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Two (1965 TV Short)
About as good a short film as you're ever likely to see
14 March 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Satyajit Ray's "Two: A Film Fable" was commissioned for U.S. Public Television to satisfy Americans' growing interest in India in the mid- 1960s. (The same producers also commissioned a short documentary on Ravi Shankar, for example.) Apparently, Ray was asked to make his film accessible to a wide English-speaking audience. Instead of filming in English, however, Ray opted to film it without dialog. Music and sound effects are still present, but otherwise it plays like a silent movie, which was probably Ray's intention.

As the other reviewer indicates, it's a fairly simple story: a rich boy and a poor boy have a competition to see who has the better toys. But there's actually quite a lot going on. The rich boy lives in isolation, literally looking down on the poor from his high, barred bedroom window. All of his toys are Western, too: a Mickey Mouse hat, a wind-up robot, etc. By contrast, all the poor boy's toys are indigenous, and the wide-open space and freedom he enjoys outside suggest that Ray's sympathies lie with him (even though the film begins from the rich boy's point of view). As the subtitle "a film fable" indicates, there are additional layers of allegorical meaning. Ray seems to be criticizing the isolated and increasingly westernized lifestyle of India's elite upper-classes and celebrating the indomitable spirit of the common people. This film also contains one of the most powerful examples of a zoom I've ever seen, when the rich boy commits a small act of violence against the poor boy. There's no question that Ray was taking this assignment seriously, and his commitment to the project shows. It may lack the emotional resonance of Ray's feature films, and it may not reach the giddy experimental heights of the most famous short films. But it's incredibly satisfying.

As of March 2013, this film is still available on You Tube. There seems to be some confusion about its length: whether it's 10 or 15 minutes long. The version on You Tube runs just over 12 minutes and appears to be complete. Perhaps the confusion results from whether you're seeing it with its credits intact and/or whether you're seeing it in NTSC or PAL (which would result in a roughly one-minute time difference due to PAL's 4% speed-up)? Either way, it's well worth the time.
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Beautiful but not always satisfying documentary
7 March 2013
Gabriel Figueroa is widely regarded as one of the greatest cinematographers to work in black and white. He was also one of the first Mexican technicians to attract the attention of filmmakers from Hollywood and beyond, yet Figueroa never abandoned Mexico or the Mexican film industry. While this decision may have limited his international profile, it meant that he became an extremely powerful figure in his own national cinema -- a status that few other cinematographers have been able equal. In fact, apart from Diego Rivera, Figueroa may have exerted more influence over the image we have of 20th-century Mexico than just about any other artist. Back in 1994, for instance, SOMOS magazine compiled a list of the 100 greatest Mexican films, and it's impressive to note just how many entries on that list Figueroa photographed.

This documentary pays tribute to Figueroa's legacy, but it doesn't do so in a typical way. Basically, the documentary alternate between thematic montages of Figueroa's work and interviews with some of the greatest living cinematographers: Vittorio Storaro, Christopher Doyle, Haskell Wexler, Raoul Coutard, etc. While it's very interesting to hear them comment on Figueroa's legacy, the documentary is less successful when it tries to follow some of the digressions they introduce. For example, several of them talk about the future of cinematography in our digital era. This, too, is interesting, but it seems out of place here. And at 96 minutes or so, the documentary seems a bit long and repetitive. Frankly, I'd have preferred a few interludes with more traditional material. We don't hear much about Figueroa's background or about his methods. Surely, some of the people who worked with Figueroa in the 1970s and 1980s are still alive. It would be interesting to hear from them. It would also be interesting to hear more about Figueroa's working relationships. There's a section dedicated to his seven films with Luis Bunuel, which is appropriate, but Figueroa also worked with Eisenstein, Ford, and Huston. And then there's Emilio "El Indio" Fernandez, with whom Figueroa collaborated around two dozen times. Fernandez is almost as celebrated in Mexico as Bunuel is, yet he barely gets a mention here.

When the documentary is showcasing Figueroa's work, however, it's extraordinary. I once had the pleasure of seeing "Macario" projected in 35 mm, and Figueroa's cinematography has a tendency to wash over you. At its best, this documentary replicates that experience, so I highly recommend checking it out in a theater if you can. (Michael Nyman's accompanying score is also effective at these moments.)
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Dark Blood (2012)
Deeply compromised by still compelling
7 March 2013
Warning: Spoilers
American film history is littered with compromised films by major directors. Von Stroheim's "Greed," Welles' "Magnificent Ambersons," Huston's "Red Badge of Courage," and Peckinpah's "Major Dundee" spring immediately to mind. I'm not sure that George Sluizer belongs among that exalted company -- though his original version of "The Vanishing" is definitely a masterpiece of some kind -- but "Dark Blood" is similar to those other films in that its beauty and emotional power still shine through despite its being compromised by external factors. In this case, instead of facing studio interference, "Dark Blood" was struck by the death of one its three principles, River Phoenix. According to Sluizer, who attended its U.S. premiere at the Miami Film Festival, all location shooting had been completed, and roughly 70-75% of the script had been filmed. Nevertheless, as Sluizer puts it in his opening narration, "Dark Blood" remains a three-legged chair: able to stand upright on its own, but obviously incomplete.

