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7/10
Interesting but flawed
27 December 2013
Warning: Spoilers
In his long review of The Forgotten Space, Jonathan Rosenbaum mentions that he learned a lot more from this film than any other film he saw that year. This is a statement I'd have to agree with, yet at the same time the film's oddly unorganized structure makes it an essay film without a really coherent point. It's mostly about shipping and globalization but it's sometimes hard to really connect that to some of the individual sections, though I suppose that a long sequence about a boarding school, to name just one example, is there to emphasize the human dimension of the globalization of shipping. This doesn't always work and it often detracts from some of the film's more general points. However, even without a strong focus this film touches on a lot of interesting points, starting with the incredible volume of freight that moves all over the world everyday, especially in the sea. The film also turns a critical eye on labor practices and industrial culture, especially with a sequence that suggests that even a museum can become a tool of imperialism. Overall, The Forgotten Space is consistently interesting and it is aesthetically interesting in that it features a lot of images that I probably never would have seen otherwise, though they are never handled in a way that really emphasizes their uniqueness.
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The Grudge (2004)
5/10
A muddled mess
13 October 2013
Warning: Spoilers
The Grudge is rather a mess of a film. Most obviously, the chronology and perspective constantly changes but the film is written in such a way that most of the flashbacks and perspective shifts primarily exist to give detail to information that has already been conveyed through exposition, or that is obvious through inference. As a result, most of the storytelling falls flat and the film lacks suspense since the viewer already knows what's going to happen most of the time. At the same time, none of the characters are really fleshed out so it's hard to care about them to begin with. Amusingly for an American version of this most of the principal characters just happen to be Americans living in Japan and mostly speaking English. If the film did anything at all with this cultural conflict it might be fun to ponder whether the apparitions just really hate Americans but alas, even this bit of fun is absent, and this is just another missed opportunity for some relatively obvious and easy character development that just doesn't show up.

The other major problem with this film is that the actual spirit that is killing people is barely seen for the majority of the film and when it does show up it just comes across as an inferior version of the malevolent entity from The Ring, an obvious influence. Instead, most of the film uses the spirit of a young boy in a muddled way. The boy is somewhat creepy because of his appearance, which provides all the menace that can be summoned from black eye makeup and a generous slathering of corpse paint. At the same time, he still looks like a very young boy and, for me at least, this inspired the usual sympathetic feelings I have towards a young child. The juxtaposition between his appearance and this sympathy almost becomes something interesting but once the film seemed to imply that he might be responsible for the deaths of some adults the situation took a turn for the absurd because there really isn't that much menace to be had from any child unless there's something obvious to the menace beyond appearance.

In any case, Shimizu overuses the child character and underuses the actual malevolent entity, not that she's all that threatening except in comparison to the boy. She's just a ghost with a "grudge" because she died in terrible pain and now she just kills people that come to her old house, because...well, the film certainly doesn't do anything to explain why she would want to kill people or why she mostly just haunts the house but sometimes leaves it to go after people that have been there before. Especially in comparison to The Ring, The Grudge fails to establish the power or motivation of its malevolent spirit at any point and in fact it's hard to imagine why she would be so powerful. All in all, this story simply isn't told very well and several aspects of it fail. It's hard to believe that this is actually the third or fourth time the director tried to tell this story given how poorly he tells it.
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Autumn Moon (1992)
9/10
Law finds the beauty in urban alienation
26 August 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Clara Law's Autumn Moon explores modern urban alienation in a suitably sterile and lifeless Hong Kong. Law's shots of Hong Kong (and the surrounding areas) are the highlight here as she creates an appropriately otherworldly mood and imbues her cityscapes with a strange beauty. She also succeeds in creating some interesting characters, particularly with the film's central duo, Tokio, a burnt out Japanese tourist who seduces women out of habit but is unable to satisfy his urges and Li, a fifteen year old student preparing to move with her brother and parents to Canada. Law emphasizes the transiency of these characters whose shared culture consists of only the English language and the cuisine of McDonalds, which a naive Li holds forth as the height of Chinese traditional fare and a world-weary Tokio insists is the same in Hong Kong as it is in London and Toronto. Ultimately the two characters find a measure of satisfaction as Tokio discovers the Chinese tradition he seeks and confronts his own past while Li gets her first taste of romance and begins to accept her own inevitable departure. The film ends with the characters triumphantly shooting fireworks as they have learned to find joy in small measures, much as Law herself finds beauty in the very urban desolation she critiques.
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8/10
Class warfare in the industrial age
14 June 2013
Warning: Spoilers
GW Pabst's The 3 Penny Opera is ostensibly the story of a the conflict that arises when master burglar (and leader of a burglar guild) Mack the Knife marries Polly, the daughter of Peachum, the head of the guild of beggars. Though he prides himself in being the "Poorest man in London," Peachum is actually a very wealthy man who exploits the poor and and perpetuates their misery with his brutally efficient and dehumanizing industrial methods. Yet at the same time, Peachum deludes himself into thinking that he's a respectable man and this gives him a sort of bourgeois dislike for the more straightforward criminal activities of Mack the Knife and his cohorts.

Almost from the beginning, however, it's clear that the film isn't really about romance or even a feud between rival guilds. Rather, this is a film about a deeply flawed society and the way it sustains itself. Pabst glosses over the romance between Mack and Polly while simultaneously emphasizing the artificiality of the proceedings, specifically with interludes from the type of narrator familiar from stage plays. This serves to accentuate the artificiality of the behavior of Peachum and police chief Tiger Brown, the two authority figures of the narrative, both who only pretend to have the best interests of the common people at heart. In reality, Tiger Brown is happy to pay his respects at obvious criminal Mack's wedding and easily cowed into doing the bidding of Peachum, who plans to use his army of poor beggars to embarrass the chief if he doesn't join Peachum's cause. At the same time, the burglar's guild uses their ill-gotten gains to purchase a bank with the implication that it's more efficient to rob people this way than by breaking into their homes.

