New Books!

Apocalypse Later has now expanded from blog to print! My first two books are now available at Amazon and the other usual online stores. Click on the images above or the titles below to visit their pages at

Huh? An A-Z of Why Classic American Bad Movies Were Made
(front cover by Eric Schock of Evil Robo Productions)

Velvet Glove Cast in Iron: The Films of Tura Satana
with a foreword by Peaches Christ and an afterword by Cody Jarrett
(front cover by Keith Decesare of KAD Creations)

Festival Coverage

Phoenix Film Festival:
2014 | 2013 | 2012
International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival: 2014 | 2013
2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009
Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival: 2013

Phoenix Fear Fest/FearCon: 2012 | 2011 | 2010IFP Phoenix Filmmaker Challenges: 2013 | 2012Filmstock Film Festival:
AZ 2013

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Dust of War (2013)

Director: Andrew Kightlinger
Stars: Tony Todd, Steven Luke, Bates Wilder, Jordan McFadden, Gary Graham and Doug Jones
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
I left Dust of War with painfully mixed feelings, most of which stemmed from the script. It was written by director Andrew Kightlinger from a story by Adam Emerson and Steven Luke, credited here as Luke Schuetzle to hide that he's also the leading man. This script is one of the best things about the movie, because it continually uses imagination to successfully avoid clichés and elevate a clearly low budget production beyond the norm. Unfortunately, the very same script is also one of the worst things about the movie, because at the few points where it doesn't succeed in avoiding clichés, it revels in them so gleefully that I wanted to cringe. To suggest that these are incredibly frustrating moments would be to understate the case. Watching the film felt like walking up an isolated mountain with a refreshing view that gradually captivates us with its uniqueness, only to turn a corner and be slapped in the face with a McDonalds, a WalMart and a Starbucks together like the lowest common denominator of wet fish.

The introduction sets the scene like a blitzkrieg, explaining that an alien invasion has been and gone, leaving the world in a sort of post-apocalyptic state. An evil despot has arisen in the dust left behind by the war, Gen Chizum by name, but he's countered by a mysterious child growing up as a harbinger of peace. The impression is that the battle of good and evil between them holds the fate of the world in the balance and we focus in on this battle in microcosm as two bounty hunters search for her in the general's stronghold. I particularly liked the little picture here. This is no sweeping epic of army versus army, it's a character driven tale of two wills against one, with a few interesting supporting characters. We only get the slightest glimpse of the aliens, all wrapped up in red armour, masks and attitude. This isn't about them, so we don't need countless man years of CGI; this worthwhile indie picture unfolds in the echo of that imaginary blockbuster's drift through the second run theatres into online streaming.

It's a refreshing ride for a while, though the size of Chizum's stronghold unfortunately highlights the lack of budget. The general is a huge man with a bald head and knotted beard, someone brutal but controlled enough to believably rise to this sort of position. He looks like he's going to be a cliché on legs, WWE's candidate for president, but he successfully avoids a hinted descent to the level of a live action action figure to remain a refreshing villain throughout. Bates Wilder is the actor, who I haven't seen play a part this substantial before; previously I've only caught him in smaller roles in top notch but very different films like Shutter Island and Hachi: A Dog's Tale. He's made a number of films since his first part as Loud Mouth Cop in Mystic River, but it's his stage background that has surely lent the structure to build character roles like this one. I hope the next time I see him on screen, it'll be in a lead role or, at least, one with enough time for him to flesh out his character the way he clearly can.
If Wilder is refreshing as the villain, Steven Luke is a revelation as the hero. He's Abel, a quiet, strong, meaningful leader who doesn't seem to want to lead. We soon find that he's been there, done that, as a legendary soldier who led a famous attack against the alien invaders, but he has no need of dwelling on past glories, whether he won or lost. Just as Wilder played a very believable despot, Luke is just as believable as his foil. What impressed me was how he does this: not through rippling muscles or cool dialogue but by inspiration, something tough to show effectively through the abstraction of a screen. He isn't the buff action hero stereotype and he doesn't have superstar looks; what he has is charisma that makes men want to follow him. As he rescues his partner and the girl they've been seeking from Chizum's brig, he gets an AWOL soldier as a bonus and it's this comic relief character who sets the stage hint. 'You're him?' he asks. 'You're supposed to be dead.' Luke lives up to awe by shrugging it off.
And so the chase begins, through the prairies of South Dakota. Abel and his partner, Tom Dixie, lead the way, with Ellie, the girl who might just save the world, initially as a prisoner but soon a companion, and Klamp, the AWOL soldier. They get a decent start but Gen Chizum is soon hot on their trail, aided by the talents of a Native American tracker called Dark Horse. Also worthy of mention in the general's crew is Giger, his torturer. All these are characters, not just in the movie but also in the world that they occupy; none would ever fade into the background, except perhaps Ellie who uses that approach as a defence mechanism. None are so overt that they become stereotypes; they feel more like stereotypes carefully adjusted to not feel like stereotypes, enhanced in every instance by solid performances. The script may throw obstacles in their way, starting with a minefield, but even as Kightlinger ratchets up the tension, it's always his characters who we watch. They're easily Dust of War's biggest success.
If Abel is the one we find ourselves naturally following, it's Dixie who most effectively steals attention. Gary Graham's is surely the most recognisable face after those of Tony Todd and Doug Jones, after his long run as Det Matthew Sikes in the Alien Nation TV show and succeeding movies. He's a quarter of a century older here than he was starting out there, having grown into a vague cross between Fred Ward and Billy Bob Thornton. He's an endearing sidekick because he's never just a sidekick, he's a capable lead who just happens to follow because he's found a man worthy of following. While Ellie is surely the character with the most expected story arc, it's Klamp who ends up with that instead. He's a waste of space early on, but the script keeps finding reasons for him to be in it and he grows well to meet them. I don't know if Hank Ostendorf as Klamp does a better job than Jordan McFadden as Ellie or whether his character just has more to do. Ellie's promise sadly becomes an afterthought, which diminishes her.
On the chasing side, David Midthunder is note perfect as Dark Horse, mixing the inevitable talent of his role as tracker with an agreeably dry humour, while Tristran Barnard plays Giger more overtly. The name suggests dark Austrian art, but he's an English-educated Irishman portraying a rather Spanish character, an unholy coupling of twisted mediaeval inquisitor with silent era swashbuckler. If we ever need Zorro to go undercover in the Spanish Inquisition, he'd surely feel exactly like Giger. I wonder if there should have been another notable character in Chizum's party to balance the two sides. I can't remember who else was chasing, but nobody else was memorable enough to make my notes and the only one I can recall is a disposable one quickly lost to a pressure mine. It could be argued that three notable characters chasing four leaves subconscious hints as to how things will play out, but maybe I just didn't buy into others being notable characters.
And that leaves the major names to discover on the road, populating a deceptively calm oasis in the desert. Tony Todd, who is top credited here above all the real leads, does add something to the story, unlike many of his guest appearances nowadays; for every characterful contribution like The Graves, there's a wasted one like Kill Her, Not Me. Todd is more versatile than most realise (just see The Man from Earth for a completely different side of him) and he brings an agreeable depth to this role. I just wanted more of Crispus because I felt he had more to bring. Doug Jones, however, is exactly right as Jebediah Strumm; while he doesn't actually get much screen time, it resonates gloriously so that he's one of the most memorable things about the film. I'm finding that that happens a lot with Jones. Ever quirky, we meet him carrying dead snakes and he later leads a tea party for children at a crucial point in the story. He's clearly not all there but he has talents beyond the obvious. How could we not like?
Unfortunately the same frustratingly doesn't go for the film as a whole. It's a highly promising picture with an enticing premise, a strong vision and a thoughtful use of a low budget. It has a great lead, well written supporting characters and a pair of impressive names guesting late in the picture. Yet its flaws cannot be ignored. Painfully clichéd scenes in an original movie grate all the more because they stand out; If I'd seen these in a less promising film, I wouldn't care because my expectations wouldn't be high, but here they spoil. The ending is a vague afterthought, as if Kightlinger wrapped the picture then remembered he had a prophecy to explain. In fact, the pace is off a little throughout; it's a slow film with a quiet score ('Mad Max bitchslapping Terrence Malick', says Kightlinger), but it slows more, even when we hit a fight/chase scene shot surprisingly close. All in all, it aims to be a great sci-fi flick and it does well for most of the film. It's so sad to highlight that the other bits are cringeworthy.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Mabel at the Wheel (1914)

