2017 Swashathon: The Scarlet Pumpernickel (1950)

Directed by Chuck Jones this Looney Tunes short is another that takes place on the Warner Brothers backlot. Daffy has a meeting in faceless studio head J.L.’s office (clearly modeled after Jack L. Warner). Part of Daffy’s desire in this outlandish pitch is to break out of what he sees as typecasting and play the role of a swashbuckling hero.

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Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of this short is how it deals with the concept of casting. In the framing mechanism Daffy is pitching a film to break out of the type-cast mold he feels he’s stuck in. Within the pitched story the Warner crew cast from their stable of stars to create a swashbuckling, animated version of The Scarlet Pimpernel called The Scarlet Pumpernickel.

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Daffy plays Daffy Dumas Duck, Porky Pig plays Lord High Chamberlain, Mama Bear plays a handmaiden, Henery Hawk plays a pageboy, Sylvester plays a Lord and groom-to-be, Elmer Fudd plays an innkeeper; and an obese horse not unlike the one in What’s Opera, Doc? also makes an appearance.

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This short is also a showcase for the music of Michael Maltese who is frequently the unsung hero behind the scenes of the Looney Tunes shorts.

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Aside from some visual flair like hanging off the underside of a cliff, a flood, the Pumpernickel using a parachute; it’s an absurd plot only animation could really pull off in such a short amount of time. As the commentary track on the DVD observes it packs in all the conventions of a swashbuckler with comedic effect, complete with jokes about Errol Flynn. Also, on the Golden Collection’s commentary track I learned that this was more of a showcase for Mel Blanc than usual as he voiced Elmer Fudd in this short as well though he usually didn’t.

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This is also one of the Looney Tunes shorts which has been the target of retroactive censorship and re-edits on TV. The short ends with Daffy putting a gun to his head, as his story ends with the Scarlet Pumpernickel killing himself. Daffy shoots, falls to the ground, then looks up (the bullet went through his beret) and says “It’s getting so you have to kill yourself to sell a story around here.” Edits dropped frames where the gun fired and cut straight to him on the ground. In my estimation it’s a useless edit as the implication is still there. Yes, the reality of suicide is more present in today’s world. However, the fact remains that art of the past cannot and should not be constantly altered to fit ever-changing mores and realities. They are what they are and are reflective of a time. It’s up to each successive generation to know better as the collective consciousness grows.

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As such, there’s not a moral to be learned from this short, it’s funny with jokes for audiences young and old, for people who just like animation or old Hollywood; but it’s not a morality play and an excellent quick parody of a genre.

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Christopher Plummer Blogathon: Remember (2015)

Even when you’re as legendary and accomplished an actor as Christopher Plummer is there are certain themes you may be loath to revisit if it mirrors a bit too closely to one of your more famous roles. In Remember Christopher Plummer plays Zev Guttman, a Holocaust survivor living in a nursing home whom has just lost his wife and is dealing with dementia. Now entering a new stage of his life he can embark on his mission to avenge the death of his family at Auschwitz.

When the material is good enough and you feel it has something to say, the director you’ll be working with is acclaimed (as Atom Egoyan is), you will gladly participate in a film that may appear to share superficial themes (Nazism and World War II) to a film in your past you can’t seem to outrun (The Sound of Music). Furthermore, when you have over 200 credits to your name, and are in your late eighties (an age bracket that may as well not exist as a consideration in mainstream films) you may not be too picky. However, as some of Plummer’s more recent films like Beginners show he’s not just agreeing to a project because he read a script as some actors over a certain age may appear to.

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What is the most notable in this film is that Plummer is not merely the elder statesman in an otherwise youthful cast. Quite on the contrary Remember features impressive performances from fellow octogenarian Martin Landau and septuagenarian Bruno Ganz, and features but a brief supporting turn by the prodigious and prolific young actor Peter Dacunha. Not only are the older actors great but they feature prominently in the film. However, the film as opposed to the pre-packaged film for the older set it is one about characters and plot considerations that are specific, and can communicate to audiences of all ages due to the use of expertly employed suspenseful set pieces.

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While much of film acting is the ability to recreate emotional notes many times over owing to the need to shoot coverage, much of a film like Remember wherein a character must reabsorb givens as if it is entirely new information asks much more from an actor, director, and editor than a conventionally constructed film. In this film Plummer has to not only emote to have us engage in the repeated loss of his wife but also on more than one occasion have us fear that his only purpose left — as he sees it — will fail because he has either forgotten about the letter that now defines his reality or because in his travels it has become illegible.

