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Monthly Archives: February 2018

The Movie Crash Course Holds a Bake Sale

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So!  There is a lot of buzz around the upcoming movie adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time. I’m going to be seeing it for certain, and am especially intrigued to see what Ava Duverney does with the story.

Towards that end: there are more than a few schoolteachers who’ve started Kickstarters and Go Fund Me drives to take their classes to screenings of the film.  I’ve actually thrown my hat behind this drive, from a school in Oakland, California; several of the students speak English as a second language, but this teacher sounds like a hell of a force of nature, and I’d love to see them make their goal.  They are pretty close, too.

If you have some shekels to spare, please consider donating.

Thanks – the next review coming soon.

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Movie Crash Course: Sons Of The Desert

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The title Sons of the Desert gave me a very incorrect idea about what this Laurel And Hardy film was going to be.  I thought it was going to be a sort of French-foreign-legion spoof; instead, Stan and Oliver play a pair of henpecked husbands intent on heading to Chicago for the national convention for their fraternal organization.  Stan is unsure his wife will allow him to attend; but Ollie is appalled he’s even asking. “Why don’t you pattern your life after mine?” he lectures Stan. “I go places and do things and then tell my wife. Every man should be the king in his own castle!”

However, Ollie’s wife Lottie finds out about the convention – and reminds Ollie that she had already booked them a weeks’ stay in an exclusive mountain resort that same week. So no convention for him.  When he tries to put his foot down, she insists on the mountain trip – by throwing a dish at his head.

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So the pair concoct a plan – Ollie pretends to be sick, and Stan enlists a doctor to “prescribe” a cruise to Honolulu as a rest cure.  And hey, since Lottie hates cruises – how about she go ahead to the mountains with Stan’s wife Betty, and Stan can go with Ollie instead?  The wives agree, and as soon as they’re gone, the men hightail it to Chicago.

While the men are whooping it up at the convention, however, Betty and Lottie come back to learn that the cruise ship has foundered during a storm at sea, and their husbands’ lives may be in danger. Some of the survivors made it onto a rescue ship, but until the ship returns, they won’t know who made it and who drowned.  The wives go to a movie to keep themselves distracted while they wait – and just so happen to see a newsreel about the Sons of The Desert convention…

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I’m not that crazy about the whole “henpecked husband” trope as a rule, but there were enough wacky hijinks and little surprises in this that I was caught off guard.  There was a whole sequence founded on Stan and Ollie’s houses being next door to each other and sharing a back yard, and Stan thus getting confused which house he lives in, which is nearly impossible for me to explain – but which they found more and more unpredictable ways to play with, making for a whole delicious five minutes of schtick.  Another lengthy sequence has Stan trying to “steal” bites from a bowl of wax fruit Lottie has on display – it’s really just a single gag stretched out for a few minutes, but the looks on Stan Laurel’s face as he tries to chew a bite from a wax apple were funny enough that I didn’t care (and Lottie has a great punch line at the end).

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And then there is Betty.  Stan’s wife is ultimately a minor character, and we’re just meant to see her as a threat to Stan.  But the way they’ve decided to make her seem threatening is to make her a hunter and markswoman – which makes her all the more interesting.  When Stan and Ollie first come in to break the news of the convention, Betty isn’t home – she’s left a note that she’ll be home late, since she has gone duck hunting.  She shows up about ten minutes later with a whole brace of ducks, one of which she cheerfully gives to Lottie as a present before she leaves with Stan.  And later, when she and Lottie think they hear burglars in their attic, Betty just grabs her gun and storms up the ladder to flush out the invaders.  It was obvious that we were supposed to be afraid of her because of the gun, but I wanted to know way more about her.

This is the only Laurel and Hardy film on the 1001 Movies list, and I had the great fortune of seeing it in a theater, along with one of Laurel and Hardy’s newly-restored shorts.  New York’s Film Forum theater included it as part of its Sunday matinee series for kids; so there were a lot of little film fans in the audience, laughing at all of the slapstick throughout.  The short got the most laughs of all – a once-lost short called The Fight of the Century, which ends with a whole city block getting caught up in a pie fight.

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Cliff Notes For The Movie Crash Course

Real quick – I have just discovered a film enthusiast’s Youtube Channel, and signed up almost immediately.  He’s doing a series of supercuts that capture the “look” of films during a particular year.

