Sunday, February 25, 2024

Modern Movies: HUNDREDS OF BEAVERS (2022)

I often tell people that I love "weird movies," and Hundreds of Beavers (2022) is definitely one of the weirdest, wackiest, and most purely delightful movies I have seen in a long time. This festival darling from Mike Cheslik (writer and director) and Ryland Brickson Cole Tews (writer and star) puts silent comedy, Looney Tunes cartoons, and modern video games into a blender to create an absurdist masterpiece with gags flying by at a breakneck pace for the entire 108 minute run of the picture. If you have the opportunity to see Hundreds of Beavers in a theater, you should skip this review and hurry out the door, but for those who - like me - have to make elaborate travel plans to see indie festival flicks, here's my review to encourage you to book the hotel and gas up the car (or at least make sure you track this one down when it hits streaming or physical media release).

Ryland Brickson Cole Tews plays the hapless Jean Kayak, whose boozy good times making and selling applejack abruptly end when beavers destroy his business. Forced to survive in the relentlessly cold winter, Jean learns by painful trial and error to hunt the beavers and other local critters (all played by actors in cartoonish costumes). He's encouraged in his efforts by an old Master Trapper (Wes Tank) and the attractive furrier (Olivia Graves), but as it turns out the beavers have much more grandiose plans than general mischief against the local humans.

There's so much going on in addition to this basic narrative that it's hard to know where to start, but try to imagine Tex Avery directing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) with Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton in the starring role and you might begin to get the idea. The movie owes a lot to silent comedy, with many scenes evoking The Gold Rush (1925) thanks to the setting but also Modern Times (1936) and any of the Keystone Cops pictures. There are sight gags and stunts Keaton would love, especially the more meta examples like the holes that dot the landscape or the elaborate Rube Goldberg traps Jean builds. Watching the movie is often like watching someone play a puzzle game (I found myself especially thinking of the 1996 classic, The Neverhood), and the video game vibe is enhanced by action scenes that recall Frogger, Donkey Kong, and other iconic games as well as the intentionally flat and artificial backgrounds against which these scenes occur.

As funny as Cheslik and the other actors are in the human roles - and they are very funny, indeed - the "animals" in the movie are absolutely uproarious, and presenting the story this way is a brilliant stroke that effectively separates us from any expectation of a moral. I won't spoil the dozens of hilarious bits, but a few of my favorites include the two detective beavers, the melodramatic story of the rabbit family, the poker playing sled dogs, and the horse. There are also several delightful puppets to represent smaller animals, including a frog, some fish, and a very annoying woodpecker. Whenever you think the movie has surely reached peak absurdity, it raises the ante again, much to the whooping delight of the audience with whom I saw it. Because it's so maniacally silly, older children will almost certainly love it, but I should add that there's a brief pole dancing scene, a fair bit of sexual innuendo and imagery, and a lot of scatological humor, in addition to non-stop cartoon violence. It's all in service to the comedy, but it's important to consider your own tolerance or that of your children before taking anyone under 12 to see it. There was at least one kid who was about 10 in our small audience, and I could hear him laughing even louder than the adults throughout the movie.

If you want to learn more about Hundreds of Beavers or find the nearest theater screening, head over to the official website. A Blu-ray release is planned for Summer 2024, and the movie will stream on Fandor starting in the spring. I will definitely be buying a copy of the movie so that I can see it again and force all of my friends to watch it.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Classic Films in Focus: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945)

Director Joseph H. Lewis is best remembered today for his influential noir classic, Gun Crazy (1950), but he also brings great tension to My Name is Julia Ross (1945), an atmospheric thriller from Columbia Pictures that stars Nina Foch as the titular heroine. Despite its modern day setting, Julia's story revels in Gothic trappings, with an imprisoned and imperiled protagonist who endures extreme gaslighting at the hands of her kidnappers. Fans of Gaslight (either the 1940 or the 1944 version) and more traditional Gothic fare will find a lot to appreciate in this tight, well-acted production, including especially sinister performances from Dame May Whitty and a barely restrained George Macready.

Foch plays the penniless but determined Julia Ross, who lands a seemingly perfect job as the live-in secretary of wealthy Mrs. Hughes (May Whitty). Julia is too relieved to worry at questions about her being absolutely without friends or family, but she realizes the awful truth when she awakens from a drugged slumber to find herself transported to Cornwall and declared to be the mentally ill wife of Ralph Hughes (George Macready). Luckily, Julia's aspiring love interest, Dennis (Roland Varno), is searching for her while Julia repeatedly tries to escape before Ralph and his mother can carry out their nefarious plans.

The success of the whole picture depends on its heroine, and Nina Foch makes Julia active and appealing in spite of her damsel in distress situation. Foch's long career included a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role in Executive Suite (1954), but she never became a top star, which seems a shame considering her energetic performance here. Foch is beautiful in a wide-eyed but spirited way, definitely not the kind of girl to surrender meekly to villainous schemes, no matter how many times the Hughes family tries to convince Julia that she's Marion Hughes. Our heroine might be naive enough to jump at the sudden job offer, but she's never passive or resigned to her fate. Ironically, Julia's constant efforts to escape and tell someone about her situation only support the Hughes' claim that she's insane, but Julia manages to outsmart them enough to get a letter out to Dennis. Part of the fun of the movie lies in waiting to see what Julia will try next, whether she's hiding in cars, looking for secret passages, or pretending that she really believes she might be Marion Hughes.

Most of the other important characters present threats to Julia's well-being, and each is interesting in his or her own fashion. Julia's chief antagonist is the unflappable Mrs. Hughes, played with sly menace by Dame May Whitty. Whitty is a fun choice for the role because she doesn't seem like a villain even when she's blatantly plotting Julia's demise. The mother provides a stark contrast to the psychopath son, Ralph, who has already murdered the original Marion and clearly yearns to kill again. Only Mrs. Hughes can control him, and one wonders how long that can last, given the number of sharp objects she has to confiscate from Ralph over the course of the picture. The criminal pair have ample assistance from their most trusted servants, especially Sparkes (Anita Bolster), who poses as the employment agent and ensures that the newer servants spread gossip about "Marion Hughes" being insane. She's a great example of the sinister housekeeper so quintessential in the Gothic genre, and Bolster has a perfect face for the role.

My only real complaint about My Name is Julia Ross relates to the abrupt and overly tidy ending, which turns a blind eye to the extremity of Julia's ordeal. Compare that with the endings of Gaslight or Notorious (1946), in which the heroines are clearly going to need to work through some heavy post-traumatic stress. For more of the lovely Nina Foch, see The Return of the Vampire (1943), in which Roland Varno also plays her love interest, An American in Paris (1951), or Illegal (1955). She also appears in both The Ten Commandments (1956) and Spartacus (1960). Dame May Whitty earned Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations for Night Must Fall (1937) and Mrs. Miniver (1942), but she has memorable roles in The Lady Vanishes (1938), Suspicion (1941), and Gaslight (1944). Don't miss George Macready in Gilda (1946), which is probably his most important film.