Saturday, July 20, 2019

Review - Blade Runner 2049

July 20, 2019

Blade Runner 2049­ – US, 2017

When we last saw Rick Deckard and his Replicant girlfriend, Rachael, they were in some American countryside and Deckard’s voice was telling us that Gaff’s prediction of a short life for Rachael had been erroneous; at least, that’s what viewers thought was true until those gorgeous panoramic views and Harrison Ford’s last monologue were exorcised from the film and replaced by a more noirish ending, one of Deckard and Rachael getting into an elevator, on the run and headed toward an uncertain future. Oh, and those later versions also hinted that Deckard was a Replicant, a possibility that I always found preposterous. In any event, by the time its “sequel” was released, the Final Cut was being touted as the official version of the film, and many fans had come to believe that Deckard and Rachael were of the same maker.

Fast forward to 2017, a year plagued with sequels and remakes. There was Wonder Woman, Logan, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, War for the Planet of the Apes, another Thor film, Alien: Covenant, the third incarnation of Spider-Man in just over 15 years, and yet another nauseous ride on Pirates of the Caribbean, so of course there had to a sequel to Blade Runner, never mind that it had been 35 years since the original film hit theaters or that sequels to films that old did not have a good track record at the box office. (Anyone remember The Rage: Carrie 2, The Odd Couple II, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps or The Two Jakes?) By then of course, a sequel could not just be a sequel. No, it had to also be a reboot and to kick off the franchise for the next generation. It had to have newer, younger, better looking characters that could then carry on the franchise after all the remaining legacy ones had been killed off.   

In hindsight, what we get in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is logical, but while it is not in the same vein as Dwayne Johnson’s appearance in The Mummy 2, the bait-and-switch employed in the marketing of Blade Runner 2049 still stings. See, for the film’s first hour and fifty minutes, Harrison Ford does not make an appearance, and after a brief scene of fisticuffs with Ryan Gosling’s younger Blade Runner, he doesn’t have much to do except require rescuing. In other words, Blade Runner 2049 is not your father’s Blade Runner.

In the film, Gosling plays “K”, a blade runner who is also a Replicant. See, it turns out that a man who has apparently never seen a science fiction movie about this sort of thing later decided to market Replicants that are programmed only to obey, which might seem like a good idea had it not already proved disastrous in the first movie. But I digress. The film follows K as he investigates the mysterious claim of a fellow Replicant, played by Dave Bautista, to have witnessed a miracle. That marvelous event is later revealed to have been the birth of a child by a Replicant, the repercussions of which could be catastrophic for humanity as it would start a war between Replicants and humans that could lead the mass extinction of human beings. Seeking to avoid such an outcome, K’s boss (Robin Wright) quietly orders him to destroy all evidence that such a child exists. Gee, I wonder if he’ll do it.

And wouldn’t you know it, the mother of the baby just happens to be named Rachael. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Just where have I seen this before? Well, for starters, there’s V, The Fly II, The X-Files, and the recent re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica. But here’s an even crazier thing. The birth seems to undercut the whole “Deckard is a Replicant” storyline because nowhere in the film is it explained how two Replicants could produce a child. In fact, we’re even told that the creator of the newest generation of Replicants has been trying for years to give them the ability to give life and failed. So, the magic formula must involve a human being, right?

Speaking of the creator, one Nainder Wallace (Jared Leto), I should mention the sheer lunacy of the character. The opening scroll refers to him as having saved humanity from a famine, yet when we finally see him, he spouts off the kind of maniacal dialogue that we have long grown accustomed to hearing from cinematic villains who simply must tell people things they already know. And he must present his villain credential in entirely unrealistic ways, a la Blofeld’s henchmen in Spectre, who proves he’s worthy of the job by killing a fellow villain in front of a crowd of approving baddies. Here, he creates a new Replicant only to kill it a second later because it does not have the ability to give birth, and before you ask, yes, he knew this before he did it, and yes, he narrates his actions the entire time.

And while I’m on the subject of odd details, I can’t help mentioning the city that featured so prominently in the first preview for the film. That was the one in which K walks through a dusty abandoned city looking for Deckard. The city, it turns out, has so much radiation that it is virtually abandoned. When the bad guys arrive looking for them, they exit their flying vehicles wearing masks, yet there’s Deckard, living there for who knows how many years and never, it seems, wearing anything resembling standard radiation protection. The guy’s simply indestructible.     

Perhaps, as is true with the last two Star Wars movies, audiences will enjoy the film more if they haven’t seen Blade Runner. Then, they won’t see the similarities between K and Rutger Hauser’s Roy Batty, Rachael and K’s girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), and Eldon Tyrell – the original creator of the Replicants – and Niander Wallace. While not carbon copies of each other, they have enough in common to explain the occasional sense of déjà vu.

