Friday, June 27, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Sherlock Jr. (1924)
Directed by: Buster Keaton.
Written by: Jean C. Havez & Joseph A. Mitchell and Clyde Bruckman.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Projectionist / Sherlock, Jr.), Kathryn McGuire (The Girl), Joe Keaton (The Girl's Father / Man on Film Screen), Erwin Connelly (The Hired Man / The Butler), Ward Crane (The Local Sheik / The Villain).

When I did my “If I Had a Ballot for the Sight & Sound Best Films of All Time Survey” post back in 2012, I included Sherlock Jr. in my top 10. I just as easily could have picked The General of Our Hospitality, but I went with Sherlock Jr. – and two years later, I’m still okay with that decision. On the Blu Ray edition of the film, there is a documentary where the narrator points out that Sherlock Jr. was the least successful of all of Keaton’s features in terms of box office – and yet it now ranks with cinephiles as one of his best. Why, she asks? It doesn’t have the daring of The General or Steamboat Bill Jr. Or the majesty of Our Hospitality. Or the gags of Seven Chances. Or the love story of The Cameraman. So why does Sherlock Jr. – which barely qualifies as a feature at 45 minutes – ranks as one of Keaton’s best – and for some, like me, his best ever? Simple – Sherlock Jr. is first of all a technical masterpiece – even in the making of documentary they struggle to explain precisely how Keaton pulled everything he did off (they explain a lot, but there are some conflicts, which they point out). It is also, first and foremost, a film about film – about movies and the effect they can have on an audience – something Keaton addressed earlier than many others, and still probably better than anyone who came after. Oh – and it’s hilarious from start to finish.

In the film, Keaton stars a Projectionist at a small town movie theater – who dreams of becoming a detective. We see him reading a book aptly titled “How to Be a Detective” before his boss tells him to get back to work (and, in the film’s first of many illusions, he removes his fake mustache). Keaton is in love with Kathryn McGuire – and wants to buy her a fancy box of chocolates – but only has $3 and needs $4 for the box he wants. As he cleans up the debris from the theater, he finds a dollar – and his luck seems to have changed – then along comes a young woman who tells him she lost a dollar – and he sadly hands it over. Then an old woman comes by and says she lost a dollar – and he gives her one out of his own pocket. Than a man comes along, and finds a stack of money in the pile of garbage. Poor Buster – he cannot catch a break. He ends up buying some chocolate – and changing the price tag on it, so it says $4 instead of $1. He brings it, along with the small engagement ring he has purchased, and gives it McGuire. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one with his eyes of McGuire – Ward Crane as The Local Shiek – also shows up – and first he steals the girls’ father’s watch – and then sets Keaton up to take the fall. Dejected – Keaton returns to his job at the movie theater, where he drifts off to sleep – and soon will imagine himself inside the movie he sees on the screen – the characters changing into the one in his life.

What follows is one of the greatest sequences in film history. After Keaton enters the movie (a theatrical effect, as Keaton makes a stage look like a movie screen, so he can enter – and be thrown out of it) he finds himself in an every changing backdrop of different scenery. He thinks he’s about to sit on a bench, but then the scene changes, and he’s on his ass. He’s in the forest one minute, surrounded by lions the next – about to jump into the water, and then ends up in a snowbank. True, one could complain that no movie in history would have those scene changes – but does it really matter? What Keaton does in this scene is brilliant – both comedic, as he was a peerless physical comedian, but also technically – what he had to do to get those scenes changes to merge naturally was a marvel of editing and technical camera work.

There are other great scenes in the movie within the movie – a pool game, where he’s been sabotaged by an exploding ball, which he manages to thwart is another bit of genius comedy. Before he enters the movie, there is also a wonderful “chase” sequence – where Keaton shadows his man – Crane – closely as the two walk down the street – and ends with Keaton on the roof of a train, and needing to get out (probably the most dangerous stunt in the film involving him with a water tower here).

My favorite sequence though – aside from the ever changing backdrop – is the final one in the film – which I think is also what raises the film above everything else Keaton has done. While Keaton has dreamed himself a great detective in the film within the film, McGuire has actually proven to be the greater detective in real life – and is able to clear his name. She arrives at his work to tell him the good news – and Keaton starts to take cues from the people onscreen in the movie he’s watching. He sweetalks her when the man on the screen does the same to his girl, holds her when he does, kisses her when he does – and then – in one of my favorite endings ever – the movie within the movie fades to black, and when it fades back in, the onscreen couple have babies in their arms. Keaton looks on in bewilderment – how did they get those babies? No movie in 1924 is going to show him that.

Sherlock Jr. is a masterpiece – plain and simple. It shows how people project themselves – in this case literally – into the movies they see, and how they model their behavior after what they see. It shows the power movies can have over an audience – and does it in the most ingeniously simple and humorous way imaginable. It has inspired countless directors – look no further than this to see the roots of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) – or at times the entire oeuvre of Wes Anderson (I bet many of his characters have owned that How to Be a Detective Book). It is a dazzling technical achievement as well. But above all, it’s funny. Hilarious even. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this film –countless, including a few times in the last month, and it never fails to win me over. This is Keaton – and movie comedy – at its best.

Classics Revisted: Pinocchio (1940)

Pinocchio (1940)
Directed by: Hamilton Luske & Ben Sharpsteen.
Written by: Ted Sears & Otto Englander & Webb Smith & William Cottrell & Joseph Sabo & Erdman Penner & Aurelius Battaglia & Bill Peet based on the story by Carlo Collodi.
Starring: Dickie Jones (Pinocchio / Alexander), Cliff Edwards (Jiminy Cricket), Christian Rub (Geppetto), Evelyn Venable (The Blue Fairy), Mel Blanc (Donkeys / Gideon (hiccup) / Marionette Soldiers), Walter Catlett (J. Worthington Foulfellow), Frankie Darro (Lampwick), Charles Judels (Stromboli / The Coachman), Clarence Nash (Figaro / Roughhouse Statue / Donkeys).

In April 2014 on a survey of people in animation, Pinocchio ranked as the greatest animated film of all time. This somewhat surprised me – but when you look at the rest of the top 5, it comes a little easier to see how Pinocchio did it. While Disney had more films in the Top 100 than any other studio, only Dumbo and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made the top 10 aside from Pinocchio. The second and third ranked films were Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro by Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, while fourth and fifth were Pixar’s Toy Story and The Incredibles. It seems to me that Miyazaki and Pixar devotees were split on their favorite – where Disney fans rallied around Pinocchio – and with good reason. I’ve always thought it was the best animated film Disney has ever made – and watching it again for the first time in a few years confirmed that for me. What it also confirmed for me is that a film like this would probably not be made today – it would be “too dark, too scary, too intense” for children – and would have its edged sanded off. But it’s that darkness that for me makes the film as great as it is.

