Crash Course: Postwar Kurosawa

A while back I picked up my copy of Criterion’s Eclipse boxed set of the First Films of Akira Kurosawa and went through and analyzed each of those four films: Sanshiro Sugata, The Most Beautiful, Sanshiro Sugata Part II, and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail.  These movies were… interesting.  None of them were great films by any means, in fact I’d hesitate to call most of them “good,” but considering the circumstances under which they were made it was pretty remarkable that they got made at all.  In addition to Kurosawa’s own inexperience, the films had to contend with a wartime economy, military censorship, and demands for propagandistic content.  Overall, those four movies showed a young filmmaker in his early stages honing his skills and developing into a professional if not an artist.  However, my work was not done.  There’s another Kurosawa boxed set that had been sitting on my shelf unwatched: an earlier Eclipse set called Postwar Kurosawa which included five films made by Kurosawa shortly after the war, including three films made before his international breakthrough with Rashomon.

No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)

Kurosawa’s first post-war effort was a topical drama called No Regrets for Our Youth, which was about a group of young people who resisted the patriotic fervor of their surroundings through the war years.  The film focuses on a woman named Yukie (that she’s a woman is noteworthy as this and The Most Beautiful are the only Kurosawa movie with a female protagonist) over the course of a rather tumultuous decade and the fallout she encounters for holding liberal views in the wake of nationalist militarism.  In these early postwar years Kurosawa had to answer to a new censorship regime, that of the Allied Occupation Force, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of guessing to see why this story would appeal to their interests.  I do not, however, get the impression that Kurosawa was ordered to make this as propaganda.  I’m sure that if he had wanted to make an innocuous entertainment he could have, instead he was tackling the politics of the day head on in a way that he mostly wouldn’t later on in his career.  If the censors had any negative effect on the production it was probably to force Kurosawa to sand out a few of the story’s nuances and make him lay his message on a little thick in order to make it abundantly clear whose side he was on.

From a merely technical level this is clearly a step up from what Kurosawa was able to do during the war years.  The movie runs a full 110 minutes long, which is short by the standard of the director’s later films, but which is still a good half hour longer than his previous works.  The sets and costumes are also clearly a little more expensive, but more important is that this is a story with a lot more scope and ambition than anything he had attempted before.  I would like to say that the end of the war was all it took to turn Kurosawa into a master filmmaker and that this marked the beginning of his “classic” period, but that’s just not the case.  Instead what we see here is a pretty standard evolution of what we saw in the last boxed set.  Still, this is a good film set in an interesting time period and its box office success (it apparently sparked something of a catchphrase in postwar Japan where people were saying “no regrets for…” all sorts of things) almost certainly helped his career along as well.

*** out of Four

One Wonderful Sunday (1947)

Kurosawa’s second post-war effort (unless you count a collaborative oddity called Those Who Make Tomorrow, which Kurosawa would later shun) was One Wonderful Sunday, a smaller scale and more intimate work than No Regrets for Our Youth. The film focuses on Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) and Masako (Chieko Nakakita), a couple of young lovers who want to get married once they have a little more money but can’t at the moment because of the post-war economy. The film follows them over the course of a single day, a not so wonderful Sunday, which is their only day off. From here the film sort of takes on the “two lovers talk for a day while walking through a city” formula that Richard Linklater would use to such great effect in his “Before” trilogy, but there the focus is less on the couple and more on their surroundings. Post-war Tokyo is still bombed out, filled with orphans, and in some ways run by black-market gangsters who make things even more difficult than they have to be. As the couple goes through the movie they discuss their hopes and dreams and you do get the feeling that they can “make it” even as they constantly have the carpet pulled out from under them.

The focus the film has on the struggles of life in a post-war Axis city immediately recalls the neo-realist films that were being made in Italy around the same time as this, and I do think this was intentional. However, there are some clear stylistic differences. The film is not using non-actors for one thing, and its message is less overtly socialistic. What really sets it apart from those films is its finale, which breaks the fourth wall in a way that I don’t believe Kurosawa ever tried to do again. In this scene Kurosawa does something unusual with music and ends with one of the characters making an earnest plea directly to camera, a move that is somewhat reminiscent to a similar moment in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Kurosawa had intended this to be a moment where audiences would sort of interact with the screen, but this didn’t really happen and Kurosawa ultimately viewed the experiment as a failure. The rest of the film isn’t necessarily great, Kurosawa lays the pathos on a bit too thick and doesn’t really let you get to know much about the characters aside from the fact that they’re ordinary and likable, but it is still worth seeing if only for the glimpses of post-war Tokyo and to see Kurosawa’s skills continue to bud.

*** out of Four

Scandal (1950)

In 1950 Akira Kurosawa made two movies: Rashomon and Scandal. One of those movies became an international sensation, solidified Kurosawa as a world-class talent, and is considered an all-time classic today. The other one is Scandal. Scandal certainly isn’t a bad movie but it’s definitely not a film of the caliber one would expect from such an accomplished director. The film is largely about a painter who is falsely reported to be having an affair with a popular singer by a tabloid after he’s photographed visiting her in a hotel room. Angry about the ensuing scandal he decides to sue the tabloid and hires a down on his luck lawyer to represent him. I would say that the idea of an expose of tabloid culture was a fresher idea in 1950 than it is today but it really isn’t. We saw similar subject matter covered in Hollywood movies in the 30s… actually, come to think about it a lot of the beats in this movie are straight out of the Frank Capera playbook in a number of ways. When the down on his luck lawyer shows up the movie really plays into the melodrama in ways that will not be to everyone’s taste. Still, this is interesting as a sort of odd departure within Kurosawa’s filmography. It’s a movie that’s so odd that it has a subdued performance from Toshiro Mifune and a super broad performance from Takashi Shimura.

*** out of Four

The Idiot (1951)

Akira Kurosawa was on top of the world when Rashomon opened and all eyes were on his next project.  I’m not exactly sure when Kurosawa went into production on his follow-up film The Idiot or how much that film’s success in the West influenced Shochiku Studio’s decision to let him make his dream project of adapting Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot into a modern Japanese context, but the final film reeks of over-ambitious sophomore slump.  Before I get too deep into calling this movie a failure I should probably note that the movie as it was released and as it exists now is heavily compromised.  Kurosawa initially envisioned the film would be released in two parts with a collective running time of 265 minutes but after this cut was poorly received by a test audience the studio panicked and demanded that the film be cut down to a single 166 minute project.  The missing footage has been lost and there are hints here that if this missing hour and forty minutes could be found it may well be a relevatory discovery on a par with finding the missing footage from The Magnificent Ambersons.  As it stands The Idiot is not without its merits but it is definitely flawed.

