Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. A Letter to Three Wives (Mankiewicz)
2. Me and Orson Welles (Linklater)
3. The Rover (Michod)
4. Jersey Boys (Eastwood)
5. Metropolis (Lang)
6. Duck Soup (McCarey)
7. Vampyr (Dreyer)
8. Citizen Kane (Welles)
9. The End of St. Petersburg (Pudovkin)
10. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom)


The Best Films of 2014: A Midyear Report

2014 has been an uncommonly good year for the movies. Let me rephrase that: 2014 has been an uncommonly good year to live in Chicago and see the local premieres of great films from around the globe (some of which premiered elsewhere last year). Now that the year is exactly half-way over, I thought it might be interesting to post a mid-year movie report card — taking stock of my favorite films of 2014 thus far. This list of my top 10 favorite new movies from the past six months is more impressive than a lot of the lists I’ve made of my 10 favorite films from entire calendar years in the recent past (and keep in mind that I’m disqualifying films that recently received their first theatrical run here — like Stranger By the Lake and The Immigrant — that I caught at festivals last year). Each title is accompanied by a still and a quote from my original review, as well as a link to said review where applicable. Enjoy!

10. Pretty Butterflies (Mereu, Italy) – European Union Film Festival. Rating: 8.3

pretty

“By focusing on pre-adolescent characters who have had to grow up too fast, Mereu illustrates how the world can be a terrible and scary place; and yet, because the friendship between Cate and Luna is so tight, and because they seem so indomitable as characters, this movie is also gratifyingly full of unexpected humor and warmth”: https://whitecitycinema.com/2014/03/10/2014-european-union-film-festival-pt-2/

9. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, USA/Germany) – Wide Release. Rating: 8.4

budapest

“This moral-clarity-in-the-midst-of-screwball-chaos is finally what makes The Grand Budapest Hotel a worthy heir to the films of the great Ernst Lubitsch, its most important cinematic precedents”: https://whitecitycinema.com/2014/04/07/odds-and-ends-the-grand-budapest-hotel-and-chicago-to-conjure-a-lost-neighborhood/

8. Gloria (Lelio, Chile) – Landmark. Rating: 8.5

gloria2

“Like Cassavetes, Lelio trains a patient camera eye on his lead character and audaciously resists taking easy emotional shortcuts”: https://whitecitycinema.com/2014/02/24/now-playing-gloria-2/

7. Journey to the West (Tsai, France/Taiwan) – Streaming. Rating: 8.6

journey

“Regardless of how you interpret it, what’s not in dispute is the film’s extreme formal beauty (the shot of the monk, surrounded by what looks like a red halo created by his robe, walking down a flight of subway stairs is astonishing), as well as its unexpected, ineffable sense of humor”: https://whitecitycinema.com/2014/03/21/odds-and-ends-journey-to-the-west-and-the-men-of-dodge-city/

6. Jimmy P. (Desplechin, France/USA) – Facets. Rating: 8.7

jimmyp

Jimmy P. is a genuinely optimistic movie that never resorts to sentimentality and that’s a very rare thing indeed”: https://michaelgloversmith.wordpress.com/?p=20006&preview=true

5./4. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1/Vol. 2 (Von Trier, Denmark/Germany/UK) – Landmark. Rating: 9.0

nympho

“Among its many virtues, intellectual as well as visceral, Nymphomaniac is frequently hilarious”: https://whitecitycinema.com/2014/04/14/now-playing-nymphomaniac-volumes-one-and-two/

3. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Rivers/Russell, Estonia) – European Union Film Festival. Rating: 9.1

spell

“The viewer’s immersion in the music during this climactic scene is total — to witness it is to feel that one has jumped into the abyss”: https://whitecitycinema.com/2014/03/10/2014-european-union-film-festival-pt-2/

2. The Strange Little Cat (Zurcher, Germany) – European Union Film Festival. Rating: 9.4

strange

“Like a miniature version of Jacques Tati’s Playtime, however, this movie is really about space and time, order and chaos, images and sounds, and the relationships between people and objects:” https://whitecitycinema.com/2014/03/10/2014-european-union-film-festival-pt-1/

