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Les gaz mortels (1916)
A primitive thriller
This early film is marred by uneven acting, and the storytelling is on the clunky side, but it does show that Gance was interested in epic themes even early on. The action takes place on two continents, and the plot concerns life-and-death questions of scientific ethics, which are still issues today. The story focuses on a scientist who invents a deadly gasshould it be used, even in wartime? Does he owe it to his country to donate his work? Complicating the issue are rivals who scheme to destroy the scientist and his inventions, and greedy family members who will stop at nothing to get his money. The villains' methods are typical of exaggerated melodramas of the period (innocents are elaborately menaced), but shot with some panache. The denouement is action-packed. POSSIBLE LIGHT SPOILER: Bizarrely, the day I saw this film was the same day a factory in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, France, was attacked by a disgruntled worker, in a manner that partly paralleled the events on screen.
Man Wanted (1932)
weakly plotted waste of time
I love 1930's movies, and I like many of the actors in this cast, but this film just isn't worth the time it takes to watch it, in my opinion. I'm a little annoyed with myself that I didn't just turn it off. Other reviewers described most of the objections I had to the storyline, such as the poor treatment of secretaries and fiancées; they really interfered with my enjoyment. The film seems to be trying to justify the typical exploitation of workers practiced by many big movie studios (I'm not sure about Warner Bros' record with that, but it seems like the type of thing MGM would endorse). The idea of "The Office" is glorified in a way that's ridiculous. And since the film was made in the Depression, I couldn't help but wonder about the studio's purpose behind all this "if you don't work all night you're a parasite" stuff. (Possible spoiler ahead) And the characters all turn on one person in the last scene, when she's really the one who was wronged.
The film does have a few good moments, and some nice outfits and Art Deco sets, but it mostly seems to be a waste of good performers, like Claire Dodd. (I thought David Manners' performance was weak, however--just smooth talk and popping eyes.) It was nice that some respect was given to the idea of a serious woman editor, but the actual scenes showing Kay Francis working didn't convince me that she was actually that good at her job. She keeps people waiting while playing around with her husband in the office, approves some perfectly mediocre sketches, demands endless overtime of her workers, and is unable to write out her own letters if a secretary has to leave.
There just isn't enough plot to get the thing going, so the character played by David Manners has to treat someone badly just to provide some juice, and the audience is supposed to approve of this pointless behavior. Kay Francis manages to inject some believable emotion into her scenes, but her motivations are confused--(possible spoiler) it's hard to believe she could be very serious about the David Manners character, when so much of the film is given over to her relationship with her husband.
If you want to see a much snappier film about a 1930's office, I recommend "Counsellor at Law," with John Barrymore (1933). It has some of the same plot themes as this one, but does them all much better.
The Red Kimona (1925)
Very well-made "problem picture"
"The Red Kimona" is a film created to explore a social evil; it's one of a series of pictures made for that purpose in the early days of cinema. (See the work of director Lois Weber for additional examples.) It's not a movie for everybody--viewers looking for pure entertainment will prefer the slapstick comedies or adventure stories of the silent era--but for those interested in social history, and able to take the picture on its own old-fashioned terms, it's a very watchable if melodramatic film, with excellent production values and a fine cast. (In fact, I didn't mean to watch the whole thing in one sitting, but had trouble turning it off.)
I loved Priscilla Bonner in the main role (she's best known today for a supporting part in Clara Bow's "It," but also does one of the most heartfelt close-ups I've ever seen on film in Harry Langdon's "The Strong Man"). Her character changes convincingly as the story goes through several years--at one point Bonner seems to age before the audience's eyes as her character faces a tough choice. The camera-work and lighting are very striking, and certainly work to help Bonner's performance. A few sequences make good use of on-the-spot locations, like the Giant Dipper roller coaster at (I believe) the Venice, CA amusement pier, and the downtown streets of Los Angeles. The supporting players all look interesting and do well. I agreed with another reviewer that the costumes were a little confusing, since they appear to be from the early 1920's although the film is set in 1917. They don't all quite look like the fashions of 1925, when the film was released, but they don't seem totally pre-war either. (The title refers to a dressing gown the heroine wears.) But period costume authenticity was something that wouldn't really be established until later in film history.
Modern viewers may have difficulty with some details of the plot, as I did. Because of the censorship laws of the time, the filmmakers presumably weren't allowed to mention the word "prostitution," so it took me a little while to figure out exactly what was going on. But it eventually became clear.