I don't want to give too much of the plot away. As anyone who has experienced the original "Vanishing" knows, the less you know about a Sluizer film going in, the better off you are. However, it is clear that Phoenix's sudden death left gaping holes in the narrative. Sluizer has attempted to fill these holes with voice-over narration, and it works surprisingly well. As Sluizer put it in the Q&A following the screening, however, there is still a slight imbalance in the relationships among the three leads. In my opinion, this imbalance is most notable in the relationship between Boy (Phoenix) and Buffy (Judy Davis). Crucially, Buffy and, by extension, the audience is meant to be simultaneously unsettled and attracted by Boy's strangeness. Unfortunately, several key scenes between these two characters were left incomplete, so Boy's vulnerability does not come through as clearly as it should. To my mind, he doesn't always come across as sympathetically as he should.

The three lead performances are all very strong, and I found the ending particularly powerful. Sluizer wisely avoids making the ending either pat or pointlessly ironic; it emerges logically from what comes before. Of course, it's possible that some the ending's power comes by way of hindsight. Like the other compromised films I mentioned above, "Dark Blood" is practically impossible to evaluate purely on its own terms. Viewers will probably always be aware of its complicated and tragic history. Still, the film rests on the three main characters and their interactions with one another, and at this level, "Dark Blood" is always tense and human. That's why the ending pays off so much for me.

So by all means, seek this film out if you get the chance. Its recent "completion" by Sluizer was obviously a labor of love. "Dark Blood" probably won't replace "The Vanishing" in anyone's mind as the most important part of Sluizer's legacy, but it's a worthy addition to his filmography -- as well as to River Phoenix's. I just hope that whatever is preventing this film from being more widely released can be resolved. "Dark Blood" deserves to be seen.
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Mr. Thank You (1936)
Deceptively simple: a modest masterpiece
30 April 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Like Sadao Yamanaka and Mikio Naruse, Hiroshi Shimizu is one of the major Japanese directors whose work has been overshadowed in the West by the popularity of Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Kurosawa, even though his films are every bit as good as theirs. Whereas Naruse's reputation has benefited in recent years from several DVD releases in the U.S. and U.K., however, Shimizu's films are still relatively hard to track down. The release of four of his films by Criterion's Eclipse label helps, but at least four more films have already been released on DVD in Japan and deserve distribution in the West.

"Mr. Thank-You," as this film is known in the West, is a perfect introduction to Shimizu's work. Like Ozu's films, it is bittersweet in tone, though with perhaps a little more emphasis placed on humor than on pathos. But Shimizu's camera is far more mobile than Ozu's, so stylistically, it has a bit more in common with Naruse. The other two reviewers have already summarized what little plot there is: the film is basically a "road" movie, in which an assortment of middle-class and working-class characters travel from a rural community to Tokyo. As the film progresses, each character's personality reveals itself, and a small, short-lived sense of community develops. Whether or not that sense of community will continue after the film ends (due to a budding romance between the bus driver and a young female passenger who is being sold into prostitution because of family debt) is pretty much the only source of suspense or plot. Nevertheless, as a slice of life, "Mr. Thank-You" is nothing short of magnificent. Shimizu's humanism is evident in every frame of the film, with each character, including the bit parts, emerging as three-dimensional people with very real concerns and aspirations. This is a film you watch for the character development and for the loving treatment the director, writer, and actors give them.

As a side-note, Shimizu's importance as a voice of dissent during Japan's militarization and as a link between pre- and post-war Japanese cinema is apparent in the short interlude between the bus driver and a female laborer he offers to give a free lift. The female laborer is Korean, and Koreans were perhaps the most marginalized people in 1930s Japan -- their country having been colonized by Japan and their people reduced to ill-paid, migratory labor. Giving such sweet and tender treatment to this character's plight gives some indication of Shimizu's true feelings toward Japan's imperial expansion and reveals that there's a lot more going on in this film than might first seem.
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Another Val Guest winner
29 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
I firmly believe that, if Val Guest had been born in the United States, his films would be better known and more widely celebrated than they currently are. His maverick career path and idiosyncratic style align him with American counterparts, like Nick Ray and Sam Fuller, who become darlings of the auteur-driven critics of the 1960s and 70s. (As it was, American critics typically did not take the British film industry very seriously, except for Hitchcock, Lean, and other directors who "went international," until American film directors like Martin Scorsese brought folks like Michael Powell to the critics' attention.) In particular, Guest's career path (journalist to writer to director), occasionally brutal stories, and downright weird directorial choices remind me a great deal of Fuller. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Guest screened "Steel Helmet" before shooting "Yesterday's Enemy," for instance. Today, Guest is probably best known among aficionados of Hammer Studios, where Guest worked regularly from the mid-1950s until the early-1970s, or among lovers of such campy movies as "Casino Royale" and "Expresso Bongo."

"Yesterday's Enemy" was made for Hammer and came in the middle of what I think was Guest's best years, 1955-63. Virtually every film he made during that period is excellent, and "Yesterday's Enemy" is one of the best. As other reviewers have pointed out, it's a tough World War II film set in Burma and (in a daring move for the time) without any musical soundtrack. Fans of British cinema are in for a treat because of a cast of familiar faces: Stanley Baker, Leo McKern, Guy Rolfe, etc. Baker is especially good as the single-minded officer who's willing to sacrifice ANYBODY'S life to achieve his objectives, but it's Guest's film all the way. Although most of the film was clearly shot inside a studio, Guest uses this to his advantage to capture the claustrophobia and disorientation of jungle fighting. There are also some wonderful long tracking-shots during the action sequences that are extremely impressive in wide-screen.