1. Under the Skin (Glazer, UK) – Landmark. Rating: 9.6

undertheskin2

“It’s a visionary work of art in its own right that doesn’t look or sound like anything other than a ‘Jonathan Glazer movie,’ and that should be higher praise than comparing it to motion pictures by great directors from the past”: https://whitecitycinema.com/2014/04/21/now-playing-under-the-skin/

Runners-up:

11. The Rover (Michod, Australia, 2014) – Century 12. Rating: 8.2
12. Metalhead (Bragason, Iceland, 2013) – Chicago International Movies and Music Fest. Rating: 8.0
13. The Longest Distance (Pinto, Venezuela, 2013) – 8.0
14. The World of Goopi and Bagha (Ranade, India, 2013) – 7.9
15. Anina (Soderguit, Uruguay, 2013) – Chicago Latino Film Festival. Rating: 7.9
16. All the Women (Barrioso, Spain) – Chicago Latino Film Festival. Rating: 7.8
17. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch, USA, 2013) – Century 12. Rating: 7.7
18. Beneath the Harvest Sky (Gaudet/Pullapilly, USA, 2013) Rating: 7.6
19. What Now? Remind Me (Pinto, Portugal) – European Union Film Festival. Rating: 7.5
20. Those Happy Years (Luchetti, Italy) – European Union Film Festival. Rating: 7.5

Special mention for a short: Kevin B. Lee’s Transformers: The Premake, a pounding and vibrant 25-minute essay film, is available to watch in its entirety here.


Teaching the Teachers

facets

This summer, for the fourth year in a row, I will be teaching a session at Facets Multimedia’s Summer Film Institute, a unique and intensive week-long film camp for teachers. The topic of my day long seminar is “Hollywood Masterpieces in the Classroom: How to Teach Classic Hollywood Movies.” During the day-long session I will be screening Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane as well as clips from various other classic films. The Film Institute is aimed at high school teachers and affords the opportunity to earn 30 CPDUs although anyone is welcome to attend. My session will occur on Friday, July 18th. More information can be found here:

http://www.facets.org/filminstitute/program_and_faculty.php


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. A Cottage on Dartmoor (Asquith)
2. Top Hat (Sandrich)
3. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
4. Holy Motors (Carax)
5. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene)
6. The Hands of Orlac (Wiene)
7. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
8. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk)
9. Cinderfella (Tashlin)
10. The Freshman (Newmeyer/Taylor)


Odds and Ends: Elaine May

anewleaf Elaine May and Walter Matthau in A New Leaf (1970)

Is Elaine May America’s most underrated living filmmaker? Even though I first saw — and loved — her trenchant critique-of-masculinity/long-dark-night-of-the-soul gangster epic Mikey and Nicky back in the 1990s, I never bothered to check out the rest of her four-film oeuvre until recently. This was no doubt in part due to the disastrous critical reception of her 1987 buddy-comedy Ishtar — her most recent, and presumably final, movie as a director — but also because I had subconsciously and wrongly assigned partial authorship of Mikey and Nicky to lead actor John Cassavetes. Surely the godfather of independent American cinema and his old pal Peter Falk had improvised all of their dialogue, hadn’t they? (They hadn’t.) I finally got around to watching May’s directorial debut A New Leaf while looking for a female-directed film to illustrate the “screwball comedy” in a class (thanks, Paul Mollica!) and was blown away by what I saw: not only is it uproariously funny, it’s also exceedingly dark, and it updates screwball conventions for the Seventies in a manner similar to what Altman did to film noir with The Long Goodbye. Watching the terrific Walter Matthau, who can charitably be described as “funny looking,” doing a Cary Grant impersonation is as delightfully perverse as seeing nebbishy Elliot Gould playing the hard-boiled Philip Marlowe. I was also fascinated to find that May’s directorial follow-up, the Neil Simon-scripted The Heartbreak Kid essentially reverses the narrative trajectory of her debut: A New Leaf is about a wealthy bachelor, Henry Graham (Matthau), who agrees to marry a loopy heiress, Henrietta Lowell (May), in order to maintain his fortune, despite his having no interest in women. Although Henry initially plots Henrietta’s murder, he eventually learns to care for her and resigns himself to his fate as her husband. The Heartbreak Kid, by contrast, is about Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin), a young Jewish newlywed, who extricates himself from a marriage in order to obtain the blonde shiksa of his dreams (Cybil Shepard). After getting remarried, a chilling finale suggests that this sociopathic man is even more unsatisfied than before.

