Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Night at the Crossroads

La Nuit du Carrefour (Night at the Crossroads), 1932
Dir: Jean Renoir

Say what you will about the sons of great fathers never really being able to match their sires (sorry Jacob Dylan), but Jean Renoir certainly busts that up big time. It's hard to tell if Jean was at all influenced by his father's, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, paintings, but there is sort of an impressionist messiness to all of his films. In Night at the Crossroads, that messiness along with the atmospheric French country-side and mysterious path that Renoir sends you down to get to the end make this a detective film worth seeking out.

I will give this film props simply for besting me. I usually pride myself in being able to figure things out in a film, but maybe that's because most people watching movies are idiots and most films aren't hard to pick. By the end of this though, you know you've been thinking about the wrong thing, 'cause "whodunnit?" ain't what it's about. A Parisian detective (Pierre Renoir, Jean's older brother) is sent to the suburbs to investigate the death of a jewel thief. Cars have ended up in different garages and the main suspect ends up being a Danish transplant (Georges Koudria) who lives with his very strange sister (Winna Winifried). Words can’t really do justice to Winna’s strangeness in this: her accent (a lot of people think it’s more English than Danish), the baby-talk delivery (abruptly dropped when her secret comes out), the languid lounging with the impossibly long and voluptuous body (and the great outfits). Her performance really does throw you off track, if maybe hinting at a few things.

I really don't want to talk too much about the narrative in case you ever watch it, so let's talk about production value. At first glance it may seem pretty amateurish, but that would not take into consideration what Renoir was trying to do with the look of his film, "I tried to give you the feeling of mud sticking to your feet, and of fog obscuring your sight." Mystery. Uncertainty. The wall between us and what we can't know. A garage worker walking through a field with a shotgun, fog billowing everywhere. Is he just hunting? Where was that gun-shot from (oh yeah, Renoir gets sound, especailly off-screen)? How close to the chest are all of these guys playing their cards? It can't be that simple? Can it (It isn't)?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

City Lights

City Lights, 1931
Dir: Charlie Chaplin

If there's a Chaplin silent to show people, it's probably this. I don't think I can really add anything to the heaps of praise that have been thrown on this by innumerable acclaimed directors and critics except that this is the only Chaplin film that really moved me in anyway beyond his normal sentimentality. It is rightly called a masterpiece.

The part of this film that you could toss are all the repetitive physical gags, but people ate that stuff up (and I'm guessing they still do). The funniest bit is actually right at the very beginning where some politicians are giving speeches and Chaplin gives them the "wha-wah-wah" treatment. Seriously though, he is no Keaton when it comes to awesome, hilarious stunts. The Tramp as a character is a pantomime relic and kind of has to be taken with a grain of salt, but here I think Chaplin's emotional genius really overpowers the hokey comedy bits. While being trampish in a city, he meets a blind flower girl whom he immediately falls in love with but has no way of consummating the relationship. He then saves an eccentric millionaire from commiting suicide and "becomes" his best friend, but soon realizes that the friendship is only relevant when the millionaire is drunk. Some of the best stuff is when they are drunk together out on the town, not from a comedy standpoint but just a cinematic one. Using some of the millionaire's wasted patronage, The Tramp is able to ingratiate himself with the girl, which is just the sort of affection she has always wanted. But when the possibility of eye surgery comes up so she can "see," how will he keep up the ruse?

Scenes where The Tramp interacts with the girl, especially the last one, really show what everyone is talking about when they say he is the most "humane" director. There is a certain emotional weight that you just can't avoid. It gets to you, and at a certain point you realize that that is one of the main reasons why you keep watching film after film. To see those captured moments that say something to you personally, and then realize that it's saying something to everyone as well.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Inception, 2010
Dir: Christopher Nolan

Despite all of the overblown dialogue and comparisons surrounding this film, it is an absolute blast. But let's get this straight, "people who actually get paid to write about movies": it bears only the most superficial resemblance to something from a Philip K. Dick novel (who created layered realities so he could play with imaginatively bleeding the layers between them, not so characters in one layer could have gravity free fistfights because a van jumps off a bridge in another) or a Stanley Kubrick film (who was a consummate visual thinker when he was making anything worthwhile, whereas Nolan blares what few enticing images he has with trumpets; Kubrick also would never have an irrelevant psychology motivating his characters in his films and would never have characters give dopey speeches explaining said psychology just in case he’s afraid the audience is too dumb to get it). This thing owes more reverence to the Wachowski brothers than anything.

