Magic in the Moonlight(8/17/2014)

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The career of Woody Allen has been one of the most comforting cinematic institutions of the last fifty years.  No matter how much tumult there is in the film industry at any given time and no matter how much the art of filmmaking changes there’s one thing you can always count on: Woody Allen will make a movie every year.  On balance, I think this is a good thing but I’m also perfectly willing to admit that it can lead to his filmography being very inconsistent.  In fact whenever he makes a really good movie you can pretty much count on his follow-up being, at best, nothing special.  Just looking at the last decade he followed up Match Point with Scoop, Vicky Christina Barcelona with Whatever Works, and Midnight in Paris with To Rome With Love.  It’s almost like he needs time to cool down and regain his bearings every time he does something great.  His last movie, Blue Jasmine was one of his biggest triumphs in a while so that wasn’t a good omen for his newest film, Magic in the Moonlight.  But, hope springs eternal and there aren’t many other movies coming out in the next two months, so I thought I’d give this a shot anyway.

Magic in the Moonlight is actually a period piece, Allen’s first in a while.  It’s set in 1928 and placed largely in the world of wealthy British ex-pats in the South of France.  Our main protagonist is Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), a world renowned magician who, like Houdini before him, was a staunch skeptic dedicated to debunking purported psychics and mediums.  One of his magician colleagues, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), also shares Crawford’s passion for skepticism but comes to him one day and tells him he’s seen something that’s shaken his resolve.  He tells him about a purported psychic named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) who’s abilities seem oddly genuine and haven’t been debunked in the usual ways.  Seeing a challenge, he decides to go out to the summer estate where this purported medium has been trying to impress a wealthy patron in order to prove that she’s a fraud, but ultimately finds himself more than a little fascinated with the woman he finds.

So, we have the setup here for a typically breezy Woody Allen examination of an intellectual concern: in this case the conflict between logical skepticism and belief in the supernatural.  This debate is not some sort of subtle message either, it’s right up on the surface and is actively discussed by characters throughout the movie and not always in ways that are overly eloquent.  Stanley Crawford is a very broad character.  He’s dogmatically opposed to the notion of supernatural powers and isn’t exactly diplomatic in the way he explain this to people.  In fact he’s sort of an asshole and not a particularly well drawn one at that.  I also wasn’t that fond of the arc that the film gave him either.  Instead of having him very gradually start to come around to the possibility that this woman might be a real psychic the film just has him suddenly change his decision on a dime in one really poorly drawn scene.

Now, as many people know, the soap opera that is Woody Allen’s personal life was in the news again not too long ago and I wasn’t planning on mentioning it, but it turns out that this movie actually has more to do with its artist’s personal history than most of his films do.  To discuss this I’m going to have to go into spoilers going forward. The film’s ultimate take on the battle between the secular and the spiritual ultimately gets resolved in pretty much the way you’d expect it to be solved coming from the writer of Hannah and Her Sisters but at the very end Allen does find a somewhat interesting way to tie the film’s philosophical side with its romantic comedy side, by ultimately having its protagonist decide that he loves this phony psychic even though it doesn’t fit into his life’s plans and proposing to her is completely irrational and self-destructive… in other words “the heart wants what it wants.” It’s an interesting sentiment to be coming from a man who became famous for his scandalous marriage.

That biographical quirk interested me as someone who’s been following Woody Allen’s work and biography for a while, but the romance feels like it was completely forced into the movie in order to get to it.  I certainly believe that Crawford would fall for Baker but the movie does absolutely nothing to explain why Baker would reciprocate these feelings given that Crawford is a stubborn asshole who’s almost twice her age.  Yeah, maybe looking for a logical explanation for why she’d be into him is a little ridiculous in a movie that’s all about the irrational and arbitrary nature of love, but that doesn’t excuse Allen for not bothering to show Baker’s evolving feelings in the same way he depicted an evolution in Crawford’s  point of view.  That’s something that I genuinely feel like Allen would have been able to correct if he had just slowed down and fined tuned his screenplay.  This is the dark side of Allen’s charmingly prolific work schedule, I really do think that sometimes it leads him to rush stuff like this into production without really perfecting his script and ideas with potential end up getting the shaft because of it.

** out of Four

The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs/The Lego Movie

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The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing.  This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.

One of the great documentaries about film is Martin Scorsese’s “A Personal Journey Through American Movies,” in which the esteemed filmmaker outlined the various roles that a director can take. There was the director as storyteller, the director as illusionist, the director as iconoclast, and most importantly the director as smuggler. The “director as smuggler” referred to the way that filmmakers, especially those working within the Hollywood system, would often use commercial films as a sort of Trojan Horse as a means to tell stories with themes that were secretly personal, subversive, or political without offending or boring their audiences. I bring this up because the filmmaking team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have not so subtly seemed to build a career by smuggling semi-subversive commentary into films that otherwise appear hopelessly commercial. Their 21 Jump Street films, for example, appear from their trailers to simply be raunchy comedies based on a crappy old T.V. show. They are that of course, but to liven things up Miller and Lord filled these movies with in-jokes about the banality of Hollywood franchise thinking.

This approach works to their advantage firstly because it allows them to get the films made because of their veneer of commerciality, but also allows them to succeed because that same veneer gives critics and audiences such low expectations that they really don’t have to do a whole lot in order to impress people. The truth of the matter is, 21 Jump Street and its sequel aren’t exactly brilliant satire, they just seem that way when compared to the bland alternative and there’s something kind of ballsy about the way they sort of call themselves out. Additionally, the films have a certain unpretentiousness about the way they make their various points. In general Miller and Lord don’t consider themselves to be above the tropes they’re critiquing, but it also seems like they can’t bring themselves to fall into the usual filmmaking traps without calling it out.

