Thursday, September 12, 2019

Review - Love Me Once Again

September 12, 2019

Love Me Once More – South Korea, 1968

Years ago, a couple I knew divorced after several very acrimonious years of marriage. In their settlement was a provision that I do not believe has an equivalent in the United States or Europe. She got the business, and he got their son – and when I say that, I mean it in its most literal sense. The boy’s mother signed over all of her rights as a mother, effectively severing her relationship with him permanently. To the best of my knowledge, she has not seen him since. I’ve mentioned this over the years to a number of my co-workers, and the response is always the same – How can a mother do that?

This is not exactly what happens in So-yeong Jeong‘s wildly popular Love Me Once Again, but it is close enough to present Western viewers with a bit of a challenge. See, what transpires on the screen goes against Western ideals and norms. Sentiments are expressed that run counter to traditional Western thought, and in one scene, where a Westerner might wrap his arms around a relative in a terrible situation, a character declares the aggrieved to have hurt the family honor and banishes her from the family home, knowing that she has nowhere else to go. And this is nothing compared to a mother’s last wish for her daughter. Such moments may induce jaw dropping, and they may ultimately keep viewers from other cultures at a distance, unsure how to respond. Should we chastise or seek to sympathize?

Love Me Once Again begins on a regular Sunday, one filled with fishing, a family lunch, and generally joviality. The festive mood is broken by an unusual message from their servant, who says that the man of the house has a visitor who insists on being greeted in the house. The requested man, Shin-ho Kang (Shin Young-kyun), receives the visitor and soon learns that he is delivering a message from someone from Kim’s past who is requesting that Kang meet her in their former usual location. He goes of course, and as he waits, the film flashes back eight years to a time when he was a student in Seoul and was very much in love with a Kindergarten teacher named Hye-Yeong (Moon Hee). He was also in love with his wife. What unravels is a tale of love and betrayal that ended in a child and a long parting. When we return to the present day, we see Hye-Yeong arrive with her seven-old-son and a request that his father take on the responsibility of caring for him.  

The film is standard melodrama – not that there’s anything wrong with that – and for the most part, the characters are fleshed out nicely. I was especially intrigued by the role of Kang’s wife (Jeon Gye-hyeon). She could easily have been presented as a cold, vengeful Disney-stepmother type, yet as the film progresses, she becomes the caring, sympathetic presence that the boy needs. The transformation is fascinating to observe, and by the end of the film, she hardly resembles the unreasonable character we see earlier in the film. Also interesting is the way Hye-Yeong is presented as the ideal woman, one who falls in love hard, devotes every waking minute to making her man’s life better (which includes doing his laundry and cooking all of his meals), and never gets over her first love, regardless of the destructive impact that some of his actions and inactions have on her. She has every reason to hate him, yet there she is years later with his picture still on her desk in a spot commonly associated with icons deserving of admiration.  

The soul of the film is Kang’s friend, affectionately called the Professor (Park Am). He has all of the details and gently tries to ease everyone’s path into the unknown. He is also the voice of reason, chastising Kang for getting in the situation in the first place and imploring Kang’s wife to open up her house to a child who is her husband’s, but not hers. He can be brutally honest, as well as emotionally supportive, and he does all this without really getting verbally emotional himself. His empathy, though, can be read even when it is not vocalized. It’s is quite a performance.

There are, of course, problems with the film. At several points, we hear the characters’ inner monologues, and they do not resemble the thought patterns of normal people in the slightest. Hye-Yeong’s “perfection” makes her less realistic, and part of the film’s climax defies logic. However, my biggest complaint may be that the film never firmly establishes what draws Hye-yeong to Kang in the first place, and therefore, it’s hard to see why she would remain so enamored with him during their seven-year disconnect. There’s also the matter of Shin Yeong-kyun’s acting, which all too often involves showing an emotion without actually feeling it.

