31 Days of Oscar Blogathon: The Snubs – Defunct Categories

Introduction

Oscar Envelope

Film is an ever-changing artform, so it stands to reason that the awards that Hollywood created to help celebrate the industry should evolve. It’s more apparent when you realize that the Oscars began when the industry was in flux as sound was in its infancy.

Film has twice adapted itself in competition with other media arts. Synchronized sound came on the heels of the popularity of radio and a shift in aspect ratio, away from 1:33 to widescreen formats was introduced to distance itself from television. The same competition with television helped push films away from black and white film and towards color. With just these technical changes its natural that some award categories would fall in an out of favor over time, some aren’t so obvious. Some, surprisingly, should have never left. I will discuss the categories that are no longer around.

Best Picture, Production and Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production (1929)

Sunrise (1927, 20th Century Fox)

The Academy Awards began with two different iterations of Best Picture. In 1929 the winners of these two respective categories were Wings (Production) and Sunrise (Unique and Artistic). My interpretation of these trophies is that one is more akin to a PGA (Producers Guild of America) award. Whereas, the logistics, accomplishments and merits of the production are highly impressive and well-executed even if the picture mat not be the best overall. Unique and artistic would then be a more narrative-award with special emphasis on creativity. This is a distinction that could’ve proved highly useful in later years. Imagine if it had been around in 1998 (the first year that jumps to mind) give Production to Titanic and Unique and Artistic to As Good as It Gets or L.A. Confidential or Good Will Hunting. Or earlier maybe How Green Was My Valley could get Production and Citizen Kane can get Unique and Artistic and everyone can leave the former alone already, and stop hating it for something that’s no fault of its own.

Ultimately, I understand how the two awards would forever cause confusion and why they needed merging, but it is interesting to consider.

Best Director, Comedy Picture and Dramatic Picture (1929)

Frank Borzage

The Golden Globes still have Comedy/Musical and Dramatic categories for Films and Actors, but not directors. The directing job is highly different in both aspects. Are comedies far too overlooked when it comes to award shows? Yes. Does each year really merit having both categories? Probably not, and surely enough it was not a category the following year.

Best Title Writing (1929)

The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1927, First National Pictures)

To be quite honest considering that the industry was already in flux awkwardly transitioning from silent to talkie I’m a little surprised this was a category at the first awards. Granted some were trying to dismiss synchronized sound as a fad, but it was clear it was coming. Some categories held on longer, but silent films in the end virtually vanished quite quicker than black-and-white fare or 4:3 aspect ratio films.

Yes, titles were crucial in the silent era, and silents did win Oscars, but it’s slightly unusual that this was actually a category for one year.

Best Cinematography, Color and Best Cinematography, Black and White 1936-1939 (Special Achievement) 1940-1966

Psycho (1960, Universal)

This split became a mainstay of the Academy for 27 editions of the Awards. This is quite a long time and indicates that despite the business-related impetus for color cinematography the necessity of occasionally going into more ethereal monochrome remained and undeniable siren’s call for filmmakers for many years to come.

As wide as the gap between color productions and black-and-white ones have become they are not extinct as recent films like Ida, The Artist and The White Ribbon indicate. Yet, color cinematography in unquestionably ubiquitous enough such that the split no longer makes sense. It most definitely did at one time: color and black-and-white are two different ways of seeing the world. The reason for splitting the two was due to that and the fact that they were fairly equally split. With little equality superlative black-and-white films do have to compete against chromatic ones be it fair or unfair; it’s just a reality.

Best Effects, Engineering Effects (1929)

Wings (1927, Paramount)

The awards for Special Effects were ones that had many names an iterations before becoming a mainstay. A category for “Special Effects, Engineering Effects” existed at the first ceremonies. They returned in 1938 with and Honorary Award. From 1939 to 1962 Visual and Sound Effects shared an award titled Special Effects. In 1963 Special Visual Effects took over. From ’72-’77 it was awarded under Special Achievement Award. The current Special Visual Effects title debuted in 1995.

However, going back to the original trophy it puts me in a mind that perhaps the Academy does need to encourage and reward different kinds of effects work. Maybe split it between practical and computerized. It actually would encourage creativity and be fair. For example many of the most impressive feats in Inception (like the spinning hallway) were done practically. This could highlight those creative moments but still reward highly-creative, ever-evolving computerized effects work.

Best Writing, Achievement 1930

The Patriot (1928, Paramount)

This was the category introduced for the 2nd Annual ceremonies and for that year only. It was an attempt to transition away from three categories (Original, Adaptation and Title Writing) to just one. The only other award I ever saw merge all screenplays into one category was my own for a while. However, adaptation and original screenplays are games with similar rules but different approaches and need different skills. They should be separately awarded and this change is one that was needed.

The Juvenile Award (Awarded intermittently from 1935-1961)

The Window (1949, RKO)

This is an award I’ve already written about at length here. In that post I chronicled those young people who were honored by the Academy. I also followed-up on that by listing who since 1961 would have earned the honor, or could have, if it was still something awarded. Since my personal BAM Awards have started offering parity (meaning the same categories for mature and young performers) I have become convinced the Academy could fill a roster of five nominees a year for a category with this same concept. The term juvenile may be dated, and have poor connotations now, but the idea is one worth revisiting.

