Welles and Micheaux on Blu-ray / John MacLean’s Slow West

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My latest blog post at Time Out Chicago concerns the two most important surviving Chicago-shot movies of the entire silent era: Charlie Chaplin’s His New Job (the only film he made in my fair city) and Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (the earliest surviving feature directed by an African American). Both will be released in newly restored editions on Blu-ray — from Flicker Alley and Kino/Lorber, respectively — in the next year. Read about it here.

At Cine-File Chicago, I have a review of Slow West, a new Michael Fassbender-starring western (from which the above still was taken) by the Scottish musician-turned-filmmaker John MacLean. It opens at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre tonight and I highly recommend it. Peep my review here.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Little Otik (Svankmajer)
2. Xala (Sembene)
3. Inferno (Baker)
4. Variete (DuPont)
5. Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller)
6. Creature from the Black Lagoon (Arnold)
7. Dial M for Murder (Hitchcock)
8. The Iron Mask (Dwan)
9. The Player (Altman)
10. House of Wax (De Toth)


For the Love of Film: Varieté and The House of Mystery

The invaluable National Film Preservation Foundation is currently in the process of restoring a silent one-reel comedy titled Cupid in Quarantine from 1918. In order to raise funds to cover lab costs for its preservation as well as the recording of a new score to accompany its online premiere, the essential movie blogs Ferdy on Films, Wonders in the Dark, and This Island Rod are hosting the annual “For the Love of Film” blogathon. White City Cinema is proud to be participating in this blogathon again by contributing reviews of two silent masterpieces newly released on home video in new restorations: Variete and The House of Mystery. Please consider making a donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation, no matter how small, after reading my review. Film preservation is a very worthy cause!

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My two favorite home video releases of the year so far are Flicker Alley’s DVD of Alexandre Volkoff’s 1923 “cliffhanger” serial The House of Mystery and Edel Germany GmbH’s Blu-ray of E.A. Dupont’s drama Variete from 1925. Both films deserve to be called masterpieces of the silent European melodrama and both feature plots that revolve around bizarre love triangles. Yet their virtues are ultimately as different from one another as are the virtues of the new discs that house them. Both films have been the recipients of painstaking new photochemical restorations although each new edition is not without controversy: Variete has been saddled with an anachronistic new score that has silent purists crying foul and The House of Mystery has been released on DVD only and not the superior Blu-ray format. I nonetheless will argue that both releases are absolutely essential for anyone who cares about silent cinema.

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Variete (also known in the U.S. as Variety and Jealousy) was Germany’s biggest box office hit of 1925 and it’s not hard to see why. It came out during the height of the movement known as German Expressionism but, in spite of the extraordinarily fluid camerawork of Karl Freund (Metropolis) and a clever plot about the sinister goings-on within a circus, E.A. DuPont’s movie actually feels closer to the school of social realism with which directors like G.W. Pabst (Pandora’s Box) and Josef Von Sternberg (The Blue Angel) would soon make their mark. The film begins with a long-time prisoner, “Boss” Huller (Emil Jannings in an uncharacteristically restrained performance), breaking a 10-year vow of silence and telling his warden the tragic story, seen in flashback, of how he came to murder his unfaithful trapeze-artist wife (Lya de Putti). The whole thing is great but the undeniable highlights are the exhilarating trapeze sequences, the deft camerawork of which seemingly puts viewers smack-dab into the leotards of the performers, creating a thrilling “you are there” effect.

Previously available on home video only in poor-quality and truncated editions, this definitive restoration of Variete by the redoubtable F.W. Murnau Foundation adds more than 20 minutes of footage unseen since its original release. While the image quality on the Blu-ray is predictably superb, the only option for an audio track is a controversial new score by the British musical trio The Tiger Lillies. This retro-cabaret act’s score features sung lyrics (a no-no for silent films, according to many cinephiles) that comment directly on the onscreen action. Personally, I love it; most silent movies did not have official musical scores so I have to wonder what the point is of commissioning contemporary musicians to compose new scores for silent films if one is only going to handcuff them into imitating something one would’ve heard in a theater 100 years ago (e.g., a generic pastiche of 19th century folk tunes)? Contemporary viewers are, after all, watching digital versions of these films in their own living rooms, no? The musical score for a silent film need only be effective, I say, not attempt to function as some sort of time machine.

