Chaplin, John Cazale, and Metropolis
Talking Out of Frame:
Christmas is coming early for Charlie Chaplin fans. Or maybe it's a Thanksgiving present and you have a couple of reasons to feel gratitude.
First, Flicker Alley has released a huge collection of shorts, Chaplin At Keystone: An International Collaboration of 34 Original Films. John Sinnott lays it out for us: "Today it's hard to realize just how popular Charlie Chaplin was back in the heyday of silent films. There is no current equivalent and the magnitude of his fame has never really been equaled since. Chaplin's Tramp character was a world-wide sensation since his films were easily exported to non-English speaking countries. His movies were in such high demand that scores of Chaplin imitators emerged, there were Chaplin imitation contests, he was the first actor to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine, and he was one of the highest paid people (of any profession) in the country in the teens. His films are still immensely popular today and the last time I saw a Chaplin film on the big screen, it sold out the theater where it was showing.
"Yet with all of that popularity, the earliest Chaplin films have not been available on DVD...until now. The great people at Flicker Alley have released Chaplin at Keystone, a fantastic four disc boxed set that collects 34 of the filmmaker earliest effort. Not only that, but all of the films have been restored, are accompanied by music from the top silent film musicians around, and come with an informative 40-page book by film historian Jeffrey Vance. This is a set than needs to be in any comprehensive library of silent film.
"Charlie wasn't sure what to make of Keystone at first. The company had to produce a new two-reel comedy each and every week, and the pace was frantic. Charlie didn't like the pace or the comedy. He wanted to do more refined slapstick. He didn't feel that every short had to end with a chase, and wanted longer shots instead of the rapid cutting that Sennett employed. Chaplin argued with the directors. He was upset that they would dismiss his suggestions for the films on the grounds that they didn't have time for an elaborate set-up. Chaplin had the philosophy that making one funny film was better than making many mediocre ones. He would follow that philosophy for the rest of his career. As his tenure at Keystone went on, Chaplin's movies became more and more popular. Fairly soon his films started outselling all the other Keystone shorts. With this success Chaplin was able to exert more control on his movies, which led to higher quality films and even bigger demand. Soon he was writing and directing all of his pictures.
"The Keystone films are not as polished and carefully constructed as Chaplin's later masterpieces would be, but that's understandable given the system that Sennett used to churn out an impressive number of films each month. Yet it was during his time with Keystone that Chaplin learned the art of filmmaking. He discovered what worked, how to set up a gag, and created the character that would make him the most recognized man in the world. Chaplin at Keystone is important because it shows Chaplin evolving as a screen comic. Not only that, but this collection chronicles the early Tramp character and how Chaplin tried out different personas until he hit upon the right combination traits."
If you enjoy Chaplin at Keystone, or even if you don't or find that set too daunting, Criterion has put out a fantastic Blu-Ray of one of the comedian's best known features: Modern Times. Modern Times is arguably the last great masterpiece of the silent era. Made in 1936, it was intended to be a full sound picture, but Chaplin decided to instead use sound as merely another comedic prop. The result is absolutely charming, effortlessly spanning the divide between two eras and never failing to generate a grin.
The story of Modern Times begins with Chaplin's signature character, the Tramp, working in a steel factory. He is on the assembly line turning lug nuts. The monotony of the job and the inhuman treatment by his bosses is getting to him. The need for efficiency is superseding basic decency. In one of the film's funnier scenes, an inventor brings in a machine that will feed the workers so that they never have to pick up a utensil or wipe their own chins. Naturally, this doesn't work properly, and though the Tramp is strapped into the malfunctioning contraption, the men pay him no mind as they keep trying to get their device to work. It's all about progress, who cares if the little man keeps getting pie in his face?
The elaborate sets and effects in the factory scenes are amazing. Most famously, there is a bit where Chaplin falls into the cogs and wheels and is cycled through, just another piece of the machine. It's this event that causes the Tramp to have a breakdown, getting him out of the factory and onto the series of unfortunate events that will make up the rest of Modern Times. It's an episodic story, the Tramp tumbling from one spot of trouble to the next. After a stay in the sanitarium, he accidentally happens into a Communist march and gets arrested; in jail, he foils a jailbreak and gets released; and so on. Along the way, he also runs into a young girl, billed as "the gamine," played by Paulette Goddard. The Tramp helps her, and they try to make a life together, getting a series of jobs and dodging the police where they can.
Charlie Chaplin, who wrote the music, scripted, produced, and directed Modern Times in addition to starring, has an uncanny knack for social satire. The events in the movie showcase situational comedy at its most basic: whatever the Tramp stumbles into leads to laughs. Given the theme of the picture, the things he stumbles into have something to do with life in 1936. At a time when many were out of work and going to bed hungry, the audience could identify with the Tramp. The fear that technology could eclipse the individual probably seemed like a very real prospect, and the introduction of assembly line worksites made it possible to manufacture more products at a faster rate, but at the cost of the personal touch. All of this is shown here, but it never edges out the pratfalls or Chaplin's ingenious visual gags.
