Archive 5, Vol.3

I have a backlog of 437 unreviewed feature films from my 2018 to 2021 viewing. This is where I give those films their day, five at a time, selected by a random number generator.

Today, everything from silent comedies to afterlife comedies to toy-licence-based adventure comedies (a burgeoning genre we’re sure to see more of in years to come). Plus a revisionist Arthurian legend for good measure.

This week’s Archive 5 are…

  • Guinevere (1994)
  • The Kid (1921/1972)
  • Defending Your Life (1991)
  • The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part (2019)
  • Sherlock Jr. (1924)


    Guinevere

    (1994)

    Jud Taylor | 91 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | USA & Lithuania / English

    Guinevere

    This Lifetime TV movie is like an American Renaissance faire cosplay version of Arthurian legend. Its attempt at a feminist take on the famed stories is interesting, but deserves better writing, filmmaking, and accents.

    Most of Guinevere’s flaws come from its low-rent made-for-US-TV-in-the-’90s roots (the mediocre direction; the tacky music score), but that’s also its biggest asset, because when and for whom it was made means it was shot on film, which gives it a certain gloss (even when downgraded to SD) that taped or digital productions simply lack.

    Story-wise, the love triangle stuff from legend is there, but given a YA spin — it’s practically Arthurian Twilight. Are you Team Arthur or Team Jacob? The feminist bent is not subtle either, which, given changes in attitudes over the past few decades, makes you wonder if it’s ripe for a re-adaptation (it’s based on a trilogy of novels with magnificently florid titles like Child of the Northern Spring and Queen of the Summer Stars).

    You see, despite everything, I didn’t hate it. Maybe I should — it’s not good, by any means — but I liked what it was trying to do, even while it didn’t do it well (at all). It’s a concept someone should definitely take another run at.

    2 out of 5

    Guinevere was #209 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    The Kid

    (1921/1972)

    Charlie Chaplin | 50 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / silent | U

    The Kid

    Charlie Chaplin’s first feature-length work as star and director sees his Tramp character caring for an abandoned child (Jackie Coogan). I say “feature length”, but when you combine a re-edit Chaplin performed in 1972 with PAL speedup, it runs just 50 minutes. I’ve gotta say, I appreciated that. I’ve felt some of Chaplin’s other films have gone on a bit, whereas this didn’t outstay its welcome. That said, I did feel the Dreamland sequence near the end was filler. That aside, it’s quite a nice film. Coogan is particularly effective — he has just the right look for the role, and was obviously very good at imitation and/or taking direction.

    Regarding the length, the original 1921 release was 68 minutes, but for a 1972 reissue Chaplin cut some footage, appears to have sped up the frame rate of the rest, and added a score and some sound effects too. It’s only this cut that gets released on disc nowadays (often with the excised footage included as deleted scenes). The original cut clearly still exists, and yet everyone just seems to overlook it — it’s only if you bother to read up on the film that you discover what most people are watching and reviewing as “a 1921 film” is actually a 50-years-later director’s cut. Imagine if we all just ignored, say, Blade Runner’s original version and just treated The Final Cut as— oh, wait. Never mind.

    4 out of 5

    The Kid was #60 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    Defending Your Life

    (1991)

    Albert Brooks | 111 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Defending Your Life

    Writer-director Albert Brooks stars as a loner advertising exec who dies and finds himself in a bureaucratic afterlife where he has to prove that he overcame his fears. While he awaits his trial, he finally meets the love of his (after)life, Julia (Meryl Streep).

    For a film that’s literally about life and death, Defending Your Life is rather gentle. Like, it’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s often slightly amusing. And it’s unhurried, too: its 111 minutes aren’t tedious by any means, but it doesn’t rush anywhere. A fun side effect of this is how casual its world-building is. This is a very specific vision of the afterlife, an entire world with its own rules, and while that’s all explained, it’s not laid out in minute detail like a how-to guide. I feel like this is something movies used to happily do but has been eroded by the need for everything to be over-explained and -analysed.

    I liked Defending Your Life a good deal (I’ve picked up a couple more of Brooks’s films on Blu-ray off the back of it), and part of that is certainly its laidback style. Nonetheless, perhaps if it were snappier — quicker witted and paced — it might be a better-remembered film, comparable to something roughly contemporaneous like Groundhog Day.

    4 out of 5

    Defending Your Life was #113 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    The LEGO Movie 2:
    The Second Part

    (2019)

    Mike Mitchell | 107 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA, Denmark, Norway & Australia / English | U / PG

    The LEGO Movie 2

    After the surprise success of The LEGO Movie, naturally a sequel had to follow. Unfortunately, it’s altogether less surprising, because it’s that old fashioned sequel thing: a less-good do-over of the first movie.

    The Second Part feels less focused than its predecessor. It still has a positive message (about not needing to grow up, and about playing together, or something), but it takes a while to get to it, rather than baking it into the entire experience. Maybe that’s intellectualising things a bit — this is a family-friendly adventure-comedy starring toys, after all. But still, the overall journey doesn’t feel as exciting or fun. There are fun little bits on the way, but, moment to moment, it lacks the spark of the first one.

    For a specific example, take the breakout hit of the first film, the irritating song Everything Is Awesome. That angle has been doubled down on, with multiple attempts at emulating the “irritating but kinda loveable” song formula; but while these numbers are annoying while they last, they don’t have the irrepressible catchiness of the first film’s signature achievement — a mixed blessing, to be sure (at least they won’t be stuck in your head afterwards). The end credits are accompanied by a song that jokes about the credits being the best part… but, in this case, the credits kinda are the best part.

    3 out of 5

    The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part was #33 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    Sherlock Jr.

    (1924)

    Buster Keaton | 45 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / silent | U

    Sherlock Jr

    Apparently there are ever-raging arguments within the silent film fan community about who was the best comedian of the era. Charlie Chaplin’s got the most widespread recognition, but Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd have their advocates, of course, and I guess there are probably people shouting in favour of smaller names too. I didn’t think I’d ever pick a ‘side’ in these debates — I’m certainly not about to go seeking them out and wading in — and, fundamentally, I do hold with the notion that the greats are all great and so why not appreciate them all? — but, from what I’ve seen thus far, I’m finding Keaton’s work more consistently enjoyable than Chaplin’s. Sherlock Jr. is my favourite of his that I’ve seen so far.

    Keaton plays a film projectionist who’s studying to be a detective on the side. When he’s framed for the theft of a watch, his apparent guilt doesn’t give him much chance to put his skills to the test. But when he falls asleep during a movie, he steps inside it and becomes the world’s greatest detective. And when I say “steps inside”, I mean it in the most literal sense possible: the projectionist walks through the screen and into the movie, and is suddenly subject to its whims — for example, he’s confounded whenever it cuts to a new location. The sequence is both thoroughly entertaining and technically faultless — and I say that viewing it nearly 100 years after it was made, after all the advances in technique and effects we’ve had in that time. Reportedly, the film’s cameraman, Byron Houck, went as far as using surveying equipment to ensure the camera was positioned correctly so the transitions were seamless. The effort paid off.

    The same is true in several other incredible sequences, like a billiards game filled with trick shots, which Keaton rehearsed for four months with a pool expert and then took five days to film. Or a motorbike chase with more I-can’t-believe-he-just-did-that death-defying stunts than one of Tom Cruise’s impossible missions. The technical skill is faultless and, even if you’re not wowed by how they pulled it off, the sequences are immensely entertaining in their own right. Maybe it’s just personal taste, but this is why I have a preference for Keaton: his skits are more ingenious, better paced, and backed up with impressive stunt work. When you mix those daredevil antics with genuine movie magic, as he does here, you get a majestic, unforgettable farce.

