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One can feel daunted by the task of taking in a two hour chamber
dramedy of manners, where the focus of excitement tends to fall not on
a character's chance of heart but on their next chance of wardrobe.
It's common enough to see such a project with lots of entrances and
exits with bowing and curtsying, giggling girls and stiff men with
overgrown sideburns, a lead actress who's obviously too old, and a
night interior which the light coming from the fireplace illuminates
the room a little too evenly.
With that in mind I was consistently surprised by this version of the Jane Austen novel. The dialog-reliant tale of romantic misunderstanding and class relations has been made into a film that is faithful at least in spirit, but is refreshing in it's presentation.
Casting is key. The Bennett family, at the center of the story, is a wonderful example in itself of ensemble acting when it works. A mix of seasoned professionals and new faces (though mostly the former), there is wonderful chemistry between them.
Kiera Knightly's portrayal of Lizzie, the central character, is marvelous. Knightly, a talented and achingly gorgeous creature, has everything it takes to place herself in both the character and the time period, while remaining a real, identifiable point of reference for the character. Some of her mannerisms seem a bit modern and unusual for this type of film. When she meets a handsome male character for the first time, she sneaks a peak at his bottom. It may not sound very significant, but moments such as that, and there are many, give her character the truth, the timelessness, it needs. This skill extends to many of her fellow performers. True to the time, accessible to modern eyes, timeless. Many scenes have the breeze and honestly of a superior teen comedy.
The camera-work, by Roman Osin, is equally exemplary. The camera moves quite frequently, more than one would expect. The colors register beautifully, particularly in outdoor scenes. And perhaps the most inventive scene of all would be the one with the swing at the gate. (If you want to see what I mean, you'll just have to go and see it. I can't do it justice with a description)
Don't forget, of course, that this is still a period film, and it does still feature many of the hallmarks (some might say pitfalls) of the genre. Personally I enjoy such films even if they do consist mostly of medium shots of Emma Thompson in a corset, suffering by the window. There is the presence of Dame Judi. Nothing against her, she is a predictable presence, though a welcome enough one. The men in the film are also stock character types, but this may be something to accept. After all, it's women's film.
I would not suggest this film to a casual viewer, but I do advise seeing the film to anyone with a decent attention span and an open mind. In some small but enchanting ways, it's a fresh take on a classic story and a genre known for being predictable. Hopefully we will be seeing more from it's director, Joe Wright, very soon.
With exteriors filmed in pastoral Cunnecticut and an excellent cast of
Griffith's top actors (Florence Lawrence, Mary Pickford, Kate Bruce,
baby Gladys Egan), The Country Doctor is still an effective dramatic
work, showing a doctor's moral and emotional struggle over treating a
young patient while his own daughter lies dying at home.
The family's happiness at the beginning of the film is emphasized with very long takes of the happy threesome walking down their garden path, stopping in a field to pick flowers, smiling and stretching their arms skyward with contentment. Miz Larwence chews the scenery somewhat in these first shots, her gesturing breaking the serenity of the landscape. Once the film goes indoors and she trades her white summer gown for a sober black dress, she is much more controlled. The doctor/father, Frank Powell, also uses some dated indication techniques throughout the film. The real laurels go to the two children of the film, Gladys Egan and Adele DeGarde, who both play their sick-little-girl roles superbly, with subtle, realistic emotion.
There is especially lovely cinematography and scenery in this film. Billy Bitzer's opening and closing panoramic shots of the valley are stunning. Well worth seeing for many reasons, and definitely accessible to modern viewers.
I saw two trailers for this film, both of them fascinating documents,
restored to near-mint condition by the Library of Congress (their
present home). The first was black and white, with a lot of attention
payed to Fay Lanphier, the hazel-eyed, honey-blond beauty who had just
be crowned Miss America 1925. A close-up of her is followed by a shot
of Esther Ralston, but I initially thought it was another shot of her
(they look so much alike). Briefly seen is a comedic bit where Louise
Brooks is showing a man some undesired romantic interest.
The second trailer starts with giving the measurements of Venus di Milo, and asking the female half of the audience if they measure up. This trailer is tinted violet and contains some technicolor footage, two shots exactly, which apparently show the staging of 'tableaux vivants' (I should mention that W.T. Benda's only screen role appears to have made it down through the ages in one of these shots). There is a shot of a teary-eyed Lanphier, a repeated shot of Ralston flexing her arms in a bathing suit, and what appears to be the second half of the scene between Brooks and the man (it has to be Lawrence Gray). In this shot, he is trying to keep Brooks' presence in the room a secret from Edna Mae Oliver.
