Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Circus

The Circus; silent comedy, USA, 1928; D: Charlie Chaplin, S: Charlie Chaplin, Al Ernest Garcia, Merna Kennedy, Harry Crocker

While running away from a police officer who confused him with a pickpocket, the Tramp enters a circus and disrupts a circus act, but the audience love him and find him hysterical. The circus owner thus hires the Tramp, but finds out the latter can only be funny unintentionally, not on purpose. The Tramp falls in love with a girl, the daughter of a circus owner, but she has a crush on Rex, a daring tightrope walker. In order to impress the girl, the Tramp also tries out to walk on a tightrope, but it doesn't work and thus gets fired. The girl goes with the Tramp, but he persuades her to marry Rex. The circus caravan leaves the Tramp behind.

One of the 10 highest grossing movies from the silent era, "The Circus" came during Charlie Chaplin's annus mirabilis, a time period when it seems the comedian was invincible, had an endless supply of ideas and made great films almost as on an assembly line, where everything he did turned out wonderful—which is evident even in the fact that the film ended up so elegant, fluent and smooth, in spite of its numerous production problems. An excellent comedy, "The Circus" abounds with numerous stylistic sight gags: the scene where a man is holding a child leaned on his shoulder, while the Tramp is eating the child's donut behind the man's back; the Tramp pretending to be a mechanical puppet who is hitting a pickpocket next to him, again and again, in an amusement park in order to hide from a police officer; the dazzling confusion of a police officer trying to capture the Tramp in a house of mirrors which has over a dozen reflections of both of them... The list just goes on and on, and it is remarkable how fresh these jokes look even today.

Chaplin, together with only a handful of other comedians from the silent era, such as B. Keaton and H. Lloyd, perfected the comic timing into true art, elevating it into a meticulous science process that, congruently, unwinds as if it is the simplest thing. Just take the sequence where the Tramp escapes from a lion in a cage—he is relieved, only to later on be scared randomly by a little cat. Chaplin, though, also gives his character an emotional dimension: just like many other great movies, even "The Circus" feeds off the author having a touch with the subject matter, a sort of semi-biographical resemblance, since Chaplin's career started in stage comedy and vaudeville, which resembles the situation of the Tramp in the story. He can only be funny unintentionally, when he is clumsy, but not on purpose, which symbolically speaks about how it is for something funny happening in a comedian's private life, only to find out how difficult and evasive it is to emulate it in front of the public, i.e. how strange it is to translate someone's talent into something useful and commercial. Unlike many other films where he gets the girl, here the Tramp ends up exactly where he started, in his own world, which is touching, almost as if Chaplin knew that the cinema is moving on without him in the allegorical last sequence, while he stays behind. This is a rich film, and it rewards richly, appropriately.

Grade:+++

Monday, July 30, 2018

Opportunity Knocks

Opportunity Knocks; comedy, USA, 1990; D: Donald Petrie, S: Dana Carvey, Robert Loggia, Todd Graff, Julia Campbell, Milo O'Shea, Doris Belack, James Tolkan

Con men Eddie and Lou owe a lot of money to mobster Sal. In a desperate attempt, they decide to randomly rob an empty mansion at night. However, once inside, they hear two messages on the answering machine: one, that its owner, David, has left it to the house sitter Jonathan while on a trip; two, that Jonathan has called in to say he cannot make it. Eddie and Lou thus stay in the mansion. When David's parents, Mona and Milt show up, Eddie randomly introduces himself as Jonathan, and thus gets dragged to parties and business meetings. When he proposes a business idea of adds on toilet doors, Milt starts to adore him, whereas his daughter Annie falls in love with the fake Jonathan. When Sal shows up again, Eddie tricks him into thinking he got a demolishing job from an official, and thus Sal gets arrested when he demolishes a building. Eddie finally admits he lied to all, but Annie still decides to stay with him.

