The Movies Begin, discs 1 & 2

Shorts! I have discs and discs of shorts and rarely watch them. I’m awfully excited about the new blu-ray of avant-garde shorts from Flicker Alley, but how can I justify buying it when I’ve got a hundred shorts collections just sitting around unseen? Let’s watch some, shall we? And what better place to start than with a Kino collection called The Movies Begin?


The Great Train Robbery (1903, Edwin Porter)

Stunts, explosions, color, brutal murders, thievery, daring escapes – and dancing! Bandits rob the train of its lockbox loot and all its passengers of their wallets, then escape on horseback. Local bunch of ruffians is alerted to the crime and rides off to kill the perpetrators. All this in ten minutes – more economical than the Sean Connery remake.

One of the more famous shots (haha “shots”) in cinema:

Fire in a Burlesque Theater (1904)

Either this was ineptly framed or I’m seeing a cropped version, because there aren’t nearly enough burlesque dancers with smoke inhalation on display here.

Airy Fairy Lillian Tries On Her New Corsets (1905)

Hefty Jeffy helps her out… then faints. Was this a comedy?

Spoiler alert:

From Show Girl to Burlesque Queen (1903)

A woman removes her costume – but the good part is done behind a screen. The title was better than the feature, making this the A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence of its time.

Troubles of a Manager of a Burlesque Show (1904)

Troubles because the women are angry at the crappy clothes he expects them to wear, and they flee and throw things when he tries to molest them.

The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog (1905, Edwin Porter)

So many lost films in history, and this dam thing survives. Hilarious title for a movie without any jokes in it, making this The Ridiculous Six of its time.

The Golden Beetle (1907, Segundo de Chomón)

Ornate, hand-colored, dangerous-looking Meliesian disappearing act. I think a man tries throwing a golden beetle in the fire, and she torments him with showers of sparks before burning him to death. This is great.

Rough Sea at Dover (1895, Birt Acres)

Two shots of the rough sea. Were any other 1895 movies more than one shot long?

Come Along Do! (1898, RW Paul)

Supposedly the first film to feature action carried over from one shot to the next. But I watched it twice, and it appears to be only one shot. Is there an invisible Birdman-like cut in there somewhere? Or did I get the descriptions of the previous two films mixed up? Anyway, two drinkers on a bench outside some mysterious establishment with an “Art Section” and “Refreshments” opt for the art section.

Extraordinary Cab Accident (1903, RW Paul)

Cabs being horse-drawn at the time, a guy stumbles into the street, is trampled to death, then mysteriously recovers and runs off. I’ve seen guys transformed via editing into scarecrow dummies then thrown off trains in The Great Train Robbery, but this one does a good job transforming the dummy back into a guy.

A Chess Dispute (1903, RW Paul)

There is a violent dispute over a game of chess. Mostly this dispute is waged just under the camera’s view, thrown punches and bottles and clothing flying up into frame.

Buy Your Own Cherries (1904, RW Paul)

Awful brute man causes a drunken scene at a bar, then another at his home, then after a quick visit to church he’s wonderful and generous. Extra long at four minutes. Paul also produced the great The ? Motorist, which I had credited to director Walter Booth.

The Miller and the Sweep (1898, GA Smith)

Just a silly half-minute fight/chase in front of an operating windmill. But it’s a really nice shot of the windmill.

Let Me Dream Again (1900, GA Smith)

Happy couple at a party wake up as grumpy old couple in bed… so the movie’s title is the punchline. Smith invented the pull out-of-focus to indicate shift from dream to reality.

Sick Kitten (1903, GA Smith)

Kino says Smith invented the POV shot, and the idea of breaking a scene down into shots from different angles, which he does here. Kids dressed as grownups feed a kitty from a spoon. As is true today, cat films were incredibly popular back then, so this is a remake of his 1901 cat film which had worn out from overduplication.

The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899, GA Smith)

Train goes into tunnel, GA Smith and wife have a quick smooth, train back out of tunnel.

The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899, Bamforth & Co)

A remake! Two different people kiss in a different tunnel (the train shot from different angles than Smith used), in a cabin with worse production design.

