Archive for February, 2010

*** 1/2

by Bob Clark

How does one begin a review to a typical modern-day puzzle movie? With caveats to the unprepared reader, with spoiler-alerts and warnings to proceed no further until walking out of the theater? How much of the film’s narrative, hinging so dependently upon last-minute twists, left-field turns and deus ex machina expositions, can be safely divulged to those who have not yet made the decision to pass the palms of their local box-office with silver, like curious visitors to so many gypsy fortune-tellers? Are such storytelling concerns even entirely relevant to the larger considerations of the quality of a film’s aesthetics and performances? This last question begs itself even more starvingly than usual when the film in question is directed by that latter-day cinematic maestro and walking film PhD, Martin Scorsese—after all, when a filmmaker of his caliber sets his sights to a project, does it really matter all that much what the story is, or how much of it you might know beforehand? Isn’t the smartest thing to just go see the movie no matter what, and to stop asking such questions?


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Martin Scorsese's spectacularly-entertaining "Shutter Island"

by Sam Juliano

Snow and cold weather continues to grip the northeast, as Oscar fans map out their plans for their annual Oscar parties. Winter Olympic Game followers have no doubt enjoyed the unexpectedly fantastic performance by the USA contingent, which presently leads the field in medals.  Congratulations to Joel Bocko on the launching of  his new site and for the splendid series that began posting at WitD this past day.  Action at Dave Hicks’s site continues with tireless enthusiasm for the greatest film noirs, while Jeffrey Goodman is up to the mid 40’s in his consideration of the greatest films of all time.  Of course at Wonders in the Dark, Allan’s silent films marathon countdown has reached #36 with Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera.  Dee Dee and Tony have collaborated to navigate the Oscar prediction posts, and the work there is outstanding.

On the movie front it’s been a memorable week in theatres, the best of 2009 in fact, led by triumphant returns by film masters Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski, and an exquisitely beautiful and spiritual  French film, Lourdes, reviewed here at the site on Friday.  I saw four films, one with the entire family, one with Lucille and Bobby McCartney, and two by my lonesome:

Lourdes  **** 1/2  (Film Forum) Wednesday evening
Phyllis and Harold  ** 1/2  (Cinema Village)  Friday evening
Shutter Island  **** 1/2  (Edgewater multiplex)  Friday afternoon
Ghost Writer  ****  (Saturday night)   Union Square Cinemas
As a partial description of the film LOURDES, I’ve opted to post part of my own review: As a work of religious custom and orthodoxy, and as a showcase of the somber, almost intimidating meditative beauty of Christian rituals, Lourdes is unquestionably an arresting film, right from the opening scene where visitors are gathered in a holding area, while Franz Schubert’s ravishing “Ave Maria” is sung on the soundtrack with an entrancing spirituality, through it’s adherence to tradition and reverence, beautifully lit by cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, in a number of stationary shots.  But Gschlacht wisely lets the magnificence of the settings stand on their own.  The painterly compositions are often underscored by some of J.S. Bach’s most spiritually captivating organ works……the question remains of course, as to what the director, Jessica Hausner is implying here, but she wisely remains non-committal.

The major issue with the passably made documentary PHYLLIS AND HAROLD is that it’s really like watching the home movies of someone who hardly know.  The two “subjects” are not very likable people to begin with, and the film’s director Cindy Kline (who is married to Andre Gregory of MY DINNER WITH ANDRE fame) seems detached from her parents, making for a very awkward emotional connection to anyone.  These aren’t people I would like to spend any time with.  In any case in a crowd of almost all seniors on Friday night, when the director appeared aat the Cinema Village to engage in a Q & A, I was sold a senior citizen ticket at the box office without asking for it, so it’s official now!  Ha!

Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited SHUTTER ISLAND, turns out to be a spectacularly-entertaining film, that will still have at least a few bloggers crashing the party, telling us about it’s ‘narrative inconsistences’ as if we were  first-graders.  Those of us having a roller-ride of a time don’t give one iota about such insignificant issues, as we’re being whisked around at atmospherically-enthralling island, visiting a lighthouse, cave, cemetery burial vault, a prison cafeteria and a doctor’s study among such other deliciously intoxicating places.  I never read Dennis Lehane’s novel, so I was thrown for a loop by the terrific ending, and as always was mightily impressed with Ralph Richardson’s weathered lensing and Scorsese’s excellent use of a Dachau flashback structure.  Red herrings abound of course, and Leonardo Di Caprio gives his most mature performance to date, and a bevy of supporting players, especially Patricia Clarkson are superb.  I already have plans to see this a second time on Tuesday night with sire regular Dennis Polifroni.

