A Trip to the Moon [Le Voyage dans la lune]

(France 1902)

I’m guessing that a large number of people recognize a particular still from A Trip to the Moon — the one of the “spaceship” lodged into the moon’s “eye” like a bullet. I’m also guessing that a large number of people have never seen the film. I was one of them — until this afternoon.

Written and directed by French film pioneer Georges Méliès, A Trip to the Moon is a lot cooler than I expected. Imaginative and surprisingly sophisticated, it’s downright cinematic in the way it approaches its subject matter and tells its story. Méliès demonstrates far greater artistic and dramatic flair than his American contemporaries, at least from what I’ve seen.

In a Medieval chamber, a wise old astronomer (Méliès) proposes traveling to the moon, only to be scoffed at by his colleagues (Victor André, Brunnet, Henri Delannoy, Depierre, Farjaut, Kelm). Undeterred, he shows them how it will work. Soon, they’re heading for outer space in a vessel that looks like a big bullet fired with a cannon from the rooftops of Paris.

The astronomers land on the moon and deboard their “space bullet” — no need for space suits, of course. They set up camp. As they sleep, celestial bodies like a comet, the Big Dipper, and Saturn all appear in the night sky. A moon goddess (Bleuette Bernon) makes it snow. They awake and encounter huge mushrooms and insect-like aliens — played by acrobats in tights and a mask — that explode on impact. A mob of aliens captures them and takes them to the leader. The astronomers escape and flee to their capsule, aliens pursuing them. Will they get back to Earth safely?

I found A Trip to the Moon charming. It’s got a nifty surreal Alice in Wonderland meets 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea vibe. It’s theatrical and visually stunning, especially the hand tinted color — yes, color — version. The attention to detail is, in a word, heavenly.

Méliès was a wealthy Paris shoemaker who longed to be an artist. He ultimately sold his share of the family business to his brothers and bought a theater, where he performed magic shows (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Méliès). A demonstration of a cinematograph, a combination camera/projector/printer (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinematograph), in 1895 sparked his interest in film. He’s considered a sci-fi groundbreaker.

With Jeanne d’Alcy, François Lallement, Jules-Eugène Legris

Production: Star Film Company

Distribution: Star Film Company (France), American Mutoscope & Biograph (USA), Edison Manufacturing Company (USA), S. Lubin (USA), Kleine Optical Company (USA), Niels Le Tort (Sweden), The Royal Wonder Bio (Slovenia)

13 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) A

The Great Train Robbery

(USA 1903)

The Great Train Robbery is another early narrative film produced by Thomas Edison and directed by Edwin S. Porter. Unlike Life of an American Fireman earlier the same year, this one looks like a movie: it has a title card, a cast that acts (even if it’s humorously overdramatic), and a more complicated plot — though it’s still pretty simple.

The focus is clearly on telling a story, and on that level it works: a bunch of bandits (Gilbert M. ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson, Justus D. Barnes, John Manus Dougherty Sr., Frank Hanaway, Adam Charles Hayman) rob a passenger train and are pursued over it. The action is parsed out more thoughtfully, no doubt for dramatic effect. The settings change, and a lot more characters are involved. Plus, the very last scene is clever — it’s a bit Hitchcockian.

In 1990, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Great Train Robbery “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With A.C. Abadie, George Barnes, Walter Cameron, Donald Gallaher, Shadrack E. Graham, Morgan Jones, Tom London, Robert Milasch, Marie Murray, Mary Snow

Production: Edison Manufacturing Company

Distribution: Edison Manufacturing Company, Kleine Optical Company

11 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) C

Life of an American Fireman 

(USA 1903)

The National Film Registry has some weird shit on it. Life of an American Fireman is a good example. An early “narrative” film produced by Thomas Edison and directed by George S. Fleming and Edwin S. Porter, who worked on other Edison film projects, this one depicts the dangerous work of firemen.

Life of an American Fireman doesn’t waste time or expense on things life title cards or credits. It begins with a fireman (Arthur White) dreaming about his wife and kids, shown in an onscreen thought bubble. He is awakened by the sound of the bell — not that we hear it — because oh, Lord Jesus, it’s a fire! It’s not entirely clear, but it looks like the fire is at his house.

This film is interesting from a historical perspective, and it shows some nice exterior shots of suburban New York or New Jersey. It’s also neat how the aforementioned thought bubble is composed as well as how the action is depicted from various viewpoints — in and outside the house. The fake smoke is a nice detail. Other than that, Life of an American Fireman is a snooze — about as thrilling as watching a fax go through. Thankfully, programming has come a long way.

