Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Metropolis


Metropolis, 1927
Dir: Fritz Lang
September 30, 2009

Yeah, yeah. Chalk this one up for another film that I am supposed to have seen that I've only gotten to now. I wish someone would've let me known what I was going to be in for because this is one of the most insane films I have ever seen. That doesn't make it good or bad, in fact I think it is somewhere in the middle, but it's just one big theatrical nut-house.

I'm not even sure where to begin. The modern utopia and "The Club of the Sons;" the oppressed workers and the underground city; the christian metaphors; machine vs. man; it's all so over the place. The story basically is about an ultra-modern city, Metropolis, that is built around the myth of the Tower of Babel, and that leads us to the way the people are divided there: the elite "thinkers" who live above ground and run the city and the "workers" who live below ground and keep the machines functioning. The original idea man and seeming ruler of Metropolis, Joh Federsen (Alfred Abel), has a young, care-free son Feder (Gustav Fröhlich), who suddenly becomes obsessed with a young woman, Maria (Brigitte Helm), who is idolized by the workers for her message of peace and her insistence that someone is coming to end their plight. The film is basically about Feder's need to find Maria, the social problems that surrounds them in the city, and his changing attitudes about the way of life that is accepted in Metropolis.

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The film is over-dramatic about everything. The one subdued performance of the bunch was by Abel as the iron-fisted Joh, but he kind of ruined it at the end with his "fall-to-knees-hands-on-head" nonsense. The Thin Man, played by Fritz Rasp, is also intriguing if only because most of his scenes are lost, but also because the few appearances he does have let him carry a subtle menace as Joh's spy. Fröhlich and Helm are both case-in-studies of over-acting, for everything they do has to be overly-gesticulated. I understand the restrictions that silent film places on these sorts of the things, and what this requires the actors to do, but other films do it way better. Direction, of course, is to blame for some of this, and I can find no better part than when the underground city is flooding and there are groping children reaching for Maria, and then Feder comes to rescue her and they have a dramatic make-out session in front of all of the kids while the water continues to flood everywhere.

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The contrast of party-going elite with the down-trodden workers of course works in its way, but that explains nothing about mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who is seemingly just thrown in there as a third force in the city. His place in the film is hard to figure out; of course, he creates the machine-man in hopes of getting it to look like his lost love, Hel, who was Joh's wife and Feder's mother. Joh, seeing a way to subvert Maria's actions, tells Rotwang to make it look like Maria. Apart from that, he seems all about modern progression with his Frankenstein laboratory, and yet his medieval house, which is in the middle of Metropolis, has pentagrams and stars all over it. I was trying to figure out how this contrasted to the Christian metaphors and symbols that are seen throughout the film, usually with Maria, or if the contradiction was saying something about Rotwang's nature, but it's hard to say for sure. They have two confrontations, a pretty awesome one in the catacombs deep under the city where the expressionistic lighting and camera work out-do the gross over acting, and then the one at the end, where Maria is chased by a coming-out-of nowhere Rotwang, seemingly driven even more mad by the loss of his new "Hel." Human love over machine coldness? That is probably what is trying to be said, with all the other stuff that comes together at the end, but it's all a little too sappy for me if that's the case. While I would generally say that a character whose moral compass in hard to figure out is awesome, Rotwang is pretty retarded.

A New Met...

It's pretty easy to understand why this was the most expensive silent film that had yet been made, and its epic scale is certainly admirable. It's still really easy to be impressed by the special effects even now, and taken into context it's pretty jaw-dropping. The expressionist lighting, the art-deco art design, and multiple camera tricks show a director who was willing to try new things with the look of his film. While not as visually bold as Murnau, Lang still impressed me with the technical feel of the film. The scene where all the rich dandies are ogling robot Maria as she "dances" for them, juxtaposed with all the quick cuts of close-ups on eyes super-imposed on one another, is really effective, and also really funny, though I'm not sure if it's supposed to be.

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As I said, parts of the film are lost, but I'm not really sure if they would make this a great film. I understand the important value the film holds, but I can't really see myself ever really liking it. M (1931) is a way better Lang film, where here he only seems like a German Cecile B. DeMille, and even he had a hard time liking this in his later life. This may be in part for some of the reasons that I give above, and partly because his wife at the time and co-writer Thea von Harbou became an ardent Nazi (which may account for the occult stuff), and they in turn became fascinated with the film (there are obvious parts that would have appealed to them). The stunning technical work is probably the only reason to see this, because under that is just the bare bones of a silly, silly film.

Metropoli...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Roman Goes Down


So what happened back then? Well, Polanski offered this girl a Quaalude at a party and she took it. She described everything, even including what the pillbox looked like. She also said that they drank champagne together. After they had gotten into the hot tub, she got out, and repeatedly told him that she wanted to go home. He didn’t take her home, and started performing “cuddliness” (lol, her word in court) on her. She told him to stop. Then they started having intercourse. Again she told him to stop. He asked her if she was on the pill, she said no. And then he decided that he better play it safe and put it in her butt.

