Saturday, November 26, 2016

New Release! Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Spoiler-Free section first)

Director: David Yates

Spoiler-free Section

An entertaining popcorn fantasy movie that brings us back into J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter-verse.

The story takes place 70 years before the events in the Harry Potter books, in the United States of the mid-1920s, where a peculiar Englishman named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redgrave) disembarks at Ellis Island with a strange briefcase. Scamander is a wizard who looks after exotic magical creatures which are under threat of death or even extinction. He keeps the beasts he finds in his traveling case, which thanks to magic, opens into a massive set of rooms and open spaces which can easily contain the many critters under his charge. Scamander has come to the U.S. to return one of the creatures to its native habitat. However, a few of the creatures in his case manage to escape and begin to run amok in New York City. While all of this happens, the wizarding community in the United States is in crisis, as a bizarre and mysterious destructive force has been killing and causing damage around the city. The devastation threatens to reveal the U.S. wizarding community to non-wizards, leading to a likely war which most wizards understand would have disastrous consequences for all involved. Scamander becomes wrapped up in this affair while he tries to track down and recapture his beasts.

The movie is plenty of fun, if not quite as tight or consistently creative as the best Harry Potter movies or other fantasy adventure films aimed at wide audiences. The tale of Newt Scamander is a pretty thinly veiled advocacy of "green" sensibilities, with Scamander playing the part of the concerned zookeeper who is the only one who seems to care for creatures misunderstood and feared. This certainly isn't a bad thing, but it's not exactly the most original concept. It does help that the creatures that he's chasing are amusing to watch and consider. The concurrent tale of turmoil in the U.S. wizarding community uses a darker element which Rowling didn't use in the Harry Potter books, but also isn't the most novel idea, either. For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I'll write no more than to say that I quite literally saw exactly the same story idea used in an episode of the CW show Supernatural in an episode earlier this season. Due to this, I was able to anticipate the "twists" in the story fairly easily. This doesn't torpedo the story, but it did take away a bit of its punch for me.

Queenie and Kowalski, probably my favorite part of the film.
The relationship between the two is the most deftly handled
and the most touching.
In such fantasy tales, characters can make or break the story, and Fantastic Beasts does a solid job with its people. Scamander is, while twitchy and uncomfortable, likeable and quirky enough to carry much of the film. The U.S. witch Tina, played by Katherine Waterston, is also solid enough, although her character is never fully fleshed out enough to be much more than a capable and noble figure. And the attraction which develops between her and Newt never feels totally organic. In contrast, the relationship between Tina's witch sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and the "no-mag" aspiring baker Kowalski is as endearing a romance as I've seen in such a family picture. Thanks to brilliant acting by both Sudol and Dan Fogler as the earnest and amicable everyman Kowalski, I found myself truly hoping that they could find some sort of happiness together. There is even a very affecting moment of loss pertaining to their relationship that I surprisingly found quite touching. Most other characters are fairly black-and-white, which suffices well enough.

The visuals are what you would hope from a big-budget Hollywood flick. They're captivating enough, and I imagine would be enhanced by a viewing in 3D (I watched it on in standard format). I am generally a fan of using people, makeup, and costumes over CGI for effects, and Fantastic Beasts does lean a bit heavily on the latter more or less out of necessity. Fortunately, it doesn't rob the film of too much texture.

So this was an enjoyable return to J.K. Rowling's most wildly successful world. I just read that this is meant to be the first of a five-film series. Fortunately, it mostly feels like a self-contained movie, rather than one meant to be a setup for several future films. It's a great way to test the waters and see if you enjoy this foray into the past behind one of the most titanically popular fantasy worlds created in modern times.

Spoiler Section - You've Been Warned

For a guy so concerned with the well-being of his creatures, Scamander sure doesn't put much stock into getting the clasps on his briefcase fixed. I know, I know. It's sort of a necessary plot device, but it felt like a type of carelessness that runs counter to everything else we learn about his character.