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Until recently, The House of Mystery was for me an unknown quantity — a film I had never heard of by a director I had never even heard of — but I purchased it sight unseen anyway simply because it is drumming up excitement in certain cinephile circles. Directed by Alexandre Volkoff, a Russian filmmaker living in France, and co-written by Volkoff and his star and fellow Russian emigre Ivan Musjokine, this 10-chapter “cliffhanger” serial feels like the missing link between Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang. Like Feuillade’s Fantomas (1913), it begins with a montage of close-ups of Musjokine’s character, Julien, a master of disguise, posing in each of the many drastically different makeup jobs he will sport over the next six-and-a-half hours. Unlike Fantomas, Julien is not a master-criminal but rather a good-hearted factory owner who is framed for a murder he did not commit by the factory’s villainous director (Charles Vanel, later a favorite of Henri-George Clouzot) because he covets Julien’s beautiful wife (Helene Darly).

Also different from the serials of Feuillade is how The House of Mystery‘s narrative follows a single clean story arc. Feuillade’s capers were beloved by the Surrealists in part because of their “we’re making it up as we go along” quality (often a cyclical capture-and-escape narrative-loop structure that perhaps best finds a modern equivalent in the endless death-and-rebirth narrative-loop cycles of the Resident Evil series). The House of Mystery, by contrast, is closer to classic “hero’s journey” epics like The Odyssey and The Count of Monte Cristo in its portrait of a man who escapes from prison and spends years attempting to clear his name and reunite with his family. There are many astonishing set pieces along the way — including a wedding sequence depicted entirely in silhouette and an exciting prison-break/chase scene involving a hijacked train being pursued by mounted police. Flicker Alley’s release represents the first time The House of Mystery has ever been released on home video in any format and also serves as a reminder of how much our knowledge of film history depends upon the vicissitudes of fate. While a Blu-ray would have been preferable to this DVD-only release, you should definitely buy this anyway; it’s so good you won’t regret upgrading when and if a Blu-ray ever does hit the market.

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You can make a donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation here.

You can purchase a region-free Blu-ray of Variete from Amazon Germany here. (Chicagoans should note I will be introducing a screening of my own projected Blu-ray of Variete this Saturday, May 16, at Transistor.)

You can purchase The House of Mystery on DVD directly from Flicker Alley here.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Wizard of Oz (Fleming)
2. Robin Hood (Dwan)
3. Prometheus (Scott)
4. Cool Apocalypse (Smith)
5. The Band Wagon (Minnelli)
6. Goodbye to Language (Godard)
7. Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller)
8. The Graduate (Nichols)
9. Three Times (Hou)
10. Resident Evil (Anderson)


Mad Max: Fury Road / E.A. Dupont’s Variete

The following Mad Max: Fury Road capsule review was rejected by Time Out Chicago since they informed me they already have a “network wide” review (i.e., one that appears in each of Time Out’s city guides), which they also informed me is usually the case with “big box films.” So I’m posting it here instead. Enjoy.

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Forget The Avengers, Mad Max: Fury Road is the Summer Popcorn Movie You Need to See

Even if it weren’t any good, I would probably recommend Mad Max: Fury Road just because, as an R-rated “tent pole” movie, it’s something of an anomaly. I’m happy to report, however, that it’s more than good — it’s flat-out amazing from beginning to end, one of the leanest and purest pieces of action cinema I’ve ever seen. The film it reminds me of most is, believe it or not, Buster Keaton’s The General; the entire first half is basically one long heart-stopping chase from west to east and the second half one long heart-stopping chase from east to west. Exposition and the illusion of “character psychology” are refreshingly absent but it’s also full of the kind of highly idiosyncratic, occasionally surreal production-design touches that have always been director George Miller’s specialty (a combination electric guitar/flamethrower, chastity belts with metal teeth, etc.) and it’s all beautifully cut together (the shots match!) by his wife Margaret Sixel who had never edited an action movie before.

While Tom Hardy is credible as the laconic Max (a role originated by a then-unknown Mel Gibson), don’t let the title fool you: Charlize Theron, playing a kickass heroine with the irresistible name of “Imperator Furiosa,” is co-lead with Hardy and arguably the more important of the two characters. She’s the one on a specific mission — the details of which I won’t give away — while he’s more or less just along for the ride. Furiosa is also but one of several intriguing female characters in a movie that should satisfy fans of the earlier Max films while also offering surprises at every turn; the more I think about it, the more this action movie strikes me as genuinely subversive in its feminist bent — yet another reason why this is the one summer “popcorn movie” that everyone needs to see.