In the first fifteen minutes or so I suspected that the way the film was cut down was going to be really choppy because the film was using a surprising number of title cards to forward the story, but they quit doing that after a little while the film does at least look fairly coherent.  I suspect (and this is sheer conjecture, I haven’t done any research on this or anything) that a lot of what’s missing in this cut of the movie are sub-plots which may not have directly influenced the primary story but which may have fleshed out the themes and put the story into a different context.  This seems like a mistake because the love triangle that the film chooses to focus on, when removed from that context, doesn’t really feel like it needs 166 minutes to play out.  By being shorter the film feels longer and the film’s psychology never really feels fully formed.  Visually the film holds up a lot better.  Kurosawa keenly decided to set the film at winter and make snow a major part of its backdrop, which makes sense given the Russian source material and the performances also hold up pretty well too.  I guess this is just one of those scarred projects that you don’t really feel is fair to judge.  I wouldn’t recommend the film to anyone who isn’t a hardcore Kurosawa completest, but it’s worth seeing if you’re a student of his work.

**1/2 out of Four

I Live in Fear (1955)

The last film in this eclipse set was a movie made in a very different period of Kurosawa’s career.  By 1955 Kurosawa’s reputation as a master filmmaker was already pretty firmly in place and he was just coming off making his most famous film Seven Samurai.  It is perhaps fitting that the last movie of the “Post-War Kurosawa” box would be a film that was made towards the end of what would be made about ten years after the end of the war and deal with the most impactful moment of the war on the Japanese mindset: the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.  The film concerns an old man who has become fixated on the threat of nuclear holocaust and is trying to sell off his factory and move his entire family to Brazil because he believes that will be the only safe place on Earth for some reason.  His grown children are not so fond of this idea and are suing to have him declared incompetent to run the family’s money.  The old man is actually played by a nearly unrecognizable Toshiro Mifune under quite a bit of makeup and Kurosawa’s other regular Takashi Shimura is also present as the arbitrator assigned to his case but that sub-plot is probably the weakest element of the film, as it’s a framing story that loses its usefulness as the movie goes on.  This is perhaps a movie that’s more interesting now than it would have been at the time.  What was once perhaps easy to see as a slightly on the nose exploration of a psychological undercurrent now seems like a fascinating insight into a culture’s psyche.  It is, however, certainly second tier Kurosawa and given that it was made later into his career than some of the other movies in the box it’s harder to simply write this off as a mere stepping stone.

***1/2 out of Five

In Conclusion

This is indeed a fascinating box set both historically and thematically.  The five films here not only show Kurosawa as he develops into the world-class filmmaker but also focuses in on the way he chose to look at the struggles Japan was going through in the wake of their post-war reconstruction.  Over the course of the set we see Kurosawa go from being a young upstart making his own riffs on Italian Neo-Realism to trying on certain Hollywood styles and finally trying to find ways to address domestic social problems while being a director the whole world was watching.  Granted, there is a reason why these particular movies are relegated to an Eclipse box rather than getting Criterion releases of their own.  Thematically and chronologically Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, and Ikiru could have easily fit in with these movies, but they are better works and have individual releases for a reason.  Still, they’re definitely must-sees for hard core Kurosawa fans, and all have their interesting moments for the more casual fans as well.

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The Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts(2/10/2017)

2-10-2017OscarShorts2017

The Academy Awards are such the perfect capper to a year of cinema that I’ve long enjoyed following them and the rest of award season even though I know it’s all silly at the end of the day.  Some years I get pretty deep into the horserace of it all and spend an inordinate amount of time trying to come up with predictions and to follow the narratives around each category.  One line I had not crossed up to now was seeking out the short films nominated each year just so I can have a better idea of how to predict those categories, but there’s a first time for everything.  Kidding aside, I didn’t really check these out just to win an Oscar pool.  Really I was just kind of curious what kinds of movies tend to show up in these categories and see if there were any gems in the bunch.  After all, the Best Short film category has at times featured early works by filmmakers who would go on to greater fame.  Previous winners and nominees in this category have included Martin McDonagh, Sean Ellis, Taika Waititi, Andrea Arnold, Peter Capaldi, and Taylor Hackford.

Now I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here because I don’t really watch a lot of short films, at least not a lot of short films from this century.  I’m not really sure how or why short films get made really.  There’s almost no commercial market for them to my knowledge and I don’t really know where they get their budgets from.  This is probably a big part of why every single one of the short films nominated this year are from Europe, where I’m guessing there are grants and public funding for this sort of thing.  In general I tend to view short films as either being a place to test out filmic experiments or to make what are sort of video resumes for young filmmakers trying to show their skill.  Most if not all of the shorts this year fall into the latter category, or at least feel like they do.  Most of them use fairly conventional narrative techniques and basically feel like miniature feature stories. Four of them run about a half hour with one exception which runs about fifteen minutes.  Two of the shorts are fairly serious and deal with topical subject matter, two tell quirky little stories, and one of them serves more as a sort of visual joke.  They’re being released theatrically by a company called ShortsHD, which I believe is also a niche cable network.  They’ve programed them into a no frills package and have ordered them so as to space out the different tones involved.  I’ll be discussing the films in the order presented by this theatrical exhibition.

Also, please note that when talking about movies with running times like this even talking about small plot points can be bigger spoilers than they would be when talking about longer works, so if you’re interested in actually watching these maybe be careful about reading.

 

Mindenki (Sing)

The first film presented is “Sing,” which is a Hungarian short made by a guy named Kristóf Deák, who appears to have been making shorts at least since 2008.  The film follows a elementary aged girl named Zsofi (Dorka Gáspárfalvi) who is the new kid at a school and is interested in joining the school’s award winning choir, but when she gets there she’s told by the dominating choir director Miss Erika (Zsófia Szamosi) that she didn’t have quite the chops to live up to the choir’s reputation and that she should mime singing instead of actually vocalizing so she doesn’t bring the rest of the choir down with her.  So, basically we have the ambition of a young aspiring musician clashing with a dictatorial instructor who puts being number one above the needs of their students… in other words it’s Whiplash with children and less shouting.  Of the five nominees this is probably the cleanest and most concise.  It’s exactly the kind of story that feels at home in this thirty minute format and it feels neither rushed nor stretched out and while the story feels a little simple there are some layers there.  The dictatorial choir teacher does make a few legit points in defense of what she’s doing and it is interesting seeing her try to manipulate these children into following her lead because they don’t really have the sophistication to debate her.

My Grade: B+

Its Oscar Chances: I’d say this one is a bit of a dark horse.  It lacks the weight and political heft of a couple of the other nominees and might not stand out as much and it isn’t comedic like two of the other choices, but voters looking for a nice Goldilocks balance might go for it.

