Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Written Review: Frankenstein

The film Frankenstein is probably one of the most iconic films of the 1930’s. The line “It’s alive” is probably one of the most instantly recognizable lines in film history and has been used in countless other films and TV shows such as the recent action figure sketch comedy show Robot Chicken.
The creative aspects of Frankenstein were extremely good (especially for the time). It was great to see a good script finally come about due to the fact that this film was one of the newer “talkies.” The acting was also impeccable. Boris Karloff’s Monster sticks out in my mind as one of the more impressive sections of film acting out of this time period. One of the things that works so well about the time period that Frankenstein was produced was the fact that talking films were still coming into their own so actors like Boris Karloff were still trained on communicating with body language and facial expressions. I believe this was a huge plus to Karloff’s role as The Monster. Except for maybe Peter Boyle’s comic portrayal of The Monster in Young Frankenstein no one has been able to match Karloff’s silent beast.
In the technical aspects Frankenstein also scored high. From the impressive and expansive sets, to the absolutely beautiful cinematography, this film dragged you into the world of the story (even if you were kicking and screaming the whole way). The final scene where the angry mob burns down the barn where The Monster is taking shelter particularly stands out in my mind. Whereas most modern films would simply use a miniature or a digital set, in Frankenstein it’s quite apparent that an actual building was burnt. The way that the camera captured the flames licking high into the sky and being surrounded by the silhouettes of the various members of the mob is a stunning piece of camerawork.
My only issue with the film is that it ends abruptly with many lose ends still hanging in the balance. This is due to the fact that there is a direct sequel: The Bride of Frankenstein which I will be watching very soon.
Frankenstein is a classic and it deserves that title. The film impressed me in both its technical and artistic achievements. This film was yet another great stepping stone in film history.

A Written Review: Picket Fences

From the beginning of the first episode of Picket Fences one thing was extremely clear: This show was made in the 90’s for a 90’s audience. The opening titles alone made me remember the days of my youth watching things like 7th Heaven and Boy Meets World.
One of the problems I had with the show (or at least the episodes I saw of it) were some of the issues which were supposed to create tension in the series were a bit contrite. I remember the very first episode when the female character met her favorite musical artist and some of the dramatic tension was built on the fact that the musical artist would be playing at a bar and that the female lead didn’t know if she’d be able to go. While this might have seemed like a weighty issue back in the 90’s it isn’t quite relevant to us now. This is the age of the indie artist. I’ve been to more concerts in bars than I have been in actual venues. So while I’m sure the story held some dramatic chutzpah for its time, it doesn’t hold much water in our modern mind. Also, a lot of the acting had that 90’s cheesy over-dramatics that I’ve always hated about shows in that era.
Creative aspects aside, the show was very well made for its time. The sets were impressive and most of the costuming was dead on. The music was, once again, very 90’s (especially the opening theme). When I was looking up information for this show I’ve noticed that it has quite the cult following, is quite highly rated, and won several Emmy’s and Golden Globes when it aired. I am assuming that most of the problems which I had with the series initially probably dissipate later on.
While I can’t say that I adored Picket Fences I could see that there was a lot of potential in the series. The cast was strong and the idea of a community centered television show has always worked out well (Smallville, 7th Heaven, Arrested Development, to just name a few). So, while I won’t be personally recommending the show to any of my friends, I won’t critically condemn the show either.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Written Review: Living in Oblivion

The film Living in Oblivion was one of the best, and most realistic, looks at low-budget filmmaking I’ve ever seen. From the cinematography, to the acting everything was a perfect representation of what it’s like to film something with no budget.
I absolutely loved the way that the simple camera movements during the behind the scenes sections highlighted the absolutely fantastic dialogue and yet when the perspective changes to the film within the film, they give the film a much more cinematic look.
The acting was also fantastic. I’ve always love Steve Buscemi work with the Coen brothers and even some of his less critically acclaimed work with Adam Sandler. His performance in Living in Oblivion rivals that of his great work in Fargo and Barton Fink. Also, all the other actors played their parts perfectly. Whether it was the awesome character of Wolf the DP or the fantastic performance of Catherine Keener as the downtrodden actress, all the actors brought a sense of realism and fantastic comedic timing to their various performances.
Of course, you cannot say anything about this film without talking about its writing which was far-and-away the centerpiece of this film. The writing of this film literally made me jealous of writer/director Tom DiCillo’s skill with the pen (or in our modern-age, a keyboard). This film had one of the most hilarious scripts I’d seen in awhile. However, this wasn’t just some talentless parody, this film held up a comedic mirror to the low-budget film industry (and self-parodies are always the best parodies).
Living in Oblivion was by far one of the best movies I’ve seen that was about the art of film itself. It’s creative cinematography, great performances, and superb writing made it a fantastic experience.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Written Review: Wild Strawberries

