Wednesday 26 March 2014

Cruel, Cruel Love (1914)

Director: George Nichols
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, and Eva Nelson
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
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.

Sunday 23 March 2014

Picture Show at the End of the World (2009)

Director: David Rusanow
Stars: Peter Barron and Hannah Jones
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.
I wasn't quite as sold on Picture Show at the End of the World as the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival judges in 2011, who picked this as the Best Sci-Fi Short Film of the festival. That isn't to say I didn't like it, because I liked it rather a lot. It's an interesting little picture that speaks as much to what cinema means to we audience members as any science fiction concept. In fact, if this wasn't set in the sort of post-apocalyptic landscape that dominated the Sci-Fi Shorts A block, it might not even be seen as a science fiction film at all. Perhaps the setting in time might qualify it too, as its concentration on the silent era of cinema and the costumes and music conjured up to evoke that age suggest that this particular apocalypse took place in the past rather than the future, an alternate 1920s where movies never found a voice and 35mm film was never replaced. It's disturbing to imagine this world in which the last 90 years worth of motion pictures would never be made.

It begins stylishly with a dusty old car sputtering along some sort of manmade canal until it peters out. The driver, BK, is in a gas mask, while his passenger, Pandora, covers her mouth with a makeshift fan. Otherwise they wear formal attire, as if they might be on their way to the opera rather than to search the wasteland in an increasingly desperate attempt to find one working movie theatre that can screen the reel of film they carry around with them like a prized possession. The desperation springs from the young lady being in bad shape; Pandora is weak and coughs up blood. I'd suggest that she might have TB if this wasn't a science fiction movie; here I presume she's afflicted with whatever calamity ravaged the planet. In an interesting approach that deliberately mirrors the era of cinema that the film reprises, BK and Pandora never speak, for reasons which become apparent later, but few of the other survivors they encounter during their quest have any lines either.
As Norma Desmond famously said in Sunset Boulevard, 'We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!' Peter Barron, who plays BK, fits that epithet perfectly. He might not look like a silent screen idol, but he has the sort of face that was designed for movies. He has that classic chiselled visage so required of British leading men in romantic comedies but with a dark edge that suggests that if you met him in the street you might wonder if you've ever seen him play James Bond. He's actually an Australian actor, as this is an Australian film, but Hollywood's inability to place accents lends him strong potential for a future in a lot bigger picture than this. He's kept mildly busy racking up roles here and there, but doesn't seem to have made his mark yet. Of course, on the basis of this film alone, I have no idea what he sounds like. His co-star, Hannah Jones, debuted here, which isn't surprising. She's fair as Pandora and certainly fits the part, as vague Louise Brooks lookalike, but she doesn't carry the sort of depth that Barron does.

The key name behind Picture Show at the End of the World is that of David Rusanow, which is all over the credits like a rash. He wrote and directed, for a start, but he also edited the film and its sound and provided its visual effects. Bizarrely he didn't shoot the film, given that most of his credits were earned for cinematography; he handed that role here to Graeme McMahon. IMDb lists this as Rusanow's third short film as a director and it's an assured piece that would fit well in anyone's portfolio. My problems with it mostly tied to its middle , which felt hollow and inconsequential. What we see is decent enough and the cast and crew did their jobs well, but I had a strong feeling that the middle ten minutes could have been anything. I visualised a stack of parallel universes where the beginning and end of this film remain identical, while the middle is unrecognisably different. Yet none lose the overriding drive of the piece, which is contained in its bookends. Would this be better as a five minute film or as a feature?

Wednesday 19 March 2014

The Island (2010)

Director: Nathan Fisher
Stars: Nathan Fisher and Charlotte Wyatt
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.
I got a real kick out of The Island, a short science fiction film that could easily be seen as the flipside of Earthship, given its deliciously dark tone. Like Earthship, it's set in a post-apocalyptic world but refuses to exercise a budget to show us whatever mutants, zombies or triffids thrive in the ashes of civilisation, instead situating us firmly inside a self-sufficient home used to wait out the fall of mankind and hinting at the situation out there with sound and hearsay. Unlike Earthship, however, there's only one survivor here and he goes by Tom. He seems a decent enough chap, very calm and collected, but a little off, as we discover when someone arrives at his door, pleading for help, and his response is to put on a noisy album and settle down with a book. The six inches of steel in his bank vault of a door and the two feet of reinforced concrete it's set in allow him to ignore the world as much as he likes. The title of the film clearly refers to his bunker, an island of peace in a world of chaos.

Tom is played by Nathan Fisher, which explains how comfortable he is in the setting, because Fisher is the driving force behind the film, as its writer, producer, director and star. There are only three actors on screen throughout the entire film and he's the one we see the most of, which is plenty in a 25 minute short entirely set in a one room bunker. Apparently unwilling to deal with the world outside, he's able to sit back in his chair and ignore it because he has everything he needs around him. He has food stacked up against a wall in labelled boxes and a stove to cook it on. He has oodles of bottled water. He rolls his own cigarettes. He has a chair, a bed and a toilet. He generates electricity by pedalling a bicycle that's hooked up to batteries. He has books, records and puzzles to keep him busy and he's teaching himself how to play chess. He only goes outside to dump the trash and even then he has concussion grenades, a gun and a pair of goggles to deal with the light. In short, he has everything he might need.
Well, not quite. What he doesn't have is company, a lady friend to pass his abundant time with. He has to make do with the scantily clad models on his album covers, at least until we reach the seven minute mark and one comes knocking on his door who's young, pretty and very scared. This time he opens the door and the real story begins. For a while, we're back in Earthship territory, with this new female guest stunned at the comparative luxury he enjoys. Katie hasn't eaten in days, but Tom has enough water to wash in, so she's as shocked and amazed as Isis was in Earthship, not to mention just as wary about the possibility that her dream has come true. However, here's where Nathan Fisher's picture diverges from David Wilson's. While this is a science fiction story, Fisher's obvious passion is with the cosmic horror of H P Lovecraft; his first picture was a direct adaptation of Beyond the Walls of Sleep, but he followed up with this, an original story that is merely influenced by the master.

