Thursday, 21 July 2016

Sam Fuller, Maggie's Plan, and Buster Keaton on the skids - Reviews #235

And nothing else.

The Big Red One: The Reconstruction (Samuel Fuller 1980/2004)

What doesn't this war movie have?

- Big speeches
- Monologues about 'back home'
- Emotional death scenes
- Acts of heroism
- Anyone with special skills besides a few words of German or Italian

Sam Fuller's masterpiece, released in butchered form in 1980 then 'reconstructed' 24 years later according to his original shooting script, is a war movie like no other: the episodic, wryly fatalistic story of four dogfaces, dubbed 'the four horsemen of the apocalypse' who fight the battles that the writer-director had in World War Two: in North Africa, France, Belgium, Germany and Czechslovakia, under the wing of a taciturn, decent and unsentimental sergeant (Lee Marvin, himself a veteran of the conflict). Fuller himself is immortalised as 'Zab' (played by Robert Carradine), a cigar-chomping wannabe writer with a smart mouth, though his daughter Samantha says she could see him in all four of the horsemen, including the initially cowardly Griff, the most notable non-Luke part that Mark Hamill played during the first Star Wars run.

The Big Red One, named after the 1st Infantry Division of the American army, is a series of brilliant suspense sequences, alternated with poetic, poignant vignettes bearing the mark of memory, that seems to reach an essential truth about war that almost no other film has managed: it's just about survival. There are a couple of incidental flaws − foreigners talking English to one another with foreign accents (a now outdated device) as well as a scene in a castle near the close, which I just don't see the point of − but I found the experience completely and utterly overwhelming, in turn bloody, brutal and enrapturingly beautiful, with moments of tabloid ghoulishness and yet passages of almost Bresson-like humanism. It places you in the centre of battle like nothing else, but has no interest in glorifying its country, characters or the conflict in which they find themselves. It's simply the best war movie I've ever seen. (4)


CINEMA: Maggie's Plan (Rebecca Miller, 2015) - The only previous film I've seen from Rebecca Miller was Personal Velocity: Three Portraits, an extremely earnest slice of arthouse feminism that didn't quite come off. This film could hardly be more different: light, funny and accessible, a bit like a Lubitsch movie (it's thematically similar to both Angel and his classic, still contemporary comedy, That Uncertain Feeling) transplanted to the literate middle-class world of Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach.

The story concerns Maggie (Greta Gerwig), who works in arts marketing, sidelines as a complete control freak, and falls in love with a self-obsessed anthropologist and wannabe novelist (Ethan Hawke), bringing her into conflict with his terrifying wife (Julianne Moore). It's an odd combination of competing and probably contradictory ideas, but what it does really well initially is treating these characters as real, really flawed people, and allowing that − rather than Hollywood convention − to determine what happens next.

It also takes them seriously: Hawke nicely plays on his established persona as a sensitive intellectual, Moore seems too broad at first, playing Danish and with a soft 'r', but it's actually a really rounded performance, merely with a couple of quirks, while Gerwig is just magnificent. Again. She reminds me a bit of Jean Arthur, one of my favourite actresses, in that she has a screwball sensibility but roots it in the real. There's a vulnerability, an appealing hesitancy and a melancholia in her heroines, always just beneath the surface, that brings pathos to her comedy. But also her timing is impeccable. Over the past five years, the roles she's been given have mostly been within certain clearly-defined parameters (even stylistically: their outfits are broadly identical), but she never repeats herself: you could put her characters from Frances Ha, Mistress America, >Damsels in Distress, While We're Young (a rare misfire) and Maggie's Plan on screen together, and pick out each one in an instant. Finally, there's one of the best kids' performances I've seen in an age: so natural and unaffected that they must have simply left little Ida Rohatyn to it.

My problem with this movie, though, is highlighted by the ending. I really enjoyed watching Maggie's Plan: it made me laugh, and feel, and even think a little, despite a little flabbiness in the script and the occasional bum note, but the pay-off is just too conventional and convenient; so much so, that it feels like an affront to the rest of the movie. Then I realised that actually that didn't come out of the blue, I just hadn't picked up on the film's thematic failings because I was having too much fun, and because its narrative keeps you guessing through a succession of little twists. While it's dressed in the clothes of contemporary feminism, with a couple of strong female characters and a general disgust at the idea of Gerwig having to support her husband as the breadwinner, its message (if there is one) is actually pretty muddled, while it's very happy to employ worn old rom-com scenarios, including the snowed-in-lovers fallback used in innumerable '30s and '40s romances (especially comedies), from And So They Were Married and Sun Valley Serenade to My Reputation and the Garbo career apocalypse that was Two-Faced Woman, even if it does them very well.

