Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Mallrats (1995)

Coming between the sharp, funny CLERKS and the insightful, more mature CHASING AMY, MALLRATS perhaps can't help but seem like the weak link in comparison. Its loose, sprawling structure is undermined by the imposed plotline centering around a gameshow being taped at the local mall, which T.S. (Jeremy London) must hijack in order to win back the love of his life. His slacker, comic-book obsessed friend Brodie (Jason Lee) is also trying to salvage a failed relationship, so the two buddies head to the mall to put their plan into action. Along the way, they get involved in a series of crazy comic hijinks (many involving the duo of Jay and Silent Bob), T.S. gets some life-changing advice from a nude fortune-teller, and Brodie too receives some sage wisdom from comic book legend Stan Lee.

The trademark Smith dialogue is still there, but it's sprinkled between broad, cartoonish slapstick sequences, and the film is at its best when it focuses on its characters, their relationships, and deep musings on such topics as comic books and video games. Overall, though, those moments feel like re-treads of superior ones in CLERKS, and the plot becomes simply too clichéd and predictable to warrant the amount of time spent on it.

Chasing Amy (1997)

Smith's third film in his "Jersey Trilogy" is also his best, a surprisingly mature and thoughtful romantic comedy that is nonetheless true to Smith's distinctive comic sensibilities. It is greatly helped by the performances of Ben Affleck, Jason Lee, and Joey Lauren Adams, who make up the fine ensemble cast. Smith takes a more low-key approach here, avoiding the crude, slapstick comic hijinks of the previous MALLRATS, and expanding on the themes of friendships and romantic relationships that he explored in the earlier CLERKS, creating an insightful and sometimes profound comedy -- and one of the best indie films of the late '90s -- in the process.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Jersey Girl (2004)

Following the slick, big-budget (and extremely raunchy) JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK, Kevin Smith took a different direction with this romantic comedy about a young father who struggles with raising his daughter after his wife dies in childbirth. Smith had already demonstrated that he could combine more thoughtful, mature character humor with his trademark crude, adolescent comic sensibilities with the superb and surprising CHASING AMY, so it's a pity that JERSEY GIRL falls back on convention and predictable cliches that fit it so squarely into the "romcom" genre.

It is an uneven film, veering between overplayed melodrama and broad comedy, though Smith does manage to achieve a few genuinely touching moments here and there. There are still hints of Smith's trademark humor throughout -- mostly in the character of the crusty but lovable grandfather expertly played by the great George Carlin -- but for the most part he's traded the sex and bathroom humor for a tender, warmer kind of comedy. He deserves credit for exploring new territory, but it is a not altogether successful attempt. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, coming right off the universally-panned GIGLI, guaranteed that many critics and audience members alike came to the film with some built-in prejudices based on their presence alone. While Lopez's scenes are mercifully brief -- but effective enough -- as Affleck's wife who dies a short time into the film, Affleck handles his role well, as the hot young New York music publicist whose entire world shifts beneath his feet when he is forced to be responsible for someone other than himself for the first time in his life. Liv Tyler is the obligatory sympathetic love interest who helps heal Affleck's aching heart, and child actress Raquel Castro delivers a good performance as the daughter, being called on to veer between humor and pathos and doing so with apparent ease.

The Last Cartridges (1897)

THE LAST CARTRIDGES, an 1897 film by Georges Melies, represents one of the earliest instances of a painting serving as a direct inspiration for the subject of a film. Melies re-created on film the 1873 painting by Alphonse de Neuville, which depicted the attack on a house in Bazeille, during the Battle of Sedan of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.

Melies, and other early filmmakers, drew frequently upon historical events -- both contemporary and those in the recent and distant past -- as subjects for their films. What makes these subjects so compelling -- to audiences then and now -- is the use of the camera's capability for immediacy and authenticity, creating a vivid and visceral depiction of these events not possible in other media.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Wreck of the Battleship "Maine" (1898)

Another subject I came across in my research on Spanish-American War films. This film was photographed by cameramen from the Edison company, showing the wreckage of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor following its explosion on February 15, 1898 which resulted in the deaths of 266 crewmen. The cause of the explosion remains unknown, but the incident became central to the efforts of "Yellow journalists" to drum up American support in favor of war with Spain.