As a purely science fiction film this was promising, but it's the shift to the dark side that makes it such an enjoyable piece. It's only peripherally Lovecraftian. Katie's description of the apocalypse's aftermath is that, 'they're starving and turning on each other and worshipping those things'; what sort of things is hinted at in the fantastic graffiti octopus plastooned across the door of the bunker. While the elder gods might be raging outside in a mythos world, we're voted onto the island with Tom and Katie to witness a study of sedate madness, a theme Lovecraft played with often. Secure in his fortress of solitude, amidst the terrors of his dying race, what must Tom do to stay sane? How will Katie adapt to his claustrophobic existence and her apparent salvation? What other records are racked amongst Tom's admirably varied collection? These are the questions that The Island attempts to answer and to find out what Fisher has in mind for Tom, Katie and us, you'll need to watch the film yourself.
I liked it from the opening scene, where the camera zooms in slowly towards the octopus on Tom's vault door and a man scuttles around before being scared away by gunshots. It's deceptively slow, with little apparently happening but Fisher builds his character well, so we sympathise with Tom's situation and even envy it, given the context, but nonetheless realise that we don't know everything. The underlying concept and Fisher's performance are the strong points but there are weaker ones too. Charlotte Wyatt does a fair job as Katie but it's no shock to find that this was her screen debut. She's also too clean and her leggings are too neatly ripped, more like a fashion statement than battle damage. We get that Tom has a well stocked bunker, but he'll need regular deliveries of toilet paper and concussion grenades to survive more than a week at his rate of use. Back in 2010, Fisher planned to turn this into a feature; I'd be happy to see that. The short has depths and different readings. I'd love to see how it might expand.

The Island can be viewed for free at DailyMotion, Vimeo or YouTube.

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Earthship (2010)

Director: David K Wilson
Stars: Brian Leahy, Genia Michaela, Gavin McClure and James Loren
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.
As someone who has read quite a lot about earthships and other sustainable housing projects and one day plans to live in one, I was overjoyed to see a short science fiction film that revolves so much about the concept that it provides the title of the film. It has a decent story too, albeit a relatively simple one that follows an obvious creation arc. When faced with an earthship, a creative soul will want to conjure up a story; what story would apply to a residence so self-sufficient that its occupants could live there in comfort indefinitely? Well, a post apocalyptic story, naturally, which is precisely what we get, one which director David K Wilson wrote cleverly enough to be thoroughly believable without ever requiring what was surely a low initial budget to swell into something more substantial. This was his thesis film at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts and it worked well enough to make its way to at least 32 film festivals, including the 2011 International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival.

Wilson places us into a post-apocalyptic Canada, supposedly in the desert outside what remains of the city of Vancouver ('Couver here), though it was shot in and around the Phoenix House in the Earthship Biotecture Community in Taos, NM. There's plenty of time for global devastation to have arrived, given that we're at least as far out as the year 2047, which is marked on Mary Whitmore's gravestone as the date when she left her family without a female presence. No wonder tensions are running high! Other than that, they're doing pretty well, at least compared to the rest of the world. The Whitmores shifted over to the earthship after civilisation fell and survived there for twenty years; living off the grid might be enticing today, but it's even more enticing when there's no longer a grid. They grow their own food, capture and recycle their water, without ever needing to venture back to what remains of the city for anything at all. Theoretically they could stay in their self-sufficient earthship forever.
One obvious catch is that three men do not a new civilisation make, at least not without outside help, but that isn't where this film begins; instead the triggers here come from not knowing. Allan and Mary Whitmore had two sons, and the younger, Dax, has never experienced civilisation. He's young enough to have spent his entire life in this earthship, isolated from everything and everyone, and he's burning to go out and see the world, or at least what's left of it. Needless to say, this causes conflict, especially with his elder brother Brian, and they're fighting about doing just that when the plot stumbles over the horizon and collapses in the desert just ahead of them. It's another human being, perhaps the first Dax has ever seen, hidden from view by a black airtight suit marked Belial Corp. No wonder he runs to help, as Brian holds back with caution, and thus the brotherly conflict continues on throughout. Dax is ever fearless, with no real experience to draw from, while Brian remembers the end of the world.

It's no spoiler to point out that this new arrival is a woman, as you wouldn't expect any different. She's Isis, played by Genia Michaela, and she's very good at providing believable reactions to waking inside the Whitmores' comfortable earthship after decades of dubious post-apocalyptic survival. This is a new world to her, one in which Dax reads Shakespeare and the Whitmores stargaze with telescopes, plural. What's more, they have a shower, with running water, no less. Isis cries as it cascades down onto her. To be fair, Michaela owns the film mostly because she's the wide eyed guest who gets scenes like this, as Brian Leahy does well otherwise as the inquisitive and carefree Dax. Gavin McClure isn't allowed to do much as Brian except bitch at his brother, so it's no great slight that he fades quickly. James Loren overplayed Allan consistently in his emotional scenes, leaving the film to the youngsters and the story to the ending that some clever twists only hint won't show up eventually.

It's a cliché that reviewers always ask for good short films to be extended into features, but Earthship could certainly have done with more length, if not quite that much. Wilson did a lot here with not a lot and I'd be interested in where he could have taken his concept. The earthship is such a great location for a science fiction film, rather like an earthbound version of the spaceship in Silent Running, but any overt comparisons to that film would need to tie to its isolation, which Wilson refuses to go for. Rather he builds up its isolation as a temporary state of affairs and sets his story at the point where that ends. The Whitmores have been living in a protective bubble, which Isis pops as she arrives, so becoming a catalyst for change. Wilson's story therefore becomes a lost world story in reverse, where the roaming savages discover a little pocket of civilisation. Unfortunately little of this potential depth can be hinted at in eighteen minutes, making the credits somewhat like an alarm clock ending a promising dream.

Monday 17 March 2014

Hisss (2010)

Director: Jennifer Lynch
Stars: Mallika Sherawat, Irrfan Khan, Jeff Doucette, Divya Dutta, Raman Trika, Mahmood Babai and Laxmi Bai
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.
It's a little depressing that, until this film, my only experience of Jennifer Chambers Lynch's directorial talent was from an episode of Warehouse 13, especially given that she began learning her trade on the sets of her father, David Lynch, as far back as being a PA on 1986's Blue Velvet. Her debut as a director, Boxing Helena, based on her own script, was an unmitigated disaster, if the press and legal activity are to be trusted, and it took fifteen years for her to take a second shot. Perhaps because Surveillance was well received, albeit with many detractors, she was soon attached to Nagin in 2008 as both writer and director. It's an unusual movie about a nagin, or snake woman, that would be shot in five languages in India with a mostly native cast, Jeff Doucette the notable exception. It finally saw release in 2010 under the horrendous title of Hisss, but in nowhere near the form that Lynch wanted. Far better received was a documentary by Penny Vozniak, Despite the Gods, about Lynch's uphill struggle to make the film.