 

Silent Nights

The second film presented gets a lot more serious as it, like a number of the films in the various specialized categories this year, focuses on matters of immigration in Europe.  It’s called “Silent Nights” and hails from Denmark and was directed by the (awesomely named) Aske Bang.  The film follows a Ghanaian man named Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah) who has been living on the streets of Copenhagen and meets a young and slightly naïve homeless shelter worker named Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen).   Of the five films this one is probably the most densely packed and feels most like a condensed feature film, but not necessarily in a bad way.  Where it falters is that it does not really examine these issues of immigration with a whole lot of subtlety and feels more like the work of someone who’s learned about the struggles facing immigrants from reading the newspaper than from someone who really knows what that life is like.  Every time that Kwame faces racism it comes in the form of either nationalist thugs on the verge of committing full on hate crimes or old people willing to drop full on racial slurs and the film never really examines the less obvious and more institutional forms of prejudice that are likely the more pressing threats that he’s likely to face.  Beyond that there’s kind of just a feeling to it of a young director who’s working a little too hard to try to make certain things feel “gritty.”  On the bright side I found the acting here to be quite good and the relationship between Kwame and Inger felt a lot more natural than it could have.

My Grade: B-

Its Oscar Chances: I’d say it has a legit shot.  Its density could work to its benefit as it plays more like a complete film than some of the other nominees and the fact that it deals with serious issues will help it, especially considering that it does so with more uplift and hope than the other “serious” nominee this year. Also, if you look behind the curtain you learn that the film’s producer/co-nominee Kim Magnusson actually has a pretty long history in this category having been nominated five times in the past and won twice.

 

Timecode

It’s not hard to see why “Timecode” was programed as the middle movie in this block.  It effectively provides a respite between the two “heavy” shorts and it also wouldn’t exactly be the appropriate short to either get the ball rolling on things or send people out of the theater.  At fifteen minutes it’s about half the length of the other four shorts and it’s also the least dialogue driven and most overtly comedic even if it isn’t necessarily going for laughs per se.  Made in Spain by a guy named Juanjo Giménez, the film is about a pair of bored security guards in commercial parking ramp who find a way to pass the time by passing security cam time codes to one another where they’re dancing on camera.  Of the five films here this is the one I had pegged more than the others of being a film by a hotshot out of film school trying to show off his skills behind the camera.  Researching after the fact this proved to not be true.  Juanjo Giménez appears to actually be quite a bit older than his competitors being a man in his fifties who appears to have been working as a producer going back to the 90s. Timecode is very much a light hearted formal exercise that almost could have been made as a silent film if the people involved had been so inclined.  I’m not sure the payoff lands quite as well as the filmmakers thought it would but it it’s a fun little film just the same.

My Grade: B

Its Oscar Chances: While a number of these films have won various festival awards Timecode is the only one that can say that it won the Short Film Palme d’Or and much like the films that win the feature Palm d’Or it brags about this in a title card in front of the film.  The film’s other big asset is that it stands out from the other four in its brevity and its entertainment value.  If the people inclined to vote longer and more serious fare split their votes between the other four nominees this one could benefit.

 

Ennemis intérieurs (Enemies Within)

The fourth film here and the second to deal with issues of immigration is “Enemies Within” from the French filmmaker Sélim Azzazi takes the form of a man with Algerian roots doing an interview in order to gain official French citizenship after having lived in France for most of his life.  However, the interview takes a bit of a turn at a certain point and suddenly becomes a lot more hostile than you expect it to.  The whole process does a pretty good job of illustrating how much immigrants are sort of at the mercy of bureaucracies that are not always working in their best interests.  Hassam Ghancy and Najib Oudghiri do a very good job of portraying the interviewee and interviewer respectively and the tension in the scenes between them is quite good.  The positioning of the film as a series of conversations does work well for the short film format and we do come to learn a lot about the guy over the course of the short.  Oddly, the film is actually set in the 90s, possibly to allow for the protagonist to have been born prior to the Algerian revolution, but it certainly looks and feels like a film that’s set today.  I think the movie sort of loses steam a bit as it goes and leads up to an ending that doesn’t have quite the impact it’s supposed to, but it does certainly have a lot going for it just the same.

My Grade: B+

Its Oscar Chances: This one might be where the smart money is.  It’s got the best odds on Goldderby.com and people looking for weightier and more topical material would probably gravitate towards it, although it along with “Sing” probably have the least showy visual aesthetic and that could hurt it a little.

 

La Femme et le TGV (The Woman and the TGV)

First thing’s first: TGV stands for “Train à Grande Vitesse” which means “High Speed Train” and refers to the bullet trains which go between France and its border countries.  This Swiss short looks in on the life of an eccentric woman who owns a boutique bakery and whose main hobby seems to be timing her day to wave a Swiss flag at TGVs as they pass by her home and depicts what she goes through when she becomes pen pals with the engineer of one of the trains.  It’s apparently based on a real story and they show some documentary footage of the real lady at the end, but it certainly feels pretty fanciful during the film.  The film was directed by a guy named Timo von Gunten, who at twenty seven years old is (I think) the youngest of the directors here but has already been tapped to direct a feature film called “Eifel” about the life of a famous Czech conman named Victor Lustig.  The film also sports the one famous actor of the bunch in the form of Jane Birkin, who plays the titular woman and plays her pretty well.  All that having been said this feels like the lease distinguished of the five films here to me.  Gunten never quite humanizes his protagonist and late in the film where it’s suggested that this experience improves her life it doesn’t quite seem earned.  Beyond that the movie just kind of tries to coast on its own quirkiness but really just kind of collapses under it.

My Grade: C

Its Oscar Chances: This one seems like a bit of a longshot, but maybe that’s my own bias talking.  The presence of Jane Birkin could turn some eybrows and it may also appeal to some of the… young at heart… Academy members that tend to disproportionately vote in these specialty categories.  This isn’t the Documentary Short category and the movies that win are not necessarily the heaviest or the most artistic.  If this gives some voters “feels” that could propel it.

 

Final Thoughts

All in all I found this roster of shorts to be solid but a little underwhelming.  The movies are all pretty solidly in the B- to B+ range and none of them every really jumped out at me as being particularly inspired.  I think my favorite out of the lot might actually be “Sing” simply because it seemed most able to get its story across within the time limitations and with the fewest missteps.  That said, if you’re not obsessing over the Oscars and aren’t that interested in winning an Oscar pool I don’t know that I’d recommend going out of your way to see these really.  Of course the irony to all this is that I’ve kind of come away from this with legitimate arguments for any one of the five winning this thing but as of now (and I reserve the right to change my mind before Oscar night) I’m predicting Silent Nights.