So, how did these maestros of R-rated comedy break into Hollywood? Animated family movies actually. Yeah. In general animation directors and live action directors tend to stay segregated. A live action director like a Wes Anderson or a Gore Verbinski might dabble in animation from time to time and an animation director like a Brad Bird or an Andrew Stanton might try to break into live action occasionally but you rarely see filmmakers who are willing to keep feet in both worlds like Lord and Miller do. Of course I was familiar with their live action comedies, but I haven’t checked out their family friendly animated movies until now even though one has sort of become a phenomenon while the other has a number of fans and defenders. As such the time seems to be right to give these movies a chance.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

During my Pixar series I talked a lot about how Dreamworks Animation was sort of like Pixar’s evil twin. While Pixar seemed be run by people with a genuine passion for making movies, Dreamworks seemed to be run by greedy hacks who made dumb pandering movies directed straight at the lowest common denominator. It should be noted that as much as I hate what Dreamworks represents, they are clearly not the lowest of the low in terms of animation studios because they can at least claim to be innovators. As much as I dislike Dreamworks Animation’s house style, it was at least a style that they developed and improved upon to some degree over the years. The same cannot be said for the other two Hollywood animation studios that aren’t under the Disney umbrella: 20th Century Fox Animation and Sony Pictures Animation. These are the sudios that gave us movies like Surfs Up, Rio, The Smufs, Robots, Hotel Transylvania, and of course the four Ice Age movies. In other words, these two studios are in the rather dubious position of being blatant Dreamworks wannabes. They take everything that’s lame and disreputable about Jeffrey Katzenberg’s vision and turns it up to eleven.

And yet, it’s from one of these studios (Sony Pictures Animation) that Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who shall henceforth be lazily be referred to as PLCM) somehow managed to breakout as a major filmmaking force. Before that though, the two (who met at Dartmouth before heading out to L.A.) actually honed their skills at Disney… well, the Disney television division anyway. Their work their eventually resulted in the creation of an MTV animated series called “Clone High,” which was successful but was still cancelled after an episode featuring an irreverent depiction of Gandhi caused mass protests and hunger strikes in India. After that they were hired by Sony to write an adaptation of a picture book by Judi and Ron Barrett called “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” which told a fanciful story of a town that naturally had food raining on it for some reason. The two completely reworked that story, and after years of development they finally got their chance to make it into a feature length film.

This version of “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” follows a young aspiring inventor who fits pretty well into the usual family film protagonist mold of the “well-intentioned misfit with daddy issues.” He apparently makes wacky inventions which keep blowing up in his face, but no matter how much he’s discouraged by the town, the police, and his father he just keeps on following his dreams. This of course culminates in his inventing a food replicator, but because this scientist is so damn clumsy it ends up launched into the sky where it starts raining down whatever food order gets sent to it by a computer on the ground. Formulaic shenanigans ensues as he needs to decide whether to keep on helping his town by keeping the food falling even though the food is beginning to mutate, or stop the gravy train and discard his newfound respect.

It’s pretty clear to me that this film is mostly in keeping with Sony Pictures Animation’s usual M.O. of ripping off the Dreamworks style at every turn. The animation style is mostly derivative, its humor is largely juvenile, and it also throws in trite “lessons” at the end to justify itself as a “positive” movie for kids. But is there something buried beneath the bland façade, something that PLCM smuggled in under the guise of banality. Well, maybe a little.  They definitely show their penchant for calling out genre tropes here and there, particularly in relation to the film’s status as a disaster film of sorts.  For example, there’s a scene where the food weather starts to invade the rest of the world leading to scenes where a sandwich uses the Eifel Tower as a toothpick and Mount Rushmore gets pies in the face.  Immediately afterward we see a faux-news report where the anchor says something along the lines of “as usual, this weather is affecting landmarks first and then spreading out from there.”  Also, in the grand disaster film tradition they make the town’s mayor a complete moron who does nothing but ruin things for everyone.  PLCM’s movies often come really close to breaking the fourth wall like that and there are a handful of little moments like that here if you look for them.

That’s all well and good, and I suppose one could also view the film as an allegory for Rust Belt economic hardships and for global warming.  However, most of this smart stuff is pretty deeply hidden beneath the film’s surface.  In many ways most of it can be chalked up to routine Dreamworks style adult in-jokes that are thrown into an otherwise juvenile film.  Instead I think what saves this film from being completely forgettable are some of its visual ideas.  For example, there’s a scene where the protagonist constructs builds a gigantic hotel made entirely of orange Jell-o, which is the clear highlight of the movie to me.  Elsewhere we see some other interesting things like a rolling fish bowl and a spaghetti tornado.  Still, the overwhelming Dreamworksiness of it all still seemed to over-power the film and kind of kill it for me.

The Lego Movie

I’ve established already that PLCM have largely achieved prominence by picking projects that people have very low expectations for, and they might have outdone themselves in the regard with their early 2014 project The Lego Movie.  Pretty much the only thing more disreputable than a movie based on a lame 90s cop show is a movie that is explicitly based on a toy line, especially a toy line which is as abstract and devoid of story as plastic building blocks.  Personally, my disinterest had less to do with the fact that it’s based on a toy and more to do with the relentlessly upbeat tone that the film seemed to be selling.  Every trailer and advertisement seemed to be selling this insane hyperactive perkiness that almost reminded me more of a Saturday morning cartoon than a film.  Hell, it didn’t even seem like a cartoon, it felt like a cereal commercial that would air during a Saturday morning commercial: “everything is AWESOME when you watch the wacky fun adventures in the wonderful Lego world!”  But, as often seems to happen in the kind of movies that show up in this article series, the critics suddenly started to rally around it and it became a cultural touchstone to my general annoyance.  Unlike most of the movies that get covered in this series, I’m actually catching up with it relatively soon after its initial release.

Sometimes when I’m watching a movie like this I begin to wonder just how someone goes about making a movie like this.  Someone must have to sit down at a computer somewhere and write a screenplay filled with stage directions like “Wyldstyle picks up objects around her and builds a motorcycle on the spot.”  There is something genuinely impressive about being able to even dream up worlds like this and create a visual style that makes a “Lego world” come to life.  Indeed the faux stop motion look that PLCM have created is interesting and computer graphics have really advanced to the point where the Lego people and Lego settings really do look like physical objects rather than polygons on a hard drive.  What’s more they do some relatively creative things here and there like creating different “realms” based on the various kinds of Lego sets that have come out over the years or using little circular blocks in order to represent water.