Beset on all sides with enemies, the poor are left with very little outlet and jump at the chance to strike out against their oppressors, though they fail to realize just how close those most responsible for their plight are and are thus led by Peachum and not against him. At the end they fail to make any progress and it seems things will continue as usual, with very little chance for the poor to better themselves. At the same time, their oppressors end the film with more solidarity than ever.

Pabst is more than equal to his task as director here and he manages to create some striking images, particularly when he pulls into artfully composed close-ups of individuals or small groups, as when Peachum masterfully stirs up his followers or helplessly attempts to stem their tide. Further, he's clever enough to use the fact that this is adapted from a stage play to his advantage as turns the artificiality to his own purposes. In his use of artificiality to suggest the deterministic nature of industrial society, the film reminds me of Joe Wright's recent adaptation of Anna Karenina, though this film is a bit more subtle and much less stylistically over the top.
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8/10
Engaging satire on police bureaucracy
20 April 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Based on a true story, Gordon Parks' 1974 film Super Cops is a loose collection of episodes about a couple of honest and determined rookie cops that gradually changes tone. The opening is satirical as titular pair Greenberg and Hantz encounter a police-training program notably for its absurdity. The opening scene is emblematic of the issues the film handles as the head trainer insists that the recruits should form two lines, with the front line composed of the tall men and the back line composed of the shorter men. When told quite logically that this is opposite of the way such things are usually conducted, the head trainer responds that this is just the way things have always been done in this course. The police departments consistently asserts its backwards priorities throughout training, as when a senior officer insists that the rookies mind their post directing traffic while an unopposed gunman takes shots at civilians from a high window a couple of blocks away. This section, which points out the absurdity of a bureaucracy that keeps things from being done instead of aiding them as it should, gets the film off to a particularly good start as it makes its point economically and convincingly while simultaneously displaying a sharp biting wit and establishing the characters and their goals.

Greenberg and Hantz quickly make a name for themselves as they take on real police work when they are off duty, arresting drug dealers and other small time crooks who flaunt their crimes before an undefended public. Here again, the police department comes off as the main antagonist as the veterans view these rookies with suspicion and assume their hard work is part of a grift. As the film progresses, the men encounter laziness, corruption, and stupidity at every level of the department and are generally punished for their hard work until they become famous for some of their wilder antics. One such antic has one partner commandeering a city bus and another jumping off a fire escape to get the drop on some out of town hired killers. The humor in such scenes is a bit on the zany side, though not overbearingly so; rather, this complements the more sophisticated jabs at bureaucracy surprisingly well.

After the mostly comedic first part, Greenberg and Hantz end up stationed at an undesirable precinct in a particularly dangerous neighborhood and the tone gradually becomes more serious, especially when they work against some well-connected drug distributors who use the department's flaws to their own advantage. Director Parks conveys a sense of tenseness in certain scenes quite well, an especially impressive feat given the comedic sections preceding them. In fact, Parks work is impressive overall, as all aspects of the film are more than competent, though there aren't many moments that really stick out on a technical level. This is an engaging, well-made police film that highlights some of the problems of bureaucracy in general and police bureaucracy particularly with a combination of satirical wit, zany humor, and a few scenes that are a bit more serious.
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Anna Karenina (I) (2012)
10/10
Brilliant adaptation
17 March 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is one of the most acclaimed novels of all time, not least of all because of the excellence of the book's themes. These themes of Tolstoy's are expressed extremely well in Joe Wright's adaptation of Anna Karenina. First and foremost and the area that really sets the film apart is the theatricality of certain settings in the film. Many scenes take place on sets made to resemble the stage, especially early on. I was initially baffled by this choice but I slowly came to realize that it functions as a way to make visual the artificiality of the world inhabited by Anna Karenina, specifically its outdated values. It's extremely clear that Russia was undergoing a major transition during the time in which the narrative is set. Trains and railways play a major role in the film and of course trains are a common symbol of technological progress. There's more than passing reference to the freeing of the serfs and the radical ideology even of some aristocrats, which echoes the life of Tolstoy himself. Much is also made of the cultural shifts in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the former of which had apparently become rather old-fashioned compared to the relatively progressive Petersburg at the time. The film suggests that the reaction of the country's upper class was to ignore the major changes that were occurring and cling all the harder to the past, especially with regards to social institutions. Thus the eponymous heroine finds it impossible to escape her loveless marriage with any social standing intact, which eventually drives her mad.

This isn't just a plainly literal translation of the source, however, as Wright's clever use of the stage is just one of many visual techniques he uses to make this material cinematic. Wright's use of landscape is unusually strong, particularly in the surreal final shot. His use of mirrors made me think of some of the works of RW Fassbinder, another supreme visual stylist. Another neat touch is having background characters freeze and fade into the background to suggest the heightened emotional state of the main characters, particularly in the scene where Anna has her first dance with the rakish Vronsky. Overall, another excellent movie from one of the most promising English language directors of his generation and the best 2012 film I've seen so far.
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Blindness (2008)
1/10
Misanthropic trash, ugly aesthetically
2 March 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Fernando Meirelles' Blindness is about an infectious disease that makes people go blind. It's divided fairly evenly into three sections, the first of which concerns the beginning of the disease and its spread, the second of which concerns initial efforts to slow the spread of the disease, and the third of which concerns efforts of a group making their way through a city stricken by the disease. The first section is fairly engaging, if somewhat disjointed. The second section is infuriating as it presents some unrealistically evil characters who have a very easy time taking over the internment camp and oppressing the majority of the inmates, who refuse to resist for laughable reasons. Here, Mereilles exhibits a ghoulish willingness to wallow in the mire of the inhumanity on display as he focuses on the sordid details in a sickening fashion. Compared to the stifling second section, the third is quite a relief and things become somewhat more bearable as the main group travels through the city and manages to form a desirable community, although it's hardly one that appears to be sustainable.

*MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD*

Blindness strikes me as a film that may be allegorical, specifically as it features a character who is born blind and is among the most evil of all the characters and ends with a character learning to find the good in people and regaining his sight. Perhaps the idea is that a general lack of empathy or "blindness" toward the plight of other people becomes literal blindness and people can learn to see by building beneficial relationships with others. Another idea I thought of while watching this film has to do with the one character who is never stricken with the disease. I thought that perhaps it's suggesting that a leader with "vision" can help others improve their lives but they must be receptive and open to that leader's ideas. In either case, I don't think this themes are really enough to make the film worthwhile-in fact, they're a bit obvious and trite. I realize it's rather ungenerous to create this sort of interpretation and then criticize it, however nothing about this film puts me in a generous mood.

Aesthetically, this film's ugliness is a match for its subject matter. All of the colors here look blown out and faded and Meirelles overuses close-ups frequently, not that his sense of composition is strong with medium shots or long shots either. The direction and storytelling are also poor, which is what I expected from Meirelles based on the other film of his I've seen. On the positive side, the actors all do a very good job. Overall, this is not a film with many redeeming features and I definitely count it among the worst I've ever seen.
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Szamanka (1996)
7/10
Zulawski explores shamans and sexuality
6 January 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Like most Zulawski films, Szamanka is most notable for the camera-work. As usual, the camera moves around fluidly and Zulawski, working with his usual DP Andrzej Jaroszewicz, frequently employs some unusual angles that greatly complement the film's off-kilter tone. Also as usual for this Polish director, the acting style is stylized in a rather unique way as the principle characters behavior is always extreme, or at the very least exaggerated. While the film is in many ways typical of Zulawski, I was surprised to see that most of his directorial characteristics, while present, were relatively subdued, almost as if he was attempting to make his films more accessible to a mainstream audience, not that there's anything mainstream about the film's narrative.

The plot of Szamanka focuses on the very physical relationship between Michal, an anthropology professor, and a nameless psychotic woman who claims to be a student and works at a meat packing plant. As the film opens, Michal has discovered the corpse of a shaman preserved in the ground for thousands of years. Michal, whose own brother is Catholic priest, becomes obsessed with the shaman and the girl in equal measure. It's difficult not to draw a parallel between modern priests and ancient shamans here, as Michal's mystical communion with the shaman's corpse eventually leads him to consider becoming a priest himself. Michal also appears to be somewhat torn in his love life as he must choose between his fiancée, the cultured daughter of his employer, and the diametrically opposite student, whose own inability to conform to the rules of society is apparent in her proclivity for petty theft and her difficulty dealing with her mother and young children. So it seems that the central question of the film is whether Michal should embrace man's primal nature and continue his relationship with the shamanastic mad woman or return to modern civilization, either with his fiancée or through the priesthood. Yet all these thematic concerns are oddly de- emphasized as the film is too often composed of repetitive sex scenes. Typically of Zulawski, the film ends with some rather insane acts and what appears to be a rather large explosion.

All in all, this was a rather uneven film which raised some interesting themes but didn't explore them with much depth, instead focusing overmuch on an odd sexual relationship. Still, Zulawski's style is interesting enough on its own to make up for some of the film's flaws.
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Vlci bouda (1967)
6/10
"B" horror meets political allegory with middling success
29 December 2012
Warning: Spoilers
The premise of this film from Czech avant garde director Vera Chytilova resembles that of many "B" horror movies of the time. A large group of teenagers head to an isolated camp with relatively little adult supervision. In this case, it's clear from the start that there is something peculiar about the camp counselors, who claim that there is an extra camper who doesn't belong. The counselors consistently work to undermine the relationship between the various campers, which isn't difficult given the isolation, extreme cold of the mountain location, and lack of good food. It seems that one of Chytilova's aims here is to build a tense atmosphere for psychological horror, yet this is not altogether successful, mostly because of the goofiness of the campers and the absurdity of the eventual reveal of the nature of the counselors and their goals. Chytilova's direction isn't as successful as it could have been either - though she attempts to spice things up with some creative camera work and transitional close-ups of spreading ice, she fails to infuse the proceedings with much tension.

Like many films from major Eastern European directors of the era, Wolf's Chalet contains elements of political allegory that are hard to ignore. The inhuman behavior of the counselors resembles that of an oppressive regime that demands sacrifices from its people for no good reason. At the same time, the campers mostly fail to band together to combat the obvious malevolence of their captors, which suggests the lack of useful action undertaken by the people. It is only when the campers work together that they have any chance of withstanding the counselors, although they find it impossible to offer opposition without making sacrifices of their own.