What I love about Frances Ha isn't just its sumptuous monochrome photography and off-kilter humour, it's that it's about something: a relatable portrait of late 20s aimlessness. I'm not really sure what Maggie's Plan is about, beyond its immediate story, and when you think it's about to go somewhere exciting and novel in its final reel, it serves up a piece of wish-fulfilment that really disappointed me. So I'm in an odd position: as a film this is vastly superior to Personal Velocity, which often bored the pants off me as well as leaning on stylistic clich├ęs like freeze-frames, but yet it doesn't feel an authentic statement of any kind, just a highly entertaining, extremely well-acted film that'll keep you laughing and interested for close to two hours. That's plenty, it's often what I feel like, but next to Gerwig's big artistic statements, and from a writer like Miller, I expected something different, and possibly something more. (3)


Buster Keaton shorts:

Keaton's heyday was the 1920s, an astonishing period of creativity largely unmatched in the annals of American film, with every single movie he made extraordinary in one way or another. He made the biggest mistake of his year in 1928, signing with MGM, who robbed him off his autonomy, stunted his creativity and then kicked him out the door in '34, by which time he'd become a hopeless alcoholic. Attempting to get back his mojo, he made 16 films at a so-called Poverty Row studio (a film factory with miniscule budgets), Educational Pictures. They're an incredibly mixed mag: some of them are utterly and irredeemably dreadful - embarrassing, depressing dirge bereft of imagination - but there's one genuine classic, Grand Slam Opera, which I reviewed here, and a handful of the others are really good fun. The problem is that it's almost impossible to guess which film will fit into which bracket, so I watched the lot. The final 10 are here:

The E-Flat Man (Charles Lamont, 1935) - This gentle spoof of Frank Capra's massively successful It Happened One Night - which sees Buster eloping incompetently with regular co-star Dorothea Kent - might not have cheered me before I started my Educational expedition, but viewed alongside some of the most upsetting comedy shorts I've ever seen, it's a welcome interpolation. The film starts badly but picks up, with a few strong gags and stunts that hark back to his silent classics Cops (that horizontal escape from the frame), Neighbours (as he's lifted onto a rooftop), The Scarecrow (a famous bit directly lifted from the 1920 movie) and The General (as he sits on the outside of a train before it unexpectedly sets off). Buster's persona in these shorts isn't very attractive: he's clumsy, finickity and frightened, light years from the energetic, era-defining young man who streaked like a comet across the sky of twenties cinema, and is now saggy, glum and more interested in slightly re-arranging items he's dislodged, like a proto-Hulot. He's also offered no thought into how you translate silent comedy to the sound era: so there's merely action without dialogue or the rhythmic, mood-enhancing narration of a score. In that damaging, alienating context, at least here there are some proper jokes, delivered with a hint of the elan that made him a superstar. (2)

The Timid Young Man (Mack Sennett, 1935) - Dire Keaton short incorporating the talents of washed-up Keystone Kops director Mack Sennett and former Laurel and Hardy heavy Tiny Sandford to absolutely no effect. Buster is Milton, the timid young man of the title, who flees a prospective wedding to bad-tempered Kitty McHugh (sister of then ubiquitous character actors Frank and Matt), picks up man-hating hitchhiker Lona Andre and gets into a spat with hulking bully boy Sandford, after inexplicably ramming his car off a cliff. Andre is appealing, the final shot is great and there are a couple of halfway-decent ideas somewhere in there, but they're drowned out by atrocious writing, painful running jokes and a succession of large continuity errors. (1)

Three on a Limb (Charles Lamont, 1936) - Buster romances a woman with two tough boyfriends in this weak short. A couple of the gags are funny - particularly the hero volunteering to a traffic cop that he also went through a red light - and womanising hard nut Grant Withers (later Ike Clanton in Ford's My Darling Clementine) gives the film a shot in the arm when he arrives, leading to an agreeably frenetic if rather botched ending, but most of it's just incredibly obvious and uninspired, the star's reunion with his nemesis from College and The Cameraman, Harold Goodwin, another pale shadow of past glories. (1.5)

Tars and Stripes (Charles Lamont, 1935) - Keaton's "in the Navy now" short is incredibly embarrassing and completely demoralising: painfully unfunny garbage with barely an ounce of ingenuity (and what there is restricted to the final two minutes). He's a hapless sailor perpetually in trouble with a superior (Vernon Dent) who keeps falling in the sea. Seeing Buster playing with a cannon calls to mind his Civil War masterpiece - The General - made eight years (and an entire lifetime) earlier, which serves only to make it even more upsetting. It looks like the studio, Educational, was so excited about the chance to film at a naval base that they rushed in without actually coming up with any material. The results are horrid. (1)