Of course making a movie about Legos look good was probably the easiest part.  The real challenge was making a movie about Legos and not making it look like the most crassly commercial nonsense imaginable.  To counteract this impression I feel like PLCM were given a great degree of latitude that they may otherwise not have had to give a middle finger to a lot of commercialized aspects of society in ways that are gleefully unsubtle.  The bad guy in this movie is named President Business for Christ’s sake, and the film also goes out of its way to mock people who strive for mediocrity and lap up the various opiates that the powers that be throw out to distract people from the smiling dystopia they live in.  Case in point: “Everything is Awesome.”  “Everything is Awesome” is not a good song and for that matter it isn’t supposed to be.  It’s actually meant to be a stand in for mindless pop music and it also serves as propaganda telling the masses that their lives are perfect when they decidedly aren’t.  That so many people in the real world seem to enthusiastically love this song even though it’s supposed to be the embodiment of evil is the height of irony, it’s practically the equivalent of right-wing war hawks mistaking Team America: World Police’s “America Fuck Yeah!” as a genuine bit of flag waving patriotism.

The film applies the same willful lack of subtlety in the way that it satirizes cinematic tropes, particularly the hero’s journey.  After the protagonist discovers something called the Pièce de résistance (an item that PLCM must have wanted to call the Mac Guffin or something subtle like that at one point), thus fulfilling a prophesy that he would be the world’s most important person despite the fact that’s he’s kind of a dumbass screw-up.  Damn near every scene of this movie is some kind of referential piss-take about common script structure and frankly I found it kind of tiring.  I’ve long found genre-deconstruction to be kind of a cheap tactic, and this disinterest only grows in me the longer Joss Whedon’s influence looms over Hollywood.  Movies like this and Cabin in the Woods kind of drive me nuts because they feel like they mainly just exist to point out tropes that everyone already knows about and do so with the smugly, like they think they’re the first ones to notice these things.  This one was a little less irksome than some genre deconstructions, partly because it’s looking at general film tropes instead of the over-exposed patterns associated with super-rigid genre, but this still isn’t exactly my cup of tea.

I suppose this brings me to the film’s unexpected third act, the film daringly transitions to a live action piece where it’s revealed that the story we’ve been watching has in fact been a child’s fantasy as he plays with his father’s elaborate Lego models.  Daring as this is, I don’t think it quite makes sense.  Nothing about the story we’ve just seen and the comedy therein makes it seem like something an eight year old kid would come up with the film never really explains why these characters still seem to have some degree of agency even when they aren’t being directly controlled by the boy.  That the Chris Pratt character is able to move in the real world makes zero sense and is inconsistent with every other aspect of the film’s framing story.

In general, I feel like The Lego Movie is just really over-stuffed.  It’s a film that can’t just be a celebration of a beloved toy, or a satire about corporate control, or a parody of Hollywood conventions, or a meta-exploration of childhood imagination, or a rumination about the defense between order and creativity, or and pandering romp filled with pop culture cameos… it feels the need to be all of that and maybe doesn’t have the time to focus on any one of those things.  In other words it’s a jack of all trades and master of none, and I found its anarchistic spirit a bit exhausting.  It’s a movie that’s insanely desperate to please and it undermines its story at pretty much every opportunity.  This is not to say I dislike the film, after all much of what’s thrown to the ceiling does in fact stick, but I tend to like my comedy a bit more disciplined and backed up by a stronger story.

In Conclusion

So, I’ve now seen all four of PLCM’s movies and I’m left feeling that they are a pair of filmmakers who haven’t quite found the right balance. Let’s go back to the hypothesis that these guys are a modern embodiment of the director as smuggler.  With Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs they concealed their sensibilities a little too well and weren’t really able to transform an otherwise fairly standard children’s movies, while I kind of wish that they’d done a little more to conceal their sensibilities with The Lego Movie.  At this point I think the closest they’ve come to finding the right mix of comedy, storytelling, and meta commentary was with the first 21 Jump Street movie, and even that it pretty far from being what I’d call high art.  Still, I would say I like these guys.  They have a unique comedic sensibility and while it doesn’t always gel with my tastes I do think it’s good that they’re doing what they’re doing.

 

DVD Round-Up: 8/2/2014

Enemy (7/17/2014)

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I don’t know about this Denis Villeneuve guy. I mostly like his breakthrough feature (2010’s Incendies) but was not among the supporters of his 2013 Hollywood debut Prisoners and am even less fond of his latest film Enemy. This latest effort is doubly disappointing because it has an intriguing premise and clearly has a couple good ideas under the hood. It tells the story of a man (Jake Gyllenhaal) who, upon renting a movie and seeing an extra in the background, comes to learn that he has an exact double walking around: someone who looks and sounds exactly like him. So far so good, but things quickly go off the rails, in part because this screenplay some very peculiar notions about what someone in this situation would do. Personally, I think that if most people were in this guy’s shoes they’d just shrug it off, but this guy’s initial reaction is to freak the fuck out and start to have a breakdown. His double ends up responding to the situation in similarly insane ways and his wife proves to be a similarly paranoid lunatic. In general I just found the behavior of almost everyone involved in this to be contrived and unbelievable and found their various states of mind to be rather unbelievable, and when your movie is a psychological thriller that is a deal breaker. The actors involved try their best to make this work, and Villeneuve does have a couple of interesting visual ideas (certainly wins the award for best use of a CGI spider), but I don’t think he was able to elevate this material at all.  At the end of the day this might just not be the movie for me.  I generally don’t respond well to dream logic, and dream logic is pretty much the only thing that can explain why these characters are acting the way they are.

*1/2 out of Four

The Unknown Known (7/25/2014)

This latest documentary from Errol Morris features a long-form interview with none other than Donald Rumsfeld.  I suspect that Morris envisioned this as a sort of post-Iraq follow-up to his Oscar winning 2003 documentary The Fog of War, which was a fascinating interview with the Vietnam-era defense secretary Robert McNamara, but Rumsfeld proves to be a much less forthcoming interview subject.  Maybe it’s because he has a lot less distance than McNamara did or maybe he’s just delusional, but Rumsfeld has very little new to offer here beyond the old company line and Morris is rarely able to really open him up at all.  You can almost tell that Morris doesn’t think the actual interview went all that well, because he basically tries to turn the film into a rumination about how words and ideas can be twisted in order to escape scrutiny.  I will say, he does almost manage to salvage the project with his style; no one can spruce up and visually present an interview quite like Morris and he does a lot here to keep things fairly interesting, but the central interview is a failure and at the end of the day there’s no amount of pizazz that can change that.

