Monday, November 27, 2017

Movie Review: Lady Bird

Review Written by Michael J. Ruhland

Michael's Movie Grade: A+

Review: Lady Bird is a profoundly moving and funny film, and one of the one of the finest American movies in recent years.

What really makes this film so incredible is its honesty and straightforwardness. Everything in this film feels so real in natural. This does not feel like you are watching a movie, but rather that you are seeing these characters' lives unfold on screen. These characters could have so easily become one dimensional stereotypes, but they are so much more. Like us they have fully rounded personalities that are sometimes admirable and sometimes much less than that. When we see a character make a bad choice, we don't just shake our head and think they are stupid as we do in so many other movies. We really feel sorry and even regret for them. This is because as we watch the movie they become almost like friends and family to us and we feel legitimate concern for them. The relationship between Lady Bird and her mother is extremely real and powerful. All this is so important because this is a film that is much more propelled by the characters than the story. The story itself is really simple, and resembles stories we have seen in other films. Still the characters make it feel so unique and new. Besides just being profound and moving, this movie is consistently quite funny. There were many times I and other audience members laughed out loud. The jokes were not only funny but very clever. Fitting into the spirit of the narrative, each joke perfectly comes out of the characters. This means the jokes are not only funny, but help us get more and more involved in the characters and story we see on screen. Though this movie does bring up politics and religion and uses them as the basis for jokes, there is nothing mean spirited here, and the movie never preaches to us on what we should think.

All in all this is just an incredible movie and a must see for all movie lovers.

-Michael J. Ruhland 

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Happy 89th Birthday to Mickey Mouse

Today is the 89th birthday of cartoondom's most famous mouse. No not Speedy Gonzales, I am speaking of curse of Mickey. To celebrate we are going to look at four classic Mickey Mouse shorts.

Up first is probably the most famous Mickey Mouse short ever created, Steamboat Willie. This was not the first Mickey cartoon made but the first one to get a wide release. The first Mickey cartoon made was a silent short called Plane Crazy. However distributors did not want the cartoon (as well as the second Mickey made, The Galloping Gaucho, also silent) and he was turned down flat. With sound film catching on it became clear in the film industry that soon silent film would be a thing of the past. Walt as an artist who was always looking forward decided to make Steamboat Willie as a sound film. Though sound cartoons had been made before hand, none of them were very successful. Walt knew that for the audience to accept sound in an animated cartoon it had to be perfect. Wilfred Jackson one of the studio's animators prepared a bar sheet of music, while Walt prepared his usual exposure sheet. They did this simultaneously and with close work together to make sure the sound would be synchronized just right. Even with this they weren't sure the illusion of sound accompanying moving drawings would be accepted by the audience. Because of this after enough animation was made, the crew had a test run, with Wilfred Jackson on Harmonica and the rest of the crew making sound effects. The result worked and work on the film as a sound picture moved forward. When this film made its premiere at New York's Colony Theater, it was a huge hit and ushered in the era of sound cartoons. So without further ado here is the one and only Steamboat Willie. After the success of this film soundtracks were added to the two previous Mickey cartoons and they got the wide theater release they deserved.

Next up is one of my favorite black and white Mickeys 1929's The Karnival Kid. The reason I love this cartoon so much is that it is a pure cartoon in its purest sense. In later Disney animated films, it was decided that characters' bodies always had to stay intact and that characters couldn't take off parts of their bodies for their own uses as that would break the reality of the films. With all due respect, I disagree with this. It is a cartoon and if I believe the characters then I will also believe their bodies are detectable and retractable. Some of my favorite gags in this short involve how the cats avoid the things being thrown at them and how Mickey takes off the top of his head like tipping a hat to greet Minnie. This film also has the immortal first words of Mickey Mouse, "Hot Dogs". Though his voice sounds quite different here than later films, it is still Walt providing it.

Last up is two perfect cartoons for the occasion, a 1931 cartoon called The Birthday Party and a 1942 cartoon called Mickey's Birthday Party. The reason I am putting both of these cartoons together is that one is a remake of the other. The differences are clear. The latter one has Donald Duck, Goofy and Clara Cluck in it. These characters were not yet created in 1931, so they couldn't be included here. There is also the obvious fact that the later one is also in color. Still these cartoons are extremely similar and both delightful. So sit back and enjoy them.