If there’s one aspect of the film I was fascinated by, it was K’s relationship with Joi, for it expands our understanding of love and its possibilities. Every time the relationship was explored, I was fascinated by it. Here are two things, one physical and one virtual, that find in each other a reason for being beyond their programmed duties. They demonstrate the ever changing nature of AI technology and illustrate that all things have an unmistakable need for companionship, even if they are not sure what to do with it when they find it. It is a reminder that love’s boundries are continually breaking, giving rise to something that often transcends space and tangibility. I could have watched an entire movie on their relationship.

Alas, that is not the film we get. Instead, we get one that never quite justifies its existence. We certainly didn’t need to know what Deckard was up to thirty years later, and while the film is well-acted and technically accomplished, nothing we see seems novel anymore. We’ve seen the depressing sights of a utopian society, we’ve watched films that ask us to reconsider our long-standing views on love, and we’ve seen someone race to find a child said to be the key to the world’s future. What we haven’t seen is the fate of Rachael and Deckard. Check that. We thought we did. Now we see the official updated version, and to tell you truth, it’s all a bit narratively underwhelming. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 and a half stars

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Review - Phantom (1922)

July 13, 2019

Phantom – Germany, 1922

Picture a man getting knocked over by an out-of-control carriage. At first, he appears to be unconscious – possibly even worse. A moment later, he comes to, and, in his rattled and likely concussed state, he stares at the beautiful young driver of the coach as she repeatedly inquires as to his well-being. Now, picture this man, his gaze frozen on the young woman who appears to be encircled in angelic white light, a contrast with the darker colors of the clothes and city surrounding him. The man rises, slightly stumbles forward, a look of confusion in his eyes. The young lady, seeing that he appears to be physically unharmed, gets back in her coach and rides off. Abruptly, the man takes off after the coach, his demeanor akin to that of a man possessed. Now, what would be your assessment of the man’s condition?

If I were a betting man, I say that most people would assume that he had some sort of brain trauma – a severe concussion, perhaps. After all, to ignore your physical well-being and chase after a woman you’ve only seen once is hardly the action of a man with all of his faculties functioning as they should. This impression would be strengthened by what comes next – a frantic, obsessive pursuit of a stranger that involves pleading with her extremely discomforted mother not to engage her to another man until he’s had a chance to pursue her. The woman wisely whispers for a servant to get her husband at once.

The character in question is Lorenz Lubota, a poor government desk clerk whose love of reading often takes precedence over his empty stomach. An interest as strong as this one usually indicates a romantic quality, yet it’s hard to see Lorenz ever being confused as a Romeo-type. His eyes avert contact, he doesn’t seem to apply himself to anything – certainly not to his job – and he seems utterly unaware that one of his neighbors has fallen head over heel for him. It’s entirely possible he’s never had a girlfriend or even been out on a date. As the film progresses, we witness Lorenz’s moral decline, as he begins to acquire both an inflated sense of self and an awareness of the importance of money if he is going to have the successful ending to his own skewed version of Romeo and Juliet.

Lorenz is played by Alfred Abel, and like many actors from the silent period he started out on the stage. By all accounts, he was rather successful there. His Wikipedia entry references his involvement in Berlin’s Deutschen Theate in 1904, nine years before he would make his first appearance on the silver screen. He would go on to play the leader of the underground city in Fritz Lang’s seminal film Metropolis. He even survived the transition to sound and appeared in 140 films during his twenty-five year film career. You don’t have that kind of longevity by chance.

Having said that, I must admit that he is wrong for the role of Lorenz Lubota. Born in 1879, Abel was over forty when he took on the part, and he looked it. In his face, we do not see the youthful naivety of a man whose emotions have suddenly overwhelmed him. Instead, there’s desperation, the look of someone who seems to be under the impression that he has only one chance at true love. His physical movements are manic, and when he isn’t making entirely inappropriate requests of complete strangers, he’s allowing delusions of grandeur to overwhelm him and cause him to entertain the notion that a perfect stranger would fall in love with him if only given the opportunity. All of this would be fine were the film to acknowledge that Lorenz’s actions have a medical explanation, yet as the film went on, it became clear that one was not coming. Where’s the doctor from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari when you need him?

