Sunday, September 30, 2012

Three Films by Akira Kurosawa

[Posted 10/14: Due to some technical issues, only one of these got watched on time. That didn't seem enough of a grand finale to me, nor part of the plan - thus the delay. And the last couple of weeks. I'm backdating this post to 09/30 mainly for various organizational purposes, linking, etc...]

We started off this month's project with arguably the Citizen Kane of European cinema (Jean Renoir's La règle du jeu, 1939). And we're wrapping it up with arguably the Citizen Kane of Asian cinema: Akira Kurosawa's Shichinin no Samurai (1954). And by the way, it will be quite awhile or never before "the Vertigo of..." becomes the new saying.

Seven Samurai peaked on the S&S rankings at #3 in 1982, but is still in the Top 20 for the 2012 Sight & Sound poll. But let's start a little earlier than that.

Stray Dog (Nora inu)
dir. Akira Kurosawa. 1949, Japan.
Criterion essay #1 ... Criterion essay #2
DVD from the Criterion Collection
Watch via Hulu-Plus

escena de Can Vadío (1949)

Sato: Just your typical case of an amateur running amok, although the consequences for the victims are severe.

One of the secrets to Kurosawa's success, and maybe even a valid criticism, stems from how influenced by Western film he was - despite his innovation, and his focus on samurai movies during his prime heyday (the '50s). But I was not prepared for how closely he stuck to the film noir template in Stray Dog. During the beginning, I kept thinking how this could be a shot-by-shot remake of an old American crime movie, even down to some of the snappy patter. But the setting of a bombed-out, dusty, overheated, late-'40s Tokyo was fascinating.

The basic story is that a greenhorn rookie gets his Colt pistol lifted on a crowded trolley, then obsesses about its recovery while being mentored by some more seasoned vets. I'll go ahead and Wikipedia, for what it's worth: "The film is considered a precursor to the contemporary police procedural and buddy cop film genres." Given the timing, I was wondering whether the disarmament of the good guy might have some kind of nationalistic, anti-American post-WWII symbolism. But no, this is a straight-up adventure into a world of crime, driven by honor and duty, during a massive heatwave, with a mismatched pair of cops... you get the idea. We even get a glimpse of the older, more domesticated partner's idyllic homelife. Classic.

So, Tokyo! Our hero sets off into the post-war world of lady pick-pockets, black markets for pistol dealers, a really big baseball game, chorus-line cabaret, a geisha house, fancy and not-so-fancy hotels. Overall, the city seems like a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Some of the early set pieces run a bit too long on just film footage, although seeing 1949 pro baseball in Tokyo was amazing. Towards the end, everything moves a bit too fast. You can see what Kurosawa's trying to do with ramping up the intensity, but it comes off a little blunt. The end of the movie sets up legitimate tension as the cops close their dragnet.

Lots of nice touches throughout the movie. There's the iconic contrast between the jaded veteran cop and the enthusiastic rookie. There's even a WWII parallel between the hero and the villain, and a contrast between how they've handled post-war struggles. Some of the minor criminal characters are drawn well: the aging pickpocket sassing about civil rights, the white-flower marketeer giggling with Sato, the Yakuza bellboy primping for the ladies... The whole film generally looks good, but certain shots really stood out immediately: an early low shot from behind the characters looking up into the starry sky, a converging triple-exposure during the black market wander, the frenzied whirling storm of danger towards the end, and some cool background mirror placement.

By my calculations, this was the fourth movie the two lead actors (Takashi Shimura and Toshirō Mifune) made together - and the third straight Kurosawa to pair them up. I counted 21 total films from the duo, mostly with Kurosawa directing.

Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai)
dir. Akira Kurosawa. 1954, Japan.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #17 / Directors' #17
Roger Ebert's Great Movies ... Criterion essay
DVD/Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection
Watch via Amazon Instant / Hulu-Plus / iTunes

Seven Samurai trailer (1954)

Other than trying to squeeze in The Hidden Fortress (1958), writing about this one was a major hold-up. For one thing, it's 3½ hours long - and then I wasn't taking notes!

Villager: How can we find a samurai we can pay with only rice?
The Old Man: Find hungry samurai.

It had been so long since I'd previously seen Seven Samurai, that it had been on VHS (videotapes). I still remember the fused 2-pack they came in. For some reason, I recalled it being totally action-packed... like non-stop action. But there's a whole lot of gathering and planning, although it does move briskly. With a large cast of characters with similar hairstyles and clothing, it does an admirable job of introducing them to the Western audience (me).

Fearing an upcoming bandit raid, some villagers gather to discuss their options. An impetuous youth wants to stand & fight, although that seems foolhardy. A fearful oldster wants to buy them off with crops & bended knee, although that's not much different than being raided. A hysterical woman suggests mass suicide - that'll bring the magistrate around! (There might be some flaws in her plan as well.) The scene introduces important characters, their overall situation, each's motivations and fears, and sets the stage. Finally, they all decide to consult The Old Man, who tells of a village that survived bandit raids by hiring samurai for protecion.

So a group of villagers head to the city in search of samurai - the classic fish-out-of-water country-mouse scenario (to mix my animal story metaphors). They meet an older samurai who uses brains even more than brawn - he's Takashi Shimura, the older cop from Stray Dog. There's a greenhorn samurai who follows along, and a wildman of an imposter - played by Toshirō Mifune, the younger cop. With an actual samurai leader, the crew begins to be put together. Much entertainment ensues, and the raw rookie gets to test his sneak attack skills. Then the action reverses itself, and the city-mice head out to the country. The villagers are terrified of the samurai, and maybe with good reason. The oldster who feared that the bandits would steal his daughter is now afraid that the samurai will, and maybe with good reason.

The villagers and samurai gradually warm to each other and their common purpose. Training takes place, preparations are made, fortifications built, the concept of a stolen gun returns. Although everything before qualifies as great film, here is the real meat - and you can totally see its influence on a million later action movies. And it's pulled off masterfully. You absolutely always know who's who, what's what, the why, where, and when... which I don't think you can always say of modern action movies. Also, there's definitely no sense of the invincible good guys with perfect aim, who can dodge bullets or swords. There's too many little details and random trivia for me to delve into. I'll just say that probably more than any other film I watched this month, Seven Samurai is maybe the least under- or over-rated one (at #17 for both Sight & Sound critics and directors). Definitely a top 20 of all movies of all time.

High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku)
dir. Akira Kurosawa. 1963, Japan.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #323 / Directors' #322
Washington Post 1986 movie review ... 1998 Criterion essay
DVD/Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection
Watch via Hulu-Plus

High and Low U.S. trailer (1963)

Cop: The kidnapper's right. That house gets on your nerves. As if it's looking down at us.