He doesn’t catch everything – and I’m not as convinced that each period he’s chosen has a distinct “look” – but each is a fun retrospective, and I was chuffed to see that I recognized more than I thought.

Here’s the 1920 one, for a taste.

Movie Crash Course: The Great White Silence

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(Note: I have edited this post since its original posting. All such after-the-fact edited posts are indicated with a “Directors’ Cut” tag.)

We’re jumping back in time on the “1001 Movies” list a bit; I’ve only just now been able to find a copy of 1924’s The Great White Silence. 

The Great White Silence was filmed by Herbert Ponting, the official chronicler of the United Kingdom’s doomed Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole in 1910.  The Terra Nova team, lead by Royal Navy Officer Robert Scott, set out on a quest to be the first to reach the South Pole.  After a year of training and preparation in their base camp in Antarctica, Scott set out with four teams of four men each; three of the four teams would be setting up supply depots for the polar team for their return trip.  Scott reached the South Pole with three other men in early January of 1912 – only to discover that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them all by about a month.  Severe storms slowed them on the return trip, and all four men who reached the pole eventually froze to death on the way back to base camp.

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Ponting managed to escape all of that.  He was some years older than the others in the expedition, and Scott therefore asked him to stay behind on base camp.  Ponting didn’t seem to mind; while the others had been preparing for the expedition, Ponting was filming absolutely everything he could – well aware that his footage would be the first glimpse of the Antarctic that anyone back in England would ever see.  In fact, most of the film is taken up with Ponting’s footage of seals, killer whales, and penguins.

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Ponting also had a chance to capture some of the stunning scenery – vast ice caverns and enormous snow dunes – that dotted the ever-shifting landscape.

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Ponting also showed a lot of the daily activity for the crew of the expedition proper, as they cared for the horses and sled dogs or practiced skiing.  The men (and animals) don’t seem to be aversely affected by the polar weather, strangely; in fact, most of the time they seem to be having a lot of fun.

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The crew even has time to goof off – Ponting captures one of the men showing off how he’s trained the crew’s pet cat to jump through a “hoop” made by his outstretched arms.

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(Fair warning to anyone tracking down the film: the name the Terra Nova crew chose for their all-black cat is one that we would consider wildly inappropriate today.)

Ponting even turns the camera on himself. After some breathless footage of the ship plowing its way through pack ice in the Antarctic sea, the film cheerfully adds a still photo of Ponting, filming while lying precarioiusly on a gangplank – “Here’s how I got that shot!” the narration relates.

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The bulk of the film is so happy-go-lucky, in fact, that I started wondering if Ponting was even going to address the death of Scott and his crew.  But there’s a reason for that; he left Antarctica before the news of Scott’s death broke, setting up a studio in New Zealand to turn the film into a fundraising campaign for future expeditions.

When he heard the news of Scott’s death, however, he turned the last act of the film into a memorial.  There was no footage from the final expedition, of course, so he mixed in photos he’d taken from base camp, animated lines on a map to trace the team’s steps and paintings depicting the imagined deaths of each team member. He returned to Antarctica once to capture a photo or two of the snow cairn covering Scott’s remains.

Instead of giving us dazzling footage of natural wonders, and Ponting’s breathless excitement, the last reel is understandably dour. The intertitles dwell on the nobility and bravery of Scott’s team and their acceptance of impending death; but it’s also where Ponting turns to the danger of the Antarctic, quoting from Scott’s diary on the date he reached the pole: “Great God! this is an awful place….”

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The most poignant story Ponting tells is of Captain Lawrence Oates. I’d heard his story before; he developed severe frostbite in both feet on his way to the Pole, and his injuries slowed the team’s return considerably. Several times he asked the team to just leave him behind in a tent and go on without him, but the others would have none of it.  Finally, one night, as the team was hunkered down during a heavy blizzard, Oates struggled to his feet and calmly told the others: “I am just going outside and may be some time.”  He then walked out into the storm, never to return.

Instead of raising funds for future expeditions, Ponting’s film became a tribute, used to drum up funding to support the widows and children of Scott’s team.

 

 

(P.S. to those visiting from Moon In Gemini’s Winter In July blogathon – welcome! This is part of my blog’s quest for me to watch and review all of the movies from the 1001-Movies-To-See-Before-You-Die books in order.)

