James Cagney prohibition spanning gangster picture The Roaring Twenties.

Advertisements

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983)

Luke Be a Jedi Tonight!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

It’s not easy calling Return of the Jedi your favourite Star Wars film. Were as when someone says The Empire Strikes Back is their favourite they get cheers from the crowd. Call Return of the Jedi your favourite you get boos and hisses followed by a rigorous defense of your opinion. Well, it could be worse; those who call the prequels their favourite usually get stoned or hanged by a lynch mob.

I find Return of the Jedi to be the film in the series which satisfies me the most in this swashbuckling space adventure. I like how it combines elements from both A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back from Hope’s light-hearted nature and the nostalgic return to Tatooine, to Empire’s darker nature with Luke confronting Vader and the Emperor. But when I think Return of the Jedi I think redwood forests. The forest moon of Endor is such a splendour to look at, and once again proves that Planet Earth is the greatest movie set of all.

Let’s talk about everyone’s favourite addition to the Star Wars universe, shall we? I am indeed speaking of the Ewoks. The dismissive statements towards these creatures that the empire was brought down by a bunch of teddy bears I find to be very close-minded. I completely agree with George Lucas that they showcase how it is possible for a primitive race to bring down a technologically advanced superpower such as the empire is inspired by the Viet Cong’s offense against the Americans during the Vietnam War. I like this message as it’s true that the most advanced technology isn’t always the best means; sometimes less is more. I know many say the idea of Ewoks helping bring down the Empire was highly improbable. Well, my answer to that is remember Yoda’s lesson in The Empire Strikes Back, “Judge me by my size do you?”. The cute nature of the Ewoks (along with their whimsy yet epic theme music) provides a counterbalance to the darker scenes in Return of the Jedi. Yet the Ewok’s themselves are not without their own darker side. At one point in the film, they have no remorse when they intend to burn out heroes alive and notice how they use the helmets of dead stormtroopers as musical instruments.

Likewise, Return of the Jedi has too many puppets? I’m used to hearing people complain about movies which use too much CGI but a movie using too many practical effects – that’s a new one. The creature department and their astounding levels of creativity employed for Return of the Jedi hit it out of the park with creations such as the odd-looking yet enamoring fish create that is Admiral Ackbar. It’s just a shame people look at this cynically and say they were just trying to sell toys.

Return of the Jedi does not disappoint in its reveal of Jabba the Hut. The space gangster whose name is mentioned in the previous two movies with no indication as to whether or not he was a human, an alien or something different altogether (at least in the original theatrical versions). In a masterwork of puppetry, Jabba is a wonderfully, horrendous creature design; an extreme, gluttonous version of Sydney Greenstreet. Return of the Jedi also contains the iconic bikini Leia. More than just a sex symbol (insert Tex Avery wolf here), it also gives way to the powerful image of Leia strangler Jabba, her enslaver with the very chains attached to her body.

My favourite action scene in any movie ever is a toss between the final car chase in The Blues Brothers and the escape from Jabba in Return of the Jedi (with the later speeder bike chase not being far behind). Talk about a “How are they going to get out of that?” moment; in which they do in a convincing, heart racing like crazy manner. I love how the escape is one big elaborate plan which all our heroes are in on, not to mention the introduction of Luke’s green lightsaber in a shot that couldn’t look more majestic. Also, I never understood people’s love affair with Boba Fett, so his death didn’t bother me. To the contrary I find his death to be interesting in how unconventional it is; this tough badass who doesn’t go out with a bang, but rather dies in a humiliating fashion. I was more concerned with Lando being on the cusp of death!

The second half of Return of the Jedi is one of the most intense, involving and grand cinematic experiences. Cutting between the assault on the imperial cruisers and the second death star, the assault on Endor and the powerful emotions when Luke is confronting Vader and the senile, scenery chewer that is Emperor Palpatine; it perplexes me that people can put down this movie so much. Having a second Death Star sounds like a lazy idea on paper but I fell they get away with it due to the immaculate execution. I love the incomplete appearance of Death Star II and the film’s final battle involves ships navigating through the tunnels and into the center of the battle station makes for a dogfight even more exciting than that from A New Hope. Likewise, while it’s near impossible to go into these movies for the first time fresh unless you’ve spent your whole life under a rock, but I didn’t have previous knowledge that Luke and Leia are brother and sister; which is one surprise the original Star Wars trilogy had for me.

