Crash Course: Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women

Kenji Mizoguchi is probably the third most famous director of Japanese cinema’s golden age after Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu.  He wasn’t very well known in the West for much of his career but when the aforementioned filmmakers started to gain followings they also caught up on Mizoguchi’s work and as such some of his later work like Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff became classics of 1950s arthouse cinema.  When I recently decided to start collecting Mizoguchi’s work on blu-ray and DVD in earnest I eventually picked up Criterion’s Eclipse set entitled “Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women,” which doesn’t look at any one particular era of the director’s work but instead focuses on movies that fit into one of his most common themes: the lives of women who are failed by society.  I’ve had the set for a while but the time feels right to finally explore these four films.

Osaka Elegy (1936)

Osaka Elegy was Mizoguchi’s critical and commercial breakthrough and he himself viewed it as his first truly successful film even though he’d made dozens of (mostly lost) films before it.  Criterion has labeled the boxed set this was in “Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women” which invokes the “fallen woman” genre that I tend to think of as a very western genre embodying Victorian values.  Essentially proto-after school specials, they tended to be movies about women who make mistakes that ultimately result in them descending into sin and becoming social pariahs who would ultimately be punished at the end.  Some of these were made out of genuinely puritanical urges, some of them were more like exploitation movies that used the “cautionary tale” as a presence to get “dirty” stories past the censors.  Mizoguchi’s film sort of falls into that broad characterization, but he’s a lot more sympathetic about the circumstances that led his fallen woman into such a situation.   The film actually reminded me a lot of another movie I watched earlier this year: Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star.  Both movies are about women in crappy ungrateful families who sort of ruin their lives trying to help them, but here the woman tries helping them by having an affair with her boss and essentially prostituting herself (off screen) and suffers for her choices.  There’s nothing phenomenally special about any of that on paper but despite her ostensible “delinquency” you do get the feeling that Mizoguchi cares about her as much as Ghatak cared about his protagonist and in the last moments he has her give a look directly to the camera which sort of suggests that despite everything that’s happened to her she’s not fully defeated and there is still hope for her.  This is far from the most well-made film of Mizoguchi’s career and the production values are limited (I’ve come to keep my expectations in check while watching pre-war Japanese cinema) but his humanism was clearly there from the beginning.

***1/2 out of Five


Sisters of the Gion (1936)

Sisters of the Gion is often viewed as something of a companion piece to Osaka Elegy as both came out the same year, were made by more or less the same crew, and have a similar interest in the treatment of women by society, but they are also somewhat different movies in a number of other ways.  Firstly, the film is about two women instead of one, secondly it manages to be at once more didactic about certain issues and at the same time more nuanced about what it has to say about the specific characters.  As the title implies this is about a pair of sisters who live in the Gion district of Kyoto, which is an entertainment district that was known for its geisha houses.  The two sisters are in dire financial stakes and become geishas to make ends meet.  One of them is something of a “true believer” in the concept of the geisha and the other is highly suspicious of them and speaks of men in general as something of an abusive enemy to women.  That sister’s anti-male rants are a touch on the nose and could almost seem like parodies of the “man-hating feminist” archetype, but were there even such feminists to parody in 1930s Japan?  Over the course of the movie that sister’s attitude leads her to treat her clients rather immorally and this ultimately leads to her downfall, which would seem to be something of a rebuke of her worldview but it doesn’t entirely feel like that.  The other sister isn’t exactly rewarded with fame and fortune for her own “go along to get along” attitude and many of the men they’re dealing with in the film don’t exactly seem worthy of the sympathy she gives them.

In some ways I feel like I’m a bit out of my depth with this one.  A lot of how you read the film rests on how reasonable you think the anti-geisha in her anger about the treatment of geishas by society and I don’t really know enough about the topic to judge that and the movie doesn’t really show a whole lot of that supposed mistreatment on screen.  The relations between the sisters and their clients in the movie seem fairly chaste, but I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be implied that there’s something more akin to prostitution happening off screen and it isn’t being made explicit in order to appease the censors.  That matters because outside of the final assault scene, which could be read as more of a punishment for how the one sister treated her clients than as a rebuke of the system, there aren’t really that many harsh realities of the trade shown.  However, the film’s final moments, when the one sister lets out a primal scream questioning why the profession of the Geisha even exists certainly seems to be something the film is showing in solidarity.  I think the point is that the movie suggests that it doesn’t exactly agree with how she treats her clients but ultimately blames a corrupt system for putting her in that position in the first place.  So there are some interesting themes to wade through in this, but I’m not sure it’s exactly a great movie.  It runs a very brief 68 minutes, and a lot of that time is spent with these elaborate plot machinations where the sisters juggle clients, it could have really used some extra running time to breathe.

*** out of Five


Women of the Night (1948)

With the third film in the Mizoguchi Eclipse set we take a pretty big jump from 1936 to 1948 and obviously kind of a lot happened in the nation of Japan between those years.  The differences between pre-war and post-war Japanese cinema are pretty stark and movies made during the immediate aftermath of the war in the bombed out cities are very much their own thing.  With this film Mizoguchi took a bit of a page from the neorealist movement that was on the rise in order to make a social realist film about people trying to find their footing in a post-war Japan with a focus on the issue of prostitution, which was running rampant given the poverty of the time.  In fact one of the first images in the film is of a sign which reads that any women found in certain areas at night were going to be assumed to be prostitutes and rounded up.  Once again the focus here are on a pair of sisters one of whom does end up falling into the life of a streetwalker, and the movie doesn’t beat around the bush about that like it did in some of those earlier movies.  It sort of gets away with that because it’s very much an “issue” movie and it treats the subject fairly tastefully, but even with that in mind I doubt something like this would be made in America under the Hayes code.  The movie does kind of tread into some of the questionable territory of making a female character who’s essentially an angry feminist trying to take revenge on male-kind, which is not a terribly productive trope and seeing it in two of these movies now gives me a little bit of pause, but Mizoguchi is clearly on these womens’ side in aggregate.  In general this is a lot more watchable and accomplished than the last two movies, but in some ways feels a bit less unique and gets a bit… unsubtle in some of its dialog and storytelling.