ishtar Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty in Ishtar (1987)

What impresses me the most about Elaine May’s first three features is how deceptively “entertaining” they are, using the conventions of various genres (screwball comedy, romantic comedy and gangster movie, respectively) in order to genuinely challenge viewer expectations in regards to character identification and narrative resolution. Just watch, for instance, The Heartbreak Kid and The Graduate (directed by May’s old comedy-act partner Mike Nichols) side-by-side: May’s film is a disturbing comedy that daringly asks us to identify with a truly selfish and terrible person while Nichols flatters us by having us side with the Dustin Hoffman character in opposition to a world of hopelessly square adults. Is it any wonder that The Graduate, which shrewdly marries its emulation of French New Wave aesthetics and vague anti-authoritarianism to a careful flattering of viewer prejudices, is the better known and more beloved of the two works? If Ishtar isn’t quite on the level of May’s first three movies, it’s still one of the best Hollywood comedies of recent decades — and one that deserved a far better reception than it got. Transplanting the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road-movie formula to a fictional Middle-Eastern country roiled by real political unrest and international intrigue was a bold move on May’s part, and her direction of Hoffman and Warren Beatty is brilliant. Those actors have never been better — and they’ve certainly never been funnier. And yet the film’s financial failure ignominiously brought down the curtain on Elaine May’s directing career (even while she’s continued to find success as a writer and actress for films by Nichols, Woody Allen and others). Right now, my fondest cinephile wish is for the script that May has been developing with her husband, the 90-year-old director Stanley Donen (yes, he of Singin’ in the Rain fame), to start production soon. The list of the greatest movies never made has grown long enough.

You can check out the trailer for The Heartbreak Kid (1972) via YouTube below:


Alfred Hitchcock’s Legacy of Suspense in Wilmette

vertigo

Mike at the Movies: Alfred Hitchcock’s Legacy of Suspense

On Wednesday, June 25, at 7:00 pm I will be giving a special Alfred Hitchcock-themed talk at the Wilmette Public Library to coincide with their “Booked on Crime” Summer Reading Club. The students in my current classes are eligible to earn up to twenty points extra credit towards their final grades if they attend this event. Please see the extra credit page of your course website for more information. Below is a synopsis of the presentation I wrote for the library’s website:

Alfred Hitchcock was known as the “master of suspense” but his mystery/thrillers were also highly personal in nature; his films were studies of obsession that tended to emphasize the duality of man. This program will highlight Hitchcock’s greatest hits (the climactic confrontation between photographer and killer in Rear Window, the crop-dusting scene in North By Northwest, the shower murder in Psycho, the final attack in The Birds), scenes so well executed that they retain their power to thrill, entertain and strike fear in the heart even after many viewings.

Non-students interested in attending can find more information in the Wilmette Public Library’s “Off the Shelf” newsletter:

Click to access offtheshelf_may14.pdf

Hope to see you there!


William Faulkner and “Parallel Editing”

“But the days themselves were unchanged—the same stationary recapitulation of golden interval between dawn and sunset, the long quiet identical day, the immaculate monotonous hierarchy of noons filled with the sun’s hot honey, through which the waning year drifted in red-and-yellow retrograde of hardwood leaves sourceless and going nowhere.”