While Wolf's Chalet has an interesting premise and it avoids most of the pitfalls of the "B" horror movies it resembles, the narrative still doesn't work all that well when taken literally. While it's a little more successful as a political statement, it's a bit hard to swallow serious themes from such silly goings-on. The best part of this film overall is the camera work, which at least attempts something interesting and original. Nevertheless, while it's easy to see why this is not a very well known film, it kept my attention and was fairly engaging throughout.
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Greed (1924)
8/10
Von Stroheim elevates source material
15 December 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Frank Norris's 1899 novel McTeague is one of the key works in American literary naturalism, featuring several hallmarks of the literary movement, which flourished around the turn of the century. Erich Von Stroheim's adaptation, retitled Greed, strictly adhered to the novel and the original nine hour cut must have been a scene for scene translation. This closeness of the film to the source material means that Greed carries over some of naturalism's key themes. Specifically, the film is about John McTeague, a miner's son who attempts to better himself by becoming an apprentice in a trade—dentistry—but ultimately finds himself doomed to failure as mining is what he was meant to do. This combination of determinism and social Darwinism is typical of naturalism's focus on the lack of autonomy of individual humans. Another characteristic of naturalism evident in Greed is a sort of primitivization of human beings as both John McTeague and his father are constantly dirty and covered in masses of unkempt hair. Similarly, in one of Von Stroheim's most inspired scenes, some clever editing compares McTeague's rival Marcus to a cat preparing to prey on a couple of helpless caged canaries.

Another key theme of Greed is…greed, which wrecks the lives of the three principal characters. McTeague's love interest Trina is a hard working, thrifty girl who remains relatively happy until she wins a substantial sum in a lottery, after which she becomes a miserable miser as she strives to increase her small fortune. This infuriates the formerly happy-go-lucky Marcus, who gracefully bowed out of a semi-engagement with Trina to make his friend McTeague happy. His opportunism is amplified into psychosis as he realizes he's missed his chance to share a part of Trina's fortune. The money even ruins McTeague himself, who finds it impossible to work for menial wages when his household possesses enough wealth to allow him a relatively leisurely life if only he could convince his wife to use it.

The other important characters in Greed are two diametrically opposed couples: there is the greedy couple Zerkow and Maria, who dream of fabulous wealth and the elderly couple Grannis and Miss Baker, who are too busy working to notice each other. Zerkow suspects Maria is hiding money from him and it drives him mad while Grannis sells his business (for the same amount Trina won in the lottery) and settles down to retirement with Miss Baker. The never subtle Norris uses these subplots to posit two possible future future paths for McTeague and Trina.

Contrary to my focus on themes common to the novel and film, Greed is not merely an extension of Norris's novel. Von Stroheim makes the film his own as he sets the proper tone with colored filters, carefully controlled zooms, and some reasonably well put together editing. In fact, his filmmaking is considerably more adept than Norris's workmanlike prose. The climactic scenes in Death Valley, which Von Stroheim shoots through a yellow filter, are particularly impressive and are easily among the best of the silent era.

In spite of the carefully realized themes of McTeague, I did not enjoy the novel when I read it a few years ago. Like many works of naturalism, some of the character behavior seems stilted—probably to reinforce the idea that humans lack autonomy. Further, Norris's lack of style and his heavy-handedness in slathering on miserable situations make for a rather unpleasant reading experience, which to be fair is not atypical of my experiences with literary naturalism. The most problematic aspect of McTeague, though, is one I've already mentioned: the social Darwinism. It's always difficult to establish intent, even with a writer as heavy- handed as Norris, but it's tempting to see the novel as a snobby dismissal of an irredeemable lower class represented by the buffoonish and reprehensible McTeague. Yet, in spite of my dislike for McTeague, which caused me to stay away from this film for years, I found Greed quite impressive even with its often languid runtime, which is padded out with uncinematic production stills and expository title cards. Von Stroheim has a better sense of characterization and he manages to build some sympathy even for the mostly unlikeable characters here and he infuses the goings on with an epic quality mostly absent from the book. Somehow, Von Stroheim stayed true to a book I didn't like and made a film I found above average nonetheless.
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10/10
DePalma explores sex, violence, and gender identity to maximum cinematic effect
26 October 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Dressed to Kill, which many viewers seem to have dismissed as a mere riff on Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, is actually an excellent film in its own right. Director Brian DePalma establishes a disturbing, highly sexualized atmosphere right from the surreal opening, which explores the nude body of a showering woman at length as she eyes a towel-clad male companion expectantly. Suddenly, her expectations are shattered by the entrance of a murderous interloper. This scene, with its mixture of sexuality and violence, prefigures the film's main narrative.

The plot combines the formulas of the slasher film and the detective film. The slasher character exudes menace while the detectives, amateur and professional alike, exhibit just the right amount of quirky personality. The film's genre mishmash makes it rather similar to the giallo films of the 1970s, which were themselves greatly influenced by Hitchcock. Yet DePalma proves to be in a class of his own as he uses unconventional visual techniques such as split screen to build tension and suspense. At the same time, DePalma's mastery of more conventional shots helps Dressed to Kill transcend the work of his contemporaries and influences alike.

Thematically, DePalma deals with some of the same issues that Hitchcock explored in Psycho, specifically gender identity and violence caused by repressed sexuality. However, whereas Hitchcock was overly concerned with spelling out new concepts and reducing them to textbook abnormal psychology tidbits for his audience, DePalma is content to leave a certain aura of mystery to the actions of his killer. Even a slightly stilted expository scene in a police station is all but forgotten in the wake of the film's stunning ending.
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6/10
Allegorical banquet in the forest
16 August 2012
Warning: Spoilers
A Report on the Party and the Guests is an oddly nonsensical film about two groups of people who encounter one another in a forest and go on to a bizarre formal banquet in a clearing. The first, smaller group knows nothing about the gathering or the man it's supposed to honor yet they're quickly sucked into the bizarre goings on. The larger group acts rather thuggish if not downright fascist. Perhaps the oddest thing about this sometimes incomprehensible film is the reaction it inspired on its release as it was supposedly "banned forever." Thematically it's fairly clear that the film is about mindless conformity and the threat of authoritarianism, though it's odd that such a simple message was found so offensive. Perhaps I just don't know enough about Czechoslovakian history, though I do know that the Czech New Wave is famous for subtly veiled allegorical criticism of the dominant Soviet regime in other movies such as The Firemen's Ball, which A Report on the Party and the Guests shares certain similarities with. My best guess is that the group that is dragged into the party represents Czechoslovakia and the party itself is the Soviet Union, which exerts a lot of pressure on the small group that suffers from the association.