One of the other reviewers has suggested that this film illustrates the brutality of the Japanese and justifies the use of the atomic bomb on them. I'm not going to comment on the vaguely racist implications of his review, but (s)he clearly misunderstood the movie. In fact, Guest takes pains to demonstrate just how much Baker and his Japanese counterpart have in common; their decisions mirror each other, and the Burmese woman explicitly equates the British and Japanese. In other words, "Yesterday's Enemy" is ultimately an anti-war film, not an anti-Japanese diatribe. Everyone is brutalized by war.

The only negative thing I can say about this movie is the one gripe that I always have with Guest's dramatic films: the intensity of the interpersonal conflicts among his various characters. In a lot of his films, every single character seems to be going through his/her own existential crisis at the same time and lets off steam by verbally attacking everyone in sight, and this sometimes comes across as melodramatic. In "Yesterday's Enemy," for instance, it's hard to believe that this army unit is still capable of functioning if the officers are constantly at each other's throats. But this was clearly Guest's decision, so it's a minor quibble.
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Bunuel gets (explicitly) political
5 August 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Based on the difficulty I had tracking this down and the fact that there's only one other review, this must be one of Bunuel's rarest and hardest-to-see movies. It belongs to a group of three French-Mexican co-productions that Bunuel made in the late-1950s just before his return to Europe (with "Viridiana") but after a few earlier Mexican films ("El" and "Rehersal for a Crime") had reached appreciative audiences in France. Like a lot of Bunuel's (almost criminally underavailable and under-appreciated) Mexican-era works, "Fever Rises in El Pao" is basically "realistic" as opposed to "surrealistic." There is a brief sequence around the middle of the film when Maria Felix and Jean Servais engage in a sadomasochistic relationship that is pure Bunuel, but for the most part, this one is pretty low-key and straightforward.

"Fever" is actually one of Bunuel's plottier movies. It's set on Ojeda, an island under the control of a fictional French-speaking banana republic. In the opening sequence, a detached narrator (another device typical of Bunuel's Mexican period) informs of Ojeada's "facts": its capitol is El Pao, its major resources are bananas and fish, etc. But the island's real importance is its prison labor camp (modeled on Devil's Island perhaps?), where political prisoners are sent. When the governor of the island is assassinated, the governorship itself becomes a pawn in two different but intertwined games: the struggle for power on the mainland between the president and his brother and the rivalry for the hand of the former governor's widow (Maria Felix) between the new governor (Jean Servais) and the former governor's secretary (Gerard Philipe). The secretary is the film's nominal hero -- an idealist who thinks he can change political conditions from within but who is increasingly corrupted out of sheer necessity for survival. Thus "Fever" also becomes a kind of morality tale. At any rate, it's surely the most politically explicit movie Bunuel ever made (though perhaps it doesn't have the resonance of "Diary of a Chambermaid").

If you like and know what to expect from Bunuel's Mexican period, then you'll more than likely find this a rewarding film. It's not a masterpiece, like "Los Olvidados" or "El" or even "Ascent to Heaven," but it compares favorably with "Susana," "El Bruto," and "Nazarin." (It's certainly stronger and more interesting than "Gran Casino" and "A Woman without Love.") Its greatest strengths are probably Gabriel Figueroa's cinematography and Jean Servais' performance, which has some nice touches (like an affection for a parakeet and a cruel streak made more horrific by its casualness). I also liked the music score, which seems a bit more carefully integrated into the film than was usual for Bunuel. (Like John Ford, Bunuel apparently didn't care much non-diegetic music in his movies.)
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Michael Powell at his earliest; or how to shoot a light British comedy like it's Fritz Lang's "M"
18 September 2007
Warning: Spoilers
This innocuous little comedy concerns a ne'er-do-well salesman, played by Ian Hunter, who decides to stop living hand-to-mouth on commission work and get a permanent job when he rescues a 10-year-old orphan. While trying to impress a woman named Cynthia, who happens to be the daughter of petrol (gas) station magnate, he stumbles upon an idea that would double the profits of petrol stations by transforming them into one-stop shopping plazas. After being rebuffed by the woman's father, he takes his idea to a rival company, which hires him, puts his plan into action, and begins running the competition out of business. The comedy arises from the fact that Hunter never knows that Cynthia is the daughter of his business rival and hires her as his own secretary.

It's typical B-film fodder, but entertaining enough to while away an hour before bedtime or a rainy Saturday afternoon. The real attraction for most film buffs is that it happened to be director by the great Michael Powell (of "Red Shoes"/"Black Narcissus" fame). This was very early on in Powell's career; between 1931 and 1936, Powell directed two dozen "quota quickies" -- cheap films produced by Hollywood studios in Britain in order to get around British quota laws that required UK cinemas to show one British-produced movie for every Hollywood movie they imported. Later in life, Powell was largely dismissive of these films, claiming that he didn't really come into his own until his 1937 independent production "The Edge of the World." However, "Something Always Happens" reveals that Powell was already a director of distinction, with an eye for impressive shots.

In fact, more than anything else, "Something Always Happens" also reveals the extent to which Powell had already been influenced by German Expressionist cinema. In particular, it seems heavily indebted to Fritz Lang's "M," which was released only three years earlier. For one thing, Powell employs the associative audio edits that made "M"'s sound design so innovative. Scenes in "Something Always Happens" shift by linking what one character says in one location to what another character is saying in another location. (In Powell's movie, this technique is for comic effect, though.) Also, the opening shots of "Something Always Happens," like the opening shots of "M," are dominated by an overhead crane master-shot of children playing in the street. Considering that Powell, like Hitchcock, was a fan of inter-war German film-making, these points of comparison can't be accidental.

