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Archive for December, 2009

by Allan Fish

(USSR/Germany 1928 123m) not on DVD

Aka. Zhivoi trup; Der Lebende Leichnam

I want to leave my wife

d  Fedor Ozep  w  Boris Gusman, Anatoly Marienhof  play  Leo Tolstoy  ph  Anatoly Golovnya, Phil Jutzi  ed  Fedor Ozep, Vsevelod I.Pudovkin  m  Werner Schmidt-Boelcke  art  Sergei Kozlovsky, Viktor Simov

Vsevelod I.Pudovkin (Fyodor Protasov), Maria Jacobini (Yelizaveta ‘Lisa’ Protasova), Viola Garden (Sasha), Gustav Diessl (Viktor Karenin), Julia Serda (Anna Pavlovna), Vera Maretskaya (prostitute), Nato Vachnadze (Masha), Boris Barnet (sailor),

Personal opinion this might be, but I don’t think there’s a more forgotten, overlooked classic in all Soviet silent cinema.  Or a more forgotten director, for that matter, for who now knows Fedor Ozep (or Fyodor Otsep, as he is sometimes known)?  He isn’t one of the accepted greats alongside Eisenstein, Vertov, Dovzhenko or Pudovkin, and yet the latter was a close friend and both starred in and co-edited this, his greatest work.  Nor is he generally listed amongst the second elite level of directors with Bauer, Kuleshov, Barnet, Kozintsev and Room.  It’s as if he never existed, a living corpse himself.  (more…)

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by Joel Bocko

Despite its cheerful Yuletide title – which is in fact so warm and snug as to initiate Grinch or Scrooge-like reactions post-haste – A Christmas Tale displays all the surface signs of being a cynical, darkly comical take on the holiday. The director, Arnaud Desplechin, has already made a specialty of family dysfunction, asocial charm, and passive-aggressive relationships in his 2004 film, Kings and Queens. Matieu Amalric, who played the slightly mad musician in that one, returns as another difficult personality – this one possibly more sane, if no less aggravating. In this round of Desplechin’s friendly feud with the nuclear family, Almaric plays Henri, the middle child of grand old eccentrics Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) and Junon Vuitton (Catherine Deneuve). Henri is returning home (to Roubaix! the opening credits inform us, exclamation point and all) for his first holiday celebration in years – ever since his older sister banished him from her sight. And that’s only one crumbling cornerstone of the family edifice: death, illness, depression, infidelity, age-old scars and new wounds alike, are all ingredients in the tastily rancid eggnog Depleschin serves up with delight. Ultimately, given the bulky nuggets of dysfunction stuffed into the film’s bulky stocking (and A Christmas Tale runs for 2 1/2 hours), it almost goes without saying that the movie has, more or less, a happy ending. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

     Ultimately, one visits movie theatres with the expectation of having their intellect challenged, their mind engaged and their emotions stirred.  Few films pull off this nearly unattainable hat trick, as the brainy films are often models of frigidity, the poignant fare often leaves little to think about as its premise or main characters may be contrived or stereotyped, and the entertaining films are fun at the moment but forgettable after one leaves the theatre.  James Cameron’s previous film, Titanic, released all the way back in 1997, succeeded on the last two counts, but failed miserably on the first, leaving cinema fans with a hollow shell of a movie that now makes people wince when they hear it’s title brought up.  Earlier films like The Abyss, Terminator 2 and Aliens never explored the emotional possibilities of the characters, relying on some scattered humor and male bonding to fill in the gaps.  It may have partially succeeded at the time, but few would make claim that any of these films are not primarily seen now for their technical prowess first and foremost.

