Swiss Army Man(7/4/2016)

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When it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival Swiss Army Man was viewed as a really strange oddity.  A good movie to be sure, but one that would be really hard to market.  And yet now that it’s finally opened it wasn’t an obscure arthouse that I ended up seeing the film in, it was a mainstream multiplex.  In fact there were a handful of multiplexes I could have chosen to see the movie in if I so chose.  Nationwide the film was available in no fewer than 600 screens.  Admittedly that’s less than a fifth of the screen count of the ridiculous looking bomb The Legend of Tarzan, but for a left of the dial indie that’s a pretty hefty screen count.  Credit for this likely goes to the increasingly amazing indie distributor A24.  I’ve talked about these guys before and I’ll probably continue to talk about them because they seem to have the kind of steel balls necessary to push interesting movie on an increasingly unadventurous filmgoing public.  The movies they promote usually aren’t purely arthouse creations, they’re usually in English and tend to have at least some production value, but they definitely take risks and it’s wonderful to see them getting distributed by people who value getting these movies out to the wider public.

Swiss Army Man begins on a pacific island where a cast away named Hank (Paul Dano) is on the verge of hanging himself from despair and loneliness when he suddenly sees a body washed ashore.  He’s intrigued enough to halt his suicide but only grows more depressed when he sees that this body of a man named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) is long dead.  He goes back to finish his suicidal plans when suddenly he hears a noise coming from the body… the noise of flatulence.  He checks on this body again (and this is where the movie’s magical realism decidedly kicks into gear) to find that this body is expelling so much gas that he can use it as a sort of jet-ski to leave the island.  Eventually he washes ashore in what appears to be the Pacific Northwest and embarks on a journey by foot through a large wooded area and carries along this dead body… in part because the body starts talking back to him and in part because he realizes that through whatever magic is going on here he can use this body for various survival tasks.

As you can probably tell from that plot description this is probably not a movie that’s supposed to be taken literally.  My initial assumption was that the character was killed in his suicide attempt and that the rest of the movie was going to be a some sort of purgatory hallucination, but the movie never does come out and say this and the film is probably meant to more of an extended metaphor for a lonely guy coming out of his shell than any kind of literal journey back to civilization.  It’s soon revealed that Hank is a depressed loner who has more or less been stalking a woman who he’s been seeing on a bus and the film is all supposed to be a manifestation of him trying to re-assess his life and his psyche up to this point and build up the courage to reach out to other people.  If the film is indeed a metaphor for Hank’s loneliness I do have to wonder what Manny the corpse is supposed to represent.  Is he supposed to be a new friend who helps him out of his predicament?  Some part of his subconscious?  Some kind of wingman that he wishes he had?  It’s not entirely clear.

The film was directed by a pair of filmmakers named Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, who credit themselves as “Daniels” because of their shared first names.  This is their first feature but they’ve been working for a while at the music video/short film/commercial tier of directing and are probably most notable for having directed the absolutely insane music video for the DJ Snake/Lil Jon song “Turn Down for What.”  Given that background and the general style of this movie and go out on a limb and assume that these guys are really into Spike Jonze and/or Michel Gondry.  That music video logic of a visual high concept is definitely at play here and you do kind of get the impression of young directors showing off their visual filmmaking talents and quirk.  This isn’t to say they don’t do this well because they do.  The production values here are pretty decent for how weird and difficult to market this movie is and “Daniels” do a pretty good job of making all the strange dead body effects and other magical realist touches come across pretty well.

In case you haven’t already been able to tell, this movie is pretty weird.  Nothing inherently wrong with that and this movie carries its weirdness pretty well.  It is not, however, the kind of weirdness that is necessarily going to hit my personal sweet-spot.  I was not a fan of the scatological elements of the movie, at all, and I could have also lived without some of the more aggressively whimsical moments.  Still there is something pretty watchable about the whole thing.  Daniel Radcliffe is quite good in it given the really weird nature of his role and I also found Paul Dano to be more tolerable than usual given that this role is pretty squarely in his rather odd wheelhouse.  I guess in some ways I kind of just admired the movie from a distance and enjoyed the way it was made more than anything else.  It’s hard to explain but I guess I was more amused by the fact that the movie exists at all moreso than I was actually engaged by its storyarc or the plight of its protagonist.  I do want to see what “Daniels” do next but I’m hoping they find a Charlie Kaufman to guide them along the way because I’m not sure that these guys are as profound as screenwriters as they think they are.

