A Cat In Paris (2010)

A Cat in Paris (2010)

*currently streaming on Sundance Now

a-cat-in-paris1

Although many of us bemoan the death of the video store, one of the (unintentional) consequences of the rise of streaming services is the broadening market for indies and foreign-language films. Movies that otherwise would have been found buried in the stacks at Blockbuster are widely available. I know for certain my childhood Blockbuster wouldn’t have carried A Cat in Paris, an animated film from Folimage that was nominated for an Academy Award back in 2010.

A Cat in Paris tells of the exciting adventures of Dino, a black cat with red stripes who lives with Zoe and her mother Jeanne by day, and by night accompanies dashing cat burglar Nico on his nefarious rounds. Dino is a source of solace and companionship for Zoe, who has become increasingly distant from her mother since her father’s murder by crime boss Victor Costa. In her grief and anger, Zoe has retreated into herself, refusing to speak and largely relating to her cat. While Jeanne investigates her husband’s murder, she leaves her daughter in the care of Dino and their housekeeper Claudine. Dino’s wanderings soon result in the intersection of Jeanne and Nico’s lives, when he accidentally leads Zoe out of the house and into danger.

A Cat in Paris has both its plot and its animation style going for it, developing the characters as much through their fluid movements and physical types as through their roles in the actual narrative. Nico’s movements are fluid, his arms and legs bending and elongating as he traverses the rooftops of Paris with catlike (!) ease. He’s of a piece with Dino, perhaps the most perfectly inscrutable and adorable representation of a cat in animation. Dino is completely at home sliding across fences, annoying dogs, and following in the footsteps of his criminal friend, then returning home to cuddle Zoe and reassure her that she’s loved, as only a pet can do.

As the film develops from Dino’s nighttime wanderings to a screwball-ish caper somewhere between latter-day Hitchcock and Stanley Donen’s Charade, the animation doesn’t lose its sense of magic. Paris is rendered in all its beauty, the essence of the city captured in  stuttering, elegant lines and popping colors. The film doesn’t shy away from creating a sense of danger, though the effect is more emotional and psychological than representative of real physical violence. One sequence in which the lights go out during rescue attempt is drawn so brilliantly style that one realizes this is a film that must be animated, that cannot exist outside the realm of hand-drawn art.

My sole complaint about A Cat in Paris is that I was unable to watch it in the original French via streaming, and so had to make do with the English language version. However, this also means that I got to hear Anjelica Huston doing voice work as Claudine, so it all came out right in the end.

Coming in at a brisk 65 minutes, A Cat in Paris is a welcome respite from CGI, as well as an adventure worthy of a 1960s caper film. It also reminded me that of all the cities in the world, Paris is still the most magical.

A Cat in Paris is available to stream on Sundance Now.

*Like my writing? Please consider supporting my Patreon!

The General (1926) and Three Ages (1923) (Blu-ray Review)

The General (1926)

the-general-1926

The General holds the distinction of being one of the two most famous Buster Keaton films ever made, and consequently the one most often seen even by those who might resist silent cinema. And what a film it is. The General spends the vast majority of its hour and fifteen minute runtime in a breathless chase sequence, with stunts that become ever more elaborate as Keaton and his crew risk life and limb for the sake of a good joke. In this new restoration from Kino Lorber and Lobster Films, we can finally watch The General in all its gorgeous glory (and in the original aspect ratio!).

Keaton is Johnnie Grey, an engineer on the Western & Atlantic Railroad who loves two things: his engine The General, and his girl Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). When the Civil War breaks out, Annabelle pressures Johnnie to enlist, but the Confederate Army thinks that he’d be more useful as an engineer than as a soldier. Believing her man is a coward, Annabelle refuses to have anything more to do with Johnnie until he puts on a uniform. Fast forward a year, and Annabelle is traveling on the Western & Atlantic to go see her father, who has been injured further North. Little does she – or Johnnie – know, but The General is the target for Union saboteurs, who steal the train with Annabelle still on board. Johnnie gives chase, vowing to bring back his engine and his girl.

The stunts in The General are some of the most remarkable that Keaton would ever pull off, with the comedian riding on the cow catcher, running over the top of the train cars, firing cannons around bends, and setting a bridge on fire. But the stunts also pay off as shocking feats of athletic – and locomotive – prowess that today would take ten stuntmen and lots of insurance forms. The directing and editing of the film plays a large part in The General’s success, maintaining a breakneck speed and elegance that provides a study in continuity editing.