Tina helps Newt out of one of several jams in which he finds
himself. It's just a shame that the film didn't dig a bit deeper
into Tina's skill as a field investigator for her ministry.
There are a few questionable plot points that get completely railroaded, presumably for the sake of pace, many of them regarding Tina's place at the Ministry of Wizarding in New York City. We learn that she was demoted from her position as an investigator - or "auror" in Potter parlance - because she reached out to a rather unfriendly no-mag, but that's about it. But I feel as if we never get to see her truly flex her skills as an auror. She does save Newt's bacon more than once, but the implication is often that she is far more capable than the film ever fully depicts. This seemed like a missed opportunity. Not to mention just how easily and repeatedly the other investigators dismiss her out of hand, despite Tina's clearly being a level-headed and dedicated member of their organization.

In that vein, things do feel a bit rushed at several points of the movie. Perhaps this is based on the filmmakers' assumption that most viewers are already familiar with the basics of the Potter universe and don't need a refresher. This may be true, but Fantastic Beasts throws a fairly high number of characters, creatures, and concepts at viewers in relatively short order. Several of them seem quite interesting, but they are never given more than a few moments of screen time, and so they are often little more than window dressing  - a pack of colorfully-dressed folks waving wands around and either destroying or fixing things.

There are also a few clumsy moment in the plot. A little over halfway through the movie, Tina finds a picture of a woman who seems to have significance to Newt. Tina raises the point, and Newt's response hints as some unresolved relationship, but the entire story remains extremely vague about it. And at the end of the movie, Newt acts as if he's had some sort of soft breakthrough and gotten past her. It's a tad awkward and watered down, making the entire sub-point seem of little to no value. There are a few other points a bit like this, where an element which has potential to add depth to the characters or plot goes unexplored. None of them is tragic, but they do weaken the movie just a bit.

My gripes basically arise from several sloppy or overlooked details that keep the movie from being as tight as it could be. Again, I did enjoy the movie, and I'll certainly watch it again at some point in the future. 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

New Release! Arrival [Spoiler -free and Spoilers versions]

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Spoiler-Free Section

This is one of the most thought-provoking, sober, and creative science-fiction movies I've seen in quite some time.

Being the spoiler-free zone up here, I'll keep my summary of the plot as basic as possible. Earth is thrown into shock when a dozen dark, massive objects suddenly appear, hovering over various locations around the planet. Just as humans are going through their initial confused and frightened reactions to this, prominent linguist Doctor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical astrophysicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are called upon by the U.S. government and military to try and communicate with one of the objects, which is hovering over an open area in Montana. As Banks and Donnelly try to penetrate the daunting linguistic barriers between them and truly alien lifeforms, other national powers around the world take different approaches, some more aggressive than others.

This movie truly does put the "science" in science-fiction. Perhaps it is due to my own interests (I'm an English as a Second Language instructor), but a story that makes such intelligent use of linguistics is immensely compelling. Through the character of Banks, we get to see just how essential and complex are the mechanisms behind vocabulary and syntax, and just how they facilitate understanding between people or any creatures capable of aural communication. There's a thrill in watching Banks have to get down to the fundamental architecture of language and use it to break through to some incredibly strange and rather intimidating creatures.

But lest you think that the movie is all cold science and dull grammar, the story has an immense amount of heart. Using a very personal part of Banks's life, we see an emerging change in perspective on the doctor's part. This change leads her to ask a wonderfully profound question which, in addition to tying together several of the film's elements, touches on some of the great existential questions that humanity has asked over time.

The structure and the filming of the movie are brilliant. Anyone who enjoys the narrative puzzle of non-linear storytelling will appreciate this film. And unlike many movies which use this device merely for style, Arrival weaves it together with one of the key plot elements in a way that creates a synergy unlike nearly any other movie I've seen.