Still, I recommend the film. It tells a compelling story and has three very good performances. I cared about the characters and hoped that they’d find some measure of happiness after such a traumatic experience. And who knows? They just might have. In the film’s final moments, a message appeared at the bottom of the screen telling me to stay tuned for the sequel. (on DVD in Region 3)

3 stars

*Love Me Once Again is in Korean with English subtitles.
*The version I saw was apparently taken from a television broadcast and is missing both the beginning and ending credits.
*Love Me Once Again 2 was released in 1969.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Review - Man Hunt

September 7, 2019

Man Hunt – US, 1941

Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt is a curiosity. Advertised as the story of a big game hunter in pursuit of Adolf Hitler in the months leading up to the Second World War, it is instead that of a man fleeing from shadowy agents of the Third Reich. It is quite a difference. It’s the equivalent of making the audience think a movie is a supernatural drama when in fact it is about a traumatized man who just happens to walk the streets in a ghostly manner. Gripe as I may about baiting-and-switching, I think most audience members are able to accept a little intentional deception on the part of an advertising department so long as the actual narrative is quite compelling. As for Lang’s film, I’d venture that I would have been intrigued by a synopsis that described pre-war Nazis stalking a famous hunter for the purposes of obtaining a justification for a declaration of war on Britain. Such a film would have the potential to be an intriguing mix of cat chases mouse and mouse chases cat. Fortunately, this is what Lang gives us – at least partially. It is a sign of the times that such a taut thriller suddenly deviates from its promising set-up and becomes one of those superfluous love stories that bear no resemblance to anything in the real world. It doesn’t cause the film to completely implode, but it comes darn near close.

Man Hunt stars Walter Pidgeon as Captain Alan Thorndike, a wealthy hunter legendary for his exploits across Africa. In the film’s opening scene, we see him crouching down and cocking his rifle, the grainy image of Hitler surprisingly standing in its cross hairs. Thorndike steadies himself and prepares to take the shot, but just then, he looks up and waves good-bye in a goofy sort of way, and turns to leave, apparently content to have had the chance to change the course of history. A funny thing happens, though – he appears to have second thoughts, yet just as he appears to be about to take the shot, he is set upon by a patrolling guard, and the moment is lost forever. Soon, Thorndike finds himself in front of Gestapo leader Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders), and he sees a golden opportunity in front of him.

However, before that is revealed, the film becomes a long-winded highlight reel of the captain’s career. Major Quive-Smith practically praises the captain and his long list of accomplishments, and in what would later be called true Bond-fashion, then proceeds to tell him his entire plan. (He even suggests that Hitler would have invited him in for tea if he’d knocked on the door.) Here are the highlights: the major – or rather his goons - is going to torture Thorndike until he signs a confession that he was trying to assassinate Hitler at the behest of the British Government, thereby giving Germany just cause to launch hostilities against the U.K., as if Hitler ever waited until international law and public opinion were on his side before invading a neighboring country.

Earlier I alluded to James Bond, and while it would be another twelve years before the first James Bond book and twenty years before the first Bond film, there are further similarities between the captain and the superspy, the most important being that they seem to have the ability to make women fall in love with them in mere seconds. Here, the Bond girl comes in the form of Jerry (Joan Bennett), a tough-as-nails young lady belonging to the commoner class. In less than an evening, Jerry is fawning over Thorndike despite his ignorance of her first name, and when, a bit later, he elects to sleep on the couch in her living room, she gets this expression of her face that suggests that she was hoping for a much different arrangement. And all of this transpires after Thorndike grabs her as she’s trying to leave her apartment and forces her back in. That sounds worse than it actually is. See, the Nazi’s are outside looking for him, and you know what they say about desperate times.

The introduction of Jerry derails the film somewhat for it prevents the Captain from doing what a character of his sort is supposed to be doing, mainly turning the tables on his pursuers. Now a case can be made that he doesn’t know them in the beginning, yet once he gets a good look at them, which he does, I expected more from him that just proposing to flee the country. Shouldn’t he be setting the traps and not the other way around? Jerry’s arrival also heralds the start of the film’s comic relief – or at least its attempts at it. Suddenly, we get scenes involving fish and chips and hat pins, as if the two of them hadn’t a care in the world.

The film ends with an action-packed, suspenseful confrontation between good and evil, and the good news is that the scene is downright effective. I remember hoping the film ended right after its eventful climax. Sure, it would have been a downer, but it would  also have been the kind of ending that stands the test of time. Instead, we get propaganda – a return from the brink and a promise that next time will be different. It was a fine message in 1941, yet now it marks the film as a product of its time and not one that has aged particularly well. It also doesn’t help that there’s a narrator for the first time in the scene, making me wonder whether the ending was tacked on by the studio and not Lang himself.

