Friday, July 17, 2020

The Cameraman (1928) marked both the end and the beginning of an era for Buster Keaton. It was the first film Keaton made at MGM after the dissolution of Buster Keaton Studios, the independent studio Keaton had run throughout the 1920s along with producer Joe Schenck, who sold his contract to mega studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1928. As a result, it was the last film over which Keaton was able to exercise complete creative control, and the last film that would involve all the major crew members that had helped him make some of his greatest masterpieces. 

Keaton would later describe selling out to MGM as "the worst mistake of my life," and while The Cameraman is not among the strongest of Keaton's feature films of the 1920s (his final masterpiece, Steamboat Bill, Jr., was also released in 1928), it's the last film that contained that unique Keaton spark. MGM reportedly saw Keaton more as a star than a creative force, a sad clown to be directed rather than direct, and mostly cannibalized Buster Keaton Studios for scrap, reassigning the crew to other projects, never again giving Keaton creative control over one of his own projects. As a result, one of the greatest comedians of the silent era simply faded away, reduced to glum cameos in MGM projects, never again ascending to the heights of his earlier career.

The film centers around Keaton's titular cameraman, a tintype photographer who trades in his still camera for an ancient movie camera in order to become a newsreel cameraman in order to win the heart of the beautiful secretary (Marceline Day) who works in the newsreel office. Hijinx naturally ensue as Keaton attempts to learn his craft on the fly, with predictably disastrous results. But when a local gang war breaks out, Keaton finally finds his opportunity to impress the bigwigs, snag the job, and win the girl. Or so the thinks.

Keaton reportedly had to beg MGM's production head, Irving Thalberg, to allow him to scrap the extraneous plots thrust upon him by the studio's throng of writers, and he eventually won every battle he fought on The Cameraman  but one can't help but detect a but of exhaustion in this, the last of Keaton's major silent comedies. Just as the filmmaker's ideas were were bursting at the seams a decade earlier just before he transitioned from shorts to feature filmmaking, one can almost feel Keaton's exhaustion here. There are some lovely moments of inspiration to be found here; Keaton trying to change into his swimsuit in a cramped closet with another bulky swimmer, jumping on a firetruck to go film a fire only for it to pull back into the firehouse, filming a riot while standing on a collapsing platform without ever losing his poise - his flair for comedic timing and sight gags remain unparalleled among the great silent comedians.

Yet there's a certain poignancy here - knowing what Keaton sacrificed in order to make this film. He would never again enjoy such creative freedom and as a result his work and career became greatly diminished. It's an important missing piece in Keaton's oeuvre, but it represents a turning point in his career from which he would never recover, one last great hurrah with the gang. Its moments of whimsy and delight land with as much grace as any gag in his earlier work, but it feels very much like an artist working against the grain, finding diamonds in the rough. And although Keaton emerged from his experience making The Cameraman with his dignity mostly intact (it is a fine comedy and did well for MGM), the sacrifices he made to get it done were enormous. The ingredients are all here, but it's not quite the same, and it never would be again.

The new Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection also includes Spite Marriage (1929), the first film made without his usual crew for MGM, which offers a fascinating contrast to The Cameraman, as well as a host of other extras.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


THE CAMERAMAN | Directed by Buster Keaton, Edward Sedgwick | Stars Buster Keaton, Marceline Day, Harold Goodwin | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020


COME AND SEE

(Elem Klimov | USSR | 1985)


The grim visage of young Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko), a 13-year-old Belarusian boy who goes off to defend the Soviet Union from the Nazi invasion of WWII, is one of the most searing images of Elem Klimov's barn-burning 1985 masterpiece, Come and See.

Flyora begins the film as a young, fresh-faced boy whose playful digging in the sand to find buried weapons left by dead soldiers in a seemingly long-forgotten war almost seems like a childhood war game; two boys playing at being soldiers in a fantasy world far removed from reality. But this is no fantasy - and soon Flyora finds himself dragged from his home to join the war effort with other resistance fighters from his tiny village. By the time the film ends, Flyora has gone from boy to man, but not in the typical hero's journey sense. Instead he ends the film a gaunt, hollow shell of the boy we met - his face covered in worry lines and crows feet - as if he's aged decades over the course of two hours.

