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Eadweard Muybridge, the first cinematographer?
Eadweard Muybridge is probably best known for lining up a series of 24 cameras, in the year 1878, in order to photograph a galloping horse.
The documentary "Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer" briefly covers his life, but concentrates its gaze upon Muybridge's photography work before and after the much publicized galloping-horse-at-Palo-Alto event.
In his early career, Muybridge photographed landscapes of the American West. Equipped with early 3D stereoscope cameras, he covered a war with the Native Americans.
The bulk of the documentary concentrates on Muybridge's photographic technique of cataloging animal and human motion. Intriguingly, he had cameras set up at a variety of angles, simultaneously capturing the same fleeting moment from various viewpoints.
The narration can be a bit tedious and academic at times. The endless amount of nudity in Muybridge's work also grows a bit exasperating. However, his rigorous documentation of details, and endless experimenting makes his "zoopraxography" work fascinating to early photography lovers.
I prefer not to rate this film, as it's a far cry from being "great entertainment" and yet I found it to be very educational.
A fly-on-the-wall visit with David Lynch
'Lynch' really reminded me of Pennebaker's "Don't Look Back" Dylan documentary. There's no set form or story holding the film together. It's more a series of candid vignettes. David Lynch spins yarns about his days living in Philadelphia, and in Idaho. Cut to: Lynch talking on the telephone, explaining Transcendental Meditation. Cut to: Lynch brooding in a sound studio, upset that he doesn't know what he's doing, and then chews out an employee for not showing up on time.
Nearly all the footage was shot in digital video. But don't let that turn you off. There's a very strong sense of mood and visual style in 'Lynch'. (With a director named 'blackANDwhite' how could the film NOT have intense, creepy, visual flair?)
What pleased me most about the film was the creative editing. Rather than clumping all the Philadelphia stories together, or clumping all the footage shot at one particular time, together - we just see a tidbit. Lynch relates a story form his past. Then cut to Lynch pondering a painting he's working on. This moment will linger for a while, sometimes accompanied by eerie atmospheric music (the sound design is fantastic.) Then we see him going on a photo expedition in Poland, or carving and painting wood in a workshop.
The scenes never grow tiring, because the environment and the activity constantly change.
I've seen some documentaries on David Lynch before, where they interview people on the set, and actors explain how he works, etc. 'Lynch' is NOT that kind of film. 'Lynch' gives you a fly-on-the-wall perspective on what it's like to be David Lynch. It's an ideal film companion piece to the book "Lynch on Lynch".
Enchanting, but tedious
Anyone who has seen a Brothers Quay film realizes that narrative is irrelevant, and image is everything. Clock-like 19th century mechanisms appear as a regular motif. By creating an anachronistic, scientific wonder their films derive their greatest strength.
The basic plot of THE PIANO TUNER OF EARTHQUAKES could have been lifted right out of a story by German fantasy writer and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann. It concerns a piano tuner who travels to a distant estate, owned by an elusive doctor. This doctor owns a number of clock-like mechanisms (automatons, he calls them) which will be used to create a grand opera. He requests the tuner to get the automatons in perfect-pitch working order. There's a subplot involving a beautiful opera singer whose life may be threatened by performing in the doctor's upcoming production.
PIANO TUNER OF EARTHQUAKES was shot in color, on High Definition video. Most of the daytime shots are enveloped in a haze. The color seems muted. Many composite shots with painted backgrounds are used. There's an ethereal feeling to the images.
The worst parts of the film are where the narrative is forcefully injected. Some story bit is clarified, and that tactic makes it seem like a cheap, thoughtless movie. Only when sound effects, music, and visuals are used, with no dialog, the emotional effect is stunning.
This is NOT an easy movie to watch. Watching this is about as fun as listening to a piece of music by Schoenberg or Webern. However, fun or entertainment isn't the point. This film questions convention.
Stop-motion animation shots, for which the Brothers Quay are best known, are used sparingly.
The music often seems inappropriate, very 1940's Hollywood sounding - and quite frankly, I found it distracting; it made everything seem more artificial than perhaps intended.