The odd quirks of The General – such as Keaton insisting that the heroes be the Confederate Army, because no one would have sympathy with the Union – don’t serve to undermine it. While the Civil War acts as a backdrop, and there is an undercurrent of the South’s heroism, it’s a very apolitical film, more about the triumph of the little man than about any big victory for the rebels.

Three Ages (1923)

three-ages-123

Lesser known than The General or even than the other two films in Kino’s other Keaton collection is Three Ages, an underrated little gem from 1923.

Three Ages gently mocks D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance by taking a similar structure and subject matter, telling of universal human experience through three stories from three different periods of history. Keaton here takes on “love” through the lenses of the Stone Age, the Roman Age, and the Modern Age, each depicted with tongue firmly in cheek. The structure is really just an excuse for Keaton to do his stunts, and the plot is less integral to the stunts than in The General or Steamboat Bill, Jr. But the stunts are, as always, glorious to behold, particularly in the climactic chase scenes at the end of each historical sequence. There are also wonderful little bouts of silliness, as when Keaton’s Roman counterpart runs a chariot race by dog sled, or the acrobatic football game in which the slight comedian faces off against the massive Wallace Beery.

Three Ages is probably one of the sillier Keaton films, and the episodic structure means that the viewer more or less knows what to expect in each sequence. But without being groundbreaking, it’s also quite entertaining.

As with the Steamboat Bill, Jr. and College set, this set from Kino Lorber and Lobster Films features gorgeous 2K restorations of Keaton’s classics, along with a hefty dose of extras on both discs. For the film buffs among us, the audio commentary from film historians on The General is interesting, especially as this is among the best known of Keaton’s works. Three Ages doesn’t receive quite the same attention, though the inclusion of Man’s Genesis, another Griffith film parodied in the Stone Age sequence in Three Ages, is a welcome historical tidbit.Three Ages is unfortunately a visibly damaged film, with several scenes almost obscured by damaged frames. But this restoration thankfully makes even those scenes watchable, and the film is here presented in its entirety.

What’s really most impressive and important in these new Kino releases is the beauty and the care that has gone into the restorations. Thousands of silent films have been lost, and many more have disintegrated beyond repair, so even the smallest attempts to preserve silent film history is welcome in the digital age. And these are not small films, nor are the preservation attempts – they are seminal comedies from one of the greatest comedic minds of his or any other generation, presented with loving attention to detail in crisp digital prints. Embrace these films, watch them, buy them. Support the preservation of our cinematic history. We won’t see anything like this again.

The General/Three Ages is now available from Kino Lorber.

The Death Kiss (1932)

The Death Kiss (1932)

*available to stream on Shudder

the-death-kiss-1

The horror streaming service Shudder has a few high-quality public domain films available for streaming which, if you’re a stickler for quality like me, is very welcome. The Death Kiss, a pre-Code thriller from 1932 and restored by Kino in this edition, is one of the most surprisingly entertaining little dramas that I’ve seen in a long while.

The Death Kiss opens on the making of the film The Death Kiss, as actor Miles Brent (Edmund Burns) walks onscreen for his cinematic death scene…and winds up actually being shot. Almost everyone on set is pretty sanguine about Brent’s death: his ex-wife and leading lady Marcia (Adrienne Ames) can’t stand him, his director Tom Avery (Edward Sloan) and studio manager Joseph Steiner (Bela Lugosi) are more worried about finishing the film than the loss of their leading man, and the head of studio Leon A. Grossmith (Alexander Carr) is counting the money that he’s going to lose by delaying production for such a small thing as a murder. The police arrive, and so does a young scenario writer and would-be detective Franklyn Drew (David Manners), who also happens to be Marcia’s lover. But while no one really cares who killed Brent, when the police set their sights on Marcia, Drew decides he has to act on his own. What follows is a snappy little whodunnit with some silly set-pieces, crackling dialogue, and lots of Hollywood self-effacement.

The Death Kiss is immediately notable for bringing back together three of the main actors from the 1931 Dracula in the persons of Manners, Sloan, and Lugosi. But each are also playing noticeably against type: Sloan is far from the grandfatherly Van Helsing, and Lugosi actually gets more than a few laughs in as the slightly diabolical studio manager. Most notable, however, is David Manners, who was wooden as Jonathan Harker and here actually proves he carry off comedy and dashing wit without creasing his necktie. Because the film is so short, coming in at just over an hour, the plot moves along at a good clip, getting in little digs at Hollywood and movie-making while managing to conjure up a decent plot that had me guessing right to the end. Director Edwin L. Marin would go on to make a series of whodunnits throughout the 1930s, including several Philo Vance detective films and a version of A Study in Scarlet.