The uneven nature of the lead character almost overshadows the positives in the film, and there are many worth mentioning. I particularly enjoyed the depictions of Lorenz’s mother and his well-off aunt, and their strained relationship shines a light on the suffering that is allowed to go on because of disdain that some have for those who just can’t seem to pull themselves out of poverty. I also admired the way the film depicted the contrasting values of the young in the 1920s. In the film, Lorenz’s younger brother is an art student, and he dutifully takes care of his mother. Their sister could not be more dissimilar. She spends her evenings at a freewheeling tavern where alcohol flows liberally and men gather to enjoy the flirtations of much younger women, many of whom are openly looking to hook up with someone able to provide them with a life of fun and financial security.

I also admired many of Murnau’s directorial choices, particularly his use of light and darkness. In one scene, Murnau has Lorenz run through a city than seems to bending over and which is filled with shadowy figures who seem to know about Lorenz’s moral breakdown. Murnau also gets great performances from several of the cast. Frida Richard is a wonder as Lorenz’s mother, and Aud Egede-Nissen hits all the right notes as his morally lost sister. Anton Edthofer is impressive in the role of Lorenz’s corrupter, Mr. Wigottschinski, and Grete Berger is excellent in the very challenging role of Lorenz’s aunt, Pfandleiherin Schwabe, who is both the victim of a crime and an entirely classist individual. In fact, I’d venture to say that when Lorenz is not on screen or not the character driving the drama, the film is quite impressive.

Yet Lorenz is there, and Phantom is ultimately his story. Perhaps in another decade, the character would have been a World War I veteran dealing with PTSD or a doctor would diagnose his erratic behavior as being the result of the carriage accident. And characters would talk about this and declare their concern for his mental stability. This would make his character much more sympathetic, and we would see his decline as not moral failure but a tragic symptom of a much larger problem. We would also get a hint of the means by which he recovers his senses. Sadly, that is not this film. Still, I can’t say I disliked the film entirely, yet when a character begins a movie by declaring that what we’re going to see is both a confession and a release, his explanation should satisfy the viewer and make us empathize with the storyteller. This doesn’t happen in Phantom, and the fault is a performance that is at cross purposes with a narrative. (on DVD from Flicker Alley)

2 and a half stars

*Phantom is a silent film.      

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Miscellaneous Musings

July 5, 2019

On The Odd Decision to Censor Oneself

In December 2001, Disney began releasing its original cartoon classics as part of its Walt Disney Treasures series, and for the next few years, consumers were able to get such collections as Mickey Mouse in Color or The Complete Goofy. The cartoons contained on the sets were presented in chronological order, and whenever one contained what might be considered questionable content by today’s standards, Leonard Maltin would appear to give us what might pass today as an early spoiler alert – only instead of telling us key plot details, he simply warned us that some people might be offended by what followed.

And sometimes what followed was as innocuous as Pluto sticking his head in a furnace and coming out covered with black soot. He then got down on one knee and belted out, “Mammie!” Film aficionados, both then and now, got the refeence instantly, and I can imagine them chuckling a bit at the animated rib of Al Jolson. Whether they took offense to it or not, I cannot say. However, the reaction to blackface has always depended on the audience watching it. It is certainly possible that White audiences laughed, while African-Americans sat silently, a look of resignation or shock on their faces. They would have been fully aware of the historical use of blackface to dehumanize and ridicule African-Americans and that it had its origins during the horrific days of slavery. Sadly, it continued as “entertainment” far longer than we’d like to admit.

So, perhaps modern audiences needed Maltin’s warning of possibly objectionable content. The same could probably be said of viewers who have discovered these cartoons or others like them in the years since. One can only speculate what today’s young people would make of Heckle and Jeckle or the Asian-looking cat that plays the piano with chopsticks in The Aristocats. However, Maltin’s words of warning were only the first part of his introduction. Following it were words that I agreed with then and am in complete agreement with today: It is better to see these images for ourselves and talk about them than it is to sweep them under the rug and pretend they never existed.

It’s better that we can see Al Jolson putting on blackface. It better that we can Tom (the cat) wearing a cymbal as if it were a traditional Chinese hat. It’s better that we can see John Wayne swaggering his way through his performance as Genghis Khan, the obviously White actors wearing blackface in The Birth of a Nation, Buster Keaton appearing as every member of a black minstrel show, and Mickey Rooney banging his head on a lantern every time he awakens in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s better that we remember what was as it truly was and not as we’d like it to have been.

