Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Man of a Thousand Faces

Lon Chaney's contribution to cinema is often overlooked except by die hard fans.  The man who used make-up and physical contortion bordering on torture to create characters not easily forgotten has only been picked for two entries, making him one of the most under-represented actor in "THE BOOK".

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)  No shortage of stars have since played Erik but they all owe Chaney a genuine reverie. His make-up alone at the time was reported to have triggered screaming AND fainting.

The Unknown  (1927): A circus story (and he did many if these) has Chaney as a fugitive.  He makes his living as an armless knifethrower who uses his feet.  It seems his character in fact is not armless and fools everyone by binding his arms to his torso.  Why would someone do something so drastic, why to hide the easily identifiable double thumb on his right hand.  Just seeing Chaney perform armless is worth the time.  This, however, is a very dark ironic story

Notable Exceptions: "London After Midnight", the ultimate LOST FILM, with the best chance of seeing it is on TCM, who presents a version that incorporates what little motion footage available with production skills and full intertitles to get as close as possible to the original movie experience.  Chaney's vampire was one of the creepiest for many decades, second only to Murnau's Count Orlock. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame". Long before Charles Laughton, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Hopkins or the Disney animated slush, Chaney's Quasimodo rang the bells silently and still was able to chime in as the best. The Blackbird may be one of his more physically demanding roles since he portrays a criminal's twin who's body is twisted to a degree that even watching him move is painful. In the past 4 years, thanks to TCM and Sonic DVD burners I have added about 26 Chaney titles to my home collection.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fritz Lang's early German films

Fritz Lang's film making career began in post war (WWI) Germany.  As with many of the films coming from there at the time, his early expressionism was unique to the film industry. 

Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler a.k.a. The Gambler (1922) Part Fu Manchu part Moriarity, Dr Mabuse will do what is necessary to get a more scratch.  The criminal mastermind began his long career in movies in this film.  The diabolical doctor seems to have control over time as well, since it really seems to stand still getting through this one. Interesting enough if taken in small bites but I have been hard pressed to make it through in one sitting.

Metropolis (1927) This is probably Lang at his greatest.  A story about class, station and the respect for the parts that make the whole.  Even the lowest most insignificant piece, when stressed can break and shut down the machine.

M.  (1931) This one practically invented the film noir movement.  Peter Lorre wrote the book on creepy.  When the police are unable to stop a serial child murderer, the job falls to the criminal underworld.  Every eye and ear on the street is on the lookout and dispenses justice without a long drawn out court process.

Notable exceptions "Der Mude Tod" a.k.a. "Destiny" and "Die Nibelungen" a 2 parter  telling the saga of Seigfried and "Woman on the Moon" if only to see how space travel might have been anticipated.  The spaceship's dormitory sized rooms get a laugh out of me every time.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Biggest Shock from the earliest film

Viewing Luis Buñuel's "Un Chien Andalou" (1929) and "L'Age D'Or" (1930) was the point where I realized that "The Book" was going to take me on a wild ride.  I had actually found full versions on line, that since are not as easily findable. Buñuel used the camera, subject and film like a paintbrush, model and canvas creating one of the earliest WTF moment.  It's length alone makes it susceptible to multiple viewing in an attempt to interpret some kind of meaning.  Good luck with that, though I have seen it several times, since I first opened the book, I am no closer to a full understanding.  First off, I have no idea what this movie has to do with an Andalousian Dog. Collaboration with Salvador Dali is apparent.  The King of Surrealism's influence can be seen in the focus on ants and the rotting carcass just as his actual physical presence can be seen as one of the monks being dragged with the piano. "The Age of Gold"  though longer is no less enigmatic as many chapters seem to focus on a couple unable to comsummate their love, being constantly interrupted by pressure from family, society and the church.

Las Hurdes or Land Without Bread (1932) is an early documentary (though some consider it a parody) showing an area of Spain that has seen little or no progress who's sole livelihood is a locally made honey too bitter to be enjoyable. Abandoned by the Catholic Church, the inhabitants of the area are left to survive as best they can, with little help from a government that cares little for the region.  As a political message, this film was effective enough to be banned in it's country of origin.  As a cautionary tale it is at least interesting as a snapshot of a point in time for a certain area devoid of education and a caring influence, but as entertainment, it leaves a lot to be desired.   

This is only the beginning of an introduction to the work of Luis Buñuel.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Monty Python flies onto the Big Screen

As a fan of Monty Python's Flying Circus from their earliest American market (KERA in Dallas, Texas was the first American PBS station to introduce the show in 1975) any chance to see the troop was a golden opportuntity. 

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) The transition from short skit comedy to feature length comedy just worked well.  Since the members each played major and minor parts, they found a way to tie a bunch of short skits together to provide a story from beginning to end. 

Life of Brian (1979)  Monty Python takes on the bible in this one and it is so full of great scenes and acting that I laugh just thinking about it, from the not-so-virgin birth in another manger on Christmas Night to the final musical number at Golgotha.   Between Biggus Dickus and the legionaire that catches Brian in the act of defacing property with seditious graffiti and proceeds to give a Latin grammar lesson, this is probably the best of their big screen projects.

