Monday, May 23, 2005

Silents & slapstick from Maddin, Chapin, and Chow

This is sort of a random grouping, but an interesting one to me. Feature comedies pretty much start at Tillie's Punctured Romance, and though fun, it's somewhat crude: Heavily reliant on slapstick and broad characterization. Also, you can sort of see just how much stars were commondities back during the early studio system: Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Norman are just "Charlie" and "Mabel" in the movie, not so much actors as movie stars, property of Keystone Films.

You still see that somewhat in the movie's descendents, Kung Fu Hustle and Cowards Bend The Knee. Their both descended from Tillie, but they're very distant cousins. Hustle comes from Hong Kong, and it leans heavily on the slapstick, with Stephen Chow basically playing Stephen Chow ("Stephen" is just his professional English name; his given name is "Sing", like the character he plays). The technology has evolved, though, with bright color, surround sound, and an abundance of impressive visual effects. It's very much the same type of movie as Tillie, once you look beneath a hundred years of technological progress.

Meanwhile, up in Canada, Guy Maddin is making movies that ape the technology and format of the early silents, but have darker subject matter, with more sophisticated narratives and a surreal artsiness that was still a decade away from really making it to America. Silent moviemaking is something of an endangered species now, and in a lot of ways Maddin's work isn't really an evolution of the early silents but a pastiche of it. It's still a descendent, but a genetically-engineered one using cloned tissue, to a abuse the metaphor something fierce.

Tillie's Punctured Romance

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 April 2005 at Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (Sounds for Silents)

Fame is fleeting. When this film was first released, it had what was considered an all-star cast, and the title cards were all labeled "Marie Dressler in Tillie's Punctured Romance". Now, even many avid movie lovers would be hard pressed to identify any of those cast members other than Charlie Chaplin. Of course, this film was released in 1914, so maybe fame isn't that fleeting. It's well worth a look, both for its place in history - it's both the last time Chaplin would be directed by someone other than himself and the first feature-length comedy - and as a solid slapstick comedy in its own right.

And let me underline, italicize, and boldface that: This movie is a slapstick comedy. Roughly eighty percent of the movie involves people getting knocked around, falling down, and running into things, or so it seems. All this slapstick is performed by some of the silent era's greatest physical comedians - Dressler, Chaplin, and Keystone star Mabel Normand - but if that brand of comedy isn't your thing, this movie probably won't change your opinion. Truth be told, even fans might be somewhat daunted by the prospect of eighty minutes' worth, but this isn't the torture of watching a Three Stooges feature; the gags are at least mixed up a little.

Read the rest at HBS.

Kung Fu Hustle (Gong Fu)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 12 Mary 2005 at Loews Kendall #6 (first-run)

On the one hand, to say that Kung Fu Hustle shows that Shaolin Soccer was no fluke is to be rather parochial; even though those are the first Stephen Chow movies to get anything like widespread distribution in America, he's been directing movies for a decade and has been one of Hong Kong's biggest box office draws for about that long. On the other hand, though, it is something of a validation of its predecessor's success, and not just because it is very, very funny. It shows that the effects-heavy, cartoonish style Chow is creating is not just a one-time gimmick, but a bona fide style that Chow can ride for a while and will likely spawn imitators.

The "CGI is a tool of soulless hacks trying to destroy film as a medium" crowd aren't going to get any more ammunition here. The movie includes many digital effects shots, many of them on the showy side, but they are used well. Chow's background in martial arts action and physical comedy serves him well. He's got experience with how actors interact with their environments physically, and that comes in handy even when what they're interacting with isn't actually present or is being digitally augmented. It also doesn't hurt that he's got some high-end help in the fight scenes where much of the effects work occurs: The action is choreographed and directed by Yuen Woo-ping and Sammo Hung.

Read the rest at HBS.

Cowards Bend the Knee, or The Blue Hands

* * (out of four)
Seen 14 May 2005 at Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (Original Cinema) (projected video)

There aren't many like Guy Maddin, making silent movies at the turn of the twenty-first century. In Winnipeg, of all places. And it's frequently brilliant. Even when it's brilliant, though, it's kind of an acquired taste; when it's as off-putting as Cowards Bend the Knee, it can be a real drag to sit through.

Cowards is the story of Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr), popular star of the Winnipeg Maroons hockey club. He's gotten his girlfriend Veronica (Amy Stewart) "in trouble", as they euphemistically say, but not to worry, his best friend Shaky's girlfriend Liliom (Tara Birtwhistle) has an establishment that is hair salon by day, bordello by night, and abortion clinic with the right knock. Sadly, Veronica dies during the operation, but Guy has already become entranced with the owner's daughter, Meta (Melissa Dionisio). But, it soon turns out that she won't even let him get to second base, slapping his hands away from her bare and tantalizingly perfect breasts, until he does her a favor: Have her late father's hands, tinted blue from the preservative, transplanted onto his arms and use them to kill her mother and Shaky (David Stuart Evans), whom she blames for her father's death.

Read the rest at HBS.

Next up: Movies I've waited a long, long time for. Also, the backlog starts to approach the "less than one month" level (my goal is to get current before FantAsia).

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