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!

Django Unchained: The Politics of Language


The first full-length post on Django Unchained, my choice as Best Picture of 2012 was my first guest post and first translated post. However, owing to the accolades I gave it, and the wait, it was time to post my own thoughts on the film. This is the second of four posts. The first can be found here.

The Politics of Language

This brings us to the racial component of the film. Here’s where the mistaken impression about genre can come in for many people. There is comedy in this film, but it’s not a comedy. This is no more a comedy than For a Fistful of Dollars is. Yes, it’s funny the way Django turns around his former owners line and says to him “I like the way you die, boy.” It’s also funny when Clint Eastwood in For a Fistful of Dollars changes his intial coffin order to four. It doesn’t make either film a comedy.

However, the facade of a western is where the similarity between the film ends. The moments of overt comedy are there for you to laugh at in Django Unchained. The Klan eyehole scene may have been the funniest scene in any film I saw last year simply because it was such an ingenious cutting down of a hateful organization that seeks to taunt, terrify and kill. Yes, even some of the laughs can be tinged with uneasiness, but that’s the goal.

The death of slave owners is designed to be laughed at, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some deadened reactions to that. Upon introducing another, even more risqué skit than he had done previously (this one about a white family with a coincidentally racist name) Dave Chappelle said something to the effect of “Apparently, people didn’t think killing a slave owner was funny. I could watch that all day.” Which brings us to another source of controversy in this film the usage of the N-word.

Django Unchained (2012, The Weinstein Company)

Is it difficult to listen to it that many times, and spouted so hatefully? Of course. Especially when either Django or Stephen uses it. That’s the point and intent for a modern audience. Then there’s also the fact that that’s not far off the frequency you would’ve heard back then.

Yes, some words invariably cause issues as I noted in The Gay Dilemma, but when a script is well-crafted you can go a step beyond what is a generally accepted politically-correct norm and make a point as in The Sitter. I’m not one for censorship, and am in favor of artistic license, and the word belongs in this film as much as it does in Huckleberry Finn. In others it may be gratuitous and unnecessary, but that’s why I tend to take things like this on a case-by-case basis.

Furthermore, one shouldn’t allow the presence of a word, even one as disparaging and denigrating as that one, obscure the totality of the film. While he does get assistance, Django gets necessary training to be able to be the hero of the story, which he is. Will Smith’s assessment about Django’s secondary nature is only accurate if you’re into counting words of dialogue. King’s departure from the narrative gives Django plenty of time when the tale is his alone. He’s the one who has flashbacks and whose goals drive the story. Most importantly, in terms of race, Django’s nobility and heroism is not shown solely through his fortitude, his ability to withstand punishment like Kunta Kinte; his strength is his ability to fight back. And as much training as he gets, his intelligence is something he’s born with not given.

Short Film Saturday: The Phantom Empire, Chapters 7-9

The Phantom Empire may be the most unique movie serial ever created. I was told of its existence by my favorite film professor in college and I was fortunate enough to have found it on VHS shortly thereafter. After having viewed it I was glad to have given it to him. Now I have since reacquired it on DVD. It stars Gene Autry in his usual singing cowboy persona, but there’s also science fiction mixed in and quite a few other things along the way.

Through Poverty Row April I will likely watch a composite version of this film, but I am glad to be able to present to you the serial version of the the film thanks to The Internet Archive. To view please visit the links below.

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained: How Good it is to Kill Fascists, Racists and Slave Owners!

Ladies and Gentlemen,

What we have here is a most unique and historic occasion! This is not only the first guest post ever on this blog, but it is also a bi-lingual post. My cousin Rodrigo Guéron on Facebook posted a brilliant essay about Django Unchained . I thought it was great and asked him if he’d mind my translating it. So below you will find not only my translation of the text, but also beneath it, for those of you who speak Portuguese and would prefer the original text, I have included that as well. Enjoy!

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained: How Good it is to Kill Fascists, Racists and Slave Owners!

Rodrigo Guéron

Philosopher. Adjunct professor Art Institute of UERJ (Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro). Author of the book From the Image to the Cliche, from the Cliche to the image: Deleuze, Cinema and Thought. Director and Screenwriter of the short films 750 Cidade de Deus (750 City of God), Cladestinidade (Clandestineness) and Eu Estou Cada Vez Melhor (I’m Always Getting Better).

