Archive for Raiders of the Lost Ark

The Sunday Intertitle: Get Your Skates On

Posted in Dance, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2021 by dcairns

As a kid, THE RINK impressed and exhilarated me with Chaplin’s grace and speed, much like Gene Kelly’s musical numbers did. Let’s see if it still has that effect.

It’s brilliant that Chaplin repeats himself so much, or rather that he develops ideas from film to film — it adds enormously to the interest of CAUGHT IN A CABARET, a pleasant, typically rudimentary Keystone film, that Chaplin returns to the theme of the waiter passing himself off as a dignitary in THE RINK, because it makes it even plainer how much his skills as storyteller, gagman and performer have developed in a year and a bit, and how much more perfected his character is. If one can have gradations of perfection, which of course one can’t. But maybe HE can.

Chaplin has learned he can start a bit more gradually, so he opens with Edna and a pussycat (as in THE PAWNSHOP) plus her dad, played by James Kelley, not being a full-on gerontological case for once, though he does have a fly alighting on his forehead as Edna plays with a thing on a string to amuse kitty. I always enjoy seeing flies in movies, but only when they’re unintentional, insectoid gatecrashers breaking into the frame to mock the director’s illusion of control. Check out the bold little fellow who strolls into Paul Freeman’s mouth in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Freeman keeps on acting, heroically, and the fly never reemerges, having sacrificed his tiny existence just for this literal walk-on role. “A director is somebody who presides over accidents,” claimed Welles. When Bertolucci musters an army of flies to pester his characters on a bus in THE SHELTERING SKY, it’s hugely impressive and skin-crawlingly ‘orrible (“Flies like Malkovich,” they discovered), but it doesn’t give me the same, ah, buzz.

Charlie is meanwhile a waiter, totting up the bill of Mr. Stout (Eric Campbell, in relatively modest face-fuzz) by assessing the stains on his person — Big Eric has in fact had the exact same meal he enjoys in THE COUNT — soup, spaghetti and melon. He may be playing a different character but he has a certain consistency.

Charlie is a lousy waiter, of course, slow to respond and quick to make off with a ten dollar bill without giving change. He produces the change, but then takes it as a tip, to the outrage of Stout. He also has a complete inability to choose the right door to the kitchen, a difficulty that would still be bothering him, and more so his coworkers, in MODERN TIMES.

In this instance, food spilled on the floor is replaced with the brush and cloth being used to clean the kitchen, and these innocent items, served up to an unsuspecting customer, become charged with a curious repulsiveness. Dirt is merely displaced matter. Lipstick which seems attractive on lips becomes obnoxious when transferred to a wine glass. So with a brush on a dinnerplate.

Charlie now makes a disgusting cocktail, but he makes it very beautifully. Best gag is probably his whole body shaking while the shaker remains unmoved, as if anchored to its spot in the universe. This whole kitchen scene is relentlessly icky and I can’t wait to escape to the ice rink. Even Albert Austin as the cook has traded his usual cookie-duster for a hump and a stringy Rasputin beard which makes you imagine long vile hairs trailing into foodstuffs and thence into the backs of customers’ throats.

Flirtatious Eric somehow looks like the horrid little camel-chortler at the end of EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL, unnaturally upscaled to loming Hagrid proportions.

This reminds me that Herzog claimed the “true” interpretation of his weird mini-revolution movie was that the world had, in a fit of Kafkaesque illogic, grown huge overnight, leaving the characters to struggle amid outsized beds, cars, bikes and so on. A subject Chaplin himself might have enjoyed. If Herzog had the money, would he have constructed huge DR. CYCLOPS sets and turned Klaus Kinski and Bruno S. loose amid them?

Enter Henry Bergman in his first drag role, ready to be roundly mistreated. Some of Charlie’s crimes are caused by carelessness, as when he removes Mrs. Stout’s chair just before she sits down, some by insensitivity, as when he breaks the arm of a chair to make it wide enough for the lady. There’s a general hubbub of outrageous stuff going on which I won’t describe, but Eric as Mr. Stout is flirting adulterously with Edna while Mrs. Stout gets cosy with Edna’s dad. But they can’t get very far because Charlie’s only vaguely well-meaning ministrations make the restaurant a kind of living hell.