And what a harrowing two hours it is - watching Come and See is an unrelenting experience, yet it's filled with a kind of grim, haunting beauty that's hard to shake, recalling Tarkovsky almost religious sense of weight (especially in Ivan's Childhood) in its remarkable evocation of horror and utter despair. Flyora's journey from innocence to cold, hardened killer is designed to be a warning - as he eventually devolves into the very thing he's fighting against. There are no winners in Klimov's vivid wartime nightmare - it tears down everyone and everything it touches. Few films can claim such a brutal and indelible impact - but Come and See has often been overlooked by critics and audiences since its release in 1985. And yet its one of the decade's crowning glories - a war film from the ages that Criterion has helped usher out of its relative obscurity with its recent theatrical re-release and new Blu-Ray edition that places the film squarely in the pantheon in which it belongs. One of the defining masterpieces of the 1980s has finally been given the home video treatment it deserves. Long unavailable, it is now ripe for discovery by a new generation of cinephiles  as one of the greatest war films of all time.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)


Now available from The Criterion Collection.


ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS

(Michael Curtiz | USA | 1948)

Doris Day made her screen debut in Michael Crutiz' delightful seafaring musical, Romance on the High Seas (1948), starring as a young woman hired by a wealthy socialite (Janis Paige) to take her place on a cruise so she can stay behind and spy on her husband (Don DeFore), who she suspects of infidelity. Unbeknownst to her, her husband similarly suspects her of cheating on him, so he hires a private eye (Jack Carson) to trail her onto the ship. Lots of mistaken identities and ensue as Carson's private eye falls for Day's plucky singer, despite thinking she's his employer's wife the whole time.

Romance on the High Seas is an easy-going crowd pleaser, and it's easy to see why Day became such a huge star - her effervescent, folksy charm feels almost effortless, and Curtiz uses it to great effect here, balancing its  farcical plot threads with ease. The Busby Berkeley musical numbers aren't really anything to write home about, and are mostly static  when compared to his grand scale choreography of the 1930s, but the film isn't the same sort of lavish spectacular, favoring intimate, diagetic  scenes of shipboard lounge singing than using music to tell the story.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Now available from Warner Archive.



STRIKE UP THE BAND

(Busby Berkeley | USA | 1940)


Busby Berkeley's High School Musical - a rollicking musical extravaganza featuring Mickey Rooney as a young drummer whose dream of becoming a drummer takes off when he organizes a high school band to compete in a competition, where he is noticed by legendary big band leader, Paul Whiteman. Judy Garland is his faithful best friend, whose unrequited love for him constantly relegates her to second place as he keeps his eye on the prize.

Rooney and Garland are full of effervescent charm, and Berkeley delivers some of his strongest numbers of his MGM period, from the ingenious dancing fruit number (reportedly conceived by Vincent Minelli) to the grand finale at Whiteman's band competition. An utter delight from start to finish that showcases Rooney as the muti-talented star that he was, and gives star-on-the-rise Garland (fresh off the success of The Wizard of Oz) a chance to show off her range. It occasionally feels like its two-hour runtime is about 30 minutes too long, but its digressions are so amiable that it's hard to say what should be cut. Garland and Rooney, along with William Tracey (The Shop Around the Corner), June Preisser (Babes in Arms), and Larry Nunn (The Major and the Minor) recreating a turn-of-the-century melodrama at a high school talent show is such an unadulterated joy and one of the funniest set pieces of Berkeley's illustrious career. Don't miss this one.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Now available from Warner Archive.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Dwain Esper's NARCOTIC (1933). Courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Continuing their line of exploitation pictures from the 1930s, Kino Lorber and Something Weird have released two more volumes in their wildly entertaining home video series, Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture.

While the last round included such notorious films as Reefer Madness and Mom and Dad, these two new discs feature four films that may be lesser known, but are no less lurid - in some cases, perhaps even more so. And while they may not be great cinema, most of them have an irresistible entertainment value that makes these historical curiosities so bad they're actually good.