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Dheepan(6/12/2016)

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Warning: Review contains spoilers

My favorite of the films nominated for the 2015 Oscars (aside from Room, which didn’t seem to have a chance) was The Revenant, even if that was a somewhat divisive choice.  Given that, you’d think I would have been heavily rooting for that movie to walk away with the coveted Best Picture award, but that actually wasn’t the case.  I could tell at a certain point that the critical community was drawing lines in the sand with that movie and the more successful it became the more its detractors claimed to hate it.  I could tell that winning that award would actually be something of a disservice to the movie as it would have forever put the film in the Crash camp of being “that movie that shouldn’t have won that Oscar” in the minds of the people that the movie rubbed the wrong way.  Looking back I suspect that losing the Oscar was also in the best interest of other recent BP runner ups like Avatar and Lincoln.  Of course the Oscar isn’t the only award that can backfire when the wrong movie wins it, in the artier sphere of movie fandom a similar fate can befall winners of the Cannes Palm d’Or who don’t live up to that award’s lofty standards.  Case in point the Jacques Audiard movie Dheepan, which shocked the Croisette when it was given the festival’s highest honor by a jury headed by none other than the Coen brothers.  The jury press conference that followed seemed to hint that the film was more of a consensus compromise than a fervent manifestation of the jury’s tastes, but it was a baffling choice nonetheless given that it was up against films like Son of Saul, Carol, and The Assassin.  Still, it is a Jacques Audiard movie and that is a filmmaker worth paying attention to whether his films are deserving of major festival awards or not, so I was still rather curious.

The film concerns three Tamil Siri Lankans, a man, a woman, and a tween girl, who escape the unrest in that country by taking the identities of a family of three who passed away but still had the necessary visas to travel to France.  The man, whose real name is Sivadhasan (and is played by Antonythasan Jesuthasan) but his assumed name is Dheepan and the woman who’s masquerading as his wife goes by the name Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and the supposed daughter is Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby).  Sivadhasan seems to have had the roughest time back in Siri Lanka as he was a member of the Tamil Tigers and clearly saw some of the worst of the conflict there.  In France the family takes residence at what appears to be a housing project where Sivadhasan is given a job as a superintendent but whatever hopes the family had of some kind of idyllic new life are complicated by the crime that goes on at this building.  There’s a clear gang presence in the building and given that Sivadhasan is a soldier at heart he finds it difficult to keep his head down and simply deal with it.

Jacques Audiard is an interesting filmmaker because he clearly has a strong interest in social realism but he approaches this from more of a genre direction than his more humanist peers like Ken Loach and the Dardenne brothers.  This makes him one of the more easily accessible French auteurs you’re likely to encounter and when he’s at his best, as he was with the 2010 prison/gangster film A Prophet, this blend can lead to sublime results.  However, his odd mix of the highbrow and the lowbrow can also be a bit jarring at times and when he stumbles it can sometimes make it look like he’s just making prettified mediocrities.  This is what ultimately hurt his last film, Rust and Bone, which was strongly filmed and had some brilliant moments and performances in it, but at the end of the day its script just felt melodramatic and silly.  In fact I might go so far as to suspect that scriptwriting may be the guy’s Achilles heel, which is kind of odd given that they guy worked for the better part of two decades as a screenwriter before his directorial debut.

This latest project certainly follows that formula in that it’s about a serious social issue, the refugee experience in modern Europe, but it tackles it in a way that at times borders on the sensationalistic, especially in its controversial ending (which I’ll be spoiling shortly).  In fact it’s that ending, which is jarringly violent, that has been the main sticking point for most critics and was likely the biggest reason that its Cannes victory was so shocking.  In this climax Sivadhasan/Dheepan seems to tap into his Tamil Tiger past to violently take down the gangsters that have taken over his building.  So the question is, is this a take on Death Wish (good man stands up to evil criminals through violent vigilantism) or a take on Taxi Driver (psycho uses the veneer of vigilantism to unleash his demons).  I certainly hope it’s the later and that the film’s coda could be interpreted as a delusion much as the final scene in Taxi Driver could be, but there’s a lot of benefit of a doubt required to give it that and even if that is what’s going on that still leaves the film’s ending as a faint echo of a forty year old Scorsese movie.

While that ending is Dheepan’s biggest problem I wouldn’t say that this was some kind of masterpiece in the making before it let itself down, but the first 75% of the film is solid.  The three principal actors here all do good work which is doubly impressive given that they appear to be non-actors.  The film is also really well shot and its depiction of the French immigrant experience is pretty well rendered.  The film acknowledged many of the challenges these immigrants may have faced but it doesn’t feel like a litany of suffering and is able to show the good with the bad and also adds that interesting dimension of being about people who are only pretending to be a family and sort of not knowing how to feel about that.  There is definitely the makings of a good but not great movie there but the fact that it’s all leading in this weird tangential direction kind of does sour the whole thing for me.  At the end of the day it comes back to that same problem I have with Jacques Audiard: great direction, questionable writing.  And no, I don’t really see why anyone would give this thing the most prestigious award in world cinema.

