Category Archives: ★★★½

Safety Last! (1923, Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor)

Film used to be a visual medium. It’s an audio/visual now and getting more and more audio–Dolby Digital and DTS has convinced folks they need five speakers plus the discreet (while Woody Allen still shoots mono). Film has become stage-less theater (without the pretension of theater), but it wasn’t always that way….

I’ve never seen a Harold Lloyd film before and my silent comedies are limited mostly to Buster. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a silent Chaplin, just a couple talkies he didn’t talk in. Keaton cannot be surpassed in his quality or his influence, but Safety Last! is just a lot of fun. Silent films use different storytelling techniques than sound pictures do (regardless of the awkward-“intended to be silent” talkies of the late 1920s, the change was immediate–their awkwardness was something else entirely). Without telling the audience the character sold the phonograph, without intimating it with dialogue, the film is left to suggest to us that the phonograph has been sold. Sure, there’s the full explanation with a pawn stub, but that’s either for the stragglers or, more likely, to introduce the concept of money into the scene. Money’s one of those concepts that needs to be enumerated.

Silent comedy and silent drama are also completely different (silent comedy quickly establishes its characters while drama can just go on and on, making a comedy a safer bet for someone just seeing a silent film–not everything that survived is necessarily good). Safety Last! is able to introduce a major character in the last act. It’s just a drunk, but he’s in it the act more than the romantic interest. We rarely see that–I’ve got Sea of Love on the brain since I just rented it and really want to watch it and I remember reading Price’s screenplay collection and he said he wanted to introduce the murderer in the last act and the love interest in the middle of the film and the studio gave him a really funny look. But, even in comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, not even mentioning dramas, big characters did not appear in late in the film. Characters whose presence is felt throughout the film (ranging from The Senator Was Indiscreet to Seven) is a different situation, of course.

As for Lloyd, he’s impossible to dislike, a perfect Everyman. His physical comedy is not as athletic as Keaton’s, of course (is that possible?), but it’s superb. The film ends with his attempt to scale a 12-story building and it’s the first time I got worried about someone surviving since I saw Superman as a kid.

Lloyd is well-known to film buffs–customers at the video store I worked at, back when there were smart people seeing movies (the late 1990s), used to ask about his films. Someone had seen it on TV or something, when he or she was a kid, and now he or she has kids… Lloyd’s the most accessible silent comedian and it’s great that “someday soon” his films will be available on DVD. Until then, check your TCM listings, as they frequently have mini-Lloyd marathons.

….oh, that’s a little scary. Movielens had my star rating dead-on….

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor; written by Hal Roach, Taylor and Tim Whelan, titles by H.M. Walker; director of photography, Walter Lundin; edited by Thomas J. Crizer; produced by Roach; released by Pathé Exchange.

Starring Harold Lloyd (The Boy), Mildred Davis (The Girl), Bill Strother (The Pal), Noah Young (The Law) and Westcott Clarke (The Floorwalker).


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White Dog (1982, Samuel Fuller)

I kept getting sad during White Dog, probably for a few reasons. First, the film is effective: it’s about people faced with a reality (a racist training his dog to attack black people) they can’t fix, but they’re going to try. I have a bootleg from Denmark (everyone’s bootleg is from Denmark), but hadn’t watched it. Only the end.

Second, because White Dog is a different Sam Fuller. It’s an early 1980s Fuller telling a contemporary story, using more advanced filming technology (location cranes and steadycam), with an Ennio Morricone score. I kept getting sad because White Dog‘s Fuller had a lot of interesting films in him and folks ran him out of the country without even seeing his film.

And White Dog has a lot going for it. The only Paul Winfield-lead I’m aware of–he’s so good. Unless black guys star in action movies, they never get any recognition… Kristy MacNichol proves cutesy actress icons used to be able to act. Burl Ives is good. White Dog is a good film. It’s not a great film, however, because it’s too short. It runs about ninety minutes and there are two ideas never developed on–MacNichol’s boyfriend, played by “Simon and Simon” star Jameson Parker–yeah, he’s good too–was supposed to write something about her and the dog and some tranquilizers got replaced with regular darts but never showed up again. The tranquilizer scene probably was lost when Fuller absconded with a print over to France. With the writer part, I’m just correcting it in my head–ol’ boy writes an article, brings out the dog’s proud owner (who shows up in the third act for a second, letting MacNichol show why “son of a bitch” can be a great descriptor), and lets the characters get some sort of closure. I made up all of the parts past the darts. Fuller never intended of those–that I know of. Maybe I’m sitting here eating chocolate cake, drinking soymilk and channeling him, but I doubt it.