Blue Blazes (Raymond Kane, 1936) - Keaton's follow-up to Grand Slam Opera is a funny short with the star as a fireman, following that successful old formula in which he goes from patronised zero to celebrated hero. This one starts inauspiciously but the second half is great value, with three huge laughs. Buster's makeshift fire engine is such a great gag. (2.5)

The Chemist (Al Christie, 1936) - Another one that starts slowly but is really motoring by the end. Here he's a scientist working on various revolutionary powders, which make creatures multiply in size, women fall in love or things go bang. When he's illustrating these during a laughless sequence in the first reel, all you can think is: at this time, Chaplin was working on Modern Times. But by 1936 Keaton had got over his drink problem and got his confidence back, and from the time he's abducted by gangster Donald McBride (later a ubiquitous character comic, who looks a lot like Butch from Tom and Jerry) the good gags come thick and fast, leading to an un-PC closer that I really didn't see coming. (2.5)

Mixed Magic (Raymond Kane, 1936) - A good idea that really doesn't work, with Keaton as a hapless assistant to a tyrannical magician. There's barely a snicker, though you learn how a few magic tricks work and the star's Arabian outfit is cool. (1.5)

Jail Bait (Charles Lamont, 1937) - A fun little film, with Buster framing himself for murder, so his best mate can investigate the real crime. Again, the establishing of the plot is tedious, but the sequence in which he's trying to get arrested by a disinterested cop is genuinely hilarious, and there are some great ideas in here, including an outfit that's half convict-half guard, so his character can survive a prison break (Buster re-used the joke as a gag-writer on A Southern Yankee, a remake of The General starring the abominable Red Skelton), as well as a basic premise essentially reworked in the Fritz Lang thriller, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. The sign in the window of the jeweller's, incidentally, is a lift from Keaton's early silent classic, The Goat. (2.5)

Ditto (Charles Lamont, 1937) - An incredibly tired farce, with unfortunate echoes of Keaton's gobsmacking technical achievement, The Play House, which also concerned itself with twins − while taking the premise rather further! The opening gag is poignant, the rest is just shit. (1)

Love Nest on Wheels (Charles Lamont, 1937) - The last of Buster's 16 films at Educational is a lousy, predictable short that lifts most of its better moments from The Bell Boy, which he'd made with Fatty Arbuckle, 19 years earlier. It's fun to see his family acting alongside him, especially his mum Myra chewing on a corn pipe, but the material is very weak. (1.5)

Here's the overall ranking for the series (with links to the other six reviews):

Grand Slam Opera (3.5)
Hayseed Romance (3)
Jail Bait (2.5)
The Gold Ghost
Blue Blazes
One Run Elmer
The Chemist
The E-Flat Man (2)
Three on a Limb (1.5)
Mixed Magic
Love Nest on Wheels
The Timid Young Man (1)
Tars and Stripes
Palooka from Paducah

My conclusion is that Buster simply hadn't devised a coherent way of translating the essence of his silent successes to the sound era. Even when his imagination is firing and there are brief passages of brilliance, you know that his vision will be thwarted by a lack of money or a lack of clarity, that his momentum is liable to be stopped dead by a stilted, awkward dialogue scene at any moment, and that whatever rare genius was crackling through him in his heyday has now departed. After a similarly problematic period at Columbia Pictures, the star abandoned attempts to revive his solo film career and settled into character parts. Occasionally these were poignant and beautiful (as in the barely-seen San Diego, I Love You, Billy Wilder's sensational Sunset Blvd. and Chaplin's Limelight), but more often they showed a man betrayed by the studio system and his own demons, carrying on as best he could, because there was nothing else to do. There was a happy ending, though: as he went back to his stage roots, dried out and inspired anew by his third wife, he became a hit in Paris. Then the critical and popular renaissance of his 1920s work (tied to the rehabilitation of silent movies as a respected artform, rather than a laughing stock) saw him lauded across the globe as a cinematic pioneer and a true original. Finally, in 1965 (a year before his death), he returned to silent film itself, travelling across Canada for the gentle, self-homaging film, The Railrodder, a fitting finale with nods to many of his early classics.

If you want to see the Educational films and make your own mind up, they're on this DVD, 'Lost Keaton'.

The movie stills are from


Thanks for reading.

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