The 1916 version of first base = moustache-twirling.

Bergman is a convincing enough woman to stand closeup treatment, and I don’t recall being aware of the drag act when I saw this as a kid in the seventies. But then I didn’t notice that Uncle Remus was Black (or that SONG OF THE SOUTH was deeply and perniciously racist).

Charlie adds a new move to his martial artistry: that brain-damaging attack known to impudence as the “Glasgow Kiss.” When coworker John Rand squares up for a fight, Charlie headbutts him. Brow-to-brow combat always seems as likely to hurt the assailant as the assailed. Really you should aim for the nose.

Charlie the Little Shit: laughing with glee when Rand gets fired for Charlie’s incompetence. This gave me a sour feeling, but on the other hand, Rand did serve up the offending brush, so he’s a pretty sloppy waiter also. It makes me wonder if Charlie’s unfair, unsporting and sadistic side communicate particularly well with children. Kids have a sense of injustice — “That’s not fair!” is something we’re all born able to say, and even monkeys seem to have a sense of fair play. But maybe that inner morality makes it seem all the sweeter to a child when somebody else gets the blame for their misdeeds. Chaplin does seem to think his smirking is adorable. He gets away with it in THE PAWNSHOP, where he’s clearly a brat, than he does here, somehow.

Charlie attempts to serve Mr. Edna and Mrs. Stout, but it’s hard to be a waiter when you’re so protean. Sharpening the cutlery transforms him into a barber, plucking a hair, slicing it, then tucking the offcut into his shirt. His customers look on with the entirely unreasonable expectation that he’s going to prepare their food. Instead, he conjures a raw egg from a fowl’s roasted cloaca, and it splatters on Mr. Edna’s face. He’s coming in for some rough treatment for the heroine’s nearest and dearest, and does he even know he’s seducing a married woman? Is he in any way deserving of Charlie’s legerdemaine/abuse?

Maybe in Charlie’s world, anyone who isn’t amused by him deserves whatever they get? I think that’s it; those are the rules. And if so, Chaplin is channeling his childhood emotions. Kids do silly things, expecting that everyone will be delighted, but sometimes the adults are not charmed, and get angry, and IT’S NOT FAIR!

Taking his street clothes from the oven, Charlie heads for the rink, at last.

The film’s two rink scenes are vastly preferable to the restaurant business. Though Chaplin hasn’t quite decided if he’s playing a brilliant rollerskater or a terrible one, so settles for both. Brilliant moves, though. Eric Campbell cowering beneath him is very funny too.

Chaplin’s balletic quality works best when he’s doing something else — when he attempts to do an actual graceful dance in SUNNYSIDE it’s not too great. Nothing amusing about it, and real ballet dancers do ballet better. But a comedian doing something less elevated in a balletic MANNER is funny and can be beautiful. Especially as he’s free to descend (literally) into pratfalling whenever there’s any danger of monotony. Weird that critic Heywood Broun felt that Chaplin must be in thrall to Nietzsche, because he doesn’t get kicked up the arse in this film. He does take plenty of falls, but the skating scenes admittedly show him winning a fair bit of the time. I think that’s justified, because the delirious appeal is to the fantasy of anarchic rambunctiousness. We feel that walking into a joint and just knocking people over and smashing stuff would be huge fun, though we know it’s bad and socially unacceptable and there would be consequences. The atavistic fantasy persists, and you can see it in zombie movies (run through a mall with a crowbar!) and car chase scenes (break all the traffic rules but innocents [practically] never get hurt). By the time the farce aspect of the story, which is barely developed, has reached its pay-off at the skate party (was that ever a thing?), the movie is just an excuse for shooting about and knocking people down like ninepins.