**1/2 out of Four

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Stranger by the Lake (7/26/2014)

7-26-2014StrangerbytheLake Stranger by the Lake is a French film set at a lakeside beach that has become an isolated gay cruising spot.  It’s been called a thriller, but I don’t know that that is an entirely appropriate label given that its tone is relatively relaxed for much of its running time.  The film’s best element is its grasp of tone.  The action almost never leaves this beach and you do get a good idea of why these men start to view it as this almost Eden-like escape from their lives, albeit one that has an under-current of danger.  It’s a rather quiet film with no music besides the ambient nature sounds that are constantly in the background.  I was not, however, all that impressed by the film’s story or characters.  Because the film is so laser focused on these men’s lakeside experiences we really don’t come to know much about them besides their sex lives and even the main character is something of a cypher.  There is also a key decision made in the film (involving who the main character starts a relationship with) that made little sense to me and seemed to go completely unexplained.  Also it has one of the more frustratingly abrupt endings this side of Like Someone in Love.  I do however suspect that telling a completely logical story is not really this movie’s objective, rather I think it might be some kind of allegory for the allure and dangers of gay promiscuity during the era of AIDS.  I am ultimately going to say that this is a good movie, in part because of its command of tone and because of its overall uniqueness, but I do have some pretty big reservations about it.

*** out of Four

Maidentrip (7/27/2014)

Maidentrip is a documentary about a fourteen year old Dutch girl named Laura Dekker who became the youngest person to circumnavigate the world alone in a sailboat. When I first started watching the movie I was expecting something a little different; I was confusing this story with another story of a teenager who attempted to set the same record and failed in dramatic fashion. When I realized that what I was watching was not All is Lost Jr, but instead basically just the video diary of a precocious rich girl’s dream vacation, I was a little disappointed. I don’t want to come off like I had hoped to see this kid drown or something (the story I had been thinking of ended with a coast guard rescue), but I do think this story is lacking in a certain drama and sense of danger. Looked at for what it is, this is a pretty well edited and put together documentary. The footage (almost all of it shot by Dekker herself) was taken with a pretty decent camera, and director Jillian Schlesinger judiciously adds in maps and other visual aides to make this trip more clear. Still, at a short 82 minutes I still kind of found myself losing interest in this story and think it might have worked better as a 30-odd minute documentary short than as a feature, because once you get past the portrait it’s painting of this girl’s personality and the rigors of her trip this isn’t really an overly thematically rich story.

**1/2 out of Four

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The Raid 2 (8/2/2014)

8-2-2014TheRaid2 The original The Raid (AKA The Raid: Redemption) was indisputably awesome; easily the best martial arts movie to come along since I don’t know how long.  This sequel came with high expectations, and I don’t know that it exactly lives up to them.  I’ll start with the positive: the action scenes here are still awesome, director Gareth Evans puts every cent of his increased budget onto the screen and proves to be uniquely gifted at filming fight scenes.  The problem is that The Raid 2 isn’t nearly as good of a vehicle for these action scenes as The Raid.  While the original film thrived in its intense simplicity, this one takes the form of this really convoluted Infernal Affairs-wannabe crime story that would be deadly boring if it wasn’t periodically interrupted by amazing bloodshed.  The film runs a full 150 minutes and it’s also really has almost nothing to do with the original film aside from the fact that their protagonists are supposedly the same person, in fact I feel like the movie generally would have been better received if it had just been titled something different.  Despite the flaws, this movie is still definitely worth seeing if only for the actions scenes and moments of transcendent brutality.

*** out of Four 

The Top 100 Movies of the 2000s

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In late 2009 i put together a list of what I considered to be the top 100 movies made between 2000 and 2009… and now I’ve finally got around to posting it here.  I don’t necessarily stand by every choice I made on it and I’ve certainly seen other films from the decade since making it that would surly make the list if I were creating it today, but I’ve opted to post the list in its original form as a snapshot of my views at that particular moment in time.  I’ve made some minor typographic and stylistic alterations to my original captions, but they too have remained substantially unchanged.  For the most part, I do think the list more or less holds up.

So, there’s a special page dedicated to the list, which is fully formatted and features poster art and some credit details for each installment:

https://themovievampire.wordpress.com/the-golden-stakes-2/the-top-100-movies-of-the-2000s/

Guardians of the Galaxy(8/2/2014)

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I’m not a comic book geek.  If I ever found myself in a conversation with a real comic book geek this would become readily apparent.  However, I do know a lot more about comic book characters than the average person and in the eyes of a jock who never had use for comic books at all I probably would come off like a pretty big geek.  As comic book movies have become increasingly popular I have had a bit of a leg up on the “normal” people.  I already knew that Thor was an Asgardian diety who was in a long power struggle with Loki, I knew that Iron Man was an industrialist who needed a device attached to his heart, and I even knew what The Winter Soldier’s true identity was.  But when Marvel announced that they were going to produce a feature film based on “The Guardians of the Galaxy” I had one thing to say: “what the hell are The Guardians of the Galaxy.”  This is an astoundingly obscure comic book to be making a feature film about and as I learned more and more about it all I could do was thing “this looks like the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.”  Really, it’s almost put me into something of an odd crisis that makes me wonder if all these Marvel properties look this silly to the “normal” people out there.  But, I am nothing if not a slave to Marvel, and despite all my reservations I knew I’d finally end up seeing it if only to see how it ties into overall MCU lore.

As it turns out, The Guardians of the Galaxy aren’t really superheroes, they’re more like traveling space bandits.  Our entry into their world is a human named Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) who was abducted from Earth at a young age and grew up in space.  Over the course of the film he is joined by a green assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a talking bipedal raccoon-like bounty hunter named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Rocket’s right hand man/tree monster named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and a vengeance obsessed warrior named Drax (Dave Bautista).  For one reason or another all of these misfits are after this movie’s glowing MacGuffin (it’s purple in this one), and because of this all of them have become targets of a Kree extremist called Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) who also wants this glowing MacGuffin in order to do evil things.