For the record, I’m probably not going to be doing the same for the Animated category.  I’ve already seen two of them and I don’t feel like paying to just see three others, especially given that two of them are only ten minutes each.  As for the documentary short category, if you know where to look four of the five are available for streaming.

Crash Course: Misguided Horror Sequels

For Halloween I decided I wanted to do a special horror movie crash course, but rather than seek out movies that are like, good, this seemed like a decent opportunity to indulge in some crap that I’m perversely curious about.  Even more than most genres horror movies seem to be astonishingly sequel prone.  Hell, outside of the occasional Stephen King adaptation I can hardly think of a moderately successful horror movie in the last forty or fifty years that hasn’t been wrung dry by multiple sequels and/or remakes.  Even horror movies that didn’t seem to do that great in the first place somehow end up with numerous direct to video sequels.  What I intend to look at here are the sequels that seem particularly egregious either because they were sequels to movies that seem like should be above such treatment or they seem like movies that really left very little room for the story to continue.

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

MHSExorcistIIIf ever there was a horror movie that probably never should have been revisited it was probably The Exorcist both because it was an Oscar nominated classic and also because its ending was very specifically supposed to have this aura of ambiguity.  However, the fact remains that the movie was a huge box office hit and the franchise was a potential source of revenue that was not going to go untapped even if William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty wanted nothing to do with it.  To their credit, they didn’t just rush out a cheap sequel; they brought in John Boorman, a director who was pretty close to being on William Friedkin’s level and also managed to hire Richard Burton to star and Ennio Morricone to compose the score and also brought back Linda Blair and Max Von Sydow to reprise their roles (the later in a couple of flashbacks).  Someone really wanted this to be a worthy follow-up, unfortunately they really had no idea where to steer the story and the resulting movie is both kind of insane and also rather boring.

The movie starts off somewhat promisingly with a moderately interesting scene where Burton uses a hypnosis device to get into Regan’s head and watch a sort of flashback to the first movie that’s shot in an interesting way.  From there though the whole thing just gets really weird and the rules of demonic possession get increasingly confused.  The mere fact that the demon Pazuzu (whose name is said out loud a lot in the movie) is still buried somewhere deep down in Regan kind of contradicts the ending of the original movie and seems to suggest that Father Karras’ death was in vain.  Then there’s the finale which involves doppelgangers coming out of nowhere, magical car accidents, and a whole lot of locusts for some reason.  I guess the movie’s biggest sin though is that it seems bizarrely unconcerned with being scary at all and spends more time trying to tell Father Merrin’s backstory than build actual suspense.  I’ve heard that The Exorcist 3, which was made by William Peter Blatty and ignores this movie, is actually pretty decent so maybe the very concept of making a sequel to The Exorcist wasn’t completely DOA from the get go, but this movie certainly does it wrong.

Psycho II (1983)

MHSPsychoIIPsycho II is a little different from the other misguided horror sequels I’m looking at this month, in part because it didn’t come out hot on the heels of the success of its predecessor and in part because the movie it was following up was already seen as stone cold classic by a titan of filmmaking when someone dared to continue the story of Norman Bates.  Made about 23 years after the Hitchcock classic and directed by a guy named Richard Franklin (who had earlier directed the Quentin Tarantino approved Ozploitation film Patrick) and seemed to be an attempt to use the newly popular language of the slasher horror film to revisit the film that some would say helped to invent that genre.  This version was of course in color and had more graphic violence and nudity, but the film did maintain some ties to the original, namely that it was shot on some of the same sets (the Bates house apparently still sits on the Universal lot to this day) and most importantly the producers were able to get Anthony Perkins to reprise his most iconic role.

From the outside everything about this project seemed to be a rather ridiculous cash grab, but I will say the actual movie does feel a little more respectful than I expected.  The recreated sets are cool to see and the actual murder scenes are fairly inventive at times and do maintain a sort of Hitchcockian ingenuity at times.  However, where the original film is in many ways timeless the sequel feels very much like a product of its time, especially when it comes to most of the supporting performances.  The bigger problem though is the script.  The story here is that Bates has been released from the psychiatric institution after twenty years and has returned to his original home/motel (which is kind of ridiculous given that this home would be all kinds of triggering) only to see people suddenly getting murdered and the movie plays with the question of whether Bates has returned to his murderous ways or if he’s being gaslighted by someone else.  I’ll give the filmmakers credit for actually coming up with a new story rather than simply doing a retread of the first film, but what they’ve given us is rather convoluted and messy.  Still, I must say, if you’re going to make a sequel to Psycho you can probably do a whole lot worse than this.  Maybe it’s ridiculously low expectations at work but the mere fact that this is a fairly watchable movie that more or less works seems like quite the achievement given everything working against it.

3-5_zpswmhmrc3s

Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)

MHSPoltergeistIIThe original Poltergeist is one of those movies that was a pretty big hit from the get-go but which has only become bigger and bigger in the years since, especially now that it is clearly one of the top five movies that influenced Super 8 and “Stranger Things.”  Its sequels on the other hand… are movies that a sizable number of the original film’s fans might not even know exist.  Poltergeist II actually made decent money when it came out, or at least it made back double its budget and was considered successful enough to warrant a second sequel but I feel like very few people remember or care about this movie.  While the movie has close to double the budget of its predecessor it definitely has the feel of a cash in.  Most of the cast has returned with the obvious exception of Dominique Dunne (who had already become the first victim of the supposed “Poltergeist Curse”) but the talent behind the camera was much different.  The original Poltergeist was very much the product of the collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper (despite the many efforts to deemphasize the contributions of the latter) and it’s that tension between family movie uplift and hardcore horror that made it so special.

