Monday, April 14, 2008

16. Häxan - 1922

Director: Benjamin Christensen

Synopsis: Pseudo-documentary about witchcraft through the ages.

Review: This starts out with a synopsis of what people in the middle ages thought of the devil and witchcraft. There's a lot of "Here is a picture. Note the following things about the picture." It's pretty boring honestly.

The rest of the movie is a fictional story about a witch. Essentially it follows a few witches from them making potions to their trial. It takes a somewhat sympathetic view on how women were baselessly tortured after being accused of witchcraft. This is where the movie takes off because it's where the shock value kicks in (the still above is a woman literally giving birth to a demon spawned by Satan).

I think this movie really had a lot of great staging and special effects (the coins flying away in reverse was probably impressive at the time). I think it took an interesting look at mental illness even if it was not entirely correct. It also tried to put us in the shoes of what it might feel like to be accused of witchcraft. All that stuff is nice, but I really loved the shock value and portrayals of the devil. So, here are my top five listed from least favorite to favorite:
05. The devil making out with a witch
04. Literally beating a nun over the head with a club03. A line of women literally kissing his butt

02. Satan playing some sort of bagpipe/saxophone hybrid.

I could not guess what this is supposed to mean01. The devil churning butter.

Score: 7/10

Sunday, April 13, 2008

15. Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens (Nosferatu, A Symphony Of Terror) - 1922

Director: F. W. Murnau

Synopsis: It's just Dracula with different names.

Review: I mentioned in the Caligari review that ditching realism completely can be awesome. Sometimes it's better to have just one thing slightly off. That one element seems stranger by comparison. That is what Max Schreck/Count Orlock, pictured above, is in this movie.

He's just so freaky looking that every shot with him is automatically scarier for having him in it. I think many of the shots with him are compositionally better, but placing him in front of a blank wall would be creepy. Here is his famous shadow:
I saw this movie when I was little and that specific image is stuck forever in my mind. I know it's been reused and referenced to stick it in anyone's mind, but I still remember seeing this the first time when I was about seven. Everything I remember about this movie is purely visual and therein lies the problem.
Orlock is on screen for nine minutes out of 94. He completely overshadowed everything else in the movie; I believe this is typically referred to as Anthony Hopkins in Silence Of The Lambs syndrome. After seeing this movie, could one even describe what any of the other characters or non-Orlock settings look like? Max Schreck plays two characters, the creepy guy in the Knock's real estate office, and even that is forgettable. It's not entirely Schreck's creepiness that overpowers the rest of the film though.

How many vampire movies are there? How many of them follow this pattern?
  1. Man goes to Transylvania
  2. Man mentions visiting Count Dracula/Count Orlock
  3. Townsfolk look at Man with distrust
  4. Man makes it to Dracula's castle
  5. It's mostly deserted and Dracula shows up out of nowhere looking creepy
  6. On and on and on and on and on and on
The basic Dracula plot does nothing for me anymore. I've seen it too many times to be affected. Once you see Orlock, the rest of the movie is waiting for Orlock to show up again. Murnau was smart enough to space out the shots with Orlock and make each one slightly more interesting than the last. The second half is just kind of boring because it's just standard vampire movie.

I sound like this movie sucks, but it really doesn't. For the visuals alone it's awesome. There are even some decent shots of things moving by themselves thanks to the power of editing, but they have kind of lost their affect over time as well.

Also of special note in this movie, this guy's beard:
Watch this right now here.

Some non-vampire pictures of Max Schreck can be found online here. I include the link only for research purposes. Outside of Germany, the works and likeness of Max Schreck are unavailable unless one has a copy of the out of print VHS Die Straße. People can also decide for themselves whether Murnau, who correctly felt nothing more than pointed ears were required to make Schreck vampiric, was correct in describing Schreck as "strikingly ugly."

Score: 8/10

Saturday, April 12, 2008

14. Nanook Of The North - 1922

Director: Robert S. Flaherty

Synopsis: "Documentary" of an Itivimuit named "Nanook."

