Movie Journal – 3/29/2012

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)     4.5/5

Directed by Jacques Demy (Koch-Lorber Films)

In Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the esteemed New Wave director attempted something that had never been done before, or for that matter, has never quite been done since. He took a genre of the utmost fanaticism (the musical) and applied it to a story of realism. In Cherbourg, there are no lyrics, but rather, sung dialogue. In fact, every line is sung, and the film consists of very few minutes not complemented by Michel Legrand’s beautiful, instrumental compositions.

Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), has fallen in love Madeleine (Ellen Farner, who gives an incredible, breakthrough performance), the young daughter of an umbrella saleswoman (Anne Vernon). However, Guy is soon drafted into the Algerian War, and Madeleine must make the choice of whether to wait for Guy, or accept the hand of a wealthy jeweler, played by Marc Michel (his character having been the protagonist in Demy’s earlier film, Lola). This is a simple story (with some slightly predictable complications), but executed in a way that fully reconsiders our expectations of the musical, arguably the “happiest” genre.

The color in Cherbourg is also striking, having been recently restored by Demy’s wife (and fellow filmmaker), Agnes Varda. Demy’s cuts are very rare, prompting us to become involved in the characters’ emotional developments, rather than removing us from the ongoing action. However, Demy does make quite a few uses of montage, contrasting with the editing style throughout the film, and jumping through time in quite clever ways. This is where the film reaches an enticing contradiction – it tells a story that would likely occur in real life, yet shrouds it with color and style. This was no doubt Demy’s intent, examining contradictions within the entertainment of his era, and utilizing them to craft a near-masterpiece.

Cherbourg is a phenomenal film, but through no fault of its own, elements are surely lost in translation. French is a beautiful language, and sung dialogue sounds just as lovely as any lyrical composition. Yet when subtitles force us to translate the dialogue and simply interpret it as words, the mystique of Demy’s vision becomes slightly lost. Now that I have seen the film once (obviously using subtitles to understand the narrative), I do plan to watch it again, yet without the typed words that so often distracted me from Demy’s ambitious grandeur. Yet the emotional power remains. ThUmbrellas of Cherbourg is pure, cinematic opera, a fusion of sight and sound that has never been rivaled in its lucidity, or the simple ability to move an audience.

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Movie Journal – 3/22/2012

Breathless (1960)     5/5

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard (UGC)

Over 50 years later, it still does … well, you know. As Godard’s first feature, Breathless remains a fearless proponent of the French New Wave, in addition to an ideal balance of style and substance. Michel, played with fascinating effect by Jean-Paul Belmondo, is a small-time criminal who kills a cop, and then proceeds to roam the streets of Paris with his American, journalist girlfriend, Patricia (Jean Seberg). Michel worships the American gangster image, as exemplified by his love of Humphrey Bogart. Godard also alludes to his love of American cinema, yet makes it quite clear that he is not intent on making a studio product. Both Michel and Patricia occasionally break the fourth wall, but structurally, the film takes an even bolder approach.

The story is told mainly through jump cuts, rather than a traditional system of linear editing. Breathless was also shot entirely handheld (some shots captured via Godard’s rolling position in a wheelchair), on location in the City of Light, and accompanied by Martial Solal’s jazzy score, exuding as much charisma as the film’s protagonist. Yet most fascinating is the way Godard restrains Michel’s own fulfillment of the cool, criminal image. This was a movie that was truly the first of its kind, and because of such innovative cinematography, editing, and overall presentation, there is no room for Michel to become the idealized, American king of the underworld.

He, along with the audience, is instead left breathless; a result of cinema’s inevitable evolution. The New Wave has influenced cinema even to modern day, as Tarantino and others, such as Nicolas Winding Refn (director of Drive), continue to transform our conventions. Jean-Pierre Melville, another French director of the period (Le Samourai, Le Circle rouge, Army of Shadows), also plays a small role. And that ending, how … expansive. By expansive, I do not mean thorough, but rather, a combination of ambiguity and ceaseless profundity. These films do not end – they continue as FIN fades in. They force us to believe that these characters exist somewhere in the world, and that their stories will continue. We probably know a few of them. Some may even be us.