I’ve read that by the late 1960s The Beatles realized that they were so popular that they could start to lead pop culture into new and interesting directions and they were able to introduce otherwise disinclined people to Psychedelia and Eastern philosophy.  It seems that at this point Marvel has also reached this point of uber-popularity and what they’ve decided to do with this great power is get mainstream audience to watch the show “Firefly,” or at least a movie that’s an awful lot like it.  Both are irreverent takes on the space opera genre about a crew of self-interested oddballs going through space looking for the next big score, and both have a nearly identical tone and attitude.  As someone who’s written multiple online diatribes about how that’s the most over-rated cult show of the last twenty years, you can probably guess that I’m not overly happy about this, but perhaps I should start with the positive.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a movie that simultaneously feels exactly like the rest of the Marvel movies and also a clear departure from them.   I already quipped that this is yet another Marvel movies where people chase around a glowing MacGuffin (a fact that is pointed out by Quill when he says it has a “Maltese Falcon/Arc of the Covenant kinda vibe” because Joss Whedon inspired scripts just love to point out their own tropes via pop culture references as a cynical means of deflecting criticism and getting cheap giggles).  It also has a very similar look and feel to other Marvel movies and I suspect that if it were deconstructed it would have a very similar overall structure.  And yet, this isn’t even a superhero movie exactly, and it’s the first of these series that’s entirely about a group rather than an individual.  That group is mostly populated by very interesting and well differentiated characters.

Christ Pratt’s Peter Quill (AKA Star-Lord) is a space scavenger who’s armed with a number of interesting weapons, a jetpack, and a helmet that lets him breath in space.  He’s also a total snartass goofball who makes Tony Stark look like Alan Greenspan.  He’s defined by his tenuous relationship with Earth, a planet he was removed from in 1988 and mostly clings to through a cassette Walkman with a single tape of annoying songs from the 70s.  Rocket and Groot meanwhile are a pair of space mercenaries who were clearly modeled after Han Solo and Chewbacca.  Rocket is a fiery little bastard with a huge chip on his shoulder and a pension for violence and Groot is a large tree-like creature who never says anything except “I am Groot” in various tones (which is a language that only Rocket understands).  Dave Bautista’s Drax is different from his compatriots in that he isn’t after money and is instead going after the villain out of an intense desire for justice and vengeance… he’s also dumber than a pile of rocks.   Then there’s Gamora, who acts as something of a straight-man to the rest of these guys and whose connection to the bad guys gives her a unique perspective on the events.

All five of these characters are pretty amusing and have great chemistry with one another and the script is full of genuinely amusing banter.  I had high hopes that the film’s villain, Ronan the Accuser, to be similarly interesting and become one of the first half-way decent Marvel villains but we don’t really see a ton of him and he’s ultimately wasted, he reminded me a lot of the lame-ass villain from Thor: The Dark World (which was easily the worst movie Marvel ever put out).  The film also sports a handful of pretty decent action scenes, like the fight scene that ensues when four of the five Guardians meet for the first time or a Prison escape mid-way into the film or the film’s climactic space battle.  I wouldn’t call these set-pieces “top of the line” exactly, some of them are over-busy and none of them really have a ton of weight, but they do work for the movie just the same.

Guardians of the Galaxy is an aggressively audience-pleasing movie, almost to the point of seeming desperate.  It has a breezy pace, a ton of jokes, and numerous pandering Easter eggs.  Those who go to it can almost certainly expect 122 minutes of enjoyment and I certainly wasn’t immune to its charms either.  However, you will not see me praise the movie to extensively because, frankly, I also found the whole experience to be incredibly empty at its core… even by Marvel standards.  You won’t see anything here as ambitious as Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s surveillance state allegory or as surprising as Iron Man 3’s villain switcheroo.  If the online think-pieces I’ve seen are to be believed, there are many people who would see that sentence and say “good, I’m sick of these blockbusters taking themselves too seriously.”  If you’re one of those people who are part of the Nolan backlash, then good for you, you’re almost certainly going to be well served by Hollywood in the next few years.  I however like a little more weight with my blockbusters, not out of some snobbish belief that silliness in aenethema to good art, but because I genuinesly find things more entertaining when I can take them seriously (even when they maybe don’t deserve to be taken seriously).

I don’t hate movies like Guardians of the Galaxy or shows like “Firefly” but I do philosophically disagree with what they’re doing.  To me, every movie that gets made should have one simple goal: to become the greatest film ever made, or at least to be a classic of its respective genre.  That doesn’t mean that every movie actually has to succeed at this goal, just that they have to try.  I’m all about films that want to build a legacy, that want to be remembered through the ages.  This is why I responded so strongly to The Dark Knight.  Not because it was “dark” or “realistic” but because it was a movie that had the courage to think that a superhero movie actually could be taken seriously and really could become a classic.  Movies like Guardians of the Galaxy annoy me because they have no intention of ever becoming a classic, in fact they laugh in the face of even trying.  It’s interesting that this movie is filled to the brim with cheesy pop songs like Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” and The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” that are played with fully ironic intent.  The thing is, this movie has a lot in common with those songs: it’s fun, undeniably catchy, heavily manufactured, completely disposable, and over time be either forgotten or remembered only as a silly little relic that everyone is embarrassed to have liked so much.

*** out of Four

Crash Course: The Short Films of Buster Keaton

In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.”  This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics.  With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot.  Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme. 

BKOverallOver the last couple years I methodically collecting the films of Buster Keaton on Blu-ray as Kino put them out because I’ve long been a Keaton fan even though there were a couple of blind spots in his filmography.  One of those blind spots was his short film work, and I knew that one of the first things I’d have to do when I started watching these Blu-rays was plow through their release called “The Short Films Collection 1920-1923.”  These were films that I was excited to see, but there were a whole lot of them and I knew that I’d have to set apart a decent chunk of time in order to get through it.