Unfortunately, even Powell can't make this movie entirely coherent. Its best moments occur early on, when Hunter's character and the 10-year-old orphan he rescues meet and become friends. In fact, these early scenes almost seem to be setting up an entirely different movie. Once Hunter's character meets Cynthia, the movie suddenly shifts focus and gradually settles into formulaicism. It's still fun, but you get the sense that Powell himself was growing rather bored with the plot after the much more interesting first third. If you want to see Powell more fully engaged with the material he was assigned during his early years as a director, you should watch "Crown Vs. Stevens" instead. (There are some ideas in that movie that Hitchcock seems to have lifted for "Suspicion" and "Shadow of a Doubt.")
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Overlooked gem, with a startlingly good child performance
2 August 2007
I must confess I'm a little surprised by the lackluster rating of 5.1 that this film currently has on IMDb, because it's exactly the kind of movie that deserves reevaluation. Granted, it's no masterpiece. The plot isn't particularly innovative, and the dialog is clunky at times. Perhaps most disturbing of all, since director Clive Donner had been a top editor during the preceding decade, the pacing is too slow. (This kind of movie shouldn't run longer than 85 or 90 minutes.) But it's thoughtful and entertaining. And most importantly, it's an excellent example of the transition that the British film industry was undergoing in the late-1950s. On one hand, its characters are working-class types who feel entrapped by their environment, much like the "Kitchen Sink" dramas that began appearing the following year. Likewise, Donner's interest in youth culture and on-location photography mirrors that of the Free Cinema directors. On the other hand, the moral compass of "The Secret Place" is aligned with the moderate views of Ealing, and poor Belinda Lee is saddled with outdated lines like "you really *must* stop" and "I'd be ever so grateful." (By the way, the gorgeous Lee acquits herself nicely in this rare dramatic role. She was used rather poorly by the Rank Organization.)

What I especially like about "The Secret Place" is its blending of genres. At its most basic level, it's a heist picture. The plot centers around a daring diamond robbery. The second half of the film, however, runs more along the lines of a boys' adventure tale, with young Freddie trying to foil the gang's plans -- not unlike Ealing's "Hue and Cry" (though with far less comedy). Yet the movie also presents us with a vivid and dramatic portrayal of a bombed-out London neighborhood and the interconnected lives of its inhabitants -- much like "It Always Rains on Sunday" and "London Belongs to Me." At heart, this film wants to say something about the bleakness of war-scarred London and the need its younger inhabitants have of escape to a better life. A brief interlude that occurs when Molly and Gerry visit a modern flat they hope to buy with their share of the loot provides subtle but beautiful motivation for their actions.

As the other reviewer points out, most viewers will be interested to see a very young David McCallum in one of his earliest roles, and as I've already mentioned, this movie offers a rare glimpse of Belinda Lee tackling a role that wasn't beneath her. But the real eye-opener is Michael Brooke's superb performance as the adolescent Freddie, whose crush on Molly is exploited cruelly by the gang. Donner's skill with young actors is on full display here: Brooke's depiction of pubescent infatuation with a (slightly) older woman and the heartbreak and loss of innocence that that sort of infatuation can result in is spot-on. Freddie is both precocious and naive -- a combination that's extraordinarily difficult to recreate. It really is one of the best and most overlooked child performances of the decade. It's a shame that Brooke didn't have much of a career afterward. (By the way, IMDb's entry for Brooke apparently confuses him with a much older actor with the same name. Surely, he wasn't born in 1904! However, I know that I've glimpsed him in a couple of other British films from the same period -- "The Mudlark" and "The Long Arm," most notably.)

So if you get a chance to watch this on TV, it's worth your while. (It seems to come on TCM once every year or so.)
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A few additional comments
16 July 2007
Thanks to Planktonrules for the thoughtful analysis/appreciation. However, there are just a few comments I'd like to add to his review.

"The Man in the Sky" (a.k.a. "Decision Against Time") is a fairly representative example of the kinds of dramas that Ealing produced in addition to their better-known comedies. In fact, out of the 96 feature-length films that Ealing released between 1938 and 1959, only about 15 to 20 were comedies, depending on what you count. The other 80% was made up of virtually every kind of movie that was being made in Britain at the time: war pictures, crime thrillers, period pieces, and even a couple of literary adaptations, musicals, and horror films. So it's not really correct to claim that "most" of Ealing's output was comedy -- though the comedies have come to overshadow everything else that Ealing did.

Since this movie is representative of Ealing's dramatic style, it's a good place to start if you only know the comedies. Like "The Cruel Sea" (an Ealing war film with Jack Hawkins), this one is primarily about the human stories that lie at the heart of tragedies or potential tragedies. We first see Hawkins' character as a family man facing typical problems, like being unable to purchase a new home, before we see him in the crisis situation that dominates the film. So like many of Ealing's dramas, this one is primarily about how an ordinary man meets an extraordinary situation. In many ways, Hawkins' character is not unlike one of Hemingway's "code" heroes. In order to succeed, he must maintain self-control and absolute professionalism. It's easy to dismiss films like this as uncritical celebrations of the stereotypically British "stiff upper lip." But in fact, the film is really about how its characters handle emotions that cannot be talked about because those emotions are conflicting and difficult to understand anyway. When the resolution comes, it is played out in silence -- a daring choice on the part of director Charles Crichton, but one that results in greater profundity than you might expect.

