Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Films in Comic Books: Spartacus (1960)

Spartacus! The name itself brings to mind rousing adventure, thrilling action, sweeping romance and deep, deep chin clefts. Spartacus! The epic historical drama directed by Stanley Kubrick, master of 20th century cinema, written by Oscar-winner Dalton Trumbo, and starring a prestigious cast including Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Tony Curtis, and Tom Cruise! I just threw Tom Cruise in there to see if you were paying attention. Spartacus! The classic film whose cast have been nominated for all the major awards (including Kirk Douglas as People magazine's Sexiest Man of the Year 1961). Spartacus! Its climatic scene of hilarious mistaken identity in which everyone forgets their own name is justifiably one of the most iconic in cinema history. But I haven't seen it.

I have read the comic book, though.

From the 1950s through the '80s, if you wanted to relive the thrill and excitement of a major motion picture you'd seen, you couldn't pick up the VHS cassette or see it on pay-per-view: you had to buy the comic book adaption of the movie. And read it over, and over, and over again until the cover fell off and you thus rendered it valueless for resale. (Which is, after all, what you're supposed to do with comic books.) In the fifties and sixties the leading publisher of comic book movie adaptations was Dell, who in their Four Color and Movie Classics anthology series brought to the ten-cent comical book movies that were prestigious...

...films obscure...

and cinema downright infamous:

So here, enjoy this epic comic book of slaves within the world of the Roman Empire!

Panels from Asterix and the Laurel Wreath (1974), script by René Goscinny, art by Albert Uderzo

Whoops, I'm sorry. That's the wrong comic book about slaves in ancient Rome.

One benefit of the comic book over the film: it hops right into the action. There's no long overture, list of credits, or dramatic notice to switch off your cell phones. Dell Comics: relax and enjoy the show!

Panels from Four Color #1139 [Spartacus] (November 1960), comic book script by Gaylord Du Bois, pencils by John Buscema, inks by John Buscema and Mike Peppe

The film comic opens as slave Spartacus arrives at the estate of his new owner, his trademark chin cleft neatly disguised by a grizzled beard. That's what Kirk Douglas does to travel incognito, and he's sticking to that trick.

This is immediately followed by the famous movie scene in which every other slave cries out that he is Spartacus. No, no, wait, I've made another one of my silly mistakes...that happens much later. What really happens is that the slaves are put through the paces to see how well they can fight. Of such lengthy, oil-slicked scenes are eventually born American Gladiators.

Clad in his Star Trek-extra generic tunic, Spartacus meets and falls in love with sexy lady slave Varininusiausera, or something like that. It's love at first sight at the buffet. Spartacus is so enamored of Varanusia that he completely forgets to go back for a second-helping of all-you-can-eat beer-battered deep-fried Louisiana shrimp.

Hijinks ensue in this light-hearted, romantic comedy romp as Spartacus playfully steals Venusian's cart. Oh no, her cart! What is she going to sell 99¢ New York hot dogs in dirty warm water from now?

But it's not all fun 'n' games! (Only mostly.) During his all-out manly-and-sweaty Russell Crowe-style gladiator practice, Spartacus defeats the burly African warrior Draba.

After pulling a thorn out of Draba's paw showing kindness to Draba, Spartacus earns his respect and his mercy during an actual gladiatorial match to the death.

The stoic Draba is the only black man in the film. By the most strict of Hollywood rules, we all know what that means: Draba will be killed by the end of his second scene. Yep, right on schedule!

When his owners sell off Violetbeauregard, Spartacus has had enough. Suddenly, the slaves are revolting! Also, they are rebelling against their cruel masters. Now that's what the people of 1960 went to the movies for: hot cauldron-tippin' action!

Conclusively proven by this scene: extras should stick to the script and not attempt to ab-lib their fighting dialogue. "Yi-eee"? "Yarr-oww"? They may as well be yelling "We are Sparta(cus)!"

Victory! The slaves bust out of captivity! Also, they shout out the names of their favorite George Michael songs.

When Veritassolution and Spartacus are finally reunited, there's much rejoicing. (Yay!) He swears to her by his life and his blood that they shall never be parted again. Anyone placing any money on the status of their relationship by the end of the film then?

Because it's a major motion picture by a huge Hollywood studio in the 1960s, it's now time for the big musical number! The smash hit single "Home" was number one on the Pan Pipe Charts for over XXXII weeks! Spartacus, however, appears to have fallen asleep. Perhaps he's read the next few pages of the script.

Not currently needed on the sets of The Robe or Ben-Hur, the Romans attack back against Spartacus and his warrior band of Spartacuses. All-out battle action is ahead of us!

...and, then it ends pretty quickly when the slaves manage to hold off the Romans. Well, now you know the score: ninety-eight: slaves; eight-two: Bruté.

Spartacus rallies the troops, in this case, a commando squad of rare Red Smurfs from the Rhone Valley. All twenty-two of them are facing off against three entire Roman armies, a face-off that will lead to historical legend, classic military tactics, and the ultra-homo-erotic movie 300.

In the movies, lengthy and prolonged battle sequences generally last about half an hour (seemingly longer if the movie is Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace), utilize millions of dollars in special effects, matte paintings, and fighting extras, as well as giving you plenty of time to head for the lobby to get yourself a treat. In a comic book, you can fit the entire campaign of the Hundred Years War inside three panels. Even if the last panel does appear to take place in a pool filled with urine. (Ewwwwwwwwwwwww.)

All the time this has been going on, Spartacus and Vimzimfalabang have been apart from each other. Oh, and she had his baby. Wow, a lot really does happen between the panels of a comic book! And that's exactly how I learned how babies are made: inside panel gutters.

The uprising is crushed, as are the spirits of everyone who had ten sesterii on Spartacus to beat the point spread.

It's here that the most famous scene of this movie...nay, the most famous scene of any movie titled Spartacus occurs, in which the Roman Centurion plays the same ploy that every grade school teacher since has ineffectively put in play: squeal on the troublemaker or everybody stays after class and does detention.

In a sudden twist we find out that this guy is Keyser Söze! No, wait, I've got that wrong. This guy is Spartacus!