The story is well known to everyone. Gepetto is a lonely woodcarver, who creates the marionette puppet Pinocchio, who is brought to life by the Blue Fairy. He’s still a puppet, but the Blue Fairy tells him that if he proves himself worthy, he can become a real boy. A jolly cricket named Jiminy is assigned to be his conscience – although Pinocchio will ignore him again and again on his journey. He’ll be lured away by Honest John the Fox and Gideon the Cat, who sell him to a ruthless puppeteer named Stromboli. The Blue Fairy will come to his rescue however – but when she asks how Pinocchio ended up with Stromboli Pinocchio lies – causing his nose to grow and grow and grow. Once he gets released, he will again be lured away by Honest John and Gideon, who sell him to an evil coachman, who collects “naughty young boys” and takes them to Pleasure Island – for what purpose we don’t know at first. Then of course there is the climax involving Monstro the Whale.

The sequence on Pleasure Island is one of the most disturbing ever in a children’s film. The Coachman is a large, sweaty man – he looks almost like a cartoon version of the stereotypical child molester – and he is appropriately creepy. Once the real purpose of Pleasure Island is revealed – that by indulging themselves with alcohol, cigars and vulgarity, the boys are literally turned into jackasses, who the Coachmen then sells, things get even darker. If there is a more heartbreaking moment in movie than young Alexander crying out for his mother, I don’t know what it is. If there is a scarier moment in animation than when his friend Lampick laughs at him, and reveals a donkey’s heehaw, again, I don’t know what it is. Even more disturbing of course is that while Pinocchio gets away, the rest of the boys do not. They’re stuck as jackasses forever. The other famous sequences – the nose growing and the chase with Monstro the Whale are scary and intense in their own, more traditional sense – but it’s the sequence on Pleasure Island that haunts me. You would never get away with a sequence like that in an animated movie aimed at children now – but that’s precisely what makes it so memorable. Once you see it, you’re not going to forget it.

It’s hard to believe that Pinocchio was only the second animated feature by Disney – following 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The animators were still inventing ways of telling a feature length story in animation – in camera movement, in suggestion of off screen action, of the different types of creatures created for the movie – which moves away from the human characters of Snow White into a broader world here. Yet here, Disney and company pretty much perfected the animated film – making a film that is runs the gamut of emotions from exuberance to terror, and everything in between. There are moments in the film of pure joy, some wonderful songs and beloved characters – like Jiminy Cricket. And there are moments that still scared me all these years and multiple viewing later. I’m not sure Pinocchio would be get my vote as the greatest animated film ever made – but it would certainly be on the shortlist of the top 3 or 4. It is a masterpiece.

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Flaming Creatures (1963)

Flaming Creatures (1963)
Directed by: Jack Smith.
Written by: Jack Smith.
Starring: Francis Francine (Himself), Sheila Bick (Delicious Dolores), Joel Markman (Our Lady of the Docks), Mario Montez (The Spanish Girl), Arnold Rockwood (Arnold), Judith Malina (The Fascinating Woman), Marian Zazeela (Maria Zazeela).

Never doubt that banning a movie will make sure that far more people see it than if you just left it alone. As an example, take Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures from 1963. The film was confiscated and deemed obscene upon its premiere in New York, and was for all intents and purposes banned. To this day, it is still technically banned, although no one really enforces it anymore. The film was even shown in the U.S. Senate in 1968 as an attack on nominee for Chief Justice, Abe Fortas, as an example of what he didn’t think was obscene. Fortas was not confirmed. Now, 50 years after it was made, Flaming Creatures still shows up on many Must see lists. It has been included in the 1,001 Movies to See Before You Die Series, and ranks on They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? Top 1,000 list. To me, Flaming Creatures isn’t that good – it is the type of campy movie that I just never really respond to. The film certainly has its defenders – chief among them J. Hoberman – but I have a feeling the reason it still shows up on all these “must see” lists has at least as much to do with the fact that it was banned than anything else.

The film is high camp – it plays like something Josef von Sternberg would have made with Marlene Dietrich if they had absolutely no restrictions on them. The elaborate, over the top costumes and production design certainly bring to mind Sternberg, as well as cheap, exotic B-movies of the previous decades. The film has no real story, and no dialogue – we hear scratchy records playing in the background – and is really just a series of erotic set pieces. Shot very cheaply (apparently $300), using old film stock, the film does everything on the cheap – especially it’s earthquake finale, whose effect was created by literally shaking the camera.

The film was banned because it was apparently obscene. This is because for the most part, all the roles in the film are played by men. The characters are men, women and transvestites. The film shows nudity of all kinds, and certainly doesn’t shy away from the fact that many of the men in the movie are gay – shots of female breasts are often intercut with the men’s flaccid penises – and the film’s infamous “rape” sequence doesn’t involve any actual penetration.

Viewed 50 years after it was made, Flaming Creatures isn’t all that shocking anymore – we’ve all seen much, much more than what is shown in Smith’s movie. But it was revolutionary at the time. When the film was banned, it got some champions like Susan Sontag, who argued that the film was high art, and not pornography, and was really a serious film. Smith apparently didn’t like that view very much – the original audiences who he showed the film to privately got that Smith was going, at least in part, for camp value, and found the film hilarious. Once it was “high art”, people stopped laughing.

Flaming Creatures is an important film because it was groundbreaking at the time, and inspired many other filmmakers along the way – it’s impossible to watch the film and not think of someone like John Waters. Like Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, released the following year, Flaming Creatures is a film that is more important for what it inspired than what it actually is. Personally, although the film is only 43 minutes long, I was rather bored by Flaming Creatures. It didn’t hold the same curiosity value to me that Scorpio Rising did – which is a more polished film than this one. Flaming Creatures will forever be an “important” film. But for me, that doesn’t mean it’s necessary a very good one.

The Films of Buster Keaton: Our Hospitality (1923)

Our Hospitality (1923)
Directed by:  Buster Keaton & John G. Blystone.
Written by: Jean C. Havez & Clyde Bruckman and Joseph A. Mitchell.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Willie McKay - 21 Years Old), Natalie Talmadge (The Girl), Joe Roberts (Joseph Canfield), Ralph Bushman (His Son), Craig Ward  (His Son), Monte Collins (The Parson), Joe Keaton (The Engineer), Kitty Bradbury (The Aunt), Buster Keaton Jr. (Willie McKay - 1 Year Old), Edward Coxen (John McKay), Jean Dumas (Mrs. McKay), Tom London (James Canfield).

With his first feature film, Three Ages, Buster Keaton hedged his bets a little bit – making a feature that could easily be split into three shorts if it didn’t work out. He must have been pleased with the results, because later that same year, he made Our Hospitality – one of his masterpieces – and this time, he didn’t hedge. In fact, Our Hospitality is one of Keaton’s most narrative driven films. There are still plenty of gags, but this time they are part of a larger story.