For the sequel neither Spielberg not Hooper have credits either as directors or as producers.  In their place is some guy named Brian Gibson.  If you’ve never heard of that guy it’s because you have little reason to.  He directed What’s Love Got to Do With It and about a half dozen other movies that no one cares about and as far as I can tell none of them are horror movies and none of them have very high production values.  You can tell the drop in talent because this sequel clearly seems to know the elements that people liked in the original but has none of the skill and rhythm necessary to make those elements work.  The family has managed to become a whole lot less interesting this time around, in part because their character arcs were all resolved in the last movie and they had nowhere to go.  There are two new characters (played by people who would be victims two and three of the supposed Poltergeist curse) who at least seem promising at first but are both kind of wasted as the film goes on.  One is a creepy reverend guy who sort disappears half way through and the other is a Native American shaman and the depiction of him is… I’m not going to use the “R” word and I’m not even going to drop “problematic” because I do think everyone involved had good intentions but there’s definitely some “noble savage” stuff going on and the whole thing just seems inaccurate and weird.  Then of course there’s the finale which consists of some very bad green screen effects and really an abundance of bad visual effects combined with no grasp of tone or atmosphere can be blamed for a lot of what makes the whole movie decidedly not scary.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

MHSTExasChainsaw2Out of all the movies I’m looking at for this series The Texas Chainsaw Massacre probably makes the most sense as a film to make a sequel of given that it was essentially a slasher film (the horror sub-genre most prone to sequels) and also because the original film ended with its iconic killer alive and well and ready to cause more chaos.  What’s more this is the one sequel I’m looking at which has the privilege of having been made by the original film’s director: Tobe Hooper.  And yet, this still seems like a rather crazy film to be making a good decade after the fact, in part because that original film seemed to almost be a happy accident born of a production so cheap that it almost had to have a certain gonzo realism to it.  It’s the kind of thing you just can’t recreate.  Tobe Hooper seemed to understand this as well, so in many ways he actually didn’t try to make another film like the original and instead went in something of a different direction.  Where the original film was grim the sequel is darkly comedic, where the original was made on a shoestring the sequel is actually a decent sized production (as these things go), and where the original film wasn’t nearly as gory as its title would imply, this sequel is a total gorefest that needed to be released unrated when it came out in 1986.

The film picks up some time after the ending of the original movie with the cannibalistic family from the first movie having escaped police investigation and having relocated elsewhere.  The heroine of the first movie is nowhere to be seen and in her place we follow a radio DJ who has gotten involved in one of their murders and become a target of their wrath.  One of the major ways in which this sequel differ from the original is that it has a movie star in it in the form of one Dennis Hopper as a former Texas Ranger hunting down the cannibals and he seems even more unhinged than usual.  1986 was a big year for Hopper, it saw him earn an Oscar nomination for Hoosiers and earn a lot of cinematic street cred for his prominent appearance in Blue Velvet, and this performance is somehow even bigger and crazier than his work in that movie.  The film also features Bill Mosley playing a character not unlike the hitchhiker from the first movie via a performance that almost certainly inspired the general tone and attitude of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, in fact this movie may well have had more of an influence on Zombie than the original.  Whether or not you consider this movie to be “good” will probably depend in what you’re looking for in it.  If you want a credible horror film likely to actually scare anyone, maybe stick with the original, the sequel by contrast is meant to be this insane romp filled with ridiculous images and ideas and for what it is it’s actually pretty well made.  Put it this is a movie that has Dennis Hopper pulling out a chainsaw and using it to fight Leatherface as if the two are swordfighting with chainsaws, then lodges said chainsaw in Leatherface’s stomach and pulls out two smaller chainsaws which he proceeds to dual wield… if that sentence sounds appealing to you give this movie a watch… possibly while a little drunk.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

MHSBlairWitch2This deservedly ignored and forgotten sequel to The Blair Witch Project was made over a decade after all the other “misguided horror sequels” I’m looking at for this series, which probably reflects how devoid the 90s were of horror movies that were special enough to seem like they shouldn’t be crassly exploited.  It is of course a uniquely insane movie for someone to try to make a sequel to given how minimalist and unique the first film was: to try to make something bigger and better would go against everything that made the first film work.  Original directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez were reluctant to rush out a sequel, so Artisan Entertainment instead hired Joe Berlinger a documentarian best known at the time for the “Paradise Lost” films, which is an interesting choice except that this sequel completely eschews the mockumentary style of the original film.  Instead the filmmakers here have decided to take a rather meta approach.   In the reality of the events of the original film did not happen and The Blair Witch Project exists as the fictional movie that it was and the film deals with a group of fans of the film who travel out to the woods where it was filmed when weird stuff starts happening to them.

I had held out some hope that this sequel would have been some sort of misunderstood gem that was unfairly criticized for trying to do something different… but no, this really is a debacle.  If I squint hard enough I can maybe envision a scenario in which the basic premise of this movie could work, but it’s clear that in the studio’s rush to get the movie out before the buzz around the original wore off they did not give it anywhere near enough time to cook and we’re left with a rather muddled movie.  Beyond that, this is just poorly made in all the usual ways that half-assed horror movies are bad.  The movie has approximately 250 times the budget of the original movie and yet still looks incredibly cheap and unlike the first movie it doesn’t have a good reason to look cheap.  It’s also got an incredibly unlikable cast of stock horror victims played by a bunch of nobodies who give generally terrible performances.  Honestly I’m shocked that this thing even got a theatrical release.  Everything about it screams “direct-to-video” and the whole thing suggests that Artisan Entertainment (who reportedly took the film away from Berlinger and made it worse than it probably would have been) had no idea what made the original thing such a special phenomenon.

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Crash Course: A Ken Loach Survey

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One of the most prolific and long lasting forces in British cinema has been Ken Loach and yet there’s something about his work that seems oddly… avoidable.  The dude manages to show up at the Cannes Film Festival with every single one of his films and manages to get reviews that are respectful yet also kind of board, as if he’s been coasting largely on reputation for a while, but it doesn’t really seem like a case of diminishing returns either because his older films also kind of seem to blend together in the popular consciousness.  If I were to compare his reputation to a musician it would probably be to someone like Nick Cave or Spoon who consistently put out strong work and have their fans while never really having that classic album or hit single that stands out and makes people gravitate towards it.  Personally, the only Ken Loach films I’d seen were 1970’s Kes, which is probably his one film that stands out as his most famous, and 2007’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley for which he won his first Palme d’Or.  The former movie didn’t really live up to its reputation for me, but I quite liked The Wind That Shakes the Barley.  Given that Loach has just won his second Palme for the upcoming I, Daniel Blake and that there’s a new documentary about his work coming out I think the time is right to finally brush up on the guy’s work.  It should be noted that because his movies tent to not really come in peaks and valleys it’s kind of hard to pick out which of his films are the most essential viewing and I’m also kind of hampered by the selection of films that’s available through Netflix and similar sources but I’ve tried to come up with films that are representative of various eras in his career.