Yep, back to crime! Although this one starts with all the menace of a trade dispute (ladies' shoe manufacturing of all things), it's as better than Stray Dog as 14 years of experience would indicate. It's got kidnapping, a giant phone receiver, very nice modern B&W photography, and more. During the shoe industrialist's rant about his commitment to not paying the ransom, the other people in the room turn away one by one. I couldn't figure out whether this was a reaction to someone breaking their calm reserve, or a show of disapproval (or both). It happened a few times in the movie, and always reminded me of when everyone turns away from the racist ranter in 12 Angry Men (1956).

Like with ballistics in Stray Dog, we find some of the now-standard procedures and evidence sciences in effect: telephonic audio analysis breakthroughs, automotive paint chip analysis, trolley expert consultation, notepad reconstruction from underpage impressions, and group presentation of investigation updates (with nifty one-shot flashbacks). In the meantime, there's corporate intrigue, family drama, a rockin' GI nightclub, and lots and lots of heroin. I really didn't expect this movie to delve into Drug Alley.

O yeah, and the story takes place in the port city of Yokohama. So you've got your high-priced, mountainside mansions and villas (high) and your industrial factories and urban slums (low). Mt. Fuji plays a prominent role during the investigation. There's a neat trick with some factory burn-off smoke. The club scene with the obnoxious Americans provides some awesome undercover disguises and super-sleazy music and dancing. Really good and fun and engaging - my only complaint would be the sometimes difficult-to-read subtitles.

I really tried to get The Hidden Fortress watched, to make it 4 by Kurosawa... but the delay had just gone on too long. And after the full month, my film-watching abilities were drained!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Army of Shadows / Le samouraï -
Jean-Pierre Melville (1969/1967)

Jean-Pierre Melville is one cool dude. He renamed himself after the author of Moby-Dick. He was such an influence on the Nouvelle Vague that Godard cast him in Breathless (1960, S&S #13). And the latter of these two practically embodies the term 'cool.'

Both films are Criterion releases, both are Ebert Great Movies, and both do appear on the long-form 2012 Sight & Sound poll.

Army of Shadows (L'armée des ombres)
dir. Jean-Pierre Melville. 1969, France.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #202 / Directors' #322
Roger Ebert's Great Movies ... Criterion essay
DVD/Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection
Watch via Amazon Instant

Army of Shadows trailer (2007)

Felix: I've set up a table and some chairs.
Gerbier: We're not here for a trial. We're here for this.

Not being a WWII historian, the first thing I noticed was how much detailed information I needed to fill in during Army of Shadows. The Arc de Triomphe? 1836. The Vichy regime? 1940-44. The Phony War? Declared but unfought. Kabyles? Algerian Berbers. Ausweiss? Occupation work permit.

Talking about the movie proves a little difficult for me. It’s about people working in the French Resistance against the Nazis - the operative word being "work." Despite a couple of semi-dramatic escapes, the resistance here mostly amounts to logistics... just doing what needs to be done, taking care of business, of course with extremely high stakes and severe risks. Traitors have to be eliminated, agents need to be smuggled, there's a submarine rendezvous, Gestapo headquarters must be infiltrated. But then everything is so understated, almost business-as-usual... very much more human, with only the most stoic of heroism - but few of the traditional "heroics." When on a mission, there's no dark humor or one-liners, and even torture at the hands of the Nazis happens offscreen. It's like Melville had never seen a war movie! But he did see war, actually fighting in the French Resistance.

Our hero Gerbier is a nebbishy civil engineer, a leader in the Resistance and cool in the face of evil. Perhaps not cut out for dominoes, but he'll plunge a knife deep in the Nazi occupation's throat. Or at least insure that the necessary forged documents make it to the appropriate clandestine agents. You really get to know the operatives in his cell: trusted Felix, hypercompetent Mathilde, codename: Le Masque, physical enforcer Le Bison, new recruit Jean-François - and even Jean's detached older brother, mathematician Luc Jardin. So I became attached to their fates, which are not all glorious in victory. The sub takes Gerbier to London for a ceremony. The snooty Englishers won't offer much help, but he gets to see Gone with the Wind (1939, S&S #235), Big Ben, an American jazz party, the Blitz (city on fire just like in the movies)... and I recognized Charles de Gaulle, even from behind! After parachuting back into occupied France, there are cyanide capsules, double-blind secret missions, a low-tech airstrip, a sign reading "EINGANG VERBOTEN," moonlight on safe house, and always what needs to be done. But I won't reveal any secrets.

Le samouraï
dir. Jean-Pierre Melville. 1967, France.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #235 / Directors' #91
Roger Ebert's Great Movies ... Criterion essay
DVD from the Criterion Collection
No streaming...

Le samouraï trailer (1967)

Police Superintendent: General alert. Routine roundup. Identity checks all night. The killer is described as tall, young, wearing a raincoat and a hat.

This was a new-school (at the time) film about old-school crime: murder for hire. Revenge and honor too. The beginning of the movie firmly establishes that it is not a world of idle chit-chat. Speaking too much, or under the wrong circumstances, does not pay. The police investigators, on the other hand, are nothing but talk: smarmy cajoling, underhanded pressure, line-up trickery... But all their efforts are worth less than the caged bird's whistle.

I definitely don't want to get into the plot, so here's some other stuff. The film is extra stylish, with a crystal-clear mood. The minimalist palette is mostly grays, blue-grays, gray-blues, blacks, with some pale tan for a splash of color. The killer's room is dingy, his bird is dingy, the city is dingy. (I can't remember any scenes where you can tell it's Paris.) But his overcoat and hat are crisp, as are the cars he boosts. There's a famous or influential chase through the Metro, and that's the right place for it. Either Jef Costello or Alain Delon was really not a very good driver. At the beginning, I thought "he wants to live outside the cage." And I thought it again at the end of the movie.

Superb film! Do yourself a favor...

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Man Who Fell to Earth - Roeg (1976)

Hahahaha! Not a single vote on the 2012 Sight & Sound poll. That's low, man... Low.

I'm feeling a little symmetry across the month, here at the end. Third from the last, '70s-style relaxed pace sci-phi, from otherwise respected auteurs, yet no love from S&S? Sounds like our third from the start.

The Man Who Fell to Earth
dir. Nicholas Roeg. 1976, U.K.
Roger Ebert's 1976 movie review ... 2011 movie review
1993 Criterion essay ... 2005 Criterion essay
OOP Criterion DVD from Amazon [OOP CC Blu-Ray]
Watch via Netflix / Amazon Instant / iTunes

The Man Who Fell to Earth trailer (1976)

There was also a more traditional trailer, without the William Shatner groove. And a 35th anniversary 2011 re-release one.