Perhaps the most daring thing Keaton did in Our Hospitality is open with an extended sequence that is pure drama – and doesn’t even feature Keaton as an actor. The film opens by telling us of a long standing feud between the McKays and the Canfields (gee, I wonder who it’s based on?). John McKay is the last male member of his clan – other than his infant son – and there are two Canfield brothers left – Joseph (Keaton regular, Joe Roberts, making his final screen appearance) who wants to let the feud go, and James (Tom London) who has travelled a long way, and tells his brother that he plans on killing John McKay that very night. When James arrives at the McKay’s isolated cabin, during a thunder storm, John comes out to meet him – they both fire at the same time, and both wind up dead. Joseph then vows that despite his earlier desire to let the feud go, he now has to raise his two sons with the feud. John’s wife takes their son Willie far away from the feud in the hopes that he can live a normal life –which he does for 20 years. We next meet him when he’s played by Keaton, and receives a letter saying he must return to his old hometown to claim his father’s land. On the extended train ride there, he meets a girl (Natalie Talmadge) – and the two fall in love. What do you think her last name is?

From there, Our Hospitality becomes one of Keaton’s best comedies, with the genius at his best. He is invited to the Canfield’s for dinner by The Girl, not realizing who her family is. When he figures it out, it’s too late. Joseph and his two sons are determined to kill him. But they have their Southern manners and protocols to follow. It would rude to kill Willie when he is a guest in their home – so they decide to wait for him to leave and then kill him. Willie, overhearing this, decides that he’s just not going to leave – and comes up with one reason after another why he needs to stay. It’s almost like a Bunuel premise – like The Exterminating Angel, where a group of dinner guests find they cannot leave the room for some reason. Keaton can leave – and at times he does step out (to get his hat, or some papers that fly out the window) – but he always finds his way back inside – much to the chagrin of the Canfields who are itching to kill him.

There is much to love about Our Hospitality – which showcases Keaton’s attention to detail in numerous ways. The film was set in the 1830s, and Keaton built an exact replica of an early steam engine, as well as a replica of the first bike – a strange contraption that looks nearly impossible to ride (according to Keaton, these replicas were so good the Smithsonian wanted them). The train sequence – which takes up an extended part of the narrative – is brilliant in itself – with Keaton’s father as the hapless engineer, and Keaton trying his best to maintain some dignity and impress Talmadge on the ride (a brilliant bit involving his too large hat is priceless). The film also features a thrilling water rescue – as Keaton and Talmadge head down a river towards a waterfall (a dangerous stunt – especially when Keaton’s safety line broke, and he was rushed down river – a take he left in the final cut of the film).
Our Hospitality is one of my favorite Keaton features. It is not a particularly deep film, but it does show Keaton stretching himself. That opening sequence is played as straight drama, and foregoes much of the phony, over melodramatic theatrics that mark many silent films – Keaton is playing it more natural than that. That gives ways to the train sequence, which is funny in a low-key way, and then the sequence involving Keaton not wanting to leave the house, which is hilarious, and then the water rescue which is thrilling. It’s amazing that Keaton packed so much into the film. Yet it all feels part of a whole – one of Keaton’s best sustained narratives – and one of his funniest films. It’s also, though, one of his most beautiful – the scenery in the train sequence is oddly majestic for a silent comedy, as is the river. Keaton hedged when he made Three Ages earlier in 1923 – wanting to protect himself against failure of a feature film – which at that time was mostly the domain of serious drama. In Out Hospitality, he doesn’t hold anything back. That’s why it’s one of his masterpieces.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Movie Review: The Double

The Double
Directed by: Richard Ayoade.
Written by: Richard Ayoade & Avi Korine based on the novella by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg (Simon / James), Mia Wasikowska (Hannah), Wallace Shawn (Mr. Papadopoulos), Noah Taylor (Harris), James Fox (The Colonel), Cathy Moriarty (Kiki), Phyllis Somerville (Simon's Mother), Gabrielle Downey (Strange Woman), Yasmin Paige (Melanie Papadopoulos), Jon Korkes (Detective), Craig Roberts (Young Detective), Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (Guard / Doctor), Paddy Considine ('The Replicator' – Jack).

The Double is a vision of the future from out of the past. It shows us a futuristic world that will never be, but that someone like Kafka or Orwell could have dreamed up. It’s a film that feels both familiar and yet completely original. It’s the second film this year, following Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, in which a movie star plays two identical characters who didn’t know the other existed when the movie started. Strangely, while I think both are surreal nightmare – and both feel like something David Cronenberg might have directed in the 1980s, the films are still completely different – and equally fascinating.

Jessie Eisenberg stars as Simon James, a low level employee of some sort of big processing firm run by The Colonel (James Fox) – an almost mythical like creature that you barely catch a glimpse of, except on TV. He has been there for seven years doing good work, and he’s all sorts of ideas on how to improve efficiency, but he is so quiet and meek that his boss (Wallace Shawn) doesn’t remember his name, and when his employee access pass stops working, the security guard he sees every day has no idea who he is. He is in love with the girl who works in the copy room – Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) – although she, as well, barely notices him. One day, while he’s spying on Hannah (he lives in the building across from her, and looks at her through a telescope) – he sees a man jump to his death from her building – giving him a sad little wave before he jumps. He meets a pair of detectives – who tell him they are in charge of nothing but suicides in the neighborhood, and want to know if he’s planning on killing himself (“Put him down as a maybe”). Then he finally gets a chance to talk to Hannah at the small diner in the neighborhood, where the waitress (Cathy Moriaty) is rude to him and screws up his order. Then one day a new employee is hired. This is James Simon – and he looks exactly like Simon James – but is really his complete opposite. He is confident and outgoing, and immediately makes an impression on everyone in the office – even though he has no understanding of what they actually do there. Worse, no one seems to notice that he looks exactly like Simon – except for James himself. Under the guise of helping Simon, James slowly sets out to ruin his doppelganger’s life.

The idea behind The Double is not exactly original. It is based on a novella by Fyodor Dostoevsky – and it wasn’t even all that original when he wrote it in 1846. The movie was adapted (along with Avi Korine) and directed by Richard Ayoade whose visual style in The Double owes a lot to movies like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Both films create a futuristic world that at the same time feels like it belongs to the past. I cannot foresee any version of the future that looks like the world of The Double – as technology has already well surpassed what’s on display in this movie – and yet it’s not a world out of the past either. It takes place in some strange, alternate universe that resembles ours, but isn’t the same.

Eisenberg is pretty much perfectly cast as Simon James and James Simon – allowing him to show the two distinct aspects of his screen persona. As Simon, he is meek, neurotic, shy, awkward and smarter than anyone realizes. As James, he is a complete and total asshole. It’s almost as if Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg has been split into two characters for The Double, allowing Eisenberg to isolate different parts of his psyche. At first I worried that Mia Wasikowska was going to be little more than the “dream girl” in the movie – female perfection personified that the hero has to fight for and “gets” her as a “reward” at the end of the movie. But her Hannah is far more complicated than that – more complicated in fact than either Simon or James is by themselves, which I think works as Eisenberg’s twin characters are really just half a character each.