*** out of Five


Street of Shame (1956)

For the last film in the “Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women” boxed set takes us to the very end of the director’s career with his final film Street of Shame.  Once again Mizoguchi looks at the plight of prostitutes, but instead of impoverished streetwalkers in bombed out streets this movie looks at “high class” hookers working at a licensed brothel in Tokyo.  I was not aware that such things were legal in 1950s Japan but I know they aren’t legal now because this movie is alleged to have actually swayed public opinion on the topic and led to the formal illegalization of prostitution in the country (which was being debated for years beforehand).  That is perhaps a bit of an ironic legacy because the movie offers a slightly more conflicted look at the problem than the kind of polemic that you’d expect to inspire such a response.  The film certainly highlights the exploitation that goes on at these places and also the highly unhealthy relations many of these sex workers have with their various Johns, but it also acknowledges that these places essentially act as last places of refuge for women who are in some in tough spots and how shutting them down could push some of them into the streets.  To explore this the film looks at five characters who are workers at a brothel whose stories are meant to represent something of a cross-section of different situations that different prostitutes might find themselves in.  The film is open and frank about what’s going on at this house of ill-repute but rarely goes into any kind of graphic or exploitative detail and there’s never even a whiff of sensationalism to the whole thing.  It also kind of goes without saying that Mizoguchi’s visual style is fully evolved here and also that we’re finally being given a film whose print has been correctly preserved.  A lot of the rest of the movies in this boxed set are movies I would probably discourage people from seeing unless they’ve already experienced some of the director’s more refined films first but this feels like one I can recommend a lot more freely.

**** out of Five


Crash Course: Imported by GKids – Part 2

Continuing my look through the history of major releases distributed by GKids.  This retrospective began in Part 1.

Song of the Sea (2014)

This 2014 import by GKids was the second film from the Irish animation company Cartoon Saloon.  Cartoon Saloon was a company founded in the early 2000s by three schoolmates named Paul Young, Tomm Moore, and Nora Twomey.  At this stage Moore had already conceived of The Secret of Kells but the studio had to start out by doing work for commercials and Irish television before eventually scraping together the money for that first feature.  Though that movie didn’t make a ton of money at the box office it did get that surprise Oscar nomination, which was a huge deal for the studio, it’s one of the great examples of how the Academy Awards can be a force for good.  That was enough to get them the funding for a second film, which like The Secret of Kells would be directed by Tomm Moore.  Moore is a guy who would seem to be deeply interested in Irish history and mythology.  We saw a bit of that in The Secret of Kells, which is very much about the clash of Irish mythology and early Christianity while his follow-up The Song of the Sea is going to look even deeper into that Irish mythology… maybe a little too deep.

The film is set in modern day Ireland and focuses on a brother and sister who live in a rural lighthouse with their widower father and as the film goes on they come to realize that the sister is in fact a selkie, which is a mythological creature that is kind of like a seal that sheds its skin to become human: a sort of seal mermaid if you will.  I’d first encountered selkies in a John Sayles movie called The Secret of Roan Inish that my parents took me to when I was a kid, but that was a hazy memory and this movie does not do a whole lot to really re-introduce the concept to audiences that aren’t already familiar.  In fact there’s lot of Irish folklore stuffed into the movie that it kind of feels like you’re already supposed to know about, which might have been a bit easier for me to go along with had this been invoking Greek or Norse mythologies, but Celtic mythology is a bit more foreign to me.  In general I think the film could have stood to have used fewer ideas and focused on each one a little more.  The Secret of Kells basically only had two supernatural elements: the fairy and the evil force, and that gave the film a lot more time to introduce each element and establish the characters and their home lives.  If The Secret of Kells was trying to be Cartoon Saloon’s Princess Mononoke this was trying to be their Spirited Away and I think that movie’s trippy dream logic tour setup is a little harder to replicate.  But I am probably focusing a little too much on the negative here as there’s still a lot to like in The Song of the Sea, particularly the hand drawn animation and it’s general ambition, but I liked the studio’s first film better.

*** out of Five


Boy & the World (2015)

Watching arty GKids imports has exposed me to some pretty trippy animation art styles but nothing quite as extreme as the Brazilian film Boy & the World.  This film was directed by a guy named Alê Abreu and features a highly abstract visual style which at times looks like a small child’s doodles come to life but then starts to become more elaborate as the film goes.  There’s no spoken dialogue in the film at all outside of a couple of lines that are played backwards to give a sort of “adults in Charlie Brown” effect and the plot appears to be a sort of “Where the Wild Things Are” set-up where a boy has a bit of a tantrum and then sort of escapes into a world of imagination, though I’m not exactly sure that the things he fantasizes about are exactly the kind of things a kid would come up with because they’re also barbed messages about capitalism and environmental wreckage.  Yeah, there’s some heavy stuff in here beneath the surface and I think it’s meant to be sort of a metaphor for a child going from a carefree life to better understanding the world in all its complexity.  That all sounds great but I’m not entirely sure I entirely like this as a movie, in fact I almost question if film was the right medium for this.  The art style, the recurring music, the abstract narrative almost reminded me more of something you’d expect in a video game, specifically some kind of indie side-scrolling video game with an art style like “Limbo” or “Hollow Knight,” and after eighty minutes of the film it was testing my patience a little.  Still, it’s clearly a movie with some vision and worth a look.

*** out of Five


My Life as a Zucchini (2016)

My Life as a Zucchini (AKA My Life as a Courgette) is the only film in this little Gkids marathon I’m doing to use stop-motion animation and is also one of the more mature themed of the films.  The film is a Franco-Swiss production directed by a fellow named Claude Barras who had been making short films in 2D animation and stop motion since the late 90s but for whom this was the first (and so far only) feature film, though it only barely qualifies as feature length given that it runs just under an hour and ten minutes long.   I’m not terribly familiar with his work, but I did notice that Céline Sciamma was one of the film’s four credited directors and may have had something to do with the film’s sensitive tone.  The movie is set in a group home for kids coming from troubled backgrounds, so sort of a Short Term 12 scenario, and is told from the perspective of a nine year old boy whose father is out of the picture and whose mother died in an accident that he feels somewhat responsible for (he slammed a door on her when she came after him in a drunken rage and then fell down the stairs as a result).  This boy goes by the name “Zucchini,” which was a pet name from his past, and its significance is otherwise a little unclear to me.  As a live action film I think this might have felt a bit slight and unspectacular, but the animation does make it a little more interesting.  Unlike other recent stop-motion animation this feels a bit more like straight-up Claymation and has characters with large caricatured heads with each one of them having a certain “type” and “look.”  That made things interesting, but I did not care for the film’s borderline fairy tale ending, even if they try to complicate it a little.

