Sunday, September 28, 2014

Retro Trio: Made (2001), Escape Plan (2013), We Own the Night (2007)

Made (2001)

Director: Jon Favreau

In a word: lame.

The look on Favreau's face here is pretty
much how I felt watching this movie.
This was a surprise for me, since I've generally liked Favreau's writing and direction in his various films. From Swingers to Elf to the first two Iron Man movies, I thought he was solid enough, if not exactly spectacular. I don't put him in any kind of pantheon of great directors, but he's solid. Even films of his that I wasn't terribly enthused about, such as Chef, are well-done, for what they are. 

So it was disappointing to watch this earlier stab of his at spoofing the mafia genre. It's not hard to see what Favreau was trying to do - throw a couple of bickering buddies into the lower levels of the mafia that has been glamorized by countless great movies. But it never gets any real steam. First of all, Vince Vaughn's character is supremely annoying. I'm no Vaughn hater (even though he has absolutely zero range, outside of playing himself), and I actually think he's hilarious when cast in the right movies. But imagine his typical motormouth character firing off line after line, without a single thing actually being funny. Well, that's what he is in Made. I actually wanted him to get whacked after about 15 minutes.

Second off is that the story rambles through a sluggish and vague narrative that seems to have been meant as a mafioso Odyssey of sorts. There are a few mildly amusing scenarios here and there, but most of the scenes simply drag. In the end, the big "reveal" of the plot only made me think that the movie should have been about 45 minutes shorter and saved us viewers the trouble.

This movie had potential, with a decent idea and really good cast, including Favreau, Vaughn, Peter Falk, and about half the cast of The Sopranos. Alas, the whole was far, far less than he sum of its parts. So much so that I was surprised that it made a "Top 100" list of gangster movies compiled by a few Philadelphia area film aficionados. Not sure what they were seeing on this one. 

Escape Plan (2013)

Director: Mikael Haefstrom

This movie fell just slightly on the wrong side of "mediocre." It's not terrible, but there's no way one can call it "good." 

The plot is all but given away by the two-word title. Stallone plays Ray Breslin - a security professional who breaks out of prisons in order to expose any weaknesses, so that they can be corrected. When his services are procured by a a mysterious woman working with the C.I.A., things start to go wrong. All of his safeguards are stripped, and he is truly stuck in a high-tech, ultra-secret, maximum security prison which is completely off of the grid. Inside, he meets a sly German inmate (Schwarzenegger) who takes great interest in his demeanor and skill set. From there, the two try to (you guessed it) escape.

Escape movies' biggest strength is always waiting to see just how the escapee will use his cunning to make his way past all sorts of obstacles to gain his freedom. In that respect, Escape Plan gets it right. The set up is fine, and the super max prison presents a few interesting obstacles that Breslin has to surmount. But none of them are so creative that they become memorable. Breslin's methods for studying and using his environment are just compelling enough to have kept me watching, but they weren't exactly mind-blowing.

One must absolutely NOT think too hard about this movie's story. There are a laughably high number of logical inconsistencies. I was able to shrug them off for the most part, as it didn't take too much away from the escape element of the movie, but they are pretty bad. If the very reason for the prison's existence doesn't hold up to some mild questioning, then the scriptwriters have done a pretty poor job. There are more than a few other massive oversights that are nearly as awful, so a viewer will need to be ready not to analyze things too closely. You'll only be disappointed.

The aesthetic is just hilariously bad. Clearly going for style over any kind of pragmatics, the prison design is unnecessarily silly, and the guard uniforms look like bad Halloween costumes. Style over substance can work, as long as there is actual style. Escape Plan's notion of "style" equated to what an 11-year old boy would find "cool-looking."

There is also one missing element that I had mixed feelings about. When you sit down to watch a movie with Stallone and Schwarzenegger, then you would expect more than a few one-liners, right? Well, this movie is woefully lacking in that department. Yes, there are a few attempts at some zingers here and there, and one or two of them are half-decent. But mostly, the banter is absent, and much of what is there is thoroughly forgettable.

