Wednesday, September 17, 2008

News of sorts

I was in Barnes & Nobles today and discovered, as I suspected, that different editions of this book have different films listed. I happened to notice this because the version I glanced at in the store had several movies from 2007 while mine stops with The Aviator and Million Dollar Baby (why for both choices?). I have seen all of the movie differences I noticed at the end; it isn't a big deal (why Atonement which kind of sucked after the first 30-45 minutes?).

Does anyone that happens upon this blog know where I can find a list of the movies added and removed for each edition? It appears that the editor just takes out an old movie and replaces it with some recent big name movie (Atonement? Really?). I'd like to add in the movies from different editions some time in the future.

Unfortunately, all editions have both Moulin Rouge! and Fahrenheit 9/11. I guess I can't use that as an excuse to skip them.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

21. Stachka (Strike) - 1924

Director: Sergei Eisenstein

Synopsis: Workers of a factory strike after being treated poorly and a worker suicide. The factory directors are none too happy about this. Neither side will give in and the results are violent.

Review: "The strength of the working class is organization. Without organization of the masses, the proleteriat is nothing. Organized, it is everything. Being organized means unity of action, the unity of practical activity." Lenin, 1907

That quote opens Strike. This quote, intercut with eyes staring angrily at the viewer (pictured above), closes Strike:


So...Eisenstein wasn't taking a subtle approach with Strike but he once said, "I don't believe in kino-eye, I believe in kino-fist" assuring that a subtle approach wasn't to be expected...ever. Propaganda films, as this film undoubtedly is, rarely go work at a level below beating the audience over the head with its message.

While watching--but before researching--this movie, I was struck most by the juxtaposition that Eisenstein (over)uses. A large percentage of the shots reference the preceding or succeeding shot in a way to alter both had they been shown separately.

For example, the opening of the movie has an intertitle claiming the "all is call at the factory." The next shot is dozens of men and women coming in and out of a hallway filled with doors. Neither means that much when seen separately; the factory looks abnormally busy, but not enough to warrant much notice. When seen together, it comes across as a much busier--almost humorously so--factory because we are told the factory is calm.

This juxtaposition is called Soviet montage theory and Eisenstein considered it "the nerve of cinema." Again, Eisenstein wasn't one for subtlety and montage is overused. One could say that Strike is propaganda for the usefulness of montage theory. At the least, this is a primer for how to use it in film and it has been used as such--compare the finale of Strike and Apocalypse Now or most of Blood Of The Beasts or a section of Walkabout or...

I want to comment on one particular non-montage shot that works using juxtaposition but doesn't fit in the film. It is probably my favorite shot in the movie though. This pair of legs:
walk in reverse motion to reveal this pair of smokestacks reflected in a puddle: I think the shot works only because of the similar visual composition. It make little sense within the scope of the movie. There is no reason to start with the legs upside down without context except to mirror the smoke stacks. There is no reason to have everything happen in reverse except to make this shot have smooth water in the puddle. Within this movie, it feels like complete wankery.
If this were the only film Eisenstein had done, his montage theory would be enough to make this, and him, important.

Score: 7/10

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

20. The Thief Of Bagdad - 1924

Arabian movie with flying carpet?  If you say so!
Director: Raoul Walsh

Synopsis: A thief, while stealing items from a palace, falls in love with the princess. She is choosing a husband the very next day. The thief tricks his way into the group of potential hubands until his identity is uncovered. The princess had all ready decided the thief was the one for her (through fortune telling) comes up with a quest for the remaining princes to bring the rarest treasure within the next seven moons. The thief naturally chooses to go for the quest as well.

The Mongol suitor has decided to take over Bagdad by winning the quest or force. When the remaining suitors return, the princess and her father haven't yet decided on the winner. The Mongol chooses to take over with the city. The thief returns with his treasure which is basically some sort of box with wishing powder or something. He uses it to save the day and he wins the girl.

Review: I spent a good deal of time while watching The Thief Of Bagdad mulling over if this qualified as derogatory toward the people and cultures of the Arabian Peninsula. The movie is not actively negative, but it felt like P. T. Barnum humbugging an oddity supposedly found in the deepest deserts of Arabia. Imagine an Iraqi movie about the Old West without a single white actor and everyone is portrayed like Johnny Appleseed meets Pecos Bill. That's how I imagine an Baghdad citizen reacting when they see this movie. So, take this for what it is.

What it is is pure entertainment. There is no message here. There are no ulterior motives. Drawing a line from this to the summer blockbuster phenomenon is not difficult because of this. The template for every contender for biggest hit of the summer--take everything you've seen before and make it bigger--is right here. Blaming Douglas Fairbanks for the sins of modern day Hollywood executives is unfair and rather mean.