I don't know why I never looked it up before, but I had no idea Roman went back door. Real "smart" dude. Just like raping a 13 yr. old at Jack Nicholson's house.

If you watch the documentary that came out recently, you realize there was a lot of other stuff going on (the crazy mom who basically pimped her daughter out, a media-obsessed judge looking to make a name for himself by putting away a big-time director for a long time, ect.). It's true these things happened, and the mother is a garbage-bin of a human being, but he still raped a woman, regardless of her age (which makes it worse).

The one good thing that might come out of this is that after serving his time (if and when he gets extradited) he might be able to work in the US again, but I won't hold my breath. Sometimes you have to separate the man from his art.

"11 would have been better." - Fake Roman Polanski

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Immortal Story


The Immortal Story, 1968
Dir: Orson Welles
September 27, 2009

This is an hour long made for French-TV film by Orson Welles. Yup. Again, I was probably not gonna watch it, but I read a decent review of it and decided that I really should just bang out everything that Welles has done. This is however a film with no real DVD release in the US, so you're gonna have to DL this to see it if you feel intrigued.

The story is about an elderly Mr. Clay (Orson Welles) who lives in 19th century Macao (China), who recalls hearing a story when he was young about another rich elderly man who solicits a sailor to impregnate his wife, decides to make it happen in real life in his old age. Of course, he has no wife, so he has to find a woman to play the part (Jeanne Moreau) and find a sailor (Norman Eshley) with the help of his bookkeeper Levinsky (Roger Coggio). Yeah, this is real. The woman, Ms. Virginie, has a score to settle with Clay, and hopes to make it the last "game" that he ever plays. The melancholy sailor has heard the story too (almost everyone has) and is dubious, though he is down to get "5 guineas."

Everything about the story starts with Mr. Clay's dislike of prophecy and ambiguity, and his need for everything to be "fact." When Levinsky tells him the the story he remembers never took place, that it's just a story that sailors told to entertain one another, he can't believe it. Many have read the corpulent character of Clay as a metaphor for the director himself; seemingly able to control the world around him he ends up as a hollow shell who succumbs to the prophesy he wants to both own and destroy (basically an apocryphal sailor's yarn). Like many of Welles' characters his failure is one of true imagination, unsatisfied by the tales he spins and the facts he commands, Clay attempts to will an immaterial and pointless world into being. Nevertheless, this is amongst the most joyless and least physical of all Welles' performances, his visual presence in the film often limited to the vision of him presiding over events in his high-backed chair. I was slightly dissapointed after his mind-blowing performance in Chimes at Midnight (1965).

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The acting seems to take a backseat to Welles' direction, which while still maintaining the feel of a Wells film, is something entirely new in tone and literary interpretation. The film has a surprisingly dreamy quality, beautifully rendered and intricately told, it is a world-weary work preoccupied with the exhaustion of narrative storytelling (sometimes lines are delivered as if they were being read from the short story, and while some of them blew my hair back, like the sailor's ruminations on what must have gone through his father's mind right before he drowned, they seem more literary and less cinematic than I would like), and perhaps even the world itself. It is the most stately and reserved of Welles' films that I've seen, the piano music giving it a feeling and sensibility closer in tone to Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975) than The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). I guess it can also be noted that this is Welles' first color film effort. At times the film deploys naturalistic lighting schemes, while at others it is dominated by either bleached-out or deeply hued tones (particularly of burnt orange). As is true of all of Welles' post-synched soundtracks, sound seems to emerge from both inside and outside the world of the film. Thus, the seamless movement from what appears to be voice-over narration to the roughly lip-synched dialogue of a character early in the film is typical of the manner in which the film self-consciously plays with the processes of cinematic storytelling and technique. It can be jarring, but it has a point in the Welles universe.

This really isn't a film. It's a short visual essay that it really hard to describe. By the end, Clay is dead, exhausted by his deed and his inability to perceive any of it. Moreau has helped in Clay's demise, but her bond with the young sailor lasts just one night, and she too seems burdened by her act. The sailor is destined to never have Virginie, left to walk back to the docks in Macao with only the 5 guineas. Levinsky, now master-less, is left to listen to the sound of the seashell that the sailor left, as if it might give him answers. A sincerely sad and elusive statement from a man who may have captured the world if someone had let him, The Immortal Story really got to me at parts, despite its incoherence and short length. But maybe that's part of watching it. You can't really grab it before it fades away.


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(There aren't even that many good photos online.)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Masculin féminin


Masulin féminin, 1966
Dir: Jean-Luc Godard
September 25, 2009

Despite the title-cards and the "Godardian" (you know what I mean by now) dialogue, this film really captured the essence of being a young adult. While it is a sort of zeitgeist of 60s France and basically portrays both women and men as generally seen in narrow stereotypes, it seems very reflective of that time of life.

