December 31, 2007
Back for another year! Savant's new reviews today are
Two-Disc Director's Cut
Behind Locked Doors
Let me start 2008 with an observation/reaction to a scene in the new movie Atonement:
A number of newspaper articles have surfaced about the fancy long-take steadicam sequence in Atonement, saying how the extended shot added to the movie and comparing it with famous precedents, like the impressive opening of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil.
I would argue that with video assist and CGI cleanup and augmentation, an extended tracking shot is no longer the tour-de-force it once was. Ophuls' Lola Montes is only amazing because of the creative use it made of limited tools of its time. In 1955 only other filmmakers cared about such things: in 1950, every camera man in Hollywood wanted to know how Joseph H. Lewis pulled off his one-take bank robbery in Gun Crazy. That scene was subtle compared to Atonement's ostentatious three-ring circus. By focusing such attention onto the camerawork, extended tracking shots destroy what little is left of dramatic suspension of disbelief: everything is a special effect.
W.C. Fields used to conclude long master shots with a juggling trick, to prove that the trick was a function of his skill and not of editing or framing. Colors, time of day and weather conditions are now easily changed after the fact, and entire environments and characters added with a little more effort. A dramatic stunt or accidental moment of jeopardy in an old movie is a 'special' moment. Modern effects can undermine our involvement in the movies we watch, because nothing we see necessarily took place in front of the camera as it appears. Everything Buster Keaton does is fascinating; we wonder how he avoids breaking his neck. Watching 007 leap from a construction crane onto a rickety girder while the camera circles above reduces a great action scene to nothingness. It's just an animated trick; artificial adrenaline instead of the real thing. The action in a Road Runner cartoon is more involving.
Rocco Gioffre once told me that if everything is a special effect, nothing is special. I'm convinced he's right.
For the last fifteen years, the big attention-getting tyro director stunt has been the show-off extended tracking shot. It's the first thing touted by directors who otherwise have nothing to say. I'm sure that these tricks can be creatively used -- I just saw an almost completely artificial shot tracking a taxi in Zodiac that worked 100%. I'm also sure that the really successful effects manipulations are the ones I don't notice right away, like the countless clever moments in older Roman Polanski movies. He does a bravura tracking shot through a gauntlet of mirrors in Macbeth that still throws me, no matter how many times I see it. But clever effects scaled to accent the movies around them aren't usually discussed in newspaper articles.
--- That's enough pontificatin' for one New Years ... thanks for reading, Glenn Erickson
December 27, 2007
Greetings! Savant's new reviews today are
Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?
Milestone / New Yorker
Sawdust and Tinsel
Savant stayed off the roads yesterday, knowing that the post-holiday shoppers are even more dangerous than the drunks out on Christmas Eve. A pleasant holiday in Los Angeles, even if the wind blew down one of the few remaining palm trees on the block. The high winds even cued a power outage, luckily at a fairly convenient time as opposed to the middle of cooking a big meal.
No juicy DVD palaver today, but I am including a couple of paragraphs that I thought were amusing. I was pointed to an Italian site discussing the restoration of a Sergio Leone movie. Normally I can bluff my way through these things but I needed my dear wife to translate this one. She was trying out some new translation software, and ran the Italian text through the mill. Here's what came out -- I thought it was pretty amusing:
"At a distance of beyond average century from the first presentation, For a fist of dollars it returns to remember us that the western is "the cinema for excellence", fascinating every turns the spectator since the head titles them (splendid example of art POP), from the sonorous column of Ennio Morricone, from the inventions of converses become part of a epico-parodico popular lessico, give "to the heart Ramon..." to "When a man with the gun meets a man with the gun, the man with the gun is a dead man..." or from the duetti between the "cold and compassato" Clint Eastwood and the "warmth and the book of martyrs" Gian Maria Volontè.
For a fist of dollars he comes introduced to the Extension of the Cinema of Venice in the version restored from Cineteca Nazionale and Ripley's Film, in collaboration with Unidis Jolly Film and Sky Cinema; the workings entire in digita them have been carried out near Digital Filmlab di Copenhagen. The restoration of the film has concurred reintegrare in the new negative a lost scene in the materials in circulation in Italy, with a Association of Bologna of Joe (Clint Eastwood), escaped fortunosamente from the hands of the bandit, while it observes Ramon (Gian Maria Volontè) and its men to act cruelly on malcapitato the landladies of saloon (the José Calvo), suspected to have helped it."