Overall, THE PIANO TUNER OF EARTHQUAKES gives one the impression of a moving-photograph gallery. And photographs are usually viewed best when you are not told what to think of them, but instead, are allowed to let your mind wander free from conventional thought, and dream a picture's story for yourself.
What Is It? (2005)
Even Down's Syndrome started small
Glover proudly proclaims four directorial influences: Bunuel, Kubrick, Herzog, and Fassbinder.
Bunuel explains the random, unexplained "taboo" imagery. Kubrick explains the overkill of classical music in this film (in this case Wagner) mixed with strong sexual themes. Herzog - one only need remember "Even Dwarfs Started Small" to realize where Glover got the concept for this film, using nothing but actors with Down's Syndrome - attacking each other, and killing far too many snails with salt. Fassbinder always had a bit of an unrehearsed independent film edge to him - which surely shows here.
Surprisingly, the soundtrack is handled quite well. The majestic Wagner music makes all the silly fantasy scenes quite respectable. Yes, we see nude female porn stars stepping about in a studio forest, draped in fog. But each wear an animal mask, and hide in small volcanoes on the forest floor. One thinks perhaps this could be a surreal riff on Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The naked man in a rising clam-shell vaguely reminds one of Botticelli's "Birth of Venus". Glover, himself, dons long hair, and a regal cape - looking like he's auditioning for Richard III. He demands his escorts address him as Shirley Temple.
Glover's subtle attempt at "taboo-breaking" seems like a silly attempt at dadaism. Swatstikas appear at the most unexpected places (as do watermelons, and a white man in black face.) Concerning the "weirdness" factor... I'm sorry, but I've seen stranger: Guy Maddin's "Twilight of the Ice Nymphs" and Richard Elfman's "Forbidden Zone" trump Glover in that department. Sorry, Crispin.
(Now, if we discuss Glover's live slide show presentation - that IS weird, and fun, and downright hysterical! The live slide show presentation I'd rate 8 out of ten. But for the film "What is it?"... 5 out of 10. Well, at least he was inspired by good sources.)
El laberinto del fauno (2006)
An Ode to Disobedience and Free Thought
PAN'S LABYRINTH is a strange hybrid film. For long stretches we are in Spain during World War II. And when that violent world becomes too stressful, we accompany Ofelia, a 12-year-old girl, into a fairy tale land. The fantasy lasts for one scene, and we find ourselves back to Spain again.
The real monster in this film, is human: Ofelia's stepfather, General Vidal. He demands complete obedience from everyone under his command. It is this unwavering, unilateral stance which filmmaker Del Toro attacks at every chance. Del Toro believes imagination nurtures one's spiritual being. If we do not develop imagination, and think for ourselves, we become mindless. And only the mindless follow all orders, no matter how inhumane, without thought.
The World War II Spain segments are a bit too polished to feel legitimately 'in period.' The uniforms look brand new; there's no wear to them. The lack of depth to these violence-prone characters reminded me of Sergio Leone's "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly." Each person is either good, or bad, or good pretending to be bad. And to make things interesting: everyone has an individual quirk.
The fantasy sections, while very enchanting, and inventive, are nearly free of any real tension. The Pale Man segment is creepy, but - for me - General Vidal politely making a request is ten times scarier.
The make-up, animatronics, and CGI work in this film are amazing. There's a palpable reality to these creatures. Details like Pan's twitching ears made it easier for me to believe in the fantasy than in the 'historical period' scenes. The life-like flight movements of the fairies are captivating enough to make FX modeler Ray Harryhausen jealous.
Nice movie. But, realize that PAN'S LABYRINTH is about finding the strength and courage to rally against inflexible authority. It's about this little girl, Ofelia, coping with a rough life in 1944 Spain. The fantasy elements serve as sorbet between courses of a larger meal. It cleanses your pallet and keeps you optimistic even during the darkest of times. Imagination becomes salvation.
Notable bad movie.
