Blindspotting: A Night At The Opera and The Navigator

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I remember a Saturday evening many years ago sitting down with my Dad to watch the Marx Brothers. I think we had tuned into PBS around 7PM and a double bill of Monkey Business and Horse Feathers was showing. Together they didn’t even total 2 and a half hours, but holy crap did we cram in the laughs. It was silly, goofy and appealed to every juvenile instinct I had in my body (and still have). It seemed to have the same effect on my Dad since he sat in his chair giggling in that “Dad” fashion and shaking half the house along with him. Of course, that just made everything that much funnier. I was probably about 10-11, so I was also old enough to catch some of the puns, banter and sharpness of these obviously practised comedians and realized that this was a craft. A well-honed one.

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And speaking of artists and their crafts…Buster Keaton remains to this day one of my all-time favourite artists in any medium. Far more than just simple slapstick, his silent comedies of the mid-to-late 20s were things of beauty and marvels to behold that would make you smile, laugh and question basic laws of physics. A somewhat “life changing” experience was watching a 3 hour American Masters program on PBS dedicated to Keaton (which I fortunately taped to VHS and wore down to microscopic width). His life had tragedy, regret and failure, but also contained some of the greatest work to ever be caught on celluloid. As the “great stone face”, Keaton rarely broke a smile or showed a sense of fear while throwing himself (or mostly being thrown) info a myriad of dangerous stunts and physical gags. Though he was also an obviously well-rehearsed funny man with razor sharp timing, the falls, leaps and tumbles seemed almost improvised. It was part of his brilliance and was fascinating to hear him reflect on the broken bones and sets of cat-lives that he had. Those interview clips of Keaton in his late 50s also greatly reminded me of my Dad – there was just a certain way he told a story.

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Blindspotting: Phantom Of The Opera and Creature From The Black Lagoon

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Yes, this would have made more sense in October. Conspiring forces and all that…
 

It’s odd to think that two vastly different films with 30 years between them could both be lumped together under the same generic genre banner. But that’s what happens when you start classifying anything old as “classic” – like, for example, the 1924 silent feature The Phantom Of The Opera and the mid-50s monster flick Creature From The Black Lagoon both being labelled as Classic Horror. The fact that the technical tools available to the filmmakers were worlds apart and their aims were very different don’t seem to matter. If it wasn’t for alphabetical order, you’d find them side by side on a video store shelf.

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Of course, both films are even further removed from modern day fare. Some might claim they suffer for that, but it really does depend what you want from a horror film. Do either of these films shock or scare you? Likely not in an immediate, jump out of your seat kind of way (though the iconic reveal of the Phantom’s face can still unsettle), but that’s not necessarily the only thing horror can do to you. There’s something chilling about the idea of unseen monsters living in a foreign environment right under your feet which could – at a moment’s notice and through no fault of your own – rise up and destroy your life. As well, both films provide haunting images of their monsters in close-up that can leave rather disconcerting feelings within you (put the dead-looking eyes of the Creature alongside the contorted, deformed face of the Phantom and your sleep may be interrupted tonight). The jump scares are few and far between, but good horror leaves an impression, not just a brief quickening of the heartbeat due to the crash of sound and image. So the two films do have a good deal in common I guess.

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Review: Blancanieves

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On paper, the Spanish film Blancanieves seems to piggyback on two recent trends – homage to silent cinema (if this plus The Artist can be considered a trend), and films about Snow White, following two Hollywood takes on the tale. Lest that suggest, however, that Blancanieves is a derivative tail-follower, nothing could be farther from the truth. This is a grand film, with director Pablo Berger showing both a solid knowledge of and a deep love for European cinema of the 1920s.

Pulling not only from the tale of Snow White, but also from sister fairy tale Cinderella (and even a little from Beauty and the Beast), the film follows young Carmen through her horrid childhood after her matador father is paralyzed in a bullfighting accident and her sinister stepmother (played by Maribel Verdu, of Pan’s Labyrinth) takes over, forcing Carmen to work like a slave and psychologically torturing her at every turn. As the film switches from Cinderella to Snow White for inspiration, the jealous stepmother wants a now-grown Carmen dead, but the young woman escapes, albeit with an amnesia-causing head injury, and falls in with a group of traveling circus dwarves. This eventually leads to Carmen becoming a matador herself.