Mary Lou: I don't understand how you can watch them all at the same time. You know, Tommy, you're a freak. I don't mean that unkindly. I like freaks. That's why I like you.

Buck Henry! Rip Torn!! ... and some long-forgotten folkie from the '60s. Maybe the guy from the Monkees? The parable of arable land.

I think I like this movie more than most people. Everything about it seems so schizophrenic. The tone jumps around between Stranger in a Strange Land sci-fi, lotsa grindhouse sexploitation, sociological essay, Five Easy Pieces artfilm, corporate intrigue, laconic Western, space/nature trip, and maybe a half-dozen others. Bowie's Newton shifts from strutting cock-o'-the-walk to a basket case that's been squeezed from 5-Dimensions into three, with a range described by a non-Euclidean parabola bisecting madness itself. The film's music includes Roy Orbison, Eric Satie, Joni Mitchell, Holst, and Steely Dan.

The movie starts with splashdown, stumbling down a mountain, almost getting run over, an aggressive bouncy house, a leering drunk, an asymmetrical cash transaction, a major-league thirst-slaking, farm animal transport seen through two-tone alien eyes... and on and on. Newton likes TV and booze, but can't stand elevators - nor sushi samurai kabuki violence. He builds a fortune on some ridiculous technologies. A camera that immediately shows your pictures? Preposterous! A book with paintings and poetry? Ludicrous!! (Icarus reference?  slightly clever.)  Rip Torn's professor chases freshmen girls on the funky campus, but rails against computers and their reliability. Bah!! Wait, now he'll get some "mind libido" and faith in himself.

We get some extinct '70s airlines, and an Olde English hymn. The good old days of train travel, and an alien homeworld in decline. A line-of-sight mining-era time intersection, and a big-ass Caddy with a phone. The covers of both Station to Station (1976) and Low (1977) come from this film. Down the stretch, everything starts falling apart even moreso. Bernie Casey finally shows up, and then they... I mean: "The problem with this corporation is that it is technologically overstimulated..." To which: "Then you must go further. They have to take the wider view... We're flexible. Something, uh - elastic... We're determining a social ecology. This is modern America, and we're going to keep it that way."  Modern America, yes - in all its post-Watergate, stagflationary, swinging-'70s debauchery.

All is become frenzy. Rip Torn does heat photography, and psychic emanations transmit to home, alien trampoline gymnasticsex. First there is a spaceship, then there is no spaceship... Terry Southern is there! Jim Lovell!! Buck Henry fell to earth, Newton is kidnapped and put in an autumn-forest rec room with leaves on the grassy floor. Scenario aligns to parallel The Third Man (1949, S&S #73), meanwhile it's playing onscreen. Gunsexplay, science experiments, a laid-back escape, and years later (maybe?) the alien-in-hiding releases an album. I think his family is dead back home - the bar cuts him off.  And that is a '70s movie ending!

Afterwards I read this extensive essay, which provides a much closer reading of the various obscure themes.  I was thinking more of how the narrative reflected the dissolution of Newton's mission (much like Capt. Willard's) - so I missed stuff like the intersecting arcs of the main and supporting characters (down & up), or the specific praxis of earthly temptations.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Clockwork Orange - Kubrick (1971)

I was concerned about not getting any Kubrick in at all, but then an extra day magically appeared. Then I could find all of my Kubrick discs except this one. Like, even Eyes Wide Shut (1999, S&S #377). Almost broke down and watched the long-awaited Blu-ray of Barry Lyndon (1975, S&S #59) again. I was thinking about going with Ken Russell's The Devils (1971, Sight & Sound #323) instead. But I needed to head in a different direction.

Anyway, I sorted it out. I'm fine, thanks... Don't mention it.

A Clockwork Orange
dir. Stanley Kubrick. 1971, UK/USA.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #235 / Directors' #75
Roger Ebert's movie review
DVD from Amazon [Blu-Ray]
Watch via Amazon Instant / iTunes

A Clockwork Orange trailer (1971)

Alex: I knew such lovely pictures.

... ... ...

Alex: It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem real when you viddy them on the screen.

I'm starting to think our dear narrator might have been stretching the truth when he told prison admission officials that he'd never suffered from mental illness. The first thing I recalled specifically was that the Nadsat term "horrorshow" came from an actual Russian word: khorosho, "good." Obviously the Wendy Carlos synth themes, the Kordova milk bar, a little of the old ultraviolence, "Come and get one in the yarbles - if you have any yarbles, you eunuch jelly thou!" Dim's spinelessness, P & M's cluelessness, Deltoid's sarcasm... yes?

This viewing was a relevation. The 2001 record at the record store. The Duke of New York bar (EFNY?). And the fact that Alex gets captured at around a third way through, only about 40 minutes in. Everyone should know 6-double-5-3-2-1, and the corny American chaplain. "What's it going to be, eh?" After scourging Jesus on the way to crucifixion, Alex gets fed grapes by a harem. This seemed to foreshadow his hospital feeding by the government minister at the end. I don't think I'd ever noticed that during the minister's prison inspection, the first thing he looks at in Alex's cell is the bust of Ludwig van... Could the musical score of the Ludovico technique have been intentional and not accidental?

"Shut your filthy hole, you scum!!" Does "Pomp & Circumstance" play during the ministerial visit because of the lord high fancypants, or because it's a kind of graduation for Alex? And he's out of prison by the halfway mark - this pacing issue is something I'd never noticed before. The movie is front-loaded with memorable parts, and the latter half can wander a bit. Once the Ludovico has been done, it's back out into the mad world - the old drunken bum again, a newly-authorized Dim, and the subversive writer. For some reason, that low-angle shot of the wheelchair-bound writer's stroke-like reaction to recognizing Alex's singin' ("in the Rain") is iconic for me. And my final thought: I don't think I'd ever focused on the way the papers in the end refer to "Alex" and the "boy" - highlighting his role as an innocent victim.

Possibly not even in my top 5 Kubrick movies, but he's such a phenomenal auteur. So his top 10 films are like others', uhhh... best?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Au hasard Balthazar - Bresson (1966)

Here's one that has intrigued me since I first read about it, but I never got around to watching. It continued a slow climb in the newest 2012 Sight & Sound poll, even actually overtaking Seven Samurai (1954, S&S #17).

Really, really very good!