If I wrote film criticism that read like that, I'd surely be called a genius! Thanks for reading -- and for the personal notes. Here's looking forward to a Happy New Year! Glenn Erickson
December 21, 2007
Saturday December 22, 2007
Holiday Greetings! Savant's new reviews today are
The Last Man on Earth
For several years now I've been enjoying the catalogs of Royal Books, a web-based seller of 'first editions of modern literature and books on the arts.' Especially interesting has been Royal's emphasis on novels that inspired film noir movies -- I discovered the odd feeling of holding an original printing with its original dust jacket when I needed to read the written sources for Night and The City and On Dangerous Ground.
Now Royal's Kevin Johnson has compiled a big, glossy book that treats these collector's pieces like the works of art they are. The Dark Page has full color illustrations of the titles in question with museum-worthy notes describing the original book and its particular translation to the screen: The Chair for Martin Rome became Cry of the City and Deadlier than the Male became Born to Kill. Along the way we learn more about the authors of these crime stories and mysteries. Johnson completes each entry with a booksellers' appraisal of each rarity's issue points, and the foreward is by Paul Schrader. The book is available at the Royal Books website; the company also maintains an open store in Baltimore, should there be any Baltimoreans reading who want to get an up-close look.
Earlier this week I received this note from writer friend Jeremy Arnold, and really enjoyed the link he sent The Turner Classics Movies online viewing page is pretty amazing:
"Year in and year out, TCM's obituary montage of film people who died during the year is the best-edited and most moving and imaginative of all the ones you'll see on different awards shows. I'm not crazy about the song they chose for this year's but it's still very well done. You can check it out online at this link. When you get there, click on "Our Picks" on the right side of the screen (written in green), and then find the link for TCM Remembers 2007. On another note entirely, the page also carries some funny clips from Skidoo ... -- Jeremy"
That's it 'til Monday or so ... thanks for reading! Glenn Erickson
December 16, 2007
Savant's new reviews today are
plus, remarks on the year in DVD
Shinobi no mono
The original Ninja movie!
Hello once again! As the movies' first Star Child regards the hopeful future,* Savant checks in with his seventh 'best-of' DVD list, another string of head-scratchers that doesn't follow conventional wisdom but amounts to a stack of good entertainment, at least in my book.
Of the new movies Sweeney Todd looks like the best one to chance a Christmas outing on ... it has that Christmas-y feel ... a Dickens-like Victorian setting, plenty of jolly Christmas colors, especially bright red. Saw ATONEMENT last night and was completely let down. Yet another tale that scrambles continuity to provide an artificial sense of interesting things happening. No chemistry between the players and a story that found little or no meaning in the misery of the characters. Pretty pictures, however.
Savant will soldier on through the next couple of weeks. There might not be as many reviews but I'll put at least one or two up twice a week. Hope you enjoy your holidays -- Glenn Erickson
*The Star Child is from the 1963 Czech Sci-Fi landmark Ikarie XB 1. He fills the screen gazing at an amazing new planet. Correspondent Michael Bjortvedt brought this minor/major revelation to my attention this year.
December 14, 2007
Greetings! Savant's new reviews today are
Media Blasters Tokyo Shock
The Way I Spent the End of the World
Film Noir: Five Classics from the Studio Vaults:
Scarlet Street (Special Edition), Contraband,
The Hitch-Hiker, They Made Me a Fugitive, Strange Impersonation
Hello again. Couldn't resist putting up this image of an agitated Barbara Steele from the 1962 The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. It came from reader (and reviewer) Peter Lukac, who tells me that Riccardo Freda's Technicolor Eurohoror classic (still DVD-MIA) has been screening on cable both in France and in Italy, at least once under the title Raptus, The Secret of Dr. Hichcock. I've long believed that Raptus was a working title only, which means that I owe Jim Ursini a 'you were right' note -- he claimed it was an authentic release title way back in 1974, when his and Alain Silver's essays were some of the first scholarly writing on Eurohorror. I share Peter Lukac's hope that these handsome continental transfers of the hotly desired title indicate a possible R1 disc, preferably with alternate scenes or, as long as we're dreaming, alternate versions! Hichcock was the subject of one of Savant's first published articles in The Horror Film Reader; it's reprinted here at Savant as well. "Death will take you as you sleep! Sleep! Sleep as deep as death!"