This is not in any way an action movie. I say this because some of the imagery from the trailers or posters might lead you to think that the movie is a clone of Independence Day or some similar fast-paced, explosion-fest. Hardly. In fact, I expect some viewers to complain that the movie is too slow (the guy next to me in the theater fell asleep and was snoring twice). This is to be expected if one is hoping for video-game style energy and action. Instead, Arrival uses measured suspense and no small amount of mystery to build a sense of awe and fascination. This takes more confidence and skill on the part of director Denis Villeneuve than most film-makers would dare.

Although a very different movie in many ways, I was put in mind of another of my favorite science-fiction movies, The Fountain. Both use non-linear storytelling to combine a tale of extremely humanist, personal drama with highly cerebral concepts of science and philosophy. This one may just go down among my all-time favorite sci-fi movies.

Spoiler Zone Below. You Have Been Warned.

I admit that I'll need to see this movie at least one more time before I can fully process all of the details laid out, but there are a few things worth looking into after this initial viewing.

Dr. Banks's earliest attempts to communicate are, by
necessity, limited to the basics of human language. Simple
labels are only the start.
Firstly, I love the slow burn of revealing the aliens. While it doesn't wait forever, it's a good twenty minutes into the movie before you see them. And when you do, it's in a fog that only suggests their actual shape most of the time. It's a perfect use of the classic tactic of leaving enough to the viewers' imagination to create a sense of mystery and wonder. I also appreciate just how bizarre the heptapods look. The writers and visual artists didn't use any of the tropes of using humanoid figures or tired alien designs of the past.

I will quibble just a tad with the explanations of a few of the linguistic points in the movie, but that's mostly because I teach English as a Second Language for a living. There didn't seem to be any technical gaffes, thanks to some very solid research on the writer's part, but some of the nitty gritty probably could have been explained a bit better for the layperson. It also could have been presented in a slightly more cinematic manner here or there. Minor gripes, though.

If there is one thing which I have trouble with, it's alternating and shifting time lines. And this is not specific to Arrival - it's always a problem when used in stories. This movie does approach it in a unique, clever, and far more sober way than most, by using the circular perspective of time through language to allow speakers of such a language to perceive the future just as they perceive the past. That's not the issue. The issue is that future events affect the present, leading to different choices and outcomes. One example in the movie is how Dr. Banks learns how to contact a key person in the present only because, at a point in the future, that figure gives her his personal phone number. This leads to all sorts of "chicken or egg" questions that simply cannot be answered. Does the ability to perceive time as a whole give one the power to alter it? And if so, wouldn't the perceiver then be able to perceive an infinite number of possible time circles? And more and more questions like this arise. It's the one aspect of this movie which I will likely never resolve.

I'll likely do some future post on this movie again, after watching it once or twice more. For now, I recommend nearly anyone bring their brain and an open imagination to the theater to check this one out. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Before I Die #588: The Last Laugh (1924)

This is the 588th movie I've now seen out of the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through. 

Original German language Title: Der Letzte Mann

Director: F.W. Murnau

A brilliantly shot movie that loses nearly all of its narrative power in its final 10 minutes.

Directed by film legend F.W. Murnau, who dazzled and terrified audiences a few years earlier with Nosferatu, The Last Laugh is the story of a hotel porter whose life is shattered. The porter is an older man losing the physical strength required to carry and transport customers' baggage. His manager notices this and demotes him to the position of men's room attendant. The porter, a rather proud man who has always worn his flashy porter's jacket with immense pride, is devastated. So devastated, in fact, that he sneaks into the manager's office to steal back his jacket, just so he can wear it when he goes to and from his tenement apartment building. His ruse is eventually discovered, though, and his neighbors laugh directly into the fallen man's face. This humiliation sends the man even further into a broken, zombie-like state.

Up to this point, the movie tells a human tragedy in the spirit of the era's great novels and movies. But then, from out of seemingly nowhere, we get a title card explaining that the author has "taken pity" on the porter. In the blink of an eye, we flash forward in the story, where a newspaper headline informs us that the porter has inherited millions of dollars through sheer luck. He apparently was attending the men's room when a wealthy man died in his arms. The man's will stated that his entire fortune would go to the person in whose arms he died. Voila! Our sad, broken porter is now filthy rich. He now revels in his wealth, right in the middle of the hotel where he previously worked. He dines on the finest foods, drinks the most expensive champagnes, and showers the help with tips. In the final scenes, we see him offer a down-on-his-luck transient a ride in his coach.