These films were (as the title of the Blu-ray implies) shot between 1920 and 1923, and were shot one after the other to fulfil a contract with First National pictures for twenty shorts that would be released over the course of three years back in the day when feature films would be paired with shorts, newsreels, and trailers and looped all day long at theaters across the country.  Before this Keaton had been a supporting player in a number of shorts starring his friend and mentor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, an actor who is better known today for a scandalous party that led to the death of a young starlet than he is for his filmmaking.  In fact Arbuckle’s legal troubles were going on while Keaton was making these shorts and the looming shadow of that would have some influence over some of these shorts.  Keaton had also starred in a feature film called The Saphead, which is a good movie but one that he didn’t write or direct that film and which isn’t really emblematic of his artistry outside of the performance.  It’s with these shorts that Keaton the filmmaker really emerged.

 

The High Sign (4/12/1921)

The first solo film that Buster Keaton directed and starred in was The High Sign, which was about a man who rigs a shooting gallery’s bell so that he appears to be an expert shot.  He’s so convincing that a man hires him as a bodyguard and soon thereafter a gang of crooks called The Blinking Buzzard also insist that he work for them as a hit man to kill that man he’s supposed to be protecting.  Keaton himself was not thrilled by the resulting film and didn’t think it was strong enough to be his debut short and as such he put it on the shelf for a year, only releasing it eventually when one of his later films was delayed due to injury.  Keaton’s perfectionism is admirable, but I can’t say I understand his disappointment because this is actually a perfectly amusing short with a number of good gags.  The way he rigs the shooting gallery is clever, there’s a running gag about the gang’s love of hand signals that’s consistently funny, and the finale in a house full of traps is like the OG Home Alone.  I think what might have made Keaton balk at releasing this so soon into his career is that it has a certain streak of darkness to it.  Some of the criminals in the gang are straight up killed during the final confrontations, and that might be a little off-putting.  Also there’s a scene where a banana peel is tossed on the ground all Chekov like and yet no one ever slips on it.  WTF.

One Week (9/1/1920)

BKOneWeekWith The High Sign on the shelf, this film would turn out to be the first solo film that Buster Keaton would release to the public.  The film concerns a newlywed couple who are given a “build your own home” kid and a plot of land.  Such pre-fab housing kits were in vogue at the time and this film makes fun of them by making his character an absolutely inept carpenter who botches the building of the house completely.  The whole building process is a series of slapstick gags and by the time it’s finally build it looks like some kind of M.C. Escher nightmare.  To add insult to injury the house is eventually hit by a tornado which makes it rotate on its axis, and eventually the young couple are forced to move it to a different plot, which is a journey fraught with danger and hilarity.  The film is particularly notable for incorporating an early version of Keaton’s famous “house falls on a guy who happens to be sitting in the place where the window is” gag.  At the heart of it all there is a sort of sweet story about a man and his wife trying to (literally) build a life for themselves.  If the last movie was an OG Home Alone, this one is an OG The Money Pit.  I guess these comparisons aren’t wildly flattering, but there is most definitely something to be said for a filmmaker who can inspire so many movies made so long afterwards.

Convict 13 (10/27/1920)

Lloyd’s third short is perhaps a step down from the previous two, but like almost all of them still definitely has its moments.  The short begins as a slapstick take on a game of golf, but takes a turn when Keaton knocks himself out and is found by an escaped prisoner who swaps his striped prison uniform for Keaton’s suit.  Now dressed in prisoner’s garb he’s spotted by the pursuing guards and a slapstick chase ensues.  It takes yet another turn when Keaton arrives at the prison and swaps places with a guard and begins a duel of sorts with a comically large and muscular guard.  So, this is a short that doesn’t really have that much of a unifying theme and kind of goes all over the place.  The slapstick is good, but perhaps not quite as inspired as the previous shorts.  Another concern I have is that this seems suspiciously similar to a Harold Lloyd short called Take a Chance, which predates this by two years.  I haven’t gone back and watched them side by side, but they do share a similar “man mistaken for escaped convict” concept.  Also, it should be noted that the print condition on all of these shorts vary and this one in particular seemed to have an awful lot of wear.

The Scarecrow (12/22/1920)

The Scarecrow begins with a very interesting set-piece inside of a very small country home which only has one room but which still has a surprising amount of amenities because it’s filled with a bunch of clever yet highly impractical inventions that make every little thing easier for the inhabitants and save a lot of space.  It’s a bit like the famous eating machine scene from Chaplin’s Modern Times except that none of the inventions go haywire and the comedy actually comes from how nonchalantly the people are able to use all these silly devices.  The second half, which is yet another comedy chase scene, is less inspired but still fun as these things go.  It has one particularly charming bit of pantomime in a scene where Keaton steals a scarecrow’s costume and must mimic the scarecrow’s limp posture in order to elude his pursuers.

Neighbors (12/22/1920)

This Keaton film tells a sort of Romeo and Juliet story within a modern setting by having Keaton fall for the (literal) girl next door even though his parents and her parents have been feuding for years.  That’s a neat concept, perhaps a rather difficult one to try to tackle in just 20 minutes, especially when you also have a bunch of gags taking up time.  There is of course an elephant in the room here in the form of an early scene where Keaton accidentally gets mud on his face and is mistaken for a black man by a police officer.  Racial stereotypes were occasionally a part of Keaton’s work that can be jarring for modern audiences.  This one isn’t too terrible, in part because the actual black characters aren’t overly stereotypical (at least by the low standard of silent era films), but that element of blackface is still very problematic.  Otherwise you’ve got a pretty standard Keaton romp with a couple good stunts and a simple little story in the background.

The Haunted House (2/10/1921)

BKHauntedThis is a particularly madcap short for Keaton which begins with a fun sequence in which Keaton gets superglue on his hands and causes a royal mess and ends with a crazy sequence in which Keaton finds himself in a supposedly haunted house filled with odd things like a tick staircase.  The film’s weakness is convolution, because it involves three disparate storylines involving Keaton on the run from the cops, an opera cast on the run from a deranged audience, and a bank trying to make the house look haunted all converging in a rather implausible way.  I feel like the whole thing would have been stronger if the opera house sub-plot had been eliminated.  It makes up for it at the end though when it features this dream sequence where Keaton makes his way to heaven and ends up going to hell where he gets stabbed in the ass with a pitchfork.  It’s also worth noting that this is the first of these films to incorporate color tinting.