As with most films by the distinguished director, Man Hunt is visually stunning. Lang truly was a master at using light and shadows, and here he uses them to convey the difference between the captain and his accusers, as well as to build up the peril that exists for Thorndike. I especially liked the way he keeps his camera focused on Sanders’ character during a brutal interrogation. Many contemporary films would cut to Thorndike’s battered and bruised body, possibly even showing the physical abuse itself. However, Lang realized that all that is needed to convey torture is an ominous threat, a few off-screen slaps, punches, and screams followed by silence, and a later shot of the wounded trying desperately to stay on his feet. It’s more than enough. In a way, it’s tougher to take than the more graphic scenes that succeeded it.

In the end, Man Hunt is a good film. It has a great set-up, an interesting, yet muddled middle, and a thrilling close. Yet, one gets the feeling that it could have been a great film had the film played it straight. The material was more than adequate, and the cast certainly give it their all. There’s just something amiss, something that keeps the movie from becoming truly involving, and perhaps it’s one of those qualities that the captain shares with Bond in his worst movies. Thorndike is simply too congenial. He makes jokes when a rationale person wouldn’t, he’s flippant when he’s should be dead serious, and there he is introducing Jerry to his family when he should be trying to limit her involvement. In other words, he takes his eye off the ball, and if he’s willing to do this, there’s no reason for the audience not to as well. (on DVD and Region B Blu-ray)

3 stars

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Review - Variete

 August 29, 2019

Variete – Germany, 1925

I want to like E.A. Dupont’s Variete – I really do. I want to praise it for its masterful use of close-ups and for the way Dupont lets his camera linger of the faces of his actors, enabling views to see them either run a gambit of emotions or stick with one sentiment for such a long time that we understand exactly what the character is thinking. I want to extol the impressive camerawork during the film’s acrobatic scenes, scenes in which we get a combination of long shots, which stress the complexity and hazard of what the lead characters are attempting, and close ups, which, when compares to earlier scenes, provide more evidence of the changes that have taken place. I want to sing the praises of the cast, and their extraordinary ability to be in the moment and to project their character’s inner monologue. In other words, I want to be able to say ignore the disjointed plot and just embrace the spectacle, but something won’t let me.

There are, of course, movies that have been praised more for their atmosphere, photography, and cinematography than for their narrative cohesion, films such as Dark City, Donnie Darko, and L’age D’or, which were great to look at and narratively a bit of a head-scratcher. Some of these films have even wound up on end-of-year lists and nominated for awards. In fact, the description of the back of Kino Classics Blu-ray edition of Variete proclaims the film to be “a rediscovered masterpiece,” and I have no doubt that there are many who would agree with this classification. I’m just not one of them. Plot matters, and it is there that my conflict can be found.

Variete is about a carnival performer, referred to as the Boss (extraordinarily well played by Emil Jannings), who becomes entranced with a young dancer (Lya De Putti) whom fate just happens to place at his mercy. He is at first indifferent to her, but as the days goes by, he gradually becomes enthralled - peaking at her during her performances and, in one particular scene, mentally comparing her wondrously youthful  physical features to those of his far less-toned wife. (To be fair, she has recently had a baby.) The young lady, referred to as “The Strange Girl” in the opening credits, as well as “Berta-Marie,” which is the name of boat she sailed in on, is put off at first, but soon she develops a habit of stowing away in his trailer and stealing furtive glances, each of which reveal a more interested state. Soon the two are embracing, and the Boss is giving in to his baser, much more lustful instincts. This is the only context in which a scene in which he strikes her and she begs him not to be mad at her is remotely justifiable, and even then it is still deeply disturbing.

For the most part, the beginning is fascinating, and it sets up expectations of a raw, captivating film about the results of throwing caution to the wind and giving in to lust. Yet this impression actually doesn’t gel with the film’s opening scene, one that is set in a prison in an unspecific future and one that references the Boss’s’s extraordinarily devoted wife and child. In other words, this is not a story of sin, but redemption, for no film references a wife and child’s undying devotion so early on unless their loyalty is rewarded in the end.

