Tuesday 31 July 2012

Blind Spot #7 - "Our Hospitality" and "The Family Jewels"

If you're wondering what Jerry Lewis' decidedly non-classic The Family Jewels is doing on my Blind Spot list this month, well, you can easily be forgiven. I blame the NetFlix gods for unceremoniously turfing The Nutty Professor from the ranks of their streaming library, so I took a flier with his 1965 effort that (just like The Nutty Professor) was also written and directed by him (and additionally produced in this case). The intent was to watch and compare two of the top comedies from a pair of brilliant physical comedians who also worked behind the camera. One of them (Buster Keaton) is a personal favourite while the other (Jerry Lewis) is someone whose filmography has barely been scratched by me. Keaton, of course, is the great Stone Face: a gifted and slightly bonkers physical comedian who did insanely dangerous stunts, but whose characters on screen rarely showed any emotion. Lewis, on the other hand, drew strongly on his elastic facial expressions to double down on the physical gags of his films. My preference has always been with Keaton (knowing Lewis just from clips off TV, etc.), but a viewing of one of Lewis' earliest films The Bellboy made me reconsider digging into his film career.

Therefore The Nutty Professor was the obvious next step for investigating Lewis - it's typically his highest rated film (among those he directed and starred in), is rife with potential for slapstick and is essentially part of general pop culture at this point. The Bellboy was an excuse to squeeze numerous skits and ideas together into a non-plot film, but it succeeded in impressing me along several lines. Lewis showed he could actually be subtle and very inventive while being a complete goofball. The Nutty Professor will have to wait, but I had some high hopes going into The Family Jewels that I'd get at least more of the same and build further anticipation to his other films. How did that pan out? Well, let's review my first sentence of this post again...Barring several moments of reasonably inspired absurdity and several deftly timed bits by Lewis, the film flops and flounders as it haphazardly wanders through its plot mechanism: a 9-year-old heiress (first time actress - and boy does it show - Donna Butterworth) gets to spend 2 weeks with each of her five different uncles to see who she prefers to be her guardian. The family chauffeur Willard (also played by Lewis) is her best friend and escorts her to each new candidate. He also happened to accidentally stop an armoured car holdup at the start of the movie which is not forgotten by the gangsters he thwarted.

Keaton's 1923 film also deals with the concept of family and what it really means (he even sneaks his own father Joe Keaton into the film as a train engineer), but it begins in a more overtly melodramatic fashion. It opens with title cards informing us of a generations long feud between the McKay and Canfield families that has little purpose anymore - the adult males just know that they want to kill the other family's adult males. And so, on a dark and stormy night, a visiting Canfield decides to do what he feels is his duty and remove the local McKay from the face of the earth. He succeeds, but also manages to get himself bumped off too. The elder McKay's widow decides to take their 1 year-old son and move to New York city to get away from the feud and promises never to tell the boy about any of it. After this opening (which, though not funny, is very well constructed with little need for intertitles), we cut 20 years into the future and meet 21-year-old Willie McKay. The moment Buster Keaton's face comes on screen, the film shifts easily into its comedic space. Almost as easily as Keaton effortlessly and economically creates humour with subtle movements and body positioning (he sometimes seems quite frozen in mid movement). Of course, there are also the stunts that build to bigger and bigger payoffs as the movie goes on, but some of my favourite moments are the small things he does. Just the way he tosses a piece of luggage on top of a carriage is something to behold. And, possibly my favourite part of the film, a 10 second throwaway of him not knowing what to do with his hands when he realizes a set of people are watching him. His timing, movements and variety of ideas are all simply magnificent.

Lewis also leaves no doubt what kind of film you are watching the second he comes on screen, though his comedic intent is far more in your face. That's not necessarily bad, of course, just that his rubbery mugging for the camera is a different approach. Some of it works here, but a lot of it feels forced and continues past any possible initial point of humour. One reason is that he simply has no one to play off - the young Butterworth has zero skills in this area - and so some of his bits aren't overly welcome shortly after they've begun. This particularly applies to several of the uncle characters like Captain Eddie and the gangster Bugs Peyton who are all schtick and very little else. As soon as Lewis is finished with the permutations of the "crazy" characters, he's ready to move on to a new scene. Though there is the overall plot that holds the movie together, it still feels like a set of sketches - even more so than The Bellboy. Through the strained moments, though, there's still several good bits - Lewis can occasionally get more of a laugh by reining in his need for the BIG reactions such as when an entire row of books spills to the floor due to his touching a single one of them or during a full 2-minute long single take shot of him trying to get two people properly lit and positioned in a camera frame (in this case he actually has someone to play off). This inconsistency leads to the film feeling half-baked and cobbled together which is certainly not something you could say about Our Hospitality. Things kick into gear when Willie takes a steam train home after getting a notice that he can now claim his family's property (the film is set in the mid-1800s). Keaton seems to get inspired by train gags and he packs numerous ones in early on. Fortunately he follows these up with a variety of other environments and set pieces. He meets a girl on the train and she just happens to be a Canfield, so when she brings him home for dinner the rest of the menfolk in her family are none too pleased. This leads to a variety of missed opportunities for Willie to die via gunshot and slides right into some hair raising chase sequences on cliffs and rapids. The film's most famous bit is Willie's rope swing timed perfectly to save the girl as she plummets over a waterfall. Sure that's a dummy going over the edge of the water, but that's still Keaton tied to the rope and flying headlong into the gushing water. It's not just impressive, but the absurdity of Willie being able to pull this off adds laughs to the excitement.