Best Short Subject, Cartoons (1932-1957) Short Subject, Comedy (1932-1937), Short Subject Novelty (1932-1937), Short Subject Color (1937-38) Short Subject One-Reel (1937-1957) and Short Subject Two-Reel (1937-1957)

The Dot and the Line (1965, MGM)

You can almost always look to the Academy for some kind of indication as to what the state of the art at least in terms of trends. One thing that would be apparent to someone looking solely at the Oscars with no other film knowledge would be that short films used to be a much more integral part of Hollywood films than they are now. For six years Live Action films were split into Comedies and Novelties, which featured, as the name implies varied subjects and approaches. Starting in 1937 animated films (then referred to as Cartoons by the Academy) were split off and Live Action films were bifurcated by length either one-reel (about 10 minutes or less) or two-reel (about 20 minutes or less). In 1958 Live Action was introduced as the only short subject category for live action, Cartoons still the term used, and the category changed to Best Short Subject, Animated Films in 1972. It is notable that serials never had a category somehow. Maybe because Poverty Row and “lesser” majors specialized in them.

Best Assistant Director (1933-1937)

Imitation of Life (1934, Universal)

Assistant Directors back at the beginning of the film industry had a far different role than they do as the industry and art evolved. There used to be far more directing for assistant directors. First ADs now are far more administrative and keep the production running, most of their direction geared at background performers. Therefore, its interesting that the Academy once underscored the greater level of responsibility this job had with an award.

Best Dance Direction (1936-1938)

Show Boat (1936, Universal)

There are a few instances of the Oscars highlighting the elevated place that the film musical once held. This category specifically aimed at choreography on film is one.

Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration Black-And-White and Color 1940-1966

Christmas in Connecticut (1945, Warner Bros.)

This is the second of three categories that for year offered two prizes owing to the unique challenges and distinct differences in working in black-and-white and color. In simplest terms in color there are temperature, palette and tone considerations but in monochrome there is a transliteration of actual colors to gray tones for desired effect that must be considered and calculated by all department heads.

Best Music, Scoring of a Drama or Comedy (1946-1957) Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture (1942-1945) and Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture (1942-1957)

 

bernard-herrmann5

Here’s one more testament to the potency the musical once hand in the cinematic landscape of Hollywood’s output. In 1958 the distinction in scoring ended. For 16 ceremonies musicals were a category apart. They were so prevalent, significant, and thought to be so different that it had its own category for scoring.

The issue with genre-splitting is: where does it end? Comedy was excluded for three years, and then added. If musicals had stayed at their zenith would further scoring splits have occurred? Unlikely, but it may have been clamored for. Clearly, the loss of a category did not shut the door on the musical winning Best Score, The Sound of Music jumps immediately to mind, but it’s fascinating that it was a class apart for years.

Costume Design Black and White and Costume Design Color (1948-1966)

Jezebel (1938, Warner Bros.)

If there’s one thing that you can laud the Academy for it’s that there was uniformity in when categories stopped being subdivided by color and black-and-white. In all cases when there was such a division, either from the inception of a category like costume design, or later in the game like with cinematography, that split ceased after the 1966 Awards.

Similar to Cinematography and Art Direction costuming for both media is a different game. Black-and-white requires a more abstract understanding of colors and textures and how they’ll read when exposed. Thus, its a bit more intuitive, at times counterintuitive, and far less literal than working in color. Again the time had surely come for the category to merge due to ubiquity but the task is by no means an easy one in monochrome.

Conclusion

 

Oscars (AMPAS)

In most of the these cases it is just interesting and important to note how far the artform and industry have come. It’s important in aesthetic appreciation to note some things that used to be taken for granted and to acknowledge different trends and forms of the past. However, in some of these cases these categories could still be highly useful and be brought back today.

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Thankful for World Cinema: The Complete Metropolis (2010)

The first thing that needs saying is that there are conventions that need to be acknowledged if you are going to venture out and watch this or any silent film. Silent film acting, for example, is by its very nature more demonstrative and over-the-top than even the presentational style that dominated after the advent of sound, and most definitely can cause culture shock to those who are used to film actors of the Post-Brando world. It has to be taken as a given.

Some silent actors are clearly better than others but the style can’t be held against the film, it is what it is. While saying that Brigitte Helm is quite good in this film, she may go a little too far when she’s playing the evil robotic alter ego of her character but she is clearly two different people in those scenes. Gustav Fröhlich is an effective lead who portrays the audience’s POV aptly.

The image quality is superb for a bulk of the film, meaning the portions we already knew existed. They look as crisp and clear as they likely did in 1927, perhaps even better. While the transferred 16mm footage doesn’t look quite that good with many lines, which have been dulled and are nearly translucent running through it, they are without question an invaluable addition to the narrative.

Not only did the restorers fully explain the story of the footage’s discovery and how it was added back to the cut they also noted that the image size would change to keep less than knowledgeable patrons from complaining. Better yet they had some fun with the titles. Not only did they digitally create newer, more accurate ones, they added motion to those which referred to the workers underground and the elite up above the city.

The restoration of the original score, as best as it could be replicated, is also a welcome and brilliant touch. The end credits acknowledge the fact that some pieces of the music had to be created by educated guess and rarely could you tell. It was pretty seamless, and, moreover, the impact of the film is enhanced twenty-fold. Typically on DVD releases, especially the cheaper ones, which is how I was accustomed to seeing Metropolis; you get stock, canned, jazzy nonsense that rarely if ever really syncs. You can almost imagine the producers of said DVD sitting around picking a track because it synced in one spot. The score is breathtaking and absolutely draws you into the tale, if all else should fail.

While you should be forewarned that all we know should be in this film isn’t, as there are titles describing the rare scene that could not be saved or found. You will witness here, in greater fullness than ever before, the enormity and vastness of Lang’s vision. His vistas come through and the added running time gives this seemingly simple through-line the time to make the impact it seeks to make. It is, if you dig deep enough, a more complex and involved visual narrative than many may give it credit for. While we today will not be jarred by the seemingly contrasting styles of the sub-plots; there is a grab bag of visual elements worth exploring.