Turns out everybody in chains is Spartacus! Including Tony Curtis and red-haired President Reagan!

I'm a Spartacus! You're a Spartacus! He's a Spartacus! She's a Spartacus! Wouldn't you like to be a Spartacus too?

Even Tony Curtis is Spartacus! By an extension of logic, therefore, Tony Curtis's Flintstones doppleganger Stoney Curtis is therefore Rocktacus! (I thought you'd just like to know that.)

Say, who else could possibly be Spartacus? Why, it's...Spartacus! And he's tied up with the flimsiest chains ever. Where did they buy those, Party City? I'm guessing that the next scene involves Spartacus breaking free of his paperclip chains and shoving that brush-headed helmet down the centurion's throat. And then standing on top of his corpse and yelling "FOOD FIGHT!" And that, ladies and gentleman, is why, in addition to never being called up before the House Hearings on Un-American Activities, I shall never be mistaken for Dalton Trumbo.

Special guest star Julius Caesar...is played by a cardboard cutout. Well, just like the face of Jesus, you can't show Caesar in the movies. Because he's a vampire.

As Spartacus is led away to get some ice cream to his execution, his heart is lightened even in his final hour by discovering Veriliumius and his tiny son S.J. are now free. Follow their rollicking adventures in Spartacus II: Electric Boogaloo!

I'm sure you're sobbing just as hard as I am as Spartacus walks that Long Green Mile and recites the last verse of his terrible LiveJournal poetry. Hey Spartacus! It doesn't even rhyme!

Special comic book bonus!: pin-up page of Kirk Douglas (as Spartacus) and his homies!

And to this day, Spartacus has remained a popular hero in comic books!

Panels from "The Imaginarium of Milhouse van Houten" in Simpsons One-Shot Wonders: Bart Simpson's Pal Milhouse one-shot (May 2012), script by Pat McGreal, pencils by John Delaney, inks by Andrew Pepoy, colors by Nathan Hamill, letters by Karen Bates

For, all us comic book geeks, nerds, and weirdos...are we not all...Spartacus?!?*

Cover of Captain America: The Chosen #6 (March 2008), painting by Mitch Breitweiser

*No. No, we are not.

Looking Back: Film Finds of 2013

With all the movies I see every year I run across a bunch of films that may not be the best, are from the worst and have something about them that make them the sort of things that you don't want to be forgotten.  Actually many of these films almost made my over long best of the year list. With that in mind here is a long list of films I saw this year that you'll want to track down

Kon Tiki- This Oscar nominee is a truly grand adventure even if you know how it all comes out

Hey Krishna- Atypical (by western standards) animated film from India with Krishna beating one demon by biting her breast, has another demon singing about her honey pot and lots of death. Its not your typical kids film and yet perfect for kids.

Wolf Guy- WTF Sonny Chiba film is part action film, part werewolf film and completely crazy.

Journal de France is  a great look back on the career of Raymond Depardon. Its part history lesson and part celebration and all wonderful.

Point the Finger of Death WTF one armed swordsman film is pure popcorn joy.

Away with Words - Christopher Doyle's odd ball film about words and communication is absolutely delight and somehow transcends every flaw to be a wonderful magical film. Why doesn't Doyle direct more?

Color of the Chameleon- Off kilter Bulgarian film about a scoundrel who denied the ability to be a government snitch starts his own government agency. Don't think about it and just go with it.

The Rocket after the critics screening everyone turned to each other floored by what they had just seen. How could no one have been raving before this? Well this opens in a couple of weeks and if you know what 's good for you you'll  go see it. (Tribeca's audiences gave it the audience award)

How to Sell Drugs smart ass title turns eveything you think you know on its head. One of the best films on the war on drugs you'll find.

The Parade The story of a man trying to hold a gay rights parade in a city where gays regularly get beaten up. Funny, joyous and incredibly sad that people hate so much. Another film you need to track down.

Countdown- Morality tale disguised as horror film

Litan-WTF horror film that amazes as it chills.

Letter from a Dead Man- art cinema as it should be, no, this end of the world tale is how films should be

Last Tycoon- Chow Yun Fat's return to form

Going up the Stairs- Portrait of Arkram, an Iranian who is a grandmother and an artist. We should all be so lucky as to know someone like her.

Every Blessed Day- Opening film of the Open Roads series of Italian film is a wonderful romance.

Kirstin Lives in LA Hysterically funny web series is frequently wrong in all the right ways. Andy Viner is a genius. Would someone please get him a huge huge budget.

Across the River- horror film as tone poem

After School Midnighter in a battle of monsters vs little girls, bet on the little girls.

Grand Heist think Oceans 11 as period Korean film. Great fun

Jack Attack- scary short film

The Wolverine an intelligent comic movie full of great action. Damn near one of the greatest comic film ever made.

The Great Gatsby Technically one of the best films of the year, I'm keeping it off the best of the year list because the flash overwhelms the story. But in someways this is the first film to nail certain aspects of the story.

Costa De Morte wonderful portrait of a landscape. A must see on the big screen.

Le Weekend A weekend with an English couple on the rocks. Funny touching and Jeff Goldblum (This is coming in March)

Sutros at Lands End portrait of a place I wish I could have seen in its hayday

Reaching for the Moon true story of two women in love. Its a film that stays in your heart and grows. Way better and more real than Blue is the Warmest Color

The Manor is a portrait of a dysfunctional family that runs a strip club.

Magical Universe a great examination of the need to create

Death Metal Angola portrait of the healing power of music

Qissa dark fairy tale of the danger of fighting fate

Ankon Dekhi portrait of a man who decides only to accept what he experiences. Great mix of good people and great thought

Anima State Thought provoking film is why I go to the movies

Baby Blood dark sick twisted horror film about a woman driven to get blood for the beast inside her

Derby and Groma the search for two performers in found photos becomes and examination of how we remember.

Revenge of the Meekons- portrait of the band that still chugs along for the love it This may very well be one of the best films of the year- but I'm still hedging.

The Act of Killing a deeply disturbing look at murder and the lies we tell ourselves. Probably one of the best films of the year.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Looking Back: The Worst of 2013

The best thing I can say about the worst films of the year is that there are only a few of them. Yea there were the requisite number of not very good ones, but the ones that could be categorized as the worst there were very few.

