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The Descent (2005, Neil Marshall)

I want to say nice things about The Descent. Or, more… I wish I could say nice things about The Descent. There are some nice things to say about it–the production values are strong, Marshall’s composition is decent, Sam McCurdy’s photography is good. It’s rarely boring–though it does drag a little. Tedious without being boring. Possibly because the characters are all so unlikable you’re just waiting for them to die off.

The characters are unlikable partially because of director Marshall’s script, partially because of the actors, partially because of Marshall’s “direction” of the actors.

The Descent is about six women who go caving in North Carolina. With the exception of organizer Natalie Mendoza, they’re all either from the British Isles or they’re Scandinavian. They travelled halfway across the globe for this caving trip, because–as the opening of the film recounts–ostensible lead Shauna Macdonald has lost her family in a horrible car accident and she needs to get back to her extreme sports lifestyle.

While horrific, the car accident is also exceptionally contrived. All the character relationships in The Descent are exceptionally contrived. Marshall’s characterizations are razor thin, so having a bunch of bland, sometimes interchangeable actors who he doesn’t give any performance direction contributes a lot to that tediousness I mentioned. Maybe if Macdonald weren’t so wooden. Or Mendoza. But mostly Macdonald. What’s so strange is there are some outliers–Alex Reid, as Macdonald’s BFF, is good. Her character’s still thin, but she’s good. And Saskia Mulder and MyAnna Buring as the Scandinavian sisters are fine. They’re likable. Mendoza, from her first scene, is exceptionally unlikable. Ditto her protege Nora-Jane Noone, though for different reasons. And while Macdonald is supposed to be tragic and sympathetic, it’s in a porcelain doll sense. She’s lost her family, after all.

Something none of the other characters really engage with. Or, in Noone’s case, even seem to know about. Besides Noone, they’re all ostensibly best extreme sports buds. Who have absolutely no chemistry with one another. Mendoza’s an abject sociopath from scene one and there’s no reason anyone–particularly not the characters in the film–would be friends with her, much less trust her to plan a caving trip in Deliverance country.

Noone and Mendoza’s character relationship–and utter lack of onscreen chemistry–is one of Descent’s many deficiencies. Marshall’s script and direction is about moving caricatures from point A to point B. It’s grating.

But The Descent isn’t a Deliverance riff. Well, unless you want to make a lot of mean jokes about Applachian mountain men. See, down in the unexplored cave, the women discover they’re not alone. There are monsters. And so then the women have to inventively–often using their caving gear–fight the monsters.

Marshall borrows action beats from a variety of films–mostly the first couple Alien movies and, thanks to David Julyan’s almost comically derivative score, The Thing. There are some good shots here and there, along with some bad ones (including a jaw-droppingly bad composite), but Marshall, editor Jon Harris, and photographer McCurdy don’t impress. The sets–all the cave interiors are sets–impress. A bit. Not enough to make up for any of the film’s other deficiencies, but they’re good.

Almost anything would’ve improved The Descent. Writing, acting, directing (as far as the performances go). With any of those elements improved, Marshall could’ve been just as derivative and the film would’ve turned out better. Instead, he’s got this derivative film with all sorts of other problems.

Though, really, it’s an absurdly obvious film from the opening titles scene so… none of what follows is actually surprising.

Oh. Right. The lack of jump scares. It seems intentional. At least, I hope it’s intentional. But as a stylistic choice it’s a little weird. They might get the energy up. Nothing else does.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Neil Marshall; director of photography, Sam McCurdy; edited by Jon Harris; music by David Julyan; production designer, Simon Bowles; produced by Christian Colson; released by Pathé Distribution.

Starring Shauna Macdonald (Sarah), Natalie Mendoza (Juno), Alex Reid (Beth), Saskia Mulder (Rebecca), MyAnna Buring (Sam), and Nora-Jane Noone (Holly).


All Night Long (1924, Harry Edwards)

Harry Edwards flops on every sight gag in All Night Long, seemingly a combination of his inability to direct comedy and star Harry Langdon’s lack of comic timing. However, otherwise Edwards does a great job with the short. He’s got an excellent dinner table sequence and a lot of special effect work is outstanding.

Long has a couple bookends but primarily takes place during World War I in France. Marines Langdon and Vernon Dent fight over a girl. Dent and Natalie Kingston, who plays the girl, are both excellent. Dent’s comic timing is spot on and he makes up for Langdon.

Langdon isn’t so much bad, just unfunny. Long‘s narrative is relatively complicated–a comic take on a melodrama–and Langdon’s wrong for it.

Edwards’s comic failings are mostly forgivable, except when he tries turning grotesque war imagery into belabored sight gags. It’s awkward and tiresome, while Long otherwise isn’t.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Harry Edwards; written by Hal Conklin and Vernon Smith; directors of photography, Lee Davis and William Williams; edited by William Hornbeck; produced by Mack Sennett; released by Pathé Exchange.