Cathy Come Home (1966)

KLCathyComeHomeKen Loach began his career in television where he worked on a celebrated TV series in the 60s called “The Wednesday Play,” which was a sort of anthology series of self-contained teleplays which usually focused on various social issues.  His true breakthrough was with an episode of the series, essentially a short TV-movie, called Cathy Come Home which was a huge phenomenon when it broadcast in 1966.  This broadcast was so widely seen that it was estimated that a quarter of the UK population watched it and it would eventually led to debate on the floor of Parliament.  Now normally in these kinds of articles and writings I disqualify TV-films on principal but this one seems to really be punching above its weight class.  The film is about 75 minutes long, which is on the lower end of what could be called a feature film and is a lot more ambitious and better produced than “60s English teleplay” would leave you to believe.  Ignore the “Wednesday Play” moniker of the series because this is clearly shot on location and doesn’t feel stagey at all and even uses some fairly innovative documentary style handheld photography and gritty 16mm photography.  The topic of the film was homelessness, but not really the kind of homelessness you usually think of.  No one in this movie is living under a bridge or anything like that and there’s no drug addiction or mental illness involved.  Rather this is about how a middle class family find themselves in a bad financial situation after the man of the house is injured in a work accident and they fall behind on the rent and end up evicted.  From there the family, specifically the mother Cathy, finds themselves drifting from one temporary housing situation to the next.  This was all exasperated by a general housing crisis that was occurring at the time in Britain and the film focused in on the variety of ways that the system and the public failed this couple.

Ken Loach was of course a committed socialist who mostly made social realist movies with openly activist intentions.  With this one he is very clearly trying to both point out flaws in the system while also creating characters that the average audience member can both relate to and sympathize with.  On both of these fronts the film is definitely a success.  It’s style is also really above and beyond what you’d expect given the film’s origins.  Clearly this has its origins in the British “Kitchen Sink/Angry Young Men” movement but the addition of the handheld semi-documentary style made it distinct from something like Look Back in Anger or The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.  The one place where the film’s TV origins probably did hurt it was in the limited running time.  In many ways the film feels a bit rushed with the characters making pretty big life adjustments over the course of some rather short scenes.  At times the film goes so far as to add voiceover to the scene transitions just to save that extra little bit of time.  An extra half hour of film time really would have given the movie time to breath but there probably are advantages to its brevity and fast pace as well.  The only other thing I might object to, and I’ve heard this can generally be a problem with Loach’s cinema, is that he kind of makes certain bureaucrats into the face of everything wrong with the system as if they’re the ones making the rules and underfunding these programs.  Granted this is probably true to how his characters are seeing things but if you’re going to shoot, aim for the politicians in charge not the middle management people just trying to do their job.  Aside from that though this is a pretty big win and I can totally see why this would have felt downright revolutionary if it were broadcast on television in the 60s.

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Looks and Smiles (1981)

KLLooksandSmilesGiven his age and his prolific output I always assumed that Ken Loach would have put out a ton of movies during the 70s and 80s, especially given the economic troubles for the UK during the former decade and the Thatcherism that was taking over in the later decade, but that isn’t the case at all.   I don’t know all the details but apparently he had a lot of trouble getting funding during this era in spite of the success of Kes and ended up focusing a lot of his attention to TV documentaries.  As such the guy was only able to make four feature length scripted movies between 1970 and 1989 and few of them are seen as among his best.  Looks and Smiles is one of those movies and had it not been one of the only options from this era that was available I probably wouldn’t have picked it for this retrospective but them’s the breaks.  This a small film that was shot in black and white, probably for financial rather than artistic reasons, and basically just follows a young man from a working class family as he deals with trying to find a job in a bad economy while also dealing with the usual problems that 20-somethings have to deal with.  The film isn’t trying to trace out the roots of all this guy’s problems the way that Cathy Come Home did and it isn’t pleading for change in the same way either.  This is trying for a bit of a softer sell.  It wants to simply give the “posh” audience more of an idea what the working class lives like and create a little bit of empathy along the way.  There’s a reason why this movie isn’t particularly remembered today or widely cited within Loach’s career, there’s nothing wildly wrong about it but nothing about it that really stands out and makes it memorable.

Hidden Agenda (1990)

KLHiddenAgendaHidden Agenda was essentially Ken Loach’s comeback film and while it wasn’t exactly a blockbuster it did seem to successfully relaunch his career and start him on the track of making a new film seemingly every other year at least.  Interestingly this is not necessarily a particularly representative example of Loach’s filmmaking as it is in some ways the closest that he’s ever gotten to selling out.  Obviously Loach was never going to sacrifice his principals and this movie is indeed just as fearlessly political as anything else he’s done but in some ways this was Loach’s one attempt (that I know of) to make his work a bit more appealing to Hollywood.  Whereas many Loach films either feature non-actors or extremely obscure ones, this one is populated by known names like Brian Cox, Frances McDormand, and Brad Dourif.  More notable however is that the film incorporates thriller elements into its narrative.  Now to be clear, it isn’t like this is a movie with car chases or explosions and largely consists of conversations, but compared to the working class slice of life narratives we’re used to seeing from him it practically feels like a Bourne movie.

The film follows a British investigator who has been tasked with investigating the murder of an American human rights lawyer who was murdered while investigating human rights violations by British officials during “the troubles.”  The investigator soon determines that both were killed by British cops but must also uncover how far up the ladder this goes and what the conspiracy entails.  With The Wind That Shakes the Barley Ken Loach would eventually examine the historical roots of the IRA and did it by focusing on the people it affected.  I suspect that’s the way he would have preferred to examine the struggle here but instead he takes more of a top down approach by making a sort of thriller about outsiders investigating the conflict.  As a movie that does that, this is pretty good just the same.  The movie seems to be modeled after other “righteously searching for the truth” movies like Z and Missing and Brian Cox is certainly effective as a determined investigator and some of the scenes where he’s arguing with people involved with the conspiracy.  However, the case at the film’s center is not wildy interesting and the conspiracy it uncovers seems to level some oddly specific accusations at the Thatcher government for a film that doesn’t claim to be “based on a true story.”  Also the ending is awkwardly abrupt.  Loach is clearly out of his comfort zone here but he does a pretty admirable job of delivering a decent move all the same and if this is what he had to do to get back in the good graces of the financers there are certainly less dignified ways he could have done it.

Raining Stones (1993)

KLRainingStonesKen Loach’s follow-up to Hidden Agenda is a very well regarded 1991 film called Riff Raff (not available through Netflix) and his next film was this lower key work called Raining Stones which I wanted to see in order to get a more representative example of his work in the 90s.  Like Looks and Smiles this is more of a slice of life “soft sell” that’s trying to create empathy for the working class rather than throw bombs at the causes of oppression but there’s more of a story arc this time around.  This one is about a catholic man who feels a great deal of pressure to buy an expensive First Communion dress for his daughter.  Unable to find the funds through conventional means he makes a series of unfortunate decisions which end up with him in debt to a brutal loan shark who ends up being a much bigger strain on the family than their initial predicament.  A bit like Cathy Come Home this is a movie about how quickly things can go wrong for families that aren’t terribly well off and how much of a burden a single “splurge” can be for them.  It took a while for me to warm up to this one in part because the characters don’t immediately strike fascination and also the productions values have clearly gone down a bit (which is exasperated by a rather poor DVD presentation) but once the loan shark enters into the picture and the stakes become more tangible the movie does begin to pick up.  It’s not exactly a standalone classic but it does seem to be a logical entry into Loach’s larger body of work.