Before I get to the worst films of the year there were a couple of happenings that left me pondering the sanity of some people. At the top of that list is the love and affect thrown the way of Claire Denis. Yes she's occasionally a great filmmaker but she can be as loopy as a fruit loop. No offense to anyone but why didn't anyone call her on her bizarre ever changing answers to questions while she was promoting her film Bastards? She said one thing at the NYFF press conference and then proceeded to change her story in interviews after the fact. Only one person I know called her on it and that interview has been buried.

And now my least favorite/worst films of the year:

The Croods- is stupid. Yea I like low brow humor but this is a bit too low and stupid for even my tastes.

Raze is is a vile and misogynistic action story about women fighting to the death. It might have worked but the action sequences are dull and repetitive,  and filmed in a room so small we only see the women from the waist up. Even that might have been okay if any of it made even the slightest bit of sense- none of it does. This is getting a big release in a couple of weeks and I've been flooded with offers to set up interviews- and I'd go for it but I don't think anyone would sit for my questions about how they got everything wrong.

Bluebird- the script which tells the story of a child left in a bus over a cold night when the bus driver is distracted by a blue bird, is terrible. The turn of events make no sense.

Aberya- an all in close up story about an American boxer going to the Philippines and talking to all of the cameras he thinks is following him is just too nonsensical for words. My reaction to the film was trying to figure out how I could hurt the filmmakers.

Go Down Death Guy Maddin meets the Forbidden Zone in a pretentious film that probably would work if you were in on the joke. Actually it would be an excellent short, but as a feature it's intolerable 

Ritual:A Psychomagic No one should try to copy Jodorowsky even if you get the man himself to cameo in your film.

I'm glad that Only God Forgives because that it means I can hate this stupid excuse of a film without reservation. This is utter nonsense.

Nobody's Daughter- I was willing to go along with the film until the final moment when the lead character woke up and we found out it was all a dream. Really? Really? Do adults and major filmmakers actually think we'd buy that?(Apparently they do since this is on several best of the year lists)

Bastards Even assuming that the things Claire Denis says about the film aren't true, this is a stupid ass film that makes no sense. No really it makes no sense. I dare you to explain to me what most of the characters are doing really.

Paul McCarthy's WS at The Park Avenue Armory involved, by my estimate 25 hours of film projections. All of it was nastiness involving Snow White and Walt Disney. Sadly none of it was any good. It was the sort of thing that gives art and artists a bad name and makes you think that the venue programmers have more dollars than sense or were getting kick backs from the artist.

No, Blue is the Warmest is not even close to the worst film of the year but it is the most over hyped.

I'm hoping that even though there is only one day left to 2013 I don't encounter anything that belongs here. Here's to to my wish that my worst of the year list is even smaller in 2014.

Paddle to the Sea

A while back Criterion released three short children’s films, classic Red Balloon, White Mane and Paddle to the Sea. While everyone knows The Red Balloon (a grown up semi sequel was recently made in France) and many people know White Mane (Confession I’ve never seen it) most people have no idea what Paddle to the Sea is despite being based on a classic children's book.

The plot of Paddle to the Sea is simple. During the winter months in Canada, a man carves a small toy that is in the shape of an Indian in a canoe. He paints it and puts some lead on the bottom so that it will always float up right. Then after writing a note on the bottom that the canoe is to be returned to the water he places it in the snow where the melt will cause it to be carried to the river and eventually to the sea. We then watch as Paddle (that’s the name of the toy carved on the bottom) makes his way to the ocean.

I’ve seen Paddle any number of times over the years. I have no idea where I saw it for the first time, though I suspect it was in grammar school which seemed to show it semi regularly. I remember seeing it at the Garvies Point Museum in Glen Cove as part of a series of short films. I just thought it was cool that they were showing it. I also know I saw it on PBS several times because I remember being excited when I’d stumble on it.

I recently picked up the DVD and you know what, I still think it’s cool. The half hour journey of this toy boat is a grand adventure for the little ones or for anyone who likes grand adventure. It’s a story where you want to see what happens and care about the hero, which in this case is a toy boat. I’ve seen the film any number of times over the decades and I’m always held rapt by what happens. Yes I know how it all comes out, but I always seem to forget what exactly happens to get there...which makes revisiting the film so much fun.

See this film.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Looking back: Film Festivals 2013

This year we hit 31 film festivals and film series. This year we got a film out at Sundance, went international with Hot Docs, Toronto and Fantasia, found some new friends and visited with some old favorites. All the festivals gave us a ton of films we fell in love with.

There is no way to recount every festival, there were simply too many, with too many films and too many neat things happened. Since I can't recount it all I'll give you some highlights (in order of occurrence):

New York International Children's Film Festival every year the festival year gets going with the first jewel in my top five must attend film festivals. Why do I feel like I'm the only one who realizes how good this festival is? My god every year two or three of the best films of the year come from its screenings (Ernest and Celestine and Day of the Crows this year). and no one seems to notice until way after the fact.  It says Children in the title but the films are for everyone and just damn good. If the festival made any missteps its that its now so big its too scattered to get from the multiple locations. Still I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Tribeca We covered 80 features films this year. 80 features- plus lots of shorts. Its insane. However since I and the rest of Unseen Films are insane film nuts this festival is perfect for us. I think this may have become my favorite festival of the year. Its 6 weeks (Press screening start in March) and its lots of movies and lots of talk and lots of insanity. Hell, Mondocurry has us considering all going in on an apartment for this year. For me the best part is this is the one New York Festival where you get to see tons of movies without any preconceived notions since many of the films have never been shown anywhere before. This year I saw so many great films (The Rocket, Red Obsession, Frankenstein's Army, Before Midnight...) I can't wait for next year..

New York Asian Film Festival/Japan Cuts What can I say? JACKIE FREAKING CHAN . Thank you guys. Yea I know it was two weeks early but JACKIE FREAKING CHAN. I love this festival. I love the guys who run it. We hit almost every movie and we all had a blast. I know Japan Cuts isn't really part of NYAFF but they crisscross and I can't see them as anything other than one festival. My one fear about the fests is that Samuel has left the building and his ability to pick good Japanese films may be impacted, I know the influx of Asian film toward the mainstream has impacted their selecting process, but then again they found some winners like Bad Movie, The black films, Countdown, Juvenile Offender. I got to see Eric Kot prove he was the funniest man in the world and I saw this which made me cheer and proved Grady is no longer the greatest intro man going.

