Friday, June 29, 2012

There may never be another movie star quite like Mary Pickford. Often referred to as "America's Sweetheart," Pickford was the original movie star - the first actor to have her name placed on the marquee above the title, and one of the most popular actresses in the history of cinema.

Cinema was still a brand new art form when Pickford came along, still barely past the plotless "actualities" of the early 1900s and before the feature length motion pictures of the 1910s. Pickford was the first of her kind, a trailblazer whose influence is still felt today. Her relationship with matinee idol Douglas Fairbanks was legend. They were the original Hollywood power couple, their Hollywood mansion, Pickfair, becoming the epicenter of the comings and goings of cinema society. Pickford and Fairbanks, along with Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, founded United Artists, the first movie studio to be run by the artists themselves.

Mary Pickford in LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY (1925)
Nicholas Eliopoulos' new documentary, Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies, which premiered this past week on DVD from Cinema Libre, explores Pickford's life in her own words, examining her influence on the early days of cinema, and her importance in shaping the young art form into the medium we know today. While the film often seems like a long special feature from a DVD of one of Pickford's film, it is nevertheless a fascinating look at the star that will certainly engage both casual fans of cinema history and diehard film buffs alike.

It is difficult for modern audiences to imagine the kind of American royalty that Pickford became at the height of her career in this age of instant celebrity. But Pickford truly was the birth of the modern movie star, the beginning of the glamorous, larger than life opulence that would come to define what it means to be a star. But Pickford was so much more than just a pretty face. She was active behind the camera as well, often writing her own films and pushing herself as an actress, revolutionizing American film acting by focusing on a more naturalistic style that stood in stark contrast to the popular pantomime style of European films. Her films, and especially her "little girl" character (which she played into her 30s) may not translate particularly well to modern audiences unaccustomed to silent film, but her influence on the history of cinema remains. Her talent remains just as timeless and magnetic as it ever was, and while Eliopoulos' film is hardly revelatory, it offers an engaging overview of the life of one of the brightest stars the world has ever seen.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Now available on DVD from Cinema Libre.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

There were few figures of the silent era that were as wildly popular in their time as Charlie Chaplin. Because of the universal nature of silent film, whose intertitles were easily translated into different languages, easing their exports to foreign countries and making international stars out of the likes of Chaplin and his friend Mary Pickford.

While D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation is often pointed to as the first mega-hit, Chaplin's The Gold Rush (1925) is frequently considered to be the first international cinematic sensation. Chaplin's appeal had no language barriers, and his iconic Little Tramp character was easily recognized the world over. It was the highest grossing comedy of the silent era, making it Chaplin's greatest commercial success, as well as one of his most enduring. While not as emotionally astute, perhaps, as The Kid (1921) or his masterpiece, City Lights (1931), The Gold Rush features two of the finest set pieces of his career.

The Little Tramp eats his shoe in THE GOLD RUSH.
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
Set in the Klondike gold rush of the early 20th century, The Gold Rush follows the adventures of the Little Tramp as he tries unsuccessfully to stake his claim and seek his fortune. Instead he comes across the cabin of a wanted murderer, where he takes shelter from a blizzard with a fellow prospector who has just hit the mother lode. Chaos and hilarity, of course, ensue, as hunger begins to set in and his new friend begins to imagine that he's a large chicken in his hunger crazed state. Soon, the Tramp meets a girl, and sets about trying to impress her the best way he knows how, while his friend suffers a blow to the head that erases his memory of where he left his gold.

The aforementioned sequences involve Chaplin stabbing two rolls with forks and using them as dancing feet (a gag originally performed by Fatty Arbuckle, and later recalled by Johnny Depp in Benny & Joon), and a house teetering on the edge of a cliff that the Tramp must keep precariously balanced. The Tramp's love interest is played by Chaplin's own mistress, Georgia Hale, whom he left his wife, the film's original star, Lita Grey, for after she became pregnant during production and was forced to drop out. Perhaps because of this, the film spends a great deal of time fawning over Georgia, something that Chaplin scaled back when he rereleased the film in 1942.

The Tramp spots Georgia in THE GOLD RUSH.
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
After the semi-silent Modern Times (another one of his masterpieces) in 1936, Chaplin finally gave up on silent pictures, nearly a decade after the advent of sound. Silents were now completely obsolete, and so too, it appeared, was the Little Tramp. But in 1942 Chaplin recut and rereleased The Gold Rush with new narration replacing the intertitles. A tighter 72 minutes (a full 16 minutes shorter than the original version), Chaplin considered the '42 version to be his definitive cut of The Gold Rush, and most critics agree with him. However I prefer the original 1925 release, which has been pieced together and restored here after having been effectively abandoned by Chaplin. The narration in the '42 cut seems forced and hokey, distracting from the visual wit of Chaplin's comedy. The original cut is more pure, a work of greater finesse and subtlety which the '42 release essentially blunts.