For a modern audience the message of the film, which is repeated on quite a few occasions, may seem a little heavy-handed, again I warn you that it must be taken with a grain of salt. Think of other silents you know and enjoy and consider if they too aren’t very on the head. You know exactly what the message of The Immigrant and The Kid are but they work anyway. Typically, you are told someone’s profession or that they are the hero before you see them, which is also less cinematic than desirable but the language of film was new and it was important to be simple and direct. It bears noting that Metropolis is not overly-laden with titles and it just works.

Seeing this new cut of Metropolis will not be like watching a regurgitated version of something you’ve seen before. It will be like a whole new experience. Not only do you see it on the big screen but you see it sharper and more clearly than you’ve likely ever seen it before. It really is like the saying goes; see it again for the first time.

10/10

Americanization: How Le Grand Chemin Became Paradise- Le Grand Chemin (Part 3 of 3)

Le Grand chemin

Written and Directed by Jean-Loup Hubert
    

Unlike Paradise, Le Grand chemin takes place in June of 1958. The back drop of the Algerian War will play a role in this film and is a cultural detail that just doesn’t translate to an American version. We open on the much cozier confines of a bus that runs between Nantes and St. Brevin. Louis (Antoine Hubert) is to be left by his mother with her friend Marcelle (Anémone) for three weeks while she waits for her baby to be born. Being that it’s 1958 and post-maternal hospital stays were longer and that anticipated birthdates were a thing of the future this is a much more plausible scenario with which to begin the story. 
    

Unfortunately, auteurship isn’t what makes the original better. Both films have auteurs at the helm, Hubert and Donoghue respectively. In the remake’s case the difficulty was in that she was writing an adaptation and transplanting the story from one culture to another. The true auteur of this film is Jean-Loup Hubert who originally wrote this film, spawned from his own imagination. At best Donoghue saw the film and thought it was underappreciated in the States and wanted to bring it to a wider audience. In all likelihood a studio executive bought the rights and hired her to adapt and direct.
    

The title of this film has been loosely translated as “The Grand Highway.” While Grand may be kept the same it can also be ‘large’ or ‘great’ but chemin was definitely mistranslated it’s either ‘path’ or ‘track.’ I had learned that chemin was a path but it was clear to me visually that the translation was wrong even if I had no knowledge of French. Hubert frames the street passing under the bus after the driver yells out ‘Le Grand chemin’ obviously making it a metaphor. This is the path that is leading Louis into this couple’s life, a convergence, and it’s also life passing us by. Pello, who was Ben in Paradise, is introduced in much the same way talking bad of the couple and then surprising Louis by being at the house.
 
I take issue with the Billie character in Paradise. In Le Grand chemin she is Martine (Vanessa Guedj) and her character is a lot more rounded and intelligent. She is the grounded realist for having grown up in the country. Martine never doubts that her father walked out on her mother for a younger woman and towards the end of the film her bluntness causes Louis to run away being that he’s a dreamer from the city. While we may even dislike her for some of her actions, like when she shoves civelles down Louis’s shorts as a joke, she is strong and independent and not weak like Billie.
    

In this film, we see Marcelle knocking a rabbit out cold and skinning it. I’ve already discussed the animal rights concerns this was likely to cause if attempted in the U.S. and the studio was probably unwilling to shoot in another country to do something that may offend the audience. However, there is a purpose to this scene. Louis witnesses it all. This serves to reinforce his bad feeling about the trip which is prevalent at the beginning of this film. While Pello did deceive him, he is the first to earn his trust when Pello winks at him so he’ll pretend it’s their first meeting. In Paradise, Willard was merely afraid to say otherwise and a bond forms later in the film amongst less natural circumstances. 
    

The involvement of the Catholic Church also occurs earlier and more frequently in this film than it does in the American version. Actually, in the classic American tradition of watering everything down the Reeds attend a Protestant church of unknown denomination. In France, there is a greater acceptance of criticism of the Church. In the revolution the Church was under attack and to be abolished, later France was the nexus of the existentialist school of thought in the 20th Century. These interpretations of the Clergy are not necessarily as negative as we may interpret them, but rather an attempt to help humanity cope when they feel religion has failed them. In Le Grand chemin, Hubert frames the priest in a high pulpit above the parishioners. He is speaking of God and the saints and of lofty things and boring everyone to death. Later, when Louis is walking around on the roof and Martine is seeking help he makes jokes about them. All this is saying is that the Church and its clergy have begun to lose touch with the reality of worshippers’ lives. It’s not done in poor taste and it does in the end serve the story. The challenge Martine placed to Louis is that he couldn’t urinate down the gutter which leads out of a gargoyle statue’s mouth. When Louis is missing at the end he is found when a nun gets a “shower.” Now a nun is a human being just like you and me, thus, imperfect and not a religious icon and it escapes the dangerous realm of blasphemy. In Paradise, the preacher is merely a talkative dolt and the challenge is merely a high wire act because I guess Americans don’t urinate until they’re of age. 
 

Another aspect in which the French film excels is in the score. The French score is evocative of childhood whimsy and wonderment as need be. It is touching and extremely moving towards the end and put a great emphasis on the ending. And it highlights the moments of high drama perfectly without overshadowing the action.

In contrasting the actors ‘The Bedroom Scene’ is where we can most easily draw comparison between how each version of the story was handled. Jean-Loup Hubert frames his actors together with minimal cutting and the tension is so thick it hits home. You hear it almost as if you’re there. Richard Bohringer’s performance as Pello in this scene is absolutely raw, you can see there’s no stopping him, there’s nothing contrived here, no acting – that we can see. Hubert also excels here at writing putting this in a more emotionally vulnerable point in the film.


