Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Improv Filmmaking

Recently I watched part of an improvisational feature film.

Improv is a great skill for low/no-budget filmmakers. When you get on set, even the most carefully-planned production will require some last-minute workarounds and creative problem solving. Being able to meet those challenges quickly and keep everything moving is essential. And if you keep re-writing and re-writing in the hope of achieving a "perfect" script, you'll never get around to making your movie anyway.

I was reminded of an interview I'd seen with B-movie director Ray Dennis Steckler. He said that he'd begin shooting his films without a script, because by the time he got everything together that he'd need to produce the script, it would be too late to make the movie. I know what he means.

Thinking back on it, when I first started making my own little movies with the family video camera, I only recall one time where I went out of my way to write a completed script. It was for a Hitchcock-inspired comic thriller about two detectives investigating mysterious pools of what appear to be blood that are materializing in a man's basement, but the culprit turns out to be a leaking bottle of ketchup. But even there I think I veered from the script quite a bit after I began shooting. My problem is I get impatient and begin improvising when I see other ideas present themselves in the moment.

I've made quite a few short films over the years without a script, though I have a clear idea of the action and plot before I begin and even then, dialogue is usually at a minimum in those projects (or consists solely of voice over, which I write out in advance, and then improvise the action around).

I do wonder about improv features, though. Cassavetes mastered this approach, but he was working with first-rate actors and would workshop his ideas extensively before committing them to film. If you're relying on the actors to come up with their own dialogue, they really need to be able to get into the characters and have a fully-fleshed idea of how they would react under the situations. I'm reminded of an acting exercise -- which I think is mentioned in the film My Dinner with Andre, actually -- where you take characters from an established play, but come up with a scene for them that does not occur in the play, and have the actors improvise how those characters would act under the circumstances. If you're going for a feature-length film, something along those lines seems like a solid approach to fleshing out the characters.

And speaking of My Dinner with Andre, it's another one of those films, like Kevin Smith's Clerks, that consists almost entirely of people talking. Some people seem to think this approach is "easy", but don't consider how carefully scripted and acted these extended conversations are, not to mention the technique that has to go into making them interesting for 90 minutes or more.

There's another issue I have with improv feature filmmaking: as a viewer, I often find the approach tedious after a certain point. I have an easier time watching an improvised short film than sitting through an hour or more of it. 

Kings Row (1942)

This is one of those films that used to play on TCM constantly back when I had cable, but I never watched it, so I took the opportunity to see it on the Criterion Channel before it leaves tomorrow.

Bob Cummings and Ronald Reagan are childhood friends in smalltown, turn-of-the-century America who each go their separate ways but remain close through life's ups and downs. And man, are there a lot of downs -- by end of the film, the number of painful incidents that pile on top of each other strain credibility even for a bleak melodrama such as this. Apparently the source novel was so downbeat that both the producers and the Hays Office initially considered it unfilmable.

Practically the definition of a "prestige" studio film, lavishly produced by Warner Bros. and scoring a smattering of Academy Award nominations. Also starring Ann Sheridan, Claude Rains, Judith Anderson, Harry Davenport, and Charles Coburn. Directed by Sam Wood, and shot by James Wong Howe. Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score was later borrowed in part by John Williams for the Star Wars theme.

The Violent Years (1956)

 At just 56 minutes, this was a good movie to watch at the gym tonight.

An all-girl gang of juvenile delinquents carry out a series of robberies and assaults for the thrill of it. It's implied at one point that they rape one of their male victims. Their final act of rebellion is trashing their school classroom. "Social value" is added in the form of bookended scenes with a judge admonishing the girls' parents.