New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Leaud stars as Paul, a young journalist with socialist leanings trying to nail pop singer Madeleine (real life pop-singer Chantal Goya). Ostensibly plot-less, Godard uses Leaud as his own personal mouthpiece, setting up situations in which the dialogue between characters works more like impersonal interviews, subjects ranging on everything from politics and Vietnam to birth control and abortion, often shooting takes of excruciating length for realistic effect. There is a sense of detachment and lack of emotions amongst these young people that really sinks in. Paul doesn't quite know what to do with himself and neither does anyone else or if they do it seems to be some sort of distraction from reality, despite the big ideas they throw around or pretend to be interested in. People do not fully express themselves to one another, shown particularly between Paul and Madeleine, especially when he is at his most passionate to her, but it is only by making a record for her, and not face to face.

This film seems to be almost completely opposite in mood to any other Godard film I've seen, and it left me kind of confused and cold. Even so, after watching it 2 days ago, I've been thinking about it much more than any other Godard film I've seen. It has a lot of the hallmarks of a typical Godard film - jump cuts, romance, wordplay, but somehow, none of it comes across as playful at all. I would say Masculin feminin documents a generation of wandering and directionless boys and girls, which you see everyday, you meet at parties, and even see in yourself. The treatment of the characters alone is confusing enough to make me want to watch it again. I'm not going to write any more, because I'm really on the fence about this film and I'm not really quite sure what else I could say about it now, but it definitely struck a chord with me, and the change in tone leads me to believe that the fun and games is over for Godard.

Film Still

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Man with the Movie Camera

Man with the Movie Camera (Человек с киноаппаратом), 1929
Director: Dziga Vertov
September 23, 2009

Now this is interesting. Made as an free-flowing experimental film, Man with the Movie Camera toys around with the concepts of cinema, while also using new and innovative techniques. Through the use of cinema, and without the aid of title cards and theater attachments (actors, sets, etc.) Dziga Vertov (with a huge assist from his brother as the rather acrobatic cameraman) shows the world that you can communicate through cinema without any sort of story.

What follows is an average day in Soviet Russia. We see beautiful black and white photography of Russian cities and train depots. We see people awaking and rising into the morning sun. We see a marriage and a divorce. We see a child born and death. The editing is slick in juxtaposing these images together, and it doesn't stop there. Soon we begin to bounce around particular jobs, such as coal mining and the police officers who control the traffic lights. It's interesting, since it seems that most of these people are unaware that the camera is present, which is neat because, like in a fictional film, the actors/actresses have to turn a blind eye to the machine that is recording them. However, there are a few scenes in particular (like the woman getting changed) that are obviously staged, but who cares? This movie is a marvel to look at. A clearly added soundtrack is over-the-top nationalist pomposity, but you get it's added effect.

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We see fast/slow motion, extreme close-ups, double exposure, and a really cool editing trick that juxtaposes two dutch angles together. Man with the Movie Camera is short, sweet, and full of flashy technical camera work. It also great condensing of early Soviet ideas on cinema (montage, ect.) while pushing the envelope even further in hopes of what would be a truly new (socialist?) type of cinema. If you're interested in film history, documentaries or experimental films, then you should make sure you get the chance to see this.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Chimes at Midnight


Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff), 1965
Dir: Orson Welles
September 22, 2009

When people talk about Orson Welles, they always talk about Citizen Kane (1941). I understand why, and yet, I can't find myself being pulled into it again after seeing it a couple of times now. It's just not really for me. What I can't understand, after seeing this, is how Chimes at Midnight has no US release of any kind, and is not even talked about that much. It's so fucking good. I'm going to say that it's the best thing that Welles ever did.

It's a condensing of 5 different Shakespeare plays (Henry IV pts. 1 + 2, Henry V, Richard II, The Merry Wives of Windsor) that, as the alternate title suggest, focuses on the character of Sir John Falstaff, played by Orson Welles. It's really bizarre watching this right after Macbeth (1948). Where Welles was always a large man, here he is so obese, it's almost sad. The only thing you can possibly find cheerful about his role is that it makes him perfect to play the part. In a way, it is slightly parallel to the story of Welles' career as well, of a fat, jovial "knight" who has the admiration and friendship of the young prince Hal (Kieth Baxter), only to have his heart broken when the now king Henry V spurns their comradeship in favor of royal duties. The acting was a surprise, for as hammy as Welles' productions can be sometimes (especially when he was never really that interested in the story), here it is kept to the bare minimum, well at least as far a Shakespeare production. John Gielgud as a guilty Henry IV is awesome, as any stage vet should be. Baxter is also equally great, moving between the mischievous prankster and the melancholy son who knows that soon the good times must end. As the fiery Henry "Hotspur" Percy, Norman Rodway plays the role with great abandon, just like the character who throws away everything for that one shot at the crown. Like any good Shakespeare production you've seen, there really is no bad acting in this, and seeing as though Welles was so passionate about the project, you really couldn't expect anything less.