Directors: Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett
Stars: Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin and Harry McCoy
Charlie Chaplin made 36 films in his debut year of 1914, steadily building towards a status of the most recognised man in the world. If the legend is to be believed, though, his career almost ended after his eleventh picture, Mabel at the Wheel. He was still young, having reached his quarter of a century only two days before this film reached theatres, and he was still inexperienced, having arrived at Keystone just over four months earlier, even if he had already churned out ten movies in that time. However he had firm ideas about the directions he wanted his screen character to take and he was finding that his ideas rarely matched those of his directors. In fact he'd learned this before ever making a movie, just watching them be made on the Keystone set. The studio's standard methodology was to build gag on gag until they reached the point where they became a chase. Chaplin mentions in his autobiography that, 'little as I knew about movies, I knew that nothing transcended personality.'

He famously failed to get on with his first director at Keystone, Henry Lehrman, who 'used to say that he didn't need personalities' and he failed to get on with his second regular one too, even though his four films for George Nichols proved to be a burst of creative experimentation. 'He had but one gag,' Chaplin later wrote, 'which was to take the comedian by the neck and bounce him from one scene to another.' Compared to these two though, he really butted heads with Mabel Normand, not merely the biggest star at Keystone (and the lover of studio head, Mack Sennett), but one of the earliest female directors. Her technique on Mabel at the Wheel depressed Chaplin immediately and her disregard of his comedic suggestions prompted 'the inevitable blow-up.' While he claims to have 'secretly had a soft spot in my heart for her,' he emphatically refused to continue on. 'I'm sorry, Miss Normand,' he explained. 'I will not do what I'm told. I don't think you are competent to tell me what to do.'

That clearly wasn't going to help him. Extras apparently wanted to slug him, but Normand kept them at bay. They retreated to the studio where Sennett blistered at him. 'You'll do what you're told,' he told Chaplin, 'or get out, contract or no contract.' Chaplin wondered if he'd been fired, but the next day, it was completely different. Now Normand and Sennett were calm and composed, eager to hear his gag ideas. Mabel at the Wheel was a go. What prompted the change? Chaplin didn't have a clue but later he claims to have discovered the reason and he outlines it in his autobiography. He was indeed about to be fired, he explained, but the next morning, Sennett 'received a telegram from the New York office telling him to hurry up with more Chaplin pictures as there was a terrific demand for them.' Sennett was above all a businessman and he knew what sort of money his new star was starting to generate. His average picture warranted twenty prints, while Chaplin's were reaching forty and growing.
Whatever the reason for the bust up and the reconcilement, it's clear that this is far from the pictures Chaplin wanted to make. He may not have got on with Nichols, but he was able to play a varied set of characters and explore a number of possibilities in the four films they made together. This must have felt like a backward step, even though it was his first two reel film. He plays what can only be termed a serial villain or a proto-Dick Dastardly. He's not the Little Tramp, of course, dressed instead in a top hat and an odd goatee that resembles a pair of demonic horns sprouting from his chin. The character was clearly based on Ford Sterling, but there's much taken from the sharper he played in Making a Living too. Chaplin dominated both Mabel's Strange Predicament and Mabel at the Wheel, regardless of the supposed star announced in their titles. We can hardly believe these are Normand films in hindsight; the former saw her flail around as if pleading for laughs; here she doesn't really aim for them at all.