I had thought this was directed by Ed Wood, but it turns out he only wrote the script. William Morgan directed -- I haven't seen any of his other films, so I don't know how this one stacks up against them, but it looks like it could have been directed by Wood.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Herschell Gordon Lewis, Creativity from Limitations

I was watching the documentary Herschell Gordon Lewis: Godfather of Gore (2009). In it, he tells a story about when he was editing his 1967 movie The Gruesome Twosome. Seems that he'd committed to delivering a 70 minute film, but his final cut ended up only running 62 minutes. He was already back in Chicago and wasn't about to travel back to Florida to shoot pick-ups, and had already dismissed the cast and crew in any case.

What to do?

To fill in the eight extra minutes needed, Lewis had the idea of taking two Styrofoam mannequin heads, put outlandish faces and wigs on them, and had them talk to each other (through voice-over), exchanging some amusing banter about their experiences that the audience was about to see in the movie. And he filmed them right there in his office in Chicago.

It's a clever idea, a great example for low-budget filmmakers to get creative when it looks like all your other options have run out.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Big City Blues (1932)

Gritty Depression-era melodrama about a naïve young man from rural Indiana who comes to New York City to seek his fortune, and ends up becoming implicated in the murder of a showgirl during a wild party in his hotel room.

Stars Eric Linden, who apparently enjoyed a brief career as a juvenile lead in the early '30s. I only knew him from his appearance as the soldier whose leg is amputated in the Atlanta hospital scene in Gone with the Wind. Also starring Joan Blondell, Walter Catlett, Guy Kibbee, Jobyna Howland, Ned Sparks, Lyle Talbot and Humphrey Bogart in an early, uncredited appearance as one of the partygoers.

Directed with strong energy and pacing (running just over an hour) by Mervyn LeRoy.

"Sleeper" House

The futuristic house, located in Denver, Colorado, memorably featured as Dr. Melik's house in Woody Allen's Sleeper, designed by architect Charles Deaton in 1962:

Wonder Wheel (2017)

Kate Winslet is a waitress in 1950s Coney Island, unhappily married to schlubby amusement park worker Jim Belushi, whom she met after losing her first husband over an affair. They live among the attractions on the boardwalk with her pyromaniac son and are eventually joined by Belushi's daughter, played by Juno Temple, who has run afoul of her gangster boyfriend and is hiding out in Coney Island. Overwhelmed by the noise and hustle and bustle of life on the boardwalk, and desperate to escape the reality of her dead-end situation, Winslet strikes up an affair with handsome, intellectual lifeguard Justin Timberlake, but his affections soon drift toward her step-daughter instead, causing a major rift.

I really wanted to enjoy this one more than I did. I had watched Magic in the Moonlight the night before, and that one was exactly what I expected, for better or worse. I had higher expectations of Wonder Wheel, though, and it didn't live up to them. Wonder Wheel is a more ambitious film than Magic in the Moonlight, so its shortcomings were more striking to me.

On the surface, this seems like it would be the kind of material perfectly suited to Allen, with the nostalgic 1950s Coney Island setting and family dynamics. Vittorio Storaro's cinematography is certainly striking here, but also stands out at times for the wrong reasons, becoming almost distracting in its showiness in contrast with the material. The production design is impressive but also too often obviously artificial. Although it's obviously a stylized evocation of an idea of a time and place from Allen's distant memory, it just feels flat and hollow. I had the same reaction to the performances, which -- combined with the dialogue and staging -- are theatrical in all the wrong ways.

I read that Winslet did not care for her experience in playing the role of Ginny, and though she no doubt does the best she can with the material, the character is too one-note, expressing varying degrees of anxiety.

From Indiewire:

“When she was first approached to play the female lead in Wonder Wheel, Winslet said she balked at the challenge. Just reading the script made her nervous, uncertain that she could pull off a character that requires both honesty and wildness. The actress remembered telling her own family, 'I don’t know how to play this part. I’m just going to have to let it go, and it’s going to be one of those moments I’ll probably regret, and I’ll look at someone else playing the role, brilliantly. Much better than I would. Just, that’s it. Forget it.'”

