Archive for the FILM Category

Elephants, at your age

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2016 by dcairns

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Continuing our journey through the films of the Marx Bros, while ignoring, as much as possible, the Marx Bros.

AT THE CIRCUS is rather good — I have historically undervalued it. It seems to be somehow slightly less memorable than A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES, the first two MGM Marx vehicles, without being any weaker in entertainment terms. There are some very good quips, the slapstick (to which Buster Keaton contributed his gag-writing skills) is often hilarious, Groucho gets one splendid number (Lydia the Tattooed Lady) and a couple of terrific set-piece scenes.

As the movie opens, we have the usual agonizing Wait for Groucho, during which romantic pseudo-leads Kenny Baker and Florence Rice make googly eyes and sing a dull song. As is standard, she is slightly more appealing than him. Kenny Baker lacks his famous namesake’s charisma and novelty size, but he has a squeaky Mickey Mouse voice which some might enjoy, I guess.

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Then there’s the usual gruff businessman villain, a Scooby Doo stock figure without charisma, but James Burke does have some really good moments when he’s being attacked by a gorilla in the climax.

About that gorilla — Fiona pointed out that MGM are drawing upon their earlier hit(s), THE UNHOLY THREE. They don’t have a female impersonator hawking mute parrots, but they have a “midget” and a strongman and a mighty jungle beast.

Jerry Maren/Marenghi plays Little Professor Atom (watch his best scene here), looking like a ten-year-old boy if it were not for his dapper pencil mustache. The same year he would join the Lollipop Guild as a munchkin in THE WIZARD OF OZ. The scene in his room, with miniature furniture (Antic Hay!) and endless cigars emerging from Chico’s vest is one of the film’s highlights. One of those great scenes where Chico’s stupidity assumes almost diabolical proportions.

Jerry is still alive! Well, he was only 19 in 1939.

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Goliath the strongman is Nat Pendleton, one of Shadowplay‘s favourite heavies, typecast as surly ruffian types. Here he’s initially unrecognizable in a Harpoesque wig and twirly moustache — he at least looks more like a strongman than that sagging hambone in FREAKS. (Sad to see none of the FREAKS ensemble turning up here — Koo Koo would have fitted right into a Marx Bros pic. But there is an appearance by a seal who looks a little like Prince Randian.) Pendleton’s brand of grating menace makes him an ideal Marxian antagonist: Chico and Harpo get another standout scene as they attempt to search his room while he’s sleeping in it. This heavy is a heavy sleeper. This one fizzles out at the very end, but not before building to ridiculous excess.

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Gibraltar the ape is another Shadowplay fave, make-up artist and part-time gorilla impersonator Charles Gemora, last seen gluing eyelids to Marlon Brando a few days back. Gibraltar makes the climax of the film the triumph it is (along with Fritz Feld’s irascible conductor, complete with pointy beard for Groucho to mock). He seems not so much dangerous as high-spirited, having a rare old time terrifying people on the flying trapeze, behaving not so much like a jungle beast as like a short Philipino makeup artist who’s just put on a gorilla costume and is having the time of his life.

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Rounding out the team of baddies is vamp Peerless Pauline, played by husky-voiced Eve Arden, who has a nice human fly act with Groucho, walking on the ceiling. In the MGM films, Groucho’s horndoggery is dialled down, so he can only flirt with vamps and with Margaret Dumont. Somehow he’s always had a Spider Sense that allows him to detect who the leading lady, so he can restrain his wolfishness when she’s around. (LOVE HAPPY, dismal as it is, at least allows him to resume his moth-eaten lechery with Marilyn Monroe as letch-magnet.)

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In shameless and senseless emulation of A DAY AT THE RACES, this movie also features a big production number where a lot of black people appear from nowhere to put on a show. But I quite like the Swingali number — director Edward Buzzell throws in some Dutch tilts for added vigour. The lyric “Is he man or maestro?” harkens back to DUCK SOUP. And he’s more resourceful at filming harp solos, which makes the Harpo interlude about 8% less dull than usual.

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Then there’s Dumont, an essential part of the team — more important than the discarded Zeppo, it seems. Giant crane shot at her party — Rosalind Russell supposedly said you can’t do comedy on big sets but Mags makes a chump out of her here. Amidst all the cruelty, it seems a shame that, after her Mrs. Dewksbury has shed her pretensions and settled down to enjoy the big top entertainment (there’s more damn SINGING in this circus than I recall being usual under the big top), she still has to be fired out of a cannon and swung on the trapeze in her bloomers. Overkill! She’s already loosened up. How loose do you want her?

Great image of the orchestra drifting out to sea makes the film’s ending even better — maybe the best Marxian fadeout?

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What happens after that fadeout? First violin leads a mutiny against the conductor while the brass section resorts to cannibalism?

The Sunday Intertitle: She’s not there

Posted in FILM with tags , , on August 21, 2016 by dcairns

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Our hero looks at the telephone (a gleaming, seductive thing of metallic curves).

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I like the mental leap: telephone = woman. Because he can use the phone to call her, obviously. Because women like telephones. Because women are like telephones?

