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The Monkees - Head
The Monkees - Head
DVD ~ Micky Dolenz
Price: $13.79
32 used & new from $9.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Monkees deconstructing Monkees, September 5, 2013
This review is from: The Monkees - Head (DVD)
Head (1968) is the quintessential cinematic oxymoron: a "G" rated LSD trip, starring The Monkees, with cameos by Victor Mature, Anette Funicello, Teri Garr, and Frank Zappa! Written by Jack Nicholson and directed by Bob Rafelson, Head has a reputation for having killed the career of The Monkees. Actually, their short-lived television series had already been cancelled after the end of its second season. A manufactured-for-prime-time pop band, The Monkees were, of course, the first prefab phenomenon; a second-rate ripe off of the Beatles, sponsored by Kelloggs. The brevity of their career was utterly predictable. Despite that, and despite being clearly modeled after Richard Lester`s A Hard Day's Night (1964), "The Monkees" TV series (Rafelson was part of the creative team) had fleeting moments of innovative satire and surrealism. The script for Head was reportedly conceived one night when Rafelson, Nicholson and the Monkees were tripping on acid. With the Monkees fad already in its death throes, the creative team plunged into producing the group's first and only feature as an experimental opus depicting the suicide of Peter, Michael, Davy, and Micky. The result was an epic bomb. Most critics hated it, as did its potential audience. Fans of the boy band were outraged at the sacrilegious nature of the film, while the hippie culture avoided anything with the Monkees name attached. Yet despite all odds, Head became a cult favorite in many circles. Evidence of that may be found in Rhino Records decision to release the film on DVD. With Rhino's reputation as the Criterion Collection of bizarre and obscure cinema, television and music, that amounts to something approaching canonization.

Mickey's dive off a bridge sets the opening tone of a spherical immolation. Admirably, the Monkees do not attempt to make a big screen version of the TV show, rather they deconstruct it through a series of random, nonsensical misadventures arising from their attempt to escape their "box." Their War Chant serves as an apt theme:

Hey, hey, we are the Monkees,
You know we love to please.
A manufactured image
With no philosophies.

We hope you like our story
Although there isn't one;
That is to say there's many
That way there is more fun.

You told us you like action,
And games of many kinds.
You like to dance, we like to sing
So let's all lose our minds.

We know it doesn't matter
`Cause what you came to see
Is what we'd love to give you
And give it one, two, three.

But there may come three, two, one, two,
Or jump from nine to five,
And when you see the end in sight
The beginning may arrive.

For those who look for meaning
And form as they do facts,
We might tell you one thing
But we'd only take it back.

Not back like in a box back,
Not back like in a race,
Not back so we can keep it,
But back in time and space.

You say we're manufactured,
To that we all agree.
So make you choice and we'll rejoice
In never being free.

Hey, hey, we are the Monkees,
We've said it all before.
The money's in, we're made of tin,
We're here to give you more.

The money's in we're made of tin
We're here to give you...

After swimming with the mermaids, the Monkees attempt to break through every wall, only to be insulted by everyone from Frank Zappa and his cow (`You're too white for me") to television exec Victor Mature attempting to keep them in their box (think a non-narrative Truman Show-1998). In response to a white trash waitress' assertion that they are "God's gift to eight-year-olds," the Monkees set out to do everything but entertain us. Rather, they disturb us, assault our senses, and take us with them through Mickey's angst-ridden frustrations on a Coke machine, dandruff commercials, the dismantling of a cardboard western set, and a non-Billboard pop tune (`The Porpoise Song"). The Monkees get lost, found, beaten to a pulp, consult a swami, get lost again, found again, and end where they begin: reiterating their suicide. The Monkees are sick of Monkeemania, their fans, and themselves (particularly Nesmith), and they want us to be sick of them too. They succeed, through the sheer honesty of their travels.

The Monkees put their money where their mouth is, purposefully not even mentioning themselves in the original ad campaigns. Some have compared Head to the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour (1967) and Yellow Submarine (1968). Yet, Head, this stream-of-conscious oddity featuring a synthetic pop band, manages, against all odds, to be one of the best counterculture films of the late 1960s, surpassing most of the films by the original Fab Four. Amazing, but true!

* my review originally appeared at 366 weird movies
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 31, 2013 4:14 AM PST


Phantom of the Paradise
Phantom of the Paradise
DVD ~ Paul Williams
Offered by Serenity-Now
Price: $34.99
30 used & new from $7.24

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars De Palma's Rock Opera opus ups one on "Rocky Horror.", August 27, 2013
This review is from: Phantom of the Paradise (DVD)
Brain De Palma, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, and John Waters were among the directors whose films we passionately watched and discussed in that now extinct haven once known as art school. It was De Palma who topped our list, enough that we ranked him as high as, if not higher than, Alfred Hitchcock. There is justification in the criticism that Hitchcock's films are often cold, mechanical exercises. De Palma was more experimental, and emotionally incinerating in ways that Hitchcock could not be. De Palma is decidedly unbiased when it comes to provocation: Scarface (1983) unintentionally inspired the current trash thug culture, and Casualties of War (1989) still manages to boil the blood of extremist patriots. He has been accused of being a misogynist and a feminist, an innovative bohemian and a plagiarist, a shrewdly manipulative avant-gardist and the quintessential sell-out. Any director this divisive deserves attention.