Science fiction cinema had never seen a finer moment between the final confrontation between Luke, Vader and the Emperor. The optimism of Luke Skywalker to find the good in someone as evil as Darth Vader and bring him away from the dark side is inspiring in this powerful arch of redemption as Vader returns to the light side just at the very end of his life; a life he sacrificed in order to save Luke’s. The unmasking of Vader is enough to make grown men cry, and seeing the ghost of Anakin Skywalker played Sebastian Shaw (sorry Hayden Christensen) appear to next to the ghosts of Obi-wan and Yoda is awe inspiring. Revenge of the Sith, a Shakespearean tragedy? Pfft, please. This is proper storytelling tragedy. I couldn’t ask for a better finale to a better trilogy. Ah, Return of the Jedi, I know people give you flak but to me, you’re perfect the way you are – Ewoks and all.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The Empire Strikes Back, With a Vengeance!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Empire Strikes Back is my least favourite of the original trilogy, I guess I just prefer the more light-hearted nature of A New Hope and Return of the Jedi (plus when has darkness become a measure of quality?), as well as the sense of closure given by those films but calling it my least favourite is like saying this pizza with 19 slices of pepperoni is it not as good as this pizza with 20 slices of pepperoni. It’s appropriate that the second part of the three-act story is the dark entry so the more light-hearted third act can act as a release from the darkness and despair.

Imagine if Star Wars went in the direction of The Planet of the Apes franchise? It’s a miracle the studio had no input into the film, creating the movie sequel all movie sequels aspire to be. What if it was a rushed out sequel titled Star Wars II? If Jaws started the trend of blockbusters and Star Wars cemented it, then The Empire Strikes Back was the final step in the birth of the blockbusters, by cementing the rules behind the art of the movie sequel (and creating the subtitle any movie sequel wishes they had). However, could the film’s quality also due to Lucas not having any input into the writing or directing of the film?

The Empire Strikes Back is a film of more advanced directorial prowess than A New Hope in this ridiculously fast-paced movie. Right from the start, you can tell the characters within The Empire Strikes Back are much deeper than the first film. Han and Leia are simply one of the greatest romances in all of cinema; the classic tale of two who pretend to hate each other but are secretly in love, a trope as old as cinema. Watch as the two engage in the hottest moments of a generally a-sexual franchise. It’s no surprise the two are posed in the manner of Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara on the film’s poster. Yet The Empire Strikes Back introduces the closest thing to rivaling the coolness of Han Solo in the form of Lando Calrissian played by Billy Dee Williams, to inject some smooth blaxploitation vibes into the Star Wars universe (not to mention the beauty of the Cloud City theme).

The planets in Star Wars are like characters themselves from the tundra of Hoth providing a counter to the deserts of Tatooine, to the intimacy and poignancy to the scenes on the swamp planet Dagobah and its one (as far as we know) lowly inhabitant. Yoda really is a perfect creation, like Obi-Wan, you do wonder if everything he says is full of nonsense when you break it down but it doesn’t matter. It’s just a shame the perception of the character has become bastardized because of the prequels. Plus what is it about stop-motion that is just endlessly appealing to look at from the long shots of the Tauntauns to those majestic herds of impending was elephants known of AT-ATs during the Battle of Hoth. The manner in which the stop motion doesn’t have the full fluid motion of live action movement but not to the point that it looks choppy is a visual I never tire off.

Although the darkest, The Empire Strikes Back is the funniest film of the series. C-3PO constantly telling people about the improbability of escaping the situation they’re getting themselves into, to Han’s many sarcastic whips never fails to get a laugh. Plus the movie keeps teasing you that you’re going to get to see that iconic jump to light speed shot from the first film, making it all the more satisfying when you finally do get to see it.

Even Darth Vader is significantly deepened as a character in The Empire Strikes back, thanks in part to him getting his own theme music to strike the fear of impending authoritarianism into your heart, but also thanks to certain plot twist.“I am your Father”, the most well-known piece of pop culture knowledge. Is there anyone in the civilised world who doesn’t know Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father? Should we try and preserve the secrecy of these plot twists so future generations can enjoy the surprise?

