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.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

New Short Film: "Daydreams"

 New short comedy I made, just in time for Valentine's Day:

Saturday, February 06, 2021

HE Who Gets Slapped (1924)


"A clown may be amusing in a circus ring, but what would be your reaction to opening you door and finding that same clown on your front step at midnight?" -- Lon Chaney

Directed by Swedish master Victor Sjostrom (billed as "Seastrom" during his Hollywood tenure), this silent thriller stars Lon Chaney as a scientist whose groundbreaking research is stolen by his wealthy patron, and his life spirals out of control as he is reduced to performing as a circus clown whose act consists of being repeatedly slapped in the face. 

Chaney delivers a typically fine performance as the tragic clown. Newcomers John Gilbert and Norma Shearer appear in early supporting roles, and former Keystone Cop Ford Sterling plays one of the clowns. Chaney would again appear in a story of a Pagliacci-style clown in 1928's Laugh Clown Laugh. The character provides a rich contrast between his inner torment and outward appearance

This was the first film produced under the newly-formed MGM studio, in 1924.

Busy Bodies (1933)

One of the all-time, greatest two-reelers Laurel and Hardy ever produced. The idea of the Boys working in a saw mill is the perfect set-up for one great sight gag after another -- truly too many to list here. A great example of how the team could take slapstick situations that you could imagine being played by other comedians -- but make them entirely their own.

It's also a great example of how much their supporting players brought to these comedies: Tiny Sandford is the mill foreman, and their old nemesis Charlie Hall is their bedeviled coworker.

I remember this was one of the first Laurel and Hardy films I saw -- I had it on a VHS tape along with The Music Box, Helpmates, The Chimp and Chickens Come Home

Thicker Than Water (1935)

One of just three shorts that Laurel and Hardy made in 1935, their final year of producing two-reel comedies. Thicker Than Water is a fine situation comedy, with some of the team's best verbal comedy routines (the business with the rent money being passed around, and the auction scene). It seems that by this point in their films, the Boys were taking a more relaxed approach to their comedy, moving away a bit from the extended slapstick of their two-reelers from even just a couple years prior. There is a great scene of Hardy washing dishes, and Laurel placing them right back into the washbin after drying them off, which has a great payoff when Laurel puts the dishes on the hot stove flame to dry.

Daphne Pollard plays Hardy's wife, and James Finlayson is the landlord.

Another Fine Mess (1930)

Perhaps the origin of their frequently-misquoted catchphrase, Another Fine Mess is one of the more unusual Laurel and Hardy shorts, though one of my favorite. It's based on a stage sketch by Stan's father, and as such contains a bit more plot than usual, being a farce of the kind that normally didn't lend itself to the Boys' slapstick style of humor.

Laurel and Hardy had filmed this same sketch once before, as the first film in which they appeared as a team (Duck Soup, back in 1927). But the addition of sound, and the developments of their characters in the intervening years, make the 1930 version a much more fully-fleshed out comedy. It also gives the Boys a rare chance to engage in more verbal humor than usual, as well as playing characters that go beyond their usual "Stan and Ollie" personas, with Hardy impersonating Col. Buckshot with the aplomb of a Southern gentleman, and Stan dressing as both butler and maid.

Contains one of the funniest sight gags I've ever seen -- with the Boys tripping and sliding down the front steps while disguised in the hide of an antelope, and then riding a tandem bicycle down a busy street.

Features James Finalyson as the real Col. Buckshot, Charles Gerrard as Lord Plumtree, and the great Thelma Todd as Plumtree's wife.

Friday, February 05, 2021

Blue Jay (2016)

One of the great things about Netflix is the trove of independent films available on the service. They're just buried pretty deep in the algorithm sometimes, so you just have to do a little digging to find them.

One film that I came across recently was a poignant romantic drama called Blue Jay, from 2016, directed by Alex Lehmann, and starring Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson. Duplass has become one of my favorite actors to watch recently, both in his own independent productions as well as in Hollywood films and series (I'd just seen him in "Manhunt: Unabomber", playing Ted Kaczynski's brother who turns him in to the FBI). 