John Cazale only made five movies in his short life, but when you consider what those movies were, it's arguable that he was as important to film history as Charlie Chaplin. Jason Bailey reviews the new documentary: I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale: "John Cazale appeared in exactly five motion pictures before he died of cancer at 42. But the five films he made were among the best films of Hollywood's richest decade. If you could only appear in five movies, you could do a lot worse than The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. His entire filmography was nominated for the Academy Award. But Cazale himself never was. He tended to play the quiet role, the supporting character, the guy on the edge of the frame, while the showy roles were the ones that got the awards. But perhaps the most cogent argument put forth by the new documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale is that, in his quiet skill and sometimes scary intensity, Cazale elevated the actors around him, putting them on alert to do their best work. The stats certainly back it up: his co-stars in those five films received a collective total of 14 acting nominations. Cazale was, in the truest sense, a brilliant 'supporting actor.'
"The documentary is directed by Richard Shepard, who manages to structure the film in a way that mirrors Cazale's life: it burns bright, briefly, and then it's over far too soon. Shepard uses inventive on-screen text and photos to fill in the biographical information (shades of The Kid Stays in the Picture), but mostly draws on analysis from actors and filmmakers, as well extensive clips from those five great films--allowing, in a sense, the work to speak for itself.
"Several of Cazale's co-stars show up to pay tribute: Robert DeNiro, Richard Dreyfuss, John Savage, Carol Kane, Gene Hackman, and, most extensively, his good friend Al Pacino and his lover Meryl Streep. Playwright Israel Horovitz and directors Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet discuss the experience of working with him; contemporary film historian Mark Harris (if you haven't read his wonderful book Pictures at a Revolution, then you're reading the wrong thing right now) adds invaluable insight. And then there are the contemporary actors who idolize him, who pinpoint him as an influence, supporting actors of weight and intensity like Steve Buscemi, Sam Rockwell, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who form a kind of 'Cult of Cazale.' The joy of the film comes from the joy that these friends, collaborators, and admirers glean from his work"
Cazale was part of some genuine film phenomena, including the popular The Godfather series. Though not nearly as popular or, admittedly, well-made as those movies, the popularity of the adaptation of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy is a modern literary phenom all its own. The second film adaptations, The Girl Who Played With Fire, is now on Blu-Ray, and it was reviewed by Brian Orndorf, who found it lacking after the original, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: "While still engrossing and pleasantly twisted, the second chapter in the Lisbeth Salander saga suffers from a flat storytelling approach, which doesn't encourage the suspense in the same urgent manner as before. Now on the run, Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) has severed all ties with her former sleuthing pal, journalist Mikael (Michael Nyqvist), looking to set up a fresh life for herself. Trouble comes calling when a young colleague of Mikael's, an ambitious writer named Dag (Hans Christian Thulin), is murdered and Lisbeth is framed for the crime. Believing in her innocence, Mikael takes up Dag's work investigating a sex trafficking ring with ties to powerful men, hoping to learn enough to clear Lisbeth's name. Carrying out her own reconnaissance, Lisbeth finds dark secrets from her scarred past returning to the light, while a hulking blonde killer who cannot feel pain stalks the night, on the hunt for the young girl and the information she's protecting.
"Due to Oplev's cinematic touch, Dragon Tattoo could be appreciated as a sturdily constructed thriller with bold international flavors, and not just as an adaptation of a best seller. It was violent, sinister, repulsive, and alive with suspense, careening through a maze of characters and motivations while keeping tension its top priority for 150 minutes. Played with Fire doesn't retain the same priorities, retreating to more stable ground as a direct projection of the page, holding to the novel's vacillation without much in the way of necessary exaggeration. Alfredson doesn't fumble the material, but he rarely challenges the plotting, keeping steady on the particulars of the tale without kicking anything into overdrive. It's a disappointment, but it doesn't smother the movie's appeal, only decreasing its lasting impact.
"Maintaining the picture's sour temper is Rapace, who's marvelous in the role of Lisbeth, once again capturing a brooding goth intensity that makes the character a substantial threat, yet sympathetic. Though Lisbeth's unwillingness to endure radical disguises to keep police attention away from her is a touch on the baffling side, the turmoil within the character is felt vividly once again. Played with Fire is primarily Lisbeth's story, with the pierced hacker barely sharing any screentime with Mikael. The separation disappoints, but the divide is a compelling tool to bring these characters back to a place of discovery as the onion is peeled, with ghastly encounters waiting to devour Lisbeth as her memory is prodded further."
Some of the stronger details of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo/Played With Fire have flirted with controversy. The graphic nature with which the stories deal with violence against women can be pretty strong stuff. Truly controversial, and dealing with a similar subject, Lars von Trier's Antichrist is a challenging cinematic experience. Orndorf, once again, looks at the BD: "Grief, death, and rusty scissors collide in Lars von Trier's Antichrist. A metaphysical sojourn with cinema's loudest spoilsport, the picture stuns and sickens, almost daring viewers to keep watching as it articulates the ravages of the unwound mind, filling the frame with demented acts of unspeakable violence and deeply considered thematic stimulation. For fans of Trier, Antichrist is a return to his once irresistible provocative appetites, shamelessly exploiting suffering and misogyny to generate the outrage that fuels his daydreams (and bank accounts). It's a pitch-black torrential downpour of pain, and should only be approached by those willing to allow Trier 100 precious minutes to play his madcap mind games.
