Triumph of the Will (1935)

June 19, 2012

Having made two short documentaries of the Nazi party during her early flirtation with the Nazi, Leni Riefenstahl was courted and commissioned by Hitler to make a feature documentary of the annual Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg in 1934 – the final film would become the controversial The Triumph of the Will, a hypnotizing propaganda film that was both lauded and loathed, polarizing both critics and viewers still today.

The film opens with the following passage followed by a series of aerial shots intercut to look like being shot from the same plane that flied Hitler to Nuremberg:

On 5 September 1934
20 years after the outbreak of the World War
16 years after the beginning of German suffering
19 months after the beginning of the German rebirth
Adolf Hitler flew again to Nuremberg to review the columns of his faithful followers

Hitler arrived at the countryside received by crowd whose elation looked genuine and not staged. The scene set the tone for the rest of the film – Hitler, a messiah-like figure, raised from the rubble of the World War I, led and liberated Germany to her rebirth. Hitler’s appointment as chancellor from less than 2 years ago led to months of chaos in his party particularly the disintegration of the increasingly uncontrollable SA and its leader Ernst Rohm, prompting Hitler to tone down his racial policy and promote peace and unity.

The problem with the SA ultimately led to the Night of the Long Knives, after which it was important that Hitler was able to drum up the propaganda machine in Nuremberg and via Triumph to reassure the country unison and peace. In several speeches delivered by Hitler, it was almost surreal that he emphasized peace, love and unison, he almost looked that he genuinely believed in those words, and without hindsight the Hitler Youths standing before him were mesmerized by his dazzling oratory skills. There’s a creepy quality while watching the teens saluting Hitler yelling uniformly “Seig Heil!”

The film works with a hypnotizing power that one finds it hard to resist. This was obtained by powerful film language and innovative cameraworks such as aerial shots and tracking shots, which are taken for granted today but were extremely difficult back then. Hitler was often shot from an extreme low angle framing him with a God-like quality, intercut with close-ups of mesmerized faces of the audience. Special set was built so the grandeur of the Nazi architecture and carefully orchestrated rally could be fully captured.

The artistic relationship of Riefenstahl and Hitler was at the height during the making of Triumph, Riefenstahl was given a large budget that allowed her to hire a crew of 172 people (unheard of by the standard of the days) and influence how the rally was designed for the movie. Triumph was critically acclaimed both inside and outside Germany, making Riefenstahl one of the most prominent female filmmakers in the history. She was subsequently vilified after the war that she was never able to make another movie again. She was prosecuted frequently after the war, she was still being investigated for denying the Holocaust still in her 100th birthday in 2002.

Triumph raised the bars of propaganda filmmaking and documentary in general, although some would argue that it is not strictly a documentary as some scenes were reenacted in the studio. It is dull by today’s standards for it’s a tough job watching the Nazi talking heads speechifying 2 hours. The value of Triumph today lies mostly upon the historical value of the superbly filmed scenes of the Nazi rally and Hitler’s speeches. It also serves as a Faustian tale of an artist who seals the deal with the devil for the sake of arts.

Triumph of the Will is directed by Leni Riefenstahl, starring Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring and Max Amann.



The Raid: Redemption (2011)

June 17, 2012


At least 20 throats were cut open in this movie. I am not kidding. The violence in this movie is pushed to such extreme that I do not think there is more than 5 minutes when someone is not dying or being ripped open beyond any reparation.

The Raid is an Indonesian movie directed by Welsh director Gareth Evans. It has been hailed as a game changer of the action genre, scoring 83% on the tomatometer and 8.1 stars on IMDB.

The plot is minimal – the SWAT team is on a mission to raid a building occupied by a gallery of mobsters under the reign of the sadistic crime lord Tama. Among the SWAT team is Rama, whose goal in this mission is also to capture and return his brother Andi, also the righthand man of Tama. They start sweeping the lowlifes in the first level, and each level up means they will be encountering more violent resistance from more skilled and savage fighters.

Violence has been a tool for the filmmakers to develop certain plot point or certain conflicts between the characters. Ang Lee, regarding “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, once said that Kung Fu to him is like ballet, he uses it in favor of the plot and character development.

Plot in The Raid is just enough to create situations, in which the characters are required to punch each other into pulp. Its structure is similar to that of a porn movie, only the minimum of plot is served to create a situation where the characters can perform the sex. Yes, this kind of movies targets an audience for whom the plot or character development is a distraction rather than the driver.

There is a huge market for this kind of moviemaking considering the amount of praises The Raid is receiving. The problem is that it is technically brilliant, and it could be mistaken as a masterpiece. I enjoyed some early fight scenes until it was obvious this was all it could offer. However, it is not a great movie in the traditional sense of the art of movie making. A great movie uses plot and characters in order to reveal a certain quality of humanity or raise intriguing questions that deserve answering.

