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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.