I haven't seen Despite the Gods yet, but I have seen the trailer and read the press kit and it looks like a fascinating journey through the deterioration of a project 'doomed from the start' with a subject who is 'the kind of natural performer documakers dream of'. There's no doubt that any film would suffer from what Hisss experienced (a technician strike and a cyclone, for starters), but the biggest reason for the mess it became is surely the clash between western and Indian styles of filmmaking that led to Lynch's part in proceedings deteriorating from director to cheerleader. Of course, none of these can be used as an excuse; the film is what it is and it has to stand on its own merits. What it turned out to be is an odd picture indeed, an insubstantial and convenient set of B movie clichés elevated by scenes of cinematic bliss, especially in its many outdoor scenes of ethereal beauty. Shots in the jungle feel like meditative art but scenes in the city are more like routine, lowest common denominator stuff.

We begin with a prologue that's edited like a trailer, with many moments to draw us in, but also lots of fades, hints and soaring music. We're in ancient India, 'a time when legends were created to explain the unknown', with a overblown narration to fill western audiences in on the 'shapeshifting cobra goddess, the nagin' and telegraph the entire plot, because we just know that this is going to become one of the sort of lessons that the ignorant are ever doomed to repeat. The key here is the naagmani, 'a stone of immortality' carried within the nagin, which is bound to cause trouble. Naturally, the narrator explains how and why because we're surely too dense to figure it out. 'Many a man out of sickness or greed has tried to otain the naagmani by holding her lover for ransom, ignorant of the vengeance she would bring to both guilty and innocent.' Ah yes. That trouble. 'For then it is learned that only gods have the power to give or take, to create or destroy.' Can we guess where this is going after five minutes?
Enter George States, an obnoxious American with stage three brain cancer and six months to live, who has hired a trio of guides to find him the nagin and her mate in the Ghats Jungle. He's not a subtle man, as his opening lines suggest: 'I may have brain cancer but I can still piss like a racehorse. Up and at 'em, dotheads, it's snake huntin' time.' It's no surprise to find him killing an unwilling assistant and making faces at the captured nag in its tank. So far, so awful, a blatant bunch of clichés and unimpressive CGI; the snakes look pretty good up close but pretty terrible waving around in the distance. Doucette makes a memorable villain, but he's as blatant as blatant can be, apparently doing everything he can to make sure that we can't possibly find a single shred of sympathy for his condition. Meanwhile back in town, police inspector Vinkram Gupta prepares to go to work, even though his wife's locked in the bathroom losing their baby. He underwhelms from moment one, both as an actor and a character.

Fortunately, it's at this point that we start to see some interesting visuals. While the townsfolk of Naichi celebrate Holi, the beginning of spring, by spraying paint everywhere and dancing in the multicoloured chaos, the nagin turns into a woman. Her transformation is far better than the dancing CGI snakes could ever have suggested, morphing through both physical and CGI effects. She sprouts legs like a crocodile, then contorts into a woman in a snakeskin suit, with excellent contact lenses and a wild flicking tongue, finally emerging as a beautiful and naked Indian woman, who swallows crocodile eggs whole just like a snake. The actress is Mallika Sherawat, a Bollywood star known both for her bold characters on screen and her bold ambition to break beyond India's borders by appearing in the Chinese film, The Myth, and the American Politics of Love, even a Bruno Mars music video. The choral accompaniment hints at what Lynch may have aimed for with her 'admiration of sensual, sexual female bravery'.

These outdoor scenes in the Ghats Jungle are impressive, artistically shot and beautifully framed in well selected locations. They jar with the rest, which is maybe the point, the city perhaps being seen by this goddess as an unwelcome encroachment on nature. Their clash is reflected in the lead characters: the routine cop in his routine office, the emphatically unlikeable villain in his empty warehouse lair and the sensual goddess finding her way slowly towards civilisation. Even when she gets there, she's the point of attention. There's a wonderful scene where she strips off and climbs a lamppost to sleep by the light; it begins like soft porn but doesn't end that way. It's beautifully shot and a credit to the film, just like her first scene in the city, where she falls under the spell of a snakecharmer, her undulations matching his. Of course, they have to lower the tone, by having a pair of pissant rapists entice her into their house to have their wicked ways with her, only for the tables to be turned precisely how you might expect.
The portrayal of the Indian characters, which is to say almost all of them, feels poor to me, not only one dimensional but stereotypical. The only exception is the cop, who has potential but is so underplayed by Irrfan Khan that he's lost in the background, inconsequential in a film about female power. He's another established Bollywood actor who has spread his wings further afield, playing major roles in films as well known as Slumdog Millionaire, The Amazing Spider-Man and Life of Pi. His admirable restraint is sadly not mirrored in the supporting cast, especially his new partner, Navin, who is an annoying stereotype, incessantly jabbering in polite, heavily accented English with a stupid grin on his face. We also see far more overt acting as a succession of vile men rape, beat and abuse women, then receive their violent reward at the metaphorical hands of the nagin. The recurrent theme seems to be that all Indian men want either sex or money by force, except the cop, who doesn't feel like an Indian character.

Another recurrent theme is surely closer to what Lynch aimed for, namely the empowerment of women. Beyond the all-powerful monster of the film being a goddess, she manifests for much of it as a beautiful young lady, clearly the personification of beauty with power. There's a particular abiding visual of the burqa clad nagin chasing the snake charmer through the streets of Naichi. It feels like the epitome of female empowerment, with the nagin caught frequently in slow motion in what could only be described as superhero poses. Even Insp Gupta's mother-in-law, for most of the film a bizarre character who can't acknowledge him as anything but an ugly woman who nobody will look at, eventually finds a purpose in an important way that grants her power too. It's a strange shift for her, given that she's presumably the comic relief of the piece, somewhat like a bloated Roman senator played by John Belushi in drag, but it underlines the power of the goddess and by extension the power of women.

There's a potentially great film in here, but it's buried so deeply that we're only given periodic hints at its wonder. What sits on the surface is a film so annoyingly routine that we keep wanting to give up on it, only to be drawn back in by another blissful visual treat. If only the story hadn't been so incessantly convenient. Guess who ends up with the nagin after she's reported to the cops as 'very distressed'? He takes her home so that his mourning wife can take care of her as therapy for both of them. Now guess whose mother worships the snake goddess, praying to her for grandchildren. Isn't it convenient how all these plot strands coalesce in one household? I wonder what would have happened if Lynch had kept the power to make the film she wanted. Maybe that will come clear when we finally get to see Despite the Gods and gain a better idea of the balance between Lynch's obvious strengths and weaknesses. In the meantime, this picture is best approached with all due caution. You know, like a nagin.