A Daring Daylight Burglary (1903, Frank Mottershaw)

Action thriller with multiple shots and locations, reminiscent of The Great Train Robbery. Kino says some plot action in the silent doesn’t make sense because the showman was supposed to provide benshi narration during the screening.

A Desperate Poaching Affray (1903, William Haggar)

Men with guns chase men with nets. Oh damn wait, the poachers have guns too, and blast at least three of the pursuers. Poaching was deadly serious business. Just a big chase scene, really.

Attack on a China Mission (1901, James Williamson)

A man’s house is attacked, he defends with rifle, then more groups keep arriving and I’m not sure what side they’re on. Kino says it’s a reenactment of the Boxer Uprising, which must have been a confusing uprising. Kino says JW was famous for moving action across multiple shots, mainly during chase films, which sounds like what everyone was famous for in 1901.

An Interesting Story (1905, James Williamson)

Mustache man pours coffee in his hat, injures the maid, wrecks some children’s fun, and keeps running into things because he won’t put down his book (just like kids today with their cellular telephones). Satisfying conclusion as he gets run over by a steamroller, but some passing bicyclists inflate him, using the ol’ dummy-replacement trick last seen in Extraordinary Cab Accident.

Electrocuting an Elephant (1903, Thomas Edison & Edwin S. Porter)

Never forget, no matter what his achievements in human history, Thomas Edison once electrocuted an elephant for fun and profit.

Our Hospitality (1923, Buster Keaton)

We managed to watch this despite obstacles (DVD gone missing, Amazon’s lies about runtime). Keaton’s second feature, a vast improvement over his first. Keaton takes a train to brutal, rural America to claim his family estate, which turns out to be a crumbling shack. So instead he focuses on the hot girl who rode the train out west with him (played by Keaton’s wife), but her dad (familiar heavy Joe Roberts) and two brothers are out to kill him because of a century-old family feud.

After a flashback open where Keaton’s dad and Joe Roberts’ brother kill each other, the first half of the movie is mostly the ride out west on a ridiculous wood-fired train said to be based on an actual vehicle. Second half is Keaton, having been invited over by the girl, unable to leave since the men won’t shoot him while he’s a guest in their home. He finally escapes dressed as a woman, then after a mountaintop chase culminating in one of the best stunts in movie history – Keaton swinging on a rope to catch the girl coming over a waterfall – they marry, ending the feud. Watched with Katy as history lesson after the first Story of Film episode, though we mostly forgot to analyze editing and obsess over the 180 degree rule.

Deseret (1995, James Benning)

I’ve finally watched a James Benning movie. I knew I’d either love it, or not get it, which would be frustrating since I have about 15 Benning movies on my must-see list based on critic recommendations. Whew, loved it. Felt like Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind meets Hollis Frampton. I noticed he was cutting the picture on every new spoken sentence, but later I discovered it gets more Framptony yet: there’s one literal/relevant shot per segment, the long between-segment shots get gradually shorter, movie switches to color when Utah becomes a state and there are precisely as many b/w frames as color.

All spoken text is from historical New York Times articles, which don’t seem overly fond of Utah or the Mormons, so it’s interesting to get a history lesson told by a suspicious narrator – from early reports on Brigham Young, U.S. military expeditions to quell the Mormon rebellion, fights against polygamy, the cross-country railroad, and the Mountain Meadows massacre, in which Mormon militia killed 100+ non-Mormon settlers. Things get somewhat less extreme once statehood is achieved – standouts include the U.S. army’s nerve gas tests killing thousands of sheep and Robert Smithson’s great Spiral Jetty.

Amazing quote from 1880s: “Mormonism is a good deal as slavery seemed once to those of the north who had never seen, but only read one-sided unreliable representations of it: not half as bad when you come to see it.”

Rosenbaum: “Benning’s eye for evocative beauty is as sharp as ever, and his complex invitation to the viewer to create a narrative space between his separate elements keeps this 1995 film continually fascinating.”

Snowpiercer (2013, Bong Joon-ho)

“I know what people taste like. I know that babies taste best.”