Hard Luck (3/16/1921)

These Keaton shorts are starting to sort of remind me a bit of later day episodes of “The Simpsons” in that they’ll start on one concept and then the narrative will suddenly transition into something else.  In this case it starts on this rather dark bit where Keaton is trying to commit suicide and proceeds to fail at it in various amusing ways, and then half way through it drops that and turns into a chase through a country club.  Outside of that this short is probably more notable for its troubled restoration status.  The print is pretty bad at points, but the bigger concern is that the final scene (which appears to have been another surreal sendoff like the ending of The Haunted House) is partially lost.  That’s a shame because Keaton was very fond of this ending and said it elicited one of the biggest laughs of its career (even if it might seem a little racist today).  Otherwise this film seems a little run-of-the-mill by Keaton standards.

The Goat (5/18/1921)

This isn’t the first Buster Keaton short of mostly consist of the man being chased by the police and it won’t be the last either. It also certainly isn’t the first to be predicated on an inprobably case of mistaken identity.  As such this isn’t one of the Keaton shorts that’s driven by overall creativity, rather it gets by through the sheer quantity and inventiveness of the jokes.  First of all, this is the short that has the signature shot of Keaton in a suit and hat sitting on the front of a train. It also has a splendid sequence toward the end where Keaton is being chased up and down several flights of stairs and up and down the elevators.  There’s not a whole lot to say about this one except that it’s a fun short to watch and experience.  Not sure why it’s called “The Goat” though.

The Play House (9/19/1921)

BKPlayhouseThis short, which is set in a theater, starts out like gangbusters with a really creative and technically innovative sequence in which Keaton plays multiple roles simultaneously on screen including women and children.  He apparently invented the technique used to capture this and refused to disclose it for decades.  The film also has a really great bit of pantomime in which he imitates a monkey and jumps all over the stage and drives a guy crazy.  Unfortunately, this is another short that is marred by some dated racial material.  The play vingettes being put on at this theater have a minstrel element to them and Keaton is unfortunately seen in full on blackface during one of the shots.  Those shots were brief and don’t pervade over the whole film but they also make me wonder about that that monkey gag I mentioned above.  The makeup for that joke seems to be not unlike the grease paint used for blackface and I worry that it may have been meant to have a double meaning.  Ignore that though and this is a very strong short that pays tribute to Keaton’s vaudeville roots in a sly and enjoyable way.

The Boat (11/28/1921)

Many people view the three shorts that Buster Keaton made with leading lady Sybil Seely (The Scarecrow, One Week, and The Boat) to be an unofficial trilogy of sorts in which a man and a woman meet, marry, and then have kids.  I don’t know that I buy The Scarecrow’s connection, but The Boat is most definitely meant to be a companion to One Week.  Both films depict a loving couple trying to do something special and having it blow up in their faces.  In this case their going out in a houseboat and having it go haywire in various hilarious (yet somewhat tense) ways.  There’s sort of been a bottle-episode type thing going on with these shorts in that some of them clearly use a larger share of the budget than others, and this is most definitely one of the more expensive ones.  During one gag, in which the boat starts spinning on its axis, the film even employs a spinning set.  That couldn’t have been cheap, and they also demolish a house at one point.  Overall, this is a showpiece short for Keaton and is also notable for the name of the boat: The Damfino, which is often referenced here and there.

The Paleface (1/16/1922)

Watching this it didn’t take too long to tell that most of what I had to say about this short would have to do with its highly questionable racial content.  This is meant to be a parody of film westerns, but it doesn’t really have any cowboys in it: it’s all about Native Americans and as you can probably guess, the depiction is not exactly authentic.  To the film’s credit, it does more or less make the Native Americans the good guys and the oil company trying to take their land is treated as the film’s true villains.  However, it’s clear that most of the actors playing Native Americans are white people in makeup and as a whole the Native Americans are treated as either violent or stupid and gullible.  Even if you ignore all that there is another annoyance in that some of the stunts look like they employ doubles instead of Keaton himself.  This is understandable given that these stunts are even more daring and dangerous than his usual antics, but it still seems removed from his usual aesthetic and just seems out of place.  There are a couple good gages to make up for this but overall I think it’s one of his weaker efforts here.

Cops (3/20/1922)

BK CopsJokes at the expense of the police were common in the silent era, but Buster Keaton in particular seemed to really hate cops.  It’s a beef that was most likely rooted in the way the authorities were treating Fatty Arbuckle over the course of his public scandals.  We saw Buster Keaton outrun and outsmart the fuzz in earlier films like Convict 13 and The Goat, but this short seems a little more pessimistic about the law.  The film is famous because it has Keaton being chased by dozens upon dozens of police officers all at once (a stunt he would replicate years later in Seven Chances), and as it turns out it’s a lot easier to elude these guys when you’re only facing a few of them rather than dozens.  There are other dark touches like what appears to be a reference to the Haymarket bombing.  The film’s most famous gag involves a ladder teeter tottering on a fence and it seems like a particularly athletic bit of performing on Keaton’s part.  This is one of Keaton’s most famous shorts for a reason.

My Wife’s Relations (5/20/1922)

This is one of Keaton’s less famous shorts and probably for good reasons.  The story concerns a man who accidently marries a rather unattractive immigrant woman and must deal with her crazy family.  The thing about this movie is that it’s one of the few Keaton shorts whose humor isn’t really rooted in his signature slapstick stunts.  Instead it mostly derives its humor from stereotypes and marriage jokes of the “take my wife, please” variety.  There is one nice bit towards the end involving a set of stairs and a bunch of beer suds, but otherwise this is about as close to being an outright stinker as any of these shorts ever do.  I suspect that he made this because he needed a break from all the highly physical work he had to do in the other films, and I can’t entirely blame him for that I guess.