Finally, it's worth noting that this was the first movie that Ealing produced/released after it sold and left its home studio. In 1956, producer Michael Balcon was forced to negotiate a new distribution deal. (The British film industry was going through one of its frequent crises.) As a result, Balcon moved his production unit to MGM's British base, where Balcon had worked briefly in the mid-1930s before moving on to Ealing. After this film, Ealing would make only six more before closing down for good in 1959, thus ending one of the most brilliant chapters in British film history. Movies like "Man in the Sky," which examines reticence and self-control, just weren't what younger British audiences wanted to see, and the age of James Bond, the Beatles, and the "angry young men" was just around the corner.
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Amusing one-reeler shows evolution of silent comedy
10 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
This one-reel film is yet another example of Max Linder's importance to the development of silent screen comedy. Linder is sadly neglected today, but he was probably the world's first international movie star, certainly the first comic genius of the silver screen, and a major influence on Chaplin, Keaton, the Marx Brothers, and other later comedians. More than anyone else, Linder was responsible for refining slapstick into graceful and surprising athleticism and for coming up with a recurring comic persona (like Chaplin's little tramp or W.C. Fields' boozing misanthrope). Linder's comic persona was "Max," a wealthy and rather dissipated young man.

Here, Linder's character oversleeps and must rush to make a social appointment with his fiancé. (It's never clear, but I assume it's an engagement party. In many of Linder's comedies, he has a falling out with his fiancé or her family shortly before their scheduled wedding.) In his rush, Max inadvertently catches his shoes on fire (!) and buys a pair of comically over-sized boots from a man he passes in the street. When he finally arrives at the party, his fiancé and her family are aghast at Max's appearance, but Max pretends that over-sized boots are the new fad among the social elite. He slips out and places the boots under the dress of nearby woman so that the toes stick out. His fiancé's father sees the boots and decides that they are a new fad. He sends a servant to buy dozens of similar boots, and the film ends with everyone at the party dancing around in the over-sized boots.

The story may not sound terribly inventive or funny today, but it's actually one of the better short comedies that Linder made during the 1910's -- at least that I've seen. Unlike most of the comedies he made in the preceding few years, this one is more than just one long joke. There are several funny moments: Max's feet catching on fire, his entrance into the party with the over-sized boots, the way he convinces his fiancé's father that an older woman is wearing similar shoes, and the final image of everyone trying to dance in such shoes.

Ultimately, however, the real value of this movie is how it demonstrates Linder's influence on later comedians and the development of silent comedy. Max's over-sized shoes echo Chaplin's famous walk as the little tramp, and many comedians (including Chaplin) have scenes where they try to convince others that their hands or feet are the hands or feet of someone else. Also, the whole film plays out like a one-reel segment of a much longer comedy. No doubt this approach helped convince later comedians that feature-length comedies should be a series of loosely connected set-pieces.

This short film is available on the "Laugh with Max Linder" DVD released by Image. There are three other Linder shorts as well as his best-known feature film, "Seven Years Bad Luck," a newsreel, and an excerpt from Linder's otherwise lost feature, "Be My Wife" (which based on the excerpt may well have been Linder's masterpiece).
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Epstein's penultimate film is a small work of art
16 April 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Jean Epstein was one of the major figures of the avant-garde movement in French cinema; he even helped train Luis Bunuel early in Bunuel's career. For several decades, Epstein was regarded as one of the great master filmmakers. Sadly, his reputation has fallen off somewhat. No doubt, that is due to a variety of factors: the decline of interest in silent cinema (when Epstein made his most famous movies), the endless parodies that have robbed avant-garde art of some of its power, and the partial break-up (or rearrangement) of the "canon" of great films. Nevertheless, Epstein's reputation remains strong in some circles, especially those who are lucky enough to come across his work. Today, he's probably best known for his free-form, dream-like adaptation of Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" (1928).

In some ways, his much later "Le Tempestaire" may serve as a more approachable introduction to Epstein's work, and I have to confess that it's probably my favorite of his films that I've seen. "Le Tempestaire" is short (around 22 minutes), follows a simple plot, has sound and (French) dialog, and is not based on well-known story. Basically, the story concerns a young woman who lives with her grandmother in a fishing community in Brittany. Following a premonition, the girl tries to persuade her fiancé not to go out to sea in his fishing boat, but the boy ignores her and sets out. Soon, a storm occurs, and the girl frantically tries to find out his fate. Eventually, at the advice of her grandmother, she goes to the titular "Tempestaire," an old man who can supposedly control the weather through the magic power of his crystal ball. It sounds silly, I know, but it's based on authentic folk-lore and is handled poetically rather than literally. At her pleading, the old man agrees to help, and he magically conjures the storm away and the boy suddenly appears. Whether the boy is magically transported home or he simply happened to arrive at the same moment is left unexplained. It's that ambiguity that helps sustain the film's fantasy.