VOLUME 4: MARIHUANA/NARCOTIC

Dwain Esper made multiple "issue drama" exploitation films in the 1930s, including Maniac (1934), Narcotic (1933), and the short film, How to Undress in Front of Your Husband (1937). His 1936 film, Marihuana, is as much a takeoff on Reefer Madness (1936) as Esper's own Sex Madness would be two years later. Essentially a "slippery slope" drama, Marihuana (subtitled Weed with Roots in Hell), follows the exploits of a teenage girl who dabbles in marijuana and ends up as a heroin addict who kidnaps her own child. It's as weird and wild as one may expect, and in the best Esper tradition makes little sense - divorcing each of its characters from any logical human behavior in order to push his own particular agenda. It has the distinction of being one of the most unintentionally hilarious of these sanctimonious "issues of today" films of the period due to the sheer outlandishness of its plot, but ultimately it's a slog even at 58 minutes.

Of all of Dwain Esper's moralistic exploitation films of the 1930s, Narcotic is perhaps the "best," although I use that term loosely because you know going in basically what you're going to get here. It follows the journey of a doctor whose fascination with addiction leads him onto the slippery slope of becoming an addict himself, as he "studies" drug parties and opium dens under the guise of science, before succumbing to the very vices he's researching. The finger-wagging moralism is still here, although Esper seems to latch onto something vaguely more realistic here, even if the film itself plays on cringe-worthy  stereotypes and half-truths to get its point across.

MARIHUANA -★ (out of four)

NARCOTIC -★★ (out of four)


VOLUME 5: TOMORROW'S CHILDREN/CHILD BRIDE

Tomorrow's Children (1934) is an interesting curio from the "socially conscious exploitation" genre from the 1930s, that takes a rather unique look at the horrors of eugenics from a decidedly skewed lens. While most films of this kind used sex and drugs as a way to entice in audiences with a lurid premise wrapped up in a moralistic veneer, Tomorrow's Children is something else altogether, putting forced sterilizations in the spotlight from a more religious version of morality than one of bodily autonomy.

The film centers around a family of ne're-do-wells who are singled out for sterilization by the state because of rampant mental illness, alcoholism, and criminal behavior that are present in nearly every member of the family -  that is except for Alice, the family's bright, well-adjusted daughter, who is engaged to be married. Targeted for sterilization, she sets out to plead her case in court before it's too late.

The film essentially takes a stance similar to arguments used by anti-abortionists, arguing against sterilization from the point of view of "you can't play god and interfere in the reproductive process" rather than "the state shouldn't be able to control people's bodies," but as a melodrama it's actually one of the most engaging exploitation films of the period. The performances are universally strong, and the film feels less like an amateur production and more like an actual film that just happens to be on a muckraking cause.

Perhaps one of the most notorious exploitation films the 1930s, Child Bride tells the story of a teacher on a crusade in her tiny mountain community to outlaw the practice of child marriage. Most of the story revolves around her, and it takes nearly 42 minutes of the film's 62 minute running time for the film to get around to the "child bride" part of its title (a common practice among these lurid  exploitation films), but when it finally gets around one of the local hillbillies attempting to marry a 12-year-old girl, things get extremely uncomfortable very quickly. Not just because of the subject matter (clearly the film is against the practice of child marriage), but the young star spends a good 5 minutes skinny-dipping while her suitor leers at her from the cliffs above.

It's the most infamous scene in the film, which is already easily the most disturbing of the exploitation films in Kino's Forbidden Fruit series. A great many of the films have become quaint with age, but Child Bride is a different animal altogether, and when the camera begins to leer at young Shirley Mills from the POV of her pedophilic suitor, the film ceases to be a goofy grind house curio and becomes something truly, darkly exploitative. The film was banned in many cities, but enjoyed a kind of cult popularity in grindhouse theaters across the country as its reputation grew. Don't let curiosity get the better of you on this one - avoid it like the plague.

TOMORROW'S CHILDREN -★★½ (out of four)
CHILD BRIDE - zero stars (out of four)



Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber!