Wednesday, September 14, 2016


(1928) Directed by: Ted Wilde; Written by John Grey, Lex Neal, Howard Emmett Rogers and Jay Howe; Starring: Harold Lloyd, Ann Christy, Bert Woodruff, Byron Douglas, Brooks Benedict and Babe Ruth

Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Hulu

Rating: ****

Speedy being a big city picture, I am an irresponsible, flip, scatter-brained, baseball-crazy youth of a kind the city breeds by the thousands.” – Harold Lloyd (from his autobiography, An American Comedy)

As the silent era was drawing to a close, Harold Lloyd pulled out all the stops for his exuberant, aptly named comedy Speedy. High-energy gags and a brisk pace ensure the film lives up to its title. Speedy was set in New York City, but filmed partially on location in New York and Los Angeles. While Speedy deserves to be better regarded in its own right, it’s known primarily for two things: capturing Coney Island as it appeared in 1928, and featuring baseball great Babe Ruth as himself.

According to Lloyd’s autobiography, Speedy started as a criminal underworld plot, until it evolved into something quite different. It’s a simple story, but in Lloyd and company’s capable hands, the film is ripe with comic possibilities. Lloyd stars as Harold “Speedy” Swift,* a young man whose baseball obsession appears boundless, but his capacity to hold a steady job is nil. He already has a steady girlfriend, Jane Dillon (Ann Christy), but she’s not ready to settle down until her grandfather’s affairs are in order. Her grandfather, Pop Dillon (Bert Woodruff) runs the last horse-drawn streetcar in New York City, which is a thorn in the side of railway tycoon W.S. Wilton (Byron Douglas, erroneously listed in IMDB as “Bryon Douglas” and “Uncredited). Wilton intends to put Pop Dillon out of business by hook or by crook. If he can’t buy him out, he’s not above resorting to some underhanded tactics to get his way. What follows are three distinct acts, each with its own distinct flavor.

* Fun fact: According to Lloyd, the title came from a childhood nickname. Lloyd observed in his autobiography, “When the character of the current picture began to take shape, it was seen that the name fitted him like a glove.”

The first third is a delight for amusement park enthusiasts, featuring a visit to Coney Island. Luna and Steeplechase Parks appear in all their glory, back in the days when the rides were apparently designed with the specific intent to kill you, or at least leave you maimed (Seatbelts? We don’t need any stinkin’ seatbelts! What’s a concussion or broken collarbone between friends, right?). Witness “Shoot the Chutes,” a boat ride that purposefully flies off the tracks into a lake. Another diabolical contraption, “The Human Roulette Wheel,” features a spinning floor – its sole purpose is to see who can last the longest before being flung away from the center, crashing head over heels into your fellow riders. Some great gags are built around a wayward crab (Don’t ask why they sold live crabs at an amusement park.) that stows away in Speedy’s coat pocket, and a mischievous but loveable mutt that takes a shine to the young couple.

The second act continues Speedy’s ongoing dilemma with chronic unemployment. He becomes a cabdriver, but for reasons that are painfully obvious to the viewer, can’t seem to get any passengers. After a series of misadventures, he finally lands the mother of all fares, Babe Ruth (in a memorable cameo), who needs a ride to Yankee Stadium. What follows is a harrowing cab ride through the streets of Manhattan, weaving through traffic and pedestrians at a breakneck pace, as Speedy and his mortified passenger narrowly avoid disaster at every turn. Thanks to some snappy editing, the scene is a visceral, thrilling experience that couldn’t have been more effective if filmed today.

Speedy loses some steam in the final act, as Wilton makes good on his threat to stop Pop Dillon. When some hired toughs attempt to stop the streetcar service, Speedy enlists the aid of the local residents, and an all-out war ensues. This sequence drags on a little too long, and seems the least inventive, compared to many of the scenes that preceded it. Things pick up, however after the streetcar is stolen. Pop Dillon will lose the streetcar run if it’s out of service for more than 24 hours, so Speedy must race against the clock to locate the errant trolley before time runs out.  What follows is another energetic ride through the streets, as he endeavors to overcome all manner of obstacles.