Fantasia was something we backed into. We had no intention of covering it, but the oppurtunity arose and I dove in with both feet. Wow Wow and wow. I had so much fun just seeing the movies I'm considering going to the festival in person next year. I loved the mind expanding nature of the choices, from Burning Buddha Man to Across The River to Thanatomorphose to Jack Attack and one of my favorite films of all time Decelerators. Yea there were some clunkers but even those were intriguing.

New York Film Festival is the longest running of the fests listed here and it's a great deal of fun. This year we had the joys of Captain Philips and The Immigrant and Costa De Morte. While this year was very up and down, it still was more up then down and the downs were better than most other festivals ups. My only real complaint with this grand old girl is more and more she's showing things that have screened elsewhere.  Still if you're not elsewhere its great to see the films.

Doc NYC latest addition of the big five of must see New York festivals is non-fiction manna from heaven. I love it. Its possibly the best programmed New York festival- I mean the bad films are only bad when compared to the best of the films screening. This is also a must ATTEND festival. you have to go. Most of the filmmakers are there so you get to listen to their thoughts and even talk with them. Truly a festival for and by film lovers. This year it gave me the chance to see my best film of 2014- Things Left Behind. You have to make time and attend next year.

Rocks Off Pro Wrestling- I went to one screening but this is old school. Its a film festival by fans for fans and it felt like home. I had such a good time that should it have the same vibe next year- where I'm planning on going to everything- I'll make the big 5 a big six. And oh yea- the Q&A that followed the film was one of the best I've ever attended.

The South Asian International Film Festival opened my eyes last year to South Asian film. I who knew nothing  last year I suddenly saw the wonderful things that was coming from the region. This year the collection of films impressed the hell out of me. There were some winners and even the not so much winners were really good. I can't wait for next year.

Lastly I have to say that I don't know what to make of  The New York Chinese Film Festival. Yes I got to meet Donnie Yen, but I'm not sure what to make of the festival. Its got great films, great guests but ran at an odd time (3 days midweek) and seemed to be badly managed (people were milling around waiting for Donnie Yen, did anyone really know this was happening? and the ticket screw up on opening night). This could and should be one of the best festivals of the year.  I'm hoping it gets better next year since this should be truly great.

Those are the highlights of this year. With 2014 only days away we're already working on next year with The New York Jewish Festival getting heavy coverage starting next weekend, and we're talking about covering a horror festival in Syracuse and another in Boise (no seriously). Who knows where we'll end up...

au hasard Balthazar(1966)

How you react to this film will depend upon how you react to Robert Bresson’s lyric realism. Many people I know dislike this film a great deal, others, including my good friend Mike, think it’s a transcendent film. I’m somewhere in the middle. Actually given my druthers I probably would never see it again.

The film is the parallel story of the life of a young girl and a donkey. Both suffer the slings and arrows of life. Focusing largely on what happens to the donkey and a round it the film is a little slice of sadness.

For me the sadness overwhelms everything and I’m forced to question why we are seeing this. Why show us the suffering? I know that there is pain and suffering in life but why must we dwell on it as it is here?

I know most of the people who truly love the film tend to be devoutly religious. To them the film is a mediation on the suffering of Jesus or any religious figure. Within the film they see a perfect representation of the path through hell into paradise. I have spoken with several seeming unemotional people who have been reduced to utter mush by the film’s ending.

Its that that makes me want to write up the film. Sure I’m not a fan of it, but you might be, and the chance that you like it is enough.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Randi's Super Secret Nightcap Film Club

I was not planning on a nightcap for this week but Randi has been throwing stuff my way so I figured what the hell...

And a few Links
Despite claims to the contrary there is no wine draught
the inaccuracies of Gravity
on the need to re-evaluate classic films
Houdini Exposed
Hunting stolen art
Restoring Rankin Bass Puppets
Remembering Richard Briers

and a few films-
an amusing Christmas short

A fantastic documentary on Akira Kurosawa

And the silliness of the BBC radio show I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue Live on stage

Everlasting Moments (2008)

Before the First World War, Maria Larsson, a woman with several children and a not too bright husband who drinks, is barely getting by. Life is crushing her driving out all of the color. One day she wins a camera and slowly comes back to life.

Slow brooding true tale of life lived is a visual treat. Shot to resemble old film and photographs the film's look changes as Maria comes to life. What was once static shots, move, what was once black and white becomes color. In its way its life as film. The look of the film, the composition of shots and creation of sequences is pure magic. There were times when the simple beauty of the images had tears rolling down my eyes. Its the cinematic parallel of the moment where the photographer who has been giving Maria chemicals and film forgiving the debt in exchange for a copy of one her photographs, its a film so beautiful that you'll need to possess it.(I snapped up the Criterion DVD as soon as it was released).

This is a very good film, and I like it a great deal, but I'm not overly in love with it- though there are moments such as Larsson photographing the dead that haunt me still. The reason has to do with my own tastes and not those of the film. I'm not a person who tends to gravitate toward films that deal in bleak lives. Certainly things do brighten once Maria finds the camera, but at the same time its still a hard hard life.

My foibles aside, I do recommend the film, especially if you can see this on a big screen with a good resolution. There are images and moments that will take your breath away and make tears roll down your cheeks.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Gold Rush (1925)

Serendipity is a cool thing some times. I remember watching The Gold Rush one night on PBS in the late 1970's. It had the most god awful musical score so I turned off the sound and flipped on the radio to hear Foreigner’s Cold As Ice during one of blizzard scenes. The story is aprespos of nothing, but it’s just a memory of watching the film.

The film has Chaplin’s tramp heading to Alaska to take part in the gold rush. As he struggles to make a fortune he finds love, friends battles the elements,  and makes his food dance.