This odd train of thought may be emerging because I’m half-asleep, or because Jean Epstein and his writer/sister Marie has just given us an eccentric scene where the hero shows his servants how he got a traffic ticket, by reconstructing the incident with upturned chairs and cutaways to jolting jalopies and a stern policeman. Unconventional film syntax is already upon us.

Then I realize that the hero was looking at the telephone because it was RINGING. And he thinks ELLE! because he’s been hoping/expecting a call from that special person. It’s a silent movie, so we don’t hear the ring, and I’m half-asleep so my brain doesn’t make the required leap when he suddenly looks at the telephone.

Although, when we eventually meet her… she does look a bit like a telephone.

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Oh, the film? SIX ET DEMI ONZE (1927).

 

The Look # 5: Tilda and Arno overdo it

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2016 by dcairns

Orlando (Tilda Swinton) and Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) in the film Orlando Scene 54 Photo by Liam Longman © Adventure Pictures Ltd

I like it when actors break the fourth wall, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this occasional series, but I do think it’s a device that should be used sparingly. It’s clever once, acceptable twice, and more than that can start to seem smug — like the filmmakers are so pleased at coming up with this clever idea, they can’t stop doing it, forgetting that true cleverness usually involves having more than one idea.

One use that irked me slightly was Sally Potter’s film ORLANDO. Tilda Swinton, who plays both male and female in the film, is perfectly cast and perfectly suited to fourth wall breakage, since her presence is often borderline uncanny, especially when she’s not wearing comedy teeth. She knows that we know that she knows… I saw a clip of ORLANDO before I saw the whole thing, and was amused by her look to camera as Billy Zane rescued her from an equestrian accident. The look seemed to say, How can I, an art film character, be caught up in such a corny situation? It perfectly took the curse off the moment, and made me want to see the film.

But Tilda does it all the bloody time. It loses its impact, its humour and its cleverness long before the Zane/horse moment. The fact that Tilda, I believe (it’s been years) also talks to the audience actually helps, since you’re allowed to do that all through a movie — that turns The Look from a spot gag into a full-fledged narrative device. But mostly it’s just the mute look, and it wears out its welcome, rather. If it doesn’t bother you, I say this: imagine how great it would be if s/he just did it three times, evenly spaced. It would pack a wallop each time.

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Image from Eye Contact: Look at the Camera, a whole tumblr dedicated to camera-gazing!

FUNNY GAMES is a movie so repulsively self-satisfied and secure in its Important Message that it would be hard to know where to begin, but for the fact that I’m writing about looking at the camera, not about being an arrogant, not very bright prig who wants to give the audience a hard time. But I shouldn’t really be writing about it at all, since I walked out part way through. Michael “Happy”Haneke, the prig in charge, says that people who walk out don’t “need” the film, apparently believing that if you can’t bear FUNNY GAMES you are already cured of your thirst for celluloid violence. You understand that violence shouldn’t be used as entertainment.

I wouldn’t say that. I definitely felt I didn’t need the film, but I didn’t need it because I felt the idea was a stupid one, and not entertaining. Since I’m fully aware that violence in real life is not fun (for the victim), but I’m further aware that movies are not real life, my attitude to movie violence is neither simplistic condemnation (Haneke) nor simplistic enthusiasm (Tarantino). If it works for the film’s purpose and I approve of the film’s purpose, I’ll be OK with it.

Haneke’s failure to accomplish what he thinks he’s accomplishing (teaching us that violence is bad) extends to the people who like the movie as well as those who don’t. One friend praised it for being a dark thriller that tortures the audience along with the central characters, a tough movie you win points for surviving. Others praise the film’s “purity” since there’s supposedly no actual onscreen violence. Which I think is nonsense — in one moment we see a character blown away by a gunshot, though psycho-killer Arno then rewinds the movie so that didn’t happen. But it did happen, in the sense that we SAW it. And does it matter if a deadly blow happens just outside of frame, or offscreen? Do we class the forcible placing of a bag over a child’s head as a non-violent act simply because it doesn’t involve a blow or a gun-blast? This is a violent movie, about as pure as THE PUBLIC ENEMY, the only difference being we’re not allowed to enjoy it.

Arno Frisch’s looks to camera are designed both to alienate and implicate us, to make us more aware of the act of watching. OK: we get it. It’s perfectly clear, and moderately startling, the first time he winks at us. By the time he’s asking us if we think the good guys will survive, it’s old. And from the film’s wearisome, puritanical attitude, we ought to be able to answer the question confidently. To hell with all filmmakers who want the paying audience to have a lousy time.

Oh, I do think John Landis overdoes it a little in TRADING PLACES. He has too many characters do it too many times. I can allow the two leads their moments, but the guy in the gorilla suit? The real problem with this is not the individual moments, but the fact that evidently Luc Besson was taking notes. All Luc Besson knows about comedy is that if you have the characters look to camera in a very deliberate way, or at each other, you can fool the slower-witted or more indulgent audience members into thinking something amusing just happened. Luc Besson actually makes me angrier than “Happy” Haneke, which is inconsistent of me, since Besson I guess DOES want us to have a good time. My problem with him is he doesn’t want to put in the work or thought to make the fun happen, he just wants to create the hollow appearance of fun.

(Also, he’s a plagiarist.)

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