Do I feel like I wasted my time watching this? Not quite, but close. And there's absolutely no need for me to watch it again. It's a barely passable popcorn flick that you can turn your brain off for, and we all need one of those every once in a while. 

We Own the Night (2007)

Director: James Gray

A good crime flick, if not quite an outright "classic."

The movie tells the tale of Bobby Green - a self-absorbed, semi-outcast brother of one cop and son of another. Played by Joaquin Phoenix, his is a story of self-actualization and transformation through suffering. It's a unique story for the crime film genre, in the type of character that serves as the focus, and just how that character evolves throughout. While it does seem a tad extreme and rushed to an all-too tidy ending, it is a rather satisfying arc.

The movie's two greatest strengths are the acting and the fact that it doesn't pull too many punches. The large-scale "crime" conflict is between the local cops and an ever-increasing Russian mob presence, and Bobby is caught between the two. The tightrope that Bobby walks through most of the movie is constantly wavering in the winds of his own indecision, and we viewers know that he will eventually fall off. The suspense comes from waiting to see if Bobby will make the choice of which direction he falls towards, or if the decision will be made for him. The emotional ramifications make for great theater, as Joaquin Phoenix wears the struggle exceptionally well. He has to struggle through several dilemmas that threaten either his body or his peace of mind, without a single easy answer or fully acceptable outcome for himself or his loved ones. The grey areas certainly set this film apart from many others of its ilk.

Though much of the movie focuses on emotional turmoil, there are certainly several highly suspenseful action sequences, which are quite well-done and affecting. More than simply adding some visceral excitement to the proceedings, they often serve to jar Bobby out of his sometimes paralyzing indecision.

The clearest weakness to me is simply that the transformation goes a bit too far, by the end. I won't give anything away, but the end of Bobby's journey went to a place that I thought oversold just how far he had transformed by story's end. It hardly ruins the film by any means, but it wasn't completely to my liking.

A very good movie that I would certainly recommend to anyone who is a fan of more sophisticated crime tales that focus more on individual character study and transformation, rather than the more procedural elements of most crime films. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Retro Trio - a Whit (Still)man Sampler: Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998)

Metropolitan (1990)

Director: Whit Stillman

For the first fifteen minutes, I was close to turning this one off. By the half-hour mark, it had done just enough to keep me interested. By the end, I felt it was decent.

In a style drawing some rather clear tones from Woody Allen, Metropolitan focuses wholly on coming-of-age yuppies in Manhattan of the 1980s. I know, I know. It sounds pretty horrible. And honestly, during those aforementioned initial fifteen minutes, it was really demanding. The only thing to carry it through was the story of the protagonist, Tom - an idealist lower-middle class guy who finds himself dragged into the summer routine of the far wealthier class. He goes along initially as an observational experiment, to witness first-hand the "evils" that such classes embody. Conflicts start to arise, though, when he begins to fall for one of the girls who is part of the group - the sweet, pretty, and unassuming Audrey.

It's this conflict that provides nearly all of the watch-ability of the film. That, and the performance of Chris Eigeman as Nick, a cynical and self-confident yet affable motormouth who befriends Tom and attempts to guide him through the minefield of protocols that the upper class walks along. If it weren't for Tom's story and Nick, the movie would have fallen very flat.

Some of the dullness comes from the theme of the "snob" class itself. It's just far too difficult to get very wrapped up in their little plights and concerns. Although Stillman is mostly mocking them, the mockery isn't often all that funny. The more glaring weakness, though, is the performances. Several of the actors are simply not very good. The most obvious one is Taylor Nichols, who plays the annoyingly pedantic and self-righteous Charlie. Nichols completely overplays how neurotic and obsessive Charlie is, to the point that I could barely take his presence on the screen by the end of the film. Fortunately, he doesn't get a great amount of screen time, until the very end.

It's a decent movie. The fact that it was Stillman's first was enough to urge me to watch his next effort...