Like a lot of self-consciously artistic films, this one takes its time to tell its story -- even though it runs less than half an hour. There are lots of scenes of waves crashing against the coastline, etc. But what makes this movie so powerful is Epstein's self-assured control of his medium. He uses camera tricks (like slow-motion) and experiments with the soundtrack in novel ways for 1947. The end result is an eerie and unsettling film, despite the happy ending. I also suspect that Epstein's skill at handling nonprofessionals and location shooting is largely due to the fact that he had been making several documentary films around Brittany in the years preceding this film. At any rate, "Le Tempestaire" achieves a sense of isolation and fantasy that is quite rare. The closest parallels I can think of are some of the short stories by American "regionalist" authors of New England, like Sarah Orne Jewett's equally unsettling "The Foreigner." If you're interested, this short film is included on Kino's admirable two-disc Avant-Garde DVD collection, along with an array of films by Man Ray, Orson Welles, Dimitri Kirsanoff, Hans Richter, and other notable filmmakers. It serves as a fine and relatively inexpensive introduction to this sort of experimental film-making.
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Drifters (1929)
A contrasting opinion...
19 March 2006
The previous reviewers obviously did not care for "Drifters." Far be it from me to prescribe what they should or shouldn't like, but I wonder if they were viewing a heavily edited and/or sped-up VHS print. (One of them referred to a 45-minute cut.) In fact, "Drifters" should run just over an hour, and while an extra 15 minutes might not sound appealing, those extra minutes are essential to the rhythm of this film. For "Drifters" attempts to create a gently rolling rhythm, much like the sea itself. I personally find the images hypnotic. This is an art film, after all -- not a "documentary" in the traditional sense. Yes, the film is "about" herring fishermen, their work, and their life at sea. But the film is really an experiment, and it only makes sense in conjunction with other "documentaries" of the 1920s: "Nanook of the North," "Grass," and "Man with a Movie Camera." Perhaps a better classification than "documentary" would be "non-fiction narrative film." At any rate, "Drifters" is historically significant because it was the first and only feature film personally directed by John Grierson. Grierson was, of course, the man the who coined the term "documentary" in a review of Robert Flaherty's second film "Moana," and he went on to head the GPO film unit, where he nourished better filmmakers than himself, including Humphrey Jennings, Harry Watt, and Alberto Cavalcanti. Thus "Drifters" should possess inherent interest for fans or students of British documentary cinema; it's the only time Grierson had the opportunity to put his own personal stamp on a feature film.

Stylistically, "Drifters" was heavily influenced both by Flaherty's more poetical approach (with soft focus and lots of man-against-nature imagery) and Soviet montage (with quick-cut editing and lots of juxtaposition). The result is interesting, but not entirely satisfying. Following Flaherty's example, Grierson chooses to focus on one fishing crew. Unlike Flaherty, however, he never names or attempts to individuate the crew members, despite featuring two very strong and natural personalities (a bearded captain who lies awake at night and a cabin boy who's learning how to cook for the crew). Flaherty definitely would have personalized these people even more. On the other hand, Grierson manages to illustrate how these fishermen are related to the other elements of the fishing industry -- something that Dziga Vertov would have approved of. And Grierson shares Vertov's fascination with the relationship between men and their tools. (There's a lovely scene of a stoker lighting a cigarette with some burning coals he's just shoveled into the engine.)

On the whole, I recommend this movie to those who are interested in the history of documentary film-making, especially in Britain. But I also suggest that, if you're new to early documentaries, you watch some others first: Flaherty's "Nanook of the North" and "Man of Aran," Cooper & Schoedsack's "Grass," Vertov's "Man with a Movie Camera," and especially Jennings' "Fires Were Started" (a.k.a. "I Was a Fireman") and "A Diary for Timothy." These films rank among not just the most influential early documentaries but also the most beautiful films ever made. (By the way, Panamint, a small Scottish home video company, has released a complete print of "Drifters" on DVD. It looks quite good for a relatively minor 1929 production. Just be aware that it's a PAL release and only available in the UK.)
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A few corrections to previous review
31 January 2006
Many thanks to Boblipton for his earlier review. For the most part, I agree with his final evaluation. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" makes an interesting footnote to Powell's career, but it is in no way essential viewing. Criterion have indeed included it as an extra on the excellent release of Powell and Pressburger's "Tales of Hoffmann," which is about all anyone could expect. However, I want to offer a few corrections/additions to Boblipton's review:

1.) The cinematographer for "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" was NOT Freddie Francis; it was Christopher Challis, who was also the cinematographer for "Tales of Hoffmann." (In fact, Powell was largely successful in reassembling his crew from "Hoffmann," including Challis and editor Reginald Mills and production designer Hein Heckroth.) Francis merely served as camera operator -- a job he filled on both films.

2.) The music for these version of "Sorcerer's Apprentice" is NOT the famous score composed by Paul Dukas (which most people know through its use in Disney's "Fantasia"). A relatively obscure German composer named Walter Braunfels created the score for this ballet. Even IMDb gets this one wrong....

3.) Part of the reason that this film lacks the panache of "Hoffmann" is that Powell was brought in to direct the English-language version of this ballet, which had been created primarily for German television. (It was, in fact, production designer Hein Heckroth who asked Powell to get involved.) Powell didn't really have much input and probably took the job while on a brief hiatus from his partnership with Pressburger, which was still active in 1955-56. Thus I attribute the lack of the typical Michael Powell flair to his being called in after the fact instead of being involved from the conception stage onwards.

4.) Sadly, we're still missing about 16 minutes of footage from this film. It originally ran about 30 minutes -- no doubt due to its television origins. But it was cut to 13 1/2 minutes before it was widely distributed and then stored in the BFI archives. I doubt that the missing 16 minutes would add much; we still get the full basic story. But the fact that so much was cut helps explain why the film seems so choppy.
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Thorvaldsen (1949)
Dreyer's camera considers another Danish artist
9 January 2006
This very short film offers a brief consideration of the major works of Bertel Thorvaldsen (ca. 1770-1884), one of the most famous of all Danish artists and arguably the greatest sculptor between Bernini and Rodin. Resting squarely within the Neoclassical tradition, Thorvaldsen's great talent was his ability to perfectly balance his sculptures, giving them a sense of weightlessness. (Of course, the sculptures are also extremely beautiful, but in our post-WWII era there's something disquieting about admiring a northern European artist's conception of ideal physical beauty. I suppose that's unavoidable, but Thorvaldsen's reputation has happily escaped associations with Nazi ideology.) There is a museum in the center of Copenhagen dedicated solely to Thorvaldsen's work, and it's well worth a couple hours' visit -- even if you don't normally like sculpture.