"Reeling over the death of their toddler son, estranged couple He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are devastated to learn their sexual appetites contributed to the loss of their one and only child. A therapist sickened by the care afforded to his wife, He takes the devastated woman to their remote cabin in the dense forest of Eden to confront her fears and repair their relationship. Once arrived, the couple finds the woods an unbearable reminder of their loss, with She plunging further into madness, feeding upon images and research of witches and assorted feminine horrors. He tries to counteract with logic and restraint, but learns of a special evil nature infesting the environment, which soon overtakes She, urging hell to break loose.
"It's useless to get upset with Trier over the ultraviolent antics of Antichrist, as this type of storytelling has afforded him a long career of polarizing successes. Of course, a reasonable deconstruction of the film is impossible, as Trier builds an interpretive mood of sin, volatile communication, and psychological suffocation, using expansive brush strokes of gothic imagery and sexual gamesmanship to motor his ideas on grief and depression, working the material into a suitable lather of audience-baiting theatrics. I'll be the first to admit that Trier's rascally ways often get the best of him. Still, when the director finds a proper scab to pick, nobody does it better. Antichrist doesn't return Trier to the heavyweight shape of Breaking the Waves or Dancer in the Dark, but it's an intriguing hailstorm of controversial subtext and confrontational, surreal visual mastery.
"Antichrist is a measured nightmare, monitoring the mental tug of war between She and He while they sniff out the depth of their damage in the middle of nowhere. Trier's angle is one of invasion, as He uses his position of power to unethically coax his wife back from the edge of suicide, taking the role of icy therapist to offer She a mental penetration she cannot endure. Fighting back with sexual favors and hysteria, She is tormented by the forest, fearing nature as an evil force equaled to femininity itself, as explored through her thesis work on the historical reduction of women to primal, biblical spirits of malevolence. Stillborn and self-mutilation imagery (complete with a talking fox) only enhance the suffering for both characters, along with a curious acorn motif that mocks She and He as the trees loudly rain down their surplus fertility with every available opportunity."
Bertold Brecht was a provocateur in his time, as well, and the recent documentary Theater of War chronicles a modern staging of one of Brecht's more famous plays. The result is a movie in conflict. It tries to be many things at once, but only really succeeds at being one of those things well. The documentary, directed by John W. Walter (How to Draw a Bunny), uses a 2006 remake of Mother Courage and Her Children as a springboard for exploring Brecht, the nature of political theatre, the climate of our times, and the process of staging a play all at the same time, thinking the play will tie everything together. It doesn't.
Mother Courage was first written in 1939 and was staged many times in the years that followed. Brecht had been forced to flee Germany as the Nazis took power, eventually ending up in America shortly after we entered WWII. He left America after an encounter with HUAC, which is covered extensively in Theater of War. Newsreel footage of the writer's testimony is fascinating for its apparent candor, which is promptly discredited by Brecht's daughter, who sees her father giving the performance of his life, pouring on his accent and playing his part as the dutiful immigrant. For a man who opened up the theatrical stage and advanced the notion of a theater of ideas, it makes perfect sense.
It also makes sense that Brecht would be the subject of a film like Theater of War. Dismantling the wall between audience and performer is very much in keeping with the spirit of Brecht's work. Walter shows us the cast rehearsing, using montage to illustrate the advancement of the process from one line reading to the next. This particular production was debuting a new translation of the original text by Angels in America-scribe Tony Kushner, and it starred Meryl Streep as Mother Courage and Kevin Kline as the Cook. As the work progresses, the actors and the stage crew all share their impressions of the material, while Brechtian scholars add more background.
It's the latter element that works best. Theater of War is strongest as a documentary about Bertolt Brecht. I felt more informed about the author when the movie was done, and even have an itch to go and reexamine his other work (I once reviewed Threepenny Opera for this site). I've never seen or read Mother Courage, and now would very much like to--which is one of this DVD's major downfalls. Though some of the backstage footage is interesting and the performance material intriguing, it seems a missed opportunity to not package some kind of filmed document of this particular production with the making-of documentary. It reminded me of Allan Miller's 2000 documentary The Turandot Project, about Zhang Yimou's historic staging of Puccini's opera in China. We see the efforts Yimou went through to pull it off, and we are told how important the event is, and then we see nothing of it. Granted, Walter gives us much more of Mother Courage than Miller gave us of Turandot, but it's still not enough. They've created an amazing commercial for the plays, but no way for us to see them--and neither story is that amazing that it doesn't matter. Not like, say, how involving Hearts of Darkness is even when divorced from Apocalypse Now. There just isn't that much drama.
Jason Bailey examines another war-themed documentary, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss. "Perhaps the most peculiar sidebar of the popular and critical success of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds has been the curiosity over Third Reich film--the notion, explored in that film and explained by the filmmaker, of 'Goebbels as a studio head.' While serving as minister of propaganda, he directly oversaw the German film industry, which produced copious musicals and comedies but was best known for their works of pro-German, anti-Semitic proselytism, including Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will, Fritz Hippler's The Eternal Jew, and Veit Harlan's costume drama Jew Süss.
"Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss profiles that notorious film's creator, the Third Reich's most successful filmmaker, who was later tried (and acquitted) twice for crimes against humanity, so powerful was the hateful message of his best-known work. His story is told primarily through the words of his descendents, the children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews who have spent their lives coming to terms with who this man was, and what he did. For his part, Harlan claims in his memoirs that he was forced to make the controversial film; there are varying degrees of disagreement about that. Some of his relations are critics, some are apologists, and some are both. His daughter Maria Korber describes her first viewing of the film thus: 'I felt like going outside and puking.' His granddaughters, on the other hand, seem underwhelmed; they're not entirely sure why it was such a cause célèbre. But they're also seen reading aloud the letter from Himmler, directing it to be shown to all SS and policemen, and I think we can safely infer that he didn't just like the film for its costumes.
"Director Felix Moeller generously sprinkles in clips, from not only the film in question and the rest of Harlan's filmography, but horrifying newsreels from the era and home movies of the well-to-do filmmaker and his family. The abundance of footage is helpful; aside from those clips, the film is basically an assemblage of talking heads, and Moeller's attempts at getting out of that box (such as corny shots of relatives sitting contemplatively on beaches) don't really land. However, Marco Hertenstein's excellent score keeps our interest piqued, as does the compelling nature of the story at hand."
A fictionalized war film shows the horrors of World War I. Stanley Kubrick's classic combat movie Paths of Glory is now on Blu-Ray thanks to Criterion. This 1957 drama was based on a novel by Howard Cobb, and the screenplay was written by three different scribes: Kubrick himself, the great Calder Willingham (The Strange One, Thieves Like Us), and the astonishing Jim Thompson (better known as the novelist who wrote The Grifters and The Killer Inside Me). It stars Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, an officer in the French army who fights alongside the troops in the trenches and who approaches his job with reason and logic. The crux of the story is an attack on a German stronghold referred to as "the Anthill." It's an impossible task, one that even Dax's glory-hungry superior, General Paul Mireau (George Macready), knows is hopeless, but the promise of another star on his collar blinds him to the risks. Dax even tries to refuse, but he goes along rather than be relieved of his command and leaving his men unprotected. "
The script for Paths of Glory essentially follows a three-act structure. The first act is the preparation for the siege on the Anthill and then the disastrous run into No Man's Land. The troops can barely advance past their own line, and when Mireau's orders to shell his own trenches in order to push the grunts forward are ignored, he is left with egg on his face. Act Two is his attempt to wipe the egg away, calling on one man from each regiment to be brought up on court martial, charged with cowardice. Dax attempts to defend them as best he can, but fails, and Act Three is what happens on the way to the firing squad.
Paths of Glory is a pitch-perfect piece of drama. It's remarkable in its simplicity. There is no extraneous scene, no off-key moment. The dialogue crackles, and the mis-en-scene moves with precision and confidence. There are many remarkable sequences in the movie, most famous of which is the charge on the Anthill. Kubrick and his d.p. George Krause and camera operator Hannes Staudinger take the audience down into the trenches, and then they haul us over the top, racing through the bombs and the bodies and leading us right through the thick of combat. Yet, there are smaller moments too. Look at how the camera moves in the very brief fist fight between Paris (Ralph Meeker) and Arnaud (Joseph Turkel), the way the action swings with the fighters, and compare it to the way we dance with the officers a short time later when the Generals throw a party for themselves. Behavior inspires technique.
Swinging to the other side of the spectrum and, really, right off the damn thing is another Criterion Blu-Ray, the Japanese cult movie House. Stuart Galbraith IV tries to make heads or tails of this crazy film: "Nearly indescribable, Nobuhiko Obayashi's House (1977) is like a cross between Dario Argento's Suspiria and an episode of The Monkees. Though generally regarded as a horror film, it's also a teen fantasy/kung fu/erotic coming-of-age/splatter/comedy - Jan Švankmajer meets Pink Lady. Horror-fantasy film fans and Japanese cinema devotees have wanted to see House for years. It's a good introduction to the colorful career of its director, whose films deserve a wider audience in the west, and Criterion's new Blu-ray offers both a marvelous transfer struck from the original camera negative and very good supplements, including Obayashi's equally fascinating 45-minute Emotion (1966), featuring the same explosion of wild imagination.
"The plot, such as it is, concerns a group of teenage schoolgirls who decide to spend their summer holiday at a house in the country. Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) is upset when her widower father (Saho Sasazawa), a famous composer of film scores just back from Italy ('Leone said my music was better than Morricone's!'), has decided to remarry, to beautiful Ryoko (Haruko Wanibuchi). Angry at his decision, rather than spend the summer with them she decides to visit her late mother's sister (Yoko Minamida) and invites her friends along, all of whom have nicknames based on their personalities: Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), Prof (Ai Matsubara), Mac (Mieko Sato, her character a big eater), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), and Sweet (Masayo Miyako).
