Saturday, August 14, 2021

Fassbinder and Herzog, Room 666

 Fassbinder and Herzog on the state of cinema, from Wim Wenders' "Room 666" (1982): 

Herzog: "I expect soon you'll be able to choose vegetables in the supermarket by video camera or by pressing buttons on your telephone or your computer, you can order your meal."

Saturday, May 08, 2021

Pardon Us (1931) Laurel & Hardy

Laurel and Hardy's first feature-length comedy. They play a couple of "beer barons" during Prohibition who are arrested for selling alcohol to a policeman ("I thought he was a streetcar conductor," Stan says).

The episodic structure feels very much like a series of shorts patched together to an hour's running time. Familiar faces from the Laurel and Hardy stock company pop up in various roles: Walter Long, Tiny Sandford, James Finlayson, and Wilfred Lucas in a memorable turn as the fiery prison warden.

There's a prison "schoolroom" scene with Professor Finlayson teaching basic spelling and math to the convicts that is quite funny for the incongruity of the hardened inmates behaving like naughty schoolkids.

There is also some great slapstick in the final prison break scene, including a hilarious bit with a hose and a ladder as the Boys attempt to rescue the warden's daughter from a burning building. This scene wasn't in previous versions of the film that I saw years ago on VHS and TV, but it seems to have been re-instated some time in the last decade.

Summertime (1955) David Lean

A light, frothy romantic comedy by David Lean. Katharine Hepburn is a secretary from Akron, Ohio on vacation in Venice, where she is quickly swept up in the romance of the city and falls in love with shopkeeper Rossano Brazzi.

Gorgeously photographed in color, entirely on location in Venice, providing a postcard-perfect backdrop for the paper-thin plot.

Feels very much like the kind of comedy Billy Wilder might have made around this time.

The Tall Target (1951) Anthony Mann

Dick Powell plays NY detective John Kennedy, who is traveling to Baltimore to foil a plot against Lincoln's life on the eve of his inauguration. When he can't convince his bosses to take the threats seriously, he turns in his badge and sets out by train to reach Baltimore before Lincoln's arrival, trailing several people (including an army colonel played by Adolphe Menjou) that he suspects might be involved in the assassination plot and stand in the way of his investigation.

The whole thing is filmed very deliberately like a contemporary Noir, with high-contrast B&W cinematography, lots of steam and wet streets, etc. It's an interesting experiment in taking a period setting and a fictionalized version of historical events, and taking a deliberately contemporary approach to filming them.

A gripping thriller that runs a tight 77 minutes.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Drivers Wanted (2012)

Fascinating observational documentary about a NYC taxi garage, following a group of drivers as they tell their stories and how they came to drive cabs. 

The director rides around with some of the drivers, filming from the front seat, which lends a real sense of immediacy. The drivers themselves are an interesting group. One driver has the distinction of being NYC's oldest cabbie, working since 1939. Another, on his first night on the job, struggles with directions and a malfunctioning fare box. 

Perhaps most interesting of all is the cab company's owner and dispatcher, who oversees his team of current drivers while also recruiting new ones, keeping order and taking care of various emergencies with a good sense of humor. 

Directed by Joshua Z Weinstein. Here's the trailer:

DRIVERS WANTED (Teaser) from Joshua Z Weinstein on Vimeo.

Missing 411 (2017)

Watched this on Tubi tonight. I've been following the work of David Paulides for the past several years, which investigates the unexplained disappearances of children that happen each year in America's national parks. He's uncovered quite a few mysterious stories in his Missing 411 investigations, and this documentary examines a couple of the cases through interviews with the families and others involves in the investigations.

For anyone familiar with Paulides' descriptions of similar cases in various podcast appearances, the documentary doesn't cover too much new ground, but for anyone unfamiliar with his research, it will be a good introduction.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Men O'War (1929), Little details

Early Laurel and Hardy short I caught on TV this morning. It's funny, there's a scene early on where they're talking with the girls in the park. Since this was an early talkie, shot on location, they were still working out some of the issues with shooting with sound outdoors. In the background, you can hear someone playing a ukulele, which cuts in and out between shots. Interesting how that little, real-life detail was picked up in the background. I don't suppose anyone gave it a second thought until they were in the editing room. It gives it a sort of immediacy that would be lacking once the technology became a bit more polished.