Django Unchained (2012, The Weinstein Company)

Funny, I was never a Tarantinophile. My mind wasn’t blown, in the ’90s, like some of my friends, by Pulp Fiction; I liked the movie, certain scenes and images especially, but that’s it. Truth be told I really liked a movie that the cultists of the director consider minor: Jackie Brown. Then along came Kill Bill, that I thought was very interesting, and I disagreed with what most critics said about the film, namely, that this, and Taratino’s films that followed, were a collage of references, a montage of cinematic citation, sketches and pop cliches: pastiche couture. That wasn’t exactly an untruth, but it was understating these films. Similar things have been said about Django Unchained, and I continue to think that in a way the critique of Tarantino’s cinema isn’t giving him enough credit.

From the beginning, I would say that Tarantino fights and confronts the US’s past and images of America’s past (Or better yet the past relative to imagery), not differentiating, as in Godard’s Notre Musique, if the image portends to be documentary or fiction: they deal with the memories in the collective consciousness that they’re created from, above all else a memory with a present to be dealt with. To begin such a story, we’d think that the first images of the film we’d face would be of blacks in the bonds of slavery. As a matter of fact, they are there, but it has a void too, a void of imagery, a shrieking omission, specifically a counter-image. In the American cinema, and in history, slavery appears through racism, the abscess of Anglo-Saxon Hollywood. Through its absence, for lack of a protagonist, or through the stereotyping of blacks in films and, finally, that these re-affirming constructs act as images of resistance, like exuberance and empowerment, become stereotypes themselves. But the remixed past of Django Unchained goes well beyond these images: the great, epic images of “America” that are present. And in that it makes sense to mix westerns and slavery: a combination that almost never occurred is, at the heart of it, a combination that was always latent, as if Saturation and Omission met each other on the corner of History and Cinema.

It’s clear that, it’s so impossible to make a western today, it’s so impossible to believe anew in those old epic fables (save the exceptionally beautiful No Country for Old Men by the Cohen Brothers which displays that, nearly debunking my statement) as impossible to not consider the epic majesticness, the power of the images of these civilizing fables mix cinematographic beauty (the beauty of life and the world, and not the dark underbelly of cinema) with sanguinary violence of all the conflicts and genocides of Manifest Destiny. In the middle of the impasse created by this heritage, it’s as if a space was opened up by kicking and screaming to create the images that Tarantino invents in Django, an impossible black cowboy, ex-slave, freedom fighter, bounty hunter, fighting against his captors to free his lady fair.

Django Unchained (2012, The Weinstein Company)

But it’s so impossible to believe in a cowboy the way we used to, that one who is black politically correct, didactic, militant of liberal America, would be ridiculous and absurd. On the other hand, if Tarantino made his film a simple parody, or just a comedy, (as the great Spike Lee equivocally interepreted), it’d have eschewed violence in a cynical and impotent way. At the end of the day, cinema is violence, cinema is war, they’re as inextricable from one another as history and violence; whether it be the banalized violence of imagery or a violence of the banal in images; whether it be the aesthetically beautiful violence, sometimes cold and ascetic, sometimes redemptive (for a “great cause”) and, finally, a fascinating violence, attractive: a violence with the promise of great fun and pleasure.

And that’s not all, the situations in westerns are so impossible, so ridiculous, but at the same time are a past that happened, it’s almost irrelevant if it was in cinema or in fact. From old movies there are some images fascinate me to this day: fearless men, sagas, sublime landscapes. Aside from the obvious, the cowboy is at the same time a child, an innocent, sensitive and sanguinary. A heroic nomad, he comes last, does dirty jobs for others before himself, he’s also, violently civilized: the vagabond cowboy is a freedom fighter before “America” becomes the the United States of America. And in the United States film itself is, like a cowboy’s tale, a westerly march.

Tarantino creates in this black cowboy nothing credible, a fearless freedom fighter who’s enamored, who confronts a past, which is invariably tragic. In a mishmash of cinema and history, history and cinema, he duplicates images ad infinitum, showing us all its sides. Sometimes in just one movement, as times in frenetic comings-and-goings, he destroys the past as well as he salvages it. It even gives the impression that one of his filmmaking guides was the most beautiful anti-fascist text by Nietzsche (A philosopher who was, paradoxically or not, a hero to the Nazis): On the Use and Abuse of History for Life.