 

if…. (1968)     5/5

Directed by Lindsay Anderson (Paramount Pictures)

“There’s no such thing as a wrong war. Violence and revolution are the only pure acts.” “A man can change the world with a bullet in the right place.” Sounds to me like rebellion. And never has that idea become so fully encapsulated by a film. if…. is Lindsay Anderson’s story of a fantasy-driven revolt at a British boarding school, led by menace-to-society Mick Travis, and played by Malcolm McDowell (a few years prior to becoming Alex in A Clockwork Orange). The film coincides with the 1968 student uprisings in Paris, in addition to the counterculture spawned by Vietnam and a new era of sexual awakening.

if…. presents a world where everything is suppressed, and one in which even the oldest children are subject to beatings, although this form of punishment may resemble a far more vigorous form of torture. We are given an expansive look at the school, including a glance at the juniors and seniors, the rebels and the prefects, the religious leaders and the symbolic headmaster. There are homosexual interests, late night drinking sessions, a divine interest in sex and violence, and when the film finally allows it, the descent of these attributes into complete anarchy; an absolute overthrow of any sort of authority. if…. mixes black-and-white with color, refusing to blink an eye. As the film advances, this blend of elements soon becomes applicable to both reality and the darkly hilarious absurdism that would inspire the likes of Monty Python.

Taking reference from Jean Vigo’s surrealist work, Zero de conduite, if…. refuses to conform to any standard, and was considered quite graphic (and dangerous) at the time of its release. While it is unfair to claim Anderson’s work of art as inciting violence, it is undeniable that an overthrow of all that confines us is fantasized within each human mind, and how better to convey it than through violence? That is the great irony. These kids are growing up with these horrors all around them. So why not use them to their advantage? Or simply wonder about the possibility.

Reaching the Right Address

21 Jump Street (March 16, 2012)    4/5

Directed by Phil Lord & Chris Miller (Columbia Pictures)

Is 21 Jump Street the most pleasant surprise of the year so far? No doubt in my mind. Spoofing and paying homage to the late 80s TV series in equal dosage, Jonah Hill (who shares story credit with screenwriter Michael Bacall) and not-quite-teen-heart-throb Channing Tatum, play Schmidt and Jenko, former classmates who are forced to relive the glory days, their police department re-assigning them to work undercover as high school students, in an attempt to uncover a local drug ring.

But here’s the thing – Schmidt, who was the dork in high school, and Jenko, who was the dunderhead jock, now have the opportunity to reverse their social stature. You see, high school has changed since 2005. For instance, being environmental conscious is now cool, organized sports are a drag, people two-strap the backpack, and God forbid – trying is actually a positive.

With this intelligent design comes some of the biggest laughs I’ve chortled in quite a few years, brought forth by a zany structure that ignores convention, and is completely self-reflexive about not only the genre, but what the film actually wants to be. Moments of insanity are offered that will seemingly descend into formula, just to prove the audience wrong as the craziness continues. I won’t even think of ruining a few surprise role choices and cameos.

Surprisingly enough, 21 Jump Street is as much about penis jokes as it is about character development, visual storytelling, and the modern application of those great American high school stereotypes. Hill is one of the finest comedic actors in Hollywood today, and kudos to the filmmakers for giving Tatum an equally hefty portion of the funny stuff. Their partnership is gold. The film itself is a terrific blend of nostalgia and modern-day raunch, challenging us to lend it the meaning it deserves.

Killing Off the Editor?

Silent House (March 9, 2012)     3/5

Directed by Chris Kentis & Laura Lau (Open Road Films)

The husband/wife team of Kentis & Lau, who brought us the acclaimed, low-key shocker Open Water back into 2003, attempt something similar in their remake of the 2010 Uruguayan film, The Silent House. The result is a chilling film built around a gimmick of technical ambition, only unwinding when a story of relative simplicity fails to match a quite unique, photographic exercise.

Elizabeth Olson, fresh off her incredible performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene, plays Sarah, a young woman who soon becomes trapped in her family lake house. Revealing anything else would be completely ridiculous, considering that even simple hints dropped by the filmmakers allow us to connect the dots all too easily. But I can say this – Silent House claims that it is a film shot continuously, meaning there are literally no cuts. According to IMDb, it was actually shot in segments of about 10 minutes each, and edited together to hide the transitions. However, one cannot deny that the technique is impressively effective.

A suspenseful tone is set immediately in the opening credits; silence enveloping titles that look like something out of a crappy, Japanese video game.  From there on out, the film poses an interesting question. Can we really know this woman by simply following her around? Can her facial expressions, movements, and reactions tell us all we need to know in order to make her a compelling protagonist? The simple answer is yes, meaning the film was successful in that regard. Equally incredible is the way Kentis & Lau frame Silent House, jolting us by not fully showing whomever (or whatever) may by attempting to snatch at Olson at any given time.