The presence of seventy-five beautiful women AND the latest fashions from Paris are highly stressed in both advertisements. Interestingly, nobody remembers Fay Lanphier today, but once Brooks flashes across the screen, the entire theater sounded with applause. One thing that struck me about Lanphier: not only is she beautiful (and photogenic) she seems to have been a decent actress as well. What went wrong? Unless the rest of the film surfaces, we are likely never to know.
Production values are great. Always happy to see some two-strip Technicolor, and the set- ups they exposed it too in 1926 were great. Maybe one day we'll see the whole thing, the way it was meant to be seen.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
An illogical and fairly routine B-picture, The Jungle Princess is know
(if at all) for giving Dorothy Lamour her first big break. It lead to
that image everybody has of her in a snug sarong, and it led to superb
films like The Hurricane. It's not surprising; Dorothy is exquisitely
beautiful, even if the film she in is silly and stupid.
Jungle Princess is not impossible to enjoyable, unless you really, true crave something deep and meaningful. This movie has all the formulaic plot devices neatly assembled, and has all the usual lapses in logic. Like, how did Dorothy, raised by wild animals in the heart of the jungle, manage to look like she was cranked through Busby Berkely's beauty machine, with her perfect hair and make-up and clean, neat sarong that she obviously didn't sew for herself.
From what I remember, Ulah (Miss Lamour) is raised by the jungle creatures since girlhood, and has become part of Malasian folk lure long enough for a stodgy British hunter to run into her. The two of them fall in love and he sort of teaches her English. He also apparently shows her, off screen, how western boys and girls make love. Her pronunciation is a little off, so when she calls him by name (Chris) she yells 'Kis, Kis' and it sounds more like she's demanding one yet again from him. Her childlike mentality vanishes when she is mocked by her rival for Chris' affections, and when her beloved tiger is nearly killed by the natives. A climactic raid on the village by over-sized monkeys (they appear to be attacking an elaborate model of the village) ensures a happy and satisfying ending (it also really must be seen to be believed).
The audience I saw it with was interesting. A woman there, probably in her late sixties, mentioned to one of her fellow theater goers (I was listening in) that this was the first movie she remembered seeing. She still enjoyed it, although she probably spotted more flaws with the picture than a little girl would in 1946. That instance gave me, personally, a slightly enhanced appreciation of the movie. I liked the film itself although for for both artistic and entertainment value, one would be better off seeking out Lamour's next and much better south seas picture, a truly great film, The Hurricane. Viewing this film requires only that you leave your well-guarded sense of logic at the theater door.
The premise of the original Ladykillers, the 1955 British film, was a
clever one, but it had been made into such and ungodly dull and awkward
film that it was practically begging to be re-envisioned. In an age
where it seems like Hollywood is producing nothing but remakes, this
one was handed, for once, to a pair who could really do it justice.
Joel and Ethan Cohen, the writer-director pair who have made several masterpieces over the past twenty years, have produced a film that at least looks and feels commercially viable. It has humor, characters and visuals that everyone can appreciate. It moves at a steady pace, the snappy dialog carried swiftly along by an outstanding soundtrack, and is aided in no small part by Dennis Gassner's excellent production design, and by Roger Deakons' gorgeous and vivid camera-work.
The sensibility that the Cohen Brothers bring to each of their films is definitely a unique one. Below the humor on the surface, there is something more sinister (and infinitely more humorous) at work. Take for instance the character of Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), a nice old black lady, a widow with a cat, and her husband's portrait above the mantle. She writes a check every month to a nice bible school named Bob Jones University, a university that has a history of discrimination against blacks. Or take the 'fine colored by' Gawain (Marlon Wayans) who doesn't know anything about the Freedom Riders and, when annoyed by a veteran of the civil rights movement, says 'just tell me when they gonna leave!' Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons) reminds him that it was so people like him could vote, Gawain says he doesn't vote and tells him to where to stick it.
By the way, the casino where Gawain works (the target for our 'merry band of miscreants') is staffed entirely by black workers, who are apparently cheaper to hire in the south than whites. When Gawain is laid off, he threatens to sue for punitive damages. His white boss reminds him that 'everyone on the custodial staff is black. Your replacement is gonna be black. His replacement not doubt will be BLACK!'