There can't be many things as depressing as sitting in a men's
room, waiting to attend on some rich bastard's hygienic needs.
What the hell!? Before this movie, never had I seen such a clumsy shift in tone. I've watched a fair number of clumsy and simple films from the silent era, but this was by far the most jarring and bafflingly ingratiating "Hollywood" ending I've yet seen. In a way, it is almost worse than if they had simply had the porter wake up at the end, making the entire loss of his job a bad dream.

So obviously, the resolution to the story was a massive disappointment to me. When I ignore that, however, I have to say that The Last Laugh showed immense genius with visual film techniques. German film luminary F.W. Murnau, who had already directed the masterpiece Nosferatu: A Symphony of Fear, used camera angles, shadows, perspectives, and visual distortions to convey the porter's descent into his fugue state. These sequences are easily the best part of the film. They are the ones which still hold up all of these years later, and I have to assume them to be the reason that this film is still held in high regard. It certainly can't be the entirety of the story.

That's 588 films down. Only 599 to go before I can die. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Before I Die #587: Greed (1924)

This is the 587th film I've now seen from the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Erich von Stroheim

A semi-lost, silent era masterpiece with an interesting story and curious place in the history of cinema.

Greed was based on the 1899 novel "McTeague" by Frank Norris, which told the story of the title character, whose first name is never revealed. McTeague is a massive and massively strong but somewhat simple miner in the San Fransisco area. He eventually leaves his subsistence lifestyle to take to the road with a travelling dentist, from whom he learns enough of the trade to open his own practise several years later. In the city, he meets and marries Trina - the cousin of his friend and neighbor Marcus. However, Marcus had had designs on marrying Trina, and bad blood begins to form between he and McTeague. The animosity intensifies dramatically when Trina wins a large amount of money in a lottery. These three main players, and a few others, become obsessed with money, and their obsessions lead them to perform increasingly petty and vile acts against one another, ultimately culminating in multiple deaths.

The story of the film's release is of historical note. Von Stroheim's original cut of the movie reportedly clocked in at around nine-and-a-half hours, and this incredibly long version of the film was only ever seen by about a dozen people. Several of them claimed it to be the greatest film ever made. However, the studio, not seeing such a lengthy movie viable, chopped it down to just over two hours. A furious von Stroheim had to sit back and watch this unsanctioned, abbreviated version of his epic movie become a critical and financial bomb. Over succeeding decades, though, the film's original version became something of a Holy Grail in film circles, where critics became aware of the film's merits and its place in the history of film evolution. In 1999, Turner Entertainment released something approximating the original version. This version of the movie (which is the one I watched) runs just short of four hours, and it uses still photos and intertitles to recreate a movie that gives the best possible sense of von Stroheim's original cut. I would say that this version does as good a job as could be done with a film missing over half of its reels.

McTeague walks away from his wife, growing
more dazed and desperate as their hopes and
dreams fall apart. The creative use of camera
angles like this low one show Von Stroheim's
skill for visual imagery.
So watching and commenting upon Greed is notably different from your typical movie viewing. All that said, when one keeps in mind the context of the film's release in 1924, it is easy to see why it was considered such a masterwork. Not unlike the 1923 French film The Wheel, Greed tells a tale about a few individuals who fall prey to common human weakness. For it's time, it was an extremely humanist tragedy, as opposed to the more sweeping, panoramic epics which made up the longer films released in the late 1910s and through the 1920s. In Greed, we see the typical classic American tragedy of a poor person who finds a measure of success, only to have it ruined by base lust for money, both within himself and within those closest to him. Making a nine-plus hour movie on such a thing was a gamble, to say the least, and it clearly failed, given how the movie was ultimately butchered and did poorly, commercially. It was, however, a very bold move and one of artistic merit. Von Stroheim chose a worthy topic and didn't shy away from the darkest aspects of human nature in this movie. For that, it is still highly commendable.