Both versions of the film are presented on Criterion's excellent new blu-ray release. While the '42 version has better image quality due to the varying qualities of the sources that the 1925 restoration had to be culled from, both versions look exquisite. The supplements are certainly up to Criterion's usual high standard, detailing Chaplin's re-edit of the film and its subsequent restoration to its original glory. Most historians will probably point audiences, especially those unaccustomed to silent film, to watch the sound version, but thankfully the original version is now available in its best possible form to entertain an all new generation of Chaplin fans. Chaplin may have made better films during his career, but his unique charm remains just as timeless as ever.

Supplements include:
  • New high-definition digital restoration of the 1942 sound version, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition 
  • New 2K digital transfer of the reconstructed original 1925 silent film, restored in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna, with a newly recorded adaptation of director Charlie Chaplin’s score, presented in 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray edition 
  • New audio commentary for the 1925 version by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance 
  • Three new programs: 
  • Presenting “The Gold Rush,” which traces the film’s history and features filmmaker Kevin Brownlow and Vance; A Time of Innovation: Visual Effects in “The Gold Rush,” featuring effects specialist Craig Barron and Chaplin cinematographer Roland Totheroh; and Music by Charles Chaplin, featuring conductor and composer Timothy Brock 
  • Chaplin Today: “The Gold Rush” (2002), a short documentary featuring filmmaker Idrissa Ouédraogo Four trailers 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Luc Sante and James Agee’s review of the 1942 rerelease 
GRADE -  ★★★½ (out of four)

Now available on blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

From The Dispatch:
"Brave" has all the trappings of a solid children's film — it's an endearing mother/daughter fable with the visual grandeur to sweep the audience off its feet into a mystical realm of Celtic myth and legend. Unfortunately it doesn't have the strength to fully stick the landing, relying too heavily on a thin plot twist that lacks emotional weight and resonance. Perhaps it is unfair of us to expect Pixar to hit it out of the park every single time it steps up to the plate, and even though "Brave" is a solid triple, it still feels like a bit of a letdown in the shadow of its distinguished predecessors. 
Click here to read my full review. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Want to win a copy of Nicholas Eliopoulos' new documentary, Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies, courtesy of Cinema Libre?

All you have to do is head over to my Twitter page and retweet this message. Three winners will be chosen and announced on June 19. Winners must be residents of the United States to be eligible.

 Here is the official synopsis of the film:
Mary Pickford, The Muse of the Movies traces the life and work of this legendary silent film star, movie pioneer, and keen businesswoman. Pickford’s life (1892-1979) also parallels an even larger story, telling of the “birth of the cinema” itself. Pickford co-created United Artists' Studios, spearheaded the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as well as established the Motion Picture Retirement Home. Mary, known as “America’s Sweetheart,” was the first actress to earn one million dollars, and only star ever to receive a 50 percent profit share of her movies. She was the first actor, male or female, to have her name placed on the Cinema’s marquee along with the film’s title, and she was the first to win an Oscar for Best Actress in a “sound” motion picture for her performance in the 1929 film Coquette. In 1976, Mary was presented with her second Academy Award for her humanitarian work. 
In this documentary, through restored vintage audio recordings, Pickford narrates her own story along with actor Michael York. Classic film clips, rare home movies, and cameo interviews with Adolph Zukor (founder of Paramount Studios), famed aviator Amelia Earhart, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Lillian Gish, Buddy Rogers (Pickford’s last husband), as well as the only interview ever given by Pickford’s daughter, Roxanne Rogers Monroe, give the viewer an in-depth look into the early world of the American cinema.
Special features include a Q&A with director Nicholas Eliopoulos at the Toronto International Film Festival, director interview on NPR’s “On Film," and over 30 archived images of Mary Pickford.

A must have for all cinema history buffs and silent film fans, the DVD will be released on June 19 from Cinema Libre.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

From The Dispatch:
There's a lot to admire about its production and Scott's stubborn refusal to deliver a traditional prequel, instead playing around with half-baked ideas and philosophies that, while left mostly unexplored, provide a strong backbone to an otherwise flimsy film. In a summer filled with mindless blockbusters, Scott dares us to use our brains, and while the questions it asks don't always lead anywhere worth going, "Prometheus" as a whole is something that works in spite of itself.
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Having already released most of Ingmar Bergman's most well known works in one form or another, the Criterion Collection has set its sights on two of the Swedish auteur's lesser known works, that are nevertheless just as important in the evolution of his career as 1957's one-two punch of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries.