Will Speedy get his act together? Will he get to marry the girl he loves? Do you really have to ask? As with many great silent comedies, it’s not the destination that’s so satisfying, but the journey. He’s such a likeable screw-up that it’s hard not to root for him every step of the way. At times, Speedy appears as if three different films were combined into one. If you want to nitpick, the parts are superior to the whole, but oh, what parts they are. The many elaborate gags really pay off, and rank right up there with the best of them. Even if some segments seem familiar, rarely have all of the parts been executed so well. As Lloyd’s final silent film, it’s a fitting epitaph to this stage of his career, and a reminder that this specific form of comedy will always have a place in film lovers’ hearts.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Classics Revisited: Metropolis

(1927) Directed by: Fritz Lang; Written by Thea von Harbou; Based on the novel by Thea von Harbou; Starring: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Theodor Loos and Heinrich George; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

Rating: *****

“The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!” – Epigram

“What if one day those in the depths rise up against you?” – Freder (Gustav Fröhlich)

From a modern perspective, it’s difficult to fathom that one of the best known and well-esteemed films from the silent age wasn’t always regarded as anything special. Based on Thea von Harbou’s novel and directed by Fritz Lang, shooting for Metropolis began in May 1925, and ran until October 1926. With a production cost of 6 million marks (approximately $24 million in 1927 dollars), it was the most expensive German film to date. The lavish production didn’t translate to universal praise, however. The initial release received a lukewarm critical reception and tepid box office. Time wasn’t kind with subsequent releases, as the original running time of 153 minutes was whittled down to approximately 90 minutes. Over the past 15 years or so, film preservationists have labored to restore the film to its former glory. The most recent version, at 145 minutes, incorporates footage from a scratchy 16 mm print from Argentina, and is probably the most complete version we’re liable to see.

Everything about Metropolis, ranging from the set design to the soaring cityscape to the archetypal characters, is told in broad strokes. It’s a modern fable, rich in allegory, with many themes that still appear contemporary nearly 90 years later. Alfred Abel is exceptional as the cold, impassive Joh Fredersen, master of all he surveys. He supervised the construction of the city-state of Metropolis, and stands as its de facto ruler. He impassively observes society from atop his New Tower of Babel, and endeavors to preserve the status quo. The laborers who make the lifestyle for the upper class possible toil away in the subterranean city under the city, little more than a mean to Joh’s predetermined end. Lang contrasts the cold machine world beneath with the Club of the Sons and Eternal Gardens above, where the wealthy come to play.

Joh’s son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) doesn’t share his father’s dispassionate views. He becomes determine to learn more about the subterranean city after he’s smitten by the virginal Maria (Brigitte Helm), who takes a group of children from the lower levels to catch a fleeting glimpse of the Eternal Gardens. Maria has steadily gained a loyal following with her peaceful protests. In a reversal of fortune plot similar to The Prince and the Pauper, Freder trades places with Worker 11811 (Erwin Biswanger), and takes up his mindless job. In one of the film’s many memorable sequences, Freder works a grueling 10-hour shift, moving the hands of a clock-like mechanism with indeterminate purpose. While Freder poses as Worker 11811, the emancipated laborer enjoys his brief flirtation with luxury, riding in a limousine and attending the Yoshiwara nightclub.  

When Joh learns of his son’s sudden fascination with the plight of the working class, he works to discredit Maria. Joh employs the inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to endow his robot with Maria’s likeness (also played by Helm) and set her up as a false prophet. Rotwang, however, has ulterior motives, which are made clear in the longer cut of the film. Her robot counterpart becomes the antithesis of Maria, a stark contrast between the sacred and profane. She performs an erotic dance at a club, and her volatile speech sparks a violent workers’ rebellion.

Many of the criticisms heaped against Metropolis were not dissimilar to those of modern blockbusters, alleging spectacle over story. One of its most notable detractors, H.G. Wells, excoriated the film* for what he deemed to be a simplistic tone and dated view of society. It’s ironic to note that Wells’ cinematic take on utopia, Things to Come, premiered almost a decade later, and appears to have aged less gracefully. On the other hand, Metropolis has endured, thanks to its more metaphorical rather than literal approach. While Wells’ film differed from Metropolis thematically, he failed to acknowledge how the earlier film shaped many of the visual elements, including scenes of machinery and industrial might, towering structures, elevated walkways, and communication via 2-way video screens. Unlike Things to Come, which was concerned with envisioning a sort of future history, Metropolis works on our subconscious, projecting human frailties, hopes, dreams and fears within a dehumanizing society. While Wells opined the rational side would prevail, von Harbou argued this was not enough. There had to be a mediator between the forces of rationality and brute strength. Although the future world of Metropolis is fantastical, it seems less sterile than the one Wells envisioned. The old co-exists with the new (witness how Rotwang’s machine man is brought to life through a combination of technological know-how and alchemy), and a gothic cathedral stands among futuristic architecture.