"House is without precedent, unlike anything that had come before it. The entire film is deliberately artificial, like the painted backdrops in The Wizard of Oz; nearly every shot of the sky, for instance, is either a matte painting or a painted backdrop. Even shots that need not be, such as a wide angle in front of Tokyo Station, are deliberately stylized, deliberately fake. Similarly, the acting, scoring, editing, et. al, are not at all intended to be realistic.
"What's most impressive about House is how almost literally every single shot in the film is infused with some form of trickery: on-set special effects, effects generated via an optical printer - the lab bill on this film must have been huge - from irises and wipes to skipped frames and split screens, imaginative and unexpected camera moves. The film includes special effects done on video using the chroma key, pixilation (a form of stop-motion animation), traveling mattes. By the end of the film, just about every effect imaginable has been employed, some dating back to the beginning of cinema and Georges Méliès. The picture is consistently amusing in a fluffy, cotton candy sort of way, referencing everything from Japanese silent and wartime propaganda films to contemporary popular cinema...The movie is non-stop, phantasmagoric eye-candy, but as the images and its thin story and characters are all there is, House is also a bit wearying before it ends, though worth the effort."
It didn't occur to me what hard times the historical epic had fallen on, or how much I missed seeing a really good one, until I watched Alejandro Amenábar's Agora. It seems lately we either get the bloated and self-important Ridley Scott style of costume drama (Kingdom of Heaven, for instance), or it's dumbed-down, dressed-up adventurin' like Prince of Persia. While Agora is not as long and grandiose as the historical pictures of old Hollywood, Amenábar's film is a richly drawn and intelligent story that hearkens back to better times, when stories of the past were seen as important parables to illuminate the present.
Agora is set in Alexandria near the end of the 4th Century A.D., as the Roman Empire is collapsing. Alexandria was an epicenter of culture and thought, renowned for its massive library. Of the many scholars and philosophers who gathered in the public square, known as the Agora, to debate the theories of the day, was Hypatia (Rachel Weisz, The Fountain), a teacher whose work has not survived but who is believed to have been ahead of the curve in regards to understanding the mechanics of the universe and the mathematical properties of cones and circles. Hypatia advanced revolutionary thinking, but at a time when a different kind of revolution was under way.
Alejandro Amenábar (The Sea Inside, The Others) and his regular co-writer Mateo Gil (Open Your Eyes) start their story at a point where Christianity is starting to become popular enough to gain real traction amongst the common populace. Having been outlawed by the Romans only until recently, it is still seen as an upstart religion, and evangelicals from either side regularly clash in the streets...Agora is an intellectually stimulating narrative, full of varied ideas and conflicts that have more to them than just blood and swords--though there are plenty of that for those who want it. Amenábar uses Hypatia's story to examine the uneasy mix of science, politics, and religion in society, as well as class structure and gender divides. Though there are clear heroes and villains, there is not an easy black-and-white morality. Hypatia, for instance, can be hypocritical, and her defense of equality amongst the differing faiths doesn't quite jibe with her failure to recognize that she treats her slaves as less than equal. Hypatia's slave Davus ((Max Minghella, The Social Network) is far from a cliché "noble servant," but is a fully rounded character often at war with himself and his ethical contradictions. Only the mad monk Ammonius and the lead bishop of Alexandria, Cyril (Sami Samir, Munich), are painted with broad strokes, but they are balanced on both sides by minor reactionaries amongst the Romans and the far more sympathetic priest Synesius (Rupert Evans, Hellboy), another of Hypatia's students. Amenábar is more interested in the complexity of the tale than he is making something that fits expected archetypes.
Less successful is the more subdued drama Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl. Manoel de Oliveira's 2009 film is a slight but well-manicured exercise in literary formalism. Based on a 19th-century novella by Eça de Queirós, who is credited with introducing realism to the fiction of de Oliveira's home country of Portugal, this short film--running at just about an hour when you exclude the credits--has the haughty air of antiquated writing, complete with an undercurrent of restrained romanticism. The end result is more Masterpiece Theatre than Merchant Ivory, but depending on your taste, that may be satisfying enough. I found it underwhelming, but still mildly enjoyable.
Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl is the story of Macário (Ricardo Trêpa), a young accountant who works at his uncle's clothing story. From his office, he often spies a pretty girl across the way, and he contrives a way to meet her. Her name is Luísa (Catarina Wallenstein), a fairly unexpressive young woman, but the preservation of her mystery is possibly what keeps Macário interested. He proposes marriage, but when his uncle refuses to support it, Macário is suddenly without a job and the means for which to support a wife. Finding no work in town, he goes away to earn a tidy sum, only to be swindled out of it on his return. Lucky for him, his dedication softens his uncle and the means to have Luísa as his own open up to him. Except, well, there are those promised eccentricities to deal with, and heartbreak is still in the cards.
The most impressive aspect of this film is not the story, however, which honestly, didn't move me much at all and is somewhat forgettable; no, the best part of Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl is de Oliveira's careful construction of each frame, and the vivid digital photography of Sabine Lancelin, who has worked with de Oliveira on numerous occasions, including their Bunuel-tribute Belle Toujours (a film I intensely disliked). Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl is a lovely movie, with artfully lit interiors and an excellent external clarity. de Oliveira shows the passage of time through a series of horizon shots, letting the natural light settle over the city. While I may soon forget the particulars of the script, I'll probably be thinking about how good Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl looked for quite a while.