Variete

This Saturday, May 16, I’m introducing a screening of E.A. Dupont’s silent German masterpiece Variete at Transistor Chicago. I’ll be screening my German Blu-ray of the 2015 F.W. Murnau Foundation restoration, which runs 20 minutes longer than all previous home video releases (and one should note there are no plans for a North American release). The event is BYOB and admission is free. Here is the description I wrote for the Transistor website:

A major masterpiece of Germany’s silent film era, E.A. Dupont’s tragic, darkly ironic tale concerns a love triangle between trapeze artists that ends in betrayal and murder. Emil Jannings is at his best as the cuckolded husband but it’s the brilliant cinematography of Karl Freund (‘Metropolis’) that really makes ‘Varieté’ fly. Only released in the U.S. in truncated form, this 2015 restoration by the F.W. Murnau Foundation magnificently revivifies Dupont’s film to its original glory. (1925, R, 94 minutes)

More info here: http://www.transistorchicago.com/51615


Filmmaker Interview: Enrique Buchichio

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Enrique Buchichio is a film critic-turned-filmmaker and the director of La Escuela de Cine del Uruguay. His first feature, the gay coming-of-age drama Leo’s Room, is available to stream via Fandor and his second, Operation Zanahoria, recently had its North American premiere at the Chicago Latino Film Festival. I spoke with Buchichio at length about his terrific new film, a gripping procedural about political secrets and journalistic ethics in the vein of All the President’s Men. A fraction of that interview has been posted at Time Out Chicago, but I’m printing the unexpurgated version here.

MGS: It seems like every year there are more Uruguayan films playing in international film festivals. Is that a result of increased production in your country or are the films just being more widely distributed now?

EB: A little of both, I think. I think that the national visibility of Uruguayan cinema began in 2001, 2004 with the production of CTRL-Z films, which were the films of Juan-Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stall: 25 Watts, Whisky. At that time there began to be more interest in Uruguayan cinema. I don’t know why but, being a very small country, Uruguay produces eight, 10 films each year. But many of those films get attention from film festivals around the world. It’s a rare phenomenon, I think. I don’t know why. But at the same time it’s true that in the last five, six years, the production has stabilized. I think as a result of national funds for film production and because of the existence of a new generation of Uruguayan filmmakers who are making films in a more systematic . . . There’s no “film industry” in Uruguay yet but there is a group of people who make films.

MGS: And they’re coming out of the film schools?

EB: Basically, yeah. And some of them are people who studied cinema overseas before the existence of Uruguayan film schools and then came back home to make films.

MGS: One thing that’s impressed me is how diverse the films are. I saw an animated film . . .

EB: Anina.

MGS: Yeah! It was very charming and different from the animated films we’re used to seeing in the U.S.

EB: Very good, yeah. This was made by my schoolmates – the same generation.

MGS: No kidding. That played here at the Chicago Latino Film Fest last year.

EB: That’s wonderful, yeah. And now there are a wider diversity of films: horror films like Silent House (La casa muda). . . the director of Silent House (Gustavo Hernandez), which had its American remake, is releasing his second film this year. Local God, it’s called. So there’s more diversity in the films.

MGS: Your first film, Leo’s Room, is a very affecting story about one person’s coming to terms with his sexual identity but Zanahoria is very different, it’s more about society. Was it a conscious decision to make something more ambitious in terms of scope?

EB: Not really. The story just came out. I was, actually before the shooting of Leo’s Room, I read the story. It was a chronicle about the relationship between two Uruguayan journalists with an anonymous informant from the armed forces. And something just made a click with me about the good material for a movie and, at the same time, the opportunity to approach some of the open wounds from the military dictatorship in Uruguay, which is a very polemic issue in Uruguay. It’s a very dividing issue in Uruguayan society between the people who believe that there are still things to reveal and to process, and another half of the country who believe that it’s a closed chapter and we have to move on, don’t look back, etc.

MGS: Is it controversial to depict that in a film?

EB: Kind of. For me, the interesting thing about the story, which I adapted (because it’s a real story), is that it’s actually the state of things today in Uruguay – not only 10 years ago when the story took place, but today. Today, it’s the same thing: 10 years after, we are still trying to come to terms with the recent past, with the brutal years and trying to understand what it meant to Uruguayan identity, what some Uruguayan people did to each other because of their ideological beliefs. It was a brutal regime, maybe not so brutal as in Argentina – where it had a bigger scale in terms of the “disappeared,” the political prisoners – but for a small country, it made a huge impact on society.

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MGS: That came through in the film very strongly, especially the scenes where the journalists were talking to the families of the disappeared. It’s funny; the dictatorship ended in the 1980s . . .

EB: Yeah, in 1985.

MGS: That seems so long ago to me, as an American, but I guess for those who lived through that era in Uruguay, the wounds are still fresh.

EB: Absolutely.