I mentioned Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy earlier in the review – and the comparison is inevitable, as both films debuted at TIFF last fall, and both came out in theaters within a few months of each other this year. Personally, I think Enemy is the better film – a little more complex, as I think the two characters played by Jake Gyllenhaal in that film are complete by themselves, whereas the two characters Eisenberg plays are really half a character, who needs the other to complete them. But The Double is more fun to watch – darkly funny throughout, with a great visual style by Ayoade – who has grown leaps and bounds from his already fine debut film Submarine (the two teenage leads in that film show up here – Craig Roberts as one of the suicide detectives and Yasmin Paige as Wallace Shawn’s daughter).  The films feel connected and yet utterly different. They’re both among the best of the year so far.

Movie Review: Jersey Boys

Jersey Boys
Directed by: Clint Eastwood.
Written by: Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice based on their musical.
Starring: John Lloyd Young (Frankie Valli), Vincent Piazza (Tommy DeVito), Erich Bergen (Bob Gaudio), Michael Lomenda (Nick Massi), Christopher Walken (Gyp DeCarlo), Renée Marino (Mary), Johnny Cannizzaro (Nick DeVito), Mike Doyle (Bob Crewe), Donnie Kehr (Norm Waxman), Erica Piccininni (Lorraine).

Not having seen the super popular stage show that Jersey Boys is based on, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Clint Eastwood’s movie – but it certainly wasn’t the movie I saw. From everything I had heard about the show, I had it in my head as something akin to Mamma Mia – an all singing, all dancing show with constant music, movement and excitement – which isn’t really what I particularly like in my Broadway musicals (I hated Mamma Mia) – which is one of the reason I stayed away. Eastwood’s film is darker than I expected – both visually and thematically. There is a lot of music in the movie – but Eastwood shoots it all in a curious way – often with the band recording the song, or performing it on TV, where Eastwood sets his cameras behind the television cameras so he’s not just filming the band, but film the band being filmed. Often he doesn’t even let whole songs play out in their entirety. Over the end credits, Eastwood finally films the kind of big, brassy musical number I was expecting throughout the film – as if in the film’s last moments Eastwood is letting the audience know that he could have delivered what everyone was expecting if he wanted to – he just didn’t want to. The film Jersey Boys resembles more than any other I can think of is Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas – which was practically a musical with no music – that Eastwood uses as a model for the film’s style and structure. As great a director as Eastwood can be – he’s no Martin Scorsese if for no other reason than because Eastwood’s style is usually more subdued – and Scorsese’s is the exact opposite. It doesn’t really help matters that the story Eastwood tells lacks the dramatics of Scorsese’s – the high wire act of fun that can turn into violence and paranoia in a heartbeat. Eastwood’s story is mainly a trivial one about the rise and fall of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons – a band who had numerous hits in the early 1960s, and then as changing musical tastes prevailed in America (something curiously not mentioned in the movie) faded from the spotlight. In short, and I cannot believe I’m saying this, Jersey Boys needed to be a little more Mamma Mia and a little less GoodFellas if it was going to be the great time at the movies it so desperately wants to be.

The film charts the humble beginnings of the Four Seasons – from their time as teenagers in a New Jersey suburb outside Newark, where it appeared that one or more of the members of the band were bound for jail rather than fame. The “narrator” for this early part of the movie is mainly Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) – who has some mob connections – notably Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken). He’s friends with the younger Frankie (John Lloyd Young) – and knows that the kid has a great voice. But even with the great voice, they cannot get their career off the ground. Then they meet Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) – who is a talented musician – and can also write songs and has plans that are grander than Tommy’s. The two don’t like each other much, and fight for control of the band. When they eventually sign a record deal with producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) – their career slowly starts taking off. Eventually they become huge – with one number one hit after another – but Tommy is still immature and irresponsible – and because he’s still in charge of the money, that means trouble.

Jersey Boys is never boring, but never particularly involving either. The film is over two hours long – and yet I never really felt that I got to know anything really about the four members of the band. They are basically one note roles, and while the actors do a fine job in those notes, I wanted something a little deeper than what I got. The final scene of the movie (except for the end credits musical number) – is the band singing at their induction to the rock n’ roll hall of fame – and each member of the band takes one more opportunity to talk directly to the audience. What I found odd about this sequence is that it’s really the first time Frankie Valli himself talks to the camera – and he’s says the best moment (four men singing under a street light, discovering that sound for the first time) – is one that really isn’t in the movie at all. Then Bob comes on and says the last words to the camera – and what’s odd is that it makes him look like an egomaniac than he seemed at any point of the movie. You really shouldn’t be introducing more information like that in the last scene in the movie.

The film looks good to be sure – even if the period detail doesn’t seem authentic as much as it seems to be based on TV shows of the 1950s and ‘60s. There is a little bit of a disconnect between the film that Eastwood seemed to want to make, and the subject matter – but I did appreciate that Eastwood took the material seriously – even if at times, I think he took it a little too seriously. The music is good – the performances are fine and in a summer that is filled with big budget movies aimed at teenage boys, it is somewhat refreshing to have a major studio release aimed squarely at adults.

Yet Jersey Boys never quite comes together. It’s not a bad movie by any means, but it’s nowhere near Eastwood’s best work, nor the best musical of recent years. It never quite hits the heights it wants to. It’s not bad – but it should have been better.

The Films of Buster Keaton: Three Ages (1923)

Three Ages (1923)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Written by: Clyde Bruckman & Joseph A. Mitchell & Jean C. Havez & Buster Keaton.
Starring: Buster Keaton (The Boy), Margaret Leahy (The Girl), Wallace Beery (The Villain), Joe Roberts (The Girl's Father), Lillian Lawrence (The Girl's Mother).

Buster Keaton hedged his bets a little bit when he went from making shorts to features. His first feature was Three Ages – but he designed it so it could be cut up into three shorts very easily. While Three Ages is ultimately one of Keaton’s weaker features – it’s still very funny – and benefits from the fact that it is a feature, and not three standalone shorts. It’s a movie that generates more laughs because of the contrast between the different segments than any of the individual jokes. As three shorts, they may well have ranked among his weakest – as a feature, it works amazingly well.

The film takes place in three different time periods – the Stone Age, the Roman Age and the Modern Day (1920s America). In each, Keaton plays a hapless young man in love with a woman (Margaret Leahy – who was apparently a contest winner of some sort, and it shows – he’s not very good) – but first has to overcome the Girl’s other suitor – Wallace Beery – and the girl’s parents. The first trio of segments may well be the best – as Keaton shows the different ways parents had for picking a “suitable mate” for their daughters – going from hitting each with a club to see who was the strongest to comparing military rank and finally by looking at their bank balance (for some reason, Keaton’s bank book from “Last National Bank” compared to Beery’s from First National Bank had me laughing more than practically anything else in the movie).