As a complete feature film The Gold Rush is probably the pinnacle of Chaplin’s achievement. Here is the point at which his story telling and his love of set pieces came together to form a seamless whole. I say this because to me Chaplin was always a master of the gag or set piece but rarely of the complete film.  I find that I remember the bits of the features more than I remember the whole thing. Yes, while almost all of his features work on some level (I would argue that Limelight is the one glaring disaster), very few of them work a unified whole with the result you don't remember the whole so much as the set pieces.

While I count my self as someone who is a fan of Chaplin’s work  as well as a critic of some of his quaint turns, I find The Gold Rush to be the point at which Chaplin makes a modern movie. What I mean by this is that this is the point where he moved away from the conventions of  his gag driven silent shorts and into what we consider feature films. To be sure the film is a series of connected set pieces, but until you've seen the film a couple of dozen times you won't notice that. Largely this is just the story of the Tramp and the people he comes in contact with.

To be honest this film is hard to write up. I've been trying literally for months to finish this piece but I've been unable to come up with anything. The trouble is the film has been written about for so long by so many people that there isn't anything I can really say about it. Anything I say isn't going to seem original but parroting what was said before. I think that the best thing I can do is say the movie is very funny, quite touching and if you've never seen it you should make the effort- especially in the Criterion double disc which has two cuts of the film plus assorted goodies.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

City Lights (1931)

City Lights is my favorite Charlie Chaplin movie, but it wouldn't be if it weren't for its famous ending. It's hilarious, of course, and there's so much genius in Chaplin's meticulous comic machinery and filmmaking technique--one can marvel at the expert skewering of a hole in the Little Tramp's pants and the ensuing attempts at decorum, or each well-timed and well-placed movement of the boxing scene (it may be the cinematic equivalent of a chess match set to the "Sabre Dance"), or the gradual build to the punchline while our hero tries to shovel the streets of manure, or the number of gags that can be packed into a finely choreographed long-take--but the film is ultimately about the difficulties of human kindness, and the greatness of City Lights is made apparent in that heart-rending finale.

(Spoilers are coming, so stop reading and watch the film if you haven't already. City Lights is good for the soul)

The film centers on the shabby Little Tramp's attempts to help the poor blind Flower Girl. He has no actual means of his own, but a chance encounter with a suicidal drunk millionaire allows him to do good deeds with a little bit of filthy lucre. It's kindness that drives the Little Tramp to thwart a stranger's fatal dive into the river, and it's that same kindness, mixed with an unreasonable romanticism, that makes him want to help the Flower Girl. He buys her food, pays her rent, and even helps send her off to Europe to get her eyes fixed, and all for her company and the occasional chaste, chivalric kiss upon her hand. He suffers so much for being kind even though this love for the Flower Girl is one that probably wouldn't be reciprocated (but more on that later).

Kindness has been on my mind a lot lately since it's the time of year when everyone is temporarily kinder and gentler to others. I recently re-read George Saunders' commencement speech to Syracuse graduates asking them to be kinder people. The speech, which you can read in full here, had gone viral in the early summer, partly from its optimistic content and partly from the well-deserved praise for Saunders' newest collection of short stories, Tenth of December. (In some ways, the speech is a relative to his shot story/essay/fictional press release for the PRKA, the People Reluctant to Kill for an Abstraction). And since it is the holiday season, I recently rewatched It's a Wonderful Life, which itself is a movie about kindness and how hard it is to be thoughtful of others since it's usually to the detriment of one's own ambitions. I can't help but feel that the Tramp seen in City Lights is a bit Ellen from the commencement speech since he's so meek and crushable, and bit George Bailey for the same reasons and because he's relentlessly crapped on by the fates, and perhaps a charter member for the PRKA given his attempt at, as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas would have put it, being for the Other.

As in real life, kindness in City Lights is terribly difficult. George Bailey, nearing the end of his rope, says that all he got for his prayers and good deeds was a lousy smack in the face. For his trouble in Chaplin's film, the Little Tramp is tossed into the water, shouted at, picked on by toady newsie scum, roughed up, knocked out, laughed at, shoved around, ignored, forgotten, discarded, and eventually thrown in the clink for a crime he didn't commit. I can't help but find some thematic connection between the rock that gets tied around the Tramp's neck as he thwarts the millionaire's suicide and the rope for the timekeeper's bell that gets tangled around the Tramp's neck during the big fight: being kind means taking on other people's burdens and, sometimes, getting the living sh** beat out of you. And yet he keeps going because his kindness, like his capacity to love, is inexhaustible. Oddly, this makes me think about a line from a newly anointed Christmas movie pariah, 2003's Love Actually: "Okay, Dad. Let's do it. Let's go get the sh** kicked out of us by love."

That brings me back to the ending of City Lights and the important moment of recognition that occurs between the Tramp and the Flower Girl, who is now able to see. Up until that point, I think that these characters exist as abstractions to each other and to the audience. The Tramp is madly in love with the Flower Girl, but she functions as a kind of idea of love; the Flower Girl is enamored with her own idea of her benefactor--she thinks he's a millionaire--rather than the dowdy Tramp himself. He can be her hero and he can help make her life easier, be he could never actually be with her because he's afraid of being something other than an illusion. She deserves a great man, and he can only be that as an idea. Had she been able to see in the first place, she probably wouldn't have given the Tramp the time of day, let alone entertained ideas about his heroic return to her life. 

When the Tramp and the Flower Girl see each other again at the end, it's through a flower shop window. He helped bring her out of poverty and blindness; he's done something for someone else that he couldn't possibly do for himself. She's laughing at him, though not out of malice, and the Tramp seems content simply to observe her through the pane of glass. She's still just an idea of love, and he's happy his pain has made a difference. The fact that she's thriving there in front of him has lifted his heart out of the gutter. Everything he's gone through was worth it, even if he's become a wilted little man. Since she's still just an idea of love, he tries to leave when she approaches him, perhaps because he's frightened of complicating her present happiness with the truth.