But still, I can't say that it was an enjoyable movie to watch, for the same reasons that so few silent films are enjoyable for me. Although the tale is an engaging one, the characters and dialogue lack authenticity or organic qualities. As always, I understand that these are evolutions that films really had not made yet, but this doesn't change the fact that certain aspects ring shallow. Because characters are simplified, the movie can often seem like a didactic morality play, which simply isn't terribly compelling. This is more tolerable with a movie that doesn't demand so much of one's time, but it's a different story when dealing with a four hour film.

I will say that another clear merit of the movie was how von Stroheim was continuing to utilize new and emerging film techniques to produce some visual effects which were starting to truly set film apart from other storytelling media. With some clever overlap dissolves and other tricks, the movie offers some interesting superimposition here and there. He also cuts in some horrific images of emaciated, clawed hands sifting gold coins and objects though its grotesque fingers. It's certainly not subtle, but it creates a lasting impression.

Swap out that gun in McTeague's hand with a bowling pin, and
you have a scene strikingly close to Daniel Day Lewis
bludgeoning Paul Dano to death.
One interesting notion occurred to me while watching Greed, particularly towards the end. As the film nears its end, McTeague is in Death Valley, a fugitive from justice after having murdered his wife. When he is caught, a struggle ensues with his lone captor dead but handcuffed to him in the middle of the desert, with no hope for rescue or survival. Something about it reminded me of There Will Be Blood, when the avaricious Daniel Plainview has bludgeoned the young revered to death on his bowling alley. I realized that both of those movies were about the ills bred by greed, and how they both took place at similar times. The theme is the same, but There Will Be Blood exhibits nearly all of the advances made in film sophistication over the many decades between 1924 and 2007.

Again, I can see why Greed was hailed as such a masterpiece by the few who saw its earliest cuts. But I'll never feel the need to watch it again, even should they unearth the missing five hours of footage and reconstruct the entire film again.

That's 587 movies down. Only 600 to go before I can die. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Doctor Strange (spoiler free & spoiler versions)

Director: Scott Derrickson

Spoiler-Free Section

A solid and fun entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), if not one that I count among the absolute best in the series.

The 14th movie in the MCU, Doctor Strange follows the title character Doctor Steven Strange's evolution into mystic heroism. Strange is a neurosurgeon whose brilliance as a medical doctor is only matched by his own arrogance. Tragedy strikes when a car accident results in severe nerve damage to Strange's hands, leaving him desperate for any type of procedure - no matter how radical - that might return the use of his hands. He follows a lead to a village in Nepal, where he is taken into a monastery that trains people in mystic arts. These arts not only allow their users to perceive alternate dimensions and realities, but also to channel energies for fantastic purposes. Though Strange is initially only interested in regaining the use of his hands and reclaiming his life as the world's foremost neurosurgeon, he is eventually thrust into a battle against a terrifying extra-dimensional threat to Earth.

The first thing I'll say about Doctor Strange is to commend it for being the most self-contained movie the MCU has produced in a while. Even 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy included a few characters and concepts introduced in earlier MCU films. There are a couple of very brief references to such things in Doctor Strange, but not knowing them does nothing to diminish a viewer's enjoyment of the movie. This is something that has inevitably become more and more difficult for MCU films, but this latest movie does it well.

