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A Trip to the Moon (1902) / The Extraordinary Voyage (2011) October 14, 2013

Posted by badblokebob in : Documentary, Fantasy, Sci-fi, 5 stars, 4 stars, 1900s & earlier, Adventure, world cinema, films about films, silent films, Biography, 2010s, 2013 , add a comment

2013 #3

Beginning with the week with a review double-bill.

Firstly, Georges Méliès’ silent sci-fi short…

Secondly, a documentary about Méliès and his silent sci-fi short…

City Lights (1931) August 25, 2013

Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, Romance, 4 stars, 1930s, silent films, 2013 , add a comment

2013 #10

The first review from What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? is perhaps Charlie Chaplin’s most acclaimed work…

The Artist (2011) February 8, 2013

Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, Drama, Romance, 5 stars, films about films, silent films, 2010s, 2013 , add a comment

2013 #12

With the important awards finally arriving (the BAFTAs this Sunday, the Oscars in a fortnight), last year’s winner is on Sky Movies Premiere from today.

What better time to review it?

#89: The Call of Cthulhu (2005) December 10, 2012

Posted by badblokebob in : Horror, Fantasy, 2000s, adaptations, 4 stars, Mystery, silent films, 2012 , add a comment

On the 100 Films Advent Calendar today…

#58: The Thief (1952) June 15, 2011

Posted by badblokebob in : Thriller, Film Noir: Classic, Crime, 3 stars, 1950s, silent films, 2011 , 3 comments

1952 | Russell Rouse | 87 mins | TV

The ThiefRay Milland stars as Dr. Allan Fields, a nuclear physicist working at the United States Atomic Energy Commission, who is photographing secret files and passing them to The Other Side, until something goes wrong and the authorities are on his tail. But that’s almost beside the point, because if The Thief is known for anything it’s for its dialogue — as the poster proclaims, “not a word is spoken…!”

At some points in cinema history that would go without saying, obviously, but this is 25 years after the first talkie, so it’s being Experimental. It’s not silent film styled either, unlike recent attempts to recreate that early era like La Antena or 2011 Cannes competitor (and Palm Dog winner*) The Artist. There’s a minimal use of text here too — certainly no intertitles, and only a couple of printed pages to help us follow the story. I’d argue most of those aren’t needed either. They all crop up fairly late on, by which point we’ve grown accustomed to interpreting what we’re seeing without the help of words, so it’s almost a shame Rouse resorts to them.

It’s credit to Rouse’s direction and performances, particularly by Ray Milland, that we can follow what we’re seeing without more text. That said, it is a fairly straightforward and archetypal story — while it demonstrates that you can tell a story without dialogue, it might leave one wondering about the possibilities for The Thief on the phonetelling a wholly original or truly complex story that way. Obviously we can look back to the silent cinema for that kind of thing, but while that era could probably still teach many filmmakers something about visual storytelling, it’s hard to deny that the advent of synchronised sound adds a helluva lot to the ability of film — if it didn’t, it wouldn’t have taken over so fast and remained virtually 100% dominant for the last 80+ years.

But anyway. Milland conveys the necessary emotions through his face and actions alone. Rouse manipulates the plot to suit a little showcasing of his direction: mostly it’s a tale of espionage, meaning tense chase sequences that are often only underscored by music in regular films anyway, but the second half presents an aside in which an alluring Rita Gam — credited only as The Girl — seduces Miland as he hides out in a New York apartment. “Look,” Rouse seems to say, “we could do a romance too.”

It’s unusual that the hero is working for the other lot. Sure, there are plenty of murderers and assorted other crooks as heroes in film noir, but here we’re expected to identify with a Commie traitor? How very dare they! The Girl in The ThiefPerhaps this is why the villains are never explicitly named. But they’re definitely not American! Tsk tsk. More crucially, it’s a bit slow at times — it seems to take longer to explain things when stuck doing them through visuals alone. That said, it could probably have survived a speedier approach even doing what it does — perhaps, then, Rouse is playing for time: the film only runs 87 minutes in spite of its pace.

The Thief tells its story and relays the thoughts and feelings of its lead character effectively, even if that story is a bit simplistic and even if there are times when it’s clearly jumping through a hoop or two to make sure no dialogue is required. The lack of dialogue is certainly a gimmick, albeit one that — more often than not — works. It’s an interesting film, I’ll certainly give it that.

3 out of 5

* I didn’t know they had a Palm Dog award until this. That’s… well, I think that’s awesome; as the Americans like to say, your mileage may vary.

#10: Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood (2006) January 30, 2010

Posted by badblokebob in : Documentary, 2000s, 3 stars, world cinema, films about films, silent films, Biography, 2010 , add a comment

2006 | Robert Fischer | 109 mins | DVD

Part biography, part making-of, part analytical retrospective, Robert Fischer’s documentary does what it says on the tin: tells the story of the life and work of actor/director Ernst Lubitsch from his formative years, living on Schönhauser Allee in Berlin, to when he made the move to America in the early 1920s.

Fischer devotes a large amount of time to Lubitsch’s early years — the life he had growing up, his years as a stage actor, and how he eventually shifted into becoming a film actor — attempting not only to tell the story of his upbringing, but to draw (or leave the viewer to draw) parallels with the films Lubitsch would go on to make. A use of ‘family history’ first- and second-hand accounts and analysis from authors, critics and admirers strikes a moderate balance here, though those primarily interested in his eventual film work may find it goes on a bit too long.