Now let's close this post by all singing Mickey's favorite song together.

-Michael J. Ruhland

Resources UsedThe 50 Greatest Cartoons edited by Jerry Beck
Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age by Michael Barrier.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Movie Review: Casablanca (1942)

Review Written By Michael J. Ruhland.

Michael's Movie Grade: A+

Note: This is going to be a simple review. There will be no deep analyzing of any particular scene. This is because every inch of this movie has been analyzed so often, that anything I say on that front will be pointless to say at this time, and if I were going to do something like this it would be on a much less analyzed movie. Instead I will be looking at this movie as a whole and why I feel like I do about it.

Review: One of the most perfect movies ever made.

What makes this film so incredible is that it incorporates every emotion and delivers perfectly with each one. This movie makes you laugh at times, cry at times, cheer at times and be in suspense at times. However with all this going on the movie still flows absolutely perfectly and each of these emotions work together fantastically. This is because everything in this movie is tied together to the story and the characters. There is not a scene in this film that is not needed. If a single line of dialogue was cut the movie would not be as effective as it is. This is especially incredible once you consider that this movie wasn't finished being written by the time filming started. The ending in particular had not been figured out until just a little before the scene was filmed. With this it is made even more amazing that everything in this movie just seems so naturally. Even us film history buffs who know the story of how long it took for some scenes to be written, forget it when watching the movie because it flows so perfectly naturally.

Any fan of Hollywood movies from the 1930's and 40's will know Casablanca has one of the all time greatest casts ever assembled for a movie. You have Humphry Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as the leads. These are quite well written characters, but the actors performances make them so much more real. There is not a false note in these performances. However the supporting cast is also extremely memorable. Claude Rains is one of my favorite Hollywood actors of this period and this movie perfectly shows why. Captain Louis Renault would be already such a fun character if we were just reading the Epstein brothers and Howard Koch's script. He is given some of the funniest lines in this movie and the character's relationship with Rick is really interesting. However Rains manages to bring this character to the next level with his performance. One gets the feeling he was having a great time making this movie and we sure have a great time watching him. Peter Lorre even with such a small role leaves a great impression and I always forget how soon his character disappears. This movie would not be the same if Dooley Wilson wasn't here. His beautiful renditions of It Had to Be You, Knock on Wood and As Time Goes By, make this movie so much more powerful. Paul Henrid, S. Z. Sakall, Sydney Greenstreet and so many more also make this movie such a joy to watch.

Thanks to TCM and Fathom Events, I and many others got to see this movie on the big screen for its 75th anniversary. I have seen this movie so many times, and know it by heart. However seeing it with an audience and in a cinema made it feel like a brand new experience. Movies were meant to be shared with others and seeing the film like this is such a great and different experience.

-Michael J. Ruhland

Coming Saturday: A birthday tribute to Mickey Mouse.    

Friday, November 10, 2017

Space Mouse and the Secrect Weapon

I am a huge fan of Walter Lantz cartoons. These cartoons may not be Disney or Warner Brothers but they have a unique charm all their own. That is why today I am going to look at a TV pilot made by the studio for shows that never went on the air. If you are interested in watching this pilots it can be seen on The Woody Woodpecker Classic Cartoon Collection Volume Two DVD set, along with another unproduced pilot called Jungle Medics

The pilot we are look at is called The Secret Weapon and stars a character called Space Mouse. This character did exist before this cartoon in comic books, but this marked the first time he would be animated. The idea for the character came from a 1959 cartoon staring the mice characters Hickory, Dickory and Doc called Space Mouse. A comic editor named Chase Craig was told to create a comic book based off a Walter Lantz property. Chase Craig saw Space Mouse in a press release and was excited to use this Space Mouse as a character before he found out that Space Mouse was not an actually character in the cartoon. Still Craig liked this idea and made a comic book with a character named Space Mouse and asked Walter Lantz if it was ok if he declared this character as a property of the studio. Lantz agreed and the comic series was a hit. Naturally the Walter Lantz studio wanted to make cartoons based off this character and created a TV pilot. This pilot was directed by one of the studio's main stays Alex Lovy. The pilot was not picked up but not to let it go to waste the studio released it in movie theaters in 1960.

