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Les vampires (1915)
LENGTHY "VAMPIRES" NOT MONUMENTAL BUT STILL FUN
Louis Feuillade may have been an early French pioneer of silent shorts but "Les Vampires" is still bogged down in plot contrivances. Technically speaking it is difficult to view this today as it was upon its release, as 10 separate films, because we're not returning to the theater weekly to see the next great piece of the puzzle. And at 7 plus hours long, to view it in one sitting can be an act of futility and frustration.
Feuillade's great strength was short films but with most of these 10 episodes reaching 45 minutes apiece, he extended his stay a large part of the time, serial or not. Designed as a crime saga with comic relief and unrealistic plot devices, "Les Vampires" has been compared to early James Bond and has been mentioned as being influential on Hitchcock. I don't see it. At best it can be compared to the weekly serials shown in theaters in the 50's, early pulp fiction, and the Pink Panther series. That's not an insult but I'm not giving out credit unjustly either. None of these take away from the fun of the work.
The Vampires are a sinister (take that lightly) crime gang that is plaguing the streets of Paris circa 1915. Edouarde Mathe's Philippe Guarande and Marcel Levesque's Mazamette are the journalist and sidekick who pursue the group. The Vampires most featured member is second-in-command Irma Vep played by Musidora and she actually is rather sexy. The Vampires leader, the Grand Vampire, actually changes three different times during the story and it is the little nuances like this that spoil the film.
Whereas having fun can be quite entertaining, plot can kill the messenger even at this early stage of cinematic history. The poison pens, portable cannons, and paralyzing pin pricks can all be strategically crafty when used appropriately, particularly in a serial series, but they lose their humorous magic when we can't even believe in the people using them. The Vampires, this menace that stalks the rich of Paris and robs them blind, are arguably the clumsiest and most unplanned organization I've ever seen wear black in a movie. Juan Jose Moreno, played by Fernand Herrmann, leads a rival crime syndicate that battles wits with the Vampires and the Guarande/Mazamette team. From the time Moreno enters the film, he successfully thwarts every single Vampire scheme hatched as they cannot do anything right. Indeed were Irma Vep not so sexy she would not be worth having around. She fails at practically every assignment she is given yet not only continually gets away but also is still a highly desired commodity by both the Grand Vampire and Moreno himself.
Of course we know why these continual lapses in anything reminiscent of an actual plot and purpose occur...Feuillade has to push this baby to ten episodes to entertain the masses of 1915 for whom it was intended. But Feuillade does show some weakness here even above his writing by playing scenes out extraordinarily too long. In fact by virtue of trimming seconds off of every scene that went on too long "Les Vampires" could have made an excellent feature length picture around 210 minutes and we could have cleared up the ridiculous plot lapses to boot.
From an acting standpoint it is neither forgettable nor excellent with the possible exception of Levesque's Mazamette character who steals the show with his hilarious mannerisms and comic imagery. While appearing to be a foolish sidekick early on, by the film's end he actually does more and knows more to catch the bumbling Vampires than anyone else on screen. And he's not even the star. If any influencing went on here it was Mazamette's character on Peter Seller's Inspector Clouseau.
The nutshell: great fun if it weren't so unnecessarily long. Like early pulp fiction its nonstop use of dastardly doings, devious schemes, and nasty devices may keep you coming back for the next episode time and time again (same bat time, same bat channel) but the plot will probably slow you down in the end. Possibly worth watching to get a look at early French cinema but when compared to Griffith like all 1912-1920 films must be, Feuillade doesn't even come close...6/10.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
GIBSON'S "PASSION" WILL LIVE FOREVER
What Mel Gibson has achieved with "The Passion of the Christ" goes beyond any sort of personal belief system. This will not stop its crusaders nor its detractors from doing everything they can to promote their agenda of his film. How else can you explain the whopping number of 10's and 1's that the film has concurrently received so far in the Internet Movie Database's voting system? The people have let their religious beliefs get in the way of judging the film.