*** out of Five


The Breadwinner (2017)

The first two movies from the Cartoon Saloon were directed by a guy named Tomm Moore and both films were steeped in Irish history and mythology but for their third film they took another approach.  The Breadwinner was directed by one of the company’s other co-founders, Nora Twomey, who had major behind the scenes jobs on the previous films and displayed something of a unique vision here despite still basically working within the “house style.”  The film follows an eleven year old girl in Afghanistan sometime in recent memory (it’s a bit vague on if its set before, during, or after the post 9/11 war), and follows her as she’s forced to pretend to be a boy to be the family’s “breadwinner” after her father is arrested by the Taliban over some bullshit.  So, it’s kind of the Mulan/Yentl feminist story of girls being able to do just as well as their male counterparts when people put away their preconceptions.  I believe there was a movie called Osama that put the same framework on a middle eastern context in the early 2000s but I haven’t seen that and can’t easily compare the two.  The film is also intertwined with a “story within a story” the protagonist is telling to her sibling about a war in antiquity against an “Elephant King.”

It makes some sense why animation would be a logical format for this story given that it isn’t exactly easy to film live action feminist cinema in Afghanistan at the moment and also because it serves to make some of the tougher sections of the story a bit more palatable.  It also serves as a perfect medium for the story-within-a-story sections, which are stylized differently from the “real world” sections and are visually interesting throughout even though I think they maybe take up more screen time than they needed to.  Now, in this day and age we do need to address the elephant in the room which is that this is a movie set in Afghanistan directed by a white person, written by white people, and based on a novel also written by a white person, none of whom are to my knowledge Muslims, and with an intended audience that will also mostly consists of Westerners.  I don’t bring that up to dismiss them or say they can’t make a movie like this, but it does tend to raise a certain level of suspicion.  I must say that overtures about Middle Eastern patriarchy made by white western feminists can become a bit queasy, firstly because it doesn’t exactly take courage to say that the Taliban is kind of messed up, and secondly because there can be a bit of a “white savior” flavor to such overtures that can be problematic.  I would say this film mostly seemed to sit on the right side of all of that, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily the smartest cultural critique of such societies and there can be a certain bluntness to the behavior of the villains that is a touch questionable.  Aside from that though, I would say that this is the kind of thing I want people using animation for and consider it another really well made film from The Cartoon Saloon and would very much like to see what they and Nora Twomey do next.

***1/2 out of Five


And that is the last of these Gkids imports that I’ll be looking at for a while.  The distributor also earned a Best Animated Feature nomination for their release of Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai, and I might get to that eventually but I wanted to focus on the non-anime stuff here.  I would say that I am glad that I watched these movies but at the same time I was a little disappointed with them as a whole as only a few of them really stood out as true gems.  Chico and Rita was probably the best of the bunch.  Outside of that the most rewarding discoveries were the Cartoon Saloon movies, which is clearly on its way to being a major specialty animation studio.  Their next projects actually aren’t going to be distributed by Gkids.  Tomm Moore’s next movie is called Wolfwalkers (which sounds awesome based on the title) and will apparently be put out by AppleTV+ and Nora Twomey is making something called My Father’s Dragon, which will be distributed by Netflix, so clearly they have some friends in high places.  As for Gkids, they certainly have some movies slated to come out this year (assuming, you know what is no longer a problem) but it’s hard to tell what’s going to emerge and become an awards contender any given year.

Crash Course: Imported by GKids – Part 1

To my great surprise, one of the Oscar categories that I most look forward to every year is the Best Animated Film category.  Not necessarily the winner, which is generally predictable and boring, but the nominees.  I’m not sure why but there’s clearly a bloc of voters in the animation branch that really does its homework and seeks out movies that differ from what the studio FYCs would want them to vote for.  At least in theory.  In truth, I usually won’t have actually seen the less mainstream (or a lot of the more mainstream for that matter) choices that the branch makes and I’ll often go years without catching up on them and that’s part of what I want to rectify by looking at some of the movies distributed by the main company that releases these films to theaters and on home video: GKids.

GKids is short for “Guerrilla Kids International Distribution Syndicate and was created by a guy named Eric Beckman, who used to program a children’s film festival in New York.  The company does not itself make films but has developed quite a niche for itself by being the main road to U.S. distribution for independently minded and usually foreign animated films that other studios like Disney aren’t interested in.  Over the last ten years they’ve taken over distribution of Studio Ghibli’s library from the mousehouse as they’ve moved on to more profitable things and they’ve also managed to find a number of international animated products that have garnered critical acclaim and Oscar nominations.  For this crash course I’ll be looking at eight of the eleven movies that have earned the distributor Best Animated Feature nominations.  I’ve already seen the two Studio Ghibli films that earned them nominations (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and When Marnie Was There) and I’ll also be setting aside the movie Mirai for a future project.

The Secret of Kells (2009)

For a whole lot of people the GKids story began on February 2, 2010, which was the day that the nominees for the 82nd Academy Awards.  During that announcement there was a rather eyebrow raising moment when the Best animated feature nominees were revealed.  Most of them were expected nominees like The Princess and the Frog, Coroline, and the eventual winner Up, but then there was one rather unexpected nominee: The Secret of Kells.  One of the big takeaways from the moment was “what the hell is The Secret of Kells.”  People who weren’t really observant of the world of indie animation simply had not heard of this movie and that was especially unexpected given that before this the category was almost entirely the domain of major studio product and the occasional Studio Ghibli or Aardman film when the stars aligned.  Pretty much the only precedent for a surprise nod like this was The Triplets of Belleville, but even that had a higher profile before its nomination.  The surprise was largely pleasant however as the people who had seen the film largely sung its praises and considered it to be a smart nomination.  The film was the product of an upstart production company called Cartoon Saloon, and I’ll probably talk about them in greater detail in another entry but they had been working towards this movie for the better part of a decade and this nomination and Gkids’ promotion really put them on the map and helped them continue working going forward.