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As good as everyone else is, Welles really steals every scene he is in. Like any great film, it pulls you this way and that, and Welles is there all the way. From boasting that he should be made either an earl or a duke after presenting the body of Hotspur to Henry IV (who was not killed by Falstaff, but by Prince Hal) or to protesting that at least 8 (or was it 12?) men had accosted him after a robbery (when it had been just been two, Prince Hal and Ned in a prank), Welles is incredibly funny, even with the archaic language. Underneath it all though is that never-ending sadness that comes out from time to time ("There are only three good men unhanged in England, and one of them is fat and grows old..."). His reminisces with Master Shallow about "good times" always bring home the hard fact that despite all the laughs and boasts, Falstaff knows that he is getting old and must die soon. The most poignant moment in the film of course is at Henry V's coronation, when an ecstatic Falstaff bursts through the crowd to cry, "God save you, little one! God save the King!" A sober Henry then claims, "I know thee not, old man." The look on Welles' face is almost unbearable after he hears the rebukes of his young prince, and his equally pathetic boasts afterward that the king was just playing a front for the court are equally hollow and infinitely sad. This scene can be taken into context by watching Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (1989), which has the same scene in flashback mode but, in my opinion, it's not nearly as effective. That movie is nevertheless, upon reflection, hugely influenced by this film.

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Of primary interest to film buffs in in regards to the technical aspects, apart from Welles' usual stunning visual poetry, is the climactic Battle of Shrewsbury, in which Prince Harry must ride next to his father and take on his responsibility as the Prince of Wales. The battle is shot in a familiar way that people will recognize today, but only because it has been copied by so many (in particular, Braveheart (1995)). You are taken right into the action, which is earthy and brutal, and by the end, when tired knights are falling over each other in the mud, you understand why. It's a breathless experience. Like modern film battle scenes that employ the same technique, it suffers from some shaky shots that makes what is being shown you hard to make out, but Welles pulls back from time-to-time to focus on some interesting things. This, along with watching the cowardly Falstaff skulk in the trees avoiding battle and making more false boasts ("Give me leave to breathe a while...I have paid Percy; I have made him sore!") combined with all the rolling fog and atmosphere (the low-budget soundtrack is very cheesy, though effective in it's own way) makes for one of the greatest battle sequences ever, hands down.

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It never seems Welles' intention to be stodgily “faithful” to the text by eliminating his own voice from the creation. Chimes at Midnight, like Othello (1952), is all about Shakespeare, and all about Welles, simultaneously, whereas Macbeth (1948) was stuck in a world that couldn't really realize either and looked artificial (while still pulling off a great deal). His efforts to render Shakespeare's work in filmic terms is considerably more imaginative than say, an Olivier production, whose attempts at cinema (I don't know if you've seen any), which are generally favored in mainstream canons, seem limited to “I think Shakespeare would have a close-up here,” or the like, but the man was never really a director with a visual eye. A great actor for sure, though, who made some decent films, but you can't really say more than that. Chimes at Midnight is everything those films are not: brutish, earthy, messy, and also fraught with emotion. This has skyrocketed into my favorite films list. Watch this badboy when you can!

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Macbeth (1948)


Macbeth, 1948
Dir: Orson Welles
September 20, 2009

I wasn't quite sure if I was going to get to this one (or even be able see to see it), but I downloaded it so I could throw my two cents in and continue on my filling out the Welles filmography. So after going bonkers again in The Lady From Shanghai (1947), Welles was not going to get any funding from a studio. He began trying to find someone who would let him film a Shakespeare adaptation, and eventually got one. He was only given a shoestring budget however, and eventually shot this in 23 days (!!).

I'm not going to go through what Macbeth is all about, since you probably know, but it is of note to know that the (few) people who saw this when it was released were scandalized. Shakespeare buffs were incensed that anyone would have the audacity to change lines, reassign lines to other characters, shave scenes, and even, God forbid, add a character. This stuff is commonplace now, given what it takes to make a visual adaptation of something literary, but the changes that were made is the biggest reason that this was shit on when it was released, and why it's only being rediscovered (and reevaluated) recently.

The first thing that really gets me about this film, is that despite what Welles does with the camera (close-ups, low-angle shot and off/deep focus), it still just feels like a play is being filmed on a stage most of this time. That, and the weird, hulking set is made out of paper mache. The costumes are ridiculous and the Scottish burrs that everyone speaks in only work for a few (the native Scots, and Welles). Jeanette Nolan, a radio actress who got the part of Lady Macbeth, sounds pretty retarded trying to pull it off.