What's devastating about what happens next is that when they touch, they cease to be mere ideas to one other. The Tramp is so hesitant to say anything, struck dumb by her beauty and her sense of concern for him in this real first meeting, one without illusions and so barely sincere. In his face and his gait is the anxious fear of reprisal and rejection, but that unease melts away. I think what I read on his face after fear, among other conflicting thoughts, is the tenuous joy that occurs when, for once, the worst doesn't happen. The Flower Girl's reactions are similarly packed. She sees the face of kindness, and it's not the dashing stranger in top hat and tails, but a person who with nothing of his own still gives all he can. The characters' performances lose the large gestures of pantomime and become subtle motions and ticks of expression. The faces are complex and lived in and heartbreaking because the feelings they evoke are so ineffably human. By those final shots of City Lights, we're are no longer dealing with the abstractions of a buffoon and his would-be lady love; instead, here are the large existential concerns of two people who have tried to be good to one another in their own way.

Throughout my mid-to-late twenties I felt an ambiguity about the ending of City Lights. It's still one of the most astounding endings to a movie I've ever seen, but it's hard to say where this relationship would go from here. Can either of them love each other, and what about the fact that this relationship--even at a purely ethical level--is predicated on lies and mistaken (or withheld, or assumed) identity? It's a complicated conclusion to the story because it leaves us at the emotional height of a revelation without its fallout.

On my most recent watch of City Lights, I find myself a little less cynical and more touched. I noticed the way the Flower Girl held her hands around the Tramp's, and the way her face quavered as her realization continued to deepen, and the way her hands drew his hands closer to her chest. The Tramp is still chewing at his thumb, the Flower Girl will not let go. Like their first meeting when he fell in love with her, they are so still in the moving world. I'm not sure they'd ever fall in love, but I know simply that they will be kind to one another, and that's enough.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

On Further Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a Slave didn’t move me. While I like the film, I’m completely bewildered at the crazy love the film has gotten from most corners. I’m at a loss to see what people see in it that makes them rave so.

I should probably state at the start I am not a fan of director Steve McQueen. While I don’t really hate either Hunger or Shame I’m not really a fan of either. I find his style distancing, He can be so clinical that all life is drained from his subject. I also feel there are times when he is so intent on making a point that one disconnects. In Shame we had sex scenes that went on and on as Michael Fassbender fell from grace and in 12 Years we have the steady march of violence and cruelty. There is so much violence and cruelty that I wouldn’t bat an eye is someone wanted to call the film artistic torture porn.

Seriously think about what happens in the film- is there anything other than the Solomon Northup character being abused for the better part of two hours? I don’t see it. What is the point that Steve McQueen is making beyond the obvious that slavery is bad and engenders violence and abuse? Once he’s made the point say a half an hour in, what’s left to do? What point is left to make?

I would cut McQueen some slack if he was telling a wholly historic account of what happened but he has altered Northup’s story. Allowing that we don't see any of what is happening away from Nortup, bits are altered and compressed. For example in reality Northup managed to get a letter to his family before he is shipped off. While it doesn’t change Northup’s fearing his family won’t know what happened or the abuse he suffers, it does alter the world he is operating in, everyone isn’t quite as evil as it seems otherwise. Actually I’m a bit bewildered that no one has really mentioned that other than other blacks and people in New York everyone Northup meets is pretty much shit, or if they aren’t shit and aren’t Brad Pitt bad things happen to them. (Also look at the types of language used by various groups with good people speaking almost Shakespearean English while the bad people speak colloquial language)

Was life outside of New York really this bad? Were everyone south of the Mason Dixon line shits? I think not. This is a fiction created for the film. McQueen is drawing very broad lines

I have to agree with Samuel L Jackson who commented on Twitter that he has been shocked that people aren’t upset with the use of the so called N word in 12 Years while they were upset with Tarantino’s Django Unchained. While I’m not a fan of Django I see its use of the word and violence as equally valid since both films are period pieces that shine a spotlight on the horrors of slavery. To be certain Tarantino’s film is an "entertainment" (which is why it’s derided and is knocked for using it) and 12 Years is a “serious” film (which is why has the illusion of stature and why the word can be used) but in my mind they are both equal artistically and have the same right. Ultimately Tarantino is making the same points that McQueen is but with a wish fulfillment ending (Tarantino's film should have ended really badly for Django)

I’m bewildered by many writers seeing this film as something new and unique in the examination of slavery. Many people are crowing that we’ve never looked at slavery quite like this. I’m not too sure. Sure it’s been a while but to be honest something like Goodbye Uncle Tom, an inflammatory as it is, covers much of the same ground, and it does what 12 Years fails to do, in that it connects what happened back then to what is happening today. Yes, things are better, says Goodbye, but the hatred that created slavery still exists.

The more I think about 12 Years the more it puzzles me. To me the film seems like it was made by a well-intentioned director who wanted to make a stand on a(n easy) subject and have the world applaud him. I mean you can’t say too much bad about what McQueen is doing without having someone jumping on you for being pro-slavery or a racist. In my mind this is a film where McQueen can indulge all his nasty instincts in the name of art and then win the critical establishment sing his praises for daring to deal with a dark subject. The trouble is that the film pretty much operates in a vacuum and with a stacked deck with no answers to some big questions: How does this tale of cruelty relate to today? What am I supposed to get out of it besides the feeling that slavery is bad? Or is this just an exercise in artistic cruelty? Isn't this film just a kind of bread and circuses where the art crowd can go and see some ultra-violence?

Puzzling out whether the film is just exploitation for the at house crowd has me pondering Pasolini’s Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom once more. Salo is the re-imagining of a Marquis DeSade novel in Fascist Italy’s closing days. A two hour long catalog of abuse that re-imagines the sins of the old anew has been a film I’ve wrestled with for decades (my review is here). As much as I would like to say that the film is simply nastiness for the art crowd, there is something about it that won’t let me do so. The film, for all its artistic violence is clearly about something. By resetting the film to 70 years ago the subject becomes ageless and Pasolini’s point that our leaders are out to screw and kill us may be blunt but it is to the point since in the 40 years the film was made they are still asking us to bend over for them.