MGS: And one thing I thought while watching it is that maybe it was more suspenseful to someone like me, as an outsider, who didn’t know the history. I thought it was gripping because I had no clue what was going to happen. I was guessing until the end: I thought the information Walter was giving the journalists was going to affect the election in 2004. I was wondering if maybe people in Uruguay had a different reaction.

EB: Kind of. Many people knew that nothing really happened about the clearance of knowing who did what to whom but some people didn’t know about it. And some people actually don’t know today what happened those years in Uruguay.

MGS: Because they’re too young?

EB: Yes, there are younger generations who didn’t live through the dictatorship years and some people because they didn’t want to know. They preferred to ignore it. Or, because of ideological differences, some people are convinced that that was necessary – that the brutality and the prosecution of leftist militants was actually a good idea. To those people, it’s very difficult to make them understand that that was traumatic for Uruguayan society. So, many people knew what was going to happen in the movie and other people didn’t know how the movie was going to end. They were very, very trapped by the suspense.

MGS: And so the character of Walter was based on a real . . . I guess you could say he was a con artist, right?

EB: Absolutely. The real Walter, whose name is not Walter, is a former military who was expelled from the armed forces and he made a career as a con artist trying to sell information not only to the disappeared’s families but also journalists. Jorge and Alfredo were not the only ones. They were the only ones who published a story about it but there were other journalists who were victims of this guy. But they didn’t tell anyone because they believed that there was no story in that story. And, at the same time, it was like recognizing that you were deceived.

MGS: It’s a little embarrassing?

EB: Yeah, for a journalist, it’s embarrassing. But that’s why the movie made sense to me: it was very important to make the story public to a bigger audience.

MGS: Where did you first read the story, in a magazine?

EB: In the newspaper. When I was writing the screenplay for my first movie, a friend of mine recommended to me the reading of this article. I read it and I thought, “This is film material. This is the material for a film.”

MGS: For a thriller?

EB: For a thriller, absolutely. And then I put it away for a couple of months and then I read it again and I start to really think about the possibility of making an adaptation in film form.

MGS: Did you interview any of the people who were involved?

EB: Yeah. Afredo and Jorge, the journalists, they were my main source of information apart from the article, of course. They told me many things, many small things, that they didn’t publish but things that made for me a richer story: tiny details about the relationship with this guy, how he acted, how he talked, how he smoked. And then I interviewed other journalists who were victims of Walter. And then I also talked with some families of the disappeared. They were actually victims of Walter too. At that moment I realized that at some point in the story they, as families of the disappeared, should be in the movie because I think that it was important for the audience in Uruguay who didn’t know or didn’t want to know about this tragic episode. At the end of the day it is a human story. It is not only of political interest, it is not only a thing about journalists, it’s actually a human story of human importance.

MGS: Absolutely. It’s very emotional. The scenes with the families are heartbreaking. And there’s a feeling of paranoia that’s very palpable that infuses almost every scene. It’s similar to other procedurals like, obviously, All the President’s Men but also David Fincher’s Zodiac. Did you see that?

EB: Absolutely.

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MGS: That’s one of my favorite Hollywood films of this century.

EB: Yeah, it’s wonderful. Yeah, it’s also a very kind of slow-paced thriller. Actually, many people didn’t like Zodiac because of that, because, I mean, there was no action.

MGS: The murders all occur in the first 26 minutes and the film goes on for another two hours and 20 minutes!

EB: Yeah. And at the end of the movie the guy didn’t get caught. You actually didn’t know what really happened. That is very frustrating for many people. With Zanahoria happened something like that – in a different way, of course. Many people thought, “What’s the point to make a film about the guy that didn’t get caught?” I mean, for me it’s very important and it’s very . . . it’s the same thing as the real story. It was very frustrating for the journalists to never get their hands on the information that he promised. So it’s understandable that the audience also could feel kind of frustrated about that.

MGS: I think it’s good, especially when you’re dealing with something political. If it’s open-ended like that, I think you’re more likely to think about it after you leave the theater.

EB: Yeah.

MGS: Fassbinder said something I always liked: “Movies should have an unhappy ending so that life can have a happy ending.”

EB: Yeah.

MGS: When everything is tied up at the end, you often just forget about it; it’s like, the characters solved the problem in the movie so we don’t need to solve the problem in reality. In your film, the audience leaves the theater with a feeling of frustration and maybe rage.

EB: Absolutely. And the feeling that the story goes on. The story is not closed. There’s many things that we still don’t know about what happened. It’s the same today, as I told you before, not only in 2004 but in 2015. 30 years after the end of the regime. We don’t know everything that happened and that’s very frustrating.

MGS: I think your approach is the right one for this kind of material. I think that’s the way cinema should be.

EB: Thank you.