As it turns out The Secret of Kells is a traditionally animated film set at a monastery in medieval Ireland where a twelve year old named Brendan has been living with his uncle.  Over the course of the film he meets a scribe, ventures out into the forest to get him writing supplies where he’ll meet a forest fairy, fight the spirit of evil, and escape a Viking invasion.  It’s kind of a lot to fit into a movie that only runs for an hour and fifteen minutes but it makes up for this with style and charm.  The film’s animation style is a little low budget in nature and kind of reminds me of the kind of format that would be employed by a Cartoon Network series like “Samurai Jack” or something but done with more care and detail.  The storytelling shows a clear Miyazaki influence in that it is still trying to be an adventure story from the perspective of a child but set in a semi-fantasy world that draws from cultural mythology and has a lot of nature spirits and the like.  I might have liked it to hue even further away from the family film aspirations (which was frankly an audience it was never going to get) and do away with some of the rather modern and anachronistic inflection that seems to be there in the dialogue and voice acting (it almost feels like a dub job despite actually being the original voice track), but maybe there’s a charm to be found in the fact that it is still theoretically a film for children.  All told I think the Academy was right to nominate this and put this studio on the map because this is definitely the kind of thing I wish more people were doing with animation.

***1/2 out of Five

A Cat in Paris (2011)

2011 was the year of the second and third Oscar nominations for Gkids distributed films with one of them being a French animated film called A Cat in Paris.  This film was made by a production company called Folimage, which isn’t terribly prolific in terms of making feature films but they do produce them occasionally and have had their most high profile successes when working with a pair of directors named Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol of which A Cat in Paris is one.  The film’s title is a bit tricky because the titular cat plays less of a role in it than I expected (though there’s also a cat burglar in the film so there may be a play on words going on).  The film is about a young girl whose mother is a cop and whose father was killed by a gangster/art thief who is still at large and this girl also has an adventurous pet cat and there’s a less violent burglar in town and all of these threads will ultimately converge over the course of a wacky night on the town.  On a plot level this is not a particularly deep of meaningful movie and its reputation probably rests more on its animation style.  The film has traditional (it looks traditional anyway) 2D animation which is heavily stylized to look that reminded me of the illustrations in picturebooks from the 90s.  The characters have sort of caricatured heads and weird looking feet and there are some unconventional choices with color as well as a couple of scenes that do clever things, like one that’s set in the dark and uses outlines to show what’s happening.  The film only runs about 65 minutes long so it’s really only barely a feature, which probably would have made it seemed like a bit of an odd thing to see in a theater but I’m not sure that extra runtime would have really helped it much.  This is certainly something different from the Hollywood norm and that makes it kind of novel, but I wouldn’t say that it’s any kind of new classic or anything.

*** out of Five

Chico and Rita (2011)

The very first year the Academy introduced the Best Animated Feature category there was a lot of disappointment when they opted not to nominate the rotoscoped Richard Linklater film Waking Life.  This might have been because animators are divided about whether rotoscoping counts as animation, it might have just been because it was a very small movie, but it was widely seen as a rejection of an animated movie that was made specifically for an adult audience. Indeed, even when the Animation branch nominates movies that are pretty “arty” they do generally want them to be at least nominally kid friendly and have also rejected movies like Waltz With Bashir, A Scanner Darkly, and Paprika.  To date only three movies with what would be considered “R-rated” content have been nominated for that award.  There was Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa (the only officially R-rated film to garner one of the category’s nominations), there was last year’s I Lost My Body (which was never officially rated by the MPAA but has a TV-MA moniker on Netflix), and then there was the film I’m looking at today, Chico and Rita, which was also never looked at by the MPAA but does have some sex and nudity that would have garnered that mark if it had been submitted.  It was the first such movie to get the nomination but it is easy to see why the voters wouldn’t have been so quick to overlook it as it has a lot going for it.

The film is primarily the work of a Spanish director named Fernando Trueba, who was primarily a live action filmmaker who achieved a certain degree of international success in the 90s with his film Belle Époque.  This animated project largely has its roots in a documentary Trueba made in the early 2000s about Latin Jazz called Calle 54.  During the making of that film he met a Cuban jazz pianist named Bebo Valdés, who inspired him to make a movie about a (fictional) pianist who had similar experiences in pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary Cuba.  In the film this hard on his luck jazz-man sparks a romance with a singer named Rita, but they never quite make it work out firstly because their careers go off in different directions and secondly because the revolution pops off and makes international travel complicated.  It’s not completely dissimilar from the story in the recent Paweł Pawlikowski film Cold War.  There’s nothing about it that inherently needed to be animated but recreating pre-revolutionary Havana for a live action probably would have been cost-prohibitive and I’m guessing the Castro regime would not have been overly accommodating about such a film being filmed there.  Additionally the format allows the film to include some “cameos” by some real life jazz legends and employs some cool stylistic elements throughout and generally just looks really slick.  It isn’t a movie that was necessarily made to revolutionize the animation form or experiment wildly but it’s a medium that work for the story and a story that has a very classic appeal to it which I quite enjoyed.

***1/2 out of Five

Ernest & Celestine (2013)

Gkids took a year off from the Oscars after their dual nomination year in 2012 but came back with a new nominee in the form of Ernest & Celestine, another traditionally animated French production like A Cat in Paris but made by completely different team of people who had previously made a film called A Town Called Panic, which came out right before Gkids started bringing movies like that to Oscar glory.  It’s based on a series of Belgian children’s books by a guy named Gabrielle Vincent and seems to be set in a world where talking mice and talking bears live in the same world but have separate societies and are kind of scared of one another.  Bears and mice seem like a rather curious pairs of animals to place in opposition to one another.  Historically I would think cats would be the creatures that would be the natural enemy to mice in cartoons and other logical enemies would include snakes and hawks.  Going the other way, if bears are supposed to be scared of mice I’ve never heard that one, that seems more like an elephant thing.  I don’t know, maybe in the francophone world there’s a different hierarchy of bullshit zoology for kids.  Obviously this is supposed to be an allegory for intolerance, but it’s not a particularly interesting or insightful one and I can’t say I ever connected too much with the titular protagonists.  This is very much a film made for children despite its ostensible artiness, really its main appeal is its art style, which feels like it was done with some kind of watercolors and often uses some very impressionist backgrounds.  It’s interesting to look at, but with the story not being terribly engaging I would say that this is one of the less essential movies that Gkids brought over.

