Monthly Archives: March 2008

Retrospective: "The Lodger"

1926’s “The Lodger” is Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest film surviving in a full feature form, and the fact that it’s a silent film makes it a must see for anybody who wants to fully appreciate Hitchcock – and film history in general. The movie shows early clues to many different styles including both visually and in terms of storytelling and suspense. As primitive as the film may seem, it is surprisingly enthralling and accessible.

As a masked killer named “The Avenger” takes victim after victim in a darkly lit London town, an odd man named Jonathan Drew (Ivor Novello) takes up residence in a boarding house. “The Avenger” is essentially Jack the Ripper, in fact the story of the film is based on a classic story by Marie Belloc Lowndes, who got the idea when she overheard a bit of conversation about a couple who had once rented rooms to a man they claimed was the famed serial killer. The tension of the film is a slow burn, and it works superbly. We are immediately thrown into a town shaken up by the murders, and the fear of “The Avenger” is already deeply rooted. The fear looms, and Hitchcock cleverly uses humor as a device to cover up that dreaded feeling that actually becomes quite uncomfortable. The theme of fear is quite successful, and it’s the most remarkable thing about “The Lodger.”

There are many exciting things about this film in terms of film history. Like many filmmakers of the time, Hitchcock was obviously inspired and stirred by the German Expressionist films such as “Der Letze Mann” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Much of “The Lodger” feels like these films, from the highly expressive acting and the strangely eerie close-ups. Hitchcock understood the art form, and his interpretation and presentation are astoundingly accessible especially since it was evident at this early stage in his career that he understood how to play out a mystery.

Again, Hitchcock shows us a lot of early clues at his superior storytelling style. He takes a lot of stake in his audience. He truly appreciates his audience and gives them the advantage of thinking about the story. We meet Jonathan Drew, and the suspense leads us to believe that he’s the killer, but since he’s essentially our hero we know that this can’t be. Hitchcock overlaps the themes of fear quite interestingly. The tension that builds due to the fear that “The Avenger” will kill our heroine but we also see this fear in multiple subplots.

This is commonplace in the mysteries of today’s movies, but “The Lodger” should definitely be given credit for such an early film using such exciting styles. Is Jonathan Drew the killer? Does he want to keep his damsel Daisy (June) safe from the looming terror of “The Avenger” or is he in fact warming her up for the kill? Is there more to the story than we already know? Hitchcock supposedly wanted a more open ending to the film – unfortunately studio demands resulted in the “happy ending.” The ending is a little too happy, and the eventual discovery of the killer is an obvious use of “deus ex machina,” but don’t let this take away from the fact that the rest of the movie is a terrific suspense story.

In terms of visuals “The Lodger” isn’t exactly a pioneer, but there are many devices that Hitchcock uses to evoke his themes. Drew is a misleading character. He is a very odd man, and one can’t help but believe that he could possibly be the killer. One particular shot (the most famous shot of the film) is a quick shot of a cross that casts a shadow across his face. It’s a controversial image, and actually foreshadows a lot about how his character is to be perceived. He is a Christ-like character, misunderstood but well-intentioned. This allegory doesn’t exactly follow through in the full sense of the story of Christ, but the allusions are absolutely undeniable.

“The Lodger” is a must see for those who want to find how Hitchcock began in the development of his famous styles. Hitchcock considered this to be his first “true” film, and while the film may seem dated it is actually a gem that shouldn’t be dismissed. The story seems simple, but it’s actually a very strong piece. It’s a trip into the uncomfortable, something that Hitchcock excelled at. “The Lodger” is a gem, something unexpected from a silent picture, but that Hitchcockian flair is abundant. I wish I could have been around during the film’s release, just to find out what the newcomer had to offer for a future of film scholars and fans.

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Filed under Hitchcock, Retrospective, Review

I Officially Cannot Wait For Indiana Jones

The final one-sheet is classically designed, and from the billions of downloads of the film’s incredible trailer, Indy’s comeback looks to be a big one. Aliens, shmaliens, this one looks great.

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Filed under Cate Blanchett, Harrison Ford, Indiana Jones, Poster, Shia Labeouf, Steven Spielberg

Review: Semi-Pro

It seems that every year, comedic giant Will Ferrell comes out with a new vehicle to exhibit his talents. For the past few years, those movies have been getting a little worse, and with the exception of “Stranger Than Fiction,” his extraordinary foray into drama, it looked as though the magic has faded.