    5 out of 5

    Sherlock Jr. was #102 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2019. It was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019. It placed 3rd on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2019.


  • 2022 | Weeks 1–3

    Here we go — finally, and somewhat later than anticipated (it’s been a slow start to the year, viewing-wise) — the new review format for 2022!

    …which you’ll have already seen in Archive 5, of course; and is fundamentally similar to what I was doing before in roundups and what-have-you; and which I’ve already ‘broken’, because my review of Flight of the Navigator came out so long that I posted it alone.

    But still, the intention is this is now my regular review format, popping up every week or two (or three) to review everything in a more timely fashion than I have for many, many years. We’ll see how it goes — I feel like I need to relearn how to write short pieces, because longer reviews feel like they should get their own posts, and that’s happened to pieces intended for every one of these roundups so far this year.


    Anyway — to kick things off for 2022, a film with a broadly appropriate title. Because, despite (deliberately misleading) hints to the contrary, I’m carrying on. Get it? Carrying on watching. And “spying” is a synonym of “watching”, right? (Look, there aren’t any Carry On films with more apposite titles, okay?)

    These weeks’ films are…

  • Carry On Spying (1964)
  • Penny Serenade (1941)
  • The Navigator (1924)
  • In the Line of Fire (1993)
  • Barbie as The Princess and the Pauper (2004)
  • Free Guy (2021)


    Carry On Spying

    (1964)

    Gerald Thomas | 84 mins | digital (SD) | 16:9 | UK / English | U

    Carry On Spying

    Believe it or not, I’ve never actually seen a Carry On film before. Maybe that’s not so surprising these days. They were once such a part of British culture that they produced 30 of the things, but I think they were seen as “a bit old fashioned” even before I was born, and by 2022’s standards… oof. But, lest you get the wrong end of the stick (oo-er, etc), this isn’t me intending to finally dive into all of them. Rather, as well as its timely title, I chose to watch Carry On Spying primarily because it’s a James Bond spoof — the first, I believe, seeing as it was released in July 1964, when the Bond series only encompassed Dr. No and From Russia with Love (Goldfinger would follow a couple of months later).

    With Bond not yet even properly into its initial phenomenon phase (the first two films were hits, but it was the next two that skyrocketed its popularity), you might think Spying came too soon, and would be disadvantaged by being produced before the famous Bond formula was fully in place. Instead, it sets its spoofing sights a little wider, including an extended riff on The Third Man. I couldn’t tell you everything it’s drawing on, but its third-act villain’s lair — all sleek metal corridors and little road-train thingies and jump-suited identikit henchpeople — appears to be a take-off of You Only Live Twice, some three years before that film even came out. So I can only presume Spying’s point of reference there is something else, which I can’t quite remember; some other spy fiction that was already doing stuff the Bond franchise would still be pulling off years later. That doesn’t reflect too positively on YOLT, when you think of it, although Bond’s cultural dominance and longevity has come to ensure it’s the one that’s remembered for pioneering all this stuff.

    I don’t know how many Carry On films were genre spoofs, but the series’ reputation is more for smut and innuendo. There’s pleasantly little of that here — some, for sure, mostly based around Barbara Windsor (of course) as a trainee agent; but while it’s all fundamentally juvenile, it’s not as ceaselessly ribald as I was expecting. Satisfyingly, it remains primarily focused on its chosen genre. In that respect, I’ve definitely seen worse spoofs.

    3 out of 5

    Carry On Spying is the 1st film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    Penny Serenade

    (1941)

    George Stevens | 120 mins | digital (HD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    Penny Serenade

    This is the third and final film to pair up stars Irene Dunne and Cary Grant as a married couple (I’ve watched all their collaborations within the past couple of years, but not posted reviews of the first two yet. I thought it was within the last year, but turns out I watched my first in May 2020. These strange days have really messed with my sense of the passage of time!) But where their first two films were screwball romcoms, this is undoubtedly a melodrama, following a couple as they meet, marry, and attempt to start a family.

    Dunne and Grant both make a fair fist of the serious stuff — Grant, in particular, gives an uncommonly sensitive performance at times — although they can’t resist slipping back into a spot of almost-slapstick given half a chance, with various individual sequences playing more like one of their comedies. Those scenes stand at odds with the film’s overall narrative and tone, which goes for full-on weepy. Indeed, if anything, I thought it was overdone, in particular an ending that throws in sudden tragedy followed so quickly by a pat happy ending that it feels almost distasteful.

    The film’s hook is that it begins with Dunne planning to leave, before she discovers a book of records that, as she plays them, take her back through their relationship. Different songs provoking specific memories is a neat narrative device on paper, but doesn’t really come across on screen. Aside from the first track, and maybe a later burst of Happy Birthday (although that could be almost any birthday, surely), the songs don’t seem to have any special relevance to the memories they supposedly call forth. It doesn’t help that, to modern ears, they all sound kinda samey. Plus, that the songs lead everything to unfurl in chronological order, with every major beat of their life story accounted for, is certainly convenient.

    If you can look past such artifice, and just want to revel in an old-fashioned bit of heart-tugging, Penny Serenade is fit to make you shed a tear. Personally, I’d rather the headline duo had given us another bout of screwball tomfoolery.

    3 out of 5

    Penny Serenade is the 3rd film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    The Navigator

    (1924)

    Donald Crisp & Buster Keaton | 66 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / silent | U

    The Navigator

    This is my fourth Buster Keaton feature now (I’ve only previously reviewed The General, but Sherlock Jr made it into my 2019 top 3), and he’s established himself as my favourite of the major silent comedians (I rarely enjoy Chaplin’s films as much as I feel I should; and, in fairness to Harold Lloyd, I’ve only seen one of his so far, which I liked a lot). The Navigator was the biggest hit of his career, though is probably my least favourite of his I’ve seen so far — though I don’t want to damn it with false criticism, because it’s still a brisk and entertaining comedy.

    Keaton stars as a spoiled rich kid whose marriage proposal is rejected. He’d already booked the honeymoon tickets, so sets off by himself; but, due to several points of confusion, he ends up adrift at sea on a decommissioned ship, empty but for one other passenger: his would-be fiancée (Kathryn McGuire). It’s up to this pair of brats to get along and survive while they hope for rescue. (Rescue does not come quickly. Considering McGuire’s father is a successful shipping magnate who’s aware of what’s happened, you’d think he’d send a vessel after them; but then, he might have his own problems, owing to a bunch of foreign spies who… look, it’s best not to overthink the logistics and plausibility of the plot.)

    Although Keaton gets the lion’s share of the gags, as well he might, for a stretch in the middle he and McGuire form an effective double act. The two rich kids being hilariously useless at household basics, like making coffee or opening a tin of food, is well observed; a flash-forward to their automated solutions is also fun. While Keaton still gets to show off by himself — particularly in an elaborate underwater diving sequence, naturally saved for the final act — McGuire makes the most of the material she’s given.

    The only outright demerit to the film is that the finale hasn’t aged particularly well: the ship finally drifts near land, but it’s an island with a village-full of black natives, at which McGuire immediately exclaims “cannibals!” That she’s sort of proven right when they start attacking the ship is… well, maybe not even worse, but at least just as bad. Still, by 1920s standards, maybe we can take comfort in the fact that it’s only casual racism…

    More than that, the reason I say it’s my least favourite Keaton so far is simply that it doesn’t have as many comedic highs as his very best work. Nonetheless, his genius regularly shines through in moments and even whole sequences, and there are a couple of individual gags that are all-timers.