**1/2 out of Five

Continued in Part 2

Home Video Round-Up 5/7/2020

Miss Americana (2/15/2020)

I’m a bit of a connoisseur of “rock docs,” a label applied to backstage documentaries that follow famous musicians around in their lives as they deal with fame.  Good rock docs all have one thing in common: they make their subjects look like insufferable pretentious pricks who you wouldn’t want to be around in real life.  Don’t Look Back made Bob Dylan look wildly arrogant, Rattle and Hum made Bono look completely full of himself, Truth or Dare made Madonna look like an immature provocateur, Meeting People is Easy made Radiohead look like ungrateful killjoys.  When the central artist truly has the star power to be worthy of a rock doc they’ll usually transcend whatever image damage such a film will have and it will ultimately just end up building their legacies rather than tear it down.  The one way a rock doc can truly fail is if they fail to make the star at their center look like a jerk, when that happens you know what you’re watching is more of an advertisement than a genuine look at a celebrity, and in its own way this also reflects badly on the celebrity in question.  And the new Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana comes kind of close to being in that latter category.  The film looks at Swift during the recording of her latest album and shows her reflecting a bit on some of her previous escapades.  The portrait painted isn’t too different than what her PR team has been spinning for a while; she still endlessly plays the victim despite being a multi-millionaire with no real problems and still hasn’t gotten over the fact that a dude interrupted her at a bullshit award show over a decade ago.  We also spend time watching her as she puts endless thought and focus testing into making the kind of political statement about a Tennessee senate race, a statement that would have seemed routine to most other artists, but which see wants to paint as some kind of act of incredible bravery.  That’s not to say that there aren’t some legitimately interesting aspects of 21st Century popstardom that get displayed here, but by the end I still kind of feel like I was being sold an image rather than getting the candid documentary that this claims to be.

** out of Five

Bad Education (4/28/2020)

First of all, it’s bullshit that this movie is titled “Bad Education,” as far as I’m concerned Pedro Almodóvar owns that title.  I should also point out my reluctance to treat an HBO film as I would a theatrical release coming to home video, but given that this was picked up at a festival rather than produced with cable in mind I’m willing to give it a pass.  This is a film based on a real life scandal that occurred in Long Island involving embezzlement that occurred in the school system in one of the more affluent districts there.  I won’t give away too much about the details but it is an odd and interesting story, but maybe not odd and interesting to the point where it needed a feature length dramatization.  I feel like the details of this would have made a decent documentary or perhaps a good episode of “This American Life” but I’m not sure the dimensions were quite there to really support this kind of treatment and when it occasionally reaches to sort of turn this into some sort of epic tragedy of hubris it feels overwrought and reaching.  In many ways HBO actually feels like a smart landing place for the movie as they seem to really love doing movies about real life scandals, but they’re usually bigger scandals than this, but it’s made in a similarly straightforward way and in many ways feels like a step backwards for its director from his previous film Thoroughbreds.

*** out of Five

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (3/25/2020)

When I saw the title “Crip Camp” floating around festival coverage I kind of assumed it was talking about the L.A. street gang, but “crip” here is apparently short for “cripple” and the film is firstly about a camp for the disabled in the 60s and then later about the wider movement for disability rights.  The connection between the two is a little tenuous; some of the advocates in the movement went to the camp, a majority did not, and the sections dealing with the camp mostly just show that the disabled are just as susceptible to boomer nostalgia as anyone.  That part is, however, a bit more unique than the second half which is essentially the kind of history of a protest moment movies we see from time to time but for a different movement.  Still, for what the movie’s trying to do it’s really effective.  It’s a good illustration of what grassroots campaigning can accomplish and also a good overview of how disability law evolved over the course of a decade or two.  It’s a bit conventional in general and doesn’t re-invent the wheel but it does ultimately deliver and is worth seeing for people interested in the topic.

*** out of Five

Extraction (5/4/2020)

Extraction is this fairly high budget Netflix original action film that seems to have just dropped in out of nowhere in the midst of a major world crisis to provide us with some much needed violence to whittle away our time.  The film stars Chris Hemsworth, was produced by the Russo brothers, and a guy named Sam Hargrove, who was the stunt coordinator on a number of the MCU films.  In many ways I think what they were trying to do here was capture the magic of the John Wick movies by having a stunt guy make an unpretentious action flick, but the movie lacks a certain… insanity… that gives those movies flavor that this lacks.  In many ways this is an argument that trusting stunt people to make you movies is not such a surefire idea.  This movie certainly has a lot of well executed action scenes and moment for moment it could certainly be said to be good at what it does but something about the whole enterprise just feels kind of soulless.  The film’s plot is essentially a ripoff of the 2004 film Man on Fire as well as a handful of other “tough guy is tasked with saving a kid from bad guys” movies.  Hemsworth is reasonably good in his role but his performance is hardly a revelation and his character is bland enough that there’s not much to say about his work in it.  There are worse ways to pass the time and there are moments here that probably make it worth a watch if this is the kind of thing you have an itch for (and it’s not like it has much competition at the moment) but don’t mistake it for some sort of genre revelation.

**1/2 out of Five

Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind (5/7/2020)

I wasn’t exactly sure why HBO decided the world was itching for a documentary about Natalie Wood and shortly into watching the film it became apparent that Wood’s family (the people who remain behind, if you will) are very much in the driver’s seat on this thing.  This leads to film to have this rather strange structure where it starts by doing a deep dive into Wood’s family history and domestic life, then going back and looking at her Hollywood career, and then finally doing a deep-ish dive into the circumstances of her mysterious death.  Wood’s daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner did not direct the film but is all over it both as an interview subject and as the person interviewing a number of the talking heads on screen including her stepfather and “person of interest” in Wood’s death Robert Wagner.  This visibly slanted focus is a problem with the movie on several levels; firstly it gives the film far too much of a focus on Wood’s domestic life at the expense of analyzing her actual work, secondly when it is looking at the domestic side it’s trying too hard to make it look like everyone was in a big happy family in a “they doth protest too much” kind of way, and finally it makes the movie look like a particularly unreliable source when it comes to deconstructing Wood’s eventual drowning.  Mind you, I have no reason to think they actually are covering anything up but their approach kind of makes it look like they are.  I’m not sure that a more detached and/or sensationalistic look at this life would have been preferable, but that would have at least been entertaining or interesting which this isn’t.