In 2016, the United States Library of Congress deemed Life of an American Fireman “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Vivian Vaughan, James H. White

Production: Edison Manufacturing Company

Distribution: Edison Manufacturing Company, Kleine Optical Company

7 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) D

The Immigrant

(USA 1917)

The Immigrant is quintessential Charlie Chaplin: funny, cute, and touching, it entertains while criticizing the social conditions of the day — here, the treatment of immigrants in “the Land of Liberty.” You decide whether all that much has changed in a hundred years.

Written and directed by Chaplin, The Immigrant follows his Tramp character on a boat bound for the States. He meets a fellow passenger, a beautiful young woman (Edna Purviance) traveling with her mother (Kitty Bradbury), and he has the perfect “in” when money is stolen from her purse. Sparks fly, but unfortunately the two potential love birds are separated by U.S. Customs agents as soon as they reach New York Harbor.

Once in the New World, the Immigrant has some trouble making ends meet. He finds a quarter on the ground one dreary afternoon and heads to a restaurant where a hostile head waiter (Eric Campbell) gives him a hard time. By chance, he sees the young woman from the boat and invites her to his table for beans and coffee (yuck!). Soon realizing that the quarter slipped through a hole in his pocket, he tries to impress her while stalling on the check to avoid ejectment.

The Immigrant starts off rocky — literally: the boat rocks back and forth, lending itself to some nice physical comedy with passengers sliding across the floor, juggling moves, and dishes sliding across a table. Thankfully, the rocking stops just before it becomes annoying. The scene in the restaurant is fascinating both for the character development and the physical choreography. This is a sweet story, an early romcom with a happy ending — and it’s downright charming a century later.

In 1998, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Immigrant “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, Loyal Underwood, William Gillespie, James T. Kelly, John Rand, Frank J. Coleman, Tom Harrington, Janet Miller Sully, Tom Wilson, Tiny Sandford

Production: The Lone Star Film Corporation

Distribution: Mutual Film Corporation

24 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) B+

Fatty’s Tintype Tangle

(USA 1915)

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was a huge (no pun intended) but beleaguered star in the early 20th Century. He had a tough life and he died young (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roscoe_Arbuckle). After a start in vaudeville, he became one of Hollywood’s first movie stars, quickly negotiating a deal worth a million dollars a year plus a quarter of the profits from his films (https://www.thehairpin.com/2012/02/scandals-of-classic-hollywood-the-destruction-of-fatty-arbuckle/). On top of it, he got total artistic control.

It all came to a screeching halt when a young alcoholic actress died after a hotel party he threw, and he was accused of rape. It was Hollywood’s first big scandal, and it ended his career (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-skinny-on-the-fatty-arbuckle-trial-131228859/).

Incidentally, that hotel party occurred in San Francisco exactly 96 years ago on the day after this post.

Today, I saw my first Fatty Arbuckle film — and it only took me 108 years (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roscoe_Arbuckle_filmography). I had a loose idea of what to expect but I wasn’t quite sure. Fatty’s Tintype Tangle is familiar and not too crazy, the cinematic equivalent of something that tastes like chicken.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

A slapstick farce, Fatty’s Tintype Tangle tells of a husband (Arbuckle) whose mother-in-law (Mai Wells) nags the shit out of him. He and his wife (Norma Nichols) laugh at her behind her back. After getting liquored up in the kitchen while cooking breakfast, Fatty tells off his mother-in-law and either throws her ass out of his house or upsets her to the point that she gets up and goes — it’s hard to say.

Fatty goes to the park, where he sits on a bench next to a woman (Louise Fazenda) whose husband (Edgar Kennedy) momentarily leaves her to go do something — the scene card tells us they’re Alaskan “homeseekers,” whatever that is. They seem down and out, staying at an obviously low rent room and board. A photographer (Glen Cavender) snaps their picture — hence the “tintype” in the title — which isn’t cool because, well, they’re both married. The husband returns, mistakes Fatty for a creep, and threatens to kill him if he doesn’t leave town.

Fatty runs home and packs his bags — including his booze. He tells his wife he’s going on a business trip. Despondent, she answers an ad in the paper from someone seeking an apartment. She rents out the house and apparently moves in with her mother. Turns out, her tenants are the Alaskan couple. Doh!

Fatty misses his train and goes home. Unbeknownst to him, the Alaskan woman is in his bathroom. Hilarity ensues.

