Posts Tagged ‘black and white’

The Artist (2011)

February 26, 2012

[rating:5]

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.

Advertisements

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.

Psycho (1960)

September 2, 2011

“Psycho” ages extremely well over the course of fifty years. Today some of the plot points have been reduced to cliché in parody after parody, but the movie is so well made that the artistry keeps it fresher in each viewing even after you know all the secrets, knots and twists.

Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) are in love. Sam is divorced and in no condition to marry Marion because most of his money goes into alimony. Marion is sick of being stuck, and when given the chance, steals $40,000 from his employer. She runs away and stops by the Bates Motel, meets the owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who lives with his ill mother. Norman is likable and handsome at the first sight, but we quickly sense something is not quite right about him. He and Marion connect in the way that they are both trapped, and hiding a secret.

Then it comes to the most famous twist at exactly 47 minutes into the movie. Hitchcock shot it in one week, with 77 camera angles, 50 cuts, and the sequence lasts only 3 minutes (I didn’t count, the figures vary from source to source). It has to be the most studied murder sequence of all time. Notice the scene when the water goes down the drain, then dissolves into an extreme closeup shot of the lifeless eye and slowly zooms out as the life is draining away from the pupil.

Does it look like I am giving a lot of plot away? If you do not know the secret yet, expect the unexpected. In fact, Hitchcock insisted that all viewers should arrive at the cinema on time, and requested that nobody should give away the secret. In a more extreme measure, after he bought the right of the original novel, he also bought every available copy of the book to avoid the secret being given away.

This is also the last black and white film by Hitchcock, who shot this cheaply with US $800,000 and in black and white to get a cheap b-movie look. Against the studio’s wish, he even employed his television crew instead of his usual team that made his other sleek thrillers to achieve this purpose. It is as much a disguise as everything from the plot, down to the characters. He toys with us, misleads us, in order to surprise us. In a way, we are as much the victims of Hitchcock as the victims of the murder in “Psycho”.

And check out the beautifully designed opening sequence of the movie on Vimeo.

Psycho” (1960) is directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins.

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

August 21, 2011

Most viewers today will immediately associate “The Man Who Laughs” to The Joker the most notorious fictional villain of our time. That’s about the only legacy this forgotten silent movie has left today. That fixated grin is the only linkage to the joker, and in fact the movie has much more to offer still today.

Directed by Paul Leni and released in 1928, “The Man Who Laughs” is the last breed of its kind before we abandoned story-telling to visual and sound. Watching this film, you will have this constant bittersweet feeling that the late master is mastering the art to the limit within the limitation of the medium. The production is still a highly watchable and at time entertaining piece of movie making, beside its historical value. Leni even experimented with recorded sounds, such as the crowd’s noise and ambient sound of the parade.

Adapted from a novel of the same title written by Victor Hugo in 1869, the story starts with an English nobleman who has offends King James II, he is sentenced to death in the iron maiden, his son Gwynplaine is sentenced to be mutated and forever wearing a large grin on his face with the help of a surgeon called Dr. Hardquannone. Gwynplaine meets Dea a baby girl he finds in the midst of a snow storm, chances upon a good hearted showman called Ursus. Together the trio survives the hardship and makes a living out of the circus business with the famous gig of Gwynplaine the joker, who reluctantly displays his horrifying grin to put bread on the table.

Roger Ebert wrote in his 2004 review that “Movie villains smile so compulsively because it creates a creepy disconnect between their mouth and their eyes. Imagine, however, a good man, condemned to smile widely for an entire lifetime.” The horror of this movie, unlike the title otherwise suggests, is not the horror commanded by the laughing man, but instead the horror that is enforced upon him. The film is essentially a bittersweet melodrama that is told in the best of the german expressionist style, that casts a strong contrast between the good hearted Gwynplaine and the horrific chain of events around him, with unseen horror lurking in the darkest of the shadow.

Conrad Veidt shines as Gwynplaine. He also played in other famous german expressionist silent movies such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. He had to wear a monstrous denture that keeps his grin, in doing so, limits his mouth movement. The whole thing works because first it’s a silent movie anyway and the story telling relies on Conrad’s facial expression rather than words, and second Conrad’s acting with the eyes conveys unspeakable emotions that at time make his character more sympathetic than if we could hear him speaking.

I highly recommend this movie if you have 2 free hours over the weekend and would like to revisit the art of the silent movie. Movie making has gone from the story-telling, that works much like a novel, to a spectacle of sometimes grotesque visual and busy soundtrack. Not that silent movie making is in any way superior than the talkies, but if you want a good old analogue entertainment in which the creators must work much harder on the craftsmanship with wild imagination and creativity to surpass the limitation of silence, pick this up via the internet or watch below.


The Laughing Man” is directed by Paul Leni adapted by J. Grubb Alexander from a novel of the same name written by Victor Hugo.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

August 21, 2011

History is written by the victors so its said by Winston Churchill. It has served as some sort of a contemporary truism ever since. The collective wisdom is examined in depth in Judgement at Nuremberg, a fictional account of the famous post-World War II Nuremberg Trials. This time, standing on the trial are 4 notorious Nazi judges, with the most famous being Dr. Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), the judge among judges, once a symbol of justice in Germany.

The film explores the complexity of the war crimes committed by the state, and those who execute the orders. On one hand we have Col. Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) who believes in absolute certainty that Janning and his fellows are as guilty as Hitler as part of the genocide. On the other there is Hans Rolfe (played by the excellent Maximilian Schell), the defend attorney and a fan of Jenning, who is on a mission to restore the dignity for his country in the attempt of restoring the glory of Jenning regardless he is guilty or not. Trapped inbetween is the chief judge of the case Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy). Like us, he comes the court knowing already the result of the hearing, but on the way he meets various good hearted germans, including Mrs. Bertholt, a minor character played by Marlene Dietrich. He is, however, a man who seeks the absolute justice, that is outside of the state law and sympathy.