Unfortunately, one must briefly address the De Palma/Hitchcock comparison primarily because lazy, hack critics have long held De Palma to Hitchcock's standards. De Palma was too much his own man to simply imitate Hitchcock. Rather, Hitchcock was one of several influences filtered through De Palma's preexisting sensibilities. Jean-Luc Godard was another, and it is no accident that De Palma has been referred to as an example of American Nouvelle Vague.

Greetings (1968), The Wedding Party (1969), Hi, Mom! (1970), Get To Know Your Rabbit (1972) and the scrappy Sisters (1973) were distinguished early films that reveal De Palma's eclecticism and underrated sense of humor. De Palma's horror-comedy-musical Phantom of the Paradise (1974) came out a full year before The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Despite the fact that the latter came to define cult hit, De Palma's is the better film; its shrewd satire was not accessible enough for American audience, even of the cult variety. It is the only worthwhile adaptation of Gaston Leroux's pulp tale "The Phantom of the Opera", possibly because Paradise recognizes the source as pedestrian. Even the unjustly famous silent version of Phantom of the Opera (1925) is primarily noteworthy for its star's masochistic makeup, set design and a few choice scenes (such as the masque of the red death ball and the unmasking). Despite these highlights, Rupert Julian's direction was flat and uninspired, resulting in a dissatisfying whole. The less said about Opera`s remakes, the better; the story reached its nadir when adapted for the musical stage by Andrew Lloyd Webber (but then, Webber's treatment of anything could probably be considered its ultimate low point).

De Palma's Phantom is not content with a sole source: strands from "Frankenstein," "The Picture of Dorian Grey," "The Devil and Daniel Webster," and Psycho are woven into a glittering glam horror extravaganza staging of "Faust."

The casting of Paul Williams as a gnome-like demonic cherub is delightfully idiosyncratic. De Palma regular William Finley (as the titular Phantom) and 70′s favorite Jessica Harper (as the love interest Phoenix) fill out an equally odd cast. Gerrit Graham, as the glam rocker Beef, virtually steals every scene he is in, revealing a musical magnetism on a par with the likes of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Tim Curry.

For all the sharp satire and cynicism regarding the pop music world, Phantom of the Paradise has at its center an authentically felt camp sentimentality. On paper, this sounds like yet another postmodern disaster, but De Palma's innovative approach melds it into a cogent, maniacal, cinematic firework display. The nexus of De Palma's film is locating the grandeur amongst the pandemonium, making one regret that it was Oliver Stone and not De Palma who eventually helmed The Doors (1991) (which De Palma was originally slated to direct).

*my review originally appeared at 366 weird movies


Seven Chances: Ultimate Edition
Seven Chances: Ultimate Edition
DVD ~ Buster Keaton
Offered by newbury_comics
Price: $16.49
15 used & new from $12.44

1 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The greatest of silent film chase scenes and, alas, an embarrassing example of period stereotypes., May 2, 2013
Buster Keaton`s Seven Chances (1925) features the greatest chase scene in silent cinema. It is a typically no-holds barred, Keatonesque climax. The film also highlights Keaton's major flaw: his inability to rise above the racism of his society. This is a flaw that cannot be ignored; it factors into our moral and aesthetic assessment of the artist. The transgressions are brief here, but blatant and repeated.

Surprisingly, the frequent debates pitting Chaplin against Keaton rarely consider this factor. Or perhaps it is not so surprising. On just about every list imaginable, D.W. Griffith ranks near the top of all-time great directors, despite the fact that his epic landmark, Birth of a Nation, is one of the most monstrously racist films produced in cinematic history. Griffith's onetime assistant, Tod Browning, might earn a footnote in such sophomoric lists. Browning, of course, went onto his own directorial career, which included Freaks (1932). There is no serious argument that Browning, with static camera and discomfort with sound, could compete with Griffith aesthetically. However, Browning was ahead of his time socially. In his art, Browning bravely empathized with outcasts. Yet, Browning's standing usually excludes the advanced social ideologies in his art. His skill with a camera, or lack thereof, is considered primary. In artistic evaluation we still rank technical skill highest.

While Keaton is not guilty of promoting racist epithets, he absolutely endorsed period racial stereotypes, repeatedly. Perhaps most so in Seven Chances, which he directed alone. To be fair, no Chaplin film went so far as Browning's liberating manifestos. However, Chaplin certainly came close to the Browning ideal in his tramp characterization and his features Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). Amusingly, both films are still seen, by right-wing extremists, as something akin to communist propaganda.

Keaton ranks lower than Chaplin in my assessment primarily for this reason. Certainly, Keaton was more skilled in narrative, originality, innovative camerawork, and set design. However, Chaplin was light years ahead of Keaton in social sensitivities. On this issue, Keaton was a product of his time. Chaplin was that rarity of rarities; an authentic religious figure who rose above his time, which ultimately counts more than his saccharine heart and aesthetic deficiencies.

Despite the brilliance to be admired and enjoyment to be had out of Seven Chances, there are moments to make you cringe: Keaton, searching for a bride, sits down on a bench near a pretty girl. He starts to flirt, but realizes she is reading a Hebrew newspaper and quickly springs up, running in the other direction (oddly, the film had a Jewish producer). Similarly, Keaton comes upon one of many brides to be, discovers her to be African-American and, again, does an exit stage left. The cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake is an excruciatingly embarrassing blackface vignette. We can, with effort, move past these and acknowledge the film's artistry. Simultaneously, however, we cannot evaluate the work fully without factoring in the stinging racial stereotypes.