    4 out of 5

    The Navigator is the 4th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    In the Line of Fire

    (1993)

    Wolfgang Petersen | 129 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    In the Line of Fire

    Clint Eastwood is a Secret Service agent who failed to stop the JFK assassination, now taunted by John Malkovich’s mysterious wannabe-assassin and his threats to kill the current President. It’s a fundamentally strong idea for a thriller, and works especially well by having the villain constantly phoning the hero for little chats. Malkovich’s always makes for a first-rate antagonist, and his slightly loony personality clashes well with Eastwood’s stoic, dry-witted, old-fashioned tough guy. There are a couple of chase scenes and shoot-outs here and there, but, rather than any elaborate physical action, it’s the verbal sparring that represents the film’s highlights.

    On the downside, the pace is a little on the slow side (perhaps matched to the “too old for this shit” age of Eastwood’s hero — in real life, he’d be a whole decade past the mandatory retirement age) and there are one too many clichés as important plot points (don’t get too attached to the partner who’s always talking about his wife and kids). Plus, there’s a wholly unnecessary romance between 62-year-old Clint and 39-year-old Rene Russo — the film doesn’t need it, even if there wasn’t that age gap. It leads to an (almost) sex scene that’s worthy of the Naked Gun films, which is amusing but tonally misplaced.

    They used to make this kind of political thriller on the regular back in the ’90s, one of those bread-and-butter genres for grownups that have fallen by the wayside in favour of hyper-budgeted kids’-movie spectacle that men of allegedly adult age flock to nowadays. In the Line of Fire may not truly stand out among its brethren of the era, but I do wish they still made ’em like this.

    4 out of 5

    In the Line of Fire is the 6th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    Barbie as
    The Princess and the Pauper

    (2004)

    William Lau | 85 mins | digital (SD) | 16:9 | USA & Canada / English | U

    Barbie as The Princess and the Pauper

    One of the many film lists I have my eye on completing is Letterboxd 100: Animation, which lists the highest-rated animated feature films on the site (with a few caveats). There are over 40 titles left that I’ve not seen, and I could’ve chosen to watch almost any of them… but I chose the Barbie one. Well, not the Barbie one, because there are actually two Barbie titles on the list. And that’s not some temporary fluke: they’ve been on there for quite a while now. This merited investigation.

    As you’ve no doubt gathered from the title, this particular Barbie film is a reimagining of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. A fairytale-esque story, about a princess, done as a musical? Yep, this is very much a wannabe Disney, but without the production values of that major studio: the computer animation here looks more like a PS2 cutscene. But hiding beneath the cheap animation is a halfway decent musical fairytale. Take the second musical number, How Can I Refuse, for example: it’s every inch in the mould of a “Disney villain’s song”, but is better than some genuine examples, and comes complete with a dance routine by the antagonist and his two henchman. This film has ambition, I’ll give it that.

    Other songs vary in quality. When the eponymous duo first meet, there’s an unintentionally hilarious number in which they sing about how similar they are, the indentured servant and the pampered royal. If you say so, girls. A later track is a typical “you be you” song, but sung to a pet cat who behaves like a dog. That’s a level of barminess I can get on board with.

    I would never have dreamed of watching this if it weren’t on the Letterboxd animation list. Now, I wouldn’t exactly say I’m glad I watched it, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would — even if sometimes that was due to laughing at it rather than with it.

    3 out of 5

    Barbie as The Princess and the Pauper is the 7th film in my 100 Films Challenge 2022.


    Free Guy

    (2021)

    Shawn Levy | 115 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Free Guy

    Ryan Reynolds plays his role again as Guy, a bank worker in city riddled with crime and superheroics. But, it turns out, Guy isn’t real — he’s an NPC in a computer game, programmed to do the same thing over and over and basically be ignored by the real-world players. Until, that is, he spots the woman of his dreams (Jodie Comer) and his programming breaks as Guy becomes self-aware.

    The basic concept sounds like a fun, fresh, and timely idea, right? Video games have never been more popular, AI is ever-improving, and there’s room for both gags and action in the core idea — that’s the winning Marvel formula, right there. Unfortunately, the execution is as if someone found a way to make a new movie by collaging others. Free Guy is just The LEGO Movie + The Truman Show + Wreck-It Ralph + Ready Player One + the PG-13 version of Deadpool 2 — not put in a blender, but cut up and stuck back together side-by-side, with snippets of Groundhog Day, Fortnite, and multiple Disney-owned properties scattered in for good measure.

    That last aspect, the Disney references, has been singled out for particular derision on social media. The film was initially produced by 20th Century Fox, but ended up a Disney title after the buyout, which allows a bunch of stuff they own to pop up in the movie. I know we’re supposed to find this infinitely depressing — a sad reminder that Disney are on course to own all culture, and that’s a bad thing — and it is bad, of course… but the bit with Captain America’s shield still made me laugh. Sorry, not sorry. Yeah, you can be miserable about this stuff, because obviously the total homogenisation of all American media under The Walt Disney Company is not worth that a couple of meta gags; but the homogenisation of all American media under The Walt Disney Company is happening anyway, so we may as well enjoy the gags we get along the way.

    Whether you have that kind of attitude or not will probably dictate how much you enjoy Free Guy. Its originality is surface deep, at best, and at every second it will call to mind some other film that already did the same thing. But, allowing for that, it’s still a fairly entertaining couple of hours of action-comedy.

    3 out of 5

    Free Guy is the 8th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


  • The 100-Week Roundup XXVII

    The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

    This week’s selection includes the first reviews to be rounded up from April 2019

  • The Howling (1981)
  • The Gold Rush (1925)
  • A Good Year (2006)


    The Howling
    (1981)

    2019 #50
    Joe Dante | 87 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    The Howling

    After a near-fatal encounter with a serial killer, television newswoman Karen White becomes emotionally disturbed and loses her memory. On doctor’s orders she’s sent to the Colony, a secluded retreat where the creepy residents may not be what they seem… — adapted from IMDb

    Released the same year as John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London, I think it’s fair to say The Howling has been overshadowed by its UK-set counterpart, which has left a more enduring mark on the werewolf subgenre. But it would be a shame to ignore director Joe Dante’s effort entirely, because it’s a strong movie with its own pleasures — where American Werewolf is mostly quite comical, The Howling is more of a straight-faced horror movie.

    Indeed, at the start it feels more like a ’70s thriller than a campy horror — a Network-esque newsroom drama crossed with a seedy serial killer flick, in which the handheld neon-lit photography of nighttime ‘mean streets’ reminded me of something like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. When the plot heads out into the countryside, the sub-Hammer antics feel a bit low-rent by comparison; but once the proper werewolf action kicks off, it picks up again. Special makeup maestro Rick Baker may have abandoned this project for American Werewolf, but the special effects feature sterling work nonetheless, including a couple of superb transformations. Hurrah for practical effects.

    There’s room for improvement here — it needs a more cohesive, thorough, better paced screenplay (after an effective opening, it takes time to get going again, but then the climax is a bit rushed) — but the bits that work are so good that The Howling still ends up as a great werewolf movie.

    4 out of 5

    The Gold Rush
    (1925)

    2019 #52
    Charles Chaplin | 95 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / silent | U

    The Gold Rush

    Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush exists in two versions: the 1925 original, and a 1942 re-release for which Chaplin cut whole scenes, trimmed others, and reinserted some outtakes and alternate shots, plus adding a synced soundtrack that included voiceover narration by him. The re-release is the ‘official’ version according to Chaplin’s estate (on the 2-disc DVD I own, the ’42 version is by itself on disc 1, with the ’25 version among the special features on disc 2), but from what I read it seems most people regard the ’25 original as the superior version, so that’s the one I chose to watch.