    Five years ago Cameron announced that his next film would be a technologically astute blend of live-action and computer-generated imagry that would alter the cinematic landscape.  His story of humans invading the planet Pandora in the year 2154, begins as an exploratory tale involving a team of two scientists and a crippled ex-Marine named Jake Scully who replaces his late twin brother in a scientific experiment, by which he assists in roaming the planet with other remote-controlled bodies, which have been cloned from human and indigenous DNA (the avitars of the film’s title).  This distant world is the source of a valuable and expensive mineral.  The controlled beings are a close approximation of the of the planet’s native Na’Vi, a tall, blue and cat-like species. Jake begins his “sojourn” as an observer, and he soon discovers the beauty, enchantment and danger of Pandora.  (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(Germany 1925 112m) not on DVD

Aka. Varieté; Vaudeville

Trapeze triangle

p  E.A.Dupont, Erich Pommer  d  E.A.Dupont  w  E.A.Dupont, Leo Birinsky  novel  Frederick Hollander  ph  Karl Freund  m  Erno Rapee  art  Alfred Junge

Emil Jannings (Boss Huller), Lya de Putti (Bertha), Maly Delschaft (Frau Huller), Warwick Ward (Artinelli), Georg John (sailor), Werner Krauss,

The first thing one must say about Dupont’s celebrated silent classic is that the version you are likely to see is a butchered American release version shown a year later, running only 75m.  Even I have never been able to see the full 112m version recently restored in Germany but, for some reason, as yet unreleased to DVD.  Dupont remains a somewhat forgotten figure, but for this and his later British companion piece Piccadilly, he should be reclaimed as one of the masters of twenties camera artistry.  For a long time the success of Variety was attributed to Karl Freund, but analysis of Piccadilly shows that the same photographic skill, camera dexterity and aesthetic artistry were purely Dupont’s.

            Take the change in the plot.  The framing device of a murderer in prison, seen as No 28, relating his story to the governor in exchange for his parole, is still in situ.  Essentially it’s an old-fashioned love triangle, which in the version commonly seen sees Jannings’ trapeze artist married to the younger de Putti and happily so until Italian Ward, previously one half of a brothers trapeze act, enlists them for his act and sets about seducing de Putti.  De Putti resists at first, but soon Jannings’ cuckoldry is the talk of the town and, eventually, he finds out about the affair and sets plans to confront Ward with his knowledge, with fatal results. (more…)

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Screen grab from James Cameron's extraordinary "Avatar"

by Sam Juliano

A raging snowstorm blanketed the NY metropolitan area, dropping over a foot in the city, northern New Jersey and on Long Island, leaving behind a white landscape that will reportedly insure a white Christmas, but preliminary findings indicate more may be coming around the 25th.  While the holiday spirit and shopping has cramped the schedules of movie goers and music lovers, it has surely fueled the end of the year excitement that always makes this time the most special of the year.

At Wonders in the Dark, the 90’s poll results were announced in a lively post, where Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas was named top film in a close race with Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue, and the “silent” poll, (which is actually films released before 1930) commenced with Allan’s extended Top 100 countdown.  Discussion has been typically most impressive.  A series of posts from Joel Bocko on contemporary films, which were first posted at the Boston Examiner have been appearing and several, like Grizzly Man, and Kings and Queen have attracted film lovers in the comment sections.  Bocko’s reviews will be ongoing.

Lucille and I had a busy week, first attending an off-off-Broadway play at a small theatre in a housing complex on 26th Street titled In Fields Where They Lay.  this two act play was rather torturous to sit through even if the central idea, the real-life Christmas truce between the French and German soldiers during Christmas of 1914 is a potentially potent one (the film Noel from a few years ago dealt with it far more successfully) but the staging was static, the dialogue muffled, and the lighting ineffective.  Too bad, as small productions by unknown but dedicated artists are what we normally need more of.

On Friday night, we saw a one-man show with famed filmmaker and comedian John Waters at the Landmark State Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey, but I’m sorry to say that the one-hour presentation of peppered one-liners was stale, redundant and only sporadically amusing.  But the audience questions afterward were far more interesting.  At $47 a ticket, I think we got taken to the cleaners, even if I am a lifelong fan of the director and think Female Trouble and Desparate Living minor masterpieces of raunchy comedy.  Even the “turkey burger” I had at Fuddrucker’s afterwards was a losing proposition.