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Home Video Round-Up: 7/11/2016

Look Who’s Back (6/13/2016)

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It’s easy to get a somewhat inflated idea of what foreign cinema is like since the only movies that tend to “cross the pond” are the ones that are going to appeal strongly to the artistic tastes of film aficionados who aren’t afraid of subtitles.  The truth though, if you look at the charts of the films that actually make money in their home markets is that people in other countries are just as capable of making crap as anyone else and more of it is going to come to the surface as streaming services like Netflix buys up populist garbage with the intention of reaching those foreign markets and decide to throw it up on their U.S. pages as well while they own the rights.  That seems to have been what happened with the “edgy” German comedy Look Who’s Back, which is a pretty good example of what happens when these things aren’t vetted ahead of time by the festival circuit.  The film is about what would happen if Adolf Hitler spontaneously reappeared in modern Germany and explores this by more or less stealing the Borat formula or creating a narrative by stringing together sequences in which unsuspecting members of the general public interact with a comedian who’s deep in character.  In this case they’re interacting with someone impersonating Hitler and we’re supposed to be shocked at how casually people are responding to this situation.  Unlike Borat however very few of the people he’s trying to punk are really fooled by this charade and we’re supposed to be surprised when they assume that what they’re seeing must be some sort of comedian and act accordingly… which is in fact the case, they are indeed interacting with a comedian.   Really though, the “man on the street” element isn’t the biggest problem here, that dubious honor would go to the scripted elements, which are painfully amateurish and unfunny.  There are hints of a smarter movie to be found around the edges here and there and I will also acknowledge that a lot of this material probably does play a little differently to German audiences who may come to this material with a very different set of cultural baggage, but from where I sit this is toothless, inept, and worst of all unfunny.

* out of Five

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (4/20/2016)

Robert Mapplethorpe was a photographer who rose to prominence in the fine art world during the 80s primarily for taking some fairly shocking photographs in the underground gay BSDM world.  The film’s title, “look at the pictures,” implies that the film will be as interested in Mapplethorpe’s art as it is with his personal life and that is borne out by the film.  The photos themselves do live up to their reputation both in terms of their black and white composition and in terms of their rather graphic nature.  The photos were actually subject to an obscenity trial at one point and I was a bit surprised that this wasn’t a larger part of the film though maybe I shouldn’t have given that it mostly happened after Mapplethorpe’s untimely death.  There are a lot of biographical profile documentaries like this out there and this one is one of the better ones.  The film seems to get all the necessary talking head interviews and generally takes it subject seriously and at times critically rather than simply having the experts interviewed fill the movie with banal praise.  I can’t say I was familiar with Mapplethorpe before this movie came along and I can’t say I plan to seek out more of his work as it’s pretty far outside of my usual interests, but the film worked well as a one-time primer of an artists whose work is at least worth considering.

***1/2 out of Five

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Deadpool (6/29/2016)

6-29-2016Deadpool I avoided this movie when it was in theaters because it looked… obnoxious, and if I had paid to see it I probably would have been a little more annoyed by it but seeing it at home I can relax and enjoy the parts that work.  The film has opted to lean in on the irreverent 4th wall breaking elements of the character and have also leaned in on some of the violence and crudity that the character stand out in comics.  This isn’t really the kind of humor and I would probably say that only every third or fourth joke really landed for me but some of them did indeed land and felt clever rather than irksome.  It was also probably the right call to go all-in on this direction rather than half-ass it because this kind of snarky attitude generally works better for me when it’s the entire point rather than an interruption to an otherwise straightforward story.  Another reason it’s probably a good thing that they went in this direction is that without all the humor and irreverence this would be a really second rate superhero action movie.  The movie has less than a third of X-Men: Apocalypse’s budget and it shows, the special effects aren’t great and everything feels rather small in scale by modern blockbuster standards.  What’s more it’s clear that director Tim Miller is kind of a second or third tier talent who doesn’t do a lot to make the film feel like something more than it is and the film also suffers from having some really weak side characters and villains.  Honestly I’m not exactly sure why I’m so inclined to give this one a pass, maybe just low expectations, but I did mostly enjoy myself while watching it.

*** out of Four

Mavis! (5/4/2016)

Before watching this documentary about Mavis Staples my exposure to the Staples sisters was largely confined to their appearance in The Last Waltz, the Martin Scorsese directed documentary about The Band’s final performance.  At least that’s what I assumed, but there were certainly songs by the group in this documentary that I did recognize and the documentary does make a pretty good case for that group’s importance and the importance of Mavis Staples, who was the group’s only consistent vocalist and key member.  So, as a bare bones educational documentary about a music group this is probably worth a look but man is it a bland piece of filmmaking on every other level.  Mavis Staples is clearly a very charming person with great integrity and spirit… and that makes her a kind of dull subject for a profile documentary like this.  The filmmakers probably can’t be blamed too much for that but they can be blamed for not being able to find some other angle to approach her and her group’s history.  The documentary is informative, but not particularly artistic and I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone who isn’t already really curious about the life of Mavis Staples.