— William Faulkner, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem

williamWilliam Faulkner on the cover of Time magazine in 1939, the year The Wild Palms was published

Ever since I discovered his novels in the mid-1990s, when I was a college student in my early 20s, William Faulkner has been my favorite American author. I have always been a fan of formally innovative literature and I was immediately taken with Faulkner’s singular use of long, flowing sentences, multiple narrators, “stream-of-consciousness” interior monologues and, in the case of Absalom, Absalom! (my favorite of his works), the audacious juxtaposition of two separate narratives taking place many decades apart. Last month, for my recently formed “cigar and book club,” I had the good fortune to read for the first time If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, the celebrated novel that Faulkner originally published under the title The Wild Palms in 1939. If I Forget Thee, Jerusaelm was published just three years after Absalom, Absalom! and similarly alternates between two different narratives and sets of characters; being a relatively short novel that is told entirely in the third person, however, arguably makes Jersualem more accessible than its epic predecessor. Rediscovering Faulkner’s unique manner of juxtaposing multiple narrative threads got me wondering to what extent his sense of narrative structure, and that of the other “jazz age” American writers who rose to prominence in the 1920s, may have been influenced by the movies, even if only subconsciously. The cinema, the language of which had become incredibly sophisticated by the end of the silent era, must have seemed to possess an almost-magical ability to instantaneously zap viewers not only from one location to another but from one timeframe to another — in a way that had no precedent in the other narrative arts.

wildSex sells books too, folks.

“Parallel editing,” also known as cross-cutting, is a technique where filmmakers cut back and forth between scenes occurring in different locations, usually to suggest simultaneous action. Although instances of the technique can be found as early as in Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery from 1903, parallel editing did not become widespread until D.W. Griffith popularized it in the mid-1910s by using it to generate suspense during climactic chase/rescue scenes (the deplorable climax of The Birth of a Nation [1915], where the Ku Klux Klan rides to the rescue of white characters holed up in a cabin besieged by a black militia, is a good example). Griffith took the technique to greater and more ambitious poetic heights the following year with Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages by freely intercutting between four separate stories taking place at different times throughout history: ancient Egypt during the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at Golgotha, the massacre of the Huguenots in 16th century France, and a contemporary American story about a man wrongfully convicted of murder. Griffith’s provocative idea, so ahead of its time that it alienated contemporary audiences and resulted in costly financial failure from which the maverick director never recovered, was for viewers to infer thematic connections between the different stories based upon their juxtaposition. It is in a similar manner that Faulkner uses parallel editing in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem a novel whose stories and characters may be unrelated on a narrative level (unlike those in Absalom, Absalom!) but are profoundly related on a thematic level.

intoleranceThe fall of Babylon in Intolerance

According to Faulkner expert Noel Polk: “Faulkner began work on (If I Forget Thee, Jersualem) in 1937 at first as a short story entitled ‘Wild Palms’ that was set on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Perceiving that there was material here for a longer work, he did not sell the story but began work on the novel and completed it in 1938. The typescripts and manuscripts in the Alderman Library demonstrate that Faulkner did not take two separate stories and interleave the, but rather wrote, in alternating stints, first a ‘Wild Palms’ section, then an ‘Old Man’ section. He invented the story of the ‘tall convict,’ he later said, as a counterpoint to the story of Harry and Charlotte, in an effort to maintain the intensity of the latter story without allowing it to become shrill.” Counterpoint is the operative word, for the “Old Man” sections, set in 1927, both mirror and are the polar opposite of “The Wild Palms” chapters, set a decade later. Among the points of comparison and contrast between the two stories:

— Both are about the relationship between a man and a pregnant woman (in “The Wild Palms,” the main characters, Harry and Charlotte, are romantically involved, in “The Old Man” the main characters, identified only as “the tall convict” and “the woman,” are strangers thrown together by chance).

— “The Wild Palms” begins in Louisiana before Harry and Charlotte travel out-of-state, eventually ending up in Mississippi. In “The Old Man,” the tall convict and the woman start off in Mississippi and wind up in Louisiana.