Fatty’s Tintype Tangle has all the elements of early comedy, a lot of it cliché now: misunderstandings, the hapless henpecked male, a slip and fall on a banana peel, gunshots to the ass, even Keystone cops. The only thing missing is a pie in the face. A rather cool extended scene features Arbuckle climbing up a pole and running across power lines. I was impressed to see him doing his own stunts; he was surprisingly limber for such a big guy.

Slapstick isn’t my favorite form of entertainment, but this is solid physical comedy even if it’s hard to follow at points. The version I saw had no sound at all, which was a bummer — hearing myself breathe adds nothing to the experience.

In 1995, the United States Library of Congress deemed Fatty’s Tintype Tangle “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Frank Hayes, Joe Bordeaux, Bobby Dunn, Ted Edwards, Charles Lakin

Production: Keystone Film Company

Distribution: Mutual Film Corporation

27 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) C+

They Live

(USA 1988)

“I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum.”

“I’m giving you the choice: either put on these glasses or eat that trashcan.”

“Brother, life’s a bitch. And she’s back in heat.”

— Nada

Director John Carpenter has done a few good pictures that probably will have an audience long after he’s gone; They Live isn’t one of them. At least, not in a good way. B-movie cult fodder all the way, They Live is a somewhat delayed and really heavy-handed reaction to ’80s conspicuous consumption. Based on Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” and subsequent comic strip, Carpenter’s screenplay, written under the pseudonym Frank Armitage, is founded on a decent premise; it just doesn’t go where it could have.

Nada (Roddy Piper), a migrant construction worker who’s seen better days, picks up a job in downtown Los Angeles. He notices some weirdness going on with a television station that seems to be connected to a church across the lot where he and other homeless people have set up camp. His coworker Frank (Keith David) doesn’t want to hear about it. No one does.

One morning, Nada comes into possession of a pair of sunglasses. When he puts them on, he sees subliminal messages everywhere. A billboard with the tagline “We’re creating the transparent computing environment” says “Obey” with the glasses on. A travel ad beckoning, “Come to the Caribbean” says “Marry and reproduce.” “Men’s apparel” says “No independent thought.” Signs all around him order one to consume, conform, buy, watch TV, submit, sleep, do not question authority:

They Live Obey.jpg

Even the dollar bill has a different message: “This is your god.”

What’s worse, some people are not what they appear to be. At all. They aren’t even human — they’re skeletal reptiles, a kind of mutant species of Sleestaks or something:

They Live.JPG

What the hell is going on? Who are these things? What do they want? As Nada tells Frank, they ain’t from Cleveland.

I remember seeing They Live at the theater when it was new. It was okay. Three decades later, it’s still okay. It’s a lot sillier this time around, though. The whole thing gets off to a good enough start, but the momentum peters out just before midpoint. Carpenter — or anyone, for that matter — can get only so much mileage out of this story. They Live feels like 40 minutes of material stretched into more than twice that amount of time.

The denouement is not just predictable but anticlimactic, and the perspective here is adolescent at best. The lines are cringeworthy, falling painfully short of the Arnold Schwarzenegger zingers they aim to be. The acting is pretty bad, especially David and Meg Foster, both of whom are as stiff and lifeless as a dead gerbil. Surprisingly, Piper and his mullet are the best thing about They Live; Piper isn’t enough to carry it, though. And that wrestling scene in the alley is inane — misplaced, unnecessary, and too long, it adds nothing except maybe ten minutes to the running time.

The worst thing about They Live is that it seems Carpenter was serious — nothing here reads as tongue in cheek to me.

With George “Buck” Flower, Peter Jason, Raymond St. Jacques, Jason Robards III, Lucille Meredith, Norman Alden, Norm Wilson, Thelma Lee, Rezza Shan

Production: Alive Films, Larry Franco Productions

Distribution: Universal Pictures

94 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) D+

http://www.theofficialjohncarpenter.com/they-live/

Good Time

(USA 2017)

Good Time is not a film to see for the plot. Written by Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein, the storyline is not all that novel, complicated, or interesting — in itself. I can sum it up in a single sentence: Queens bad boy Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) spends a night fleeing cops while trying to get his mentally handicapped younger brother, Nick (Benny Safdie), out of the mess he put him in after a bank robbery they commit goes sideways. It sounds like a comedy, but it most definitely is not.

Good Time is a movie to see for the mood it creates — and man, is it intense! More or less a character study, this could have been a disaster in someone else’s hands. As it is, the whole thing soars thanks to the directing by brothers Benny and Josh Safdie and the acting, which is all around great. Pattinson is particularly terrific — forget Twilight. I’ve heard comparisons to Al Pacino’s best work in the ’70s, and I’ve got to agree; Pattinson conveys a natural nervous energy just under the surface so well that you feel it watching him. I found myself more and more jittery and paranoid with every move and bad decision Connie makes and every character he encounters. I noticed hints of Dog Day Afternoon, Cruising, The Godfather, and even The Graduate in Pattinson’s performance.