* According to Wells: “It gives in one eddying concentration almost every possible foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general served up with a sauce of sentimentality that is all its own.” (New York Times, April 17, 1927)

One of the rewards of subsequent viewings is spotting the myriad influences of Metropolis on many other films. The comparisons are too numerous to mention in any one article. I could probably devote an entire essay comparing Star Wars to Lang’s film. The eccentric inventor Rotwang and his artificial hand could have easily been the inspiration for Darth Vader. Likewise, his mechanical man is often cited as the template for C-3PO. Rotwang’s appearance also bears a strong resemblance to Doc Brown in the Back to the Future Movies. The vast cityscape has been emulated many times, from Blade Runner to Dark City to Akira. It also likely influenced Terry Gilliam’s retro-future aesthetic for Brazil and 12 Monkeys. Gottfried Huppertz’s score, with its rousing multi-layered themes has doubtlessly influenced other composers of epic films.

It seems as if everyone and his/her dog has reviewed Metropolis by now, but I propose every fan (and detractor) should take a crack at re-evaluating the film. No, this isn’t a perfect movie – the acting is suitably over the top, particularly by Fröhlich, whose portrayal of Freder appears hopelessly naïve. Subtlety is not Lang’s strong point, but the subject matter requires a broader palette. The anachronisms are a stylistic flourish, not meant to be a realistic representation of future society. The iconic imagery, thanks to cinematographers Karl Freund, Günther Rittau and Walter Ruttmann is steeped in metaphor (One of the most iconic images involves workers marching up to the M-Machine, sacrificial offerings to feed the machinery’s insatiable appetite). A film isn’t classic because everything makes sense, or it’s uniformly liked by everyone. The sign of a great classic is that it transcends the time in which it was conceived, demanding repeated viewings. Metropolis’ influence has spanned decades, and will continue to spawn debate and imitation for many years to come.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

August Quick Picks and Pans – Documentary Month

Salesman (1969) Albert and David Maysles, along with Charlotte Zwerin, chronicle the end of an era, the age of the door-to-door salesman. This fascinating movie follows a group of salesmen, each with different nicknames (such as “The Rabbit,” “The Gipper,” and “The Bull”) signifying their unique approach. The fact that they sell bibles and not vacuum cleaners or any other product is incidental. The inherent underlying themes are universal. The men in the film create a need for something, and monopolize on it. Salesman paints a bleak existence of life on the road, moving from one town to the next, clinging to the dubious hope of success. There’s a pervasive feeling of desperation in the air, as one salesman consistently fails to meet his quota, and it’s clear that it’s only a matter of time before he’s replaced. It’s a sobering antithesis to the “American Dream.”

Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Hulu

Gates of Heaven (1978) Errol Morris takes a look at the pet cemetery business, told through the people who started two separate enterprises, providing some insight into why one venture failed, while another one flourished. The owner of Bubbling Brook Pet Memorial Park discusses the balance between compassion and the desire to run a successful business. We also hear the recollections from some pet owners about their beloved, departed furry friends. While the focus is on pet cemeteries, Gates of Heaven tells more about people than animals. One of the most memorable interviews provides a pragmatic counterpoint to the emotional aspects of animal disposal. A manager of a rendering plant defends the unsavory reputation of his business, and seems completely detached when it comes to understanding the feelings of grieving pet owners. Morris takes an unlikely subject, and makes it captivating from beginning to end.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015) This HBO-produced documentary from Alex Gibney (based on Lawrence Wright’s book), takes a critical look at the Church of Scientology, told through the recollections of several followers who left the cult (including noted director Paul Haggis). The film follows Scientology’s rocky history, from the early years of its founder L. Ron Hubbard, to the current regime. Hubbard’s background as a prolific science fiction writer formed the basis for his church, which blends pseudo-science and a quasi-spiritual journey. Going Clear explores how Scientology hooks its followers by identifying their deepest fears and anxieties, using those same vulnerabilities as leverage to keep them in. The interviewees recount the underhanded tactics employed by the church to keep followers from leaving, and how those who dare to speak out are bullied. It’s a chilling look at the dark side of the quest for self-actualization.   