— Both stories deal with the themes of imprisonment, escape, sacrifice and redemption. In “The Wild Palms” Harry and Charlotte deliberately flee from the conformity of mainstream society and its constricting social roles (Charlotte leaves behind her husband and two young children). In “The Old Man,” the tall convict is a literal prisoner who is granted temporary freedom in order to rescue the pregnant woman who has been stranded at home by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

— “The Wild Palms” begins in the present, where Charlotte is on her deathbed from the abortion Harry has performed on her, before “flashing back” to tell the story of how they met and the events that led to this tragedy. “The Old Man” begins in the past, where the tall convict is temporarily released from captivity in order to help victims of the flood; but the narrative continually “flashes forward” into the future where the convict has returned to prison and is being questioned about his story by another prisoner, “the plump convict.”

— The protagonists have very different narrative arcs that nonetheless lead them to the same fate: a lengthy prison sentence. Harry is middle-class and well-educated (he nearly completed medical school) but has let his potential go to waste. He brings about the ruin of a family, and causes the deaths of his lover and unborn child. The tall convict, by contrast, is a blue-collar criminal who has “greatness thrust upon him”: he’s in jail for trying to rob a train but performs heroically in rescuing the pregnant woman, helping her give birth and delivering her to safety. He is repaid for his efforts by having 10 more years added on to his sentence.

breathless

Postscript: The most famous movie reference to If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem occurs in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless when Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) quotes to Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) what she claims is the novel’s last line: “Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.” This isn’t quite true: it’s actually the last line of the penultimate chapter. The true last line of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, however, would have been a perfect last line for Michel: “‘Women, shit,’ the tall convict said.”

Works Cited

Faulkner, William, and Noel Polk. If I forget thee, Jerusalem: the wild palms. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
2. Holy Motors (Carax)
3. Heartbeats (Dolan)
4. Bernie (Linklater)
5. 3 Bad Men (Ford)
6. The Errand Boy (Lewis)
7. The Nutty Professor (Lewis)
8. Fox and His Friends (Fassbinder)
9. India Song (Duras)
10. I Want to Go Home (Resnais)


A Silent British Cinema Primer

This list of essential British silent films is, above all, a testament to the power that “home video” has had to rewrite movie history. A couple of early Hitchcocks notwithstanding, the silent British cinema has never figured prominently into any official versions of the story of early motion-picture development. Fortunately, the efforts of numerous film institutions and preservation foundations have in more recent years seen to the restoration and re-release of many important silent British movies. (the story broke only a couple of months ago that an important British silent, George Pearson’s Love, Life and Laughter, was discovered in Amsterdam — proving yet again how notions of film history evolve with the vicissitudes of fate.) Below are nine eye-opening personal silent British favorites that I consider well worth any movie buff’s time.

Electric Edwardians: The Films of Mitchell and Kenyon (Kenyon/Mitchell, 1900-1913)

electric

This is not a feature film but rather a series of brief documentary shorts of Edwardian England that were put out as a DVD anthology approximately 100 years after their initial release. Originally produced between 1900 and 1913, the movies of Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon were advertised as “Local Films for Local People” and screened at town halls and local fairs across the U.K. by itinerant showmen. A kind of Anglo-equivalent of the earliest films of the Lumiere brothers, the Mitchell and Kenyon shorts are mostly one-shot actualities that delightfully show how English men, women and children lived, worked and played in the early 20th century. These are invaluable documents of a now-vanished era, particularly interesting for what they reveal about fashion sense, social interactions and how the subjects vibrantly but unselfconsciously “perform” for the camera. Culled from 28 hours of footage, the superbly curated 85-minute “Electric Edwardians” DVD features an enlightening audio commentary by one Vanessa Toulmin and was released by the BFI in the U.K. and by Milestone Films in the U.S. Unmissable for lovers of what historian Tom Gunning has dubbed the “cinema of attractions.”