Savant's review of Chris Metzler & Jeff Springer's oddball documentary Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea received a number of interested responses, mainly from readers who couldn't believe the Salton Sea area had collapsed into such a disaster zone. So I thought I'd pass on this official newsletter for the docu that addresses current affairs of the political and physical state of the Salton Sea. Among other things, we find out that some of the eccentric retirees in the gonzo docu have passed away, including that cheerful guy who stood out on the highway as the area's offical greeter -- stark naked. Thanks for reading, Glenn Erickson
December 09, 2007
Savant's new reviews today are
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition
The Flame and the Arrow
Greetings once again! Savant reviews a pair of science fiction greats that Warners and Sony are trotting out for the holiday season, one blockbuster and another under-performing Neo-Noir tale that has since grown in stature. Blade Runner's endless list of versions and extras seems daunting at first but I found myself watching most of them and learning quite a bit I didn't know about the film and Philip K. Dick. The controversy over whether Harrison Ford's character is or isn't an android 'replicant' becomes especially interesting; even the people who made the movie argue the issue.
I hope you're more prepared for the holidays than Savant is. I don't exactly know when I'll be able to assemble a 'best of 2007 list,' although it's too good of a tradition to interrupt now. Thanks for all the friendly notes and especially for the helpful corrections. Take care, Glenn Erickson
December 07, 2007
Savant's new reviews today are
Starz Home Entertainment
Battle of Okinawa
Hello again! An eventful week. I just got in a box of Kino titles: The American Silent Horror Collection (a five-disc set), Lubitsch in Berlin (another five-disc set), two boxes of Film Noir collections and Patrice Leconte's Monsieur Hire. Selected reviews are planned.
I saw a screening Wednesday night of There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson's epic tale of power and competition in wildcat oil drilling at the beginning of the 20th century. Daniel Day-Lewis is remarkable as the oilman who fleeces landowners to build his oil empire; his chosen character voice sounds almost like John Huston. We expect the movie to develop into a battle between rogue independent Day-Lewis and the big oil companies, but the main conflict turns out to be something else altogether. Based on a novel by Upton Sinclair, the picture is long and demanding but has a number of scenes that really grab an audience. I'm not a fan of Magnolia but I'm ready to see this again. Is this the year's Best Picture? There Will Be Blood doesn't open until after Christmas. Take care and thanks for reading, Glenn Erickson
December 03, 2007
Greetings! Savant's new reviews today are
NoShame Italy, PAL Region 2
The Lady Vanishes
Kevin Pyrtle, who last August showed us how to see a web-play version of Abel Gance's Science Fiction epic La fin du monde, has made available online a copy of the 1930 Gance - Eugene Deslaw film Autour la fin du monde, an 18-minute behind the scenes look at the filming of France's first 'sound spectacular.' The movie is mostly about the new technology. We recognize the sets and a few actors, but the majority of the action depicted looks like scenes not included in the final film - like Schomberg sleeping with his mistress. It's interesting to see the sound apparatus and to realize that Gance was still using hand-cranked cameras for the 'muet' material. We get a look at many sets and see Gance's one-of-a-kind weird camera dolly, as well as the mirror device he used to warp the image for the 'mind-bending' conclusion. The image is extremely contrasty, so some faces are pasty masks and some scenes are difficult to read. Maybe someday we'll see a better-looking copy, perhaps with an official release of La fin du monde -- still my favorite 'discovery' from last year, thanks to Kevin Pyrtle. Autour la fin du monde is viewable online at this URL.
Correspondent Mel Martin sent me a copy of his new book The Magnificent Showman: The Epic Films of Samuel Bronston, which is a fast read about the international dealmaker's whirlwind production of six huge movies in five years: John Paul Jones, King of Kings, El Cid, 55 Days at Peking, The Fall of the Roman Empire and Circus World. Most interesting is the chapter where we learn how Bronston enlisted the aid of Generalissimo Franco's fascist spain, a deal that involved retired admiral Chester Nimitz, corporate overlord Pierre Dupont and problems with Spain's imbalance of trade. The book also straightens out who wrote and who directed what on the pictures, while hinting at corruption -- Bronston's producer would grossly overstate the budgets, to facilitate later till-skimming. Italian designers built tons of authentic furniture and props, most of which disappeared into private hands, like the throne for Flora Robson's Empress Tzu-Hsi in 55 Days, which was clad in real gold leaf.
Happily, the Weinstein company is releasing El Cid on January 29, and The Fall of the Roman Empire is anticipated a little later. I was told March, but that's not confirmed. Mel Martin will be doing the commentary on Fall along with Samuel's son William Bronston. Thanks for reading! Glenn Erickson