There are also a lot of good things to say about the film, especially the way the Witches were dealt with. At the beginning of the film, they create a clay figurine of Macbeth, which is obviously used to symbolize his rise and ruin. They are kept in shadow, and you never see their faces. Like the rest of the cast, their lines are delivered in typical overblown, Shakespearean splendor. What makes this different is that Welles seems to want the audience to believe that the Witches have been controlling everything since that fateful first meeting with Macbeth and that he had the choice to not mention the prophecy to any one, and just forget it. According to Welles, maybe he didn't. In the end, the film is probably a lesser work. It is still fascinating and effective however, and should probably be sought out if you dig what Welles was all about.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

The Trial


The Trial, 1962
Dir: Orson Welles
September 17, 2009

The Trial
is an utterly effective experience. It's a really faithful adaptation (barring some up-to-date modernizations and the end), and some critics have noted that it is too faithful. François Truffaut, who felt that Welles was doing “a Kafka” in the same rather cold, reverent spirit with which a theater company might do “a Shakespeare,” was utterly unimpressed where he had been so reverential of Touch of Evil (1958) earlier. I think I agree. Where his Shakespeare films have a very distinct Welles feel, here it's sometimes hard to tell where it's Welles over Kafka in style. However, whatever your feelings about book-to-film adaptations, you can't help but be impressed by Welles' direction, which is awesome, as usual.

Film Still

If you don't know the story, The Trial is about a man named Josef K (Anthony Perkins) who is arrested by a distant and abstract authority who does not make clear the charges brought against him. In his efforts to redeem his name, he goes to many different bizarre places and deals with many different confounding things, and by the end, even if you haven't read the novel, you know that Josef can't escape the tangled web he's been caught in.

Welles wanted this to be a black comedy, and Perkins plays off of that direction well, for at parts though you might want to laugh at the back-and-forth, circular conversations, you are right there with Josef being utterly baffled and frustrated by an authority that never gives any reasons for what they do or why they chose Josef. Perkins is a rather unorthodox Welles hero, but fitting for this film, and his confusion builds wonderfully through his awkward meetings with judges, women and painters.

Seeing as that many people consider "The Trial" the classic expressionist nightmare, Welles direction does a fantastic job of getting you lost in the maze. He balances long takes and long shots with just as many claustrophobic close-ups and rapid, uneasy cuts, imbuing the story with a feeling of loss, isolation, and perhaps freedom (if you look at it that way), as Josef's murder becomes imminent. The "flogging" scene in a store-room, which is probably the best in the film, feels entirely real and scary, and you, just like Josef, want desperately to get the hell out of there. Welles himself claimed that this was his best film, and as far as direction is concerned, you'd be hard pressed to disagree.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans


Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, 1927
Dir: F.W. Murnau
September 16, 2009

After reading a very positive review on this site for Sunrise, I got the opportunity to see it last night on big screen at the Harvard Film Archive for free. The seats are pretty clunky and whatnot, but seeing a great film in a theater is really worth it sometimes, especially when its free. I'm not sure why I've never gone there before. It's really great. Having only seen Nosferatu (1922) before this, I am even more interested in Murnau's other stuff now, considering his obvious influences in romantic and impressionistic art.

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The story sets up an adulterous farmer (The Man) (George O'Brien) who contemplates killing his young wife (Janet Gaynor) to head for the city with a scheming woman (Margaret Livingston). The amazing black and white photography (not to mention hair color) immediately sets up the wife as "light" lady (with a child) and the woman from the city as the "dark" lady. It's pretty classic fable stuff, and Muranu works it really well. The affair has ruined the lives of The Man and The Wife, who were once happy and prosperous on their farm. In a visually striking and atmospheric scene, The Dark Lady convinces The Man to drown The Wife in order to move with her to the City. The Man easily convinces The Wife to go for a boat ride across the water, as she longs for time with her husband.

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The scene on the boat where The Man can't follow through on the plan plays on his inner torment well, just as he wrestled with his demons right after his secret meeting with the Dark Lady. The Man readies himself to throw The Wife overboard. He looks into her eyes and realizes that he can’t do it, however, and the boat reaches the shore. The Wife flees and The Man follows. The pair winds up in the City and a story of redemption, forgiveness, and romance develops.

There are multiple angles with this relatively simple story. For starters, one might be wondering how The Wife ever took The Man back after this attempted murder. The stark forgiveness seems a bit like naiveté, in a way, but so desperate is The Man to have his Wife back that one can’t help but feel for him somewhat. He has made a horrible, terrifying error in judgment and has been swept up in the tide of adulterous lust. The Dark Lady’s spell on him broken, his clarity begs him to change his ways.

What happens in the city is somewhat divergent in tone to the rest of the film, but part of understanding the total gravity of Sunrise is to understand what filmgoers were expecting and what they would have received upon seeing this in the late 20s. This was Murnau's first Hollywood movie, and there was probably some expectation that certain things would be in it from the studio. It's a credit to Murnau that he makes slice-of-life stuff so engaging and funny, and not to mention relevant to the rest of the feature. Drunk pigs (or animals in general) are always funny, too. It's also a little look into Murnau "queer" sensibility (the barbershop scene), who never really made it a secret that he was gay (causing all sorts of crazy rumors when he died in 1931).