**1/2 out of Five

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Triple 9 (7/11/2016)

7-11-2016Triple9 I’m beginning to think that David Simon has kind of ruined movies about cops and gang members for me, at least the ones who claim to be streetwise but completely lack authenticity and insight.  It’s a big part of why I can’t stand the Davie Ayer ouvre and while that guy didn’t have anything to do with this movie it certainly reminded me of him.  The movie was actually directed by a guy named John Hillcoat, who started his career in incredibly promising fashion with a film called The Proposition but it’s mostly been diminishing returns since then and this is clear his low point (so far).  The film actually has an incredible cast but it kind of doesn’t matter because all the characters are these bland macho cop/criminal stereotypes and the story is basically just a cookie cutter Heat ripoff about bank robbers/dirty cops involved in a convoluted scheme that I was barely interested enough to follow.  There are some fair to decent action scenes here and there but nothing too standout and while it’s a decent looking movie the style isn’t cool enough to carry the movie either.  Just a really forgettable effort… literally, I watched the damn thing two days before writing this and I only barely recall simple plot details from it.

*1/2 out of Five

X-Men: Apocalypse(5/30/2016)

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We’ve long worried that there is a superhero bubble that’s about to burse and that audiences are finally going to get sick of seeing movies about costumed crimefighters and it feels like if there’s ever going to be an audience backlash against these movies it’s probably going to be in 2016.  The year isn’t even half over and we’re already at our fourth major superhero release and have two or three more to go (depending on whether you count Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).  Even crazier is that most of the superhero movies this year aren’t just about one superhero; they’re about superhero crossovers and teams.  Superman had to be going up against Batman and Wonder Woman, Captain America had to be in the midst of a star-studded civil war, and later we’ll be watching a group of super villains team up into a suicide squad.  As such it almost seems like one of the worst years for a film from the original cinematic superhero, the X-Men, to come out.  That’s unfortunate because this franchise should have been rushing in on a wave of momentum given that their last film, X-Men: Days of Future Past, was seen as something of a comeback high by a lot of filmgoers and critics.

This installment of the X franchise picks up about ten years after the end of the “past” section of the last movie and depicts the era in which the primary cast of the original X-Men movies are first being recruited into Xavier’s Academy.  Scott “Cyclops” Summers (Tye Sheridan) has just been recruited as the film opens and will soon meet a young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner).  This is fortuitous as Xavier and every mutant he’s in contact with will soon be tested by an ancient Egyptian mutant named Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) who has recently awoken and begun recruiting disaffected mutants like Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Archangel (Ben Hardy), and Storm (Alexandra Shipp) to be his “horsemen” and eventually he comes across the continually disaffected Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to be his second in command.  Soon this young cadre of mutants as well as some fence sitters like Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), side characters like Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and older allies like Beast (Nicholas Hoult) will be forced to rise to the occasion and take down this existential threat to human and mutant alike.

X-Men: Apocalypse is certainly a less ambitious movie than its predecessor in that it lacks X-Men: Days of Future Past’s cool time travel hook.  In many ways its business as usual for the X-Men franchise so your enthusiasm for this movie will probably vary by how much you’ve liked previous installments and how excited you are for more of the same.  This prequel trilogy continues to flesh out how we got to where we started with the series (even if it isn’t doing a terribly convincing job of making the characters age as the story moves through the decades).  The film also does very little to catch newcomers up with what’s been going on so this may not be the best entry point for newcomers to the series.  What the film does do pretty effectively is treat longtime fans of the series to a lot of nods to what they’ve liked in the past and to reward them for having kept up with the franchise for as long as they have.  Did you like the Quicksilver stuff from the last movie?  There’s more of that.  Did you hate X-Men 3?  There’s a thinly veiled dig at that movie.  Do you need more Wolverine in your life?  Well rest assured that Hugh Jackman has a prominent cameo.

If there’s a major flaw to be found here it’s that some of the returning cast feel a bit shoehorned into the film.  For instance, Mystique’s role in the whole series seems to have grown larger than it was ever intended to be, in part because the films feel obligated to give more and more screen time to Jennifer Lawrence (who wasn’t particularly famous yet when she was first cast in the role).  I’m also not sure that Magneto really belongs here either as his character would seem to be more complex than someone who would just team up with a supervillain like Apocalypse who is just evil with a capital “E.”  Speaking of Apocalypse… he’s not great but he was better than I expected.  The character has always been a bit stock going back to his role in the comics.  He’s basically X-Men’s answer to Thanos, who was himself kind of a ripoff of Darkseid, and given that I would be inclined to give the movie credit for doing the best they could to not simply make him a super-generic brooding villain.  I don’t know that this was the best use of Oscar Isaac’s time, but ultimately I do think the movie does more with this kind of villain than some of the Marvel movies like Thor: The Dark World and Guardians of the Galaxy were able to do with similar characters.

As for the new cast… most of them are pretty good but there wasn’t much in the way of a starmaking standout here.  Tye Sheridan is a decent Cyclops, Sophie Turner is a decent Jean Grey, Kodi Smit-McPhee is a decent Nightcrawler, Alexandra Shipp certainly looks like a pretty good Storm but is quickly put into a henchman role that doesn’t give her a lot to do.  None of these performances are bad at all, but this certainly isn’t the embarrassment of young acting riches that X-Men: First Class managed to stumble into.  I do look forward to seeing what all these characters are up to in the 90s, as for the current 80s exploits we’re witnessing here… I mostly enjoyed it.  I seem to be in the minority on this given that the movie is currently sitting at 48% on Rotten Tomatoes, and I don’t really get why… well, maybe I do.  I don’t think there’s much of anything awful or even bad about the movie but nothing about it really stands out either and I can see why people would maybe want to punish the series for treading water a bit in this installment.  Personally, I think there are much bigger offenses that other movies get passes for.  Also, I can’t help but look at weaker entries in this series and genre like X-Men: The Last Stand and this year’s Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice (a movie whose ineptitude will make a lot of other superhero movies this year look damn good by comparison) and feel that this has a lot more going for it.