The cartoon begins with Space Mouse being called to the planet Rodentia by King Size the king of the mice. It seems cats from the planet Felinia seem to be invading constantly. The king tells Space Mouse to take care of this problem and gives him a pill to sallow if things go wrong. He doesn't know what the pill does but all spies are supposed to have a pill. The king also gives Space mouse a Siamese cat costume. In this costume, Space Mouse pretends to be a waiter at the restaurant where the king of the cats eats. Soon though Space Mouse is found out and takes his pill. It turns him invisible for just enough time to escape. Space Mouse then decides to release the secret weapon an army of dogs. Where does he get these dogs you might ask from the Dog Star of course. Space Mouse comes home a hero.

Though this film was released theatrically, its TV origins are quite obvious. Though at this time the studio's budget was severely cut, this cartoon had animation even more limited than the average theatrical short from this era. With this the cartoon is much more dialogue heavy than the average Lantz short from this era. There was little visual humor here instead the humor comes all from the characters speaking. Such an example is when our hero puts on the Siamese Cat costume, he speaks like a stereotyped Asian (even calling himself Charlie Chin). This is not humor that flows from how he moves but from how he speaks. The cartoon even features Space Mouse narrating, telling you stuff other Lantz cartoons would show you instead. One could close their eyes and still get all the story and humor from this film.

Despite all this the cartoon has a strange simple charm to it. The story is simple, but is always interesting and it never feels to rushed or to drag out. There are some good jokes here that get some good laughs. While the animation leaves a lot to be desired, the design work is quite good. This may never be placed among the studio's best cartoons, but it is likable and worth a watch for my fellow Walter Lantz fans.

-Michael J. Ruhland

Coming Up Sunday: A review of one of the most popular movies of all time. If you need a hint, just remember this a kiss is still a kiss and a sigh is just a sigh.     


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Movie Review: Thor Ragnarok

Review Written By Michael J. Ruhland

Michael's Movie Grade: D

Review: Though this film tries to make Marvel's weakest cinematic series into something more enjoyable the film seems bland and lifeless.

The Thor movies are my least favorite Marvel movies. The main reason for this is that I find Thor and Loki maybe the two most boring major characters in Marvel's cinematic universe. There is little to make them more interesting here. Sure, Thor has more wisecracks than he did in the past, but a personality that doesn't make. There is just little reason to care about this character at all. The villainess is equally boring here. She is definitely very powerful, but her screen presence and personality just feels like many villains we have seen in many other superhero movies and there is nothing here to make her stand out among so many similar villains. The Valkyrie is one of the many characters in recent films (like ones we saw in Rogue One) that has a backstory instead of a personality. Bruce Banner is honestly the only character here I actually seem to care about. With the blandness of the characters there seems to be little reason to get into the action scenes, and they come off as boring. The movie does look really good, but all this amounts to little when all but one character are so boring.

One of the main selling points of the movie was the humor. It ended up being very hit and miss. There were some jokes that made me laugh and were the highlights of the movie (though the movie's best joke was already seen in the trailer). Most of the jokes that worked seemed to come from the Hulk. He was the only character in this film that made me laugh consistently. The bickering between him and Thor were easily the highlights of the film. On the other hand much of the humor just falls flat. Thor's wisecracks leave little to no reason to laugh, and Loki's humor is annoying rather than funny.

I know I am hugely in the minority on this movie but I found the film quite bland.

-Michael J. Ruhland

Coming Up Friday: A Look at a Walter Lantz pilot film for a TV Show that wasn't picked up.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Why Harry Langdon Deserves His Place in the Top Four of Silent Film Comedy

It has been written and stated by various film historians, critics and fans that there are four huge icons of silent film comedy that stand above the rest. These are Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon. Though most silent films buffs agree strongly with the first three, many argue with the inclusion of Harry Langdon in this list. People have tried to replace his part in the big four with comedians such as Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Larry Seamon and various others. However I strongly feel that Harry Langdon deserves his place as one of the top four silent film comedians and in this post I hope to show why.