Stylistically this film is quite odd. In spite of its natural settings- there are no indoor scenes-the landscape receives very little attention. Instead, the film is shot in a style reminiscent of interview centric documentaries as the characters are usually filmed alone in close ups, especially when speaking. This is particularly odd when they are engaged in conversation. Everything is spatially disconnected, which makes the film disorienting at times. A Report on the Party and the Guests is an odd film which drags at times in spite of its rather short length but its oddness makes it a positive experience overall. No doubt this film would be very powerful indeed within the right context.
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Morgiana (1972)
9/10
Excellent Gothic visuals
3 July 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Like his somewhat more famous Cremator, Juraj Herz's Morgiana is primarily interesting because of its unique visual style. In Morgiana, Herz uses fisheye lenses generously and he also gets a lot of mileage out of unusual camera angles. These aren't the only things that give the film visual interest, however: each frame is packed full of Gothic details as it's primarily set in a couple of ornate Victorian style mansions. Further, there are several psychedelic point of view shots that indicate a character's hallucinations and some wild pans to represent disorientation.

The plot of Morgiana focuses on a pair of sisters, Klara and Viktorie, who each inherit half of their father's large estate. The two sisters are essentially opposite, which is conveyed both by their behavior-Klara is happy and popular while Viktorie is depressed and lonely-and by their looks as Klara wears bright colors while Viktorie wears dark colors. Viktorie becomes jealous of her sister who has the better life and better inheritance and decides to poison her, which causes her to hallucinate and waste away. Meanwhile Viktorie becomes increasingly unable to hide her guilt. There's nothing particularly novel or clever about the plot as is (though Herz reportedly did have a clever twist in mind that he wasn't allowed to film) but the visuals enrich the narrative as well, particularly the way Herz develops different motifs for the different sisters.

Overall, Morgiana is a masterpiece that should be especially appealing to fans of The Cremator or other Czech New Wave films such as Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.
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Pola X (1999)
6/10
Inexplicable adaptation of Melville
1 June 2012
Warning: Spoilers
With previous films including Mauvais Sang and The Lovers on the Bridge, Leos Carax's characters were constantly on the brink of madness, or at least a disturbing single-mindedness. This is a trend that Carax continues and expands with Pola X. In this adaptation of Herman Melville's Pierre, or The Ambiguities, Carax depicts characters whose madness is palpable as their behavior becomes more and more erratic. Main character Pierre, a successful writer who lives in a mansion on a rambling estate with his perhaps too adoring mother, abandons his family and loving girlfriend Lucie in order to strike out on his own with Isabelle, a foreign vagrant who claims to be his sister. Things take a dark turn quickly as his sister's odd companions get him in trouble with everyone he meets and his relationship with Isabelle becomes sexual. At the same time, he has trouble with his writing and becomes intimately involved with an unexplained cult. Eventually it becomes clear that he has left his old life because he felt that his way of life was not true enough, though ironically he is repeatedly accused of being an impostor in his new life, something that never happened before he set out trying to embody the truth. Later on, things take a turn for the darkly comic as Pierre introduces Lucie to Isabelle as his cousin in order to allay her suspicion about his relationship with her—given their odd relationship, she logically ought to be just as worried about his attraction to a female with a family connection to him. After this point, however, all logic is abandoned as Pierre and Isabelle become more and more unhinged.

The problem with Pola X isn't just that it's generally inexplicable if not altogether incomprehensible because of rushed and underdeveloped characters and events, it's that Carax largely abandons the visual style he put to such great use in his earlier films, opting instead for a drab aesthetic that emphasizes the sordid misery of the characters' surroundings. Even the few unusual shots he employs here seem like half- hearted rehashes of better scenes in his previous films. Still, even lesser Carax is of some interest.
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Mauvais Sang (1986)
8/10
Innovative in style but generic in plot and theme
30 April 2012
Warning: Spoilers
With his second feature Mauvais Sang, Leos Carax blends the standard genre conventions of the heist film and the disaffected youth film. These generic conventions allow Carax to take a shortcut in providing the basic elements of plot and character so that he can focus on stylistic innovation. The result is a poetic, dazzling film packed with memorable visual touches and camera-work. Particularly exhilarating are the frequent point of view shots, especially the ones that involve characters on motorcycles. A few of the bolder shots, such as one in which the camera spins toward abstraction as it covers the scattered lights of a cityscape at night, would not seem out of place in an experimental film by someone such as Stan Brakhage.

Yet the plot, which concerns a young man's attempts to steal a serum that will help him earn a large sum of money so that he can move to a new town and begin a new life, is actually a bit too perfunctory and becomes bogged down as it spends too much time on a rather uninteresting relationship he forms with one of his accomplices' mistress. Nevertheless, this early effort from Carax hints at the potential that later films such as The Lovers on the Bridge would more thoroughly fulfill as it offers a certain unpolished charm all its own.
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Raw Deal (1948)
8/10
Film noir with strong female characters
29 February 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Raw Deal has something of a typical noir situation as Joe, a basically likable but unlucky criminal, having taken the wrap for his evil boss, busts out of prison because he can't stand being cooped up in a small cell. Accompanied by his devoted girlfriend Pat, he kidnaps his lawyer's law abiding assistant Ann, who has mixed feelings about him. He then flees from the cops and goes to reconnect with his boss, who is secretly scheming against him.

