Quick Flick Round Up

It’s been forever since I posted any movie reviews. Here’s a quick recap of the pathetically small number of films (and TV series) I’ve watched throughout the past few months.

Yes, it’s true, I finally got around to seeing The Lives of Others (2008). I refused to roll into the new year with that disc still in my “at home” Netflix queue, so one day shy of 2010, I watched it and returned it with just four days to spare before the one year anniversary of Netflix originally shipping it to me.

Set in 1980s East Berlin, this is the story of a surveillance officer, Gerd Wiesler, who gets caught up in the lives of his most recent target, a successful playwright and his actress girlfriend. When it becomes apparent that his superior officer is hoping to take down the author as a way to get the girl, Wiesler becomes sympathetic to his subjects just as the author begins to really give the government something to worry about. As Wiesler tries to subvert the surveillance from within, he puts in motion a tragic game. The acting is great and the atmosphere strikes just the right note of oppression and coercion with a faint glimmer of hope that propels you through this bleak drama.

The Fall (2006) is drop-dead gorgeous, filled with so many stunning visuals I gave up on the story and just enjoyed the view. I read afterward, that this is a vanity project for the director, who goes by the single name Tarsem, and do I ever believe it. Supposedly, he used no computer generated special effects. That just adds to the wonder.

Lee Pace (of Pushing Daisies) plays a suicidal stuntman recovering in a 19-teens L.A. hospital who entertains a little girl with a fantastic story about five heroes on a quest. Fantasy and reality meld as he tells the story and she interjects and the stuntman’s darker side begins to reveal. The story eventually became tedious but the film’s visuals never allowed me to get completely bored. Vivid color, amazing locations around the globe, and fantastic costumes worthy of any grand opera. And The Fall has one of the most gorgeously photographed and compelling opening credit sequences (set to a segment of Beethoven’s Symphony #7) I can ever recall seeing. Unfortunately, as a whole, the rest of the movie fails to live up to the first three minutes.

Even in the silliest of stories, silent screen icon Mary Pickford is a compelling force. In this 1922 version of Tess of the Storm Country, she remakes one of her earlier films (a testament to her Hollywood star power) resuming one of her favorite characters, Tess Skinner, an urchin who lives in a fishing tenement village at the base of a wealthy man’s property. When the rich man tries to evict the squatters, he sets in motion a complicated tale that intertwines his own family members’ fates with those of the fisher folk. Though 30-playing-17, Pickford is terrific, the sets and cinematography are gorgeous in sepia (especially the exteriors) and elements of the story are surprisingly shocking for the day. The Christian overtones get a bit heavy-handed.

Review: Street Angel (1928)

Directed by Frank Borzage

Janet Gaynor stars in an overwrought melodrama with the type of plot that’s standard in an opera but tiresome in a movie. The dramatic climax, set along the foggy waterfront is beautifully photographed.

Street Angel suffers from the type of plot where the central dilemma could be eradicated with one simple line of dialog. Angela (Gaynor) inspires impoverished artist Gino (frequent co-star Charles Farrell) to paint angelic beauty. Together they’re poor and blissfully happy, but a shadow hangs over them. Unknown to Gino, Angela is a fugitive, having tried unsuccessfully to solicit and steal enough to pay for her dying mother’s medicine. On her way to prison, she escapes, joins a traveling circus, and falls in love with Gino.

On the eve of their wedding, Angela’s past catches up with her and she goes off to the workhouse to serve out her sentence, leaving Gino to believe she’s left him rather than telling him the truth. Yeah, right. Apparently learning that his fiance was a really bad streetwalker would be too much for him to handle–that old love on a pedestal thing. Abandonment is so much more productive to the creative genius.

So, if you can suspend your belief and get beyond the overly dramatic and drawn out plot, the camera work and shot composition of this late-era silent film is quite something to behold. [*** out of 5]

Review: The Wedding March (1928)

Erich von Stroheim directs and stars (as the romantic lead!?!) in a gorgeous film with early Technicolor.

Erich von Stroheim wrote, directed and starred in this impressive tragic romance about a nobleman who forsakes true love to marry a wealthy heiress, ensuring that he and his family can continue to live in the opulent style to which they’re accustomed.

At the heart of The Wedding March is the tender courtship of Nicki, a captain in the mounted guard and Mitzi, the beautiful working class girl whose mother is pushing her to marry a repugnant butcher. The scene where Nicki and Mitzi catch each other’s eye while waiting outside a church for a religious procession to begin is wonderful to behold. Not a word passes between Nicki, mounted in full regalia, and Mitzi, jostled about in the crowd, in a touching scene perfectly suited to silent film.

Von Stroheim, who uncharacteristically but effectively plays the love interest, loved his military regalia, pomp and pageantry and there’s plenty of it in The Wedding March. The film also boasts terrific performances by Fay Wray as the Mitzi and Zasu Pitts (the star of von Stroheim’s masterwork Greed) as the lame heiress whom Nicki is eventually forced to marry. There’s a segment shot in Technicolor and a beautiful set piece involving falling apple blossoms.

This was the first in von Stroheim’s planned trilogy. The second film, Honeymoon, was lost in a fire and the third was never made. Too bad. I’d love to know what fate had in store for these star-crossed lovers. [***** out of 5]

Review: Little Annie Rooney (1925)

Give the public what they want, so the saying goes. And in 1925, Mary Pickford did just that. Discouraged by the unpopularity of pictures in which she acted her age, the 34-year-old actress returned to the type of role that made her a star, the adorable waif. And the picture was a hit.

