It’s a Wonderful, Mad Future

I’ve often studied the way smart people are portrayed in movies.  There are trends.  In the 1920s-40s, we had the frizzy-haired mad scientist who dreamed up amazing inventions in his Ken Strickfaden-charged laboratory.  In the 1950s, we had the manly macho scientist (often Richard Carlson or John Agar) who was calm, visionary, and took control of the situation.

Since the 1960s, it’s been Jerry Lewis-style geeks.  Eddie Deezen has made a career out of playing this stock character.  He’s loud, socially inept, smart, and no one likes him.  This isn’t to trash Eddie: he does a great job of playing a stock character, but what are you gonna do with a stock character?  Lon Chaney Jr. was great as Lennie, but they asked him to do variations on it for the rest of his life.  Same with Eddie.

This is why I particularly love a film called Real Genius (1985), which is one of the few movies since the 1950s to depict smart kids as smart kids.  The smart boys get the girls, and the girls are smart, too.  There is social ineptitude, but it’s real, not cartoonish.  The characters are all well-drawn.  But Real Genius was an anomaly, and we went back to the loud geek cliche.

So I came with trepidation to this new movie, Welcome to the Future.  It’s an indie film, and Sturgeon’s Law applies: 90% of everything is junk. In the world of indie films, 99% of them are junk.  And this is about smart people who go to conventions.  So I expected the worst.  I expected to last 5 minutes and have to turn it off.

But one thing saved it: Larry Blamire liked it.  Larry, for those of you who read here often, is one of those guys who makes indie films that are in that 1/2 of 1% that are very good indeed.  So I thought, well, if Larry liked it, I’ll give it a shot.

Now, I know that a lot of you rib me that I don’t like any movie made after 1934.  Some will rib me that I don’t like any movie shot in color.  A lot of you don’t think I will see modern films at all.

And I like modern films.  I just don’t like films that suck.  I don’t like films that are the same old thing.  And yes, I don’t like comic book movies these days because THERE ARE JUST TOO MANY OF THEM.

I’m happy to report that Welcome to the Future does not suck.  In fact, it extra strongly does not suck.  It’s got some of the cleverest screenwriting I’ve seen in several years.  Really.  And it’s about smart people, geeks, and there’s not a single Eddie Deezen-style stock character in it.  Well, maybe one.

Welcome to the Future was actually shot at a Comic Con.  The logistics of doing such a thing are so daunting that I would never attempt it.  How they got a usable soundtrack and intelligible dialogue are beyond me.  It doesn’t look like much of it is overdubbed, and if it is, it’s amazingly well done.  But enough about the technical stuff.  I know it’s my favorite part, but not yours.

The movie is essentially about Gene (Leon Morgan) and his pal Mike (Frank Bonacci, also the screenwriter and director).  Mike’s girlfriend Taylor (Concetta Rose) is frustrated with him because he keeps ignoring her, and Mike seems to think Taylor is, well, it’s a plot point.

Gene is prone to panic attacks for some strange reason and has trouble dealing with certain topics.  We eventually learn why.  Enter Angry Cliff (Christopher Ryan) and Rod (Mike Bocchetti), and we’ve rounded out the main cast.

Rod is the most Eddie Deezen-like in the cast, but he’s much more believable than the stock character.  Rod simply is so deep into his fandom and his own little world that he can’t really cope with other people.  He can have conversations, but he obsesses about characters like Boba Fett and has few contact points with reality.  Mostly he just sits silently.  I’ve met people like Rod.

Angry Cliff is upset that people and things aren’t going his way.  He’s nearly as obsessed as Rod, but he feels alienated from mainstream culture and hates the newbies that have invaded his world of geekdom.  I’ve met people like Angry Cliff.

Gene looks at it a different way: the mainstream has invaded geek culture because the geeks won.  Mike isn’t so sure.  He especially hates the fact that some people are dressed as characters from the film Xanadu, a position I find completely defensible, but you all know I hate disco.

Welcome to the Future hits all of these notes and still captures the love and joy that these characters get from their fandom.  It also touches on some other stock characters: the drunken, out-of-work actor (Craig Geraghty) who’s been in some movies that the fans like but doesn’t get the whole fan thing.  The classic-era artist (Jack Piccinni) who’s too old and out of it to care anymore, only egged on by his wife, who seems to be holding on to their last source of income.