We've seen this before. The roles were reversed when Martin Scorsese did his own "The Last Temptation of Christ." The secularists loved it and many Christians thought it was blasphemy. But Hollywood, and many who study it, are hardcore secularists eager to trample out any sort of movie that might, Heaven forbid, put Christ back at the forefront of American culture. Their agenda is threatened by this because they don't want their belief system changed particularly if it makes their practices look questionable to the majority of people. You don't believe me? Let's just wait and see if the Criterion Collection attempts to get DVD rights for Gibson's film. And please don't hold your breath while you wait.
But history has a strange way of treating movies. "Citizen Kane," largely ignored in its own time because people simply could not grasp what Orson Welles had accomplished is now viewed as the greatest film ever made. "How Green Was My Valley," which all but swept the Academy Awards that year is now no more than a footnote in history. Many people today have not even seen it and probably never will.
It is not what people will say about "The Passion of the Christ" this year that will determine this film's place in history but how long they will say it. The magnitude of Gibson's vision in creating not just the last hours of Christ but the volume of pain and suffering that he experienced in giving his life for all man's sin has earned this film a place in the top 10 films ever made. Those are strong words. But it is an even stronger film.
It is difficult to even find a flaw in the film. Gibson should get props, even with Hollywood's secularist agenda, for best picture and best director. Jim Caviezel will get a sure nod for best actor and Maia Morgenstern should be considered for supporting actress as well for playing the misery stricken mother of our Savior. Caviezel in particular plays the son of God with such charisma, radiance, strength, and tenderness that his place as the greatest Jesus of all time to grace the silver screen is solidified. Screenplay, cinematography, and especially makeup and visual effects should all get Oscar mentions for 2004 as well.
Many critics have said the violence of Christ's sufferings is too over the top to merit this film much more than a bloodbath on par with a decent horror flick. These are the same critics who liked "Natural Born Killers" and "Kill Bill." As I said, they have an agenda and you can throw their comments out. Carnage of this sort, to express a point and show man's inhumanity, has not been seen since "Schindler's List" (also in the all-time top 10) and no one rode Steven Spielberg's back for that monumental effort. The film IS extraordinarily violent but to be fair to Christ (which previous films could not do because of the time they were made in) it must be so to express exactly how great his sacrifice was.
Even with the violence, where Mel Gibson truly succeeds is in his minimalism. The film is not bogged down in text, a possible pitfall considering it was made in Aramaic and Latin. One can actually say that the film could have lived without text at all. Gibson also shines in displaying the political turmoil that existed between the Pharisees and their followers, Christ and his followers, and the Romans themselves. True historians will note that Pilate was on Caesar's hot seat even before Christ came along, explaining his rather sympathetic character when the uprising begins. Gibson also added a Satan character to the action that pushes the film forward and I think it was a stroke of brilliance on his part to do so. The film's best scene, which I believe is arguably one of the most beautifully crafted scenes in motion picture history, is Christ's resurrection. Ironically, it is comparable to the way Spielberg brought "Schindler's List" to a conclusion with Liam Neeson's fateful goodbye to the Jews he helped save ("I could've got more.") There is simply not a dry eye in the house. Mel Gibson knew exactly what he had in mind to bring us this vision and it is a feat of true directorial craftsmanship.
But at the end of the day, "The Passion of the Christ" will give most viewers exactly what they bring into it. If you are a Christian you will see your views expressed better than they ever have been before. If you are a secularist your belief system is going to be threatened and you will probably not even be able to judge the film with any rationale because having Christ at the forefront of American society again (a feat this film could possibly pull off) would be the worst thing for your views and lifestyle. If you are prejudiced against Jews, you too will find things to encourage your already ridiculous notions...even if you have to make them up yourself because the film certainly doesn't. Mel Gibson is not out to change our world but to show us his world and he has succeeded beyond belief. And if he and Christ pick up followers on the way, the film will not only have done its job but have acted as a messenger and this is what true cinematic masterpieces do in the first place.
The nutshell: Absolute required viewing and an immediate entry into the top 10 films ever made. Considering that "Braveheart" also notches a place in the all-time top 20, if Gibson stayed behind the camera more his status as director could be on a par with Hitchcock, Griffith, and Scorsese...10/10.