What sets Raw Deal apart is the focus on the two women, each of whom Joe sees as a representation of one aspect of his personality. Pat, who frequently divulges her feelings in voice-over narration, is completely loyal to Joe. Yet somehow Joe is reluctant to return her feelings completely, most likely because he feels that he has compromised himself with his criminal actions and her blind acceptance of them makes her something of a symbol for those aspects of himself that he feels bad about. At the same time, Ann is interested in Joe because of the good things he did before turning to a life of crime and she encourages him to go straight.

So as the film goes on, each woman has an ethical dilemma to face. Ann must reconcile her burgeoning feelings for Joe with his criminal behavior while Pat must decide whether to sacrifice Ann to keep Joe. The upshot of all this is that Joe, having found his moral compass thanks to Ann, decides that it would be unfair of him to leave Pat after all she has done for him.

While the narrative focuses on romance, stylistically Raw Deal is quintessential noir. The claustrophobic visuals emphasize the constant threat of danger, which might be found in any of the ever-present shadows. There are a couple of particularly nice visual touches in the hellish fire images that surround the villain. Mann remembers to work in some determinism as it seems that Joe is destined to find trouble at every turn.

Overall, Raw Deal is a well-made noir film from Anthony Mann, one of the best directors ever to have worked in Hollywood. It helps that Mann is working with DP John Alton, whose noir photography is rightfully acclaimed. It also offers some unusually well developed female characters.
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Desperate (1947)
8/10
Good film noir with a few really excellent scenes
25 February 2012
There are three stand-out sequences in Desperate, an otherwise standard noir effort from Anthony Mann, whose subsequent work earns him a spot among the greatest film-makers in cinema history. The first of these takes place early in the film as a character is being interrogated in a dark room with a single light source, an overhead lamp attached to the ceiling by a flexible cable. During the scuffle, one of the characters is knocked into the lamp and it swings wildly around, by turns illuminating the characters' faces and throwing them into darkness. Visually, this is the kind of moment that film noir is known for as this excellent use of shadow presents a image that perfectly conveys the tension in the scene.

The second stand-out scene occurs during another intense stand off, this time when two men are holding a third man prisoner until midnight, at which time they plan to execute him. Here, the face of each of the three men is shown briefly in turn in a cycle. As this cycle repeats over and over again, a ticking clock becomes louder and louder. At the same time, the camera moves closer and closer until only the nearly indistinguishable desperate eyes of the men are visible. It's a surprisingly intense sequence that works nearly as well as the similar but more famous scene in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The third sequence will be of most interest to fans of the great westerns Mann made in the 1950s. Nearly every one of Mann's westerns ends with someone taking to higher ground, usually on a mountain of some sort. This film offers the urban version of this as one character retreats up a seemingly endless staircase as the other doggedly pursues him. Here again, the shadow is almost palpable and this technique proves to be as effective in film noir as in the western.

Although it is not as accomplished as most of the Mann films I've seen, Desperate is still an excellent example of the noir genre that ought to be more widely seen.
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Hanna (2011)
7/10
Nice images, mediocre everything else
25 November 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Hanna is a film about a girl who is trained from birth to be a special agent. Her dry, unimaginative father takes her to the tundra where he teachers her survival, combat, and languages successfully. Less successful are his attempts to give her knowledge of the world outside their wintry boundaries. Her father forces her to memorize dry facts without context, which proves to be no substitute for experience. Since she grows up without electricity or any modern conveniences, Hanna is particularly unsuited to urban missions. Eventually this all has to end and teenage Hanna is thrust into the world she is eager to enter yet ill equipped to deal with.

With Hanna, director Joe Wright shows that he is able to create striking images, mostly through his superb use of light and color. Unfortunately, in spite of the striking still images that frequently appear in Hanna, the moving images tend to be less impressive. Like certain other action directors, Wright overuses shaky cam. He also doesn't properly utilize tracking shots, instead relying on quick cuts from various perspectives to convey the action. On the bright side, Wright isn't afraid to take some risks with editing, though there's at least one sequence in which he goes overboard with this, splintering the frame into a clock like mosaic of Hanna faces.

While the cinematic aspects of Hanna are somewhat uneven, the writing is appallingly mediocre. The plot mostly consists of trite and pointless chase scenes ending in workmanlike action sequences that tend to lack the proper set up needed to create a real sense of urgency. None of the villains really project much menace, especially when their meager skills are compared to the superhuman abilities of hardened killer Hanna. Although I don't normally worry about fight choreography, I had the bad fortune of watching this the day after I saw Ip Man, a film inferior to this one in all ways except for the truly excellent fight choreography. Compared to that film's fights, the ones in Hanna felt downright sluggish.

In spite of my reservations about Hanna, I have to admit that the pacing was handled quite well and the scenes of Hanna attempting to fit into normal society worked in spite of themselves. This is a pretty fair piece of escapist entertainment from a director with potential.
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8/10
Even-handed social commentary
19 October 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Boudu Saved From Drowning offers a remarkably even-handed look at class relations. While some characters, such as a group of policeman unwilling to help a bum search for his missing dog but all too willing to jump to the aid of a lovely woman missing a more materially valuable animal, obviously behave negatively, others have good points to match their bad. In fact, sometimes the characters from different social classes are almost too similar. The film centers around Lestingois, a generous member of the middle class who is most happy when avoiding his stuffy wife to hang around with his saucy maid. Lestingois risks his life to rescue Boudu, an uncultured bum who loses his desire to continue living once he is parted from his only companion.