These characters are all real, and they resonate well here.  Bonacci’s script doesn’t talk down to us or condescend to his characters.  It’s talky: there’s a lot of discussion, but there needs to be.  

Gene’s character gets a good story arc and has some redemption toward the end.  He doesn’t reject geek culture but rather learns to share it and distance a little.  Rod is beyond any sort of redemption, and Angry Cliff probably is, but Mike doesn’t seem to be.  

I get the feeling that there is more to the story of Mike and Taylor after the end of this film.  Sequel?  I’d watch it.  I think Mike has some more character growth in him.

I guess one of the reasons I like this so much is that I relate to the characters so much, and there seems to be very little of these kinds of people in regular media.  The only note Bonacci seems to miss is a typical person I seem to find at every convention.

I’m speaking of the people who are so obsessed with fan culture that they wrote their own book/screenplay/comic book about something.  At Star Trek conventions, this person is almost always female and has a story about Mr. Spock.

If someone up to you and says, “I wrote this story about Mr. Spock,” you should always politely run in the other direction.  It will save you an hour of discussion.

This is a manifestation of the fact that a great number of these people are actually closeted artists who can’t quite get to their own art.  They express it by over-loving others’ work.  They may be too untalented, too antisocial, too unlucky, or just plain too scared to succeed at creating their own works.

I think most of the characters in Welcome to the Future are frustrated artists and creators, if they’d admit it to themselves.  They’re archetypes that I believe.  And that makes this all the more real.  I recommend it.

After all, I wrote this story about Mr. Spock.

Guest Blogger DW Atkinson reviews The Three Stooges movie

DW Atkinson, one of the moving forces behind Cinesation, is perhaps the biggest Stooge fan I know. Even his license plate and email have variations of NYUK (the Curly laugh) on them.

Full disclosure: I’m not the biggest Stooge fan ever. I don’t find them hilariously funny, as some do, but I respect them. When I see what they were able to do with the 35-cent budget allocated to them by Columbia, and I compare it to what many of the other Columbia comedians were able to accomplish with the same money, the Stooges blow them out of the water every time. I figured that Mr. Atkinson was the most qualified to review this modern-day version of classic comedy.

DW’s review starts below the trailer for the new film.

The Three Stooges: Those who saw the film this weekend — a 58% male crowd — didn’t love it, assigning it an average grade of B-, according to market research firm CinemaScore. Even if word-of-mouth on the movie doesn’t end up being fantastic, 20th Century Fox didn’t spend much to produce the film: $37 million.

The word film was used but it was digital for me. B- is generous. What I could do 37 million? Don’t get me started.

I just watched the new Three Stooges movie.
I could tell it was partially made as an homage to Howard, Fine & Howard.
But too many times it was it was an Oh-man moment for me. Not in a good way either.
And as usual, most of the good parts were in the trailer spoiling too many scenes.

The movie just didn’t work for me. It couldn’t decide what it wanted to be or how to get there.
It was funny in parts, made me smile and laugh.
But when it’s over, the “what the hell was that” question smacked me upside the head faster than Moe with a shovel.

I am not a fan of the Farrelly’s work with the exception of Shallow Hal.
In fact, after paying to see Dumb & Dumber back in the day, I vowed to never pay to see another Farrelly movie.
I still think it’s a dumb movie and I was dumber paying to see it. I could have edited it down to 30 minutes.
Anyways, like most Farrelly flicks, body fluids/functions have a spotlight and the Stooges are not immune.
The nursery scene went a little long but it was funny at first. The Curly gas scene worked because unlike
some other gags, it wasn’t over worked.

I don’t understand the reasoning for the assorted famous supporting cast members and I don’t care enough to look it up. Larry David? Really?

I don’t believe a real Stooge fan will like the new Three Stooges Movie,
but having said that, they won’t hate it either.
It could have been worse. Remember the Laurel & Hardy movie back in 1999?

How would I rate the film?
Would I go see it again? NO
Would I buy it on DVD next month? NO
I give it three Nyuk’s = a grade of C

Kevin Brownlow and the Holy Grail

Kevin Brownlow (right), and Abel Gance (1967)

Seldom has a movie, particularly a silent film, been so enmeshed in legend and politics as Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927).  The French have their own restoration, there’s a different version at MOMA, and there’s yet a different cut made by Francis Coppola, who owns the rights to show it in the US.  But the most famous, most complete version has been assembled by Kevin Brownlow, slowly, painstakingly, over the last 45 years or so.  It hasn’t been shown since the 1980s in the US.