Django Unchained (2012, The Weinstein Company)

At the intersection between Memory and Forgetting, between what we can’t relive and what is impossible (and undignified) to forget; between what we can no longer believe and what we wish to affirm; between cynicism and innocence; between raw, real violence and film effects; between the pretension of realism mixed with moral lessons and the ridiculousness of improbable situations; Tarantino chooses all this at the same time. We make fun of, laugh at, disbelieve, and surprisingly, we are on the edge of our seats like adolescents from the mid-20th century rooting for their heroes. And this is how we find ourselves getting frightened, nearing delirium like beasts before a huge massacre: a “just” massacre, the perfect revenge: a copy of a copy of a copy, but totally anti-Baudardrillian, posing as not at all nihilistic: potent. And the whole theatre is buzzing like when the young Jewish girl in Inglourious Basterds, in the middle of Occupied Paris, blew up the theatre with Hitler, Goebbels, Goering and the whole Third Reich in attendance. It’s an absurdity that’s good: the deliciousness of cinema unmasked, rustic, stripped of dramatic recourses and moribund cinematic technique, mixing the deliciousness of seeing how history absurdly should have been for the general welfare of all. In fact, if cinema is a fallacy, science and its “truths” can be the same way: certain situations in the film are so stupid like the “scientific” explanation that a slave owner gives about the brian of blacks. But their power is also maintained because it’s fascinating and engenders pleasures. Cinema and its joys have much to do with this. This is why the scene where the slaves are setting the table in the plantation house is perhaps one of the most beautiful of the film.

Hollywood always wanted to give us the omnipotent sensation of the desctruction of evil; for this it was necessary to drown under the polarization of good vs. evil to later get rid of all our desires – and above all the anti-desire: fear and guilt- within it. Only Hollywood isn’t over our heads: it is part of the power, either with active violence, or with the impotence of fear and guilt: impotent images. The “politically incorrect” relates to these things, and it’s still capable of turning, with its spectre, a legion of proto-fascist figures of the establishment posing as the irreverent “politically incorrect.”

On the other side, if the American cinema doesn’t get tired of killing for a great cause, or of promising an assassination with a great fun – and us with heroic assassins- Tarantino in Django permits us to to play joyfully at being just, saying “Fuck off!”, to our delight, to everything politically correct. Now we can even laugh, celebrate and get as blood-spattered as we want with the triumph of good we always wanted: the best happy endings of all time.

Django Unchained (2012, The Weinstein Company)

The omnipotent American cinema of destruction of evil is triumphanty destroyed and resuscitated by Tarantino, who in the same gunsling kills liberal-Christian guilt with a bullet to the head. It’s not good enough anymore to kill “robbers,” “Indians,” “Communists,” “Islamic terrorists,” or all the other supposed enemies of “America.” Much less feel compassion for them. What’s good is killing fascists! What’s really good is slaughtering slave owners and racists! It delicious to see these pigs to the slaughter without any pity whatsoever.

Django Uncahined (2012, The Weinstein Company)

The Original Text

Django Livre, de Quentin Tarantino: como é bom matar fascistas, racistas e escravocratas!

Rodrigo Guéron

Filósofo. Professor Adjunto do Instituto de Artes da UERJ. Autor do livro, “Da Imagem ao Clichê, do Clichê à Imagem. Deleuze, Cinema e Pensamento”. Diretor e roteirista de Cinema, autor dos curta metragens “750 Cidade de Deus”, “Clandestinidade” e “Eu Estou Bem cada Vez Melhor”.

Engraçado, nunca fui um tarantinista. Não vibrei como alguns amigos nos anos 1990 com Pulp Fiction; gostei do filme, de algumas cenas e imagens em especial, e pronto. Na verdade eu gostei mesmo era de um filme que os cultuadores do diretor consideravam menor: Jackie Brown. Mas já em Kill Bill, que achei muito interessante, comecei a discordar do que grande parte da crítica dizia do filme, a saber, que este, e outros filmes de Tarantino que o seguiram, eram uma colagem de referências, montagem de citações cinematográficas, quadrinhos, clichês pops: uma espécie de costura de pastiches. Isso não era exatamente uma inverdade, mas era pouco para estes filmes. Coisas semelhantes tem sido ditas sobre Django Livre, e continuo achando que esta espécie de senso comum da crítica sobre o cinema de Quentin Tarantino não dá conta da força do diretor.