Now I am not going to pretend that Harry Langdon is not an acquired taste and that every silent film fan will enjoy him. The truth is his comedy is quite surreal and will even make some viewers' uncomfortable. Part of this uncomfortableness comes from the fact that his character is so vulnerable. When faced with life threatening danger most silent film comedians would flee or fight. Harry does neither he simply stares at the danger and doesn't move. Instead he is trying to understand the danger rather than avoid it. This wouldn't be a big deal if Harry didn't live in such a harsh and cruel world. Harry did not exist in the same reality as the Keystone Cops, where all the violence had no threat behind it. Harry lived in a world that wanted him dead. The person trying to kill him would even be his so called "love interest" in such films as Solider Man and Lucky Stars. He would survive his near death experiences, not because of anything he does, but rather simply because of dumb luck. Even after the danger in Lucky Stars or similar films, he remains unaware that anyone tried to kill him. This dark subject matter being played in a very threatening manner can leave many people confused and uncomfortable rather than in laughter. However for others such as myself this only makes his films more fascinating and stand out as something truly unique in screen comedy of this era. His films' were brilliant dark comedies at a time when hardly any other film artist was doing this type of humor.

If you can't tell from the previous paragraph Harry Langdon is possibly the most unique silent film comic. While most of the silent movie comics get huge laughs from making big reactions, Harry would get his laughs from not reacting. In a scene in Feet of Mud for instance Harry accidently knocked the head off of a dummy that he believes is a real person. Now any other silent film comedian would have either tried to put the head back on, get rid of the evidence before anyone sees or just run away in fear. Harry does none of these things instead he simply vacantly stares at the dummy as if he is wondering just how that could of happened. The film has built up what in any other comedy would obviously lead to a big reaction, however Harry being Harry has completely destroyed our expectations and instead gave us a punch line (or lack of one) that is much funnier and more unique than what we were excepting. A similar scene occurs in Remember When. In this film Harry accidently sits on a beehive. While this would obviously lead to the comic running around waving his arms and trying to shake the bees off if Harry Langdon wasn't the star instead to Harry it is a minor irritation, and he instead scratches himself wondering what is making him itch. Harry Langdon was not just another comic but an innovator of movie comedy. He broke every rule, but preserved and made great art. Charlie Chaplin reinvented film comedy and everybody followed suit. Langdon may not have had the same impact on the art, but that is because his innovation was I doing things no other comic would do. Chaplin definitely slowed down the pace that film comedy would go at, but moving as slow as Langdon's comedy did would be a huge risk, and something that would make many film artists uncomfortable to try. This is not a put down to either comic as I am a huge fan of both of them, but simply an explanation of the difference. For a short time Harry Langdon was one of the most popular stars of the silver screen. Many hailed him as the new Chaplin and no less than Mack Sennett would refer to him as "the greatest talent I ever worked with". After Langdon's departure from his studio, Sennett tried to make some films with others in a Langdon-like role. However no one could be Langdon other than Langdon. These films not only were below the quality of Langdon's own work, but simply did not even feel like Langdon. Harry was so unique that not a single other film artist could ever properly imamate him. Chaplin had many imitators, Langdon had very few, because it was hard for anybody to truly define why he was so funny. No one could possibly understand Harry's comedy, but everybody laughed at it just the same.