A simple plot evolves into an epic, surreal finale: cinema at its most animated. Keaton stands to inherit seven millions dollars if he is married by 7 pm on his twenty-seventh birthday. Unfortunately, he receives this news on the afternoon of his twenty-seventh birthday. Keaton's girlfriend would be the natural choice for a mate, except that our hero is a tad awkward at expressing his love. The local gals cruelly mock Keaton's marital efforts--that is, until they learn he is a potential heir. News of our shy protagonist's inheritance leads to an epic deluge of wannabe brides pursuing him in a chase of mind-boggling comic inventiveness. With this climax, and the film's timelessly shrewd satire of western avarice, it is no wonder Seven Chances was an audience favorite in revivals. Keaton literally seems to be a live action, stoned face Speedy Gonzalez, fleeing foolish virgins and an avalanche of boulders (a justifiably famous scene that was improvised). Naturally, a wise maiden is waiting in the wings, even if she is devoid of personality or development.

The 2011 Kino edition beautifully restores a color tinted sequence.

Note: This was one of Keaton's least favorites among his films. The script, based off a famous play by David Belasco, was purchased by Keaton's producer and adapted by four writers. Actresses Jean Arthur and Constance Talmadge have brief, uncredited roles.

*My review originally appeared at 366 weird movies.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 17, 2015 3:18 PM PST


The Navigator: Ultimate Edition
The Navigator: Ultimate Edition
DVD ~ Buster Keaton
Price: $18.74
11 used & new from $11.67

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Keaton's Biggest Commercial Success, April 18, 2013
The Navigator (1924) was Buster Keaton`s biggest commercial success and remains one of his most popular features. Co-directed by Donald Crisp, it is a bona fide classic.

Affluent society heir Rollo (Keaton) wakes up one morning, sees a newlywed couple outside of his window, and, bored to tears, decides he wants to get married. Love, of course, never enters the picture. He starts planning a regal honeymoon and eventually remembers that he needs to ask the bride-to-be, another socialite named Betsy (Kathryn McGuire, Keaton's leading lady from Sherlock Jr.).

The super rich were a favorite target for 1920s audiences, which certainly helped this film's box office appeal. (Yes, once upon a time, the one percent were not adulated by Hollywood. Rather, they were ridiculed because that ancient, naive generation actually believed that people were not defined by dyed green paper or quantity of possessions).

Betsy turns down Rollo's proposal of marriage and, after a series of circumstances, they find themselves aboard the adrift schooner, the Navigator. When they are left to fend for theirselves, without the aid of a servant, pandemonium is the result. Far from the idyllic honeymoon he imagined, Rollo is forced to assist in fixing breakfast. Much to his dismay, he discovers that a butcher knife is not the best way to open a can of food. Betsy learns how not to make coffee. Unground beans and seawater do not a good brew make.

An expressionistic play on shadows, via clever use of candles, reveals the consummating kiss Rollo and Betsy will never have. This is but one example we find of Keaton pushing the art of film in ways no other American filmmaker was doing at the time.

Co-director Donald Crisp makes an unbilled cameo, in the form of a sinister sea captain's picture inadvertently placed in front of a porthole, which predictably gives Rollo a bad case of late night jitters. (With the advent of sound, Crisp abandoned directing and became a much sought after character actor, appearing in such films as Mutiny on the Bounty, Jezebel, How Green Was My Valley, and National Velvet). Roman candles, soggy cards, a rainstorm, and sleeping arrangements round off a disastrous "wedding night."

The first night over, Betsy and Rollo have brilliantly overcome the menial chores, which of course makes way for larger-scale challenges to come. A master of the slow burn, Keaton, as usual, revels in the second half. Nothing less than cannibals craving white meat is their first obstacle. (Unfortunately, one area in which audiences of the time were indeed embarrassingly naive was in their racial stereotypes, and Keaton was not exempt from that).

In order to fix a leaky ship drifting towards the excited natives, Rollo and Betsy pull out the deep-sea divers manual. Down in the murky ocean below, Rollo meets a couple of swordfish and, in the film's most iconic highlight, he seizes one fish and engages in an underwater fencing duel with the second fish.

The showdown with the cannibals is worthy of a Loony Tune, and a grand finale gag is amongst the best of silent cinema. Aside from the stereotypes, The Navigator is remarkably contemporary. McGuire is a near-perfect and sweet foil for Keaton, breathlessly matching him. In one of their best scenes together, she straddles him (in his diving gear), using him as a lifeboat, and paddles them back to the temporary safety of the ship.

The Navigator was among a generous crop of 2012 Kino Keaton Blu-ray releases. It is also available in Kino's indispensable "The Art of Buster Keaton" DVD box set.

* my review originally appeared at 366 weird movies.


