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Sean Axmaker

Silents Please! – A ‘Knighthood’ for Marion Davies

I’d always known Marion Davies is one of the most gifted comediennes of the silent era, thanks to her collaborations with King Vidor, The Patsy (1928) and Show People (1928), two magnificent comedies carried by Davies’ charisma and empathy as well as her easy way with comedy, and readily available on DVD thanks to the Warner Archive. But she became a superstar thanks to a series of costume pictures produced by newspaper mogul William Randolph Heart, who fell in love with the chorus girl and was determined to showcase her in “important” pictures.

Undercrank Productions

When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922) was her biggest production to that time. She plays Mary Tudor, 16-year-old sister to King Henry VII (Lyn Harding) and a spirited princess in love with commoner Charles Brandon (Forrest Stanley), an impossible given the realities of royal diplomacy. She’s promised to the aged King Louis XII (William Norris), a wizened old monarch who wins the marriage lottery. There’s pageantry galore—vast sets, a big cast, and plenty of elaborate period costumes—and a lot of plot packed into the two-hour picture. It opens on a jousting match (talk about your sweet sixteen party games!) and it features back room scheming, secret trysts, swashbuckling swordplay in the streets, a magnificent royal wedding, and plenty of comic flourishes. It co-stars an impossibly young William Powell (in his second film) as a cad of a royal nephew, and ends with a grand nighttime set-piece with knights and royal guards galloping through the French countryside and torches handpainted bright yellow that jump out from the blue tints of the black and white production.

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Blu-ray: Sacha Guitry’s ‘La Poison’ on Criterion

Actor, director, and playwright Sacha Guitry was a giant of French cinema as writer, director, and star of a series of witty and inventive movies from the 1930s through the 1950s. For his weirdly exuberant black comedy La Poison (1951) he gives the lead to the great Michel Simon, who plays a gruff bear of a gardener who has come to hate his wife of 30 years and plots her murder while she (Germaine Reuver) plots his. When he hears a radio interview with a lawyer (Jacques Varennes) celebrating his hundredth successful acquittal, he uses the lawyer to (unwittingly) guide him through the perfect murder. Perfection here is a matter of degree, of course. He doesn’t mind being caught. He just wants to remain free to enjoy his life as a merry widower.

The Criterion Collection

Guitry’s cinematic invention is less visual than narrative. He has a flair of creative storytelling and verbal dexterity and most of his films are energized by his presence in the leading role. While Guitry is not the in film itself, he personally introduces the cast and crew like a master of ceremonies in the memorable credit sequence, then steps back and lets his witty dialogue and creative storytelling techniques speak for him. The radio broadcasts commentary and counterpoint to their wordless meals together, for instance, an effusively romantic song as their body language suggests suppressed violent impulses followed by a radio play of bickering spouses voicing their internalized feelings.

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Blu-ray: ‘Early Women Filmmakers’ – An anthology from Flicker Alley

A year after Kino’s superb Pioneers of African-American Cinema, Flicker Alley’s Early Women Filmmakers collects and curates the work of women filmmakers in the U.S. and Europe before World War II.

Women ironically had more opportunities in the early years of filmmaking, not just as directors but as writers, editors, and producers, than they did after the coming of sound. Alice Guy- Blaché directed one of the first narrative films ever produced, telling a story rather than simply staging a scene, and become the very first studio head—not just female studio head, but first ever—when she took charge of Gaumont in 1896. Anita Loos was perhaps the greatest writer of pithy, witty intertitles in the silent era, an art form that is still not given it due, and Frances Marion one of the most successful and powerful screenwriters of the silent era. June Mathis was so successful a writer of epics and dramas that she had power over casting and production and shaped Rudolph Valentino into the biggest romantic screen superstar of his era.

Flicker Alley

Flicker Alley’s set, produced by silent film preservation godfather David Shepard (who passed away earlier this year), presents the films of 14 women directors made between 1902 and 1943. The collection of shorts and features includes fantasies, dramas, comedies, animation, and avant-garde films from some of the most important filmmakers of the silent era as well as less known women filmmakers.