Sunday 16 March 2014

His Favorite Pastime (1914)

Director: George Nichols
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle, Velma Pearce and Frank Opperman
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
Not the worst film Charlie Chaplin had made thus far, it may be however his most inconsequential. Each of his first seven films brought something new and interesting to the table, even if it was just a brief slot as a Keystone Kop, but this one doesn't really add anything. The only thing that comes close is the idea of the Little Tramp veering a little further down the sliding moral scale from anti-establishment rogue to just rogue, pure and simple. He's pretty obnoxious in this one, doing nothing except torment a growing parade of innocents, beginning mildly by teasing a fellow drunk who's out of beer but progressing as far as to hoist his unwanted attentions onto a married woman in her own house, to which he isn't invited. It isn't quite as morally dubious as it's been made out over the years, mostly because the characters in blackface have been seen out of context, but I'd challenge anyone to argue that it isn't morally dubious. Uno Asplund, in Chaplin's Films, calls it 'the prototype of the 'unpleasant' tough film' in his early career.

None of that suggests that His Favorite Pastime is without merit, because we can see the progression of some of Chaplin's regular gags, there are some neat acrobatic moments and there's a strong battle with a swinging door in a restroom, but it's weaker than its predecessors and feels more like it was knocked out without much care and attention. To be fair, much of that comes through the post-production, such as the notably intrusive editing, which is brutal, but some of it may have arisen from the clash between Chaplin, a growing star at Keystone, and George Nichols, yet another director with whom he did not see eye to eye. It's possible to read Chaplin's progression through 1914 just by looking at who directed his films as, with minor exceptions, it breaks down into sections. He started out with Henry Lehrman, who he didn't agree with, so Lehrman was replaced by Nichols, who he didn't agree with. A brief period with different directors later, studio head Mack Sennett took over until he finally let Chaplin direct himself.
So what we have here is Chaplin trying to build gags into more clever and complex routines, while the film keeps stealing him back into a traditional setting. Perhaps the best example of Chaplin's approach is the one take opening scene which pits him against Roscoe Arbuckle. It's easy to see why Chaplin is a drunk, because that's what he was playing when Sennett and Mabel Normand first saw him perform on the vaudeville stage with Fred Karno's troupe and why they felt he was someone they ought to hire for Keystone Studios to replace their departing star, Ford Sterling. He does it effortlessly, with a good eye for detail, and he's consistent enough for us to completely believe that he's in his cups. Arbuckle is fair, though clearly not up to the same standard, and the two have a fine altercation. Chaplin has a half full glass of beer, while the unshaven Arbuckle is dry and cheeky enough to try to steal it, so Chaplin plays with him for a while, letting him think he has a chance, until it's all gone and Arbuckle got none.

Sadly Arbuckle exits the film at this point, because it's clearly never about him. In his place enters the leading lady, known today as Peggy Pearce but at the time under her real name of Velma. Chaplin, who describes her in his autobiography as 'an exceptionally beautiful girl with delicately chiseled features, a beautiful white neck, and a ravishing figure,' was his 'first heart-throb'. They met some time during his third week at Keystone, which puts the moment around the turn of 1913 to 1914, and, as Chaplin saw it, they 'ignited; it was mutual, and my heart sang.' Standard filmographies list this as the only film they made together, before Pearce left for the L-KO studio, but there's a lot of confusion as to whether she was also the Keystone Girl in A Film Johnnie. Keystone films at this time had no credits, but official lists suggest that Virginia Kirtley, who played the daughter in Making a Living, took that role. Comparing all three films in their restored versions, my vote is with Pearce, meaning that they made two together.
Here, as the ham fisted editing sets up, she's standing by her car waiting for her husband. The drunken Little Tramp is instantly besotted and promptly shows off, by turning his bowler hat into a homburg with a hit of his cane. Her husband, of course, won't have any of it and so back to the bar goes the tramp for some less sophisticated slapstick, at least for now. After he causes too much trouble there, including for the lady's husband, he decides to pursue her afresh. What he fails to notice is that, as her car drives off, she's walking away in the other direction, so it's her servant he pursues with notable vigour. Missing the car and taking a tumble into the street, he leaps onto a moving trolley and eventually off it again. His most ambitious tumble comes inside the lady's house though, as he falls over a bannister to land on the couch underneath, nonchalantly following up by lighting a match on the sole of his boot as if nothing had happened. It's not as polished as his movements would become, but it's impressive nonetheless.

Less impressive is the use of blackface, the process by which white actors played black characters, as personified by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. Jeffrey Vance explains in Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema that Chaplin used this convention less often than the other great silent comedians, adding a quote to back it up. 'I never laugh at their humour,' Chaplin explained. 'They have suffered too much to be funny to me.' At this point of his career, Chaplin was contributing material but hardly in charge of the finished product so it's easy to cut him some slack. I see nothing racist here, though some have applied that epithet to the interactions he has with each character in blackface. Firstly, he leaves Billy Gilbert, the attendant in the bar's restroom, a lit cigarette for a tip, a nasty trick but one probably due to the tramp being out of money. Secondly, he gives an overblown reaction to the discovery that he's been following the lady's black maid rather than her. Both seem eminently explainable merely as gags, not racist ones.

Another factor in this judgement call is that Chaplin gets the worst of most of his encounters in this film and deservedly so, which hardly underlines him as the hero of the piece. He's too obnoxious to be a real villain here, which at this point in time was someone with deliberate evil intent, but he's far from a hero. He's a sort of proto-stalker, though, to be fair, he has no conception of who the lady is, just that he likes her and, as under the influence as he is, he can't believe that she won't like him too. He gets walloped hard by everyone here, however well and often he manages to duck; even the black maid gets in more than a few shots before he escapes to the next hiding. In one of the best scenes in the picture, even a swinging door has it in for him and it's only very careful positioning on Chaplin's behalf that ensures he keeps all his teeth. It's easy to see how he did it when watching frame by frame, but at regular speed it's highly effective, enhanced by the fact that he plays drunk throughout the entire film.
Masterful choreography was one of the skills that was helping Chaplin stand out at this point. The other household names of silent comedy hadn't really arrived yet. Harold Lloyd technically beat Chaplin to the screen by a year but by this point he was still doing bit parts in odd films like The Patchwork Girl of Oz, coincidentally in blackface, while Buster Keaton's first films were three years away in 1917. The famous names at this point were mostly Chaplin's peers at Keystone such as Roscoe Arbuckle, Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling, none of whom had the precision that Chaplin was demonstrating. Their routines were more like the larger tussles here, with lots of swinging arms and falling over, including more jumping in the air and, in Sterling's case, his bizarre nose biting habit. Arbuckle's more restrained moves were a better fit with Chaplin's, but it's not difficult to see who had the better control in this film. I wonder who was learning more from whom at this point.