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The prime focal point of Sunrise is the camerawork and direction. As good as the actors are, and they are tremendous, especially Gaynor, Murnau’s direction is the stuff of legends. The framing of the shots, the use of superimposed images and how they were created in the camera and not in the editing room, and Murnau’s gift for using bits of nature as mood props add up to an seriously impressive not to mention artistic film.

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Like Nosferatu, this is a film told with images. A clear mark of a maturing artist is that his form improves, and if you can remember Nosferatu well, you know it is heavily titled. Here, the titles are left to the bare minimum and the images give you all the information you need, especially with the way Murnau and the cinematographers dealt with light. It's interesting to note that while the "rules" of cinema were being written by D.W. Griffith during this period, Murnau and the German Expressionist were already breaking them. If there is any silent film to show someone, this is probably it.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

9


9, 2009
Dir: Shane Acker
September 16, 2009

I really think PG-13 is the worst possible rating a movie can have. You can do slightly provocative stuff, but never enough. 9, not unlike a lot of other recent films of the same sort, uses it's post-apocalyptic setting pretty well, as well as some pretty awesome visuals and (highly) stylized violence, but it never really gets past what is ultimately the same story and morals that all other run-o-the-mill movies have.

9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) awakens in the aftermath of a post-apocalyptic showdown, and after meeting up with 8 other "stichpunks" (?), has to use friendship and bravery to help right the wrongs he made happen by mistake. Like I said, the violence is never bloody (no humans), but it is artfully done. Some of the nuanced details that you can make out are pretty bizarre (such as flyers on building), and one of the weirdest things is that the big, slow stichpunk "amuses" himself by sticking a magnet above his head. Harmless entertainment, or "drug" use? Maybe I'm making too much out of it, but my first thought was that it was pretty bold to put it in the film (despite the obviousness that the brutish, stupid character would use it).

All of the stichpunk's have a quirk about them that make them unique and cliché, and you can understand why kids would find them easy to like or hate. 6 (voiced, of course, by Crispin Glover) is a misunderstood artist who has visions, to give you an example. The world in which the movie takes place is fully realized, and after reading on his Wikipedia page that he is a fan of The Brothers Quay and Jan Švankmajer, very surreal and daring filmmakers, you can see how Shane Acker could create such an original (albeit played-out) world. One can only hope that he is allowed to fully realize his future visions with more meaningful content like his heroes.

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District 9


District 9, 2009
Dir: Neill Blomkamp
September 15, 2009

I finally saw District 9 tonight, and my feelings are mixed. I thought it was going to be a better movie than it actually was; the hype machine has been squawking about this for months. The CGI was decent, for what it was worth, and the aliens really did look real and life-like. But overall, it really was just a summer blockbuster. I guess there's nothing wrong with that, and had I known what I was going in for, I'm pretty sure I would have liked it a lot more.

I guess I just thought it was going to be less “generic.” I thought it was going to be more than just a typical summer action movie. In a way, I guess it tried to be. The movies jumps all over the place in the narritive styles it uses to keep your attention, not unlike jump cuts, but probably not that clever or intentional either. If anything, it can be called a truly modern movie; a "Youtube" feature, kind of like Cloverfield (2008) (another severely hyped movie), but fortunately not that bad. I'm guessing the all-over-the-place structure worked a lot better for his short, "Alive in Jo'burg," that was the basis for this. It should have followed through on the mockumentary/documentary aspect (an interesting choice of cinema vérité interviews and "news team footage"); delving into the mystery as to why the aliens are here, who they are and a broader understanding of what the public thinks, instead of just using it as an arc to start the film. Then the second half settled into standard screenplay structure; plug in solution to a problem: Quest to find "fluid:" Spaceship can leave, etc. Nothing special. If this is "great" and "offbeat" modern storytelling, I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to keep pace.

Oh, yeah. Have I mentioned that I hate shaky-cam? Good Lord.

The sociopolitical commentary wasn’t really interrogated too deeply, yet at times felt a little heavy-handed: a study in how oppression and desperation can turn a civilized race into criminals and undesirables (hello Apartheid), and what it must be like for the tables to be turned on you. I guess that the characters were, in fact, fairly likable, but most are just carbon copies, and they don't even play out the way there supposed to (the inevitable showdown between Van De Merwe and the roid-rage military guy gets thrown under the bus). I was, however, actually pretty interested in how Van De Merwe could switch between sympathetic underdog and callous racist, but by the end, you can tell Sharlto Copley isn't that great an actor and pulled it off only occasionally. The South African English/Afrikaans accent is wonky, as well, but I guess that's beside the point. The devolution of the movie into an action flick seemed sloppy while I was watching it, and after a while I just wished it would make up it's mind. By the time Van De Merwe climbed into his mech, I was ready to see some ass-kicking. After that, it was a lot of fun.