As of 2020, Wonder Wheel is Woody Allen's last film to get a theatrical release in the US.

Union Depot (1932)

An intriguing Warners pre-Coder with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as a noble thief operating in a large train station. He comes into possession of some (unbeknownst to him) counterfeit money which he intends to use to help down-on-her-luck Joan Blondell, but soon finds himself at the center of an investigation to find the real counterfeiter.

Incredibly densely-packed and well-paced at just over an hour, featuring a virtual who's-who of Warners character actors of the early '30s. The impressive opening sequence, with the camera crane tracking different characters through the train depot, is a tour-de-force of camera movement reminiscent of Hitchcock's Young and Innocent.

Bulldog Drummond's Revenge (1937)

Bulldog Drummond investigates the theft of a supply of a new explosive substance, after its inventor is murdered.

At just 55 minutes, it's the perfect length for a late-night movie. Like the other films in this series, it's a fun Hollywood version of a British Scotland Yard mystery. 

With John Howard, John Barrymore, E.E. Clive, and Reginald Denny. 

Lured (1947)

An atmospheric, stylish romantic thriller directed by Douglas Sirk. Lucille Ball is an American nightclub dancer in London who is hired by Scotland Yard to help investigate a series of murders involving showgirls. When she becomes engaged to producer George Sanders, evidence emerges that points to him as the killer.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

4 Clowns (1970)

The last of Robert Youngson's silent comedy compilations. The four clowns of the title are Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Charley Chase, and Buster Keaton. The first section begins with some solo appearances by Laurel and Hardy before they were a team (including Hardy's menacing turn as a villain in a Rex the Wonder Horse Western made for Hal Roach), then switches to clips from some of the team's best silent comedies (some of which, such as Two Tars and Big Business, were seen to better advantage in earlier Youngson compilations).

Next up is Charley Chase, with clips from several of his late '20s Hal Roach comedies. Chase is an affable character, perpetually embarrassed and facing a series of one humiliating incidents after another. As with some of the other Hal Roach comedies, including the short films of Harold Lloyd, I occasionally find Chase's gags a little too mechanical and contrived -- such as the bit here where he is posing for a family portrait and his youngest son's balloon keeps bursting, so Chase repeatedly needs to run out and get another one to calm his son down before they can take the photo. Predictably, Chase ends up with a bunch of balloons that lift him off the ground as he runs down the street. I'm not as big a fan of this kind of situational humor. Chase is better represented here by one of his very funniest shorts, Limousine Love (1928), a brilliant farce in which he's a bridegroom, en route to his wedding, who ends up arriving at the ceremony with an undressed woman in the back of his car.

Finally, there is a condensed version of Buster Keaton's Seven Chances. Reportedly, this was Keaton's least favorite of his own feature films, because his producer had bought the rights to the stage farce and more or less foisted the material upon Keaton (who never cared for farce comedy, finding it forced and unfunny). What Keaton did with that material, though, was to re-shape it and make it his own, and I've always considered it one of his funniest movies. The celebrated chase sequence, in which Buster is pursued through the streets by 700 angry would-be brides, concludes this compilation, and it's an extremely strong note on which to end the final film by Robert Youngson, who did so, so much to keep the legacy of silent comedy alive.

Swiss Miss (1938)


The Movies! TV network's Saturday morning Laurel & Hardy show is one of the best things going on television. I always look forward to tuning it each weekend to see my favorite comedians.

This morning, they ran Swiss Miss, one of the team's later features for producer Hal Roach. In this one, the Boys are mousetrap salesmen in Switzerland who become indentured servants in a big Alpine hotel after they can't pay their bill.

It's a bigger production than usual for them, filled with sumptuous production design and some great supporting players -- including Walter Woolf King (from the Marx Bros.' A Night at the Opera), Della Lind, Eric Blore, and Hollywood's top gorilla impersonator, Charles Gemora (who shares the best scene in the film, a variation on the piano moving mishaps reminiscent of The Music Box).