*1/2 out of Five

Crash Course: Charlie Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies 1915-1916 (Part 2)

Continuing my look through the short films that Charlie Chaplin made for Essanay Studios.  This retrospective begins in Part 1.

A Woman (7-12-1915)

Chaplin’s next film was not one with massive stunt work set pieces but it made up for it with some material that might have been considered slightly risqué in the early 1900s.  The film starts with The Tramp meeting up with a lady in a park and then and getting into a bit of a row with her father, who is himself trying to hit on another woman.  Long story short, The Tramp ends up back at the guy’s house and for some contrived reasons needs to escape the house and his solution is to swipe the daughter’s dress and sneak out impersonating a woman.  The daughter sees him doing this and is amused and becomes a co-conspirator.  This was not the first time that Chaplin had worn drag for a short, he did it in two prior Keystone films, but he wouldn’t do it again (probably because it meant removing his signature moustache, though not after some very amusing shots of him walking around in the dress while still sporting it).  There’s nothing in the film that would even raise the slightest eyebrow today, but it was considered rather saucy at the time, to the point where it was even banned in the U.K. until 1916.  Ultimately it’s nothing too groundbreaking here and the story is loose even by silent comedy short standards, but this kind of gender bending is a staple of comedy and seeing Charlie Chaplin taking part of it is valuable.

The Bank (8-9-1915)

“The Bank” starts out looking like just another short where Chaplin gets a job somewhere and causes a bunch of chaos in the workplace but it ends up being more than that.  The first act is straight slapstick with Chaplin working as a janitor at a bank and going around a splashing people with his mop hitting them on the head when he turns while holding the mop over his shoulder.  But then he starts exchanging love notes with the bank secretary and develops a crush on her only to then learn that the “Charlie” she thought she was writing to was someone else, leaving him crushed.  Then in the third act he suddenly steps up and becomes a hero when some people try to rob the bank… which is then revealed to have been a daydream and the short ends with The Tramp once again walking away from the camera.  So this is in many ways building off what Chaplin did with his film “The Tramp” in mixing genuine pathos with comedy, but this time it’s done with more confidence and care.  The revelation that this infatuation is doomed comes earlier and is more biting because of it and the film manages to get some of those great close ups of Chaplin looking sad.  On top of that, the bank robbery dream sequence is really well staged.  Clearly a highlight of Chaplin’s work at Essanay.

Shanghaied (10-4-1915)

This short sort of fits into the “Charlie gets another job” formula but kind of takes it in different directions.  In it a ship owner and captain are conspiring to destroy a ship at sea for insurance money.  Chaplin is unknowingly complicit in this plot by helping the captain “recruit” crew members by hitting them over the head with a mallet and taking their unconscious bodies to sea, but then Chaplin finds himself “recruited” as well.  From there it starts being a typical bit of slapstick chaos with some cool tilting boat effects.  Then in the third act it becomes more of an adventure piece as Chaplin races to save the ship from blowing up and also gets the girl (a stowaway).  So this is not really a Chaplin short that gets too deep into the pathos and sentimentality that really set him apart, but there’s plenty of fun to have with it.

A Night in the Show (11-20-1915)

Let’s get this out of the way first thing: there’s a guy in blackface in Chaplin’s “A Night in the Show.”  It isn’t Chaplin, it’s a background character in an audience, and he isn’t behaving in a wildly stereotypical way (if you watch silent film you’ve seen WAY worse), but it shouldn’t have happened and if nothing else it’s a pretty big distraction for modern viewers. Outside of that this is a pretty neat short.  It’s set in a high end vaudeville theater and has Chaplin playing duel roles: a well to do tuxedoed man on the ground floor and a rough and tumble dude up in the cheap seats.  Despite their economic differences, both of these guys are equally disruptive jackasses. The working class guys is spilling booze over the balcony, the rich guy is rushing the stage and letting loose snakes, and the damn thing ends with one of them spraying the whole theater with a firehose.  Makes the people turning on cell phones in theaters today look downright civilized.  The film feels like a bit of a precursor to Buster Keaton’s “The Playhouse” with its setting but it ultimately has roots with a British stage comedian named Fred Karno who Chaplin worked with at one point and one of his sketches.  There’s a pretty good recreation of Chaplin’s comedy drunk theater sketch in the Richard Attenborough Chaplin biopic and this definitely reminded me of that.

A Burlesque on Carmen (4-10-1916)

“A Burlesque on Carmen” was made as a direct parody of a popular 65 minute film adaptation of the famous opera and novella that was released by Cecil B. De Mille about a month before Chaplin’s film came out.  So it’s a spoof movie, which was not exactly the bread and butter of Chaplin’s filmmaking, but the film looms large in Chaplin’s biography for another reason.  Chaplin made the film to be a standard thirty minute two-reeler but after he left Essanay they used discarded and newly shot footage to double its runtime and release it as a four-reel film without Chaplin’s permission, one of several things Essanay did to annoy the filmmaker after his contract was up.  There was even a lawsuit over it which Chaplin eventually lost.  The version presented by Flicker Alley is a reconstruction of the original version based on his testimony at that trial and it proves to be a reasonably strong comedy short with more elaborate sets and costumes than a lot of the other shorts here.  Chaplin is playing a sort of general or something and Edna Purviance is playing Carmen in one of the finer performances that she gives in the series.  It probably isn’t the finest work to be found in the Essenay era, other films here are a bit more timeless in their appeal, but it does show further evolution as a filmmaker.

Police (5-27-1916)

“Police” is the last canonical Chaplin film from Essanay and tells a lower scale but effective little story.  It begins with Chaplin being released from prison and very quickly struggles to “make it” on the outside.  He then runs into an old cellmate and agrees to rob a house with him, where he meets an Edna Purviance character who lies to the police to protect him, which may or may not change his life.  The actual cops don’t play into it as much as the title would have you think. The film is light on major slapstick and doesn’t feel particularly high budgeted, but in a way this makes it feel like a mature work.  The film ends with an interesting shot where the Tramp seems to be doing his usual “walking away from camera” thing, then he runs into a cop who chases him in another directions.  Perhaps this was a sort of coded message that he was taking a bow from his time at Essanay but that he had new challenges to face in the time to come.