I was very surprised that I had never seen, or even heard of the film Wild Strawberries. While I can’t say I’ve seen much of Bergman’s work outside of The Seventh Seal I have always been meaning to dig further into his work, so to speak. Bergman’s dreamlike style and absolute grasp of complex human emotions is something that’s always fascinated me. This is especially true in his film Wild Strawberries.
Wild Strawberries is one of the better looking black and white films I’ve seen. Bergman’s incredible use of subtle shadows was something I loved. He used them to texture the scene as opposed to making them take over the scene as is more commonly done in the German expressionistic work such as Nosferatu and M. I love the way the shadows were used to specifically when the character of Isak was feeling distraught (especially during the dream sequences).
Also, Bergman’s themes and story pieces were extremely complicated. Whether it was the way Bergman used the journey of the three young friends starting out life without a care in the world to show Isak’s coming to a close or seeing the disintegration of his child’s marriage, Bergman knew how to make his audiences think and think hard.
All-in-all, I think Bergman’s film is absolutely beautiful. From his bizarre dream and flashback scenes to his fantastic road-trip type story Wild Strawberries is a film that anyone who loves film should see.

A Written Review: Gold Rush

The film The Gold Rush was one of the better silent films I’ve seen. Both the technical and creative aspects of the film meshed extremely well and gave the viewer a great experience.
The cinematography in the film was very good. You could see massive improvements in terms of the look of film then. The film didn’t jump frames like other films such as Intolerance and Way Down East tended to. Also, you could really see elements such as set design, props, and even animal training start to make their mark on the film industry. The scene where Chaplin’s character and Big Jim eat the show sticks out in my mind as one of the more creative prop designs I’ve seen in a silent film. Also, the scene where the house teeters on the edge of the cliff was absolutely amazing and I still wish I could figure out how that gag was done.
Also, Gold Rush really highlighted the absolutely pathetic state that slap-stick comedy is in now-a-days. Back in the silent and golden era of film it took talent to do slap-stick. Scenes such as the wind scene in Gold Rush or “Make ‘Em Laugh” in Singing In The Rain make the crotch smacking, head banging, and floor slipping antics of the modern era just seem like toddler piano recitals next to professional orchestras. One would have thought that filmmakers would have tried to better perfect this genuinely funny art form. I remember a time when I seriously thought that slap-stick was a very immature type of comedy but as I explored the masters of slap-stick, such as Chaplin, I suddenly realized that it’s merely our 21st century version of slap-stick that is childish.
Another thing must be said of the acting in Gold Rush. I found that even more often than the various physical gags, Chaplin’s expression was what made me laugh hysterically. Chaplin was one of the king’s of dead pan, up there with the masters of the art such as John Cleese and Bill Murray (or more appropriately they belong in that category with him). I remember the first time I laughed out loud at this film was when Chaplin set his walking stick into the snow and fell down to his shoulder and then quickly tried to recover himself. While the gag itself was hilariously funny, Chaplin’s reactions were what made it an amazingly brilliant shot.
All-in-all this film is historically important because you can see how Chaplin began to really refine the art of comedy. Many of the building blocks to the average comedic film we see in our modern-era were beginning to be developed and refined in this movie (and all of Chaplin’s work).

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Written Review: Greed

Greed was a very good silent film. I thoroughly enjoyed the direction from von Stroheim and the cinematography. The acting was also much better than any silent film I’ve watched so far. All-in-all this was another surprisingly enjoyable silent film.
One of the best parts of Greed was the acting and, by extension, the direction. Since von Stroheim came from Germany, where the filmmaking was in a further state of maturity than in America, he knew that having actors flail around like mentally handicapped children trying to get your attention was not the always the best choice. Many of the actors used subtle body language and facial expression to convey emotion. I could see the evolution of film acting beginning to gain traction.
In addition, the cinematography was fantastic. Von Stroheim and his cinematographer obviously brought over what they had learned in the German expressionist movement to American cinema. They use of shadows in Greed was, just like Nosferatu, was a beautiful thing to look at.
In addition to all of this the “script” was actually tolerable. Most of the time I found the text slides in most silent films are written with the skill of a toddler. However, one can see Stroheim moving towards using more real text as opposed to the absolutely atrocious dialogue Griffith used in Intolerance. I actually didn’t wince each time a slide was presented.
The story itself, an adaptation of Frank Norris’ novel McTeague, was fascinating. I found that while most films, such as Intolerance, had a rather uninteresting and bland plot, Greed’s story actually sucked me in at many points.
I think Greed was a very important film because it made great steps forward for filmmaking. It brought German expressionism to the American cinema, made vast improvements in the craft of film acting, and made great leaps in the area of writing in film.