Starring Harry Langdon (Harry Hall), Natalie Kingston (Nanette Burgundy), Vernon Dent (Gale Wyndham), Fanny Kelly (Mrs. Burgundy) and Leo Sulky (Mr. Burgundy).


Boys Will Be Joys (1925, Robert F. McGowan)

Boys Will Be Joys is a strange Our Gang outing, simply because the story doesn’t belong to the Gang. Instead, sixty year-old industrialist Paul Weigel has grown bored being a successful grown-up and just wants to goof off.

Luckily, he happens to be developing a plot of land the Gang has built an incredible amateur amusement park on and they come by his office demanding he stop developing.

There’s a shocking lack of tension to Joys. It’s fairly certain from a few minutes in–after Weigel bats a couple balls with some teenagers in a ballgame–the Gang isn’t going to meet with much resistance from the “adult.” Weigel even orders his subordinates to run the machinery so the boys can enjoy the rides.

McGowan’s got some decent shots and the amusement park set-up is rather impressive.

I think there’s only one gag in the entire picture.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Robert F. McGowan; written by Hal Roach; titles by H.M. Walker; director of photography, Art Lloyd; edited by Richard C. Currier; produced by F. Richard Jones; released by Pathé Exchange.

Starring Allen ‘Farina’ Hoskins (Farina), Andy Samuel (Andy), Jackie Condon (Jackie), Jannie Hoskins (Jannie), Jay R. Smith (Jay), Johnny Downs (Johnny), Joe Cobb (Joe), Mickey Daniels (Mickey), Mary Kornman (Mary) and Paul Weigel (Henry Mills).


Love’s Surprises (1915, Max Linder)

Calling Love’s Surprises a tepid comedy would be an understatement. Writer-director-star Linder fails to understand the very basics of drama, which puts the whole short in the dumps right off.

It opens with a dinner party. The three men at the party all run off to grab hidden flowers for a girl. Unsurprisingly, they’re all courting the same girl. Only, Linder never establishes why the men are sneaking out or why they wouldn’t admit association with her.

I guess the comedy’s supposed to be in the girl hiding them around her room in closets, pianos or just under a blanket… but it’s not funny. Surprises only comes alive at the end when the girl’s friend shows up and they abuse the hiding men.

For the finish, one of the men apparently “buys” the girl (who isn’t present) from his chums.

Surprises successfully mixes unfunny, odd, discomforting and weird.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Max Linder; released by Pathé Frères.

Starring Max Linder (Max), Lucy d’Orbel (Lili) and Georges Gorby.


War Feathers (1926, Robert F. McGowan and Robert A. McGowan)

I expected an Our Gang short titled War Feathers to be racist, but I was unprepared for how racist it gets.

It opens with the kids torturing a train conductor–and Joe Cobb in blackface. Sorry, “chocolate” face. The poor conductor doesn’t just have to try to contain them, he’s also got them pretending to be good for their parents. Of course the parents don’t believe a black train conductor.

It makes you wonder if the point’s to want to see the kids drown.

Then the kids leave the train and go to an Old West town. There they see a lot of Native Americans. One eventually kidnaps Farina.

In an interesting turn of events, after outlaws kidnap Farina again, he gets sick. They try to help him, making them the nicer than anyone else in Feathers.

It finishes with the Gang stranded in the wilderness. Unfortunately not to stay.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Robert F. McGowan and Robert A. McGowan; written and produced by Hal Roach; titles by H.M. Walker; edited by Richard C. Currier; released by Pathé Exchange.

Starring Allen ‘Farina’ Hoskins (Farina), Joe Cobb (Joe), Johnny Downs (Johnny), Jannie Hoskins (Mango), Jackie Condon (Jackie), Scooter Lowry (Skooter), Clifton Young (Bonedust), Jay R. Smith (Jay), Peggy Ahearn (Peggy), Mildred Kornman (Mildred), Chet Brandenburg (Rancher at the Whistling Clam), Allan Cavan (Train passenger), George B. French (Rancher at the Whistling Clam), Ham Kinsey (Conductor) and Sam Lufkin (Sheriff).


The Iron Man (1931, Harry Bailey and John Foster)

The Iron Man‘s protagonist is not the Iron Man itself (himself?), which shows up after the halfway point. The protagonist is a cantankerous old man with some magic powers. He lives amongst all the adorable cartoon animals who sing and dance happily and he does what he can to ruin their days.

He’s a bad guy. He also doesn’t show up for the first two minutes, which seems long in a seven minute cartoon, but the unlikable aspect is more interesting. He’s not a lovable jerk, he’s not even funny. He probably would kick a kitten.