While those two films effectively launched his career on the world stage, asserting his directorial voice and establishing him as one of the premiere art house filmmakers, Bergman had been quietly honing his craft and developing that voice for years before. 1951's Summer Interlude and 1953's Summer with Monika represent a kind of early career renaissance for the director, marking a very specific shift of POV from male-centric to female-centric that would inform the rest of Bergman's career.

While not directly linked in anyway, both films share a kind of spiritual bond that is unmistakable. Both deal with young love in the Summer, but arrive at very different places for the central couples.

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
In Summer Interlude, a ballet dancer (Maj-Britt Nilsson) is suddenly reminded of an old love affair with a young student (Birger Malmsten) that ended in tragedy when his journal unexpectedly arrives at her door. As the story unfolds we begin to understand the walls she built around her heart, even in her new relationship with a young journalist. While the film doesn't stand with Bergman's very best work, there is something about  enrapturing about the deeply personal way in which he illustrates the hazy memories of summer love. Based on his own experiences, Summer Interlude is a lovely study of grief and recovery that deals in some of Bergman's favorite themes, especially in its connection to the theatre. While still not the master he would become by the end of the decade, Bergman's grasp of the cinematic language is clear, and was honing his craft into something that would soon develop into something legendary.

Surprisingly, the transfer is less that pristine for a Criterion release, with some light damage to the print, especially in the final reel. The rest of the film looks pretty impressive, but the release is completely devoid of extras, save for an essay by Swedish cinema specialist, Peter Cowie.

Summer with Monika, on the other hand, is both a superior film and a superior presentation. In some ways it is a perfection of the the themes explored in Summer Interlude, as a teenage couple, Harry (Lars Ekborg) and Monika (Harriet Andersson, with whom Bergman was having an affair during filming), run away from home to spend a languid summer making love and living off whatever they can swipe from local farms.

At first it seems like a template for every summer romance that has been made since, presenting itself as an idyllic portrait of young love in that most magical of months when everything seems to fall into place against the shimmering waters of the sea. But then reality sets in, and just when we think we know where Bergman is going he pulls the rug out from under us. Monika discovers that she is pregnant, and when the two of them return home from their romantic sojourn, they are faced with the consequences of their actions - new-found responsibilities that neither could have expected that will test their love that once seemed like it would last forever.

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
Bergman deftly introduces a dose of hard reality to the naivete of the idealistic youth. It's what makes Summer with Monika such a poignant and heartbreaking film, something Bergman hauntingly sums up in a chilling close up of Monika (and later mirrored by Harry) that breaks the fourth wall and stares right into the soul of the viewer. Monika's piercing gaze, so full of defiance and inner turmoil, seems to dare the audience to judge her for her actions, while at the same time embodying a kind of tragically wasted youth. For his part, Bergman never judges or condemns his characters while deflating the ideal of young love with a kind of raw naturalism that is hard to shake.

For a film made in 1953, it's surprisingly sexually frank, at least by American standards of the time. But even Bergman wasn't safe from the scissors of American exploitation filmmakers, who cut Summer with Monika down, added a lurid jazz score and an English language dub, and renamed it, Monika, The Story of a Bad Girl. It completely missed the point of Bergman's original themes, of course, and the Criterion release chronicles the exploitation of Monika and other art house films of the era by American grindhouse producers looking to make a quick buck by exploiting often edgier content of foreign films. The liner notes also includes an article by none other than Jean-Luc Godard, who worshiped the film, saying it was "to cinema today what The Birth of a Nation is to the classical cinema." While I wouldn't go nearly that far, Monika's mastery is undeniable. It's a meticulously crafted, mature take on themes as old as cinema itself. Young love isn't always pretty, and Bergman treated it as something both tragic and beautiful, a dream interrupted by reality. Bergman would go on to make greater, more iconic films, but for a brief period during the 1950s, summer fascinated a youthful Bergman, and the results are truly something remarkable indeed.