At the film’s best, these moments are terrifying. Yet in the 21st century’s all-so-popular “found footage” genre, the terror often comes from what we do not see. And at the same time, we are often in the same boat as the characters. Silent House provides a unique spin on these conventions by making us wonder whether Olson’s character does indeed know what is occurring in this house, and the haunting possibility of whether we are simply the onlookers of something we cannot yet understand. Thus said, the film could have better utilized this principle, especially in a third act that quickly swings us back into conventionality.

Yet the cinematography by Igor Martinovic never fails to impress, playing with focus and lighting to such an extent that every camera movement, every peek around the corner provides something new for our eyes to focus on and contemplate. He also likes to focus on Olson’s cleavage, A LOT. While I have no problem with this, it is much more relevant to have the camera pointed at the young actress’s face, which displays her terror to a superb extent. She carries the film, even despite Lau’s god-awful dialogue. I also didn’t appreciate the casting choices for Olson’s father and uncle (Adam Trese and Eric Scheffer, respectively), who do not give poor performances, but are obvious in the manner Kentis & Lau wish to portray them. It almost would’ve been more interesting if Olson were alone for the entire duration of the film, but naturally, we need other characters to drive the action.

This all leads to a climax that we can begin to piece together in the midsection. Somewhere along the way, a piece of information is dropped that basically fills in all the gaps, and as if to fool us, the film tops it off with a cliché twist. The resolution is both scary and disturbing, yet lacks the originality that would have made it absolutely shocking. But Silent House keeps you on edge throughout its entire running time, and for that, remains more impressive than a majority of modern horror films. It certainly feels like real-time, but in a claustrophobic, hallucinatory sense. And for a duration of only 88 minutes, that experience is easy to recommend.

The Harshest Possible Way

The Shining (March 3, 2012)*     5/5

Directed by Stanley Kubrick (Warner Bros.)

*Screening of an original 1980 print at the Library of Congress (Packard Campus) in Culpeper, VA, preserved by the National Film Registry

Upon Stephen King’s angry reaction to Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his bestselling novel, the nation’s most popular horror writer claimed that The Shining was made by a man who “thinks too much and feels too little.” Woah. I’d be a little upset too if some guy out in Hollywood took my book, stripped away half the plot, neglected to include certain themes, shredded the humanity of the characters, and in doing so, made an artistic product at least ten times scarier. Kubrick does take the essence of what made The Shining a terrific read and transform it into pure cinema, but indeed, this is an entirely different work, almost as if Kubrick were simply given an outline of King’s book and the freedom to rewrite it through film. And if there’s one thing we can all agree about Kubrick (I’m talking to you, Mr. King), it is that the world’s most notoriously particular director always made a film exactly the way he wanted to make it.

It is a story that Kubrick’s singular style permanently imprinted in pop culture. Writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is the new caretaker of the empty Overlook Hotel during blizzard-prone winter, bringing along his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and their seemingly telepathic son, Danny (Danny Lloyd). Soon, the family begins to realize that there is more wrong with the Overlook than cabin fever, which becomes rather obvious as Jack begins to run around with an axe, following in the footsteps of former caretaker Grady (Philip Stone), who murdered his wife and two daughters before killing himself. The family’s only hope is Danny’s mental connection with a man who can also “shine,” the hotel’s head cook, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), who along with the rest of the guests and employees, has departed for the season. They can only pray that he arrives before the bloodshed begins.

Kubrick’s key elements of terror are isolation and ambiguity. The family is not only separated from the rest of the world, but we are also fairly detached from any sense of human goodness within these characters. Jack is a recovering alcoholic, a theme of King’s that Kubrick keeps, but any ability for us to relate is purposefully lost. We are not given the context to feel sorry for Jack as the hotel manipulates his inner demons, and are instead left with the impression that he is simply a deadbeat gradually becoming insane, and whose weaknesses might have led him to have a slight mental illness in the first place.

Wendy, meanwhile, is loyal to her husband, and despite the odd quirks that make her an individual, blissfully accepts his bizarre nature until Danny or she is violently threatened. Yet in her sobbing and fragility, Wendy remains a symbol of human weakness. The great irony is that she is the last to see the hotel’s hallucinations, and the most gifted character, Danny, is the first. And never does he shed a tear.

