Archive for March, 2010

by Joel Bocko

#51 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade.

Of the two most cited interpretations, the most frequent reading of Gus Van Sant’s enigmatic title holds that it refers to “the elephant in the room,” which nobody wants to talk about. Yet this is facile – was it really true that nobody wanted to talk about Columbine in the wake of the 1999 high school massacre? Was this true even beforehand, given that Columbine was actually the climax to a spate of school shootings, all of which received ample press coverage, rather than the kickoff? Furthermore, what exactly is it that’s not being discussed? Social isolation? The influence of the media? Video games? Gun control? Violence in America? Not only were all of these issues seized upon after the killings, but Van Sant makes a point out of eschewing all these explanations in his film (giving each of them a bit of airtime before moving on to other matters). So no, there’s no elephant in the room here, and if there is, no one’s ignoring it. The second reading, the one that it seems Van Sant actually intended, references the allegory of the blind men and the elephant, each touching a different part of the body and varying wildly in how they describe the animal. Likewise, Van Sant’s meditative, almost cruelly cool film is, at 81 minutes, too vast to take in from one perspective – which is not to say it’s particularly deep. (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(USA 1924 155m) DVD1/2

Happiness must be earned

p  Douglas Fairbanks  d  Raoul Walsh (and Douglas Fairbanks)  w  Douglas Fairbanks, Lotta Woods  book  “The 1001 Nights” ph  Arthur Edeson  ed  William Nolan  md  Carl Davis  m  Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov  art  William Cameron Menzies, Anton Grot  cos  Mitchell Leisen  spc  Ned Mann  restoration tinting  Ron Sayer

Douglas Fairbanks (Ahmed the thief), Julianne Johnston (Princess of Bagdad), Snitz Edwards (thief friend), Anna May Wong (Monol slave), Brandon Hurst (Caliph of Bagdad), So-Jin (Prince of the Mongols), Noble Johnson (Indian Prince), Mathilde Comont (Persian Prince), Charles Belcher, Etta Lee,

Right, here’s the scenario.  You are in a cell on Death Row with a DVD player or a VCR and you are being allowed one film to watch the night before you die, but only have a library of silent films to choose from.  Well forgive me Messieurs Chaplin, Keaton, Gance, Eisenstein, Murnau, et al when I say that there is only one choice; Doug Fairbanks’ fantasy The Thief of Bagdad.  Not only is it my favourite silent of them all, it’s one of the best.  Without it (and Lang’s Die Nibelungen) fantasy in the cinema may not have come as far as it has today as this one set the rules.  It also stands as a testament to that most joyous of silent stars, Douglas Fairbanks, who David Thomson perfectly described as a “transforming movie actor whose presence so embodied the spirit of naïve adventure.”

            It differs quite a bit from the later Korda version of the tale; for starters, it basically combines the role of the thief with the heroic prince.  The eponymous Ahmed is a thief who obtains a magic rope to help him into the palace for acts of larceny, only to fall in love with the princess.  When the princess later challenges her several suitors (including a megalomaniacal Mongol) to bring back the rarest treasure to win her hand, Fairbanks enters into the fray, going through adventures in such wonderfully corny places as the Valley of Fire, the Valley of the Monsters, the Cavern of Enchanted Trees and the Abode of the Winged Horse on his way to the Old Man of the Midnight Sea.  (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

     He’s often been referred to as the “energizer bunny” of early music and the sunniest of conductors.  The London Independent refers to him as “one of the finest Baroque conductors of his generation” while The New Yorker considers him “an expert in 18th century style.”  He is known throughout the world for performances that weds authority with passion, erudition with effervescence and curatorial dependability with evangelical exuberance.  Yet, Nicholas McGegan’s most accessible attribute with contemporary audiences is his realization that the music of “yesteryear” shouldn’t be presented in dogmatic terms, but rather in a style that won’t alienate music lovers.  To accomplish that, McGegan has invariably favored more conventional symphonic forces than than the ones committed to a more restricted employment of period instruments, while still managing to retain the more austere and spiritual aspects of the music written during that time. (more…)

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Naomi Repace as Lizabeth Salandar as the title character in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” a wildly popular Swedish thriller.

by Sam Juliano

WitD site traffic this past week was at his highest level since nearly one year ago, (the biggest day was Friday with 2,100 hits) and a combination of factors, including the superlative contributions of Jim Clark, Joel Bocko, Dee Dee, Marc Bauer, Jamie Uhrer, as well as the peak essays of Allan’s rightly celebrated silent countdown, all contributed to an unexpected flurry of activity and some stellar comments from site regulars and newbies.  Readers who haven’t yet cast ballots in that long-running silents polling are urged to enter then under the proper tab under the site header, although ballots will be accepted till around April 6th.  There has been a short break in the action at Dave Hicks’s “GoodFellas” blog and Jeffrey Goodman’s “The Last Lullaby” place in the film noir countdown and annual examination of the greatest films, respectively, but both are due to continue to this morning.