What follows, though, is a recalibration of the relationship we thought had its genesis and bond in animal attraction. Soon, we see the Boss and Berta-Marie walking arm in arm, laughing, as if they were soul mates who had a much longer and more fulfilling courtship than they did. She is even referred to as his wife, which is odd considering what we learn in the film’s opening scene. The two are performing a trapeze act in a traveling carnival (Just how she became such an expert at it in such a short time is never explained.) when they are approached about joining the act of a much more established trapeze artist named Artinelli. Berta-Marie embraces the idea; the Boss has his reservations, though just what they are is never explained. Eventually, he acquiesces, making the pair a threesome, and these things rarely turn out well. Just ask the characters in Wings.

The film is replete with thrilling scenes of daring acrobatic feats, and it is quite bold in its depiction of a coupe as physically drawn to each other as they are. I was consistently impressed with both of the lead performances and completely enthralled by long shots of the Boss as he ruminates on his predicament. There are times when he is actively trying to quell his inner demons and prevent the carnage that their release would create. It’s only reasonable that they’ll eventually be unleashed, yet I must say that the where, when, and how were unexpected.  

So, what is my problem with the film? Well, for starters, the film embraces a sickening myth that romance can begin with an assault, as long as the man doing the assaulting is also an amazing kisser. Second, the film’s first twenty minutes are practically devoted to creating the impression that Berta-Marie is a temptress who possesses a hypnotic-like power and uses it to her advantage. However, that characterization is never fully bought into. For one, her dancing is the opposite of sexy, this despite the rather revealing attire she adorns. It doesn’t help that de Putti never seems at ease during these scenes, which is peculiar, since they’re much tamer than some of her scenes with the Jannings. In fact, other than a customer who climbs on stage while she’s performing, there’s no evidence that anyone other than the Boss is emotionally undone by her. Later, after she has absconded with her man, the references cease entirely.

Finally, the film’s bookends made the Boss out to be the real victim without providing any evidence that he is no longer the brutally violent man we saw several scenes earlier. Instead, we’re just reminded that somewhere is a wife that has endured infidelity, alienation, and years of hardship and loneliness just so that she can be reunited with the violent, two-timer that abandoned her and their infant son so many years earlier. I’m sure the notion of such a filial wife filled many audience members’ hearts with sympathy and admiration in 1925, yet I found it sad. The cad simply didn’t deserve it, and the film doesn’t really work because of that. One day, someone will give us a film about a seductress who remains a seductress throughout (even if she thinks it’s time to settle down and her power becomes a nuisance) and a ruffian who remains a ruffian to the very end; 1925 Germany just wasn’t such a time. (on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Classics)

3 stars

*Variete is a silent film.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Review - Owl and the Sparrow

August 22, 2019

Owl and the Sparrow – Vietnam, 2007

There’s nothing particularly new about the plot of Stephane Gauger’s well-directed movie Owl and the Sparrow. If you’ve seen films like Annie and Three Fugitives or any of Gary Coleman’s NBC specials from the 1980s, you’ll recognize the scenario within fifteen minutes, which is about the time it takes for each of the film’s main characters to be introduced. In films of this sort, we usually get a child who is wise beyond her years and undaunted by challenges that would crush mere mortals, and that eventually, she’ll come across good people who easily slip into the role of protectors. Oh, and her protectors should both be in various states of loneliness so that circumstances just happen to bring them together. We’ve seen it before. And yet, Owl and the Sparrow has something that makes the old seem new enough – location.

Much of the film takes place in Saigon, a city seemingly swarming with abandoned children. (There’s reference to it having six orphanages, and no reference to anyone seeking to adopt any of their inhabitants.) In addition, its streets are swarming with homeless children, many of whom are hired by adults more than willing to take advantage of the cheap labor they provide out of necessity. In fact, the film depicts Saigon as being so accepting of the unacceptable that not one person bats an eye at the sight of a child selling postcards or flowers on a street corner, and almost no one cares enough to enquire about the circumstances that led them to accept such perilous conditions. Notice I said almost.