    As with the other Chaplins I’ve seen, it’s an episodic series of skits with a linking theme — this time, his Little Tramp character is prospecting for gold in the Klondike. It’s an interesting mix of the expected slapstick humour with something that’s more… not serious, exactly (although a subplot about a wanted criminal who murders a couple of lawmen is a bit incongruous), but there are sequences that aim at distinctly different emotions, like pathos (not unfamiliar when it comes to the Little Tramp), or overt thrills, including a cliff-edge climax.

    Then there’s the ostensibly happy ending, in which our hero gets the girl. That’d be the girl who stood him up, who doesn’t really care for him, who got railroaded into posing with him and kissing him… but gets with him right after she learnt he’s now a multimillionaire. Are we sure that’s a happy ending?

    4 out of 5

    The Gold Rush was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

    A Good Year
    (2006)

    2019 #54
    Ridley Scott | 113 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English & French | 12 / PG-13

    A Good Year

    Ridley Scott, the acclaimed director perhaps destined to be best remembered for sci-fi classics like Alien and Blade Runner, and actor Russell Crowe, who made his name with hard-man roles in films like Romper Stomper and L.A. Confidential, have collaborated multiple times. Together they’ve created action-filled historical epics like Gladiator and Robin Hood, and contemporary thrillers like American Gangster and Body of Lies. But in amongst all that they made… this, an oddity on both man’s filmography: a gentle romantic dramedy about a London banker who inherits a vineyard in Provence and learns to love a simpler life.

    Ridley Scott directing a sunny romcom sounds like a daft idea, doesn’t it? Well, turns out it’s not only daft, it’s quite bad. Apparently Scott conceived the story, and everything (apart from scenes in London) was shot within eight minutes of his home in Provence. In some hands that might lead to a very personal story, but I don’t think that’s the case here. I once read someone argue that the entertainment an artist enjoys consuming isn’t necessarily the same as what they’re good at creating, and this seems like a case in point. The storyline and atmosphere may’ve been inspired by Scott’s love for the region he’s made his home, but it doesn’t match his skills as a filmmaker very well at all.

    It’s as inappropriately directed as you’d expect, with moments of almost slapstick comedy that feel decades out of date, and other parts that are shot and scored more like a thriller than a breezy comedy-drama. In front of the camera, Russell Crowe does his best to be Hugh Grant, and he could be worse, but it does make you appreciate how good Hugh Grant was at being Hugh Grant. His love interest is Marion Cotillard, playing a character whose name sounds like “Fanny Chanel” — one character responds to being told that with “ooh la la”, which might be the most succinct “British person’s view of the French” dialogue exchange ever written.

    Much as Crowe’s continued exposure to the region and its people slowly charms him, so did I gradually warm to the film. When Scott isn’t trying too hard it has a certain laidback good humour, with the bonus of beautiful scenery and beautiful women, so that it becomes not unpleasant to watch. If that sounds like damning with faint praise… well, it is. A Good Year is not a good film, but it is, ultimately, a mostly pleasant one.

    3 out of 5

  • Waxworks (1924)

    aka Das Wachsfigurenkabinett

    2020 #232
    Paul Leni | 82 mins | digital (HD) | 1.33:1 | Germany / silent | PG

    Waxworks

    Often billed as the first portmanteau horror movie, Waxworks only fits the bill in the loosest sense: its “three stories” are actually two stories and a dream sequence, the first (and longest) of which is, if anything, a swashbuckling farce.

    But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The film begins with a young writer (William Dieterle, who would later become a Hollywood director, responsible for 1938 Best Picture winner The Life of Emile Zola, amongst others) who is hired to pen backstories for the four statues in a carnival wax museum. Yes, four — the filmmakers ran out of money before they could film the fourth tale. As he begins writing, into each story he injects both himself and the museum’s curator’s daughter (Olga Belajeff) as his love interest.

    The first tale is set in Arabian Nights-style Bagdad (IMDb says this part inspired Douglas Fairbanks to make The Thief of Bagdad, but a quick look at their release dates shows Fairbanks’ film came out months before Waxworks), and concerns a lecherous Caliph (Emil Jannings) who sets his sights on wooing a baker’s wife. It’s quite a sexualised segment all round: the baker kneads dough so erotically it sends his wife (and himself) all aquiver (I doubt it’ll do the same for many viewers, but it clearly works for them); later, the disguised Caliph sneaks into the baker’s home and spies the wife lying in bed with her back to him, and his gaze (and, by extension, ours) clearly lingers on her bottom (clothed, lest you think the film is uncommonly explicit). I guess the characters were too busy perving to apply logic to their decision-making: when the baker is too wary to slip a ring off the sleeping Caliph’s finger, he decides to chop his whole arm off instead. Totally reasonable. Meanwhile, why is the all-powerful Caliph worried about being found out by a lowly baker? Indeed, why’s he so worried that his guards will know he sneaks out at night? He’s the boss! On the bright side, there’s some beautiful and striking Expressionist set design; an exciting chase scene, set to dramatic percussive music in the new score by Bernd Schultheis, Olav Lervik, and Jan Kohl; and the wife’s save at the climax is a cunning twist. But, overall, it’s a bit of a daft farce.

    Arabian nights

    The second story stars Conrad Veidt as a Rasputin-esque Ivan the Terrible, who revels in killing prisoners in the Kremlin’s dungeons with an ultra-specifically-timed poison. If that wasn’t clue enough, this segment is thematically much darker. A bride’s father invites Ivan to attend the wedding, then the Czar insists they switch roles to travel there and the dad is killed by mistaken assassins. Then his arrow-pierced corpse is unceremoniously dumped on the front steps of his home while the wedding banquet continues inside; and when daughter sneaks away to grieve over his body, Ivan has some guards snatch her; and when the angry groom tries to attack Ivan, he’s ordered off to the torture chamber. Puts people who complain about rain on their wedding day into perspective, doesn’t it? Veidt is great as the deranged Ivan, although he’s so mentally unstable that it borders on comical. The finale doesn’t make much sense (he lets the girl go… then doesn’t?), but the denouement delivers a neat and fitting fate to Czar Terrible.

    The third and final story begins with just five minutes of screen time left, so you know it’s not going to be wholly-realised tale. (Incidentally, the original German version of the film is lost, leaving us with only the English version, which is about 25 minutes shorter. What’s in those minutes? If anyone knows, they’re not saying online (to the best of my knowledge). Perhaps there was more linking material in the museum? Perhaps the third ‘story’ really was a whole story? Perhaps the first two were once even longer, though it’s hard to imagine how much more there could be to do in either of them — maybe the cuts were for the best…) Anyway, the third segment is the aforementioned dream sequence, in which the waxwork of Jack the Ripper comes to life and pursues the writer and his love (they met earlier that day but already seem pretty committed) through a series of highly impressionist sets, their disjointed oddity exacerbated by differently-aligned multiple exposures. It’s Expressionism to the max, and it’s suitably effective as a chiller. But, of course, it’s all a dream… and that’s suddenly the end!