The Epic of Everest (Noel, 1924)

epic

“Since the beginning of the world men have battled with Nature for the mastery of their physical surroundings. Such is their birthright, and such is their destiny.” So reads a quintessentially British — and vaguely imperialist — opening title card in this mesmerizing documentary from explorer/filmmaker Captain J.B.L. Noel. Newly restored and released on Blu-ray by the British Film Institute, this masterpiece is the official record of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine’s ill-fated 1924 attempt to scale the world’s highest mountain. The film’s focus, refreshingly, is not on the personalities of the men involved but on the arduous task of mountain-climbing itself; most of its power stems from shots of wee man, often not more than a black speck on the horizon, crawling all over the overwhelmingly indifferent, ice-capped peaks of Mount Everest. Some of Noel’s astonishing montage sequences feature shots where the most dramatic thing happening is the way drifting clouds cast shadows over mountaintops, images that resemble moving paintings in their abstract beauty. The best such scene is arguably the last, after the two men spearheading the trek have perished; the final images of Everest, tinted blood-red, conjure up the futility of their mission with an almost unbearable poignance.

The White Shadow (Cutts, 1924)

white

One of the great recent stories of the discovery of a film previously thought to be lost is the 2011 unearthing of Graham Cutts’s silent British melodrama The White Shadow from a New Zealand archive. The discovery sparked worldwide interest mainly because the movie was a formative work in the career of Alfred Hitchcock (who wrote the script and also functioned as set designer, assistant director and editor). Although Hitch wouldn’t make his own feature directing debut until the following year, it’s surprising how much his artistic DNA seems to be all over this (e.g., Expressionist lighting effects, a “doppelangger” motif, and a plot revolving around mistaken identity). Betty Compson excels in a dual role as twin sisters — one naughty, one nice — both of whom become romantically involved with an American tourist (Clive Brook) who is unaware that they are, in fact, the same person. Unfortunately, the last three reels of the film are still missing and so it ends in the middle, right when all of the characters have congregated at a seedy Parisian nightclub named “The Bohemian Cat” — the kind of joint in which Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang would have been at home. But a synopsis fills us in on the conclusion, which apparently involved a mystical transfiguration between the sisters. Cinephiles should be grateful for what exists, however, for an important, previously missing piece of the Hitchcock puzzle is now firmly in place.

Hindle Wakes (Elvey, 1927)

hindle

My favorite silent British film of all is Maurice Elvey’s 1927 adaptation of Stanley Houghton’s play about mill employee Fanny Hawthorn (Estelle Brody) and her leisure-time adventures during “Wakes Week,” a traditional week-long holiday for factory workers and students in Lancashire. This is the most shockingly progressive silent movie I’ve ever seen in terms of how it portrays gender relations: Fanny has a tryst with the mill owner’s son who is engaged to be married to another, more respectable woman. The film’s sympathetic — and casual — treatment of a woman engaged in a pre-marital sexual relationship, and the way it attacks the hypocrisy of how society views the behavior of single men and women, makes the tone feel strikingly modern. (Also modern is an utterly sublime ending that suggests the resilient heroine will survive and endure.) But the progressiveness of the film’s content is also impressively matched by its innovative form: a scene taking place at an amusement park that uses extended point-of-view shots of characters on carnival rides is as cinematically breathtaking as any similar scenes in more well-known silent masterpieces like Sunrise, Lonesome and Coeur Fidele.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Hitchcock, 1927)

lodger2

One of the most delightful home video surprises of this decade was the UK label Network’s sensational Blu-ray disc of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger. The master of suspense’s first thriller was originally released in 1927 and the Blu-ray was based on an impeccable restoration by the British Film Institute that gloriously renders many heretofore unseen details in the luminous, Expressionist-influenced photography. I would go so far as to say I never realized what a truly great movie it was until viewing the BFI’s restoration. Hitchcock fans who haven’t yet seen it might be shocked at how fully formed the master’s style was so early on in his career: there are a series of murders, a “wrong man” plot, a beautiful “Hitchcockian blonde” and a highly memorable kissing scene. Network’s generous Blu-ray package includes a booklet with extensive liner notes about the film as well as an impressive 2-CD soundtrack of composer Nitin Sawhney’s newly composed, Bernard Herrmann-esque score.

