Category Archives: ★★★

Duck Soup (1933, Leo McCarey)

Duck Soup is madness. It’s not divine madness or sublime madness. It’s comedic madness, which is fine, but it’s a tad frantic and a tad distracted. The film opens with Margaret Dumont’s wealthy widow getting Groucho Marx installed as a head of state. Turns out evil Louis Calhern–a neighboring country’s ambassador–wants to create unrest and he’s setting vixen Raquel Torres on Groucho to get it done.

Only Groucho isn’t interested and he never really gets interested. Oh, Zeppo’s his assistant. Zeppo has nothing to do in Duck Soup.

Groucho as President is funnier in concept than execution–director McCarey seems disinterested in Groucho’s storyline, instead focusing on Chico and Harpo’s battles with a lemonade stand owner, played by Edgar Kennedy. There are some musical numbers, which get a smile and are well-produced, but they’re filler. Duck Soup runs under seventy minutes. There shouldn’t be a lot of filler and there’s a whole bunch of it.

Chico and Harpo are spies for Calhern, but Chico also works for Groucho. It’s madness, after all, a series of non sequiturs run together, with the audience left out of most of the jokes. The finale has all four Marx Brothers in a variety of soldier outfits. It’s cute and not a bad setup, only the jokes never arrive. McCarey’s rushing to get the thing finished.

There are some great Harpo moments and a fantastic Harpo and Chico dress as Groucho sequence. Those moments simply don’t add up or make enough of a difference. Duck Soup doesn’t have much narrative logic–something McCarey could embrace and amp up the lunacy; he doesn’t. By the end of the second act musical number, everyone looks exhausted. The whole picture has become a metaphor for McCarey’s universal disinterest and Zeppo’s growing on.

Then comes the third act, which has the two countries at war. It’s mostly poorly cut sight gags–uncredited editor LeRoy Stone never does a great job, but in the third act, he completely gives up. Duck Soup is a surrender (no spoilers). The film doesn’t even come up with a good comeuppance for Calhern, who really, really, really deserves one.

The script–from Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby–and then also Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin contributing additional dialogue (perhaps the funnier stuff for Chico and Harpo)–is always problematic. McCarey’s direction is always problematic. The actors get away mostly unscathed, however. Even if Dumont gets almost nothing to do. She’s in the picture a lot–Zeppo’s got nothing to do, but he’s barely in Duck Soup; but the film breaks the cardinal rule–it’s a Marx Brothers movie and it wastes Margaret Dumont.

It’s a shame too, as the film’s probably only a rewrite or two away from greatness.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Leo McCarey; screenplay by Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby; director of photography, Henry Sharp; edited by LeRoy Stone; produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Groucho Marx (Rufus T. Firefly), Harpo Marx (Pinky), Chico Marx (Chicolini), Zeppo Marx (Bob Roland), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Gloria Teasdale), Raquel Torres (Vera Marcal), Louis Calhern (Ambassador Trentino), and Edgar Kennedy (Lemonade Vendor).


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T2 Trainspotting (2017, Danny Boyle)

T2 Trainspotting is a victory lap. John Hodge’s screenplay is thorough, thoughtful, cheap, and effective. It goes so far as to integrate unused portions of the original Trainspotting novel to try to get build up some character relationships. Because T2 is an expansive sequel. It’s got a contrived inciting action, which Hodge and director Boyle don’t even try to cover. The contrived nature of it is charming, after all. A slightly twisted kind of charming, but still charming.

Boyle’s a little too comfortable and a little too mature of a director to try much with the film’s visual aesthetic. There’s newly created Super 8 flashback footage–revealing the gang’s childhood friendships–and there’s even cleaned up footage from the original film. Only all the actors are creating new characters and have little connection to either set of flashbacks. Hodge and Boyle try to cover the inconsistency with the charming.

The film starts with Ewan McGregor returning to Edinburgh after twenty years in exile. He used to be a junkie and awesome narrator, now he’s got the Dutch equivalent of associate’s degree in accounting, he loves to jog, and he’s dissatisfied. Ewen Bremner is still a junkie. He’s trying to improve because he really loves his girlfriend and kid, even though they’ve written him off. Jonny Lee Miller is a failing bar-owner and an aspiring blackmailer who’s crushing hard on his sex worker partner (Anjela Nedyalkova). Robert Carlyle is an escaped convict and his son doesn’t want to go into the home invasion trade with him. Son wants to go to college for hotel management.

There are jokes about iPhones, gentrification, modern music, lots more. They’re solid enough jokes, but it’s a Trainspotting cast reuniting the original cast, original director, original screenwriter, original producer and there are no James Bond jokes. It’s like Hodge and Boyle forgot what people enjoyed about the first film’s energy. It’s not an apology, but it’s indifferent. McGregor has one good rant and it could change the movie and it doesn’t. Because McGregor’s not narrating. Because T2 meanders too much for a narrator.

