Friday, May 8, 2009

33. The Unknown - 1927

Synopsis: Alonzo is hiding in a circus as an armless performer so police will not discover his double thumb linking him to a string of circus murders. He falls for a Nanon who hates to be held. Realizing Nanon would discover his ruse on their wedding night, he has his arms surgically removed. Nanon gets over her chirophobia and falls for a strong man. Alonzo attempts to have horses rip off strong man's arms and is trampled to death in the process.

Review: You know what's unknown? Why this movie made the list! /statler&waldorf

I have nothing against b-movies. In fact, I love a well made b-movies--this is not a contradiction of terms--especially when said movie contains animals killing people but more on that when I review Jaws. I don't see why this particular movie is worthy when any other one would have fit the bill.

The Unknown has no discernable influence on film. The three big names involved--Tod Browning, Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford--are better known for other things which are worse than The Unknown--Freaks, Phantom Of The Opera and child abuse respectively. There is nothing shocking in finding out this film was lost for decades because no one remember "The Unknown" was the name of a film and not a bunch of reels to a film no one could identify.

That is not to say The Unknown is a bad movie. I enjoy it. I don't see what makes this movie better than any other b-movie beyond Chaney's performance which is quite good. It might be the best performance thus for on the list. Chaney's performance, while not as natural as Nanook or as affecting as the doorman from Der Letzte Mann, is the most subtle which seems contradictory since Chaney had to act like he didn't have arms.

I attended college with a guy that had no arms. Even after seeing him do everything my arms take for granted with his feet, Chaney still impressed me. Chaney had help by having Peter Dismuki--someone actually without arms--play his feet in some scenes.

As b-movies are generally exploitive, I should be as well. Here are the top five things Alonzo does to showcase his self imposed malady:

drink some wine
wipe his brow
smoke a cigarette

play a guitar (I legitimately saw someone do this once and he did not hold the guitar at all like this)

fire a gun

So, this movie is nothing to take much notice of beyond the performance of Lon Chaney. I personally never thought one performance makes a movie great even if that performance is. The movie has a certain level of watchability but only as a novelty. If you want a superior movie with Joan Crawford revolving around circus murders, I suggest Berserk!


Monday, April 27, 2009

32. The General - 1927

Synopsis: Buster Keaton is a southern train conductor during the civil war. His girlfriend is kidnapped by nothern soldiers causing him to follow her into enemy territory. He saves her and returns home to battle the union. It is loosely based on a real life train chase.

Review: This movie feels like a compromise to me. It's bigger and grander than anything Keaton has done previously. It has a better narrative. It lost the danger and absurdity that I enjoyed most in Keaton's earlier works. I miss that off the wall, from out of nowhere humor.

I think this sets a future for bigger comedy though. It isn't just a set of gags unrelated gags based purely on Keaton's ability to endanger himself without having a facial reaction. There is even a bit that made me laugh based purely on an intertitle:
I could easily see someone like every Steve Carell character ever saying it. Unfortunately, it's one of the few genuine laughs I had in the movie. The other big one for me was a pine cone bonking Keaton on the head. The two examples give a pretty good approximation of my sense of humor: non-jokes and infantile jokes. Nothing in between the two.

The length of the movie is an issue. While the movie is still short, it would have helped to edit it some more. I've enjoyed the shorter Buster Keaton films more because they didn't leave room for anything that didn't work. The General on the other hand leaves plenty of moments waiting for the next joke to happen instead of laughing until the next joke happens.

Something that's been bothering me about these movies is the soundtracks. I can't imagine that the musical accompaniment is accurate on some of these films. There is a song that either is, or is very close to being, Sabre Dance. There is zither music which makes me think of The Third Man immediately. The music fits but is this what Buster Keaton intended? Maybe so but there has been some inconsistency throughout this list on the musical choices.

I don't have much else to say about the film. It didn't work on me like previous Buster Keaton movies. Because I can't avoid mentioning hilarious facial hair, here is the best from the film:
And, since I am a giant nerd, I want to include this picture because it makes me think of the tank levels in world 8 of Super Mario Bros. 3
Final Score: 7/10

Sunday, April 19, 2009

31. Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans - 1927

Synopsis: A woman from the city suggests a man drown his wife. The man flies into a rage and starts to choke the woman from the city. He then changes his mind and decides to drown his wife. He starts to drown his wife but is overcome with guilt. They reconcile in the city even though he tried to murder her. They have a great day and realize why they fell in love even though he planned on murdering her. They return home and storms cause their boat to capsize drowning the wife (irony!). The woman meets the man thinking he purposefully drowned his wife but he goes tries to choke her again. The villagers find the wife alive, floating in the water. The man and wife meet as the sun rises even though he planned on murdering her.