I know many Laurel and Hardy fans seem to hold a generally low opinion of Swiss Miss -- and I really can't understand why. Yes, there's more singing and dancing than usual, but for me, those elements just add to the fun of it all. And there are so many great comedy bits -- drilling holes in the cheese shop floor, the pipe organ blowing out animated bubbles, Stan's desperate attempts to coax a St. Bernard into letting him access its brandy barrel, and of course moving the piano across a rickety suspension bridge. The only thing missing are some of the familiar Hal Roach stock company faces (James Finlayson, in particular, would have been great as the sadistic hotel chef).

I read once that Oliver Hardy ranked this among his very favorite of the films he made, because he liked starring in a more elaborate film with big production values.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

Frothy Woody Allen romantic comedy about a deeply rational master illusionist (Colin Firth) who's brought in to expose a fraudulent clairvoyant (Emma Stone), but soon find himself questioning his own steadfast skepticism in the face of her seemingly-miraculous psychic abilities.

Beautifully shot, on location in the south of France, this is one of Allen's relaxed, leisurely-paced later films that shows the writer-director's total confidence in the material. Allen explores some of his favorite themes about belief and the purpose of life in the face of a cold universe, here interwoven into a lightweight love story that is characteristically charming and nostalgic.

Colin Firth has a few very funny one-liners that one can easily imagine Allen delivering in his prime.

The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters (1954)

I used to watch a double-feature of Bowery Boys on TV every Sunday morning, back when they were aired on TCM. I always enjoyed their infectious silliness and the energy of the cast, even when they were performing what must have been the umpteenth variation the same plots and situations they'd done many times before over the course of the series.

I picked this one to watch at the gym tonight. The running time -- just over an hour -- and the silly fun of it all makes it an easy watch on my phone during a workout. In this one, Slip and Sach get mixed up with a creepy family that wants to use them for their bizarre experiments. Or something along those lines...mostly it's just an excuse for a series of zany slapstick gags, and what more are you expecting here?

Clark and McCullough again

I watched a couple more Clark and McCullough shorts on YouTube: False Roomers (1931) and Snug in the Jug (1933).

I like these guys -- very funny, with a strong anarchic streak reminiscent of the Marx Brothers.

False Roomers finds the team renting a room from landlord James Finlayson, and predictably wreaking havoc with the other boarders. Snug in the Jug resembles the kinds of plots that the Three Stooges would use all the time. Newly released from prison, Clark and McCullough help their pal the warden by putting up wanted posters all over town (with some great sight gags of walls completely plastered with the posters), but they run into trouble when they meet up with the wanted criminal himself at a fancy society party.

The energy in these is incredible. I love this kind of crackling, pre-Code comedy, and at two reels each, they're just the right length to get all the laughs out of the material and then move on.

Something about Woody Allen's autobiography

I recently finished reading Woody Allen's autobiography, Apropos of Nothing. This isn't going to be a review of the book, which I'll probably get to jotting my thoughts down on later. I did have to note an interesting point he made about his filmmaking, though. When he made Interiors in 1978, his Bergmanesque family drama set in the Hamptons, it was about as different from his previous comedies as could be. But his producers supported him in his desire to make the film. Allen says in the book that he always wanted to make dramatic films, and that his early comedies provided a gateway into filmmaking for him to be able to do what he always wanted.

This is something I've always admired about Allen's films: he makes the films he wants to make, and even though he's obviously best known for his brilliant comedies, he has never backed away from making different kinds of films. I don't just mean the clear separation between his comedies and dramas, either, but the many tones he strikes in between. Even comedies like Zelig and Hannah and Her Sisters are in many ways as different from each other as an out-and-out slapstick comedy like Sleeper is from a chilly drama like September.

I've come to appreciate this aspect of Allen's films increasingly over the years, especially with his recent work -- such as Irrational Man and Cafe Society -- that I actually find to be some of his most interesting films in a long time.