Oddly enough, Lestingois has also lost one of his closest companions as the film begins, yet he hardly seems to care about his missing friend at all. By contrast, Boudu, a man that generally cares little about those around him, is deeply disturbed by his own loss. Still, once Boudu's actions reveal that he's happiest when avoiding Lestingois' wife to woo the maid, it becomes clear that the two aren't so different after all, manners notwithstanding.

The culture clash in Boudu Saved From Drowning is good for a few moments of genuine comedy, though they mostly are provided by situational irony, the same inferior type of humor that gave rise to the "sit-com." As a result, the film isn't quite as funny as it might have been.

Renoir is more than capable of handling the technical aspects here, though his direction is a bit more restrained than it had been in his previous two pictures. Since I prize the innovative techniques on display in his rawer efforts more highly than the staid professionalism he exhibits here, this was a slight problem for me. I suppose there is much to appreciate in Renoir's carefully composed shots, yet I couldn't help but feel that a refusal to innovate is equivalent to taking the easy way out for a director of Renoir's talents. Nevertheless, Boudu Saved From Drowning is a well made film full of clever social commentary and as such is worthwhile viewing for anyone.
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La Chienne (1931)
8/10
Renoir's austere examination of society's corrupting influence
7 October 2011
Warning: Spoilers
By 1931, Renoir had completely abandoned the innovative superimpositions and wild set designs that characterized his silent films. In La Chienne, he favored a stripped down, almost austere form of realism; nearly every shot in the film is taken from a medium distance and the camera movement is utilitarian. Even the compositions offer few surprises, though one shot neatly emphasizes a character's reaction to his lover's betrayal by detaching the perspective and filtering it through various obstructions.

The stripped down style Renoir employs in the film brings the focus to the plot of the film, which involves an old fashioned, wholesome man who is mocked and taken advantage of by everyone he encounters. Eventually, this influence corrupts him totally and he joins the dregs of society. This happens gradually enough to make his transformation believable and genuinely shocking. It also suggests that society is rotten to the core, an idea that it has in common with the Naturalism movement, of which earlier Renoir efforts Whirlpool of Fate and Nana are obviously a part. Although it's tempting to read the film as a misogynist work, especially given that the title translates to The Bitch and that both of the major female characters are absolutely detestable, it's important to note that most of the minor male characters and especially the pimp are equally as reprehensible as either of the two women. In fact, the only character who is treated with much sympathy is the protagonist Legrand and even he ultimately falls from grace. Although Renoir would later gain a reputation for his humanism, this film's portrayal of humanity is as dark as they come.
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Nana (1926)
6/10
Renoir's sophomore slump
23 September 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Aesthetically notable only for the baroque vastness of its underutilized interiors, Nana is conventional in both narrative and form. The only exception to this is the final scene, which offers a neat blend between an objective depiction of reality and Nana's delirious perspective. Nevertheless, given the film's languorous pace at over two hours, even this well executed scene arrives too late to make much of an impression. Renoir's regression to a less innovative style is especially disappointing given the promise of the Impressionistic techniques on display in his previous film Whirlpool of Fate.

Unfortunately for a work that relies so heavily on plot, neither the characters nor the standard "loose woman brings about the downfall of herself and several others" details are especially well developed. The broad (even for a silent) acting style further limits Nana's appeal. Overall, this film's reputation as Renoir's best silent baffles me and I can only assume that those who prefer it to Whirlpool of Fate value staid theatricality over cinematic innovation.
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9/10
Naturalism and Impressionism meet in an auspicious debut
18 September 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Although it resembles traditional melodrama in many ways, it's actually quite easy to spot the influence of Impressionism and Naturalism in Jean Renoir's (solo) debut feature Whirlpool of Fate. From Naturalism Renoir inherits a sense of determinism, which is there in the lack of control that the hapless waif protagonist has over her own life, the sense that she's the victim of larger (in this case societal) forces working against her. Thus, we begin with the mysterious accidental death of her father that shatters her happy life and leaves her reliant on a lousy ne'er-do-well of an abusive uncle, who she flees only to get herself caught in various other bad situations, including a conflict between gypsies and townsfolk and even an encounter with a literal whirlpool. Even her eventual shot at salvation comes about due to more or less random occurrences and coincidences.

From the Impressionist school we get some nice cinematic techniques that add a lot of interest to an otherwise depressing story. An early scene in which the uncle attacks our heroine includes some camera tricks that suggest confusion and anger via rapid movements and blurring. Later on there are some rapid montages that call Eisenstein and the Russian Formalist school to mind. Most importantly, there is a scene that gives a sense of the delirium brought on by the girl's confusion and sickness. In one shot, the character simultaneously appears stricken against a tree and running, fleeing form the jeering enemies that surround her as she mentally is still stuck in the situation that caused her disorientation.

In spite of the conventionality of certain plot elements and certain aspects which suffer a slight bit due to Renoir's obvious inexperience, this is a surprisingly well put together film which reflects two of the most important artistic movements of the day. Altogether, Whirlpool of Fate is truly a hidden gem and a worthy start to a distinguished career.
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Blonde Venus (1932)
9/10
A glimpse into what film could have been
16 September 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Josef Von Sternberg's films of the 1930s are some of the most unique ever made. Sternberg was one of the most promising directors of the 1920s, but of course there was a paradigm shift with the advent of sound near the end of the decade, causing most filmmakers to abandon the experimental cinematic techniques so instrumental to the most successful silent films. Dialogue heavy films in which visuals took a backseat to plot and characterization became the norm. Sternberg seems to have been the only director to integrate sound successfully into his normal filmmaking routine without completely changing his style. Thus, in a film like Blonde Venus Sternberg still employed his slick editing techniques and Impressionistic camera tricks such as superimpositions. As simple as this sounds, it's quite off-putting to see a film like this when expecting the relatively primitive filmmaking techniques of the popular films of the 1930s.