Basically, why you always got to be murderin the women in yo life?

Review: The first best picture winner at the Oscars is usually cited as some film called Wings that no one ever talks about except when discussing Oscar history (ie - is boring everyone). If the source you happen to be reading is dedicated exclusively to Wings, the story typically stops there. If the source is not dedicated exclusively to Wings, Sunrise is usually mentioned as kind of also being best picture winner. Why this confusion?

There was no best picture nomination in 1927. Wings won "outstanding picture"--listed occasionally as "best production"--and Sunrise won a little award for "unique and outstanding production." So the Academy Awards officially list Wings as the "best picture" winner but says "two films were singled out for top honors."

I have not personally seen Wings outside of some bootleg Paul McCartney DVDs but I know which movie has a legacy of any kind (hint: it is Sunrise). Wings isn't even available on DVD in North America but Sunrise barely qualifies as being available (only as a limited time mail in with proofs of purchase for other Fox DVDs and part of huge box sets).


I watched the "Movietone" version of this film. The disc Netflix has features a "Silent European" version which, as far as I can tell, is the exact same movie but shortened by half an hour. Neither version is silent though. Quite the opposite.

This movie is the first with dialogue. It's only a a brief scene with mostly indiscriminate yelling but it is recorded dialogue. Move over Jazz Singer. Sunrise is also the first Fox movie with a recorded score. So, I'm not sure from where the "Silent European" distinction comes. Other than preparing a print for projectors unable to play films with sound, I can't see the purpose when a film features actual human voices for the first time.

Beyond it's huge step forward sonicly, this is innovative with its special effects. Some of the things stick out big time to a modern audience but they had to be amazing at the time. What amazed me most about the film visually was that this was shot on a massive set. It's not a real city and I wouldn't have known otherwise had I not read it.

Most striking of all is that this film shouldn't work but does. A man cheats on his wife, almost murders his mistress twice and his wife once over the course of a couple days. Despite that, I want the man and wife back together. Why am I worried about their relationship when I should want the wife out of there? It's a bizarre reaction. Instead of focusing on his murderin' ways, I get swept up in the love story. I guess that is the power of Murnau's directing skills and the actors; it is certainly not a testament to the story which plays like a fable.

I am not quite sure this qualifies as "the Citizen Kane of silent films" as it has been labeled it is not a misguided classification. "The greatest silent film" title is kind of crazy though. It's good but not that good.

Score: 9/10

Friday, April 3, 2009

30. Metropolis - 1927

Synopsis: Freder Frederson is a rich guy extraordinaire and son of Joh who is mayor or king or something of Metropolis. One day Maria travels to the well to do section of the city and Freder falls for her. He heads to the depths of Metropolis to Maria and sees the work conditions of the lower class (explosions).

Freder tells his father of this and goes to join the workers. He gets caught up in the revolution Maria is leading against the upper class. Freder, being upper class and sympathetic to the workers, is THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN THE HEAD AND HANDS IS THE HEART!

Joh and mad scientist Rotwang spy on Freder and discover his plan. They decide to disrupt the idea of class unification and equality by making an evil doppleganger Machine-Man of Maria undermine her plans. Maria-bot dances naked by John Mellencamp and incites the workers to violence.

Joh wants the violent revolt so that he can retaliate with violence. He allows the workers to the heart machine where they destroy it causing a flood. Real Maria and Freder save the children while Joh realizes his mistake. Rotwang comes back to kidnap Maria to probably make sweet love to her or some such. He is stopped by Freder who then becomes THE MEDIATOR!

There is also a bunch of religious stuff thrown in for no reason about the Tower of Babel.

Review: I watched the restored version that everyone has seen that runs about two hours. The uncut version found in Argentina (maybe? I don't remember) probably won't be available for a long time while restoration takes place.

Big budget, special effects laden, blockbusters enter the list. It feels insulting to compare Metropolis to the modern day blockbuster but it must be done. The similarities are too prevalent. From bad acting and huge special effects to a reliance on robots and explosions , this is as much a summer blockbuster precursor as Jaws.

The difference between Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Michael Bay's _________ is that Metropolis is worth your time. The other big difference is that people are still talking about Metropolis while most blockbusters last only until the next summer. So, enough of this Armageddon to Metropolis blasphemy.