Something that is unjustly held against Harry Langdon is the idea that he didn't create his own character, but rather that character was created by Frank Capra. Capra wrote and directed some of Langdon's best films and in his autobiography gave himself credit for creating Langdon's character as well. He told the story of how at the Mack Sennett studio what to do with Harry Langdon was being discussed and Capra brought up that he had been reading a book called The Good Solider Švejk and how the main character in that story was protected from evil not by his own violation, but because God was watching over him. Capra then (still according to himself) came up with the phrase "the little elf whose only ally is God" and with that Harry's character was born. This whole story is completely ludicrous. Langdon's screen career was already underway at the time Frank Capra would first start working with the comic. In fact by the time Capra started writing for Harry Langdon, Harry had already stared in the shorts Luck of the Foolish and All Night Long, both of which show Langdon's character fully developed. Even before this character became so well developed in these films, little glimpses of the Harry character would show up in otherwise typical Mack Sennett films featuring Langdon. In His New Mama there is a scene in which Harry is leaving a note for Santa Claus and shyly and carefully doing so as if someone was watching, much like the character we would later know. In The First Hundred Years Harry walks up a flight of stairs on a spooky night holding a gun without a barrel. He knows the barrel is gone and he is holding it in a very ineffective way. Harry has no intention of using the gun, but he knows there is someone in the house and with this he is supposed to have a gun. It doesn't matter if he uses it or not, he knows he should have a gun and that is enough for him. These are definitely scenes quite different from how any other silent film comedian would have done them and it is easy to see the Harry character peeking his way through into these films. Capra went on to saw that after Harry fired him, Langdon's films become unbearably bad. Harry would become his own director and according to Capra, Langdon understood his character so little that these films would become embarrassing. These films were for quite a while not available for public viewing and many silent film fans took what Capra said for the truth. It was known these films did horrible at the box office and readers saw no reason not to believe what Capra said. However now it is possible to watch both Three's a Crowd and The Chaser, two of the movies Langdon directed. It turns out these are actually really great movies and show a very well developed character of the same caliber as the Capra directed features, The Strong Man and Long Pants. Despite this though their are many who will not give this films even a chance, because they believe what Capra said so completely. As it is these films still hurt Langdon's reputation today, by many people who refuse to watch these movies. Though there might be some people who still dislike these movies if more people gave them a chance they would find that Langdon's self-directed films are works of a great artist at the top of his game.

With all this said I feel strongly that Harry Langdon fully deserves his place in the top four movie comedians of the silent film era. His films are some of the most unique, funny and brilliant comedies of the silent era.

-Michael J. Ruhland      

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Movie Review: All I Can See is You

Review Written by Michael J. Ruhland

Michael's Movie Grade: C+

Review: This movie some big flaws, but it still ends up being a good movie thanks to great direction by Marc Foster and a very moving performance by Blake Lively.

Thus film really looks great. However this not only makes the movie pretty to look at but makes the story more effective. These visuals often allow you to see the world through the eyes and mind of our main character. When she sees or feels distorted, we can see that visually on the screen and when things are less distorted for her we see things in a rather normal way. With this the main character feels more real to us, and we believe the story more because of this. Also helping make this movie more believable is Blake Lively's performance. Critics seem to be split on this performance but I love it. You feel the emotion in her face. There is not a scene of this movie where she ever feels fake or unreal. Instead even when she doesn't say a word she conveys every emotion perfectly and pulls you into the movie. Why this film works is that with the direction, cinematography and performance all working together this main character feels undeniably real and this makes for some very emotionally effective moments.

However this film does have some huge problems. One of these is as real as our main character feels, her husband doesn't feel real. Though there are some interesting ideas with him, he is never believable. His dialogue often is the film's most forced and there is little knowing what he would be like or do if his wife wasn't in this movie. On top of this some of the side characters simply seem to be there to show us how the relationship between these two is having trouble. (slight spoilers though these events don't take place that far into the movie, so you won't have the ending ruined) How sexually satisfied the sister and her husband are is supposed to contrast with the awkward sex life of our two leads. However it becomes obvious that that is the only reason those two side characters exist. Likewise the peep show scene is supposed to symbolize their troubled sex life, but that scene is instead just awkward and hard to watch, while only telling us what we already know. (spoilers over) There is also another character who only exists for a similar reason, but I won't talk much about him so I don't spoil something that happens late in the movie. Again though while this problems are big, there is more than enough good here to make it worth watching.

-Michael J. Ruhland    

Silent Film of the Month: Caught in a Cabert (1914)

Run Time: 30 minutes. Studio: Keystone Studios. Directors: Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin. Writers: Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin. Main Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Alice Davenport, Chester Conklin, Edgar Kennedy. Cinematographer: Frank D. Williams.