She's less a comic lead in this picture and more of a heroic one, as well as being the love interest who drives (pun not intended) the plot along. You see, Mabel has two admirers. One is her boyfriend, in the form of Harry McCoy, moving up from being merely her admirer in Mabel's Strange Predicament. He's not just her boyfriend in this picture, he's also a race car driver and with 1914 vehicles that means a true daredevil indeed. He plays a decent, all-American, nice guy, daredevil race car driver here, which may have led to further roles as her sweetheart in both Mabel's Nerve and Hello, Mabel. However, he soon descended to bit parts in later Mabel pictures like a hot dog thief, a man in a bar or even, in the following year's Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition, a Charlie Chaplin impersonator. That's ironic because here this atypical Chaplin is his competition for Mabel's attention and he's a dastardly competitor who will stop at nothing to wreck McCoy's chances.

In fact, he'll stop at nothing to wreck McCoy. This is an odd Keystone comedy in that it seems to forget that it's a comedy for the majority of its running time and seems content to play up the villainy angle against the backdrop of a real event, a common setting for Keystone pictures. Here it's the Vanderbilt Cup road race in Santa Monica, the adult version of the soap box derby event at which Chaplin's Little Tramp debuted in Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. Documenting the race constituted the first day of the shoot, on 26th February, but they continued on until 16th March to add in all the dastardly deeds that Chaplin's villain could do. He starts with a pin to flatten one of his rival's tyres outside Mabel's house, all to guarantee that she'll ride to the track on his motorbike instead, and that pin finds its way into a substantial proportion of the backsides that present themselves during the film. He escalates quickly though, to the degree of kidnapping the poor lad and prompting Mabel to take his place in the race.
Chaplin is a very deliberate villain here, confident enough that he wears his villainy on his sleeve. He gesticulates, glowers and gibbers his way through the first half of the picture, posing outrageously at each opportunity as if we might forget how emphatically he can't be trusted. As if that wasn't enough, he has a dubious pair of henchmen with outrageous walrus moustaches. Fortunately, the evil edge is tempered a little by his general lack of success. He may succeed in kidnapping his rival but he has a hard enough time taming his heavy 1914 motorcycle. After he falls off the thing, he even needs help from a passerby to just get back on. He's also outnumbered in a rock fight, which looks very painful indeed. That great invention of Mack Sennett, the pie fight, wouldn't have fit in the scene, so they go at it with rocks instead. I'm sure they were really beanbags or some such but these actors really knew how to aim and hit square in the face more often than not.

If the early scenes play up the pain, Normand getting in on the act too with a tumble off the back of Chaplin's bike into a puddle, the later ones play up the comedy. The catch is that these scenes aren't particularly funny, with the height of sophistication here revolving around the villain spraying oil onto the track so that Mabel spins out and drives a lap in reverse, only to spin out again at the very same spot and, in doing so, restore her car to the right direction. While Dick Dastardly was clearly based on Terry-Thomas with a side of Jack Lemmon's character in The Great Race, that role was just as clearly based on the sort of villains in silent movie serials who tied damsels in distress to railway lines. What might be surprising and worthy of note here is that famous serials like The Perils of Pauline, also shot in 1914, didn't have such scenes; one of the earliest that did was Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life, a 1913 picture made at Keystone with Mabel Normand as the damsel and Ford Sterling as the villain.

Rewatching these early Chaplins, this sort of quandary keeps on showing up. On one side, the comedy on show is hardly sophisticated, Mack Sennett and his directors content to recycle both old stories and the gags that populated them again and again. Yet on the other, they were by far the most successful comedy studio in the business, churning out films that made audiences split their sides, in the process inventing so much that would come to be taken as routine. This one doesn't feel like it's either original or funny, so Chaplin was presumably right when he suggested that the 22 year old Normand wasn't a competent director but, at only three years older, he was about to get his own chances. That was the deal he struck with Sennett; if he completed this film how Normand wanted, he'd be able to helm his own. He'd dabble in direction on his next film, Twenty Minutes of Love, and go solo on Caught in the Rain, two pictures after that. By July, he'd direct every short film he appeared in at Keystone.

Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Mabel at the Wheel can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats (though each much abridged) from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of all 36 of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory (if we count the first half of A Thief Catcher, previously thought lost), it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Shower (2013)

Director: Alex Drummond
Stars: Kurt Ela, Rachael Drummond, Rob Norton, Andy Hoff, Alexandra Fatovich, Adam Karell, Stephanie Beran, Tony Rago, Stephanie Tobey, Katerina Mikailenko, Suzanne Sena, Drew Benda, Evan Gamble, Paul Natonek, John Brody, Liz Loza, Ted McKnight, Neil Rodriguez, Meredith Lyerla and Audrey McKenna
This film was an official selection at the 10th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
People who hate clowns are going to hate this movie. My niece Harriet, as tough as she really is, would have kittens who have kittens before the opening credits, as we're shown a particularly mild mannered clown with multi-coloured hair, so mild mannered that we can't fail to grok that he's a psychopath. Of course, the blood dripping off his chin makes it a gimme. That's him on the poster up there: see what I mean? I've never had a problem with clowns, but fate threw me a curveball in that I watched this as a screener on the morning before going to my first baby shower. I had no idea, of course. The film isn't titled Baby Shower, just The Shower. I was expecting a cheap Psycho knockoff or a creature feature where a shark bursts through the bathtub but is snagged by the shower curtain and dispatched with the broken rail. But it turns out to be about a baby shower, which flavoured my day perfectly. At least there wasn't a clown at the one I went to! Other than me, of course, and I wasn't drooling blood.

The key name here is Alex Drummond, not only because he wrote and directed the movie but because he wrote what he knew. In 2011 he was given a couple of grand to write a screenplay, even winning a contest, but the sponsor went bankrupt and it was never turned into a picture. So Alex Drummond did what any writer worth his salt would do; he wrote another picture about a writer, Nick Drummond, who was given a couple of grand in 2011 to write a screenplay, which was never turned into a picture. This sort of similarity doesn't stop there. To play Mary Drummond, the heavily pregnant wife of this slightly fictional version of himself, he cast his heavily pregnant wife, Rachael Drummond. To play a varied set of friends to attend Mary's baby shower, he cast a varied set of friends. As producer Andy Hoff, one of those friends who plays one of those friends, points out, there's a strong connection between them: a restaurant where they all worked on their respective arrivals in Hollywood.