    Ivan's terrible, but Veidt's great

    Like so many of the portmanteau films that have followed in its wake, Waxworks struggles to be the sum of its parts. It’s ultimately a bit underwhelming, with the first two stories being slower than necessary (and this is the cut version!) before giving way to a rushed finale. Make no mistake, there’s some very nice stuff in here, but it comes in bits and pieces. It’s a welcome watch for fans of silent cinema or early horror (with caveats about its “horror” content duly noted), and there are enough good parts to recommend it, but I wouldn’t argue it’s a classic in any enduring sense (beyond its obvious influence as a stepping stone to future portmanteau films).

    3 out of 5

    Waxworks is streaming on AMPLIFY! until 22nd November, and is released on Blu-ray as part of the Masters of Cinema Series today.

    Also, new on AMPLIFY! today are…

    • what sounds like a German riff on Whiplash, but with violins, in The Audition
    • a documentary about the drawbacks of algorithms, Coded Bias
    • the UK premiere of Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut, Falling
    • Catalan coming-of-age drama The Innocence
    • and unusual found footage documentary My Mexican Bretzel.

    (If you don’t know, “bretzel” is the German word for “pretzel”.)

    Disclosure: I’m working for AMPLIFY! as part of FilmBath. However, all opinions are my own, and I benefit in no way (financial or otherwise) from you following the links in this post or making purchases.

    Safety Last! (1923)

    2020 #172
    Fred Newmeyer & Sam Taylor | 74 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / silent | U

    Safety Last!

    I’ve seen films by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, so it’s overdue that I acquaint myself with the so-called “Third Genius” of silent comedy, Harold Lloyd. I would say that, of those three, Lloyd is considered a distant third place today: Chaplin is a name that transcends cinema to be known in the general consciousness; Keaton has accrued fame down the years for his still-impressive stunts; but Lloyd, I feel, has faded from consciousness a bit. If everyone’s heard of Chaplin, and a lot of people have heard of Keaton, I feel like only those in the know even consider Lloyd. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, some would assert that, in their day, Lloyd was the most successful of them all — per Wikipedia, he made $15.7 million to Chaplin’s $10.5 million. (Nothing is ever as straightforward as all that, of course. Here’s a good article at Silentology all about the history of popularity of the silent comedians, which ultimately makes it quite clear that (a) Chaplin was the biggest; (b) Lloyd and Keaton were the runners-up; and (c) the pack of other comedians was far behind that trio.)

    The dwindling of his reputation seems to be at least partly his own fault: according to revered film historian Kevin Brownlow (paraphrased in this article), “Lloyd was so nervous about how audiences would react to his later movies that he withheld the films from distribution, so that only some very early pictures (made before his talent blossomed around 1920) were widely available for viewing. An effort to reintroduce his work after his death in the early ’70s was also botched, adding narrations and showy music scores to movies that don’t need extra gimmicks.” Nowadays, silents are re-released with more respect to their original presentations, but, for whatever reason, I think Lloyd still awaits the reappraisal that the other two have enjoyed and/or never even needed. Indeed, if we look at their current availability on disc in the UK, Chaplin has several extensive Blu-ray sets to his name; Masters of Cinema have made a fine fist of getting Keaton onto Blu-ray, with four box sets so far; and Lloyd… has a total of two films. And one of those (this one) is only out today. (I’ve focused on the UK because that’s where I am, but it’s not a whole lot better in his native US, where a total of four of his films are on Blu-ray.)

    What a way to make a living

    My opinion on the three is still forming — as I said, this is the first Lloyd film I’ve seen, so it wouldn’t be fair to base an entire comparison off it. But I have now seen the majority of Chaplin’s most-acclaimed features, and a couple of Keaton’s too, so a view is beginning to coalesce. And that is that, either I’m always in the wrong mood when I watch a Chaplin film, or I just completely prefer Keaton, and now Lloyd too. Aside from The Great Dictator, I’ve found every Chaplin I’ve seen to be a bit of a slog. That’s not to say I dislike them — I can see admirable stuff aplenty, and greatly enjoyed some of the exceptionally amusing sequences — but they always feel very long to me. That’s not a sensation I’ve yet experienced during a Keaton film, nor with Safety Last. But who knows, maybe Safety Last is Harold Lloyd’s Great Dictator in terms of how my opinion pans out. Only time, and more films, can tell.

    But, for now, Safety Last is why we’re here. It’s the story of a small-town boy (Lloyd) who travels to the city to find employment, planning to have his girl (Mildred Davis) follow him out just as soon as he makes his fortune. His letters home inform her of his increasing success, but in reality he works a lowly job at a department store, rushed off his feet to serve the baying mass of consumers. The ensuing century has conferred on that a degree of timelessness: working hard to appease others but getting nowhere yourself. It’s not the American Dream, but, for many low-level workers, it’s the American Reality. Replace working on the fabric counter of a department store with filling packages at an Amazon warehouse and, really, how much has changed?

    This is the milieu the film plays in for the first 50-or-so minutes, more or less. There are digressions outside the workplace, the best being a fateful morning commute that sees Lloyd accidentally bundled into a van heading further and further in the wrong direction, leading to an array of tricks and stunts to head back to work on time. Keaton may be the more famed daredevil, but here Lloyd appears every bit his equal.

    Climbing a building? Sounds like an impossible mission...

    And never more so than in the film’s final act. A series of events leads us to the point where Lloyd has to climb the sky-scraping outside of the department store building in order to earn the big payday he’s been needing. What follows is a 20-minute climb; a phenomenal extended sequence that is both funny and tense. It was shot on location, on fake buildings built atop real buildings — not as dangerous as fully doing it for real, but not exactly health-and-safety conscious (if Lloyd had fallen, he would’ve dropped only a storey or so onto a mattress; but if he bounced off that…) It has the same kind of thrill that Tom Cruise employs today when he climbs skyscrapers or dangles off the side of planes, only with more humour. You might think that would undercut the tension, but, if anything, it exacerbates it. You can push things closer to the edge when being funny, and, boy, does Lloyd get close to the edge…

    The first two-thirds of the film are a very solid 4-out-of-5 farce, but the final act mixes laughs with thrills in a perfectly executed, constantly escalating sequence that is a 6-out-of-5-level climax.

    5 out of 5

    The Criterion Collection edition of Safety Last! is released in the UK today.

    The Man Who Laughs (1928)

    2020 #189
    Paul Leni | 110 mins | Blu-ray | 1.20:1 | USA / silent | PG

    The Man Who Laughs

    Just over 90 years ago, in the final years of the silent era, The Man Who Laughs was a “super-production” — an expensive and major release, designed to follow in the footsteps of successes like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, with an acclaimed imported director (Paul Leni, Waxworks) and star (Conrad Veidt, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari), a shared leading lady from Phantom (Mary Philbin), and adapted from another novel by the author of Hunchback (Victor Hugo). It did, I believe, live up to its pedigree and expectations. But today it’s primarily remembered for one thing: being the visual inspiration behind a certain comic book supervillain…

    Perhaps because of the connections to the aforementioned films, and because it inspired such a violent character, and because of the publicity stills that inspired that look, and because its production studio (Universal) would shortly become renowned for their iconic interpretations of the cornerstones of horror (Dracula, Frankenstein, et al), The Man Who Laughs has often been cited as a horror movie. It isn’t. Well, some of the first 15 minutes do play a bit like one — execution by iron maiden; mutilation and abandonment of a child; dangling corpses of hanged men — but then it jumps forward in time and becomes a romantic melodrama, with a bit of antiestablishment satire and a swashbuckling climax thrown in for good measure.