Notable Exception: If you are looking for items in the same vein as Monty Python, you can't beat "Yellowbeard". Graham Chapman in the spotlight as a womanizing pirate that tattooed his treasure map to his son's head.  The only thing keeping him from cutting it off is the fact that he doesn't want to have to carry around a rotting head.  Features just about every Python alum (with the exception of Gilliam) and other great comic actors, Cheech and Chong, Marty Feldman (died of a massive coronary within hour of filming his last scene) Peter Cook and Peter Boyle.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Man Bites Dog

Originally released in Belgium in 1992, directed by Rémy Belvaux , "Man Bites Dog" follows a film crew following a serial killer (flawlessly played by Benoît Poelvoorde) for a documentary. Filmed in black and white in a documentary style, Poelvoorde is followed as he commits crimes, mugging for the camera and  interacting with a society that does not understand his awkward personality.  The film crew is not above the danger (two members are actually killed) and eventually acts as accomplices for the sake of their story. Don't ask the obvious questions.  Where does one find an active serial killer that will allow a film crew to document their activities (in today's reality TV mentality, it is becoming less of a stretch), is there a moral obligation to stop filming and alert the authorities and is the film a document of the killer or is the killer a product of the documentary?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Steven Spielberg

Jaws (1975)  Spielberg's first real blockbuster. Three men and a boat against a humongous shark.  

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)  Richard Dreyfus as a man that is dealing with the knowledge he has that aliens are coming to earth. 

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)  The movie that introduced the world to Indiana Jones.  Spielberg collaborates with George Lucas, in an adventure that was inspired by the movie serials of days gone by.  With three sequels under his belt (and talk of a fourth) while all of them may be at least worth seeing, he has not been able to match the success of the original.  One of the perfect action movies.

E. T. (1982) Not a big favorite for me, but that doesn't mean that it's not good. Expands on his idea that space aliens would not necessarily be the kind that come to earth looking to dominate or destroy.  If anything could be dropped from "The Book" it would be this one.  I'll bet there are a lot of people out there that WOULD NOT agree.

The Color Purple (1985)  After years of action and sci-fi, Spielberg returns to the human drama.  I believe this is the point where Hollywood started taking him serious.

Jurassic Park (1993) Spielberg's adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel gave us an idea what could happen if man tried to reintroduce dinosaurs to the earth. 

Schindler's List (1993)  Liam Neeson is Oskar Schindler, a man using his position as a factory owner as a means of  saving as many as possible from the concentration camps.  Ralph Fiennes portrays a ruthless SS officer.  Filmed in black and white.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) After surviving the landing at Omaha Beach, an Infantry squad is assigned to find a soldier, who is  supposed to be sent home.  A good story that portrays squad relationships on the edge of civility as they argue the validity of their orders and gives an eye-opening vision of D-Day.  Makes you wonder how ANYONE could have walked away from the beach.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Avant-garde cinema, part 2

Heaven and Earth Magic (1962)  A sixty-six minute animation piece by Harry Smith, made using cut-outs from old catalogs accompanied by sound effects not necessarily related to the visual activities.  I couldn't help but feeling that this may have been an inspiration for Terry Gilliam when he was creating those animated segments in Monty Python's Flying Circus. I found this title on Youtube (cut into 7 separate parts).  May not be the greatest video quality, but for this film I'm not sure it took too much away.

Dog Star Man (1962) Stan Brakhage's short film is an assault on the visual senses.  Full of flashes of light and color, this is 60 minutes of confusion that may or may not have something to do with a man walking his dog up a mountain.  This idea of the screen as a canvas for splashes of light used as paint got real old, real quick.  Something about having those pictures introduced so quickly just left me confused and a little disoriented.  By the time that an image is recognized of something that might be noteworthy (or maybe even interesting) it is replaced by another that you have scant seconds to register, recognize and react to before another takes it's place.  Short of the man walking up the mountain , the most interesting thing is that he looks an awful lot like one of the cavemen in the Geico commercials. By the time I had made it through the Prelude and the four parts (not sure what the reason for the part segments) I really could have cared less what was going on.

Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (1983)  Part of a trilogy of films by Geoffrey Reggio, now this type of avant-garde is a bit more to my liking.  While story and motive is still a bit of a mystery at least I was able to get clear extended views of the relationship between man, technology and the natural world.  Brilliant, vivid photography leave you with no doubts of what you are seeing. None of those flashes that could possibly lead to epileptic seizure.  Well worthy of viewing, with Philip Glass's musical composition adds to a mood and styling.

Notable Exceptions: E. Elias Merhige's "Begotten". Upon first learning of this film (a trailer attached to the "Shadow of the Vampire" DVD),  I went on a frantic search for a place to view it.  Finding it posted, in it's entirity on the internet, I was transfixed by the story that played out, though not immediately understandable, the filming is mesmerizing.  The unconventional processing of black and white film creates images that keep you transfixed, not always sure what is going on, but does not allow you to turn away. Not for the squeamish, since the film depicts graphic human pain and suffering.