De início, eu diria que o que Tarantino faz em Django Livre é lidar e enfrentar o passado dos EUA, ou seja, as imagens do passado dos EUA (ou melhor, o passado enquanto imagem), não fazendo diferença, como na espetacular edição da primeira parte da História(s) do Cinema de Godard, se são imagens documentais ou de filmes de ficção: trata-se de memória e o que a constitui; sobretudo memória como um presente a ser enfrentado. A princípio, pensaríamos nós, as primeiras imagens a serem enfrentadas seriam as da escravidão e dos negros. E de fato elas estão lá, mas neste campo há também um vazio, uma falta de imagens, uma omissão gritante e, em especial, uma contra-imagem. No cinema americano, e na história, a escravidão aparece pelo racismo, pela assepsia anglo-saxã de Hollywood, pela ausência, pela falta de protagonismo ou pelo estereótipo dos negros nos filmes e, finalmente, pelo que estes construíram como imagens de resistência, como exuberância e empoderamento, e até como estereótipos de si mesmos. Mas o passado remexido em Django Livre vai bem além destas imagens: são as grandes imagens épicas da “América” que estão ali. E assim faz todo sentido misturar western e escravidão: a mistura que quase nunca houve é, no fundo, a mistura que sempre esteve latente, como se saturação e omissão se encontrassem numa esquina da história, e do cinema.

Mas, é claro, é tão impossível fazer hoje um western, é tão impossível crer de novo naquelas velhas fábulas épicas (e o belíssimo Onde os Fracos Não Tem Vez dos irmãos Coem mostram isso, quase me desmentindo), quanto é impossível não considerar a grandeza épica, a força das imagens destas fábulas civilizatórias que misturaram uma beleza cinematográfica gigantesca (beleza da vida e do mundo portanto, e não do umbigo do cinema) com a violência sanguinária de todos os conflitos e genocídios da “marcha para o Oeste”. É no meio do impasse criado por esta herança, como se abrisse um espaço a cotoveladas para poder criar as suas imagens, que Tarantino inventa Django, um impossível cowboy negro, ex-escravo, justiceiro, caçador de recompensas, lutando contra seus algozes senhores para libertar a sua amada.

Django Unchained (2012, The Weinstein Company)

Mas é tão impossível crer num cowboy como antes, que um cowboy negro politicamente correto, didático militante da moral liberal estadunidense, seria ridículo e absurdo. Por outro lado, se Tarantino fizesse do seu filme uma simples paródia, ou apenas uma comédia, (como o grande Spike Lee equivocadamente entendeu), teria banido de modo cínico e impotente a violência. Afinal de contas, cinema e violência, guerra e cinema, são tão imbricados quanto o são história e violência; seja a violência banalizada das imagens e a violência do banal em imagens; seja a violência bela e estética, às vezes ascética e fria, às vezes redentora (por uma “grande causa”) e, finalmente, uma violência fascinante, atraente: a violência como promessa de um grande gozo e prazer.

Mas isso ainda é pouco, as situações dos westerns são impossíveis, são ridículas, mas ao mesmo tempo são o passado que houve, pouco importa se no cinema ou de fato. Nos velhos filmes de mocinho e bandido algumas imagens fascinam ainda hoje: homens destemidos, sagas, paisagens sublimes. O cowboy é ao mesmo tempo uma criança ingênua, sensual e sanguinária. Herói nômade, ele vem antes da besta branca civilizatória ocidental, faz o serviço sujo para ela antes de ser, ele também, violentamente civilizado: o cowboy errante e justiceiro antes da “América” se tornar EUA. E nos Estados Unidos o próprio cinema é, como num western, marcha para o oeste.

Tarantino cria este cowboy negro nada crível, justiceiro destemido e apaixonado, enquanto enfrenta a sempre trágica lida com o passado. Num emaranhado de cinema e história, história e cinema, ele duplica infinitamente as imagens, mostrando-as em todos os seus lados. Às vezes num só movimento, às vezes em idas e vindas frenéticas, ele destrói o passado tão bem quanto o resgata. Dá até a impressão que um de seus manuais de filmagem foi o mais belo e anti-fascista dos textos de Nietzsche ( filósofo que foi, paradoxalmente ou não, herói dos nazis): “Das Utilidades e dos Incovenientes da História para a Vida”.