Rather than just accepting this as the norm, the Cohens find humor and intrigue in these situations, and the astute viewer will notice this. Looking past the surface of this movie, which one might call 'zany' or 'farcical', there's some interesting social comment being made about the US and the south.
As for the other components of the movie, they are all well assembled. Tom Hanks is great as Professor Dorr. Perfect (off-type) casting has lead to one of the best performances of the year. Hanks is having great fun with this role. The other parts are played just as well. Simmons is great as the self-assured, self-righteous Mr. Pancake, Ryan Hurst is adorable as the thick-headed Lump, and Tsi Ma makes a memorable impression as the silent General. Marlon Wayans is kept in check for once, and demonstrates that he can be tolerated, and actually be very funny, when directed by somebody other than himself or his brothers. As for Irma Hall, she fits her role like a glove. Also very memorable is Stephen Root as the casino boss. The photography is particularly gorgeous and inventive for a comedy; you can never go wrong with Roger Deakins. Despite not being the best film the Cohen brothers have done, this is an excellent and very interesting comedy that I recommend highly.
Eisenstein's epic film of the October revolution is an outstanding and underrated film. The scale on which it was produced is very impressive, at times staggering. It is nearly a hundred times superior to the better-known Battleship Potemkin, and it is a shame it is that rickety film that is shown in all film classes and not this one. No, it is really a crime. The editing techniques that Eisenstein was hinting at in Strike, and exploring in Potemkin, are skillfully mastered with this picture. His choice of actors, with their grotesque (and yet beautiful) faces and distinctive mannerisms. If anyone was good at finding an average and yet not-so-average 'type' of person to focus a camera on, and to tremendous effect, it surely was he. So forget that movie with the ship and the stairs and the baby carriage. This is, by far, not only a better film, it was probably his best.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Cecil B. deMille's 1922 parlor-to-prison tearjerker Manslaughter finds
the lovely Leatrice Joy as a good-at-heart but decadent young lady with
more money than she knows what to do with. Her recklessness leads to
imprisonment, which in turn leads to her regeneration. Thomas Meighan
is the crusading district attorney who has made it his personal crusade
to bring out the goodness and wholesomeness in Lydia (Joy) but he gets
sidetracked by alcohol and once she is released, it is up to her to
If the plot doesn't sound too bad, you'll be floored by the woeful presentation. The quality of deMille's direction is very low, and he does not show any particular skill that is unique to him. The photography is standard and flat, and the editing is hardly more dynamic. One could easily classify it as a fashion show and be pretty correct. DeMille gets to dress Miss Joy up in so many different types of clothes (evening gowns, golfing costumes, motoring costumes, piles of furs) that it's subtitle could be 'Fashions of 1922'
One thing more disappointing than the photography or editing or the direction is the acting, which is mostly flat and wooden. When it is not, it is merely routine silent gesturing, rolling eye balls, twitching eye brows and deliberate pointing and arm movements. What would have been enlivened for modern viewers by mugging and scene chewing of some of the worst silent films, is here merely dull to watch. The only member of the cast who succeeds in any form of excellence is Lois Wilson, who is not only beautiful but is able to play her role naturally. She is convincing and endearing in tearful close-ups, as long as you don't read the moralizing title card that follows once she opens her mouth to speak. Like I said, everybody else is droningly routine, Joy, Meighan, even Julia Faye. Her performance here makes a good argument for why she never attained true stardom.
The worst and most amusing part of this movie is the heavy moralistic tone that carries through all of it. Meighan's character has plenty of intertitles where he drones on about how the youth of America is declining in it's moral stance, and going right back to the decadence of Rome. (insert absurd flashback) This movie's moralizing has been described as Victorian, but it's further than that. It has so little bearing in reality that I have a feeling audiences at that time didn't take it any more seriously than modern viewers could.
This movie is exactly what the unknowing tend to think of as a 'typical' silent movie, with it's archaic moral structure, wooden acting and bad direction. DeMille shows that he could be a terrible director, with no sense of pacing, camera placement, or skill in handling either script or actors. I can't imagine anybody in their right mind taking it seriously. Boring, slow and idiotic, I recommend it to hardcore silent movie dorks like myself only.
First of all, I am not sure if this is the right movie. But, I will say
that the title presented here is an appropriate one, and that the
credited actors (Vernon Dent and Violet Joy) are correct. The film I
saw, which I believe this one is, had a title along the lines of
'Sleeping Sickness.' I have looked that title up and the only film on
the IMDb that surfaces is not this one.
