Month in Review: October ’19

(Flicks a cockroach off keyboard) God! Leave me alone, Wounds!!!!

October was certainly bloody and gutsy. I made a conscientious effort to increase the posting frequency while keeping the reviews tailored to the genres of horror/psychological thriller/gross-out (is that a genre? It feels like it should be a genre.) It was a risky approach, because while I did find a film or two that were quite fun and things I would return to again, I certainly didn’t find any horror ‘classics’ through the avenues I chose — Hulu and Netflix. I’m tempted to join Vudu, though the fact it’s currently owned by Wal-Mart makes me wanna Shudder (rate that pun in the comments below). However, that might be changing.

There have also been a few additions to the site here, and I’ll draw attention to them below. Without further waffling, here’s what went down on Thomas J for the past month.


New Posts

Streaming: The Perfection; Wounds; Fractured; Little Monsters; In the Tall Grass; In the Shadow of the Moon

Alternative Content: 30 for 30: Rodman: For Better or Worse; Short, Sweet and Screamy: Huluween reviews


New Additions to the Blog

Given that this entire month featured nothing but streamed content, I decided to create a menu/page titled Reviews By Streaming Service. Hopefully this will be a more convenient way for readers to find those sorts of things, all in one place. It’s a work in progress so as of this posting I only have Hulu reviews accounted for. But look out for a LOT of Netflix reviews in there as well. Of course, you can always scroll through my Film Index for all titles.

On a less important note, if you’re ever browsing through the main page you might notice a few new banners have been added into the mix. I currently have 38 rotating banners, the likes of which I’m just going to guess most people haven’t noticed. I realize most of my traffic is here because of specific links, not so much to peruse my Main Page (and if you do — cheers to you!) If you’re curious, there’s at least 8 new ones added this past month, many of them instantly recognizable, big-time movies. Though I did make a conscientious effort to select scenes from them that are perhaps “less recognizable.”

I have also recently joined the Letterboxd community and have provided a link to my page on the right sidebar. Come see what’s going on there, and if you have an account, feel free to add me/let me know what your handle is so I can add you!


It’s not a horror film, but for Halloween this year I sat down with Dolemite is My Name — what a fantastic experience! 

Short, Sweet and Screamy: “Huluween” Reviews

There’s no denying short films have gotten short shrift on Thomas J. I’ve got a few stashed away here and there (and here, too) but the overwhelming majority of my total output has been focused on feature-length productions. And why not? It’s very difficult to review a short film and not spoil it!

I’ve been given an opportunity to try my hand at it (again), what with the recent advent of Hulu’s “Huluween” Film Fest. (Apparently they did this last year, so this isn’t exactly news.) In the spirit of ultimate customer satisfaction, the streaming platform has inundated us with over 800 Halloween-centric titles, movies and shows alike, and have also curated a collection of seven short spooky stories made by up-and-coming indie filmmakers to get viewers in the spirit of Halloween. What follows are some brief thoughts of those offerings. I’ve sorted the reviews in the order in which I viewed them. See what you think. Have you seen any of them yet? What were your experiences? Which was your favorite?


Undo · 7 mins 9 sec · Directed by Nicole Perlman · An interesting moral conundrum — if you could reverse the flow of time and prevent bad things from happening, would you? I’m off on the right foot with this tense, atmospheric piece about a physicist who is celebrating a major breakthrough with his experiments when suddenly fate comes a-knockin’. Set almost entirely in the confines of his swanky urban home the premise is intriguing, the main character is appropriately strange and a little off-kilter, but some shaky CGI and pretty iffy acting in the moments that matter most take this one down just a peg. (3.5/5)

Swiped to Death · 7 mins 28 sec · Directed by Elaine Mongeon · Here’s a film that provides a surprisingly engrossing build-up — especially for me, he who doesn’t do the whole Tinder thing (and now I really won’t!) — and a duo of convincing performers making nervous/awkward/dark jokes prior to their late-night meet-up IRL. The story twists and twists again, rendering you occasionally psychologically disoriented but annoyingly the execution of its denouement really left me flaccid. (3/5)

The Ripper · 5 mins 49 sec · Directed by Calvin Reeder · Unfortunately there isn’t much going for this clearly low-budget short from Calvin Reeder. The premise finds one of the guitarists in an amateur metal band pressed to perform a solo, something his bandmate demands as they’ve already got a rhythm guitarist. Things take a nutty turn, the band’s superfluous second rhythm guitarist proving he indeed has some hidden talents but none that are particularly useful. The acting is bad, the special effects are even worse. I can’t even really say the “otherworldly” ideas driving the story are worth your time either, and at five minutes that’s rather pitiful. (1.5/5) 