Crash Course: Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies 1916-1917

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. 

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Two Years ago I engaged in a special project where I watched and wrote a capsule review of all nineteen of the Buster Keaton short films featured in Kino’s “Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection 1920-1923” Blu-Ray.  I’ve long wanted to replicate this with the work of Charlie Chaplin but that is a much more daunting process.  Keaton had a relatively brief career in short film, at least as a headlining star before moving on to features while Chaplin’s short film career goes back to 1914 and involves four separate series of shorts with four different studios, which makes a complete retrospective a little harder.  He began at Keystone Films (yes, of Keystone Kops fame), then moved on to a studio called Essanay, then to Mutual, and finally with First National before moving on to feature length work.  I watched the First National shorts a while back because they were included in the M2K DVD boxed set but I’ve never gone back and looked at his pre-1918 work.  It would probably make more sense to start from the very beginning if I were to do a complete retrospective, but instead since I’ve already watched the First National work I’ve instead opted to sort of go in reverse chronological order and start with the Mutual films included in Flicker Alley’s excellent boxed set.

Chaplin was pretty close to being an overnight success as he emerged as a screen actor.  He achieved clear success at Keystone and over the course of his time at Essanay he continued to evolve and quickly became a superstar.  In 1916, only two years after his screen debut, he was already pretty much the most famous screen comedian in the world and was in a position to get a huge payday and greater independence when he signed on to his next studio.  The result was a record setting contract that would earn Chaplin $670,000 for a one year/12 film series of shorts with Mutual Films that would actually end up taking 18 months to complete.  Mutual was a studio which isn’t particularly well known today because most of its non-Chaplin movies are lost, but they were a pretty big force at the time and would eventually be absorbed into another company, which was itself absorbed into RKO Radio Pictures.  Whatever that company’s problems they were clearly a good home for a young Charlie Chaplin as he was able to further evolve his style there across this series of fascinating and hilarious shorts.

The Floorwalker (5/15/1916)

CCMFloorwalkerChaplin’s first short for Mutual was a fairly straightforward slapstick piece called The Floorwalker which involves The Little Tramp switching places with a department store supervisor who happens to look a lot like him.  The film is perhaps most famous for the first scene where he meets this doppelganger (played by a guy named Lloyd Bacon) and they momentarily think they’re looking at each other in a mirror and mimic each other’s motions.  I’ve long credited this little bit to the Marx Brothers and would still argue that they perfected it but this predates their uses of the gag in Duck Soup by nearly two decades.  It’s entirely possible that this skit has its origins in vaudeville and neither comic originated it, but either way it’s cool to discover that Chaplin has some claim to yet another classic bit.  The film is also notable for being the first comic short to employ an escalator for slapstick hijinks, an idea that Buster Keaton would elaborate on later.  This is far from Chaplin’s most sophisticated work but it has some quality physical comedy in it and given the huge paycheck that Chaplin had just cashed it is understandable that he’d want to deliver a simple audience pleasing hit before he started experimenting.

The Fireman (6/12/1916)

CCMFiremanThis second Mutual film from Chaplin is another piece that’s heavy on slapstick but this time he isn’t in his “little tramp” persona.  Instead he’s playing an inept firefighter who causes all sorts of chaos in the station through his silly antics.  The film certainly has a simpler plot than “The Floorwalker” and some of the slapstick antics here are not the most sophisticated (some of it literally involves people getting kicked in the butt).  On top of that, the whole clumsy shtick is a little less charming when it could result in someone’s house getting burned down, which might have worked if I thought this was going for a really pitch black tone but I don’t know that that’s what’s going on here.  There are still definitely comedy sequences here that make the film worth a look and it also gains some interest simply because its interesting to see what a fire station circa 1916 would look like, complete with horse drawn firetruck and phones that link to direct lines that are hitched to outdoor phone poles.

The Vagabond (7/10/1916)

CCMVagabondWith his third Mutual short Chaplin started to break away from his usual formula and experiment.  Here Chaplin starts injecting some of that signature Chaplin comedic pathos into the proceedings.  I don’t think this was his first movie to mix a little comedy with tragedy, I’ve been told there were Essanay shorts that did things like that as well but this one is probably an important stepping stone just the same.  The short features the little tramp heading out to the countryside and rescues a young woman from a group of gypsies that apparently abducted her at a young age, which leads into a love triangle between her, the tramp, and a painter… alright that description makes this sound kind of loopy, but its internal logic makes a little more sense when you’re actually watching the film and these developments happen one at a time.  To some extend Chaplin may have gone a little too far towards pathos and the back half of this short almost seems to eschew comedy entirely and the first half isn’t particularly overburdened with huge bits of physical comedy either, but you can tell that Chaplin is getting closer and closer to getting that formula right.

