Poverty Row April: Officer Thirteen (1932)

In this year’s Poverty Row April post I said I’d dedicate Sundays to sharing features. However, I missed last week so I will get two up this weekend.

When I found out that this was available from Alpha Home Video I did not find it on the Internet Archive. It has surfaced since I saw it. This film features early performances by both Mickey Rooney and Jackie Searl.

The film deals with a cop who seeks vigilante justice when the system won’t find solutions. It’s a surprisingly effective title.

To view the film go here.

Chaney Blogathon: By the Sun’s Rays (1914)

Note: You can view the film in its entirety below, as I do discuss the plot liberally feel free to view it prior to reading.

In order to be able to participate in another wonderful blogathon hosted by Movie Silently and the Last Drive-In, I volunteered to discuss By the Sun’s Rays. This is an 11-minute short film from 1914 released in Universal’s infancy that features Lon Chaney as a villain.

The reason this was a preferable selection for me is because I didn’t manage to squeeze in a Chaney title during my last theme 61 Days of Halloween (though I wanted to) and my current theme Thankful for World Cinema features films produced abroad. Therefore, the fact that this was presented as an option allowed me to buck my theme slightly to discuss it and I’m glad I could.

Here’s a fairly succinct synopsis of the film from an IMDb user:

Frank Lawler, a clerk for a mining company, colludes with a bandit gang about the timing of gold shipments with a mirror signal system and has designs on Doris Davis, the daughter of the local branch manager. The company’s main office dispatches their top detective John Murdock, who goes undercover to expose the scheme and rescue the Doris from the unwanted advances of the dastardly Lawler.

Chaney plays Lawler, and there are a few interesting things about the film. First, the appropriately florid description of the nature of Chaney’s character may paint the picture in a reader’s mind of a dastardly, handlebar-mustache twirling lothario if they’ve not seen the film. What’s refreshing, and what makes the film work in my estimation, is the fact that Lawler’s villainy, thanks to Chaney’s portrayal, is fairly subdued. In the segment of the film where Dora (Agnes Vernon) is distracting him from his intended rounds with her feminine wiles you can, even in a fairly wide shot, read the inner-monologue of Chaney’s struggle. It’s not over-the-top but is present and convincing enough that you understand the struggle he faces.

Similarly he lurks in the background in a few frames eavesdropping and plotting, awaiting his moment. To take his reactions and manifestations of character too far would render the film far too comedic for its intended western/action tone. Therefore, even here nearly one hundred years ago a few acting styles removed from what is considered modern and acceptable practice you have here similar truths about applicable acting styles for genres.

It has also been noted that this is Chaney’s earliest extant film and that is of significance too as it is the earliest indicator, in a small dose, of his ability, and is valuable and worth examining from that perspective as well. Enjoy!

Review- Rio

Rio (20th Century Fox)

For any viewer, regardless of your experience, academic acumen or whatever other qualifications you may have, there will invariably be occasions where a film plays into a sensitive area for you where it’ll either excel with flying colors or fail miserably, perhaps to a greater degree than it would otherwise, due to your personal experience. In the case of Rio it was targeted on my radar early on for two reasons: first, and the lesser of the two reasons, for my love of birds and conversely my loathing of smuggling but it hit home more because it’s set in Brazil, a nation of which I am a dual citizen.

Having been one who grew up cinematically with only Carmen Miranda and the anti-Lambada propaganda film The Forbidden Dance as major reference of American interpretations of Brazil onscreen my apprehension is understandable. Not that there’s anything wrong with Carmen Miranda but any icon can be turned into a stereotype in the wrong hands.

Suffice it to say that most of my concerns are addressed by the fact that one of the film’s writers and its director is a Brazilian, Carlos Saldanha. Yet, you also do not get a Disney-fied Saludos Amigos or Three Cabelleros rendition of Latin America, you have in the narrative of this film a setting which actually plays a role, which is rare but also one that is presented without frills and bereft of commentary. You see the glitz and glamor of Rio, the natural beauty, the beach life, the skyline at night, carnaval but also the favelas and in a minor way, crime. It’s a subtle but accurate portrait that doesn’t impose itself above the story. It shows the good and the bad. So with that personal concern overcome I can begin to address the rest of the film.

When dealing with animation set overseas there are invariably headaches of logic. There’s always the minor bugaboo of when do you float a word in said foreign language that English speakers will readily recognize? How many Brazilians and/or actors of Hispanic descent do you include in the cast? Now, there’s only one Brazilian in the principal cast, however, considering that many Brazilian actors have recently been cast as either Hispanic or “Vaguely Foreign” characters (such as Rodrigo Santoro himself in Love Actually) it all comes out in the wash.

In fact, quite a lot the voice talent does quite well either toeing that line or just being convincing that it makes you forget. Jesse Eiesenberg conveys the stressed, caged bird in the wild well and also has the unexpected task of struggling/learning to embrace his newfound culture. Anne Hathaway, perhaps more than any other name actor in the cast, vanishes behind the veneer of her character. Thankfully she is given license to sing and the few seconds of Portuguese she’s asked to speak sounds good.