Au hasard Balthazar
dir. Robert Bresson. 1966, France.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #16 / Directors' #21
Roger Ebert's Great Movies ... Criterion essay
DVD from the Criterion Collection
Watch via Hulu-Plus

Au hasard Balthazar trailer (1966)

Gerard: Donkeys are neat. They're fast. Modern.

For whatever reason, I expected this to be a pastoral story set in the distant past. But actually it's contemporary (mid-'60s) in small-town France - with motorcycle gang delinquents, pop music radios, action painting, fireworks and a jukebox party. The main characters are the titular donkey and his girl. The donkey actor is fantastic! Maybe the best animal performance I've ever seen. As a colt, Balthazar is baptized and given the "salt of wisdom" - and towards the end, declared a saint. Throughout his life, he is used and abused as a beast of burden and bears it all with an implacable dignity. The only person who treats him right is the girl who raised him, and she comes in for as much mistreatment as the donkey.

Early on, she puts a crown of flowers on his brow, and then he takes a beating from her ne'er-do-well future boyfriend. Gerard slaps her around, lays oil slicks on road curves to watch cars wipe out, mouths off to the police, plays loud music, keeps handguns around the house, frames the town drunk for murder, and trashes the joint at a party. Of course, Marie is totally devoted to him and spurns her childhood sweetheart (a niceguy). She's also saddled with the most stupidly prideful man in town for a father. Donkeys are apparently better cut out for this kind of cruelty, because she totally goes off the rails. She gets entwined with the bad dude, shames her own family, shacks up with some old miser who uses Balthazar to squeeze his grapes (I think)... and more. Meanwhile, our hero gets to perform in a circus and help out with a little smuggling.

Maybe I should have been reading up on the new movies before watching them, rather than just before posting. Because director Robert Bresson "is often referred to as a patron saint of cinema, not only for the strong Catholic themes found throughout his oeuvre..." Au hasard Balthazar "was inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot and each episode in Balthazar's life represents one of the seven deadly sins." It's like the Uncle Boonmee reels all over again! I did get the religious 'vibe,' but clearly there was more going on than I picked up. Also, the film debut of lead actress Anne Wiazemsky. She was later in films by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jean-Luc Godard, whom she married - and in her 2007 book about the making of this movie, Jeune Fille ("Young Girl"), she apparently claimed that Bresson repeatedly hit on her and that she lost her virginity to a crew member. Wow.

The film's Wikipedia page translates the title as "by chance" and leads me to believe it's meant to be read as a nickname - something like: good ol' "By-Chance" Balthazar. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Gospel According to St. Matthew -
Pier Paolo Pasolini (1964)

I was actually looking forward to this one, even before I just realized it made #30 on the Directors' part of the 2012 Sight & Sound poll.

Thirty... just like pieces of silver.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il Vangelo secondo Matteo)
dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini. 1964, Italy.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #235 / Directors' #30
Roger Ebert's Great Movies
DVD from Amazon
Watch via Amazon Instant / Hulu-Plus

The Gospel According to St. Matthew trailer (1964)

Jesus: Behold, I am with you always, unto the end of the world.

Okay, straight up: I am not such a big fan of Italian neorealism. I mean, I'm sure it had a positive impact on film, and I'm sympathetic to the concepts. And I thought it would be revelatory for the Jesus story (here adapted literally from the New Testament book as a script). But in the end, I can't get past all the non-actors with all the non-acting. Maybe the fatal flaw was the English dubbing (on Hulu) - the only dub so far this month, I think. That was distracting, but still... For the most part, I didn't find myself too engaged with the movie.

A very surprising high point was the special effects. The leper (or monster or Elephant Man) leapt off the screen. Jesus walking on the water was striking. The suicide of Judas was chilling. Oh, and I don't remember an earthquake during the crufixion in any other versions. The use of an old blues song (Odetta?) shocked me. The cinematography was generally impressive, although some of the close-ups of non-acting frozen faces came across like portraiture (possibly intentional). The editing was noticeably economical and brisk - and there was a blunt lack of character introduction and exposition. All theoretically refreshing, and better than a super-reverential major Hollywood production, but I just didn't see the #30 movie that the S&S directors saw.

I'm not sure how these statistics were arrived at, but Catholic Trailers calls this the Vatican’s Greatest Films #06. Also can't vouch for this... but if true, cool: "In 1962 Pier Paolo Pasolini (Director) went to Assisi in response to Pope John XXIII's call for dialogue with non-Christian artists. While he was there Pasolini read through the Gospels from beginning to end, like a novel. After this experience he became obsessed with the idea of filming the life of Christ right out of the Gospel word-by-word. After Pasolini completed The Gospel According to Matthew he dedicated the film to Pope John XXIII." (Just realized this info is also in the Great Movies article linked above.)

O yes, almost forgot! The opening scenes with pregnant Virgin Mary, skeptical Joseph and the Angel of the Lord, are very good. Like the silent Germans, I might have to track down a better (subtitled) version and re-evaluate.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Last Temptation of Christ -
Martin Scorsese (1988)

Martin Scorsese has made some pretty decent movies, several of which ended up somewhere on the 2012 Sight & Sound poll. I had originally planned to watch Hugo (2011, S&S #588) early in the month. Didn't get the DVD borrowed, and decided to just roll over to a different film on a different theme.

I crossed protest lines to see this in the theater. Texas, man...

The Last Temptation of Christ
dir. Martin Scorsese. 1988, USA.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #894 (whoa. 1 vote?)
Roger Ebert's Great Movies ... Criterion essay
DVD/Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection
Watch via Amazon Instant / iTunes / YouTube

The Last Temptation of Christ trailer (1988)

Rabbi 1: That is blasphemy.
Jesus: Didn't they tell you? I am the saint of blasphemy. Don't make any mistakes. I didn't come here to bring peace, I came to bring a sword!
Rabbi 2: Talking like that will get you killed.

Migraines of the reluctant Messiah. Early on, you might wonder whether this will be the Jefferson Christ - maybe a seer of visions, but no miracle-worker. But that's not the case. As much as I think this is a great movie, I do often wish it was somehow different or possibly better. This time around, I noticed how much of the story is comprised of the Greatest Hits by Jesus: water-into-wine, raising Lazarus, storming the money-changers, the Last Supper... Often handled with a deft touch though, sure. Like Judas's crack about Peter being steady and solid as a rock. Or when Jesus he-who-is-without-sin's the stone-casting mob and Zebedee (director of The Empire Strikes Back) steps forward, he calls him out. "Who is that widow you've been seen with?" And someone in the back of the crowd yells out, "Judith!!" Awesome. I also wondered if there were any relation at all to the Bob Dylan "Judas!!" heckler.