Ride · 6 mins 46 sec · Directed by Meredith Alloway · Spin classes take on a sinister quality in this intense, colorful and energetic short about a young girl who, in trying to make new friends in a strange city, unwittingly signs up for the ride of for her life. Among the more effective shorts in this year’s crop, Ride pummels you with its style, the blaring music engulfing the viewer in a heady trip into the cult-like obsession of one scarily committed group of fitness junkies. Hey, if you can’t keep up, all you’re doing is slowing us down. A dark parody that’s a pure adrenaline rush. (4/5) 

Hidden Mother · 5 mins 21 sec · Directed by Joshua Erkman · Subtlety is key in this highly effective and expertly crafted short film about a recently widowed mother receiving one of the creepiest gifts a sister could ever give you — a photo frame that apparently harbors the presence of a sinister spirit. If the conclusion is the measuring stick by which we judge a short film, Hidden Mother is indeed masterful. However practically every minute here is worth its weight in gold, the atmosphere and tension and the rhythmic, labored breathing making this easily the best of the bunch. (4.5/5)

Flagged · 7 mins 16 sec · Directed by Chelsea Lupkin · When a young woman takes a new position as a moderator for a major social media platform called FriendFollowers, she quickly realizes the job description may have left out some deadly details. Though professionally mounted — the effects here are certainly better than The Ripper — and the multiple locations give the impression the filmmakers are playing with a bit more money than their Huluween ’19 peers, ultimately the film collapses due to its muddled message. I think it’s meant to be a cautionary tale about blindly accepting jobs that seem “too good to be true,” particularly feeding on the insecurity of millennials desperate to secure that reliable 9-5 paycheck. But it could just as easily be a broad swipe at the internet and what it’s doing to us. I dunno. Next, please. (2/5)

The Dunes · 6 mins 21 sec · Directed by Jennifer Reeder · Gorgeously shot and cast with Hot Actors, The Dunes I can only pray to Pennywise was pitched as a comedy because that’s the net effect of this silly little romp. A young couple’s beach date gets interrupted by a disturbing presence, something pulled from The Conjuring universe but sans the creepy veil of shadows and darkness. In that way, the film does a decent job of creating and sustaining a sense of dread in the golden light of evening, but really there’s not much to see (or be scared by) here. (2.5/5)


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.bloodydisgusting.com; http://www.indiewire.com; http://www.syfy.com

The White Helmets

Release: Friday, September 16, 2016 

[Netflix]

Directed by: Orlando von Einsiedel

Syria is a nation currently being torn apart at the seams as a multitude of political actors continue to wrestle control of its future away from one another. The better part of the last decade has been spent in bloodshed as coalitions of rebels, extremist groups and other armed entities not exactly sympathetic to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have set their sights on total upheaval. What began in the capital city of Damascus as peaceful protests for democratic reform and the release of political prisoners escalated into a hostile and bitter conflict when al-Assad used brutal force to try to quash the potential uprising. These events, of course, have all contributed to the growing refugee crisis.

Orlando von Einsiedel’s The White Helmets offers a window into this struggle, providing viewers access to ground zero as they follow around a group of Syrian civilians who have taken it upon themselves to search for and recover bodies — dead or alive, friend or foe — from the carnage created by aerial attacks that have been decimating heavily populated cities like Aleppo and Idlib on a daily basis. The 41-minute film won the Oscar for Documentary Short Subject at the 89th Academy Awards, marking the first win for Einsiedel and his second nomination, following his previous feature-length documentary Virunga in 2014.

Incorporating footage compiled by the activists themselves, such as Khaled Khateeb (who was one of several prevented from attending this year’s Oscars by President Trump’s travel ban), into a rather straightforward procession of testimonies delivered directly to camera by a handful of volunteers, The White Helmets proves an unsurprisingly sobering watch. The footage captures the men working in conditions that are bad turning worse. In the wake of Russian intervention — a development since September 2015, one that has sparked humanitarian outcries across the globe on the assertion that their involvement has proven more destructive than the action taken by Syria’s own government and even ISIL — the White Helmets appear to be the last bastion of hope that people living in targeted areas truly have.

While the preservation of hope is what fundamentally galvanizes us to keep watching, if only through our hands, von Einsiedel is careful neither to exploit nor romanticize the role these first responders play. Even still, you should know that the footage is presented in a raw and unedited form, and is often graphic and upsetting. Not that that isn’t obvious, but it bears repeating as it is, to be brutally honest, what makes the film such an essential watch. The savagery that’s been going on for over six long years needs to be acknowledged.