A weekend horror convention was held at the nearby Jersey City Loews, featuring screenings of Night of the Living Dead and creepshow, a three day ‘Twilight Zone’ marathon, and various costume contests and the presence of directors George Romero and Tom Savini among other dignitaries, but the prohibitive $25 ticket fee kept us aways, and for seven (including resfreshments) would have had us mortgaging our home.  But I’m sure this was quite a venture, and I hope to hear more about it this week.

Theatrically, this past week I managed three films:

Greenberg ** 1/2  (Saturday night)  Angelika Film Center
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo  *** 1/2 (Friday night)  Landmark Cinemas
The Green Zone  **   (Monday night) Edgewater multiplex
     Ben Stiller plays a narcissistic neurotic named Roger Greenburg, who movies from Lost Angeles to New York after a mental breakdown, and you know that director Noah Baumbach is on solid Woody Allen turf here.  But Stiller’s character is uninteresting, nothing really happens (both dramatically and psychologically) and the almost-romance is rather painful to watch.  Greta Gerwig is wholly endearing, but Stiller is really a major annoyance, in a film that is only intermittantly funny.  Some of the observation are trenchant, but it all really adds up here to very little, and all is forgotten a day later.
    The biggest problem in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is that the plot turns are continuous, leaving very little room for any character development.  But there’s no question this is a dizzying thriller with some terrific individual scenes, and a terrifying denouement.  The title character, played by Naomi Repace, and the two male leads, are superb, and the film is strikingly lensed.  It’s exorbitantly long, but I can’t really say it’s not riveting.  It’s interesting to see the Swedish take on what has traditionally been an American genre, and it’s likely we’ll be seeing a re-make on these shores soon enough.
    THE GREEN ZONE is a bombastic and frenzied movie with neither a heart nor a soul, and some high-profile performers, could have been effectively replaced by your next door neighbors.  There’s little here that surprises us, and after a while you just want to get up and leave, with nothing on display here to engage the mind intellectual, despite some considerable technical prowess. (for whatever that’s worth)
     Lucille and my two daughters Melanie and Jillian took a look on Saturday afternoon at THE RUNAWAYS at the Edgewater multiplex, but I needed to stay back with the three boys to complete some domestic chores here.  It seems that all three of them had good things to say.
     Anyway, I have some very interesting links to add here, so I suspect time will prevent me from going as far with it as I usually do:
 Dee Dee is highlighting with a post on the 1944 Hollywood classic Gaslight, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman at Darkness Into Light: http://noirishcity.blogspot.com/2010/03/gothicfilms101takingcloserlookat.html
At Films Noir.net Tony d’Ambra is showcasing another one of his poetic, thought-provoking and sensory looks at doomed protagonists in noir: http://filmsnoir.net/film_noir/femme-noir-4-evelyn-
John Greco has what appears to be a most engaging essay up at “Twenty-Four Frames” on Somebody Up There Likes Me: http://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2010/03/21/somebodyuptherelikesme1956robertwise/ (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(Germany 1922 96m) DVD1/2

Aka. Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens

A true symphony of horrors

Albin Grau  d  Friedrich W.Murnau  w  Henrik Galeen  novel  “Dracula” by Bram Stoker  ph  Fritz Arno Wagner, Günther Krampf  m  Hans Erdmann/James Bernard/Art Zoyd  art/cos  Albin Grau 

Max Schreck (Count Orlock), Alexander Granach (Knock, the estate agent), Gustav Von Wangenheim (Wutter), Greta Schröder (Ellen),

Werner Herzog is of the belief that Nosferatu is the greatest German film ever made and certainly it would have to be a serious contender to that crown, and Herzog paid it his own homage with a fair remake with the loathsome Klaus Kinski in 1979.  However, there is only one version of the tale and Murnau’s film, freely adapted from Bram Stoker’s masterpiece of Gothic horror, is the greatest vampire film of them all, a film that truly lives up to its subtitle, “a symphony of horrors.”  If it were a symphony, it’s worthy of those eternal children of the night Dowland, Moussorgsky, Borodin and Kilar.