Even if you can get past the fact that Pickford is twenty years too old for the part, she’s convincing as a scrappy slum girl who’s left an orphan when her cop father is killed on the job. When her brother mistakenly takes revenge on the wrong guy (whom little Annie has a crush on), she rushes to the hospital to offer herself for a life-saving transfusion. As lovable waif and Mary Pickford movies go, this one is nothing special. [*** out of 5]

I’m Sure There’s a Society for Everything

On a totally unrelated web search, I came across the Louise Brooks Society.  Having just read and reviewed the Louise Brooks biography, naturally it caught my eye. Thought I’d share. This will also serve as a reminder to myself to check it out further later.

Many Trees Were Harmed in the Production of This Book

You know how there are movies that are so bad they’re good? They slide right past mediocrity and dreck, and firmly plant themselves in the realm of the colossally awful. Stilted acting, horrible dialog, outrageous storylines that make you groan, roll your eyes, bury your head in your hands, talk back to the TV, fall out of your chair with laughter. I’m thinking Plan 9, Coyote Ugly or Showgirls. (The latter I’m going from reputation, since I’ve never brought myself to watch it.)

Well, I’m currently reading a book that’s so bad it’s good: Buster: A Legend In Laughter (1995) by Larry Edwards. Continuing on my holiday Buster Keaton jag, I pulled a few books from the library yesterday, hoping to learn something new about Keaton. I’ve done a fair amount of reading on the Internet, watched his films multi-multi-multiple times, and even taken a course on him taught by Roger Ebert a few years ago. But I’ve never read a proper biography, and my searching for one has turned up what many Keatonphiles already know–they’re few and far between. Most books are out of print, and many are panned by readers for blurring the fact and the fiction about the man, the filmmaker and the times.

So, anyway, back to the book at hand. Judging from the reader reviews found on Amazon, this book is living up to its reputation in spades. I figured I’d give it a try since it was the only bio on the shelf of my public library. From page one, it was evident that this is one of the most poorly written books I’ve ever read. In the tradition of the most clichéd high school book report, it’s characterized by repetition, lousy sentence structure and laughable hyperbole. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s filled with errors. Dates are wrong. Plot descriptions for Keaton’s movies are consistently incorrect; if the author couldn’t get something as easily verifiable as the plot right, it makes you wonder how off he is on the personal and professional details of Buster’s life. (And yes, back in 1995, there wasn’t the access to everything on DVD that we have now, but the films existed and I’d think watching them in some way, shape or form would be part of the research process.)

Back to the “so bad it’s good” aspect. Take these prize tidbits of fine writing as example:

Unknown to the audience, another train is steaming down the tracks from the opposite direction of the first one. This train plows through the house. The element of surprise here is tremendous (even after viewing it over one hundred times).

One hundred times? I trust the author watched it one hundred times, thereby coming to this interesting and specific conclusion.

According to many film historians and critic’s (sic), One Week is the greatest starring film debut by an actor in the history of the American cinema.

This statement is supported by exactly zero quotes or references. This just screams high school term paper. Blanket statement attributed to the omnipresent “Many.” Oldest trick in the book.

It is difficult to pinpoint the best sight gags in The Balloonatic, however a couple of great scenes include Buster battling the natural elements of a rapidly flowing river. Another interesting and amusing scene has Buster in a battle of wits with a bear. By the way, this bear is not an actor in a bear suit, it is a real bear!

By the way, it’s called an editor. I think you needed one!

Whereas Intolerance showed man’s inhumanity toward man in four parts, Buster had Three Ages show the evolution of man in three parts representing ages. These ages are The Stone Age, The Roman Age, and The Modern Age. Three Ages is a feature film, but to be even more precise, it is actually three separate short films edited together to make one feature-length film.

Straight out of a Jr. High English course: “My book report is about Moby Dick-The Whale. It is a book about a whale. The whale is called Moby Dick.” And I love that he actually uses the phrase “man’s inhumanity to man.” Brilliant.

Words like brilliant, memorable and greatest are battered around a lot. Every fourth word has a superlative adjective attached to it. What easier way to hit your word count, I’m guessin’. Deep, insightful stuff here.

Round about page 40, as I caught myself snorting and shaking my head for the umpteenth time, I just gave up on it. But because I was on an El ride with nothing else to read, I kept reading and started making a game of how many errors I could call out and how hilariously bad the writing could be.

My quest for a better (and available) book continues. I saw The General Thursday evening at the Film Center–there’s no better film to close out the year with than Keaton’s Civil War action comedy–and Dave Drazin was performing the piano accompaniment, as he has for all the Keaton films in this retrospective. (He’s great, by the way. I recommend making a special trip to see a silent film when he’s providing the score. Drazin’s been doing this for years and is quite talented at setting the right mood and tone for a picture, often improvising along with the film. His accompaniment always makes the viewing that much more special.) Knowing that he’s a silent film “expert,” I asked for his recommendation for a biography. He suggested Keaton by Rudi Blesh. Of course, it’s also out of print. Perhaps this is just the push I needed (or didn’t) to break into Ebay.

And I had to laugh in agreement when during our brief conversation Mr. Drazin said, “Yeah, BK rules.”

Totally.