This is where The Shining approaches brilliance, in a frequent shift of perspective that never allows us to have a clear view of what is real or unreal, or which character is even seeing what Kubrick portrays onscreen at any instant. One can even interpret the Overlook as a character of its own; after all, it interacts with Jack, Wendy, and Danny in completely different ways. I for one, prefer to think of it as a living entity. But is it the hotel, cabin fever, or inner turmoil that drives Jack to madness so quickly? What is Jack’s association with Grady and the hotel’s history? What does the photograph mean? Kubrick allows us to draw our own interpretations in a way that King never quite did, although the novel was spectacular in its own right.

Here, a good deal of the film’s greatness lies in both the visual design of the Overlook and the way Kubrick shoots it. The hotel is a fairly large place; one could explore quite a few places over the course of a single season. Yet the tightly wound corridors and atrociously patterned carpets tend to enclose us in what was initially a vast locale of unlimited space, not only in the terror of this current situation, but also the decades of history with which the activities in the hotel begin to intertwine. The Steadicam, invented by Garrett Brown, plays a key role in the shots which memorably track behind the characters (whether through the hallways or in that infamous hedge maze), rushing toward / running away from imminent terror. Kubrick’s use of red also plays a dynamic role in the bold color scheme, contrasting with the white slate of winter outside the Overlook’s walls.

The whole production is a little mad, a little hilarious, and just the right amount of Kubrick to make a profound statement about the American way of life. The conventions of a typical, middle-class family are substituted for characters and situations of near absurdity, cast within an ironic location of luxury. I mean, if it wasn’t haunted, what better place to take the wife and kids? During the summer, at least. Kubrick took over a year in shooting alone, and many cast and crew members have described it as one of their worst experiences. That’s right – all work and no play.

Duvall, in particular, was bullied by Kubrick to be scared into character. Her performance is one of the best personifications of pure terror to ever reach the silver screen, and that she was nominated for a Razzie upon the movie’s release is pure idiocy, especially when Nicholson’s performance is the one that is eternally treasured. “Here’s Johnny” aside, it truly is a sensational portrayal of supernatural insanity. Thank God the cast had the tolerance to sit through each “Kubrick shot,” which might consist of more takes than each of their fingers and toes. Put together.

So what does it all mean? Is it a symbol for the American slaughter of the Native Americans, the Holocaust, or even the awesomely ridiculous theory that Kubrick helped fake video footage of the moon landing? I’ll tell you one thing, when I saw Danny in his tight-knit Apollo sweater, I couldn’t help but chuckle. I also couldn’t help but think when I saw Wendy and Danny’s matching red-white-and-blue outfits at the beginning of the film. What exactly is Kubrick trying to say, if anything, about topics that we are not consciously aware of? This is a factor that I believe enhances nearly all of Kubrick’s films, and in the case of The Shining, were examined in a documentary shown at Sundance this year, Room 237, directed by Rodney Ascher. I’ll eagerly await the Blu-ray.

In the meantime, seeing an original print of The Shining (on the big screen, nonetheless), complete with scratches, faded color, jerkiness within the projector, etc., made for the complete experience of Kubrick’s movie, his meticulous detail being aided by the sheer eeriness that seeing horror on actual film can present in itself. This might be the fourth or fifth time I’ve seen the picture, and for all it leaves up the air, it is still incredible to see how Kubrick just gently eases that book of newspaper clippings into the frame, daring us to notice it. Plus, there is nothing quite like that zoom onto Scatman Crothers’ face, as if we are about to take a ride into his nostrils. Nothing like seeing Duvall drag the unconscious Nicholson into the pantry, dried drool on his lips. Nothing like that blood slowly erupting from the elevators, as if it will soon rush under our feet. “Feels too little, huh?” I can assure you, The Shining has made me feel things that only Kubrick could ever arouse.

It’s like taking a trip into your worst nightmare, one where you can’t tell if you’re asleep or awake, and most horrifically, where you are not even the lead character. But you have to watch, and you have to decide why you are having this dream. Then you wake up, and are haunted by the fact that you stumbled upon something you never should’ve found, but were bound to discover. You pretend you weren’t there, but know you were somewhere. This place is the Overlook, and it is unlikely that you will ever leave. After all, “somewhere” is one place where you have always been.