Underground (Asquith, 1928)

underground

In recent years, the British Film Institute in particular seems to have spearheaded an effort to raise awareness of silent British cinema in general, which I’ve been delighted to find is of interest beyond the earliest masterpieces of Alfred Hitchcock. One of my most pleasant film-related surprises of the past year was discovering the great silent movies of Anthony Asquith, an English director better known for his less-exciting sound-era work. BFI’s home video division released a revelatory Blu-ray of Asquith’s second film, 1928′s Underground, last June. The plot, a love triangle between a shop girl, a nice-guy subway worker and a douchebag power-plant employee, allows Asquith to indulge in some wondrous cinematic conceits — including astonishingly fluid crane shots during a protracted climactic chase scene — and offers a fascinating, documentary-like glimpse of “ordinary” Londoners from a bygone era besides. The image has been painstakingly restored (as evidenced by a short doc included among the extras) and the new orchestral score by Neil Brand sounds brilliant in a 5.1 surround-sound mix. Hopefully, a Blu-ray release of the same director’s even better A Cottage on Dartmoor, a late silent from 1929, will not be far behind.

Blackmail (Hitchcock, 1929)

blackmail

Alice (Anny Ondra), the girlfriend of Scotland Yard Inspector Frank (Johnny Longden), agrees to meet another man, a young artist, behind her inattentive boyfriend’s back. After the artist attempts to rape her, Alice kills him in self defense but refuses to confess to the crime. Frank is assigned to investigate the case and figures out the truth but the pair soon find themselves being blackmailed in exchange for their silence. This was originally released in silent and sound versions, making it both Hitchcock’s last silent and his first talkie. The latter version features a much-acclaimed experimental employment of sound and dialogue (in particular during the famous “knife” sequence) but I think the silent version trumps it as an elegant work of purely visual storytelling. Hitch’s effective use of real London locations, especially the climactic chase through the British Museum, prefigures the director’s celebrated use of iconic American locations later in his career. The silent version was restored, along with the eight other surviving Hitchcock silents, by the British Film Institute in 2012.

A Cottage on Dartmoor (Asquith, 1929)

dartmoor

This unique and incredibly dynamic film pulls out every cinematic trick in the book to tell the tragic story of Joe (Uno Henning), a barber’s assistant, who is sent to prison after using a razor to menace another suitor to the object of his affection, manicurist Sally (Norah Baring). The story plays out in flashback as the love triangle is remembered by Joe, who has escaped from prison and is making his way to the cottage in Dartmoor where Sally now lives with her husband and child. Director Anthony Asquith’s command of visual storytelling in this late silent, arguably more advanced than what Hitchcock achieved in the same era, is incredibly sophisticated — light and shadow, striking close-ups, and rapid-fire editing are all used to establish a poetic mood and sustain a suspenseful tone. The film’s undisputed highlight, however, is also its most lighthearted scene: the main characters go on a date to the movies to see a double-feature of a silent comedy followed by a “talkie.” A montage of faces in the audience watching the latter in stunned silence (undoubtedly meant to express Asquith’s displeasure with the new technology) is a poignant commentary on one of the most important transitional periods in cinema’s history.

Piccadilly (Bennett, 1929)

piccadilly

Anna May Wong was the first Asian-American actress to achieve movie stardom, although she’s better known today for her iconic visage (and pageboy haircut) in still photographs than for any of her actual performances, which tended to be supporting roles and “dragon lady” villains. The best showcase for her acting talent is not a Hollywood film at all but the 1929 British production of Piccadilly. The story concerns a love triangle between a nightclub owner (Jameson Thomas) and two of his employees — a dancer (Gilda Gray) and a dishwasher (Wong). Wong’s character, “Shosho,” makes a dazzling early impression in a sequence where she dances on top of a table in a restaurant kitchen and, much like Sessue Hayakawa in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat, undeniably goes on to steal the show even though she’s ostensibly not the lead. The melodramatic courtroom finale is a little too twist-filled for its own good but the direction — by German filmmaker E.A. Dupont (who had earlier made Variety, one of the masterpieces of the Weimar-era German cinema) — is consistently lively, expressive and fluid.