The implications of the violence are also, somewhat sickeningly, more complex than they first appear. While the initial justification behind the bombings was to eliminate rebel and jihadist groups from Syria, over time Russia has become increasingly more involved in the state’s fight to reclaim territory, which has necessarily meant becoming more active in eliminating the opposition, all splinter cells and groups coming to their aid — groups like the Syrian Civil Defense, the White Helmets. It is explained how their presence has actually incentivized Russian and Syrian aircraft to carry out what are called “double-tap attacks” in which an initial strike is delivered, followed swiftly by a second, the goal being to specifically target the White Helmets. Such is the reality these men face each time they “go to work.”

Amidst the barbarity, from underneath piles of concrete and rebar ultimately emerges a powerful testament to real-life heroism, courage and sacrifice. In fact the film metamorphoses into a thing of beauty when it addresses the positive impacts the first responders are making and will continue to make for the foreseeable future. It’s not simply the lives that are being saved, but the relentless determination and indiscrimination of the search itself. The rescuing of a one-week-old infant who had been trapped under a collapsed ceiling for over 16 hours is a scene that defies description — in part due to the incomprehensible hatred that created such circumstances, but mostly because the service that the White Helmets provide couldn’t be any more dramatically expressed.

Of course it’s a film without much in the way of closure. The work of the White Helmets shall continue as long as there is conflict. And at least one in the film makes it clear that their commitment is lifelong. That’s really where the story lies. It’s not about the war and the suffering. It’s not about hatred or religious extremism. It’s actually about the exact opposite of what the bombings are trying to achieve. This is about ensuring that the cycle of life can and will continue, even when the future is this uncertain.

The White Helmets have been credited for saving over 70,000 from the fallout from airstrikes. It has been estimated that since the Russian bombings began in late ’15, over 150 White Helmets have lost their lives as well as nearly 3,000 innocent civilians.

Recommendation: Equally heartbreaking and life-affirming, these will be perhaps some of the toughest 40 minutes you’ll experience in some time. There’s no hiding from the devastation in Syria in The White Helmets, nor should there be. Because of the opportunity it provides us to get an understanding of the victims’ perspectives of the bombings, this becomes a short film that you simply have to watch. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 41 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.vox.com 

Hurricane

hurricane-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, August 31, 2016 (Vimeo)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Christiano Dias

Directed by: Christiano Dias


This short film review is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. A tip of the hat to James, who runs the show over there.


Hurricane is the brand new film from Christiano Dias, an experienced short film director who has managed to fit 20 writer-director credits under his belt in the span of a decade. His latest puts a humorous spin on anti-Communist sentiments running rampant in 1950s America.

It tells a darkly comic tale of a couple, Oslo (Corey Page) and Eva Alduars (Lisa Roumain), experiencing some strange happenings during the course of dinner. A tense argument over the meal soon focuses on the radio they have playing in the background, which crackles in and out before eventually going silent. It reminds Oslo of a similar incident that apparently happened at a neighbor’s house, in which a man had discovered a wiretapping device inside his radio. Supposedly that same man had disappeared from the area not long after that. Oslo suspects the Commies got him.

Moments later, a knock at the door. A boy introduces himself as Benjamin Shaw (David Jay), and appears to be selling newspaper subscriptions. But something just doesn’t add up. Oslo begins to think the timing of these events is no coincidence. Meanwhile, a storm closes in on the house outside. Dias challenges us to consider all of the possibilities here, including what seems most unlikely.

What’s most apparent with Hurricane are the production values. Crisp colors and retro shapes and objects transport you back into the Cold War era, a physical sense of time and place conjured from wisely chosen props and set decor, not least of which is that pesky radio — virtually a character unto itself. Thick curtains drawn across large windows occupy considerable space within the frame, a not-so-subtle nod to the Red Scare.

It’s not just visual cues that tip us off, either. There’s a lot of strong eye-acting going on here, whether it’s an accusatory stare from over the top of Oslo’s glasses or the intense look of irritation, borderline anger, in Eva’s. Watch as the look turns from one of disgust to concern as she watches the man steadily come undone. The period details even is evident in the tones of voices used, the cadence with which the characters speak. Paying attention to these little nuances is more important than to the acting itself, which can be pretty shaky.

Those details add up to a unique and at times disconcerting experience that plays with notions of how paranoia and mistrust can lead us to make poor decisions and act irrationally. The set-up is simple but effective, making for a short film that I really kind of have to recommend.

Recommendation: An interesting take on the atmosphere of paranoia, fear and mistrust in the years leading up to and certainly including the Cold War. Juggles comedy with dramatic beats pretty effectively, even if the acting is at times a bit shaky. On the whole, though, these are 14 minutes very well spent. I enjoyed the strangeness of it all and this makes me really want to check out more of Dias’ work. An easy recommendation to make. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 14 mins.

[No trailer available, sorry everyone . . .]