Barcelona (1994)

It's a better film than Metropolitan, if still not exactly a masterpiece. Following the relationship of two cousins - Ted, a stuffy salesman, and Fred, a shallow military diplomat - the movie details their dysfunctional interactions with each other and the women with whom they fall in love and lust. Everything is set in the titular city in Spain, where anti-American sentiment and ultra-sensitivity to fascism go hand-in-hand, much to the chagrin of Fred. The two cousins intermittently grow annoyed with each other, come to love the same woman, and generally get in each others' way, as they have since they were very young boys growing up in the U.S.

The movie is more consistently funny than Stillman's first movie, with the jokes being a bit sharper, and the characters being more consistently engaging. There is also the far more vibrant setting of Barcelona itself, which provides flashier locales and characters for Ted and Fred to interact with.

The movie is far from a home run, though. The writing, like Metropolitan, often seems a little more fit for the stage than for cinema, lacking the organic naturalism that one should expect to get in the medium. Detracting further from any feel of authenticity is the casting of Taylor Nichols as the main protagonist. As annoying and stilted as his performance in Metropolitan was, it is amplified in Barcelona, seeing as how he plays the main character Ted. I honestly do not know what Stillman saw in Nichols that he cast him in such a major part, but his performance was distracting in its weakness. Fortunately, Stillman also saw fit to give the second biggest role to Chris Eigeman, who once again carries the movie by playing the self-absorbed, fast-talking, and ever-contradictory Fred.

Barcelona is a step up from Metropolitan, though I didn't find it to be any sort of "breakout" film. It still smacks very heavily of being a Woody Allen movie clone, though a slightly watered down one.

The Last Days of Disco (1998)

The Last Days of Disco is probably the strongest of the three films, even if I don't find it a work of excellence.

My lack of full praise is probably due to my tempered interest in the central character type - the yuppie. Even with some decent dialogue, dramatic episodes, and an atmospheric setting, I can only care so much about the yuppie class of the 1980s. Ultimately, it is a self-absorbed type who wear on my viewing patience, not unlike the wealthy types who are the focus of the screwball comedy genre of the '30s and '40s.

The Last Days of Disco chronicle the relationships and professional woes of a handful of young people in Manhattan in, as the film states with an introductory caption, "the very early 80s." This, of course, was just when the death knell for the disco era was pealing, and the glamour that went with the disco club scene was fading out. This all sets up some fairly amusing scenarios, as those desperate to cling to the waning fashions and glamorous hedonism of the previous decade are forced to mingle with ad executives and other yuppie white collar types who were attempting to mark many of the chic areas of Manhattan as their domain. The blending of different types is fairly comical at times.

What is hard to get past is just how unlikable most of the characters are. Stillman tries to make them humorous by letting them air their views, which are usually shallow, callous, or just plain mean-spirited. Sometimes it was humorous, but often it was merely despicable, leading to my complete understanding of the late-'80s catchphrase, "Die, yuppie scum."

So I've given Whit Stillman more than a fair shake, and I think I'm done with him. Over the course of his first three films, I saw a bit of progress in the technical aspects of the movie, but the topics and characters never did enough for me to completely buy in. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Retro Trio: Pacific Rim (2013), 13 Assassins (2010), Dark City (1998)

Pacific Rim (2013)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

This was my second viewing of this one, and I feel the same now as when I saw it on the big screen a year ago. It's certainly fun, but far from a masterpiece.

Yes, it's giant robots fighting against giant monsters, referred to as jaegers and kaiju, respectively. If you need to know more than that, then you probably won't be into this movie.

I do have to say that they do come up with a decent enough story for why we are watching a robot/monster slugfest. It's not exactly novel, but it doesn't try to get too clever for its own good, while not insulting your intelligence. Also, the notion of needing at least two "pilots" to handle the neural requirements to command the jaegers, leads to a bit more genuine empathy than you might expect.

Del Toro made sure that the fights looked at felt just as
titanic as they needed to be. Mindless? Yes. Fun? Hell yes!!
The fights are pretty awesome. They lose quite a bit on a small screen, it must be admitted, but they're still fun to watch, if you're not bored by that sort of thing, like my wife often is (she was fast asleep while I was happily watching Gipsy Danger body slam a Gamorrah lookalike into a Chinese skyscraper). Waiting to see just what type of bizarre powers the kaiju possess, or what kung-fu type moved the jaeger pilots will employ is plenty of fun. And there are a few noble deaths given up for admiration. The a deep-sea slugfest at the end is more than satisfying.