The focus is very clearly on the human aspect of the Christ duality: the fear, reluctance, indecision, resentment, confusion, that bearing the Holy Spirit would create. But sometimes it spills over into the realm of possible madness. The way he expects crowds to naturally understand his vague parables, which could easily come off as nutty ramblings. Pretending not to recognize his own mother to make some obscure point. Until the literal miracles start up, the hint of insanity meshes with the earlier doubts among his disciples (especially the guy who misses his sheep). The approval of John the Baptist ("My Dinner with" Andre Gregory) might even be suspect given the throng of ecstatic loons he attracts. But once you see someone pull their own heart out of their chest and start talking baptism-by-fire, you pretty much have proof.

But overall, I generally feel sorry for this Jesus. From what Magdalene says, sounds like he was a pretty normal kid. He admits his faults, and especially his paralyzing fears, to the desert monk early in his journey. Despite those fears, he accepts his duty and pushes forward towards his own death. While waiting for the "betrayal" at Gethsemene, he's scared shitless - begging to be spared like Moses, Isaac, Noah, Elijah... And of course, Satan exploits his fear of death with the last temptation. What kind of bothers me is how Jesus isn't so much tempted to live a whole, normal, happy life - he gets to!! Might not technically be reality, but seems fairly real to me. I'd forgotten that it wasn't actually Magdalene that Jesus grew old with. Also, Harry Dean Stanton's St. Paul is practically satire.

Other than the sacrilege, a common complaint is the various (usually American) accents on display in the holy land - Brooklyn Judas and so on. I don't see the problem. It would be weirder to me if everyone tried to put on the same fake accent, and what would that be? Some American Jewish accent, something like European Yiddish, some Middle Eastern Hebrew flourishes, the flat nowhere diction of Hollywood? No thanks. Also, although they're clearly American accents, the variety might even be kind of accurate - like if the different characters came from different regions within Israel. Willem Dafoe talks like a Nazarene, the Iscariots were the Brooklynites of Judea, etc... Romans of course have spoken with a British accent (Bowie!) since time immemorial.

A lot of great desert photography, nice Peter Gabriel "world music" soundtrack, an all-star cast with lots of odd cameos. It's certainly not perfect, but I do find it thought-provoking. And the filmstrip runout transcendence right before the end credits provides one final unusual touch.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Magnificent Ambersons -
Orson Welles (1942)

Here's another one from former top dog on the Sight & Sound poll. It's tragic how many Welles movies I have not seen. O sure, Citizen Kane (1941, S&S #2) and Touch of Evil (1958, S&S #57)... even The Stranger (1946) on a swap-meet bootleg DVD. But he had 10 films total get votes this decade.

Other than Kane and Touch, this is probably his most acclaimed - although Fallstaff/Chimes at Midnight (1966, S&S #154) has been making a surge recently among Wellesologists.

The Magnificent Ambersons
dir. Orson Welles. 1942, USA.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #81 / Directors' #174
New York Times movie review ... Criterion essay
DVD from Amazon
No streaming...

The Magnificent Ambersons trailer (1942)

Major Amberson: It must be the sun. There wasn't anything here but the sun in the first place. Sun... Earth came out of the sun, and we came out of the Earth. So, whatever we are... it must have been the Earth.

Once again, the younger generation is represented by feckless jackasses - well, mainly just the one. And there's another nice young girl too. And like Tokyo Story, we revisit the themes of changing times and urbanization (automobilization?). For some reason, the story was set in motion by a failed serenade attempt and a broken "bass-fiddle." I guess times were different then.

The main young jerk here is George, and townsfolk are wishing for his comeuppance maybe even before he's born. And he almost never becomes anything more than a spoiled brat. I like it when the old movies show characters reacting in realistic ways, and everyone here treats him pretty much like a spoled brat. At one point, I think I actually yelled at the screen, "Quit being such a big baby!!"

A lot of the film recalls the look of Citizen Kane: snowy outdoors, opulent interiors, darker images, deep focus. The stage influence is still strong with this one, including the ensemble acting and lively pace - at least relative to a lot the movies I've watched this month. Things get pretty grim down the stretch, with young George having to sacrifice the law career he never wanted, to take a job in (no joke) a dynamite factory. Whoo... Old men descend into madness, and George's last walk home is almost hallucinatory.

I literally did not understand the ending. It would seem that test audiences didn't like the depressing end, so the studio cut an hour off and cobbled together a happy one while Welles was out of town. George getting both legs broken in an auto-mo-bile accident was quite fitting, although maybe not technically a comeuppance. Then the girl who awesomely rebuffed him takes her dad, who he'd kept from marrying his mother and whom his aunt had also loved, to visit George in the hospital - and so everything's settled. Okay... O yeah, and they also destroyed all the material removed from the original cut, so no-one can put it back together like how they fixed the studio-butchered Touch of Evil.

I guess times were different then.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tokyo Story - Yasujirô Ozu (1953)

I'd previously said that I wouldn't be covering the #1 and #2 films from this year's Sight & Sound poll. There's already been so much said (including recently) about both Citizen Kane (1941, #2) and Vertigo (1958, the new #1).

But I never said anything about #3!!

Tokyo Story (Tōkyō Monogatari)
dir. Yasujiro Ozu. 1953, Japan.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #3 / Directors' #1
Roger Ebert's Great Movies ... Criterion essay
DVD from the Criterion Collection
Watch via Amazon Instant / Hulu-Plus / iTunes

Tokyo Story trailer (1953)

Father: Anyway, this place is meant for the younger generation.

Seriously, #1 from directors and #3 on the main list? Check it out. Like a couple of other movies, I'd picked up the dvd back when I first started hearing about the movie, watched it once or maybe twice, and it's been sitting around ever since. So I remember the overall theme and plot points generally, but I think I caught more nuances this time around. Parts of the out-of-town older parents visiting that I remember making me sad on earlier viewings kind of made me more angry this time. The way each younger generation treats the older one is wretched, and the older grandson's spazz-out over a cancelled trip into town is a good metaphor for the whole dynamic.

The onscreen compositions are either meticulous, such as actor placement and the interiors with various squares, vertical and horizontal lines... or lyrical, especially Ozu's famous "pillow shots" of various locales. Ozu had a particular way (not sure if unique) of positioning characters so that they're not facing each other, but all facing the same way in parallel. These scenes are often shot with the characters seated on the floor, with the camera about even with eye level. Anyway, I thought it was interesting when they go on a bus tour of Tokyo, everyone in the bus are all sitting the way Ozu characters usually do. (Also true of train riders...)