Django Unchained (2012, The Weinstein Company)

Na encruzilhada entre memória e esquecimento, entre o que não podemos reviver e o que nos é impossível (e indigno) esquecer; entre o que não conseguimos mais crer e o que temos o desejo de afirmar; entre o cinismo e a ingenuidade; entre a violência crua e real e o efeito cenotécnico; entre a pretensão de realismo misturada às lições de moral e o ridículo das situações inverossímeis, Tarantino escolhe tudo isso ao mesmo tempo. Debochamos, rimos e descremos juntos e, surpreendentemente, somos arrebatados na cadeira do cinema como adolescentes do meio do século passado torcendo por seus mocinhos. E assim nos pegamos se assustando e delirando como bestas diante de um grande massacre: o massacre “justo”, a vingança perfeita: a cópia, da cópia, da cópia, mas totalmente anti baudrillardiana, posto que nada niilista: potente. E o cinema todo vibra como quando a mocinha judia, de Bastardos em Glória, em plena Paris ocupada, explodiu a sala de cinema com Hitler, Goebbels, Goering e todo o Terceiro Reich dentro. É o absurdo que é bom: a delícia do cinema desmascarado no tosco de seus recursos dramáticos e cenotécnicos moribundos, misturado à delícia de ver como a história absurdamente deveria ter sido para a felicidade geral todos. De fato, se o cinema é uma falácia, a ciência e suas “verdades” podem sê-lo do mesmo jeito: certas situações do filme são tão estúpidas quanto a explicação “científica” que o senhor de escravo dá sobre o cérebro dos negros. Mas o poder também se mantém porque é fascinante e engendra prazeres. O cinema e suas delícias têm muito a ver com isso. Por isso a cena das escravas arrumando a mesa de jantar do senhor na casa grande talvez seja uma das mais belas do filme.

Hollywood sempre nos quis dar a onipotente sensação da destruição do mau; para isso precisou nos afogar na polarização bem x mau para depois despejar todo o nosso desejo – e sobretudo o anti-desejo: o medo, a culpa – nela. Só que Hollywood não está acima de nossas cabeças: ele é parte do poder que nos atravessa, seja como violência ativa, seja como a impotência do medo e da culpa: imagens impotentes. O “politicamente correto” tem a ver com estas últimas, e ainda é capaz de gerar como seus espectros uma legião de almofadinhas proto-fascistas, figuras do establishment pousando de irreverentes “politicamente incorretos”.

Por outro lado, se o cinema americano não se cansa de matar por uma grande causa, e de nos prometer o assassinato com um grande gozo – e nós como heróis assassinos –, Tarantino em Django nos permite brincar deliciosamente de sermos justos, mandando à merda, para o nosso deleite, todo o politicamente correto. Agora já podemos rir, comemorar e se lambuzar de sangue à vontade com o triunfo do bem que sempre desejamos: o melhor final feliz de todos os tempos.

Django Unchained (2012, The Weinstein Company)

A cinematográfica onipotência estadunidense da destruição do mal é triunfalmente destruída e ressuscitada por Tarantino, que no mesmo movimento de pistola mata a culpa liberal-cristã com uma bala na testa. Bom já não é matar “bandidos”, “índios”, “comunistas”, “terroristas islâmicos”, ou todo e qualquer suposto inimigo da “América”. Nem muito menos sentir compaixão por eles. Bom mesmo é matar fascistas! Bom mesmo é trucidar senhores de escravos e racistas! É delicioso poder mandar esses porcos todos pelos ares! Sem pena alguma.

VHS Gems

Here’s another great list idea courtesy of @bobfreelander. Whenever contributing to a popular list I believe that once must always include their slant on it so you understand the selector’s criteria, perspective and so forth.

I do have a horror story of foolishly trusting a VHS-DVD dubber and then tossing the back-ups only to find the DVDs incompatible with any other players, save the one that broke from overuse; despite that VHS is not my favorite format. I’m fine with progress in that regard.

What I’m not fond of is losing access to titles and that’s what format changes have done. Granted, with streaming, DVD, Blu-Ray and movie on demand distribution we’re getting closer, eventually to having most of what is still extant available, completism is all that will satisfy me. Therefore, here are some of my top choices of films I saw on VHS but have not had an official region 1 DVD version (BTW, going multi-region will change your life, and blow your face off your head).

I did pick some titles to try and make them representative of a niche that is likely replete with missing titles and you may see some of these titles pop-up on another similar list soon.

