DVD of the Week – ‘Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer’ – December 2, 2008

Douglas Fairbanks, getting his brain shrunk, in "When the Clouds Roll By"
Douglas Fairbanks gets his head shrunk in "When the Clouds Roll By"

The eleven films on Flicker Alley’s five-disc set Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer are more than just a terrific collection of the films from one of the preeminent stars of silent cinema. Spanning the year 1916-1921, the films show Douglas Fairbanks developing from mere mortal film star, an actor with both comic grace and athletic flair, into the first action hero of the movies. All of the early films of this collection show Fairbanks in modern dress and contemporary mode, the urban guy with a chivalrous streak and an enthusiasm that bursts out of him in feats of gymnastic joy. Films like His Picture in the Papers (1917), Flirting With Fate (1917) and Wild and Woolly (1917) are more comedies than adventures and Fairbanks is a romantic comic lead whose athletic talents are an extension of his gags, much like Chaplin’s slapstick grace, Keaton’s daring play with massive mechanical props (like a moving steam engine) or Harold Lloyd’s thrill stunts. He’s dapper, charismatic and plays everything with a smile so wide you can’t help but be charmed by his joie de vivre, but he’s decidedly a modern urban hero, or at least a variation on it, the fop who transforms into the man of action of The Mollycoddle (1920). In When the Clouds Roll By (1920), one of the more unusual comedies of the set, Fairbanks is a superstitious young swell who is the unwitting victim of a decidedly sadistic psychological experiment by a doctor of dubious moral character trying to drive him to suicide, with the all-too-willing help of the man’s butler and building super (they both get far too much pleasure out of the misery they inflict on this sunny young man). Based on a scenario written by Fairbanks himself, it’s a strange and surreal comedy with an entire scene that place within his stomach (his dinner, looking very much like a primeval version of the Fruit of the Loom guys, acts up as he tries to digest a late meal) and a dream sequence that turns Fairbanks’ acrobatic feats into a slow-motion ballet that looks like something out of a Jean Vigo film.

Fairbanks as D'Artagnon in "A Modern Musketeer"
Fairbanks as D'Artagnon in "A Modern Musketeer"

With A Modern Musketeer (1917, directed by Allan Dwan), you see Fairbanks try on a different kind of persona in the prologue. Fairbanks winks to the audience as he strides into frame in long, curly hair and the flouncy, flamboyant costume of D’Artagnon, but when he leaps into an acrobatic swordfight his smile is no longer one of knowing parody, but of athletic joy. It’s a brief scene that soon gives way to the modern musketeer incarnation, but it looks ahead to the action movie spectacles of the twenties that will make him a screen legend, represented on this set by The Mark of Zorro (1921), a dashing adventure tale of Old California’s Robin Hood. In his secret identity as the foppish Don Diego, Fairbanks slouches, shuffles, and gives the dim, dull air of a bored dilettante who can hardly be bothered to wake up – but clues us in on the charade with smiling asides and playful parlor tricks and games. Behind the mask of Zorro, however, he comes alive with a zesty smile and an acrobatic performance, vaulting through windows and over walls and declaiming his pantomime speeches with every muscle in his body – you can almost hear him through the silence.

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New Reviews: ‘WALL•E,’ ‘Wanted’ and ‘My Winnipeg’

WALL•E (dir: Andrew Stanton)

An animated robot love story with an environmental theme and a slapstick delivery, WALL•E is a charmer of a film and a delightful piece of storytelling. Directed by Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) with the animation wizards at Pixar, it takes on the challenge of delivering an animated feature that is predominantly wordless (and even some of those used are closer to sound effects than dialogue) and succeeds with both creative humor and visual grace.

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The little robot that could cradles the revival of life on earth

WALL•E is a little mobile trash compactor who putters around a junked and abandoned Earth, sharing his days with a skittering cockroach and finding his pleasures in the little treasures he scavenges from his loads.

The nervous little guy has evolved a personality over the centuries, which makes his isolation all the more poignant as he pines for someone (something?) to hold hands (or whatever you call his clamp-like digits) with. And so he falls in love with a sleek, specimen-gathering pod named Eve and follows her back to her ship, becoming one of those unlikely heroes whose pluck and perseverance overcome impossible odds.

With its long, wordless scenes and mix of slapstick gags and delicate mechanical dances, it doesn’t look or feel like your usual animated feature by Pixar or anyone else, at least until WALL•E finds himself with the physically inert future of the human race. It’s almost like two movies cut together, one with the robots and a somewhat more obvious and less magical one with the fat and complacent mankind willingly bound to a luxury liner spaceship.

The mechanical heroes are more expressive and more engaging than the tubby humans, solely through the mechanics of robot eyes and body language and a symphony of beeps and whistles. If it reminds you of a certain little iconic robot from a hit space opera epic, it’s no coincidence. Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt not only does the audio honors here, he’s credited as the voice of WALL•E.

Adults will pick up on a social satire in the portrait of a sedentary population lulled to distraction by a non-stop stream of media signals and small talk while the kids won’t miss the message of ecological responsibility, but the bright gags and childlike expressions of robot affection are so joyous that you can be completely charmed without even noticing the themes. Continue reading “New Reviews: ‘WALL•E,’ ‘Wanted’ and ‘My Winnipeg’”