Attending a screening of Napoleon has become something of a Holy Grail.  The few European screenings have attracted viewers from all over the world.  The challenge of mounting a showing is daunting.  The film is about five and half hours long, and it requires a screen for three interlocked projectors with a triple-wide ending sequence.  Since it doesn’t have a recorded score, the film has an orchestral accompaniment written by Carl Davis, which he generally conducts himself.  Just the thought of paying overtime and double overtime for the union musicians is staggering.

I was lucky enough to attend a showing in Oakland, California on March 31.  It was spectacular.  The theater was breathtaking, an art deco gem called the Paramount, absolutely gigantic, and painstakingly restored.  I’d have gladly paid most of what I paid for admission just to look around the theater.

So what about the movie, you ask.  Well, I’m getting to that…

I try to keep the Dr. Film blog pages from getting too saturated with film theory and technical jargon. I strive to have the blog full of film lore for geeks, but I also want to encourage newcomers.  With this film, I have a problem.  I can’t seem to discuss the movie without doing it in film geek terms.

The problem with talking about Napoleon is that it diverges strongly from most other silents.  The differences between it and the run-of-the-mill silent films of the period can only be explained and illustrated by using fancy film terms.  So I will apologize in advance to any newcomer who may be reading this.  I hope it is still rewarding to any newcomer, but if you find if rough going, I recommend skipping forward to another one of my blog articles.

Napoleon is part of a rarefied class of films made by half-crazy directors who went wild spending money and had crews and producers that would support it.  It requires a charismatic director so dedicated to the film that people will follow him into the abyss.  In a very real sense the making of a film like Napoleon is like a Napoleonic campaign.  Consider that Gance went to all the places that Napoleon did, with a similar sized crew/army, and prop ammunition, etc.  The logistics are quite impressive.

Napoleon joins the rank of films like Intolerance, Metropolis, Lawrence of Arabia, Heaven’s Gate, 2001, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and a number of others.  All of these have troubled production histories, bloated runtimes, maniacal directors, and out-of-control budgets.  All of them are today considered at least minor classics, some major classics.  Most of them were subjected to investor interference and extensive recutting.

I am saddened by the idea that many of the people who saw Napoleon did so without ever having seen another silent film.  What makes Napoleon unique is that it uses a number of fascinating techniques.  Some ideas were used years later, others not at all.  To see Napoleon is to see one of the great experimental films ever made.  There are parts of it that work brilliantly, other parts less so, but the ideas we see in this film are nothing short of staggering.

Consider these:

• Silent films tended to be cut with a slower rhythm that modern films are.  Gance has several sequences in Napoleon that are cut with lightning speed, just as fast as a modern Michael Bay film.  Gance had the intelligence to use this technique sparingly, so that the confusion of “chaos cinema” used in action sequences today is minimized.  What does happen is that we get the effect of being “in the fight” while still clearly understanding what is going on.

• A brilliant little sequence uses a technique I’d never seen before.  Napoleon sees Josephine and finally gets a chance to meet her properly.  He’d met her briefly a number of times before.  Gance gives us a closeup of Napoleon, and then flash cuts of their other meetings, and then back to Napoleon reacting.  In the space of a second, we understand what’s going on in Napoleon’s head as he works this out.  Amazing technique.  No flashbacks, lap dissolves or anything.  The only other time I’ve ever seen anything like it is during a scene toward the end of Charade (1963), but that usage is fundamentally different and is actually cut slower!

• Moving camerawork was difficult in 1927.  Film stock was slow, which meant that a lot of light was required to keep anything moving in focus.  Furthermore, most cameramen were using hand-cranked cameras, which naturally limited mobility.  Gance gleefully breaks all convention here.  Motorized cameras, handheld camerawork, cameras on seesaws, on wires to create smoother shots.  It all looks rather seamless and more like some of the work we see today with Steadicams and the like.  Gance had no such things.  Perhaps the Germans were doing a bit more with the moving camera at this time, but Gance integrates it wonderfully into the film, less as a stunt and more as a real storytelling device.