The Raid reveals nothing except cynical savage violence.

The Raid is directed and written by Gareth Evans, starring Iko Uwais, Ananda George and Ray Sahetapy.

Prometheus (2012)

June 13, 2012


Prometheus is a gorgeous film directed by Ridley Scott, the highly anticipated prequel-but-not-really companion piece to Alien (1979) also directed by Ridley. The story is set some years before the event of Alien and of a completely different plot, although it does shred some mystery of the origin of the space jockey, by questing the origin of mankind, only leading to more mystery.

It is a very unique movie that shows a director picking up the same material 3 decades after the movie that made his name, and showing a very different director in work making a very different movie. That doesn’t happen often, whether or not the movie lives up to the high expectation is pretty much beside the point.

The story goes like this – A team of scientists led by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapce) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) arrives at a distant planet on a mysterious mission. Among the spaceship crew we also find David (Michael Fassbender), our trustworthy android who styles himself after Peter O’Toole from Lawrence of Arabia, and Vickers (Charlize Theron) the postergirl of the evil cooperation.

Dr.Shaw and Dr.Holloway believe that some ancient tablets sharing the same star map indicate the origin of mankind. They hibernate for 2.5 years, flying in Prometheus 3.27 x 10^ 14 km away from Earth, that by the way means they should be flying at 34.6 times the light speed to make it on time, to meet the creator of mankind. You see, the science is as sketchy as my math. Anyway, following the tradition, things go to the wrong direction and the crewmen die in some new gory and creative ways – except our heroine Shaw who now officially replaces Ripley the toughest woman in the universe.

Gone is the gloomy, industrial, biomechanical world created by H.R. Giger. Ridley immerses us in a world of technological wonder, with visually stunning and believable industrial design, interface design, gorgeous and slightly unfamiliar landscapes. The first hour of the movie walks us through this world slowly, sending us from Earth to this unfamiliar landscape where the unknown lurks. The movie works on this level. Then hell unleashes. Ridley knows which buttons to push to make you jump.

I am blown away by the production design and some odd aesthetic choices. For example, the whitish-bluish giant super human (aka the engineer, space jockey) looks rather mundane at the first sight, but at time you notice a subtle creepiness about their facial structure, that they look like a marble sculpture of a greek mythical deity. Ridley also makes great casting decisions – Fassbender is intriguing as David the android with an ambiguous agenda; Noomi Rapace is the hottest item and a novelty who will shine anyway in every movie she’s in.

If you are expecting a philosophical quest like 2001: A Space Odyssey, look elsewhere. Prometheus feels grand, but works like what Ridley does best – a highly polished sci-fi/horror thriller with good taste. And nobody does it better than Sir Ridley Scott.

Prometheus is directed by Ridley Scott, written by Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof, starring Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall-Green and Michael Fassbender.

Grizzly Man (2005)

March 6, 2012


“Grizzly Man” is a documentary directed by Werner Herzog that chronicles the last years of a man whose life is driven by a dangerous obsession. Timothy Treadwell is the quintessential Herzog character. His life was directed by an obsessive purpose that suppressed a darker side within. His work only made sense in his own universe but most people would call him a maniac if not an idiot. He was only alive in the field doing his work that would eventually kill him. He is the rather unlucky real life version of Klaus Kinski’s character in “Fitzcarraldo“.

Treadwell was the self-proclaimed guardian of the grizzly bears. He was the co-founder of the Grizzly People with his ex-girlfriend Jewel Palovak, which concerned with the treatment of the grizzly bears. Every summer he launched an expedition to the Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. He camped there close to the bears as their “guardian” until they went into hibernation. During his last expedition, he brought along his girlfriend Amie Huguenard. They were attacked by a seemingly hungry and unfriendly bear which never met Timothy, killed and partially eaten.

After all, it looks like the bears do not really need his protection. They are fairly safe, except some occasional disturbance from the hikers. They live in their own concealed world, and indifferent to everything else. One of the interviewees suggested that the bears found him harmless because they thought he was retarded or something, which was why he went safe until the fateful event. We can assume Timothy was up for it, how about his girlfriend? She was obviously frightened by bears, she went anyway because she loved the man.

This is a rare documentary in which the director does not approve the actions of the protagonist. Timothy’s worldview is that of the disneyland – bears are harmless and his savior, and he is only normal among them, he is a failure from the human world. That casts a strong contrast to Herzog’s cold and logical view of the universe, which is full of cruelty and indifference, survival is the only rule. Timothy’s lifelong obsession, however, must have stirred some sort of connection to Herzog, for he is himself famous for his intense obsession – he pulled a large ship up to a mountain top somewhere in Amazon for the film “Fitzcarraldo”, with no trick photography, he really did hire a crew of aboriginals to do this stunt. In the very same film, he reportedly held a gun to Klaus Kinski so he wouldn’t leave the set. The incident is well documented in “My Best Fiend“.