Sometimes films that aren't as good as they want to be can yield inspired results anyway, as Adam Tyner discovers in reviewing Best Worst Movie: "George Hardy hails from a sleepy little town in Alabama that could've been nicked straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting...the type of place where anyone new in town would be greeted with a fresh-baked apple pie and a big, cheery grin...where everybody who drives by waves hello as you're out watering your front lawn...y'know, where everybody knows your name. When George asks how you're doing with that unmistakably Southern accent of his, you can tell that he's not just being polite: he genuinely wants to know. Everyone in town likes the guy -- heck, even his ex-wife has nothing but the nicest things to say about him -- but after a couple minutes of these beaming testimonials, they all start to smirk about George's little secret. See, a couple decades back, George was in a movie...and not just any movie, either: he was the star of Troll 2, which for the longest time was rated the absolute worst of the tens of thousands of flicks on the Internet Movie Database.
"This is a movie that inspires some kind of quasi-religious fervor in its fans, and I speak from experience 'cause I've been one for a couple of decades now. We don't meekly, politely watch Troll 2 and then quietly put it back on the shelf afterwards. No, we proselytize the glory of Troll 2 to anyone in earshot, force it on them, and then look on as they start spreading the good word, too. What was a tiny cult following in the early '90s grew to be a sizeable, rabid fanbase in the age of YouTube and MySpace. George Hardy...this dentist from Alabama....had no idea that this movie he starred in all the way back in 1989 had made him a cult celebrity.
"That's what Best Worst Movie is about, really: coming to grips with finding unexpected success in unparalled failure. It's not really about Troll 2, exactly, and you don't have to have seen the movie beforehand to get anything out of it. Anyway, Best Worst Movie is told primarily through two very different perspectives. The first is George Hardy, who's led a pretty charmed life -- very successful dentist, pillar of the community, and all that -- but he wanted to be an actor his entire life. He's in awe of Troll 2's skyrocketing popularity. Revival screenings from one end of the country to the other are sold out, there are standing ovations whenever he takes the stage for Q&As afterwards, the crowd loses it whenever Hardy delivers his most beloved line ('You can't piss on hospitality! I won't allow it!'), he's signing autographs, posing for photos: it took close to twenty years, but Hardy's one and only film credit has made him feel like a real, live movie star.
"So, yeah. This documentary charts how George Hardy and director Claudio Fragasso react to being celebrated for their roles in hammering out the best-worst-movie of all time as well as how their attitudes change throughout the course of all these revival screenings...about the way they come to look at their everyday lives and their brush with stardom. This isn't a feature-length DVD extra: it's an honest-to-Gord film, complete with character arcs and everything...My Troll 2 obsession is pretty well-documented by this point, so I can't exactly say I went into Best Worst Movie unbiased. I waltzed into this documentary knowing full well that I was gonna love it, but I didn't know I'd fall for it this hard. If you've ever stumbled across Troll 2, no matter what you thought of it, thenBest Worst Movie is essential viewing. The documentary stands on its own exceptionally well, too; if I were scheduling a double-bill, I'd even put Best Worst Movie on first and save Troll 2 till the end. If you think Troll 2 is ridiculous on its own, grabbing random chunks with little-to-no context as they're shown in Best Worst Movie makes the whole thing even more surreal. The important thing to mention again is that Best Worst Movie isn't a documentary about Troll 2. It's a story about passion, about dreams, about failing when you try to triumph, and triumphing when you wind up failing. This is one of my favorite films-about-films that I've ever come across."
Intentional awkwardness makes Cyrus a high point of the month for Jason Bailey: "Everything you need to know--or remember--about how great John C. Reilly is can be found in the first ten or so minutes of the Duplass Brothers' Cyrus. As Reilly's 'John' tries to recover from an embarrassing situation with his ex-wife, then attempts to blend in at an upscale party she's dragged him to, he's funny, he's warm, he's a little bit crazy, he's a lot awkward. 'I am in a tailspin,' he tells a girl that he feels a connection with. 'I'm lonely, I'm depressed...' (It's not exactly party pick-up material.) He's doing the kind of complex, multi-layered work he was doing for Paul Thomas Anderson in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, about a decade ago when we all started to become aware of this oddly extraordinary actor. His metamorphosis from a respected character actor to a utility player in broad (though enjoyable) Apatow-produced comedies like Taladega Nights, Walk Hard, and Step Brothers was unexpected, but full-throated; there's never a sense, in any of those roles, of an actor 'selling out,' but of a performer having a great time making funny pictures...What's intriguing about Cyrus is the sly way it combines both of his screen personas--the way it takes what could be a mainstream comic plot (grown, too-attached son tries to break up his mother and her new boyfriend) and grinds it through an indie sensibility to create something altogether more interesting.