The weaknesses to me are few, but too obvious to ignore. The first is that the dialogue is inconsistent. There are some decent lines, including virtually all of the ones delivered by Idris Elba. However, there are plenty of cheesy duds that made me wince. When the protagonist Raleigh Beckett urges his neural partner Mako, "Let's do this! Together!!", it sounded way too much like the awful, hackneyed dialogue one might hear in a children's anime program. The other weakness to me is the romance between Raleigh and Mako. Totally unnecessary. The shame is that, for nearly all of the film, they don't fall down the Hollywood trap of cramming a romance story into an out-and-out action movie. Then, at the end, we get the cliched kiss-cut-credits sequence. I would have admired the film a bit more if they had simply kept Raleigh and Mako's relationship one of friends and colleagues.

A fun movie, nonetheless. Watch it on blu-ray, on a large screen, with a good sound system, if possible.

13 Assassins (2010)

Director: Takashi Miike

Great samurai flick. I don't watch a ton of Japanese or samurai movies, but I absolutely love them when they're done well, like 13 Assassins.

It probably helped that, just by coincidence, I had finished reading Hagakure a few weeks prior. This 18th century collection gathers the thoughts of a true feudal samurai, and it provides a fair amount of insight into the ideals of that position in Japanese social history. 13 Assassins incorporates several of the deepest sentiments and values of the samurai, both the admirable and the baffling. The primary belief is the ultimate quest for an honorable death. Essentially, a true samurai should never fear death. In fact, a true samurai should embrace the fact that he will die, and he should simply prepare and wait for the opportunity to give his life in the service of his feudal lord. It may seem like an oddly suicidal world view to most of us Westerners, but I've always been intrigued by the sense of honorable purpose conveyed by such an approach to life and death. 13 Assassins uses this idea to motivate the titular group.

But the movie is far from merely being a somber existential meditation. It starts off not unlike a Seven Samurai "let's get the band together" scenario. A middle-aged samurai, Shinzaemon, is tasked with the mission of killing the psychotic, sadistic, and homicidal Lord Matsudaira before he ascends to an esteemed place at the side of the shogun. So Shinzaemon, played with masterful gravitas and humanity by Koji Yakusho, rounds up whomever he can find to attempt what amounts to a suicide mission. The dozen fellows who join the band do so for various reasons, but they all add something to the group.

Do not get on the wrong side of this haggard-looking group.
They're just itching to give their skills and lives up for a
noble purpose.
The assault on Matsudaira is akin to the final 90 minutes of Seven Samurai, but condensed and thrown into a blood-soaked typhoon. In short, it's amazing. There is a slow-build throughout the movie, in terms of the duels and stand-offs. There are some outstanding showdowns, with steely-eyed swordsman squaring off. During the final half hour, though, it's a blizzard of violence, as Shinzaemon's band uses every scrap of cunning and trickery, as well as their considerable individual fighting skills to mow down their 200 opponents. The direction is outstanding, giving a phenomenal sense of place, purpose, and tension to all of the action.

True to the spirit outlined in Hagakure, the 13 "assassins" charge towards their noble deaths, and it's a phenomenal show.

Dark City (1998)

Director: Alex Proyas

As the title suggests, this is a dark, twisted science fiction mystery tale that I found to be excellent.

Dark City contains many shades of other, earlier artists and works: Franz Kafka, Philip K. Dick, noir in its many forms, and Clive Barker's Hellraiser are some of the most immediate that come to mind. The blending of them, though, is unique and highly engaging.

I'll refrain from writing about the plot, as the slow revelation throughout the movie is a large part of its appeal. All a first-time viewer needs to know is that the protagonist, John Murdoch, awakes in a motel bathtub, with no memories of who he is or how he got there. He very quickly finds himself pursued by shadowy, cloaked figures who possess terrifying supernatural powers. Murdoch, in constant flight, attempts to figure out who and where he is, but every answer raises many more questions about the nature of the reality that he is experiencing.