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.screencritix.com; http://www.vimeo.com

Hell-Bent

'Hell-Bent' movie poster

Release: Monday, May 23, 2016 (YouTube)

[YouTube]

Written by: Shayne Kamat; Lorenzo Cabello

Directed by: Foster Vernon


The following piece is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. Thank you James for giving me the chance to talk about this new film student production.


Hell-Bent is clearly the product of film student passion and represents something of an experimental comedy, one that unfortunately becomes too silly for its own good and struggles to justify the half-hour runtime.

The premise is nothing if not inventive. It involves a writer named Michael (Justin Andrew Davis) working at a fictional magazine called Brimstone and who is struggling to find confidence in himself. When the editor makes available an assistant editor position Michael finds himself in a cutthroat competition with his fellow writers, namely the overconfident and unnecessarily bitchy Beth (Ashley Kelly) to get a pay raise. Goodness knows it’d make paying the rent easier for Michael.

He does a little poking around for any local stories of interest and quickly finds one. Turns out, the older lady who works with them has a pretty interesting private life. When he goes over to her house one day he discovers a pentagram drawn on her basement floor. Agatha (Leslie Lynn Meeker) casually explains this is where she summons up a demon whenever she needs some company. She demonstrates, speaking gibberish until actor Steven Trolinger, painted head-to-toe in red paint, pops up out of nowhere. He’s Ricky, and he’s evil. We know this because he has a really foul mouth and likes being a nuisance.

At first Michael is terrified but soon realizes he has the perfect idea for his next article. He’ll write about the “good in evil” that he’s found, and will go into detail about how one of Brimstone Magazine’s own has made a pact to be homies with the Darkness. Meanwhile, Beth is on an office tear and making fun of everyone else’s attempts to come up with their best story. It’s a matter of time before she publicly decries Michael’s story as garbage, too.

That she’s supremely confident the promotion is already hers leaves one wondering whether the overacting is an indictment of people in the industry or that it’s showing certain people just seem like they were born to go to hell (also see: Timothy J. Cox as the douche-mitten of an editor Mr. Bowers). The script may not exactly be subtle but it’s still not really clear which it is. Oh well, let’s just agree that everyone at work seems to suck; that Michael’s only real friends seem to be a woman who is friends with some of Satan’s crew and that the paint splattered on Ricky is pretty sloppy. (We can see it’s in his hair.)

Hell-Bent is written, edited and lensed by Fairleigh Dickinson University film student Shayne Kamat. Direction is provided by newcomer Foster Vernon. The whole enterprise has a loose comedic dynamic to it that helps us overlook the amateurish execution of plot and some cringe-inducing acting. It’s the kind of fun you have to take lightly and not think twice about, because the second thought will invariably draw attention to the limitations that a virtually nonexistent budget, one largely generated by the filmmakers’ IndieGogo fundraising campaign, ensures.

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Recommendation: Hell-Bent is a strange experiment designed to parody genre features centered around the occult but it’s not very successful. It’s a short film that doesn’t have much of an identity but given the lack of experience both in front of and behind the camera, I can forgive it a little easier. Motivational and inspiring enough for students who are figuring out just what it is they want to with their careers but not much else.  

Rated: NR

Running Time: 26 mins.

[No trailer available, sorry everyone . . . ]

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.youtube.com

In a Time For Sleep

'In a Time for Sleep'

Release: Tuesday, May 10, 2016

[Vimeo]

Written by: Tofiq Rzayev; Mehmet Fatih Güven

Directed by: Tofiq Rzayev


This marks yet another collaboration I’ve had as part of the writing staff over at Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. A shout-out to James for passing the word on to me about this short film.


In a Time for Sleep uses a simple but wholly unexpected act of violence as an allegory for the frustration felt by women of Turkey — and many other nations besides — who remain quagmired in oppressive laws and archaic customs that to this day refuse to embrace western concepts such as gender equality.

Freedom, be it from abusive relationships — which is how one might literally interpret the result of the quarrel that opens the film — or from oppressive regimes, is a key theme, as is rebirth and spiritual enlightenment, the latter at least in terms of a person discovering inner strength they never knew they had; if they’re to be measured purely by their ability to endure. Admittedly, these themes aren’t exactly subtle; then again, there isn’t much room within the confines of 15 minutes for nuance.

An intense argument at what is meant to be an anniversary dinner sets Leyla (Goknur Danishik) on an entirely new path when she discovers her boyfriend Arda (Mehmet Fatih Güven) has been involved with another woman (Elif Barut) for nearly two years. The woman, who remains nameless, bursts in the front door at a miraculous moment (again, no points deducted due to the aforementioned time constraints) only to stumble into the aftermath. To writer-director Tofiq Rzayev’s credit, events hereafter don’t exactly play out as one might expect.

While the journey itself is never quite the head trip its otherwise beautiful shots of the natural environment, of sunsets and flocks of birds taking on geometric shapes suggest it’s trying to be, In a Time for Sleep has something important to say and there’s no denying it expresses its frustration clearly.