Beyond being true, this sort of story rings true, backed up by the comments of every local actor I know who got big enough in the small pond of Arizona to hightail it down I-10 to LA and see how they would fare as small fish in the big pond of Hollywood. Reality in Tinseltown is described simply: everybody you meet is in the movie business. They're actors, writers and directors, people who are almost famous but for now have to settle for shining your shoes or cleaning your windscreen outside a 7-Eleven. These folk happened to work in a restaurant, not only the ones who play people who work in restaurants. In a neat touch, Drummond captures this simple reality by introducing each of the ensemble cast of characters played by his ensemble cast of friends with a few little snippets to detail how they tie to the industry, thrown up on the screen neo-grindhouse style so we can't miss them. It works well. We're deluged with characters early on, but we never get lost. That's a major plus point in Drummond's favour.
Nick and Mary Drummond are as happy as Larry waiting for their second child to show up, even though she's a daughter they can't afford. They're obliging, mild mannered and polite, even when threatened, and they're just the sort of couple you'd expect someone to throw a baby shower for. This one is hosted by Joanne, a former child actor who only dates men born after 1980. No, we're never told how old she is but it doesn't take much googling to discover that actress Suzanne Sena was born in 1963, even if she doesn't list it at IMDb. She looks good, though she's notably older than Zach, her personal trainer and boy toy. Joanne is a talent agent, who treats Beth, her PA, like absolute crap. The guests flood in: Sara, who did an episode of CSI, and Pat, who played a cop in a car commercial; Caroline and Edmund, who met in improv but now have real jobs; Viola, who's a doctor, and Dave, who played one on TV; Ryan, a TV star with his own show, and Kim, a hostess, actor and model. Even Mary did national commercials.

All these folk are nice, at least on the outside, but things aren't going to stay polite for long; we grasp that when Tommy shows up and brings tension with him. He's a bartender who played a bartender in a beer commercial but, more importantly, he used to date Kim and dearly wishes he still did. This hint at romance never goes away; this isn't quite a zomromcom, but it has all the elements. These folk half get on and half really don't and we watch the cracks appear in their facades. The guys feel bad about not living their dreams, so hide inside watching golf and drowning their sorrows, while the girls hang round the pregnant chick in the hope that her condition might be contagious. It's only when Viola, Dr Froman, is called into work for an emergency, presumably the one that will soon overwhelm this baby shower, that we start to move forward. If we've been paying careful attention, we'll have seen it already take down a few background characters, but there are many to go. There's an enjoyable apocalypse in store.

For a while it plays it by numbers, with some comedy thrown in for good measure; this is very much a comedy horror film, where the former trumps the latter, but not by too much. The TV signal turns into static, the radio reports riots all over the city and folk who've already left show back up because all the roads are blocked. All the phones die just as Doc Viola rings her husband with news of an outbreak, so communications are clearly being stopped and our shower guests have to go out for background. One neighbour standing oddly in the back yard has a police scanner: he says that the LAPD is on full tactical alert and the national guard is coming in. But then he beats Zach to a pulp and the clown takes a chunk out of Joanne's arm; they throw him out, so he takes down the neighbour and howls at the imaginary moon. The apocalypse clearly wanted an invite to this baby shower and the guests start shrinking to a much more manageable number, reimagining their relationships as they go.
To find out where this goes, you'll need to watch the film, but it's a mixture of the routine tropes and a slightly original take on the end of the world. While zombie movies used to be grounded as horror films, centred around the outbreak or whatever caused their particular paradigm shift, they've been gradually shifting of late to the sci-fi model of post-apocalyptic movies, especially short ones, where nobody has a clue about who, what or where, let alone how or why, because what really matters is how they deal with it. This has that sci-fi grounding, an slightly original one where most but not all of our expectations are pandered to. For instance, characters are turned into zombies through the regular bites of the infected, but they're not the usual mindless shambling braineaters. They retain some semblance of who they are; they may eat people and indulge in violent rampages, but they also talk and reason and carry on a little of their former routine. The clown makes balloon animals all night.

However much it's grounded in sci-fi, The Shower clearly plays out as a horror movie with a strong dose of comedy. Many of the characters were clearly set up to interact in certain ways, so their story arcs are hardly surprising, but they unfold well nonetheless, aided by the fact that these actors know each other and are able to bounce off each other capably. The character interaction also makes some of the more violent scenes expected too, but they also unfold well with a healthy black humour. All this renders The Shower an enjoyable ride, especially in good company, but the lack of many surprises is a flaw which is impossible to overlook. There are other problems too. While the first act sets everything up capably, the second drags a little as the film tries to establish where it wants to go. The ending is a good one, but it arrives a little too emphatically, suggesting that the pacing wasn't quite right. The picture runs short at 78 minutes and there could easily have been another ten before it wrapped up.

If the pacing and lack of surprises are the weaker links, the stronger ones are the comedy and the cast. While the horror violence is sometimes extreme, this never feels disturbing (unless you're one of those people who are freaked out by a combination of clowns and blood) because it's always funny, in a real, or at least a surreal way. The laughs are generally good ones, written well and delivered well by a solid ensemble cast. Kurt Ela is most notable as Nick, not the usual lead but one who transforms from Henry the mild mannered janitor into something far more, even if he would never get his own cartoon series. Suzanne Sena isn't as strong as Joanne, but she has the most overt character and appropriately makes herself very noticed. All these characters are real and recognisable, grounding this low budget success. Producer Hoff, who also plays Tommy, described the making of the film as 'the right blend of arrogance and ignorance' and I hope that blend carries through to their next picture.

Friday, 4 April 2014

The Star Boarder (1914)

Director: George Nichols
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Edgar Kennedy, Minta Durfee and Gordon Griffith
The last of Charlie Chaplin's four films for director George Nichols, The Star Boarder is by far the most conventional. It could even be considered unrushed, a description that's hard to imagine applied to a Keystone picture, but it does speed up towards the end and even feels like it wants to continue on to Benny Hill levels, aided magnificently by a new score by Frederick Hodges which mirrors the pace well. Initially it's a elegant thing, as the scenes are set and the characters established, but it gradually gets more and more frenetic until we wonder if the pianist's nimble fingers are going to drop off. Maybe the experiment here was to play with control, to set up the jokes and build them, all the while refusing to allow the usual descent into chaos until the time is absolutely right for it. If so, The Star Boarder may have been just as experimental a piece at the time as Chaplin's other three films for Nichols, but feels less so today because it succeeded in nailing the future much better.

