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By Joe Bendel. It is not exactly the missing forty minutes of The Magnificent Ambersons, but for Orson Welles fans it is still quite significant. Long considered lost to the ages, the silent short films Welles conceived for an ahead-of-its time stage production have been found (in Italy, as it happens) and restored by the film preservation department of the George Eastman House. Despite their strange genesis, the shorts known collectively as Too Much Johnson perfectly represent the Welles filmography—they are brash, innovative, and unfinished. Always fascinating and sometimes genuinely entertaining, Too Much Johnson, Welles’ first stab at filmmaking, had its long awaited New York premiere last night, courtesy of the Eastman House.

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William Gillette’s summer stock staple Too Much Johnson is not revived very often anymore—and the Mercury Theatre’s disastrous production probably deserves its share of the blame. It literally bombed in New Haven. Welles’ original vision was rather ground-breaking. Each act would be preceded by a short silent film in the Max Sennett tradition that would dramatize all the play’s exposition and backstories. Of course, Welles never finished any of the shorts (and it is unclear whether the Stony Creek Theater could have accommodated them anyway), but since he had cut all the presumably redundant background information from the text, the production reportedly baffled critics and patrons alike.

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To help contemporary viewers, the Eastman House’s preservation and curatorial staff provided running commentary throughout the New York screening, in addition to the requisite piano accompaniment. Eastman House made no editorial decisions, preserving every frame that came in the can. As a result, there are plenty of gaps, as well as repetitive takes of the same scene. Yet, the finished restoration is a smoother audience experience than it might sound like. Serendipitously, the multiple versions are often madcap hi-jinks that when viewed continuously appear as if the characters are caught in a surreal loop.

From the Orson Welles-Mercury "Too Much Johnson" (1938).

The first act prelude is the most complete and easiest to follow. Joseph Cotten plays a man named Billings, who has been romancing another man’s wife under the assumed name of Johnson. Coming home earlier than expected, the betrayed Dathis chases the man he thinks is Johnson across the future Meatpacking District, eventually ending on the ocean liner that will take both men’s families to Cuba for a dubious vacation. (Once there, Billings looks up an old friend, only to find his plantation is now owned by a man who really is named Johnson. Hilarity no doubt ensues.)

Frankly, Cotten’s prowess for Harold Lloyd comedy is quite impressive. He shimmies across ledges and drags ladders over rooftops like a rubber-boned pro. As if that were not enough, the first short also delivers Welles’ ever indulgent producer, John Houseman, as a bumbling beat cop.

The second and third constituent shorts are much more fragmentary, but there are some striking day-for-night shots of a Hudson Valley quarry, decked out with palm trees to resemble Cuba. Periodically, one gets a glimmer of Welles’ developing eye for composition. Cotten also maintains his energetic good sportsmanship as the caddish anti-hero.

Johnson might be a bunch of odds and ends compared to Welles later masterpieces, but it is strangely compelling to watch the bedlam he unleashes with his co-conspirators. The Eastman program also includes a three minute 16mm film documenting Welles directing Johnson that seems about as chaotic as you would imagine. Yet, there is also something very poignant about the happy-go-lucky but incomplete work, prefiguring Welles later abortive attempts to produce his Don Quixote.

Too Much Johnson is enormously important as cinematic history but also a good deal of fun. The Eastman House intends to hold future screenings with live commentary, so cineastes should definitely keep an eye on their website. They also hope to stage Welles’ adaptation of the stage play incorporating excerpts of the shorts, which is impressively ambitious.

Posted on November 29th, 2013 at 9:04pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Clint Eastwood often argues that jazz and westerns are America’s two great indigenous art forms. Inadvertently, he thereby makes a strong case that he is one of America’s most preeminent artists. Tribute was paid to the actor-director-composer at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival over the weekend with the world premiere of film critic and biographer Richard Schickel’s Eastwood Directs: The Untold Story, followed by a special Tribeca Talks interview with Eastwood conducted by Darren Aronofsky (see a clip above).