But then after the beginnings of the two-day blizzrd things really hit their stride starting with a Saturday afternoon HD multicast of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann aired from the Metropolitan Opera House at nationwide theatres at 1:00 P.M.  The staging, brand new at the Met, was directed by Barlett Sher, who also helmed the musical show South Pacific, which is running across the courtyard at Lincoln Center.  The result was spectacular, and the singing, set design and costumes of this lyrical masterpiece were visionary.  Again the question of whether HD broadcasts are actually a better experiences than attending the opera is a valid one.  In fact my most updated views will be expressed in a review that will appear at WitD on Thursday.

Then came the two recent films I saw in theatres:

Nine (Marshall)  *** 1/2   Saturday night (Ziegfeld Theatre, Manhattan)
Avatar (Cameron)  *****   Sunday afternoon (Edgewater Multiplex)
    Rob Marshall’s NINE is nowhere near as bad as some critics claim, but it has some obvious narrative issies, and not all the songs in this average score are remotely memorable.  Still, with magic moments like “Italia” and Judy Dench’s solo number, as well as that terrific beginning, there’s at least a trace of Fellini in the air and the chain smoking Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, marion Cotillard, Ms. Dench and Sophia Loren are all up to the task.  Marshall’s fluid editing, the strength of his past work, manages to conceal the slightness of the material.  It’s fun though, and that’s a good part of why we go to the movies.
     Then came one of those sublime, enrapturing experiences that we get only once or twice a year, and when it happens it restores your faith in contemporary cinema.  The fact that the man who created the film is none other than that infamous “King of the World” James Cameron makes this a highly unlikely development.  But there you have it.  AVATAR is a masterpiece – an often operatic, lyrical and sweeping spectacle that stirs and moves on a level rarely aspired to, much less achieved.  To look for flaws (every film ever made has flaws) or to attempt to downplay the film’s transporting quality and its transcendence it to willfully deny one of the greatest cinematic experiences of recent year’s and for me a film that seriously challenges Jane Campion’s Bright Star as film of the year.  There are some set pieces in the film’s middle are so visually stunning and ravishing, that you are left mouth open, chilled down your spine, and tears running down your cheeks.  The whole affair makes you happy to be have been still alive to witness such greatness.  Nah, I don’t wanna talk about suggested flaws.  Who really cares?  Pedestrian dialogue isn’t the point, when that is not the focus of this extended and immersive “tone poem.”  It’s a ruminative ride that won’t ever be forgotten, and it’s clear Cameron was influenced here by Malick and Jackson’s The Return of the King and Darren Aronofsky’s metaphysical slant in The Fountain.

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by Allan Fish

(USA 1918 84m) DVD1

So elergant

p  Jesse L.Lasky, Mary Pickford  d  Marshall Neilan  w  Frances Marion  novel  William J.Locke  ph  Walter Stradling  ed  uncredited  m  Philip C.Carli  art  Wilfred Buckland

Mary Pickford (Stella Maris/Unity Blake), Conway Tearle (John Risca), Marcia Manon (Louisa Risca), Camille Ankewich, Josephine Crowell (Aunt Gladys Linden), Herbert Standing (Sir Oliver Blount), Ida Waterman (Lady Eleanor Blunt), Lou Conley (nurse), Gustav Von Seyffertitz (surgeon),

Trying to watch a Mary Pickford film in the UK is like searching for the sangraal.  None of her films have ever been released on video, let alone DVD, and they are never seen on the box.  Did she do something to provoke her cousins across the Atlantic to such a boycott, or is there perhaps a more explainable reason to do with copyright?  Could it even be that there wouldn’t be much of a market for them?  It’s true, some of her films are almost unwatchable today, not because of their technique, but their sentiment.  Try watching The Poor Little Rich Girl, Heart of the Hills or Suds now without laughing, or even more so her most famous dual role, in Little Lord Fauntleroy.  Better than all these are My Best Girl and Sparrows, two family gems of their day with much to interest any serious devotee of the silent movie art form.  There’s no doubt, however, which is her best film, the only one which has any claims to being called a classic, and another in which she played two parts.  (more…)