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Recommendation: Capably acted — nothing special, but nothing particularly dubious either — and beautifully shot, In a Time for Sleep passes quickly but not without significance. It’s metaphorical representation of the continued suppression of women’s rights across the globe can’t be ignored, and that’s a credit to virtually all major aspects of this production. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 15 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.youtube.com; http://www.imdb.com 

World of Tomorrow

World of Tomorrow movie poster

Release: March 31, 2015 (Vimeo)

[Netflix]

Written by: Don Hertzfeldt

Directed by: Don Hertzfeldt


In memory of my mother.


Profundity runs rampant in Don Hertzfeldt’s latest short film, World of Tomorrow. While a departure from his painstakingly hand-drawn catalog, the science behind the science fiction is remarkable in ways that only Hertzfeldt can be remarkable. That is to say, the decision to go digital doesn’t mean he’s abandoning what has made him a unique talent.

World of Tomorrow, as has been the case for many of his works, particularly his penultimate musing on life and death, It’s Such a Beautiful Day, is dense and complex, and quite possibly his most ambitious effort yet, transporting viewers to a screwy little world where technology has afforded humans the ability to preserve their memories in digital reincarnations of themselves in the pretty-distant future, but on the condition they have the financial wherewithal to do so. (Discount time travel seems as dodgy as it sounds.)

Hertzfeldt once again employs a simple narrative vehicle to move across a complex terrain filled with conceptual and visual grandeur. The story features a young girl named Emily who is shown this new digital environment via another version of herself projected some 200 years into the future. The “older” Emily explains the complexities of advanced human technology while the “younger” Emily (or Emily Prime) babbles on about the typical stuff a young child finds fascinating. The relationship almost feels parental.

World of Tomorrow is a gorgeously rendered short, one that incorporates many of Hertzfeldt’s signature designs: wobbly lines, eclectic color schemes, stick figure characters — each contributing to a greater, vastly complex whole. A number of heavy themes are touched upon such as reincarnation, socioeconomic status, the fragility of life and the inevitability and permanence of death — and it’s all captured within a 17-minute running time.

It’s a production that necessitates multiple viewings, if not for the sheer amount of heavy-hitting themes then for its ability to transport the viewer far away from the comfort of their living room and into an entirely new dimension.

World of Tomorrow

Recommendation: Suitably melancholic yet strangely uplifting. World of Tomorrow finds Hertzfeldt once again sculpting a profoundly emotional story out of simple drawings and bizarre visuals. An absolute must-see for anyone who has enjoyed his previous work, and for those who find themselves intrigued by the idea of time travel and whether or not it’s worth the risk(s). 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 17 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.thefilmexperience.net; http://www.bettycam.tumblr.com 

A Very Murray Christmas

A Very Murray Christmas movie poster

Release: Friday, December 4, 2015 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Sophia Coppola; Mitch Glazer; Bill Murray

Directed by: Sophia Coppola

A Very Murray Christmas is kind of an odd package. It’s a fairly self-indulgent vanity project but only in the best way possible. I mean, how do you say ‘no’ to Bill Murray?

It’s a movie but not a movie; a musical but not really a musical; a short story without much of a tale to tell. It’s roughly an hour of Murray lamenting being left alone for Christmas Eve as he’s holed up in the famous Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan as a blizzard rages outside, preventing anyone from traveling anywhere and from taking part in his Christmas Special in which he is to live broadcast a number of classic tunes for the masses to enjoy.

Then the weather intensifies and shuts down the production, leaving him to his own devices in the hotel lobby, where he slowly starts gathering random hotel guests and staff members together for an impromptu session of Christmas caroling. In essence, this is Murray’s way of saying Happy Holidays without resorting to social media. It’s a live recording of him nudging even the grumps into the holiday spirit. He starts off the film in a lousy mood and slowly overcomes his depression as said guests gather round in drunken merriment.

Despite the aimlessness of it all, A Very Murray Christmas is a good bit of fun. It’s cozy and will fill your heart with warmth come the surprisingly entertaining introduction of Miley Cyrus and George Clooney in a bizarre dream sequence that results after Murray collapses in the hotel lobby after drinking one too many shots of tequila.

It’s a who’s who of the Murray entourage. The guest list is rather impressive: Amy Poehler, Paul Shaffer, Jenny Lewis, Maya Rudolph, Michael Cera, Demitri Dimitrov, Rashida Jones, Jason Schwartzman, David Johansen, Miley Cyrus, Julie White, Chris Rock, George Clooney (he seems to be owing Murray a favor after Murray did Monument’s Men) and members of the band Phoenix all donate their time to the cause.