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Ray Harryhausen – Special Effects Titan (2011) If you’re a fan of Ray Harryhausen, you’ve probably heard many of his stories before, but they never get old. Gilles Penso’s documentary features interviews with directors, effects masters and friends of Harryhausen (including Steven Spielberg, Henry Selick, Nick Park and Ray Bradbury) who were influenced by his groundbreaking effects work. One of the most amusing segments involves James Cameron extolling the virtues of modern effects, opining that Harryhausen would probably want to avail himself of the newest technology. The interview is immediately followed by a clip of the effects master himself, affirming that he would prefer to use old-fashioned stop motion effects.

We don’t hear a great deal about how the effects were designed (there are other documentaries and featurettes that cover this aspect in greater detail). Instead, we’re treated to a nice sampling of Harryhausen’s pioneering stop motion effects through various film clips, which is worth the price of admission alone. Watch it with your kids (And if you don’t have kids, watching it is guaranteed to make you feel like a kid again). Note: A big thanks to the kind folks at the U.S. wing of Arrow Films for furnishing a screener copy for this review.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World (2014) Belinda Sallin gives us an unprecedented glimpse at Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger’s personal life. Giger’s close friends, wife and former lovers retrace his steps through his artwork, which continues to disturb and inspire, in equal measures. Giger, who was ailing when this was filmed, also discusses the impetus for his work, rife with Freudian imagery. One of the most fascinating sequences showcases Giger’s bizarre garden, decorated with his art, and featuring a train running through it (Someone needs to build a carnival ride based on this!). Although Sallin’s fly-on-the-wall approach provides an intimate perspective, the film feels a little incomplete, as a profile of the man and his legacy. We only hear from a select few individuals, as opposed to some of the filmmakers and artists he inspired. If you can accept Dark Star for the less-than-definitive profile that it is, it’s worth checking out.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

The Love Goddesses (1965) This enjoyable but superficial film covers a lot of cinematic history in a scant 78 minutes. Director Saul J. Turell and narrator Carl King take us on a tour of the evolving role of women and sex in the movies, from Theda Bara to Marilyn Monroe. The various film clips and stills provide a nice introduction to some of the greatest sex symbols in motion pictures, but at the same time, other names are conspicuously absent (Where’s Simone Simon, Veronica Lake, Lauren Bacall, or Jane Russell, to name a few?). On the other hand, some of the choices for “love goddesses” are questionable (Shirley Temple and Hayley Mills?). It’s a nice start, but for such an ambitious subject, hardly a comprehensive overview.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD (Out of print) and Hulu

Children of the Stars (2012) This film profiles the El Cajon, California-based Unarius UFO cult, whose tenants are based on the belief that we are all descended from aliens, and that Earth will eventually join a galactic alliance of 30-odd planets. According to the members, science fiction films are just suppressed memories of our past. The common thread with the interviewees (who are current members), is that they were directionless, and needed something to believe in. Unfortunately, the film seems content to portray the members as just some harmless kooks who like to put on pageants, without delving beneath the surface. We never learn what they do to make a living outside of the cult, or what their friends or family members think. There’s no mention of their numbers, but judging by the clips of their numerous videos, they appear to be in decline. While it’s obvious director Bill Perrine wanted to be respectful to the material, the lack of critical tone makes Children of the Stars less like a documentary and more like a recruitment video.  

Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Hulu

Thursday, August 25, 2016

American Movie

(1999) Directed by Chris Smith; Starring: Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank, Tom Schimmels, Monica Borchardt, Ken Keen and Bill Borchardt; Available on DVD

Rating: ****½

“I know when I was growing up I had all the potential in the world. Now I’m back to being Mark, who has a beer in his hand, and he’s thinking about the great American script and the great American movie, and this time, I cannot fail. I won’t fail.” – Mark Borchardt

Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review that was posted during the early days of this blog.

Outside of the blogging arena, I rarely share my favorite movies with others, because our preferences are often very personal. It’s hard to articulate why I gravitate toward certain titles, or why one would have such an effect on me. Several years back, I loaned my copy of American Movie to a friend, and learned my enthusiasm wasn’t infectious. She thought it was entertaining in spots, but was perplexed why I found it so special. Regarding the main subject, Mark Borchardt, she commented, “He’s a loser.” In my humble, albeit biased opinion, I think she missed the point of American Movie. At its core, it’s a film about tireless passion, ambition, and a desire to succeed in the face of everything working against you.