The little touches keep giving. After yet another display of heedless behavior (especially from the daughter), the mother stays with kind Noriko. And the father hunts down "Hattori, Professional Scribe" from home, now living in Tokyo. He's renting a room to a hilarious pinball playboy (well, the concept was hilarious to me, the kid barely appears in the movie). And their old police chief has also moved to the big city. The three hook up and go on a righteous sake bender. There's no school like the old school! Things get pretty heavy too, but obviously much better than imposing on kids who've grown away.

As frustrating as it can be, I was glad that everything didn't just work out in the end - no-one necessarily learns anything either. Noriko's long-missing husband doesn't ever show back up. Most of the younger generation are still clueless jerks - one arrives home too late, and basically admits that he could have taken an earlier train. Then when everyone's trying to run off again from their parents', he says he needs to leave to get back for a baseball game! Finally, the conversation between the youngest daughter Kyoko (still living at home) and Noriko works perfectly to put everything in perspective(s). Kyoko isn't wrong about everyone being totally selfish, and the smiling wallflower doormat widow isn't wrong that it's just the way of the world. Anyone who's lived long enough has realized they have treated their own parents thoughtlessly before, but what are you gonna do?

Friday, September 21, 2012

In the Mood for Love - Wong Kar-wai (2000)

Quite the stunner from the 2012 Sight & Sound poll! At least for me... The higher-ranked (of 2) movies from the 2000s.

In the Mood for Love (Fa yeung nin wa)
dir. Wong Kar-wai. 2000, Hong Kong.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #24 / Directors' #67
Roger Ebert's movie review ... Criterion essay
DVD/Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection
No streaming...

In the Mood for Love trailer (2000)

"She dresses up like that to go out for noodles?!"

Alright. First off, here's a well-made film with several interesting aspects. I've liked Maggie Cheung since back in the '80s during Jackie Chan's HK action heyday, and Tony Leung had a prominent role in John Woo's Hard Boiled (1992). Not that I came in expecting death-defying stunts and double-fisted gunplay. Good period (early-'60s) drama, but unrelentingly sad. And the #24 movie of all time? Regardless of your methodology, I'm not ready to get behind that. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for In the Mood for Love... Ha! I've got to be the only one to have ever made such a comment.

Perfectly understandable why it's such a major downer. Both of our leads seem like Destiny (as the happy coincidences pile up)... are already chronically abandoned by their mates (whose treatment by the film is just one point of interest)... even before they start to suspect an affair (on which they obsess unto reenactment)... then resisting the obvious course (preemptive strike rehearsal), and foiling Destiny (even unto Cambodia). A little levity comes from the sidelines, but clearly this story of about the sad sacks who get left behind with each other - while their spouses enjoy high adultery together. The style looks great but also appropriate for the tone, and the acting is consistently top-notch, but it clearly could have used more drunken master martial arts storyline. I'll just have to try again later.

This movie is part two in a semi-formal trilogy, including Days of Being Wild (1990, S&S #283) beforehand and 2046 (2004, #447) afterwards. I'm also interested in those, especially the last one.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives - Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2010)

Although technical issues continue to arise or persist, I still wanted to check out this up-and-coming 2012 Sight & Sound poll inductee - oh, and Palme d'Or winner!

I'm borderline certain this was my first Thai movie...

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
(Loong Boonmee raleuk chat, ลุงบุญมีระลึกชาติ)
dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul. 2010, Thailand, etc...
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #202 / Directors' #132
Roger Ebert's movie review
DVD from Amazon [Blu-Ray]
Watch via Hulu-Plus / Amazon Prime only / iTunes / YouTube

Uncle Boonmee trailer (2010)

By my count, if you want to win the Palme d'Or these days, sprinkle your family drama with some metaphysical mumbo-jumbo.

"Jen: How can you expect me to stay here, with all the ghosts and migrant workers?"

Okay, seriously? This is a wonderful movie. It has family, ghosts, rural Thai farm life, forest spirits, spelunking, beekeeping, renal failure, an electric hand-held bug-zapper, and karaoke. Not as many past lives as I expected, though... I'm not sure which side the film focused more on, because the mundane and supernatural seemed to mesh so easily. The characters all accept the arrival of long-gone wives, sisters and children, with a surprisingly easy-going manner. Wait, are these returning ghosts some of Uncle Boonmee's "past lives" - like in the non-karmic sense of the term - that he has "recalled" - in the non-remembering sense?

The film handles the supernatural stuff well, including the iconic Boonsong the Monkey Ghost. Although not reliant on high-tech SFX, whatever effects are attempted work - resulting in a more dreamy, ethereal mood than anything scary or creepy. One flashback to a past life (?), apparently during the reign of Princess Monkeyface, shows the Wisdom of the Catfish.

I don't believe I fully grasped the last part(s) of the movie. I got the significance of the Primordial Cave, but missed out on the future dream and stylistic switch to slo-mo slide-show. Though I don't like the sound of totalitarian F°451-style military destruction of images. Then there's the monastic coda, TV hypnotism in a hotel room, with a Möbius time-dilation (?), and then some dinner in a loud, garish, colorful restaurant. About the only thing I really 'understood' was that all these final locations all somehow stood in opposition to the past, the forest, the rural, family home places earlier in the movie.

After writing up my posts, I usually review a plot synopsis to make sure I didn't miss anything in my notes. Don't think I've ever added anything significant, but I wanted to include this from Wikipedia: "The film consists of six reels each shot in a different cinematic style. The styles include, by the words of the director, 'old cinema with stiff acting and classical staging', 'documentary style', 'costume drama' and 'my kind of film when you see long takes of animals and people driving'." I most certainly overlooked that!

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Holy Mountain - Jodorowsky (1973)

I have seen El Topo (1970, S&S #588), and I'd listened to this one's soundtrack (but didn't realize that Don Cherry was part of it), and I knew that John Lennon ponied up some dough for the production.

Produced by Allen Klein, plus rumors of George Harrison almost starring!

The Holy Mountain (La montaña sagrada)
dir. Alexandro Jodorowsky. 1973, USA.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #588 / Directors' #224
Eye for Film movie review ... 366 Weird Movies essay
DVD from Amazon [Blu-Ray / Box-set]
No streaming...

***NSFW*** The Holy Mountain trailer (1973)

Patron: The cross was a mushroom. And the mushroom was also the Tree of Good & Evil. The philosophical stone of the alchemists was LSD. The Book of the Dead is a trip, and The Apocalypse describes a mescaline experience.