Review: Once a documentary's validity is in question, you have to question all of it (take note Michael Moore). Flaherty had lived with Inuits for years and filmed them. The film was unintersting according to Flaherty, but it was destroyed anyway. When making Nanook Of The North, he decided to make a better movie. How so?
The scenes are staged. The traditional clothing was no longer used. They had rifles. That isn't Nanook's wife. Nanook's real name is Allakariallak. Many of the things Nanook demonstrated had passed out of use. Some of the things Nanook demonstrated had to be taught to him by Flaherty. And so on. So, I don't consider this a documentary proper.

That's not to say Nanook couldn't have done this stuff. He clearly knew how to build an igloo. The walrus hunt seemed pretty realistic. The seal hunt is obviously staged (crew members pulled the rope themselves since the seal was all ready dead). Flaherty was attempting to recreate a mostly dead lifestyle before no one with any experience could. So, I think that there is some merit to this "documentary."

The other merit is that it's highly enjoyable. Nanook himself is so natural in his role that you'll forget that this is staged and simply enjoy it. Whether he's killing an all ready dead seal or biting a record, he comes across as completely believable.

Documentary or not, this is flat out a fun watch. Since it's public domain and available online (transfer stolen from Criterion), watch it here.

Score: 7/10

13. Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, Parts 1 and 2) - 1922

Director: Fritz Lang

Synopsis: Dr. Mabuse is a criminal mastermind, psychoanalyst, master of disguise and gambler. He uses all of these to cheat at cards in the local underground gambling clubs. American millionaire Hull teams up with inspector von Wenk to take down Mabuse after being cheated out of 200,000 marks. After arresting Mabuse's aquaintance Carozza, they unsuccessfully try to get information out of her. Hull gets killed in an attempt to kill von Wenk at some point. Von Wenk assumes using a woman, Countess Told, will get Carozza to talk. The countess refuses because Carozza and Mabuse are in love except Mabuse convinces Carozza to kill herself instead of condemn him.

Mabuse uses, through hypnotism, Countess Told's husband to cheat at cards. Count Told, since he doesn't gamble, goes to Mabuse for help. Mabuse, because he is now in love with Countess Told, convinces Count Told to hide himself from everyone. Countess Told demands to see her husband which causes Mabuse to force Count told to go death.

Von Wenk has been bothering Mabuse's crime family this whole time even though von Wenk doesn't know Mabuse is the criminal because of his disguises. Mabuse host a hypnotism show in another disguise and convinces von Wenk to go. The plan is that he will convince, through hypnotism, von Wenk to kill himself by way of an "accident." It doesn't work and von Wenk has figured out Mabuse is behind all of the crimes.

The police and military surround Mabuse's place. Instead of going quietly, Mabuse chooses to fight. The rest of his does the fighting while Mabuse escapes to his counterfeiting hideout. At this point, the ghosts of his victims haunt him and he goes crazy.

Review: I've seen various running times listed for this. The version I saw was four and one half hours.

I watched this a while ago. I guess I forgot to write anything about it other than the synopsis. I didn't realize until I found this was only a draft. Take my word for it that it is worth watching. Do not be intimidated by the lengthy run time. The movie could have been shorter but I appreciated the throw in everything but the kitchen sink approach because it all worked.

Score: 9/10

12. La Sourtiante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet) - 1922

Did somebody say "Place holder for another movie I can't find?" I certainly hope so.

Who got dis movie? Gimmie dis movie. I want dis movie.

11. Orphans Of The Storm - 1921

French people like Joan of Arc
Director: D. W. Griffith

Synopsis: A girl (Louise) is abandoned by her mother, but found by another guy attempting to abandon his daughter (Henriette) at the same church. The guy adopts the other girl and raises the two as sisters. Their parents die and they go to Paris to find a cure for Louise's blindness. Henriette gets kidnapped by the marquis or something. Louise gets taken in by some beggers. A bunch of crap happens including the sisters almost reuniting and the first Bastille Day (oh yeah, movie takes place during the French Revolution). Henriette is taken to court, where she reunites with Lousie, for housing aristocracy. She is sentenced to death but is saved at the last minute. The sisters are reunited. Louise meets her mother. Henriette is in love with Count de Vaurney.