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Finite Focus: Buster Keaton tries to relax (Our Hospitality)

Buster Keaton has always been famous for his daring stunts and his deadpan face. Rarely does he break expression as he tumbles down mountainsides, fights vicious storms or survives buildings crashing around him. One of his best stunts occurs near the end of his classic Our Hospitality – as his beloved floats uncontrollably towards a huge waterfall and certain death, he ties himself to an overhanging log and swings out to catch the falling body as it plummets over the edge of roaring water. It may only be a dummy that takes the plunge over the edge, but that’s Keaton arcing out like a pendulum to catch it while swallowing torrents of water. It’s a fantastic scene that provides an exciting climax and is possibly even more remarkable in its execution today than almost 90 years ago when he performed it. There’s no editing out of safety wires or harnesses here – just a basic knowledge of physics and a great deal of nerve.

As great as it is, though, my favourite moment in the film comes much earlier and shows off one of Keaton’s other comedic skills – his impeccable timing. Unaware of a long-standing family feud (similar to a Hatfield/McCoy battle), Willie Mckay returns to his family home for the first time in decades. There he meets a young woman who just happens to be a member of his family’s rivals and she invites him over to dinner. The menfolk of her family are, of course, aghast when he arrives, but since they are hospitable southern gentlemen, they would never kill him inside their house. So they wait until he must eventually leave. Willie realizes this and stalls his departure – which also gives him more time with his new girl.

As he watches her play the piano, he becomes aware of the baleful glares of his hopeful executioners. For a full 10 seconds, he tries to appear unfazed by looking for a natural relaxed mode, but continues to shift positions, trying folded arms then leaning against the wall then hands in pockets, but never quite doing any of them before changing his mind and trying something else. It’s a wonderful little piece of funny business that shows his awkwardness and nervousness at the situation – while never letting his expression change.

You can see that snippet from the scene below:

Mamo #251: On Ebertfest, Part Two

Live from the Aroma Cafe in Champaign, IL, we continue to recap Ebertfest as it happens. Today we discuss the beautiful film Terri, a terrific program of shorts accompanied by the Alloy orchestra, and our thoughts on a panel about VOD vs. the future of theatrical moviegoing.

To download this episode, use this URL: http://rowthree.com/audio/mamo/mamo251.mp3

Rep Cinemagoing: Modern Times

The thing that makes me happiest in the world is seeing audiences respond to classic films with joy and wonder, and that’s exactly what I saw last week when Cinefamily screened Modern Times to a nearly full audience. First off, it’s awesome that 150 people will choose a Chaplin silent film over the hoards of other entertainment options in this city, but it’s proven to me again and again that Chaplin (or Keaton) will still pack them in at Cinefamily, as they run these films every year or so to delighted audiences. Last time they ran Modern Times, though, I think I wasn’t able to go. This time it coincided with my volunteering night, so once I finished taking tickets, seating people, and clearing up a minor popcorn vs gravity issue, I settled in just as the credits finished to watch my favorite Chaplin film with a wonderfully receptive audience.

I’ve seen Modern Times probably five or six times, but never before with an audience, and it added an awful lot to the experience. The film itself is incredible, and falls squarely within my top twenty of all time. Chaplin’s tramp starts off as a cog in the machine (literally, at one point) of a steel factory, spending his days tightening bolts on an endless stream of conveyor-belt carried steel plates. Slowing down piles him into the workers further down the assembly line, and stopping (for lunch) puts him into spasms as his muscles try to continue the tightening motions. After being put into an automatic lunch machine to test it – with hilarious results – he ends up having a nervous breakdown, losing his job, getting arrested by accident, meeting up with an orphan waif from the docks, trying to find a job to support her and protect her from the child services authorities, etc.

