‘Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies’ and the Quay Brothers on Blu-ray

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Flicker Alley

Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) – In 1914 Charlie Chaplin, the most famous comic performer in Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, was lured away by Essanay Studios with a huge increase in salary and the promise of creative freedom. Chaplin made the most of it and you can watch his evolution over the course of the 14 official shorts (and one unofficial short) of this collection, all produced in 1915. This is the American Blu-ray debut of the films from newly remastered editions, a project undertaken in collaboration with Lobster Films, David Shepard and Blackhawk Films, and the Cineteca Bologna.

Chaplin stars with Ben Turpin in His New Job, set at a movie studio, and A Night Out, where they play a pair of sloppy drunks raising havoc at a posh eatery. Edna Purviance, who co-stars in all subsequent Essanay shorts, joins Chaplin with The Champion, where a hidden horseshoe in a boxing glove promotes the tramp from sparring partner (“This gink wants his face kalsomined,” reads one particularly rich title) to challenger to the boxing title. In the Park, a shapeless gag fest where the tramp crosses paths with a pickpocket (identified as “a biter” in the titles) and a pair of lovers, concludes the tape. This is primitive Chaplin, still very much steeped in the Keystone slapstick tradition of pratfalls and well placed kicks to the rear end. The Tramp an aggressively mischievous character who smokes incessantly, striking matches on the neck of poor bystanders and flicking ashes in everything from tipped hats to open mouths. The Chaplin magic comes through in the timing and the grace.

A Jitney Elopement is straight slapstick, an often inspired but otherwise familiar tale of mistaken identity and romantic entanglements ending in a Keystone-like car chase. The Tramp, however, features his most fully formed story to date and injects an element of pathos that will become central to Chaplin’s later films. The Tramp saves a girl from three ruffians and is rewarded with a job from her father (he proceeds to wreak havoc on their family farm), but stays only because he’s fallen in love. By contrast By the Sea feels thrown together, and likely was as Chaplin and company shot the loosely connected series of beachside gags in one day. Work finds Chaplin back in form: a force of pure chaos as a paperhanger’s assistant who turns a cozy home into a glue-spattered disaster area. You can see Chaplin’s story sense improve with The Tramp and Work while his persona becomes less aggressive and more hapless, oblivious to the destruction he’s causing all around.

Chaplin doffed his duds and his ubiquitous mustache for the first time since leaving Keystone and the last time in the silent era for A Woman, a hilarious short in which he disguises himself as an elegant society lady. As he flutters his eyelids and flirts with two leering men, including his sweetheart’s married father, she watches in tickled amusement. In The Bank, one of his best Essanay shorts, he waddles up the bank vault only to pull out a bucket, a mop and a smock. Chaplin smoothly combines pathos and slapstick in this story of a dreamy, lovesick janitor, the first of his Essanay films to approach the level of his later Mutual classics. Shanghaied is classic silent situational comedy involving a boat, a stowaway, a dastardly plot to sink the ship, and a plenty of seaborn humor. Chaplin’s gags flow smoothly through a cohesive narrative, building to an organic climax (as opposed to often arbitrary conclusions of his first Essanay efforts), while his talents as a physical comedian are in full display as he balances a dinner tray on a stormy sea and dances a spontaneous jig.

Chaplin is at the top of his form in the his final three films for Essanay. He takes two roles in A Night at the Show, the drunk dandy that was his music hall specialty and a working class rube with a droopy mustache, to wreak havoc at a vaudeville show. Producer David Shepard’s reconstruction of Chaplin’s original two reel version of Burlesque of Carmen, which was expanded by Essanay to four reels with outtakes and new footage, brings the sprawling parody back down to the concentrated, cohesive, and very funny comedy Chaplin originally created. Police is classic Chaplin, the misadventures of the Tramp who leaves prison for a world of rampant poverty and crime, portrayed with a cynical, satiric eye yet heartened with hope. The edition featured here is newly restored. It’s also his final film for Essanay. Mutual Studios gave Chaplin an offer and Chaplin left in 1916 for complete creative control and an unprecedented contract that made him the highest paid person in the world. Building from his evolution at Essanay, he went on to create a dozen comedy classics that remain, in the eyes of many fans, the most concentrated examples of the Chaplin genius.