"At that party, John meets the beautiful Molly (Marisa Tomei), who is drawn to his honesty and cheerful lack of vanity. Their initial dates go well, very well, but she always mysteriously disappears before it gets too late; one night, he follows her, and in the process of checking out her house, he meets young Cyrus (Jonah Hill), Molly's son. He still lives at home, a chubby presence in checkered shirts, the kind of guy who has spent his time since school 'focusing on my music career.' But the closer John and Molly get, the more he suspects that the kid's got it in for him, and the more we in the audience sense that the film is tiptoeing up to something awful.
"It wouldn't be hard to imagine this plot in a bigger-budget studio comedy, something from the Apatow factor or Sandler's Happy Madison productions--hell, it could be done with the exact same cast, who have all logged their hours in high-concept comedies. But the potentially one-joke premise is given depth, complexity, darkness and pathos by the offbeat execution and the honest performances. Writer/directors Jay and Mark Duplass are among the founders of the 'mumblecore' movement, and while Cyrus is more conventionally written and constructed than earlier efforts like Baghead, it keeps some of the aesthetic earmarks--handheld photography, low-key and naturalistic dialogue--and adding some more artistic touches (they try out some new tricks with layering of sound and displacement of dialogue). The technique works in the obvious ways; it seems silly to make such a bland observation as 'the doc-style camerawork lends the film a grounding in reality,' but it does, so there you have it. It might be pat, but it plays. And the script has a refreshing distaste for hack situations; after a misunderstanding leads to an awkward public scene, there is (gasp) a scene immediately after in which John and Molly clear the air, just like real people would."
Real people are also the subject of Justin D. Hilliard's second film, The Other Side of Paradise. Down in Texas, Rose Hewitt (Arianne Martin) has a lot going on in her life. Her best friend Alex (John Elliott), with whom she has shared a long-term flirtation, has just returned from an extended vacation in Spain, where he presumably left his on-again off-again girlfriend for good. Rose's brother, Jamie...excuse me, James (Frank Mosley) is also being released from a two-year prison bid. Straight from picking Jamie up outside the jail, the three of them are going to visit Rose and Jamie's father (Jodie Moore) and his new, pregnant wife (Susana Gibb). This will be the first time meeting the little lady. Or so they think. Courtney was a senior in the same high school as Rose when her stepdaughter was a freshman. It's Courtney that will accidentally tell Jamie and Rose that the mother they haven't seen in more than twenty-five years is living near Austin. With that little family secret exposed, it seems about the right time for a road trip.
This is the set-up for The Other Side of Paradise, a new indie drama that, as convoluted as it may sound when distilled into an introductory paragraph, has a surprisingly natural way of telling its story. Directed by Justin D. Hilliard, and written by Hilliard, Martin, and cinematographer Ryan Hartsell, The Other Side of Paradise manages to be a whole lot of movie without ever feeling encumbered by its own ambitions. Which is a far cry from Hilliard's debut, Wednesday, in which the filmmaker got a bit tangled in his vision. They often say the second time is the hardest, but not this time.
From daddy's house, the traveling trio makes their way through Texas in search of, ostensibly, the things that are missing in their lives. For the siblings, it's to find the mother they thought had gone to Portugal and never come back, but they are also searching for a sense of purpose. Jamie seems to be itching for freedom, while Rose is just itching...well, for anything. A photographer with a gallery show on the horizon, she is in need of one last image to tie it all together. Maybe knowing where she comes from will inspire her. It might also help her trust Alex, whose way with words makes him seem too slick. As it turns out, Rose is exactly what Alex has been after, but he hasn't exactly figured out how to let himself be with her.
The more real The Other Side of Paradise gets, the better it becomes. About 3/4 into the story, Hilliard hits the audience with a dark turn that sends the movie into some pretty raw territory. It's a shift that could completely dismantle what he's built up, but the director gets away with it. These events force Rose and Alex to put all their cards on the table and then make some hard choices about which ones to pick up again.
My colleague Casey Burchby reviews the documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child: "In just seven years as a practicing artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat produced over 2,000 works and made himself enormous amounts of money, gaining praise and notoriety as the defining artist of the early to mid-1980s. In Tamra Davis's absorbing new documentary, the layers of his legacy are examined and carefully demystified, from his shadowy beginnings as a graffiti artist known only (at that time) as 'SAMO' to the height of his fame as a painter whose gallery sales commanded huge sums, through his final sad years, marked by drug use, paranoia, and withdrawal from public life. Basquiat emerges as a fascinating and complicated human being, somewhat de-romanticized by Davis, and made difficult through discussion of his less charming qualities, but whose accomplishments as an artist continue to bloom as new angles of interest and significance in his work come to light.
"Davis opens her film with never-before-seen interview footage of Basquiat that she and a friend shot about two years before the artist's death. In this footage, Basquiat speaks openly and frankly about himself, his work, his peers, and his critics. He comes off as mildly uncomfortable, even though this was essentially a private video made with friends. He doesn't relish discussing his work, and betrays a certain amount of bitterness about his position in the art world. Although a success - even a sensation - in his own time, there was a sense amid the media frenzy over the artist and his work that Basquiat was an oddity, a 'special case,' coddled by the liberal art world establishment, a situation specifically highlighted by the otherwise clueless Hilton Kramer in archival interview footage. But Basquiat seemed aware of this, and that, beyond the perceived value of his art itself, there were those around him who benefitted socially and financially from turning him into a celebrity.