I was recently talking with someone about this, and I made the point that a difference I see with European filmmakers compared with their Hollywood counterparts is that, in Europe, directors are often far more prolific. I've really been struck by this in going through the entire filmographies of directors like Bergman or Fassbinder, who created so many films over the course of their careers.

Just going off of this generalization, one result of this is that a European director's filmography may be more inconsistent, but it is often more interesting for me, because they have more room to experiment with different types of films, and it is often the minor works in between the established masterpieces that I actually end up finding most interesting. Among American directors, I would say that Sidney Lumet and Woody Allen have enjoyed these kinds of highly prolific careers. In Woody Allen's case, much as I admire his classics like Annie Hall or Crimes and Misdemeanors or Hannah and Her Sisters, it is often the less-acclaimed films that I find myself drawn to, because you see him working through ideas and stylistic choices that may not always work, but are always interesting.

My Dinner With Andre (1981)

I watched this one last night. It's the third or fourth time I've seen it, and it never fails to hold me completely captivated with the conversations between Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. The premise, of an entire movie consisting of a conversation between two old friends at a restaurant, has almost become something of a joke when it comes to the popular idea of a tedious art film, but the results are anything but tedious. Director Louis Malle made an excellent choice not to try and enhance the proceedings with any unnecessary camera hijinks, and though every set-up and cut serves a deliberate purpose and keeps things interesting, it really is Shawn and Gregory's brilliant script and performances that drive the film.

I love the dynamic that emerges between these two over the course of their conversations. Initially, we are drawn to Andre's tales of spiritual journeys in the mountains and forests, of his globe-trotting adventures with his theater troupe, of his soul-searching with other intellectuals and artists. His story about being buried alive on Montauk is especially compelling.

Wally, who has been listening intently and with a strong degree of fascination the whole time, begins to admit that he doesn't understand the impulses that lead Andre down these tortuous paths of self-exploration; that at the end of the day, he's happy to stay at home in his comfortable apartment, enjoying a good book or cup of coffee and falling asleep under his electric blanket.

We can't help but see each man's side of the argument. For Andre, the highs are much higher, and the lows much lower, while Wally is content to maintain a stable existence.

Abbott & Costello

I recently re-visited some of the Abbott and Costello comedies. I hadn't seen most of these in almost 20 years. Along with Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello are my favorite movie comedians of the WWII-era. It's always a pleasure to re-watch their classic routines.

Among their movies I've watched recently, two were entirely new to me:

First up was Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952), one of only two films the team made in color. I'd wanted to see this one for a long time, since I always enjoy Charles Laughton and especially his performance in the title role of 1945's Captain Kidd, so I looked forward to seeing his return to that role here. Apparently, Laughton was a huge fan of Abbott and Costello and always wanted to work with them, and he finally had his chance with this film. Unfortunately, it's far from the team's funniest; in fact, I'd probably rank it as about the least amusing of their films. Hopefully Laughton had a good time making it, though -- he certainly appears to be having a lot of fun hamming it up as the comic villain.

Next was The Noose Hangs High (1948), one of the few films Abbott and Costello made for a studio outside of their home base of Universal. This was an independent production, and as a result, it was not included in previous home video collections of the team's films. Perhaps surprisingly, it's actually one of their best vehicles they appeared in, at least after their wartime peak. The set-up involves the team being hired to deliver $50,000 to a gangster to pay off a bet, but the money ends up being lost en route and inevitably they are suspected of having stolen it. The rest of the film follows their efforts to retrieve the money and save themselves. Contains a couple of their classic routines preserved on film for posterity.