Ghost Town (1988)

This is a film I actually heard of thanks to Rupert Pupkin Speaks. Then, as luck would have it, I found it on sale at the library where all VHS tapes that get donated cost $0.50. Quite a bargain. If you see enough Charles Band movies, and get a taste for them, you’ll find that as a director/producer he’s somewhat in the Roger Corman mold inasmuch as if you sift through enough of his refuse, there’s some good movies to be found, and this is one of them! Western-horror and ghost towns in general have always interested me, and while what’s delivered is not something quite like the box promises it is strong enough to withstand a late second act bout of sloth.

Song of the South (1946)

I’ll save my Song of the South rant for another post. In fact, this selection isn’t really about Song of the South but Disney in general. There are rumors abound that Disney will create its own streaming service. They’ve already put their toes in the water on an international line, and recently into an MOD line. Both of those are very small and release titles infrequently. It’s bad enough the animated classics get vaulted, but for certifiable Disney nuts like myself (and I’m more tame than most) Disney’s squatting on its titles is terribly bothersome and this is at the top of the list.

The Son of the Shark (1993) and Jacqout de Nantes (1991)

I combine these two selections to further illustrate a point, and that’s about foreign-language films in the US. Far too often when formats change, some new home video distributors emerge, others fall by the wayside; and to capitalize on new technology some older titles get overlooked. These two French films couldn’t be more different: the first is a hard, gritty, disturbing look look at juvenile deliquency the second is a delightful, charming warm-hearted portrait of Jacques Demy by his wife Agnes Varda. It is a film she made in memory of him, that features many clips of his films, as well as ho his childhood shaped them and his life.

These films have not made it to DVD or blu-ray in the US.

American Gothic (1988)

I have to be honest and confess that I really can’t recall that much about American Gothic, other than I can differentiate it from the excellent short-lived TV show of the same name. However, I do recall seeing it as a Blockbuster rental and enjoying it a great deal – it’d be perfect to revisit but I cannot.

The Cellar (1989)

The Cellar represents another interesting aspect of distribution inasmuch I first saw it on cable, I believe at some point during the DVD era, but it has not moved past VHS into further means of being viewed.

Blake of Scotland Yard (1937)

I needed an older film here but I also needed one representative of serials, which I do like but don’t get to see enough of. As for Blake of Scotland Yard it’s as good a choice as any. In fact, one of my first posts on this new blog was my consumer outrage at discovering that such a thing as a composite serial, or as I like to call it “Studio Sanctioned Nonsense,” exists. I’ve probably seen it three times through in one for or other and it should be in print.

So those are just 7 films that are on VHS alone as of this writing. If I sat down I could find many more I am sure, but these were the ones that came quickest to my mind and also highlight gaps in distribution patterns that hopefully get picked up.

Review- Cowboys & Aliens

    Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig in Cowboys & Aliens (Universal)

    As humorous as it may have sounded to some, few if any other ideas held as much promise in conception as Cowboys & Aliens did. Albeit a remake it seemed like a no-brainer combination of genres that couldn’t miss and then it did; badly. Whereas many expected the best that each genre has to offer combined in a delicious cinematic stew instead you get the worst.

    The first thing that’s off is the pace of the film, which is first dragged down by the fact that we have a protagonist who is suffering from extra-terrestrial induced amnesia and trying to put the pieces of his life back together and thus the story, while it’s true that Jake (Daniel Craig) does beat a few guys up in the first few minutes it’s of virtually no consequence save to introduce some characters and there’s a long lull thereafter.

    While there is no inter-species standoffs but rather carpet-bomb attacks and a raid where the core of the alien ship needs to be reached and exploded in a rather Death Star-like manner, these are the least of the problems the aliens pose to this film. Firstly, they are absent from the film for far too long and far too often. When they are away there is no real sense of foreboding or imminent attack. This makes their initial attack rather a jolt but underwhelms the remainder of the film.

    I realize there is a desire to create a completely new alien species in every film to stand out but the construction of these creatures is a bit weak and convenient and make for the humans targets that are surprisingly too easy. All the people of the town have to do was get adequate numbers and how to fight them, the aliens themselves did little.

    Another issue this film has is that it tries to have two protagonists to an extent by having both Jake (Craig) and Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) feature so prominently. This is a difficult task, however, it’s made more difficult when you have one who can’t remember who he is and where he came from and another who is a gruff, curmudgeonly, SOB who raised a spoiled brat and has no one to blame but himself and only shows any humanity to his “adopted” son, Nat (Adam Beach). Who is easy to identify with here? Dolarhyde’s softer side is refreshing and gives Ford his first and far-too-late chance to play something other than the same character he’s been playing for the last 30 years but it’s too little too late. So with two dominant figures of the script hard to relate to its easy to see how one can disengage from this story but wait there’s more.