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While a protagonist going brazenly into random encounters with other men of a certain age and asking them they are German, were at Auschwitz, and a blockführer does allow for a quiet thrum of tension throughout; there are moments of unexpected pathos. Zev has but a name (Rudy Kurlander) and a location to find each of the man who could be responsible for killing his family. One of the men has a number tattooed on his arm, which catches Zev by surprise.

“You’re Jewish?”

“Homosexual.”

At that moment Zev breaks down in tears, feeling remorse and offering his condolence. It’s a wonderful moment of empathy that is but an example of how this is a more layered emotional experience than one might expect going into it.

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There is a huge revelation that I will not spoil but it is the commitment to a performance that allows it to work. When the film is over and consider things in hindsight you will note the clues were there all along, but you didn’t even realize you should have been looking for them.
This film was distributed by A24 who is a company willing to go outside the norms and push the envelope even where we weren’t aware it should be pushed even lightly. It is available to stream for Amazon Prime subscribers and is worth checking out.

Film Activism: Beyond Terror Lucio Fulci Book & DVD

Typically when I’ve written about these crowdfunding efforts it has been about campaigns that have not been funded. This reissue of an expanded, gorgeously packaged book is happening but the stretch goals are coming fast and furious, and I suggest you hop on the bandwagon as I have. Here’s what this package about one of the members of the Italian Horror Trinity is about:

 

Here’s what the next stretch goal will add:

Having announced the addition of an illustrated booklet with the trailer DVD after surpassing the £55,000 milestone, here is what everyone gains if we can find more people who want to own the ultimate edition of the ultimate Lucio Fulci tribute package:

Just 30 to 35 more people will bring us to a total of £62,500 raised. If we hit this target everyone will receive a set of postcards featuring the four iconic 1980s British quad poster designs – The Beyond, City of the Living Dead, The House By the Cemetery and Zombie Flesh-Eaters.

Having already added one goal, they announced further add-ons:

£70,000 – Everyone’s package will include a stamped hard enamel badge with the Eibon symbol in black against a polished copper metal finish.

£80,000 – We go into a recording studio, where Stephen Thrower will record a commentary track for the trailer DVD.

Spread the word!

 

Updates: May 2, 2017

Recently two Blogathon posts went live here and here.

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Now, I have two other blogathons to announce that I will be joining. First, I will be discussing Remember in a blogathon on Christopher Plummer’s work on SeanMunger.Com.

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Next, I will join Movie Silently‘s Swashathon anew this time to discuss The Scarlet Pumpernickel!

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Also to come in June look for further announcements here on the podcast I will be cohosting with Myron Schmidt called Ancient Slumber Presents Guardians of the Beam which is about Stephen King’s Dark Tower and all its lore.

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More announcements as they may sense, in the meantime you should be seeing me around here more frequently!

Nuts in May: A Laurel and Hardy Blogathon – The Music Box (1932)

Whenever I’ve been offered the opportunity to write about Laurel and Hardy, I’ve jumped at it. This is not just because they were a staple of my childhood as I mentioned here:

I love Laurel and Hardy. I’m not sure how many of their features I’ve seen. I do fondly recall watching their shorts on weekends growing up.

However, that and the fact that The Music Box became a sort of white whale for me for years does factor in. The fact that Laurel and Hardy was just something I found on TV, usually thanks to TCM, lead to me seeing many of their shorts without knowing their names. The internet, my studying films, and revisiting some had men eventually find The Music Box by title.

In my youth I knew them as O Gordo e o Magro first, the Portuguese name for the pair which translates to The Fat Man and The Thin Man. I learned their names in English, and watched them here, I even recall coming across plastic toys of them in Brazil.

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That dyed-in-the-wool fandom has me wandering back to them on occasion as my gyre of movie-watching wends its way through history, be it their silent, more often their short talkies or their features I come back to this duo often.
Sometimes this is by design and others it is by chance. When writing on the topic of non-competitive Oscars I ran into Stan Laurel, whom was awarded one (Oliver Hardy was not) for:

his creative pioneering in the field of cinema comedy. Stan Laurel was not present at the awards ceremony. Presenter Danny Kaye accepted the award on his behalf.

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When trying to select a way for me to discuss the War to End All Wars on Film Laurel and Hardy were the only way I could find to get myself a comfortable toehold.

A silent, solo turn by Ollie in The Show, and their film Brats was one of my favorite discoveries of 2012, were two other times they came up just on my blog. So, you can clearly see an omnipresence there in my life and times.