Then there’s good old Roman Polanski, who also does not shirk the call of duty with GHOST WRITER, turning in a taut, witty an dparanoid thriller, which recalls David Mamet’s ability to impart vital information in the silences between words.  It’s a place Polanski has never visited before, but he’s adept at holding you enthralled with this political film with Hitchcockian pacing and subtle performances, anchored by Ewan McGregor in the title role.  It’s a vivid and complex piece about among other things, missed chances.

So how was your week?  You know the menu!  Let’s hear it. (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(UK 1929 85m) DVD2 (Germany only)


p  John Maxwell  d  Alfred Hitchcock  w  Alfred Hitchcock, Ben W.Levy, Charles Bennett  play  Charles Bennett  ph  Jack Cox  ed  Emile de Ruelle  md  John Reynders  m  Campbell and Connolly  art  Wilfrid Arnold, Norman Arnold

Anny Ondra (Alice White), John Longden (Det.Frank Webber), Sara Allgood (Mrs White), Donald Calthrop (Tracy), Charles Paton (Mr White), Cyril Ritchard (Mr Crewe),

The version of Hitchcock’s Blackmail everybody knows is the one finally released late in 1929.  The film commonly regarded as Britain’s first talkie, with a silent first few minutes, originally shot as a silent, then reshot by Hitch for sound without telling the producers.  It was a marvellous coup, and shows that Hitch had as much mastery of the new medium as those in Hollywood – no better film was made in Hollywood in 1929, and very few as good.  That film, however, has its faults; Anny Ondra’s Bohemian accent was so wrong for a London tradesman’s daughter, they hired Joan Barry to speak her lines off-screen, in perfect sync, but also with such clipped tones she seemed to come more from the height of the West End, not the gutteral other half of the city.  The silent version somehow survived, and by the eighties there were enough people interested in it, with the advent of video, for it to gain some exposure.  Finally remastered and shown on DVD it not only seems a better and more fluid film than the talkie that superseded it, but virtually as good as that other classic Hitchcock silent The Lodger. (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(USSR 1929 70m) DVD1/2

Aka. Chelovek s Kinoapparatom

An excerpt from the diary of a cameraman

p/d/w  Dziga Vertov  ph  Mikhail Kaufman  ed  Elizaveta Svilova, Dziga Vertov

Of all the films in this select list, there can surely be no harder film to categorise than Dziga Vertov’s wonderful cinematic experiment of the late silent era.  It tells no story and yet it does tell a story, two of them in fact.  Not merely content to film the daily (and nightly) life of the Soviet populace at work and play, he also shows the people making the film within the film.  We see his editor (wife Svilova) rise from bed hurriedly, take off her nightdress, put her clothes on and go to work, where later on she splices and cuts the raw footage shot by the cameraman, Mikhail Kaufman.  Indeed the film begins with an iconic shot of a camera from which, on top, emerges the superimposed image of our cameraman setting up his camera.  It’s a wonderful visual touch that sets the tone of the film to follow, a film that revolutionised non-fictional film-making at a time when the term documentary was barely conceived.  (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(USA 1923 70m) DVD1/2

I’ll be back as soon as I ditch the cop

p  Harold Lloyd  d  Sam Taylor, Fred Newmeyer  w  Harold Lloyd, Tim Whelan, Sam Taylor, Hal Roach  ph  Walter Lundin  ed  Thomas J.Crizer  m  Carl Davis  art  Fred Guiol

Harold Lloyd (Harold), Mildred Davis (Mildred), Noah Young (the cop), Bill Strothers (Limpy Bill), Westcott B.Clarke (Stubbs, the floorwalker),