Comedian Dana Carvey's foray into film world was met with lukewarm reception, since his "kick-off" comedy of mistaken identity "Opportunity Knocks" is an easily watchable, but also bland and meagre flick that did not do justice to its main star's talents. It starts off good, with several funny jokes—one of the best is the set-up where Eddie and Lou, out of desperation, break into a mansion to rob it at night, but suddenly hear two messages on the answering machine: the one where the owner, David, says he is out on a trip and that he left everything to his house-sitter Jonathan; and the other right afterward, in which Jonathan calls to say he cannot make it. There is an immediate jump cut to Eddie and Lou enjoying playing pool and drinking in the mansion the next day, marveling at their serendipity. Another good sequence establishes Eddie's uncle, Max: after a conversation in the exterior, Eddie wants do depart, but says this to Max: "Before I go, can I have my wallet back?" Max then snickers and returns his wallet, but after a while, this time he stops Eddie: "Can I have my watch back?" This amusing double-theft mirrors a little bit a similar situation in Lubitsch's "Trouble in Paradise", which also helped establish these characters who constantly trick each other. Unfortunately, some 35 minutes into the film, the storyline runs out of steam and settles for a timid, unmemorable and dull entertainment with too much "empty walk". A lot of jokes are tried, but they are without a truly sate punchline or a point. The sequence where Eddie improvises talking Japanese when he encounters a Japanese in front of Milt, is forced, whereas the subplot in which mobster Sal is so naive he falls for a Eddie's trick who smuggled Max pretending to be a building commissioner who leaves the office to make a big deal outside, in a crowded hallway, is unconvincing. The screenplay needed better jokes to keep up the viewers' interest to the end, though it does end on a rather satisfying conclusion thanks to a charming little ending.

Grade:+

Friday, July 27, 2018

Ménilmontant

Ménilmontant; silent drama short, France, 1926; D: Dimitri Kirsanoff, S: Nadia Sibirskaïa, Yolande Beaulieu, Guy Belmont, Jean Pasquier

A husband and wife are killed with an axe by a man in a village. This leaves their two little daughters orphans. Decades later, the two sisters are grown up and now live in Paris in a poor neighborhood. One sister falls for a man. They sleep with each other, but she if left alone after she has a baby. She contemplates suicide and walks around the streets, hungry. Later, she meets her sister, who has in the meantime also fallen for the same man, and is now a prostitute. Some people then kill the man on the street.

The favorite film of film critic Pauline Keal, "Menilmontant" still holds up surprisingly well despite its unknown reputation. The director Dimitri Kirsanoff has a refined sense for dynamic, modern and energetic visual style that is established thanks to a very movable camera, in complete opposition to the static camera plans of the silent era, and thus the movie seems almost as if it was made today, just without sound and in black and white cinematography. However, his use of cinematic techniques is limited, save for a couple of exceptions (the double exposure of the sister and the flow of river overlaid on her head, as a symbol for her gloomy emotional state in which she is contemplating suicide; the montage of the sister sleeping with her lover...) whereas the story slips into the melodramatic-soap opera territory at times due to its too serious, too determined tone. The movie has a very lyric feel to it, the highlight being the emotional, but still restrained and tasteful sequence of a man eating on the street and simply leaving some bread for the hungry woman sitting next to her, without looking at her, almost as if he wants to keep up his persona. A quality film, though it will be met with split reactions: it has no subtitles or intertitles, which just aggravates the already difficult task of the viewers at trying to connect all the dots into a purposeful whole (is the first murder in the very first scene elusive until it is understood in the context of the second murder, motivated by betrayal?) from the sometimes hermetic choice of narrative.

Grade:+++

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Doll

Die Puppe; silent romantic fantasy comedy, Germany, 1919; D: Ernst Lubitsch, S: Ossi Oswalda, Hermann Thimig, Victor Janson




Baron of Chanterelle wants that his lineage continues, so he calls all maidens to try to marry his nephew, Lancelot. However, Lancelot does not want to commit and runs away to a monastery. A monk makes a proposal to him: since Baron placed a 300,000 francs reward for him to marry, Lancelot should simply marry a puppet to trick him. Master Hilarius creates a doll that looks exactly like his teenage daughter, Ossi, and decides to sell the doll to Lancelot. However, Hilarius' apprentice accidentally breaks the doll—so Ossi steps in and pretends to be the puppet. Lancelot brings Ossi to a party where she has trouble hiding her "human" side and holding still. Finally, in his room, Ossi reveals she is a real woman to Lancelot, who marries her.