Following the incident, French filmmaker Georges Méliès made a subject depicting the recovery of bodies from the wreckage, which presents an interesting contrast with Edison's authentic footage. Méliès' film employs a re-creation of the scene with actors in front of painted sets and special effects to simulate underwater photography, in order to give audiences an interpretation of the events that they could not see in the actualité subjects of the time.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Morro Castle, Havana Harbor (1898)

In the process of doing some research tonight on early films dealing with historical re-enactments of war events, I came across this interesting subject from the Edison Company that presents a view of the historic fortress, Morro Castle, as seen from Havana Harbor. This magnificent structure was photographed by Edison's cameramen during one of their trips to cover the events of the Spanish-American War, and is a fine example of the historic landmarks that were presented to early moving picture audiences who may never have had a chance to see them in person during their lifetimes.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Clerks II (2006)

Sequel to Smith's 1994 indie hit has some funny moments but overall feels like a retread of similar, better material from the first film. The problem here is that the moments of shock value never feel shocking enough and lack the edge of the first film, while the comedy too often gets bogged down in moments of mawkish sentimentality that seem to take themselves too seriously. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem if both were handled more evenly and skillfully, but as it is, the film veers uncomfortably between attempts at soul-searching seriousness, and juvenile gross-out humor. To boot, the whole thing is overproduced and lacks the lo-fi charm of Smith's debut feature. As a filmmaker, Smith faces the same problem as John Waters -- as his budgets have grown over the years and the films become more slick, they lose some of that sense of urgency and authenticity that made their earlier work so compelling.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Son of Kong (1933)

Ill-conceived sequel to KING KONG, which was such a hit for RKO in 1933 that the studio rushed this film into production for a Christmas release the same year! Despite the return of director Ernest B. Schoedsack and most of the same production crew as the first film, as well as actors Robert Armstrong, Frank Reicher and Victor Wong, it falls far short of the original: the script is poorly constructed, lacking the suspense and pace of the original (undermined by silly moments of cartoonish humor), and the effects work feels decidedly rushed and slapdash at times, with the encounters between baby Kong and the various dinosaurs playing like rehashes of superior scenes from the first film.

Still, it's difficult to be too harsh on the film, as it has a good deal of charm, especially with the friendship that develops between Denham and the little ape whose father he took away, and the tender relationship between Denham and the girl he rescues after her own father dies. Both of these relationships provide a nice character arc from the first film, as Denham shows a guilty conscience for his earlier actions, and develops a protective instinct toward both baby Kong and the girl.

Despite its shortcomings, it represents the work of a phenomenal collection of talented artists, even if they were working under hurried conditions and at half the budget of the first film, and for that reason is of interest as an important film in the history of special effects.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Grey Gardens (1976)

Landmark documentary character study of "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, living alone in squalor in their decaying East Hampton estate. The two highly-eccentric women (the aunt and cousin, respectively, to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) are certainly compelling subjects for a documentary, and the filmmakers do a fine job at exploring their uniquely co-dependent relationship with one another. As "Little Edie" craves independence from her mother and escape from the oppressive isolation of their home, her affection for her mother is also quite apparent, and there is something quite tragic about this woman, so full of life and energy, whose dreams and ambitions never materialized. The Verite approach is perhaps undermined a bit by the subjects' interaction with the filmmakers (who appear on-screen a few times and whose presence is acknowledged throughout), but still the Maysles have an undeniable talent for getting their subjects to open up on film and to capture a great deal of the essence of their personalities.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Salesman (1968)

Landmark work of Cinema Verite about a group of traveling Bible salesmen and their tribulations in trying to earn a living in an impossible, dying business. The Maysles' treat their subjects with dignity and without condescension, and succeed in making the conditions they depict genuinely compelling, without ever feeling exploitative. The film presents an interesting real-life counterpart to similar, fictional depictions of the traveling salesman as a metaphor for the illusions of the American Dream, such as DEATH OF A SALESMAN, and as an evocation of futility and desperation, it makes GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS seem positively upbeat and optimistic in comparison!