There is another film called “Into the Wild” directed by Sean Penn that deals with a similar topic – a young man disdains civilization that he runs into the wild, lives there for a short while until his eventual death from food poisoning. What makes “Grizzly Man” distinctive is that the director strips off the romanticism that often associates to the theme, and uses this to reflect his very own philosophy about man’s place in the universe.

Grizzly Man” is directed by Werner Herzog“, starring Timothy Treadwell who played himself.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

March 5, 2012


There is a profound sadness throughout “We Need to Talk About Kevin”. The plot is minimal, and to explain that is irrelevant because the film is constructed in a fragmented way that focuses on the subjective psychological reality instead of the logical factual reality. But to boil it down, the film is essentially about the struggle between Eva (Tilda Swinton) and her son Kevin (Ezra Miller), who is seemingly born with an absolute hatred to his mother. Kevin seems to embody something we call the pure Evil. This all comes to a tragedy on the level of the Greek mythology and a resolution that is both chilling and intimate.

Tilda Swinton is the engine of the movie with her tour de force performance. She plays a woman escaping from responsibility all her life. Her reality slowly deteriorates, driving her to desperation and madness. The real surprise here is Ezra Miller playing Kevin, a truly evil kid. He is not the usual angry kid from high school. He is one evil bastard in the league of Hannibal Lecteur. Slowly, the story unfolds, and we get to know both sides of the story. You come to understand why Kevin embarks the mass killing and sympathize with him – that is if you have endured everything he has done prior to that.

Freud said that a man who has been his mother’s darling grows up with a triumphant feeling that associates with success. It doesn’t work with Eva and Kevin. Somewhere in-between is the father (John C. Reilly), who busies himself upbringing his family in a yuppy fashion. Somehow our world gives the family the means to function, blinding the necessity to right the wrong. Kevin is basically just born to the wrong family at the wrong time, leaving broken souls that seek vengeance and redemption.

Kevin is never being talked to beyond the day-to-day business throughout the entire movie. They need to talk to Kevin, not just about him.

We Need to Talk About Kevin” is an outstanding British gem directed by Lynne Ramsay, starring Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly and the superb Ezra Millera.

The Artist (2011)

February 26, 2012


I have enjoyed several silent movies, mostly german expressionistic melodramas from the 20’s 30’s. Watching “The Artist” on screen is almost magical for never in my life I thought I could experience a silent movie on the big silver screen in a cinema. The title card and the fact that it’s a silent movie almost play like a novelty like “Oh it’s the first 3D movie!” and I kept asking questions like “How long can this go on without the dialogues?” However, the movie would not work solely on the gimmick if the story and performance were not so movingly touching!

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a famous silent movie star of his time, he meets Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) during his movie’s premier. She is a good dancer with a hopeful future, George creates the beauty mark on her face that will become her signature. Things go well for George until talkies replace silent movies. Fresh talking faces replace old silent faces. Peppy Miller goes on to become the famous talkie star, and George loses his fame and retreats to a smaller apartment with his loyal puppy.

Like all the classic silent movies that age well, “The Artist” is a melodrama. Without the dialogues, the movie has to work on the visual languages, facial expressions, music, and occasional title cards that explain the plot. The movie succeeds largely due to the performance of Jean Dujardin as George Valentin. He plays the role so convincingly that he could have been a very successful silent actor indeed. He has the perfect comical timing, and can be melodramatically touching when required.

Great silent movie directors also prided themselves for using as few title cards as possible to tell the story only with the images (Murnau’s “The Last Laugh 1924″ is title card free). Director Michel Hazanavicius could stand proudly next to the silent movie titans like F.W. Murnau for he too achieves this ability. The format forces the director to work really hard on the visual languages that the story speaks to the audience on an abstract level, stripping down to the essence: the abstract idea of loss, love, joy, sadness, depression.

You may find yourself reluctant to watch a silent movie, but you will be surprised to find yourself more emotionally involved than watching a talkie. When I watched “Up!” made by Pixar, I was so touched by the 10 minutes of fast forwarding “silent sequence” at the beginning, that I did not care about the rest. I heard most people who watched “Up!” felt the same way. The success of “The Artist” shows that the audience desperately needs not 3D or computer generated monsters, but a movie that is able to hook the audience and tell a good story.

“The Artist” ends with a short scene containing spoken dialogues, that almost feels like a let down if it doesn’t remind us the beautiful silence before this scene so well. It almost feels like waking up from a beautiful dream.

The Artist is directed by Michel Hazanavicius, starring Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo.