More on the same note: Monty Python did a mountaineering sketch in which a man barges into a room and clambers all over the furniture, and I can remember my brother saying what a lot of fun that looked. Chaplin in manic mode has a Marxian appeal — indefensible behaviour that just looks wonderful psychopathic fun. The victims don’t have to be guilty of anything. Fat and rich helps, but they could just be anybody who isn’t a starring comedian and it still seems to work. (Edgar Kennedy doesn’t really do anything bad in DUCK SOUP, except bellow, and is shamefully mistreated.)

Chaplin cuts directly between Albert Austin as the hunchbacked cook to Albert Austin as a rollerskating gentleman with his customary ‘tache. Well, it doesn’t really matter if anyone recognizes him. And you pay actors by the day, not the part. And if they’re under contract anyway, may as well keep them busy.

In the first skating scene, Edna complains that Eric is annoying her, which then justifies all Charlie’s bad behaviour and makes it chivalrous. But we never really see Eric do anything very offensive. I suppose that’s fine, we don’t want the film getting too dark. Charlie’s version of chivalry is to trip Eric with his cane when he;s not looking. And indeed the cane gets a substantial work-out in this one, making it seem like it’s been underused in the previous films. Asides from hooking big men’s ankles, it can be held by Charlie and Edna together, their arms crossing romantically, as they skate side by side. It can attach Charlie to a passing auto at the end and tow him away from the angry mob of kops and fops in pursuit.

After Charlie defeats Campbell and acquires some faint heroic lustre, for some reason, Chaplin reintroduces the fake count routine he’d deployed just a a few films back. It does bolster the farce aspect, which is a functioning narrative device for about two minutes, until everyone clocks everyone else at the skating party. (Skating party??)

There’s a funny close-up of Big Eric reacting to his wife’s unexpected presence — he’s photographed in an apparent void, possibly on the theory that we don’t want any surroundings to distract from his gurning. But the LACK of background is in itself somewhat distracting.

There’s another naked lunch moment — the frozen instant when everyone sees what’s on the end of every fork — then a perfect detente of embarrassment is achieved — everyone silently consents not to expose everyone else’s misdeeds, and the dirty laundry is transformed by MUTUAL consent into the Emperor’s naked balls, that which is too shameful to be acknowledged and so must be treated as invisible.

It doesn’t last. There’s an amusing gag in the kitchen where Charlie transforms a man’s arse into a turnstyle, shoving it to and fro as if it were hinged, and then he gets his skates on, leading to immediate chaos. It’s impressive that Chaplin, who is after all a master of repetition, which is another thing little kids like about him, can create a whole new climax not particularly different from the immediately preceding one. In some strange way, while surprise is central to comedic effect, predictability is also a help. So the entirely predictable results of Charlie skating are delightful as long as he switches the gags around just a bit.

For some reason the distressed reactions of the womenfolk are particularly hilarious.

THE RINK suffers more from missing frames than the other Mutuals I’ve run so far, perhaps not so much because the damage is greater, but because the action is so fluid that a little jump harms the beauty more. Most Chaplins seem to be missing frames or even seconds at the end, but maybe he favoured a certain abruption. In this one, Charlie starts to fall in the road, having lost his connection to the jalopy he snared, but the painful-looking pratfall — from erect ubermensch to tangle of tuxedo limbs in a sixteenth of a second — is never consummated, the seat of his pants seeming to cut off the celluloid at the instant it makes contact with asphalt.

Wham! Embalm! Thank you, ma’am.

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2020 by dcairns

I had to eventually see the 2017 MUMMY, not so much because two modern genre filmmakers I quite like, Christopher McQuarrie and David Koepp, helped write it, but because it’s not every film that can lay claim to destroying an entire cinematic universe.

Universal’s plans for an interconnected, MCU-type set of horror-action franchises involving various of the creatures/characters from their ’30s, ’40s and ’50s back catalogue didn’t strike me as very well-conceived to begin with, and THE MUMMY’S returns at the box office were ultimately insufficient to justify embarking on such a costly venture. Or put it this way, if you’ve found a way to make a Tom Cruise action movie that’s not financially successful, it’s unlikely a major studio is going to hand you the keys to their intellectual property.