The main cast return from Cruel, Cruel Love, though shuffled around somewhat. Minta Durfee still has influence here, with Charlie remaining attentive to her every word and deed, but they're not lord and lady here; she runs a boarding house with her husband and he's one of the guests, the star boarder of the title. There's no reason for what appears to be a nautical pun, but perhaps there was another pun apparent at the time, as this was one of two films of the same title released in 1914, with another four following as the decade ran on. All appear to have unique stories. Edgar Kennedy is promoted from a mere butler to the man of the house, but he's under the thumb of his wife who clearly rules the roost with an unerring eye for any divergence from her preferences and a withering glance to ensure that he does what he's told. He's relegated to being the man in the outrageous moustache, which is a doozy even for Keystone's well known facial hair fetish. His first scenes are spent manipulating it for laughs.
After spending Cruel, Cruel Love away from it, Charlie is back in his familiar tramp outfit but apparently rather comfortable for a change. He's a paying customer and the apple of the landlady's eye. Chaplin's films usually had a whole slew of titles for their many reissues and one of them highlights his situation even better: not only is he The Star Boarder but also The Landlady's Pet. Initially we might believe that he plays up to her in order to get the first or the largest plate of food, but he persists beyond that, so it can only be assumed that he's flirting madly with this married woman at a time long before Production Code rules against such immoral behaviour. Another reissue title was In Love with his Landlady, which emphasises it a little much but makes the relationship crystal clear. Whatever the reason, the landlord is aware of it and far from happy, but his wife's withering glance puts him back in his place every time he tries to enforce his position and Charlie continues to get preferential treatment.

If Chaplin was the uncharacteristic chewer of scenery in Cruel, Cruel Love, he emphatically hands that role back to Edgar Kennedy here. Kennedy bristles and roils and looks menacing, while exercising his facial muscles far more than must have been comfortable in order to keep his moustache moving. It's so large that it's like a pair of caterpillars mating on his top lip and it's so active that it could have had its own credit, had Keystone ever used them. In comparison, Chaplin is back to being the Little Tramp, better off than usual but still the inveterate drunk, as is underlined by an odd scene where the story is put on pause so he can drink the kitchen dry for no apparent reason. Perhaps it's to allow him to build the routine from what he performed in vaudeville and in early Keystone pictures like Mabel's Strange Predicament or Tango Tangles into something a little more substantial. The clever scene that follows tasks him with hiding everything he spirited out of the kitchen from another guest.

While there are some laughs here for the drunken tramp and a few earlier on too, as he's clearly hung over when we first see him, trying to simultaneously charm his landlady and not fall over the stairs, it's the more sober scenes that work best here. Much of the fun is built out of the same gag, repeated over and over again in different settings, namely Charlie's attempts to get somewhere with his landlady and her husband's consistent ability to show up just in time and spoil his fun. These start at home, but soon head out for the tennis court and the park. The tennis match, which is so brief that I'm not convinced a ball ever crosses a net, isn't much but Jeffrey Vance highlights that it marks the first time that Chaplin and the game of tennis cross paths. It would become a lifelong passion for him, at least until a broken ankle and a series of strokes towards the end of his life prompted him to hang up his racket. Here it's just an excuse for him to spin around and fall over, a move used so often that we want to mimic it.
What elevates The Star Boarder from just a set of moustache twitching reruns of the same gag is the welcome addition of another character to spice things up. No, this isn't a fourth wheel, though one of those is hinted at, this is the landlady's young son whose hobby is to take highly embarrassing, often highly misleading, photographs with his clunky 1914 camera and then project them to the assembled boarding house guests as a free magic lantern show. It isn't rocket science to figure out what reactions that's going to prompt here, especially given that the boy has a strong talent for capturing exactly the moments that his subjects don't want captured. The bonus for us is that young Gordon Griffith was an infectious actor whose many cries of joy at being in the right place at the right time to snap the wrong picture soon find their way to our lips too. He's a joy and we laugh along with him, even as he's getting an expected spanking at the end of the picture.

Griffith hadn't even turned seven years old when he shot The Star Boarder, but he had already become an experienced actor, closing in on his twentieth picture. He'd started his screen career at Keystone in 1913, a year before Chaplin, and was often paired with Billy Jacobs, who was even younger still. Jacobs began his career at three and had his own series, the Little Billy series at four. He retired at the ripe old age of eight, with almost sixty pictures behind him. Griffith started later but lasted longer, appearing in serials like The Amazing Exploits of the Clutching Hand as late as 1936, before switching to production and direction. This was the first of a number of films he made with Chaplin in 1914, before he moved on to his most famous role, as the first screen Tarzan, playing the junior lord of the jungle who appears for the first third of 1918's Tarzan of the Apes before handing the reins over to barrel chested 29 year old Elmo Lincoln. Griffith also played the screen's first Tom Sawyer. His charisma here explains why.
In fact, Griffith is far more watchable here than most of the cast. Minta Durfee is strong as the landlady, working well with Chaplin and ensuring that her performance was toned down enough to match. They're a good double act, hindered only by the stereotypical scenery chewing of Edgar Kennedy, whose talents as a capable actor are completely not on display here. He's so out of tune with the other leads that he's almost acting in a different movie, perhaps an animated one. In other circumstances, we'd call him the comic relief, but we never find ourselves laughing at Kennedy here; we laugh instead at the double act of Chaplin and Durfee and at the contagious mischief of Gordon Griffith. It's somehow odd to see Durfee such a natural foil to Chaplin, given that she was married in real life at the time to Roscoe Arbuckle, but she got to play his wife or sweetheart on screen often enough too, even in Chaplin pictures. They made thirteen of them together at Keystone in 1914.