The cartoon is beautifully animated. Even in black and white, the backgrounds are lush with feeling. Not a lot of detail, but directors Bailey and Foster know what’s important to include.

It could go on longer. The final gag is way too brief.

Man‘s oddly thought provoking, especially how it handles narrative structure.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Harry Bailey and John Foster; produced by Paul Terry and Amadee J. Van Beuren; released by RKO-Pathé Distributing Corp.


Snow Time (1930, Mannie Davis and John Foster)

Snow Time is another strange cartoon from Foster. It’s wintertime in cute cartoon animal land and everyone’s having a swell time skiing, synchronized skating and so on.

Until this cat’s tail gets cut off because he’s messing around in a ski lane. But Foster and co-director Davis don’t follow his story. Presumably he’s just done… Snow Time skips between all the cute little animals until the finish. About a minute after the cartoon needs a narrative, it gets one.

The cat who’s been off screen for most of the cartoon–apparently walking around the frozen wilderness (he loses his tail at some point)–is dying. A crazy doctor can’t save him, but maybe some whiskey can.

I’m not sure the actual moral of the cartoon is anything like what the filmmakers intended.

There’s a lot more craziness I forgot (an assault, a living hot dog).

Snow Time‘s really strange.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Mannie Davis and John Foster; produced by Paul Terry and Amadee J. Van Beuren; released by Pathé Exchange.


Super-Hooper-Dyne Lizzies (1925, Del Lord)

Super-Hooper-Dyne Lizzies explores the dangers of electric cars. Basically, they can be taken over by radio waves and made to do crazy things. If it weren’t for the gasoline dealer (John J. Richardson) being the villain, one could almost see it as twenties gas company propaganda.

The short is a special effects extravaganza and director Lord does pretty well with it. There are all sorts of car effects, some okay wirework and a few other things. Sadly, the rampant racism overshadows any of the short’s positive qualities.

At one point, co-writers Frank Capra and Jefferson Moffitt posit blacks are actually not living creatures. Where’s Robert Riskin when you need him….

There’s also some anti-Semitism, but it might be from title card writers Felix Adler and Al Giebler.

The first half is mildly amusing with the special effects. But the second half makes it Lizzies unpleasant overall.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Del Lord; screenplay by Frank Capra and Jefferson Moffitt; titles by Felix Adler and Al Giebler; directors of photography, George Spear and George Unholz; edited by William Hornbeck; produced by Mack Sennett; released by Pathé Exchange.

Starring Billy Bevan (Hiram Case), Andy Clyde (Burbank Watts), Lillian Knight (Minnie Watts) and John J. Richardson (T. Potter Doam).


No Noise (1923, Robert F. McGowan)

In some ways, No Noise has it all. Kids getting high off laughing gas, then enjoying a little electrocution, there’s some cross-dressing… it seems like there’s even more. The threat of Farina being operated on by the Our Gang kids. Actually, Farina’s practically in drag too. I guess boys and girls closes weren’t particularly distinct in the twenties. When Mickey Daniels shows up wearing Mary Kornman’s dress, the other boys don’t even bat an eye.

The short is weak at the start and finish, but relatively strong in the middle. McGowan composes some good shots during the gang’s initial trip to the hospital (to visit Mickey and eat ice cream). It all falls apart at the end with these endless “haunted hospital” gags. The sets look terrible in that sequence.

And the weak open is all Daniels’s fault. An annoying twerp isn’t a good protagonist.

Noise is benignly dreadful.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Robert F. McGowan; screenplay by Hal Roach; titles by H.M. Walker; produced by Roach; released by Pathé Exchange.

Starring Allen ‘Farina’ Hoskins (Farina), Andy Samuel (Andy), Ernest Morrison (Sunshine Sammy), Jackie Condon (Jackie), Jack Davis (Jack), Joe Cobb (Joe), Mickey Daniels (Mickey), Mary Kornman (Mary) and Beth Darlington (Mickey’s nurse).


Wood Choppers (1929, Paul Terry)

Wood Choppers is not a good cartoon. The animation is weak and director Terry’s approach to the cartoon’s reality is anything goes. Dogs resurrect themselves after being turned into sausages and mice are able to reattach their heads and morph their tails into anything they can imagine.

It’s exceptionally lazy.

But there’s something amazing about it–just how little Terry cares for making any sense. He spends about half the cartoon setting up the elaborate setting. Cats, mice and dogs live in this town where the industry is logging and the mice play on the logs. It has nothing to do with the action of the cartoon, which is a cat chasing a mouse.

The logging does come back at the end, after the cat’s disappeared, and the whole cartoon’s now a romance between mice.

Wood Choppers is gloriously nonsensical. Sadly, the animation’s not good enough to make it worthwhile.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Paul Terry; produced by Terry and Amadee J. Van Beuren; released by Pathé Exchange.


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