Over the course of its 10 minutes or so, this film examines about a dozen of Thorvaldsen's largest and best-known statues, including "Hope," "Venus and the Apple," and his own self-portrait. The narrator gives us a refresher course on Thorvaldsen's career, style, and thematic concerns. Basically, it serves as a good introduction to the artist and his work. Since alternate English-language narration was recorded at the same time, I assume that this film was made by and for the Danish tourist industry in the late 1940s.

What makes this movie worth a second glance, however, is the fact that it was directed by yet another great Danish artist, the film director Carl Theodor Dreyer (best known for his silent "Passion of Joan of Arc"). It's not an important part of Dreyer's canon; throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Dreyer produced many short films to keep himself occupied (and to earn some money) between feature film projects. But the fact that Dreyer took the time to reflect on a fellow Danish artist, especially one who shared his own interest in depicting biblical figures and various forms of religious experience, gives this film an added level of interest. And of course, Dreyer's masterful use of light and shadow and close-ups show off Thorvaldsen's work to great advantage.

If you're interested in seeing this short film, it's available on Image Entertainment's DVD release of "The Parson's Widow," a genuinely funny comedy that Dreyer made in 1920. Unfortunately, "Thorvaldsen" is not in particularly good condition, but "The Parson's Widow" is OK. Best of all, the DVD also includes Dreyer's finest short film, the surprisingly effective "They Caught the Ferry," a short driver-safety film.
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Another compilation of TV episodes
8 December 2005
In theory, I agree with the other reviewer's evaluation. But what he doesn't realize is that "Orient-Express" was actually a short-lived European television series -- presumably co-financed by the various branches of the Pathe company (which I know had offices in Britain and France and possibly Italy at the time). Apparently, this was one of those one-self-contained-story-per-episode series, much like "The Twilight Zone." That explains the episodic nature of the film and the fact that it doesn't follow a coherent story. Basically, like a lot of failed American series of the period, the production company decided to salvage what they could, cobble it together, and release it as a film to maximize profits. Unfortunately, like the other reviewer has pointed out, it simply doesn't work.

But as a TV series, "Orient-Express" was not without its merits. It boasted on-location camera-work throughout Europe -- something that no American TV series of the time could do. But perhaps the finest episode, which is partially reproduced in this film, is the one that starred Erich von Stroheim and his then lover (wife?) Denise Vernac. That episode was titled "The Man of Many Skins" and features von Stroheim as a detective who solves cases by figuratively getting under the villain's skin: he imagines how the criminal perpetrated the crime. What's even more clever, however, is that he also gets under their skins literally because he plays the role of the villain, too. Thus we get to see von Stroheim, very late in his career (he looks unwell), playing multiple roles -- sometimes within the same scene. We're treated to the remarkable sight of the egomaniacal von Stroheim playing against himself and probably trying to upstage himself, too! For von Stroheim aficionados, it's great fun.

The von Stroheim episode is available in its entirety on Kino's wonderful DVD of von Stroheim's own aborted project, "Queen Kelly." It's a nice extra, and it gives us a rare late performance from the one-of-a-kind von Stroheim. (It also lets you avoid wasting your time watching this mediocre movie.)
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The Waiters (1969)
Very good, and very different from Hill's TV show
4 December 2005
This 30-minute film marked Benny Hill's last attempt to break onto the big screen. Why he thought a short film would be his ticket is beyond me. Except for special festivals, short films haven't received much distribution or attention since the 1940s. This one apparently sat on the shelf for two years until Paramount finally picked it up. (Although it was released in 1971, the copyright clearly says 1969.) That's a shame because I'd rank it as one of Hill's finest efforts. The plot can be summed up quickly: Hill plays a caterer who gets drunk on the job and proceeds to make a disaster of a middle class couple's dinner party.

"The Waiters" is an homage to silent film comedians like Chaplin and Keaton. Although there are sound effects, music, and even one or two murmurs from the actors, the film contains no dialog. Hill and his actors, including a few familiar faces from his TV show, do a pretty good job of recapturing this type of comedy. Even the conflict between the working class waiters and the middle class diners, which operates as an undercurrent, seems in keeping with the homage. (Hill is obviously critical of the "high-falutin" airs of the middle class diners who hire temporary servants just as Chaplin was critical of ostentatious displays of wealth.) But this subtext isn't important because the comedy works by itself. This is a very funny film! By the way, if you only know Hill's comedy through "The Benny Hill Show," you're in for a pleasant surprise. Since the entire 30 minutes is dedicated to one story, we actually get a full story arc rather than a series of episodic gags. Also, because there's no dialog (which I've always felt was Hill's greatest weakness as a comedian), we don't get the endless parade of double entendres that we do in his later TV shows. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and admit that I like this short film better than "The Benny Hill Show." Like I said earlier, I think it's one of his best achievements.