Review: No more Griffith! Yay! I couldn't even watch this in one sitting because I was so freaking bored. I'm not sure how much of that is because I'm sick of really long melodramas, Griffith or because the movie is genuinely boring. Though the movie had some good parts, it was a struggle to get through regardless of what the problem was.

I think there has been a huge amount of refinement with Griffith. Each film has made some form of technical progress, but the last few have been about refining his work. In a sense, this may be his best movie on the list and I might enjoyed it more if I hadn't been sick of him by now. Maybe I will watch this again someday and reevaluate it (this will not happen).

I really enjoyed a few sections of this movie though. Griffith knows how to make things tense which he does really well in the end. He also understood that great sets and huge crowds can put you wherever the director wants you to be.

As an aside, I saw Ben Hur when I was about nine and my mother commented that when the Bible said there were thousands of people to witness something, Ben Hur had the thousands on screen which really impressed me as a kid. Being aware of Griffith, and some other movies that predate Ben Hur, makes me realize that wasn't nearly so impressive.

Overall, this is an okay film but not essential in my opinion unless you want to see the first instance of nudity of film to my knowledge.

Score: 7/10

Thursday, April 10, 2008

10. Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage) - 1921

This is yet another place holder. So many of these movies have never been available in the United States outside of theaters, but the critics recommending them for this book have apparently seen them.

The only copy I could find outside of importing a region 2 DVD was through a now-defunct torrent site (again, public domain and never available in region 1; get off my back). There were unfortunately no subtitles for the Swedish intertitles. I was hoping I could piece it together if the movie wasn't too heavy on intertitles; this proved impossible.

I was going to try using an online translator. This took too long and the reputation of online translators as being pretty terrible is 100% accurate. Unless I can find a translation somewhere, I will not be watching this any time soon.

9. Within Our Gates - 1920

This is a place holder. Netflix does not have this movie. It is only available on an out of print collection called Origins Of Film. I saw it on eBay for $219.99 which is, you know, ridiculously expensive.

Someone tell me where to see this.

8. Way Down East - 1920

Director: D. W. Griffith

Synopsis: Country bumpkin Anna Moore has the worst year of her life. She's tricked into getting married so she'll sleep with a guy. She's pregnant, but the marriage never really happened. She leaves town and the baby ends up dying. She ends up at a God fearing man's house and she falls in love with his son. They discover her past and she runs away. The son follows her as she falls into an icy river. Anna is saved and everyone gets married.

Review: D. W. Griffith really loves making slow movies. I didn't even see the longest version of this since Netflix sent the 126 minute version and it still felt slow. I don't mind a slow pace, but I think seeing so many slow melodramas in a row is driving me crazy.

It doesn't help that this movie is kind of dull and unrealistic. First of all, Anna's fake husband actually goes so far to sleep with her that he fakes a marriage ceremony with a minister and everything. Anna would reveal the truth but he explains that men are supposed to sow their wild oats. I think some members of society might have sided with Anna had she explained it, but that would have went against the message Griffith was pushing I guess.

So imagine this kind of goofy melodrama but unfolding over two hours. I think emotionally it works pretty well, but it could have been shorter. Add to this a dragging, dirge like soundtrack and it feels so much slower.

Fortunately, the end is exciting. Anna lies on a frozen river that starts breaking up into an ice floe. It's honestly pretty impressive seeing the guy run across the ice (see picture below). This unfortunately comes too late to save it.
Final note: Our ideas of what is not cool has stayed the same for 90 years.
Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton have a son together.Score 7/10

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

7. Broken Blossoms Or The Yellow Man And The Girl - 1919

Director: D. W. Griffith

Synopsis: A Chinese man immigrates to England. He opens a shop in the opium filled docks. Lucy is abused by her father, the boxer, and spends a lot of her time on the docks feeling sad for herself. After being beaten one time, she ends up in the immigrant's shop. He takes care of her. The father finds out, ransacks the shop and beats Lucy to death. Chen finds the body and kills himself.