His newest flick, “Semi-Pro,” is similar in its demonstration of Will Ferrell-isms (yelling for no reason and using exuberant adjectives to describe things), but it has more of soul than his recent fodder.

After his 2004 homage to 1970s news casting celebrities in “Anchorman,” Will Ferrell’s star skyrocketed to box office heaven. He began to appear everywhere, and each summer, we could expect another Ferrell explosion. He started to make sportsrelated films, such as the NASCAR parody “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” and the ice skating farce “Blades of Glory.” Those films fell more into the spoof genre, and the originality and the heart seen in “Anchorman” seemed to fade.

For “Semi-Pro,” Ferrell takes us back into the seventies, and it is obvious that this is the perfect period for him. The movie centers upon Jackie Moon (Ferrell), the owner/coach/player of the Flint (Michigan) Tropics, a “rag-tag” team in the now defunct American Basketball Association. Moon’s team is in danger of being dropped after a merger with the NBA is announced by the ABA’s commissioner (played by Ferrell alum David Koechner). A deal is made that the top four winning teams can be absorbed into the NBA, setting up the journey for Moon and his motley crew.

Among that crew is Clarence “Coffee” Black, played wonderfully by rapper/actor André Benjamin. Benjamin flows perfectly into the role – he seems to have a natural talent for acting, especially in the comedy genre. In order to save the team, Moon trades the team’s washing machine for a fictional former Celtic named Ed Monix – played quite unsuccessfully by Woody Harrelson. A combination of a useless character and a sloppy performance, Monix just comes off as pointless from beginning to end. His character is only functional in the sense that he brings the team together, but the attempt to develop his character is just simply annoying. Monix’s backstory is introduced, involving a love story with an equally miscast Maura Tierney (“ER”). Harrelson and Tierney are the biggest flaws in the movie, and the omission of their subplot was greatly desired.

For fans of Ferrell, his performance will not disappoint. He’s essentially been playing the same character in every film up until this point: the endearing man-child. Jackie Moon is a conflicted man, and his conflicts are often hilarious. He doesn’t have archetypal flaws – instead, Moon’s biggest affliction is his inability to throw up. The discovery of this predicament is one of the funniest scenes in the film, and this can be credited to Ferrell’s flawless timing and the director’s terrific ability to set up and fulfill the gag. “Semi-Pro” is Kent Alterman’s directorial debut. Previously, he was the executive producer of the brilliantly comic yet cancelled cult TV show “Strangers With Candy.” Fans of that show will actually see a lot of the comedy translated into the movie’s gags. There’s a certain element that Ferrell adds to each of his films, but the right director needs to be in place, and it looks like Alterman was a great choice.

The most memorable aspect of the movie is its perfectly cast supporting characters. Will Arnett (“Arrested Development”) and Andrew Daly (“Mad TV”) are wonderful as the Tropics’ colorful commentators. Daly is especially superb, using the stereotypical announcer voice to comment on the most ridiculous topics.

Also memorable is the peculiar casting of Jackie Earle Haley (“Little Children”) as the strung out hippie named Duke, who unexpectedly wins the half court challenge. Unfortunately, Duke has a little trouble cashing his gigantic-sized check at the bank. Jackie Moon, trying to confuse Duke because he doesn’t have the $10 thousand to endorse the check, tells him to try a bigger bank.

All of these elements, such as the downright hilarious supporting cast and the terrific ways that Alterman and Ferrell develop the gags in the movie, all lead up to its ultimate achievement. Unlike Ferrell’s previous attempts at sports comedies that just ended up being infantile spoofs, “Semi-Pro” is actually a really funny sports movie. It’s comparable to classics such as “Major League” and “Slap Shot,” and we haven’t seen anything in that vein for a long time.

Ferrell has truly found his niche in the 1970s and in the childishly irresistible role of Jackie Moon. The movie follows the usual underdog formula of most films, but instead of laughing at them, “Semi-Pro” is laughing with them. This isn’t as great as those previously mentioned comedy classics, but it’s a smart direction for Ferrell’s career in his favorite genre.

This movie probably won’t do as well as his past comedies – its R rating will take away his large teenage audience – but it’s the better choice of the horrid array of Hollywood mainstream that’s currently ruining our theaters.

Grade: B

Originally published in Framingham State College’s The Gatepost

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Filed under Review, Strangers With Candy, Will Ferrell

Saturday Night Live is funny again!

Let’s hope this funny streak lasts… Bill Hader is officially on my list of amazing people.

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Filed under Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, No Country For Old Men, SNL, There Will Be Blood, Video