One of the early films from director Ernst Lubitsch, from his phase when he was still working in Germany, "The Doll" is a charming and gentle little romantic fairytale and comedy of mistaken identity in one, a one which still seems fresh today. Lubitsch placed the entire story in an artificial setting, including paper trees, a paper house and even the two horses in a carriage are men in costumes, thus already emphasizing the fairy tale tone of the film, yet he also kept a lot of his trademark, humanistic humor. In one early sequence, the little apprentice kisses the doll, and then turns around and kisses Ossi's mother, as well, saying: "Just so that nobody feels neglected". The tangle lifts the film into its highlights, yet it ofers so much to excellent actress Ossi Oswalda, who is sometimes irresistibly cute while her character pretends to be a "stiff" doll in front of Lancelot, yet often has to "break character" by almost winking to the audience (Lancelot wants to change her dress, but Ossi slaps his hand my moving mechanically; during a party, a hungry Ossi cannot resist but to take a bite from a plate, and thus chews only when Lancelot is not looking, but when he turns around toward her, she immediately stops and pretends to be still; Lancelot leaving and Ossi sighing from relief because she can finally relax...). Her mischievous smile, looks and "mechanical" movements create an enchanting set of situation that carry the entire film, while also slowly announcing how the young couple is falling in love, thereby resulting in a light, yet also meaningful little film.

Grade:+++

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Trouble in Paradise

Trouble in Paradise; romantic comedy, USA, 1932; D: Ernst Lubitsch, S: Herbert Marshall, Kay Francis, Miriam Hopkins, Edward Everett Horton

Venice. Gaston Monescu is a small-time crook who just robbed a certain Mr. Filiba while pretending to be a doctor. He meets Lily, who is also a crook who wanted to rob him, and they fall in love. Some time later, Gaston and Lily are in Paris, where an ultra-rich woman, Mariette Colet, catches their attention, so they steal her diamond purse in an opera. However, when Mariette offers a stunning 20,000 francs reward, Gaston goes to her mansion and returns her bag, feigning that he found it somewhere. Upon hearing that she has over a 100,000 francs in her safe, he manages to persuade Mariette to hire him as her secretary, planning to rob her in a few weeks. Mariette and Gaston fall in love, but he decides to escape when he stumbles upon Mr. Filiba again. In the end, Gaston departs with Lily, but not before she stole Mariette's purse.

This shining comedy by the cinematic maestro Ernst Lubitsch is today rightfully regarded as a classic, since the director crafted a funny, intelligent, emotional, cultured, elevated, wise... In short, an all-encompassing achievement that operates on a high comic level, while at the same time enriching the American cinema world with the 'European flair'. It takes some long 20 minutes for Lubitsch to finally prepare his set-up, but it is worth the wait since once he does, the storyline flows smoothly and has a meticulous structure. Lubitsch, just like his disciple B. Wilyder, is first and foremost a writer—not a director—and thus puts all the focus only on the story, the characters and the dialogues, neglecting cinematic techniques almost entirely, settling only for the conventional, classic camera shots, yet when the former ingredients are so delicious, nothing else matters. The culture clash between the small-time crook Gaston and the ultra-rich Mariette—which subtly mirrors the contradiction of the rich and the poor during the Great Depression of that epoch— is one of the building blocks for the film's humor: upon returning her diamond purse, the bewildered Gaston is flabbergasted by Mariette's mansion and enters the bedroom, spotting an expensive 18th century bed. He is even more surprised when Mariette says this: "Oh, I got tired of sleeping in antiques, so I gave this bed to my secretary!" Mariette is so carefree she then goes on to the safe on the wall and starts unlocking it, while Gaston is right behind her, staring greedily at the safe and holding up his hand to imagine operating the combination of numbers.