The six short films by Alice Guy-Blaché show her evolution from an inventive fantasist of early cinema to a sophisticated storyteller who used dramatic compositions and editing to tell complex stories. Lois Weber’s short thriller Suspense (1913) shows an even greater technical and narrative sophistication, from a three-way split screen to extreme angles to dense crosscutting. Germaine Dulac’s La Souriante Mme. Beudet (1922), considered to be the first feminist film, brings avant-garde elements to melodrama and Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is an avant-garde landmark.

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Blu-ray: Jackie Chan in ‘Railroad Tigers’ and ‘Kung Fu Yoga’

It took so long for Hollywood so long to finally find a way to harness the unique mix of martial arts mastery, dance-like grace, playful humor, and giddy charm that had made Jackie Chan a superstar throughout the rest of the world that he was almost too old to show off the extent of his physical prowess on display in his most jaw-dropping sequences. But if it curtailed his most daring physical stunts, age has not slowed his output and he’s returned to China as active as ever. Which is not to say his films are as good as ever—even with the variety of genres letting him jump from action comedy to thriller to drama, they are in inconsistent bunch—but even in the sloppiest films, Chan is a joy to watch in motion.

Well Go

In Railroad Tigers (China, 2016), Chan is the leader of a scruffy band of rural railroad porters who stage raids on Japanese trains running through occupied China in World War II. They drop into moving trains, steal food for the villagers, and leave their mark by drawing flying tigers on the bodies of the unconscious Japanese soldiers and engineers, often badly drawn that the authorities can’t always make out the images. So yes, it’s an action comedy as well as a period caper and a mission movie, and Jackie shares stunt duties with a cast of younger actors. It’s not just Jackie who stars but the award-winning Jackie Chan stuntman association.

The opening heist is a terrific sequence, directed by Ding Sheng with a rollicking energy I haven’t seen in Jackie’s films for some time, and it raises hopes for a better film than the one that finally leaves the station and sends the squad of amateur guerrillas on a military mission to blow up a key bridge on the Japanese supply lines.

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Now That You’ve Seen the Solar Eclipse, Watch These Movies

The solar eclipse has held an almost mystical fascination for humans from the moment we first looked into the heavens. To civilizations throughout history that depended on the cycles of the sun and moon and the seasons for survival, it was an inexplicable event, the work of gods or demons and a harbinger of ill tidings. Even after Copernicus and Galileo established the heliocentric models of the solar system that not only explained but could predict a solar eclipse, the awesome power of the celestial event could still overcome reason and instill feelings of anxiety and dread.

In the 21st century, an age of (relative) reason and knowledge, and in a culture that has spent the last few weeks talking about the coming eclipse, we’re still fascinated. Partly because it’s such a rarity—there’s a solar eclipse somewhere in the world about every 18 months, but in any single location it can be hundreds of years between events—and in part because of its primal power. The sun, the source of light and heat and life, is momentarily obliterated, plunging the Earth (or at least that part from which the eclipse is visible) into darkness and letting us see the cosmos in the sky in daytime. We know the science of how and why it happens, but the awesome sight has a power over us beyond reason.

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Blu-ray: ‘The Breaking Point’ on Criterion

The Breaking Point (1950), the second of three big screen adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, stars John Garfield as Harry Morgan, the role that Humphrey Bogart played in the original. The Howard Hawks film took great liberties with Hemingway’s story. This version is more faithful but takes its own liberties. Harry is a husband and father of two young girls in a Southern California coastal town, a war veteran struggling to get by as the captain of charter fishing boat, and his problems get worse when his latest client skips without paying his bill and he takes an illegal job to pay his marina fees and get his boat back home from Mexico.

The Criterion Collection

Patricia Neal co-stars as Leona Charles, a flirtatious beauty who clearly relies on the kindness of wealthy stranger. She tags along the fishing trip chartered by the slippery client and, left adrift in Mexico, is reluctantly given a ride back. Leona is not your usual femme fatale. She’s out for a good time, preferably with someone else picking up the tab, and Neal plays the part with gusto: a hearty bad girl with flashing eyes and a hungry grin but not quite an icy killer. It takes a while for her conscience to get fired up (even after meeting Harry’s wife she makes a play for him) but there’s a human being behind the party girl on the make.

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Blu-ray: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ‘Pulse’

“Do you want to meet a ghost?”