Ultimately this is nothing you will regret having missed but for the Murray faithful, this Christmas special makes one feel as though this is the closest they can get to actually interacting with the great Bill Murray. That in itself is a gift.

A Very Murray Christmas

Recommendation: Fans of Bill Murray are going to greatly enjoy this while anyone else who isn’t so much a fan are probably going to find it a chore to sit through. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 56 mins.

Quoted: “I don’t even know how to express my shame in this moment. The Murricane skulking down the back stairs like some $25 an hour, Twin Cities hooker.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.theguardian.com 

Decades Blogathon – The Taking of Luke McVane (1915)

Screen Shot 2015-05-17 at 10.14.54 PM

Here we go! Welcome to the second entry in the Decades Blogathon, being hosted by myself and Mark from Three Rows Back! The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the fifth year of the decade. Mark and I will run a different entry each day (the first can be found on TRB and will be re-blogged here later). It is my great pleasure to feature the first review on DSB, a look at our earliest entry — a 1915 short called The Taking of Luke McVane, coming courtesy of Fritzi Kramer at Movies Silently. Please be sure to check out this place out, you won’t find a more comprehensive site on all things pre-talking pictures! 


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William S. Hart is a wanted man. He’s wanted by the law and he is especially wanted by Mercedes (Enid Markey), a local beauty with a giant crush on our antihero. This early Hart short zips along at a fierce pace until its bloody conclusion.

Some people believe that with very few exceptions, the western film was a genre for kiddies and B actors until mid-century “adult” westerns from Hollywood and the stylish, violent spaghetti westerns of the sixties and seventies.

Of course, the western genre had been used to tell mature and deep stories long before mid-century but many viewers are surprised to learn just how old the western antihero really is. Half a century before Sergio Leone shot a single foot of western footage, William S. Hart was leaving a trail of bodies and destruction across the Wild West.

A lot of early films featured painted sets and stage-inspired artificiality but 1910s audiences were demanding more and more authenticity. When Hart jumped into the movie game in 1914, he already had decades of stage experience under his belt and childhood memories of the west that would inspire the rugged, dusty authenticity of his films.

Just shy of fifty when he became a movie star, Hart was every inch the Victorian and the darkness of the previous century’s entertainment clung to him and infused his motion pictures with a grimness and ruthlessness that often comes as a shocker to modern viewers. Ironically, this very modern darkness made Hart’s films seem unfashionable to Jazz Age audiences, who preferred their cowboys to be affable stuntmen or bold pioneers rather than steely killers.

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In 1914, though, Hart’s assertive characters and authentic settings—not to mention his twin pistols and his one-handed cigarette roll—took movie theaters by storm. No one could get enough of the Good Bad Man and the badder the better. The prime years for Hart were between 1916 and 1920. In 1915, he was still tinkering with his formula and seeing how much wickedness he could get away with on the screen. (Quite a lot, as it turned out.) While critics were soon sniffing at Hart’s stylized brutality, the general public was entranced.

The story of The Taking of Luke McVane opens in a sandy saloon. Luke McVane (William S. Hart, who also directed) is passing through (or, since this is a western, “passin’ through”) and has stopped for a drink and a game of cards. He is spotted by Mercedes (Enid Markey), the “belle of the Chuckawalla Valley,” which is a compliment if I have ever heard one.

taking-of-luke-mcvane-image-1

Oh, before we go further, let’s talk a bit about Miss Markey. She may look familiar to you and if you enjoy 1960s TV, you probably have seen her. She is best known as Barney Fife’s landlady in the Up in Barney’s Room episode of the Andy Griffith Show, filmed nearly fifty years after The Taking of Luke McVane. Markey’s other claim to immortality is her title as Tarzan’s very first on-screen Jane. She played the role opposite Elmo Lincoln’s jungle hero in Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

taking-of-luke-mcvane-enid-markey

But back to the movie!

Luke helps Mercedes out when one of her admirers gets a little grabby and Mercedes returns the favor by signaling Luke that his card partner is cheating. Luke shoots the skunk dead (as one does) and escapes just ahead of a lynch mob.

While the mob struggles to get organized, Sheriff Stark (Clifford Smith, Hart’s assistant director) rides off in pursuit of the fugitive. Mercedes see the chaos as a chance to help Luke once again. She takes two horses and, riding one and leading the other, she gallops all over the desert, creating a false trail. Mercedes’ plan works and the posse is hopelessly turned around.

The sheriff’s horse is fresher and he will soon overtake Luke and so our antihero sets up an ambush and shoots the sheriff. (And, no, he does not shoot the deputy.) When Luke approaches the body, he sees that the sheriff is not dead but gravely wounded. Now it’s one thing to gun a fellow down but leaving a wounded man to die under the desert sun is more than Luke can stomach.