Steamboat Bill, Jr. [Ultimate 2-Disc Edition]
Steamboat Bill, Jr. [Ultimate 2-Disc Edition]
DVD ~ Buster Keaton
Price: $18.31
11 used & new from $15.63

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Keaton's final indie feature, April 12, 2013
Keaton served as an uncredited co-director and writer in the feature Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). This was Keaton's last independent production. He looks considerably aged, with a touch of pathos, yet still elegant, romantic, and athletic. The film is understandably most remembered for the startling, stirring imagery of its third act. It begins with a reunion of a father (Steamboat Bill--Ernest Torrence) and son (Steamboat Bill Jr.--Keaton).

Sr. is a seafaring captain of towering machismo, and not sure what to make of his citified dandy of a son. He takes Jr. to a barber and attempts to get him a new hat (Jr rejects a series of hats, including his famous pork pie). Torrence's portrayal of Sr. is an astute parody of blue-collar mores and traditions. In avoiding a maudlin relationship between father and son, Keaton's handling seems remarkably fresh and less dated. So too it is with Jr's romance with the daughter (Marion Byron) of his father's rival (Tom McGuire). While avoiding heart-on-sleeve propensities, Byron's character is underdeveloped, serving primarily as decor. Thus, Jr's intense attraction to her fails to register.

The fifteen-minute cyclone finale is an apex of silent cinema entertainment. The stunt work, cinematography (by Bert Haines and Dev Jennings) and set design are simply jaw dropping, regardless (or perhaps even because of) its age. Remarkably, much of the death-defying action is continuous and unbridled. Even more remarkably, Steamboat Bill Jr., like The General (1926), was a box office flop. Shortly afterwards, Keaton made a move to MGM and was coerced into relinquishing creative control of his films to a fascistic studio. His voice, already marred by drink, was unsuited to sound. Clearly an instinctual artist, Keaton was predictably unable to meet MGM'S mass commercial sensibilities, which accelerated his already rapid decline. Alcoholism, depression and institutionalization followed. Yet, courageously, Keaton rebounded, and it is his genius which has endured, while the studio stormtroopers faded into well-deserved oblivion.

* my review originally appeared at 366 weird movies


Our Hospitality/Sherlock Jr.
Our Hospitality/Sherlock Jr.
DVD ~ Buster Keaton
Offered by 4th Pig's Long Tail {No Sales Tax}
Price: $49.99
27 used & new from $4.57

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quintessential Keaton, April 11, 2013
This review is from: Our Hospitality/Sherlock Jr. (DVD)
Buster Keaton never aligned himself with the Surrealists or the avant-garde. His late in life experience acting in Samuel Becket's Film (1965) proved a negative experience for the actor. Yet, Keaton possessed aesthetic qualities akin to Surrealist tenets, which made him a revered figure in that movement. Together with Playhouse (1921) and Frozen North (1922), Sherlock Jr. (1924) is one of Keaton's most pronounced ventures into slapstick Surrealism.

At 45 minutes Sherlock Jr. is often listed as both a short and a feature. By 1924 standards it was considered a feature. Either way, it is perhaps the most innovative comedy of the entire silent era and it retains a formidable reputation among Keaton's body of work. Being one of the earliest films about film, Sherlock Jr. blurs distinctions between real life and the dream world of cinema, but the phantasmagoric qualities always serve a linear narrative.

In this meticulously crafted, compact film, Keaton is a movie projectionist who dreams of being a detective. Keaton is trying to win the affections of a girl (Kathryn McGuire), but has a dastardly rival (Ward Crane). In attempt to steal McGuire from Keaton, Crane frames our protagonist as a thief. With his "How To Be A Detective" book in hand, Keaton follows closely on the heels of Crane.

The basic theme of any Keaton film is an everyday man attempting to win a pretty girl. Naturally, he encounters unrequited love and then must overcome insurmountable odds to win the heroine's affections, which he usually does. The consummation of hero and heroine is of no interest, it is in the journey to true love that we encounter the joy of Keaton's cinematic foreplay. Tensions, triumphs, failures and rebounds populate his promenade.

Keaton, who disavowed any claims of intellectualism, simply was inventive in spicing that repeated dish. Yet, Keaton's interpretation of "spice" was, by any standards, a fearless one. Although he looks the part of a stone faced average Joe, once the projectionist dreams himself into celluloid, he becomes a flawless and imposing detective. Only someone with Keaton's athletic abilities could have pulled the transition off so brilliantly. Keaton did, however, fracture his neck during the making of the film, which resulted in years of severe migraines. This was one of numerous injuries Keaton sustained throughout his career. In addition to aesthetic muscle flexing, Keaton shows off his virtuoso prowess as a billiard player in a compelling vignette. Despite that, Keaton never fails to remember his primary goal: to be a clown.

One of the funniest and most clever scenes in Sherlock Jr. is its finale in which actors on a fifty-foot screen teach the projectionist how to kiss a girl.

Sherlock Jr. was a substantial influence on Woody Allen`s Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).

*Our Hospitality (1923) was Buster Keaton`s first true feature film. Keaton's previous "feature," Three Ages (1923) was actually three short films assembled together. There was both an artistic and a commercial reason for this: Three Ages was a parody of the similarly structured D.W. Griffith feature Intolerance (1916). Additionally, Keaton had proved his audience appeal in shorts. Metro Pictures realized the inherent risk of a Keaton feature, and the structure of Three Ages created the option of breaking it down into three shorts. Fortunately for all concerned, Three Ages was a commercial and critical success.