The highlight of Metropolis, as with most blockbusters (sorry) is it's visuals which more than make up for the overacting and somewhat weak story. The special effects are the main reason this is being discussed as an important film. This is the best looking film thus far on the list. The visuals are much more removed from theater than anything previous. Seeing this
is mind boggling in its complexity for the time. All of those cars are moving. Yes, it's nothing but miniatures and matte paintings for this shot. It's striking as it's the first establishing shot that isn't a camera set up on a street somewhere. It's striking enough that blockbusters (sorry) such as The Fifth Element and the Star Wars prequels clearly owe this one shot. Visually, a lot of movies owe Metropolis quite a bit and I could easily make a post with nothing but comparison pictures (I say easily but I'm not about to go through the trouble of looking for all of the relevant screen captures when I couldn't find a good enough Fifth Element shot online).

The other lasting impression, which predates Metropolis, is the plight of the worker in the future compared to the luxury of the wealthy. For example, the wealthy get to dance around in a garden straight from A Trip To The Moon with their tie tucked into their pants all freaking movie:
Workers spend their days pointing arrows at shifting lights in a more serious take on Modern Times until they pass out from exhaustian:
I know dystopian future, timely as ever and all that. There apparently hasn't been hope for the distant future since the dawn of man but it's especially hopeless here. A shot of the worker's conditions: followed by how it's viewed by the main character:

Again, the visuals make this movie better than its standard--by now anyway--everything else.

Continuing an idea put forth in Mabuse, Lang decided to put a little bit of everything into this movie for no discernable reason other than he could do it. Metropolis feels this way in a truncated form and I can't imagine how much bigger, more epic, it will feel when the general public gets to see the original cut. It's big enough now with thousands of extras and massive sets that I wonder if a shortened version may beneficial.

So, Metropolis is pretty great from a visual standpoint. There is stuff that I had to look up just to figure out how it was done. The influence is still felt today and that's what frightens me. If Metropolis is a worthy addition to this list based primarily on being a special effects, what will people think of Michael Bay and Trasnformers in 80 years?

Final note: This is getting remade and Mario Kassar is producing. That means we'll probably get Roland Emmerich, Paul Verhoeven or Renny Harlin directing. I must admit that, should I suffer through this, Verhoeven's would be the most hilarious and therefore most enjoyable.

Final Score: 10/10

Sunday, February 22, 2009

29. The Big Parade - 1925

This no available on DVD. Found me a VHS copy for almost $30. I passed. Someone find this for me.

I swear I'm gonna start doing this again soon. Within a few weeks at the most unless something huge comes up (m'dong). I have been busy workin' workin' day and night with work promotions. I guess I could technically just review the next four movies as I've seen them but it's been years.

Friday, December 19, 2008

28. The Gold Rush - 1925

Synopsis: Charlie Chaplin's Tramp is a prospector. He gets stuck in a cabin with another prospector named Big Jim (who has found gold) and they almost starve. They eventually leave the cabin for town after killing a bear.

Chaplin falls in love with Georgia while in town. Georgia never shows for their New Year's Eve party where Chaplin imagines dancing with some rolls. Big Jim shows up demanding that Chaplin take him to the cabin because Big Jim only remembers that his claim is near a cabin. They become millionaires.

At some point, Black Larsen finds Big Jim's claim but falls off a mountain.

Review: There are two versions of this film. The 1925 version is silent. The 1942 version has, among some other changes, a narrative track. Netflix, much to my disappointment, sent the 1942 version.

I unfortunately didn't know that there were two versions of this movie before sending the DVD back to Netflix. The opening credits stated being a "revival." I assumed the original was lost and that it had been reconstructed as closely as possible to the original for rerelease or something similar.

I kept thinking how unusual it was that a movie from 1925 had narration. I kept thinking how bad the narration was. I kept thinking I should turn off my speakers but it had to be here for a reason. Had I know before watching The Gold Rush that the narration was foolishly added 17 years later, I would have turned off the sound instead of suffering needlessly.

I guess I understand Chaplin's reasoning for updating his movie for the revival. I completely disagree with it though. The biggest problem I have with the narration is that it clearly doesn't need to exist. It didn't offer any insight into the characters or action. Chaplin was, for the most part, telling me exactly what I could see on screen or, even worse, reciting exactly what the characters were saying. It was a distraction that covered up a quality movie.
If you'd like an idea on how this doesn't work, take a look at the closest things we have to a silent film these days: Cast Away and WALL-E. Imagine a narrator saying, "Now Tom Hanks tooth hurts. He's going to remove it with an ice skate," or "WALL-E sees a fire extinguisher. He wants to determine its function."
It's a nuisance that really should be forgotten. As such, no more talk of it for now.
The Gold Rush is apparently Chaplin's favorite film of his own. I wouldn't put it quite that high but it is a solid movie. The gags work and that's really all I need from a silent comedy.