The large Keystone output and small Keystone roster meant that actors appeared in the same pictures all the time. It becomes somewhat surreal to watch a lot of these films close together, especially as the characters rarely have names to delineate them and, when they do, they're the same ones. Chaplin was Charlie most of the times he ever had a name, just as Arbuckle was Fatty, Mack Swain was Ambrose and Chester Conklin was Walrus. So in one film, Durfee would be Chaplin's wife, in the next a girlfriend, then a flirtation and then someone else's wife entirely. It often feels less like the stock company a filmmaker might foster and more like a theatrical troupe of stage actors who swap costumes three times a day for different performances. In a way that's what they were doing, swapping roles until they found the ones that suited them best. Charlie is still a little on the obnoxious side here, but Chaplin's experimentation under George Nichols may have got him closer to the Little Tramp we know today than he'd come yet.

Important Sources:
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

The Star Boarder can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of all 36 of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory (if we count the first half of A Thief Catcher, previously thought lost), it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Uhomo (2014)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Michael Hanelin, Colleen Hartnett and Michael Coleman

A new month means a new Running Wild review at Apocalypse Later and I have a couple remaining until I blitz into the 52 Films/52 Weeks project in July. So which titles to review until then? Well, this particular new month coincides with April Fools Day, the day of movie horrors which, this year, saw NPR cover the remake of Citizen Kane, starring and directed by Keanu Reeves, and Full Moon Features announce the long awaited big budget reboot of their Puppet Master franchise with Justin Bieber as Andre Toulon. By comparison, Running Wild merely announced that their close partnership with 5J Media was ending and they were going their separate ways. Like they're going to dump James Alire? I'd buy into Charlie Band casting the Bieber before I'd buy that one. The icing on the cake though was a faux commercial posted yesterday for an awkwardly named eau de toilette, Uhomo, a direct spoof of a commercial for the very real and just as awkwardly named (at least in English) eau de toilette, Uomo, from Ermenegildo Zegna.

I watched the original earlier today and wasn't surprised. It's the usual mix of short beards, open shirts and continental European coastal roads, shot for the most part in classic black and white but with some colour scenes to spice it up and make it contemporary. The editing is fast and the music thoughtful but, in case we didn't catch that, we're given some tumbling chess pieces to ram the point home. Of course there's a lovely young lady for our hero to drive home to. There's even a spectacularly modern piece of architecture that receives its own on screen credit, the Casa Malaparte on the isle of Capri, which was prominently used in Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 film Le Mépris or Contempt. Why the marketing maestros working for Ermenegildo Zegne remembered Contempt when puzzling over their ad campaign, I have no idea, but it works well enough. In Italian 'uomo' means simply 'man', and it's a quintessentially male conceit to have carved out a house like this on top of a dangerous cliff in Mussolini's Italy.

No wonder Angela Merkin Haines and Michael Hanelin felt that it was ripe for a spoof. The name itself cries out for a dubious joke in poor taste, but the commercial itself underlines it. Clearly, it isn't fooling anyone, this GQ cover model paying lip service to his Vogue counterpart, while delivering the requisite poses to us, as if to say that he'd much rather be warming our beds than that of the lovely lady who he happens to be stuck with. As they used to say, it's as queer as a three bob note, so that's what Running Wild promptly made in response. Of course, when bringing the video up tonight, I searched for 'Ohomo' instead of 'Uhomo' by mistake, which I certainly don't want to do again. The hateful folk at Chimpmania define the term 'inappropriate', which doesn't leap to mind here. Given the amount of gay characters Michaels Coleman and Hanelin have played for Running Wild lately, without any hint of homophobia, it seems safe to say that they can get away with a spoof like this without being called inappropriate.
The Running Wild team do a great job at mimicking the pretentiousness of the original, while adding in the sense of humour that it sorely lacked. Instead of chess pieces, we get tumbling chips. 'Poker' is an obvious pun in this spoof, even before the pair of queens are turned over. Instead of Casa Malaparte, it falls to the Tempe Center for the Arts to look contemporary, with a bestubbled Michael Hanelin winding his way to the inevitable Colleen Hartnett, who emerges from nowhere like a ghost. Of course, she's on screen only to look good and set up the finalé, which arrives in the form of Coleman as she exits stage downwards. If Uomo plays with a stairway to Heaven, perhaps she's taking the highway to Hell as she provides the piece with its ending. That's what the late, unlamented Fred Phelps would say, right? God Hates Travis. I was waiting for him to stage the double suicide that I felt was the clear next step in the original commercial, but he goes for the more obvious and, to be honest, more appropriate ending.

With Hartnett the female presence in a male gay fantasy and Coleman only arriving as a punchline, it's Michael Hanelin who has to sell the piece. I hadn't quite realised how uncomfortable he looks when he walks, but slow motion might just do that to the best of us, especially when walking up concrete steps in black and white. Where he absolutely nails his role is in the close up glances he gifts the camera, slowly turning towards it with an eye that carries ultimate confidence. It's as if he knows that it'll only take one look for the cameraman to strip naked and fall pleading at his feet. It isn't deliberate seduction, because there's no persuasion going on; it's natural seduction, all about the absolute surety that he doesn't need to persuade, merely make eye contact. No wonder Coleman is sold. Of course, it's a linguistic irony that in order to make a particularly gay fragrance commercial, Hanelin's crowning achievement was to play it straight. A bad pun isn't a bad way to end a review of a spoof for April Fools Day, right?

Running Wild's spoof commercial, Uhomo, can be watched for free at YouTube. Uomo, the original commercial for Ermenegildo Zegna can also be watched for free at YouTube.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Cruel, Cruel Love (1914)

Director: George Nichols
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, and Eva Nelson

As if to underline just how much he was experimenting with the cinematic medium at this early point in his career, Charlie Chaplin is completely recognisable but this film is a real shake up in many ways. For a start, he doesn't play the Little Tramp at all, though there are some quintessential Chaplin moments, especially early on, where subtle pratfalls bring that character to mind. Instead he plays a gentleman, a well to do sort with a butler and a much longer moustache than we're used to seeing on Chaplin, though it was trimmed down substantially from the outrageous one he wore in Making a Living. The character is not named in the intertitles, but sources list him as both Lord Helpus and Mr Dovey. The former appears to fit much better, as he's the epitome of the overly principled peer whose honour forces him to end his life when his fiancée calls the whole thing off, even when it's only because of a misconception which he could so easily have addressed with a little communication.