However, the most persistent memory of them of all so far as I’m concerned is The Music Box. It’s one I may have lost track of for a time because I think of it the way Friends names episodes “The One with the Piano Movers.” This is likely their most iconic bit. It’s not a wonder the synopsis cites Sisyphus because the task at hand is just as hopeless and fraught with peril but far funnier with these two involved.

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Humor is subjective, but since I saw it this has been one of the handful of funniest things I’ve ever seen. Enjoy!

The Great Villain Blogathon: The Frailty of Villainy 

Introduction

When deciding what to write about for the Great Villain Blogathon Frailty jumped out immediately. The reason for this is not that there’s nothing necessarily unique about the antagonist(s) within the narrative, nor in the fact that there is some role reversal, but rather in how that comes about and the approaches to it.

That is what makes Frailty such an interesting film to examine in this topic. The mandatory SPOILER ALERT applies that if you have not seen this film you should cease reading now as the film will be discussed in depth.

Frailty 

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For a horror film to thrive its villain(s) need to be effective, for the villains to be effective they need to have a potentially horrific foundation upon which to work. This is a film that offers quite a bit of solid ground to tread upon for not only does the paradigm of the narrative shift fairly often, but in terms of its crafting there are fascinating things to consider. Frailty, for as vague as it may sound, is exactly the title this film needs for whether it’s the frailty of life, the human spirit, religious belief, sanity, and even reality; any weakness, any fissure, any breaks can have dire consequences. Frailty examines such consequences.

This is one of the more frequently overlooked turns by a director/lead actor (Bill Paxton), a fact underscored by his untimely death earlier this year. When you include the fact that it was a first feature film credit for both he and screenwriter Brent Hanley, then the unlikeliness of the creation of what Roger Ebert rated a four-star film is multiplied.

Another thing that jumped out at me was that this is not unlike a story I would’ve written in my late teens or early twenties, thematically speaking. However, if one takes a look at an early draft one can see a majority of an excellent script in tact that was improved to increase surprise and pay-off, and build mystery.

The film gives the sense of Biblical verses clashing without getting into pulpit-pounding, even with all the talk of God, angels, and demons it remains character driven. In true-to-theology fashion fear and disbelief the two most common reactions these characters have to Biblical figures hearing messages from angels. The talk of “are we destroying demons or killing people” in family may get over but the director’s voice could come through in a less obvious in a clip fro the show Davey and Goliath where the discuss the notion of God making people do things or something happen in a very thoughtful way. The allusion to the story of Abraham and Isaac is very properly included and underscores the Old Testament sensibility of the film.

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There is built on a bed of lies a dramatic shell game of names, and antagonists. Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) comes into the FBI building wanting to see Agent Doyle (Powers Booth) who is in charge of the God’s Hand case, a rash of serial killings linked by notes claiming that “God’s hand was at work.” When Fenton finally gets to see Doyle he starts weaving his tale of how his brother Adam is the God’s Hand killer, and has recently committed suicide. Doyle is doubtful, which sets up the necessary and well-handled element of doubt in this story, but agrees to listen for a time. This disbelief is reflected in the flashback with Fenton as faith and disbelief go hand in hand. He flashes back to when he (Matt O’Leary) and Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) were kids and how the story of the case really started with their father (Bill Paxton). As wild as the story is, at critical junctures gets satisfactory corroborations from others, such that Doyle keeps listening.

In this frame you have the introduction of an unreliable narrator, which a classic literary and cinematic device, but that’s not the only trick in store just perhaps the most surprising one of all. The biggest twist of the proceedings is that the man who presents himself as Fenton is actually Adam all along.

Crafting a Villains and Shifting Them

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In this film, as you may be able to tell above, plot and character are very closely intertwined such that the changes in the story invariably alter how the audience may react to characters. The film in its flashback gives you what you think is a protagonist you can root for, one whose fighting the good fight. Well, you do have him in Young Fenton. He doesn’t believe the story his father is trying to sell him and who his younger brother seems far too eager to believe. But this tale is tragic in a sense. Young Fenton will not save the day, he will survive his childhood (barely) but he will be dead within minutes of the film having started.

In a world where you’re unsure if anyone is honest is where the line between villain and anti-hero is a little blurred, where demons may or may not exist; there is an additional onus on the casting not only for the adult versions of the characters but who plays their younger versions. Three out of the four are of vital importance and cast with the utmost precision.