Sweet Sixteen (2002)

KLSweetSixteenOne thing I’ve noticed while looking at this sample of Ken Loach’s filmography is that he doesn’t confine himself to any one section of the British Isles.  Just in this one sample we’ve seen London, Sheffield, North Ireland, Greater Manchester, and this film brings us to Scotland.  Our subject is a troubled 15 year old boy who, were he living in the United States, would likely be labeled as “white trash.”  His mother is in jail, her boyfriend appears to be a petty criminal, he doesn’t seem to be in school, and he and his friends have taken to selling untaxed cigarettes in order to make money.  The film depicts this young man going deeper into crime as he attempts to save up money to buy a home the he and his mother can move into when she’s released from prison.  It probably doesn’t take a lot of close analysis to realize that Ken Loach and Brian De Palma are not very similar in style and sensibility but comparing the rise of this kid with the rise of Scarface would still be amusing.  Any romance one could potentially see in using crime as a means of rising above one’s means is gone here in place of a more realistic and kind of pathetic portrait of what it’s like to be forced into crime.  Loach’s style is once again minimalistic and it’s interesting how little his visual eye seems to change over the years.  This was made almost a decade after Raining Stone and yet you wouldn’t really know that if not for a few soundtrack choices, which (taken with the rest of Loach’s filmography) maybe says something about how slowly things change.

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Jimmy’s Hall (2014)

Jimmy's Hall_OnesheetFINAL4915.inddKen Loach’s 2014 effort Jimmy’s Hall was rumored to be his final film when it came out (a rumor that proved to be rather false) and given that it was often interpreted to be the work of someone who wanted to go out on a slightly more optimistic note than what we frequently see from him.  The film is set in Ireland in 1932 and could be seen a s spiritual sequel of sorts to his Palme d’Or winning 2007 film The Wind That Shakes the Barley in that it deals with the aftermath of the civil war that was seen in that previous film.  The film focuses in on this small Irish town where a local hero of sorts named Jimmy Gralton has returned after spending some time in New York and is welcomed back by much of the community.  Soon he begins erecting a building that becomes a dancehall and gathering place for the locals, much to the disgust of the local priest who views Gralton as a socialist and a troublemaker and sees this dancehall as a threat to his authority.  As this is a period piece you’ll notice a clear improvement in production values over some of the other Ken Loach movies and this also has less of a “slice of life” feel.  The story is largely about just how hard it is for leftist speakers to even get the slightest foothold and how hard it is to go up against the powers that be even when you’re not even trying to threaten them.  The film is based on a true story and doesn’t necessarily look at its central figure with a whole lot of nuance.  Throughout the film Jimmy is seen as a total mensch and his dancehall as a grandly beneficial project for the people of this town and the priest is a total uptight asshole (very different from the priest in Raining Stone) and that simplicity does kind of keep the movie from greatness, but there is a definite charm to the proceedings just the same.  If this had indeed been Loach’s final movie it wouldn’t have necessarily been an unworthy one, but it also certainly wouldn’t have been his best.

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So, I’ve now seen 400% more Ken Loach movies than I had when I started this little project and yet I still don’t feel like I’ve gone all that deep into the guy’s body of work; this one truly felt like an introductory survey.  Still, I think I do have a slightly better grasp of his career trajectory and his usual style.  It is weird that the best of the movies I watched here is probably the TV film that first made him famous and it is notable that, while I gave none of the movies failing grades, none of them really excelled either.  But the actual grades might be a bit misleading.  As I suspected when I first went into this, Ken Loach is indeed someone who is perhaps more notable as a filmmaker when you look at the complete body of work than he necessarily is when looking at individual films.  This isn’t ideal but it isn’t a deal breaker either.   I definitely look forward to seeing I, Daniel Blake, which sounds like it might be one of his best yet if the Cannes awards are any indication and I might just do a second crash course in his work someday, especially if some of his other notable films become more readily available.

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

 

 

 

Crash Course: The Films of Xavier Dolan

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Part of getting older is realizing that your age is no longer the main reason you don’t have a long list of wonderful accomplishments under your belt and the first thing that makes you realize this is when you start to notice people who are about your age or even younger than you but who still have careers that have accomplished more than you likely ever will.  For instance, there’s this French Canadian guy named Xavier Dolan who has already directed five fully produced feature length films and won a major award at the Cannes Film Festival despite being about twenty seven years old.  I’ve had a fifteen month head start on life over this guy and in the same span of time I’ve successfully started a seldom read movie blog, accumulated a semi respectable number of Letterboxd followers, and beaten a decent number of video games… yeah, maybe this is the wrong person to play “keeping up with the Joneses with.”  In my defense, Dolan did benefit from quite a bit of privileged along the way.  His father was an actor with a a bit of sway in the Canadian entertainment industry (dude apparently voiced Rodrigo Borgia in “Assassins Creed II”) and he used his connections to give his son a career as a child actor who performed in a number of Quebecois voice dubs of major Hollywood films (he’s apparently the French-Canadian voice of Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter series).  As such he had a lot of connections and money to parlay into his directing career… but there are a lot of child stars and rich kids out there, they don’t all end up winning the Grand Prix at major film festivals.  One way or another I had to figure out what was making this dude’s filmmaking was all about before he got even more famous.

I Killed My Mother (2009)

DolanIKilledMyMotherXavier Dolan’s first film was released in 2009 when he would have been 20, meaning he must have been as young as 19 when he made it and even younger when he was first writing it.  This is an important thing to note because the film wasn’t some kind of genre exercise; it was a piece of personal filmmaking that Dolan has claimed to be semi-autobiographical.  The thing about that is when you’re an upper middle class 19 year old the only real life experiences you’re likely to be able to draw on are your experiences being a bratty teenager and that is largely what this movie is about.  Specifically the movie is about the various conflicts between Dolan’s surrogate and his mother. Before you ask, no, the title is not literal but there are certainly a number of screaming matches between the two over issues that seem kind of trivial to the outside observer.  I don’t want to say that the mother is completely blameless in all of this as she does provoke some of this tension needlessly and could probably have stood to have a little more empathy for how some of the things she does would come off to an immature teenage mind, but she isn’t abusive or anything and if anything seemed downright permissive from my perspective and the protagonist’s anger towards her mostly seems irrational from the outside looking in.  It’s not entirely clear how much Dolan expects us to agree with this protagonist’s disdain for his mother.  There are certainly moments in the movie that seem to suggest that he understands that this woman is doing the best she can, but he also doesn’t seem too interested in judging his younger self for his immaturity and one’s tolerance for the movie will largely depend on their willingness to go along with this character’s kind of whiney worldview.  Either way this is not bad for an indie debut.  Probably more of a festival type movie than the kind of thing I’d recommend to people who aren’t film devotees, but Dolan has a clear sense of how to block out a scene and the performances are pretty good for a film made at this level.