Some of you reading this blog may be familiar with a story about what happened during the making of the Keystone comedy short Mabel at the Wheel. This short was directed by Mabel Normand (who also starred in it) and featured Charlie Chaplin as the villain. Chaplin wanted to improvise his own comedy bits but Mabel reminded him she was the director and not him. This lead to a fight. Eventaully Chaplin went to Mack Sennett (the studio boss) and told him about what was happening. Sennett's answer was that Chaplin had to do as the director stated whenever being directed by someone else, but as well as those films he would now be able to direct some of his own films. With this Charlie went and finished the film Mabel's way. What is rather interesting is this never caused any riff between Chaplin and Normand. They were friends off set and would work together on set. In fact one of the best films either of them made for the Keystone studios was one they co-directed and wrote.

Charlie Chaplin made 36 films (35 shorts and 1 feature) for Keystone Studios, all released in the year 1914. These films for the most part do not have a great reputation among Charlie Chaplin fans. This was because Charlie Chaplin's sense of humor was quite different than the studio's. The studio specialized in films with an extremely fast pace, little story and lots of slapstick. While he did not need to take as much time as say Harry Langdon, Chaplin's films were at their best when he was allowed more time to take than the studio often allowed him to. There was also the fact that many of the Keystone film offered no motivation for characters to engage in slapstick. The fact a person was leaning over was good enough reason to kick their rear end or stab it with a pitchfork. Charlie Chaplin was really one of the first film artists to add motivation for slapstick humor and was at his best when the humor was properly motivated. I personally have a soft spot for these Keystone shorts. While I admit quite a few of them are not anywhere up to par with his later work, they are fascinating to a film buff like me. It is incredible to get to see an artist evolve his art as you can see in these early films. You can see mistakes being made and Chaplin learning from them.

This film may have a simple story but there seems to be more focus on the story than there is in other Keystone shorts of this era. The Tramp (played by Charlie Chaplin) is a waiter at a not too high class café, where drinking and suggestive dancing are the norm. However the Tramp meets Mabel (played by Mabel Normand), a beautiful and sophisticated high class woman. The Tramp realizes that he doesn't stand a chance with this woman however he gets an idea. He disguises himself as a Greek Ambassador. With this disguise he is able to go to a fancy garden party, hosted by her family.

With this film having a greater emphasis on story it also features more intertitles than the average Keystone short. Despite this though there is no lack of typical Keystone slapstick, including brick throwing, mallet to head action, and so forth. However with this film having more of a story the slapstick feels more motivated than usual and is actually pretty funny. It is fascinating today to see ideas done here in this early short that would later be employed in the later much renowned feature film, City Lights. In that film the Tramp would pretend to be a millionaire to impress a blind girl. This type of façade is also employed as a major story point here. However the big difference is in how the ideas are treated. In City Lights it is played for both comedy and drama. However here it is played only for comedy. There is little pity or empathy for the tramp Caught in Cabaret will try to get out of the audience. While these are probably just coincidences, they are still fascinating to see here and show the Tramp as more fully developed character than he was in most Keystone films. This film is a pure delight. The humor is pretty funny and the story does keep you interested from the beginning to the end. The performances are of course great and Charlie and Mabel have all of their usual charm. Along with our two main stars also of interest to today's film enthusiast is an early appearance by the great character actor Edgar Kennedy as the café owner. Kennedy would later be known as the master of the slow burn and appeared in numerous Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang shorts as well as his own series of short subjects. Probably his most famous role today is as the street vendor who gets the worst from Harpo and Chico Marx in Duck Soup. Here he is not playing the kind of role he would later be known for and it is fun to see him in a different type of role. He may here however go unrecognized by people watching the film today as he looked much different.    

Upon this film's release critics were very enthusiastic about how much they enjoyed the short. In a review in the New York Times Dramatic Mirror the reviewer wrote " is unwise to call this the funniest picture that has ever been produced but it comes mighty close to it". A reviewer in Bioscope wrote "Mr. Chaplin has a humor all his own, in which here he has the opportunity of indulging to the upmost, the result being amusing to the extreme". A reviewer for Moving Picture World was much more playful in his review stating "It caused so much laughter you couldn't hear what the actors was talking".

Resources UsedThe Films of Charlie Chaplin edited by Gerald D. Macdonald, Michael Conway and Mark Ricci
Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett by Simon Louvish