Keaton continues this pattern throughout the film – although the Blu Ray of the movie has a feature where you can play Three Ages as three shorts, I wouldn’t advise it. The humor comes from the same scenes repeating themselves in the three different times periods. I often found myself smiling at the Stone Age segments, chuckling at the Roman Age, and laughing out loud at the Modern Age – and not because the Modern Age is better. I wouldn’t be laughing that much had the joke not been as firmly established in the first two segments.

Three Ages does not come close to matching the best of Keaton’s output. The structure does mean it is a little scattershot, and some jokes fall flat. Yet there is more than enough here to sustain its fleet 63 minute runtime – including some great special effects (Keaton riding on a dinosaur) and a wonderful shot of Keaton falling off a cliff in the Stone Age segment (that looked so much like Gwen Stacy’s fall in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 I nearly laughed out loud during that film’s big dramatic moment). Keaton is, as always, wonderful – even if in two of the segments he’s robbed of his porkpie hat – and while Leahy is generally bad in her role, Beery and frequent Keaton co-star Joe Roberts make up for it in the supporting cast.

Three Ages wouldn’t be the film I would start with when looking at Keaton’s work. It isn’t one of his essential masterpieces. But it’s an enjoyable, fleet first feature from a man who would, with his very next film, make one of the great screen comedies of all time. Three Ages is him just getting warmed up.

Movie Review: Beyond Outrage

Beyond Outrage
Directed by: Takeshi Kitano.
Written by: Takeshi Kitano.
Starring: Takeshi Kitano (Otomo), Toshiyuki Nishida (Underboss Nishino), Tomokazu Miura (Chairman Kato), Ryô Kase (Underboss Ishihara), Hideo Nakano (Kimura), Yutaka Matsushige (Detective Shigeta), Fumiyo Kohinata (Detective Kataoka), Katsunori Takahashi (Jo), Hirofumi Arai (Shima), Kenta Kiritani (Ono), Sansei Shiomi (Nakata), Shigeru Kôyama (Fuse), Tatsuo Nadaka (Shiroyama), Akira Nakao (Tomita).

Takeshi Kitano made some great Japanese gangster films in the 1990s – notably Sonatine and Fireworks (both 1996) where he played the Japanese equivalent of Clint Eastwood – a largely silent man, who when pushed, is capable of killing everyone in flashes of brutal violence. He largely left the genre behind after his American film, Brother (2000) – better than it’s given credit for – but returned to it with 2010’s Outrage. That film was a little disappointing to me – as it felt like the type of film Kitano could do in his sleep. It was done well, with a healthy dollop of Kitano’s trademark deadpan humor along with some of the most over the top violence you’re likely to see in a film, but it still felt like Kitano was just going through the motions – making something he knew would be popular after a few years of trying different genres with limited success. Despite my reservations, Outrage was a commercial success, so he returns now with Beyond Outrage – a sequel, which had to be tough considering the first film ended up with pretty much everyone dead – including the character played by Kitano himself, Otomo. But taking a page out of the Fast & Furious franchise, the movie reveals that thankfully Otomo isn’t dead like we all though he was at the end of Outrage, when we saw him get shanked in prison. That way, he can spend all of Beyond Outrage killing a lot more people.

Like its predecessor, Beyond Outrage tells a plot so convoluted that it’s hard to keep track of everything – but is also told with a wink and nudge by Kitano. Outrage was, I think, an ironic title for the first movie because while everyone in the film was constantly outraged about something, they weren’t really outraged – they just acted outraged at every small slight, so they could use it as an excuse to kill someone else, to advance their own careers. In Beyond Outrage, the new boss, Kato (Tomokazu Miura) has become cheap – much to the chagrin of those beneath him. He doesn’t serve lunch at an executive meeting and sends cheap gifts when they used to be more extravagant (at one point he tells his underlings to send a gift to someone, but warns them not to buy anything new – “Just send what we have”.) He and his underboss Ishihara (Ryo Kase) have started promoting younger Yakuza instead of more experienced ones based on seniority – like it’s always been done. They want to move into more “white collar” crime. They are like the new bosses at a struggling corporation trying to save some money – much to the chagrin of the older members. As before, a mob war is inevitable – and Otomo, newly released from prison, will be at the center of it.

The movie contains a lot of violence in it, although it never quite reaches the level of the first film, which was more (forgive me) outrageous. The film is amusing, at times looking like a workplace satire, with a lot more killing. And like Outrage, it is well made by Kitano, who can do this type of movie in his sleep. But even more than Outrage, that appears like what Kitano is doing here – making the movie on autopilot. It’s not a bad movie by any means – and I appreciate Kitano’s understated humor throughout. But still, it does nothing to really advance the genre, or give you any real reason to see it. It’s an average film from a filmmaker capable of a lot more.

Movie Review: 300: Rise of an Empire

300 : Rise of an Empire
Directed by: Noam Murro.
Written by: Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller.
Starring: Sullivan Stapleton (Themistocles), Eva Green (Artemisia), Lena Headey (Queen Gorgo), Hans Matheson (Aeskylos), Callan Mulvey (Scyllias), David Wenham (Dilios), Rodrigo Santoro (Xerxes), Jack O'Connell (Calisto), Andrew Tiernan (Ephialtes), Igal Naor (King Darius), Andrew Pleavin (Daxos), Peter Mensah (Persian Emissary), Ben Turner (General Artaphernes), Ashraf Barhom (General Bandari), Christopher Sciueref (General Kashani).

I know it was a huge hit back in 2006, but I never much cared for Zack Snyder’s 300. I thought the film to a xenophobic, right wing fantasy of military might at the height of the Iraq war – but worse than that, I thought it was rather dull and boring. I don’t necessarily need a movie to align with my political beliefs to enjoy it – but I need it to do something interesting. But once the battles in the film started, they were basically the same thing over and over again for two hours. There was lots of slow motion bloodletting and decapitations, and Gerald Butler screaming, and then it was over. I know the film has many fans, but overall, I just find the movie dull.

The sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire (which isn’t really a sequel, as it has stuff that happens before, during and after the original) is more of the same – this time made worse by the fact that I missed in theaters, and had to watch it on Blu Ray at home. Normally, this isn’t a big deal, but the fact that the film was made for 3-D is painfully clear throughout the movie – with lots of things flying directly at the screen, and the torrents of blood looking even more fake than in the first film. Perhaps they looked cool in the theaters. On Blu-Ray, it looked rather silly.

There is a saving grace for the film though in the form of Eva Green, who is brilliantly demented as Artemisia, a Greek woman who has switched sides and is fighting for the Persians – and leads Xerxes’ navy against the Greeks. It is a brilliant, demented performance without a trace of subtlety in it – and that’s just the way it should be. She devours the scenery and everything else around her. She’s at the heart of one of the most ridiculous and violent sex scenes you’ll ever see, and makes it work. She’s unapologetically sexual and fierce, strong, violent and more than a little insane. When she’s onscreen the film is far more interesting than anything else in either of the two films. It’s almost worth seeing for her alone.