Arrow

The meditative and metaphysical horror cinema of Kiyoshi Kurosawa made him one of the masters of Japanese horror during its amazing cycle of surreal and nightmarish horror films of the 1990s and 2000s, but his films never really crossed over to the general audience in the U.S. His insidiously unsettling films were too slow and cerebral for traditional horror audiences while the “horror” tag kept away the kinds of viewers that would be in tune with his eerie tales of guilt and alienation. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was never recruited by Hollywood, and so he remains known mostly to those viewers with a passion for Asian horror. Among those fans (and I count myself as one), Pulse (Japan, 2001) is embraced as one of his greatest works, perhaps his best.

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Blu-ray: Colossal

Colossal (2017) is the oddest and most inventive film to come out of the new wave of giant monster movies. It stars Anne Hathaway as Gloria, an out-of-work writer turned reckless party girl and black-out drunk who is kicked out of the Manhattan apartment she shares with her exasperated boyfriend (Dan Stevens) and returns to her dreary hometown and moves into her empty, abandoned family home. She runs into her childhood best friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), pretty much the only pal from her generation left in town, and gets a job waitressing in the sleepy bar he inherited. Unanchored and lacking any plan, goal, or motivation of any kind, she continues drinking her nights away with this new crew until she wakes up one morning (after another alcohol-fueled blackout) to find out that a towering Godzilla cousin has stormed Seoul, South Korea. As it continues to appear every morning (American time) at the same time, she discovers that she has a connection to the creature, one that goes back decades.

Universal Home Video

Let’s leave it at that; discovering the twists is part of the fun of the film. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen one already, but that only scratches the surface. What first seems to be a cosmic comic lark, a goofy twist on the monster movie, gets dark in a very human way without losing the film’s creative charge or director Nacho Vigalondo’s sense of humor and poetic justice. Spanish filmmaker Vigalondo has a talent for genre mash-ups, creating fresh takes on familiar science-fiction tropes, and this film (his English language debut) is his smartest, edgiest, and most accomplished to date. Hathaway plays against her image as the likable but unreliable and unraveled Gloria, as does Sudeikis, whose easygoing manner and generosity covers up a damaged soul. She’s a mess but he’s an even bigger one and there’s nothing cute about. Tim Blake Nelson and Austin Stowell co-star Oscar’s reliable barflies and after-hours drinking buddies.

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Blu-ray: Ghost in the Shell 2017

The live-action Ghost in the Shell (2017) is both a big-screen adaptation of the long-running Japanese manga (comic book) by Shirow Masume and a remake of the landmark animated 1995 feature from Mamoru Oshii. No matter how you split the difference, the film had a high bar to clear even before the controversy over the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi, who is simply Major in this adaptation. A veritable weapon—her body is almost entirely artificial, a sophisticated cyborg with a human brain who isn’t sure where the person ends and the technology begins—Major is the leader of the Section 9 strike team, an anti-terrorist division of the government that, at times, battles rival sections as well as external threats. Their biggest nemesis, however, is a cybercriminal named Kuze (Michael Pitt) who hacks into human minds and turns ordinary people into terrorist weapons.

Paramount Home Video

Johansson is remarkably effective in the role, impassive but not blank, both physically fierce and ethereal, morphing in action as the technology flickers into chameleon mode or sends her senses into 360 degree awareness. She is graceful and powerful, still and sudden, woman and machine, and her sense of identity is wrapped up in this alien physicality. Her relationship with Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), the scientist who created her cybernetic shell and ostensibly saved her life after a terrorist bombing, is somewhere between filial respect and professional collaboration, and for all the maternal care that Ouelet tries to push down, there’s something else creating the emotional distance between them. Major is most at ease with Batou (Pilou Asbæk), her trusted and fiercely loyal number two, and she is completely loyal to their section head Aramaki (‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano), whose impassive expressions (Takeshi’s eternal hint of a smile makes him all the more enigmatic) covers his protective nature. As she has no memory of her past before the accident, they are the closest thing she has to family. At least until Kuze starts dropping hints about her origins and questions the identity she has taken for granted since her cybernetic rebirth.