What does it mean, then, that Disney has begun removing “questionable content” from their films? Gone is the crow’s musical number from Dumbo, cast into permanent exile is Song of the South, and, discovered just this week, mysteriously deleted is Stinky Pete’s inappropriate flirtatious offer to get a pair of identical twins into the next Toy Story movie. Apparently, Disney no longer sees controversial moments as teachable moments. Or perhaps it’s something even more disturbing. Maybe it believes that the internet generation is unable to see offensive content without flying into a rage. Whatever the reason, Disney’s decision is akin to throwing in the towel, and it casts their decision to remake their animated classics as live-action films in a new light. After all, doing so allows these classic tales to be told in a way that takes into account “modern sentiments,” a term that in too many people’s eyes has come to mean sans controversy.

I remember seeing Toy Story 2 in theaters. I remember the laughter that followed Stinky Pete’s indecent proposal. Everyone knew what he was referring to, and it was fun to see him caught in the act. Of course, that was before Me Too and Times Up, before stories of violent assaults perpetrated by powerful players in Hollywood made headlines almost daily, before Bill Cosby was found guilty of sexual assault. Can we laugh the same way today, or do we suddenly fall into stunned silence, shocked that a cartoon has made light of something so vile?

Of course, to do so would be to judge the film through much clearer eyes than we had back in 1999, a time when Harvey Weinstein was being praised for successfully promoting foreign and independent films and the women whose careers he secretly ruined were being promoted as “difficult.” Years later, a website would begin publishing articles with titles that began “Why Hollywood Won’t Hire…” Never did they list that a Hollywood starlet couldn’t get a decent role because she had fought back.

There is a conversation to be had about how or even if to watch movies that are made controversial by modern sentiments or their association with a figure that is now despised, However, this is a conversation that we should be able to have, and if we make the decision to watch them, we should be able to. Disney’s decision denies us this choice and robs us of what it once recognized as a teachable moment. What’s more, it reinforces a terrible stereotype – a misnomer about the fragility of this generation. But let’s says, for argument’s sake, that the word has indeed turned hypersensitive and can no longer handle the mere suggestion or sight of something repugnant. The answer is still not to delete it from public record. The answer, as it’s always been, is to inform people of it and then to let them make their own decisions. Disney used to understand this. 

Friday, June 28, 2019

Review - A Walk in the Clouds

June 28, 2019

A Walk in the Clouds – U.S., 1995

When Keanu Reeves made Alfonso Arau’s A Walk in the Clouds, it had been a year since his breakout role in Speed, and he was hardly known as a romantic lead. Sure, he’d played Uma Thurman’s love interest in Dangerous Liaisons, as well as the lovable idiot Todd in Parenthood, but he’d never really made a film in which he was called upon to be the guy who wins the girl over time through sweetness, passion, and upstanding character. Speed had made him an action star, an impression he would continue to solidify with his next film, Johnny Mnemonic and 1996’s Chain Reaction. Just three years later came The Matrix, and that, as they say, was that. In fact, looking at his filmography, he hasn’t made a traditional romance since 2006’s The Lake House, a film whose success was attributed more to Sandra Bullock than Reeves.

A Walk in the Clouds came in between his action films, and perhaps its fate was merely the result of bad timing. Had it been made before Speed, before public impression began to typecast him as either Ted Logan or Jack Tavern, perhaps it wouldn’t have suffered so much at the box office.

The thing about Keanu Reeves circa 1995 is that he did not have the reputation he has now. Sure, he’d been in some hit movies, but few of these hits had been attributed directly to him. And his reputation as an actor was somewhat muddled. He was praised for playing characters that critics said were similar to “himself” and when he stepped out of these roles, which he did for Kenneth Branagh in Much Ado About Nothing and Gus Van Sant in My Own Private Idaho, he was criticized for being out of his league, rather than being lauded for taking on a challenge. Perhaps then it is not surprising that A Walk in the Clouds underwhelmed with moviegoers. It did have its fans though, chief among them Roger Ebert, who proclaimed, “I love this movie. I love every single thing about it.”   
And while I don’t share Ebert’s level of enthusiasm for the film, there is a charm to it that continues to resonate despite its rather formulaic structure.

In the film, Reeves plays Paul Sutton, a World War II veteran who returns from the war determined to reunite with his wife and set his life on a new path. His wife, however, has other ideas; not realizing how much he’s changed (And how could she? She didn’t read any of the hundreds of letters he wrote), she envisions him returning to his old job as a chocolate salesman. On a business trip, Paul runs into a young woman named Victoria (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) and then proceeds to run into her over and over again, which is usually a sure sign of cosmic intervention in films. Eventually, she tells him that she’s pregnant and that the baby’s father has declared himself a free spirit and abandoned her. Her own father, we soon learn, is very traditional and has not had kind prognostications for anyone who would bring shame to his family, and a pregnant single daughter would certainly fit that description. Paul hatches a plan: He’ll pretend to be her husband for a day and then disappear, thereby taking the brunt of her father’s rage.