The central character is Thuy, a ten-year-old girl being raised by her uncle, Minh (Nguyen Hau), due to the death of her parents. I probably should have put raised in quotation marks for only a bribed official would ever describe his treatment of her as anything other than abusive. In the opening moments of the film, we see Minh question one of his employees about a bundle of bamboo that was not cut to his specifications. Slowly, the blame for the error is passed down the plant floor, and the camera follows a procession of tall women in their twenties or thirties before settling on a space where a worker’s height does not match that of the other ladies. Minh makes a bee line for this worker and proceeds to berate and belittle her in front of her co-workers, most of whom watch with looks of resignation that reveal just how regular an occurrence this is. The employee is, of course, Thuy (Han Thi Pham). In his diatribe against her, Minh reminds her how lucky she is to be in his care and how utterly worthless she is. He does this while routinely pushing her head back forcibly with his pointer finger. It’s no wonder she goes home, breaks her piggy bank, and runs away. What is surprising is the almost routine way she does it. She’s clearly already heard that runaways can find work to the streets of Saigon regardless of their status as minors.

In a way, the film is reminiscent of Zhang Yimou’s Not One Less. In that film, a very young boy leaves the countryside to find work in one of China’s big cities. One of the most crushing moments in the film comes when a reporter asks him what he’ll remember about his experience there. He responds, “I’ll never forget that I had to beg for food.” Thuy never suffers that indignation. The son of a local noodle shop, only slightly older than her, gives her a complimentary dinner (“The first one’s on the house,” he tells her.) and a fellow homeless child helps her find a relatively stable job selling flowers. Eventually, she meets Hai (The Lu Le), an employee of the local zoo, and Lan (Cat Ly), a flight attendant in town for seven days. We can almost see the moment when Thuy begins to think about bringing them together.

It’s this seven-day time frame that I had the most problem with. I can buy people befriending a homeless child in such a short time, for most of us would be quite willing to help an individual that we developed a personal connection with, especially if that person was a child. It requires either a leap of faith or an exceptionally well written screenplay to buy that true love can flourish under such conditions, even more so seeing as Hai and Lan don’t actually meet until Wednesday evening, giving them just two days to make a love connection. What is needed then is something along the lines of Before Sunrise. We need Hai and Lan to have long conversations about art, food, the meaning of life, literature, and their future dreams. We need to see them recognize the other as the missing piece of their lives. Sadly, this is not what we get. Instead, we see an awkward conversation, a few hints of nervousness of their part, and a short montage of the three of them having a good time at a night market. We’re subsequently meant to believe they are in love. It’s not enough, and this has the effect of making the film’s Hollywood ending seem a little ridiculous. Sure, it brings a warm feeling to the heart, but it never really earns it.

Fortunately, the cast gives the film their all and make up for what the screenplay lacks. Both Le and Ly are convincing as people whose lives have been upended by the little girl who brought them together, and the film’s most powerful scenes often involve them displaying emotions whose depths surprise even them. A key scene shows them practically pleading with authorities to be allowed to take care of Thuy, all the while knowing they have no legal basis for doing so. I cared for these characters, and I wished there were more people like them.

I’m always grateful for a movie that shows me something I haven’t seen before, and Owl and the Sparrow opens the curtain on a situation that should set alarm bells ringing. Gauger has made a film about people who are as ordinary as you and me – hardworking, unsure of ourselves, not always able to move on after setbacks. I admired the way Gauger didn’t rush scenes of their everyday lives. We see the loneliness, the starts and stops, the powerlessness they feel when decisions they disagree with are made, yet we also see the will to go on, to persevere, to make what they have as close to paradise as possible. We see than not all families are determined by blood; sometimes they just find each other. It’s not a revolutionary notion, of course, but in Gauger’s capable hands, it resonates. I’m glad I saw it. (on DVD from Image-Entertainment)

3 stars

*Owl and the Sparrow is in Vietnamese with English subtitles.
*Stephane Gauger made just five films before his untimely death in 2018 at the age of 48. 

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Review - Confessions of a Nazi Spy

August 16, 2019

Confessions of a Nazi Spy – US, 1939

Time is not always friendly to films, especially ones that are overtly political. The public’s sentiments can sway, characters that were popular in the past may be less appealing to successive generations, and, as is the case with Anatole Litvak’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy, facts learned in later years can leave earlier depictions of historical events open to criticism. This is both unfair and unavoidable. Chaplin’s The Great Dictator has its detractors, one of which is Woody Allen, as a result of what some see as a sanitized depiction of Nazi horrors. It’s a criticism that Chaplin acknowledged, even going so far as to say that had he known what was really going on in Germany, the film would have been quite different. I suspect the same is true of Confessions of a Nazi Spy.