            Many versions of Dracula have followed, with the 1931 Universal (with the immortal Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye) and the 1958 Hammer (covered previously) standing out and a mention in despatches for the romantic Frank Langella.  They may indeed stick closer to the novel and keep the characters’ names, but the very term ‘Nosferatu’ isn’t just referring to the undead, rather a sort of pestilent plague that spreads after sunset.  Indeed the opening titles refer to the tale that follows as “A Chronicle of the Great Death of Wisborg – 1838.”  The story, which we shall not waste space detailing, may be changed radically from the original, being set in Germany and Transylvania rather than England and with rather dramatic changes to the rest of the characters, but it’s still a truly disquieting movie to this day.  There are scenes here that truly chill over eighty years on; the first vision of the Count, beckoning on his guest into the castle with cadaverous glee, lusting after his blood when he pricks his finger; the shot of Orlock standing on the deck of the ship of the dead; the immortal shadow of Orlock climbing the stairs and unlocking Ellen’s room; his death as the sun rises over the very houses opposite which he owns; and arguably most memorably of all, the numerous shots of sunsets and sunrises over the German countryside.  Murnau has always been fascinated with temptation and the symbolism of sunlight and of the earth itself (just check out The Burning Soil, for example), but never has it been more prevalent than here in his first true masterpiece.  It’s here that we first see the imagery that would be so perfectly deployed in Hollywood in Sunrise(more…)

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by Allan Fish

(Germany 1927/2010 150m) DVD1/2

I’ve just met two girls named Maria

p  Erich Pommer  d  Fritz Lang  w  Thea Von Harbou  ph  Karl Freund, Günther Rittau  Gottfried Huppertz   art  Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, Karl Vollbrecht  spc  Eugene Schüfftan

Brigitte Helm (Maria), Alfred Abel (John Fredersen), Güstav Fröhlich (Freder Fredersen), Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Prof.Rotwang), Fritz Rasp (Slim), Theodore Loos (Josephat), Erwin Biswanger (11811), Heinrich George (Grot), Olaf Storm (Jan),

Fritz Lang’s supreme folly and the most ambitious silent film ever made, UFA’s flagship sci-fi fantasy has it all.  It has influenced more films directly than almost any other (take Things to Come, Frankenstein, Modern Times, The Fifth Element, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner to name but half a dozen), nearly ruined its studio financially but now stands out as arguably their greatest achievement.  Some may decry the somewhat naïve politics and religious symbolism, and the finale is certainly quite laughable, but its message rings clear.

            Metropolis is a giant city circa 2000 A.D.  Its workers live underground in an ant-commune like city whilst the children of the rich, with its Club of the Sons, play idly above ground in their mansions and stadiums.  Almost unconscious of their totalitarian power, the young rich only have their eyes opened when a young woman, Maria, comes to the Eternal Gardens with a group of slum children.  Freder, son of the master of the city, is fascinated by her and follows her underground and sees for himself the poverty.  But when his father persuades a professor, Rotwang, to create a model Maria to replace the real one and stamp out any revolutionary tendencies, things take a turn for the worse. (more…)

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By Marc Bauer

Cinema is no stranger to films about the creation of art. We’ve seen the subject matter vary wildly and in style. There have been films about food (Ratatouille, Big Night) , about music (Amadeus, Mr. Holland’s Opus), about writing; both of books (Wonder Boys, The Shining) and of plays (Shakespeare in Love, The Producers). There have been movies about artists that cover the range from revered (The Agony and The Ecstasy, Lust for Life) to the recent (Pollock, Basquiat) and the irreverent (American Splendor, Crumb). We’ve experienced movies about making movies, done both serious (Sullivan’s Travels, Ed Wood) and comedic (Be Kind Rewind, Son of Rambow). There are even films about creating animation (Frank and Ollie, Waking Sleeping Beauty).  Yet, for all the myriad mentions of creation as the story devise, I cannot recall a single film about the making of an illuminated manuscript; until now.