The Blacksmith (7/17/1922)

This is apparently one of Buster Keaton’s more famous shorts, not because it is particularly noteworthy but because it’s print was never lost and it played at repertoire theaters more often than some of the other shorts.  In it, Keaton plays an inept apprentice to a blacksmith and after that blacksmith is arrested over a misunderstanding, this apprentice takes over the shop with disastrous results.  This would be another example of a Keaton short that sort of seems like a “bottle episode.”  It’s almost all set in one location and while it does totally destroy a car, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have the budget (and certainly not the ambition) of something like The Boat or Cops.  Still, even the lesser Keaton shorts are good for an inspired gag or two and this one provides its fair share.

The Frozen North (8/18/1922)

BKFrozenThis one takes some explaining because it was essentially meant as a great big “fuck you” to an actor named William S. Hart, who was extremely famous in the early 20s but who isn’t overly well known today.  Hart was an actor in early Westerns, but he got on Keaton’s bad side when he made some damaging public comments about Fatty Arbuckle over the course of Arbuckle’s scandal.  The film is basically a parody of Hart’s films and their various melodramatic tendencies.  Today it is perhaps more noteworthy because it was filmed in the same snowy area that Charlie Chaplin would immortalize three years later with his film The Gold Rush.  The film also houses one insanely dark gag in which Keaton’s character shoots and kills a man and woman he believes to be his cheating wife and her lover but who are in fact two complete strangers.  Again, this is a dig at Hart and his onscreen persona (as well as the rumors about his private life) but it’s a pretty damn savage just the same.  I’m not sure I entirely “get” this one as I don’t really know a whole lot about Hart or his films, but there are still slapstick moments that don’t require context and he does a lot with the film’s location.

Day Dreams (11/27/1922)

Day Dreams is about a young man who goes to the city to prove to his fiancé’s father that he has what it takes to become a success.  The film is structured as a series of juxtapositions between how the fiancé pictures him becoming a success at various jobs and how he was in fact a miserable failure who keeps getting fired.  Unfortunately, this is another short that has fallen victim to the sands of time and is marred by a handful of missing scenes including a couple of the day dreams from which the movie derives its name.  Fortunately the film ends with a pretty decent chase scene, perhaps not as great as some of the (many) chase scenes we’ve already seen over the course of these shorts but a good one nonetheless which ends with Keaton trapped inside of a paddle boats propeller and desperately trying to run fast enough to keep up with it, not unlike a hamster on a wheel.   It’s a pretty good short all told, but, shame about that missing footage.

The Electric House (10/16/1922)

At this point I’m beginning to think that Buster Keaton has gotten a little bit sick of the short film format and its limitations.  This film for example actually seems to recycle a couple of elements from previous films.  The idea of an automatic house filled with Rube Goldberg machines was done on a smaller scale in The Scarecrow and the idea of a staircase with a mind of its own was already done in The Haunted House.  Still, it’s clearly a movie that had more resources put into it than some of the other ones and has s number of very good jokes in it.  Some of the devices in the titular house actually do seem somewhat ingenious and are perfectly interesting even before they all go haywire in various slapsticky ways.  It’s also worth noting that this was actually Keaton’s second attempt to film this movie.  His first attempt was about two years earlier and resulted in him sustaining an injury that would briefly waylay him.  The film was shelved and The High Sign was put out in the meantime and The Playhouse was made to be a film that would be less strenuous on his legs.  Eventually though he’s try again and this was the redo.

The Balloonatic (1/22/1923)

BK BalloonaticOccasionally, from a storytelling perspective, these shorts can kind of be all over the place and that’s certainly the case with this one.  It starts out in a haunted house, then becomes a romp through an amusement park, then becomes about a hot air balloon, and finally settles into a movie where hijinks ensue while on a camping trip of sorts.  Over the course of my time with these Keaton shorts there’s one joke that seems to come up over and over again: jokes where someone tries putting something into a container and then discovers that said container doesn’t have a bottom on it and the thing placed into it has fallen through the bottom.  This particular short is full of that joke, which is odd.  Beyond that though there are a number of interesting moments here like Keaton’s adventure on a kayak and his encounter with a bear.  The best part though is the ending, which is a somewhat whimsical moment where a boat goes off a waterfall but then just starts flying (because the hot air balloon was attached) and the two on board continue on into the ether.

The Love Nest (3/13/1923)

This short has a somewhat salacious title, but as it turns out the title actually refers to the name of a whaling ship that Keaton’s character comes across while engaging in an ill-fated solo voyage of self-discovery.  Once he gets on the ship he must contend with a tyrannical captain who’s known to execute his crew members on the slightest whim.  So, yeah, this is another Buster Keaton short with a surprisingly dark tone (albeit one which is once again tempered by a last minute twist revealing that it was all a dream).  The tone is earned though and is largely informed by the prolog in which Keaton is forced to leave his woman in is put into a state of mind which would plausibly lead to this odyssey of the mind.  I think it’s one of the best movies here, but perhaps an odd sendoff to his time as a short film maker with First National Pictures.

 

These are short movies, but watching all of them has been a long journey.  There have been 19 films running a collective 388 minutes, and all told I don’t regret a minute of it.  Sure, a couple of these shorts weren’t as good as others, but you can tell why Keaton was one of the best in the business from watching all of these.  Besides, these weren’t originally meant to be watched one after the other, and the weaker ones wouldn’t have stood out as much if these were all spread out over the course of three years.  I’ve compared some of this to the experience of watching a season of a sitcom in so much as it’s a series of 19 twenty minute “episodes” of sorts, but there’s so much more visual and narrative inventiveness here that no one sitcom could ever compare.  In fact, the more I think about it the more it seems like a hell of an achievement that Keaton was able to do so many of these in such a short period of time.  I’ve avoided giving all these movies star ratings or grades during all of this, because Keaton was really only competing with himself at this point, but I will finish this project by providing a ranking of the 19 films:

  1. One Week
  2. Cops
  3. The Boat
  4. The Love Nest
  5. The Play House
  6. The Goat
  7. The High Sign
  8. Day Dreams
  9. The Balloonatic
  10. The Haunted House
  11. The Frozen North
  12. The Electric House
  13. The Paleface
  14. The Scarecrow
  15. Neighbors
  16. Convict 13
  17. The Blacksmith
  18. Hard Luck
  19. My Wife’s Relations