    I was only Jokering

    The story begins in 1690, with King James II punishing a rebellious lord by handing his son, Gwynplaine, to comprachicos (invented by Hugo for the novel; it means “child-buyers”) who mutilate the boy’s mouth into a permanent grin. And then he executes the lord in an iron maiden for good measure. When all the comprachicos are later exiled, they abandon the boy. Wandering through the snow, the kid finds a woman frozen to death, but her baby still alive in her arms. (Like I said, the first 15 minutes are pretty bleak.) He rescues the baby, who it’ll turn out is blind, and soon the pair are taken in by a wandering performer, Ursus (Cesare Gravina). Jump forward a couple of decades and Gwynplaine (Veidt) is now a popular attraction himself thanks to his laughing face, and the baby has grown into a beautiful young woman, Dea (Philbin), and the pair are in love. Let’s not think too much about the background to that relationship, eh? Gwynplaine feels unworthy of Dea’s love because he’s so hideous, but she doesn’t care because she’s literally blind.

    Meanwhile, Gwynplaine’s fame and unique facial features lead to it being discovered that he’s really a noble, kicking off a bunch of courtly intrigue — I could explain it, but then we’d just be getting into the plot of the entire movie. Suffice to say, it involves a scheming courtier, Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst), who was partly responsible for Gwynplaine’s dad’s death; a horny duchess, Josiana (Olga Baclanova), who we first meet while a peasant messenger spies on her having a bath (nothing explicit is actually seen — it cuts away just in time — but it was still too risqué for British censors, who cut away even sooner); and Queen Anne (Josphine Cromwell), best known today as “the one Olivia Colman played in The Favourite (there’s considerably less swearing, gout, lesbianism, and bunny rabbits in this version).

    With the “beauty and the beast” angle to the film’s central romance, the film does withstand comparison to other variations of that story — like, um, Beauty and the Beast, but also, again, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The difference here is in how people react to the ‘beast’. Only he himself seems to find him monstrous. The public find him inescapably hilarious, which isn’t nice for him to live with, but has made him popular and beloved rather than reviled. The love of his life is besotted with him unconditionally. Josiana comes to see his show and for some reason finds him instantly attractive (in fairness, I think she’s attracted to any man with a pulse).

    Tale as old as time...

    A more apt comparison is to a film made over 50 years later, David Lynch’s The Elephant Man — a parallel I spotted for myself, but also is mentioned in two essays in the booklet accompanying Eureka’s new Blu-ray release, so I’m certainly not alone in feeling this. Both concern a man who is physically disfigured and has fallen in with fairground sideshow folk, who despises himself but comes to find love and compassion from others. They even both climax with a grandstanding speech where the man in question declares his worth to the world, with the famous “I am a human being!” bit from The Elephant Man seeming like an echo of a scene here where Gwynplaine, forced to join the House of Lords by order of the Queen, eventually rejects her command, declaring his independence with the assertion that “God made me a man!” As Travis Crawford writes in the aforementioned booklet, “while sinister clowns would ultimately become an unlikely horror cliche, Gwynplaine’s gruesome disfigurement makes him a figure of pity, not menace… more Pierrot than Pennywise.” The Man Who Laughs is less concerned with examining and affirming the fundamental humanity underneath ‘freaks’ than Lynch’s film (this is a classical melodrama, after all), but it’s certainly an aspect of the story that, despite how he looks, Gwynplaine is still a human being; that, despite his fixed grin, he’s full of all the emotions of any human being.

    Before I go, a quick word on the film’s soundtrack. “But it’s a silent movie.” Yes, but as you surely know, silent movies aren’t meant to be watched actually silent. The Blu-ray release (both the new UK one and an earlier US one from Flicker Alley) comes with two audio options: a new 2018 score by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, and the original 1928 Movietone sync track, which is not just general music backing but also includes some music clearly framed as diegetic, plus occasional sound effects, and even dialogue (in the form of background crowd noise, mostly). Now, the film was originally released as silent, then withdrawn and re-released with this accompanying soundtrack, so I guess the option of a new score isn’t wholly unmerited. Nonetheless, it still seems slightly off to me that you’d supplant an authentic original track with a modern creation. As if to underline this point, the booklet reveals that the new score is actually little more than a final-year project by a group of students! It’s lovely for them that they were able to present their work at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and it was well received, and that it’s now included as an option on the film’s official releases… but presenting it as the primary audio option? No thanks. I suggest you choose the 1928 soundtrack.

    I said it's NOT a horror movie!

    It’s probably unlikely that The Man Who Laughs can escape its status as a trivia footnote for the Joker at this point (heck, Flicker Alley’s release even plays up the connection on its cover, taking the film’s most Joker-esque photo and decorating it in the character’s colours of purple and green). Certainly, no one should watch it for that reason alone — the inspiration for the Joker begins and ends with the grinning-man imagery; there’s nothing in the film itself that contributes to the character. There’s also little here to support its reputation as an influential early horror movie — those seeking horror thrills shouldn’t watch for that reason either. But for all the things The Man Who Laughs is not, what it is is a well-made and performed drama; one that deserves to stand and be appreciated on its own merits, not those that others have mistakenly conferred on it.

    4 out of 5

    The Man Who Laughs is released on Blu-ray in the UK today.

    The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

    aka Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

    2017 #163
    Robert Wiene | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | Germany / silent (German) | U

    The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

    The poster child for German Expressionist cinema, as well as featuring “cinema’s first true mad doctor” and “cinema’s first unreliable narrator” (at least according to David Cairns on the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray — I haven’t verified those statements for myself), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari certainly has a lot to unpack for a film that’s barely an hour-and-a-quarter long. Or does it? Because one has to wonder if there’s an element of style over substance here.

    “A mystery story told in the Poe manner,” according to the original Variety review, the titular Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) is the host of a fairground attraction, and his eponymous cabinet contains Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a somnambulist who Caligari controls — at the fair, to answer questions from the audience; and at night, to do his evil bidding, including murder. Caligari’s activities come to the attention of young Franzis (Friedrich Feher), who attempts to uncover the truth about the doctor and expose him.

    But the most famous thing about Caligari by far is not the storyline or the characters, but the visual style. Painted backdrops evoke a landscape straight out of a nightmare: jagged lines and stark monochromatic shapes (this isn’t just a film that happens to be filmed without colour, it feels black and white), they give the impression of the winding streets of a town and its locales without actually being one. The implied structures tower over the characters, leaning in above, creating an oppressive and unnerving atmosphere, while their total lack of reality evoke theatre more than the literalism we’re now used to from film. The make-up and performances are the same: heightened; dreamlike — or nightmarish.

    Impractical architecture

    Which may be entirely appropriate given the film’s framing narrative, which (spoilers!) introduce an ending that’s a little bit “and it was all a dream”. Or was it? Well, that depends how you interpret what happens. The bookends were apparently added to help sell the film to the public, framing its fantastical narrative in something more grounded. The screenwriters weren’t happy — as Lotte H. Eisner writes (in the MoC booklet), “the result of these modifications was to falsify the action and ultimately to reduce it to the ravings of a madman. The film’s [screenwriters], Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, had had the very different intention of unmasking the absurdity of asocial authority, represented by Dr. Caligari.” Well, the tacked-on ending doesn’t necessarily negate such an interpretation, you just need to fill in the blanks to get there yourself.

    For example, there’s what Cairns calls his “Mulholland Drive theory”: that what we witness is all true, until the point that Franzis sees the asylum director is Caligari; from there until the reveal that Franzis is an asylum patient is a fantasy. Evidence in favour of this: everything goes implausibly swimmingly for our hero in that section, from easily recruiting the asylum staff to finding (as Cairns puts it) “Caligari’s second cabinet, in which he keeps his entire backstory.” It’s a fun reading, even though it’s clearly a case of projecting an interpretation onto the film that wasn’t intended by the makers.