The film is based on the 1938 trial of four German spies in the United States, a case which resulted in four convictions and is credited with helping the FBI develop techniques that enabled it to utterly devastate Nazi intelligence operations in 1941.  It is not, however, a case that cast the FBI in the most positive light. Four times as many German spies escaped than were convicted, and the agent placed in charge of the case, Leon Turrou, leaked information about it to the press and was even suspected of taking a bribe from the man assumed to be the head of the U.S. German intelligence ring. Also missing from the film is any reference to Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), boycotts of Jewish businesses, and the Nuremberg Laws, which were passed four years prior to the film’s release.

Of course, 1939 was a different time, and movies were not as critical of the government as they are today. The Hayes Code was in effect, the Great Depression was still ravaging the country, and people were hopeful that Roosevelt’s New Deal would bring them much needed relief. So, perhaps it is not surprising that the film depicts most of the spies’ flight from justice as being the result of German ruthlessness rather than FBI ineptitude. Also spared cinematic scrutiny is the lead agent. Here, he gets a new name, Edward Reynard, and a cool, calculated persona. Played by Edward G. Robinson, he’s a man who can size up a suspect in seconds and devise a strategy that will culminated in either a confession or an incriminating act. He’s also a master at getting them to flip.

Confessions of a Nazi Spy consists of three parts. The first part covers the activities of those involved in the German spy ring and illuminates the tactics they employed, their reasons for targeting America, and the philosophy behind their actions, much of which has to do with “blood and race,” as well as a maniacal devotion to the Fatherland and Adolf Hitler. In this part of the film, we meet Dr. Karl Kassell (Paul Lukas), a physician by day and anti-American motivational speaker by night. His audience is German-Americans, and his message is that they should unite under Hitler against democracy. His words are met with thunderous applause. One of his supporters is a young disgruntled German teacher named Kurt Schneider (Francis Lederer) who takes the professor’s word to heart and is soon offering his services to the German government as a spy.

The film then takes a drastic turn, shifting its focus to the FBI and their efforts to unravel the Nazi‘s plot. You can see the problem here: for about a half an hour, we’re watching characters try to discover what has already been revealed. In fact, there’s a single suspect that’s brought in for questioning that we don’t already know is guilty. The only thing keeping the film from becoming completely tedious throughout this part is Robinson’s performance. He has such a commanding presence that the film is able to maintain enough momentum to get audiences through the confessions and arrests and into the film’s third part, the beginning of which resembles a courtroom drama.

Alas, it is in this part that the film loses focus entirely and reveals its true motive. Instead of riveting testimony, a teased defense strategy that would have been intriguing to see in action, and dramatic cross examinations, we witness a procession of political speeches designed to prop up the United States and cast the German government as monsters and its people as experiencing an unexplained bout of madness - you know, the kind which rids them of their humanity and makes them follow a silver-tongued huckster promoting racial purity and extermination. There’s even a judge who delays sentencing so that he can explain just how much better their fates will be under American justice. He’s not wrong, but still. The film eventually ends with a few customers in a cafĂ© talking about the case and saying, “Just wait until we get in the fight.” Cut to Reynard, his face beaming a smile so proud that its message is unmistakable – Villains beware! America is waking up!

It seems clear that screen writers Milton Krims and John Wexley were convinced that the film could be the catalyst for that awakening. However, their optimism proved to be misplaced. The film was a box office failure, despite being generally well received - it was even named the best film of 1939 by the National Board of Review, and when America did enter the war, it was not in response to the Nazi atrocities depicted in the film – at least not explicitly. Interestingly, the film actually succeeded in getting Hitler’s attention. According to Wikipedia, Hitler banned all Warner Bros. film as a result of it, and that fact alone makes the film a curiosity.