The story vacillates between some very fun and creative elements and some tepid, unimaginative ones. In order to stay true to the comic book origins of the character, the writers opted to follow the model that has already been used in plenty of other origin movies, comic book or otherwise. An arrogant and successful man is stricken by personal tragedy. The tragedy makes him take stock of his life, and he adopts a more benevolent and heroic perspective of the world. Then he saves it. Doctor Strange doesn't deviate from this formula. It does, however, make the protagonist's redemption a bit more interesting through the introduction of magic into the MCU. Strange, a man of pure empirical science, must learn to embrace concepts beyond those taught by Western schools of logic. Perhaps it's a bit trite, but it makes for a decent enough dynamic between Strange and his teachers in the monastery. I'll also say that the primary villains in Doctor Strange do show a bit more imagination and depth than most in the MCU. While the villains aren't as unique as, say, Zemo in Civil War, their motivations are a bit more intriguing than the one-dimensional punching bags we've seen in many of the MCU films.

The characters are just compelling enough, without ever being completely magnetic. Strange is a strong enough character that he can carry the movie, but he's a bit too similar to Tony Stark to feel completely fresh. Doctor Strange's mentor, The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) is probably the most intriguing character outside of the title character, but we are only let in on so much. There are a few others who show some potential, but that potential never seems fully tapped or explored.

The MCU movies, even the darkest ones like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, have always included a solid amount of humor. Doctor Strange is no exception. But while I was amused at some of the visual gags and dialogue, this movie is in the middle of pack in terms of just how funny it was, compared to its MCU brethren. Considering just how funny Benedict Cumberbatch can be, especially when playing a supremely intelligent but dry and arrogant asshole as in the BB''s Sherlock series, I was surprised that he wasn't given a sharper script to work with.

Tilda Swinton is a great choice as The Ancient One - the
Sorcerer Supreme of the Mystic Arts. Her ageless look and
unflappable affect is spot-on.
The visuals are yet another mixed bag that fall just on the right side of the line between "OK" and "good". The fighting and action sequences are nothing special, in terms of the actual hand-to-hand combat. It's probably unfortunate that the Russo brothers have spoilt us so much with the previous two Captain America movies, in which the fighting and action sequences are amazing. Compared to those, the fighting in Doctor Strange often seems very humdrum. Fortunately, the overall visuals make up for it. While one could say that the movie borrows a bit too heavily from the visual wizardry of Christopher Nolan's Inception, it does it with enough of its own flourishes to still make it stunning. When the various sorcerers are warping reality and jumping between dimensions, it's simply a treat for the eyes to drink it all in. Probably my favorite sequence is when Doctor Strange is first hurtled through a light-filled, kaleidoscopic, warp-speed tour of the multiverse. I saw this movie in standard format, but I've already planned to see in in 3-D, on an IMAX screen, if only to see that sequence again. It's one of the trippiest film moments I've seen in a while. To be honest, it's the kind of thing I was hoping for more of in the film.

So Doctor Strange is a solid fantasy action flick, when taken on its own. When taken in the context of the 14 MCU movies released to date, I have it in the middle of the pack, behind the strongest films like The Avengers, the Russos' Captain America movies, and a few others.

Spoiler-Laden Section!! Be warned.

I feel the need to comment on some of the specifics.

Firstly, I have to seriously question just how secure Kamar-Taj has been kept when Steven Strange discovers its existence. So he finds out that some random dude went there and got his broken spine healed, and then he just tracks him down to a local basketball court, shooting hoops? Not only that, but the guy gives up the name of the place in the blink of an eye. I would expect the Ancient One and the keepers of such powerful forces to do much better job of keeping the lid on their practices and their location, given just how dangerous their practices are.

Strange's training provides some compelling and entertaining
moments, but I felt like they could have built his progression
a bit more gradually and creatively.
I felt that the pace of the movie was a little herky-jerky at times. I love a good training montage as much as the next person, and this movie could have used a better one. After he is accepted into Kamar-Taj, Strange goes from struggling beginner to baffling mastery in a span of less than 10 minutes of film time. I feel that the writers could have used a little more time to offer some creative views on just how the system of magic works. Magic is, by nature, a story element that is ripe for creativity. Yet Doctor Strange only gives us vague, standard explanations about "harnessing extra-dimensional forces" and little more. Maybe this is something that will be explored in future movies, but I was hoping for more from this one. I think it would have greatly enhanced the movie if maybe 10 more minutes had been dedicated to the details of Strange's learning the specific nature of the mystic arts and slowly building up mastery of them. Tony Stark's gradual construction of the Mark-2 Iron Man suit in the first movie was a blast to watch, and Doctor Strange could have followed a similar path.