The Kino DVD release has a pleasant, low-key piano soundtrack by Robert Israel that I really enjoyed.
The Showdown (1928)
"The Showdown" is a follow-up to Josef Von Sternberg's "Underworld," reuniting some of the same cast. George Bancroft plays "Lucky" Cardan, a tough-as-nails oilman who has a history of finding wells and losing them to the scheming reps of bigger companies, such as "Winter" (Fred Kohler). Evelyn Brent plays the "good" woman who disturbs Cardan's isolated world. The setting is rather unusual for a silent film: a Latin American jungle ("The Showdown" came out some months before Tod Browning's "West of Zanzibar").
I was a little worried that the movie would dwell boringly on the technicalities of oil fields, but the real story turned out to be about the rivalries of the Western men who work the wells. In some ways, the industry doesn't seem to have changed much: the locals are still stuck serving the richer outsiders, and the specter of Big Oil hovers in the background.
What really has changed is the movies' view of women in society. The male characters fight over the local prostitute, Goldie (charmingly played by Helen Lynch), but no one considers her worthy of respect. When a new oil-seeker appears, bringing along his high-class wife, Sibyl (intense and beautiful Evelyn Brent), the men are both shocked into behaving with more decorum, and desperate to bring her down. Cardan declares that there's no way she can remain "decent" in "this country." (I was unclear on exactly where the story takes place, but a contemporary reviewer put it in Mexico, which makes this declaration all the more ignorant.) Insulted, Sibyl insists on remaining in the isolated encampment to stand by her husband (played by Neil Hamilton, later Commissioner Gordon on "Batman").
Evelyn Brent plays a very different character than her "Feathers" gun moll in "Underworld." Sibyl is a very correct woman, who dresses for dinner even in the jungle (much to the scorn of the New York Times in 1928). Oddly, the movie argues that this level of formality is a sign of civilization: when Sibyl stops setting her hair, or dressing for dinner, Carden warns, that will show that her purity is beginning to degrade. Who knew a curling iron was the only thing standing between a woman and the total loss of her character!
The moviemaker seems totally unaware that what really threatens Sibyl is not the country.
It was somewhat encouraging to read a contemporary review of the film, available on the NY Times website, which found the story ridiculous. Let's hope most real women of the 1920's didn't have to face this kind of attitude. Yet, despite the disturbing gender politics, and the mildly racist portrayal of a Chinese character (George Kuwa), modern fans of silent dramas will find a lot to like in "The Showdown." The acting is believable, the different faces are fascinating, and the world the movie creates is compelling. The camera-work and lighting are beautiful, and the outdoor setting well-shot--the scenes don't look trapped in a studio.
The costumes do much to enhance the characters. If you've ever fantasized about dressing in 1920's splendor every day, Evelyn Brent's outfits will cure you of it. Each of the oilmen is casual in a different way--with the exception of the English rep for Royal Oil, who wears comically inappropriate, beautifully tailored suits.
I wouldn't be surprised to find that this film (or Houston Branch's play, "Wildcat," upon which it was based) helped inspire both "West of Zanzibar" and "The Night of the Iguana;" though the idea of Westerners struggling in the jungle certainly came before the movies.
Big in Bollywood (2011)
An entertaining look backstage
"Big in Bollywood" is a must-see for any American, or NRI (non-resident Indian) who's interested in the Indian film industry, or just wants to know what it would feel like to be a movie star. Omi Vaidya, best known for his featured role in the Indian blockbuster "3 Idiots," takes his filmmaker college buddies along for the premiere of his first big movie, and the camera is there to witness as Omi becomes famous before our eyes.
The filmmakers do a great job being on hand for memorable moments in Omi's first publicity tour, and the lively editing keeps the story moving. Omi is a charming guide to his new world of big-movie business, knowing just when to make the joking aside that keeps everything down to earth. Omi's mother Bharati, wife Minal, and camera-toting pals are all likable and funny, and by the end of the film, it feels as if they've become your friends.
Fans of Bollywood will be happy to see icons like Aamir Khan, but those new to Indian cinema won't feel lost, as the movie gives some basic information about the industry, with the help of snappy graphic animations. The cinematography is pretty shaky at parts, so I took off some stars for that, but the entertaining content of the film makes up for it.