I will say though, in fairness, it’s really, really nice to see a Hollywood film that avoids sentimentality, if not melodrama (seriously, who gives a shit about the dead wife), and that knows how to organize its magic gun-pointing for some minimal intellectual interest, even if the magic gun-pointing is what it’s about. I'm not sure if it's the films fault for all the hoopla going on about what it is, but enough is enough. Gravity free fist fights are rad, and nothing else.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Lonesome, 1929
Dir: Paul Fejos

I'm not quite sure if this is a masterpiece, but I dug it so much that I'm just going to say that it is. Think of the make-up "day date" in Sunrise (1927) and you pretty much get the picture of what this is. Short and sweet, full of endearing moments that are able to sink in and breathe, with relatively few inter-titles.

The version that I saw has no talking scenes (a few were added during production just as "talkies" were becoming popular for the original relase) but I think this works because it's a silent. The only strange thing was that it was uploaded by an Argentinian guy who does not have a firm grasp of english, so the inter-titles were a little strange, but like I said, there are relatively few, and most of the time you don't even need them. He also added some modern ambient-electronic music as the soundtrack, which is weird. As it is though, it still blew me away.

The expressionism employed here feels wholly original, not based solely on a hard lighting scheme but more on what is actually being captured in the frame and the frequent images that are super-imposed and faded over one another. Its rejection of mindless, dull work in favor of finding love is nothing new in storytelling and yet Fejos made it work like nothing I've ever seen. Coney Island came alive and the roller coaster ride made me want to drive to Six Flags or something, or maybe someplace where they actually still have those crazy old wooden coasters. Still, it feels like a film that has to hit close to home to really be appreciated, but there are certainly enough lonely people out there that would get a smile because of this. This film alone must make Fejos the most forgotten director ever.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Арсенал (Arsenal), 1928
Alexander Dovzhenko

OK. So right away I knew that this was probably something that I wasn't going to like, but I toughed it out (it's only like 70 minutes).There's nothing really to shit on, it's just that extreme avant-montage pieces just aren't for me. This is what the Russians were all about in the 20s. That, and Bolshevism. Eisenstein, for all his talent and cinematic thought, made some pretty one-dimensional propaganda films. This at least has layers of depth, but the problem with that is that it leaves you wondering where the hell you are. There are a lot of things about this that fall into my "like" zone, especially its non-narrative flow, it's just that all the connectors must be in Russian or something. You have to have some level of interest in this subject too (glorifying labor, the common man, revolution). It's a complex film masquerading as a propaganda piece that most definitely is not for the uninitiated.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity, 2009(7)
Dir: Oren Peli

I will say this for Paranormal Activity: in dragging out the tension to almost unbearable lengths, it at least seems like it's trying to search for some mode of fear that most modern horror films are too impatient to reach for. The cliches that fall out of the script are pretty obvious, and the acting (or non-acting, which is hard to differentiate in this sometimes, because, as a "record" of said events, it should feel real, but most of the time it's all very wooden) is something, but those things are kind of expected in these low-budget films. What is interesting are the small ways that were chosen to illicit fear, shadows in particular. Nothing else really made me jump or make me want to keep watching. Demons and ghosts are not scary in themselves, especially if you watch a lot of horror films, but what you can't comprehend is. At least to me. So don't show it. It didn't get it totally right (the end), but for a film that cost $15,000 to make, it seems it had the right idea, which The Blair Witch Project (1997) did as well. Viral marketing can make anything a hit.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Spione (Spies), 1928
Dir: Fritz Lang

Easily my favorite film that I've seen by Lang, it also might be the first movie he made that began to move away from his "roots." That's not to say (do I use this expression a lot?) that this is void of the expressionist touches that are his claim to fame, but the tone of the film is actually pretty light, which makes some of the acting seem more appropriate. I was a little wary going into it, as it's almost 2 1/2 hours long (which is a chore no matter type of film it is), but you needn't worry that much. It only drags occasionally.