Safety Last is one of those movies cherished in the memory long before you actually see the full film.  My first glimpses of it were probably exactly the same as many other people’s in the UK, courtesy of a half hour teatime show on BBC2 showcasing Lloyd’s comedy, with an inimitable nine note theme tune unforgettable to those who heard it.  Of course that glimpse was only an edited version of Last and, indeed, of its most famous sequence, but it was enough for me.  I would only have been about ten years old, but to a childhood friend and I, it was pure bliss.  Even now, over twenty years later, though I reaffirm that fact that The Kid Brother is Lloyd’s best feature, there is nothing on his CV to match Last.  It’s one to cherish. (more…)

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Sylvie Testud in Jessica Hauser’s ‘Lourdes’ at Film Forum

by Sam Juliano

Wholly original in its concept and execution, Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes is a cross between the austerity of Bresson and the deadpan minimalism of Aki Kaurismaki as the film broaches issues of faith and celestial power without offering any concrete answers.

Filmed at the Catholic holy site of Lourdes, a once hidden enclave in the extreme southwestern part of France, just miles from the border with Spain just above the Pyrenees, this is as observational and non-committal a film we’ve seen in some time, yet it’s aesthetic beauty and art house underpinnings make it alluring for the eyes and the ears, while simultaneously raising questions that had their origin all the back in 1858, when a young 14 year-old village girl, Bernadette Soubirous made claim to getting visits from the supposed Blessed Virgin Mary on eighteen occasions at the nearby Grotto of Massabielle.  It was subsequently argued by theological figures that ‘miracles’ happened in the town, and that a number of people were cured by disease and illness.  The story was written for a novel and a subsequent Hollywood film starring Jennifer Jones appeared in 1943, winning Ms. Jones the Oscar for ‘Best Actress.’  The town attracts millions of tourists each year, and religious zealots seek the ‘cleansing by holy water’ that was long believed to be the method of healing.

As a work of religious custom and orthodoxy, and as a showcase of the somber, almost intimidating meditative beauty of Christian rituals, Lourdes is unquestionably an arresting film, right from the opening scene where visitors are gathered in a holding area, while Franz Schubert’s ravishing “Ave Maria” is sung on the soundtrack with an entrancing spirituality, through it’s adherence to tradition and reverence, beautifully lit by cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, in a number of stationary shots.  But Gschlacht wisely lets the magnificence of the settings stand on their own.  The painterly compositions are often underscored by some of J.S. Bach’s most spiritually captivating organ works. (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(Sweden 1921 95m) DVD2

Aka. Korkarlen; Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness

Death rides by

Charles Magnusson  d/w  Victor Sjöstrom  novel  Selma Lagerlöf  ph  Julius Jaenzon  art  Alexander Bako, Axel Esbensen

Victor Sjöstrom (David Holm), Hilda Bergstrom (Mrs Holm), Tore Svennberg (Georges), Astrid Holm (Sister Edit), Concordia Selander (Sister’s Edith’s Mother), Olof Âas (Korkarlen), Einar Axelson (Holm’s brother), Nils Aréhn (Fängelsepredkanten), Lisa Lundholm (Sister Maria), Tor Weijden (Gustaffson),

There is a reaper and his name is death” we were continually told in Berlin Alexanderplatz.  Well, here’s the first appearance of the Grim One in person, a film whose influence still reverberates in Scandinavia.  Ingmar Bergman made a point of watching it every New Years Eve and one can easily see why.  The source of so much of his early inspiration is here (where would The Seventh Seal have been without it?), its director Sjöstrom given one grand last hurrah by Bergman as old Professor Isak Borg in Wild Strawberries. (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(France 1927 141m) DVD1

Aka. Le Joueur d’Echecs

The board is set, the pieces are moving…

p  Raymond Bernard, Henry Dupuy-Mazuel, Jean-José Frappa  d  Raymond Bernard  w  Raymond Bernard, Jean-José Frappa  novel  Henry Dupuy-Mazuel  ph  Joseph-Louis Mundviller, Marc Bujard, Willy Faktorivitch  ed  Raymond Bernard  m  Henri Rabaud  md  Carl Davis  art  Jean Perrier  cos  Eugène Lourie  spc  W.Percy Day