The story is so creative, and its execution is so brilliant, that I'm simply amazed that this movie isn't better known. My guess is that some of the themes and visuals were a little too bizarre or macabre, and the aesthetic - a pervasive noir darkness - was a bit off-putting to people who didn't know what to make of it. In addition, the film doesn't draw the clearest lines between good and evil, which can often disappoint and confound many viewers.

Another potential source of frustration for many viewers is likely the fact that there are certain larger questions that are not clearly answered. Without giving anything away, I can say that we are never given the grand answer to just how the entire scenario of the movie began. But this is completely fine to me. Ultimately, the way it began is immaterial, and this unanswered question allows us viewers the opportunity to engage in some imaginative speculation, based on the many details offered in the film's look and narrative.

Whatever the reasons for its lack of commercial success, it's a great science fiction movie that has rightfully built up the wider praise that it should have received from the outset. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Before I Die #520: Way Down East (1920)

Director: D.W. Griffiths

This is a film that clearly stood out in its day. By tackling the sensitive social issue of gender inequality and double standards, Griffiths wasn't going down an easy road. For that, the film is highly commendable. However, like nearly all silent films viewed nearly a century later, this one didn't hold my attention for its two-and-a-half hour duration.

The story follows Anna Moore (Lillian Gish), a simple girl living in very modest circumstances in New England. In an attempt to garner some much-needed financial support, Anna travels down to Manhattan to visit some extremely wealthy relatives. In the middle of the upper-class jet set, she is seduced by a wealthy and unscrupulous playboy, Lennox Sanderson. Sanderson not only seduces her, but sets up a sham marriage in order to deceive and sleep with her. Anna becomes pregnant, Sanderson abandons her to her fate, and she eventually loses the baby to illness.

Anna is, quite literally, shown the door after the conservative
and bombastic Mr. Bartleby learns of her "shameful" past.
Now a "stained woman," Anna moves to a new town, where she assumes a new name and finds work doing various chores for the Bartelbys - a prosperous farming family; however, the family lives near the estate of the Sanderson family, whose son Lennox was the cause of Anna's misery. The Bartleby son, David (Richard Barthelmess), falls in love with Anna and hopes to marry her. Eventually, though, Anna's past catches up with her. Through gossip, people learn about her past "marriage" and child, and her employer turns her out. In a fit of misery, Anna becomes lost and almost drowns in the nearby frozen river, but David manages to save her. The two get married, along with two other couples in the town.

If the film had stuck to telling the story summarized above, it probably would have been an hour shorter, much more intense, far tighter, and a film that holds up extremely well 94 years later. Alas, the film doesn't maintain a coherent tone. Mixed in throughout an otherwise thought-provoking tale are bewildering moments of slapstick comedy more at home in a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin movie, though not nearly as funny. It seemed an extremely odd film for such things. My guess is that this was simply to keep hold of a 1920 mainstream audience's attention, instead of having them deal with a heavy drama the entire time.

Another reason that this movie was a bit taxing is the same reason as nearly every other silent film - the overblown gesticulations. Admittedly, Lillian Gish was much more subtle in her gestures and movements, which was what made her one of the greats of her era. Richard Barthelmess is a bit more nuanced, as well. Nearly all other actors, though, go over the top. The stomp around, contort their faces, and generally act as if they are still giving a stage performance for children. I understand that this was all a part of the great transition from stage to film in the first few decades of cinematic storytelling, but it doesn't make it any easier to watch.

The rejected and dejected Anna, passed out on an ice floe,
awaiting a death that would a welcome release. But hey,
it's still Hollywood, right? We know Hollywood can't
let such a dismal thing happen.
The climax of the film is a mixed bag for me. The scene on the river is actually very impressive. There are some well-done stunts with David hopscotching across ice floes to rescue Anna, which could not have been easy to pull off with 1920 technology and effects. Yet it still looks pretty decent. I must admit, though, that the "all's well that ends well" ending was a tad disappointing. Maybe it was a bit of pandering to the audience again, but I feel the film would have had far more power if Anna had been allowed to die, leaving those responsible to live with how their attitudes caused it. Instead, we have a male hero dash in and save the damsel in distress, which somewhat perpetuates the stereotypes that the movie sought to tear down.