Finally, this morning I watched In Society (1944), a middling comedy from their peak years at Universal. The first part finds room for some good slapstick comedy as plumbers Abbott and Costello are called out to a swanky mansion to fix a leak in the middle of the night. Then they're mistaken for high society types and wreak havoc at a weekend party. At the last minute, there's some business about a stolen painting that the team has to retrieve in order to clear themselves from suspicion of theft. It pretty much follows the formula that Universal had established with the team's films by this point. The highlight is the classic "Susquehanna Hat" routine. I had seen this one before, years ago, and I seem to remember it was right around this point in their filmography that they seemed to run out of steam a bit, not surprising given the furious rate at which they were cranking these films out during these years. I checked, and even though they'd only been starring in films for three years at this point, this was already their 12th movie!

Friday, September 18, 2020

Waltzing Around, The Iceman's Ball

Followed up my screening of Clark and McCullough's Belle of Samoa with two more of their short films. Last night was Waltzing Around, apparently a quite rare film from 1929 that is the team's earliest surviving short. It was an early talkie made for Fox, like Belle of Samoa, but this one is a much better showcase for the team's comedy. The pair gets mixed up in a boxing match, with McCullough having to enter the ring against the champ after the original opponent is accidentally knocked out before the fight begins.

This morning I watched The Iceman's Ball (1932), one of their vehicles for RKO. I found it to be much funnier and better-constructed than either of their two Fox films I watched. Clark and McCullough join the police force but use this just as an excuse to pick up pretty girls and crash wild parties. Laurel & Hardy regular James Finlayson plays the police captain, and he's funny as always. Other familiar faces include Vernon Dent, Fred Kelsey, and Walter Brennan.

Hook Line and Sinker (1930)

Wheeler and Woolsey meet up with an heiress and take over her family's old hotel, turning it into a destination spot for society's elite. However, they run into trouble when a group of gangsters, who'd been using the abandoned hotel to stash their loot, crash the place on its opening night in order to clean out the safe.

After watching So This is Africa, I was looking for another fast-paced comedy to watch and, being on a bit of a Wheeler and Woolsey kick, this fir the bill perfectly. Photographed by Nick Musuraca, years before he helped define the "Film Noir" look with films like Out of the Past.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

So This is Africa (1933)

This one lived up to its reputation as one of the wildest of pre-Code comedies. It was the only film Wheeler and Woolsey made away from their home studio of RKO, and so it's been harder to find a copy of this one, even though I've been looking for it for about 15 years now. Thankfully, YouTube came through for me.

I won't bother recounting the plot -- which involves Wheeler and Woolsey somehow being selected to accompany a documentary filmmaker to Africa -- but I will say that the Norman Krasna script, Kalmar & Ruby songs, and direction by Eddie Cline keep the pace and laughs cracking for 60 minutes straight (apparently the film originally ran almost half an hour longer, but censors demanded trims before it could be released -- keep in mind, this was even before the enforcement of the Production Code a year later).

I really became a big Wheeler and Woolsey fan about 15 years ago, after reading Ed Watz's excellent bio of the team, and seeing a number of their films on TCM, including the wild and crazy Diplomaniacs (1933), which has been compared to Duck Soup for sheer zaniness.

A few of the team's early films, including Dixiana, Half Shot at Sunrise, and Hook Line and Sinker, are in the public domain and can be freely viewed online.

Clark & McCullough, Belle of Samoa (1929)

Years ago, I read about the comedy team of Clark & McCullough in Leonard Maltin's book on comedy short subjects. I'd never had a chance to see any of their films, though, which proved to be quite elusive. Until recently, that is -- when a number of them started turning up on YouTube. I watched one of the earliest ones on there last night, Belle of Samoa, made for Fox in 1929. This is apparently one of just two of the team's early Fox sound comedies that exist today (the other being Waltzing Around, also from 1929). Belle of Samoa was originally conceived as a sketch in the feature-length revue, Fox Movietone Follies of 1929, but was evidently such a hit with studio execs that they decided to release it as its own short subject.