Too bad the rest of the movie is so bad then. Say what you will about Gerald Butler’s acting range – he was pretty darn good at doing what 300 asked him to do –which is basically to be buff, look angry and scream a lot. This time the main character, Themistocles, is played by Sullivan Stapleton, and he makes the dullest leading man in this sort of movie since Sam Worthington (in anything, take your pick). He isn’t supposed to be insane like Artemisia or as angry and hell bent on war like Butler – he is a more measured character, who plans the battles out that he should have no chance in winning, but does anyway. Unfortunately, this isn’t very exciting to watch. The last film was all land battles – hand to hand combat at the Hot Gates, but this film is mainly sea battles between the Persians advanced, intimidating fleet, and the Greeks ragtag group of farmers on a much smaller number of boats. They don’t have the Spartans on their side this time, so they can depend on their insane strength.

Much like the first film, 300: Rise of an Empire is basically the same battle scenes over and over again, until the film is over. Snyder has moved onto bigger projects – last year’s Man of Steel and next year’s Batman vs. Superman (or whatever it’s called now) – so Noam Murro takes up the directing this time. His only other film was comedy-drama Smart People (2007) – with Dennis Quaid and Ellen Page – so I have no idea why they decided to hire him, but he does a decent job with the film. It looks and fells just like the first film, so if you enjoyed that film, I have a hard time thinking you won’t enjoy this one.

For me, even with the added jolt of Green, it’s not nearly enough. I admire the fact that the film went with a more ambitious storyline this time around, and didn’t shunt all the women off into the background (just all of them except Green – as even though she’s billed highly, Lena Headley isn’t really given much to do). But there are only so many times I can watch people be decapitated before I start to wonder what else this series has to offer. So far, it’s not much.

Movie Review: Blood Ties

Blood Ties
Directed by: Guillaume Canet.
Written by: Guillaume Canet & James Gray based on the screenplay by Jacques Maillot and Pierre Chosson and Eric Veniard and the novel by Bruno Papet and Michel Papet.
Starring: Clive Owen (Chris), Billy Crudup (Frank), Marion Cotillard (Monica), Mila Kunis (Natalie), Zoe Saldana (Vanessa), Matthias Schoenaerts (Scarfo), James Caan (Leon), Noah Emmerich (Lieutenant Connellan), Lili Taylor (Marie), Domenick Lombardozzi (Mike), John Ventimiglia (Valenti), Griffin Dunne (McNally).

Filmmakers seem to love making gritty crime movies set in the 1970s. There seems to be a few reasons for this – the first being that the 1970s are generally considered to be the last “Golden Age” of American movies – and there are countless great crime dramas from that decade that still stand among the best the genre has ever produced. The second being that it gives them a chance to indulge in costume design, art direction and hair styling from a decade where things where style was just crazier than it is now. Guillaume Canet’s Blood Ties is the most recent film to delve back into the means streets of 1970s New York to tell a gritty crime drama – the problem being that other than the style, there is not much else to recommend the movie on. The film’s co-writer is James Gray – who made the recent The Immigrant, alongside 1970s inspired crime dramas like We Own the Night, The Yards and Little Odessa (even if they weren’t set in the 1970s). Blood Ties feels like a movie that is trying to be a James Gray film, but fails in pulling it off. Gray, who has only made 5 films over 20 years, has a style that’s distinct to him – and Canet’s failure with Blood Ties suggests that it’s a little harder to pull off than looks like.

The movie is another of those old stories of two brothers on opposite sides of the law. Chris (Clive Owen) has just been released from jail after more than a decade behind bars. He barely knows his kids, his ex-Monica (Marion Cotillard) hates him, and is still working as a prostitute. He wants to go clean, but really he has no real skills that will allow him to do so. He makes a few half-hearted attempts at the straight life – even starts dating a “nice girl” Natalie (Mila Kunis), but it doesn’t take him long to fall back into crime. His younger brother Frank (Billy Crudup) is a cop who has long since given up hope on Chris – but because his dying father (James Caan) and sister (Lili Taylor) want him to, he does his best to help Chris go straight – and will sacrifice things later on in the film rather than “betray” him. He starts dating his old flame – Vanessa (Zoe Saldana), who he broke it off with when he was younger because she was “colored”. Her new boyfriend – and father of her child – Scarfo (Matthias Schoenaerts) is not too happy with this development – especially since Frank is responsible for his most recent stint in jail.

As you can tell from this plot description, Blood Ties is not what you would call an original concept. The brothers on opposite sides of the law has been a staple of Hollywood moviemaking from the very beginning – although one can still make a good movie out of it if done correctly. The main problem with Blood Ties is that the whole movie is dull and uninteresting. It moves at a snail’s pace – and even the film’s action sequences – an armored car robbery and the ensuing shootout (that desperately wants to be like the similar scene in Michael Mann’s Heat, but doesn’t come close) and the should have been intense final moments, which is essentially a slow motion chase, don’t add very much excitement to the mix. This is a hallmark of Gray’s movies – which are often crime movies, but whose the action sequences move at a slower clip than most. The difference is Gray knows how to direct them to make them interesting even at half speed. Canet doesn’t.

And because the movie moves so slowly, we are left plenty of time to think about all the other problems with the movie. This is a film that has four talented actresses in it, and gives them all nothing to do. Lili Taylor is stuck with the “supportive wife/mother role” even though she’s neither in the film – but rather a daughter and sister. Still, the movie doesn’t give her anything to do but urge Owen and Crudup to “be nice” – and then busy herself in the kitchen so the men can talk. There is never a plausible reason given why Kunis’ Natalie would fall for someone like Owen’s Chris – 20 years her senior, a former convict with no job prospects, and two kids already that he does nothing to support. She’s just there because someone felt the lead character needed a love interest. Saldana at least wrestles – however briefly – with whether she wants to be with a man who rejected her previously because of the color of her skin – but once she makes that decision, she’s shunt off to the background and used only to provide a reason why Schoenaerts wants to kill Crudup – setting up the finale. Cotillard, who does nothing to hide her telltale French accent, is a woman whose character seems to change from scene to scene and moment to moment, depending on what the plot requires her to do at any given moment. How can she possibly be expected to play this character when the writers and director have no clue who she is?

My biggest problem with Blood Ties however may be Owen’s character of Chris. The movie portrays him in a sympathetic light throughout – and everyone in the film seems to like him. The movie seems to imply that he is a victim of circumstance more than anything else. Yet if you think about what this man does throughout the movie it’s quite clear he’s a horrible person. He ignores his two kids he already has, pimps out their mother, makes a halfhearted, effort to work at a car dealership and get a snack stand off the ground – and when both fail he figures he may as well rob an armored car. He starts dating Natalie – and even gets her pregnant – knowing full well who he is, and how disinterested he is in having a family. Now if Owen and the filmmakers had committed to making the man as awful as he really is, he could have been a fascinating character. Instead, they see him in a sympathetic light throughout, and expect the audience to do so as well – even though he does nothing to earn our sympathy. He’s not a fascinating anti-hero or villain – he’s dull brute.