I guess you could watch this and groan at all the espionage and suspense cliches that pop-up, but I'm guessing that this actually invented a bunch of them. Of course, there is the diabolical, crippled criminal master-mind Haghi (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) who is hell-bent on world chaos. No reason is ever really given, and not even money is his goal, as he is the director of a bank (said bank being a "headquarters" for villains). The socio-political ramifications of the main villain being a banker are really poignant considering this was made in Germany in the 20s, but I don't really want to get too analytical. A handsome government agent, No. 326 (Willy Fritsch) is assigned to figure out the mess happening. Unbeknownst to the government, Haghi has his own agent Sonja (Gerda Maurus) sent in to cut him off with her feminine charms. Of course, she actually falls for him and things begin to get dicey for both agents.

The main thrust of the film is that Haghi wants to intercept a peace treaty being signed between Germany and Japan, which will of course create enmity between them. There are also Japanese agents running around in the film, of which particular importance is Dr. Masimoto (Lupu Pick), who gets the "oriental treatment" in the soundtrack every time he enters a room, which is hilarious. I think the most interesting scene in the whole film involves this Masimoto, who forgets his own rules about being duped by women, and has the treaty stolen from him. In his horror and shame, he has a vivid hallucination of the three underlings whom he sent out as decoys and were ultimately killed. They have dead eyes and hold out the fake documents in a sign of solidarity. The Japanese flag is even superimposed on the wall. A very elaborate sequence follows where the doctor commits seppuku, and while being over the top, is very interesting nonetheless. It's interesting because it's all a little more thought provoking than the typical surface level stuff.

The end of the film really turns on the velocity as no. 326 closes in on Haghi and things begin to get physical. Car chases, train crashes, bank raids. Lang always has a keen eye for compositions, but here he gets in real close with odd angles and multiple quick cuts, which only heightens the suspense. The very end is pretty clownish, but it it doesn't detract from a really fun experience. It's commercial cinema (for its time) plus pop art that doesn't take itself that seriously. I think that's all you can ask for.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Docks of New York

The Docks of New York, 1928
Dir: Josef von Sternberg

I don't think that you can be a fan of cinema and not like this film. I'm not saying this is exactly what I'm looking for, but its compact nature and skillful composition, in all facets of the production, make this more than just interesting but also enjoyable. Sternberg was notorious for his meticulous preparation and his unique aesthetic, which he exemplified in one of his more famous quotes (which no doubt would not have gotten him any jobs in Hollywood nowadays), "I care nothing about the story, only how it is photographed and presented."

In a nutshell, that is the job of a director (unless he wrote the screenplay as well), but Sternberg was much more influenced by his European counterparts, in a similar but not wholly comparable way to Ford. The Docks of New York is all about the expressionist and moody touches that Sternberg places on the 1 day furlough of sailor, well, a shoveler on a boat really (George Bancroft) who saves the life of a woman (Betty Compson) who attempts to commit suicide on the depressed waterfront of New York City. A great premise, if I do say so myself. After some drinking and talking in a seedy bar, they decide to get married, despite the fact that Bill, the sailor, has found out that Mae, depressed woman, is a prostitute. The next morning, Bill seems to have dismissed the marriage as something silly, as he will be heading out on the next boat. Can love survive?

What really makes this film great are the said expressionist touches and moody lighting, all done by Sternberg, who was also a certified union cinematographer. He is known as being the king of soft-light, particularity in some of his more famous non-silents, and here you can see what is meant by that with the flattering close-ups of females, which he was sort of an innovator of. The mis-en-scene and camera work is reminiscent of people like Max Ophuls and Kenji Mizoguchi, who were clearly influenced by works like this. So why isn't this a masterpiece? Well, for some people, I'm sure it is, and I wouldn't begrudge them their decision. But it is almost too simple stroy wise, and there is just not a whole lot that I'm left feeling at the end. I know that I've raged against the "narrative-focused" films, which this is obviously not, but it's not about that. There is something, some underlying emotion or purpose, that just seems to be missing. If you ever get the chance to see this though, it will probably be worth it, because sometimes the simplest stories can be the best, especially in the hands of someone who thinks outside the box.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3, 2010
Dir: Lee Unkrich

I was just reading an article that was comparing this to Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped (1956), and it got me thinking that maybe I took this too lightly. Probably not, and that guy was reaching for things that aren't really there, but I'm pretty sure I see where it comes from. This is fine to sit through with your kids and giggle, but not necessarily "easy" for them either. Pixar has done this before so it's not new, but it's certainly more refreshing than what I could see coming soon in other studios animated features during the trailers (the weird anthropomorphic sexual nature of Alpha and Omega (2010) is really awkward). Seemed like a fitting way to end the "story."