Taking place almost entirely at night, the settings are familiar but eerie: a hospital, the crammed TV-lit apartment of a Jamaican immigrant (Gladys Mathon) and her weed smoking teenage granddaughter (Taliah Webster), an empty amusement park. Add a skittish techno score by Oneohtrix Point Never, a pallet of neon-colored light, and a nonstop chase, and you’ve got Good Time. Roller coaster ride or drug trip, take your pick — either way, this is a film that drags you along for the ride and zaps you, in a really satisfying way. I don’t know if Good Time is Oscar material, but it’s definitely memorable.

I almost missed Good Time, which opened for what appeared to be a very short limited run in Chicago. I made my own bad decision to see it Friday night after dinner with lots of cocktails. The film became a big blur that my drunk brain couldn’t handle. I went back for a Sunday matinee by myself. I left impressed, and actually pissed that I wasn’t present the first time I caught it.

With Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barkhad Abdi, Necro, Buddy Duress, Peter Verby, Saida Mansoor, Eric Paykert

Production: Elara Pictures, Rhea Films

Distribution: A24

99 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) B+

http://goodtime.movie

Whitney: Can I Be Me?

(UK / USA 2017)

Whitney Houston certainly needs no introduction, and I don’t need to remind anyone about her drug-fueled decline or her sad death five years ago. I saw her perform once when she toured for her first album, but I was never a fan. Still, I observed her career from the sidelines and know all her hits (and misses). To borrow from one of her songs, she almost had it all. Almost.

Co-director Nick Broomfield said that with Whitney: Can I Be Me?, he wanted to show another side of the story: “There was very little attempt to really understand where this was coming from or what it was about. I would like a lot of people to feel that there was a whole other way of looking at this.” (http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/features/whitney-houston-documentary-director-speaks-out-she-was-so-judged-w497676 ). It’s a good idea: fair and balanced, OK.

For better or for worse, Broomfield, who shares a directing credit with Rudi Dolezal for his footage from Houston’s 1999 My Love Is Your Love World Tour, takes a decidedly conventional and low key approach here. He eschews TMZ-like sensationalism, which is refreshing, even admirable. However, the finished product rings incomplete.

Broomfield shows Houston’s dirty laundry. We learn that she used drugs from adolescence. She wasn’t particularly polished. Her mother pushed her, hard. Her label, Arista, had a grand plan for her, and it specifically excluded drawing a black audience. Her BFF Robyn Crawford, who stayed involved with Houston’s career until the aforementioned 1999 tour, was (and still is) a lesbian, which led to rumors. Houston and Bobby Brown were in love, but it didn’t stop him from cheating on her — apparently, he preyed on Houston’s entourage. Crawford and Brown didn’t get along, which created tension. There was also that thing with Houston’s father that happened at the end of his life.

We gets hints and glimpses of what led to Houston’s downfall, but in the end the whole thing is shallow. Like her image throughout her career, Whitney: Can I Be Me? presents a sanitized or at least downplayed picture. Broomfield could’ve dug deeper. He was getting there with Houston’s former bodyguard, David Roberts, who claims that he was repeatedly ignored when he warned everyone around her that Houston was on a fatal trajectory. This documentary falls short; it’s flat and has nothing, shall we say, so emotional. It doesn’t reveal all that much. As a result, it isn’t all that moving.

Another biographical documentary about Houston is in the works (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/apr/28/kevin-macdonald-official-whitney-houston-documentary ) ( http://www.whitneyhouston.com/news/director-kevin-macdonald-whitney-houston-documentary/ ). So, there’s more to come. Let’s hope Kevin MacDonald’s version is more compelling.

With David Roberts, Cissy Houston, John Russell Houston Jr., Bobbi Kristina Brown, Bobby Brown, Robyn Crawford

Production: Lafayette Films, Passion Pictures, Showtime Networks

Distribution: Showtime (USA), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (UK), Arsenal Filmverleih (Germany), Eagle Pictures (Italy), Periscoop Film (Netherlands)

105 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C

http://www.sho.com/titles/3433528/whitney-can-i-be-me

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

(USA 2017)

“Get Triggered,” commands one of the movie posters for Patrick Hughes’s The Hitman’s Bodyguard. I don’t know what that means here, but this film is a bit fluffy to trigger much more than some chuckles — after all the eyerolling, of course. That’s how it went for me.