One A.M. (8/7/1916)

CCMOneAMThe fourth film in this series is a return to broad slapstick but a departure in a couple of other ways.  Here Chaplin is playing a very rich man (obvious the furthest thing from the Tramp) who is arriving home after a night of heavy drinking and the whole film involves watching this drunk try to settle himself in and get some sleep but can’t because his drunken antics keep getting in the way.   If the 1992 biopic Chaplin is to be believed it was his ability to do a comic drunk onstage that first landed Chaplin a job in the movies and this short would seem to be an attempt to recapture that character.  Aside from the taxi driver who drops this rich drunk off Chaplin is the one and only performer in this short and the film entirely focuses on how this drunk is his own worst enemy as he consistently fails to complete simple tasks like climb up stairs and set up his bed (which is one of those best that folds into walls and seemingly only exist in movies where never work as intended).  The film is a great showcase of Chaplin’s pantomime ability but the lack of other characters does hurt the pacing a bit and each extended gag does seem to go on just a little bit longer than you’d like it to.

The Count (9/4/1916)

CCMCountOne of the weaker of Chaplin’s Mutual shorts, “The Count” has Chaplin playing a tailor’s apprentice who happens to look a lot like the tramp (it isn’t entirely clear what does and doesn’t officially count as a “little tramp” film) who finds himself imitating a Count in order to court the daughter of a wealthy family.  This might be a good time to talk about Eric Campbell, who is a performer in most of the Mutual shorts who often played the “heavy” to Chaplin’s “little guy” characters.  He has a bigger role here than usual which is unfortunate because he’s a bit miscast as the tailor and this wasn’t really the best showcase of his skills.  The guy looks more like a blacksmith than a tailor for one thing; also he doesn’t exactly look like the kind of guy who would try to pass himself off as royalty.  What’s more I’m not exactly sure this was the best scenario for the little tramp, or at least a Chaplin character who looks a lot like him.  There’s some enjoyable stuff here, don’t get me wrong, just not one of Chaplin’s better offerings.

The Pawnshop (10/2/2016)

CCMPawnshopFor Chaplin’s follow-up to “The Count” he once again cast himself as an apprentice to a tradesman, this time a pawnbroker rather than a tailor.  The pawnbroker is played by a man named Henry Bergman who would continue to work with Chaplin all through his silent film career including the features up through Modern Times.  I think the pawnbroker he plays here is supposed to be Jewish, which is notable because Chaplin manages to avoid most of the negative stereotypes that a Jewish pawnbroker character easily could have fallen into.  In fact it’s pretty admirable how well Chaplin throughout his career was able to avoid a lot of the casually politically incorrect material that would mar a lot of his contemporaries’ legacies.  Looking past that this is a cute little story about a pawnbroker’s assistant using slapstick antics to foil an attempted robbery.  It’s probably most famous for a scene where Chaplin examines an alarm clock that a patron tries to put in hock and pretty much takes it apart piece by piece.  This reminded me of the sit down pantomime of the famous “bread on forks” gag from The Gold Rush.  Not Chaplin’s best but certainly solid.

Behind the Screen (11/13/1916)

CCMBehindScreenFor the third time in a row Chaplin plays the assistant to a tradesman, this time as the assistant to the production manager of a Hollywood film.  Films about filmmaking are almost always worth paying special attention to as it’s a subject that filmmakers obviously have a special insight into and when a film is commenting on filmmaking in 1916 that’s all the more interesting.  This short doesn’t seem terribly metatextual and mostly just uses a film set as an interesting place to cause some chaos but there is still an interest in seeing these archaic cameras as well as the film’s light parody of the archetypes of early silent films like the mustache twirling villain.  Naturally the set erupts into sheer pandemonium after twenty minutes of slapstick antics with everything culminating in a massive pie fight.  The film has also caught the attention of queer theorists for a sub-plot where Edna Purviance masquerades as a man and kisses Chaplin (who knows she’s a woman) only to cause a surprised reaction by a bystander who believes he’s witnessing a homosexual act.  This joke would be homophobic by the most modern of standards but there’s something interesting and bold about an old movie even bringing up the concept of homosexuality in a somewhat overt way like that even for a throwaway joke.  I wasn’t such a fan of another sub-plot where other stagehands immediately go on strike over a petty grievence and suddenly turn into full on anarchists shortly thereafter.  I’m no expert on labor-relations circa 1916 but depicting union activity like this does seem a bit dumb to me.