Sumerki zhenskoi dushi (1913)
FRESHMAN EFFORT BY BAUER EXACTLY THAT
Very few directors strike gold with their first effort. The subtle nuances, finding what the camera is capable of, dealing with actors, scripts, and so forth, can make for a hell of a time finding yourself. Yevgeni Bauer is no different. And if you watch his works backwards, as I did, you find out that the man is human after all. On a career built on working with lighting, shadows, tracking, and the morbid netherworld, Bauer's first effort, "Sumerki Zhenskoi Dushi," does see him hint at these elements but he is a bit away from anything close to the genius of his later works.
Believe it or not, this is a simple love story about a prince, a high society girl, and the secret that threatens to end their marriage. At times it seems nearly Shakespearean. The two leads, Vera Chernova and A. Ugrjumov, certainly don't damage the picture in any way and V. Demert as the villainous Maksim plays his bit quite well. But the story line is surprisingly bland, drawing little emotion from we the viewer and exceptionally unclimactic.
It does draw slight interest just to see what Bauer does with the camera angles and the way he plays with the lighting but all in all it is just a bump in the road to the director's full grasp of what he will go on to be capable of.
The nutshell: only recommended for hardcore Bauer fans to see how the man began his career. Students of cinema should proceed immediately to "Posle Smerti" to wow over. I'm only giving it the rating I have because it has Bauer's name...6/10.
Posle smerti (1915)
BAUER'S CAMERA CREATES HAUNTING BEAUTY
Yevgeni Bauer's "Posle Smerti" is not a feature length film but for its sheer brilliance alone in terms of cinematic technique it deserves worthy mention alongside D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" as one of the best films of 1915 and one that ranks big among the silent film classics.
At its root, it is a tale of the battle between the spirit world and the world of the living as Russian legend Vera Karalli's character attempts to seduce Vitold Polonsky's character from beyond the grave. Polonsky himself was the reason for the girl's death and it is an added element that he must deal with.
But beyond the story lies Bauer, who actually might have better understood the technique of lighting, tinting, and panning even more than the American Griffith. Of particular mention are his conscious efforts to relate the girl ghost as coming out of the shadows when she makes her appearances on earth, darker at first and then lighter as she gets closer to Polonsky. His purposeful approach to brighten her first appearance to the point where her face is a glowing ball of whiteness is remarkable.
The world of the living has its tone set in various tints...yellow at the outset, blue to reflect the night time, an appropriate red for the darkroom where Polonsky views his photographs, pink for Polonsky's first appearance in the social circle in some time (as he plays a recluse), and flat black and white to illustrate the ghost world.
The pinkish tones for Polonsky's social gathering, where he first views the tragic Karalli, is arguably the best scene of the film as the camera slowly pans from group to group to reflect the guests surprise that Polonsky has come at all. The story itself is quite engaging but has nowhere near the impact of Bauer's technique.
DVD watchers will also find a delightful surprise in the new score composed for the film by Nicholas Brown and performed by the ensemble Triptych. The violin-cello-piano score sets every tone imaginable at the appropriate time taking the viewer on a journey from peace to intrigue, to torment, and even terror.
The nutshell: worth watching for cinematic technique and the music alone. A possible precursor to Weine's "Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari" in terms of lighting and direction. The story sets Bauer up as Russian film's answer to Edgar Allan Poe...8/10.
Umirayushchii lebed (1917)
BAUER'S GRISLY IRONIC ROMANCE EXCELLENT
Sadly, Yevgeni Bauer would die soon after this, a morbid reminder in and of itself that life sometimes reflects art first. And in viewing "Umirayushchii Lebed" it is nearly impossible to not think that Bauer was not influenced by the literary works of Edgar Allan Poe. There are too many parallels there. Particularly the influence of women on the lives of the two men.
While Bauer's earlier marks in film were more technical, it is the acting and Zoya Barantsevich's story that shines this time around. The cast is similar to his earlier "Posle Smerti" and again employs Vera Karalli as its star. Karalli plays a beautiful dancer (the dying swan) who tragically is also a mute. When the first suitor of her life breaks her heart a lonely artist becomes totally enthralled by her beauty as well...but in a completely different way.