The shots of the enormous crowds of fans from the red-carpet point of view are astonishing. I left the film feeling happy for Omi, but pretty glad that I'm not "Big in Bollywood" myself.
The Way We Live Now (2001)
Compelling, but doesn't quite satisfy
"The Way We Live Now", a BBC/WGBH co-production, is powerful, and features some fine acting and well-written scenes, as well as lush settings and costumes, but it's obvious even to those who haven't read Anthony Trollope's novel that the story has been "jacked up" for modern viewers. On its own terms, the mini-series mostly gripped my attention, but I wondered if sections had been cut from the American release, because some parts of the story seem to be missing. For example, two characters who like each other in Episode 3 have already become engaged and estranged at the beginning of Episode 4--the actual proposal having been skipped over. The decision to cut such important plot elements in favor of unnecessary but atmospheric scenes (such as a wander with some characters through the forest on a fruitless deer hunt) was strange to me, but some viewers may prefer it. The director heightens many scenes by adding unnaturally loud sound effects, which will strike some as artfully intense, and others as vulgar.
As far as its faithfulness to the novel, director David Yates and screenwriter Andrew Davies appear to have followed a "simplify and exaggerate" policy, presumably to make the story and characters clearer and more likable to a modern audience. It was easy to guess that the young women in the miniseries are made feistier and more independent than they are in the 19th-century original, but I was surprised, upon reading the book, to find that Paul Montague (Cillian Murphy) is also much more diffident on the page than he is on screen. Some changes fit well into a modern worldview: the love of Roger Carbury for his cousin Hetta is, rightly by today's standards, characterized as patronizing and oppressive, though Trollope wouldn't see it that way. But strangely, the fascinating character of Mrs. Hurtle, who has some of the most interesting speeches in the book, is reduced to being a "Southern" temptress in Miranda Otto's odd performance (since Mrs. Hurtle is only connected with Kansas and San Francisco in the original, the choice to make her speak like Tallulah Bankhead playing Julia Sugarbaker is puzzling).
Andrew Davies' screenplay has some fine moments, and certain scenes shine. However, he gives the story the same invented ending as he's given at least one other miniseries based on a 19th-century novel.
All in all, recommended for fans of period drama--with qualifications.
An excellent argument for revering Mrs. Madison
I just read an online review of the "James Madison's Montpelier" tourist site, in which the writer called Dolley Madison "a shopaholic bimbo" and "a dunce" and stated, "no wonder Madison is forgotten." I didn't realize until that moment how captivated I had been by the American Experience's much more likable portrait of Dolley Madison and her husband James. The documentary argues convincingly that, far from being a "dunce", Mrs. Madison was the first to see the impact a clever first lady could have on her nation's politics, and one of the first to recognize the importance of America's symbols. Both the Madisons helped invent America as we know it today. In addition, Dolley led a life that's fascinating to anyone interested in that period of American history. Some professional historians might claim that Mrs. Madison was not such an important figure, but it's hard to resist this documentary's combination of sage-yet-human historians, beautifully filmed period settings, and contemporary testimony delivered by talented actors dressed in fabulous and accurate historical costumes (the importance of which cannot be overstated).
The film covers the social history of the time--and includes light moments such as Dolley's disagreements with her White House decorator--but also dramatizes Dolley's firsthand experience in the War of 1812, an episode of American history often skipped over in schools today. The portrait that emerges of the largely unbuilt Washington, DC, of Dolley's day might be downright shocking to anyone who has spent time in that city recently--although the politics haven't changed that much. This is definitely a "pro-Dolley" film, but the producers do not ignore her flaws: actors portraying two of her slaves describe memorable dark moments in their lives with the Madisons.
The documentary does follow the standard conventions of the American Experience series, so if you don't care for their narration/photo system, you won't find this episode substantially different, except that it relies more on actors' interpretations, which are sometimes quite lively. My only wish was that the characters had been labeled on screen--it was hard to remember the identity of every talking head. Otherwise, I found this an excellent documentary that I would recommend to friends, students, old and young people looking for inspiration...and Jane Austen fans.