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Blu-ray: ‘The Lodger’ – Alfred Hitchcock begins

The Lodger (1926) isn’t the first film directed by Alfred Hitchcock—it’s actually his third, though it does mark his first feature produced in Britain after directing two co-productions in Germany—but even Hitchcock embraced it as the first “Alfred Hitchcock film.” He announces his arrival in the cinematic jolt of the opening scene: a close-up of a woman screaming in terror (the score on this restoration musically picks up the scream on the soundtrack), the sprawled corpse of a murdered woman, not gory but unnerving in the worm’s-eye view of the body with limbs akimbo stretching toward the lens, the rubbernecking crowd, and the flashing marquee sign visually shouting “To-Night Golden Curls,” connecting the nervous blonde showgirls of a London revue with the fair-haired victims targeted by The Avenger (beginning Hitch’s lifelong cinematic obsession with blondes).

Criterion

The Lodger, adapted by Eliot Stannard from the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes and the play she co-wrote, draws on the legacy of Jack the Ripper for a fictionalized thriller (Hitchcock’s first) built on the atmosphere of hysteria and suspicion in a London under assault by a serial killer. It stars Ivor Novello, at the time one of Britain’s biggest entertainment superstars, as the enigmatic Lodger who takes a room in the Bunting home and June Tripp as the Bunting daughter Daisy, a blonde model at an upscale clothing store who gets close to the otherwise distant young man. Her would-be suitor Joe (Malcolm Keen), a police inspector assigned to the case, is none-too-happy about it and his jealousy charges his suspicions about the Lodger’s unusual behavior until he targets him as a suspect.

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George Romero Surveys the Dead

[I conducted this phone interview with George Romero on October 5, 2005, in anticipation of the DVD release of Land of the Dead. It was originally published on GreenCine on October 18, 2005.]

36 years after shocking audiences with the unprecedented Night of the Living Dead and changing the face of American horror for good, and 20 years after his ambitious but budget-starved third installment Day of the Dead, George A. Romero returned to the genre with the fourth film in his epic series of society as we know it devoured by the hungry dead: Land of the Dead.

Though Night of the Living Dead and the sequel Dawn of the Dead are best know for pushing the boundaries of onscreen gore and reducing the body human into so much meat, gristle, and blood to be devoured by the hungry hordes, Night also connected with audiences when the horrors of Vietnam were first being seen on TV and Dawn evolved into a biting satire of consumer culture. In other hands, a zombie movie is just a zombie movie, but Land of the Dead, a horror film laced with rife with social commentary, political satire, and black humor, is not just a return to the genre he practically single-handedly created (or at least definitively redefined), but a return to form.

Romero’s commentary is pointed, to say the least. He sets the film in a literal gated community called Fiddler’s Green, a veritable feudal kingdom where class structure is strictly enforced and businessman warlord Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) rules. Brutal games and circuses are provided to distract the disenfranchised in the slums around the glowing glass tower where the rich and powerful live in luxury, and a militia keeps the poor contained as well as the city protected from the stenches. You can only take the metaphors so far, but loaded dialogue like “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” (bellowed by Kaufman when he’s extorted by a former thug that he’s just fired for daring to step up in class) keeps the satirical edge front and center. It may not be subtle, but how then how subtle can you be in a film that features scenes of mankind devouring itself?

In an all-too-brief phone interview, arranged in conjunction with the DVD release of Land of the Dead, we discussed his new film, the origins of his epic zombie series, and the marriage of horror and political commentary.

What’s different about the new “Director’s Cut” of Land of the Dead on DVD?

It’s not that remarkable, I’d have to see. I think the fans will be pleased because there are obviously a couple of gore effects that Greg [Nicotero] threw in there that I wouldn’t even have tried to get past the MPAA with an R. But mostly it’s the same film. I think that what’s the most fun about it are the extras. The guys from Shaun of the Dead came and shot a little film while they were on the set and Leguizamo made a little film of his own while he was on the set. I think that’s really the most fun, getting a glimpse behind the scenes. The intention of the film itself hasn’t changed. There are a couple of scenes that run a little longer, a couple of gore effects that we had to trim to get the R—the MPAA will never tell you to cut a scene, they’ll only say to cut some framage—and there are couple of scenes that we didn’t even try to put in the R because we knew they would never get through. But the intention of the film hasn’t changed. I was actually very happy. I keep saying I think I got away with murder. We defied the MPAA this time. The film was pretty much what I wanted it to be even in the theatrical release.