To look at it today, though contemporary eyes and with the benefit of hindsight, is to see a film with all the best intentions simply lose its way. It’s like watching a documentary about nuclear weapons and having it end with a parade of individuals proclaiming that the ideal number of nuclear weapons is zero. (Yes, I’m talking about you, Countdown to Zero.) Even it you agree with that sentiment, it’s still annoying to be hit over the head with it so many times. Regrettably, this is akin to how Confessions of a Nazi Spy ends, and the film suffers as a result – albeit to no real fault of its own. After all, it wasn’t made with our generation in mind. (on DVD from Warner Bros.’s Archive Collection)

2 and a half stars

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Review - The Haunted Castle


August 8, 2019

The Haunted Castle – Germany, 1921

F.W. Murnau’s misleadingly titled The Haunted Castle has to be the longest 81 minutes I’ve ever spent watching a movie. With its glacial pacing and long stretches devoted to reaction shots whose only function is to demonstrate how much pain a character is in, the film was a good reminder that even the greatest of filmmakers can only do so much with a substandard screenplay. And I give Murnau credit for trying. From the lighting on the castle that makes it seem both cursed at night and a place of radiance in the day to the intriguing diversity in social atmosphere and physical space, the film has the look of both a classic horror film and an expressionistic Gothic painting. If only it had a plot.

That last sentence is a bit of an exaggeration, for the film indeed does have a narrative that drives it. The problem is what little story there is could be more succinctly told in a 35-45 minute short. Extended an additional 30 minutes, the story lingers far too long of inconsequential moments. For example, characters stare into the camera for what seems like an eternity instead of just answering basic questions; a priest takes far too long entering a room; and an outdoor scene of a coach arriving has a tediousness to it – we see the empty road, then the coach in the distance, the coach closer up, the coach passing the camera, the coach coming to a halt. And after all that, we don’t even get to see who gets out. Instead, we cut the the castle and see the butler rush in and announce someone’s arrival, thereby making the scene entirely superfluous.

Here is the plot in a nutshell, and no, it does not involve an actual haunted house or the ghost-like figure that graces the poster and DVD cover. A rich man (Lothan Mehnert) assumed to have killed his brother for money shows up unexpected at the home of a wealthy upperclassman (Arnold Korff) who’s hosting a fox hunt for a number of guests. One of the guests is the widow of the slain brother (Olga Tschechowa), clearly setting up a confrontation. Also on his way is a priest whom the widow considers a confidant. The impression given is that the presence of this trio will set sparks flying and possibly lead to murder. As the pieces of this mystery are being assembled, we, the audience, wait, and we wait, enduring conversations in which characters speak in code so as not to reveal anything too soon. Thus, what could be a crisp, compelling tale of revenge and murder becomes an exercise in clock-watching. Murnau and his producers must have wanted the film to be long enough to quality as a feature film; audiences are more likely to just want it to be over.

Watching it, I was reminded of all of the jokes about silent acting on account of its supposed repetitive emotional looks and exaggerated physical movements. For the most part, I have found such attributes to be the exception, not the rule. Here, however, we get them in abundance, often from the same character. The widow, for example, is rarely seen with an expression that could be called naturalistic, and the camera dwells so often of the mysterious, angst-ridden face of the stranger that you half expect him to be revealed as a creature of the night hell-bent on avenging a fellow creature staked through the heart in a previous movie. And then there’s the unwelcome presence of comic characters, whose only purpose seems to be to disrupt the eerie seriousness of the situation that the other characters are trying so desperately to create.

When it was finally time for the mystery to be resolved, I no longer cared. For all its time spent on depressed or rage-filled looks, there is very little that engages the audience or makes them sympathetic to its lead characters. The stranger is bully, the widow keeps the audience at a distance by acting like a mute, and the priest just hangs out in the shadows. In fact, the only character who elicited any empathy from me was the owner of the castle. After all, all he wants is to have a good time hunting foxes with his friends. Instead, he gets a gloomy, rain-filled weekend in which time seems to be punishing him. It certainly felt like it was punishing me. (on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino)

2 stars

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Review - What Price Hollywood

August 1, 2019

What Price Hollywood – US, 1932

About a half an hour into George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood, the movie which was remade in 1937, 1954, 1976, and 2018 as A Star is Born, a man breaks into a woman’s home, picks her up from her bed, and forcibly takes her to his home. The man then refuses to release her and even force feeds her caviar, all within the gaze of numerous male musicians and servants, none of which raise a single objection to the inhumane spectacle occurring in front of them. So much for chivalry.