• Gance’s Polyvision, with three interlocked cameras, used at the end of the film, is amazing.  Gance could have met with Henri Chretien, creator of the Hypergonar process that eventually became Cinemascope.  That would have given him the widescreen process he craved.  What he came up with was equally brilliant.  The interlocked projector technique, which he called Polyvision, is extremely similar to Cinerama, which debuted publicly in 1952.  But even here Gance does things differently.  Cinerama always apologizes a little for the join lines between the panels, trying to minimize them as much as possible.  Gance embraces the whole idea.  While Cinerama always used single shots (the same scene spread across each of the three screens), Gance will happily have a different shot on each screen, or a mirror of the right screen on the left screen.  Sometimes Napoleon will be seen in closeup in the center panel while a long shot is seen on the side panels.  This would never have been done in Cinerama!  At the end of the film, he even tints each screen to match the French flag in a sequence that is as bravura a piece of filmmaking as I have ever seen.

Is it excessive?  Sure it is.  That’s the whole point.  If I can make an analogy that’s used frequently, Gance starts Napoleon like an organ with all the stops pulled.  You’d think he had nowhere to go.  What he does is to effectively build more stops through the end of the picture and use those.  Yes, it is wearing, and yes, there are sequences that are so long that any producer would scream to cut them back.

That’s why I can understand why people have wanted to cut Napoleon down to a manageable size for years.  Gance himself recut it and recast it with sound.  He remade it with sad results.  But if we look through history, Intolerance was long and was recutThat was DW Griffith’s picture, one of the directors Gance revered.  Metropolis was recut extensively.  2001 was recut.  Brazil was recut.  Lawrence of Arabia was recut.  Each of these films was long and excessive, made by an obsessed director.

Again, that’s the point.

This is why I laud Kevin Brownlow for restoring Napoleon as it was.  He’s fought the good fight against recutting it to fit modern tastes, to fit cinema runtimes, to anything other than the best we can approximate Gance’s vision.  This is why that, to this day, Napoleon still stands out from the crowd.  It’s not commercial.  It never was.  It’s not like any other film, silent or sound.  It wasn’t intended to be.  It is what it is.  Even Coppola’s cutting and speeding-up of Napoleon, which was intended to minimize the overtime for the musicians, compromises Gance’s vision.

Napoleon felt, to me, a lot like a David Lean film (Lean, director of Lawrence of Arabia.)  It also had a strong influence from DW Griffith (Intolerance) in terms of narrative structure and editing.  But it also had an avant garde feel.

The acting was brilliant, particularly Albert Dieudonné as Napoleon.  Davis’ score was an inspiration, based on pieces of music from each period in Napoleon’s life.  The theater, presentation, and ambience were all top notch.

Out of all the brilliance of the evening, I still need to single out Kevin Brownlow.  I wouldn’t call soft-spoken Mr. Brownlow obsessive.  I would call him dedicated to doing the right thing.  He’s suffered slings and arrows for years from people who didn’t care to have Napoleon restored.

I give him a special tip of the Dr. Film fez.  Without Kevin Brownlow, we’d be missing a key piece of movie history.  It’s a glimpse of a cinema that was, a cinema that never would be, and a cinema from the mind of a genius.

A still from the triptych: look carefully, and you can see where the 3 images join

Special side note: Much was made of the idea of putting Napoleon out on DVD or Blu-ray.  I, for one, hope it never is.  What I hope for is a well-publicized successful roadshow of the film in major cities across the US.  I know that theatrical exhibition is passé today.  I still think Napoleon should be seen in a theater, with an audience, and if possible, with a live score.  Brownlow mentioned that Stanley Kubrick wanted to borrow a print of Napoleon to watch on his flatbed viewer (a small-screen device used for editing films.)  He told Kubrick that this was a bad idea, given that the film lost most of its impact on a small screen.

“It’s like watching Lawrence of Arabia on a phone,” Brownlow said.  (Mind you, I believe Mr. Brownlow would happily release the film on DVD just to get it out there for people to see.  It is my own opinion, not his, that it shouldn’t be on video.)

For the record, I won’t watch Lawrence of Arabia on anything but a big screen, and I think Napoleon deserves the same respect.

An Artist is Born Singin’ in the Rain

I’ve been bombarded with questions about The Artist.  Everyone I see asks me about it.  I felt that I had to give it a look, and a fair chance, before answering.

Before I go on too far, let me say that I’ve seen zillions of silent films.  I know how they are supposed to look and feel.  I am a harsh judge of movies that get history dreadfully wrong and don’t seem to care about it.  I have been a vocal critic of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) for many years.  Sure, it has great singing and dancing in it, but it gets the feel of the era entirely wrong, and it puts “history” out there that is completely and utterly bogus.  I wince every time I see the movie.