Our Hospitality may be seen, in retrospect, as a model for Keaton's features and a precursor to The General (1926). What separates Keaton from his peers (Chaplin, Lloyd, Langdon) is the way his character integrates into a larger narrative. That is not to say that Keaton's films are not character driven, but the character serves the narrative, not vice versa.

Our Hospitality opens with a prologue of the ongoing feud between the Canfields and the McKays. A young Canfield and the McKay patriarch are killed in a rainy shoot out at night. To avoid the curse of the feud and further bloodshed, the McKay widow takes her infant son, Willie, and sends him north to New York. Meanwhile, the Canfields swear revenge.

Twenty years later, Willie (Keaton) is the personification of a 19th century New York Yankee, adorned in a dandified suit. His mother has since passed away when Willie learns he has inherited his father's estate. Imagining a southern mansion waiting in the wings, Willie hops onto the next train like a salmon returning to its birthplace. Before departing, he is warned by his guardian to stay clear of the Canfields.

The trip south foreshadows the archaic world Willie is about to enter. The train itself is primitive and, naturally, encounters numerous mishaps along the way. Luckily for Willie, the ordeal is made bearable because his fellow passenger is a pretty girl (Natalie Talmadge, the first Mrs. Keaton). Unfortunately, Willie's spawning choice here, unknown to him, is a Canfield daughter.

There are numerous aquatic metaphors. Willie stands apart from his fellows, like a fish out of water, with city clicker suit and queer umbrella. While fishing, he catches a minnow, throws it back, and then gets pulled into the water by a bigger fish. Willie's mansion turns out to be a dilapidated shack and he unwittingly finds himself in the home of his sworn enemies. True to Southern hospitality, the Canfields vow not kill Willie while he is a guest in their home. When Willie learns of this, he naturally tries to remain a permanent houseguest. Almost forced out, Willie is saved from leaving by the sudden appearance of a heavy downpour. A dam blows up, nearly drowning Willie, but it also safely conceals Willie from his predators, the Canfield boys. In a reversal of the fishing line, Willie is tied, by rope, to a Canfield son. Both get hauled into the water. A descent into the rapids brings further peril, as does a waterfall. Willie dangles over the waterfall like that salmon on a line. Yet, it is the waterfall which unites Willie with his girl, allowing him to spawn.

Our Hospitality is replete with inventive sight gags (a tunnel is cut to fit the train, a horse's rear-end is disguised as Willie in drag), but it's really a sophisticated, yet simple retelling of the Romeo and Juliet narrative.

* my review originally appeared at 366 weird movies.


Gauguin: Maker of Myth
Gauguin: Maker of Myth
DVD ~ Willem Dafoe
4 used & new from $99.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brief, but essential addition to "The Full Story", March 30, 2013
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This review is from: Gauguin: Maker of Myth (DVD)
Waldemar Januszczak's "Gauguin: The Full Story" is, to date, the most lucid documentary film on Gauguin, although not quite the full story. Januszczak focuses primarily on the life of this great artist and, clearly, prefers the paintings from Tahiti. In Januszczak's own words: "There is always more to Gauguin than meets the eye." Indeed, both in his living and in his painting, Paul Gauguin was consistently restless, prefiguring likeminded artists such as Picasso (who Gauguin was a considerable influence upon). It is doubtful a single statement, in writing or in film, can encompass or have the final say on such a vast subject.

Carroll Moore's aptly titled "Gauguin; The Myth Maker" almost fills in Januszczak's gaps, if not quite. Moore wrote, produced and directed.Actor Willem Dafoe beautifully narrates. Moore has her finger on the pulse when she astutely writes: "A sailor in his teens, a stockbroker in his twenties, by the age of thirty-five he was a married father of four and collector of paintings. And then a plot twist: in 1882, seized by a desire to create rather than collect art, he cast it all away. Rejecting the fetters of bourgeoisie society, he began a search for artistic purity that would last for the rest of his life... restlessly scraping away the veneer of civilization to search for deeper truths and redefining the course of painting. And he died in poverty, only to be discovered by later generations"

Immediately, "The Maker of Myth" establishes a pronounced focus on Gauguin's spirituality through painting. This spirituality is the most startling aspect in discovering Gauguin and it's a focus that Januszczak largely ignores. Januszczak rightly focuses on Gauguin the rebel and self-proclaimed heretic. It is a predominant side to Gauguin. It is this side that delighted in consistently annoying and antagonizing the Catholic Church, but as Dafoe's narration indicates, this is not the only side to the complex painter: "Gauguin rejected the institution, not the faith or its imagery."

In the chapter: "Gauguin's Guises" we see the artist shrewdly writing his own novel, crafting his own mythology: " He could be Gauguin the peasant, rejecting the excesses of capitalism, Gauguin the savage, Gauguin the lost soul on a spiritual quest. He could shift his shape into Gauguin the martyr, suffering Christ-like in the Garden of Olives, and of course the flip side-the evil Lucifer."

Moore is not quite as thorough as Januszczak in research. She buys into the biggest myth about Gauguin: that he abandoned his wife and children to pursue the life of a painter. Actually, after a stock market crash Gauguin lost his job and, consequently, was kicked out of his home, by his wife and her relatives. As Januszczak points out: "perhaps they had good reason, but it is a different story."