    There’s also a very silly twist which is only made somewhat better by the fact that it’s not thrown in at the end of the film. It also helps to explain the vacuousness of a particular performance but sadly said performance doesn’t improve much after the reveal.

    So to tally it up you have a lack of information followed by a lot of exposition, a small handful of really good performances (Craig, Rockwell, Dano and Ringer) many of which are hampered by being really small parts, an enemy that isn’t as imposing as it should be and a climactic battle that isn’t. There are unfortunately so many wrong turns that this film can’t be saved.


Review- Meek’s Cutoff

Michelle Williams in Meek's Cutoff (Oscilloscope Pictures)

Note: Spoilers within.

The first thing that bears mentioning with regards to Meek’s Cutoff is the trailer and it does connect to the film in a very real way. After watching the trailer you’d get the sense that while this will be a dramatic western and one with a journey but it’d be more uptempo. As soon as the movie starts, however, you will learn that exactly the opposite is true. This film has a very deliberate pace, which includes one of the slowest dissolves I’ve yet witnessed.

This is not to say that the pace is negative but just a warning that as a viewer it would behoove you to read a review, whether it be this one or a few others also before deciding to go out and see it. You really need to make sure you want to commit to seeing this movie because the trailer is selling a false bill of goods to an extent.

To be more explicit about the pace the polite word would methodical, and methodical paces can be trying if there is no reason for it but there is reason here. The tale that’s being told here is a part of a journey. There are a group of seven migrant people and a pathfinder looking for a new beginning. You don’t see their beginning but only the plight they currently face, which is mainly that of thirst. When the threat of dehydration and exhaustion are ever-present it can’t really be communicated in a quick cutting smooth flowing narrative context.

That’s just one aspect of the narrative conflict which is at work. This is the kind of film that actually has more going on than you realize on the surface because it doesn’t comment much on its issues and when it does so it’s only in a rather superficial way that belies its depth. The first struggles these travelers face is with with their pathfinder, played very well by an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood. They doubt he can really get them where they want to be, where there’s water and so do we after a point. This conflict precedes the one that dominates the second half of the film.

The major conflict of the second half of the film is both deciding what to do when they capture an Indian, Rod Rondeaux, and if they should follow and trust him. The film does well to not completely overlook its first conflict and places Meek (Greenwood) at odds with the traveling party about what to do with the native, there is some debate and they decide to spare him and hope he can lead them where they want to go.

The conflicts and intrigue continue here as not all the travelers are in agreement, some are scared of him and some see no alternative but to trust him. Stakes also get raised when much of their supplies are lost when one of their wagons crashes after making it down a steep grade.

The film only ever really goes over the top with some of its politicized dialogue. Almost any Post-Studio Era Western will have its debate on the true nature of the Native American and ostracize the racist White man who seeks to kill him- so that’s expected but it’s a bit much. Aside from that the drama is played rather close to the vest a lot of the time and doesn’t boil over too often. There is religious despair intimated by readings from The Bible, doubt and mistrust cast in glances and subtext.

There’s a stark isolation to the landscape and the framing of the characters that imbues itself in the celluloid and it’s a refreshingly cloistered tale wherein not only are there merely nine characters but you will even see them all at once. It’s a rare true ensemble piece where not only do all the actors get their moments but they frequently all play in a single shot.

It’s the kind of film you watch and feel like not much has happened but then when you reflect back on it there was more than you thought and to address the pace again I was caught off-guard by the ending because it didn’t quite feel like 104 minutes had passed. To comment on the ending I’m not sure it makes or breaks the film. It is open but if you consider the two most likely possible outcomes for the tale would those have been more dramatically satisfying? I think not, so this works just fine.


The Gray Area Reviews

Every year there is invariably going to be a gray area with regards to films. What I mean by that is due to the tyranny of release dates (meaning Oscar-nominated or contending films being released towards the end of the year) there will be some that slip into the following year.

Some of these films will fall into the gray area meaning they were out in say 2010, I had adequate opportunity to see them but passed for whatever reason. Some I was ignorant about their release so they retain their eligibility for the following year.

This year has an additional shade of gray, if you will, and that comes form the fact that I was transitioning from one site to another and busy archiving rather than writing new content. Some films failed to get timely reviews due to that fact, however, they still deserve them and that’s what this article hopes to do: bridge that gap.