"Davis does an excellent job of untangling Basquiat's considerable legacy from the distancing threads of mythologizing, politicizing, hype-making, and romanticizing that occurred both during the artist's life and afterward. Davis shows us Basquiat at work in his studio, a precocious and intelligent artist capable of tapping into deep mental and emotional resources, a keen awareness of history, and a voracious consumption of cultural produce. His paintings are far removed from the crass, commercially-minded hoopla orchestrated to 'sell' the artist to the public by his handlers and the media; the irony is that the prices fetched by his paintings are far more a result of this 'inside sales' work by gallerists and dealers than they are a product of the artist's own self-promotion, and yet those prices are exactly the evidence used by Basquiat's critics to discredit him as a mere media celebrity. But Basquiat worked alone and was furiously productive; he worked to sell, it's true, but his paintings are remarkably consistent. His vision rarely falters into simplicity or bears any other traces of having been compromised for the sake of speed and income. Davis includes new interviews with many of Basquiat's contemporaries, including artists Julian Schnabel, Kenny Scharf, and Al Diaz (Basquiat's SAMO partner); gallerists and dealers like Gagosian and Bischofberger; museum curators, musicians, and a few former girlfriends. Each interviewee provides a slightly different perspective, and there is a clear divide in the tone of the comments by those who had a professional interest in the artist and those whose interest was simply personal. Davis's own interview footage from 1986 shows that the artist was well aware that he meant something different to many different people."
Finally, Casey also closes out our column with another silent classic getting a beautiful restoration this month: The Complete Metropolis. "At age 83, Fritz Lang's Metropolis has been given a new lease on life. Not that it needed it, exactly. Lang's immensely influential vision of a dystopic future society had enjoyed a full restoration of its known elements in 2001, playing theatrically to much fanfare. I saw it for this first time that year, on the big screen. I was totally dumbstruck by the movie as a technical and visual achievement, and as a moving, involving story. To that point, I had viewed silent films more or less as interesting curiosities, films that lacked a crucial communicative element; movies from the pre-sound era seemed handicapped or unfinished.
"Seeing Metropolis for the first time, I realized that silence could be used, even embraced, by filmmakers who had mastered this very specific form of the medium to tell stories in ways that sound films could not and never did again after the release of The Jazz Singer in 1928 - the film that destroyed an art form in the name of technological progress. For me, seeing Metropolis carried the realization that silent films were capable of a very specific kind of storytelling unavailable in any other medium - the highly physical acting, the use of music as a kind of 'narrator,' the development of camera movement and other photographic techniques - among other stylistic devices, these marked the silent film era as the period in which people taught themselves how to tell stories on film.
"Famously cut upon its original release (the film was a financial failure), a fully-restored Metropolis was thought to be impossible - and probably is. But a huge step in that direction was made in 2008, when a nearly-complete 16mm dupe negative was discovered in an Argentine film archive. Previously missing footage - amounting to about 25 minutes' worth - was edited back into the already-restored 2001 cut. The reinstatement of this footage rounds off the film's heretofore jagged narrative edges. The whole thing plays significantly better, providing numerous contextual shots, plus a few longer sequences that clarify plot mechanics, and character dynamics.
"The storyline of Metropolis is philosophically muddled, demonstrating a naïve and incomplete command of the socio-political 'machinery' it means to discuss. There is a strange, unexplained reliance on Christian imagery and allegory that doesn't exactly mesh with the film's already otherworldly setting. As a character, Maria is strongly mystical at some moments and incredibly vulnerable at others. Freder comes off as an over-the-top bleeding heart with no real charisma, although he redeems himself through direct action in the picture's final act.
"But Metropolis's successes massively outweigh these thematic weaknesses. Despite being cast as under-developed characters, Brigitte Helm and Gustav Frohlich shine as Maria/Machine-Man and Freder, respectively. Helm is particularly fascinating when she takes on the part of the Machine-Man-as-Maria, head twitching mechanically in gestures that come off as creepy and surprisingly un-human. The other performers are good, too, including Alfred Abel as the moody, powerful Frederson, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang, the mad inventor.
"Metropolis is enormously involving from beginning to end, even at its longer restored length of 149 minutes. A gripping plot, a gallery of individuated characters, endless visual delight, and a monumentally ambitious production scale don't just maintain our interest but make us stop to think about the prodigious skill and conceptual balls it took to pull it all off. The restoration leaves the story feeling fuller and better-shaped than any previous cut. Add in a new recording of Gottfried Huppertz's original 1927 score in 5.1 surround, and this Metropolis is easily the biggest cinematic event of 2010."
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. His most recent work is the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, drawn by the incomparable Joelle Jones. This follows his first original graphic novel with Jones, 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, all published by Oni Press. His most recent release is the comedy seriesSpell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.
Special thanks to Jason Bailey, Casey Burchby, Brian Orndorf, John Sinnott, and Adam Tyner for their contributions.
Fantasia, America Lost and Found, and Guy Maddin
Chaplin, John Cazale, and Metropolis
Alain Resnais, David Bowie, and Ingmar Bergman
Coco Chanel, Red Riding, and Fantomas