The movie drags for almost its entire runtime of over two hours. It gives us no reason to like or have any interest in any of its character. It assembles a top notch ensemble cast and completely wastes them. Everyone looks good in their 1970s clothes, driving their 1970s cars but style only gets you so far. In the case of Blood Ties it’s nowhere near enough.

Movie Review: Tim's Vermeer

Tim’s Vermeer
Directed by: Teller.
Featuring: Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette, Teller.

What constitutes art? What is it about great paintings that makes them great? Is it the image itself? The themes of the painting – what it means? Is it the process by which it was created? And if someone can recreate a painting exactly as the original artist did, does that in any way diminish the achievement of that artist? The fascinating documentary Tim’s Vermeer asks these questions. Tim Jenison is a rather eccentric mechanical genius – who has spent his life designing different devices for filmmaking and other industries who became fascinated by paintings – especially the work of Dutch master Vermeer. Namely, he wanted to know how Vermeer achieved the unique look of his paintings – which look almost like photographs. He became even more interested when he discovered that when Vermeer’s paintings were x-rayed, there were no pencil sketches beneath the paint. Did Vermeer simply freehand some of the greatest paintings in history? There are lots of theories about how Vermeer achieved his paintings – with many believing that he used different lens and mirrors – to project an image onto his canvas so he could paint what he saw – but until Jenison came along, no one could quite explain how he did it. Jenison thinks he has found the process Vermeer used – and for more than a year, he slaved away trying to recreate one of Vermeer’s paintings to prove his theory correct. In the end, you have to admit its pretty convincing.

The film was directed by Teller – and his more talkative partner Penn walks us through the various processes that people believe Vermeer did – and then talks to Jenison about his rather ingenious, if somewhat insane goal of creating his own Vermeer. The early parts of the documentary are the most fascinating – as we learn about Vermeer and Jenison, and we see Jenison’s early “test runs” – working off black and white photographs – to recreate the images, even if, as Jenison himself admits, he’s not much of an artist. When the movie settles down in its back half, to Jenison meticulously trying to recreate a famous Vermeer painting it gets a little dull. Filmmakers have always struggled with a way to make painting in the movies seem cinematic and exciting – but the truth remains there isn’t much they can do – it’s always going to be an artist alone with his easel, canvas and paint slaving away.

Some have taken offense to Jenison’s suggestion of how Vermeer achieved his paintings look, and feel it’s disrespectful to try and recreate one. That if someone who has little artistic ability like Jenison can do the same thing that Vermeer did, than that somehow diminishes Vermeer’s achievement. That’s not the feeling I got from the movie. I think what director Teller is really trying to show in the movie is not necessarily the art itself – but the process by which art is created. Great artists – whether they are painters or filmmakers or actors or yes, magicians – have a way of making what they do appear effortless – but the reality is to be truly great, you have to work hard it. Like many people say they worked for years to become an “overnight success”, the truth is that a lot of effort goes into making something look effortless. If Vermeer really did use the process Jenison thinks he did – and there’s no real way of proving it – than he didn’t do it because it was “easier” or even less time consuming. He did it because he wanted his paintings to look a certain way – and he found a way, using the technology of his time, to achieve what he wanted. Even Jenison admits that any artistic value that his copy of Vermeer has belongs to Vermeer himself, and not Jenison. He was the one who came up with the image.

Tim’s Vermeer is ultimately the kind of documentary that to me is more fascinating to talk about than it is to watch. The film is only  84 minutes long, but even that feels like it’s a little too long – with a few too many scenes of Jenison doing the same thing over and over again. I think that’s part of Teller’s point – he wants to convey the effort that goes into creating the painting, and in that he succeeds. It’s just not always that interesting to watch. But overall it’s a fascinating little documentary about the artistic process.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Classics Revisited: Menace II Society

Menace II Society (1993)
Directed by: Albert & Allen Hughes.
Written by: Tyger Williams and Allen & Albert Hughes.
Starring: Tyrin Turner (Caine), Larenz Tate (O-Dog), Jada Pinkett (Ronnie), MC Eiht (A-Wax), Vonte Sweet (Sharif), Ryan Williams (Stacy), Samuel L. Jackson (Tat Lawson), Glenn Plummer (Pernell), Charles S. Dutton (Mr. Butler), Jullian Roy Doster (Anthony), Marilyn Coleman (Grandmama),  Arnold Johnson (Grandpapa),  Saafir (Harold Lawson), Bill Duke (Detective), Erin Leshawn Wiley (Ilena), Samuel Monroe Jr. (Ilena's Cousin).

In the early 1990s that were quite a few “hood” movies – about violent young black men in gangs. Most of these films have mainly been forgotten – but two of them certainly still stand out – and still pack a punch. In 1991, John Singleton made Boyz in the Hood – which told the story of a good kid (Cuba Gooding Jr.) growing up in the wrong neighborhood in L.A. – and eventually gets out. Boyz in the Hood has been held up – even by members of Congress – as an R Rated movie that teenagers should see. It is a positive film. The Cuba Gooding Jr. character comes close, but never crosses the line and does anything that would make him irredeemable. He’s one of the “lucky” ones in that he has two parents, who while they are divorced, still care about him and help set him on the right path. Even the “violent” one – played by Ice Cube – seems more resigned to his fate than anything else by the end of the movie. He’s too far gone, and knows it – and the movie lets us know he didn’t last long after the events in the film.

Two years later, The Hughes Brothers made Menace II Society – and it’s an altogether trickier, more daring film. Its main character, Caine (Tyrin Turner) repeatedly crosses the line that the Gooding character never does – the film’s first scene has him and his best friend O-Dog (Larenz Tate) go into a convenience store where the clerk says the wrong thing to O-Dog – and ends up being murdered. O-Dog than kills the man’s wife as well, and takes the security tape showing what happened – and will use it to show off to their friends. You can forgive Caine for this transgression – he didn’t do anything, didn’t know it was going to happen – but he also does nothing to stop it. It won’t be that long though before we do see Caine participate in a murder – a retribution killing against the men who killed his cousin. Throughout the movie we’ll see him do other “bad” things – including carjacking another young black man for his stereo and rims, avoiding a woman he slept with who tells him she’s pregnant with his child, and thoroughly beating her cousin who shows up to try and talk to him about it. When his grandfather asks him if he cares whether he lives or dies Caine thinks about it for a second before answering. “I don’t know” he says.

Yet what The Hughes Brothers – and writer Tyger Williams – are able to do in Menace II Society is still make you care about Caine, still feel sympathy for him and most importantly see things from his point of view. After that first scene in the convenience store, Menace II Society flashes back to show us scenes from Caine’s childhood. His mother was a junkie. His father (Samuel L. Jackson) was a violent drug dealer, who thinks nothing about shooting a man for a petty reason in front of his young son. Both are dead before Caine is a teenager. Another man, Pernell (Glenn Plummer) takes him under his wing and shows him the ropes – basically how to be a drug dealer. Caine is surrounded by people who only know one way of life. He, like everyone else in the movie, has a limited perspective on life – he doesn’t see anything outside of his world. What chance did Caine really have?