Movie Journal – 3/5/2012

Beginners (2011)     4.5/5

Written & Directed by Mike Mills (Focus Features)

Writer/director Mike Mills’ real-life experiences with his own father drive this genuinely touching, romantic comedy-drama, displaying a mature outlook on love and relationships that is undoubtedly rare. Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a middle-aged graphic designer who reflects back on the final days of his terminally ill father (recent Oscar-winner Christopher Plummer), a man who came out of the closet at 75 years old, living the joyous, openly gay life that he had never been permitted to enjoy before. Oliver, whose closest friend is his late father’s dog, Arthur (who communicates with Oliver through uproariously insightful subtitles), soon finds himself in a relationship with Anna (Melanie Laurent), a French actress who prompts McGregor to reconsider these memories of both his father and childhood, pushing him to the realization that maybe he is the key to his own happiness.

The film is as true to its message as it is to its own nature, making it an indie-romance that contains widespread wisdom for any age or gender. Plummer was well-deserving of his award for the role, playing a man whose happiness arrived better late than never. But McGregor successfully carries his weight as the film’s protagonist, grieving and lonely, yet becoming aware of how his own attitudes can make the best of what life has to offer; in particular, people who are actually willing to love you. Beginners has structural and narrative quirks, witty dialogue, historical insight, and ultimately, real knowledge about relationships, sexual orientation, and the reasons people behave in contradictory ways; the reasons they fall in love. Although what makes it unique sometimes makes the film seem repetitive, it also jumps seamlessly from moment to moment, connecting us with these human beings through both memories and present occurrences. Emotional investment doesn’t seem like a chore. In fact, Beginners just may be one of the smartest romantic-comedies ever made.

 

Margin Call (2011)     4.5/5

Written & Directed by J.C. Chandor (Roadside Attractions)

Too soon? No. Just in time. First-time writer/director J.C. Chandor sums up the 2008 financial crisis without any of that glossy, Oliver Stone morality stuff. Yes, ethics do play a role on Wall Street, but here, they thankfully remain a thematic element, rather than the blueprints for a “message movie.” There is fairly little about Margin Call that smells like Hollywood at all, stretching a $3.5 million budget to cover the 36-hour period of a large, fictional investment firm, marking the beginning of the end for all things green. Chandor certainly deserved the Oscar nomination for his rapid-fire screenplay, thrilling for even non-Economics majors. Backed by Zachary Quinto’s production company, Before the Door Pictures, Quinto himself plays Peter Sullivan, a young risk analyst who discovers a quite horrifying, predictive figure, courtesy of his recently laid-off boss, played by Stanley Tucci.

Chandor directs this loaded cast quite craftily, Kevin Spacey playing floor head Sam Rogers, and sharing the screen with the likes of Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, and Demi Moore. Each performer is superb in a role which requires a unique perspective (which may or may not be completely selfish). Referring back to Jean Renoir’s great Rules of the Game, “everyone has their reasons.” The general consensus soon becomes that the firm should sell it all, aptly permitting some hope of the firm’s survival, yet commencing the destruction of our country’s financial market. Obviously, not everyone agrees, and Chandor sure deserves credit for navigating these choppy waters, crafting a compelling, human story without making it heavy-handed. He also shoots the damn thing brilliantly, using reflections, interestingly composed shots, and time-lapse for both visual flair and a method of successfully utilizing a small budget. In doing so, he gives us a tiny film with big ideas about the world we now live in.

 

Take Shelter (2011)     4/5

Written & Directed by Jeff Nichols (Sony Pictures Classics)

Michael Shannon is an emotional powerhouse in Jeff Nichols’ thriller, Take Shelter, a movie with an abundance of thematic depth and ingenuity, portraying its ideas through two hours of eerie, successfully drawn tension. If only the payoff were a bit more impressive. Shannon plays Curtis, a poor, Ohio workingman with a gorgeous wife, played flawlessly by Jessica Chastain, and a deaf daughter (Tova Stewart), who the couple hopes they can soon aid properly via Curtis’ job benefits. The guy has the makings of a pretty good life, that is, until he starts to dream of an apocalyptic storm, the recurring nightmares often involving harm by those close to him. Not only that, but Curtis’ mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at nearly the same age. Curtis transforms his confusion into the building of a storm shelter in his backyard, leading to devastating social and personal consequences.