Director Chris Smith and producer Sarah Price (who also assisted with the sound and camera work) filmed American Movie over the course of two years, and edited for another two years. The end result chronicles the arduous path* Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt takes to complete his short horror film Coven. Movies are Mark’s passion – a lifelong obsession not shared by the majority of people around him. His most ardent supporters are his girlfriend and best buddy Mike, but they seem to be in the minority. Most of his family greets his ideas with skepticism or outright disdain. As his brother Alex observes, “His best asset is his mouth.” Mark appears to overflow with a flurry of ideas, and his fast-talking style sounds quite convincing on the surface, like the mogul he aspires to be. What sets Borchardt apart from those who have managed to climb to the top of the movie business? He has many positive attributes: an encyclopedic knowledge of film, technical know-how, and organizational savvy. Yet, he struggles to pay the bills, and he’s plagued by a series of projects that never reached fruition. His manic episodes are often followed by periods of intense depression and self-loathing. He’s unhappy where he is, and wants to do something about it. In the meantime, he’s relegated to working a series of dead-end jobs (including a paper route and groundskeeper for a cemetery) to keep his head above water.

* In an ironic parallel to Borchardt’s production woes, the filmmakers experienced their own troubles financing their feature, and continually ran out of film stock.

Another key player in American Movie is Mark’s buddy Mike Schank (who confessed that the initial basis for their friendship was their mutual appreciation of vodka). Mike, now a member of several 12-step programs, is the rock in their friendship. On the surface, he appears to be a mellow burnout, but for Mark he’s a safe harbor amidst all of the chaos. Mike battled drugs and alcohol and remained mostly intact, while Mark is still struggling with his demons (which obviously inspired Coven). Mike is an amiable presence, seemingly unfettered by his friend’s tirades. He’s the proverbial shoulder to cry on when things go wrong.

Mark’s relationship with his cynical, laconic uncle Bill is a fitting metaphor for his endeavors. Bill, whose best days are clearly behind him, sits in his cluttered mobile home, mostly silent while his nephew talks a mile a minute about his grandiose dreams and plans. In his zeal to complete Coven, Mark begs and cajoles his friends, family members and acquaintances to help him with every aspect of the production,** managing to rope almost everyone in his circle. In one of the funniest scenes, Mark convinces Bill to go through 32 takes to record a single line of dialogue. Like many of the other people involved in the production, Bill isn’t buying anything Mark is selling, but he goes along with him anyway.

* On a sad note, Uncle Bill passed away shortly after American Movie was filmed. He willed $50,000 to Mark for the completion of Northwestern, which remains unfinished.

** Mark’s mother Monica, who’s featured in the film, is recruited to help him with camerawork, and as an extra (despite her protest, “I have shopping to do.”).

Taken at face value, many of the situations depicted in American Movie evoke feelings of schadenfreude, but documentarians Smith and Price are not interested in being mean spirited. For anyone who’s ever struggled paying the bills, or suffered from chronic underemployment, many scenes ring true. It’s easy to see the film as a freak show, but there’s a tragic undercurrent that runs throughout. There’s a feeling of desperation, as if getting Coven made is a matter of life or death for Borchardt. Coven isn’t an end, but a potential launching point to finance his semi-autobiographical film Northwestern. Many of us have met people like him – full of talk and ideas, but with little to show for their labors. What sets Mark apart from other dreamers is he didn’t move on to something else. His persistence and dedication to film creates its own inertia. Mark is motivated by the very American belief that there’s something bigger and better on the horizon, just out of sight.

American Movie should be required viewing for any would-be independent filmmaker, or anyone who ever asked why any rational individual would try to break into the movie business. How much is talent, tenacity and good connections, and how much is just plain luck? American Movie is a romantic film in the sense that it’s about one man’s relentless pursuit of his ideals, regardless of the substantial personal and financial toll. How you ultimately react to the film and Mark Borchardt’s predicament is sort of a barometer for how much you believe in the value of holding on to your childhood dreams. In the end, it’s irrelevant whether or not the end product of Borchardt’s labors is any good,* but that he persevered, even when plain old common sense dictated he should stop. As a post-script, it’s comforting to know he’s still out there, perhaps no closer to making the great American movie, but continuing to fight the good fight for no-budget indie filmmakers.

Additional Note: As an added bonus, the DVD includes Borchardt’s short film, Coven. So, is it any good?  The stark 16 mm black and white reversal footage works to its credit, with some nice atmospheric exterior shots that capture the quiet desolation of the Wisconsin countryside. As for the story, acting and dialogue, well… You can’t have everything.