 
In Le Grand chemin, we see the following scene unfold: Pello and Louis have just spent a day together. In a very warm and touching shot Louis reaches out and takes Pello’s hand. Shortly after Marcelle arrives worried about whether or not he has eaten. Later she has to go pick Pello up because he’s drunk. Here we see them really butt heads. Because Pello has made a connection with Louis and he’s always been the more forward looking of the two he pushes the issue of Jean-Pierre, their dead child. He misses her as a wife and feels she’s playing the martyr and tries to take her physically. “God won’t help you, let’s do it in the wheelbarrow,” he says. He then chases her into the house and she locks him out of their room. Upon falling to the ground drunk he finds the key to Jean-Pierre’s room. He goes in and starts demolishing it, as he expected Marcelle comes out to stop him and again he attempts to rape her. This is high drama and great conflict. Pello is living in the moment and Marcelle in the past; we see the metaphorical struggle enacted physically. 
    

Even if the American film had reached the same amount of drama that the French film was able to they still undercut the tension. In the French film we discovered the room in that scene. In the American we had a sentimental and non-essential wandering into the room by Lily. The woman’s role in this scene is the same in both films; she must be resistant, in fear, fighting back and in hysterical shock at her husband’s actions. Melanie Griffith holds her own but is unable to live up to Anémone’s example. Don Johnson, on the other hand, fails miserably in this scene giving her nothing to work off of. His diction is poor, his tonality is all off and he is scarcely believable. He comes off as a man who may be a jerk but would never be thought of as being that passionate.
 

The French film also makes the connection between Pello and Louis and it’s made in not a more subtle but a better way. In Paradise, all the bonding occurs during a fishing trip both the forming of the friendship and the big question about the dead child. In Le Grand chemin, first Pello shows Louis how to sand by letting him watch how it’s done. Here we also see Pello give Louis a makeshift wagon where he carries around the scrap pieces of wood. This allows a visual representation of the bond they had. When he gets upset near the end we see Louis leave the wagon behind in the shed. Later, we have the fishing trip where they are already friendly and he asks about the baby after a long talk. 
    

What really works well in Le Grand chemin is the story arc. He may not be the most involved character but Louis is the catalyst of this film. In one scene Pello refuses Marcelle’s idea of a bedpan and takes Louis outside to urinate against the wall. He says to him “If you can hit the wall you’re ready for girls,” and in a very humorous turn Louis leans forward trying to hit the wall. The scene begins with Pello arguing with Martine and ends with his getting closer to Louis. He sharpens the conflict between the couple and then ultimately brings them closer together at the end. In the closing scenes, he climbs into bed with them because he had a bad dream and ultimately for the context of the film he sees them as his parents. He also affects Martine while they are quite different as Louis is timid and Martine is outgoing to the point of being brash she is very saddened by his leaving. When Louis is saying his goodbyes she is squeezing grapes and mixing them with rum to drink away her depression. This is another scene American audiences would have trouble with. We’d be willing to accept underage drinking in a movie, but only at a certain age even though much the same thing must happen here. The ultimate visual representation of how he affected everyone was when he was standing atop the church and the whole town is watching him.
    

In what is a very affective sequence, Louis’s character is pushed too harshly to the truth and lashes out. First, he is listening to a letter his father wrote him, a father he always believed was a head waiter in Nice. He asks Marcelle to see the postcard he sent and sees it’s blank. Marcelle was instructed to make up a message for him to hear. He recognizes the postcard from the year before. Marcelle tries to play it cool but Louis isn’t going to believe the story anymore, he calls her a liar and then he gets slapped. He runs off and consequently meets Martine who speculates that he must have met a younger woman. While Louis is ready to accept his father is gone he doesn’t want to hear anything negative either. He calls her a liar as well and then disappears to the church. What I like about this film is that it’s one without a ‘hyperplot’ but it does move and it is very well told. The characters come together bit by bit, and you get to slowly find out what they’re all about. If this film where made in the US it would be independently produced and most likely fall through the cracks, but in France it won many awards.

Of course, the way in which this film handles both sensuality and sexuality, while also dealing with death is very adept. Love and death are dramatic foils that writers have been toying with since time out of mind. In Le Grand chemin, the theme of death is more readily handled. Pello is not only a carpenter but he makes all the caskets in the town and he is best friends with the gravedigger, Hippolyte. Combine this with the fact that they had lost a child some years ago you get quite an odd little circle. It’s psychologically subtle. When you think about it Pello in all likelihood fitted his own son for a casket, he literally buried his own son. While his best friend, who may have been the godfather for all we know, buried him in the ground. So the impact on them must have been twice as hard in this film. As for Marcelle, no one can say how hard it is for a mother to lose a child unless they’ve ever been in that situation. So the film opens with characters that are deeply bruised. The connection between life and death is blood. In Pello’s shop we see Marcelle’s ‘monthly rag’ here blood is signifying the inability to create life. And it also ties in with sex. When dealing with a scene of attempted rape it’s hard to keep sympathy for a character but Pello never really loses our respect because once we realize he’s drunk and not his usual self (not that his usual self has been that nice) we almost understand his actions. We also know that all he wants of his wife is some affection. He feels that she died with their child and he hates it. Between the children the scenes of discovery are obviously better handled than in the American version. The scene where they discuss the clap in the French film isn’t as shy or prudish as the American. Martine is a tomboy and Billie is not. She doesn’t sit like a girl or talk like a girl. She offers Louis a look up her skirt which is something which is only clumsily suggested in the American version; Martine says it with bravado and pride. Billie only wears a dress when looking for her derelict father while Martine flashes a priest. The scene when they spy on Martine’s older sister is also quite differently handled in the American version.
 
   
While the American version starts off imitating the French version with identical framing of the kids on the upper level of the barn how the coital relationship is filmed is quite different. Why it is so I have no idea? In both cases, there are shots where the children would have to be there, unless there was some sort of processing. In the French film, the boyfriend moves up from performing cunnilingus and we see him on top of his girlfriend. In the American version, they are already engaged in intercourse and we see the couple sideways. Even when depicting sexuality we must be the example of prudery and puritanical ethics.
    