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by Joel Bocko

Syndromes and a Century touches reality only tangentially – like a dream, or a memory. Nothing in it is “un-realistic” so to speak, and nothing that happens is fanciful or even especially dramatic. The film, directed by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, begins quietly and maintains this peaceful air for about an hour. A female doctor is interviewing a male doctor, asking him questions that will pertain to his job – as well as a few curveballs. Both doctors leave the room and walk out onto the deck of the clinic, a pleasant little building deep in the country. The camera pushes forward to frame the meadow behind them, and remains on this composition as they leave the picture and their indistinct chatter continues softly in the background. A feeling of nostalgia, of a deeply buried connection one cannot quite put a finger on, may wash over the viewer. If one gets into this groove, the movie flows along quite nicely, like a calm boat ride down that river in Wind in the Willows. However, as in that story, there’s a Wild Wood – and a Wide World – on the horizon, distant as that possibility seems while enjoying the quiet pleasures of this opening. (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(France/Italy 1927 137m) not on DVD

Aka. The Loves of Casanova

Great lovers should be…extravagant, risqué and wickedly funny

Alexandre Volkoff, Noé Block  d  Alexandre Volkoff  w  Alexandre Volkoff, Ivan Mosjoukine, Norbert Folk  ph  Leonce-Henry Burel, Sergei Bourgassov, Vladimir Toporkoff, Jean-Pierre Mundviller  ed  Renée Lichtig  m  Georges Delerue (new score)  art  Ivan Lochakoff, Robert Mallet-Stevens  cos  Boris Bilinsky, Jean Perrier

Ivan Mosjoukine (Casanova), Diana Karenine (Maria, Duchess de Lardi), Suzanne Bianchetti (Catherine the Great), Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Peter III), Jenny Jugo (Thérèse), Rina de Liguoro (Corticelli), Nina Kochitz (Countess Vorontzoff), Olga Day (Lady Stanhope), Michel Simon (Sbire), Nathalie Lissenko,

It was back in 1995 when I first heard of Casanova.  I was watching Brownlow & Gill’s Cinema Europe and, in dealing with French silent cinema, amongst clips from the usual suspects – Gance, Feuillade, Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc – there was this gem from the close of the silent era.  I distinctly recall thinking to myself seeing the clips from it that “there’s a film I’ll never see.”  Yet it was only around twelve months later that I did see it, for the BBC made up for not backing up the Brownlow series with accompanying films by showing Casanova late one Saturday night on BBC2.  Needless to say I was somewhat delirious.  (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(France 1924 11m) DVD1

A French straw hat

d/ed  Fernand Léger, Dudley Murphy  w  Fernand Léger  ph  Dudley Murphy, Man Ray  m  Georges Antheil (Paul Mercer DVD)

Kiki of Montparnasse,

Very few short films were as influential as cubist painter Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique.  Indeed very few short films could dream of being so influential.  There were other avant garde films of note made at around the same time, from René Clair’s Entr‘acte to Man Ray’s Le Retour à la Raison, yet Ballet is more fundamental than either of them.  One can see the traces of so much that was to come in its mere eleven minutes.

            It’s primarily lauded as the birth of cinematic surrealism, though a case could be made for Georges Méliès’ trick films really providing that, but this is undoubtedly where the style perfected by Buñuel and Dali, as well as numerous others at the end of the decade, was first born.  It has no plot, as one might have gathered, existing merely as what the title suggests, a mechanical ballet, a symphonic juxtaposition of images – mainly of mechanical devices and workings – frantically, and seemingly randomly spliced together.  Yet these individual shots and effects hark inexorably and unerringly forward to so many films. (more…)

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by Joel Bocko

Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen (2004) places just inside the top 50 on my “guide” list. That means that enough critics rated it in the year-end Top 10, or even their all-time list, to merit placement over such critical standbys as Pan’s Labyrinth or Russian Ark (it’s only a few notches below the widely beloved City of God). Not bad for a French film which lacks those other works’ narrative or formal gimmicks – Kings and Queen‘s dual (and eventually merging) narratives don’t quite provide the “hook” one usually associates with such wide acclaim, fairly or not. At first glance, Kings and Queen appears underwhelming, its high praise somewhat mystifying. (more…)

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