(Before leaving the notion of art and violence I would also suggest one contemplate what Mel Gibson did in The Passion of the Christ which has similar in your face over the top this is good for you or this is means something approach to screen violence)

I’m not sure what the connection 12 Years has to today? How is this supposed to enlighten me or make me think about anything other than slavery was bad and this man had one a terrible thing happen to him? I don’t see it any. And without a connection to today I’m forced to ponder if , after the film wins all sorts of awards the year, will we be discussing this film five years from now? Yes it will have a boat load of awards, but will it have a viewership? Will this year’s Oscars turn out to be like 1990, or many other years, where the Best Picture winner (Dances With Wolves in 1990) makes you scratch your head that a better choice didn’t win (Goodfellas)

Is 12 Years a bad movie? No, but it’s not a remarkable one. It’s a film that made it’s point early and then grew tedious since it bludgeoned us for no good reason. Yes I know it’s supposed to be good for me to witness this assault on my humanity, but at the same time without some connection to me today in this place I might as well be watching one of unending series of horror films that aren’t about scares abut simply showing people die. While admittedly the body count is lower here the level of cruelty is the same and I’m left pondering the question “you’re showing us this because…?”

Modern Times (1936)

Modern Times was the first stab at a sound film from Chaplin. Yes City Lights has a score, but Modern Times has sound effects, music and a gibberish song (The Tramp speaks!) The film is also the final screen appearance of the Tramp as the tramp.

Following the tramp as he wanders through modern times, dealing with love, life and the modern assembly line this is one of Chaplin’s classic films.

Like almost all of Chaplin’s features this is a film that you’ll remember more for it’s iconic imagery than as a whole. The gibberish song, Chaplin going insane on the assembly line, the final fade out and the introduction of the song Smile are all floating around in this film. I wish I could tell you what the film is really about beyond that but I really can’t.

I remember seeing the film right after Chaplin died. This along with the Great Dictator got a double feature release to cash in. I went to see the film on a rainy Sunday at the long gone Town theater in Glen Cove. The theater was packed with a mixed age audience. After the crowd initially groaned when they realized that the film was in black and white everyone settled in for a day at the movies. The disappointment at the film not being in color gave way to roars of laughter as Chaplin went through his comedic paces. When the film ended and there was a break before The great Dictator ran the audience seemed to be up and ready for more Chaplin. The power of comedy to overcome expectations.

This is one of the great screen classics. Sure it may be like most other Chaplin films better in pieces than as a whole, but it’s still a damn funny.

If you’ve never seen it, do so.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Great Dictator (1940)

Not long after Chaplin died in 1977 his film The Great Dictator and Modern Times were released to a lot of theaters to cash in on his passing. While that might seem a bit odd today (locally it would probably only play in Manhattan) that was the way things were done back then. I was lucky enough to see them.

The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first film with dialog. It was also Chaplin taking on Hitler and the madness in Germany at the start of WW2. Chaplin’s tamp has become a Jewish Barber. Chaplin also plays Hynkel the leader of Tomania who is the double of the barber. How their lives intersect is the film.

One of the best of Chaplin’s films The Great Dictator is a kick in the ass. One the few times where Chaplin managed to get his features to work from start to finish the film. It’s funny touching drama that looks at a war exploding into madness. Imagine if you will one of the really good wartime dramas with the Chaplin walking through it. Its in its way a cozy classic film of the sort they don’t make any more…but son’t let that fool you, The Great Dictator is a great film. Sure you may think it may have dated but it hasn’t.

For me the film will forever be tied up with another war entirely. Back during the first gulf war, The Great Dictator was playing on the then commercial free purely movie station AMC (now home to Breaking Bad, Walking Dead and Mad Men). The film was running at the moment that Bagdad was being bombed for the first time. As the world seemed to go insane once again the final sequence where the Tailor, having replaced the evil Hynkel makes a speech pleading for peace. Switching between the sight of planes bombing a city a city and Chaplin’s 50 year old plea for peace I found I was deeply moved. For the first time I realized, really realized the cost of war…and I was horrified because it was clear that some things never change.

You owe it to yourself to see this film.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

I’m not going to lie, Where most, if not all of the films I’ve been reviewing this month I own, I don’t have Monsieur Verdoux…well I don’t have it from Criterion. I do own it as part of an import set of Chaplin films. I have seen the film a couple of times but other than the first time, I’ve only seen it when I happen upon it. I don’t put it on as something I want to watch.

This isn’t to say that the film is bad, it’s not, it’s just it doesn’t blow up my skirt.

The film is the story of a Bluebeard sort of fellow who marries and murders women in order to get enough money to support his real family. Chaplin plays the Bluebeard and he manages to make the man’s plight heartbreaking. The role, which is a radical change of pace for Chaplin, is in some ways one of his better roles because it requires him to do more than his typical schicht. I think it was also a small part of the reason the film tanked at the box office, audiences were not willing to accept him as anything other than the Tramp.

The script which was written by Orson Welles and tweaked by Chaplin, is a good one. It resulted in one of the tighter features that Chaplin made. I’m guessing this is the result of Welles being more interested in making a whole film where Chaplin throughout his entire career was a man who ultimately simply linked gags and moments and rarely told a complete story. (An aside Welles was to direct the film but Chaplin got spooked at being directed by someone else so he took over the project).

At the same time the film is still is probably best remembered for two bits- the entire Martha Raye sequence which in many people’s eyes is the highlight of her career and for Chaplin’s final speech before being lead off the gallows. The speech is a cutting indictment of criminal justice much as the end of the Great Dictator is a cry for peace. And unfortunately all I remember about the film are those two bits, which is why I never go back to the film.

As I said the film isn’t bad, and every time I run across it, on something like Turner Classic Movies I’ll stop and watch it and think, gee this is better than I thought it was, only to have the film end and then feel that I never need see the film again and that the only two worthwhile parts are Raye and the speech…until I of course run across the film again only to feel it’s better than I give it credit for.

So where does this leave the film?

It leaves it in the pile of films you really ought to see especially if all you know of Chaplin is the Tramp.

While I am not a fan of the film, I won’t be picking up the Criterion DVD despite the extras, I do think it’s a pretty good film, even if I keep thinking its not as good as I keep realizing it is.

Rent it or stream it or give it a go when you see it on cable.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Nightcap 12/22/13- Almost years end so almost a wrap up

2013 is done, more or less. All that’s left is to look back and take stock and plot and plan for 2014.