"Trouble in Paradise" is filled with endlessly quotable lines, which sound like music to the film buffs ear. In one scene, for instance, Lily is jealous at Mariette, but Gaston ensures her: "As far as I'm concerned, her whole sex-appeal is in that safe!" However, Lubitsch is also highly inspired in numerous visual, 'common sense' jokes. For instance, Mariette has two annoying suitors, the Major and Mr. Filiba. During a preparation for the dinner, the Major prepares the guest list and places the paper with his name right next to Mariette's plate—but puts the paper with the name "Filiba", of his rival, far away from her, at the end of the table, just in case. In the opening segment in Venice, Mr. Filiba was also robbed by Gaston who was in disguise, but meets him later in the film again, in Paris, yet cannot remember from where he knows him. Until there is a scene in which Mr. Filiba puts a cigarette in an ashtray in the form of a gondola and has a sudden 'association realization'—this is superior humor. Another great moment involves the clock montage, in which the camera is only displaying the clock all the time, while all the lines are heard off screen (Lily departing from Gaston at 5:00; Mariette asking Gaston to go have dinner with her already at 5:13; the night shot of Mariette asking Gaston to spend more time with her after a dance at 10:45 PM...), yet they illustrate the gradual growth of affection between Gaston and Mariette without showing anything, which is genius. Needles to say, Miriam Hopkins and Kay Francis were terribly underrated actresses, and it is great to see them shine in this edition. A very sympathetic and genuine film, yet only true masters can take the most complicated and difficult ingredients and make them seem like they were the easiest thing to do—which is obvious in the fact that the film seems simple, yet very few directors have managed to make something like it.

Grade:+++

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Destiny

Der müde Tod; silent fantasy, Germany, 1921; D: Fritz Lang, S: Lil Dagover, Bernhard Goetzke, Walter Janssen, Hans Sternberg

A small town, 19th century. A young couple arrive with a carriage to a tavern. While the woman is distracted, Death, in the form of a man in a black robe, takes away her fiance. She goes to the underworld and asks Death if he can bring back her lover. Death then tells her three stories about lovers with tragic endings: in a Middle Eastern city, a Caliph does not want his daughter to fall in love with a Christian man, and thus has him executed... In Venice, Monna is engaged to the wealthy Girolamo, but is secretly in love with the ordinary merchant, Gianfrancesco. Girolamo thus tricks Monna into attacking Gianfrancesco while they are both wearing masks, while a Moor kills Gianfrancesco by stabbing him in the back... In a Chinese village, a magician is summoned by the Emperor to entertain him through some magic tricks. However, the Emperor falls in love with the magician's assistant, Tiao Tsien, and wants to separate her from her lover, Liang. Tiao Tsien takes the magician's wand to escape, but the Emperor's guard kills her lover... Back in present, Death gives the woman until midnight to find someone to replace her lover's demise. She tries, but cannot find anyone and thus decides to die herself and be reunited with her lover in death.

Widely thought to be director Fritz Lang's breakthrough film, "Destiny" is an unusual and allegorical tale about fatalism and the inability of people to escape from tragedy, not even when they are happily in love. Lang takes a lot of inspiration from Griffith's "Intolerance" since the main story is just a framing device for three more stories set in the past (a city in the Middle East; Venice; a Chinese town), except that here the reoccurring theme of selfishness of other people who prevent the love of a young couple is underlined by having the two lead actors, Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen, play lovers in each epoch, symbolizing the endless cycle of their fate, which in turn inspired later allegorical films, including Aronofsky's "The Fountain". Strictly speaking, these three stories are rather superfluous and have little to do to contribute to the main one in the end, which makes the movie not that impressive anymore. The best one is arguably the Chinese story, since it had several opulent set designs combined with the technique of double exposure to conjure up the feeling of the magician's magic tricks (flying on a magic carpet; a miniature army walking beneath his feet; a flying horse) featuring several bizarre characters (the Emperor, for some reason, has extremely long fingernails). However, despite the fantasy concept, the storyline is presented in a rather standard, routine edition, not managing to ignite on a higher level. For instance, there is only scene that illustrates the love of the couple: the one where they are in a carriage, and the man is so shy that he has to throw a blanket over a goose inside in order to properly kiss the woman. Lang was not in his full element quite yet, yet even in this rudimentary edition, he managed to inspire several directors to craft several similar surreal movies.