    One that fits better, perhaps, is that Franzis’ flashbacks aren’t merely “the ravings of a madman”, but he’s telling the truth, and that somehow between the end of his flashbacks (which see Caligari locked up in his own asylum) and where we join the framing narrative (with Franzis locked in the asylum and Caligari in charge), the evil doctor has reasserted his authority and captured his accuser. Of course, that requires a leap — how does Caligari regain control? Why don’t we see it happen? Well, we don’t see it happen because that wasn’t what the makers intended.

    Suspicious activity

    And so we come back to “it was all a dream”. Maybe that’s the best explanation — the writers may’ve hated it, but in some respects it saves them from themselves: Cairns’ visual essay highlights a bunch of plot holes, inconsistencies, and confusions, not to mention issues of character motivations and actions (“in a way it makes no sense to speak of character motivation in a mad man’s fantasy”), all of which you can hand-wave away if “it was all a dream”. This is why I wondered if it was style over substance. The sets, the make-up, the performances — all fantastically atmospheric. The story, the characters, their actions — not such great shakes.

    But maybe that’s okay. After all, why not? Director Robert Wiene and his crew did a fantastic job of bringing a surreal nightmare to life, and nightmares seldom feature plausible storylines.

    4 out of 5

    The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Napoleon (1927)

    aka Napoléon vu par Abel Gance

    2016 #184
    Abel Gance | 333 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 + 4:1 | France / silent (English) | PG / G

    Napoleon

    At one point in time, arguments over rights made it seem unlikely you’d ever be able to see Abel Gance’s epic biopic of French leader Napoléon Bonaparte if you were a regular person not prone to attending all-day cinema screenings with a live orchestra and multiple intermissions. But a year ago this week things panned out so that the BFI were finally able to release it on Blu-ray. While a theatrical marathon is probably still the best way to see the film (if only for the full effect of the famed triptych finale), this release is certainly more convenient and accessible. Apparently it sold better than expected, too — I guess that’s what happens when you combine years of anticipation with being a worldwide-exclusive release of a film of this stature. It’s also a daunting film to review — for the aforementioned reasons, plus its length and its artistic importance. Nonetheless, here are what thoughts I had.

    At 5½ hours, Napoleon is rather like a miniseries from the silent era — a comparison that feels more apt than ever in this age of binge-watching. It’s divided into four acts, each running anywhere from 49 to 114 minutes, but it could even be subdivided into further episodes: Napoleon’s schooldays; his observation of the French Revolution; his opposition to Corsica being sold to England; the siege of Toulon (which takes up all of Act 2 and is the best bit, in my opinion); the reign of terror (a half-hour section that barely features Napoleon); a chunk where he falls for and woos Josephine that plays like a rom-com; the invasion of Italy… Yet despite that length, the film doesn’t even reach the Napoleonic Wars. No wonder Gance wanted to do six movies — or six seasons, as we might interpret it today. (In the end, he went over-schedule and over-budget on this first film, covering just two-thirds of the story he’d intended and spending the budget for the entire series. I imagine I’d outrage some silent film fans/scholars if I called him the Peter Jackson of his day…)

    Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon

    Part of the fourth act is that triptych climax, a 21-minute sequence shot with three cameras side-by-side, and therefore designed to projected on three 1.33:1 screens side-by-side, to create a 4:1 widescreen image. It’s undeniably less powerful when rendered as a thin strip across a 16:9 television, suddenly shrinking the height of the image rather than suddenly tripling its width, but what other choice is there? (Well, if you’ve got three sets of equipment, the three-disc Blu-ray contains each screen full size, one per disc, so you could set it up yourself.) Even shrunk like that, the imagery in the sequence remains stunning. I bet the effect is marvellous when seen as intended. (There’s an alternate single-screen ending, which is quite different. It contains fundamentally the same ‘plot’, but there’s one whole new sequence, and the others are truncated or slightly rearranged. Worst of all, it loses the tricolour-inspired finale.)

    Widescreen properly arrived when CinemaScope was invented in 1953, so Gance was about 25 years ahead of his time with that technique. It’s Napoleon’s most striking innovation, but the whole film shows off a surfeit of cinematic techniques: a wide variety of shot lengths (close-ups, medium, long, wide, etc, etc); tracks and pans, many of them fast; handheld photography, including what we’d now call ShakyCam; swaying back and forth, in and out of focus, or swinging over a large crowd; mounted on fast-moving vehicles, including dipping under the waves on a boat; in the thick of the action rather than observing it from a distance; multiple exposures and superimposition; animated maps to indicate Napoleon’s strategising; split screen; split-second impressionistically-fast cutting… and most of that’s found in just the first hour! Some of this is stuff that would still feel revolutionary when filmmakers were doing it 20, 30, even 40 years later. The fast-cut pulse-racing action scenes, like a horseback chase on Corsica, are not what you commonly expect from a silent movie, especially an ‘artistic’ one rather than a swashbuckler, say.

    Epic

    Lest you think a film of this vintage must be in black and white, Napoleon features a lot of tinting and toning, which works very well at times to create striking and meaningful imagery: golden sunlight illuminating the debut of La Marseillaise; the burning red of revolution forged in a furnace; a tumultuous purple ocean… Similarly, Carl Davis’ original score is great, helping to emphasise the emotion and lend the images a storytelling shape. Again, the sequence with La Marseillaise is a good example; a particularly effective tour de force. Davis makes good use of other familiar tunes for shorthand — there are variations on Rule, Britannia whenever the British are involved, for instance.

    Making Abel Gance’s Napoleon was an epic undertaking, as was its decades-long reconstruction, as is the viewing experience (it is 5½ hours, after all). It may not be perfect for all of that immense running time (which does not merit adjectives like “indulgent” or “excessive” but is, nonetheless, long), but it is a monumental achievement in cinema that undoubtedly deserves full marks.

    5 out of 5

    That completes my reviews from 2016, finally.

    The Golem (1920)

    aka The Golem: How He Came into the World / Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam

    2015 #163
    Carl Boese & Paul Wegener | 85 mins | streaming | 4:3 | Germany / silent (English) | PG

    The word “prequel” was first coined in the ’50s, arguably entered the mainstream in the ’70s, and was firmly established as a term everyone knew and used in the ’90s by the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Works that can be defined as prequels predate their naming, however, and surely one of the earliest examples in the movies must be this silent German horror.

    Now lost, 1915’s Der Golem was set in the present day, when “an antiques dealer (Henrik Galeen) finds a golem (Paul Wegener), a clay statue brought to life by a rabbi four centuries earlier. The dealer resurrects the golem as a servant, but the golem falls in love with the dealer’s wife. As she does not return his love, the golem commits a series of murders.” The film was written and directed by both Galeen and Wegener, but the latter was reportedly unhappy with the film due to compromises he’d made during production. So, after a sequel (also lost), Wegener tried to more directly convey the legend as he’d first heard it — hence Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam, translated as The Golem: How He Came into the World, and commonly abbreviated to just The Golem, what with the original The Golem being lost. (Got it? Good.)

    Set in 16th Century Prague (not that there’s any way to know that from the film itself), The Golem 3 tells the story of that rabbi who brought the clay statue to life in the first place. When the Roman Emperor decrees that Jews must vacate their ghetto, a rabbi builds a monster out of clay then summons a spirit to bring it to life. Meanwhile, one of the Emperor’s knights has fallen in love with the rabbi’s daughter, who is also the object of the rabbi’s assistant’s affections, and this love triangle — combined with access to control of the Golem — will eventually spell “climax”.