(In fact, director/co-writer/co-producer Alex Kurtzman continues to exert control over Star Trek and its spin-offs.)

Hey, remember the trailer with the missing sound? Did any Universal employees turn up mysteriously murdered after that came out?

The reason for my lack of enthusiasm may have been my dissatisfaction with the 1999 MUMMY. To me, THE MUMMY will always be Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney and Tom Tyler and Christopher Lee, and he will be a monster movie character, not an action movie villain. The contortion that made that Stephen Sommers movie possible was that the INDIANA JONES movies were an action series with supernatural and icky moments and an archaeological framework. Sommers stole all that and called it THE MUMMY and made a fortune and some increasingly awful sequels.

With its plagues of bugs and sandstorms with faces, the Kurzman MUMMY explicitly references those earlier films, but sets the action in the here and now. For me, that’s enough to break the logical connection from the Karl Freund original (set in the then-contemporary 30s world) to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK to the Sommers MUMMY. Without RAIDERS being evoked at the back of our minds, there doesn’t seem any excuse for a MUMMY movie to be an action adventure.

But that might not be the reason for the film’s lack of B.O. oomph. Maybe the audience rebelled against the idea of a female mummy — horror films are popular with girls but action films skew more to boys — the idea of Tom Cruise fighting a girl may not have seemed like a good premise, and indeed at the film’s climax it does seem unpleasant. Or maybe the fact that Crusie plays an asshole is the problem?

It’s an interesting and bold choice, I’ll grant that. When the Cruiser gets his pal Jake Johnson into a life-threatening situ at the film’s outset, I thought, “OK, he’s a jerk, but so long as he doesn’t get his pal killed he’s redeemable.”

SPOILERS:

But then he DOES get his pal killed, and is by extension responsible for ALL the deaths in the film (mostly nameless cops, paramedics and assorted redshirts). True, in the film’s coda he brings his buddy back to life, but that’s a little late for me to stop resenting his relentless ass-hattery, and has he reanimated everyone else slain as a secondary consequence of said ass-hattery, too? I take leave to doubt it.

Steals: QUATERMASS AND THE PIT: subway extension uncovers ancient menace; LIFEFORCE: sexy monster sucks life from and zombifies supporting players; AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON: hero’s slain pal returns from dead for expository purposes — leading to the secret assignation in a public toilet which seems to be an unofficial Tom Cruise movie trope (see also VALKYRIE and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT).

The film is quite poorly designed in places. Even in the high-octane chase/race/fight structure, there are some effectively creepy zombie scenes, but once Sophia Boutella has to start being sinister and sexy at the same time, everyone seems confused about what look they’re going for. Supernatural eyes, decay, KWAIDAN-style pictograms, crumbling gauzy coating — there’s too much going on for an effective creature design (Lon Chaney Sr. would reportedly subtract something whenever he thought he was finished with a makeup) and the little crinkly bit on the bridge of her nose is a fucking disgrace. The missing cheek is just there so they can spend money on CGI, because every monster has to have some CGI now.

(Maybe the worst thing about the Sommers film, apart from the jaw-dropping racism [Sommers, from his own audio commentaries, seems like a jerk], was the CGI beetles-under-the-skin effect. A visual that’s really creepy when done with bladder effects in SHIVERS and ALTERED STATES becomes pure garbage when handed over to the pixel-pushers.)

The main element of Dark Universe world-building is the inclusion of Russell Crowe as Henry Jekyll, head of an organisation assigned to fight supernatural evil. There’s one obvious reason why he might not be the ideal chairperson, can you guess what it is? Though I enjoyed the silliness of Crowe’s alter-ego talking with a cockney accent, I think Alan Moore might have a legal case (although, as a result of the terrible LEAGUE OF EXTRORDINARY GENTLEMEN movie, Moore was himself sued by Larry Cohen, who’d written something comparable called CAST OF CHARACTERS. I’d rather the Cohen film had been made that LOEG or this MUMMY, needless to say). Also, the fact that Hyde looks just like Jekyll is a pathetic shortchanging of the audience. I guess Crowe, like Jack Nicholson in WOLF and maybe Malkovich in MARY REILLY, didn’t want to be covered in prosthetics. Screw those guys! Don’t hire them to play monsters! What the hell, people?