Hearbeats (2010)

DolanHeartbeatsHaving gotten his semi-autobiographical coming of age indie out of the way with I Killed My Mother Xavier Dolan moved on to the other major pillar of indie filmmaking: movies about the petty romantic travails of hip young adults who don’t have any real problems.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a mumblecore movie, but it’s in the neighborhood.  Needless to say this is a brand of indie I have a lot less patience for and in general Heartbeats didn’t do a lot for me, but I think the movie’s problems go a little deeper than mere matters of taste.  The film is about two friends, a gay man and a straight woman, who both find themselves attracted to the same guy and who are both simultaneously “friend-zoned” by this guy over the course of the film.  That’s kind of a thin concept to begin with and the movie didn’t do a whole lot to interest me in either of these two characters and it isn’t exactly clear what it was about this guy that interested them so much beyond basic physical attraction.  I also feel like this is a step backwards in terms of basic visual filmmaking with Dolan experimenting with handheld documentrary-ish photography that often has a bunch of random zooms in it.  The aesthetic is just noticeable enough to be obnoxious but not experimental enough to actually be interesting and given the general disinterest I had in the love triangle at the film’s center that’s a problem.  This is definitely a sophomore slump for Dolan, but it’s such a minor blip of a movie that it isn’t the kind of thing you’re likely to hold too much against him.

Laurence Anyways (2012)

DolanLaurenceAnywaysXavier Dolan’s 2012 film Laurence Anyways marks a number of firsts for the filmmaker.  For one thing, it’s the first of his directorial efforts that he doesn’t also star in and it’s also arguably the first of his films that really puts queer struggles front and center rather than as a secondary theme.  More importantly this feels like a transition away from semi-amateur “learning efforts” into actual accomplished filmmaking.  The film begins in the early 1990s and tells the story of Laurence, a thirty-something literature teacher who decides to come out as a transgender woman and begins to present as such in public.  This being the 90s this doesn’t exactly go well and it puts quite the strain on her relationship with her girlfriend, especially as she starts to withdraw from the general public after the awkward situations become too much.  It’s pretty crazy that Dolan was able to write a movie about ten years if the lives of two adults given that the dude had only himself been an adult for four years when he wrote the damn thing and if I didn’t know any better I would have guessed he was adapting a novel, but this is in fact a very ambitious original screenplay.  As bold as it was for Dolan to tackle something like this, he may have bitten off a little more than he could chew.  The movie is 168 minutes long and while I could envision a version of this movie that earns that running time I’m not sure this is it.  The movie really feels like its spinning its wheels towards the end and I’m not sure I ever really connected with the central character, who was kind of a stubborn asshole.  I like that the film didn’t feel obligated to make Laurence into some kind of flawless victim but at times it felt like it went more than a little too far in the other direction.

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Tom at the Farm (2013)

DolanTomattheFarmXavier Dolan’s first two movies had a very millennial view of homosexuality, which is to say that it was something that had its downsides but ultimately wasn’t that big a deal.  In his third and fourth films he seems to have sought to tell stories that moved away from the safe confines of modern Montreal and examined the more difficult experiences of people who lived in less tolerant times and places.  This is particularly true of his fourth film, Tom at the Farm, which is about a city-dwelling homosexual who drives out to a rural area for the funeral of a deceased lover only to learn that no one there knew about his departed boyfriend’s sexual orientation or his relation to Tom.  From that description you would probably expect this to be a sort of sedate melodrama where family secrets are confronted and everyone learns a lesson… but no, instead this is a weird sort of Hitchcockian thriller/psychodrama where Tom must confront his deceased lover’s psychotic brother who seems at times wildly homophobic and at other times like he’s actually himself a self-hating closet-case.  Rather than an entirely sympathetic victim, Tom himself emerges as a sort of self-destructive masochist who puts up with this crazy brother-in-law of sorts way longer than any rational person would and starts to take on a sort of Stockholm syndrome of sorts in the film’s second half.  I can’t say that I entirely followed the psychology behind all this.  It reminded me a bit of the movie Stranger by the Lake (which debuted the same year) in that it was a queer tinged thriller in which the protagonist seems to put himself in harm’s way for reasons that seem like they’d make more sense to a gay audience than they do to me.  Still, Dolan takes to the film’s genre elements with a pretty adept hand and is clearly improving more and more as a filmmaker.

Mommy (2014)

DolanMommyFor me Xavier Dolan didn’t really seem to become a force in international cinema until he made the film Mommy in 2014, which won the Gran Prix at Cannes (where he tied with Jean-Luc Godard, a canny move in which the oldest and youngest directors with movies in competition shared a prize) and then finally got some legit American distribution.  It’s the first Dolan film without a queer element (which I’d like to hope isn’t the main reason it got a wider audience) but in some ways feels like a bit of a redo of his first film I Killed My Mother in that it focuses in on a relationship between a single mother and her troubled son.  The difference is that this feels less autobiographical and also because things are turned up a lot.  Here the son isn’t just a little bratty, he’s a borderline juvenile delinquent with some sort of serious behavioral disorder, and the mother is a bit younger and less capable.  Contrast this latest movie with that first movie and you can definitely see that Dolan’s vision as a filmmaker has been honed in the short five years since his debut although he is still prone to some gimmicky choices.  Most notably here he’s decided to film his film a the otherwise unheard of 1:1 aspect ratio, which is a framing that’s even more narrow than the already narrow by modern standards 1.37:1 ratio.  This isn’t the first time Dolan has messed around with aspect ratios (Laurence Anyways was in the Academy ratio and Tom at the Farm occasionally shifted to an extremely wide ratio during tense scenes) but it’s the most notable.  He does some kind of interesting things with this canvas but I’m not sure that the benefits to this outweigh the fact that this ratio is weird and ugly and a bit distracting.   Looking past the superficialities though Dolan does a pretty serviceable job of combining his usual idiosyncrasies with a sort of social realism that he isn’t otherwise known for.  The movie does run a bit longer than it probably needs to but he gets some good performances out of his actors and in general this just seems like the movie where all of the skills he’s been building just comes together.  Maybe not a masterpiece or anything but it’s a movie good enough to play with the big boys and it makes me pretty excited for where Dolan goes moving forward.

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