The rest of the films are presented as supplements. Triple Trouble was constructed by Essanay in 1918 from an unfinished feature called Life and outtakes from Police and Work. While it lacks the narrative cohesion that Chaplin brought to his late Essanay films, it nonetheless features some excellent comic moments. And the set also features the debut of the newly restored Charlie Butts, a one-reel short assembled from alternate takes from A Night Out and released in 1920.

The set features all of these in both Blu-ray and DVD editions and includes a booklet with an essay by Jeffrey Vance and notes on the films and the restorations.

QuayBrosThe Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films (Zeitgeist, Blu-ray) – Collaborators and identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay have garnered a cult following for their strange animated shorts, surreal films created in a collision of 19th and 20th century styles and sensibilities. Their figures—mechanical contraptions of thread and wire, springs and coils, aged machine parts and simple tools—quiver and stutter, as if restless with nervous energy, through abstract dramas in doll house abodes in dreamscape worlds.

Directed in a highly stylized manner, with a shallow plain of focus that purposely keeps objects out of focus and a camera that moves with conspicuous mechanical precision (long before it became common practice in stop-motion photography), their works have a dream-like quality about them. This is directly alluded to in the subtitle of one of their most handsome films, The Comb (From the Museum of Sleep) (1990) where scenes of a lattice-work of ladders shooting through an angular construction is intercut with a sleeping woman. Street of Crocodiles (1986), their most famous short work, references turn-of-the-century cinema as a man peers through a Kinetoscope to watch the nightmare-tinged fantasy of a figure overwhelmed by mysterious forces on the deserted streets of city after dark. These are the longest and most accomplished short films in this collection of 16 short films spanning 30 years of filmmaking, but there are other spellbinding works: the early The Cabinet of Jan Svanmajer (1984) a tribute to the great Czech animator and the Quays’ spiritual godfather; the inventive art history documentary De Artificiali Persepctiva, or Animorphosis (1990); the four short works in the Stille Nacht series. These films, along with Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies (1987) and The Phantom Museum (2003), showcase a vision of quivering objects and surreal narratives in a shadowy, self-contained dream world.

Three recent works make their disc debut in this collection: Maska (2010), Through the Weeping Glass (2011), and Unmistaken Hands (2013), all of which recently toured the U.S. in a program of Quay films curated by Christopher Nolan, a fan of the filmmakers. He contributes an original documentary, the eight-minute appreciation Quay (2015), a profile of the filmmakers at work and in conversation discussing their inspirations. Also features commentaries for six shorts recorded by the Quay Brothers for a previous disc release and a booklet with an introduction by Nolan, a Quay Brothers dictionary, and an essay by Michael Atkinson.

The complete line-up is featured below:

The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984)
This Unnameable Little Broom (or, The Epic of Gilgamesh) (1985)
Street of Crocodiles (1986)
Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987)
Stille Nacht I (Dramolet) (1988)
The Comb (1990)
Anamorphosis (1991)
Stille Nacht II (Are We Still Married?) (1992)
Stille Nacht III (Tales From Vienna Woods) (1993)
Stille Nacht IV (Can’t Go Wrong Without You) (1994)
In Absentia (2000)
The Phantom Museum (2003)
Nocturna Artificialia (1979)
plus
Maska (2010)
Through the Weeping Glass (2011)
Unmistaken Hands (2013)
Quay (dir: Christopher Nolan)

The Quay Brothers’ ‘Street of Crocodiles’ (1986)

DVD of the Week – ‘The Dark Knight’ – December 9, 2008

Superhero films have been getting increasingly sophisticated and decidedly darker as they become (for better or worse) a full-fledged genre. With Batman Begins, writer/director Christopher Nolan (drawing inspiration from the revisionist Batman comic books by Frank Miller and Jeph Loeb) rebooted the Batman mythos for the big screen, bringing the often lighthearted hero back to the shadows, both figuratively and literally. Now, with the origin story out of the way and the obsessive hero established, Nolan delivers a pulp epic with mythic overtones for the darkest of comic book heroes with The Dark Knight, a pulp tragedy with costumed players and elevated stakes and terrible sacrifices.