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Blu-ray: ‘Death Line’ (aka ‘Raw Meat’) on Blue Underground

Death Line (aka Raw Meat) (1972) – Gary Sherman directs this underrated (and for years largely unseen) British horror film about the last survivor of a literal underground clan (trapped in a subway construction cave in a century before) who emerges from his cave to hunt for food on the London Underground. Yes, it’s a cannibal film, but it’s also a startlingly tender film about a literal underclass abandoned by the world above, a story that roils in class division. It takes the death of an OBE to get the police looking into the spate of disappearances on the London Underground.

Blue Underground

The killer, an unspeaking, primitive figure called the “Man” in the credits (Hugh Armstrong), is also in some ways the protagonist. Drooling and diseased, suffering from plague and malnutrition, he hunts the tunnels of the Underground for food for his dying mate (June Turner). Donald Pleasance steals the film as the unconventional, sarcastic Inspector assigned to the case and then meets his match in a single scene with Christopher Lee as an arrogant high class MI-5 agent. Not so David Ladd (son of Alan Ladd and brother of co-producer Alan Ladd Jr.) as an American in London and Sharon Gurney as his girlfriend and soon-to-be captive of the Man. Their self-involved manner and disdain for the lower classes stands in contrast to the purity of the underground couple but the film stumbles over their scenes together.

Apart from that, however, Death Line is a remarkable horror film.

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Blu-ray: ‘Rumble Fish’

 

Francis Ford Coppola described Rumble Fish (1983), his screen adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s young adult novel, as “an art film for teenagers.” He shot it right after making The Outsiders (1982), also adapted from a Hinton novel, but where that was a lush, operatic tale, Coppola made Rumble Fish in stylized black and white, like a teen noir seen through the eyes of a kid who has mythologized the idea of street gang chivalry to the point that he can’t see the reality through the idealization.

Criterion

Matt Dillon is teenage tough guy Rusty James, a good looking, recklessly charming high school kid in the shadow of his brother The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), trying to live up to a reputation that his brother wants only to live down. He’s an aspiring juvenile delinquent with a boozer dad (Dennis Hopper) and a nice girlfriend, Patty (Diane Lane), who attends Catholic School across town. Rusty James (always the two names, like a brand) is, of course, from the wrong side of the tracks in the industrial grit of a Tulsa that time left behind and this culture of bars and boozer and packs of kids who imagine themselves as real gangs is steeped in its own mythology, or rather Rusty is steeped in the mythology that no one else seems to revere.

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Documentary: Capturing the Human Experience of War

There is no shortage of documentaries on war. The subject fascinates us as history, as sociology, and as drama. Some documentaries chronicle history in great detail, some grapple with the issues and forces behind the conflicts, and some flat-out propagandize. But very few of those documentaries actually engage with the human experience. So for Memorial Day we look at films about the diverse group of men (and in some cases the women) in war—not just why they fight but what they saw, heard, and endured, and how it changed them.

The Battle of Midway (1942)

American director John Ford (The Quiet Man, The Searchers) served his country by offering his talents as a filmmaker to the Armed Services. His first assignment was to photograph what turned out to be the first major American victory in the war against Japan. “Yes, this really happened,” informs one of the film’s four narrators during the combat section of the film, but audiences didn’t need to be reminded. The authenticity was evident. One bomb landed so close to the camera that it knocked both Ford and his camera assistant off their feet.

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Hollywood Goes to War

When America entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hollywood was also drafted into the effort — not just to support the cause but also to beat the drums of patriotism and duty. America was going to war and with it, so did the entire country. The men enlisted, the women took jobs in the factories, families tightened their belts and pitched in on civil defense and scrap drives, and the studios were expected not just to reflect the new paradigm, but to set the tone.

It was a sudden, dramatic shift. Before the war, studios were wary of merely hinting at politics in its films, let alone being blatantly partisan. Germany was a major market for American movies and, disgust for Hitler’s European aggression and nationalistic bigotry aside, business was business. Only Warner Bros. defied Hitler, giving up the German market to publicly support the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.

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