And there lies the big difference in these two films - Keaton give us a full story with subtle humour that ramps its way up to bigger more absurd laughs through character and action. Lewis sticks pretty tight to one main style and keeps pushing it without any fine tuning and regardless of situation. There's still plenty for me to explore in Jerry Lewis' "oeuvre" and I certainly plan to do so - both The Family Jewels and The Bellboy provide enough elements to show the creative comedic mind behind Lewis' goofiness. However, Keaton remains one of my movie heroes and Our Hospitality is yet another of his perfectly formed comedic creations. I'll track down The Nutty Professor at some point, but it's probably best I didn't see it as a comparison point to Keaton. That's just not a fair fight.

Sunrises & Sunsets #6

The World Of Apu (1959 - Satyajit Ray)

Saturday 21 July 2012

Scribblings Of A Random Nature #24

The Black Dahlia (2006 - Brian De Palma) - Many times better than my previous De Palma film - the stylish but highly disappointing and awkward "Femme Fatale", but still just a shade underwhelming. I can't help but feel De Palma is somewhat tone deaf when it comes to his actors' line readings, though I grant that he's obviously much more interested in the visuals. I can't help but feel that many of his films could absolutely benefit from more natural or even consistent approaches to how the characters come across when they speak. There's a school of thought that says he intentionally has stilted dialog and acting, but it makes it no less frustrating at times. Still, a pretty strong film overall.

Carlito's Way (1993 - Brian De Palma) - Even more interesting and entertaining than Dahlia, "Carlito's Way" has more of that consistency I was looking for from De Palma. For example, Sean Penn is playing a scumbag, drug-fueled lawyer at a high pitch, but he does it at that same level throughout the whole film. Pacino manages to avoid his completely over the top performances of the last few decades and reins himself in just enough so that he's believable as a former gangster trying to go straight but finding no easy way to do it. And yet, the film overall still manages to feel somewhat undercooked - every scene feels like it's been edited into the picture a bit too soon, like the director has just called "Action!" a mere split second before we join it.

My Summer Of Love (2004 - Pawel Pawlikowski) - Two young ladies meet in a small village and begin an intense friendship/affair over one languorous summer. As their relationship blossoms, the brother of one of them embraces his born-again philosophy and converts his pub into a place of worship. The two leads are excellent (Emily Blunt in one of her very first film roles), there's some strong tension that builds up within the triangle of the brother and two girls, and Pawlikowski manages to capture what feels to be some very spontaneous moments, but it never fully brought across the characters nor a purpose for the story. It's probably more a factor of what felt like a let down of a final third after so much possibility had been brought to the screen in the early going. By its end, it simply didn't feel like it had achieved anything except for some really fantastic camera shots - in other words, it felt like an exercise in filmmaking instead of an actual story that needed to be told.

Sound Of Noise (2010 - Ola Simonsson, Johannes Stjärne Nilsson) - I guess you could say this is another case of potential squandered, though in this case the let down is slower and much more prolonged. A group of musical "terrorists" perform their compositions on a variety of different pieces of their city - a hospital operating room, a bank, a city square and a set of transmission lines - while a policeman who just wants quiet starts to track them. There's certainly some moments of invention in the "musical" numbers (which are really percussion pieces since the group are all drummers), but each successive one seems to be less impressive and the group's purpose becomes less and less engaging, relevant and meaningful as the film goes along. It's well made, well acted and well paced for sure, but feels like it stalls after the first full group performance. I couldn't help feeling that the filmmakers either lost their way or never really knew where to go with their team of anarchists and their tone-deaf pursuer. Still, there are certainly moments of cleverness (like the animated walkthrough of the "score" of the four percussion pieces from which all the screencaps come). Check out their short (same cast) Music for an apartment and six drummers that apparently led to the film.

Monday 9 July 2012

Sequences Of A Titular Nature #10

Eastern Promises (2007 - David Cronenberg) - I love the deep greys of the photography of these tattoos and it really adds a sinister feeling to Cronenberg's film before it even gets rolling. It's the perfect single item to focus on for this film - the tattoos not only mark these men as dangerous, but they mark them for life. There's no escape from their past. Though these tattoos are pretty bad-ass, the designs are pretty damn gorgeous too...

Private Parts (1972 - Paul Bartel) - In this spiffy little 70s psychological horror, director Bartel zooms in on sexual urges and the "dangers" of acting upon them. Young Cheryl flirts with George the photographer (a rather odd sort who has one of the more interesting studios you might come across), but don't expect you know the outcome of the film simply from these great, though slightly disturbing, titles. The saturated colours hint at the lurid scenes to follow - not to mention the flash bulbs across naked female bodies - and it ends with a great fade to a real naked couple having sex. You have to like a movie that states right up front what it's going to do (if not how it intends to get there).

High Fidelity (2000 - Stephen Frears) - The end titles - over the fantastic Stevie Wonder tune "I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)" - look like typical local band stickers and posters for live club dates that have been plastered across the city on lampposts, construction site walls and even on street signs. This of course melds nicely with central character Rob Gordon's life which revolves almost entirely around music (his collection, his top 5 lists, his record store, his DJing, his record release party, his friend's band, etc.). These titles even have a spinning LP as a faded background image which ties right back to the opening of the film.

Casino Royale (1967 - Val Guest, Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, Richard Talmadge) - No, that's not the cast list next to the year - it's the list of directors for this movie. How's that possible? Well, after you watch the film you won't necessarily know how that happened, but you'll definitely believe that many different people were behind the camera - it's that schizophrenic. More enjoyable than I expected, but still a considerable mess of a movie with numerous different tones. Nice looking titles though. And consistent too.