Simon, Solange’s (Martine’s sister) boyfriend, is about to go off to Algeria. This was a war that was a backdrop to many French films. It was a war that eventually ended French colonialism in the nation. Many films, including Godard’s Le Petit soldat, have used this war as central themes yet in this film it’s more a background issue but I don’t believe it represents any larger symbol here but is merely a plot element. If the American version had some kind of backdrop it may have been better but it doesn’t; it’s flat and it’s all surface.
 

   

Le Grand chemin is triumphant filmmaking in which all the elements work together smoothly. Jean-Loup Hubert gets a wonderful performance out of his son that ranks amongst the great performances by child actors alongside Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun and Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense to name a few. For the adult roles, Hubert had actors who were confident enough to be able to take a scene of such intensity and absolutely live it, the chemistry was there and it was shot to perfection. The story is well-written and simply done. The music and cinematography in Le Grand chemin are far superior. If we learn anything in comparing these two films is that the original work, especially if foreign, loses a lot of it’s spirit in switching countries its culture and in many cases its talent.
 
Le Grand chemin is a beautiful film that should’ve been left alone. Some stories are only meant to be told once. And many must stay where they are born and are never meant to be imitated overseas.  

Works Cited


Chemin Grand, Le. Dir. Jean-Loup Hubert, 1987. Perf. Anemone, Richard Bohringer, Antoine Hubert

Éloge de l’amour Dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 2001. 
Atkins, Beverly T, Alain Duval, Rosemary C. Milne et al.,

Le Robert & Collins Poche Dictionnaire Français-Anglais Anglais-Français. 2nd ed. Dictionnaries Le Robert: Paris, 1996.

Paradise Dir. Mary Agnes Donoghue, 1991. Perf. Melanie Griffith, Don Johnson, Elijah Wood and Thora Birch.

Rewind Review- Black Swan

As those who know me, and if such a person exists, cyberstalk me, know I created this blog after writing on another site, which shall remain nameless, for a while. The point is, I have material sitting around waiting to be re-used on occasion I will re-post them here. Some of those articles or reviews may have been extemporaneous at the time but are slightly random now, hence the new title and little intro, regardless enjoy!

Black Swan

There is a lot to really like about Black Swan, not the least of which is that it is a film that openly delves into the psyche of its protagonist from the start, as it is about with a dancer dealing with the stress and pressure of dancing a dual-lead in Swan Lake, and it toys with reality with demented glee. Some things left me wanting but let me focus on the positives first.

There is, of course, the performance of the cast. Starting with Natalie Portman she is what people likely will first think of when they think of this film. It is true of any film but more true of others, that the equation of this film truly changes with anyone else in the lead. The scene-stealer in this film though is Barbara Hershey. I say this not only because it is so great to see her in a prominent role again, but also because she slowly and surely builds from a caring, over-bearing mother to a frightening entity in this film and she delivers most of the wallop.

Mila Kunis, best known either from That 70s Show or as Meg on Family Guy take your pick, does very well in this film, however, I feel her character is not quite the mental parasite that even Hershey’s is. For Hershey’s character made Nina’s (Portman) mind a fertile ground for paranoia.

This film is edited with great panache and stitched together with a robust score, it truly sets a tone and creates a self-regulating tempo. The story certainly accelerates at a palatable pace, it’s just that on occasion some of the jumps could be larger but that is truly not a big grudge.

What does create my only true issue with the film occurs in the third act, which is unfortunate because it sails through the most difficult portion of the film to navigate rather easily. In the third act a fractured chronology is created and reality is truly blurred to the extent that its difficult to know what’s real and what isn’t when you are watching it. Upon a re-viewing it would likely become clear and what the true chronology is will likely reveal itself. What I take issue with is the decision itself of how to end it and I will skirt it as best as possible but…spoiler alert.

What made this a truly a riveting watch for two-thirds of it was watching these characters, particularly Nina, in their own universe. Granted most, if not all of this tale is from Nina’s perspective but as a story I was watching something original that decides to turn itself in the into something derivative or at the very least something of a re-invention. Granted the bones were there but it seems like in many cases a reflexive allusion to another tale within your own is more effective, such as Pinocchio in A.I. or even Swan Lake itself in Billy Elliot

It’s jarring because around many of the corners in the tale you didn’t quite know what to expect then you’re hit with an ending and you’re like “Oh, that’s it?” It seems as if things are lining up for something much more earth-shattering than what is delivered and it’s just a bit of a let down, not that it taints the whole movie. This is a twist unlike that in Shutter Island. This is still a fine film that could’ve been even better than it is.

Without question Black Swan is a film that will benefit from a second viewing and it is the kind of film that will get people talking, however, I feel a miscalculation in the handling of the story cost it.

8/10

Review- Snow White and the Huntsman

Snow White and the Huntsman is such an odd case. Based on the way it handles the oft told legend it has a lot of promise, however, this film has a weird handling of its two titular characters inasmuch as it seems to run from them both. At the start, yes, it is the hunstman (Chris Hemsworth) who is doing the voice over for the necessary backstory segment that kicks the narrative off, but there are a few unfortunate things about it: first, this is one of the higher points of the film and it’s a brisk, but not rushed beginning portion. Second, after this part the Huntsman is lost for a while until the queen commissions him to retrieve an escaped Snow White. Which brings us to the young princess, her dialogue is sparse throughout, her involvement until her escape is minimal and she drifts into the background more than any would-be protagonist in recent memory.