So without further ado: The Gray Area reviews.

Rare Exports

Rar Exports (Oscilloscope Films)

There isn’t much in the way of originality coming out of American horror films these days. If you want something different you’re better off going international specifically to Europe. Rare Exports is a Finnish film that tackles the Santa Claus in horror subgenre with style, humor and intelligence much in the way the Norwiegian film Dead Snow took on the Nazi zombie subgenre.

There is a good bit of folklore re-interpreted and made to be a modern horror tale with a few intentional chuckles along the way. There is some good make-up work and some really good performances out of the cast both young and old.

The only thing that holds this film back is after a while it stops progressing its narrative and danger quotient and just sort of stagnates. It never becomes uninteresting and has a nice button at the end it just slips in the latter part of the second act into the third.

It is, however, a brisk and fun watch that you should look for on video when it comes out.


True Grit

True Grit (2010, Paramount)

This film falls into the Gray Area because I only managed to see it in January though I had chances to in December. For the record, I would not retroactively include this film in my Top 15 of 2010, however, that is one of the few things I can really fault it for. The film works and it works well I could just never get as involved with it as it wanted me to be.

The other thing that is a little bothersome is that in a rather realistic and well-spoken film you get an ending that smacks of a Hollywood cliché. The annoyance of false climax aside it’s two perils combined in one to add a little more running time and a quasi-tragic button to the whole affair.

Regardless of that the film is beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins and is played very convincingly by its cast particularly Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. It’s a plot that’s simple enough but also intriguing enough that it naturally becomes a character study without ever being tiresome.


The King’s Speech

Colin Firth in The King's Speech (The Weinstein Company)

I have been reading some people either complain or just state how The King’s Speech is both rather bulletproof but also not mind-blowing. To re-iterate the above review if I had to go back would I slide this film in my Top 15, probably not, do I get the bulletproof comments? Yes.

There is even less to nitpick this film about, if you want to use that term than there is for True Grit. The only thing that slightly holds it back in my book is the intangible visceral reaction that I just didn’t quite get out of this film as opposed to others.

It’s not a daringly original film in terms of concept or structure it’s just very well executed, acted, edited and shot. It’s the kind of Best Picture contender that while I may not have nominated I can really get behind because it is the best film that the lowest common denominator can get behind. Seriously, who can hate this film?

Before you answer consider the fact that I may need to ask you what your problem is. This is a really easy film to get into whether it blows you away or not and is a really likable kind of story. It’s a “feel good” movie without all that “feel good” movie cheese in the mix.


The Rite

Anthony Hopkins in The Rite (Warner Bros.)

The Rite is a rather surprising entry in the possession/exorcism subgenre of horror. There’s not a lot of new ground to tread so far as this kind of tale is concerned, however, the one thing this film, does right off the bat is acknowledge the existence of the subgenre with a reflexive joke about The Exorcist.

This film, of course, is a little like that one: there’s an old priest and young priest, there is the subject of doubt and it is in turn more about the exorcist than the exorcised, as a matter of fact, the exorcised are typically rather glossed over. However, what this film does do is deal with the mundane aspects of exorcism, it deals with many possessions and brings it down to earth a little from where its been.

The examples it uses as proof are simple and well-thought out. There are very good flashbacks in this film that allow more doubt to be created about where the tale is going then you’d ever expect.

Then there’s Anthony Hopkins. Just the fact that I am mentioning his name this late is an indication that this is a quality film worth seeing. Without saying too much there are shades of Hannibal Lecter in his performance which are great. The acting overall in fact really props this film up. It is definitely worth viewing.


The Green Hornet

Seth Rogen and Jay Chou in The Green Hornet (Columbia Pictures)

I truly shudder to think at what this movie would’ve been like had it not been for the creativity and flair that Michel Gondry brings to it. Yes, there is plenty of competition between action and comedy elements of the tale and both serve the film and story well but there’s also a lot of both and the film gets a little long in the tooth. As an origin story it’s not the most gripping based on how its handled not just based on the empirical facts of the character such that the flair and verve that Gondry brings is desperately needed.

The name Seth Rogen in the same sentence as the word superhero still does seem a little funny to say, however, it does kind of work for this character because it’s not a case of his being superhuman and his sidekick, well-played by Jay Chou does contribute quite a bit to the equation.