My hopes were too high for Bong’s English-language debut – I found it talky and clunky and obvious. Good ending, though. Revolution within class-stratified humanity-protecting perpetual-motion train is led by Steve “Captain America” Rogers. He’s backed by wise old train architect John Hurt, loyal-to-the-death Jamie Bell, pissed-off mom Octavia Spencer and tech whiz Kang-ho Song. After dealing with company mouthpiece Tilda Swinton through various levels, final confrontation with engineer Ed Harris, who claims to have planned the revolution and wants the Captain to replace him at head of the train. Meanwhile it’s rumored that the frozen Earth has been warming, and might sustain human life again, which will be tested after Song’s daughter Ah-sung Ko (the monster-abducted girl of The Host) is the only one of these people who survives a train crash.

Things: the workers in back are fed “protein blocks” which turn out to be gelatinized cockroach. The two Koreans are addicted to a drug called chrono which doubles as an explosive. Harris claims John Hurt was secretly working with him (for the good of the train/humanity, of course). A cool bit near the end looks like 2001: A Space Odyssey.

M. Sicinski:

Snowpiercer’s mental motor, its driving intelligence, is its obviousness, which allows the film to be misperceived as something silly. .. Bong, however, seems to understand something many others don’t, both about broad entertainment and the state of successful political action. Big action demands broad strokes; nuances emerge later. In fact, this is to a large degree the political subtext of Snowpiercer itself. .. it doesn’t matter who’s running the train. Bong is not telling us anything we don’t already know, but Snowpiercer’s power is precisely in its capacity to boldly visualize this shared awareness: the futility of liberal revolt, the buffoonery of our betters, the hidden human kindling that is always the tiger in our tank. .. Bong shows us that there’s only one track, and so you can’t flip the switch. You can only light the fuse, and embrace the inevitable destruction as the last picture show.

Brief Encounter (1944, David Lean)

Errand-running housewife Celia Johnson (lovestruck daughter in The Holly and the Ivy) is helped out by Trevor Howard (deposed captain in Mutiny on the Bounty). They get to talking, and eventually it’s a weekly appointment, then outings to movies and the park, a gradual love affair. Both are married, and they finally break it off when he’s offered a job in Africa. After a messy parting at the train station where they first met, interrupted by a shrill acquaintance, Celia returns home to her boring life at home. Her husband: “You’ve been a long way away… thank you for coming back to me.” Katy doesn’t approve of affairs, didn’t find it too romantic.

A. Turner:

Billy Wilder found Alec’s friend, who loans the flat, so interesting that he made an entire film about just such a character: The Apartment. … Brief Encounter is also the principal link between the small-scale films of Lean’s early career with the widescreen epics of his final phase. The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Ryan’s Daughter, and A Passage to India each have central characters who are prone to a dreamy romanticism which borders on hysteria and hallucination. … Condemning Laura to a life of conformity and emotional suppression, Lean sets his own course towards the far horizon, where the English go out in the midday sun. Brief Encounter is not only Lean’s finest statement on the suffocating world into which he was born; it is also his train ticket out.

K. Brownlow:

But after [a flop preview], the film opened more widely, and a miracle happened. The public embraced it, people went to see it again and again, and it broke box-office records. In New York, it ran for eight months, and Johnson was not only voted best actress by the New York critics, she was nominated for an Oscar. David became the first director of a British film since Korda to be nominated, and he, Neame, and Havelock-Allan were also nominated for the screenplay.

Unstoppable (2010, Tony Scott)

Runaway train movie. Surprisingly there’s no evil plan by a criminal mastermind to steal the train for terroristic purposes, just an incredibly dumb move by Ethan “It’s Not a Schooner” Suplee that sets a train with explosive cargo at full throttle with no driver or brakes.

Suplee, typecast as an idiot:

The final of around 20 features Tony Scott made. I saw a string of his 90’s movies: The Last Boy Scout, True Romance, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State, then tried to avoid him, but after his death Mubi cranked the level of their Scott-appreciation posts to unavoidable levels (see: my rant at the top of Death Race) so I reluctantly rented this for a memorial screening. Verdict: he’s very good at putting together a high-energy sweeping-camera-movements action scene with lots of blur-motion without sacrificing clarity – a rare and valuable skill. But it’s impossible to watch his particular brand of straightfaced action after seeing Hot Fuzz, which perfectly parodies this sort of thing. And despite the skill behind the camera and two top-notch lead actors, it’s pretty slight for a big action film: the nearly-real-time, based-on-true-events story of a veteran and a rookie train operator who manage to stop a runaway train.