Is it just sloppy plotting and writing or is the fact that the film wanted Kristen Stewart involved for box office appeal, but didn’t want to hitch their wagon to her alone? She has a moment here and a moment there, but the big military speech falls short of what it should be and her physicality issues persist. No actress on the face of the earth has a mouth so persistently agape for no discernible reason as she does and few emote so little facially, at least in the roles I’ve seen. I’m not going to avoid seeing something merely due to her presence, but I have yet to see this other side of her that her staunch supporters keep citing.

However, as I said, the film is rarely about either of its two named characters, at times this is a good thing and at other moments it’s a failing. Charlize Theron is broad in her role as the evil queen as if she just fell out of an old Hollywood melodrama. I think that’s something most of us can agree on. I, for one, absolutely love her performance and find nary a misstep in it. At the very least someone, is bringing energy and commitment to this film, and more often than not I found her scenes rather chilling.

Much of the conversation has been about the performances thus far because there is little else holding this precarious piece of work up. The pace of the film is decent up until about the midpoint when the dwarfs are introduced and then the film gets a bit unfocused, lost and extraneous. The narrative does pick up again eventually but never recovers from this unfortunate area. This section also introduces the odd production choice of having average size actors be the faces of the dwarfs. I’m really not sure why it’s deemed necessary, and it is a distraction.

The cinematography, scoring and production design of the film were all really quality components that could’ve truly elevated this film to its potential had the narrative it was supporting been up to snuff. The beginning of the tale works best because it’s in storybook mode and frames the queen as much more of a power-hungry madwoman than say, Disney did. The stepmother queen in either tale is motivated, it’s just that this film explains the motivation a bit more. Where it develops her plot and psychology it works, but little else is substantial here at all, which is not the case of the animated version, or even some others for that matter. Where it sets up Snow White’s initial struggle it works, but it loses her along the way, as it not only fills in blanks but colors outside the lines, so to speak, and adds running time and trivially valuable sub-plotting with the love triangle that evolves. The richness it builds is soon watered down by excess.

Snow White and the Huntsman
starts with a few clear objectives but then becomes occluded and can no longer see the forest for the trees and like many travelers in this imaginary world gets lost in a dark forest, and all hopes of its being a quality piece of work perish.

5/10

Rewind Review- Little Indi

As those who know me, and if such a person exists, cyberstalk me, know I created this blog after writing on another site, which shall remain nameless, for a while. The point is, I have material sitting around waiting to be re-used on occasion I will re-post them here. Some of those articles or reviews may have been extemporaneous at the time but are slightly random now, hence the new title and little intro, regardless enjoy!

Little Indi is a film that is playing as part of a new series called New Spanish Cinema at the Film Society at Lincoln Center. It tells the tale of a boy named Arnau, nicknamed “Little Indian” for reasons unknown to us (one can assume it’s based on his appearance but it is not confirmed), who is desperately trying to earn himself money to pay a lawyer to assist his mom who is incarcerated.

Most of the quiet, sparsely-dialogued film involves Arnau, played by Marc Soto, looking for extra work, going to a dog track or debating whether to sell his prize-winning goldfinch. He is mostly on his own and in many ways caught between adulthood and childhood. One minute he is pounding the backroads seeking more hours of work anywhere he can find them, but he is tending to a wounded fox the next.

The scoring of this film is very distinctive and it never overpowers or sentimentalizes anything but it does help push the story about and also keeps the correct middling tone. A tone believed to be desired because there is little seen of this incarcerated mother, she is seen briefly and it is understood. It is in essence a very observational film. It’s a window into a world.

There are many hurdles and many disappointments which take this film to its conclusion. The ending is open so divulging too many plot details would allow one to know exactly how it stays open.
It is a film that ultimately stays visual so bear with it and eventually you will understand what competition he enters the finch into and to an extent what the judging criteria is. Other things within the film which might also seem foreign but eventually do come to make sense.

Marc Soto is described in the writings accompanying this film as a newcomer, however, the pedigree of a film actor can be gauged more so when they say nothing than when they speak and Soto’s pedigree seems to belie his experience. Words are the domain of the theatre actor; a film actor has to be able to hold our interest in quiet moments of which this film has many. Will we watch him behave and not just speak? Yes. Do you see him thinking? For as much interaction as Soto has yes there is definitely potential for a new star of Spanish cinema to have been born in this part.

When minimalism in a minimal environment occurs it can be much easier to accept. When minimalism occurs in an urban/suburban environment, as it does in this film, it is asking for a bit more patience from its audience. Does the film reward the audience for its patience? Ultimately, I believe that answer to be yes. It’s not a tremendous reward but it is also not a shortchanging experience. It is the type of film that may even go up a rating point or two upon a second viewing as you examine how it works but it does involve you in the avenues that Arnau investigates to try and earn more money and also involves you in how he tries to go about rectifying his missteps.

Also, if you are a fan of Spanish cinema you might recognize the cameo by Agustí Villaronga, director of such disturbing thrillers as El Mar and In A Glass Cage, as the mysterious The Man in White Shoes. Ultimately, it is an enjoyable film that this critic will want to re-examine.

6/10 
 

Review- Moon Child (La Permission de Minuit)

This is another example of a film that I am fortunate to have seen thanks to a film program, in this case it’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, which is presented in part by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Emerging Pictures. Much like films I saw last year in From Britain with Love this series presents new films from foreign countries that likely have little to no US distribution. It’s a great way to discover some hidden gems. If you see a new films series from a specific country playing near you I urge you to go out and see some selections.

I wanted to see many of the titles that were playing at a local art house but sadly my schedule only permitted one.

This film concerns a doctor/patient relationship between David (Vincent Lindon) and Romain (Quentin Challal). David is a dermatologist who specializes in X.D., a photosensitive skin disorder, which Romain has. Essentially he can’t be exposed to UV radiation and must cover up if out in daylight and must check lighting conditions. It’s a chronic condition which causes many growths, which may or may not be cancerous and he undergoes many procedures. The basic relationship conflict that exists in this film and a chronic illness, are things I can identify very closely with, though on a far less severe level.