In Blue Jay, he plays a middle-aged man who returns to his hometown to sell his recently-deceased mother's home and spends his time there sifting through the pieces of his life. While there, he runs into an old friend from high school (Paulson), and the two end up spending the day, and eventually the evening, together, reminiscing about old times in Duplass' childhood home. As the day wears on, and old memories come to the surface, it's revealed that there is much more to their relationship than initially was apparent.

Beautifully shot in B&W. This was the first of the Duplass brothers' productions made under their deal with Netflix.

They Live by Night (1948)

A young man (Farley Granger) escapes from prison with two thieves (Howard Da Silva and Jay C. Flippen), but desires to leave behind a life of crime when he falls in love with the niece (Cathy O'Donnell) of one of the crooks. The two set out on the road, staying one step ahead of the law as they try to build a life together, but eventually fate catches up with them.

A solid Film Noir that marks the directorial debut of Nicholas Ray, it contains some impressive cinematography, including aerial shots filmed from a helicopter, and a handheld camera from the backseat of the getaway car during a bank robbery that looks forward to the bank robbery sequence from Gun Crazy the following year. 

Based on the book Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson. Currently available to stream on the Criterion Channel.

Thursday, February 04, 2021

The Killing (1956, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

I watched this one shortly after Killer's Kiss, so that earlier Kubrick film was fresh in my mind. I know I must have seen it before, but it's one of those movies that, watching it again, I found myself questioning whether I had in fact seen it before.

It strikes me that Kubrick's first couple of films -- and I may include The Killing in this too -- felt like movies he made for the sake of making a movie. The Killing struck me as a solid genre film (clearly a big influence on Tarantino), but still lacking the kind of cohesive vision that I think Kubrick demonstrated the following year with Paths of Glory

Without diminishing what Kubrick achieved on the tiny budgets of his previous two films, The Killing does clearly demonstrate the advantages of the relatively bigger budget he was working with thanks to his deal with UA, benefiting from a solid cast of pro actors and a much better script than he'd worked with before (though still bogged down in clunky narration that may have been imposed to clue audiences in on the time shifts in the action).

Having just seen Killer's Kiss, I was curious why Kubrick didn't suppress that film the way he did Fear and Desire. Part of it may have been purely practical -- because Killer's Kiss was picked up for distribution by UA, perhaps he just didn't have the power to keep it out of circulation (it's always been commercially available). Whereas, since Fear and Desire was out of circulation, it was easier for him to suppress it (although, it eventually fell into the public domain).

Whatever other criticisms one might have of Killer's Kiss, it does have Kubrick's cinematography going for it. I know Kubrick clashed with cinematographer Lucien Ballard on The Killing , but I think that by not trying to do it all, it allowed Kubrick to focus on the direction, which is certainly tighter than in his previous two films.

It also strikes me that James B. Harris is one of the great "unsung heroes" in Kubrick's career, taking a chance on the young director by producing this film, then producingPaths of Glory and Lolita, which as a trajectory made it possible for Kubrick to move from the earliest phase of his career to his status as a visionary, independent artist. It was in no small part due to Harris' belief in Kubrick that he was able to make that transition.

Killer's Kiss (1955, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

Kubrick's second feature film (though often cited as his first "real" feature, as the director suppressed his earlier film, Fear and Desire) is a low-budget, independent production shot in the streets and apartments of New York. Filming on his home terf, Kubrick brings his photographer's eye to composing stark B&W imagery that could have come right out of the pages of his work for LIFE magazine.

It's the story of a slightly past-his-prime boxer who falls in love with a showgirl, but her boss has his own romantic interests in the girl, and tries to stop both of them before they can leave town. The script is by future Hollywood screenwriter Howard Sackler, but it's a slight thread of a story that is padded out with extensive flashbacks and narration that really don't add much that we don't already know.

What the film lacks in plot, however, it more than makes up for in style, and it's easy to see why this film lead to Kubrick's association with producer James B. Harris and a bigger budget for his next film, The Killing, the following year.