Grade:++

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Space Cop

Space Cop; science-fiction comedy, USA, 2016; D: Jay Bauman, Mike Stoklasa, S: Rich Evans, Mike Stoklasa, Jay Bauman, Jocelyn Ridgely, Chike Johnson, Zack McLain, Patton Oswalt

Space Cop is a reckless police officer in Milwaukee of 2058. While chasing after an alien spaceship in his space car, he accidentally gets sucked into a time portal and lands in Milwaukee of 2015, where he finds a job, again at the police. While chasing after two burglars who took the frozen brain of scientist Marcus from a cryo lab, Space Cop unleashes Ted, a police detective from the 50s who was also frozen. Now in present, Ted, a cop from the past, and Space Cop, a cop from the future, have to solve the case of the aliens who want to revive Dr. Marcus, who was preparing a giant black hole experiment, and give his brain in a vat a mechanical body to find a new energy source for their planet. However, the brain in a vat kills them and intends to destroy Earth, but Space Cop and Ted stop him in the alien spaceship.

Produced by the RedLetterMedia trio, independent science-fiction comedy flick "Space Cop" is a spoof of the 'buddy-cop' movies from the 80s and 90s that often followed the formula of two unlikely heroes having to work together, and as such it is a rather fun and energetic little film, though it is not in good relations with a few crude or juvenile attempts at humor that wreck its mood, especially not in the rather trashy finale. Some jokes work, some don't. The best one revolve around the character interaction between Space Cop, a cop from the future, and Ted, a detective from the past, since they are played by fellow RedLetterMedia friends Chris Evans and Mike Stoklasa, who obviously like to cooperate with each other. Unfortunately, Ted and Space Cop do not interact that much, and instead mostly talk to other characters, acting as if they are each in "their own film". Evans is especially surprising imitating a deep Eastwood-like 'macho' voice throughout, which is often contrasted by his clumsiness. In one sequence, as two burglars are in a lab, Space Cop slams the door and triumphantly enters with this cheesy line: "The party's over, kids. The clown has arrived!" Another scene has him just staring at the video screen while his police chief (Patton Oswalt in a delicious guest appearance) cannot "hang up" the connection, even though he swiped at the screen, so he simply stands up and walks away from the desk, since he cannot stand Space Cop. Another great little joke has Space Cop asking Ted if he checked out if his wife is maybe still alive, since they lived in the 50s, upon which Ted replies: "Oh God, no! If my wife is still alive, she is probably an elderly person by now!" Some scenes are misguided and stupid, though (the baby hostage sequence, for instance, is disastrous), whereas 'slob comedies' were always of an overall lesser impression than comedies with intelligent protagonists. Since the whole storyline is assembled just out of random, episodic sketches, some will probably not enjoy in its goofy-cartoonish tone, yet overall it is an amusing little film that has its moments and surprises.

Grade:++

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Along Came Polly

Along Came Polly; comedy, USA, 2004; D: John Hamburg, S: Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bryan Brown, Alec Baldwin, Debra Messing, Hank Azaria

During their honeymoon on a Caribbean island, Reuben finds  his wife Lisa cheating on him with a local diving instructor. Devastated and betrayed, he returns back to New York to his job as a risk analyst for life insurance, trying to find reasons to insure a very risky client, Leland. He then meets Polly, a former high school classmate, and asks her out. Despite her too wild lifestyle, they start a relationship. Unexpectedly, Lisa returns and wants to reconcile. Upon finding out that Reuben is weighing the percentage of his chances between her and Lisa on a computer, Polly dumps Reuben. He still manages to convince her to return to him.