"The Waiters" is available as an extra on Anchor Bay's 2003 DVD release of "Who Done It?" (which was Hill's only feature film in the starring role). In my opinion, "The Waiters" is far superior to "Who Done It?" -- even though "Who Done It?" was produced at legendary Ealing Studios. (By 1956, when "Who Done It?" was released, Ealing was definitely in decline.) I'm not sure that it's worth buying the DVD just for "The Waiters," but it's definitely worth a rental.
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Escapade (1955)
Overly ambitious, but enjoyable
19 November 2005
In the mid-1950s (as the British film industry was going through yet another crisis), independent producer David Angel turned out a series of modest but extremely intelligent films, of which the best are this one, "The Sea Shall Not Have Them" (with Michael Redgrave), "Cast a Dark Shadow" (with Dirk Bogarde), and "Carve Her Name With Pride" (with the underrated Virginia McKenna). These films boasted top-notch scripts and actors, but were hampered somewhat by their production values.

In the case of "Escapade," we have a fine cast and plot: John Mills plays a professional pacifist who can't seem to control the violence simmering within his own marriage to Yvonne Mitchell. Fearing a divorce, their sons concoct a plan to put their father's ideas into more pragmatic action; they steal a small airplane, which they plan to fly to Vienna in a calculated stunt that will bring attention to their own pacifist values and that will bring their family closer together. All of this causes much consternation for their school's headmaster, the great Alastair Sim.

In my opinion, Sim makes this movie. So fantastic was his comic timing that he steals every scene he's in -- even from the usually reliable John Mills. Two of Mills' sons are played by Andrew Ray (of "The Mudlark") and Peter Asher (brother of the more famous actress Jane Asher). One of their schoolmates is played by Jeremy Spencer (who would go on to appear in "Summertime" and "The Prince and the Showgirl"). Fans of British cinema should also keep a sharp look-out for character actor Richard Wattis who appears uncredited early on.

Such a cast makes it impossible for any movie to be bad, and indeed, "Escapade" is about 3/4 of a really good movie. Everything is fine while director Philip Leacock keeps a light touch, portraying the ease with which the schoolboys outsmart their parents and teachers. But the final act of the film loses its sense of humor and turns a little mawkish and sentimental. Writer Donald Ogden Stewart (who had already been blacklisted in Hollywood and wrote this screenplay under the pseudonym Gilbert Holland) tries to cram too many serious statements into the last 15 minutes: we get comments on the values of the press, on the potential for world peace, on the idealism of youth and the cynicism of adults, etc. As a result, the finale takes itself too seriously. What we really need is a director like Billy Wilder at the helm -- someone who could undercut the seriousness in order to curtail the sentimentalism. Part of the problem is probably due to the origins of the story as a play, and although Stewart manages to "open" the play successfully, the central gimmick (the fact that we never see Mills' eldest son) is what keeps me from being won over by the film's finale. I just have no reason to idolize/idealize the 16-year-old maverick we never see.

But these few complaints shouldn't stop you from watching this movie. In fact, these weaknesses are admirable because they illustrate just how intelligent the movie is.
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"Movie" stitched together from TV episodes
18 November 2005
At first glance, this cheap, cheesy, episodic film might seem like a career low-point for director Jacque Tourneur, the man who had helped Val Lewton establish the psychological horror genre with "Cat People" and "I Walked with a Zombie" and who had made the prototypical film noir "Out of the Past." Here, we find Tourneur working with cardboard sets and cardboard actors. Only the most committed auteurists are going to find any hint of Tourneur's underrated genius. By this time, he had fallen off the map as an A-list director, largely because of his willingness to lower his own salary to make the films he wanted to make, but he was still able to get work at the major Hollywood studios. In this case, MGM.

But what neither of the other reviewers has pointed out, and what saves this movie slightly, is that it's actually not a movie at all. It's a medley of the first three episodes of the TV series "Northwest Passage," which ran for one season (1958-59). In those days, the major studios tried their hands at making TV series, usually with little success. This time, when the series ran its course, MGM cobbled together three different movies out of all the episodes, of which "Frontier Rangers" was the first. (The other two were "Mission of Danger" and "Fury River.") MGM probably unloaded these movies onto the drive-in market or as the second half of double bills.

Consequently, "Frontier Rangers" doesn't stand up very well as a movie. Tourneur had neither the resources nor the time to put together a quality show, and he had to settle for poorly lit scenes, supplemented by stock footage from MGM's earlier, far better 1940 film "Northwest Passage" (starring Spencer Tracy, and directed by King Vidor), upon which this series was loosely based. (Rather than watch any of these three films, I recommend that you try to catch the Tracy/Vidor flick instead.) Characters come and go without warning in "Frontier Rangers," and the sets are so flimsy that they move around during fight scenes. Were you to watch this in its original TV-series format, however, you should double my 3-star rating. It's about as good as other TV series in the "Western" genre (broadly defined). And it has Buddy Ebsen in the cast, which is a major plus!

Nevertheless, even as a patchwork movie, "Frontier Rangers" is interesting -- if for no other reason than the glimpse into 1950's values it provides. Remember, this was made before the Women's, Youth, and Civil Rights movements of the 1960s. So we get some fascinating insights into post-WWII attitudes about race, gender, and U.S. foreign policy: the authoritarian, militaristic virtues of Maj. Rogers; the fear of "indian" contamination of white blood, women, and culture; the submissiveness of long-suffering women who simply do not understand the importance of war and the pioneering spirit; etc. But of course, if you're whiling away 90 minutes on a rainy Saturday afternoon, you don't need to think so seriously about "Frontier Rangers." But I doubt you'll be able to make it all the way through without your mind wandering to some of these issues.
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