A lot is also made of (or, at least, implied about) Max Reinhardt’s influence on a young Lubitsch. The film implies Reinhardt had a greater significance generally, but lacks any context about why he was such a momentous figure. In fairness the film isn’t about him, but one feels a minute or two clarifying his importance may have been warranted.

When Lubitsch’s directing career is eventually arrived upon, Fischer uses the same mix of talking heads to cover both the behind-the-scenes story of Lubitsch’s career, spanning a half-dozen or so of his more significant German works, and provide a brief analysis of how they foreshadowed (or didn’t) his future career and what they might reveal about the man and his methods. With such a broad overview no one film is covered in particularly great depth, despite the feature-length running time, though recollections from actors Emil Jannings and Henny Porten provide some film-specific focus.

Illustrated with copious clips and photographs from Lubitsch’s work, the documentary incidentally instills a desire to see more of the director’s early work. Tantalising glimpses of and stories about films such as The Eyes of the Mummy Ma, Carmen, Madame DuBarry, Kohlhiesel’s Daughter and The Loves of Pharaoh all leave one longing they were included in the box set too — though considering the six films already allotted, it’s hardly an oversight that there aren’t even more. As IMDb/Wikipedia seem to suggest none of these are lost, perhaps there’s space for a Volume Two?

Given that I found the documentary interesting, the following score might seem a tad low. Judged in the world of DVD extras, Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin would likely fare better; bumping it up to the world of ‘Proper Films’, however, reduces that somewhat. As much as anything, while I’m sure it’s of interest to the already interested, it’s not compelling enough to warrant viewing by anyone else.

3 out of 5

#9: Die Bergkatze (1921)

Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, Romance, 4 stars, 1920s, world cinema, silent films, 2010 , add a comment

aka The Mountain-Lion / The Wildcat

1921 | Ernst Lubitsch | 82 mins | DVD | PG

Die Bergkatze apparently rounds off Masters of Cinema’s Lubitsch in Berlin box set with appropriate heft: as the blurb asserts, this was “Lubitsch’s personal favourite work of all his German films, [it] represents a peak in both Lubitsch’s silent oeuvre and the silent cinema as a whole.” I wasn’t quite so enamoured with it.

Which, again, isn’t to say it’s bad. The setup takes some time to build up speed, but when it does the gags begin to flow more readily, even if it degenerates to a more stop-start pattern later on. But scenes like the Lieutenant leaving town to an army of toddlers crying “Adios, daddy!” are on the one hand simple but on the other inspired; the first battle sequence is full of marvellously surreal touches, like the robber-leader making coffee to be drunk mid-shoot-out; and the satire on the military (always welcome) is pleasantly thorough, taking pot-shots at numerous elements rather than picking one trait and exhausting it.

Lubitsch once again flips the roles of the sexes: the Lieutenant preens and prunes, spending ages tweaking his hair and clothes in the mirror, and one of the gang of robbers lies on a bed literally crying a river over his lost love; the titular robber’s daughter, however, leads a gang of men in thieving and fighting, living wild, free, and rather dirty, among them. A desired-by-all woman (Pola Negri, successfully branching out into comedy) and at least one mass of man-desiring women help round out a succession of familiar Lubitsch elements. Familiarity may be said to breed contempt, but Lubitsch’s reworking of similar sequences is more a recognisable touchstone than irritating repetition.

Location filming in snow-covered Alps adds a scale and breadth to the film’s imagined-kingdom setting that would be inimitable in a studio. Perhaps art director Ernst Stern was right that the realism of using genuine locations doesn’t quite sit with the highly stylised fort; on the other hand, a studio set simply wouldn’t have the same effect: this isn’t the card-and-wood world of Die Puppe, where clearly fake trees and horses were all part of the illusion. Instead of seeming fake, then, the contrast of a hyper-real fort and genuine-but-exotic locations creates the sense of a proper fantastical realm rather than some fictional stage set. Stern’s design for the fort is beautiful, from the overall look to specific features in each room. It’s scale is quite astonishing, particularly considering it was built on location in the Alps.

Lubitsch’s love of camera mattes, seen with increasing frequency throughout Die Puppe, Die Austernprinzessin and, particularly, Anna Boleyn, is finally allowed free reign here, with shots that conform to the standard 4:3 frame seeming to be the irregularity amongst an unimaginable array of shapes and angles. At times it’s distracting, particularly at the start, but that’s more because it’s a technique we’re now almost entirely unused to rather than any flaw in Lubitsch’s application of it. That said, though he often uses the mattes to enhance or emphasise composition, or suggest something about a character or location, it’s not always clear why he’s choosing to vary the frame so much — other than the sheer fun of it, which, particularly in a comedy, may be reason enough.

Die Bergkatze was a flop on its release in Germany and consequently never distributed elsewhere. Maybe it was, as Lubitsch thought, an unwillingness on the part of German people to have the military satirised; maybe it was the extreme use of unusual framing techniques that left them cold; maybe they just didn’t like it. Though it’s far from my favourite film in the set, it didn’t and doesn’t deserve to be dismissed.

4 out of 5

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