Night Train to Munich (1940)

Gripping, highly suspenseful British wartime thriller directed by Carol Reed, about a British agent's mission to smuggle a captured Czech inventor and his daughter safely out of Nazi Germany. Well-acted by Rex Harrison, Margaret Lockwood, and Paul Henreid, ably supported by comic relief team Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott. Reed's skillful direction creates a real sense of urgency throughout, enhanced by the topical references that give the story a sense of timeliness. Especially impressive is Reed's handling of the climactic escape across the Swiss alps via cable car. A model for future films of its kind.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

It Should Happen to You (1954)

Sharp and prescient satire on celebrity for its own sake. Gladys Glover wants to be famous in the worst way, so she rents out a billboard in Columbus Circle and puts her name on it, quickly becoming famous just for being famous.

Gladys Glover is the kind of "dumb blonde" character that Judy Holliday played so well, and this is certainly one of the best showcases she ever had for her comic talents. Jack Lemmon (in his screen debut) does his usual fine job as the good-hearted schnook who falls for Gladys, and Peter Lawford brings the right mix of charm and sleaze to the part of the advertising executive who spots an opportunity to exploit Gladys's newfound celebrity. Garson Kanin's clever script and George Cukor's skillful direction make this an especially observant satire that looks only more relevant in the age of reality TV and social media.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Angels Over Broadway (1940)

Atmospheric romantic drama written and directed by Ben Hecht, about a quartet of characters whose paths cross in a New York nightclub one fateful, rainy night and who are each changed by their experiences together. There is the struggling gambler looking for easy money (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), the aspiring nightclub dancer looking for her big break (Rita Hayworth), the alcoholic playwright whose cynical exterior masks a broken heart (Thomas Mitchell), and the suicidal clerk (John Qualen) who has decided to end it all after being caught embezzling money from his employer.

Expertly photographed by Lee Garmes, who also receives a co-director credit, this is an imaginatively shot film that includes some interesting visual moments bordering on the Expressionistic, especially in the climactic fight scene that includes disorienting, canted camera angles. It's a surprisingly dark film -- both visually and thematically -- and though it resolves its characters' problems at the end, does not take the expected plot turns in reaching its conclusion.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Bucking Broadway (1917)

An early John Ford Western, marked by stunning compositions and expansive use of the locations. His distinctive eye for detail is already evident in this early work. Silent Western star Harry Carey appears as his iconic "Cheyenne Harry" character, lending a mythic quality to the story. A ranch hand is engaged to the the owner's daughter, but their romance is threatened by the arrival of a slick New York horse trader, who romances the daughter and takes her back East to get married. At the engagement party, the man reveals his true colors when his abusive side emerges after having had too much to drink, but the ranch hand and his fellow cowboys arrive just in time to save the girl from her attacker, climaxing in a big, energetic barroom-style brawl on the balcony of the Columbia Hotel.

Ford has fun with the sight of the cowboys in the big city, riding their horses down Broadway (actually the streets of Los Angeles standing in for NYC). There is the predictable Fordian humor of the cowboy out of place in the city (such as mistaking the sound of steam leaking from a radiator for the hiss of a rattlesnake), but there is also a startlingly touching moment when a couple of con artists target the him as an easy mark, but have a change of heart after being genuinely moved by his sincerity and sense of honor toward the woman he loves.

Despite its simple premise and brisk pace, Ford demonstrates some astonishing cinematic inventiveness throughout. His debt to Griffith is clear -- most notably in the cross-cutting between the ranch and the city,  especially during the cowboys' ride to the rescue, his attention to small bits of character business and powerful use of closeups. Ford gives these techniques his own stamp through achieving a fluidity often lacking in Griffith, whose closeups and cutaways were often presented as obvious insert shots to heighten a detail. Ford, however, uses them in a way that arises naturally from the internal rhythms of the film's continuity. At times, they are so subtle we're hardly aware of them, but they add up to achieve the effects he is after in each scene.