Lessee... my notes read: "SHOCKING (images)! NONSENSE (story)!!" Well, maybe not completely. More psychedelic mysticism than traditional surrealism - something to do with the ultimate quest for immortality, ego-death, metempsychosis and/or spiritual ascension. I noticed various symbols of the Tarot, but probably missed a lot and couldn't actually interpret the ones I did see... apparently, the main character was intended as The Fool. Along with some quite disturbing sights, the experience features a lot of fantastical visuals and design. This film definitely looks great, but watch your dosage.

A still from only the post-ritual chanting & shaving credits intro... already. I really can't explain much about the film, so have a bunch of intriguing pix.

Super cover reconstruction from Che cosa sono le nuvole!

Oops, most of these are from the Alchemist's Tower, where transformation occurs. O well, no Aztec horned toads battle, no significant animal trauma, always a lot of Jesuses, one carried by a Christopher, a pack of whores with a chimpanzee in tow (Chucho-Chucho)... and that's just in the first City of Iniquity section of the tripartite structure.

Why yes, primary colors do feature prominently.

Fortunately the exotic animals fare much better than goats, et cetera... I wrote a lot of stuff like "POE," "precious bodily fluids," and "the Philosopher's Load?"

A series of introductions to powerful forces of industry, art, planets, cosmetics, whatever. Pretty interesting, and often funny/satirical. The quest hits the road. Despite lederhosen and projectile-lactation-by-jaguar, the final section tends to drag a bit... until the big reveal.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Milky Way - Buñuel (1969)

Pretty big leap here, across the spectrum and dimensions of the 2012 Sight & Sound poll.

But I do like it when things get weird, or edgy, a little passionate, with a unique voice, a solid point of view, and often a strong sense of the absurd. Where were we now?

The Milky Way (La voie lactée)
dir. Luis Buñuel. 1969, France.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #894 / Directors' #322
New York Times movie review ... Criterion essay
OOP Criterion DVD from Amazon
No streaming...

The Milky Way trailer (1969)

"Hear me, all of you. This is dogma, the sole truth... Whoever strays from this dogma shall be declared a heretic."

The Milky Way is what we call the spiral galaxy that our solar system exists within. Its name comes from the outer spiral arm that's visible as a stream of stars because we're out here on the very edge. What we can observe in the night sky, though, is only explicable through reason and science. The earth is not the center of the solar system, nor of the galaxy, nor of the universe. So... apparently/supposedly, in olden Europe this stellar arc was known as the Way of Saint James and other names, including El Camino de Santiago. These in turn came from the old pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain - resting place of the apostle James. Which is where our duo of Hope/Crosby drifters are headed in this tour of heresy from Spanish surrealist master Luis Buñuel.

John and Peter, Smith and Jones... On their way from Paris to España and through multiple time periods, they encounter several religious figures, philosophies and heresies. As always, I can't claim to be any kind of expert - for example, on the history of European Catholicism and all its threads and conflicts. What do I know about the fight between Jansenists and Jesuits? Only what Buñuel tells me... during a 17th-century sword duel between predestination and free will (with our derelicts as seconds, arguing in parallel). I mean, yeah, I kinda get the whole transubstantiation deal, just don't ask me to compare & contrast with consubstantiation. But I now know that such an argument can end with hot coffee being thrown in a cop's face and a priest carted off (back?) to the asylum. At first I thought the forest worshippers were naked Pagans, then I was fairly sure they were actually Gnostics, but later I checked - and they were ultimately Priscillianists. Close enough?

Regardless, I can recognize Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Angel of Death. I'm not sure what it meant to show Mary encouraging Jesus not to shave when the one vagabond was telling a story of his own mother's advice about his trustworthy beard that might have gotten him some alms from the man with a cape (and a dwarf). I can understand what's going on when a firing squad executes the Pope, or a rosary on a branch is shot up by some stolen hunting rifles. But what to make of the Virgin Mary returning the restored rosary in person to the unitarian anti-Papist who just shot it, prompting yet another change of heart? The haughty maitre d' can talk a good doctrinal game, but does not act very Christ-like to the hungry hungry hobos. The heretic will face punishment from the Inquisition on principle, but the doubting Thomas within the Church hierarchy will submit instead. Why does the priest with the miracle of the wayward Carmelite nun bring a saber to a bedtime story? How Jesus walked might be an eternal mystery, although maybe not on the level of the Immaculate Conception or post-partum virginity. But a stolen Spanish ham will feed an empty belly.

At the end of the movie, after the whore (of Babylon?), some modern-day blind men literally find Jesus, who heals them. With sight restored, they ignore Jesus Himself telling a parable right there before them - Jesus in turn ignores their excited requests to be shown what everything is. I mean, they've heard of Jesus sure, but they've never seen white and black before. As the Savior and his disciples move on, the blind follow but cannot seem to cross a small ditch without probing around with their canes. This impediment of movement perhaps recalls Buñuel's early film The Exterminating Angel (1962, S&S #202). The Milky Way is the first in an informal trilogy, followed by The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, S&S #183) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974, S&S #588). The last entry was always referenced as a precedent to the walkabout narrative structure of Linklater's Austin classic Slacker (1991).

Monday, September 17, 2012

Rear Window / North by Northwest -
Alfred Hitchcock (1954/1959)

Well, this is a disaster...  Not only did we have to split the Saturday double-feature between two days again, but Blogspot has just now changed up their blogging tools.  Until I can get the hang of the new format (or re-access the old one), everything will take a little longer.  Or the posts will be a little shorter.

Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) won the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, but this time is for a couple of other classic-era classics.

Rear Window
dir. Alfred Hitchcock.  1954, USA.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #53 / Directors' #48
Roger Ebert's Great Movies
DVD from Amazon [or get both on this set]
Watch via Amazon Instant / iTunes

Rear Window trailer (1954)

Stella: Intelligence! Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence.

Rather than exploring the unknown, I slipped into a bit more of the comfort zone. Rear Window is probably my usual go-to for "best Hitchcock," but I don’t pretend to be an expert. It's been awhile... while I remember Jeff being grouchy within his situation, I had forgotten how much a jerk he was to Princess Grace. C'mon, Jimmy, this isn't like you! But the movie firmly establishes his wanderlust and total frustration with being confined - to a wheelchair, in his apartment, within a relationship.

I always get the feeling how difficult the whole production must have been to pull off, constrained to one interior and one vantage point to the exterior tenement complex and courtyard (the titular window). And I always come away impressed with how well we know who is who and where and why. The movie's had such a huge influence and been borrowed from so often that it can be difficult to put it back into the 1954 context, but definitely an all-timer.

North by Northwest
dir. Alfred Hitchcock. 1959, USA.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #53 / Directors' #107
New York Times movie review
50th anniv. DVD from Amazon [Blu-Ray]
Watch via Amazon Instant / iTunes / YouTube

North by Northwest trailer (1959)

Roger O. Thornhill: In the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie. There's only expedient exaggeration.