Also there are lots of helicopters:

Denzel Washington and Chris Pine are earnest characters who we want to succeed (yay!), watched closely (via TV news coverage) by Denzel’s daughters and Chris’s estranged wife. Their manager Rosario Dawson and a helpful inspector (Kevin Corrigan, Jerry Rubin in Steal This Movie) and a truck-drivin’ dude named Ned are risking lives or careers trying to help stop the disaster (yay!) while some corporate boss (Kevin Dunn, Shia’s shameful dad in the Transformers movies) tries to minimize financial risk to the train company (boo!) and Schooner Suplee (boo!) prays his blunder won’t kill thousands of people.

From the writer of the fourth Die Hard and the Total Recall remake.

The Charters and Caldicott Trilogy

I’ve always wanted to watch The Lady Vanishes, and since I found out that it has two recurring characters who appear in two other Criterion-released British wartime comedies, I checked out all three.

The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock)

Opens with the fakest model town since Beetlejuice. The DVD extras and interviews make much of how cheaply-made the film was, but after the first scene you never notice it. Snappy, briskly-plotted comedy-mystery with charming leads – at least as good as The 39 Steps.

Our eventually-romantic couple:

Margaret Lockwood meets annoying freewheeling musicologist Michael Redgrave in her hotel, tries to get him kicked out for making too much noise. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to a new hit comic duo Charters and Caldicott – the gimmick is that they’re incredibly British, clueless about foreign customs, but always travelling.

C&C:

They’re all on the same train out of town, along with Linden Travers (title role in No Orchids for Miss Blandish), her lying secret lover Cecil Parker (Ingrid Bergman’s unmemorable brother-in-law in Indiscreet), a not-at-all-sinister surgeon with a neat mustache (Paul Lukas, oscar winner in ’44), travelling magician Doppo and a thoroughly pleasant British woman named Froy (May Whitty, wealthy flower grower in Mrs. Miniver). But then Froy vanishes and Margaret seems to be the only person who remembers her. All the Germans (they’re from Unspecified Euro-Country, but they have nazi-like tendencies and this was the pre-WWII era, so let’s call them German) lie because Froy is a spy and they’ve kidnapped her, and all the Brits lie because they don’t want to get involved. But Margaret finds an ally in the musicologist and they set off to cracking the mystery, which involves fighting the magician through secret compartments and dealing with a fake nun. Trains are diverted, and Charters and Caldicott step up (and the cheater gets killed) in a climactic shootout. It’s all too tense and fun to worry that the central premise and the secret Froy is protecting are all ridiculous – Hitchcock admits so himself in his Truffaut interview.

Lukas with giant poisoned drinks, reminiscent of The Small Back Room:

Hitch’s second-to-last British picture (Jamaica Inn was last) Writer of the original story also did The Spiral Staircase. Remade in the 70’s with Angela Lansbury as Froy. It all reminded me of Shanghai Express, though I guess train dramas were pretty common.

G. O’Brien:

The whole film breathes an air of delight like nothing else in Hitchcock. The central situation—the disappearance of a woman whose very existence is subsequently denied by everyone but the protagonist—may seem to provide the perfect matrix for the kind of paranoid melodrama that would proliferate a few years later, in the forties, in films like Phantom Lady, Gaslight, and My Name Is Julia Ross, but here the dark shadows of conspiracy are countered by a brightness and brilliance of tone almost Mozartean in its equanimity. Most of the time we are too exhilarated to be frightened.

C. Barr:

While the train speeds Iris back toward her loveless marriage, her attempt to solve the mystery of Miss Froy’s disappearance is blocked by the obstinate intransigence of her countrymen, working in unconscious collaboration with the forces of European fascism that have kidnapped her. Clearly, this gave the film an especially potent meaning for the England of 1938, a time when the ruling classes were still working to appease Hitler and a class-stratified country was patently unready to pull together effectively if war should nonetheless become unavoidable.