Any complaints about plot-holes are pretty valid. Christopher was altogether pretty unrealistic; a deus ex machina enlightened intellectual in a community obviously ruined by squalor. I’m not entirely sure why he was so clandestine about his efforts to collect “fluid,” and why the rest of the Prawn community wasn’t right there with him, looking for subversive methods of escaping to the mothership. He seemed to be the only one with any real urgency (except for maybe his friend who gets killed and his little son). At one point, something about drone workers is mentioned for why all the aliens act like savage animals, but it is never explained, and it certainly doesn't explain Christopher.

I just don't like movies that pretend to be something they're not. This is just a Hollywood blockbuster that was not made with H-wood money with some "offbeat" narrative techniques. I mean, this was originally supposed to be the "Halo" movie, people. I guess I just don't understand the hooplah; like this is some revelatory film. I think this is a just case where the critical acclaim that was heaped on it came about due to it being moderately smart…for a summer film. The critics and marketing teams that filled seats deserve the real acclaim. I think they did a better job than the filmmakers.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pierrot le fou


Pierrot le fou (Pierrot Goes Crazy), 1965
Dir: Jean Luc-Godard
September 13, 2009

Let me start by saying that I'm pretty sure I enjoyed most of this film. The entirely simple set up of "love on the run," like Badlands (1973) or Bonnie and Clyde (1967) lets the film flesh out to levels that I would not expect from a Godard film, and the beautiful color photography makes me think that he should have made more than just Contempt (1963) before this in color. This is juxtaposed with French New Wave absurdity and the high-mindedness that is typical Godard (at one point the main male character reads art criticism in the bath tub to his young daughter). Yet the genre conventions that typically structure (or deter them, like in Alphaville (1965)) his films is thrown out the window for something more self-referential. By the time he started shooting Pierrot le fou, he said that the film noir conventions underlying it no longer inspired him, and his theoretical references were in a state of flux due to his political anger as the Vietnam War escalated. So you can say that this film is a crossroads for him, where his political beliefs began to be the main driving force of his vision, and there are obvious signs in the film.

I did not know exactly what the name "Pierrot" meant, especially in the context of the film (or even Godard's real life). It of course relates much more to the road movie/genre structure that is what all past Godard films are about, and again, Godard felt hollow about it since writing the script. So instead of channeling all of the emotions through character, he does it through direction. Godard gave unusually free vent to his emotions, and those emotions were harrowing ones: Pierrot le fou was an angry accusation against Anna Karina (infidelity), and a self-pitying cry at how she destroyed him and his work. Nothing like this would have appeared in a previous work.

Of course, for me, I am far more interested in cinema conventions than what is sure to become a butt-load of Marxist bullshit. After going to a boring party with his wife, Ferdinand (cool as a cucumber Jean-Paul Belmondo), an advertising man and failed writer, comes home early and falls for a teenage girl (Anna Karina), his children's babysitter. This girl has underworld connections and an aptitude for deception and manipulation; after he leaves his family for her, gets caught up with her in a murder and goes on the lam with her, she uses, betrays, and abandons him. Desperate and humiliated, he catches up to her and kills both her longtime lover (who she had claimed was her brother) and the girl herself before finishing himself off. So, yeah, pretty awesome stuff. Godard, with his new direction, changed Ferdinand at the last second to reflect himself. He becomes a failed intellectual who rediscovers his literary ambitions along with his romantic passion. Marianne not only breaks Ferdinand’s heart but also destroys what was to be his life’s work. The romantic exaltation that Godard thought the casting of Karina and Belmondo had substituted for the story of betrayal and depredation turned into an artistic manifesto and a cry of resentment and pain. By the time he shot the film, from May through July 1965, he and Karina had divorced.

The core of the film (the best part, really) is a scene that takes place in the tranquil natural splendor of unspoiled lands in the south of France. Ferdinand and Marianne live off the land, hunting and fishing (albeit cartoonishly—like most of the film’s narrative action), while Ferdinand (sitting with a parrot on his shoulder) begins to keep a journal, which appears in extreme close-up on-screen, and which is in fact in Godard’s handwriting. Among the passages that Ferdinand reads aloud is a description of his ambitious plans for a new form of novel: “Not to write about people’s lives anymore, but only about life—life itself. What lies in between people: space, sound, and color. I’d like to accomplish that. Joyce gave it a try, but it should be possible to do better.” Annoying in that Godard way, yet clearly stating his new goals: for a new type of cinema. This is all good and grand and ambitious (which you have to respect) but not really interesting to me in it's execution. But I can't get over the setting. It's the perfect romantic device, like the tree-house in Badlands. The sequence is the crowning moment in Ferdinand’s dream: the couple will exist together, in isolation at a wild seaside, where the setting and romantic idleness will inspire Ferdinand’s artistic creation. I really did not expect this from Godard, and I think that it goes without saying, that when it comes to cinema, I am a hopeless romantic. The film descends into tragic cinematic romanticism, which unfolds just as a noir should, which works all too well for me.