Girl gets kidnapped. Cop searches for girl. Cop gets beat up by bad guys. Cop locates hideout. Rescues girl. That's the story.
The secret of immortality serves as the 'MacGuffin' in this potboiler. But, anyone versed in life extension theories (think Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey) will be utterly baffled by RENNAISSANCE's uninformed assumptions about genetic-engineered immortality.
All films are limited in some form by a budget. RENAISSANCE places its money on a handful of amazing cityscape shots. The camera swoops past buildings, all in 3 dimensions; it's amazing. When it comes to props, and inanimate objects, this movie will blow your mind.
The acting is horrendous. We're talking - the quality of auditions for a high school play, at best. Presumably, the English dialog (the version I saw) was recorded after the animation was completed. That means, the animation you see was not inspired or influenced by the voices. (I wonder if the French version is more convincing?) What's odd is the judicial use of motion-capture. No one uses hand gestures in this film, while talking. In fact, all dialog scenes are talking heads, and wooden heads at that. If POLAR EXPRESS suffered from 'dead-eye syndrome', then RENAISSANCE suffers from 'dead-face syndrome.' The characters are soul-less. Talking head. Expressionless talking head with an emotion-filled voice. That's what you see.
The action scenes? Fantastic. Clearly, the action scenes are where they used motion-capture to maximum effect. You can tell, because the movement is so natural. 'Extras' in the background look like they were photographed in real time. A car chase sequence displays some unreal physics, but on the whole, the action sequences are stunning.
I purposely did not give this film a star rating. It's one of those rare breed of movies where it would be unfair to give a single overall rating. The visuals are groundbreaking in so many ways. And, yet, many of the future ideas are cliché and uninventive. The script, the characters, the story are an absolute bore. However, I can't stop thinking about RENAISSANCE. I might even go see it a second time in the theater.
Maybe Ridley Scott was right when he said, "There are certain moments in movies where the background can be as important as the actor. The design of a film is the script."
The U.S. vs. John Lennon (2006)
Beatles Anthology Continued. Very Kind To Yoko.
The court case of The United States vs. John Lennon was an attempt by the United States to deport an undesirable immigrant who at one time plead guilty to the possession of marijuana. That's the underlining narrative of this film: How John Lennon won his Green Card. (In reality - Nixon was paranoid that peace-loving Lennon could sway the youth vote in the 1972 election - hence the U.S. government tried to kick him out of the country.)
Filmmakers Leaf and Scheinfeld said they tried selling this idea as a film for years - starting in the 1990's. It wasn't until 2004 (that is, post 9/11, post invasion of Iraq) that a studio green-lit this project. The documentary is crafted intentionally to draw parallels between Vietnam and our current situation in Iraq. However, they never come right out and say it (except once - Gore Vidal slips Bush's name in - during an interview he made for this film.)
The 'U.S. vs JOHN LENNON' transports us back to the era of the Vietnam War, using tons of rarely-seen footage. Thanks to Yoko Ono, Leaf and Scheinfeld had unlimited access to the Lennon archives. Master tapes of his songs were used (sometimes with the vocals removed) allowing Lennon to create the entire music soundtrack. We even hear home recordings of John speaking to his baby Sean (who we hear coo-ing into the microphone).
The Black Panthers, activist Abbie Hoffman, Angela Davis... many of the movers and shakers of the peace movement are covered in this film. Also included is a tapestry of Walter Cronkite news bulletins, Nixon speeches, and war footage.
G. Gordon Liddy's interview represents the corrupt viewpoint of the Nixon administration: "I saw all these peace marchers carrying candles. I grabbed one of the guys' hands - used his candle to light my cigar, and said 'Well, at least you're good for something.'"
Yoko Ono comes across as a very nice person in this film (not her normal demonized stereotype character.) After watching this movie, I now have a profound respect, not only for post-Beatle John Lennon, but, for Yoko Ono as well. This movie will undoubtedly revise a lot of people's opinion about her.