Ryan Reynolds is Michael Bryce, a humiliated professional bodyguard whose career took a hit — get it? — after a client (Tsuwayuki Saotome) was shot and killed right in front of him. Now, he barely ekes out a living guarding low profile corporate executives addicted to speed. He operates out of his run down car, which is where he also lives (as evident from his “bathroom,” an empty water bottle). To make matters worse, Michael is still reeling from a breakup with Amelia (Élodie Yung), an Interpol agent he blames for his sad state.

Amelia is charged with a simple but very consequential mission: to deliver notorious hitman Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) to the International Court of Justice at the Hague. Darius has agreed to testify against Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman), the depraved dictator of Belarus on trial for crimes against humanity. Unfortunately for the prosecution, Dukhovich has a stalwart and invincible army of goons that hunts and kills any witness who has any dirt on him. Darius is the prosecution’s last hope, and the clock is ticking.

When Amelia’s armored car is attacked by Dukhovich’s men, she and Darius go into hiding. She contacts Michael for a favor: to complete the mission and get the star witness to the Hague. She doesn’t tell him who the witness is, and it turns out that Michael and Darius have a history. It ain’t pretty.

Not surprisingly, The Hitman’s Bodyguard is light fare, a stock comedy/action quasi buddy flick. It’s a perfect summer movie; frankly, I’m not sure why it wasn’t released earlier. Tom O’Connor’s screenplay is repetitive, predictable, and loaded with F-bombs, but it’s fun and isn’t at all serious. Reynolds and Jackson have an amusing love/hate relationship filled with banter about everything from murder to love to pop music that wouldn’t be out of place in Pulp Fiction. In between their banter is nonstop action — car chases, explosions, shoot outs in helicopters and boats, cat and mouse games.

Jackson does what he does best: causes grief and cusses with force. Reynolds plays a good square with earnestness. If these two had better chemistry, The Hitman’s Bodyguard would be a more memorable film. Salma Hayek is the best thing about this movie: she’s dramatic and severe and hilarious as Sonia Kincaid, the streetwise but still crazy wife of Darius. Rotting away in an Amsterdam prison, she’s relentless about protesting the grave injustice done to her. She effortlessly steals every scene she’s in.

With Michael Gor, Tine Joustra, Yuri Kolokolnikov, Rod Hallett, Joaquim de Almeida, Kirsty Mitchell, Richard E. Grant

Production: Millennium Films, Cristal Pictures

Distribution: Lionsgate Films

118 minutes
Rated R

(ArcLight) C+

http://www.thehitmansbodyguard.movie/mobile/

Postcards from the Edge

(USA 1990)

“I’ll rinse these. I have Woolite in my purse. It’s handy for the road.”

— Doris Mann

Postcards from the Edge is, of course, Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel about a floundering actress, Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep), teetering on has-been status as she puts her life back together after a near fatal overdose. For her film adaptation, Fisher shifts the focus from the rehabilitation process to the relationship between Suzanne and her mother, legendary Hollywood superstar Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine). It’s a good call: as last year’s documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (https://moviebloke.com/tag/bright-lights-starring-carrie-fisher-and-debbie-reynolds/ ) demonstrated, Fisher and Reynolds were a solid and supportive albeit wacky team. Their relationship clearly offers ample fodder for this film.

Ably directed by Mike Nichols, Postcards from the Edge takes on addiction, family relationships, and show biz. In order to continue a film she’s working on, Vale must place herself under the care of a “responsible” adult — strictly for insurance purposes, a producer (Rob Reiner) assures her. That leaves her mother, who’s more than willing to help. In fact, it makes her beam all the more. So, Vale does what she must: she moves into her mother’s mansion in Beverly Hills.

Fisher might embellish a few things or flat out make shit up, like the sleeping pill story and her mother’s closet alcoholism. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter: Streep is excellent here, as is the entire cast. The real fun, though, is watching MacLaine emulate Reynolds. She has every tick and foible down perfectly. The homecoming party Doris throws for Suzanne and the is snarky, hilarious, and illuminating — I have the distinct impression that it really happened exactly the way it plays out here. Genius!

With Dennis Quaid, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss, Mary Wickes, Conrad Bain, Annette Bening, Simon Callow, Gary Morton, C. C. H. Pounder, Robin Bartlett, Barbara Garrick, Anthony Heald

Production: Columbia Pictures Corporation

Distribution: Columbia Pictures, Columbia TriStar Films

101 minutes
Rated R

(MoviePlex) B

http://www.sonypicturesmuseum.com/collection/719/postcards-from-the-edge