Everyone–except poor Miller–is a protagonist. It starts with McGregor, but then transfers to Bremner through Nedyalkova. Nedyalkova is T2’s secret weapon, even though the film does absolutely nothing for her. She holds the second act together because Hodge and Boyle never figure out the right balance for McGregor, Miller, and Bremner. Carlyle’s on his own for most of the picture, in this dark, dangerous family drama. Carlyle’s story might be where Boyle shows the most interest, actually.

Except he seems to acknowledge Bremner’s giving the film’s far and away best performance, even when he’s actively ditching Bremner for McGregor and Miller’s silly bromance. Hodge’s script is all about personal growth, only he’s also got these goony character twists.

While Bremner and Carlyle have strong characterizations, Miller and McGregor don’t. Miller gets to be black comedy comic relief and McGregor is doing this coming home thing. Only no one wants to commit to a character, not McGregor, not Boyle, not Hodge. They probably should’ve brought him in later.

But they didn’t. Because McGregor’s no one’s favorite protagonist. Except maybe McGregor. Hodge favors Nedyalkova, Boyle likes Carlyle. Everything McGregor gets outside his one rant is thin.

It’s technically superior–great editing from Jon Harris, Anthony Dod Mantle’s photography is spot-on. Boyle’s really in love with the locations. Adds to the charm or something. Sadly the characters have no connection to the locations and neither does Hodge’s script.

Bremner’s great, Nedyalkova’s great, Carlyle’s quite good with a thin character and a lot to do. McGregor’s fine. Miller’s got some good moments, but Hodge doesn’t do him any favors.

T2 is good. It’s expertly made, solidly written, confident; it’s occasionally accomplished; it’s also a really safe drama about male bonding. The movie doesn’t take a single chance. Any time it even flirts with the idea, Boyle unfortunately reins it in. Usually via another charming, manipulative, and narratively pliable sequence.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Boyle; screenplay by John Hodge, based on novels by Irvine Welsh; director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle; edited by Jon Harris; production designers, Patrick Rolfe and Mark Tildesley; produced by Andrew Macdonald, Boyle, Bernard Bellew, and Christian Colson; released by TriStar Pictures.

Starring Ewan McGregor (Mark), Ewen Bremner (Daniel), Jonny Lee Miller (Simon), Anjela Nedyalkova (Veronika), and Robert Carlyle (Frank).


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Tunnel (2016, Kim Seong-hun)

Tunnel is a small scale disaster movie. It’s also not. It’s about a small scale response to a big disaster. Writer and director Kim takes some time introduce threads about craven reporters, craven government officials, craven capitalists, but most of the movie is lead Ha Jung-woo stuck in a tunnel. The first ninety minutes of the movie move real, real fast. Ha’s stuck in his car in a collapsed vehicular tunnel; it’s 2016 so he’s got a cellphone with some reception and he’s got some water so it’s mostly an unpleasant camping experience for the first act.

Then Kim starts introducing more drama, more tension. There’s the initial terrifying experience–a tunnel collapsing as Ha drives through–but the film quickly finds a rhythm. The cellphone helps; it lets Ha talk to wife Bae Doo-na and rescue chief Oh Dal-su. Because Tunnel’s not an actor’s film. Ha’s role is good, but he doesn’t have any amazing “man stranded under 200 kilometers of mountain” scenes. Kim’s more interested in keeping Tunnel moving, keeping it surprising in its relatively limited narrative space. Kim has some texture scenes in the second act, but the action never goes too far from the tunnel.

Bae does eventually get some great scenes. She never gets to take over the movie though. Kim’s direction, with a handful of character moments, is all about the drama, all about the gimmick. Man trapped in tunnel. And he does an excellent job with it. There’s enough tension inherent in the narrative itself, going down a rabbit hole with Ha or Bae is just going to distract. Instead, there are those great character moments and there’s also a lot gentle symbolism. Kim’s got to engage the audience’s sympathy quickly but he doesn’t want to be cheap about it. Tunnel’s deliberate pace, which gets positively exhausting in the third act, is one of Kim’s best contributions to the narrative. His direction of his script is spot-on.

But all of his direction is spot-on. Tunnel’s not sensational enough to push the limits of disaster movie (it’s anti-sensational) and it’s not introspective enough to be a character study. It’s an effects-filled, restrained disaster thriller.

Great photography from Kim Tae-Sung, especially fantastic editing from Kim Chang-ju. Director Kim makes a conscious choice to abandon Ha in the tunnel occasionally, even when his narrative might apparently be more compelling then the subplots; the pacing of everything has to be just right. And Kim Chang-ju’s editing makes it happen. There’s not just audience expectation, there’s the characters’ expectations too. The tension is insoluble, but still reasonably gentle.