Star Wars (1977)

The Greatest Story Ever Told

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Reviewing the might that is Star Wars; part of me wonders if there is even any point. You know that cliché review term “what can I say about this movie that hasn’t been said before?” Should I pretend its 1977 and I’m just back from the movie theatre – if only I could have experienced it firsthand. With the hype underway for the upcoming The Force Awakens, I’ve been rekindling my love for Star Wars (the good trilogy, not the crummy one) so allow me to be the zillionth person to give their own perspective on Star Wars. Before I had ever even seen Star Wars I felt like I had watched it before. You could probably recreate the film from the parodies it has received. It’s hard not to get caught up in a five-hour conversation about these movies and talking in depth about every single frame. From the archetypes, the plot structure, the glorified B movie tropes and the inspirations coming from the Bible to ancient mythology to westerns to Japanese Samurai films; Star Wars is the story of stories.

I can’t help by getting tearful over the beauty of the original trilogy; whether it’s the introduction of Luke Skywalker to the achingly beautiful John William’s score, or Luke and Leia’s scene in which they try to get away from oncoming Star Troopers by swinging on a rope over a drop – but not before she kisses him – such a classic image taken from any swashbuckler. The sights and sounds of lasers blasting or dogfights in space have an aesthetic and a charm which I could never tire from. What makes the Star Wars universe feel so human? There is advanced technology but it feels used and it doesn’t always function properly. Also, I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again: CGI isn’t anything on practical effects. Part of me doesn’t want to know how they did these effects just to be kept alive the thought of “how did they do that?!” I can still enjoy the special editions despite the changes (it would take a lot more CGI to entirely ruin a film like this), yet the original theatrical versions do have a charming, 70’s hokeyness (particularly during the Mos Eisley scenes and the final assault on the Death Star), which the special editions take away.

What imagination or imaginations can come up with something so wonderful, which raises the question of just how much of genius within Star Wars can be actually credited to George Lucas? Is the guy an untalented hack who got lucky by being surrounded by talented people? It’s disheartening to think the man may never have been the genius we all thought he once was making the man as much of an enigma as the fictional universe he came up with.

Is Mark Hamill’s performance in the original Star Wars the greatest? No, but I feel it works in the trilogy’s favour as his performances in Empire and Jedi are much improved just like how the character of Luke matured and even within the original Star Wars by itself, I do get a sense of enjoyment from how charmingly amateurish Hamill’s performance is. Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan, however, is by far the most tender performance ever given by an actor in a Star Wars film; the comforting mentor and father figure who is wise without any pretension. Also what gives C-3P0 and R2-D2 such a great dynamic? They’re both robots and one is essentially a talking fax machine, either way, best robot chemistry ever.

But If I’m going to really talk about one Star Wars characters it’s Han Solo as played by the greatest of all time, Harrison Ford. Simply put Han Solo is my favourite movie character of all time; the cinematic embodiment of masculinity and individuality. He’s badass, cocky, funny, has a legendary vest, is the most handsome man ever and every word of dialogue he utters I would frame and hang on my wall. Yes, he is God himself.

The other thing I love about Star Wars which like many things was sorely missed in the prequels is the entourage of British actors. To me Star Wars isn’t Star Wars without an imperial star destroyer on which every commander on board has a sinister English accent. Even the presence of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin I feel elevates Episode IV over other films in the saga.

The confrontation between Obi-wan and Darth Vader still remains my lightsaber duel in the series. Two old men, minimal movement, no music, choreography as basic as it gets, yet it is infinitely more emotional and substantial than Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen doing somersaults inside a volcano for five hours.

Star Wars changed cinema, pop culture and the world as we know it for a reason. Something which has brought joy and happiness to myself and millions around the world (as well as much anger and despair). Many film snobs will dismiss Star Wars as the film which ruined cinema helping bring about the end of the New Hollywood era which it total tosh. I could go on and on and on with this review, adding more to it like Lucas likes to add changes to his already existing films but I feel the best way to review what Is one of the most talked-about films of all time I too try and convey the sense of emotion and euphoria I get from watching such a film.