A Written Review: Way Down East

Way Down East was one of the better silent films I’ve seen. From the much simpler story to the absolutely stunning ice flow chase scene, this was a film that I actually enjoyed watching.
One of the things that I loved about Way Down East was the orchestrated score. This relatively small change helped me to enjoy the film infinitely more than other silent films which relied on absolutely horrible sounding midi based soundtracks.
Also, unlike Intolerance, which tried to tell about four separate stories in the space of its over three hours of run time, Way Down East focused on a single storyline. This helped to focus my attention on the story at hand. When I watched Intolerance I was often very confused when the film would jump between the four narratives. It would take me about a minutes or two to reorient myself and remember the who’s and what’s of whichever storyline Intolerance was telling (this was especially difficult considering many of Intolerance’s storylines, dress, and settings were very similar). Way Down East did away with multiple narrative storytelling and decided to just tell one main story which had several well done subplots.
The acting in Way Down East, while still not cinematically perfect, was a vast improvement over most silent American films. Actors were able to convey emotion with more subtle body language as opposed to flailing their arms around as if they were a tumble weed being blown around in the wind. Many of the actors and actresses were able to convey so much raw emotion just with their faces. The scene where the female leads first love tells her that he will not marry her was a heartbreaking scene.
Of course, I can’t talk about Way Down East’s accomplishments without talking about the ice flow chase scene. I don’t like throwing the term “epic” around but this scene was truly epic. Not even the stunning visuals of Avatar were able to make me interact with what was happening on-screen like this chase sequence. Seeing actors actually put their lives in legitimate danger was a pretty impressive feat compared with the sterile and safe environments we have now-a-days.
I would say that I did enjoy Way Down East. I doubt I’ll ever willingly watch the film again but I am very glad I watched this well made and significant film.

A Written Review: Intolerance

I know the title may seem a bit harsh but to my modern-day, film educated mindset, it was very difficult for me to really enjoy the film Intolerance. I found that I always had to tack on the phrase “…For the time” whenever saying anything positive about the film. Being that this is a film and television history class I guess that is the perfect thing to say about the movie.
Some of the techniques and storytelling ideas used in this film are extremely influential and still used to this day. The idea of having multiple story arches in a single film, the epic battle scenes, and even certain cinematic techniques were all brought to light in this film.
Some of the most impressive accomplishments of this film are the sequences in Babylon, specifically the battle scenes. I am assuming that this film came along before miniatures could be used effectively in film (or had even been conceptualized). I would love to see a documentary on how they pulled off some of the truly epic scenes in this film (I’d probably enjoy the documentary more than I actually enjoyed Intolerance). In comparing this with some other silent films of that era (and even in later eras) the sets are truly stunning. When it finally hit me that all of those sets were built (so far as I am aware) to scale I was floored. It makes what Peter Jackson did with The Lord of the Rings series seem a bit less impressive considering Jackson had about 80 years of technological advantage over Intolerance and some of those film’s sets were equal to some used in Lord of the Rings (Though I’d watch Lord of the Rings over Intolerance any day).
Also, some of the shots used in Intolerance caught my eye. There was a scene in which one of the character was having her child taken away and was knocked to the floor. The shot where all the camera sees is the woman’s hand reaching for something (I can’t remember what it was due to my almost comatose state at this point in the film) was a truly beautiful shot.
The lighting used on a few of the Bethlehem scenes where all the camera shows is Marry and the cradle where baby Jesus is asleep were quite good.
All-in-all, while I can’t say I particularly enjoyed Intolerance I can say I’m very glad I watched it. Yes it was extremely difficult keeping my eyes open for over three hours of actors looking like dying fish gasping for air, yes most of the shots were bland and lacked depth, and yes the dialogue written for the film’s captions make Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer look like writing Gods. However, the film is still an extremely important one to watch because of what it was able to accomplish with what it was given.