The Secret of Kells is that movie; a film that delves into the creation of the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is one of the most famous Illuminated Manuscripts, and the most celebrated example of Insular Art. The book itself is something mere words cannot describe, which in a way, is fortuitous. If words were tools capable of the task of describing this book, perhaps The Secret of Kells would not have been made.  The film itself, with the use of visual vocabulary, attempts to describe the book, but truly focuses more on the story surrounding its creation. (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(USA 1926 80m) DVD1/2

General hilarity

p  Joseph M.Schenck  d  Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman  w  Al Boasberg, Charles Smith  ph  J.Devereux Jennings, Bert Haines  ed  Sherman Kell  art  Fred Gabourie

Buster Keaton (Johnnie Gray), Marion Mack (Annabelle Lee), Glen Cavender (Capt.Anderson), Jim Farley (Gen.Thatcher), Frederick Vroom (Southern General), Charles Smith (Mr Lee), Frank Barnes (Annabelle’s brother), Joe Keaton (Union general),

What was the greatest Civil War film of the silent era?  The Birth of a Nation?  Nah, milestone in cinema history though it was and included in this list though it might be, there is only one truly, truly great Civil War silent; Buster Keaton’s crowning glory, arguably the funniest silent film ever made, The General.  It’s a great comedy, a great action film and a great film full stop.  It really doesn’t get much better than this.

            At the time of the Civil War’s outbreak in 1861, Johnnie Gray is an engineer on the Western and Atlantic Railroad and he loves his train nearly as much as his girl.  However, his efforts to enlist are turned down by the Confederacy as he’s too valuable to the South as an engineer.  His girl doesn’t think so, believing him a coward and promptly refuses to see him until he’s in uniform.  Dejected he returns to his train, but a year on fate makes him the sole potential rescuer of the girl when her train is hijacked by Unionist forces when she is on the way to see her injured father.  It becomes a race against time for Johnnie to rescue his girl and report back of the Unionist plans which he has overheard to the Southern generals and thus save the day.  (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

     Measure For Measure, a complex Shakespeare play concerned mostly with issues of morality, is one of it’s creator’s least-performed plays, presumably because the work poses as many questions as it does answers.    In fact, literary scholars have long tabbed it a “problem play” with a contrived ending and a contradictory exploration of sexual politics.  It’s a tragicomedy that features a heroine who would rather see her brother beheaded than give up her virginity.  And it also showcases the dubious edicts of an abusive politician whose hypocricy mirrors present day antics and a clear violation of the old adage “practice what you preach.”

     The Duke of Vienna temporarily relinquishes control of his government, and places “Angelo”, a harsh interpretor of the law in control.  Angelo wastes no time in immediately condemning Claudio to death for getting his fiance pregnant.  Claudio’s sister Isabella, about to enter a convent, attempts to free her brother by approaching Angelo, only to face a desperate dilemma.  Angelo will issue a pardon to Claudio if Isabella sacrifices her virginity to him.  Meanwhile, the benevolent Duke, who has not really left at all, but stands in the wings assuming a disguise, observes this chosen replacement’s misdeeds.  The plot is basically a series of twists and turns, with Isabella’s story alternating with the comic hijinks of a constable named Elbow, a madam named Mistress Overdone, and a bartender called Pompey, among others.  The humor is transcribed broadly, much in a style reminiscent of traditional commedia dell’arte, which works effectively as contrasted with the serious resolution of Isabella’s plight.  Angelo of course, is the villain of the piece, but one must question the Duke, whose behavior is duplicitous as well, using lies, subterfuge and disguise to accomplish his well-intentioned ends.  (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(USSR 1925 74m) DVD1/2

Aka. Bronenosets Potemkin

The lion roars

d/w/ed  Sergei M.Eisenstein  ph  Eduard Tissé, Vladimir Popov  m  Nikolai Kryukov (orig.Edmund Meisel)  art  Vasili Rakhals

Aleksandr Antonov (Vakulinchuk), Grigori Alexandrov (Chf.Off.Giliarovsky), Vladimir Barsky (Capt.Golikov), Levshin,

With the possible exception of Citizen Kane, is there a more critically revered movie than this?; topping all best film lists until Kane took its spot in the late fifties but still regarded as one of the most pivotal steps forward in the development of the seventh art.  Give or take twelve months Eisenstein was about the same age as Welles when he made Kane when he made his masterpiece, but even Kane cannot claim to have devised as many shots or been such a rich source for theoretical textbooks.  In short, it revolutionised the vocabulary of film unlike any other before or since. 

            Potemkin was commissioned to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Potemkin mutiny in 1905 and told the story from a purely aesthetic and propagandist point of view.  This is best exemplified by not only the heroic stances of the mutineers and the townsfolk of Odessa who back them but in the fact that the film ends prior to the actual putting down of the revolt.  Soviet propaganda did not allow such a noble failure to be documented as such, preferring to concentrate on the Tsarist regime that treated its sailors so despicably.  All authority figures represent the evil regime (“death to the oppressors!” cry the crew over Antonov’s body), and as in Dovzhenko’s Earth, one member of the clergy in particular is painted very blackly.  (more…)

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