Unfortunately, there's the obligatory assassination mention at the end. Leaf and Scheinfeld handle it nicely, and deal with it in under five minutes, but it really seems tacked on. Yes, we all know Lennon was shot, but only a conspiracy theorist would believe it was related to his peacenik activities (which, THANKFULLY, the film does not suggest.)
13 Tzameti (2005)
The less you know about it in advance, the better it is.
Oddly enough, the trailer for 13 (Tzameti) gives away the major surprise of the entire film. Avoid the trailer if you intend on seeing the movie.
13 (Tzameti) is a devastating thriller shot in gritty black and white, and presented in ultra-wide screen. The look vaguely reminded me of Jules Dassin's RIFIFI.
A 22-year-old roof repairer discovers an envelope containing a train ticket and a letter confirming a hotel reservation. Originally addressed to his recently-deceased employer, the young man knows that this is his ticket to a potentially large amount of cash. He takes the train, having no idea what wild adventure awaits him.
I won't divulge anymore of the story. But, let's just say, what awaits him is psychologically, and ethically nerve-wracking. Few films have frayed my nerves to the point of no return, as this movie has.
It's purely a plot-driven movie. (Might I note - director Babluani has already 'sold out' to Hollywood - and is slated to remake this film in English for a 2008 release. He was obviously aiming for a commercial film.) The characters are not very deep. However, there is a raw, documentary feel, heightened by the fact that most people in this film are NOT professional actors. (For example, the male lead is the director's younger brother.) As in a Mickey Spillane novel, the audience receives information ONLY on a need-to-know basis. We are never let in on any irrelevant details. Each scene acts as a cliffhanger, holding your attention, hooking you in for the next scene. It's a thriller with that rare quality of speeding freight-train inertia from beginning to the end (i.e. there are no slow spots.)
The 'game' which the young man is 'requested' to play, while perhaps in the realm of fiction, follows a set of strict rules. The protocol has clearly been time-tested by experience. (At least it feels that way!) Any time a film-maker attempts to present the audience with an original experience, or whole new slice of culture, I admire the attempt.
While driven solely by plot, 13 (Tzameti) spends enough time with various characters, that each has an opportunity to create a unique impression upon the audience. Yes, the script moves, it's tight, but loose enough to allow the actors to be themselves, to demonstrate idiosyncrasies. This creates a fly-on-the-wall documentary feel. This gritty realism, for my money, qualifies the movie as one of the great thrillers of this decade.
Hard to believe this is Babluani's debut feature!
Note: Very squeamish people may find the 'game' utterly revolting to the point where they deem 13 (Tzameti) to be just plain sick. By no means is this film life-affirming. (It's extremely existential in it's outlook.) Quentin Tarantino could serve as a good litmus test on whether you would find 13 (Tzameti) revolting. In my opinion, RESERVOIR DOGS is more inhumane than this movie. PULP FICTION is perhaps a bit tamer, or equal in squeamish-inducing-intensity, to this film. Either way, be prepared to be uncomfortable.
Frank Lloyd Wright (1998)
Character Study of a Non-Conformist
Wright complained to a friend about about how many thousands of dollars he owed. His friend lent him money to pay off his debts. Later that day, Wright went out and purchased three grand pianos! And went back to complaining about his debts. He felt a compulsion to live at 'the edge.' "Take care of the luxuries of life, and the essentials will take care of themselves," Wright philosophized.
Ken Burns examines the character of Frank Lloyd Wright. What made him 'tick'? How does one go about becoming the greatest American architect of the 20th Century? (or as Wright would say: the greatest architect of all time)? A few of Wright's grandchildren are interviewed to help solve this puzzle. A 100-year-old son of the famed architect wheezes his views, in a raspy voice. Those views aren't very flattering: Wright abandoned his first wife, and his children, for various women over the years. In fact, he was jailed in Minnesota for crossing the state border in the company of a woman for 'immoral purposes.' He proved an embarrassment to his family. "I have felt fatherly feelings towards my buildings, but never towards my children," FLW muttered.