Oh has a great time as the rescue chief. He doesn’t exactly get to be comic relief, but he gets closer than anyone else. But he’s also got to be the audience’s objective viewpoint. He’s got to be reliable. For both audience and characters. It’s kind of serious, kind of not. Oh excels at it.

And Bae is phenomenal towards the end of the picture. She sort of takes the protagonist role–as much as Tunnel has one–from Ha.

Good support from Nam Ji-hyun.

Maybe Tunnel could’ve gone further, but Kim’s ambitions are confidently realized where it goes. It’s just a thriller after all. We can’t always be worried about tunnels coming down….

Can we?

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Seong-hun; director of photography, Kim Tae-Sung; edited by Kim Kim Chang-ju; music by Mok Young-Jin; production designer, Lee Hwo-Kyoung; produced by Billy Acumen and Lee Taek-dong; released by Showbox.

Starring Ha Jung-woo (Lee Jung-soo), Bae Doo-na (Se-hyun), Oh Dal-su (Dae-kyung), and Nam Ji-hyun (Mi-na).


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The Blot (1921, Lois Weber)

The Blot has a lot of plot. Lot of plot. Director Weber fills the film with characters and subplots–unfortunately, not many of the supporting cast get credited so I’ll just have to compliment based on their characters.

The main plot is about rich college kid Louis Calhern who discovers–because he has the hots for his professor’s daughter–white collar jobs sometimes means less than working class wages. The professor, top-billed but mostly absent Philip Hubbard, has a blue blood wife who married down. The wife, played by Margaret McWade–she’s awesome–spends her days fretting over the household accounts, daughter Claire Windsor, and the rolling in dough neighbors. The neighbor husband is an uneducated salesman.

Weber gets in a lot about class and a lot about privilege. One of the most effecting scenes is when Calhern can’t eat his country club dinner because he’s just found out sometimes Windsor doesn’t have enough to eat. Oh, and she’s sick. Weber cuts back and forth between Calhern and the drama at Windsor’s house. McWade is fed up with the poverty and has to do something about it. It’s a somewhat difficult sequence because Weber keeps pushing the line where she can get to with The Blot without lecturing. The film’s got a message–pay people, whether it be the college professor, the library clerk, or the minister–and Weber’s got to sell it through her actors. If they can’t make it believable–Calhern becoming progressive, McWade’s desperation–it’s not going to work.

Luckily, the actors and Weber make it happen. Calhern is fine, but he’s something of an enigma. He’s the lead–though he occasionally relinquishes to McWade for a scene or two–but the viewer’s perception of him is through the Windsor and her family. He’s just this weird rich kid who goofs off in the dad’s classes.

McWade is in the opposite position. Weber lays her bare for the viewer over and over again–from her first scene–and McWade’s phenomenal. By the end of the movie, whenever she’s got to do a scene with Windsor, McWade just overshadows her. It’s not intentional because McWade’s not doing anything, it’s a combination of Windsor basically vogueing through all her scenes and the script’s been far better to McWade than Windsor. Windsor sits out a lot of the second act sick in bed.

Some really good performances from the uncredited supporting cast. The mom next door who hates the professor’s family for being stuck up and being cruel to them. The minister is all right. He’s just there to help Calhern on his path to being a white savior. But Weber makes it work, because the love quadrangle is really strangely handled. None of the suitors interact over Windsor. They just stew (or don’t stew) and fidget. It’s awesome.

Weber does it run a little long, especially in the first half. The shots just run on and on–Blot has sparse intertitles; Weber instead lets the actors’ energy carry the plot forward. But she lets it go long even when taking into account someone getting back from the can. It’s not the scenes, they’re decently paced, it’s the shots themselves. They drag.

Except that awesome dinner sequence; then the cuts are way too fast.

Great performance from McWade, decent one from Calhern, decent enough one from Windsor. And all those great supporting actors whose names are lost to history. The Blot is excellent silent melodrama.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Lois Weber; written by Marion Orth and Weber; directors of photography, Philip R. Du Bois and Gordon Jennings; released by F.B. Warren Corporation.

Starring Louis Calhern (The Professor’s Pupil – Phil West), Claire Windsor (The Professor’s Daughter – Amelia Griggs), Margaret McWade (The Professor’s Wife – Mrs. Griggs), Marie Walcamp (The Other Girl – Juanita Claredon), and Philip Hubbard (The Professor – Andrew Theodore Griggs).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE EARLY WOMEN FILMMAKERS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY FRITZI OF MOVIES SILENTLY.


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