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Will Luke save the sheriff? Will Mercedes get her man? Will the mob get their hanging? These are the questions that drive the final act of The Taking of Luke McVane.

One thing I really liked about this film is that the heroine takes an active role in the proceedings. Silent films have an undeserved reputation for containing damsels and the old myth about train tracks still gets trotted out. In fact, silent heroines were a feisty lot and quite often rescued their lovers/families/friends, as is the case here. That being said, Hart’s leading ladies did tend to be on the passive side and so it is fun to see Mercedes make monkeys out of the posse.

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It has sometimes been said that William S. Hart only had one plot and he used it again and again. While this is an enormous oversimplification, most of his best films did share certain story elements. Hart would play a psychotic killer who gets turned to the side of right either by religion, love of a good woman or some crisis of conscience. Then he would set out for revenge against the villains of the piece. His body count would be just as high or higher than it was before his conversion, mind you, he was just more particular about who he killed.

The Taking of Luke McVane can be seen more as an exercise or a dry run rather than a true Hart film. It has a lot of ingredients that Hart would incorporate into his later films but the seams show in a few places. The climax in particular seems tacked on and only included because no one knew how to end the thing. Contrast this to the apocalyptic fury of Hell’s Hinges (1916) in which Hart takes vengeance for a murdered minister and a vandalized church by burning an entire town to ashes.

(Spoilers in this paragraph) What The Taking of Luke McVane does have on its side is a heaping helping of dramatic irony. Luke nurses the sheriff back to health, is promised a fair trial and agrees to surrender himself. He carries a rose given to him by Mercedes and it is clear she is the reason why he is returning. However, both Luke and the sheriff are killed by Apaches en route to town. If Mercedes had not led the posse away, the sheriff and Luke may have survived. If Luke had refused to return to town, he and the sheriff may have survived. The love story of the picture dooms its lead. (I should note that Hart very rarely died on-screen.)

William S. Hart’s films are not always the easiest for modern audiences to appreciate. True, they have darkness and a high body count but remember that I said that Hart was every inch the Victorian? Well, the other side of the coin is that he also tended to be sincere, sentimental and he included strong doses of old-time religion in his pictures. The resulting films are simultaneously ahead of their time and behind it. This curious combination takes some getting used to but it’s worth the effort.

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The Taking of Luke McVane is intriguing because of the foundation it lays down. You can see the Hart persona becoming clearer and clearer in his 1914 and 1915 films and this short added a few more ingredients to the recipe. Is it Hart’s best? No. Most fans choose either Hell’s Hinges, The Toll Gate or Tumbleweeds for that title. Is it worth seeing? It certainly is. You get to see the invention of a screen legend.


Note: The versions of this film found on YouTube and other online sources are played at the wrong speed; they are far too slow. I recommend seeing this film on the disc released by Grapevine.

Wild Tales

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Release: Friday, February 20, 2015 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Damián Szifrón

Directed by: Damián Szifrón

Having a rough day at the office? Car get towed? Is your name Britt McHenry? Wild Tales may be exactly the movie you need to see today.

Allow Argentinian Damián Szifrón to remedy your red-letter-day blues with a different kind of cinematic experience in the form of six short films each dealing with people on the verge of completely losing their cool when put in extremely distressing situations. As an anthology film, Wild Tales mixes comedy, drama and tragedy in a farcical manner only cinema can provide. Last year’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film distinguishes itself as a fascinating collage of circumstances, each one suggesting we all harbor this ability to do ridiculous things when we’re pushed past our breaking point.

Rather than reviewing this feature as a whole I think it’ll be more beneficial to break it down into its individual pieces and rate them individually.

‘Pasternak’

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The first (and shortest) segment deals with passengers on a flight who all happen to have some kind of connection to a man named Pasternak. One man, a music critic sitting adjacent to Pasternak’s ex-girlfriend, claimed that he once destroyed Pasternak on the basis that he had not one lick of musical talent. And that’s just the beginning of this farce. It’s not long before the entire cabin realizes that the flight is nothing more than a trap that’s been brilliantly orchestrated by Pasternak himself (who is the chief pilot) and that their fates lie in his hands. Given that this is the introductory piece it’s put at 3-5somewhat of a disadvantage as the happenstance nature of the plot seems at first a bit farfetched and the performances aren’t uniformly convincing. However, this is a short that significantly improves when you look back upon it and becomes extremely amusing.