You can check out the trailer for Operation Zanahoria (without English subtitles) via YouTube below:


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Gertrud (Dreyer)
2. Gold (Arslan)
3. The Clock (Minnelli)
4. Ordet (Dreyer)
5. Cool Apocalypse (Smith)
6. Shutter Island (Scorsese)
7. Day of Wrath (Dreyer)
8. Boyhood (Linklater)
9. Nymphomaniac Vol. 2 (Von Trier)
10. House (Obayashi)


Cobie Smulders Double Feature at the Music Box / Cool Apocalypse in the Press

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This review of new films by Andrew Bujalski and Kris Swanberg appeared in this week’s Time Out Chicago. I’m re-running my original piece here (i.e., without the cuts my editor imposed to get it down to an arbitrary length of 250 words):

While Cobie Smulders is best known for her roles as Robin Scherbatsky on How I Met Your Mother and Maria Hill of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she is also in the process of successfully reinventing herself as a leading lady in quality independent films. Smulders became something of an indie “It Girl” when two such films, Kris Swanberg’s Unexpected and Andrew Bujalski’s Results, had world premieres at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Both movies receive their local premieres at the Music Box Theater this Saturday, May 2, as part of the third annual Chicago Critics Film Festival. Each movie is well worth your time—with the added bonus that Smulders will be on hand for a Q&A after each.

With Results, Andrew Bujalski follows up his astonishing retro-‘80s Altmanesque comedy Computer Chess with a wildly different though equally masterful Austin-based comedy set in the world of personal training. Danny (Kevin Corrigan), an out-of-shape stoner — and, thanks to an inheritance, new millionaire — wanders into a gym and ends up playing unlikely matchmaker to emotionally stunted gym-owner/fitness guru Trevor (Guy Pearce) and volatile trainer Kat (Smulders). What a joy it is to watch these three actors play against type and deliver their sharply-written dialogue with such crack comic timing while also observing a narrative arc that takes the most circuitous (i.e., least formulaic) approach to its inevitable destination. I can’t recall seeing a recent American movie capture the spirit of classic screwball comedy as well as this. Results is Preston Sturges–level great.

Similarly, Unexpected is a breath of fresh air in a cinematic landscape currently oversaturated with plot-driven films. Local director Kris Swanberg seems destined to find the wider audience she deserves with this semi-autobiographical character-based drama about Sam (Smulders), a 30-year-old CPS high-school science teacher who finds out she is pregnant at the same time as one of her students, 17-year old Englewood-resident Jasmine (Gail Bean). The two women, so different in age, race and class, end up forming an unlikely bond in a series of delicate, beautifully observed scenes brimming with psychological and sociological insights. A low-key but bracingly female-centric film about emotionally forthright characters, Unexpected is an unexpected gem.

You can find the complete lineup of the Chicago Critics Film Festival, along with tickets and showtimes, on their official website.

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Also, my feature film, Cool Apocalypse, a still of which can be seen above, will receive its world premiere at the Illinois International Film Festival tomorrow, and has been in the press this week: Chicago-based filmmaker and blogger Julian Grant has given us our first official review (and it’s positive!) on his website and I also spoke with Legendary Lew Ojeda about the film on his Mediatrocities podcast. Hope to see some of you at the premiere!


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Breathless (Godard)
2. A Touch of Sin (Jia)
3. Results (Bujalski)
4. Unexpected (Swanberg)
5. Master of the House (Dreyer)
6. Audition (Miike)
7. Germany Year Zero (Rossellini)
8. Bernie (Linklater)
9. Starry Eyes (Kolsch/Widmyer)
10. Chungking Express (Wong)


The Mafia Only Kills in Summer at Cine-File / Cool Apocalypse on The Arts Section

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I have a review of Pierfrancesco Diliberto’s The Mafia Only Kills in Summer at Cine-File (originally posted last Friday). I quite liked this popular Italian comedy even though I know its broad satire and sentimentality have made it a tough sell for a lot of American critics. The more one knows about the deadly seriousness of the Mafia problem in Palermo, however, the more I think one is likely to appreciate it (which is probably why it was so successful in Europe and in its home country in particular). It continues a weeklong run at Facets through Thursday. You can peep my review here: http://cine-file.info/list-archive/2015/APR-15-4.html

Also, I was recently interviewed by Gary Zidek, host of WDCB’s great “Arts Section” program, about my film Cool Apocalypse in advance of its World Premiere this Saturday night at the Illinois International Film Festival in Aurora. You can listen to the 20 minute interview, which includes an audio clip from the film, here: https://soundcloud.com/wdcbnews/the-arts-section-chicago-4


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