I went to see Hugo a while back, in a nice theater, in 3D, and it underwhelmed me.  This ties in with The Artist, because Hugo is another film that is set in that same period, the late 1920s and early 1930s.  Hugo did a delightful job recreating the period.  Ben Kingsley is brilliant.  The effects are great.  Most of the history is fairly good, although it’s been warped for ease of storytelling.  Ultimately, for me, it didn’t say enough about the magic of movies and had a tedious, predictable sub-plot with the station inspector.  The sub-plot felt like it had been ripped from the film adaptation of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and we all had to wait for this plot element’s resolution before getting back to the main action.  Mostly enjoyable, but not a film I’d call a classic.

Many films that are set in this period get the history so far wrong that I want to throw things at the screen.  I generally don’t have to do this, because some moron in the front row is already doing it by the time I find my motivation level rising.  Public Enemies, the Johnny Depp film from a couple of years ago, was particularly offensive.  The filmmaking techniques were right out of Michael Bay: cut-cut-cut editing, mushy shot-on-video camerawork, never a tripod or steady shot.  Depp’s Dillinger robs palatial block-wide banks in rural Indiana–located in towns that are still just barely dots on the map.  Not only does it get the facts wrong, but it gets the feel wrong.  Public Enemies plays like teenager’s first feature-length video on YouTube.  We might have been impressed that a teen could pull off such a feat, but we’re embarrassed that talented professionals would allow their names to be attached to such a lousy film.

I’m inclined to give a movie a break if it tends to get the feel right.  Some are better than others.  The Sting is so accurate that it sometimes feels colorized.  O Brother, Where Art Thou? plays fast and loose with the facts, but when it gets down to brass tacks, the film feels authentically 1930s.  I recommend both movies.  I hesitantly recommend Hugo, too, although with some reservations.

And on to The Artist.  This film has pretensions you can cut with a butcher knife.  Not only does it attempt to recreate the 1920s/30s, but it is also presented in black and white, in the 1930s aspect ratio, and, most importantly, as a silent film.  It’s tough to make a silent film these days.  First, modern audiences aren’t used to the dramatic techniques used in them, so sometimes they’ll draw an unintentional laugh.  Second, a lot of things have changed in the intervening years, so it becomes a technical challenge.

Does it work?  Yes, it mostly does.  The plot is fairly pedestrian, basically a retooling of A Star is Born, but that plot was old in 1937.  George Valentin, a major silent star, played by Jean Dujardin, is a little careless in his personal life, has an alienated wife, and meets Peppy Miller, a rising young flapper, played by Bérénice Bejo.  As sound comes in, he is increasingly unable to maintain his status, while Peppy goes on to major success.

The film progresses and we see Valentin’s downfall as we see Peppy rise to greater and greater heights, up until, well, you oughta see the movie.

Dujardin turns in an excellent performance.  He manages to capture the swagger of Douglas Fairbanks with a bit of the continental charm of Ricardo Cortez.  It works well within the context of the film.  Bejo is not quite as good, although still commendable.  She just seems a bit too bubbly at times.  Also at hand are reliables like James Cromwell as the long-suffering chauffeur/butler, and John Goodman as the studio chief.  They are nothing short of great, but then I would expect nothing else from them.

Director Michel Hazanavicius does a great job recreating the style of the times.  Not too many closeups, which we love to use today, slower editing pace, and he even undercranks the film just a hair to give it that late 20s feel.  It works.  He matches the style of intertitles and even recreates the 1920s fonts very well.  (You knew I was picky.)

I just wish it had been more, somehow.  I suppose that it should be enough that Hazanavicius has recreated the period well enough that he’s made a run-of-the-mill late silent picture.  If you’re hoping for a truly great silent picture, a drama like Sunrise, a love story like Lonesome, then, well, it isn’t here.  This isn’t necessarily bad, but I can tell you that I’ve been to conventions to watch day-long silent film marathons, and The Artist would not be a huge standout.  It would get good reviews, a few smiles, and we’d move on.

There are myriad little nitpicks, from the unblimped Mitchell cameras to the 2000’ film cans, to the way the nitrate doesn’t burn fast enough, to… well, OK, you get the point.  More severe are problems later in the picture.  Peppy Miller seems to be in 1920s flapper attire, short skirts and all, way too far into the 1930s.  The climactic sequence uses a music style that almost sounds like big band music from the early 1940s, which isn’t right, either.  The cutting is actually too slow, and there is a tendency to dwell on to actors speaking without cutting to an intertitle, which would not have been done at the time.  But I nitpick.