It's a good movie, to be sure, but I'll never need to watch it again. The theme holds great weight, and there is some notable acting, set design, and technical skill. Still, the movie has lost more than a little since it was created. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Before I Die #519: The Great Train Robbery (1903)

*This is the 519th film that I've seen from the 1,149 "Before You Die" list that I'm working through.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Really just a curiosity for film history buffs, this one.

There's really not much to it. I've embedded the entire thing from youtube, so no real need for me to describe it, other than tell you that it depicts a train heist, and then a chase.

From what I've learned, this film was massively influential for being one of the earliest "chase" films of high quality, employing steady action, a camera that follows said action, impressive stunts, and creative editing to tell a complete story. It is also credited with probably being the very first film Western. It laid the basic groundwork for action films that would follow it for decades.

The opening 2 minutes does a nice job explaining how novel and creative this film was in 1903. Still, don't expect to be overly impressed. I would suggest, though, if nothing else, jump to the 5:45 mark to get a good laugh at the beat down and ejection of the "train operator."

Kind of fun, right?

*519 films seen; only 630 to go...

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Retro Trio: The Most Dangerous Man in America (2008); The Triplets of Belleville (2003); Cronos (1995)

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009)

Director: Judith Ehrlich & Rick Goldsmith

I can't believe I had never heard of Daniel Ellsberg.

Maybe in the mid-1970s, his story was as huge as this film made it out to be. I'm not sure since I was hardly a twinkle in my pop's eye at the time. Whatever the case, this documentary lays out a fascinating tale of personal, internal conflict that has ramifications that reach the highest magnitude.

The original TIME magazine cover that
contained one of the biggest stories
of the 1970s.
The short version is this: Ellsberg was a brilliant strategist and former Vietnam vet who worked for the Pentagon for a number of years. He basically supported the presidential regimes under which he had worked, somewhat blindly faithful that he was doing the right thing. Then, he got the keys to the secret documents. Once he found out exactly what past and current presidents had known and still knew, he started to doubt everything he had previously believed.

Ellsberg's personal struggles are engaging enough on their own. When they are told within the context of a United States in some serious turmoil, they take on much grander significance. This documentary, though now six years old, has timeless themes. By looking at exactly when a person should start to take personal responsibility for wrongdoing, even if it may be a small part of a wrong, this documentary is just what the genre is all about.

The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

Original French Title: Les triplettes de Belleville

Director: Sylvain Chomait

It's weird and I loved it.

All you have to do is look a still frame from the movie to realize that this is not your typical animated film. The visual style is very quirky, and even jarring at times. Once you start watching, you realize that the film itself is just as idiosyncratic and skewed. The oddity that runs the course of the film is certainly amusing enough, but I'm not one who enjoys oddity for its own sake.

The grandmother and the dog, hot on the trail of their
beloved cyclist grandson. Two of the most endearing
characters you're likely to ever see in a film.
What I enjoyed so much about this movie is how the oddity adds an exotic spice to what is, at its most basic, a traditional tale of love, loss, and recapture. It's the details, though, that are hilariously strange. And there are countless little details to absorb. An old Portuguese woman living in France raises her grandson to be a competitive cyclist. He competes in the Tour de France, but when he falls far behind the leaders, some extremely strange things begin to take place. His supremely dedicated and stubborn grandmother winds up dragging their obese dog along on an odyssey to find the boy, running into no end of bizarre characters along the way.

The best thing? There is no real dialogue to speak of for the length of the 89-minute film. Sure, there are sound effects, music, and some grumbles and gutteral noises made by the characters. But mostly, it is all visual storytelling and humor, from start to finish. This is something that is difficult enough to do for five or ten minutes. To do it for a full, feature-length movie is the very reason the medium exists.

For an animated movie, I doubt that very young children would like all of it, though many would enjoy some of the sillier moments, especially with the dog. Anyone else who has an appreciation for the slightly peculiar and isn't too proud to watch a cartoon as an adult should give this one a watch. It's undoubtedly one of the most unique animated movies you will ever see.