That's not to say that Chaplin wasn't still learning. Clearly, given the change in style of Tango Tangles and the tonal shift of His Favorite Pastime, he was still experimenting with the medium of film and his next few pictures would underline that. That he had reached his eighth film suggests he was becoming experienced, but those eight films were shot in as many weeks and we can only imagine how frenetic the Keystone factory was by watching titles like A Film Johnnie. As we know, the Little Tramp became a lovable character but he certainly hadn't got there by this point. He was endearing to different degrees in a few of his early films, but hadn't yet become quite as obnoxious as he was here. Today, we tend to think of the Little Tramp as a frequently sad, but usually lovable, character, the everyman of the silent screen. He's far from that in this film. Having drunkenly hit on women far more endearingly in Mabel's Strange Predicament and Tango Tangles, here he becomes someone we'd call the Keystone Kops on.

Important Sources:
Uno Asplund - Chaplin's Films (1976)
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
James L Neibaur - Early Charlie Chaplin: The Artist as Apprentice at Keystone Studios (2011)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

His Favorite Pastime 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.

Saturday 15 March 2014

The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue (2010)

Directors: Mike Bradecich and John LaFlamboy
Stars: Mike Bradecich and John LaFlamboy, Susan Messing, Nicholas Barron, Justin DiGiacomo, Tim Kazurinsky, David Pasquesi, T J Jagodowski, Mary Seibel, Xzanthia and Robert Englund
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.
No movie with a title like The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue is ever going to be high art and it isn't going to care. It may have been up for competition in the horror feature section of the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, but it's really a comedy. Sure, there are horror elements, but the balance between comedy and horror is so biased towards the former that I wouldn't even call it a comedy horror, merely a comedy. Now, regular readers at Apocalypse Later will know that I don't have much of a soft spot for modern comedy, which far too often tends towards the lowest common denominator, but I found that I enjoyed this, however often it's happy to get stupid. Perhaps my lack of depth with the modern comedy stars is a good thing in this instance, because it means I have no idea just how much Mike Bradecich is ripping off Seth Rogen and John LaFlamboy is ripping off Ben Stiller. Viewers a decade or two younger than me see it instantly, but I'm blissful in my generational comedy ignorance.

They're the Mugg brothers, a notably well named pair of incorrigible slackers who are doing a stunningly bad job of running the apartment complex on Belmont Avenue in Chicago that they inherited from their mother. Well, Marion is doing a stunningly bad job, while Jarmon arrives back to join in at the beginning of the film after failing to breed llamas some place else. He picked a terrible time to return home, as the whole place is a complete nightmare. Tenants are leaving, their pets are vanishing and they're stealing electricity from the church next door because they can't pay any bills. As Mrs Habershackle, their oldest tenant, points out, the place died along with their mother. The Muggs' standard response to this sort of pressure, indeed any sort of pressure, is to go to the bar, which is the Bootleggers Run downstairs. The bartender is as dry as the Muggs and even funnier. She's KC, who suggests that the place's glory days date back to the prohibition era when it was a brothel and a speakeasy. She's probably not wrong.

And, of course, they have a Mole Man, as the title suggests, who is the strange monster spiriting away all the pets. We catch sight of him just before the Muggs do, ahead of the ten minute mark, as he tries to steal a Yorkie through the letter box of one of the apartments. I got the impression that he'd have shown up sooner if only the comedians running the show hadn't written an infuriatingly catchy song that needed a sort of music video to wake us all up, but it's still early enough that any mystery is lost. We clearly know whodunit and we can hazard a pretty good guess as to why because, as a running joke suggests, there really isn't any other way to describe him but 'mole man'. What we're left with is less about how the landlords are going to stop the creature and save the remaining pets and more about whether these mildly sympathetic idiots will ever get round to it. The mole man is successful because he's good at disappearing and because they're morons, albeit a cut above some of their tenants.
Fortunately these tenants are a varied bunch, who add some character to proceedings. Danny and his family leave at the outset, but they're the only normal ones. There's Mrs Habershackle, the crotchetty old lady with her beloved cat, Mr Marshmallow; she's played by a former vice president of the Screen Actors Guild, Mary Seibel. The other elderly tenant is a libidinous old codger named Hezekiah Confab, capably played by Robert Englund in a supporting role for a change. Eliza is a dreadlocked and heavily tattooed sex worker who runs her business out of her apartment and walks around topless without a care in the world; she's played to perfection by alternative model XZanthia, also a businesswoman who owns a nudist colony with a makerspace. T J Jagodowski is drug addled Paulie, such a dedicated slacker that he even wears a shirt that says 'slacker' on it; he has four others living in his apartment that aren't on the lease. That leaves Dave the Hermit, who we naturally don't meet for quite a while.

In and amongst this quirky chaos, there's a mildly serious theme, that the Mugg Brothers' worst enemy isn't the Mole Man but themselves. Certainly they quickly realise what they need to do but take a heck of a lot longer to get round to actually doing it, as they spend far more of their energy avoiding it than would have taken care of the job to begin with. It could be argued that between them, they're like Gary Cooper in High Noon, somehow finding the strength to face a major threat even though nobody around them is willing to help. If you can somehow imagine and get a laugh out of the ludicrous replacement of Cooper with a pair of cowardly weaklings and the subtextual threat of the Communist witchhunts with a mole man, then this might just be a film for you. Much of its success arises from their setting up horrible schemes, only to feel bad about them and eventually sabotaging their own efforts. This builds sympathy for characters who didn't start out with much of it and draws us into their plight.