I did really like the way the Ancient One's death plays out. The questions about her allegiances was set up fairly well, and the serenity around the death scene was a welcome change. Sure, one could say that it was just like Ugue's death in Kung-Fu Panda, but whatever. It was still a nice change from the bloody deaths that most mentors suffer in action movies, without sacrificing the impact that it has on the protagonist.

Strange's defeat of Dormammu was a real saving grace for me. Until then, the plot was following overly familiar lines. Massively powerful creature tries to dominate/destroy the planet. Things are exploding. People are dying. We've seen that plenty of times in other MCU movies. But then Strange gets clever. The use of the forbidden technique of time manipulation to stick Dormammu in a loop was great. And Strange sacrificing himself into the loop, to be killed over and over, is a unique act of heroism. It provided an entertaining series of scenes, as well as a powerful development of the character.

So like nearly everything about the movie, the details were both hit and miss with me, with the hits being a bit stronger than the misses. I like the foundation set up in this movie, and I think the character can become a vehicle for some really creative and wonderful tales. I hope that the writers who handle Strange going forward can tap into the immense potential he has.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Before I Die #586: Strike (1924)

This is the 586th movie I've seen out of ht 1,187 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Original Russian Title: Strachka

Director: Sergei Eisenstein

An obvious propaganda piece that nonetheless showcased its director's then-cutting edge mastery of film grammar and technique.

Strike was the first feature films by Sergei Eisenstein, who would go on to become one of the most influential and famous of all Russian directors, with movies like Battleship Potemkin, October, Alexander Nevsky, and Ivan the Terrible. This first movie of his told the story of a group of factory workers who decide to unionize and strike as a way to stand up to their capitalist overlords, with predictably disastrous consequences.

The movie is clearly the stuff of pure propaganda, though propaganda which mostly comes down on the correct side of history. Still, it paints an extremely black-and-white picture. While it has now been well-documented that plenty of corporate leaders thoroughly exploited workers during the Industrial Revolution, Strike quite literally gives us scenes with fat, cigar-smoking, wine-guzzling industrial capitalists guffawing at the slaughter of their workers. I have no doubt that there were more than a few soulless factory owners (and still are), but these portrayals were yet more of the one-dimensional characterizations which I find terribly dull in any story, especially one which is purporting to be giving a historical account. The same over-simplification and romanticism is given nearly all of the characters in the movie, which is quite the norm for nearly all of the silent movies that I've watched.

A superimposition which communicated the image of the
workers being cogs in a machine which they don't control.
Such cinematic techniques were still rather new at the time,
but Eisenstein used them to great effect.
When one does look beyond the characters and now-overly familiar plot, the film clearly shows cinematic skill on par with the very best directors of the times. Nearly every scene and shot shows an excellent eye for compelling camera angles, transitions, and movement. I eventually found it much more interesting to simply ignore the story and inter-title cards and just study the visuals. There are even some well-constructed and well-chosen set pieces and sequences which are quite striking (no pun intended), and which I'll probably remember for years. These 91 years after the film's release, it is such visuals that give us reason to watch the movie, rather than any narrative creativity.

When I try to compare Strike to other "classics" of the silent film era which I've seen, the only other movies that seem similar are D.W. Griffiths's Birth of a NationIntolerance, and even Orphans of the Storm. Movies that were using dramatized "history" to teach moral lessons through an epic scale. While Eisenstein's movie shows several key visual, cinematic innovations, I felt that Strike hadn't yet made the strides in narrative or characters that an even earlier movie like Micheaux's 1920 Within our Gates had shown several years prior. Still, it's well worth watching for those who enjoy studying the visual evolution of early film.

That's 586 movies down. Only 601 more to watch before I can die.