Movies such as this one often follow a recognizable pattern, and in this regard, A Walk in the Clouds is no different. There must be a disapproving member of the family, here represented by Victoria’s father. That characters counterpart must be a bit more accepting and appeal to the others’ emotions for understanding and acceptance, a description that ca be applied to Victoria’s mother, and there must be the eccentric, that oddball character who is jovial and can be counted on to dispense the most timely advice imaginable. That character comes in the form of Victoria’s grandfather, played with great passion and gusto by Anthony Quinn. The pattern also calls for a moment of reckoning, during which the truth must come out and the response to it is overblown and not to the heroes’ benefit. Here too A Walk in the Clouds does not deviate from the road laid out by its numerous predecessors.

What does distinguish the film is its focus on the traditions and culture of Victoria’s family. In one scene, we witness people coming together to save grapes from frost, and what unfolds is a scene of such grace and beauty that it matters little that the rationale behind their actions is never given. In another wonderful scene, the completion of the harvest leads to an impressive ceremony involving a conch shell, a mariachi band, and a playful dance that takes place in a vat filled with newly picked grapes. These scenes are a wonder to behold, and the film does a good job of tying their beauty to the romance budding between Victoria and Paul.

As for Reeves, it’s clear he was still learning his craft. Here, he’s essentially playing the same type of role that made Leonardo DiCaprio a worldwide sensation. Paul Sutton is a character without a dark side or an impure thought. Sure, he is suffering from PTSD and having a recurring nightmare of a particularly tragic day during World War II, but that never seems to alter his mood upon awakening. Like Jack Dawson, he’s just a nice guy who always seems to know what the right and moral thing to say and do is. It’s a less challenging role than others that he played, but he’s generally effective in it.

As Victoria, Sanchez-Gijon has a much more complicated role, for Victoria is a character whom circumstance has forced to go through life wearing a mask in front of those that could reasonably be expected to accept her in her entirety. However, the world is imperfect, and thus in front of her parents, she is one way; with Paul, another. I suspect only after the credits role does she truly get to be herself. Sanchez-Gijon does truly wonderful things with the role.

There is a safety to movies like this. We know everything will turn out in the end and that no character will emerge as a true villain. Even Paul’s wife comes out unscathed. In that sense, this is an old fashioned movie, set during more traditional times. At no point does any character suggest or contemplate abortion, and infidelity is excused as being a natural bi-product of the rapid courtships and rushed weddings that often preclude soldiers being sent off to war. In many ways, A Walk in the Clouds declines to challenge viewers, asking little of them other than just to sit back and enjoy the spectacle, and for the most part I did. A Walk in the Clouds may be predictable, yet its sweetness and charm render it almost impossible to dislike. And after seeing it, I was no longer surprised to see a headline proclaiming Reeves to be “the internet’s boyfriend.” Had more people seen A Walk in the Clouds, it’s a moniker he could have had much sooner. (on DVD)

3 stars

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Review - The Flying Ace

June 22, 2019

The Flying Ace – U.S., 1926

The Flying Ace, I suspect, is one of those films that will be praised much more for its historical importance than for its value as entertainment, and in truth, there’s nothing wrong with this. After all, many films that advanced what cinema could do or that showed the level of technology that filmmakers now had at their disposal have been nothing to write home about, and so it is with The Flying Ace. Here is a film that in many ways is a middle finger to the establishment, one in which African-Americans are the heroes, villains, and heroines of their own stories, and for that reason the film, as well as others ones similarly made in the early days of cinema, is vital, for it lays bare a truth about cinema, its universal calling, and the variety of its audience.

As for the film itself, it’s a bit of a disappointment, but this is mostly due to the faults and trappings of its genre, which director and writer Richard E. Norman was unable to avoid. At just over an hour, the film has scant time to waste, so in the film’s opening moments, we see three men crowded together at a railway station. This would not be noteworthy were it not for the sinister looks of their faces and the intertitles that hint that the three of them are going to be the villains in this tale. We’ve even told that one of them has a mysterious source of income. A train arrives, and a lone man disembarks. This, we learn, is Blair Kimball (Boise De Legge) the paymaster, and his appearance is a surprise, for he was expected a day later. Speculation soon has it that he has come with $25,000 for payroll. Any doubt about what the three of them are thinking of doing is quickly erased by their devious expressions. Soon both the money and Kimball have disappeared, and the station’s second in command, Thomas Sawtelle (George Colvin) – not one of the shady-looking fellows mentioned earlier - is a suspect.