The Rink (12/4/1916)

CCMRinkSetting a silent comedy short in a roller rink is a concept that has a lot of promise and for the most part Chaplin’s “The Rink” delivers on that comic potential and does so in some fairly surprising ways.   My first assumption when I heard that premise was that it would feature the tramp being his usual klutzy self and causing chaos amongst a bunch of otherwise well-meaning skaters but the film actually does the opposite.  Chaplin proves to be a roller skating expert with ballet level rolling skills and everyone else proves to be clumsy on their feet as he does circles around them and cause him to crash.  The thing is, the fact that it’s Chaplin who moves with confidence kind of forces him to change his persona in this one.  Rather than playing his usual well-meaning character who stumbles into trouble, his character here is kind of a cocky jerk, and this especially comes out during the sub-plot in which Chaplin plays a crappy restaurant waiter who seems to actively seek out mischief out of sheer dickishness.  That whole restaurant plotline feels like it could be dropped actually as it doesn’t blend terribly well with the excellent roller rink plot, but those skating scenes are so well staged that it’s hard to really care.

Easy Street (1/22/1917)

CCMEasyStreetIn the back third of Chaplin’s contract with Mutual he asked to be allowed more time to work on each short and was granted that breathing room by the studio and it’s widely considered that the output improved noticeably and that the last four shorts of the series were the highlights as a result.  Judging from the first of these four, “Easy Street,” that definitely seems to be the case.  The short sees a tramp-like character arriving at a mission and being inspired to become an unlikely police officer who must then patrol the most ridiculously dangerous street in the city.  As often happens Chaplin’s character manages to idiot savant his way into a happy ending but it feels like there’s a whole lot more going for this one than usual.  The set is more elaborate, the gags feel more meticulously choreographed, and the story arc feels like it’s been given more care and attention.  The running time for this short isn’t any longer than any of the other shorts but it certainly feels longer, and not in a bad way.  It just feels more complete and more detailed.  I maybe could have done without the broad moralizing with the mission (which notably isn’t explicitly shown to be Christian) representing order and the street representing chaos and the film’s grasp of societal ills is certainly simplistic to the point of being naive if you want to take it too seriously, but as a comic short it’s a notable achievement.

The Cure (4/16/1917)

CCMCureAfter the triumph of “Easy Street” I was pretty excited to see where Chaplin would go with the second of the final four Mutual shorts and as such I was a little disappointed with what I got.  With “The Cure” Chaplin is once again playing a rich alcoholic and revolves around this alcoholic entering himself into a spa/rehab clinic and bringing along a big case of liquor that would soon cause all sorts of trouble.  This certainly isn’t a bad short but it would have fit in pretty well with the first eight of the Mutual shorts rather than the final four which are supposed to be this great leap forward.  There are certainly some good gags here and the short appears to be poking fun at health spas in an interesting way given that the clinic in question appears to be using quack remedies.  There are some good bits in the film and its chaotic ending is certainly a highlight but something about it never really clicked with me.

The Immigrant (6/17/1917)

CCMImmigrant“The Immigrant” is likely the most famous of Chaplin’s Mutual shorts in no small part because its theme of immigrants coming across the Atlantic makes the film all the more interesting.  Chaplin always believed that there was a fine line between comedy and tragedy, so it is not out of character for him to have made a comedy short about the often rather miserable transatlantic voyages that brought the huddled masses to America.  These early sections on the boat are in fact quite good.  Chaplin employs an exaggerated tilting effect in his set and camera work in order to give the illusion of a ship rocking with the waves which allowed for a lot of innovative slapstick gags.  Really great stuff.  However, I do feel like I have to dock points from this short because the second half of it feels like a different movie.  The whole immigration angle kind of goes away in the film and it transitions into this other skit about Chaplin losing a coin in a restaurant and while that bit is amusing in itself it isn’t nearly as good as what was in the first half.

The Adventurer (10/22/1917)

CCMAdventuererOf all the Mutual shorts Chaplin had the most time to make this last film of the series, “The Adventurer,” and it was clearly worth the wait because it’s probably the best of the twelve.  The film is bookended by two great set-pieces, one where Chaplin is an escaped convict evading the police and the other where he’s discovered trying to blend into society and again evades the police.  In between these two set pieces is some of that melodrama that Chaplin would eventually become known for being able to mix in with his comedy.  In this sense the film resembles “The Vagabond” but with stronger comedic elements and a simpler story.  If “The Emigrant” served as a sort of unofficial origin story for “the little tramp” this feels almost like a sort of defining twist in his life with him flirting with respectability only to definitely returning to the fringe at the end… and humiliating a few cops along the way.  It’s really amazing that this short has the exact same running time as some of the other ones, it feels like it fits so much more into the same canvas than some of the other shorts here and serves as a great sort of season finale for the whole Mutual series.