Cronos (1993)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

I'm not exactly a del Toro "fan," but I've certainly enjoyed several of his movies. I really enjoyed the Hellboy films, and I thought Pan's Labyrinth was captivating. Pacific Rim was fun, even if I didn't geek out over it like many people did. I even thought that his earlier film, The Devil's Backbone, was a really novel story that showed some excellent technical skill and narrative creativity.

The kindly Jesus Gris inspects the cronos device, sending
him down a dark and tragic path along which his
granddaughter is courageous enough to follow him.
Going back and watching Cronos, del Toro's very first feature film, was mildly interesting. It's a vampire story unlike any that I've come across. An old antique dealer, Jesus Gris, comes across a statue that encases an intricately-decorated gold scarab. In examining it, the device activates several blade-like appendages which cut into and draw blood from Gris. Soon, Gris learns that the device, known as the "cronos device," was the work of an alchemist in the 16th century. The cronos contains some form of vampiric insect, which not only sustains itself with human blood, but conveys the same immortality upon its host. Thus, Gris begins to show symptoms of vampirism. This is ghastly enough, but also seeking the cronos are an uncle/nephew duo, the former of whom is seeking a cure from a terminal illness.

As with several of his films, del Toro inserts a young child into a place of prominence, which adds an atypical perspective on a horrific set of circumstances. In this case, it is Jesus Gris's granddaughter, whose love for her transforming grandfather becomes his only link to his mortal life. This is the real novelty of the film. Also impressive is the prowess of the cinematography, given that the budget of the film was clearly limited.

Cronos is not a great movie, but it's a decent enough one that gave several strong indications that its creator would be capable of far more when given more resources. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Before I Die #518: Broken Blossoms (1919)

(This is the 518th film I've seen of the 1,149 "Films to See Before You Die" list that I'm working my way through.)

Director: D. W. Griffiths

It's not hard to see why this film has a place in film history, but it's not exactly a revelation.

The tale is a simple one, with an admirable and progressive message. A young man, Cheng Huan, decides to move from his home country China to London in order to bring the solace of Buddhism to the West. After a few years, though, instead of saving souls, he finds himself scraping by in the impoverished Limehouse district. Not far away, a young girl, Lucy (Lilian Gish), is perpetually battered, both physically and mentally, by her horribly abusive father, the rage-filled, xenophobic "Battlin' Burrows." After her most recent beating, Lily stumbles into Cheng's shop. The compassionate Cheng nurses her back into health, falling in love with her. Confrontations are, of course, set up between Cheng and Burrows.

It's an honorable story, especially for the year 1919, when compassion for immigrants, especially from the Far East, was not exactly en vogue. On top of that are the themes of feminism and domestic abuse, which are other areas that mainstream cinema rarely chooses to go, even today. In that respect, Broken Blossoms is a highly respectable film.

One of the many close-ups. This one is of Burrows. The
portrayal of this rage monster was typical of the silent-film
era: completely overdone to the point of hilarity in the eyes
of a modern viewer. 
Of course, it takes a certain type of fan to "love" a silent film like this one. I can't say I'm one of those hardcore types. Though only 89 minutes, the film does drag by modern standards. There are a lot of lingering shots of Lucy cowering, Burrows scowling and snarling, and Cheng pining. I understand that such close-ups and extended shots were quite revolutionary for the time, but in 2014 they've just been far outstripped by the succeeding 95 years of film. And the narrative cards use some laughably inane poetry to tell the story.

And then there's the racism. Amazingly, this film actually has a message about compassion and breaking down barriers. And yet, it was still clearly a slave to the prevailing attitudes and language of its time. The alternate title of this film was The Yellow Man and the Girl, and Cheng is most often referred to as "Chink" by most of the Londoners, and even "Chinky" by his lady-love Lucy. It's pretty hard not to cringe every time it comes up.

Yes, it's a "great" film. But don't go out of your way for this unless you're very much an aficionado of silent film or the history of social commentary in film.