It certainly doesn't hurt that, even if they're derivative, Bradecich and LaFlamboy have some excellent comedic timing and that they're surrounded by many of their favourite Chicago comedians. They were also heavily invested in the project, not only as its stars but also as its writers, producers and directors, their first time in such roles on a feature film. For first timers, albeit first timers with a solid amount of useful experience in theatre, storytelling, sketch comedy and haunted house production design, they did a lot right. Their film has a great title, a great retro menu on the DVD and a great opening pair of lines. The monster is a refreshingly different creature, however ridiculous it is and even if we see too much of it early on and too little towards the end. Justin DiGiacomo, the actor in the suit, makes the mole man lithe and quick and it's no stretch to imagine him anywhere and everywhere: floor, ceiling, walls, you name it. He provides some solid scares in a picture that plays far more for laughs.
The characters are enjoyably diverse, albeit perhaps too deliberately so; I wonder how such folk would get along if they were forced to share apartments in the same brownstone for real. If I was stuck here, I'd spend most of my time at Bootleggers Run, but for some reason these tenants seem to avoid it like the plague. One of the less successful aspects of the film is that each of these supporting characters is tasked with being quirky and different from the others but never to contribute anything substantial to the story. It's clearly the Mugg Brothers' show and their tenants are props just as much as the pets are. On the other hand, the gimmicky sections of the picture, like the musical number and the drug trip, are surprisingly effective, given that they're precisely the sort of egocentric parts that usually detract from a film, even if they work well in isolation. I also liked how Nicholas, KC's resident musician, provides an effective in film soundtrack that the Muggs would have done well to listen to.

However much they did right, Bradecich and LaFlamboy apparently struggled to get their film released. When I saw it in competition at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2011, it was dated 2010 and the press kit still hopes for a 2011 release. However IMDb now has it listed as a 2013 picture. To emphasise the delay, KC's boyfriend here is played by Brian Boland, who made two Paranormal Activity films and appeared in archive footage in a third, entirely within the timeframe between this film being made and released. I wonder why it was such a struggle; perhaps it was too comedic for the horror set but a little too scary for comedy fans, but that seems like a stretch. Maybe the humour goes to darker places than distributors might have felt comfortable with. Police brutality is played for laughs; that's a tough joke to sell in the era of UC Davis and Occupy Wall Street. Black humour surrounding pets is also particularly risky in a comedy that wants to find a wide audience, however hilarious it happens to be.

I hope it finds its audience, as it deserves one. As a clearly low budget film, apparently shot mostly on church property with a crew as inexperienced as the folk running the show, it demonstrates surprising technical proficiency. The comedy is a less surprising success, given the cast's substantial experience, however unknown many of them are outside of Chicago. The script ends up being the weakest link with its tendency to veer off into improv territory instead of progressing the story forward. That the improv scenes are enjoyable, often because of T J Jagodowski's hilarious turn as Paulie, the lead stoner, hides the script's weaknesses to a large degree, but they're still there. The pace lags in the middle and again during the third act as the Mugg Brothers finally step up to the plate, but they do get great arguments in the process. That Bradecich and LaFlamboy have known each other forever is obvious, as they're an effective double act. I just hope more people see this film and get to know them too.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Triple Hit (2009)

Director: Huw Bowen
Stars: Abigail Tarttelin, Alan Convy, Damian Hayes, Roger Harding, Tony Holmes, Stephen Steinhaus and Amelia Tyler
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.
Triple Hit is one of those movies that epitomises how hard it is for indie film to get really noticed. Better by far than most indie features, especially on technical grounds, it impressed on the festival circuit and gained a good deal of attention. Unfortunately that meant that it got to duke it out with the big boys in the real world, where many viewers, used to the sort of slick product that the big studios lavish tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars onto, found it lacking. Most criticism was hurled at the quality of the acting, which is understandable. There are no big stars here for a start, the lead actors being relatively inexperienced, but four of them also accepted a rather ambitious challenge. Not only are they tasked with playing a lead role, but they're tasked with playing three versions of those lead roles within three different parallel universes. They had to appear enough alike to be recognisable but different enough to be easily delineated when the story starts throwing them together. Their success was variable.

It begins well, with a catchy hook and a notably energetic set of credits. 'How did it start?' a girl is asked during an interview on Alpha Station about 'recent disturbances in parallel universes'. 'With me being a genius,' she replies. Already it feels like a British sci-fi television show, with a limited budget but a lot of imagination, and that remains a fair description throughout. Then the script, by Paul Hardy and director Huw Bowen, knuckles down and attempts to introduce us to three different versions of four fundamental characters without confusing us to death. They do better than the actors do, conjuring up a trio of easily delineated parallel universes, each apparently next to each other in the dimensional stack. 7829-097 is the United Kingdom, either the one in our world or something believably close to it. However, next door in 7829-098, it's the UN Administrative Division, Western Europe, far more advanced than us. One step further into 7829-099, it's the People's Republic of Great Britain, a muted Soviet state.

As we might expect, each of these characters is shaped by their environments. The most important is the girl being interviewed at the beginning, who is perhaps deliberately younger than we would expect a genius to be. In 097 she's Dr Rebecca Hunter, a rough and ready quantum physicist with a natural air and character enough for us to buy into that genius status. That isn't on show in 098, where she's Prof Sarah Hunter-Gibson, played capably but without any real authority. She feels far more like a project manager who knows how to deliver but has no real knowledge to go any deeper. In 099, where she's Science Director Anastasia Hunter, she ought to be as callous as she is intelligent, but she comes over more as prissy and that deflates her power somewhat. The actor is Abigail Tartellin, making her lead debut in a feature, after a supporting role in The Butterfly Tattoo and the other sort of parts that show up early in an actor's career. She's promising but this complexity was beyond her at this point.
In each of these universes, she's running experiments in quantum tunnelling using a machine known as Q. In 097, the quirky, slapdash version of modern Britain, it's clearly under the radar, as Dr Hunter is her own test subject, using black market pharmaceuticals and an illegal botnet. In 098, Prof Hunter-Gibson is demonstrating the Casimir Effect that allows parallel universes to interact to a university class using overtly advanced technology; here, the Q unit is an unseen biological supercomputer with a melodious female voice. Meanwhile in 099, Science Director Hunter is running a state-sanctioned biocomputer by hooking up human livestock. As you can imagine, these worlds are highly delineated. 097 is believably natural with kludged together tech and relaxed, down to earth characters, while 098 is clean, slick and polite and overlaid with CGI. 099 is shot in muted colours that approach black and white, with radation exclusion zones, severe uniforms, mutations, famines, statues, commissars, the cold war era works.

Each of these universes shares a few other key players. Closest in each is the man who assists the lead and built the respective Q machines. He's Matt, Matthew and Mateus, played by Damian Hayes, the son of the much loved Melvyn Hayes, of It Ain't Half Hot Mum fame. While Tarttelin is more obvious and has a particularly strong presence in 097, Hayes remains more consistent across the parallel universes. His delineation appears to be through a moral compass; his versions are good, evil and bland, depending on the universe, but he's always capable and clearly ready to be more important than he seems. He's also the most overtly seventies Doctor Who character. Also present is Dave, David and Dmitri, played by Alan Convy, who is the black market dealer in 097, the husband (visible by video link from his space station, no less) in 098 and the naysaying pharmacologist in 099. Behind them all is Theodore, Theo and Fyodor, the establishment figure in each universe, played reliably by Roger Harding.