Review: This is a very good movie. For the first time, I can say that without basing it on technical achievement. This is just a really solid movie based on it's own terms. It's not a feel good movie as you can tell from the synopsis (everyone is killed...oh yeah, and the child abuse), but it's still really good.

I really want to talk about Lillian Gish who really shines in this. She's been in all of Griffith's movies so far on the list, but this is the first time where she's been really amazing. I felt worried every time her dad started threatening her because she sold it so well. It's enough when she's told smile, she physically force up her mouth with her hands (see still) which shouldn't work but does.

I really have to discuss the abuse in this movie (how's that for a segue?). It's pretty startling honestly. I knew the basic premise, but I couldn't have predicted how bad it would be. The physical connection is off screen, but it's so much worse that way. Take note modern gore lovers, what I'm seeing in my head is worse than what Griffith would have shown us...until the closet scene that is which is just brutal.

While Griffith is atoning for his racist sins of The Birth Of A Nation by having a Chinese character as the hero, there's still a fairly high level of racism. The Chinese men are played by white guys , but this is not atypical for the next 40-50 years). The Chinese guys' names are never used (though the main character's name is on his shop). Also, there is this intertitle:

I seriously laughed at this.  Couldn't you call him Cheng Huan once?

So, two steps forward one step back I guess.

Other than showing that Griffith knew how to stage a prize fight, the boxing match seemed pretty pointless. I think it actually takes away from the suspense. It goes on too long, doesn't relate to the main story and it could have been placed better. Even moving it earlier might have helped.

This is probably my favorite movie by Griffith so far. Watch it here.

Score: 8/10

6. Das Kabinett Des Doktor Caligari (The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari) - 1919

Director: Robert Wiene

Synopsis: Dr. Caligari visits fairs with his somnambulist that can predict the future. Murders happen at the same time as Caligari's arrival. The townsfolk believe Caligari, or his somnambulist Cesare, are involved.

Review: Early works of any artform tend to focus on realism. Whether it's painting, literature or whatever. Cinema was no exception. Most early works were documenting things as they happened, recreating things that did happen or making things that easily could happen. I'm a big proponent of realism in film, but it's nice to see a film where the real world is absent.

The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari is such a picture. It ignores the direction that cinema had and picked up where Méliès, A Trip To The Moon director/writer/actor, stopped. This is a fantastic, in both definitions, movie. See the still above for proof.

That is not a dream sequence. No one is on drugs. That's a shot of Caligari running down a path as if there's a mountain, path or tree that looks anything like that on Earth. The rest of the sets are equally distorted. There are few parallel lines. The size of things seem pretty incongruous with function. Even the intertitles have weird designs (although I saw this once and some of the intertitles looked like a Power Point presentation). Everything looks so out there that I would probably watch whatever was on screen so long as it happened in front of these sets. What happens is fortunately pretty good.

Caligari is considered the first horror movie. Like modern horror movies, it is not particularly scary. Unlike modern horror movies, it's at least creepy. Seriously though, there are a lot of horror cliches begin here. If you see a horror movie where a really creepy looking outsider comes to town and murders start happening until a twist ending, you can trace it back here even with a pretty direct line.

I realized that I never really discussed the Méliès connection and I'm too lazy to go back and rewrite this into a coherent flow. The camera is center stage and never moves. This could easily be a play in that sense. Especially since the sets could easily be reproduced for a stage. Note to anyone in theater: Please make a stage version of this. I will watch it.

Watch this on google video here. I'm completely serious. You need to watch this.