The short's origins as part of a musical revue are evident in the amount of music-and-dance numbers in its short running time, though it's a good record of what the comedy team's Broadway and vaudeville performances must have looked like. As with other early sound comedies like The Cocoanuts or Rio Rita, it's a valuable record of a bygone era of entertainment, preserving for posterity what theater audiences would have seen.

After their stint with Fox, the team made a series of shorts for RKO Radio Pictures, which I plan to check out soon.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Color Me Blood Red (1965)

 Although not as well-known or influential as Blood Feast or Two Thousand Maniacs, this is the most entertaining of the Herschell Gordon Lewis gore pictures I've watched so far. The premise plays like a variation on The Little Shop of Horrors. A frustrated painter (a delirious, over-the-top performance by Don Joseph), desperate to please an art critic, becomes obsessed with the idea of using blood to achieve the perfect shade of red that he's been after. After draining his own fingertips, the painter seeks out a series of victims to provide him with an ongoing supply of blood.

Afterward, I watched Carving Magic (1959), a short industrial film by Lewis, featuring an early, uncredited appearance by Harvey Korman, of all people. Ironically, even with all the knives, there is no blood in sight -- this is a straightforward instructional look at carving meat. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Weird Fancies (1907)

This is a pretty cool "trick" film from Spanish cinematic wizard Segundo de Chomon, with original hand-stenciled color:

The Social Dilemma (2020)

I caught this Netflix original documentary examining the impact of social media platforms. Director Jeff Orlowski, who previously made the docs Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral, takes an unusual approach in blending the talking-head interview segments with dramatizations of a family torn apart by social media addiction. It's a melodramatic approach that undercuts the interesting observations of the interviewees -- made up largely of former execs, developers and other insiders from the major social media platforms.

Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell from Mad Men) has an amusing performance as "A.I.", manipulating social media users from a massive control center like a James Bond villain. And Kara Hayward from Moonrise Kingdom has a supporting role as well.

For anyone who has been following the insidious data-harvesting and user manipulation carried out by social media companies over the years, this doc will likely yield few surprises, but for everyone else it may contain some revelations.

Lenny (1974)

I'm not normally a fan of these types of biopics, but the combination of the subject, Dustin Hoffman's performance, and the fact that it's directed by Bob Fosse intrigued me. I'd actually been meaning to see this one since watching Fosse's All that Jazz about 15 years ago, which contains a film-within-a-film modeled on Lenny. For whatever reason, Lenny eluded me over the years -- either I wasn't able to find a copy when I was looking for one, or I didn't think to look for it when it might have been available.

Either way, I recently learned that it was available over on the Criterion Channel, and finally watched it last night. It reminded me a bit of Raging Bull in tracking its self-destructive character's rise and fall, not to mention the evocative B&W cinematography (by Bruce Surtees).

Fosse's direction is always fascinating, and he skillfully blends the pseudo-documentary approach with Hoffman's intense re-creations of Bruce's stand-up act. Hoffman delivered so many fine performances during the 1970s that it can be easy to overlook some of them. I rarely see this one mentioned when listing his great roles during that decade, but to me it ranks up there with the best of them.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Woody Allen Interviewed by Alec Baldwin

A recent interview with Woody Allen and Alec Baldwin, recorded back in June around the time of the publication of Allen's memoir, Apropos of Nothing. There is some interesting discussion here about his approach to making films, writing scripts and directing:

Memento (2000)

 I always joke that I'm about 20 years behind the times when it comes to catching up with movies. I watch so many older films that by the time I catch up with "current" releases of any given year, they're already a decade or two in the past. I'm making more of an effort to see films when they're new, but with so much to catch up on from years past, I find myself just trying to keep ahead of what's coming out. 

