Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Wreck of the Battleship "Maine" (1898)

Another subject I came across in my research on Spanish-American War films. This film was photographed by cameramen from the Edison company, showing the wreckage of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor following its explosion on February 15, 1898 which resulted in the deaths of 266 crewmen. The cause of the explosion remains unknown, but the incident became central to the efforts of "Yellow journalists" to drum up American support in favor of war with Spain.

Following the incident, French filmmaker Georges Méliès made a subject depicting the recovery of bodies from the wreckage, which presents an interesting contrast with Edison's authentic footage. Méliès' film employs a re-creation of the scene with actors in front of painted sets and special effects to simulate underwater photography, in order to give audiences an interpretation of the events that they could not see in the actualité subjects of the time.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Morro Castle, Havana Harbor (1898)

In the process of doing some research tonight on early films dealing with historical re-enactments of war events, I came across this interesting subject from the Edison Company that presents a view of the historic fortress, Morro Castle, as seen from Havana Harbor. This magnificent structure was photographed by Edison's cameramen during one of their trips to cover the events of the Spanish-American War, and is a fine example of the historic landmarks that were presented to early moving picture audiences who may never have had a chance to see them in person during their lifetimes.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Clerks II (2006)

Sequel to Smith's 1994 indie hit has some funny moments but overall feels like a retread of similar, better material from the first film. The problem here is that the moments of shock value never feel shocking enough and lack the edge of the first film, while the comedy too often gets bogged down in moments of mawkish sentimentality that seem to take themselves too seriously. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem if both were handled more evenly and skillfully, but as it is, the film veers uncomfortably between attempts at soul-searching seriousness, and juvenile gross-out humor. To boot, the whole thing is overproduced and lacks the lo-fi charm of Smith's debut feature. As a filmmaker, Smith faces the same problem as John Waters -- as his budgets have grown over the years and the films become more slick, they lose some of that sense of urgency and authenticity that made their earlier work so compelling.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Son of Kong (1933)

Ill-conceived sequel to KING KONG, which was such a hit for RKO in 1933 that the studio rushed this film into production for a Christmas release the same year! Despite the return of director Ernest B. Schoedsack and most of the same production crew as the first film, as well as actors Robert Armstrong, Frank Reicher and Victor Wong, it falls far short of the original: the script is poorly constructed, lacking the suspense and pace of the original (undermined by silly moments of cartoonish humor), and the effects work feels decidedly rushed and slapdash at times, with the encounters between baby Kong and the various dinosaurs playing like rehashes of superior scenes from the first film.

Still, it's difficult to be too harsh on the film, as it has a good deal of charm, especially with the friendship that develops between Denham and the little ape whose father he took away, and the tender relationship between Denham and the girl he rescues after her own father dies. Both of these relationships provide a nice character arc from the first film, as Denham shows a guilty conscience for his earlier actions, and develops a protective instinct toward both baby Kong and the girl.

Despite its shortcomings, it represents the work of a phenomenal collection of talented artists, even if they were working under hurried conditions and at half the budget of the first film, and for that reason is of interest as an important film in the history of special effects.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Grey Gardens (1976)

Landmark documentary character study of "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, living alone in squalor in their decaying East Hampton estate. The two highly-eccentric women (the aunt and cousin, respectively, to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) are certainly compelling subjects for a documentary, and the filmmakers do a fine job at exploring their uniquely co-dependent relationship with one another. As "Little Edie" craves independence from her mother and escape from the oppressive isolation of their home, her affection for her mother is also quite apparent, and there is something quite tragic about this woman, so full of life and energy, whose dreams and ambitions never materialized. The Verite approach is perhaps undermined a bit by the subjects' interaction with the filmmakers (who appear on-screen a few times and whose presence is acknowledged throughout), but still the Maysles have an undeniable talent for getting their subjects to open up on film and to capture a great deal of the essence of their personalities.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Salesman (1968)

Landmark work of Cinema Verite about a group of traveling Bible salesmen and their tribulations in trying to earn a living in an impossible, dying business. The Maysles' treat their subjects with dignity and without condescension, and succeed in making the conditions they depict genuinely compelling, without ever feeling exploitative. The film presents an interesting real-life counterpart to similar, fictional depictions of the traveling salesman as a metaphor for the illusions of the American Dream, such as DEATH OF A SALESMAN, and as an evocation of futility and desperation, it makes GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS seem positively upbeat and optimistic in comparison!

Night Train to Munich (1940)

Gripping, highly suspenseful British wartime thriller directed by Carol Reed, about a British agent's mission to smuggle a captured Czech inventor and his daughter safely out of Nazi Germany. Well-acted by Rex Harrison, Margaret Lockwood, and Paul Henreid, ably supported by comic relief team Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott. Reed's skillful direction creates a real sense of urgency throughout, enhanced by the topical references that give the story a sense of timeliness. Especially impressive is Reed's handling of the climactic escape across the Swiss alps via cable car. A model for future films of its kind.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

It Should Happen to You (1954)

Sharp and prescient satire on celebrity for its own sake. Gladys Glover wants to be famous in the worst way, so she rents out a billboard in Columbus Circle and puts her name on it, quickly becoming famous just for being famous.

Gladys Glover is the kind of "dumb blonde" character that Judy Holliday played so well, and this is certainly one of the best showcases she ever had for her comic talents. Jack Lemmon (in his screen debut) does his usual fine job as the good-hearted schnook who falls for Gladys, and Peter Lawford brings the right mix of charm and sleaze to the part of the advertising executive who spots an opportunity to exploit Gladys's newfound celebrity. Garson Kanin's clever script and George Cukor's skillful direction make this an especially observant satire that looks only more relevant in the age of reality TV and social media.