Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Age of Medici

L'Età di Cosimo de Medici (The Age of Medici), 1973
Dir: Roberto Rossellini

I'm guessing that most of Rossellini's later "history films" that he made for television are similar to this and The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966). The reason I would rate the latter as being better is simply because it isn't nearly 4 hours long. Medici is separated into three episodes, which broken up you could make a case that they are on par with Louis, but the overall effect is something much more tedious. But again, that isn't to say that this stuff isn't interesting. How Cosimo de' Medici became one of the most influential men in Europe is similar to how Louis had to consolidate his power once the opportunity presented itself. It's not boring or exciting, but interesting. And in every scene, a character gives his own views on art, The Renaissance, and Western Civilization in general. If you can't derive any sort of self-truth from that, you probably shouldn't be watching films. But from this, I have another problem (which is actually my fault, sort of). I'm hardly ever distracted by subtitles, but this film's almost continuous stream-of-monologueness really forced me to choose between the image and the text, which is a shame because Rossellini is practicing a cinematic minimalism that is hard to catch. To miss the most subtle of movements can be to miss the entire point of the scene. I wish it were dubbed into English (which with almost any other type of film I would certainly not want). These history films really create a tug-of-war between my ability to stay focused and engaged with the seemingly dull machinations of the film and the interesting details of history being captured as cinema. I must say, I fail a lot of the time, as I am a product of what modern media has made of me. There is something to say about being taught something without being preached to, and anything that makes me think is something worth watching.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Underworld, 1927
Dir: Josef von Sternberg

This was one of the first films ever to be open about gangsters, and it's certainly a von Sternberg film. I might be selling it short simply because so many riffs of the gangster genre are in it because on the other hand it probably had a hand in forming some of those same cliches. If it's better than a lot of gangster films that followed it it's because unlike many of said films, this doesn’t really have a central premise – a big problem or heist or something. von Sternberg's "soft light specials" (particularly on leading lady Evelyn Brent, who's a great wise-cracking gun-moll puppy slut), along with the rest of his style (emotional motifs wrapped in romanticism), really make this a mature technical effort for his first professional film, but it doesn't really exude the overall emotional wallop that something like Docks of New York (1929) will for him two years later. It's probably hard to top a film like that on any level, but he makes it his own in the von Sternberg way, so I'll just say that this is a sad film that just happens to have gangsters, and in that sense it makes it worth watching.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mikey and Nicky

Mikey and Nickey, 1976
Dir: Elaine May

I don't know if it's me or the cinema world conspiring against most of them, but I'm not sure how many films (well, serious films) I have seen that have been directed by women. I think Sofia Coppola is talented, in her way, but who knows how that would have panned out had she not been from that family. Elaine May seems to be a strange anomaly. She started out in comedy, where she is probably best known, doing improvisational stand-up routines with her partner Mike Nichols (who would also start directing films). She did a comedy in the early 70s, and then she wrote and directed this.

And what is so strange about that is that this is one of the best movies about male friendship I have ever seen. It might be doing a disservice to May by saying that this is the best Cassavetes film that he never directed, but I don't think it's a coincidence that she went out of her way to get Cassavetes (Nicky)and Peter Falk (Mikey) to play the two titular characters. By that I mean she wrote the screenplay with Cassavetes and Falk in mind. I’d venture to guess, however, that a great deal of the film is improvised. If there is anything to say about the story, it's that both men are small time hoods involved with the mob, and Nicky seems to have finally crossed the line with his superiors and now has a contract on his head. Their decades-long friendship comes to a head when Mikey is called in for support and they have to examine what they mean to each other.

Like a Cassavetes film from the same time period, this film seems to have a limitless amount of small poignant and heartbreaking moments. There’s really too many to mention, and doing so would probably ruin some of the film for those that haven’t seen it. The whole thing is so intimate and believable that the rather pedestrian story is one that seems very real. There isn’t “urgency” or whatever, as Falk and Cassavetes both get fairly drunk before hand (as is their way), but there is this small sadness in everything they go through because of this "realness" (sometimes so real that you can barely watch it) and also because all signs point to tragedy and there is nothing that can be done. Definitely one of the greats.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Nosferatu the Vampyre

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu the Vampyre), 1979
Dir: Werner Herzog

Remake? Homage? Herzogian clusterfuck? I'm not really sure what this film is, but for the most part I really liked it. The look of the film can, of course, be derived from Murnau's original (and even parts of Faust), but most of the story is taken straight from Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Count Orlok reverts Count Dracula. I was thinking about all the other vampire movies that I have seen during the viewing, and was actually kind of surprised that there were a few instances (not necessarily downright "lifting" a scene, but close enough to go "huh?") in Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) that are influenced by this. Not that it really matters though. Everyone knows the story, and Herzog makes this film his own (and so did Coppola, in his "hodgepodge of influences" way).

This really is the type of Herzog film that I enjoy. Well, for the most part anyway. When ever people actually interact and "act" everything is super-serious silly. I don't really understand its purpose, even in stuff that I think is funny. Maybe it's Kinksi's influence (he is just as batshit as ever here). Dracula's mesmerizing/seduction scenes are strange to say the least, better to say absurd. The gypsies in the Transylvanian village look like Incas or something, and everything is just wacked out (esp. Renfield). Bruno Ganz gives a little glimpse of what comes down the road for him in the future as Harker, and Isabelle Adjani seems to be under the same spell, but she is forgiven simply for being a total babe. I suppose it's all about keeping the spirit of the original, but the silliness of that is what turned me off there.

So what's to like? Pretty much everything else. In keeping true to his original manifesto of trying to "capture new images," what Herzog crates an atmosphere and mood that is sincerely scary. Dracula running erratically through the town square at night with the coffin under his arm and his coat tails flapping is such an awesome depiction of deranged spirit. At the same time, Herzog also creates a film that looks into the unknown. From the opening credits, he sets a tone of these powerful images. And in all honesty, the "traveling" montages are some of the best things I have seen from Herzog, and will remind you of certain parts of Aguierre (1972). And of course, this infamous montage, which I only know is infamous in retrospect, really captures Herzog as art, and at his best. This is not the first time I have been moved by Wagner's Das Rhinegold vorspiel in a film, but it had a similar effect. Maybe the best remake ever, if you want to call it that.