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The Shock (1923)
doesn't live up to the advertising
From the rather glorious poster, and the title, I was expecting a more thrilling gangster story, in the mold of "The Penalty" and other Chaney crime flicks. This film was a disappointment. After a promising opening, in which Chaney tosses menacing looks around a colorful Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, the action moves to a fictional rural town outside of the city, where a dull romance develops--the kind where the woman exhorts the man to read the Bible. IMO, too much of the plot in the middle section is told, rather than shown. For example, what kindnesses did the heroine show to the Chaney character? We join them after the relationship is developed, instead of watching it happen, and their exchanges are pretty boring. There were a couple of kids in the audience at the theater where I saw it, and I worried they would be turned off of silent movies forever.
The story does pick up speed in the last section. The earthquake sequence is fun, except that the settings look so little like the real San Francisco, especially the exterior shots of Chinatown. Chaney's directors did sometimes film on location, but the only sequence in this movie that looked to me like it could possibly have been in the actual city was at the very end...but I'm not sure it wasn't done in Monterey or Santa Monica or elsewhere. Maybe someone else recognizes the distinctive wooden fence in the shot.
It was nice to see Chaney without makeup, but I didn't find his imitation of crippled limbs as convincing here as in other films: the movement seemed inconsistent, and I didn't see how he could support himself on crutches if his limbs were so useless without them. (Maybe I'm wrong; I wish the comments page was back so I could ask others about this.) It was easier for me to judge his physical work in "The Penalty" because I have a close relative who's a real amputee (Chaney was excellent there). Also, I thought he overacted a bit in the more sentimental sequences. As Chaney said himself, he often needed a director who would reign him in.
Bonus points: "Queen Ann" looks like an Edward Gory (IMDB will not allow me to spell it correctly; I've tried to change it three times) character. Lon Chaney is shown playing with a kitten. There doesn't seem to be any obvious racism (other than the total sidelining of Asian characters). A few of the Chinatown roles looked like they were even portrayed by real Asians, albeit not necessarily Chinese people.
I would recommend this for Chaney fans, or people who want to see whatever portrayals they can find of the 1906 earthquake. People who aren't used to silent movies or melodrama probably wouldn't enjoy it that much. I won't give away the ending, but I will say that its implausibility was almost insulting, though the piano accompanist at the screening I attended did a lot to heighten the emotion, and make it almost work.
Great War Diaries (2014)
An excellent series on WWI
Assuming this is the same series as the one on Netflix titled, "14: Diaries of the Great War," which it seems to be, judging from the reviews, this is a fantastic series about WWI, told through the actual words of people who lived through it, with some additional background info for context. Sometimes the episodes can be hard to watch, as the suffering is not skimmed over (thought it's not exploited for gory effect, either). The design is a bit flashy, but that's probably good for educational purposes, as kids today are used to fast-moving imagery. The production design and acting are top-notch (each character speaks in his or her own language, with voiceovers and subtitles), and the stories at least touch on I think every nationality that was involved in WWI; they don't just focus on Germany, France and England. They also give attention to homefront activities; basically they try to cover every aspect of the war, not just the battles, but the way war touches a variety of lives--people of different occupations, ages and classes--in unexpected ways.
Sign Them Papers (1927)
Fun, tongue-in-cheek slapstick
If you like silent slapstick, this is a fun short. It involves lots of ridiculous chases and an extended drag sequence that is rather astonishing. Some trick photography adds to the silliness. There are moments that get repetitive, but overall I found it very enjoyable. The "Hairbreadth Harry" film series was based on a famous newspaper comic strip of the same name. The whole thing is a spoof, so the characters are cartoony, and the producers went to some effort to cast actors who resemble the comic-strip characters (Earl McCarthy, who died tragically young, is an especially good Harry). Fun fact: the comic strip started as a spoof of stage melodrama; by the time the film versions came out, there was a well- established tradition of movie melodrama to make fun of.
A well-made little gem
I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed this little movie. I had read two or three film-scholar essays that described it, and they didn't mention that it's actually still funny. I laughed out loud in more than one place. It probably helped that it doesn't have the nasty anti-suffragist caricatures that a number of shorts from the period have. But I think the main reason the film works is not because of the subject matter, but because it's well-made. The actors are good (they can explain things through pantomime while still remaining somewhat naturalistic), the plot is well-constructed, with each character given a motivation for their actions, and the camera-work is lovely. Much of the action takes place on well-framed shots of London streets, and there's a nice little bit at the end in which you see characters in the deep background through a window, which added an interesting layer. At the same time, the story does capture some of the topical details of the suffrage movement, so it sheds some light on beliefs of the time, while maintaining a light tone.
Well-made documentary about a shocking topic
I saw this at a South Asian film festival, and it was one of my favorite movies of the festival that year. It's hard to explain why, since this is a documentary about the extreme unfair treatment of Indian girls, but I think the issue is important to understand, and the film is well-made. The information is presented clearly, and although some of the anecdotes and statistics are grim and shocking, they don't feel sensationalized. One of the most surprising things to me was that the story does not focus only on rural, remote parts of India. The film presents very compelling evidence that attitudes toward girls result in harsh injustices among the Indian diaspora in modern Canada and California. The topic is extremely difficult, but the documentary handles the issues with care, and makes sure that all the stories are personalized and made human. Even though the film is disturbing, it somehow manages to convey hope at the end. The women who spoke to the filmmaker are inspiring. (And at the screening I saw, which included a discussion panel, people came up to the microphone afterward and made--in some cases shouted--very moving, emotional statements.) I would recommend this documentary for any adult who is interested in civil rights and humanitarian issues.
A solid movie about an important topic
This is a well-crafted docudrama, and the performances are mostly excellent, especially Emraan Hashmi as Ayan. I've never been to Pakistan, so I don't know how accurately the hospital setting was portrayed, but it certainly looked and sounded convincing. The filmmaker added a meta framing device, showing a team of documentarians trying to figure out how to tell this story without coming up against legal trouble. Although the meta thing is often done, in my opinion, this information added an extra dimension to the story that was valuable. I had no idea it could be so difficult to take on a multinational corporation, despite solid evidence that proves what is going on. It also showed how many people are necessary to bring out a story like this. It took a very dedicated whistleblower, medical personnel, NGO workers, journalists from more than one country, producers, lawyers... It's shocking how much power these big corporations have, to stop even the truth.
Ayan valiantly--and unusually--risked his own family and livelihood to change what was happening. In this he was strongly aided by his parents and wife--if they had not agreed to support him, and suffer their own privations as a result of his attempts to seek justice, he could not have done it. (SPOILER AHEAD) And yet, despite the efforts of all these courageous people, the wrongdoing continues. The real-life couple the characters of Ayan and Zainab are based on (I believe their real names are different) appeared at the film festival screening I attended, and they are still struggling to get the word out. The film has not yet been shown in Pakistan. (Gratuitous observation: the real-life wife is just as pretty as Geetanjali!)
An interesting side note for documentary fans: Maryam d'Abo, who played Maggi (the blond NGO worker), wrote and produced a very interesting documentary on Bond Girls that is featured on some James Bond DVDs.
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.