Even though "Along Came Polly" came on the wave of success of his hit comedy "There's Something About Mary", it caught Ben Stiller in a good, but stilted comic performance that drew too many comparisons to the latter film, causing a backlash that the comedian got stuck in the same old role that became boring. While this consensus is wrong, the movie really seems predictable and derivative at times. It is semi-successful: some jokes work, some misfire. At least two sequences (Reuben accidentally rubbing his face of a sweaty man's chest while playing basketball; the clogged and flooded toilet) are really cheap attempts at humor, with several 'rough' edges disrupting the mood, but luckily there are enough good gags, as well, which make the movie fun and easy to watch. Philip Seymour Hoffman, though, steals the show as the character Sandy, a former child star who made only one film (!) but still pretends to be a famous movie star even as a grown up, who is a small comic gem. This culminates in two of the best moments in the entire film: one is when he hijacks the entire theater group by unilaterally re-casting himself from a supporting role of Judas to the main role of Jesus in a play, causing an epic backlash from Reuben's dad, and the other is when the plays Reuben at an important insurance conference ("All right, we all need to look into our hearts and go, "Do I think this dude is gonna die in a few years or not?" Is old Leland here gonna fight off a man... who goes by the last name "Reaper," first name "Grim"? Or will this BASE-jumping, crocodile-wrestling, shark-diving, volcano-lugging, bear-fighting, snake-wrangling, motocross-racing bastard die?"). The second most amusing performance was unexpectedly delivered by none other than Alec Baldwin, who gave a few delicious jokes as Reuben's office colleague.

Grade:++

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Disaster Artist

The Disaster Artist; comedy, USA, 2017; D: James Franco, S: James Franco, Dave Franco, Alison Brie, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Paul Scheer, Jacki Weaver, Josh Hutcherson, Zac Efron, Megan Mullally, Melanie Griffith, Sharon Stone, Bryan Cranston

San Francisco, '98. During an acting class, Greg Sestero, a young and aspiring actor, encounters the mysterious Tommy Wiseau and gets fascinated by his bold performance in front of the audience. They become friends. Upon hearing that Greg wants to make it in Hollywood, Tommy reveals that he actually has an apartment in Los Angeles and invites Greg to stay at his place. Greg even finds an agent to represent him, but they both fail to land any movie roles. Finally, Tommy decides to write his own script, and direct it into a movie, "The Room", staring himself and Greg. After numerous problems during principal photography, "The Room" premieres to the audience that laughs at it. However, Greg manages to cheer Tommy up and inspire him to accept the reaction to the movie.

James Franco's 12th directorial achievement proves once again the old saying that sometimes the events surrounding making a movie are sometimes far more interesting and fascinating than the sole movie in question. For this enterprise, Franco couldn't have chosen a riskier subject—Tommy Wiseau's bizarre film "The Room"—yet he delivered probably the best possible movie about the peculiar director since the result is a clever, funny, versatile, unusual and refreshingly human little film. A large credit should be given to the excellent script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber who used Wiseau's story as a symbol for the plight and misunderstanding of outsiders, of people who are rejected by society just because they are different. However, the viewers should be familiar with "The Room" before watching "The Disaster Artist", since it contains so many hilarious little references to that film, whereas Franco perfectly nails Wiseau's little mannerisms and moves, downright to his surreal laugh. At least three quotes are unforgettable, two of which involve movie business: one is when an acting coach observes Tommy's performance and tells him that he should just plain villains ("I'm giving you a shortcut to success") and the other is when the actors are surprised how the aging actress, Carolyn, is willing to get up at 5 AM just to travel to the shooting of the movie, upon which she also delivers a fine, dignified reply ("Even the worst day on the movie set is better than the best day anywhere else"). Many jokes arrive swiftly, stemming from the character interactions which help alleviate for some minor flaws in editing or the choice of music, and the actors seem to have a blast saying all these one-liners from "The Room" which already inexplicably entered the hall of fame of pop culture ("Oh, hay Mark!"), signalling Wiseau's delayed 'pyrrhic victory' after all. Neustadter and Weber strip Wiseau from his misguided writing piece by piece, until they get to the essence, to a man following his dreams despite all obstacles, to pure passion and expressiveness, which are universal traits of humanity.

Grade:+++