That's a lot of setup for a feature and we surely have to pay attention or something will slip past us and confuse us later. Of course, there's more than that to come, as Bowen and Hardy start to play with the framework they've built and have these characters interact outside their own universe. When I first saw Triple Hit, at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2011, some of it felt highly reminiscent of where the TV show Fringe was starting to go. However, while it most closely resembles the third season of Fringe, it actually both predates it and goes a step further, adding a third parallel universe to the mix; Fringe worked with only a pair of them. Some of the interactions between characters felt similar, as did the collisions between universes, especially with icons shifting from one to another, like the vast statue of Stalin or the airships suddenly appearing in the recognisable United Kingdom. Obviously, this picture didn't have the luxury of a 22 episode season to flesh out its ideas, just the usual hour and a half.
While Triple Hit predates the similar seasons of Fringe, it does make a few deliberate nods to classic sci-fi television; my favourite was when Dr Hunter meets Science Director Hunter in 099, at a rather tense moment, immediately tries for the old two Kirks routine and fails utterly. This is appropriate, because the whole film feels like it would fit better on television than in a movie theatre, especially with some of where it decides to go towards the end. I think of the film rather like a well written six episode story of the classic Doctor Who, that plays with scientific concepts in a clever way but nonetheless manages to wrap itself up suspiciously quickly and, in doing so, transforms a new character into a new companion. Of course, there's no Doctor here, his role taken by a little and large double act of men in black by the names of Officers Slip and Hand, effectively parallel universe cops, tasked with retrieving Dr Hunter for interdimensional trespassing and cleaning up the mess she's inadvertently caused.

Slip and Hand are engaging characters, though they're hilariously not played by the expected jobbing actors who usually filled such quintessentially seventies sci-fi TV roles. Mr Slip is Tony Holmes, who left acting for academia and currently serves as Geographic Information Systems Officer with Warwickshire County Council. I'm glad Bowen talked him back into doing this one. Mr Hand is a bouncer turned poet called Stephen Steinhaus, who fronts the Dr Teeth Big Band and has an MPhil degree in Shakespeare Studies. I adore these backgrounds, which are at once utterly unexpected but perfect for the roles they play. As we find, Alpha Station hires the best from the most unlikely sources, and they get the job done. That they appear as a British TV version of the double act of Bob Hoskins and Derrick O'Connor in Terry Gilliam's Brazil is icing on the cake. I kept wishing that Steinhaus had ignored the dialogue he was given here in the way O'Connor did to mimic his partner's lines instead. That would have been priceless.

How you'll receive Triple Hit is probably going to depend on how you approach it. It's not a blockbuster with $200m and a major studio behind it; it's a story based film that does a lot with a little, elevating it from the usual indie fare and explaining why it's done well on the festival circuit. It doesn't have the sort of awesome effects that improve every summer, but it does capably enough; some are good and some are really good but a few are still notably flat. Unfortunately the final one is the worst, which won't help naysayers to leave the film well. There are minor technical downsides: sound that occasionally echoes a little, a bad wound effect here or a poorly choreographed fight there. A few lines are lost in transitions. I also noticed a few little details that rang untrue this time through; such as why a genius scientist would say something redundant like 'threshold limit' or why a callous science director would look away during an injection, but its story is consistently stronger than what Hollywood tends to conjure up.

Mostly it needed a stronger set of actors than it found. The story is ambitious and notably complex, so needed an insanely talented cast to sell each of the parallel universes and the characters they play in them. It has a talented cast, far more so than some of the reviews I've read might suggest, but they're not experienced enough to meet the challenge fully. This renders the film capable rather than stunning and it needed that extra push to really make a difference. Abigail Tarttelin in particular could be much worse than she is and she really doesn't deserve the flak she's received at IMDb, especially given that her performance as the main lead, the one in parallel universe 097, is by far her strongest, but it's fair to say that she could have been much better too. Really, the same goes for the movie as a whole. It's a refreshing ride through parallel universe shenanigans, story based but fast paced and action oriented. I've seen better, but I've seen a heck of a lot worse and I'd certainly watch it again.

Sunday 9 March 2014

Tango Tangles (1914)

Director: Mack Sennett
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Ford Sterling and Roscoe Arbuckle
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
Even seven films in, I'm still at the beginning of Charlie Chaplin's career and it's even more clear in this one than its predecessors that he was still experimenting with his character. Either that or there was a bizarre bet on at Keystone Studios in early February 1914, because that Keystone perennial, facial hair, is notable for its absence. It's utterly surreal to watch Chaplin without his toothbrush moustache, which had been firmly in place for the first four films he made as the Little Tramp and, as we well know with a century of hindsight, would remain firmly in place for most of his career. He isn't the only one to lose his facial hair either, as Ford Sterling appears without goatee, as recognisable a trademark for him as the toothbrush moustache was for Chaplin, one that was far more established at this point in time. Roscoe Arbuckle was a rare Keystone comedian to not need such things to stand out, as his rotund frame was recognisable enough. Surely if he'd had facial hair, he'd have lost it here too. Why, we don't know.

Tango Tangles was another location film, for the most part, though it's less tied to opportunity than Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal or Between Showers. Mack Sennett explained the thought: 'We took Chaplin, Sterling, Arbuckle, and Conklin to a dance hall, turned them loose, and pointed a camera at them. They made like funny, and that was it.' This particular location was the Venice Dance Hall on Abbot Kinney Pier in Santa Monica, part of a concerted attempt by Kinney, a noted American developer, to create 'a Venice of America'. The pier was built in 1904 and the 14,560 square foot dance floor added in 1906 in a mere seventeen days, rushed to meet a 4th July opening date. Perhaps Sennett chose the location as Kinney spent $100,000 in improvements in 1914, but, if it was publicity (and there's a short clip of real dancers on the floor before the fictional side of the film kicks in), it didn't help for long, as the mostly uninsured pier burned down in 1920 with damages totalling over a million dollars. It was never rebuilt.