Andrej Gromov plays this second of the two men in her life and does a masterful job of showing us an unhappy, dark, mysterious man-on-a-mission...for lack of a better term. The outdoor locations at the beginning of the film portray a happy world where the lovely Karalli lives with her loving father before her fateful meeting with Gromov. And once again Bauer shows us his fascination with dreams and their meaning, particularly as they coincide with the films ironic conclusion. And the film again features a nice score; this time by Joby Talbot and his violin-cello-piano trio.
The nutshell: not technically groundbreaking such as Bauer's "Posle Smerti" was but still comes across as more enjoyable because of its acting, storyline, and emotional response from the viewer. Again, not a feature length film but worth checking out...8/10.
SMALL SCALE DOESN'T HALT GRIFFITH'S SUCCESS
Following the elaborate spectacles that were "The Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance" D.W. Griffith seemed to have the formula intact for success. With broad sets, hundreds of extras, three hour epics, and tales told over years and even millenniums in the case of "Intolerance," the 90 minute "Broken Blossoms" would seem to have a handicap of sorts. It is but a simple morality tale involving three people that goes horribly awry. But true to Griffith form it works...and it works nearly perfect.
Gone are the visions of what formed countries, what creates intolerance, and the climaxes involving hundreds of people. "Broken Blossoms" is a mere story of forbidden love if such occurrences can actually be called "mere." And although the sets used to portray the foggy gloom and forbidding darkness of London's Limehouse district were indeed expensive, this was a film carried by its only three stars and one that relies totally on the telling of a story.
Richard Barthelmess plays Cheng Huan, a Buddhist missionary who now takes residence in Limehouse. His original intentions, to help the violent Anglo-Saxons understand pacifism, are subverted by his opium addiction. He runs a small shop in the fog of the city and it becomes his own depressed microcosmic world. The stunning Lilian Gish, who seemingly has no bounds as an actress or as an object of feminine beauty, plays Lucy, the daughter of an abusive alcoholic boxer. Donald Crisp plays this part so well that the lack of sound does not inhibit the volume of cruelty he enforces on his only daughter, nor our ability to feel her level of sheer pain and suffering.
Although all three of them may technically may be viewed as broken and products of their own respective worlds, when those worlds clash with each other and tragedy seems more likely, it is Gish who steals the show. Especially under Griffith's direction. And while Griffith may have already given the cinema more than its fair share of technological nuances with his first two features, he still manages to find subtle bits of direction that affect one's viewing of this sordid triangle: Gish's physical inability to smile and her seeking of solitude in something as simple as a flower cannot be emphasized enough as the film goes along.
Political historians may note that Griffith is up to his usual tricks of racism as it is portrayed in the Asian who is played by the white Barthelmess but this is unfounded. If anything, his character is uplifting, or at least attempts to be. One gets the feeling that his race does not impact the story's eventual ending despite what Crisp may bellow while drunk. Crisp's pleasure comes from Gish's pain and anyone, regardless of race, that tried to interfere would not have caused any sort of behavior change. Of course the Asian stereotypes of pacifism, opium addiction, and flowery imagery are played up to some degree but one can hardly argue over the degree of truth in them more than the story's beginning that sees drunken sailors duking it out at the shipyards over next to nothing. And it allows the film to have its ironic coda to boot.
In more detailed film classes, "Broken Blossoms" will get its share of time but overall Griffith will always have "Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance" printed boldly next to his name with this film being more of a footnote. That is unfortunate because it stands up well for the time, involves excellent early character acting, and hits us closer to home...and to our heart.
The nutshell: I still believe this should be required viewing. The bigness of Griffith may be gone but he has aptly replaced it by creating atmosphere both in terms of environment and in people. The small story of insignificant lives trapped by their own measures suits Griffith, Gish, and Crisp extremely well...9/10.
GRIFFITH SCORES BIG AGAIN WITH MONUMENTAL INTOLERANCE
D.W. Griffith faced such widespread criticism for his portrayal of blacks in "The Birth of a Nation" that he had to answer a public that conceded his cinematic genius but nonetheless looked at him with one eye open so to speak. His answer was "Intolerance" and he nearly outdid himself.