SUMMER INTERLUDE - ★★★ (out of four)
SUMMER WITH MONIKA - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available on blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

From The Dispatch:
It's a sumptuous visual feast, a refreshingly mature take on a story that has long been considered to be strictly children's territory. Sanders recaptures the story's dark roots and delivers a compelling and epic adventure that is a definite bright spot in a surprisingly dull summer movie season.
Click here to read my full review.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Having released five of Jean Rollin's most notable films on blu-ray under its new Redemption label earlier this year, Kino Lorber has returned with three more, somewhat lesser known Rollin works.

Oddly enough, the first of these films, and the 10th in Kino's Redemption line, is Rollin's very first film, The Rape of the Vampire (1968). I thought it was odd that it wasn't included in the first round of Rollin releases, but after watching the film it's pretty clear why - it's honestly not very good.

It's no wonder - all copies of the script were lost in the first two days of shooting, and the rest of the film was shot on the fly, which explains its rambling, directionless style. Rather than mold the film on his own, Rollin instead chose to allow the film to plot its own direction as he filmed. With no plan and no script, the production of The Rape of the Vampire was a mess, and it shows on screen.

Photo by Michel Maiofiss, courtesy of Cinémathèque de Toulouse.
Rollin's only black and white film, The Rape of the Vampire is a bizarre, nonsensical tale of a psychiatrist who tries to convince four vampires that they are actually just mentally ill, while they are convinced they are ageless creatures of the night who were once raped by the villagers. Split into two distinct parts that have little to nothing to do with each other (half of which is a pseudo-remake of the 1943 film, Dead Men Walk, starring Dwight Frye), the film is a mostly experimental work, presaging Rollin's penchant for surrealism in later films. There are some great shots to be found here, but the film itself is just a disorganized mishmash of seemingly disconnected scenes.

Rollin made two features, The Nude Vampire (which was released as part of Kino's first Rollin bundle) and Strange Things Happen at Night before, 1971's Requiem for a Vampire, which was his first film to receive a US theatrical release, where it was released as Caged Virgins. Rollin's films were always marred somewhat by producer mandated nudity in order to sell more tickets, but Requiem for a Vampire is perhaps the most overtly pornographic of his oeuvre.

Rollin considered Requiem for a Vampire to be his favorite of his films. Drawn almost completely from his subconscious, the film plays into his surrealist tendencies far better than Rape of the Vampire did just three years prior. Having clearly learned from the mistakes of his previous films, Requiem is a more pure, streamlined work that seems plucked from some sort of strange dream. It's a nearly wordless tale of two schoolgirls (dressed as clowns, no less) who run away from school and stumble upon the torture dungeon of the last vampire.

Photo by Michel Maiofiss, courtesy of Cinémathèque de Toulouse.
A wild mix of dreamlike imagery and sadomasochistic fetishes, Requiem for a Vampire is often silly, but often beautifully surreal. When viewed in chronological order, Rollin's journey as a filmmaker becomes more clear, and is a significant step up from 1969's The Nude Vampire and a vast improvement over Rape of the Vampire. His very next film, The Iron Rose, would turn out to be his masterpiece, after he was freed from the imposed erotica of overbearing producers. In fact that's probably the most distracting element of Requiem - it feels more like a porno than a horror film, with extended sequences of nude lesbians whipping each other in BDSM dungeon fantasies (a scene Rollin intentionally made over the top in hopes the censors would cut it, which they did). Otherwise, it's an intriguing Rollin enigma that found the director on the precipice of something great.

Coming in between The Iron Rose and Lips of Blood (and two straight up pornos, Schoolgirl Hitchhikers and Fly Me the French Ways), 1974's The Demoniacs (aka Curse of the Living Dead) is the work of an artist on the rise. Hot off of the most artistically successful (yet most commercially disastrous) film of his career, Rollin stretched his wings a bit for a more straightforward narrative that, unlike many of his films, is actually quite unnerving.

"Straightfoward" is a word that must be taken with a grain of salt when discussing Rollin, because he always deals in such a dreamlike realm. But The Demoniacs is actually more of a ghost story, and a pretty good one at that.

The film centers around twin girls (as Rollin films often do, but these are different  twins from those in Requiem and Lips of Blood) who are raped and murdered when a band of "wreckers" lure a ship to its doom on a rocky coast. The girls then return from the grave with the help of the devil to take their revenge.