However, there’s not merely a doctor patient struggle in this film. Yes, there is a the personal connection that a physician has with a patient he’s treated his whole life but they also each have their own conflicts they grapple with. David struggles with trying to transition to a position with the WHO, dealing with his successor where he is and making sure his patients are in good hands and how to break it to his current patients. While Romain struggles not only with his conditions but with adolescence and trying to find some sort of harmony between the two.

The film’s weakest point is perhaps the one it should’ve handled most easily. The rivalry that develops between David and Carlotta (Emmanuelle Devos) is a bit too infantile and trite, especially when contrasted to some of the naturalistic truths found in other aspects of the film. The arc seemingly takes a huge jump in their relationship also. Thankfully the film has so much else going for it that this is a minor complaint.

One of which is an aspect I love and that is the juxtaposition of high point and low point in the narrative. David takes Romain on a road trip as a pretext to telling him he’s leaving. There’s some great scenes, interactions and montage. It’s wonderful and you get swept away in the fun. Upon their return Romain’s mother (Caroline Proust) lets the cat out of the bag immediately. Overwhelming high to incredible low in a split-second that propels the film beautifully into its second half.

The acting in the film for the most part is very strong but it really is a two-man show both Vincent Lindon and Quentin Challal are absolutely wonderful playing their disparate characters. Moreover, they work very well and naturally with one another which really sells you on the fact that the characters have a history. It feels organic an not like an artifice created for the purposes of story-telling.

The music whether instrumental or an original song for the film is very well-spotted, always emotionally truthful and highlights the emotional resonance of all the scenes in which it’s present. It’s rare to see both incorporated in one film and even more rare still to see them both work so well.

Through all its interpersonal drama and life-and-death situations the film does find a lot of room for comedy, quite naturally too. It’s this mix that allows it to work so well. It doesn’t stay to dour and works enough ebbs and flows such that it can extend the story the necessary amount so as to tell things in their proper time without forcing things.

My one previous aversion aside this is a very strong film and I’m glad it’s getting this showcase and I’m saddened that my screening was so woefully empty. It’s rare to see a doctor’s and a patient’s tale told so well much less a man’s and a child’s but here it is and there’s a great synergy to it. It’s a film that’s grown on me since I’ve seen it and I hope more people get a chance to see it.

9/10

Thankful for World Cinema- The Vanishing

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

The Vanishing

Johanna ter Steege and Gene Bervoets in The Vanishing (Meteor Film Productions)

This film exemplifies many things I like to see in films but rarely get enough of. Often times in Hollywood films we get interesting concepts that never live up to their full potential. In The Vanishing we get a film that forgoes cheap thrills and pace to examine the characters involved in a very thought-provoking way and it manages to achieve a greater level of creepiness than most American films would. After having first watched this film I was looking around in all directions as I walked around and here’s why: One of the first things that strikes you is the music. There’s a deep bass and it doesn’t overly-anticipate the moment but still highlights the film with an overtone of foreboding which is just magnificent. And as this word could apply to the film as a whole it is especially significant in the antagonist; subtlety. Played by Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Raymond Lemorne is a great villain because he’s believable, well defined and most frighteningly in the end we even understand him and worse yet he seems real.

Another thing this film has going for it is the way the film isn’t told chronologically. We first see the vanishing and the desperate search in the first few hours, then we are introduced to Lemorne, peg him as the man, see his routine and see that three years have gone by. All throughout the film we will skip through time for large periods. The disappearance of Saskia will be filled in over and over again until the actual events are seen through their entirety. And the last piece only falls into place at the very end.

Amazingly, with this unusual structure the film is not hard to follow in the least and certainly much more intriguing then the conventional linear plot we’re used to seeing in the United States. The ‘reality’ of these events are set up in many way by director George Sluizer. Firstly, there was great used of subjective camera and the ‘Zero Degree Style’ common in the States is completely abandoned.

The other touches of reality come as we delve into the two main characters: Rex and Raymond. Raymond, the criminal, is first only seen in a very one-dimensional manner. We see him as a fraud who seems to be scoping out the store for possible victims. Then later in the story we see him begin to formulate his plan, to perfect it over and over again. The one scene where we see him as a biology teacher is just enough to show us that these people could be anyone and can fool you so easily. There is also the scene where Rex is waiting for him at the restaurant. Rex says he’s waiting for Mr. Montmejan and that happens to the waiter’s name. The commonness of the name adds profound statement about the plausibility of the plot.

The tension of the film is also aided by McGuffins, or botched attempts by the professor. In one scene we see him pick up a young girl, we know already that him locking the door is where he makes his move and poisons the girl but it’s his daughter. He also runs into a former student of his and tried to get her in his car and we see a chilling example of how he may have escaped justice for so long for even when someone calls him on it their content to just get away. There’s also the scene where Raymond is out of focus in the background as Rex looks around for him. This is also another great scene of anticipation.

Rex’s relationship with Lieneke and also his quest are also quite believable. He reaches a point where all he seeks to know is the truth. The Vanishing is also greatly helped by some really good dialogue. The image of the Golden Egg as related by Saskia through her dream sort of predestines the film in a way as we’ll see they both have the same fate, however, that is not a fault of the film. I firmly believe that there are only so many ways a story can end and it’s not how it ends that always matters but how you get there. The Vanishing is a toned down psychological thriller that’ll get under your skin. It’s a film that’s had my imagination captive for a week. It’s not only a prime example of a psycho-thriller but also of well-structured and executed character studies. It’s a great achievement.