Odds and Ends: A Touch of Sin

touchofsin Zhao Tao with blade and topknot ponytail.

I recently revisited my favorite film of 2013, Jia Zhang-Ke’s A Touch of Sin, thanks to Kino/Lorber’s stellar new Blu-ray, an occasion that caused me to realize how much my initial long review barely scratched the surface of this great work of art. Upon rewatching Jia’s bold, funny, shocking, beautiful and torn-from-the-headlines anthology (it was inspired by items that first appeared on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter and apparently a widespread source of important but often “unofficial” news for many Chinese citizens), what stands out to me the most now are the way each of the film’s four stories are linked in ways both obvious and subtle. So here are some additional thoughts on some of the fascinating correspondences between the different segments of A Touch of Sin: the first and the second stories are linked by gun violence, and it is further implied that the protagonists of each story may not have committed murder if they had not readily had firearms at their disposal. The third and the fourth stories are linked by the fact that both protagonists have recently been romantically jilted, and thus they share a possible indirect psychological motive for their aberrant behavior. The first and the third stories are also linked by a potential motive — revenge (the protagonists, who inflict violence on others, do so only after violence has been inflicted on them). And the second and fourth stories deal with rootless characters whose violence may be seen as resulting from profound feelings of dislocation. Finally, all four stories prominently feature a symbolic use of animals and animal imagery: from the horse being flogged in the first story, to the Chicago Bulls logo on a killer’s stocking cap in the second, to myriad snake imagery in the third (including an excerpt from Tsui Hark’s Green Snake), to fish seen imprisoned in an aquarium in the fourth. In each instance, the lives of the protagonists seem to correspond to these “spirit animals.”

touchofsin2 Jiang Wu with shotgun and tiger-emblazoned towel.

Even more fascinating are the varying degrees to which Jia has purposefully stylized the climactic “acts of violence” in each of the four segments, which, taken together, turn the whole project into a meditation on both real-world violence and its representation in the movies. (How many other films in recent decades, instead of merely being violent, actually make violence their subject and have something interesting to say about it? A History of Violence? Unforgiven? Anything else?) The most stylized action in A Touch of Sin occurs in the third story where Yu Xiao (Zhao Tao), a receptionist at a massage parlor, slices a man to ribbons after he harasses her by making unwanted sexual advances and repeatedly hitting her over the head with a wad of cash. The fact that Yu reveals an unexpected and almost-superhuman dexterity with a knife, not to mention that she sports a topknot ponytail like a wuxia heroine, places this exhilarating sequence squarely in the realm of myth (not unlike the climax of the aforementioned Unforgiven). The protagonist of the first story, Dahai (Jiang Wu) is almost as sympathetic as Yu as he avenges himself against the crimes of corrupt politicians and local business leaders in his village. The violence caused by Dahai’s shotgun blasts is, however, depicted in a more realistic and horrifying fashion than Yu’s blade work. The saddest moment in the film is the self-inflicted violence of the fourth story (which sees Jia utilizing CGI in a way that allows him to recreate the suicide in Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero but in more excruciating detail). The scariest violence, by far, occurs in the second story: Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang) is a drifter on a motorcycle who, it is implied, gets some kind of sexual thrill from discharging a gun and plots an elaborate robbery as a mere pretext for the purpose of being able to shoot two people. Such a mindset is, of course, unfathomable, which is exactly why stories of violence in the media leave so many of us frustrated. Jia may not provide answers but we should all be grateful that he has at least been able to dramatize our questions about such matters as intelligently as he has in A Touch of Sin. The film even ends with a rhetorical (sung) question: “Do you understand your sin?”

Kino/Lorber’s stellar Blu-ray of A Touch of Sin can be purchased on amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Touch-Sin-Blu-ray-Tian-Ding/dp/B00H91LWBY

You can view the trailer for A Touch of Sin via YouTube below:


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