Eastwood Directs will be included in Warner Brothers’ upcoming Clint Eastwood 40-Film Collection on DVD and the similarly titled 20-Film Collection on Blu-ray. It will also air on TCM. As one might expect, it combines talking head interviews with brief film snippets from Warner’s Eastwood library – and it is hard to begrudge the film’s hagiographic treatment of an icon like Eastwood. Clearly he is a serious figure if he attracts commentary from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Brian Grazer, and Meryl Streep. It is also especially nice to see Gene Hackman reminiscing about the film Unforgiven. Someone like Eastwood ought to find a part interesting enough to get Hackman back in the game.

Directs largely focuses on Eastwood’s special talent for directing his fellow actors, giving considerable attention to his big Oscar winners, for obvious reasons. There are some nice stories and testimonials, especially from Streep, his co-star in Bridges of Madison County. While Schickel does not spend much time on Bird, he still covers Eastwood’s longstanding passion and support for jazz in reasonable detail. Though not exactly a jazz film per se, Play Misty for Me gets its due, even though it is not a Warner property (the picture of Eastwood with Erroll Garner is a nice touch).

In fact, Misty provided one of the more telling anecdotes during Eastwood’s post-screening conversation with Aronofsky. When asked about technology, Eastwood (who still prefers film but is resigned to digital’s inevitability) spoke of his brief use of “instant replay” capabilities on his directorial debut, but quickly banished it from the set when he saw the cast and crew obsessing over it.

In Eastwood Directs, Scorsese identifies Eastwood as the living link between old school Hollywood and the modern age. It is easy to see what he’s getting at. Unfortunately, Aronofsky’s skills as an interviewer did not match the insights of Shickel’s interview subjects. However, Eastwood did his best to fit anecdotes to the broad, open-ended questions and generally just offered up his gravelly-voiced Zen master-blues piano player persona to the appreciative audience.

There is something truly American about self-reinvention – and again, this is something Eastwood exemplifies. From Rawhide through the Leone westerns and critically underappreciated Dirty Harry films to his Cannes and Oscar celebrated films as a director, Eastwood has charted an independent course, while remaining within the studio system and maintaining his popular appeal. Recommended for his fans, Eastwood Directs will be included on Warner Brothers’ collections releasing June 3 and will run on TCM May 30th. The Eastwood interview is also available for streaming for those unable to attend the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival in-person.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on April 29th, 2013 at 3:20pm.

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By Joe Bendel. There is a second Cold War on and China is winning. Britain’s defense establishment is convinced that their only hope lies in devising killer androids enhanced with artificial intelligence. Oh, but perhaps they succeed too well in Caradog James’ The Machine (see clip above), which screened as a Midnight selection of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

Vincent McCarthy could make bank in the private sector, but he has personal reasons for laboring in a subterranean government facility somewhere in Wales. When Ava’s AI program comes darn close to passing the Turing Test, he recruits her for his double-secret research. However, on her very first day she cannot help noticing the dodginess of the place, particularly the guards, who double as guinea pigs. There seems to be something weirdly unspoken going on with the twitchy veterans who accepted AI implants to counteract their brain trauma.

When Ava is murdered under suspiciously suspicious circumstances, her pre-mapped brain is imprinted on “The Machine.” McCarthy coaches her/it to be human and humane – but Thompson, the ruthless project director, orders a battery of more lethal instructions. This leads to conflict.

It would be nice to see a film that considered the British and American military and intelligence services to be the good guys for a change, especially compared to the oppressive and increasingly militaristic Communist regime in China. Sadly, The Machine is not that film. There really ought to be an epilogue showing how China enslaves the world because of the resulting setbacks to the Free World’s R&D. Instead, we just get Messianic themes warmed over from the Universal Soldier franchise, which in turn were cribbed from Metropolis, R.U.R. and a host of apocalyptically promethean science fiction morality tales.

Nonetheless, Caity Lotz earns favorable notice for her dual role as Ava and The Machine. She presents two distinct personas, yet still credibly hints at connections between the two. Toby Stephens works well enough as the brilliant but short-sighted McCarthy. Sadly, Star Wars alumnus Denis “Wedge” Lawson is completely wasted as the dastardly Thompson, who seems to engage in unnecessary villainy solely to precipitate McCarthy’s crisis of conscience.

