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.