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Despite what I think about parts of the film, it is filled with contradictions. It's sort of a gangsterish-genre film that Godard no longer believed in and a new kind of cinematic form that he couldn’t yet find. The self-searching of Ferdinand in the mirror, his allusion to Poe’s “William Wilson,” about a man and his double, make it all come back to Godard and his new cinematic torment. Pierrot le fou was the work of a divided person whose film fell into the abyss of his own character. Ferdinand's self-immolation at the end almost seems like Godard's career, which he had just blown up to try and forge a new one. You can call a film like this ballsy, ambitious, and even really good (you have to give Godard credit for going with his gut; can you picture the Coens doing this? I didn't think so...), but a film that really doesn't know what it is can't be called great (at least by me.)

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mr. Arkadin


Mr. Arkadin (The Comprehensive Version), 1955 (2000s)
Dir: Orson Welles (Edited by Euro-trash film scholars)
September 11, 2009

This fragmentation of a film might have been a masterpiece had Welles been given complete artistic control over the production, but as it stands, even in a comprehensive version put together with Welles' notes and whatnot, it's just a mishmash of 5 different versions that have come out over the years. What has been put together, however, is interesting in that it shows again the amazing directorial ideas that Orson Welles had, while putting them on a massive scale, just like Citizen Kane (1941).

After losing creative control over the film, Welles called Mr. Arkadin the "greatest disaster of his life." The producers then cut down the length of the film and even over-dubbed some scenes to change the themes to fit the more commercialized idea of a Noir at the time. One of these themes revolved around memories and false impressions, which played into the flashback sequences he had been directing, but was changed to revenge. Two of the versions used to piece this together were Spanish versions, and some scenes were even shot in Spanish, so of course, they are dubbed over and look decidedly sloppy. The story itself, though, when put back in the order most likely to be what intended to be Welles' vision, is a huge Wellesian romp through the power of human deceit and what people will do to cover their tracks.

Small time smuggler Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) is at the scene of a murder with his girlfriend Mily (Patricia Medina) where the dying man whispers two names that he claims are very valuable, one of which is Gregory Arkadin (Orson Welles). Right away the film sets up mystery and intrigue, all within the acting of a post-Ambersons Welles production, which almost always borders on camp (particularly Arden as the chuckle-head Van Stratten), but still resonates, particularly in bringing you into Welles' world, who never wants you to forget that you are in fact watching a film. It's just that extra bit a flamboyant acting/cinematic flair that distinguished Welles' work from the rest of the pack. In the Noir world that Welles brings us into, it's almost like he thinks it's funny to have such dopes running around in it. Using this small bit of information and lots of bluffing while sweet-talking Arkadin's daughter Raina (Welles' then girlfriend Paola Mori), Van Stratten manages to meet the apparent multi-millionaire business magnate and socialite Arkadin, who then hires Van Stratten to research his own past, of which he claims to have no memory before 1927.

When we think the film starts to track down one course, Welles flips it. Of course, the real villain of the film isn't so black and white as first made out, and his real motivations to be dastardly aren't as simple as a normal audience might expect (even enough to make him a slightly sympathetic, if unlovable sociopath.) Everything about Arkadin screams fake (uhhh, the beard: low budget for costume design, Orson?), which is a nice parallel to the film, which seems cheap, trashy, and overly-dramatic, but still infinitely watchable.

Of course, the film wouldn't be what it is without its visual aesthetic:

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Whether it's deep focus, expressionistic lighting, high/low camera, what you get in front of you is the Welles eye; mise-en-scène at it's greatest heights. There is a technical trick in this film to satisfy all the film geeks. There is one particular scene where Mily, following up a lead by traveling with Arkadin on his yacht, is drunk and her P.O.V shot looking up at Arkadin is accentuated by the deep focus and the rocking ceiling set that gives the appearance of a yacht on the sea, which is perhaps only more appropriate given her drunken state and Arkadin's air of menace. The effect practically made me nauseous watching it. It might be my favorite scene in the film.

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In the end, it's hard to say what this film might have been. A masterpiece? Maybe. However, what we're left with is a jumbled mess. Logical, coherent plot? No. Believable acting? No. Deeper Message? Not really. Great Film? I'd have to say, "yes!" There is just something that makes this film work, which, if anything, I would probably have to point to its rhythm. Sure the cinematography is excellent, as exemplified, but here, perhaps more than any of his other films, Welles (or editors) really hypnotizes the viewer through his excellent sense of images and their cohesion. In that way, it sorta feels like The Lady From Shanghai (1947). If the double-crossing producers saw this, they'd shit the bed, but I'm glad we got this fun, if flawed film reconstruction.

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