There is also evidence of some influence from DeMille, in the effective and surprising use of chiaroscuro lighting that does much to heighten the intensity of both the marriage proposal scene between Carey and Molly Malone, and the later scene on their wedding day, when he realizes she has left him to marry another man. Most striking of all, though, are those breathtaking, sweeping Western vistas for which Ford seemed to have an innate sense of composition. The spatiality and depth he achieves through his framing of these landscapes is truly something magnificent to behold.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Great Guns (1941)

Weak service comedy, clearly inspired by the blockbuster success of Abbott and Costello's BUCK PRIVATES earlier the same year. Laurel and Hardy are valets to a wealthy, pampered young man who gets drafted into the army, and enlist with him in order to protect him. The young man quickly adapts to army life, proving there is absolutely nothing wrong with him, but Laurel and Hardy cause no end of troubles for their long-suffering sergeant.

GREAT GUNS must rank as one of the least inspired of the team's post-Hal Roach comedies. There are too many scenes that portray the boys as idiots and simpletons, scenes crafted to make the audience laugh at them, rather than with them. The romantic subplot (involving the young man's romance with an army base shopgirl and his rivalry with the sergeant for her affections) is -- thankfully -- actually not as intrusive as it could have been, but Laurel and Hardy still have too few scenes to themselves, instead often being forced to carry the exposition and fawn over their young master. The "war games" finale allows them a few moments of the old slapstick, however, which give the film a bit of energy toward the end. What they really needed were a few relaxed, extended scenes where they could do the kind of leisurely-paced routines that they did better than anyone else.

Produced by Sol Wurtzel's "B" unit at Fox, it is sloppily constructed with a plodding script which works against the lightness and relaxed pacing that marked their best work. The team would go on to make marginally better films for the studio, though none of them approached the quality that they had achieved with Hal Roach.

The Crazy World of Laurel and Hardy (1967)

A feature-length compilation of highlights from Laurel and Hardy's films, produced by Jay Ward and written by Bill Scott, and obviously modeled on Robert Youngson's anthologies, such as The Golden Age of Comedy and Laurel and Hardy's Laughing '20s. With its more focused approach and drawing on fresh material, it actually works a bit better than the later Youngsons, since the narration (by Garry Moore) is less intrusive and Jerry Fielding's music score is a bit more effective. It also makes good use of clips from the sound shorts, albeit with new underscoring and sound effects (and in some cases, voice dubbing of supporting players!)

Working with the cooperation of Hal Roach Jr. and Raymond Rohauer, Ward and Scott were able to gain access to clips that had not been previously used in any of the Youngson compilations, most notably the silent Bacon Grabbers, as well as highlights from numerous sound shorts and features, including extensive extracts from The Music Box, Towed in a Hole, Way Out West, The Bohemian Girl, and Swiss Miss, which represent some of Laurel and Hardy's very best work. Though there's nothing new here that won't be familiar to long-time Laurel and Hardy fans, it's nevertheless a sincere tribute and a solid collection of some of the team's best scenes.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Book Review: "The Films of D.W. Griffith" by Scott Simmon

A superb survey of the types of films Griffith was making during his creatively fertile tenure at Biograph, Scott Simmon's "The Films of D.W. Griffith" (Cambridge University Press, 1993) is rich in analysis and scope. After a chapter situating Griffith within both American culture and film history, Simmon devotes four chapters to specific themes within Griffith's work: the urban spaces of his city dramas, the role of female characters in the "woman's pictures", family honor in The Birth of a Nation and other Civil War pictures, and, finally, the role of film as a tool of reform, in relation to Intolerance.