    Regarded as one of the first horror films, The Golem is more of a moderately-dark fantasy, or a fairytale-type myth. There are clear similarities to Frankenstein, though I don’t know if either influenced the other. However, it does feature what I presume is one of first instances of that most daft of horror tropes: running upstairs to escape the monster. It goes as well here as it ever does, i.e. not very. Said monster looks a bit comical by today’s standards. Built by the rabbi to defend the Jewish people, he immediately uses the hulking chap to chop wood and run errands — he doesn’t want a defender, he wants a servant! A terrifying beast nonetheless, it’s ultimately defeated because it picks up a little girl for a cuddle and she casually removes its magic life-giving amulet.

    Golem aside, there are some good special effects, like the ring of fire that summons a smoke-breathing demon; composer Aljoscha Zimmerman’s score is largely atmospheric; and there are some nice shots, like when the rabbi walks up to camera, does something with his hands (in what is effectively now a close-up), then walks back to the Golem at the rear of the set. These are the exception, though: it’s mostly a mix of flat long and medium shots. Oddly, the credits on the version currently available note that it adds computer graphics and animation. Presumably this is the English text that’s been digitally pasted into the film on letters, decrees, books, and the like. It also means that the judder, grain, and print damage on the English intertitles is utterly fake. How silly.

    Revered for its place in film history, The Golem has elements to commend it still, but doesn’t hold up as well as other films of the era.

    3 out of 5

    The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

    2015 #175
    Raoul Walsh | 149 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / silent (English) | U

    Douglas Fairbanks started out in comedies, where he was so popular he was quickly established as “the King of Hollywood”, which allowed him to attempt something different: an historical adventure film. The Mark of Zorro was a huge hit, in the process defining the swashbuckling genre, so he followed it with The Three Musketeers, then Robin Hood. With each new film he tried to outdo his last, and that culminated in his Arabian Nights fantasy, The Thief of Bagdad.

    Fairbanks plays the titular thief, who steals only what he can’t afford — that’s everything. Well, that’s not strictly true: he’s clearly stolen a load of cash, so he must be able to afford quite a bit. But shush, I will have my Aladdin references. No, the thief mainly steals for the thrill and the adventure, and to have whatever he wants. As he tells a fella in a mosque, “My reward is here. Paradise is a fool’s dream and Allah is a myth.” I guess you could say things like that in the ’20s without being brutally murdered.

    Anyway, it’s time for the princess of Bagdad (Julanne Johnston) to get married. Princes are called from far and wide to vie for her hand, and one of the keenest is the Prince of the Mongols (Sojin Kamiyama), who wants to add Bagdad to his empire (because only a truly evil ruler would use their army to conquer Baghdad). With goods flooding into the palace in preparation, the thief decides it would be a grand time to burgle the place. As he goes about his thievery, he comes across the princess’ bedchamber and falls in love. Or maybe just lust, because his next plan is to masquerade as a prince and steal her.

    With the aid of his comic chum (Snitz Edwards), the thief pretends to be Prince Ali, fabulous he, Ali Ababwa Ahmed of the Isles, of the Seas, and of the Seven Palaces. It’s a made-up title, of course, which alerts the Mongol Prince to the attempted deception — though as he’s “the Governor of Wah Hoo and the Island of Wak”, he’s a fine one to talk. The thief manages to make it to see the princess anyway. She instantly falls in love with him, and he realises he loves her too, so can’t just kidnap her. His whole value system is undermined! But now he’ll have to win her hand by more honest means. Well, she already loves him, so he’s halfway there; but he’s an imposter, so there’s that to sort out yet.

    The main problem with The Thief of Bagdad, for me, was that it took more-or-less 90 minutes to get to this point. That stretch isn’t without entertainment value, both deliberate, like Fairbanks’ joyful displays of athleticism, and not, like the overwrought intertitles in which characters speak like Yoda by way of Shakespeare (“Thou wilt wed the suitor who first toucheth the rose-tree” / “He touched not the rose-tree”). The beginning is where the pace really suffers: the multitudinous ways the thief goes about his larceny are individually entertaining and/or ingenious, but as an introduction that merely needs to establish “this man is a clever, successful thief”, it’s overkill. Lovers of Fairbanks’ theatrics may well disagree, but I wanted the real story to get going.

    However, once it gets past this languorous preamble, the film really comes alive for its final hour. Everyone’s off on a quest, and so we leave the epic Bagdad set for an array of other equally-impressive locales. Here’s where the film’s real adventure lies, as we whizz through multiple fantasy landscapes, the thief battling monsters as he goes, and the Mongol Prince plotting to conquer the city. This is also where most of the film’s famed special effects are to be found. So groundbreaking that they were analysed in scientific magazines at the time, they still have the power to enchant viewers the best part of a century later. Okay, sometimes you can see the wires, but that rarely undermines the magic. While a giant bat looks quite cuddly, a dragon-ish alligator-creature is fairly effective, and an underwater-spider-thing is actually rather creepy.

    Even more impressive are the sets. The work of famed Hollywood designer William Cameron Menzies, at the time Fairbanks felt Menzies was too inexperienced to work on such a big project. Undeterred, he created a collection of detailed drawings and convinced the star/producer. No surprise that worked, because Menzies’ designs are extraordinary. His complex, detailed, unreal drawings are recreated accurately on screen (examples of this can be seen in the ‘video essay’ included on the film’s Blu-ray releases, for instance), using numerous techniques to create truly fantastical scenes: ginormous sets (they covered six-and-a-half acres), built on a reflective enamel floor (which had to be constantly re-enamelled throughout the shoot) and painted in certain ways to make them appear floaty; or glass matte paintings used to seamlessly extended or enhance shots. Reportedly 20,000 feet of film — that’s hours and hours worth — were shot just to test the lighting and painting of the sets.

    Such visual extravagance could overwhelm many a movie star, but not so Fairbanks. I suppose it helped that, as the biggest male name in Hollywood movies, and with his own production companies and studios, he was in charge. Whatever the credits may say (not that there are any on the current widely-available prints), it seems Fairbanks was as much the film’s director as Raoul Walsh, who was hired because he used to run and box with the star. Consequently the film is built around Fairbanks, his skills and his interests — it’s a true star vehicle. He exudes fun, embodying that swashbuckling spirit of adventure and derring-do, and clearly having a whale of a time, which makes it all the more enjoyable for us, too.

    Nonetheless, other cast members manage to make a mark. Kamiyama is an effective villain, with his skull-like face and menacing manner, in particular when he unleashes one of my favourite threats ever at the ruler of Bagdad: “You shall add joy to the wedding festival by being boiled in oil.” Who doesn’t think deep-fried caliph is joyous? In a star-making supporting role, Anna May Wong is indeed memorable as a traitorous handmaiden. That’s more than can be said of her employer: Johnston is a bit of a non-starter as the princess, which I guess is what happens when you have to re-cast because your original choice departs part way through production. Comedian Snitz Edwards was also a mid-production replacement, drafted in to provide comic relief. It wasn’t necessary: he doesn’t add much, and Fairbanks had it covered.

    The Thief of Bagdad succeeds most as a spectacle, especially as it has various kinds to offer: Fairbanks’ stunts, Menzies’ sets, the still-remarkable effects work. It may be a bit bloated, but Fairbanks’ exuberance infects the entire production so that, when it’s at its best, it’s immensely enjoyable.

    4 out of 5

    This review is part of Swashathon! A blogathon of swashbuckling adventure. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host Movies Silently.