The wildest difference to what we might expect comes through the tone of the film, because it's really a melodrama masquerading as a comedy rather than the other way around, assisted by some of the most outrageous overacting that the usually subtle Chaplin ever did. His Keystone comedies, like all Keystone comedies, mostly ran through the same tried and tested routines and gags, something that Chaplin was keen to escape, even with only a few pictures under his belt. His keen attempts to do so are especially obvious in the four shorts he made for George Nichols, which couldn't be more different if they tried. A Film Johnnie was a meta movie that emphatically equated the Little Tramp with the audience as a sort of everyman character. His Favorite Pastime was a trip to the dark side, with an obnoxious Little Tramp in his cups, annoying everyone he could find, and reaching so far down the moral scale to stalk a lady to raise a laugh. Cruel, Cruel Love has him overact for effect. The Star Boarder was still to come.

Clearly, Chaplin was experimenting and I wonder if this film was original or simply a comedic riff on a more recognisable story, perhaps from a recent, higher profile, film. The way the melodrama escalates has been compared to the work of D W Griffith, the most important and influential early film director in America, whose first feature, Judith of Bethulia, had been shot a year before Cruel, Cruel Love in 1913 but released a mere couple of weeks before it. While it might seem to posterity that Griffith and Mack Sennett, the 'King of Comedy', operated at different ends of the spectrum, there are many connections that should be highlighted. Sennett learned his craft working for Griffith, for a start, at Biograph, as did many of the Keystone regulars, including Mabel Normand. In 1915, Sennett, Griffith, and Thomas Ince tied their autonomous outputs to the Triangle Film Corporation to control distribution. In 1919, Griffith founded United Artists, with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and... Charlie Chaplin.
Whether Cruel, Cruel Love riffs off a specific D W Griffith film or just a general formula he used, it feels like it started out as a melodrama and had comedy shoehorned in. Perhaps this is mostly because the comedy doesn't stem as much from gags as was usual in Keystone farces. Instead, we find ourselves constantly reminded of the comedy through Edgar Kennedy, playing Lord Helpus's butler, laughing his ass off for the entire running time. Every time things get a little too serious, we're cut back to Kennedy slapping his thighs and splitting his sides, because he knows something that the main characters don't (and neither do we) and he's hardly going to let them in on the joke until the finalé because, hey, what fun would that be? Because it's a melodrama, this joke simply has to tie to the usual culprits, love and death, and the story arc shifts neatly from the former to the latter and back to the former again in the one reel that the picture ran, just short of nine and a half minutes.

The setup has Lord Helpus caught in an innocent but compromising situation that his fiancée can't fail to react to. He begins the film making sweet, sweet love to her (in the family friendly 1914 meaning of the phrase) in her parlour, going so far as to kiss her, though he takes her leave with a far more polite shake of the hand. They've been interrupted by the lady's maid, giggling up a storm from her position behind a thick curtain. It's this maid who sets the scene for Lord Helpus's downfall. Gossiping with the gardener in the driveway, she twists an ankle and stumbles into his lordship's arms. Of course he has the decency to assist the young lady, but helping her into a garden loveseat to check her injury can't fail to be misinterpreted if noticed and, sure enough, it's noticed. 'Take your ring,' he's informed with vigour. 'I never want to see you again.' Ever the honourable gentleman, he doesn't even put his case, merely walks off without a word, goes home and takes poison.

If you can believe it from that synopsis, this is the subtle part of the movie, because it's underplayed indeed compared to where it soon goes. If its effects are anything to go by, the poison acts on Chaplin more like a superpowered energy drink, prompting him to ham it up for the camera like he never did before. Perhaps he felt he had to because the situation has no inherent humour, our laughs prompted far more by his outrageous reaction to imminent death than the fact that he's apparently going to die horribly. Well, that and the fact that Edgar Kennedy's butler convulses in paroxysms of laughter from the outset, just outside the door, because only he knows that the poison is really water. I grew up with the mystery novel cliché that the butler always did it, but that referred to murder. In Keystone's take on the landed gentry, butlers were apparently for standing out of sight and laughing up a storm, maybe in the hope that we'd eventually follow suit, if only through peer pressure, no pun intended.
The most overtly Chaplinesque part of the affair comes just shy of halfway in a brief vignette presaged by an intertitle announcing 'A Vision of His Destiny'. Faced with his imminent demise, Lord Helpus sees himself condemned to Hell, where he's trapped between the pitchforks of devils and, for some reason, bounced up and down, like he's on some sort of demonic trampoline. His reaction to taking the poison can't be described as anything less than overblown, but it's even more so afterwards, as he exercises enough facial muscles to keep an anatomy class busy for weeks. And so we're set for the race against time that constitutes the third act, with Lord Helpus gradually destroying his bedroom with histrionics, his butler finding it the most hilarious thing he's ever seen in his life and the rest of the cast, especially the lady's gardener, played by William Hauber, attempt to undo the stack of mistakes that have been committed, one by one.

Chaplin is front and centre on this one, as he was with each of the four films he made for George 'Pop' Nichols, and he's backed by regular Keystone faces. Most obvious here is Edgar Kennedy, who came to film in 1911 and, over the course of over four hundred films, appeared with almost all the great movie comedians: Chaplin, Normand, Fatty Arbuckle, Charley Chase, Laurel and Hardy, Wheeler and Woolsey, Our Gang, the Marx Brothers, Harold Lloyd, etc. He became best known working for Sennett's biggest competitor, Hal Roach, who become a producer in 1915, and for a series of RKO shorts called Average Man, which presaged television situation comedy; he turned out six Average Man shorts every year for seventeen years. It was for Roach that he developed the technique that brought him his professional nickname of Slow Burn, attempting to keep his temper in check by rubbing his hand over his bald head and across his face. By this point he had become the movie archetype of the frustrated everyman.

