Burton, Keaton, Preminger, Trank, Vidor

Chronicle (Josh Trank, 2012). Chronicle is good enough to almost–almost–redeem the increasingly tired found footage subgenre. This is in part due to the especially clever use of the footage, drawing it from a variety of sources rather than relying on one dedicated amateur documentarian who keeps the camera running no matter what level of craziness is happening (although the film inevitably must rely on that conceit more than is ideal). Security cameras, police car dashboard cams and other fully believable devices provide all the material that’s stitched together into a narrative. If physics-defying mayhem were happening outside of a upper story window, of course there would be a battalion of observers with tablets and smartphones held up to capture the action, so why not use it? The plot is simple and satisfying, tracing the repercussions when a group of teenagers get superpowers after exploring a mysterious cave out in the woods. First-time director Josh Trank keeps the film moving briskly without sacrificing character development, especially thanks to lead actor Dane DeHaan, who’s already established a noteworthy specialist in young men damaged to the point of anguished fragility.

Bunny Lake is Missing (Otto Preminger, 1965). Otto Preminger has his devoted disciples, and I’d like to think this is one of their cherished films, if only because its outsized brave oddity makes it a truly unique feature for the times. Based on a 1957 novel by Merriam Modell (using the pen name Evelyn Piper), it has a touch of The Lady Vanishes to it, with protagonist Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) trying to convince the authorities in the English town she’s just moved to that her daughter has gone missing, even though she can’t seem to find anyone able to verify the girl’s existence. Preminger absolutely revels in the film’s richly twisty psychology, joyously indulging in the gamesmanship of his warped narrative. The director favors long tracking shots which makes his momentary flourishes–especially some striking editing in a scene involving swings–all the more striking. Lynley is fine in a role centered on ever-intensifying reactions. Keir Dullea is not very good at all as her brother, but the flatness of his performance winds up working to the film’s advantage. Easily the best performance in the film belongs to Martita Hunt, drolly funny as a somewhat spooky retired teacher who lives on the upper level of the school where the girl was last seen.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1928). This comedy about the educated son of a steamboat captain coming back into his pop’s life is one of the Great Stone Face’s most adored films. The quiet deftness of his direction is evident throughout, and the physicality he brings to the various set pieces is truly extraordinary. The sequence involving a windstorm is a masterpiece all on its own, culminating in a stunt involving a falling house facade that is justifiably Buster Keaton’s most famous single shot. There’s not a lot of subtlety and nuance to the storytelling, as is typical of the era, but Keaton’s command of the emerging vernacular of cinema is thrilling.

Dark Shadows (Tim Burton, 2012). Every once in a while, I get a glimpse of older Tim Burton fare that still holds the sharp snap of originality, and that’s followed by a newly depressed sensation in response to the director’s ceaseless descent into garishly inept reappropriation of well-worn stories. Besides giving Johnny Depp a chance to indulge in the cartoonish overacting that’s become his miserable trademark, Burton’s adaptation of the cult classic horror-flavored soap opera from the nineteen-sixties and early-seventies is such a massive lint ball of half-realized characters and notions that it’s hard to imagine anyone ever thought this thing was coming together in a satisfactory fashion. The convoluted plot was perhaps intended to mirror the hula-hooping lunacy of a soap opera, but it’s instead a complete muddle acted out by overqualified actors struggling to find an iota of personality within their roles. Dark Shadows is about as bland as any film with this much detail packed into it ever could be.

Ruby Gentry (King Vidor, 1952). Jennifer Jones is the title character in this overheated melodrama from King Vidor, a director who definitely knew his way around this sort of material. Ruby is a North Carolina girl from the “wrong side of the tracks.” Despite her humble beginnings–or perhaps motivated by them–Ruby strives for something more, eventually marrying a wealthy man (Karl Malden), earning her the ire of the high society mavens certain she’s just after his money, especially when the man dies in a boating accident. That’s when the plot of social and economic vengeance revs its engine. Games as Jones is in the lead role, the end result is florid without the necessary hint of panache to make it really work.

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