Heath Ledger leaves a legacy

In a Gotham City that is part violent gangster thriller of the thirties and forties and part modern metropolis with a rotten foundation under its magnificent cityscape, The Batman (Christian Bale) has cast an aura of fear across the underworld with his vigilante war on crime. He doesn’t trust many people in the corruption-riddled halls of justice, but he takes a chance on the man called Gotham’s White Knight: crusading new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, who brings a hint of grinning arrogance to Dent’s passion).

Shambling into the battle comes The Joker (the late Heath Ledger). With his stringy hair, greasy make-up over the smile carved into his cheeks and garish, street-battered suit, Ledger gives us a volatile psychotic far removed from Jack Nicholson’s showboating exhibitionist in Tim Burton’s “Batman.” He works over his sardonic dialogue in a rumbling wise-guy whine and off-balance patter, his tongue darting in and out like a lizard, his slumping posture so at ease in the chaos of his capers it’s disturbing.

Nolan delivers the expected set pieces for a big screen superhero spectacle, from a sharp bank heist executed (in every sense of the word) with impersonal efficiency by a masked gang to a high-speed ambush in an underground tunnel to a nearly incomprehensible rescue operation where the good guys are working at cross purposes. But The Dark Knight is also a tighter, smarter, more focused film than Batman Begins and Nolan has become a more effective storyteller.

It’s one of the best American movies of the year (I review it on my blog here) and a terrific DVD.

The “Two-Disc Special Edition” includes “Batman Uncovered: Creation of a Scene,” a collection of over an hour of featurettes on the making of key scenes (like blowing up the hospital – for real! – and a real life stunt jump from a skyscraper more thrilling than the finished scene) and versions of the six scenes shot in IMAX format presented in their original aspect ratio…. The Blu-ray edition presents the IMAX version of the film (the IMAX scenes fill the entire widescreen TV frame)…

I review the DVD in my MSN column here.

Also new this week is Olivier Assayas’s breakthrough film Irma Vep in a new “Essential Edition” from Zeitgeist:

French director Olivier Assayas satirizes the French film industry and pays affectionate tribute to the joys and frustrations of filmmaking in his offbeat 1997 comedy. Hong Kong icon Maggie Cheung plays herself in this playful lark about a company trying to remake the silent film classic Les Vampires with an unstable director (aging New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Leaud) and a power struggle within the crew.

My DVD review is here.

Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘The Dark Knight’ – December 9, 2008”

The Dark Knight

I’d say I like superhero movies as much as the next guy. But that’s probably not true. I probably like them more than the next guy. I spent years collecting comic books and, after dropping out for a dozen years or so, got back into the artform with graphic novels and collections. That’s given me a love-hate relationship with the burgeoning superhero genre, embracing the best (the first X-Men and Spider-Man films) and decrying the worst (The Fantastic Four and Elektra, among others).

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"I'm an agent of chaos"

The development of the superhero movie genre has been fascinating to watch. Over the past couple of decades, comics have become more cinematic and sophisticated and adult, leaving the preteen audience behind to focus on college readers and adult collectors. At the same time, movie blockbusters have become more juvenile and franchise oriented, while on the production side they have adopted technologies that allow them to replicate the kinds of images and action spectacle previously only possible on the page. In retrospect, the superhero movie blockbuster seems like an inevitable meeting of storytelling forms. What makes it so interesting is the way the genre has been attracting some of the most talented and cinematically enthusiastic directors: Bryan Singer, Ang Lee, Sam Raimi, and now Christopher Nolan.

With Batman Begins, writer/director Christopher Nolan (drawing inspiration from the psychologically brooding comic book rebirth of the seventies and the more recent revisionist Batman comic books by Frank Miller and Jeph Loeb) rebooted the Batman mythos for the big screen, bringing the often lighthearted hero back to the shadows, both figuratively and literally. The film was narratively dense but also a little ungainly, with a massive climactic set pieces that dwarfed the human scale of the action drama with the epic destruction.

With the origin story out of the way and the obsessive hero established, Nolan delivers a worthy story for the darkest of comic book heroes with The Dark Knight. The result is the new gold standard for superhero noir. Continue reading “The Dark Knight”