While Sternberg naturally evolved his style and progressed through the '30s in his own way, nearly every other filmmaker regressed to a more stagy film style. It's for this reason that Sternberg's films of the 1930s look so different: this is an offshoot of film evolution that unfortunately didn't have much influence on contemporary films; what you see when you watch Sternberg's films from this era is the style that films could have moved toward if the retreat to the old dramatic forms hadn't occurred.

So, what makes Blonde Venus off-putting? Well, in spite of its relative lack of length (it's only ninety-minutes long) a lot of ground is covered in this film. There's a love triangle established early on which is resolved almost before it's fully formed and the plot doesn't slow down as a character goes from riches to rags and becomes a fugitive from justice in just a few moments; in fact, things just speed up from there and in twenty minutes or so there's a manhunt that stretches across several states, several close brushes with the law, and a dramatic showdown about child custody before the character hits bottom, heads to Europe, and quickly vaults back to riches again. This is the sort of plot that would never be told in less than twice this amount of time today, in fact I've seen entire seasons of television shows with less plot packed into them. Throughout all this, Sternberg's visual panache guarantees the viewer's interest and, at the same time, narrative coherence is easily maintained. There's even some good thematic material here about self-sacrifice and women's roles in the period.

Like most of Sternberg's films from this decade, Blonde Venus offers an embarrassment of riches when compared to its contemporaries in spite of a pacing style that will be difficult for viewers used to (non- Sternberg) films for this era to adjust to. For a viewer with a bit of context, this is a wonderful glimpse at what film could have been.
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7/10
Minor film in German Expressionist mode
10 September 2011
Warning: Spoilers
German Expressionism was a style of filmmaking that seemed loaded with potential, especially after the early success of The Cabinet of Caligari. The idea of the movement was that the filmmakers would make the sets reflect the interior state of the characters, which is a neat way to get around the seeming perspective limitation of cinema when compared to literature. In practice, however, Caligari has remained pretty much the only famous film to do this successfully and consistently in spite of the utilization of this technique in very small measures in several films of the period, most famously in those of Murnau and Lang.

I was hoping that the relatively obscure Warning Shadows (aka Schatten - Eine nächtliche Halluzination) might be another film that took full advantage of what I see as the great potential of this movement but I was somewhat disappointed to see that it uses it minimally. First of all, in spite of a couple of cues that suggest a good deal of the film isn't quite real or even that it's all the dream of a character, this idea is never fully developed so there really isn't a specific interior state to reflect. Even if you work with the assumption that the film doesn't represent any specific perspective but is meant to look like a dream, the set design is still lacking because it just seems like a staged mockup of a large manor house. In fact, for a film that foregoes dialogue and intertitles altogether, Warning Shadows is surprisingly stagy and the rooms seem artificial in a bad way, especially since it isn't common to see more than one wall at a time here.

The plot and its execution is solid but unremarkable. The film is about a very jealous man who has invited four amorous young men to have dinner with him and his coquettish wife. It's obvious where this is headed all along, although things are complicated by the presence of an entertainer who can do amazing things with shadow puppets. He uses these puppets to show what might happen if the young men don't cool their heels around the jealous husband. This is a simple plot that is still somewhat hard to follow because of the lack of dialogue and is further complicated by the languorous pace. On the bright side, the entertainer character seems to be a neat variation on the supernatural trickster archetype.

Anyway, the highlight here is still the visuals, especially the warning shadows themselves. There's something inherently creepy about shadows and especially a mysterious person who can manipulate them for reasons of his own and even though he ultimately turns out to be relatively benevolent the film still manages to pull of a few unsettling sequences. Further, there are a couple of scenes in which the characters' behavior is odd in a way that calls dreams to mind, so this isn't just your run of the mill tale of jealousy. I also have to give the film some credit for relying so much on visuals and the last scene is suitably bizarre. Overall, Warning Shadows is a worthwhile watch that doesn't quite live up some of its more famous predecessors.
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Rififi (1955)
10/10
Perfect mix of material and director's sensibilities
22 August 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Jules Dassin is a director who always manages to surprise me. The descriptions of his films never sound appealing but once I start watching them they always quickly suck me in. The reason for this is that Dassin is unusually good at pacing his narratives so that suspense is built while the story economically moves forward and the characters' personalities are revealed through action. This is complemented by his technical prowess: his directing style never draws attention to itself, yet Dassin isn't afraid to innovate with unusual techniques.

An excellent example of Dassin's innovation is the heist sequence in Rififi, which is completely free of dialogue and music. Such a long period of silence is hardly common for films from this period yet no one who has seen the film can doubt its effectiveness. In fact, this may be the most famous scene of Dassin's distinguished career. A similar level of experimentation is apparent in a later scene in which an injured criminal drives his convertible at breakneck speed through a park and the camera careens wildly around him, conveying his disorientation to the viewer.

Though every film I've seen by Dassin has exceeded my expectations, none has had quite as much to offer as Rififi. Its plot unfolds with the tragic inevitability for which noir is known yet at the same time Dassin explores the causes of his characters' downfall with a keen eye. This is a film which understands its characters' virtues and flaws equally and isn't afraid to show both. Rififi is a film in which the material and the director's sensibilities mesh perfectly and the result is extraordinary.
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