That’s really the key to Menace II Society. Caine is not an “evil” character – although we see him do some horrible things. He’s not O-Dog, who Caine describes in his voice over as society’s worst nightmare - “Young, black and doesn’t give a fuck”. Caine does care about his grandparents. He develops a relationship with Ronnie (Jada Pinkett) – the girlfriend of Pernell, now in prison doing life with no parole – and for their young son Anthony who he wants to show the ropes to, just like Pernell did for him. But Caine, like many teenagers from all races makes stupid mistakes – and where he comes from, making mistakes carries more serious consequences. By the time he realizes that his way of life has no future – it’s already too late for him. During a prison visit, Pernell asks Caine to take care of his son and teach him that “the way we grew up was bullshit”. Pernell used to be Caine and now realizes the mistakes he made – but it’s too late for him.

The Hughes Brother admit to be inspired by Scorsese – particularly GoodFellas, and you can see that in every frame of Menace II Society. The structure of the two is similar – starting with a violent scene, than flashing back to scenes of the main characters childhood, before rushing into the present. The camera work is similar as well – The Hughes Brothers camera rarely rests, it’s always moving, always circling the films characters. There is a kinetic energy to the movie. The violence in both movies is presented the same way – often quick, brutal and bloody scenes. Both films take the audience into a sealed world that seems foreign to them, but seems natural to the characters. Had Scorsese been a young black man in the 1990s, Menace II Society would be the film he would make.

The performances in Menace II Society are effective – Turner has a rather flat monotone in much of the film – but it works for the character that is numb to his surroundings. He certainly has a limited range – and given his post Menace career, one can assume he never developed further. Much better is Larenz Tate, who looks so young and innocent, which is makes his psychopathic violent streak all the more chilling. The Hughes Brothers get some good work from three veterans – Jackson is chilling as Caine’s father, Bill Duke excellent in one scene as a cop interrogating Caine (“You know you fucked up now”) and Charles S. Dutton has a few nice scenes as a man not unlike the Laurence Fishburne character in Boyz in the Hood – the father of a friend, trying to look out for everyone, but knowing the reality they are facing.

Last year, I read a number of stories about a “renaissance” in black filmmaking – basically based on the fact that three black filmmakers made successful, acclaimed films in the same year (Lee Daniels for The Butler, Ryan Coogler for Fruitvale Station and Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave) – and more than once, someone would point out that this “renaissance” seems to happen again and again, before taking a step backwards. I couldn’t help but think of John Singleton and The Hughes Brothers when I read those stories. Singleton became the youngest filmmaker ever to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar for Boyz in the Hood – at only 21 – and was also the first black filmmaker to be nominated. The Hughes Brothers were the same age when they directed Menace II Society just two years later. Yet sadly, neither of them have been able to match the success of their first films since. Singleton made some interesting films after Boyz in the Hood – Poetic Justice (1993), Higher Learning (1995), the vastly underrated Rosewood (1998) and Baby Boy (2001) – but has mainly had to do action films – like Shaft, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Four Brothers and Abduction - in the past decade and a half. For their follow-up to Menace II Society, the Hughes Brothers made the excellent Dead Presidents (1995) – a look at black Vietnam veterans who become criminals. Since then, there hasn’t been much – the documentary American Pimp (1999), the stylistic Jack the Ripper movie From Hell (2001) and the action movie The Book of Eli (2010)  - and Allen’s solo directing effort Broken City (2013). It’s a shame that two directing careers that started out so promising have not been able to quite follow through – but I cannot help but wonder why that is. Do Singleton and The Hughes Brothers have a string of projects they have not been able to get off the ground? And if so, why not?

What remains though is Menace II Society and it is a masterpiece. This is a tough film, a violent film but an honest one. The final scene in the movie is heartbreaking. So many lives wasted for nothing.

The Films of Buster Keaton: 1920-1923 Short Films Ranked

I’ve gone over all 19 of the Keaton shorts that he made between 1920-23 – before he started his feature career. So, I guess I should rank them. From worst to best, this is how I see them – and why. I wouldn’t describe any as truly bad, but some are certainly much better than others.

19. Convict 13 (1920) – A film that isn’t very funny, and is actually downright violent at times, it left a bad taste in my mouth.

18. The Balloonatic (1923) – Slow and dull – and longer than most of the others – Keaton never quite figures out how to work with a woman as an equal.

17. My Wife’s Relations (1922) -  A rather obvious comedy, with a silly premise, that has moments where Keaton devises a scheme to hit his “wife” and ends with her family of barbarians trying to kill him. Just not that funny.

16. The Frozen North (1922)  - A parody of movies mostly forgotten, the movie doesn’t work as well if you don’t know what he’s mocking – and I didn’t.

15. The Haunted House (1921)  - Two premises – Keaton works at a bank, and Keaton in a house he at first thinks is haunted – are grafted together. Some things work wonderfully, but overall a little disappointing.

14. The Love Nest (1923) – Some inspired gags, that act as a precursor to what he would do better in The Navigator – a fine film, just not among his best.

13. The 'High Sign' (1921) – The first one he made – although he held it because he was slightly disappointed in it. Mainly funny, but not top notch.

12. The Paleface (1922)  - If you can get past the redface and the racial stereotypes, actually quite funny. That’s a big if though.

11. The Blacksmith (1922) – Not particularly inspired, but always funny from beginning to end.

10. The Electric House (1922) – A lot of great sight gags in Keaton’s house of endless invention.

9. Hard Luck (1921)  - I prefer the first part when he tries to kill himself in various ways – to the later half – but the whole thing works.

8. The Boat (1921)   - Funny from beginning to end, as Keaton destroys everything his family owns.

7. The Scarecrow (1920)  - The breakfast table sequences, full of pulleys, is one of the best in Keaton’s career – and elevates the whole movie.

6. Daydreams (1922) – Unfortunately, some of this film is lost. What isn’t is inspired genius.

5. Cops (1922)  - An extended chase sequence that is among the best of Keaton’s career full of extended chase sequences.

4. The Play House (1921)  - A technical marvel, with Keaton in multiple roles. Is this a precursor to Being John Malkovich? You do have to expect some (thankfully short) blackface though.

3. Neighbors (1920) – A lot of inspired gags, with Keaton going back and forth between tenement houses contains some of Keaton’s best stunt work ever.

2. The Goat (1921) – Basically a live action Looney Toons cartoon – with Keaton at his very best.

1. One Week (1920)  - The first one he released remains the best – as Keaton tries desperately to build a house shipped to him by IKEA’s 1920s counterpart. There isn’t a sequence here that isn’t brilliant.