An odd little sidenote to The Death Kiss is the use of tinting in several key scenes, which have been properly restored in this print. The little shocks of color are bizarre but quite effective, and it’s lovely to see them in a film this small and quirky. The film is plagued by some sound troubles, probably owing to a poor source print, but these do not disrupt the production as a whole. It’s actually quite an irreverent and energetic little movie, replete with quirky side characters and distractions enough to keep things moving.

While The Death Kiss wins no awards for innovation, it’s an enjoyable film, quick-witted and fast-paced and just a little racy (pre-Code films need to be appreciated more, my friends). Though I wouldn’t quite call it a horror film (despite Lugosi), it’s streaming on Shudder now, so you have no excuse.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) and College (1927) (Blu-ray Review)

Kino Lorber has a wonderful habit of releasing silent public domain films in proper and worthy restorations, often rivaling the art-house productions of the equally wonderful Criterion Collection. The latest to be restored to 2K glory, in a combined effort from Kino and Lobster Films, are classics from Buster Keaton’s oeuvre, packaged two to a case, and replete with extras that remind us just what a brilliant comedian old Stoneface truly was.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

steamboat_bill_jr_1928_1

Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. dates from 1928, and is Keaton’s last independent silent film before he made the move to MGM. In it, he’s Willie Canfield, Jr., the dandy-ish son of a gruff old steamboat captain (Ernest Torrance) who returns home from college to visit his dear old father. Willie also happens upon his sweetheart Kitty King (Marion Bryan), the daughter of a rival steamboat magnate John King (Tom McGuire). Comedy ensues as Willie Sr. tries to turn his effete son into a hardened old salt, while Willie Jr. must win the girl and rescue his father from being run out of business.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. brings together many of Keaton’s favored and most recognizable tropes: the young dandy trying to win the girl, the son attempting to impress the father, and the little guy facing off against encroaching obsolescence and in danger of being crushed by bigger, wealthier men. The sight gags come thick and fast, building up to the glorious (and famous) hurricane scene in which Keaton destroys most of the set and very nearly gets crushed by a falling building. But while Keaton is known for his acrobatic comedy (seriously – I’ve never seen a man fall on his head quite so much), there’s much to be said for the smaller visual gags that he carries off with such aplomb. In one scene, he attempts to signal to his imprisoned father that the loaf of bread he’s carrying has a file in it, all without tipping off the jailer. Keaton actually uses a song – in a silent film, no less – which he uses to make gestures to indicate the presence of the file. In another scene, he tries on a series of ridiculous hats – quickly discarding each, even his famous pork pie hat that had become his symbol.

The restoration of Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a lovely one, smoothing out the film and avoiding unnecessary crackles and pops so common in silent film restorations. New scores provide punctuation to the silent antics, and the Blu-ray also includes an informative audio commentary from two film historians.

College (1927)

college-1927

The second disc in this collection is College, another Keaton classic from later in his silent career. As with Steamboat Bill, Jr., College features Keaton as Ronald, a bit of a dandy whose lack of athleticism keeps him from the girl of his dreams, Mary (Anne Cornwall). As he sacrifices his collegiate studies for sports, he finds that he’s completely incapable of playing baseball, going out for track, or rowing…until the Dean forces the rowing coach to take him on as coxswain.

The joke, of course, is that Keaton’s “failed” athletics are spectacularly athletic. As he cycles through every track event, he succeeds in not completing the high jump, knocking over every hurdle (without actually tripping), and endangering the whole track team with his attempts at throwing the javelin. As with many of Keaton’s films, the sight gags and acrobatics become more and more elaborate until the film’s climax, encompassing a boat race followed by a breathless dash from the docks to save Mary.

There are a few minor stumbles in College, however, that slightly cut through its otherwise stellar antics. Ronald’s attempts to find a job to pay for his tuition backfire, leading  to a sequence with Keaton in blackface as a waiter. If you can look past the cringe-worthiness of the sequence, there are some good sight gags, but it’s still a fairly uncomfortable scene.

College is also an excellent restoration, and has an even more elaborate series of extras. In fact, there are two extras film on here: a twenty minute collegiate comedy with Carol Lombard entitled Run, Girl, Run, and The Scribe, which was Keaton’s final onscreen performance. Neither are much to write home about, but they provide diverting entertainment. Film scholars will be further edified by historical commentary, and a tour of College’s filming locations.

There are few comedians like Buster Keaton – even among his fellow silent clowns, he’s uniquely daring in his acrobatics and in his love of cinema. While neither of these films quite hits the calibre of Sherlock Jr. or The General, they are hardly lesser films – they’re just as eye-popping as they were in 1928.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. and College are available in new stellar restorations from Kino beginning February 21.