Douglas Fairbanks, with whom I am unfamiliar other than uncredited "Man On Horse" from Intolerance, was the pre-Errol Flynn swashbuckling go to guy. He also wrote, produced and starred in this which I've learned is not as recent a convention in film as I thought. Imagine a film made to capitalize on what swashbuckling stars do best, then set it Bagdad. This is the movie playing in your head and it's all here.

For all the greatness that Douglas Fairbanks stuffed into this film--there are a lot of it--the best thing here is the set design. Very few movies are made by their sets (see pictures below - the sets really are that big and took six and one half acres to build). This may be the only one or it is the only one I can think of. The sets are a spectacle by themselves and the film would have lost its power if production designer William Cameron Menzies were reigned in some.
The sets are not the only thing of note because there are some special effects that work to varying degrees (see picture below). Overall, this movie accomplishes exactly what it set out to do by keeping me entertained except I do think it should have been a bit shorter. There really isn't more to say than that.Shadow Of The Colossus
Final note: Why do the intertitles lapse into Jacobian English occasionally? Methinks "thou" wasn't used much in ancient Iraq.

Score: 8/10

Saturday, September 6, 2008

19. La Roue (The Wheel) - 1923

Netflix does not have this and I'm not paying $35.99 for it. Place holder until I can find this.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

18. Our Hospitality - 1923

Dude is straight up hanging from a log over a waterfall.
Director: John G. Blystone, Buster Keaton

Synopsis: Willie McKay returns home for the first time in 20 years to claim his father's estate. He falls for a girl on the trip each unaware they are opposing members of a familial blood feud. McKay must avoid being murdered while attempting to win the girl. Doesn't that sound like a comedy?

Review: Explaining why physical humor works--facial gags in particular--is virtually impossible. This is a new idea that has never once been mentioned in the reviews of Keaton; do try to keep pace. Somewhere between "Buster Keaton makes a face that is funny" and actually seeing Buster Keaton's reaction the humor is lost. This film is a perfect example of having to be there to get it.

Having to be there to get it comes in at another level. I can't help but think that I'm missing something by not being around in 1923 or experiencing first hand Southern hospitality. Seeing the evolution of physical humor and decline of hospitality in general for 80+ years works against a modern viewer. I see the jokes. I get the jokes. I don't laugh at many of them. The best way to describe it is seeing I Love Lucy after seeing every comedy since steal from I Love Lucy; the impact isn't the same as it once was.

Perfect example: Natalie Talmadge comes on screen. Before being introduced a few seconds later by intertitle, I know that Buster Keaton is going to fall in love with her and she is going to be a Canfield leading to comedy. This is so standard that there isn't even a name for the it. It's a bit backwards knocking a movie for doing something so right that even those unaware of Keaton are aping his work. I won't claim that Keaton originated the unlikely romance leading to comedy as that probably belongs to the first teenager but this is the first instance to my knowledge on film.

Anyway...Our Hospitality does have some great things working for it. Once the movie gets going and it becomes Buster's show instead of an overly long trainsequence, the quality raises immediately. Keaton is probably the master of oblivious comedy where everything happens around the protagonist while he remains clueless to his surroundings which is pretty heavily done for a while here. It's a subtle difference between that and Tati's Monsieur Hulot for example who was overcome by his circumstances.

Where Buster really shines is when he becomes suddenly aware of his situation at the Canfield's. He's able to use his face more which is previously pretty unexpressive. I think the most under appreciated scene in Our Hospitality, because the waterfall sequence truly deserves the most praise, is Keaton attempting to prolong his first evening with the Canfields. Keaton realizes he has to stay to avoid certain death and starts performing some tricks with a dog. After two tricks, he has nothing and performs them again with an earnest begging for approval across his face. As stated earlier, it's impossible to describe physical humor and facial gags.

I guess I should talk about the waterfall sequence. It's pretty amazing and a shame that truly dangerous gags don't make it into movies anymore. Of course, Keaton lost control of a guide rope and hurtles down the river lucky to be alive. Studio wariness isn't baseless but knowing that Jackie Chan is the only direct descendent of Buster Keaton is rather a drag.

Our Hospitality works but mostly in the latter half of the film. It's difficult to rate the film so low but there are too many low sections to rank the film highly.

Score 6/10

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

17. Foolish Wives - 1922

Director: Erich von Stroheim

Synopsis: I don't know.

Review: Netflix skipped this. They sent this before I went on my four and a half month hiatus. I sent it back when I put my account on hold. This is a place holder until I actually do see this. Though I have no reason to feel this way as I have never seen a film directed by von Stroheim, I am not looking forward to this at all.