As I write this I’m working out my end of year lists. They’ll start appearing next Sunday night with a look back at the year in Festivals. Mostly that’s just to flog my favorites, mention one potential new favorite and talk about a head scratcher or two. I’m also working on the Best and Worst lists as well. Mercifully the worst of the year list is rather short. While there were lots of films I didn’t like most were not so loathsome that I’ve remembered them here at years end.

Now about that Best of the year list- I’m still fighting with myself over what’s going on it and the secondary Finds list but two things are clear. First it only has one, maybe two “big” films on it. In other words unless you've been reading Unseen or going to festivals you may not know most of the films. Part of the reason for this is I still haven’t seen things like Her, 12 Years a Slave or some of the other big films. The main reason for this is in my humble opinion most of the films just weren’t The Best. Many were good, some were great, but as for being the best, no. The other thing you’ll see is that there are a lot of short films. Yes five minute films Decelerators, The Day God Slept and Flutter mix with feature films. Why? Because they nail it. A best film is a best film. I’ve spent more time thinking about those films than I did about something like Pacific Rim or American Hustle (which is great- but not great enough).

Complicating some of the lists is the fact that I’m seeing films for the New York Jewish Film Festival which starts in just over two weeks (It starts on the 8th) and I’m running across some great films that you should rush out and see. I’m seeing them in 2013 for review in 2014- I'm not where do they go since I run my list by what I see in what year. This uncertainty cocked me up this year as several films I had included on my 2012 list ended up in my head as 2013 films-even though I put them on the 2012 list.

And speaking of the New York Jewish Film Festival, while it didn’t end up being talked about my piece on great film festivals for 2013, it will be on my 2014 list. Simply put in the last three years that I’ve been going it went to something where I went to a film here and there to something I’m wading into to see great stuff I would never have noticed otherwise. I’ll be posting a piece on the festival around the 5th. There’s some great great stuff here (Ain't Misbehavin and The Congress off the top of my head) and since many of the films sell out you’ll want to act now to get tickets. Details and tickets can be had here at the Film Linc website.

This week we begin winding down our month of Criterion with a week of Chaplin. My pieces are less reviews and more commentary. Hubert is due to chime in on boxing day with one of his favorite all time films City Lights.

Before I head off to continue wrapping Holiday gifts I want  to end this last Nightcap of 2013 and say thank you all for reading, and please stay tuned for lots of goodies in 2014

And now our last link round up of the year:

Overlooked Christmas Films

The Sight and Sound article on the Snowpiercer debacle and the war between the films director and the Weinsteins

A Cthulu holiday meal

Peter O'Toole stories

Info on BAM Kidsfest

The Next Bunch of free films from the Korean Cultural Service

Photos of a new crater on the moon

On Rube Goldberg

Life of Brian (1979)

I’m not a huge fan of The Life of Brian.

No wait, let me restate that.

I’m not a fan of the Life of Brian in the form it exists. I made the mistake of reading the script before I saw the film so I had all of the cut material in my head when I saw the film. The trimmed material, was for me, some of the funniest stuff the Pythons ever did (Otto’s suicide squad for example). When I finally say the film I couldn’t understand where all of the great stuff went. I also wondered when I’d ever get to see it.

For those who don’t know, the Life of Brian is the story of Brian , a young man in Judea at exactly the same time as Jesus. His life mirrors Jesus’s however to much more comedic and satiric effect.

The film was picketed and protested to such a degree that the little film that probably would have come and gone without making much of a blip on the radar became a box office smash and cemented the Python’s reputation as satirists of the highest order for all time.

For me the really interesting bits of the film are its making, Kim “Howard” Johnson, a fan who became a friend and biographer of the Pythons wrote a great book about the making of the film. There is a very good hour long documentary on the making of the film (The Pythons) which is on the Criterion DVD and there is various interviews concerning the film which are just fun to read.

Actually the reason I’m writing the film up is because if you are a Python fan and if you like the movie, you need to get the Criterion disc because the film has two commentary tracks with the surviving pythons. The commentary has each of the pythons talking about the film and other things and while some of the stories overlap there is enough variation that you see things slightly differently during each pass through. They are amazing and the commentaries are so good that I have been known on more than one occasion to listen to them in succession. The commentaries are so good that friends of mine had me put the commentaries onto VHS tapes for them because they didn’t have DVD players at the time.

Yes you want to buy the disc, of if not buy it rent it.

As I said at the top I’m not a fan of the movie, however I am a fan of the DVD from Criterion.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Time Bandits (1981)

Time Bandits was the first time that Terry Gilliam was really considered a director of note. I know he had done Jabberwocky previously but I don’t think that was really taken seriously by anyone except as a doodle by someone from Monty Python. I still don’t think that anyone takes the film seriously even among Gilliam fans. It’s his first feature and its noted as that and little more.(at some point I’ll write that film up)

Bandits on the other hand was something different. It was a look at the wonders that were to come, even if we didn’t know it yet.

Time Bandits is the story of a small boy who gets mixed up with a bunch of little people who have stolen a map of the universe and are using the holes in time to pillage the universe and amass a fortune. Of course Evil(played by a wonderful David Warner) wants the map and makes plans to steal it.

The film is a boys own adventure something akin to cowriter Michael Palin’s and Terry Jones Ripping Yarns but on a cosmic level and forced threw Gilliam’s mind. It’s a blast and a half.

It also contains the line “Mom. Dad. Don’t Touch it it’s evil” which I quote probably on a daily basis whenever I run across something that shouldn’t be touched.

I remember going to see the film in the movie theater. It was one of the very few times that my Dad and my Mom went to the movies with us kids. It was in a tiny cinema that was a converted movie theater balcony. So many people had bought tickets on opening night that they were seating people on the stairs, completely unsafe but it made it one of the few times when you could say a place was filled to the rafters.

I suppose there should be a point to this piece, but in all honesty I can’t find one. Perhaps the whole point is to simply say that Time Bandits is a great deal of fun and you should see it. I know there are a couple of different special edition out there, each with a different commentary track, but for me the best is the Criterion one, but it is a tad pricey so you may want to get one of the other cheaper editions. However you see it , just see it, and trust me it’s not evil.