In the story of the film I saw, which I believe this one is, Vernon has a hen that will lay as many eggs as he wants when he blows a whistle. There is a scene where he has an attractive young lady (who looks a lot like Duane Thompson) hold the hen in her apron and when he blows his whistle and retrieves the hen, her apron has gained a dozen or so eggs.
Vernon likes likes a girl, Violet Joy, but so does a city-slicker (the intertitle credits Walter Wills) who decides to play a trick on Vernon. He sabotages Vernon's breakfast with an elixir that will make him sleepwalk. This will undoubtedly hinder Vernon's plans to will the $500 prize of the up-and-coming hen-laying contest.
At less than ten minutes in duration, maybe even less than eight, this is a rather disappointingly short film. At the same time, some comic opportunities are wasted (the trip to the county fair results in no prat falls). Still it is a charming and nostalgia-inspiring piece of work which I hope will eventually be made more widely available. And despite it's shortcomings, Vernon Dent seems like a more than able comedian. A portly, baby-faced fellow who resembles Roscoe Arbuckle, he has a great ability for expression and does his stunts well. It is a shame he is overlooked today.
From one angle, a line of soldiers are shown walking up the gangplank. In the foreground one can make out well wishers, smartly dressed and fully aware of the camera; one man takes off his hat as if to greet us, a woman keeps looking over her shoulder, and a few people pass barely a foot from the lens staring directly into it. The soldiers are lit very brightly, too brightly, and they are too far away to see any details. The civilian observers in the foreground (and the cameraman) are presumably standing under a platform of some kind. They are lit far very darkly. The unevenness of the exposure and the blurriness of the current version of this movie are disappointing. One can spot some neat hats on the women, but this movie is not worth much effort seeking out.
This early Douglas Fairbanks comedy (one of the first), in which he
plays a perpetually exuberant crusader for laughing, makes for
entertaining viewing. An audience unaccustomed to the period may not
get most of the jokes, which include references to popular dances and
sayings that passed out of favor with Theda Bara, but it is still
funny, endearing and heart-warming.
The best thing the movie has going for it is Doug, as is often the case. Here he is the son of wealth who is generous with poor people. He leaves his comfortable home to live in a homeless shelter where he raises the spirits of it's down-trodden inhabitants. He is then commissioned to get a wealthy grouch named Johnathan Pepper (George Fawcett) to eat his meals and laugh. (No prises for anyone who foresees a title mentioning Pepper's lack of Pep!)
'Habit of Happiness' is a fascinating record of it's time, and in more ways than one. For starters, the interiors, gowns, cars, props will be of interest to scholars of history. (Some of the rich characters look as though they just stepped off the Jenkin's ballroom set of Griffith's Intolerance) In the scenes involving beggars, some are played by character actors (I recognized some, though I don't know their names), but most were played by actual homeless persons. The generous close-ups of their faces (apparently photographed by Victor Fleming!) are priceless documents in themselves. Fairbanks also seems to be obsessed with happiness. Not just in this film, but in every single one he made. I have it on good authority, though, that he wrote a book during World War I on ways to be happy. His characters were incessantly upbeat, and his other early films were focused almost maniacally on merriment. (The best of which was undoubtedly 'When the Clowds Roll By')
I saw a print which was quite ragged and apparently incomplete. Some shots were out of order. Many shots were clearly absent. Some scenes play through splendidly, which seems to indicate that the original release had very good cutting. Many titles are also apparently missing, which hinders the viewing, as character motivations are lacking in order to make the climax both satisfying and fully comprehensible. The original prints were clearly of excellent quality as well, but the spoiled, fading dupe that survives leaves a lot to be desired.
Still, one is at least impressed by the quality of the production. Fairbanks is very memorable, much chubbier though than when he appeared as D'Artanion or Robin Hood. Any film is valuable as a record of it's time, but as entertainment, Habit of Happiness still delivers.
A note on the credits: The version I saw contained opening credits that were clearly not the originals. They are probably incorrect, but they assigned the role of director to John Emmerson. Fairbanks apparently wrote the story (he probably did have something to do with it) and Anita Loos is also supposed to have written the titles (they do resemble her style). D.W. Griffith was apparently the production supervisor, and Intolerance alumnus Margery Wilson (Brown Eyes) supposedly was among the cast. She may have been a party guest in the opening scenes, but I did not recognize her.
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