The rest of the voice cast does rather well as a whole also. One of the most distinctive and hardest voices to overcome is George Lopez’s but his shtick with his wife is funny enough such that you eventually forget. While Tracy Morgan always sounds like himself it works in tandem with his character so well that it doesn’t matter. Will i. am provides the most consistent comic relief and perhaps the most overlooked voice work belongs to Jake T. Austin, perhaps best known for his work on Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place, he convincingly comes across as not only a Brazilian kid but also one who’s younger than he is.

The story of this film resolves itself quite neatly. It gets just the right amount of complication what with the smuggling plots getting aided with a scene-stealing performance by a Cockatoo (Jemaine Clement, who thankfully is also allowed to sing). Events head for the collision course you hope they’ll have and while there are dueling love plots and a heist everything thing has its proper priority within the infrastructure of the narrative. There’s more going on here than meets the eye with many of the villains not willing to do their own dirty work, such that you can see how it may be described as a mess but it truly does all work towards one end.

And that end is truly one of the more graceful and visual I’ve seen in some time. You realize the film is all but over and there are at least three questions/open ends you’re wondering about that are addressed in a few shots and wordlessly, without any lengthy denouement. It’s a thing of beauty of behold.

Moreover, it’s a musical that’s actually musical, meaning there are a few musical numbers where characters breakout and sing but not once does it seem random and forced. The score is tremendous and very present and when it’s not there it’s replaced by source music, which is usually a new take on a Brazilian standard. It’s another example of the synergy of location. The score is indigenous without feeling forced or trite. Even incorporating Samba beats the score and source music still underscores the action tonally.

I typically leave the 3D commentary for near the end when I do see something in 3D. I did see it as such and my general feeling is that right now animation, specifically animation by the biggest studios (Disney/Pixar, DreamWorks, Fox/Blue Sky) is usually your best bet for getting the most bang for your buck 3D-wise.

The animated feature film has become more of a box office and aesthetic presence than it ever was. It has truly grown in leaps and bounds over the history of cinema as something that was virtually a one-studio specialty to a medium that has become, at long last, a bona fide Oscar category. Having said that the category has been virtually monopolized. It’ll be very hard to justify that this year with Rio entering the fray I think.

As I may have said before, I now treat sitting through the end credits like a standing ovation. Considering the fact that I was so apprehensive about seeing it in the first place, I truly did not expect to watch this film all the way to its literal conclusion. Rio is a tremendously effervescent film that actually manages to capture some of the spirit of the city in a very honest way.

10/10

Review- Wild Target

Bill Nighy in Wild Target (Magic Light Pictures)

Wild Target in many ways epitomizes a British comedy and simultaneously epitomizes the Briton take on genre-crossing tales. The comedy is, make no mistake, ever-present throughout the course of this film making it a brilliantly farcical tale. The farce is perhaps the most difficult comedy sub-genre to pull off because it relies so heavily on the preposterous lampooning of what we typically in life or in film take seriously or for granted.

While this film excels far more easily in its comedic elements than it does as an action-thriller, those elements are there and consistent. The edit may be a little unbalanced and a cross-cut or two to the organized crime figures on the chase may be a little late it still does work.

Yet what makes this film most interesting is the interplay of the three main characters. The lead, Victor Maynard, is played wonderfully by Bill Nighy [A performance which after this writing I would honor as the Best of the Year.] This is truly a fantastic character study. We slowly see this man become the person he was longing to be, as in the beginning he imagines dinner conversation and then later on enacts it but he is also a confused man. He is so defined by being a hitman he doesn’t know himself and questions everything; even his sexuality.

The confrontation of that fact leads to one of the funniest and most complex jokes in the film, which can be taken as a triple entendre. That is not a typo watch it and consider the exchange carefully and you’ll see what I mean.

Which leads us to the performance of Rupert Grint. While he is not breaking the mold that made him famous in this part, as he has in others, it is definitely a more grown-up and comedic interpretation thereof and a wonderful counterpoint to the tension of Maynard and Rose (Emily Blunt).

Last but certainly not least is Emily Blunt as Rose who carries off a rather complex character with relative ease and makes her fully realized. She is never predictable and real and furthermore complicates Maynard’s life brilliantly.

Wild Target manages to balance the thrill of the chase and comedic situations and the mix is rather easy indeed. It eases you in familiarizing you both with the status quo of Maynard and Rose and then showing you how their fates will intertwine.

When a film opens with a hit in which the hitman may be betrayed by a parrot and the hitman places his silencer against its head, you should know what you’re in for.  The fact that they argue makes nearly Monty Python-esque. What proceeds from there is a deliriously good time.

9/10

Wild Target will be released on video tomorrow (2/8/11)