And once again Griffith manages to concoct something new to the process of cinema and cinematic story telling. The film, another epic three hour stint, relates four separate stories in four separate epochs of time that deal with man's inhumanity to man in various ways...social classes, religious power, lack of compassion, hierarchical evil, unrequited love, etc. New to the cinematic process this time was the telling of the tales in a non-linear fashion, that is to say that he cuts from one story to the next as the action warrants and returns to them later to pick up where the action left off. One may think this confused audiences of the day but it worked and it worked with smashing success. The result of this is that it sets up a bigger climax than that in "The Birth of a Nation." The sequences getting smaller and smaller as the movie goes on with the end climax cutting from one tale to the next for mere seconds to show each of the tales ending at the same time. And people still question this man's genius?
Griffith also outdid his famous civil war battle scenes of his previous effort with huge, vivid, expensive sets to create the Babylonian era story. He was the first director to use crane shots to cover the huge set and the multitudes of people. The sets cost over $3 million and used 16000 extras. The result was an outright Hollywood extravaganza that wowed the senses. And once again, Griffith worked without a written screenplay. Amazing.
The film is carried nicely on the backs of Robert Harron (the boy in the current era tale), Constance Talmadge (the mountain girl in the Babylonian era tale), and the exquisite performance of the adorable Mae Marsh (the dear one in the current era tale). And of course the recurring cameo of Lilian Gish acting as humanity's keeper, rocking the cradle of life endlessly between the stories. Breathtaking sets and excellent storytelling and action that don't lose much even in our current age of motion pictures do the rest of the job nicely. "Intolerance" is another Griffith masterpiece.
Its only flaw, a small one, is that Griffith appears TOO humanistic and pacifistic. Its a dream of a Utopian society which simply doesn't exist and sometimes he tries to hammer the point a little bit too hard at the audience. People speculate that this was the reason the film wasn't a huge hit in its day particularly considering that we were about to enter World War I. Nonetheless, history has treated it well and it deserves to be. It earns a place not just as another Griffith masterpiece but yet another cinematic one from the silent era.
The nutshell: required viewing both for its grand Hollywood spectacle and its out of vogue for the time questioning of humanity's true purpose and yearning for something that cannot ever be quite fulfilled. Not quite as good as "The Birth of a Nation" but very close...9/10.
FIRST AMERICAN FEATURE FILM WELL DONE
Director Sidney Olcott did not have a stunning career. If anything it was mediocre at best. But on this effort he played above his head, perhaps not even realizing it. "From the Manger to the Cross" is a beautiful film, rich in substance and well acted as well.
The story is well known and Olcott details all of Christ's shining biblical moments in a series of scenes that overcomes many setbacks of the early 1910's. Of particular note is the way he uses a large cast to still convey the emotions present during a particular scene. Christ's admittance to his disciples that his days on earth are numbered come to mind here. On location shooting, no easy task for its day considering the entire thing was done in Egypt and Palestine, would definitely be another.
Even with these tools, the film may have fallen flat were it not for Robert Henderson-Bland's portrayal of Jesus. When the most crucial aspects of the Messiah's personality are the things he said, how can a silent film succeed in showing his substance? Answer: facial expressions and body language. And Bland, without the as yet invented close-up, shines in showing Christ as a man of wisdom, gentleness, and courage. Bland's Jesus is still among the finest to ever grace a screen and we're closing in on a century of film following it. Robert Vignola's Judas also deserves a mention as well.
It also bares mentioning that Timothy Howard's organ score, added in 1994 upon the film's home release, is a beautiful addition. In 1998 "From the Manger to the Cross" was given the highest honor a film can receive: it was added to the National Film Registry, an accolade it well deserves. For now and all time it should be recognized not only as America's first feature film but as a testament to what can be accomplished in the name of art and love when all of the pieces fall into the right place at the right time. Olcott and Henderson-Bland forever have a much deserved home in film history's hall of fame.
The nutshell: required viewing for directing, acting, technological achievement, and artistic beauty...8/10.
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
VISUALLY ENLIGHTENING AND SOCIALLY DISHEARTENING "BIRTH" STILL A 10.