The single greatest failure of the film, to my mind, is a plot point.  Goodman’s studio boss calls Dujardin into his office and basically fires him, saying that the movies need to flush out all the old silent actors and replace them all with new ones.


Sure, there were silent actors who didn’t make it far into the sound era.  A lot of leading ladies got older, were married and retired.  Lon Chaney died.  John Gilbert was an alcoholic and was probably blackballed by Louis Mayer.  Douglas Fairbanks found sound films dull to make.  Chaplin took time to adapt to sound.  But there were so many others who starred both in silent and sound films, many who didn’t even seem to notice the bump…

Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, WC Fields, Ronald Colman, Ricardo Cortez, Gary Cooper, Warner Oland, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Loretta Young all sailed through the transition.  Even though comedy didn’t flourish in the 1930s as it did in the 1920s, still stars like Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Vernon Dent, and many others, at least found work.  Harold Lloyd was especially prosperous in the sound era.  Keaton’s downfall came not with the advent of sound, but rather with his contract moving to MGM, and even with his boozing and bad films, he still worked steadily through the 1930s.

The idea that stars were summarily flushed out of the system for talkie stars is just wrong.  There were a few stars with unsuitable voices, which is an idea that was blown way out of proportion with Singin’ in the Rain.  Raymond Griffith had a vocal injury and couldn’t speak above a whisper.  Sound films didn’t quite end his career, but it was close.  Karl Dane had a very thick accent and had trouble in sound films, as did Anny Ondra, whose voice was dubbed in Blackmail (1929)In general, even those actors with relatively thick accents still did well: Bela Lugosi, Charles Boyer, and Paul Lukas come to mind quickly.

This is why the biggest flaw in The Artist is the goofy idea that a studio would summarily drop a big, moneymaking star who simply had yet to make a talking film.  I can’t think of a single time that happened.  Perhaps someone can correct my memory.  Movies are, and always have been, about making money, not about art.  If the star makes money for them, they’ll put up with about anything.  As soon as they stop making money, they’re out.  Do you honestly think that studios would have put up with the drug-addicted, temperamental Judy Garland had she not been brilliant and profitable?

No one should ever get their history from movies made about movies.  For some reason, films are neglected art and film history seems particularly unimportant.  I have no idea why, but you’re more likely to get a good reconstruction of a Napoleonic campaign than a talking film from 1931.

***Special Side Note***

Kim Novak has gone on record complaining bitterly about the use of music from Vertigo (1958) during the climactic section of The Artist.  Her remarks were pointed and used a rape metaphor.  Novak has been accused of looking to get her name in the papers again, and of being overly sensitive.   The music is used to back up a particularly poignant scene, and no one ever did poignant like Bernard Herrmann, the composer of Vertigo’s score.  Several people have said that it doesn’t really matter, because the music is from an old film anyway, and, after all, who would notice?

Here are my two cents’ worth:  Who would notice?  Gee whiz, guys, you are making a movie and targeting fans of older films.  Don’t you think it would be obvious?  Vertigo isn’t just some old movie… it’s an all-time classic, and it’s one of the greatest film scores ever written.  People know it.  A lot of people know it.  Don’t believe me—believe Google.  Perhaps Ms. Novak is a little extreme in her wording, but she has a good point.  If I were writing a symphony, I could easily lift the last few minutes from a Beethoven symphony.  It might work well, and it would be perfectly legal.  But why would I do that?

Artistically, it’s a bad call.  It immediately took me out of the film.  The rest of the score, by Ludovic Bource, is quite excellent at imitating the style of the period.  He even does a pretty good job of foreshadowing the quote from Vertigo.  But it still doesn’t match.  Vertigo is 1950s Herrmann, not 1920s pop.  It’s great, it mostly works, but it’s intrusive.  I would have been happier with an ending by Bource.  I think he could have done it justice.  (For an illuminating answer as to why Bource didn’t have his music in this scene, please check Bruce Calvert’s comment below.  I didn’t know about it before publishing this.)

I am not going to jump on the bandwagon criticizing Novak.  She is not stupid, and she is not a publicity hound.  The use of Vertigo music in The Artist is strictly legal and above board, but I don’t think it works with the film.  Vertigo is Vertigo and I think it would have better been left alone.