Night Train to Munich (1940, Carol Reed)

See if this sounds familiar: Margaret Lockwood meets and immediately dislikes a handsome musician who ends up helping her flee from nazis aboard a train. Rex Harrison (Unfaithfully Yours) seems blander than her Lady Vanishes costar at first, but ends up being the highlight of the film. The effects are even cheaper-looking than the previous picture, but the action’s all there and the stakes are higher, war with Germany having started.

Charters didn’t have many options at the German railway book store:

Lockwood is the daughter of a Czech scientist working on some super armor. They flee to England as the nazis invade, hiding out with music salesman Rex, but get easily kidnapped by rival spy Paul Henreid (more dashing here than as Bergman’s husband in Casablanca) and flown to Germany. Not taking this defeat lying down, Rex grabs a nazi uniform, forges himself a letter of introduction with unreadable signature and flies down in to kidnap them back, all ending up aboard the titular train, where Charters and Caldicott are miffed to learn that Britain has declared war on Germany that same day, and so the ever-patriotic comic duo help our heroes escape the train to safety, via a cable-car shootout.

Margaret and Rex:

Defeated Henreid:

P. Kemp:

If its view of the Third Reich now seems frivolous, not to say naive, it should be remembered that it was made, and released, during the period known as the Phony War—before France fell, the British Army narrowly escaped annihilation at Dunkirk, and the Luftwaffe began to rain bombs on British cities. At that time, with the full horrors of Nazism not yet widely known, Hitler and his storm troopers were often treated as figures of fun (other British films of the period, such as Powell and Pressburger’s Contraband, adopt a similar stance). … [Henreid] plays Marsen not unsympathetically, far from the standard ranting Nazi blowhard, and the final shot of him lying wounded and defeated, watching his rival make off with everything, including the girl, even exerts a certain pathos.

Crook’s Tour (1941, John Baxter)

A huge step down from the previous films. It’s not necessarily the fault of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott, who now play the leads, foiling an enemy spy plot and even getting the girl. They’ve got a new set of writers and a lesser director, and the whole thing feels cheap and unnecessary, and rarely funny – the silly cartoon music does it no favors.

This time the guys are touring the middle east, and Caldicott (the smaller, mustache-less one) is engaged to marry Charters’ sister Edith, whom they’re meeting in Budapest. Some setup in the Saudi desert where they meet a sheik (Charles Oliver, who had small roles in all three movies) who went to Charters’ school in England, who mentions that he’s protecting the British oil pipeline from German shit-starters. Then a ludicrous mixup with a ridiculous waiter leads them to gain possession of a gramophone record containing secret German plans to steal oil from the Saudis. Caldicott has eyes for Greta Gynt, and nobody seems to think it’s super weird that she’s the live entertainment at the next two cities they visit as well.

I didn’t know this kind of thing was allowed in the 1940’s:

Greta has an owl!

Baddie Ali (Abraham Sofaer of Bhowani Junction) is accidentally killed when Charters pushes him into the “bathroom,” which turns out to be a hole straight into the sea. Edith (Noel Hood, somebody’s aunt in The Curse of Frankenstein) shows up and gets mad that Caldicott is involved in spy-business with Greta. Ali’s partner Rossenger is a terrible spy, so his boss Cyril Gardiner gets involved, promises to kill and torture and all that, but our heroes (including Greta, a British spy all along) manage to escape.

Baddies Ali, Rossenger and double-agent Greta:

I’m aware that there’s another C&C movie, Millions Like Us, directed by Lady Vanishes and Night Train writers Launder and Gilliat. Holding off on watching it for now, since I presume the deluxe Criterion restoration is just around the corner.

Hugo (2011, Martin Scorsese)

Scorsese’s first major non-DiCaprio feature in a decade.