Triple Trouble (8-11-1918) and Charlie Butts In (1920)

These last two films are considered bonus features on Flicker Alley’s blu-ray set as they aren’t official Chaplin productions.  Both were unapproved products that Essanay cobbled together with old footage in order to put out “new” Chaplin films for unsuspecting consumers.  “Charlie Butts In” is basically a ten minute recut of “A Night Out” with a little bit of extra footage while “Triple Trouble” is a twenty minute film made of unused footage from “Police” bits of “Work” and some footage from an abandoned film called “Life.”  Both are essentially curios, more interesting for the story behind them and the extent to which Chaplin tried to publicly disown them than as films themselves.  After Chaplin left them, Essanay soldiered on for a little longer but they ended up merging with other studios and were ultimately folded into Warner Brothers.  These two “films” mostly just show their desperation after Chaplin left and are for completeists only.

And that’s that for the Essanay films.  It took a while for me to start this project up and I’m glad I saw it through.  As expected, these are a bit cruder and less accomplished than the films that Chaplin made for Mutual and First National, but despite that these are in some ways more important simply because they made Chaplin the star he was and also because they showed him transitioning from being a talented physical comedian to being a pantomime artist and that was a transition that would have a ripple effect throughout film.  Someday, probably in the distant future, I’ll try giving Chaplin’s Keystone films a watch  just so I can say that I’ve seen every morsel of Chaplin’s output but for now I feel like I’ve seen the real beginning of Chaplin’s evolution as an artist.

Crash Course: Charlie Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies 1915-1916 (Part 1)

When it comes to exploring Charlie Chaplin’s early work I sort of started at the end and have been working backwards.  I saw his First National shorts ages ago because they were featured in the M2K DVD set I’ve owned since I was a teenager but I never got around to watching his Mutual shorts until about three years ago when Flickr Alley put out a boxed set of those shorts.  I’ve also owned their boxed set of his even earlier Essanay comedies for a while now but I wanted to give myself a little time before I tackled that and I think the time to do it has finally come.

This is actually the second set of shorts that Chaplin made after he traveled to America to become involved in the early motion picture industry.  He first gained prominence from making a series of one reel films at Keystone Studios.  It’s probably fair to say that Chaplin was a very quick success and while he wasn’t necessarily an international superstar by the time he was done at Keystone he definitely was a star and once that contract was done he was in a very good position to get a more favorable contract from Essanay.  Essanay was an interesting little company that was founded in 1907 by George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson (S & A, hence “Essanay”) at a time before the film industry had entirely migrated to Los Angeles and as such their main lot was in Chicago with a backup lot in Nile Canyon in northern California.  Chaplin apparently made exactly one movie in Chicago but hated the winters there so much that he immediately relocated to Nile Canyon and made the rest of the shorts there.  By all accounts these shorts were a turning point in which Chaplin evolved from the blunt slapstick of his Keystone shorts and began mixing his signature pathos into the equasion.

His New Job (2-1-1915)

Chaplin’s first movie for Essanay has a bit of a meta-quality to it, one that was likely meant as more of an in-joke than something the audience was necessarily supposed to pick up on, as it has the new guy at the studio trying to start a new job as a film extra.  Also the film-within-a-film at the center is being shot at a movie studio called Lockstone, which is not an overly subtle jab at his former employer Keystone.  Chaplin begins at Essanay already looking very much like the iconic Chaplin: he has the moustache, he has the cane, he’s wearing vagabond clothing including the bowler hat, he’s The Tramp.  Outside of the in-jokes this isn’t a terribly elaborate bit of comedy, the premise is to basically just put Chaplin into a situation and have him be a nuisance to everyone around him and cause a bunch of chaos.  I can’t exactly blame Chaplin for not using his first day at his real job to really break the mold.  It also reportedly features a very young Gloria Swanson as a background extra for whatever that’s worth.

A Night Out (2-15-1915)

Chaplin’s second short for Essanay was his first one shot at their Niles Canyon studio and is perhaps notable for its supporting cast more than anything.  This was the first time that Chaplin was paired with his early muse Edna Purviance and it was also the first of many films he made with Bud Jamison, a large and imposing man who would be something of an Essanay equivalent to Eric Campbell (who would serve an equivalent role in Chaplin’s Mutual films).  But the collaborator who is probably most pertinent to this particular short is a guy named Ben Turpin.  Turpin was something of a forgotten star of early silent comedy; he was a stalky mustachioed man with a long history in vaudeville and was probably most famous for making funny cross-eyed faces and would continue to work in film all through the silent era and was even scheduled to reunite with Chaplin in The Great Dictator but died before he could do that.  This was one of only four shorts he made with Chaplin and had the two of them playing drunks going for a night out on the town.  This is a bit of a break from the Tramp I’m used to, who was usually a solitary hobo drifter, but this guy feels more working class despite still having the usual bowler hat and cane.  It’s not the deepest or most original thing Chaplin made by a long shot as it’s basically just some drunken hijinks.

The Champion (3-11-1915)

Forcing gawky goofballs to participate in contact sports is something of a comedy staple, especially in the silent era.  Harold Lloyed famously took to the football field in The Freshman and Buster Keaton got involved in some boxing hijinks in Battling Butler and Charlie Chaplin was also more than happy to use the boxing ring as a space for slapstick pantomime.  He of course included a legendary boxing gag in his 1931 classic City Lights and he apparently had a boxing themed two-reeler in his Keystone days called “The Knockout.”  This one has The Tramp acting more like a true tramp than in the first two Essanay shorts, in fact it opens on a classic shot of him sitting down with a dog with a title card showing that he’s broke.  He’s so broke that he takes a job as a sparring partner for a fighter but ends up upstaging his partner by putting a horseshoe in his glove to have a brass knuckle effect with every punch (and no one asks any questions about this), and this performance leads to him getting matched up with the champion boxer played by Bud Jamison.  Chaplin’s character doesn’t really spend a whole lot of time being worried about this and when the actual fight comes it’s pretty blunt in its interest in just watching guys get hit over and over again, but it’s well staged just the same.  There’s also an amusing turn by Leo White as a gambler who wants to fix the fight and who sports a hilariously large fake moustache.