North by Northwest goes in the opposite direction, taking us on a cross-country romp from New York City to South Dakota. Cary Grant's wry banter, Eva Marie Saint's ambiguous motives, James Mason suaving it up, and an ice-cold Martin Landau. The whole United Nations part works great, and ends up with the endlessly comical front-page photo being snapped. There seems be some kind of symmetry with the cafeteria killing towards the end. Maybe.

The action sequences are good for the time, but the dialogue holds up best after 50+ years. A lot of funny stuff throughout - the flirtatious sparring in the dining car, Thornhill's indignation at being a target for murder, the auction house escape, the concluding shot in the film. Sometimes underrated, but not so much by the Sight & Sound poll.

Both movies were in Technicolor, and NXNW was filmed in glorious VistaVision. The latter Blu-ray looks fantastic, and I'm thinking about grabbing some of the new ones (including 2 Criterions) although there have been some steamy typographical complaints.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - Wiene (1920)
Nosferatu - F.W. Murnau (1922)

Here we have a double-feature of silent horrors from the dawn of cinema. Both are German and from the early-'20s, but quite different from each other in reality. I don't think I'll get into any political readings, but it would be remiss not to mention that Germany had been very very recently defeated in The Great War. Not sure how the war experience might play into either film, but I'm sure there's some of that in there...

Both also appear on the latest Sight & Sound poll as well.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari)
dir. Robert Wiene. 1920, Germany.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #127 / Directors' #132
Roger Ebert's Great Movies
Public Domain download/stream from
BFI DVD from Amazon [tons of value options too]
Watch via Netflix / YouTube (free) / Amazon Instant / iTunes

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari trailer (1964)

I'm no expert on German Expressionism, but Caligari's got plenty of unique style. I am up on my Fritz Lang Metropolis (1927, S&S #36), but that was sleek and majestic by comparison. These radical angles and patterns are more disorienting and claustrophobic.

"The prophecy of the Somnambulist!"

So, how do you grade on a curve? I'm pretty sure the acting and production values wouldn't fly anymore. Maybe one day, I'll get more used to silent-era acting, as I eventually did with pre-naturalistic acting. Regardless of the budget, the set design was fantastic. Obviously stagey, but the art mountain backdrop, surreal cityscapes and rooftops, all interiors, the mountain pass, the way depths and heights of field are handled... Super-impressive!

Although the plot has some corny aspects, give it some credit. It moves fast and stays intriguing, and in several cases avoids (predates) some annoying clichés. When the main character's romantic rival is killed, you can wonder for awile whether maybe he did it - but then we move on! When some random thug is caught using the killing spree for cover, he admits to attempted murder but swears he didn't do the others. Fine, we've got crimes to solve! When told their respected colleague is an evil genius, the doctors investigate these ravings rather than wasting a bunch of scenes ignoring the warnings until more are dead. I'm not saying a good movie has to get it done in 70 minutes, but this month has definitely seen some unnecessary 160+ minute bloat.

Whoa! I just read that Cesare would play Nazi Major Strasser in Casablanca 20 years later (1942).

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari
Might get a little random here. The value DVD wouldn't work in my player, and I'm sure there's a wide range of quality for various products and versions (public domain). Ended up watching the streaming version on Netflix, which was fine. Some 1996 restoration with new music, not sure which - seems like there might have been two. As I was watching, I started wondering about the color tinting used throughout (yellow for daylight, blue for night & shadows, lavender for the lady's home)... I couldn't tell if that was original or modern post-production, and if the latter, was it 'colorization' or based on the original presentation style? That link discusses various "tinted nitrate prints from film archives," and it seems like there are interpretations and choices to be made. So not original tinting, but added based on film research - good.

The end sections of the film might not be quite as awesome, but there's some interesting stuff. An early flashback (apparently not the first ever), the insane text hallucinations ("Du musst Caligari werden!" / "You have to become Caligari!"), a reference to 1703 (216 years, flash-forward to Vargtimmen!)... and a twist ending of sorts. Would have been interesting if the angular architecture had been dropped during the coda, along with the Caligari face. Still, great enough that I'm actually going to seek out a better restoration / version, and pick up a DVD that will actually play.

O yeah, I thought I'd seen Caligari before, but now I'm thinking not. I'm positive I've seen the next one - though long ago in the mists of time.

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu [eine Symphonie des Grauens]
dir. F.W. Murnau. 1922, Germany.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #117 / Directors' #322
Roger Ebert's Great Movies
Public Domain download/stream from
Kino DVD from Amazon [tons of value options too]
Watch via Netflix / YouTube (free) / Amazon Instant / Hulu-Plus / iTunes

Nosferatu 'trailer' (????)

The public-domain value DVD travails continue. This one would play. But a few minutes in, I realized the credits and subtitles were talking about Bram Stoker, Dracula, Jonathon and Nina Harker. Beyond getting names wrong, one thing I do know about Nosferatu is that Murnau was sued by Bram Stoker's widow to prevent use of the novel's details. So the characters' names were changed, and the plot remained basically the same. Out with the DVD - back to Netflix!

Count Orlok: I am going to buy the house... the beautiful house opposite yours...

Netflix has a version with music by the Silent Orchestra - I did not like it, at all. Very distracting almost the entire time, so that might color my impressions. Anyway, the Plague is a big mystery, and Renfield's (I mean Knock) got a letter with some crazypants writing and kindergarten drawings, there's a were-hyena, and I keep hissing "Nosssferatuuu!" like the grandpa in George Romero's Martin (1976). Catbus super-carriage warp-speed is awesome!

Cap'n Max
Max Schreck is justifiably famous for this role - he's terrific too! Lots of good moments, but the pacing doesn't stand up. Everything to do with the ship's passage is good, like the coffin-pult riser. Maybe one too many stop-motion tricks but most are quality, like the hearse getaway. Quite a bit of neat cinematography, like the river rafting and good ol' cemetery beach - but none of the stylistic overdose that was Caligari.

Actually most of my notes are positive, except for the inordinate amount of text on the title cards (at least in this version). The sight of Count Orlok carrying his coffin around... what was it, Weisburg? Man, if you're worried about Plague, maybe nab the guy carting around a coffin full of gravedirt and rats!! The mob chase scene is probably fairly influential, and Orlok's shadow creeping is very effective.

Good stuff overall. Once I sort the right Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I might look for a more Astral version of Nosferatu - no Stoker, best music, and whatever can be done about the title card font(s) and/or overload.