If you want to gauge how well this works, watch some Warner Brothers cartoons. Must of The Gold Rush looks like it came straight from a Warner Brothers cartoon. Strike that. Reverse it. The Gold Rush predates them and it was shocking to learn that. A lot of classic Looney Toons ideas come straight from here. How many times have you seen two starving characters each envisioning the other as a giant chicken before coming after them with murderous hunger? How many times was it done better than this:
That is priceless material right here. Had I seen that as a kid I never would have stopped laughing. It isn't all hallucinating about chickens. Every time a Warner Brother's cartoon has characters in a shack leaning precariously on a cliff, it comes back to this movie. A wimpy character thinking he knocked out a big guy when something fell on his head comes back to this movie.

Therein lies a big problem here. Chaplin was so influential--as was Buster Keaton--that I've seen the best moments here done numerous times. It's lost a lot of its value.

An interesting thing that Chaplin does here that hasn't been seen before is combining comedy and a love story. Buster Keaton films feature him going after the girl regularly but Chaplin actually goes after our emotions instead of playing it all for a laugh. You actually feel for Chaplin when Georgia doesn't show up on New Year's Eve. That might be Chaplin's best innovation for film.

Also, dancing rolls.

Score 6/10 (8/10 without the narration)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

27. Bronenosets Potyomkin (The Battleship Potemkin) - 1925

Synopsis: The sailors of the Potemkin refuse to eat soup made with maggot filled meat. The admiral of the ship commands the officers shoot the sailors that refused to eat. Vakulinchuk, one of the sailors watching the massacre, starts a revolt. The officers are thrown overboard and Vakulinchuk dies in the riot. The Potemkin sails into the docks of Odessa where the citizens help restock the ship. After the sailors board the ships, the army kills the civilians on the Odessa steps. A small fleet is sent to sink the Potemkin but they join the revolution.

Review: How difficult was it for Soviet film makers not interested in propaganda at this time? Since I know Eisenstein--the only Russian director I know before Tarkovsky and Norstein--was forced somewhat into making propaganda, I can only assume the answer is nearly impossible. That's a roundabout way of saying that Battleship Potemkin is propaganda.

I don't have a problem with propaganda exactly. I realize there is a time and place for it despite people getting up in arms about it (typically only when disagreeing with the intent).

Our modern day society gets up in arms about propaganda--typically only when they disagree with the message--but it does have a time and place. Battleship Potemkin, about empowering the people of Russia, was certainly right for its time based on my rudimentary at best knowledge of Soviet history.

So, I don't have much to say about this movie honestly. Most of it I can only say in relation to Strike. The two are so similar that it's hard for me to separate them from one another. The specifics are different but the story is essentially the same. The style is the same. The mostly everything is the same.
If some Eisenstein fanatic ever reads this, that person will probably think my sweeping generalization makes me a moron. I am not big on Eisenstein because it's a lot of technical mastery without much to enjoy (I seem to remember thinking Ivan The Terrible I and II being pretty good when I saw them though).
In Strike, Eisenstein seemed as interested in making a film that explained how to use montage theory as he was in making a watchable film. In Battleship Potemkin, it appears that Eisenstein considered having the montage theory work for the film was kind of important instead of having it showcase his technical mastery. So, maybe the montage theory is subtler here or maybe it's better used and appears to be slightly less IN YOUR FACE (just slightly though). It's a big step forward for Eisenstein and montage theory. It shows it as a technique usable in film as opposed to some real world Ludovico technique. For that alone, Battleship Potemkin is the superior film.
Because this is a review of Battleship Potemkin, ODESSA STEPS!!!!!!!!!! There. I mentioned it and can be done with it.
Just kidding.
The Odessa Steps is a quality sequence. It is another example of how to film a scene like this and it's well done. It didn't move me though. Maybe it's because I'd heard about it so much. Maybe it's because I saw it coming. Maybe it's because I never really cared about anyone in the movie all that much. Maybe it's because the section following the Odessa Steps is more suspenseful and enjoyable. It does present us with the first ever Look Out For That Baby Carriage! scene which can not be underestimated.
Presented here because I can, because I've been occasionally mentioning the impact of older films on modern films and because I couldn't find the clip from Ghostbusters II with that baby carriage filled with soda cans, a relevant clip from a childhood favorite: Get A Life (start around 4:50 for pertinant segment).

One more note, since I essentially bashed the most famous segment of the movie, that I'd like to include. My favorite example of montage theory in Battleship Potemkin is simple and effective. It is a series of three lion statues that gain meaning only through their placement next to each other.
It's just perfect. It's small. It takes about ten seconds of the film and it had a larger impact on me than the baby carriage rolling down the steps.
A final note that warrants comment. Part X in my continuing series on hilarious facial hair in old movies:

Final Score: 8/10