After the films of Georges Méliès aren’t popular anymore, he burns his props, donates his precious drawing robot to a museum and opens a trinket shop in a train station. Museum worker Jude Law takes the robot home to repair it then dies in an explosion. Museum man’s son Hugo, secretly the station’s clock-winder since his drunk uncle (Sexy Beast star Ray Winstone) has disappeared, repairs the mechanical man and, Amelie-like, presents it to Georges Méliès, rekindling his hopes, dreams and love of cinema. Help comes from Méliès wife (Helen McCrory: Tony Blair’s wife in The Queen, Malfoy’s mum in Harry Potter), an author of a book on cinema (Michael Stuhlbarg, star of A Serious Man) and Chloe Moretz, who seems to have gotten younger since her last few films.

Some side plots are loosely integrated – they must be leftovers from the novel. Inspector Cohen has a crush on lovely flower girl Emily Mortimer (of Shutter Island) but is embarrassed by his mechanical leg brace, Christopher Lee is a forbidding/kindhearted book seller, and Richard Griffiths (uncle Monty in Withnail) is doing something or other with Frances de la Tour (in charge of the Albert Finney’s Head science project in Cold Lazarus) and her dog.

Set at the Gare Montparnasse train station where the famous photograph of the train derailment was shot – Hugo must’ve seen the photo because he dreams himself causing it. Some good cinema-reference, a few lovely bits of 3D (and some 90 minutes where I barely noticed the effect), and a nice performance by Ben Kingsley, but ultimately I couldn’t shake the feeling that it’s just a well-made kids movie.

The Tall Target (1951, Anthony Mann)

I don’t know much about Anthony Mann, but this and The Furies both kicked some ass. Thought it’d be a Western, since I never look up even the most basic information about movies I’m about to watch, but it’s a high-quality period piece set on a train (I love movies set on trains) about a frustrated New York cop (technically ex-cop; he turns in his badge at the start of the film) trying to uncover an assassination plot on Abraham Lincoln on his way through Baltimore to inauguration on the eve of civil war.

Powell:

Dick Powell (star of Susan Slept Here, Christmas In July) is “John Kennedy” (unwittingly aiding future nerds with their Lincoln/JFK parallel theories), the ex-cop, whose intended contact on the train is murdered off-screen. So Powell hooks up with sideburned Colonel Jeffers (Adolphe Menjou, noted commie-hater who named names in 1947) to solve the mystery of his dead friend and his hunch about an assassination attempt. I lost track of the colonel for a while though, soon found out that it’s unwise to track actors in this movie by their sideburns, kinda like trying to remember someone in a 1930’s movie as the guy with the hat.

The Colonel:

Kennedy isn’t the best cop, allows an interloper (Leif Erickson) to make off with his coat and gun. This guy also has Kennedy’s ticket, and grinningly claims to be Kennedy when the ticket-taker comes around. At the next stop, Kennedy fights the man for his identity, and the colonel, seeing a struggle, shoots at them, happening to kill the faker. This was really my only problem with the movie, dude just firing wildly in the darkness when he didn’t seem to have a clear shot or any understanding of the situation, irresponsible – until it’s revealed that the colonel is the main anti-Lincoln conspirator and that this was a clue to his identity. Because the colonel wouldn’t mind shooting Erickson, who could identify him, or Kennedy, who aims to stop him.

Jenny:

Kennedy’s main suspect is outspoken pro-slavery Georgian and sniper-rifle bearer Lance (Fiend Without a Face lead Marshall Thompson), travelling with his loyal sister Jenny (Paula Raymond of Crisis) and their slave maid Rachel (Ruby Dee! of Do The Right Thing!). But Kennedy suspects the colonel enough to leave his pistol loaded with powder but no bullet, so when the colonel shoots Kennedy while he naps, he is unharmed – the second harmless pistol head-shot I’ve seen in a movie this month. But at a stop in Philly Kennedy finds himself on the run instead of boldly turning in his evidence, an arrest warrant out for his “impersonating an officer.”

Ruby:

Back on board, Ruby Dee tells him that Lance has been lying about his intentions. Jenny the sister helps, then interferes, then helps. The colonel gets off in Baltimore but sends word to Lance that the future president is on the train. Kennedy awakes, fight ensues, Lance is knocked off the train, and Kennedy gets covertly thanked by the president’s people, as Lincoln looks out at the under-construction Capitol building. A fine-looking and tightly-plotted movie.