All that said, The Artist is still a fun film, and a great cinematic experiment.

Midnight in Manhattan, er Paris

It seems difficult to review a Woody Allen picture these days without discussing his personal situation.  The problem is that, much as he denies it, Woody’s pictures are often subtly autobiographical.  Allen’s new picture, Midnight in Paris, is about a screenwriter disenchanted with his work in Hollywood who wants to start over in Europe.  Um, well, there goes art imitating life again.  Allen’s last several films have been financed and shot mostly in Europe.

Many people have suspected that Allen was losing his touch.  His films were not as self-assured, and they had less of a smooth feel than he’d been able to achieve earlier.  I’m happy to report that this now seems a temporary aberration.  Midnight in Paris marks a return to the “classic” Woody style, whatever that is.  It’s not like one of his “earlier, funny films,” and it’s not like his Bergman-obsessed works like Interiors, but it has elements of both, and they work together well.

In Midnight in Paris, a screenwriter (Owen Wilson) is visiting Paris with his fiancee (Rachel McAdams) and her family.  Weary of his hackneyed Hollywood jobs, he’s working on a novel about a guy who works in a nostalgia shop.  While McAdams and her mother shop all over Paris, they meet up with a blowhard know-nothing (Michael Sheen).  He’s the type of guy who doesn’t really know all that he thinks he knows, especially about art and history.  These scenes are extremely reminiscent of ones in Allen’s film Manhattan, as is the entire sub-plot in which McAdams’ character falls for Sheen’s.

But that’s fine, since the bulk of the plot covers some familiar themes in very nice new ways.  Disgusted with those around him, Wilson goes off for a walk and discovers himself in the Paris of the 1920s.  Allen handles this masterfully.  The shift happens in an old area of the city that could have been in the 2000s or 1920s, and we’re not quite certain how it works for a while.  The mechanics of how the time travel actually happens are never explained or even explored.  It’s simply a plot device.  Allen uses it but doesn’t exploit it.  James Cameron, please pay attention here.

Once in the 1920s, the film takes off.  If you’re one of those people who knows nothing about Paris in the 1920s, then you may be left out of a lot of the plot.  I’d encourage you to read up a little on it before you see the film.  It doesn’t stop to spoon-feed you along.  Wilson’s character meets Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and a host of others.  The casting is impeccable.  Of particular merit are Kathy Bates as Stein and Adrien Brody as Dali.

While in the 1920s, Wilson meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard).  Cotillard’s character, like Wilson’s, feels stuck in the wrong time.  While Wilson would prefer to live in the time of the 1920s, Cotillard (native to the 1920s) yearns for the Paris of the 1890s with Lautrec and others.

There’s no point in giving more of the plot away; the rest of it is quite engaging and shows Allen’s comic introspection wonderfully.  The question of whether to live in the past or the present is addressed quite humorously.

The real revelation in Midnight in Paris is that Owen Wilson is quite good!  I’ve long considered Wilson a lightweight comedic actor of limited talent.  He’s been in more of his share of movies that are overloaded with fart jokes, and I was beginning to think of him as limited to those kinds of things.  I had quite liked him in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), but most of the rest of the time, he’s been like a cut-rate Adam Sandler.  His character in Midnight in Paris is clearly written as the Woody Allen character… you can hear the text is written for those inflections.  The challenge for Wilson is to play a Woody character but still make it his own.  I’m happy to report that he rises to this challenge admirably.

There are still things I’m not quite enchanted about in Midnight in Paris, but very few of them.  The most striking one is that we know it’s a Woody Allen film because the colors are biased dramatically toward yellow all the way through.  There’s less of this than there has been in previous Allen efforts, but I hope he gets it out of his system some day.

I’m trying to recommend this film to everyone I can, because I’m really not pleased about the current trend of movies that have to credit Stan Lee and have a roman numeral in the title.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that… but there is something wrong that we have so much of it.  Midnight in Paris is smart, not based on a comic book, and it’s not a sequel to anything.  May it play to packed houses.

On the Trail of Blamire’s Screaming Forehead

One of the things that gives me hope about the viability of Dr. Film is the cult following afforded Larry Blamire.  If you don’t know who he is, I’d recommend having a look at his Bantam Street site,  So far, Larry’s films have been witty spoofs of older genre films.  His cult favorite, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (released theatrically in 2003), is part Roger Corman and part Ed Wood, while being delightfully silly for its entire length.  Dark and Stormy Night (2009) was also a funny spoof of a type of film that was rampant in the 1920s-1940s, in which a bunch of people are locked in an old spooky house while someone starts bumping them off one at a time.  What I love about Blamire’s work is that it demands something of its audience: you have to know something about what he’s spoofing in order to get all the jokes.