Sunrise (1927)

November 27, 2011

“Sunrise” is one of the last silent films made by the great German Expressionist F.W. Murnau. It is a crowning achievement from the short silent era, a truly remarkable film that is so fluent in its story-telling technique that it stays effective even today. Having viewed it again with some younger audiences, I realized how effective this film connects the viewers emotionally still today. It truly moved my audiences who couldn’t have been older than 18.

The story is really simple. A down to earth farmer (George O’Brien) is having an affair with a city girl (Margaret Livingston), who persuades him to sell his farm, drown his wife (Janet Gaynor) and move to the city with her. He takes her advice and plots the murder of his innocent wife (not without some serious internalization). At the critical moment, the direction takes a U-turn and the rest is the most touching story I have ever watched on screen. It moves me without any spoken words can describe.

I don’t believe silent film is a better medium than talkie, the whole discussion is irrelevant anyway. With the lack of spoken dialogues, the director is forced to work out the impossible to tell a story, often involving a lot of plot details, solely by image composition, symbolism, editing, cue music. The last thing an esteemed silent film director would ever use to tell a story was the title card. F.W. Murnau was proud that he minimized the title cards whenever he could. In fact, he mastered his technique that in “The Last Laugh” he only used one title card. There are only a few short title cards in “Sunrise”, the story is told by a combination of techniques that title card is not neccessary.

Take for example during the scene by the lake, the city girl asks the farmer to move to the city, looking at the lake and with their backs facing us. Murnau double exposed a montage of the jazz-age urban life over the lake, and then fully fading in the cityscape before fading back to the lake scene.

Take for another example right after the lake scene, the farmer is back home, his wife is sweeping the floor as he struggles to make a decision on the bed. A ghostly image of the city girl is double exposed so that it appears as though she is leaning on him, hugging him, seducing him. All his internal struggle is told through images. In the modern days, we would hear voiceover of what the character should be thinking at that point.

There are also many subtle innovative techniques that would be too difficult to be accomplished at that time. A simple tracking shot would be very difficult with the bulky cameras available then. We found tracking shots in this film that would keep many film analysts busy for a while.

All these would not be relevant though without the actors. I still see overacting here and there common in the period, but I find the key performances more naturalistic, subtle and emotionally engaging than most of the performances coming from the silent era. The church scene where George O’Brien cries is melodramic, but it’s melodrama at its best.

I urge everyone who is interested in silent films to start with “Sunrise”. You will find a cinematic world where emotions are not spoken, but felt.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” is directed by F.W. Murnau, starring George O’Brien, Margaret Livingston, Janet Gaynor.

The Shining (1980) Trailer

October 26, 2011

The trailer of The Shining, that is of course my favorite film of all time, is my favorite trailer of all time. The trailer lasts for 1 minute and 30 seconds, in a still shot of blood pouring out of the elevators’ doors while the credit is scrolling up.

It took the crew nine days to set up the shot, and Kubrick being a perfectionist that he was well known of only took three takes to be satisfied. That means twenty-one days of work went into this one minute and a half trailer that crystallized the best of The Shining. Enjoy! Oh and don’t forget to leave a comment with your favorite trailer just right below!

The Shining is directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring Jack Nicholson and Sherry Duvall.

Read this also on Lomography!

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

October 15, 2011

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is a beautiful silent film that collects some of the most haunting images of facial expressions. The actors were not allowed to wear make up unlike the other silent films, also made possible by the newly developed panchromatic film that could capture a natural skin tone, making it a unique work from the silent era that stands the test of time.

It was directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer and starring Renée Jeanne Falconetti. Very few people had actually seen it prior to 1981 because the original print was destroyed after a fire. Dreyer himself died believing the original was lost forever. In 1981, a complete print of Dreyer’s original version was rediscovered in the closet of a Danish janitor in an Oslo mental institution. It is not known how the reels ended up in the institution. Some facts are stranger than fiction.

Cinematically, The Passion of Joan of Arc was not constructed with camera movements or the conventional movie language, but from a series of still shots that emphasize the facial expressions of actors. Every shot is so beautifully framed that the stills deserve a spot in an art museum.

Watching this film again now I feel like appreciating a piece of history, as if a widely believed extinct animal being discovered alive again. The performance of Falconetti alone is worth your two hours.

The Passion of Joan of Arc” is directed by Carl Theodor Drey, starring Renée Jeanne Falconetti. You can now buy it at The Criterion Collection.

This article is also re-blogged on Lomography.

Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

October 8, 2011

When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone in January 9, 2007 and claimed that it would change the world, there was no doubt in us that it would happen. It was as though the old world ended at that point, and a new future began under his fingertips. It was the definite sci-fi moment of our time. Steve Jobs was not only a great businessman, technologist and reinventor, but also a true progressionist in the tradition of Ayn Rand, who made the boldest movie ever on Earth. The future is his movie, and he is the director.