In dealing with Griffith's overwhelming 450-plus film output, Simmon takes a wise approach in discussing one representative film per each year of his Biograph period (1908-1913). This allows for a thoughtful examination, not only in terms of the themes Simmon discusses, but how Griffith's approach to those themes changed or remained consistent over the first five years of his directorial career. Included is a convenient listing of all the titles Simmon discusses in the book, which provides a good starting point for readers to study this vast period of Griffith's career in greater detail. Thankfully, Griffith is unique among early filmmakers in that nearly all of his output (with the exception of maybe ten or so films) survives, making it easier to have something closer to a comprehensive survey of his work than is possible for other filmmakers of the era.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

A Child of the Ghetto (1910)

One-reel melodrama, one of hundreds directed by D.W. Griffith during his time at the Biograph company. The plot is fairly simple: a young Jewish girl, living and struggling to find work in the crowded conditions of New York's Lower East Side, is falsely accused of theft. She eludes the police by riding a streetcar out to the country, where she meets a kindly young farmer who takes her in. By coincidence, the policeman and his friend head out to the country to do some fishing on the weekend, and end up stopping at the farmhouse where the girl is now hiding. The policeman recognizes her, but, after taking a long look at her, has a change of heart and decides to let her go.

As Scott Simmon notes in "The Films of D.W. Griffith", the film plays on the commonly-explored contrast between the poverty and squalor of the big city, and the idyllic, pastoral country. Griffith's use of contrasting locations is handled effectively enough, but what makes the film really remarkable is the shot (reproduced above) taken on Rivington St. in New York, apparently with a concealed camera. The actor playing the policeman (George Nichols) moves about the actual crowd, with the young boy on the right reacting to the "officer's" presence after he has passed by.

Griffith's impeccable eye for detail and composition resulted in some impressive re-creations of urban street scenes noted for their high degree of realism, in such film as The Musketeers of Pig Alley and Intolerance. Here, though, Griffith uses the real thing -- and it creates a powerful moment of authenticity that breathes with life.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

"Young Indiana Jones" and D.W. Griffith

One of the delights of George Lucas' Young Indiana Jones Chronicles was that its creators had an obvious love of the movies that was apparent throughout the series, which was unusually cinematic for a television program at that time. One of the later made-for-TV movies, Young Indiana Jones and the Hollywood Follies (1994) was built entirely around Indy's brush with silent era Hollywood, being tasked by Irving Thalberg to keep Erich von Stroheim's Foolish Wives from going over-budget, and joining John Ford and his company on location during the shooting of a Western. This episode was clearly made by people with a real knowledge of the historical figures, places and films of old Hollywood.

But earlier in the series, in the first two-part episode that aired in 1992, there is another silent film reference to be found. The episode, "The Curse of the Jackal", involved Indy traveling south of the border on spring break from college, and getting mixed up with Pancho Villa and his troops. In one scene, following a violent raid, the revolutionaries attend a movie to unwind. Indy is on hand to provide translation of the subtitles for the men, who are moved to tears by the tender love story, set against the backdrop of the Civil War, that is unfolding on screen before them in flickering, black and white images accompanied by a tinkling piano.

The movie is D.W. Griffith's The Battle, which he made for the Biograph company in 1911 and was one of a number of films the director made dealing with the subject of the Civil War. The actors in the shot above are Charles West, a leading man at Biograph who would continue acting in bit parts until 1940; and Blanche Sweet, who was a favorite leading lady of Griffith's during this period, appearing in such films as The Massacre and Judith of Bethulia.

The premise of The Battle involves a young soldier in the Union army who is separated from his girlfriend when he is called to march into war. During the fighting, he becomes panic-stricken, deserts his fellow soldiers, and seeks refuge in the girl's house. She laughs at him and brands him a coward, but when the boy sees his comrades facing almost certain defeat at the hands of the enemy, he summons up the courage to go back to fight, commandeering a supply wagon and delivering the troops with the ammunition they need to win the battle. In the end, he is reunited with the girl and recognized for his bravery.

Overall, it is a fairly routine melodrama, one of many of its kind that Griffith turned out during this period of his career. It is mainly of interest for some well-staged battle scenes that play like a kind of warm-up for The Birth of a Nation. I had seen the clip of the film used in the Young Indiana Jones episode years before I saw the actual film in its entirety; when I finally did, I recognized it instantly, and was reminded of the attention to historical detail that made the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles such a rewarding program to watch.

I wonder if Pancho Villa and his men ever actually saw the film?