"Just as Gauguin mythologized himself, he mythologized places to fit his own ends." Neither Brittany nor Tahiti turned out to be the Eden he imagined. "He eliminated any signs of modernity and depicted his subjects with vivid blocks of color." " Our Missionaries have imported much hypocrisy and are sweeping away part of the poetry" Gauguin wrote. In short; through paint, Gauguin crafted his own paradise.

Still, Januszczak's film does make a convincing argument that Gauguin painted far more from life than "Maker of Myth" would indicate. The stubborn, ceaseless pursuit of heaven on earth, of course, lead Gauguin to a life of unquestionable hedonism but it also reaped a prolific body of work. "Maker of Myth" delves into Gauguin's rich and inherent symbology, particularly in his landmark "Vision After the Sermon" and works like "Green Christ", "Yellow Christ", "Self-Portrait With Yellow Christ" and (most amusingly) "Bonjour, Monsieur Gauguin." "Maker of Myth" is rich in its coverage of the painter's symbolism and rewardingly looks at the source inspirations for many of these works.

"Maker of Myth" is fittingly scored with Debussy's "La Mer" but suffers a bit from Alfred Molina's lackluster voicing of the artist. The "Paradise Lost" chapter explores the darker aspects of Gauguin's late Tahitian works, drawings and watercolors that are unique to this documentary.

Although "Maker of Myth" is only thirty minutes in length, it does pack a considerable amount of content into its meager running time. While "Maker of Myth" fails to usurp Januszczak's film, it is an essential addition to that earlier documentary.


Our Hospitality: ULTIMATE EDITION
Our Hospitality: ULTIMATE EDITION
DVD ~ Buster Keaton
Price: $19.99
13 used & new from $12.96

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Keaton's First Real Model Feature, March 30, 2013
Our Hospitality (1923) was Buster Keaton`s first true feature film. Keaton's previous "feature," Three Ages (1923) was actually three short films assembled together. There was both an artistic and a commercial reason for this: Three Ages was a parody of the similarly structured D.W. Griffith feature Intolerance (1916). Additionally, Keaton had proved his audience appeal in shorts. Metro Pictures realized the inherent risk of a Keaton feature, and the structure of Three Ages created the option of breaking it down into three shorts. Fortunately for all concerned, Three Ages was a commercial and critical success.

Our Hospitality may be seen, in retrospect, as a model for Keaton's features and a precursor to The General (1926). What separates Keaton from his peers (Chaplin, Lloyd, Langdon) is the way his character integrates into a larger narrative. That is not to say that Keaton's films are not character driven, but the character serves the narrative, not vice versa.

Our Hospitality opens with a prologue of the ongoing feud between the Canfields and the McKays. A young Canfield and the McKay patriarch are killed in a rainy shoot out at night. To avoid the curse of the feud and further bloodshed, the McKay widow takes her infant son, Willie, and sends him north to New York. Meanwhile, the Canfields swear revenge.

Twenty years later, Willie (Keaton) is the personification of a 19th century New York Yankee, adorned in a dandified suit. His mother has since passed away when Willie learns he has inherited his father's estate. Imagining a southern mansion waiting in the wings, Willie hops onto the next train like a salmon returning to its birthplace. Before departing, he is warned by his guardian to stay clear of the Canfields.

The trip south foreshadows the archaic world Willie is about to enter. The train itself is primitive and, naturally, encounters numerous mishaps along the way. Luckily for Willie, the ordeal is made bearable because his fellow passenger is a pretty girl (Natalie Talmadge, the first Mrs. Keaton). Unfortunately, Willie's spawning choice here, unknown to him, is a Canfield daughter.

There are numerous aquatic metaphors. Willie stands apart from his fellows, like a fish out of water, with city clicker suit and queer umbrella. While fishing, he catches a minnow, throws it back, and then gets pulled into the water by a bigger fish. Willie's mansion turns out to be a dilapidated shack and he unwittingly finds himself in the home of his sworn enemies. True to Southern hospitality, the Canfields vow not kill Willie while he is a guest in their home. When Willie learns of this, he naturally tries to remain a permanent houseguest. Almost forced out, Willie is saved from leaving by the sudden appearance of a heavy downpour. A dam blows up, nearly drowning Willie, but it also safely conceals Willie from his predators, the Canfield boys. In a reversal of the fishing line, Willie is tied, by rope, to a Canfield son. Both get hauled into the water. A descent into the rapids brings further peril, as does a waterfall. Willie dangles over the waterfall like that salmon on a line. Yet, it is the waterfall which unites Willie with his girl, allowing him to spawn.

Our Hospitality is replete with inventive sight gags (a tunnel is cut to fit the train, a horse's rear-end is disguised as Willie in drag), but it's really a sophisticated, yet simple retelling of the Romeo and Juliet narrative.

* My review was originally published at 366 weird movies.


Where East is East
Where East is East
DVD ~ Lon Chaney
Price: $14.99
19 used & new from $12.64

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Browning and Chaney's delightfully demented popcorn opus, March 19, 2013
This review is from: Where East is East (DVD)
Like a true auteur, Tod Browning essentially kept remaking the same film. He was a peculiarity in Hollywood. He refused an agent, generally refused assignment scripts and, instead, consistently sought out material that interested him.

Where East is East (1929) was the last of the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaborations, it was the last of Browning's silent films, and it contained many themes from their previous efforts together.