The Last Blockbuster (2020)

Watched this doc on Netflix last night, about the last remaining Blockbuster video store franchise in Bend, OR. Just a few years ago there were three remaining stores in Alaska, but now the Oregon store is the last one standing. The format of the doc follows those VH1 "I Love the '80s"-type specials, with a lineup of celebrity commentators offering their memories of the video store experience, about the value of in-person browsing at the video store and the kinds of organic, word-of-mouth recommendations that can occur as a result. The thing is, the experience they describe seems to be true of the smaller, independent video stores, but not so much the large corporate experience offered by Blockbuster. 

I can't say I share the affection for Blockbuster. Unless you were looking for recent Hollywood hits, it was unlikely you were going to find what you were looking for. I do remember one local Blockbuster had a selection of foreign films, where I found movies like Fritz Lang's M, Fellini's The Clowns, and The Private Life of Henry VIII for the first time, but they later did away with these titles. It seemed like, at some point, they ditched a lot of the videos, probably those that weren't renting out regularly. I also remember finding Buster Keaton's The Cameraman there when I was first discovering his films. I also remember talking with a clerk at another Blockbuster who expressed his own disappointment that they didn't carry more of Chaplin's films, after I asked about those.

Still, if Blockbuster was your only option in your area, then it served a good purpose. I've read several comments from librarians, in response to this doc, pointing out that DVDs are still available to rent from your local library, often for free and from a greater selection than Blockbuster ever offered. And that's to say nothing of the selection of films now available through streaming. I remember that several video stores used to carry a selection of old public domain titles, on labels like Madacy, Hollywood Classics, etc. Now, of course, all of those can be found online for free. I imagine what it must be like being a young film fan today, having all of those films easily accessible to explore at no cost.

Although I like the idea of the in-person interaction that video stores could provide, I can't say the doc really made me miss the video store experience. Sure, there's a nostalgia factor to them, but at the end of the day, I'm glad that we have greater access to films than ever before.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Mr. Topaze (1961)

AKA I Like Money

Peter Sellers' one and only directorial effort was this adaptation of a Marcel Pagnol play. Mr. Topaze (Sellers) is a mild-mannered and honest-to-a-fault schoolteacher who is fired for refusing to inflate a rich student's grade, then ends up getting sucked into a political fraud scheme by a crooked city official (Herbert Lom).

Sellers was reportedly so unhappy with the film, or at least the response to it, that he suppressed it after its brief theatrical release, and only a single copy was known to survive in the archives of the British Film Institute. 

It's beautifully shot -- a lavish CinemaScope affair produced by Fox in England. The muted color pallet of the restoration is supposedly a result of the condition of the film elements, but it created a pleasant effect regardless.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

A Chump at Oxford (1940)

Watched this one again this morning. Stan Laurel's "Lord Paddington" character is often cited as perhaps the best performance he gave in any of the team's films, but watching it this time, I was struck by just how great he is in every scene. Although Laurel and Hardy played effectively the exact same characters in all their comedies together, in some of the films, one or the other tends to dominate. Swiss Miss, for example, seems dominated by Oliver Hardy's character. This one, on the other hand, strikes me as more of a showcase for Stan, and he does some of his all-time best work here, both as his usual dimwitted character and as the genius professor who is an academic and athletic champion and consults with Einstein.

That's not to downplay Hardy's contributions -- he's great as ever, particularly when he's reduced to working as Laurel/Paddington's incredulous servant and getting bossed around by his old friend, a fun inversion of their usual on-screen relationship (reminiscent of the ending of One Good Turn).

Friday, February 19, 2021

Kate Plays Christine (2016)

A while ago, I had watched Antonio Campos' excellent film Christine, starring Rebecca Hall as Sarasota television journalist Christine Chubbuck, who tragically committed suicide on live TV in 1974. Recently, I learned of this other film about Chubbuck that was released the same year, and takes a very different approach. In this one, actor Kate Lyn Sheil is seen preparing for portraying Christine Chubbuck in a fictional film about her life, and in the process of discovering the role she is set to play, the line between fact and fiction is blurred. Director Robert Greene's docu-drama approach provides an interesting take on the difficult and complex process that the actor goes through in becoming closer with the person he or she is hired to portray, especially in the case of someone remembered primarily because of the sensational nature of her death. Along these lines, Kate Plays Christine also raises questions about the culpability of the audience in wanting to see such events portrayed on screen.