D.W. Griffith's Civil War shorts were only a prelude to what has become one of the world's crowning cinematic achievements and one of its most painfully embarrassing moments concurrently.
To this day it still causes not only controversy but even verbal warfare amongst friends and critics. But if films were judged solely on their subject matter many of our classics would have been tossed into the garbage hamper. As being such, I will not let that taint my opinion of it.
"Birth of a Nation" succeeds on so many levels its difficult to find a place to start. Perhaps its best to say that Griffith may have considered what he may be starting hence the freedom of speech title screen at the beginning. For not shying away from controversy alone Griffith deserves his merits. His use of tinting is outstanding. Some may say (and they may be right) that Griffith is the father of the modern screenplay. His use of setup, turning point, confrontation, turning point, resolution, and conclusion is still the formula used today and is usually the formula that has graced every best picture winner at the Oscars ever since their 1927 beginnings. The catch: there was no written screenplay. Griffith made this film in his mind as he went along. THAT is genius.
The battle spectacle scenes were unequaled in their day. This wasn't another day's work. This was a big budget, Hollywood, parade of the extras, grand scale masterpiece. One gets the sense that the real war was just getting the war scenes filmed. Father of the close-up, father of the chase scene (on two fronts: individual after individual and group after group), father of showing synchronous events on two different stages, the buildup of dramatic climax, and the list goes on. Outstanding use of camera angles (the perch overlooking the valley during Sherman's march comes to mind here), and historically accurate enactments (Lincoln's assassination) score big as well. This was "Citizen Kane" a quarter of a century before there was a "Citizen Kane."
The acting is surprisingly very well done. Henry Walthall does a fine job as the star of the film but George Siegmann, Walter Long, and Ralph Lewis are three of the most villainous characters to ever grace a silent era film. And I would be amiss to not mention Lilian Gish who absolutely sizzles here. After all these years she is still one of the most charming and beautiful women I've ever seen in my life. Griffith obviously thought so as he used her in his other three masterpieces as well.
But for all of its cinematic showcasing, the film's image will forever be scarred by its outlandish racial prejudices. And make no mistake about it, its a difficult watch. As a white, its still difficult for me. As a black, I cannot imagine. It is so easy for me to sit here and say to separate its art from its viewpoint but that simply isn't realistic. Should it be required viewing? Yes. Would I blame any black for not wanting to watch it or hating it after seeing it? Absolutely not. I understand where you are coming from. The unfortunate thing is that the film could have succeeded without this viewpoint by simply making the south's new oppressors white union soldiers. It IS historically accurate to say that president Andrew Johnson did indeed want to crush the southern elite into oblivion after the war which is one of the things that led to his impeachment. But Johnson, who is strangely not even mentioned in the film following Lincoln's assassination, certainly would not have employed northern blacks to do the crushing. I understand the film was following Thomas Dixon's novel and play but to not even address how Ralph Lewis' senatorial powers overshadowed Johnson's presidential ones and those of Congress' 1866 Civil Rights Bill is proof enough that the film goes out of its way to make northern blacks the villains. Griffith's only defense, and it is a SMALL defense, is that southern blacks are still apparently our friends. Griffith was the son of a Confederate fighter which may explain some of his views. But certainly he did not want to be a hate-monger. He tried to apologize with the making of his next film, the masterpiece "Intolerance." He certainly had black friends on the set during the making of "Birth of a Nation" but this harks of the classic case of the good man who doesn't realize that some of the things he is saying are hurtful. I don't think it really dawned on him. This however is a trivial compensation at best.
But at the end of the day, D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" is still a landmark achievement not just in film but in popular culture. After its release film became a way of life for America instead of a treat you helped yourself to once in a while. Not until Hitchcock would a director ever again be the star of his own films, wielding a control and vision so unique that their name is forever welded to our memory, for the better or the worse. So many firsts. So much controversy. And controversy,ironically enough, has been Hollywood's middle name now for the last 50 years.
The nutshell: absolute required viewing for all things considered. Watch with caution and prepare to be disturbed. Not being able to watch it is easily understood. One of the 100 greatest films of all time...10/10.