Burns interviews the long-lived architect, Philip Johnson: "I hated Wright. Hated him." Embittered with feelings of jealousy, and contempt, Johnson (serving in the 1930's as a curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art) had the unenviable task of wrestling a small home design from FLW - to be displayed with other modern architects at a museum exhibition. Wright, who was penniless at the time, refused to cooperate, insulted that he wasn't offered a solo show.
Johnson: "I felt he was the greatest American architect of the NINETEENTH century. When someone at MoMA said they wanted Wright to be part of a modern architect showcase, I said sarcastically, 'Isn't he dead?'" Wright may have been 'dead' in 1930, but FLW's creative output after his 1935 comeback (Fallingwater) remains unequaled.
Many of the interviews (including some of Johnson's answers) are very positive regarding FLW's work. Sometimes overly reverent. FLW is compared to Beethoven. And the Johnson Wax Building is called his 'Ninth Symphony.' FLW, the man, on the other hand, is branded a con-man, a charlatan, a child who liked to play with other people's money.
Titles, such as "Can you just build me an office building?" or "I am immortal," divide the documentary into focused segments. Much like chapters of a biography. Each 'chapter' includes a question and answer with FLW himself - taken from an early television interview - with young Mike Wallace as reporter.
In response to another reviewer on this site who claimed that the Tokyo Imperial Hotel is not covered...perhaps that was true for the PBS broadcast...but that is NOT true for the extended home video version of this film. The earthquake-proof Imperial Hotel (for which FLW designed every aspect - down to the Hotel stationery) is briefly covered, but for no more than five minutes.
Many building projects are shone, but few are examined in any real detail. Perhaps one or two pervading traits of a particular structure will be mentioned and shown. Burns gives you enough information to get a taste of FLW's genius, but not enough for you to learn the nuts and bolts of architecture. Aspiring students will need to consult a book for that. But, for the rest of us, who are merely curious, the footage of the buildings are long enough to grant us a sense of place, a sense of serenity, and a glimpse of that organic truth for which Wright devoted his life.
Politics Overshadow the Music
This film covers the last half of Wagner's life. As it begins, we see him at the age of 35, chastising his publisher for not displaying his compositions in the store room window. Following this, are political demonstrations, complete with unending monologues by Wagner spouting politics, politics, politics. He has loud, arrogant opinions about everything, and commands such attention in these sequences, as to render everyone else to the status of silent bystander.
The 300 minute version starts off stuffy, serious, and far too reverential towards the composer (if that's what Wagner is - we don't see him composing until 50 minutes into the film!) The actress who plays Minna, his first wife, communicates either by near-silent whispers, or by ear-piercing screams. Sound mixing does not help here. Many dialog scenes are quiet, and interrupted by very loud music. I'm all for use of varied dynamics in sound design, but found myself fiddling with the volume control far too many times throughout this movie. (John Gielgud's voice - as the Narrator - was the one voice that always spoke at an appropriate sound level.)
There's no denying that this film moves at a glacier-like pace. But, 'slow' does not mean 'bad.' The further this movie rolls along, the better it gets. In fact, the latter half indulges in some brief comedy, which vents the heavy drama with much-needed fresh air.
This beautifully-photographed, frigid film grows lovably warm in the final hour. The building of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, and hectic preparation for the staging of the complete Ring cycle creates a wonderful sense of fun, giddy excitement. By far, the best sequences of the film. Wagner, by this time, has morphed into a three-dimensional character. People around him have legitimate viewpoints, and no longer serve as mere cardboard cut-out listeners - as in the beginning of the film.
But before that sequence, Wagner curses out his patrons, demanding nothing but money, no opinions, no suggestions, just money. "All I want is money!" is a regular, tiresome, catchphrase.
"I must have beauty, splendor, light... I am not like the others. I, which have so much joy to send to the world, ask for so little comfort in return."
WAGNER is a strange biopic. It concentrates on the commerce side of creativity...the behind-the-scenes politics...the arrogance and Machievellian trickery often required in the making of any great work of art. This dubious deal-making takes center stage, as well as the pain it inflicts on patrons, family, and friends. The music...which we associate with Richard Wagner...merely serves as scenery.