The other major name worth mentioning is Minta Durfee, playing Chaplin's fiancée who here, through a hotheaded faulty reaction sparks the entire plot. Like Kennedy, Durfee was a Keystone regular whose face is easily recognisable in many of Chaplin's early shorts; in fact, she was there when he began, in Making a Living. She made comparatively few pictures for an early silent star, just over a hundred in a film career that ran almost sixty years, from 1913 to 1971; forty of those were released in 1914 alone. She outlasted most of her contemporaries, including her only husband, Roscoe Arbuckle, who she had married in 1908. They didn't divorce until 1925, but they were separated before the infamous scandal that rocked Hollywood in 1921, when Arbuckle suffered through three trials connected to the death of Virginia Rappe, the fianceé of Chaplin's first director, Henry Lehrman. History has come down squarely on Arbuckle's side, but at the time Durfee was one of the few to stand by him, even separated.

Cruel, Cruel Love has a reputation of standing alone in Chaplin's early filmography, very different from the usual films he was quickly turning out. However, working through them in order, at the speed they were released, it's clear that it was part of a strong experimental phase in his work that is particularly fascinating to hindsight. Chaplin, who quickly formed his own ideas about how his movies should work, famously didn't get on with his directors, but it was Lehrman who has borne the brunt of criticism over the years, for running roughshod over his suggestions and even editing out his funniest bits. Nichols is often lumped in with Lehrman as a traditional director who couldn't understand why comedy needed to change and mature. This project highlights that Chaplin's films for Nichols are actually some of his most ambitious: if they fail to define the future of comedy, they do at least involve heavy experimentation in a clear attempt to search for it.

Important Sources:
Gerald McDonald, Michael Conway & Mark Ricci - The Complete Films of Charlie Chaplin (1988)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Cruel, Cruel Love can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of all 36 of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory (if we count the first half of A Thief Catcher, previously thought lost), it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Roman's Ark (2011)

Director: Seth Larney
Stars: Damon Gameau, Robin McLeavy and Ingrid Kleinig
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
Roman's Ark wrapped up a strong set of four long post-apocalyptic shorts at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2011, where it took a different approach to the subgenre to the movies that went before it. The commonality shared by Earthship, The Island, Picture Show at the End of the World and Roman's Ark is that civilisation had already fallen before the opening credits ran, the reason behind the calamity is left unexplained and the characters to which we're introduced have already come to terms with it. Where Roman's Ark stands unique is with the prescience of its lead and its choice of timeframe. Instead of characters who found ways to survive in a reactive fashion, a Russian scientist called Roman, foresaw the end of the world and proactively prepared to survive it, outwait radiation through cryosleep and thus live on to the point where he could help the world heal and begin afresh. If mankind can reach the point where it destroys itself, the least Roman can do is provide an undo button.
We're never told quite how much time has passed from the holocaust to the beginning of the film, but it's long enough for Roman's muscles to have atrophied a little from his sleep within a nutrient tank of green liquid and, as we soon discover, this awakening is not the first. Once ready, he emerges from his secure underground bunker to face a stark desert world, as captured perfectly by the astounding dry lakes of Mungo National Park in New South Wales, Australia. We see the tops of lampposts, otherwise buried in sand, leading up to broken skyscrapers. Memorably, there's a boat on top of a cliff, suggesting just how violent the devastation must have been to sear our planet dry. He takes a sample of dirt in a little glass vial and takes it back to the lab in his bunker to test, but the chemical he uses turns the soil red, as we clearly see it did on each prior trip. We don't know how many he's made, as the vials extend off screen, but he's been a busy botanist. With nothing on the radio, it's back into the tank for Roman.
Thus far it's been eight minutes and it's only when a song kicks in to accompany his descent back into suspended animation that we realise that they were entirely without human voice. Damon Gameau is believable as this driven scientist, the only human being we've seen thus far except for his wife, who occupied a neighbouring tank and didn't make it, but the idea and the scenery carried us on their own. Then Jonathan Samiec, who co-wrote the original story with Troy Darben and adapted it into a script, decides to hit us with tension, an impressive feat given that we're at the end of the world with only a single character. 140 years later, an emergency alarm causes Roman to burst out of his tank and stab himself in the heart with some sort of medication. Something has clearly gone horribly wrong and life support has gone offline, along with much of the power. This time, however, Roman is not alone when he leaves the bunker to obtain his soil sample. To say any more would constitute a spoiler.
Roman's Ark is a substantial and mature film that deserves a lot more attention that it appears to have garnered, perhaps because 25 minutes is a tough length to sell to film festivals. It played a diverse set of them in 2011 and 2012, the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival being the first, but only picked up one award at the St Kilda Film Festival for its sound. That's surprising, because it's a picture to stay with the viewer. It certainly stayed with me over three years and, revisiting this set of post-apocalyptic shorts, I realise that it wraps it up with a touch of class. It's the obvious choice to finish up a selection of short films or even a festival, because its wonderful ending is precisely the sort of uplifting experience that stays with filmgoers as they leave the theatre. However pessimistic the film's initial concept might seem, and it does posit the near extinction of the human race which is almost as pessimistic as it gets, it not only doesn't get us down, it leaves us with a strong abiding hope.
It's also refreshing to discover that the film and the strong ecological message that it carries, also has a strong connection to the land it features so strongly. Elders of the Ngyiampaa and Paakantyi aboriginal tribes of Australia 'generously invited, welcomed and nurtured' the production, as well as providing the striking extras that we see in the radioactive wasteland. The ties that both tribes have to Lake Mungo and what is now the national park surrounding it date back over 40,000 years, a timeframe that dwarfs the ambitious one visualised in Roman's Ark. Their presence in the project, a rare dramatic one to shoot in this area, grounds it in history and anchors its journey into the future. What those tribes have seen in these lands over the millennia is the sort of conjecture usually reserved for science fiction, making it all the more appropriate that Chaotic Pictures made and fostered those connections. Ignore the mushroom cloud shot, which is a frustratingly clichéd moment; the rest of the film deserves to be seen.