Movie Crash Course: Bride of Frankenstein

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So there are adaptations that stay faithful to their source, and there are adaptations that take some liberties with their source.  And then there are adaptations that pole-vault over the source like ‘roided-up Russian athletes.

To be fair, Bride of Frankenstein was not meant to be based on Mary Shelley’s novel as such. Universal Pictures was simply reacting to the success of Frankenstein.  Producer Carl Laemmie was down with the idea – but Boris Karloff and director James Whale both had to be convinced; Whale thought that he’d said all he wanted to say with his original work, and Karloff was skeptical about the notion that his Monster would now be able to talk a little.  Shelley’s Monster became quite articulate, but Karloff’s conception of the Monster was of an innocent, naïve, and mute creature.  Still, after a few years, both eventually came around.  To everyone’s surprise, Bride of Frankenstein was another smash hit, and several scholars consider it to be Whale’s masterpiece, outdoing even the original Frankenstein.

 I….am conflicted about that.

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In my defense: I had Shelley’s original work on the brain and was still thinking about where the previous adaptation differed.  And Bride even starts out with a prologue scene featuring Mary Shelley, alluding to how she wrote the original work – and the movie version of Shelley even says some of the same things I was thinking in the end of my last review.  “Ah-ha!” said I, as the movie Shelley started to tell Lord Byron “what happened next” to her characters, “Whale must be re-directing and re-emphasizing what was lost in the original film.”  Whale was not doing that, however; he assumed that there was no way that the sequel would outdo the original, so he may as well go full-on wacky.

And that’s how kindly blind hermits, comic-relief busybody maids, skunk-striped fright wigs, and a scientist with living Barbie dolls he kept sealed up in mason jars got introduced to Shelley’s work.

 

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The historical anachronisms alone were glaring.  That prologue suggests that this whole story is the same story that Shelley is telling in 1814 – but at one point, a pair of graverobbers unearth someone buried in 1899.  There are a lot of pistols and rifles throughout that look more like 1914 weapons than 1814 ones.  And Frankenstein even talks to his wife Elizabeth by telephone at one point.…Okay, I know  this is some serious nitpicking. Everyone clearly wanted to tell a different story than the one from Shelley’s novel, though, so why even bother with the prologue?

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Actually, the script went through a few versions first, by three or four different screenwriters, that presumably were even wackier; I haven’t been able to find copies, but I’ve learned that Whale said of one treatment that “it stinks to high heaven”.  It wasn’t until draft/screenwriter number Four that anyone even thought to include anything from the source material; screenwriter John Balderston had the idea of making the sequel be about getting the Monster a wife.  Balderston also added the prologue with Shelley telling the story.  Whale seemed to like the ideas, but gave the script itself to yet more screenwriters, William Hurlbut and Edmund Pearson, for some polishing work.  Hurlbut and Pearson actually wove in bits and pieces from the earlier drafts as well.  Whale didn’t seem to mind.

Whale also had a hand in the casting; he decided that the actress cast to play the Bride should also play Mary Shelley in the film’s prologue, to symbolize how “horror comes from the dark side of imagination” or something.  It’s not really anything I noticed, however, until after the fact.  But the reason why I didn’t notice speaks well of Elsa Lanchester, who plays both roles.  Her version of Shelley is a little bit of a pampered and simpering genteel lady, which didn’t really seem much like Shelley to me.  Her Bride, though, is profoundly different – and not just because of the costuming and that hair.  She moves entirely in birdlike jerks, and her lines are all shrieks and hisses, which reportedly she based on the noise made by frightened swans.  I didn’t get “swan hiss” off it either, but I didn’t really need to; she was just trying to be freakishly different, and succeeded.

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I think the biggest reason why I was taken so aback by this film is solely because it tried to remind me of the source material in the first place.  It’s more of a Personal Statement for Whale at the end of the day; it’s a creature of Whale’s own making.  It’s why Bride probably surpasses Frankenstein in the minds of many, and is probably why we have the flat-top bolt-neck image of the Monster in our heads, as opposed to Shelley’s creation.

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In fact, I think seeing this as a double-feature with the original Frankenstein is a mistake; they’re very different.  Instead, if you’re looking for an even better double-feature idea, I’d pair this with the 1998 film Gods and Monsters, a biopic which covers the last few months of Whale’s life.  Whale was an openly gay man at a time when living as an openly gay man didn’t win you any friends or favor, and some even point to Bride of Frankenstein as a story about Whale’s attempts to find a sense of belonging.  Gods and Monsters imagines a friendship between Whale – beautifully played by Ian McKellen – and a young gardener (Brendan Fraser), a very straight former Marine and horror fan.  It’s a beautifully sensitive story that complements Bride of Frankenstein perfectly.

And to bring everything around back full circle – it seems that Gods and Monsters’ screenwriter, Bill Condon, is currently under contract to direct a remake of: The Bride of Frankenstein.

 

I have a couple more Oscar Bonus Round Reviews as well.

  • Phantom Thread: I’ve realized something about Daniel Day-Lewis.  He’s an exceptional actor – but the parts he plays are just unlikeable people.  So he’s brilliant at becoming people I hate spending two hours with.  And his fussy, fastidious London dress designer in this film is no exception.  …The lead actress is endearingly forthright, but the rather…unique way in which she tries to gain the upper hand in their relationship is also just too twisted for belief.
  • The PostIt’s just fine.  It’s well-acted, well-written, well-performed, and about a serious and important topic.  But all of that just feels like Standard Issue Spielberg Oscar-Calibre Film Model #103.  Seriously, it felt almost like he went to Ikea and got a flatpack “Oskar” kit and put it together in his garage one weekend.

Movie Crash Course: Frankenstein

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This film made me think a lot about adaptations in general.

Both Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had adaptations released one after the other in 1931, during the classic cinema era; and then both had remakes in the 1990s. First came Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Dracula in 1992, followed by Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Frankenstein in 1994.   Both the 1990s adaptations trumpted their faithfulness to the original novels; and now that I’ve seen all four, and have even read Stoker’s novel, I can confirm this is the case.

But “faithfulness to the source material” doesn’t always make for a good adaptation (remember: Coppola cast Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker).  Each director, each filmmaker, chooses to emphasize certain parts of the story, and cut certain parts they consider irrelevant – and the things you leave in, and the things you take out, can sometimes lead to the final story you tell being very different.

For instance:  In the original novel (and thus, the 1994 adaptation, with Robert DeNiro as the monster), the monster escapes from confinement and then spends several weeks hiding in a peasant family’s barn, learning to speak and teaching himself to read.  His cruelty comes from a place of intelligence and a desire for revenge against Victor Frankenstein; he is calculating, he is manipulative, he is self-aware. He knows he looks terrible and that he is therefore doomed to a horrific life; so much of his revenge against his creator is designed to force Frankenstein to create a wife for him, so he’s not totally alone.

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Our 1931 adaptation, though, drops all of this.  The monster escapes confinement after only a couple days of being kept in darkness, and blindly stumbles to a peasant’s house where a child innocently invites him to play, and he throws her in a pond, as he thinks that is part of the game.  Then he simply wanders off.  The grieving father rallies a mob to pursue his daugher’s killer – whom they all somehow know is Frankenstein’s creature – and they pursue the monster in the mountains, with Frankenstein finally confronting him at the head of the mob.  The monster attacks him, takes him hostage and barricades them both inside a windmill, where he and the mob have a final standoff.  But this monster cannot speak, and seems to not even recognize Frankenstein; he’s just a creature following a survival instinct.

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This adaptation also gives Frankenstein a much happier ending than the original book – the monster interrupts Frankenstein’s wedding to the lovely Elizabeth, but with the monster defeated and Frankenstein rescued, this film ends with Frankenstein’s father enjoying a champagne toast to the honeymooning couple.  The original novel has a much bleaker end for Frankenstein, and Elizabeth fares even less well.

Actually, Elizabeth’s fate is one of the few places that the 1994 film differs from the novel, which simply has the monster kill her off.  In the 90s film Frankenstein takes the freshly-dead Elizabeth and attempts to re-animate her as he did with his monster. He intends to revive her for himself, but the monster thinks that Elizabeth is to be his.  Elizabeth, however, wants nothing to do with either of them and kills herself almost immediately.

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In 1931, though, Elizabeth only gets a brief scare when the monster breaks into her bridal chamber right before the wedding.  He chases her around the room a bit, then simply leaves again, leaving her shaken, but alive, and able to marry Frankenstein the next day.