Still, I sort of enjoyed this inept bunkum, but it really doesn’t work. At the end, Cruise is seen galloping off towards the pyramids as music pounds. TO DO WHAT? We are given absolutely no expectations. He’s just galloping for no reason.

“Why don’t we just trot?” his pal might have suggested. “I mean, since we have no particular goal, it can’t really be urgent, can it?”

I can see why they didn’t have him make that objection. Still, if a character CAN raise such a point at the end of your movie, you’re probably not launching a successful franchise.

Dead Duck

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2019 by dcairns

Yes — DECOY is bad, cheap, and interesting, possibly in that order.

I’d read descriptions positing it as a kind of sci-fi noir — putting it in a very small club along with KISS ME DEADLY. The fantasy element is very small, however — the plot revolves around a box of stolen loot which, thanks to the genuinely atmospheric opening sequence, does acquire a kind of Pandoraesque aura. But the fantastical element is merely a drug (methylene blue) that can revive victims of the gas chamber. In other words, the film winds up backing into another genre purely because the writers have a faulty idea of realism.

Gas chamber POV is one of several bold directorial touches.

I was chatting with a friend about composers who make their theme tunes fit the movie title, as if there were going to be lyrics. Like, James Bernard’s DRACULA theme goes “DRA-cul-la!” Called upon to score TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, he simply added four notes on the front. John Williams gave us STAR WARS (“Staaaar Wars!”), and though RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK doesn’t have a tune you can easily sing the title to, you can definitely sing ~

Indiana!

Jones Jones Jones

Indiana!

Jones Jones Jones Jones Jones…

Well, DECOY has a sweeping and romantic tune that seems to be inviting us to sing “Methyline Blue.” So I did. Methyline Blue, Dilly Dilly…

The first image after the titles is the filthiest sink I’ve ever seen (and I live in Scotland… in my home). With the director credit supered over it. A self-loathing self-assessment?

Jack Bernhard was married to his star, Jean Gillie (THE GENTLE SEX), and she’s the best thing in this. A strange performance that’s mostly just cool statement of fact, with a few uncomfortable moments of shrill hysteria. Sheldon Leonard plays the detective shadowing her plot like a man in a state of deep depression, while her patsy, the prison doctor (Herbert Rudley), who IS in a state of deep depression, plays it like a Lugosi zombie.

The movie makes herculean efforts to pad itself out to a slender 75 minutes — one can’t help wondering if coming up with a bit more plot might have actually been an easier solution. One character resorts to literally reading from a dictionary, while Gillie and Rudley engage in a seemingly endless duologue that keeps circling back on itself like a rondo.

“Despair enacted on cheap sets” is Errol Morris’s unbeatable (curse him) phrase for the Monogram aesthetic, and it fits this one perfectly. A character is raised from the dead only to instantly perish again, something that also happens in THE INVISIBLE GHOST. A Monogram trademark? A metaphor for their entire line of goods? A series of last gasps — for shagged-out actors, burned-out directors, clapped-out sets. Resurrection into eternal death.

EARTH FORCES LAID TO COSMIC IMPULSE — it IS SF!

Robert Armstrong, of Carl Denham fame, plays the unlucky stiff, and it’s incredible looking at him to think he’d live to 1973, so convincing is his bone-weary performance here, whereas poor Gillie would die prematurely after one more film.

Gloom hangs over this movie in a more prevailing, soul-sapping way than it could in a more prestigious production — maybe because Monogram are so bad at comedy relief, yet they insist on having it. DETOUR does have some laughs, but they’re all horrible. DECOY has only the sour echo of a burlesque house rimshot.