Shannon’s performance is superb, and it is truly a shame that it wasn’t further recognized throughout awards season. He plays Curtis with complete sensitivity, a man who will truly stop at nothing to feel safe and protect his family, but lets fear control him, not only in regard to the storm that may or may not come, but also in respect to the disease that he may or may not have. No matter what happens, he simply doesn’t want those around him to stop loving him, whether he is “crazy” or not. This all provides a brilliant metaphor for mental illness, personified most effectively in a scene where the family actually does end up in a storm shelter. They have trusted Curtis enough to follow him in, but in turn, will he trust that their love is undying by walking back out? Take Shelter is most literate and touching when it explores such family dynamics, the give-and-take required for such relationships to thrive, especially under strenuous circumstances. However, the film doesn’t work when it simplifies itself. The final scene shows us all too much, forsaking ambiguity and making the theme of whether Curtis actually has schizophrenia the prominent one. Thus said, we can’t actually trust what happens at the end of Take Shelter to be reality. But I do believe that if less were shown, the film could’ve had quite a greater impact once it cut to black.

What we are left with is still an intriguing, suspenseful piece of work, a near-brilliant influence of The Rapture, Field of Dreams, Signs, and Donnie Darko that never ceases to hold our attention, or remain within our heads quite awhile after. A major concept within the film is trust, especially the idea that when we face insurmountable obstacles, we tend to not have faith in others’ understanding and empathy (or even fear losing them, altogether), most likely because we are supremely driven to do what we feel must be done. I cannot read Jeff Nichols’ mind, but I’m sure he trusted a quite talented crew to piece together his surprisingly unique vision. If only he had faith in the more subtle themes within his spectacle of modern, American apocalypse. Yet there sure is an audience out there for Take Shelter, and if Nichols continues to build it right for his next film, I’m certain they will come once again.

Movie Journal – 3/3/2012

An American in Paris (1951)     4.5/5

Directed by Vincente Minnelli (MGM)

Believe it or not, there was once a time in Hollywood when directors, actors, cinematographers, editors, and others responsible for the creation of movie magic worked collaboratively over the course of multiple films, often in contract to a studio, and in a quite opposite fashion to how movies are now made. In the era of An American in Paris, studios would punch out similar films made by the same people, and often multiple times a week, people would head over to the movie palace and see them. Producer Arthur Freed was responsible for many of the great musicals in MGM’s golden age, most notably Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Because of that film’s great success and well-deserved placement among the essential American movies, it is often easy to forget that “the Freed unit” won Best Picture (along with five other Oscars) a year earlier, featuring acclaimed director Vincente Minnelli, and of course, one of the most talented men to have ever walked the Earth – Gene Kelly.

Kelly tap-dances his way through the City of Light as Jerry Mulligan, a struggling artist now trying to make it in Paris. He experiences a stroke of luck one day as he meets a lonely, aristocratic woman (Nina Foch) willing to sponsor his work, but who is clearly looking for romantic involvement. Ironically, Jerry has immediately fallen in love with Lise (Leslie Caron), a French gal who will soon become engaged to a singer named Henri (Georges Guetary). Henri, meanwhile, was previously the mentor of Jerry’s best friend, a down-on-his-luck pianist played by Oscar Levant. The tangled nature of these relationships are explored in a way that is not as interesting and comedic as it maybe could’ve been, resolving conflict all too easily, and therefore, lending itself to a weaker script than, say …. Singin’ in the Rain. But what An American in Paris lacks in story is surely compensated by the sheer ambition and talent behind the production, featuring possibly the greatest musical sequences ever filmed.

This is a story told less through character, and more through singing and dancing as a means of courtship and personal development. Minnelli films Kelly and company in medium to long shots, allowing the audience to truly absorb the astounding nature of Kelly’s choreography, and keep us enthralled by a lack of cutting within the sequences. Filmed in Technicolor, An American in Paris also looks astounding, using bold color and warmly lit frames to create an awe-inspiring vision of both art and emotion. Yet what is most impressive about the film today is its “avante-garde”-like performance segments, a result not only of MGM trusting the judgment of a fine crew, but of how far musicals were able to escape the constraints of common narrative within this period. The film culminates in a celebration of the George Gershwin music it incorporates, featuring an astonishing sequence set to the full-length of Gershwin’s title piece.

If you look at An American in Paris in 2012, it will strike you how genuinely optimistic it is, how the screen simply relays complete happiness. It is not only hard to find a modern musical that features such talent, but also any other film that can effectively portray such a feeling. Some great movies won big at the Oscars this year, including nostalgia trips The Artist and Hugo. But these films have the sad misfortune to never be played in those grand palaces, and therefore, not even come close to an ecstatic reception by audiences. In the days of Minnelli and Kelly, hard work and passion could be recognized by more than a golden statuette. It could be recognized by the sound of all those around you laughing at once, each with a smile on their faces.