8/10

Thankful for World Cinema- The Passion of Joan of Arc

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (Gaumont)

The first thing that needs to be said about The Passion of Joan of Arc in the state it currently exists is that it’s a miracle we have it at all. Several cuts vanished through the years and this one suddenly surfaces in a Norwegian mental hospital 25 years ago. Truly, the salvaging of some of these older films is at times miraculous and lends even more credence to the importance of film preservation. These works of art shouldn’t be lost and we can’t leave it to chance to find wonderful cuts such as these.

Second, is if you’re watching the Criterion collection version of this film opt for the Voices of Light soundtrack. Again an interesting note is that even though music clearly, according to all the records, was played when this film was screened Dreyer has nothing in his notes to indicate what that music should be, which is odd if you see his other work you know how exacting and precise he could be. So this is as close to an “official” score as you get and it is truly wonderfully done and moving and while it claims not to be a score it syncs beautifully with the images and story.

This film should be viewed for the performance of Maria Falconetti alone. It is often cited as one of the greatest in the history of film a fact which is also unique to this film considering how infrequently Falconetti acted on camera, however, this is no rote repetition of consensus. She is marvelous. It can truly be said this performance is well ahead of its time and reads like one of the greats of the 40s who had the benefit of sound. Falconetti needed no sound, no words and carries this film single-handedly in the rare performance that can be called a tour-de-force.

Lastly, there is the story itself and how it unfolds. I think it is likely one that transcends religion. Whether you’re inclined to believe Joan or Arc’s claims or not you see someone being horribly mistreated, you see one of the judges hurting because he believes her and you witness the tragic outcome of the tale.

This film is a masterpiece of silent film. You’ll note as you watch very few titles are actually needed. It manages through it’s unique visual style to communicate its tale very effectively. It is a must see.

10/10

61 Days of Halloween- Tremors

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment so I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Tremors

Michael Gross and Robert Jayne in Tremors (Universal)

Tremors is without a doubt a very surprising and very fun film that is likely to be enjoyed by a wide variety of filmgoers. It’s an hour-and-a-half of escapist cinema that is both funny and engrossing at the same time. Upon first glance this might seem like the kind of film you’ve seen a thousand times before but it is definitely worth a closer look.

The first few minutes of the film seem to set a tone of a schlocky take off comedy that isn’t going to offer much in the way of content. However, the groundwork for the forthcoming events are laid very well during the comedy-dominant portion of the film. The rest of the film is an intricate balance between humor and science fiction elements. When the inciting incident occurs the old man is found perched high about the desert on power lines the movie starts to move quicker. The pace of this film from there on out is fantastic and then the beginning no longer feels out of place.

A great asset to this tale is the ensemble cast which is often preferable in such a tale as this but rarely well utilized. In this group of characters we definitely have our central characters defined and in the forefront. While the secondary characters are sketched in broad strokes they are each individuals and do not seem like stereotypes. However, an ensemble of unique quirky characters would be nothing without a good cast and Tremors boasts that as well.

Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward play best friends who appear to be quite similar and therein lie their conflicts. These two carry the film throughout but whereas with many films the two lead actors wandering through the plot complications may get bothersome they get help along the way. Michael Gross formerly of Family Ties is great and absolutely hysterical in a supporting role and Reba McEntire always seems to be a service in a small and over-the-top part not to mention that she adds quite a catchy tune to the closing credits.

This film draws upon a few cinematic techniques to make it effective. Firstly, the use of the subjective camera along the ground to represent the “snakeoids” worked very well to create suspense and tension. For quite some time the filmmakers also decided not to reveal the creature knowing that the fear (if it in fact caused fear) of the unknown was the greatest fear of all. Those involved in making Tremors made the unusual decision to have most of their action take place during the day time in which it is very difficult to create an effective horror film but the way in which they used the ingeniously simple concept of being trapped makes all the suspense elements work.

Aside from being tremendously funny and having an amazing score at the climax along with an equally interesting climax Tremors succeeds in two very interesting methods both illustrated by the way these creatures attack. First, in a very unique way I felt this film took the fear of being buried alive and elevated it to new heights by blending it with ghoulishness and at the same time without being grotesque allowing the thought to stay in the imagination. It’s a very interesting concept which I would like to see a straightforward horror film take on sometime. Aside from dealing greatly with the concept of being trapped which is always a great premise to go with in the horror/sci-fi genre. Tremors also deals with a seemingly insurmountable opponent which has an unstoppable method of attack, the snakeoids being sensitive to seismic vibrations would obviously eventually kill these people it seems.

It is a perfect setup for A Nightmare on Elm Street-type ending but the original filmmakers didn’t go for the sequel (at least an obvious one, as there have been sequels) and truly came up with an ingenious way for out heroes to be victorious which is sure to please.

While Tremors is undoubtedly based and inspired on the science fiction films of the 1950s I think it’s no accident that it was produced and came out towards the end of the Cold War. It is never affirmed what makes these creatures the way they are but the idea of residual radiation at the end of the arms race is something that may also have been an implied message from this film.

Tremors is, however, a film you take away whatever you brought to it there is no heavy-handed attempt at a message and if you just want to have fun you most definitely will, although considering that the sci-fi films of the 50s always had some sort of message it’s something to consider.

One notable deviation I noticed from the 1950s Sci-Fi formula is that although Tremors is a film about fun but it did seem that Bert (Michael Gross) and Heather Gummer (Reba McEntire) were exaggerated to fit the liberal interpretation of countryside conservatives as card-carrying NRA members with an artillery in their basement. Any commentary in this regard and/or rebuttal against it is veiled in humor and is used to serve the plot and doesn’t seem to be an unnecessary catechism about socio-political norms. This film never takes itself that seriously and it’s all the better for it. Whether it’s a spoof or an updating, thriller or comedy you can’t help but love Tremors. Whatever it takes its inspiration from it manages to be a film that stands alone and is unique in its own way. It’s definitely worth seeing.

10/10