A scene from THE DEMONIACS.
Photo by Michel Maiofiss, courtesy of Cinémathèque de Toulouse.
I was reminded somewhat of the Twilight Zone episode, "The Howling Man," in which the Devil is trapped in an old castle, much like the ruins found in The Demoniacs, where he is found by the girls, who sleep with him in order to gain his powers. I'm not the first to make such a comparison, Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas also notes the similarities in his excellent liner notes included with all three films. While he dealt mostly with the horror genre, Rollin's films are usually more surreal than scary, products of the subconscious mind. But The Demoniacs is something of a different animal, an eerily gripping work that is hampered only by its frequent breaks for gratuitous sex scenes. It's interesting watching these films and imagining what they could have been had Rollin been forced to include such erotic elements that make so little sense. As such his films remain mostly curiosities, mildly diverting oddities for fans of horror and exploitation cinema.

Kino's loving presentations perhaps lend more importance to these films than they ultimately deserve, but it's hard to complain in the face of such comprehensive releases. The Rape of the Vampire features two Rollin short films made prior to his feature film career, and the transfers are mostly excellent considering the source of the films (Requiem, perhaps the most beautiful of the three, actually fares the worst transfer-wise). Fans of the first five Rollin releases from Kino won't want to miss these three new discs. While they aren't quite as good as the first round, Kino clearly remains devoted to Rollin and the rest of the Redemption catelogue, and continue to do right by these strangely fascinating films.

THE RAPE OF THE VAMPIRE - ★★ (out of four)

Now available on blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Panos Cosmatos' trippy sci-fi oddity, Beyond the Black Rainbow, is a film that consistently defies categorization. On the one hand, it is a clear homage to the science fiction films of the 1970s and early 80s, recalling such works as Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's World on a Wire.

On the other hand, Beyond the Black Rainbow is a wholly original work, a brilliantly conceived mindbender that deftly recreates the look and feel of 70s sci-fi and turns it into vibrant and remarkable work of art.

One could argue that what we have here is style over substance - Drive for the sci-fi set. But like Nicholas Winding Refn's acclaimed genre exercise, the style is the substance, and there is so much to explore beneath its gorgeous colors.

Those looking for a strong sci-fi plot, however, are advised to look elsewhere, because Beyond the Black Rainbow is sort of like the last 20 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey stretched out over an entire movie.

Eva Allan in BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, a Magnet Release. 
Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
Set in 1983, the film is like a vision of the future straight out of the past. In a cheesy informational video, a talking head introduces us to Arboria, a company with a new technology devoted to creating happiness. It will lead to peace and harmony, we are told. This technology is here for our benefit, to improve our quality of life. But deep voiced, white haired businessmen are never to be trusted in films such as this, and indeed the center of this wonderful new happiness drug is a more of an asylum than anything else, where a young girl is under the ever watchful eye of an increasingly obsessed doctor. Who is this doctor? What does he want with this girl? What was his relationship with her mother? And why do these people have her locked up? These questions linger in the mind while watching Beyond the Black Rainbow, but they are ultimately questions that don't really matter.

Cosmatos states in the film's press notes that his goal was to recreate the lurid science fiction thrillers of the late 70s and 80s felt to him as a boy, as he perused their eye-catching box art at the local video store. This film is the result of a lifetime of absorbing these films and creating an almost impressionistic portrait of his own youth through the lens of the pop culture of the era. And in that regard, this is really something special indeed.

Michael Rogers in BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, a Magnet Release. 
Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
Beyond the Black Rainbow is, for all intents and purposes, refracted fragments of memory, congealed over three decades of movie watching into one glorious, impressionistic package. From the vibrant lighting  to the thumping synthesizer score by Jeremy Schmidt (which would feel right at home in a John Carpenter film), the film seems to exude a very specific era and genre, and it does so with exquisite detail. It doesn't concern itself too deeply with a conventional plot, it triggers memories and flashbacks, feelings and moods lost in hazy recollections of dreams long since faded. And despite its clear emulation of films that have come before, there's really nothing else like it.

Cosmatos has managed to pay homage to a 70s sci-fi without slipping into parody or cheap imitation. It actually feels like a product of the era it seeks to evoke. In fact it's quite possible that if someone didn't know this was a new film going into it, they might mistake it for something that's 35 years old. That's the great beauty of it. This isn't some kind of Tarantino/Rodriguez exercise in ironic genre wankery - it's something far deeper and more personal than that. Beyond the Black Rainbow is fanboy homage meets surrealist fantasia, an incredible journey into a bygone era's bleak vision of the future, emerging from the dustbin of cinema history with something wholly, thrillingly, wonderfully new.

GRADE -  ★★★½ (out of four)

BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW | Directed by Panos Cosmatos | Stars Eva Allen, Michael Rogers | Rated R for some bloody violence, disturbing images, a graphic sexual illustration, language and drug content | Now playing in NYC. Opens in LA 6/21.