A weak effort
I'm sorry to say that this is one of the worst-produced documentaries I have ever seen--I was really looking forward to watching it. The film begins with a frenetic & clumsy opening montage of seemingly random images by J.C. Leyendecker, arranged without any thought to their date or subject, or how they relate to the accompanying narration. (For example, Leyendecker's design for an 1896 cover of "The Century" magazine appears while the narrator is talking about something else, but is nowhere to be seen when the narrator discusses it.) The music is of the wrong time period, the typography and graphics are weak and inconsistent, and the camera-work is shaky. It's true there was not much biographical information about Leyendecker available when the film was made--more surfaced in 2008 with the publication of the Cutlers' book--but I've read more about him in brief encyclopedia entries than I got from 45 minutes of this movie, which doesn't even tackle some of the points listed in its own website synopsis. There's nothing about the social issues he illustrated; no mention of women's suffrage or Nazi Germany, as promised.
The filmmakers did go to some trouble to hunt up a number of illustration experts to speak on Leyendecker's work, but while a few of them have interesting comments to make, they mostly seem concerned with the unnecessary job of "selling" Leyendecker to the viewer. Yet, although the writers of the film assume the viewer hasn't the slightest idea who Leyendecker is, they presume a general knowledge of 20th-century American illustration. If you're not already familiar with Norman Rockwell's work, for example, you won't see it here, although much of the documentary focuses on the rivalry between Rockwell and Leyendecker. In fact, very little context is given for Leyendecker's career at all--only a very few examples of other illustrators' work is shown, and there's no mention of contemporary art movements, such as Art Deco or Cubism, that likely influenced him. A few of the interview subjects compare his work to that of other artists, but those remarks go unillustrated.
What information there is about Leyendecker's personal life is barely touched upon. His artist brother Frank is almost totally left out, although they studied and shared a studio together, and Frank was an important illustrator in his own right. The filmmakers go out of their way to insist--bizarrely--that there is "no confirmation" of the "stories" about Leyendecker's "private life", without explaining what those stories are. Apparently they don't like the idea that was probably gay.
If you're interested in Leyendecker, I would recommend just searching out internet pages about him, or the few books that exist. It will be a better use of your time. If you really want to get every scrap of information possible, some of the interviews in this documentary might be helpful. But I can't recommend it to the general viewer.
Big Time (1988)
I love Tom Waits' music, I think he himself is a very interesting personality, and I saw this at the height of my interest in him, back when it came out in theaters. Yet I actually thought there was too much Waits in this movie. The director seemed in love with Tom, to the point where I felt like all the other band members were ignored. I didn't think Tom's "character" was developed particularly well--nothing very interesting happened with it. So the film was, to me, an unhappy cross between a straight concert film and a fictional story with characters. If they were going to go with a fictional story, and have Tom play someone other than himself, I think they should have taken it much further.
Fiend Without a Face (1958)
Both boring and trashy
I don't understand why this film was published by prestige DVD lines such as The Criterion Collection and Kino Video--it really belongs in the MST3K collection. But perhaps it's too dull for even the 'bots to make it worth watching. The film suffers from quite a few problems--the characters are poorly drawn and uninteresting, the story is thin, and the editing and dialogue are weak--but never develops the energy to become enjoyably bad. It's simply slow, irritating, and passionless. A woman loses her brother, but doesn't seem at all broken up about it; a number of people in a small village are killed, and no one seems to grieve; an air base becomes involved in tragedy, but it remains unnoticed. The Canadian villagers are referred to as "a simple and superstitious people", as if they're Gypsies from a Hollywood Dracula picture, but when they form a vigilante committee, they only stroll quietly through the woods, like a boring duck-hunting party, dressed in plaid. The soundtrack and sound effects are often much too hyper for the picture: a shot of someone standing quietly in front of a military building gets bombastic music, the invisible monster overdoses on throaty rumbles and snarfles, and a piercing scream is heard when an on screen actress merely covers her mouth with her hands. Apparently someone in postproduction desperately tried to add a little life at the last minute.
The lighting and photographic composition is sometimes quite good, a few of the actors struggle valiantly with the script (while others chew it up hammily), and the black-and-white photography is mostly clear, but that's about all that's competent in this pointless film. The animation is years behind the times, and the design of the monsters is merely silly.
If you're a big fan of bad sci-fi, you might want to just watch the last few scenes, when the monsters really go for it. For everyone else, I would say don't bother with the movie at all.
Film buffs might be interested to listen to the featurette on the Criterion disk, in which the producer discusses the marketing of low-budget pictures back in the '50s. However, it's rather strange to hear him complain about a theater owner in Chicago, who didn't want to promote "Fiend Without a Face" at the same cinema that was currently showing "Gigi". I was with the theater owner, all the way.