‘The Rats’ (‘Las Ratas’)

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Arguably the least effective and least engaging of the entries, ‘Las Ratas’ deals with a scumbag customer who treats his server (an emotionally fragile woman) and kitchen staff (a disdainful old ex-con) with little to no respect. Quickly the server realizes this man, a loan shark, has been the source of her recent misery as he is responsible for the destruction of her family. The lady in the kitchen tells her she should take care of this pest once and for all by poisoning his food — an order of fried eggs with fries, no less. However, the server can’t quite bring herself to do such a thing. The sketch feels a little too forced and just doesn’t click as the others ultimately do. In sequence, however, this one ends up as a considerably darker expounding of the humor 3-0presented in ‘Pasternak,’ and remains a pretty entertaining watch despite its numerous shortcomings. Anyone who has ever worked a kitchen job should be able to identify with these women’s frustrations.


‘The Strongest’ (‘El más fuerte’)

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Wild Tales hits its stride with this outrageous and hilarious showdown in the desert that pits two men of markedly different societal classes against one another in a scene where the description ‘genius’ doesn’t feel too sensational. What begins as a typical case of road rage culminates in a battle for survival as an upper-middle class white-collar worker (let’s just presume he is for the sake of brevity) blows a tire near a bridge and has to stop to fix it. The poorer man he happened to shout obscenities at while trying to overtake on the quiet desert road also shows up at the scene and begins threatening him, thinking the snob won’t escape. Tensions and tempers flare to unexpectedly comical levels, ending in a rather explosive finale where no one really wins. The third segment encompasses multiple emotions — fear, 4-0indignation, bitterness, jealousy among others — while portraying a situation that, while extreme, can be universally identified as an inconvenience. Quite possibly the best of the bunch.


‘Little Bomb’ (‘Bombita’)

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‘Bombita’ may very well translate as the most empathetic of all these farces. Can we all agree that having one’s car towed es un dolor mayor en el culo? Simón is a demolitions expert whose car is towed away while parked along a curb that is not properly marked as a tow-away zone. As a rather emotional man, he makes sure his complaints are heard by the so-called fascists pigs in charge but in so doing his life begins to unravel to a degree the husband and father of a young daughter was never expecting. ‘Bombita’ accurately depicts the way logic and emotion have this distinctly infuriating relationship with one another — though ultimately how emotion usually ends up trumping the former. But Simón is pushed to a point where he finally takes a stand for himself, even though it’s pretty much cost him his family and what was left of 3-5his dignity (not to mention finances). Emotionally charged and engaging like few of the segments preceding it, this elevates Wild Tales‘ ambition to another level, even with ‘Bombita”s absurd conclusion.


‘The Proposal’ (‘La Propuesta’)

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What gives Wild Tales such an air of authenticity is its ability to dabble in the realm of the tragic as well as the comedic. While comedy certainly dominates and is varied in terms of lightheartedness and absurdity, no segment thus far is neither as solemn nor as real as ‘La Propuesta.’ It deals with the son of a wealthy man named Mauricio and the consequences the youth must face after running down a pregnant woman while drunk during the course of a random night. He returns home and confesses to his parents, who in turn contact their lawyer. As Mauricio knows his son would not survive in prison he arranges that his groundskeeper take the fall, for payment. Unfortunately the scheme fails to convince the local prosecutor and Mauricio is forced into negotiating exorbitant prices to keep his son out of prison. What price would 4-0you pay to keep your family out of this kind of danger? The moral dilemma everyone in this segment faces is depicted with heart-wrenching attention to detail. It may not be the most enjoyable experience but it’s another highlight of this anthology.


‘Til Death Do Us Part’ (‘Hasta que la muerte nos separe’)

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The final several (long) minutes of Wild Tales takes us to the world’s most ridiculous wedding reception, where Romina discovers her minutes-old husband, Ariel, has been cheating on her with one of the wedding guests. I’ve never been married but I’ve also never quite understood the term ‘bridezilla.’ Until now. ‘Hasta que la muerte nos separe’ is easily the least-disciplined of the lot and overstays its welcome by several minutes, as the conclusion is neither particularly believable nor inventive. The build-up to it — the fall-out between the newlyweds and their families — is a good bit of fun that epitomizes Szifrón’s intent to lampoon common stresses that have the potential to bring out the worst in people. He really goes overboard on this one, using the heightened emotions that weddings tend to extract (not just out of individuals but as a collective of loved ones who have various levels of 3-0concern) as a springboard to end Wild Tales on a decidedly cartoonish note. It’s not that it’s poorly done. It’s just, well   . . . a bit too wild for it’s own good.

Recommendation: Wild Tales serves as a delightfully sensational take on human behavior, psychology, and interaction. The format is an ingenious decision on the part of Szifrón and each segment stands on its own in terms of its thematic content and emotional heft. If you’re seeking out something different from the usual cinema fare (I know that’s such a general recommendation, but I can’t say anything more in fear of spoiling this thing for you) allow me to point you in the direction of some theater that might happen to be playing this. Or when it comes out on DVD, be sure to give it a rental. You shouldn’t be disappointed.

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com