Very little of The Machine makes sense, starting with the moody Miami Vice ambiance. One would think a research laboratory ought to be well lit, but evidently this is not the case. Despite Lotz’s interesting performances, The Machine is predictable and heavy-handed. A disappointment, it screened this past weekend at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

LFM GRADE: D+

Posted on April 29th, 2013 at 3:17pm.

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A new clip has been released from Kathryn Bigelow’s forthcoming SEAL Team 6/Osama bin Laden raid movie, Zero Dark Thirty, which is already receiving awards-season accolades. The film stars Jessica Chastain and Joel Edgerton. Special engagements for Zero Dark Thirty start December 19th, and the film opens wide on January 11th.

Posted on December 6th, 2012 at 11:01am.

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By Joe Bendel. When we think of space, we think of lofty ideals, passed on down to us from JFK and Star Trek. However, an oppressive belligerent power will act the same up there as they do down here. Indeed, China’s saber-rattling off the coast of Taiwan will bedevil an American manned space mission in Josh Bernard & Bracey Smith’s Control, which screens as part of the 2012 New York Television Festival’s Independent Pilot Competition (IPC).

The NYTVF is the only meaningful festival of its kind showcasing independent talent looking to break into episodic television, in the same way scores of film festivals act as launching pads for indie films in search of theatrical distribution. There are real development deals to be won at this year’s festival. The dollar figures may not be much by studio standards, but they would constitute a significant step up compared to the budgets of many competing pilots. In the drama category, Smith & Bernard’s Control may well be the pilot to beat, which is not all that surprising, considering their Pioneer One (see here and here) won the drama competition two years ago.

The American and Chinese navies are engaged in a war of nerves in the South China Sea. Simultaneously, an American spacecraft is racing to beat their Chinese rivals to a resource-rich asteroid. Long in development, the American mission continued, even when China precipitously laid claim to the asteroid, in open defiance of international law. Apparently a quasi-private enterprise conducted with official government sanction, the mission obviously just became a whole lot more complicated.

The flight director isn’t helping much, either. Not only did he call the president a feckless ditherer on national television (but in more colorful terms), he is also carrying on a not so secret affair with the chief medical officer, who happens to be married to the flight captain.

Of all the genre-related pilots screening in the Drama 1 programming block, Control is by far the one that leaves audiences most eager to see more. Shrewdly, Bernard & Smith end on a monster cliffhanger that cannot possibly be as bad as it seems. Though the flight director resents the U.S. military’s secret involvement in the mission, he might be happy to have them around when it is all said and done. Based on the pilot, Control has the potential to become a cool submarine-warfare in space story, much like the classic Romulan episodes on the original Trek.

The tone of Control is sort of like a cross between Apollo 13 and Ben Bova’s geopolitical sci-fi thriller novels. To their credit, Smith & Bernard do not appear to have many naïve notions with respects to the current (and presumably near future) Chinese Communist regime. It also looks reasonably realistic, thanks to the control room full of computers bought on the cheap due to a tech firm’s bankruptcy (finally, the stimulus plan delivers).

Perhaps most importantly, despite all the intrigue and political infighting, it looks like it will still tap into the warm fuzzy feelings many viewers get when they think about the Space Program, particularly in its Apollo-era heyday. Showing loads of potential, Control is definitely worth seeing when it screens again this Friday (10/26) as part of the 2012 NYTVF’s IPC Drama 1 program at the Tribeca Cinemas.

Posted on October 23rd, 2012 at 10:42am.

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We like to keep an eye on short films here at Libertas, so check out this interesting new short above from director Dennis Liu and writer Ryan Condal called Plurality. It went live earlier this week and as of this post has already received over 110,000 views.

Here’s the official synopsis of the film: “After the state of New York gives the police access to ‘The Grid,’ a new technology that allows people to purchase anything with a quick scan of their fingerprint, crime drops almost instantly. However, they also discover that certain people are popping up in two places at once.”

Although the film’s references to Michel Foucault and Jeremy Bentham are a bit on-the-nose (somebody’s been reading Discipline and Punish), Plurality otherwise does a nice job of illustrating how technology may already be leading us down a road to dystopia. Congratulations to the filmmakers, and a hat tip to the folks at io9.

Posted on October 5th, 2012 at 11:55am.

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