I finally caught up with Christopher Nolan's Memento, a film I remember hearing a great deal about when it was first released. I was familiar with the film's intriguing premise, which I'd heard discussed so often that it almost felt like I'd already seen the movie. While the premise of the film is indeed intriguing, I couldn't help feeling that there just wasn't enough beyond that to sustain the entire film. Perhaps if I'd seen it when it was new it would have made more of an impact on me. This was another one of those films from the late '90s-early 2000s that operated from an unusual narrative angle, similar to Charlie Kaufman's films like Being John Malkovich or Adaptation. There seemed to be a real vogue for that kind of storytelling for a while.

Rescued by Rover (1905)

Early "dog" movie and one of the most popular silents from England's "Brighton School" of filmmakers. The young daughter of a wealthy couple is kidnapped by gypsies and the family dog races to the rescue to get help. It's a simple story -- D.W. Griffith used the basic premise for his first film The Adventures of Dollie (1908) -- but it's expertly constructed and provides some genuine suspense. Produced by British film pioneer Cecil Hepworth, who cast his own daughter, Barbara, and the family dog, Blair, in the lead roles. Kevin Brownlow talks about this film in his documentary Cinema Europe (1995).

William K. Everson at Pacific Film Archive

The Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, Cal. has uploaded a series of recordings of film historian William K. Everson's introductions to his film screenings at PFA in the 1970s and 80s. The selection is available to stream at the Internet Archive here.

Everson was a big champion of the unsung gems of film history, including silent film at a time when few took it really seriously. These recordings are a good opportunity to hear more of his insights into some rarely-discussed films.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Two of Us (1967)

In Nazi-occupied Paris, a young Jewish boy (Alain Cohen) is sent to live in the countryside with the parents of a family friend, who are deeply anti-Semitic but unaware of the boy's identity. The old man, played by Michel Simon, takes the boy in, and forms a deep bond with him, never learning the truth about the boy's background. From this deep tension emerges a beautifully human story of different people finding solace in each other. The boy, aware of the old man's prejudices, finds ways of gently pushing back against them, having the effect of the man questioning some of his prejudices for the first time. But this is not a film that offers simple or trite solutions. The boy's Jewishness is never revealed to his new guardian, though the bond that they form is real and strong. 

There is an especially poignant scene that stands out: with the old man's urging, the boy has written a love letter to his sweetheart, which is intercepted by the girl's father and held up at school to punish the boy. The boy, humiliated and in tears, runs home to the old man, who comforts him like a father would. 

Director Claude Berri never hits a false note with the material, and the performances are equally pitch-perfect, which adds up to a powerful experience.

Herschell Gordon Lewis, Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs

I've been watching some of the Herschell Gordon Lewis films currently streaming on the Criterion Channel. I thought I'd seen Blood Feast on TV years ago, late at night on TCM, but now I'm not sure. I watched that one first, then Two Thousand Maniacs. I remember years ago, reading John Waters' book Shock Value, he devoted a chapter to his interview with Herschell Gordon Lewis, one of his cinematic heroes. I can see why Lewis' films would have appealed to him.

Although I was certainly familiar with Lewis' contributions to the gore genre, this has been the first time I've really gone through his filmography. Blood Feast is the one that started it all. John Waters used excerpts from it in his Serial Mom. A local caterer kidnaps and kills women for sacrifice to the goddess Ishtar. Though its influence is immeasurable, this premise isn't really enough to support the long stretches between the splatter scenes, but at least the whole thing runs just over an hour.

I preferred the zanier Two Thousand Maniacs. A town in the deep South is celebrating the centennial of a battle that laid waste to the entire town at the end of the Civil War, and hold hostage some Northern tourists who have been diverted off the main highway, proceeding to kill them off as revenge for the defeat suffered one hundred years earlier. It's social commentary, of a sort. Again, Waters paid tribute to this one with the title of his own film, Multiple Maniacs.

These are the kind of movies that have their own style, their own pace, and a distinctly unique sensibility, and you have to go with their flow to really get into them.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Short Film: "The Call"

 This is the new short comedy I just released on my YouTube channel today: