Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

THE GROCERY CLERK'S ROMANCE (1912) **1/2
ON HIS WEDDING DAY (1913) **1/2
A LIFE IN THE BALANCE (1913) **
BANGVILLE POLICE (1913) **1/2
A FISHY AFFAIR (1913) *1/2
MABEL'S DRAMATIC CAREER (1913) *
A FLIRT'S MISTAKE (1914) **
MABEL'S MARRIED LIFE (1914) **1/2
THE GREAT TOE MYSTERY (1914) *1/2
SHOT IN THE EXCITEMENT (1914) *
"CURSES!" THEY REMARKED (1914) *
THE NOISE OF BOMBS (1914) ***
AMBROSE'S FIRST FALSEHOOD (1914) *
HASH HOUSE MASHERS (1915) *
Mack Sennett Keystone flicks. I'm not exactly loving this festival, but I do find it amusing and historically interesting. Like I said last week, it's a little tempered by the fact that a lot of the bits here are beyond routine by now and look a bit hackneyed. I know that's not exactly fair to judge the people who were doing it first on film by the fact that I've grown up seeing everything that it influenced/everything that ripped it off and repeated it, but, well, I'm only 36 and them's the breaks. I like Ford Sterling more than a lot of the other actors in the Keystone stable; he's broad, but I find it funny a lot of the time. He's not a precision comic, though, like the best of Sennett's players, including...

BARNEY OLDFIELD'S RACE FOR A LIFE (1913)
Fatty Arbuckle! I love Fatty Arbuckle. The guy's got everything you associate with the best of the silent clowns: he's precise but loose, very likable and not too hammy. He makes it look so fluid, but a lot of what he pulls off has to be timed to the second. Ingratiating without being cloying. I love the guy. This is sort of the quintessential Keystone flick, too: spurned, oily villain Ford Sterling (complete with giant mustache and top hat) ties Mabel Normand (another of Sennett's best) to the railroad tracks, and there's a race/chase to rescue her as her boyfriend Fatty and race car driver Barney Oldfield try to head off the train. Perfect timing. ***1/2

THE KNOCKOUT (1914)
TCM really needs to do a festival of just Arbuckle movies. Here he's pug boxer (named Pug) set to box gentleman fighter Cyclone Flynn (Edgar Kennedy). Funny stuff, enhanced by a supporting appearance by Charlie Chaplin (Sennett's best player, even if he only had the guy for his first year in film) as the referee, stealing the show right out from under Fatty. ***

RECREATION (1914)
Chaplin's Tramp and seaman Charles Bennett get in a brick fight over a girl. Chaplin is an artist, no matter how slight the material. Chaplin directed, too. ***

LEADING LIZZIE ASTRAY (1914)
Farm boy Fatty Arbuckle goes to the city to get back his girl. Arbuckle directed; Charley Chase, Mack Swain, and Edgar Kennedy appear. ***

FATTY AND MABEL AT THE SAN DIEGO EXPOSITION (1915)
Fatty and Mabel are a great team, here sightseeing at the San Diego Expo. Basically, Fatty and Mabel showed up at an actual event and largely improvised some comedy set pieces. And it's fun as hell. The highlight of the first round of TCM's Sennett festival. ***1/2

PUSSY TALK (1975)
Surprisingly involving French film from the Porn Chic era about a woman who is so repressed in her sexual desires that her vagina begins to speak for itself. (Did you know this is in a French literary tradition of talking vagina stories that date back to ancient folklore? I had no idea.) What I like about this movie is that it's a character study that also has some frank hardcore scenes that are integral. Penelope Lamour plays Joelle, a woman so unable to control or fulfill her desire that her pussy begins to order her around, taking her to some dark places while her husband (Jean-Loup Philippe) struggles to understand. In an extended flashback, the always-delectable Beatrice Harnois plays the younger Joelle. I know this sounds like bullshit, but it's better than any adult movie made in the last two decades because it's actually about something. Magic realism and psychological study in a porno. Amazing and worthwhile. ****

LE HAVRE (2011)
A couple of weeks ago I saw Shadows in Paradise, an Aki Kaurismaki film that I found too remote to embrace. Now I have this film, which I wish I could physically hug. This is another one of those films I describe as being very human; a perhaps slight but enjoyable and deft film about human connection and the sometimes surprising ways we help each other get along. It's about a Frenchman in the port city of Le Havre whose wife enters the hospital. While there, he finds an African boy, an illegal immigrant on the run from the local police and trying to get to London to reunite with his mother. What happens as the film continues is an interesting, at times masterful blend of the happy and painful bits that make up life. And that's what I think I liked most about this film; it's just life and the connections we make and the way we decide what's right and what we need to do to for others. It's lovely. ****

THE WAR GAME (1965)
I braced myself for this one a little bit. This is a fictional documentary made for the BBC (who chose not to air it) about a nuclear attack on Britain. So far away from the Cold War, I figured the film's impact would be dulled, but I was unprepared for just how chilling and affecting this film really is. It has a lot of facts at its disposal, but it also has the clinical removal from its subject matter of an emotionless news report, shying away from none of its details, and that's the film's best special effect. It adds a realism that makes the film powerful and impossible to look away from. At only just over an hour long, it shows us the human cost of a global crisis with such pragmatism and objectivity that it's horrifying. I don't think I could ever watch this again; it's too effective. ***1/2

THREE LITTLE PIGSKINS (1934)
The Three Stooges are mistaken for three great college football players, despite looking like retired carnival workers. Still, there's a very funny football game, and Lucille Ball appears. Not one of their best shorts, but an early winner. ***

GHOULIES (1985)
Intrinsically silly, but it sure takes its premise seriously. The son of a demon worshiping cult leader is drawn to the dark side, evil spells, dwarf minions, puppet demons, and his bland girlfriend. I appreciate the serious approach, but it just doesn't pull it off. The Ghoulies are way too cute, though. Where was their Muppet Babies style TV show? Michael des Barres is very Michael des Barres as the cultist/sorcerer of evil, and Mariska Hargitay is a little hottie in an early role. **

NIGHT OF THE COMET (1984)
Very fun cult flick about the end of the world. When a comet passes by Earth and kills most of the population, two sisters (Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney, who is awesome in this movie) are left to their own devices before hooking up with a truck driver played by Robert Beltran. Oh, and there are zombies. And a trip to an empty shopping mall. It's a very, very 80s movie and fun as hell. And Mary Woronov is in it, which enhances everything. This really succeeds because even with the humor it takes its characters seriously and cares about what happens to them; it doesn't sacrifice the character integrity for the sake of comedy (but it's a very funny movie). ***1/2

I THINK WE'RE ALONE NOW (2008)
This was pretty riveting and uncomfortable. This documentary follows two fans who are obsessed with Tiffany to an unhealthy level. One believes he and Tiffany are friends; the other is an intersexed individual who thinks she and Tiffany are meant to be together because of a vision she had while in a coma. It's fascinating to see the depths of their delusions and exactly how each deals with it. Tiffany doesn't talk to the camera, but she does appear at signings and a concert; it's interesting to see how she handles the man who thinks he and Tiffany are great friends, realizing that if she gives him just enough attention to satisfy him but not enough to encourage him to do more, than she's in a safe zone. The intersexed fan, who meets Tiffany for the first time at a signing and seems to be fulfilled by it, has a more interesting reaction; meeting her idol seems to give her new resolve to come to a decision about her sexuality and seems to reach a more mature view. Unforgettable. ***

A BIRD'S A BIRD (1915) *
GUSSLE'S DAY OF REST (1915) *
DO-RE-MI-BOOM! (1915) *
COURT HOUSE CROOKS (1915) *
DIRTY WORK IN A LAUNDRY (1915) ***
A LOVER'S LOST CONTROL (1915) *
A SUBMARINE PIRATE (1915) *
DIZZYING HEIGHTS AND DARING HEIGHTS (1916) **1/2
WIFE AND AUTO TROUBLE (1916) *
HIS BITTER PILL (1916) **
THE SURF GIRL (1916) **1/2 -- The swimming pool this is filmed at is a great location.
MADCAP AMBROSE (1916) *
HER TORPEDOED LOVE (1917) *
A CLEVER DUMMY (1917) *
THIRST (1917) *
From the second week of TCM's Mack Sennett festival.

FATTY AND MABEL ADRIFT (1916)
So far, this is my favorite of the Sennett films TCM has shown. Fatty and Mabel court, marry and move to the seaside where the spurned rival (Al St. John) sets their house adrift on the ocean. Great setpieces, and just the image of the floating shack is wonderful. Fatty and Mabel are fantastic, and I love Al St. John; I don't know if he was, but he's a lot like a circus clown, very expressive and acrobatic. Wayland Trask is hilarious as the criminal leader, casually eating dynamite and drinking gasoline. Hilarious stuff. ****

HE DID AND HE DIDN'T (1916)
There's an interesting dramatic dimension to this comedy. Fatty and Mabel are a well-off married couple, and Fatty is very jealous when Mabel's handsome schoolmate turns up to visit and spend the night. Fatty spends the night worrying about being cuckolded, and there's some great physical comedy when Al St. John shows up as a very acrobatic thief out to burgle the place. ****

THE WAITERS' BALL (1916)
Fatty and Al St. John work at a restaurant and get into a fight over a girl. A little slight, but Fatty is absolutely wonderful in this one. His scenes in the kitchen are hilarious and impressive; just the precision of his comic timing and the, I don't know, engineering of his bits are fantastic. ****

TEDDY AT THE THROTTLE (1917)
Gloria Swanson plays a girl set to inherit a lot of money; when the executor of her father's estate finds out, he schemes to marry her to get his hands on her incoming fortune. This leads to some chasing and Gloria getting tied to the railroad tracks. It's interesting seeing the dramatic star of Queen Kelly and Sadie Thompson in a comedy, especially one where the actual star is Teddy, the dog who rescues her. Her then-husband Wallace Beery is appropriately hissable as the villain. ***

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN: THE SECRET OF THE UNICORN (2011)
The day may be coming when live action films and cartoons are practically indistinguishable from one another. This is the first time I've felt that motion capture was entirely successful; it didn't distract me, it didn't creep me out, and it adds an extraordinary fluidity of camera to what is an astoundingly enjoyable film. I didn't expect to like this at all, much less absolutely love it. The motion capture works because there's no creepy attempt to try and get the characters to look like the actors playing them; instead, they're stylized versions of Herge's characters and take on believable dimensions because the film doesn't ask too much of them. By making them just animated enough, and keeping the film and the characters in the realm of the cartoon, the whole film doesn't feel jarring or like a special effects showcase. When the characters defy the laws of physics, it's in a fun, heightened way that doesn't seem far-fetched, but when the characters have to convey emotions, it's also successful. How is this film so damn good? A large part, of course, is the story, which captures the flavor of the comics without trying too hard to ape them. The whole thing is so fluid, so fun, so easy to love and get involved in. I know there are a lot of people who disagree with me on this, but I don't care. This is somehow the great adventure I've been hoping to see for years, and from two filmmakers--Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson--that I was a little worried about never seeing anything good from again. I'm going right to the unpopular opinion on this one: it's easily the best, purest film Steven Spielberg has made since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. ****

STAR WARS XXX: A PORN PARODY (2012)
Note to everyone in the entertainment industry: I've seen enough Star Wars parodies for one lifetime. No more, please. All of the humor has been mined. This skin flick is not fun, not funny, and most unforgivable of all, not sexy. * star because Allie Haze is quite commanding sometimes as Princess Leia. But Jesus, just stop.

MARGARET (2011)
I'm not even sure how to describe this film. Anna Paquin stars in the greatest performance she may ever give as Lisa, a 17 year-old private school student who is involved in a traumatic, horrific accident. The shock of the incident sort of triggers what becomes an epic coming-of-age story, during which Lisa toys with her students and teachers, loses her virginity, tries to find a comfortable ground with her divorced parents, and becomes involved in a court case. That describes the plot, such as it is, but not the emotions surrounding it. It's a very emotionally complex but emotionally honest film. Paquin's Lisa is a real teenager, approaching life through that self-centered, pretentious, inexperienced prism that most teenagers view their lives through. A big part of this film is the way Lisa deals with shattered expectations and the way youthful idealism is always countered by the realities of the way the adult world works. She's looking for justice, for honesty, and for connection in a world that is often cruel, pragmatic and random. It's a tremendous film, very powerful in its honesty, and it's a shame that writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (who made the excellent 2000 film You Can Count on Me) has been directing, editing, and trying to get this film released since 2005. (How old is this project? Two of the producers on the film have been dead. For years.) A lot of the critical response I read is that this film is a mess, it's not tight enough, and I see the criticisms, but it doesn't diminish the overall effect for me at all. Life is a mess. Life isn't tight enough. I was very moved. This may be my favorite film of 2011, and it's terrible that Anna Paquin wasn't able to be considered for an Oscar. ****

(Full disclosure: I was only able to get the 150-minute version and not the 188-minute version, which I'd very much like to see.)

I SELL THE DEAD (2008)
Funny, stylish flick about Victorian grave robbers who tangle with rivals and zombies. ***

SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE (1986)
Eh. *

CARNIVAL IN FLANDERS (1935)
Funny, witty, gorgeous-looking. A Flemish town in 1616 is preparing for a carnival when an invading Spanish army announces that it will be passing through. Fearing that this will lead only to rape and pillage, the burgomaster cooks up a plan to fake his own death, thinking the Spanish will not want to stay out of respect for the town's mourning. The burgomaster's wife (played with great relish and wit by Francoise Rosay) thinks it's a cowardly idea, and instead works with the women of the town to take charge of the situation and repel the invaders with great hospitality. This film is a delight, enhanced by its beautiful setting and costumes, made joyous by great performances and a satirical screenplay. ****

6 comments:

JA said...

Love your thoughts on Margaret, Aaron - I agree totally that the film's messiness works completely in its favor. It's a movie that doesn't let go either - it's been months since I saw it and I think about it all the time. I've been dying to see the extended version too. Paquin is just amazing, isn't she? Hopefully we won't have to wait forever for Lonergan's next flick.

Kelly Sedinger said...

I feel kind of strange having never seen a Mack Sennett movie, given his prominent spot in pie-in-the-face history....

SamuraiFrog said...

JA: She's so excellent in it. My only option right now to get DVDs is through my library, and the whole system only has the theatrical version. Quite the frustration.

Kelly: And not one pie in the face so far! I feel kind of cheated, but there are two more nights of programming left, tomorrow and next Thursday...

John Seven said...

Bravo on your Tintin verdict. I thought it was great and when I'd read criticism, often felt like I was reading about the movie the critic feared he was going to see instead of the one actually being watched.

Kelly Sedinger said...

Not one?! I feel cheated on your behalf.

The Pretentious Know it All said...

Weird...I watched Margaret this week as well and I absolutely loved it, even more than I was expecting it to. Paquin really nails down playing a grating character. The self-absorption, even when she's trying to do the "right" thing is played so perfectly and it's one of the most realistic movie teenagers I've ever seen.