The heavily scarred, large-feline-monikered Tiger Haynes (Chaney) is an animal trapper who has an uncomfortably playful relationship with his daughter Toya (the bubbly Lupe Velez). Their relationship alters between games of feline patty cake and overt protection. Daddy and Toya's relationship gets thrown its first monkey wrench when Toya acquires a new boyfriend, Bobby (Lloyd Hughes).

Acting like a jealous lover, Tiger refuses to warm up to Bobby, until Bobby assists Tiger in saving Toya from a real tiger. Now Bobby is a real swell and welcome to the pride. While delivering tigers on a cruise to the East, Tiger and Bobby run into Tiger's ex-wife and Toya's mother, Mme. de Sylva (Estelle Taylor, the real-life one time wife of Jack Dempsey). For Bobby, Sylva is the embodiment of oriental fantasy. She is a true tigress with a jealous, soothsayer-like female servant (hints of a lesbian relationship). Sylva spews her man-baiting poison on the intoxicated Bobby, in order to exact sexual revenge on Tiger and parental revenge on their daughter,Toya. This is a reversal of West of Zanzibar (1928), in which Chaney was the parent exacting parental revenge on a whelp. The incestuous relationship hinted between Tiger and Toya (on Tiger's part, twice unrequited) is paralleled in Bobby and Sylva.

Sylva enters Toya's world and repressed, invisible secrets threaten the illusory fabric of Tiger's world. Of course, some animals devour their young, and Sylva, one step removed, attempts to incestuously devour Toya. Unfortunately for Sylva, behind a fragile cage she has a nemesis in a gorilla holding a grudge for secret, past abuses. It is the savage animal kingdom that will exact revenge. Chaney, impotently declawed, scowls and threatens Sylva from the sidelines until he unleashes the beast, which will end in paternal sacrifice for the daughter he cannot possess (shades of West again).

Where East is East hands the film to Taylor, who, reportedly, managed her off-screen relations with men in a fashion similar to Sylva. Luckily, Taylor is up to the part, as is Velez, who conveys innocence, diverse emotions, and energetic sexual charm. Chaney is excellent as usual, in the secondary, castrated role.

One off-screen note of interest: "Mexican Spitfire" Velez and Taylor became quite close after working together in this film. Velez, pregnant and abandoned, spent her last hours on earth with Taylor, before departing her mortal coil with the aid of Seconal. Somehow, in the Browning universe, that is an apt, dark underside to the narrative.

Needless to say, Where East is East does not subscribe to any sort of orthodox realism. It is representative of the blue collar surrealism that both Browning and Chaney espoused and can be best enjoyed with a heaping plate of elephant ears and cotton candy, along with a well-worn copy of "The Interpretation of Dreams."

* my review originally appeared at 366 weird movies


West of Zanzibar
West of Zanzibar
DVD ~ Lon Chaney
Price: $14.99
17 used & new from $7.99

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An over the top and typically idiosyncratic collaboration (plus a bonus), March 19, 2013
This review is from: West of Zanzibar (DVD)
West of Zanzibar (1928) is missing some footage, but, unlike the earlier The Road to Mandalay, it is in much more viewable state. Enough of Zanzibar remains intact so as not to appear too fragmentary. Originally tilted Kongo, West of Zanzibar is the most flagrant, delightfully vile of the Browning/Chaney Oedipal absurdities.

Chaney plays Phroso. Phroso is married to Anna (Jacqueline Gadsden) and together they work in a Limehouse music hall as a magic act (in the early scenes as the magician, the protean Chaney gives a remarkable, Chaplin-like performance). Behind Phroso's back, Anna is carrying on an affair with Crane (Lionel Barrymore). When Phroso and Crane inevitably fight over Anna, Phroso falls from a great height, forever crippling himself. After a short time has passed, Phroso is told that his wife has returned to town, with a baby, and is in the local church. The dead-legged Phroso zips down to the church via scooter and crawls into the tabernacle, only to find his wife, with crying babe in arms, collapsed in death, at the feet of a Madonna and child statue. Phroso looks at the baby girl, then at the Madonna, and vows revenge on Crane and the infant.

Twenty years later, Phroso re-emerges as "Dead Legs": a witch doctor and trader, lording over a swamp in Africa, utilizing his cheap parlor tricks to keep the local cannibals in submission. Dead Legs is under the care of the derelict, alcoholic Doc (Warner Baxter) and an assortment of unsavory characters. Using the natives, Dead Legs steals ivory from his nemesis, Crane. It's all part of a twenty year grand scheme for ultimate revenge.

Dead Legs summons Maisie (the beautiful, tragic, and short-lived Mary Nolan). Maisie is the now grown infant, whom Phroso believes to be the child of Anna and Crane. During the past twenty years, Maisie was placed, by Phroso, in the surroundings of a seedy bar in Zanzibar. Naturally, Maisie has become a tragic and loose alcoholic. In the original script, Maisie was placed in a brothel and raised as a debauched prostitute who contracts syphilis. However, producer Irving Thalberg predictably insisted this be softened somewhat in the film, which only lowers the film's sleaze level from ten to about a nine and a half.