Score: 9/10

5. Intolerance - 1916

Director: D. W. Griffith

Synopsis: Four stories from different time periods are sort of related because there is differing levels of intolerance and love in them. In ancient Babylon, a girl discovers the king is going to be brought down. In modern times (1916), a woman's husband is sentenced to death. In France, there is a massacre on St. Bartholomew's Day. In Judea, Jesus does some stuff and is crucified.

Review: I had some trouble getting into this movie. One, the picture quality on the DVD was terrible. Part of it was film deterioriation, but I'm not sure how much was bad cinematography. The DVD kept stopping because of some scratches on it. Many of the title cards were impossible to read because of a white font on a light grey background. It's much easier to read here than on screen, but here's an example:

I can not read this.
Not only does Intolerance introduce non-linear story telling to cinema, it does it as well as anything today. Griffith knew how to cut back and forth between the stories at the right time to leave us wanting more and make us think a lot more is happening than it is (one of the main reasons for non-linear stories in cinema). Every episode of Lost pretty much owes Griffith big time.

The problem with combining these stories is that they don't relate. The theme is weak. Also, two of the stories (the massacre and Jesus) are not interesting. Cutting them would have been a bad move then you'd have only two stories and the theme would have been even less successful.

The movie is impressive though. Look at that shot of Babylon. Those are not miniatures. There are really that many people dancing around. Speaking of a lot of people, here are some people getting ready to attack Babylon:

Nothing had come close to this scale. The movie actually cost about 2 million dollars which was unheard of and probably explains why they kept showing that shot of Babylon over and over again. It's still pretty impressive looking today and that's the first time I can say that on this list.
I probably should have liked this movie more than I did, but by the end I was getting bored. There were simply too many stories that didn't go together. Every time I got stuck in the middle of a St. Bartholomew's Day massacre section I couldn't remember why this was going on other than "HAY GUYZ! INTOLERANCE EVERYONE!" I recommend this, but only for its sheer scale and innovation.

The full movie isn't available online.

Score: 7/10

Monday, April 7, 2008

4. Les Vampires - 1915

Director: Louis Feuillade

Synopsis: Based on the first two of ten sections, Les Vampires is a gang of thieves/murderers going around Paris. A newspaper reporter is attempting to thwart their various deeds.

Review: I'm having some trouble finding this movie. Netflix does not have it. A DVD is available, but really expensive. I've found it online at sites I deem too questionable for torrenting (it's public domain so get off my back).

I've found the first two, of ten, sections online though. They are both pretty awesome.

3. The Birth Of A Nation - 1915

Director: D. W. Griffith

Synopsis: Two families, one from opposing sides in the US Civil War, are followed during the war and through the reconstruction. After black people are given the vote, they upset white people. The southern family is part of the genesis of the Ku Klux Klan who beat the black people in every conceivable sense. The KKK stops black people from voting by spending election day outside the black area of town with guns (see still above). A big parade is held for the KKK and Jesus literally descends from heaven in the dreams of one newly married couple. I'm not making this up.

Review: From a technical standpoint, this movie is better than the previous movies in literally EVERY ASPECT. Set design? Better. Narrative structure and scope? Better. Mise en scène? Better. Costume design? Better. Acting? Better. Camera work? Better. Special effects? Better. Literally everything? Better.

Film has made technical steps since The Birth Of A Nation, but so much can be traced back to was Griffith did with this movie. Griffith was truly a visionary. How far ahead of everything preceding it A Trip To The Moon was is the same thing for The Birth Of A Nation. It's actually hard to cover how big this movie would have been at the time.

The first half of this movie is a reasonable recreation of the Civil War and its affect on two families on opposing sides. The battles are intense. The story is solid enough. The whole thing works exactly as it should. Audiences were probably amazed at the realism.

The second half of the movie has one serious flaw: it is completely racist. It doesn't end with black face (black face is the least of its flaws). It doesn't even end with the negative portrayal of black people as generally pretty bad people overall. The Ku Klux Klan is portrayed as a savior of the south/nation. Every time you think "That's pretty terrible" something worse comes along.