In the Park (3-18-1915)

“In the Park” is probably one of the less essential films in this series as it was one of only two films he made for Essanay to only run a single reel and it was reportedly made on the cheap because “The Champion” ran over-budget.  It’s a simply little fifteen minute movie about The Tramp causing some trouble at a park and getting into various altercations.  You can kind of tell it was made by just taking some cameras down to the park and seeing what they could come up with.  With there not being a lot to talk about with this one, this might be a good time to discuss one of Chaplin’s key supporting actors: Leo White.  White is a slender and rather angular man who appears in a lot of these shorts as a sort of wealthy dandy who is meant to be something of a rich foil to Chaplin’s tramp character.  His presence is always felt because he’s usually wearing these really fake looking Van Dyke beards that kind of make him stand out.  This aura of affluence would follow white over the course of his long lasting character actor career, which would continue into the sound era and span over four hundred films.

A Jitney Elopement (4/1/1915)

Firstly, to explain the title, a “jitney” is an old timey word for a type of taxi cab that people would share, but that’s not a huge part of the film.  The story here begins with Chaplin and Edna Purviance already being star-crossed lovers only to have that interrupted when Purviance’s father tells her he’s arranged a marriage between her and a count (Leo White).  Having none of this, Chaplin shows up claiming to be the count in an attempt to trick the father, which takes up much of the film’s first half, but this cover is blown when the real count shows up and the lovers have to go on the run.  The second half of the film largely consists of an extended car chase which is hardly the greatest chase scene filmed during the silent era or after but it is exciting despite having a couple of odd edits here and there.  So, the story is ultimately an excuse to get The Tramp into the middle of this big chase scene but I must say the story here feels a little off.  I get the impression that we’re supposed to think of Chaplin as being more of a hobo in some of these shorts than others but that’s primarily how we see him now so having him play a Romeo type here feels rather odd.

The Tramp (4-12-1915)

You can tell from its title that “The Tramp” is going to be one of the shorts in this set that matters the most.  Chaplin was already dressing in what we knows as the Tramp costume from the beginning of his time at Essanay and he had often been depicted as a homeless person of sorts who’s prone to drifting but this is in many ways the short that sort of made the moniker official and established his roaming nature officially.  Its plot has The Tramp showing up at a farm and saving a girl from robbers.  He’s then hired on by her father as a farmhand and defends the far again, but then comes to learn that the girl (who he had fallen in love with) has a boyfriend, so he moves on in one of the first of many Chaplin films to end with The Tramp walking away down the road as the film fades out.  Probably doesn’t sound like much on its face but the very idea of having a comedy short end in such a bittersweet way was a borderline revolutionary idea and would go on to be the foundation for much of Chaplin’s best work.  It’s certainly not his funniest or most elaborately staged work, and in many ways that’s a shortcoming of this two reel format.  In a feature film Chaplin would have more than enough time to establish pathos while also filling the film with jokes, but as a first time out this one was pretty important.

By the Sea (4/29/1915)

This is another one reel comedy from Chaplin which one perhaps suspects was made as insurance in case audiences were put off by the melancholic tone of “The Tramp” and wanted more straightforward comedy out of Chaplin.  So this is basically “In the Park” but at the beach instead of at a park.  That setting is in part a function of the fact that Chaplin had convinced Essanay to move his operations once again, this time from the Niles Canyon studio to a studio that the studio rented out in Southern California.  That they were willing to go along with this is something of a testament to how successful these shorts had become and how much of a star Chaplin was becoming.  There’s also a moment in the film where Chaplin drops a banana peel and then slips on it, which one source I read said was the first time that joke was done on film, but I have trouble believing that.  Another source points to the Harold Lloyd short “The Flirt,” but that was made two years later so that can’t be right.  The joke was a staple in vaudeville going back to at least the 19th century and I doubt the film medium went fifteen years without capturing it.  I’m guessing it would have first been used in some lost film not involving one of these famous comedians, but who knows maybe it was Chaplin.

His Regeneration (5-7-1915)

This is a bit of an oddity in that it is a film that was not directed by Charlie Chaplin and does not star him, so why is it part of this series?  Well it does feature Charlie Chaplin in a fairly short cameo at the beginning and Flicker Alley has opted to include it in the set and a sort of bonus curio.  The film stars a guy named Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson, one of the founders of Essanay Studios, who was one of the first Western stars in film history and Chaplin’s inclusion in this film was a sort of crossover attempt… so I guess you can credit Chaplin with inventing the idea of the Cinematic Universe as well.  This film is not a western and is instead more of a sort of crime movie where some criminal get into a fight over a girl in a dancehall.  Chaplin is there at the beginning as one of the people partying at the bar and it’s very much a walk-on cameo, but Chaplin does spring off the screen when he shows up.  As for the rest of the movie… it’s not bad or anything.  It’s a serviceable example of what a one-reel drama would look like circa 1915, but it’s definitely not something to seek out unless you’re a Chaplin completist or you just want to get a bit more of an insight into what this short lived early film studio was all about.

Work (6-21-1915)

Chaplin made the first seven Essanay films at a breakneck pace.  They were released over the course of just three months and while they were probably filmed over a slightly longer period than that they were clearly being rushed.  That kind of pace was what Chaplin was trying to escape when he left Keystone so once he’d proven himself at Essany he put his foot down and insisted that he be allowed to stick strictly to two-reel films and that he have two months to make each of them.  Today that would still be considered an insane timetable but at the time that was considered quite the luxury.  His first film under the new timetable certainly shows the advantages of the extra time.  The film has Chaplin working as an assistant to a house painter, which as you can probably guess is basically an excuse for him to cause some chaos.  The film starts with Chaplin pulling the painter around in a sort of rickshaw, which leads to a great stunt sequence where he tries to pull this thing across a train track and up a hill only to fall down the hill and need to reposition his weight to make the thing pull correctly.  Then when they get to the work site things get very Three Stooges-Esque and eventually there’s paint splashed everywhere.  Not the most touching and introspective short, but Chaplin likely wanted to make sure he gave Essanay a hit in order to prove that this slower pace was worth it.

Continued in Part 2