Different from the other movies that deal with the same subject, Judgment at Nuremberg deals with the aftermath of the war. The story asks if these men in question should be condemned guilty just for the sake that they lose the war. Are the Nazi participants as guilty as Hitler in the crimes the state commits? What if their actions are based purely on their love for the country? If one is to betray his/her country, is he/she then also guilty in the context of the state law? All these will be answered in a satisfying conclusion, and on the way a lot of doubt and question regarding the quote from Churchill.

Judgment at Nuremberg is directed by Stanley Kramer, written by Abby Mann. According to Wikipedia, this is currently one of the Top Ten courtroom dramas voted by the American Film Institute.

Wages of Fear (1953)

August 20, 2011

Wages of Fear” is the international breakthrough of Henri-Georges Clouzot which won the Grand Prize of Cannes Festival in 1953. Clouzot died at the age of 69, leaving behind a small but impressive portfolio. With his two masterpieces “Wages of Fear” and “Diabolique“, he has been described by film critics as the French equivalent of Hitchcock.

What we have here is a tightly packed thriller that functions essentially as the “men on a mission” flick. The story involves 4 scoundrels, who are stuck in an unnamed poor filthy Latin American town. To get out of the situation they sign up a suicide mission to drive two full truckloads of highly explosive nitroglycerene 300 miles from the town to an oil mill caught on fire. The only way to put down the fire is to explode the mill. They will get a $2,000 reward each if they succeed, or otherwise, well, nobody will care.

The men here care nothing but the reward that will finance their escape from the desperate town. We get to know Mario (Yves Montand), a slacker who nudges off his romantic interest upon serious men business, accompanied by Jo (Charles Vanel) who is some sort of a mentor of Mario. Once they head off with the other team consisted of Luigi and Bimba, we already get to know their personalities and their motivations. The nerve cracking tension begins once the joy ride kickstarts. There is not any sort of false heroism shown here, everyone is doing exactly their personalities program them to do, and sometimes for the sake of the situation.

There are several set pieces here Clouzot could work with, one of them is a halfway built dock over a steep cliff that the trucks have to drive through. This great scene is told not with false suspense but in a meticulously edited sequence that Hitchcock would envy. We see how the first truck passes through and that adds up to the suspense to the second truck since we know exactly what they will be facing.

Technically this is a faultless film. The gorgeous black and white photography conveys more accurately if in the poetic sense the harsh weather than color photography would do. There’s a saying that black and white is able to illustrate the subject matter in a more symbolic way than the realism of color photography that we take for granted. It’s beautifully proved here.

The ending is not a happy one, but we cannot blame Clouzot when what we get nowadays are senseless happy endings in most Hollywood movies with the only function to please the audiences. And in fact, the ending makes perfect sense since this is exactly what these mindless scoundrels should behave.

“Wages of Fear” is directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, adapted by Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi from a novel written by Georges Arnaud.Buy DVD or Bluray at Criterion

400 Blows (1959)

August 20, 2011

Much has been discussed about this French New Wave classic – the first film of François Truffaut, jumpstarting the French New Wave and the career of Jean-Pierre Léaud, the autobiographical elements of Truffaut’s adolescence, etc. It has become so monumental that the status overshadows the actual movie.

That being said, it does work great on the story telling level, because of its simplicity and clarity. The story is simple. Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is an adolescent boy who runs into troubles everywhere he goes and gradually descents to the path of an outlaw.

The guerrilla filmmaking style was new at its time and conveys an intimacy between the viewers and the characters rarely seen in other movies of the same period. The style also conveys Paris with an emotional accuracy. If you visit Paris today, it feels pretty much the same it does in this film despite the urban and architectural changes since.

The famous ending works so beautiful as a timeless metaphor of adolescence – Antoine escapes from the observation center and runs to the beach, seeing the ocean for the first time. He stands confused between the ocean and the land, frozen in uncertainty trapped in a frozen frame.

That one last frame is worth the entire movie.

400 Blows” is directed by François Truffaut, starring Jean-Pierre Léaud. Buy DVD or Blueray at Criterion.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

August 20, 2011

This is a truly horrifying and strangest movie experience set in a claustrophobic Hollywood mansion in the tradition of the german expressionism.

Once a famous child star, Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) never goes beyond a second rate actress, overshadowed by her sister Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford) who has become a bigger star that she aspires. Blanche is crippled in a mysterious car crash allegedly orchestrated by Jane. Reclusive and bound to a small room, Blanche depends on the increasingly insane Jane on her breakfast, lunch and din-din.

It’s hard to mention this film without citing the real life quarrels between Bette and Joan which fuel the on screen hatred between the two characters, but it is Bette’s performance as Jane that makes this film instantly unforgettable. Jane applies pile of make-up on her aging and ugly face, dresses like she is still 10 years old, and buries herself in the world of fantasy and booze.

As things pile up, she becomes more violent to her sister, shutting the paralyzed Blanche from the outside world, serving her meals of contents I wish not reveal here, dreaming of a come back as she practices her old act as the Baby Jane Hudson. David Lynch has not yet created something quite like the scene as Jane dances and sings in the aging mansion.

The film is escalated from a melodrama to a true psychological thriller and ultimately the tragedy of Baby Jane when the secret is revealed near the end. Blanche is seen here as the helpless good hearted sister that we identify with all along, but she is as guilty as Jane herself in the road of greed, regret and hatred. Ended with the only redemption of two cones of strawberry ice-cream.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is directed by Robert Aldrich, based on the novel written by Henry Farrell,