I’d heard for some time about the great, missing Blamire epic, Trail of the Screaming Forehead.  It was slated for a 2007/8 release when its cutting was, well, circumvented by an executive producer.  We might compare this to what almost happened to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), albeit on a much smaller scale.  The abortive cut has surfaced on Independent Film Channel a few times, but bears little resemblance to the original concept.  Happily, Larry has been able to wrest the footage away from the miscreant, and we are now able to see the director’s cut of Trail. Like Gilliam before him, Larry has been trying to drum up support for the film by doing late-night showings at conventions.  Blearily, I am happy to report that I was in attendance at the first of these screenings, and that it went wonderfully.  (I say blearily since I had to drive for about 3 hours to attend the screening, which required the same return trip.)

I am loath to give up much of Trail’s plot, which is one of those things that unravels itself like a mystery.  It’s intended to be that way, in much the same way that most of the 50s invasion movies were.  Trail of the Screaming Forehead is a tribute to Don Siegel and Douglas Sirk in the same way that Lost Skeleton had been a tribute to Corman and Wood.  Shot with deliberately garish colors (like so many films of the era), and full of stereotype characters, Trail also boasts cameos from great 50s stars, including HM Wynant, the late Betty Garrett, Dick Miller, and the late Kevin McCarthy.

Larry Blamire can write campy dialogue with the best that ever did it.  His lead actors are now familiar repertory players in his company.  They are all able to read deliberately clumsy lines in a convincing yet slightly bewildered way.  It’s hard to do, and I respect them all for it.  They don’t make it wooden, and they don’t do it winking at the camera in the way Adam Sandler would do.  I laughed heartily all the way through the film, as did most of the preview audience.  I’m glad to see that most of Blamire’s cast is now getting work in other productions.  They deserve to.  In Trail, I’d like to single out the performance of Andy Parks, who is a real master of the reaction shot.  There’s a scene in which HM Wynant mistakenly thinks Andy has been taken over by the alien foreheads (no, I’m not kidding), and Parks does a take over his shoulder as if to ask, “Are you talking to me?”  It’s an age-old gag, but Andy brings such conviction to it that I had to laugh.  Parks hasn’t worked in a mainstream film for years, and Hollywood is a poorer place for it.

Am I completely glowing with praise?  Well, mostly, yes.  Those of you who know me also know how picky I am.  As a hyphenate (a guy who does more than one job in a film), Larry Blamire sometimes has a problem.  The Editor Larry sometimes is too in love with dialogue that the Writer Larry wrote. That sometimes lets the pace of the film drag a little.  I thought that The Lost Skeleton Returns Again had some slow moments in the middle, as did Dark and Stormy Night.  This does not seem to be the case with Trail of the Screaming Forehead.  There are a few carpy things I could say, such as the fact that I was confused about Jennifer Blaire’s motivation when she fried the foreheads in one scene.  I thought her rendition of the title song was a bit out of place in the middle of the film (I’m not complaining about her singing, which is great, but rather the placement of the song).  Incidentally, Trail of the Screaming Forehead has a loopy title sequence, done by Manhattan Transfer in great 1950s style.  My complaints are but small issues.

OK, I give up… I know that someone is going to want a plot synopsis, but I warn you that it’s not something you want to read about… you should see it.  A scientist (Fay Masterson) discovers that the forehead, and not the brain, is the seat of all human knowledge.  In order to further her theories, she isolates the formula for foreheadazine and injects it into a colleague (Andy Parks).  His forehead and intellect grow to enormous proportions.  Meanwhile, evil alien invaders, which are disembodied foreheads, invade the Earth and begin plastering themselves on local townsfolk.  Can the world survive?  Who will stop them? Can I stop laughing long enough to hear the plot unfold?

I’d love to see Larry Blamire get to do more films.  He’s got a lot of talent and great ideas.  He’s starting to get shoehorned into doing Lost Skeleton movies, and that’s fine, but it would be great to see him get backing to do things like his interesting-looking Steam Wars project.  Regardless, I’ll keep watching what he does.  It’s great to see someone else out there who loves old movies as much as I do.