Luckily, the cavalry arrives in the form of a decorated World War I pilot named Billy Stokes (Laurence Criner), who just happens to be a crack detective when he’s not off on foreign soil fighting for the United States of America. He shows up just as train officials learn of the case and is quickly offered the case. Naturally, he accepts, and equally naturally, he enlists a sidekick (Steve Reynolds), a war buddy who lost a leg, yet can still ride a bicycle so fast that he can overtake a speeding car. I would be remiss here if I didn’t mention an additional character, Ruth Sawtille (Kathryn Boyd), the daughter of the accused and the love interest of one of the men who are obviously rotten to the core. Anyone care to wager who she’ll fall for by the end of the picture?

From here, the film becomes a game of reveal and conceal, in which the detective reveals that he has discovered a clue only to then conceal its relevance to the case. This was understandably done to hold the audience in suspense, yet what films like this fail to recognize is that for the film to work, the audience must be part of the investigation. If the dots cannot be connected or the detective’s confusion shared, then what is the point of investing in the film? Yet so many detective films treat their audience as if they were uneducated buffoons who couldn’t follow a clue even if it came attached to an arrow pointing in the direction of the culprit. In movies like that, a detective finds something noteworthy, gives one of those “A-ha!” expressions, and simply walks away. It’s grating after a while, and pretty soon, I just gave up trying to play armchair detective.

There are other problems. One, the protagonist is a bit of a bore, lacking both wit and drama. He’s Sherlock Holmes without the drollness and arrogance, Bond without the caustic remarks and romantic appeal. In short, he’s just there. Second, the comedy falls flat. This may seem odd to say about a mystery, yet Billy’s sidekick, Peg (get it?), is too often played for laughs. In one scene, he jumps on a bicycle and peddles furiously while actually going nowhere. In another, he stands and watches his good buddy engaged in fisticuffs with a suspect and does nothing but cheer and make arm rolls in excitement. I don’t think he ever takes the case seriously. In addition, there’s also the kind of scene that usually foreshadows a later predicament, a la Mel Gibson’s Forever Young. In the scene, Ruth is giving a flying lesson by the man who loves her, Finley Tucker (Harold Platts, one of the film’s lone bright spots), and she remarks, “I think I’ll never learn to fly – too complicated.” So, Tucker gives her a long, tedious explanation of the mechanics of flight. One would naturally expect Ruth to find herself in the cockpit later on and for someone’s life to be on the line. Alas, Ruth’s next flight finds her passed out in the rear seat and in need of rescue, making the earlier scene utterly pointless. Odder still, the film elects to wrap up its mystery with over twenty-five minutes to go, and when you’ve got that much time remaining and three villains, realistically only one thing can happen, and in this film, it does.

So, the film is a disappointment, yet it remains a curious one. After all you have to respect a movie that is rather daring for its time. Here is a film made at a time when the military was segregated and Hollywood was still putting actors in blackface, and its protagonist is black, patriotic and ingenious. It’s impressive. I just wish I could describe the film that way. (on DVD and Blu-ray as part of Kino’s Pioneers of African-American Cinema)

2 stars

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Review - Jour De Fete

June 13, 2019

Jour De Fete – France, 1949

Let it not be said that the masters of cinematic slapstick didn’t have a worthy successor. The problem is that he apparently had no interest in going down that road, and so we are left with just one film in which to view the man who could have been one of the greats. The comic wonder I speak of is actor-director Jacques Tati, and his lone foray into slapstick was his debut film,

Now if you asked me to explain the character Tati plays, I would be at a bit of a loss to explain him. He’s, well, odd, but not odd in a way that makes everyone keep their distance, but rather, odd in a lovably quirky way, and the fact that he seems to have no knowledge that many of the people around him see him as a source of entertainment first and a helpful member of the community second only adds to this. Or maybe it’s the other way around and we only get that impression because of the special day at the heart of the film.

In any event, Tati plays Francoise, a postman in a small countryside town where time seems to move at a much slower pace. We know this because of a passing comment a town member gives about the mail being picked up later despite the pick-up date having already passed. He certainly knows his postman. What’s more, he knows his town, and it’s a place where the postman is just as likely to be found lending a helping hand in the field as he is doing his route. At one point, his job is given to a young boy because Francoise’s strong hands are needed elsewhere – and perhaps because the boy will deliver the mail on time.