 

The hard to properly attribute truism that every villain is the hero of their own story is very applicable to this film. For this film to communicate effectively with its audience all the actors had to connect with their characters and understand the world from their character’s truth. It is only in this way they can hope to be dimensional human beings, rise above caricatures, and have a far more primal, deeper impact on its audience. Having a talented actor such as Bill Paxton directing the film certainly helped the cast and allowed them to expand the potential of their roles: it brought Matthew McConaughey his best performance prior to his McConaissance; a deft turn from Powers Booth; a well-earned ‘Introducing’ credit for Matt O’Leary who is spellbinding; a deceptively good pre-Peter Pan turn from Jeremy Sumpter; and a chillingly effective, and convincingly convicted self-directed role for Paxton.

Yet, to minimize Paxton’s directorial effect to just performance would be wrong. A grasp of narrative and material is needed to successfully shift the audience’s view of a character, or at the very least to successfully pull of a story twist. Furthermore, there are plenty of great visuals that drive home whether its Young Fenton fearfully stepping back into the dark, Young Fenton standing between Dad and the ax, Young Fenton seeking light and water through the knothole, the odes to Hitchcock — Young Fenton’s dismembered head against negative fill, and the dolly back-zoom in at the end — and graceful dissolves that may have impressed Truffaut.

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Also, for the perception of the characters to change frequently the circumstances of the story have to change, which means that the story cannot hinge on just one big twist but have quite a few; and this one does: Fenton kills dad not the demon he’s meant to, which the audience both doesn’t necessarily expect and is glad for, making him momentarily heroic. Adam finishes the kill that dad can’t complete, sending not just a momentary jolt through the audience but breaking the relief that may have come over the audience. We know things are not yet resolved or over just because dad is gone. The twists come until the very end when we learn that Adam is the Sheriff in Meat, Texas.


In this film you go from identifying Fenton to watching his downfall, the zealous end of a patriarch’s life, and the transformation of Adam from complete innocent into acolyte. His typically quiet observance of events as a child make him a hard one to read and that foreshadows his ability to tell the story from another perspective so convincingly. Not that it’s entirely unforeseen either after Young Fenton has killed dad the frequently mentioned promise to buried in the Rose Garden is made. Young Adam’s angry assertion that “I promise to God I’ll bury you here,” show’s the switch flipped in him perhaps more so than when he followed through on dad’s destruction of a demon.

Another brilliant touch in Frailty is that as you follow Adam’s tale (whom we believe to be Fenton), an twists unravel, you realize you’re witness to his methodology. Every demon on his list presents a new challenge. FBI Agent Doyle presents quite a few. However, with Fenton being the demon prior it got the ball rolling and allowed him to concoct his tale, and Adam figures out a way to change the names in the story of his life well enough such that he can lay the appropriate traps to get Doyle’s attention, tell his story with just the right breaks such that he could lead the Agent to his future burial place.

What’s perhaps most impressive in Frailty is that it manages to be deft in a film that deals with a zealotry — or a metaphysical plot depending on your viewpoint. Fenton’s transition from suspected-demon to full-blown serial killer is mostly offscreen. We are witness to only the inception but not the road traveled thereafter. What we may interpret merely as Adam being an obedient, agreeable child is confirmed to be his truth as he saw (or believed he saw) the same things his father saw.

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In the end it is Dad Meiks who spends the longest run inhabiting the role of the antagonist in the film. He may have a soft spot for Fenton inasmuch as he does not destroy him after he claims an angel told him he’s a demon, but he still dehumanizes him by locking him in the newly built cellar, starving him in the dark, and only gives him water through a knothole. With him occupying that position and Fenton being his victim its clear where we’ll identify for a majority of the tale. When all is said and done it would have come as no surprise if Fenton had killed himself. However, that was to be another twist, another lie Adam told. He did destroy Fenton and made it seem as if it was he who killed Agent Doyle, hence the ruse of the name when asking to see him.

Conclusion

If Frailty was but a spectacle of twists and upended expectations it would not have the staying power it has had since its release in 2002. Clever writing also can only do so much. It is the sensitive, humanizing, layered portrayals these characters are given by their actors that makes them relatable and identifiable. The performances ultimately makes it possible for the characters to occupy disparate roles throughout, and engender pity if not sympathy. For a villain is ever more effective when you can see where they’re coming from and understand the world from their vantage point, and Frailty makes it such that that happens. You will likely not agree with them, but you will understand them, and that makes the visceral reaction far more palpable.