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Video Review: The Artist

The Artist got big buzz as it made its way through TIFF ’11 and just received five nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards, which led the pack. Nothing but positive vibes about this film coming from pretty much everyone I’ve talked to that has seen it. Here, Cinecast co-host Kurt Halfyard gives The Substream the rundown on this exceptional film that should be hitting theaters in your area very very soon. Some sites are already predicting this film has a shot at taking home the best picture statue at the Academy Awards. Wow! Wouldn’t be a Kurt Halyard review without going a little bit over schedule. Ladies and gentlemen, the 2 (and a half) minute critic:


 

DVD Review: The Iron Horse

Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Charles Kenyon & John Russell
Starring: George O’Brien, Madge Bellamy, Fred Kohler, Cyril Chadwick
Producer: William Fox
Country: USA
Running Time: 150 & 133 min
Year: 1924
BBFC Certification: PG

The Iron Horse was John Ford’s breakthrough film. At the tender age of 29 Ford had already directed around 50 films (most of which were shorts), but it was his involvement in this, one of the earliest blockbusters, that gave his name clout in Hollywood and set him on his way to becoming one of, if not the most famous and celebrated of American directors. I must admit, despite the pedigree I was a little hesitant to sit down and watch The Iron Horse. As open-minded as I am in my film-viewing, a two and a half hour silent film about building a railway sounded a bit dull. I was expecting to appreciate watching some big epic visuals but grow tired of a dated, slow narrative. In actual fact what I got was pretty much the opposite.

The film charts the construction of America’s first transcontinental railway from a mere dream to Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the bill to start work, all the way to the last nail being hammered in as the Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines meet in the middle. Of course, simply watching the rails getting laid wouldn’t make much of a movie though, so the massive achievement is used to frame a classic love story. Davy Brandon’s father dreams of the day East and West were linked and takes his son West to fulfil this, leaving behind the boy’s best friend Miriam Marsh. On the way Brandon senior is killed by a group of Cheyenne, led by a two-fingered white man, but Davy escapes. We jump forward several years to the start of work on the tracks where we follow a now grown up Miriam (Madge Bellamy) who lives with her father and fiancĂ©, working on the Union Pacific line. Deroux (Fred Kohler), a nasty piece of work, wants to persuade Miriam’s father to take a longer route through land that he owns, which seems to be the case until Davy (George O’Brien) shows up out of the blue. Through his travels with his father he found a shortcut through the mountains. This of course causes problems for Deroux and Jesson (Cyril Chadwick), his right hand man and fiancĂ© to Miriam. These two therefore plot out numerous ways put a stop to the righteous Davy.

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TCM Film Festival: Walt Disney Laugh-o-Grams

Well, here’s a bit of movie history I didn’t know at all before. Most of this is a condensed version of the introduction given by J.B. Kaufman, who is the historian for the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.

Before Walt Disney came out to California and pioneered the feature-length animated film, he worked as an artist for an advertising firm in Kansas City, where he learned of animated cartoons. In 1922, at the age of 19, he started experimenting with animation, sending sample reels of advertisements to a local theatre chain. They liked it, and were soon running his “lightning drawings,” a drawing that appeared under Disney’s hand as if he was drawing it rapidly. But he wasn’t happy with advertisements, and soon wanted to do complete stories. He recruited some friends (including Rudolf Ising) to help him, having discovered that animation is work-intensive. After the success of their first short, Little Red Riding Hood, they incorporated as Laugh-o-Grams and began producing more shorts, most of them heavily modified versions of fairy tales and folk stories.

The friends tried and failed to get national distribution for their films and the company went bankrupt by the end of 1923, the films all heading into public domain to be largely forgotten for a short while. Walt headed out to Hollywood, where he would soon stop animating himself, preferring to focus on directing and producing instead. Around 1929 when the Mickey Mouse character took off, other distributors picked up on the old Laugh-o-Grams, and distributed them under new titles, but capitalizing on Disney’s name. Because of the retitling, a few of these films were actually not recognized as Laugh-o-Gram films until as recently as last year; many were thought lost, until archivists at MOMA realized they had had these films all along, just under different titles.

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Shorts Program: Charlie Chaplin in One A.M.

One A.M. is one of my all-time favorite Charlie Chaplin films, a 1916 short that doesn’t feature his well-known Little Tramp persona, but instead a well-dressed man-about-town who comes home after a night of heavy drinking and spends the whole short trying his hardest just to get upstairs to bed. It played before Modern Times at the Cinefamily last night, reminding me again how awesome it is. Obviously Modern Times is a top-tier film, too, but I couldn’t very well embed that whole thing. However, Criterion is releasing it on Blu-ray in just a few weeks, so there’s an incentive to catch up with it if you haven’t seen it.

So enjoy One A.M.. It’s in two parts because of YouTube’s length limitations, and I’ve put the second half under the seats.