The role of Francoise asks a lot of Tati. There’s a running gag involving him being attacked by a bee while riding a bicycle, which is simply hilarious. In one scene, the bee seems to go from terrorizing him, to frustrating the members of a marching band before once again pursuing him. Later, Tati has to ride a bicycle faster than a falling pole, a gag that made me recall Buster Keaton’s memorable falling house stunt in Steamboat Bill, Jr. There’s also a scene in which Francoise tries to ride a bike that is unbeknownst to him on the other side of the fence, leading to multiple instances of his trying to “ride” the fence. It’s all great stuff, yet what puts it in the same category as the slapstick greats that preceded him is his complete acceptance of it all. When life makes a mockery of him, he just picks himself up and keeps going, as if it were all just a normal part of life.

To call Francoise the lead character would be slightly false, for the character does not really have a role in the film until about the half hour mark. Until then, the film is content to show us what happens when a traveling fair arrives for a one-day event. In the film’s opening scene, we follow a trailer full of merry-go-round horses and witness the influence they have on the local children, many of whom begin running behind the trailer with great big smiles on their faces. They know what’s coming. From there, we get a meeting with local officials and men prepping for the big event by going to the local barber for a shave and a haircut. Women don their nicest outfits, and one of the fair’s organizers casts flirtatious glances at one of the town’s lovely young ladies – much, I might add, to the consternation of the man’s wife. During one amazing scene, the man and woman stare at each other, and for a moment, it appears that they are engaged in one of those conversations which proceed a sweet rendezvous, yet upon closer inspection, we see their mouths are not moving at all, and the dialogue is from a movie that the fair has brought with it. Perhaps the dialogue is what they would say to each other if things were different.

When Francoise arrives, the film’s pace quickens, and we get a series of humorous encounters in which Francoise is a great help to many, while also being a source of humor for some. It seems a bit cruel at times, as all Francoise seems guilty of is being rather handy to have around. In fact, with the exception of the owner of a building that Francoise keeps riding his bicycle into, I can’t think of any reason that anyone would wish him ill.

The film finally makes it “point” after Francoise is invited to watch a short newsreel purporting to show real postmen in the United States. The images are ludicrous, the spitting image of parody, yet, having never traveled abroad, Francoise takes it as fact that postman are physical supermen trained as if they were acrobatic daredevils and Bond-like spies able to speed through fire without breaking a sweat or experiencing even a trace of fear. Soon, there he is adopting “American-style” delivery techniques and wreaking havoc all over town.

As I watched the film, I remembered what it was like in my youth when the fair would make its annual pilgrimage to Nevada Country. I was from a town that didn’t even have stoplights, so the fair, with its carnival-like rides, skill-testing games, huge prizes, and exotic animal attractions, was truly a big deal. Conversations among us kids often revolved around when we were going and, later, which of us had gone the most times. And after it had torn down its tents, dismantled its thrills, and headed off to its next destination, life returned to normal. We went back to school, our parents went back to work, the silence of the nights returned. Yet we never forgot those magical feelings, and when the fair returned the following year, we were right there.

Jour De Fete gets this about the fair and small towns. It is a reminder of simpler times and of the wonder that the new and magical can bring. It is also a film about the marching of time, inviting viewers to explore whether technological advances also lead to personal and cultural progress. And it is also a film about Francoise, a character I respect probably more than I understand. With Jour De Fete, Tati created a film that is driven less by narrative than by remarkable characters, and his film is a salute to life and the everyday people who inhabit our world. It is truly something special to behold. (on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection's The Complete Jacques Tati box set)

3 and a half stars

*Jour De Fete is in French with English subtitles.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Review - Stan & Ollie

June 7, 2019

Stan & Ollie – 2018, UK

Throughout Jon S. Baird’s 2018 film, Stan & Ollie, there’s frequent reference to a movie referred to as “the elephant film.” Realistically, the film elects not to have any of the characters explain the reference, as who, in real life, stops to clarify what they are talking about when both parties are already in the know. The film does show us a short scene from it, and even gives us the first name of its co-star – Harry. Again, the film omits the last name because everyone around Harry knows just who he is, so there’s no need to add a moniker. I, however, was not in the know, so after watching the film, I looked it up. “The elephant film” actually had three titles: Zenobia, Elephants Never Forget, and It’s Spring Again. It was released in 1939, when Oliver Hardy was under contract with Hal Roach, but Stan Laurel was not. The film was a financial failure. Eventually Stan Laurel, after initiating legal action, was rehired, and he and Oliver Hardy made two other films for Hal Roach, A Chump at Oxford and Saps at Sea.