Dead Legs instructs the tribesmen to inform Crane that it is he, their master, who has been stealing the ivory. Of course, this kind of grimy silent era melodrama insists on throwing a monkey wrench or two into the scheme, complications Browning delivers in spades. Doc falls in love with Maisie and finds himself at odds with Dead Legs torturous treatment of the girl, who has recently sworn to kick the bottle. Nolan excels in the scene in which her paralyzed father descends from his wheel chair, slithering towards her. She is simultaneously petrified and optimistic, but Dead Legs drives her back to the brink of brandied insanity. Enter Crane, who sadistically reveals to Dead Legs the terrible secret that Maisie is Phroso's daughter, not Crane's.

It's cornball, grotesque spectacle that Chaney and Browning treat as austere entertainment. Crane is shot and killed by the natives. It is tribal custom to burn alive a female relative of a dead male. The natives had previously been told that Maisie was the daughter of Crane and they demand that the sacrificial custom be carried out. Dead Legs must now make amends for his terrible mistake and hopes he has one last parlor trick up his sleeve to save his daughter and Doc.

As Dead Legs, Chaney delivers an amazing, masochistic, emotionally high-octane, and downright creepy performance. He writhes his way through most of the film, contorting his body with gleeful abandon. Chaney was a master of pantomime expression, learned from years of communicating with his deaf-mute parents. Chaney communicated best with those who shared his penchant for what others consider macabre. His wife had previously been married to a legless man and his preeminent director, Tod Browning, ran way from home to join the carnival, supposedly having had at least one affair with a freak. In many of his films, Browning depicted men paralyzed from the waist down, and later, in Freaks (1932), utilized actual legless freaks.

The Road to Mandalay (1926) & West of Zanzibar (1928) represent the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaboration at the height of its nefarious, Oedipal zenith, brought to you, for your entertainment, by Irving Thalberg.

Unfortunately, The Road to Mandalay exists only in fragmented and disintegrated state, a mere 36 minutes of its original seven reels. In this passionately pretentious film, which is not related to the Kipling poem, Chaney plays "dead-eyed" Singapore Joe (Chaney achieved the eye effect with egg white) who runs a Singapore brothel. Joe's business associates are the black spiders of the Seven Seas: the Admiral Herrington (Owen Moore) and English Charlie Wing (Kamiyama Sojin), the best knife-thrower in the Orient. Joe's relationship with his partners is tense and, often, threatening.

Apparently, Joe's wife is long dead. The two had a daughter, Rosemary (Lois Moran), who Joe left at a convent in Mandalay, under the care of his brother, Fr. James (Henry Walthall). Joe, a repulsive sight, occasionally emerges from his sordid, underworld activities to visit Rosemary, who works in a bazaar. Joe plans to clean up his act within two years, once he has enough money to undergo plastic surgery and retire. Joe wants to be a reborn man, so he can reunite with his daughter and rescue her from the confines of poverty. Rosemary, however, unaware that Joe is her father (a frequent Browning theme), is repulsed by dead eyed Joe, understandably mistaking his friendliness for sexual predation. Fr. James warns Joe that waiting two years is too long. Joe's insistence for patience only makes Fr. James skeptical that Joe can actually achieve or sustain the redemption necessary to give Rosemary a good life.

One day the Admiral walks into Rosemary's Bazaar and discovers love at first sight when meeting Rosemary. Falling in love with his partner's daughter inspires the Admiral to instantaneously see the light and put his past behind him. It is the Admiral, rather than Joe, who undergoes conversion. After spying Rosemary preparing for her impending wedding, Joe discovers the truth. He succumbs to an unsettling rivalry for his daughter and is furiously determined to put a stop to the union. Joe goes to Fr. James, insisting that the Admiral, like himself, is too defiled, too corrupt. The priest tires to assure Joe that the Admiral's about face is genuine; he's been converted by love. In a rage, Joe attempts to strangle his brother. A reel or so is missing here and next we find out that, somehow, Joe has shanghaied the wedding, kidnapped the Admiral, and is bound for the seven seas.

Searching for her missing lover, Rosemary arrives at Joe's brothel, but she is lured upstairs by Charlie Wing. Joe arrives in time to stop Charlie from having his way with Rosemary, but the Admiral also arrives and a knife fight ensues, during which Rosemary stabs her father. Mortally wounded, Joe blocks Wing's way and urges the Admiral to take Rosemary away to the seraphic life. Fr. James arrives in time to give Joe the last rites.

The Road to Mandalay is depraved, pop-Freudian, silent melodrama at its ripest. Fortunately, both Browning and Chaney approach this hodgepodge of silliness in dead earnest. Chaney is simultaneously cocky, parental, disturbingly coarse, and leering, projecting pathos and machismo. His Oedipal wailing, when his daughter tells Joe that she hates the mysterious father who has abandoned her, is classic. Browning, as was typical, idiosyncratically mixes melodramatic hi-jinks with exotic locales and strong actors. Unfortunately, The Road to Mandalay is in such dissipated state that it makes for burdensome, strained viewing. The only known print is a 16 mm abridged version, which was discovered in France in the 1980s. Even in its abridged state, The Road to Mandalay is intoxicating, outrageous silent cinema melodrama, badly in need of restoration.

Together, Browning and Chaney acted out of the darkest recesses of their psyche in the silent era's most manic productions, and they did it with authentic devotion.

* my review originally appeared at 366 weird movies. Since "Road to Mandalay", in its truncated form, will probably not be released I have included it here.


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