Before the film started, the college kid introduced White Dog as criminally under-seen and criminally unreleased on DVD. He was right on both parts, even though they’re really the same thing. I always hate seeing films about race in America and realizing that things have gotten worse. No one talks about it anymore, but there’s more division than there was when I was a kid. White Dog tries to talk about it. In contrast, Crash tries to tell you about it….

As for White Dog and you good people getting to see it–there’s always shitty Danish bootlegs and there’s always a chance the French will save it.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Samuel Fuller; screenplay by Fuller and Curtis Hanson, based on a story by Romain Gary; director of photography, Bruce Surtees; edited by Bernard Gribble; music by Ennio Morricone; production designer, Brian Eatwell; produced by Jon Davison; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Kristy McNichol (Julie Sawyer), Paul Winfield (Keys), Burl Ives (Carruthers) and Jameson Parker (Roland Gray).


Danton (1983, Andrzej Wajda)

Period pieces and biopics tend to fail, at least ones made since 1950. I was just reading something about the growing audience want for realism in movies–this movement growing in the 1960s and 1970s (though the location shooting of the late 1940s is certainly a precursor)–that want made period pictures and biopics difficult… there needed to be reality. You couldn’t have Henry Frankenstein wearing a 1930s robe in late 18th century wherever (they never really specified in Bride of Frankenstein, did they?). Some films, obviously, managed to get around these difficulties. Kubrick embraced it fully–Barry Lyndon had a special lens adapted to shoot scenes by candlelight–while others ignored it and were ridiculed. I’m not sure how historically accurate Danton is, but it’s allegiances are to film, not to history. I’m pretty sure when the French Revolution was going bad, there wasn’t foreboding music in the background.

The film juxtaposes Danton and Robespierre, positing them as alter egos. It’s been a while since I read any French Revolution history, but I remember it both from undergrad and earlier and the Terror was not a particularly happy time and Robespierre never got a positive review. More recently I’ve watched Gance’s Napoleon and his Robespierre is insidious. I think Robespierre’s speech in that film was the scene where Gance swung the camera at him on a trapeze. Danton opines a different Robespierre, a sad one who’s just as upset as Danton about the Revolution going bad.

Danton is not a history lesson. Besides the one subtitle about the year, there’s none of the common exposition to inform the audience. I’ve found that exposition is only common in American films. Danton drops the viewer into a situation about a bunch of leading politicians and tells a story. The film’s present action is maybe two weeks, not longer. It gradually builds, introducing its large cast of characters (since it’s not a biopic, it takes the time to tell its story in scenes, not summary). While Gérard Depardieu appears in the first scene, he doesn’t do anything for the first twenty minutes or so. Depardieu is excellent as Danton, charming and resigned at the same time. Wojciech Pszoniak is better (which is hard, Depardieu’s real good) as Robespierre. The rest of the cast is fine, but since the film’s about those two men, they leave the impression.

I brought up Kubrick earlier because the director seems to have seen a few of his films, particularly Paths of Glory. Danton is good throughout, but it becomes excellent at the end, when it becomes fully filmic. Previously, the viewer could see right and wrong being done (by both the bad guys and the good), but at the end, director Wajda goes all out. There are hints something is going on earlier, a scene at the Convention when Robespierre speaks (no trapeze though) gets quiet when it should get loud. Reality takes a backseat for cinematic storytelling. The end of the film, however, embraces the medium to an extent I didn’t think possible in the film. In the last fifteen minutes, Wajda goes beyond–in terms of quality storytelling–what he’d set up in the previous 115 minutes. The end is devastating.

My fiancée said a history professor of ours said it was the finest film about the French Revolution. He’s probably right (I don’t remember if I’ve ever seen any other films about the French Revolution). In the American critical expectation, there seems to be the need for a film about the French Revolution to teach the audience something about said Revolution. Danton didn’t teach me much (except to check out more of Wajda’s films and Pszoniak’s too). It was concerned with being a fine film, not being a teaching experience… and it worked out really well for it.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Andrzej Wajda; screenplay by Jean-Claude Carrière, Wajda, Boleslaw Michalek, Agnieszka Holland and Jacek Gasiorowski, based on a play by Stanislawa Przybyszewska; director of photography, Igor Luther; edited by Halina Prugar-Ketling; music by Jean Prodromides; produced by Margaret Menegoz; released by Gaumont.

Starring Gérard Depardieu (Danton), Wojciech Pszoniak (Robespierre), Anne Alvaro (Eleonore Duplay), Roland Blanche (Lacroix), Patrice Chereau (Camille Desmoulins), Emmanuelle Debever (Louison Danton), Krzysztof Globisz (Amar), Ronald Guttman (Herman), Gerard Hardy (Tallien), Tadeusz Huk (Couthon), Stephane Jobert (Panis), Marian Kociniak (Lindet), Marek Kondrat (Barere de Vieuzac) and Boguslaw Linda (Saint Just).