The incident, according to Stan & Ollie, left a permanent chasm between the two of them, with Laurel regarding Hardy’s role in the film as a betrayal and a sign of weakness, and Hardy looking back at it with regret, yet also thinking that his long-time friend should be more understanding. In the film’s opening scene, set in 1937, during the filming of Way Out West, we see the ease with which they relate to each other and the concern they have for each other’s welfare. Laurel (Steve Coogan) gently comments on Hardy’s gambling and number of marriages (and costly divorces), and Hardy (John C. Reilly) advices baby steps when approaching Roach about getting ownership of their films, as Chaplin did, as well as higher salaries. The advice is not taken, and the result of the ensuing blow-up between Laurel and Roach is the aforementioned disaster, the elephant film.

The film flashes forward sixteen years to a time when the comic pair found themselves on a tour of the U.K. in preparation for a parody of Robin Hood that Laurel and Hardy were hoping to make. The tour starts off poorly: cheap hotels with hardly any services, less than half-filled houses, a manager whose other acts seem to be getting priority over them. It is suggested that they do pro-bono promotional appearances, a request that is both a reminder of their diminished status and an insult to people of their fame. Yet they have their desired effect. Soon their faces are all over the news, and fans are showing up in droves. Happy times are here again, for a little while at least.

To really appreciate Stan & Ollie, it helps to remember what Hollywood was like for celebrities in the 1930s. Laurel and Hardy made films at a time when movie studios had most of the power in Hollywood, and if a studio head wanted you to make a film, you made the film. Your contract stipulated it. It was also a time when the competition was fierce, and a downturn in one person’s career gave his rival an opportunity. We see this in an interesting moment when Laurel stares a poster for Abbott and Costello’s latest film, Abbott and Costello Go to Mars. It was also a time when there was less access to older movies. If a movie wasn’t felt to have an audience after its initial release, it simply disappeared. If you woke up one day wanting to re-watch a particular movie, you were most likely out of luck.

Perhaps this is why Laurel and Hardy’s live act was so loved by those who saw it. Their act was akin to a greatest hits album, and seeing them perform it onstage brought back memories of dates, movie plots, and much more innocent times. In watching them perform the dance from Way Out West, the audience was recalling not simply a movie, but a time before war, death, and, for some, adulthood and its many responsibilities reared their ugly heads. Without that nostalgic power, the number would have been just two people dancing together, and they were admittedly not the greatest of dancers. But just listen to the applause.

Years ago, I read that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy did not spend much time together off camera. Hardy loved fishing and golf, and during lulls in shooting, he would leave the studio to get in some extra rounds. Laurel was said to be the creative force behind the act, spending long hours writing and choreographing many of the bits we see Laurel and Hardy perform in the film. What we see onscreen, especially during a heated argument midway through, bares this out. However, it also reveals something that is likely true of most creative partnerships: their longevity is likely due to love and distance – love for someone both professionally and personally and distance from each other when off work. Perhaps it’s the former that was damaged when Oliver Hardy went along with Roach’s decision to pair him with Harry Langdon. In Laurel’s eyes, Hardy could have stuck up for him, but chose not to.

Admittedly, the first half of the film sticks too closely to the tried and true narrative of a celebrity trying to make a comeback, with all of its bumps and hiccups. There are the many obligatory remarks about hearing that the two of them had retired, the reenactments of their performances go on a tad bit too long, and I could have done without the montage of tour stops and newspapers headlines announcing the increased popularity of their shows. There are more original ways of expressing this. However, the film hits its stride upon the arrival of the comic duo and their wives in London. In a way, the film is about three relationships, that of Laurel and Hardy, and those of their marriages, for each marriage is a portrait of love and support. The wives, played by Nina Arianda (Ida Laurel) and Shirley Henderson (Lucille Hardy), keep the pair going as much as anything else, and I was fascinated by the varying personalities and styles of the two women.   

A film like this lives and dies on the performances of its cast. We must see in them the embodiment on these cherished figures, and Coogan and Reilly do not disappoint. In fact, these may be my favorite performances of theirs, and that’s saying something. From their movements during their re-enactment of Laurel and Hardy’s most famous cinematic moments to the subtle physical gestures that each called his own, they embody the Laurel and Hardy we know from the screen. However, where they are most effective is in showing us Laurel and Hardy offscreen. We see the differences in their personalities, yet also we see the way they play off each other during the creative process. What’s more, we see their failings, for example, Hardy’s gambling and Laurel’s stubbornness. Perhaps what Coogan and Reilly most excel at is at demonstrating that the love that Laurel and Hardy shared onscreen – the way every argument or mistake was followed up by glances of forgiveness and affection – was true when the camera stopped rolling. Sure, the make-ups we see are not like the ones they exhibit in their movies, but they are no less sincere and touching. Perhaps this is part of the reason why the film’s finale works as well as it does. We don’t want anything to end, either. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 and a half stars