Now rewind about five minutes. The set-up to the grotesque display I have just described occurs on a Hollywood film set, where a director is filming live actions shots of a game of polo. The soon-to-be-abducted woman is shown taking an interest in a rider wearing a uniform numbered 2. When she hears he wants nothing to do with “Hollywood blondes,” she is beside herself, and when an errant ball hits her from behind, she decides to give the man a piece of her mind. What follows in a dressing down the likes of which rarely come from protagonists, and you could understand if the jockey concluded this exchange by observing how right he was in his earlier sentiments. Except he doesn’t. No, the guy takes an interest in his insulter and is soon asking her to join him for dinner. She makes a few remarkably greedy demands and then stands him up even though he has met them. Enraged at the loss of face, he sets off to commit the crime mentioned in the first paragraph.

Would it surprise you, given such an introduction to these two characters, that they get married just a few scenes later? Admittedly, surprise is the wrong word here, for, as with similar moments in John Waynes’s McLintock! and The Quiet Man, modern sentiments simply do not endorse the kind of verbal attack levied upon the man or back the notion that kidnapping can be the start of a beautiful relationship, not even in a film made before the Hayes Code was fully enforced – unless George Clooney is involved, that is.

The woman referred to above is Mary Evans (Constance Bennett). When we first meet her, she is an aspiring actress waiting tables at a restaurant frequented by a number of Hollywood elite. She is also confident in her abilities and walks with the kind of swagger that reveals just how much confidence she has in herself. One particular day, Max Carey (Lowell Sherman), a big-time director, walks in drunk and distributing flowers. Mary begs her co-worker to let her wait on him, and pretty soon, she’s being swept off to a Hollywood premier and receiving an opportunity to break into Hollywood. One guess how that turns out.

I like that Mary is overconfident and slightly arrogant. You probably had to be to make the cross-country journey that so many people did at that time. And I like that she matches Carey’s sardonic wit with humor and sarcasm. It makes her a force to be reckoned with even before she has any real power over her own destiny. Suddenly, she got a contract. It’s all so sudden – a fairy tale lie that Hollywood all too often tells about itself. A wiser film would have explored her ascent and growing skills. Instead, all we get is a night of rehearsing and, voila, a studio head is offering her a seven-years deal and declaring that he’s going to make her a star – all this after seeing her onscreen for just ten seconds. The Hollywood myth on display for all to see.

Here would be a good time to mention that tokenism of the African-American characters, a sad part of early Hollywood history, and a scene in which Max pulls an African-American servant into a swimming pool after she decides to spontaneously serenade him as an audition is particularly jarring. After all, he gave Mary a part for doing essentially the same thing. Honestly, some of what used to be passed off as humor is utterly embarrassing today.

What Price Hollywood is a decent and engaging film when it focuses on Mary’s friendship with Max. That’s right, friendship. Like The Artist, Max discovers Mary, and Mary’s career flourishes; when Max hits rock bottom, it’s Mary that tries to resuscitate him and get him to dispel his demons. In later versions of the story, the roles of the husband and director were morphed together, which was the right decision. With two male protagonists, What Price Hollywood is too disjointed, with Mary running around trying to save her marriage in one scene and Max’s soul in the other. In this version of the story, Max’s story gets the short end of the stick, and that is to the film’s detriment. As for the ending, it can only be seen as a product of its times, when unwritten rules didn’t allow female heroines to be self-sufficient or single. A knight had to come riding along, regardless of whether the damsel was actually in distress.

If you know the structure of the various iterations of A Star Is Born, the second half of the film will look familiar. Fortunately, it is in this half that the film finds its stride. Cukor was an excellent director, and he is at his best here when focusing his lens on Mary and Max. Cukor also helps viewers understand a time that is remarkably similar to the present. Throughout the film, he frequently returns to newspaper clippings that are both speculative and salacious. The most invasive one is a column called “You Ask Me,” which, like many websites today, publish the rumor instead of the facts. As a result, Mary must deal with headlines that speculate on the health of her marriage and later Mary’s relationship with Max.

Still, What Price Hollywood is only partly enjoyable. When it focuses on Hollywood’s inner workings and exposes its seedier side, the film is a revelation, and when it explores the connection that Mary and Max have, it is riveting. Yet when it turns its lens to the marriage, the films suffers, partly because the film is so short, that it’s impossible to get how they met out of your head. This created an awkward moment: In one scene, Mary is distraught over the state of her relationship, and I mentally shrugged. Of course, it fell apart. Don’t you remember how it began. I know I do. (on DVD from Warner’s Archive Collection)

2 and a half stars