White people become self imprisoned with all of the trouble cause by black people. The Ku Klux Klan is the only way stop being "disfranchised" by black people. Once the black people are finally beaten back into submission, the white people throw a parade in the Ku Klux Klan's honor. It's maddening that such a great technical film is wasted on this pro-racism message.

A good movie could be made about the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. This is not it. I would have preferred a something that didn't give judgment on them. It presented the facts and that's it. Again, this is not it. As a reminder, here is Jesus superimposed over the crowds post-KKK "victory." Ugh.
You can see a really really crappy, slightly shortened, version here. I don't recommend it because it's so crappy looking you can't tell what's going on.

Score: 8/10

Saturday, April 5, 2008

2. The Great Train Robbery - 1903

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Synopsis: Some bandits rob a train. They receive their come uppance.

Review: This is the first western depending on how technical you want to get. It doesn't look like the west (filmed in New Jersey and Delaware) and where this takes place is never stated. Everyone looks like typical Hollywood western people though if you discount the dwarf from Don't Look Now three quarters through the movie.

This movie is decent at best. The narrative structure is stronger than A Trip To The Moon, but everything else is lacking. The sets, other than the location shots, aren't any better than a high school production. The editing is done only to differentiate scenes as each shot is a different scene.

I do really like the death of the passenger. I can practically hear him say, "Curse you...dang varmints...gurgle." Every time a man falls off a roof into a water trough or a man pinwheels to death in a western since 1903, thank/blame this movie.

The famous shot, pictured above, supposedly caused some viewers to believe a man was actually firing a gun into theatres. This begs two questions:

  1. What were they thinking the entire time the train robbery was happening?
  2. What did people think when they saw A Trip To The Moon?

While this isn't impressive anymore, it's influential and important. It's only 12 minutes and public domain. Watch it here.

Score: 6/10

1. Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip To The Moon) - 1902

Director: Georges Méliès

Synopsis: A scientist proposes a trip to the moon. Their space craft is essentially a giant bullet fired out of a cannon. On the moon, they are attacked by the Selenites which inhabit the moon. The astronauts escape and return to Earth.

Review: This movie is amazing. I have seen a number of movies that predate this and none of them come close to this one. Up to this point, the only thing truly amazing in film would have been seeing a picture COME ALIVE! for the first time.

The movie is, depending on the frame rate of your print, is at least four times longer than anything that before it. It's also actually interesting. Seeing traffic cross Leeds bridge or workers leaving the Lumière Factory would have been cool in the 1800s, but this is an actual movie instead of a camera pointed at something for 30 seconds.

The special effects and set design hold up surprisingly well. It is thankfully not Michael Bay's Trasnformers (sic), but it still looks quite good. One can figure out how the tricks are done, but cinema has conditioned our eyes over the 100+ years since this was released.

The only real fault of the film, and it is a minor fault, is the plot is weak. I know that A Trip To The Moon is only 12 minutes long and up against movies with no narrative structure. It really is "Let's go to the moon. We are on the moon. How strange it is here. We must escape the Selenites. We have escaped them." I feel pretty bad about knocking it because I like this movie quite a bit.

One of the things I like most about this movie is the ideas that turn of the century people thought about the moon. Not only does it snow, but there are creatures living on it. There are giant mushrooms. I know this is fantasy, but I think part of this is based on ideas people might have actually held at the time.

I really recommend seeing this. It's only a few minutes long and public domain. So go to Youtube or google video. I don't really know what the official soundtrack is supposed to be, but this one has the most ridiculous soundtrack, voice over and sound effects. I swear when I saw this a few years ago, it did not have narration.

Score: 8/10

A longer, hand colored version apparently exists. If anyone knows where to find it, please tell me.

It begins

I've had this book for a while.

I joined Netflix a couple of days ago in order to help me stop purchasing costly DVDs. I figure it's time to get started. The book lists the films chronologically and that is how I plan to go through the entire list even if I have seen it before.