Keystone scripts were never complex affairs, though as scholars start to work through the Mack Sennett papers at the Margaret Herrick Library, funded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the one that hands out Oscars), we're discovering that they were often less improvised than early historians have led us to believe. This one feels scripted during the first section, but then clearly improvised from then on as the top comedians at Keystone traded whatever gags seemed appropriate to reach the final desired scene in a similar way to how professional wrestlers trade moves until the predestined moment of truth. The camera just sits back and captures it all, leaving only a little work for an editor to piece the important bits together into a usable form to be shipped out to theatres. The furthest this one goes to a story is to have Sterling and Arbuckle play together in the same house band. Chaplin merely stumbles in 'a little the worse of wear'. From there, it's just minor setup to get them onto the dance floor to scrap.
That minor setup revolves around Sadie Lampe playing a hat check girl who finds herself the centre of at least a love rectangle. It apparently wore her out, as it appears to mark the end of a short career that spanned four of Chaplin's early films for Keystone. It's a toss up between this one and Between Showers for her finest moment. She was the housemaid who enthralled Chester Conklin enough in the latter for him to fail to notice Ford Sterling's sneaky replacement of his umbrella, thus sparking the plot. Here she is enough of a vision to make the story viable, but not enough of an actress to steal our eyes back from the trio of stars who literally duke it out for her attentions, especially as Chaplin plays drunk, Sterling is manic and Arbuckle gets impressively energetic. The likelihood of anyone remembering this as a Sadie Lampe picture is nonexistent, though she does steal a moment from Chaplin by apparently laughing for real when he drunkenly misses a table.

She smiles engagingly for what seems like everyone in the film. Initially she smiles engagingly for some random patron to whom we're never introduced. She steps forward to smile engagingly for Sterling, who acts out his strong feelings overtly with his hand literally on his heart. Finally, she smiles engagingly for Fatty Arbuckle, who storms onto the scene, angered at Sterling taking advantage of his absence. 'Keep away from the girl,' he demands in a pointless intertitle. Eventually, of course, she smiles engagingly for Chaplin and the story is in motion. At least Lampe is good at smiling engagingly; she isn't particularly good at cringing in horror when Arbuckle literally lifts another random patron up over his head as if he weighed only a few pounds. I was stunned when I first saw this scene. I knew Arbuckle had moves but this is so effortless that today we'd expect it was done with wirework; he just had muscles and hopefully a talented stuntman to bounce around above his head and just let go apparently without warning.
No wonder Sterling runs from the scene, in the familiar style that involves him jumping in the air before moving forward. It's little details like this and a later episode of nose biting, which he also demonstrated in Between Showers, that render his slide into obscurity unsurprising. No wonder Sterling would soon be in the shadow of his replacement at Keystone. He doesn't have much chance to evade Arbuckle in this film, given that they both play in the same band. Sterling is the bandleader, with a trumpet that keeps getting the better of him; at one point he even attempts to play it backwards by mistake. Arbuckle has a clarinet and wields it with a more realistic air; his character is obviously playing rhythm in this scene while Sterling plays a lead solo, and that holds true whether we're reading it literally or metaphorically. Eventually, of course, they both have to notice that while they're fiddling, Rome is burning. Chaplin has returned to the hat check girl and coaxed her out for a spin on the dancefloor.

It may be that Tango Tangles features no tangos, though I'm far from an expert on dance. The title was primarily meant to play alliteratively on words and hint at the new dance craze that was sweeping the nation: the tango. Originating in the 1890s on the border of Argentina and Uruguay, it found its way to New York in 1913 via Europe. The ever receptive and exploitative cinema of the day responded straight away. The 1913 Essanay picture, A Tango Tangle, appears to have nothing at all in common with Tango Tangles, released only a year later, except for dance; the same goes for a 1914 British film also named A Tango Tangle. Other foreign films seem to have jumped on the same bandwagon, but the high wave quickly foundered; after three titles in two years, there seems to have been nothing similar since. Even if there are no tangos to be found, there are certainly plenty of extras dancing around behind the stars and clearly having a ball, pun intended, until they decide to stop and watch the action instead.

And it's the action that Sennett was most interested in. The centerpiece of the film, Sterling vs Chaplin, isn't great, not only because today it looks bizarrely like Buster Keaton against Harold Ramis doing an Eraserhead impression. Back in 1914 it wasn't great because Chaplin plays up to Sterling's style rather than Sterling playing down to Chaplin's. Perhaps the thought was that Chaplin, out of his Little Tramp costume, would take on a completely different character and adopt a completely different style. If so, the experiment mostly fails because this particular drunk is a broad exaggeration of the Little Tramp, who was so popular because of his subtleties. Sans subtleties, he's less interesting and less engaging, though still the side we're probably all rooting for because, hey, at least he isn't biting his opponent's nose. It's one thing to build a character out of a healthy disrespect for authority, as Chaplin did, but it's just not cricket to resort to nose biting. What sort of cultural background does that have?
It's much more interesting when the battling pair end up back in the cloakroom, where they attempt to put on the same coat at the same time, managing to get in one arm each. The resulting chaos is far from inspired though, just more routine destruction until that final move where they collapse in unison. One interesting note is that Lampe ends up with Roscoe Arbuckle, whose real life wife, Minta Durfee, is one of the dancers, not, as some accounts would have it, the hat check girl. Durfee would stick with her husband throughout his notorious trials, though they were separated at the time. Another is that Jeffrey Vance has suggested that the fight choreography used here was sourced from the Inebriate character Chaplin played in the Mumming Birds sketch while touring the vaudeville circuit with the Fred Karno Troupe. If that's true, which is entirely believable, Chaplin was looking backwards rather than forwards here, an odd decision when set against the forward looking framework of most of his other early films.

Finally it's notable that the director here was Mack Sennett himself, head of Keystone, taking the helm for the first time in a Chaplin pictur. Chaplin had made four films under Henry Lehrman and was one into four he'd make under George Nichols; with the only exception being Mabel's Strange Predicament, which was directed by its nominal star, Mabel Normand. If accounts are true, Chaplin didn't get on with any of these directors, who he saw as either stuck in an old mindset or responsible for ruthlessly editing down his footage. He was still seeking the opportunity to take over that role himself, and he finally got there in April 1914 when he wrote and directed the one reel comedy, Caught in the Rain. A couple of weeks earlier, he got his feet wet co-directing Twenty Minutes of Love with Joseph Maddern. Surely Sennett's guiding hand on this film was very different from his predecessors, but it was heavy handed and most interesting for the lack of facial hair. That's not a good reason to remember a movie.

Important Sources:
Gerald McDonald, Michael Conway & Mark Ricci - The Complete Films of Charlie Chaplin (1988)
Jeffrey Stanton - Abbot Kinney Pier (1998)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Tango Tangles 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.