Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tarzan and the Golden Lion (1927)

Something different this week, readers. Since Tarzan and the Golden Lion celebrates the unshatterable bond between man and beast, I decided to share this week’s reviewing duties with a beast very close to my heart: my pet Howler Monkey, Emmett (see photo). Special thanks to Anne, ace stenographer and a woman fluently bilingual in English and Howlese, who captured Emmett’s comments as well as my own, and graciously transcribed them all. ‘{}’ indicates her direct translation from Howlese.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Water Magician (1933)

The train is about to leave, and the fleeing couple must be on it. Their benefactor presses money into their hands. “Promise me,” she says. “Promise me you’ll always stay together, and that you’ll always be happy.” All she wants is this guarantee.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Coward (1915)

Nineteen-fifteen was a big year for Civil War-themed films in the United States. The 50th anniversary of the end of that conflict sparked more than one celluloid reminiscence—some good, lots bad, many missing the point altogether. It’s a sad fact about public mythologizing, and a peculiarity of silent film, that a cause for reflection can so often be reduced to little more than a vehicle for shallow dramatics or vast platitudes, barely connected to the past upon which they ride. The Coward is no such case; at least, not at first. Watch The Coward for 54 minutes and you will see—I promise you—film acting in its purest form, distinguished and powerful as only the silent medium could provide it, and compelling in its focus on war. It’s a triumph. And you should stop there. Because, from its 55th minute to its 77th and last, The Coward chickens out. We deserved better, by god—all of us did, and none more so than the film’s stars, Charles Ray and Frank Keenan.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Awesome Awesome Awesome (awesome awesome awesome)

Readers, I pine for the days before Michael Bay wrapped his greasy fingers around the Transformers universe, squeezed it with the might of a million bank accounts, crushed it into paste, and remoulded it into the least appealing of all cinematic products: a Michael Bay movie. But let's not dwell on the negative. That makes you a Decepticon. Let's focus, instead, on this. The Transformer--a short film about Transformers, their tragic need for new sources of energon, and the profound bond between Autobot and human, dramatized most ably in a silent film, starring what looks to be a Ford Model-T and Charley Chase. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Snow White (1916)

Cinema prior to 1916 was the bastard child of the stage. The fixed camerawork, mannered acting and phony sets of this era make that impossible to forget, even for a moment, and indeed, it was not something anyone wanted forgotten, because a connection to legitimate theatre was what most quality filmmakers aspired to. Before The Birth of a Nation (1915) and other super-epics began displacing theatre as the supreme populist entertainment, there was no better endorsement.

Filmmakers had to find their own way. They had to learn how their art differed from stagecraft, then learn to love it for those reasons, then learn to exploit it to do great work. But good films could be made by men and women who hadn’t learned all those lessons yet. I’ve seen several. Snow White is one.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Ship of Lost Men (1929)

The Ship of Lost Men is a mediocre film with a great ending, and that’s a problem for me. First, because I try not to reveal endings (though I’ve never sworn anything to that effect); and second, because the ending of this film is both its salvation and the best summation of why it fails. So here’s what I’ll do: I’ll describe the scene without context—its architecture but not its intent—and hope that’s enough to make my point.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Sex In Chains (1928)

Sex In Chains isn’t the exploitation film it sounds like, but if you did find it shelved—accidentally, we’ll say—next to a stack of early-70s convent skin flicks and womens’ prison dramas, you wouldn’t be wholly misled. Those films, like this one, are about people veering to extremes. They’re about people in heat.

Sex In Chains—an often delicately shot, honest film with compassion for its suffering married couple, Franz and Helene—is at a low boil even in its quietest moments. But director (and star) Wilhelm Dieterle isn’t satisfied with mere melodramatics, even of a kind lurid or borderline nymphomaniacal enough to hold our attention. He wants us to be more than observers. He makes us care about these people, all the while tackling social issues that remain, to this day, contentious. I’ll not soon forget Sex In Chains, or the people in it.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Repost: Different From the Others (1919)

I burn easily, so I'll be skipping today's Pride Parade here in Toronto. But here's a repost about a film that shares Pride's overall themes and dedication to advocacy. It's also damn near as long as the Parade... [blogger pauses a moment, pining for the days when he had so much times on his hands.]

Activist films, as they age, face a gradual reckoning. What shocks one era may not shock the next; assumptions evolve or reverse themselves; problems are solved—often, the most pointed ‘message movies’ are the first to seem antique. We appreciate them for being ahead of their own time, but they’re still behind our own. They can no longer run a current of indignation through us.

Different from the Others is, well, different. It’s still ahead of us, or at least, most of us. This silent film is about homosexuality, and it approaches the topic with more blunt conviction than any film, from any era, that I’ve seen. Men hold other mens’ hands in this movie. They caress and comfort one another. They suffer and die for the prejudices of others, for whom the film has no sympathy. The oppressors are not pious, they’re bigoted—and through knowledge, they can be healed.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Back to God's Country (1919)

Well it IS Canada day...

“Canadian law knows no excuse for killing. I must take your father to the post.”

Damn right! Nobody messes with Canadian law, especially in the thick of rural Quebec; and never when it’s Captain Rydal of the RCMP slapping the cuffs on you. Rydal’s got his man, alright—a backwoods Quebecois who’s just stabbed a drifter to death on his own front stoop. Now, he only did that because the drifter’s pal was trying to rape his daughter, but that’s up to Canadian law to sort out, so off he must go. And off he does go—right off a cliff, because the would-be rapist is Rydal, who’s ‘captain’ by virtue of running a ship, and only wears a Mountie’s uniform because he had the real Mountie shot. When you live in the woods, the only people you can trust are the animals.