Final Thoughts

Historical perspective is probably key in appreciating these particular shorts.  Film lovers have this questionable habit of lumping silent movies together into the “silent era” when in fact film was rapidly evolving through much of this rather lengthy era.  Had these movies been made in the later twenties, the era where Chaplin’s features were continueing to break ground they might be a little less impressive.  Even if they were made in the early twenties, the era when Buster Keaton was making his series of groundbreaking shorts, they might not have been as impressive.  But these movies were made in the 19 teens.  Hell, most of them came out the same year as D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance.  That’s some pioneering stuff.  Chaplin’s career was a long evolution and these twelve shorts captured that evolution right when he was first becoming a force that was so popular that he was going to be given the freedom to really change cinema.  It’s fascinating stuff but I will say I was just a little disappointed just the same.  I’ve heard people claim that these shorts were the peak of his talents and I certainly disagree with that.  I would also say that overall I enjoyed this less than the Buster Keaton shorts I looked at a couple of years ago, but that’s an unfair comparison for a number of reasons.  These shorts gave me a better appreciation of where Chaplin came from and where he eventually went and when I finally get around to watching those Essanay and Keystone shorts I suspect my understanding will be even greater.

I’m not too inclined to give these movies star ratings (at the end of the day they’re all great and important even if some are clearly better than others) but I will leave an ordered ranking:

1. The Adventurer
2. Easy Street
3. One A.M.
4. The Rink
5. The Immigrant
6. The Vagabond
7. The Cure
8. Behind the Screen
9. The Floorwalker
10. The Pawnshop
11. The Fireman
12. The Count

 

 

 

The Lobster(5/22/2016)

5-22-2016TheLobster

It’s weird how much cinephillia is only allowed to exist because of some very tenuous economic circumstances.  For instance, the director Asghar Farhadi’s ascendance in the film world may have come as less of a surprise to everybody if his breakthrough film About Elly had gotten American release, but it didn’t because its initial distributor went out of business and the film wasn’t seen on these shores until five years later.  I bring this up because something very similar almost happened to Yorgos Lanthimos’ English language debut feature The Lobster.  The film debuted at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and played to most of the world later that year, but here it is summer of 2016 and we’re only just now getting the film in the United States.  The film was originally supposed to be put out by a company called Alchemy but they had some major financial problems and distribution needed to be handed over to A24, which has become something of an enfant terribles in the world of independent film distribution.  Between Spring Breakers, Under the Skin, Ex Machina, and others they’ve proven to be very adept at making unorthodox movies go viral, but even they will likely have some trouble finding a way to market the wacky mindset of Yorgos Lanthimos to a wider audience.

The Lobster is a sort of comedy set in a dystopian world where single people (including divorcees) are forced to attend a sort of hotel resort where they must find the love of their lives within 45 days or they’ll be turned into an animal of their choice for the rest of their lives.  The film’s exploration of this society focuses on a man named David (Colin Farrell) who has just divorced after eleven years and if unable to find a mate at this hotel and has opted to be turned into a lobster if he’s unable to find a mate in his designated timeframe.  While at the hotel he’s subjected to various lessons that are meant to teach the society’s pathological insistence on monogamy and is also tasked with periodically hunting down people who have tried to escape from the hotel to hide in the woods.

So, if you can’t tell from the description, this is not a movie that’s ever likely to be called clichéd and cookie-cutter.  The basic premise of the movie is of course kind of insane.  No society would ever go to the trouble of setting up a program like this and trying to view it as a plausible science fiction scenario would be a mistake and the movie doesn’t have the usual “this is what we could come to if we’re not careful” morality that dystopian fiction usually operates under.  The film also probably shouldn’t be viewed as a strict allegory either, or at least I wouldn’t recommend spending your entire viewing trying to find a one-to-one allegory between each element of the film and society at large.  Obviously the movie would seem to be a critique of society’s insistence on pushing people into monogamous relationships whether they want to be in them or not, but the extent of this would seem to be wildly exaggerated by the scenario in the movie.  While it’s true that single people are often feel a lot of soft pressure to get into relationships it certainly isn’t this dramatic and I don’t know that it applies to 39 year old divorcees and the 45 day time limit with a definite punishment at the end certainly doesn’t match with the realities of the issue.  In fact I suspect that the whole “cult of coupledom” element of the movie may in fact be something of a red herring with the film’s true message being more of a broader indictment of conformity; about the way people just go along with traditions and demand that other people live a certain way just because it works for them.

Yorgos Lanthimos came to prominence when he made Dogtooth, a Greek film about a crazy family where the father has opted to isolate his children from the rest of society and which was likely meant to be an allegory for repressive regimes of the North Korea variety.  That was a film which only made you accept that one family acts insane in a world that is otherwise normal, this one on the other hand requires its audience to go along with a whole world that just accepts a whole lot of weirdness and the characters act in ways that are very peculiar and this is sometimes jarring.  On top of that the film has something of a deadpan tone which can be a bit hard to jive with.  I almost wonder if I would have connected with the movie more if it had been in a foreign language and had some of the oddly nonplussed speech patterns hidden under sub-titles because hearing actors I know talking in this way was a bit alienating.  All of this is intentional of course and I do wonder if this is maybe a movie I just need to see again before I fully embrace it.  I was pretty sure I understood exactly what Dogtooth was trying to say the first time I saw it but this one not so much.  Still this is definitely a bold movie that’s more than worth a look and worth discussing.

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