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Now – in general, there are a lot of reasons why filmmakers can omit things from adaptations. Sometimes it really is for dramaturgical reasons; movies are very different from the printed word, and audiences need things to be a little more streamlined as a result; you can go back and re-read things you don’t understand in a book, but you can’t ask the projectionist to “rewind that last two minutes so I can watch that again”.   If you’re working wtih an especially long novel, you may also need to make some cuts so you don’t end up with a seven-hour marathon of a picture; and as beloved as some of those elements may be, if they don’t contribute to the whole of the story they may need to go (all y’all missing the Tom Bombadil sections from the Lord Of The Rings movies, take note).

But taking away the monster’s intelligence, and giving Frankenstein a happy endingprofoundly changes the story being told.  Frankenstein does have a line or two about how his “madness” caused him to do terrible things, but effectively all he has to do is make his creation go away.  He suffers no real comeuppance – not from his fiancee, not from his family, not even from his former teacher, from whom he stole most of his equipment.  He’s injured by the monster, but recovers.  It’s like he simply let a couple petri dishes get contaminated and just had to clean the lab out a little more thoroughly.  He’s “created life”, but that “life” doesn’t really seem to impact him at all.

Shelley’s original story was a warning against science going too far, and a call to scientists to be prepared to face the consequences of their actions.  But this film is all about how creepy the monster is, and how the scientist won in the end so it’s all okay.  That is a very, very different message; and it’s one I’m not entirely certain we can chalk completely up to Hollywood needing a happy ending.

Movie Crash Course: Dracula

Like I said with Nosferatu a while back: it’s a vampire story, you know the drill.

Although in this case there’s a bit more to it.  Nosferatu was originally going to be an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s original work, except that F. W. Murnau didn’t do the due diligence getting the rights, and Stoker’s widow sued.  So Murnau changed the name and some of the details of the story. In this case, producer Carl Laemmie was a bit more careful, and got the rights to the story of Dracula first before proceeding.

Even so, this isn’t a straight adaptation of Stoker’s book; instead, it’s an adaptation of a stage play, which was itself an adaptation of the novel.  This was probably a wise move – the book has a number of extraneous characters that would be getting in the way, while the play pares down the cast list considerably and streamlines the story, to its benefit.  I’ve read the book, and even seen the Francis Ford Coppola adaptation (which is a more faithful by-the-book version), and even with that reinforcement I still don’t remember any of the names of the extra characters; but Van Helsing, Mina, and Dracula, I know solid.  For this reason alone, basing the movie on the play was a wise move.

The film also owes a debt to the stage play in one other respect, however. Originally, despite rave reviews as Dracula during the stage production, Bela Lugosi wasn’t even under consideration for the lead role; Laemmie was considering a number of other actors instead. But while Laemmie was auditioning actors, a touring company of Dracula came through Los Angeles, and Lugosi was conveniently playing the lead here as well.  He all but dragged Laemmie to see the production, and campaigned hard for the role, going so far as to accept a pittance of a salary: only $500 per week for the two months of filming. Even though he came to regret it in later years, Lugosi became so associated with the role that it’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone else playing this cursed count.

Lugosi’s performance wasn’t the biggest revelation for me watching this film, though. Somehow, despite never seeing more than the occasional clip here and there, I found that I’ve managed to build up a version of the film in my head that was wildly different from the actual film. I was expecting a much more violent and frantic Count Dracula, and a wild orchestral score.  But instead – there is very little music, and Lugosi is much more prone to stony stares and languid, hypnotic pacing, and I’m not entirely sure how I got my previous impressions.

Dwight Frye, as Renfield, was another revelation. In the Francis Ford Coppola film, Renfield is played by Tom Waits, so you already know from the start that he’s a little nuts.  But here, Renfield is one of the first characters we meet – a spit-and-polish solicitor who bravely sets off for a meeting with the Count, poo-poohing the warnings from the villagers about Dracula being a vampire as he does.  He still turns into a madman in due course, but the contrast with the earlier sane Renfield is especially striking.

There’s some “special effects” moments that are a little laughable – the film makes frequent use of a bat flying around and menacing characters, and the bat in question is a little too obviously a puppet on a string.  I also raised my eyebrows a bit at an early scene in Dracula’s castle, when Renfield was timidly checking the place out and saw all kinds of creepy animals crawling around, like spiders and rats – and, strangely, he sees a group of armadillos nosing around some stairs.

Nevertheless, this is a film that has worked its way into our collective id, even if – like with me – the impression you have of the film is wrong.  It’s earned its way in there, wobbly bats and Lugosi’s stare and all.