Pierre Blanchar (Boleslas Vorowski), Charles Dullin (Baron von Kempelen), Edith Jehanne (Sophie Novinska), Camille Bert (Maj.Nicolaieff), Pierre Batcheff (Prince Serge Oblomoff), Marcelle Charles-Dullin (Catherine the Great), Jacky Monnier, Armand Bernard, Alexiane, Pierre Hot, James Devesa, Fridette Fatton,

So spoke I McKellen as Gandalf in The Return of the King, but it’s also a wonderful summation for this wonderful, long feared lost silent masterpiece.  For far too long discussions of French silent cinema have tended to centre around Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc and the epics of Abel Gance.  Bernard is a name unjustly lost in time, but this was a man responsible for three supreme masterworks of the cinematic storyteller’s art; WWO classic Les Croix de Bois, his epic five hour Les Misérables and this wonderful historical romance.  Many of the cinematic touches seen here may have first been seen on Napoleon, but Bernard (and Russian director Alexandre Volkoff) worked as assistants to Gance on that film out of respect for Gance and must have had some input into the innovations used therein.  The Chess Player is the other great masterpiece of French silent cinema, and one which is impossible not to compare to the same year’s Metropolis(more…)

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Oscar@ Statues 

[Editor’s Note; The Poll Will Change or Close After Each  Oscar@ Category Is Posted.] 

Sam Juliano’s Predictions For Best Male Actor… 

In the category of ‘Best Actor in a Leading Role’ the 2009 short list doesn’t really have a weak link, though had I been a voter I would have replaced Morgan Freeman with the lead actor in the Coen’s A Serious Man: Michael Stuhlbarg. But in a year when the cream rose to the top, one could hardly dispute some of the high-profile turns delivered, nor what is generally considered the ‘consensus choice’ to bring home the gold. 

Colin Firth 

As Nelson Mandela, the venerated South African leader who fearlessly won in a decades-long political showdown with the nation’s white leadership, Morgan Freeman was actually Mandela’s own choice to play himself. With a glimmer in his eye, and a perfect replication of the leader’s sing-song cadences, Freeman injected a depth and spirit into the character, but the performance was more of an impersonation than an actual interpretation, always a prospective issue in situation where real people are portrayed. Still, Freeman was memorable and accomplished, and his nod is by no means undeserved, though I would myself have cast a vote for Stuhlbarg, who plays a most peculiar father is a dysfunction Jewish American family in Minnesota, patterned after the Coens’ own upbringing. 

Jeremy renner 

As Staff Sgt. William James, a skilled bomb detonator in Iraq, who, as part of an army explosive ordinance disposal team who deactivates explosives with icy precision, Jeremy Renner is the acting cornerstone in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, delivered a focused and tight performance in a role that almost called for a lesser-known actor, who would be less apt to adversely affect the role with any degree of personal vulnerability. Renner, who was Bigelow’s first choice, has won numerous awards from film critics groups, including the New York Film Critics Circle for his intense work, and he still maintains a long-shot possibility for the Oscar, should the film sweep the ceremony. 


Popular George Clooney is generally considered as Bridges’s closest competitor, as he is a widely revered Hollywood figure, who even recently became involved in the cause for earthquake victims in Haiti. As Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizer who fires people and delivers inspirational speeches while spending an inordinate amount of time on a plane, Clooney is the central character in the well-received Up in the Air, directed by Jason Reitman, though his critics have charged that is again playing himself. Yet there are some similarities here to the performance he gave in Michael Clayton, and the film’s admirers are huge fans of Clooney’s work. If the vote splits all over the place it’s conceivable that Clooney could emerge victorious, but Bridges is still the man to beat. 

Colin Firth 

The final nominee is British actor Colin Firth who plays British college Professor George Falconer, who is struggling to find meaning in his life after the death of his long-time partner Jim in Tom Ford’s moving A Single Man. The “events” of the film, which boasts the year’s best musical score by Abel Korzeniowski, are played out in a single day, a day in which the extraordinarily-gifted Firth exhibits a haunting blend of despair, frivolity, humor, lust, regret, terror and melancholy, and contemplates suicide leading up the shocking conclusion. Firth, another actor with a distinguished career, manages the most introspective of the year’s performances, and he would get my vote if I could cast one. 


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Spot the difference

Which is Sam?  Clue, it’ll be the one on the computer ad infinitum, though the other one is giving grief to his missus. 

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