Speechless Blogathon – Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922)

August 16, 2012 4 comments

Film:  Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922)

Director:  Fritz Lang

Cast:  Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Aud Egede Nissen, Bernhard Goetzke

To place this film into simple terms would be a disservice to the brilliance of the overall picture, and most of all to the brilliance of its director.  The film’s running time (4 hrs, 31 mins) may sound daunting and off-putting to a casual film viewer as well as a burgeoning cinephile, but rest assured there isn’t a wasted moment throughout the entire 271 minutes of film.  If anyone has seen one or a few of Fritz Lang’s myriad of classics (M, Metropolis, Scarlet Street, Destiny, The Woman in the Window) then you’re aware of how revered and amazing a director he truly is.

Without getting into too much plot summary, the film concerns itself with two main characters: the criminal mastermind, Dr. Mabuse, and the state prosecutor sent to investigate strange gambling activity, Staatsanwalt von Welk.  The film begins as Dr. Mabuse, who assumes various identities and disguises through make-up, wigs, and fake facial hair, carries out a heist of financial documents from a moving train and manipulates the stock exchange for personal financial gain in a thrilling opening sequence that is the earliest sign of a template for future action films to open in similar grandiose style that I’ve ever seen.  From there we find out where Mabuse’s true power lies: mind manipulation.  In several sequences the criminal’s “will power”, as he calls it, is displayed in the form of card game coercion with some of society’s highest rollers.  It’s through this display of power that Lang exhibits a commentary on society and class structure, specifically by showing the power Mabuse  has particularly over the wealthy, who are portrayed as weak-minded and susceptible to manipulation, both by Mabuse and von Welk.  Likewise his henchman who carry out the dirty little jobs involved with his diabolical schemes are presented as equally weak-minded, thus showing the similar nature of these stupid henchman and the high society gamblers.

I use the term “diabolical”, as silly as it sounds, because the film really delves into fantasy and pulp, being that the source material was a pulp novel written by Norbert Jacques, and the term seems apropos for the material.  The German expressionistic style is also on full display with chiaroscuro lighting, gothic architecture and sets, and the overall gothic essence and look of Dr. Mabuse.  The film makes tremendous use of available effects, given the time when this film was made, and really amps up the horrific nature of the villain.  Lang makes wonderful use of editing techniques, such as zeroing in on a particular face or item by blacking out the rest of the image in the lens and through super-imposing, in a similar fashion to the way this technique was used in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (released the same year, 1922) and much later in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946).  In a way this film could draw comparisons to Murnau’s titular vampire, as both feature villains who control their prey in similar ways and are essentially unlovable creatures who yearn for a particular woman that may or may not lead to their undoing.  In fact, I saw no less than 8 to 10 elements of this film that I have seen in later films (The Third Man, The Illusionist, Mission: Impossible to name a few) and never knew their origins lie in this Fritz Lang classic.

At this point in time I’d like to gush for a few sentences.  The film, as a whole, is truly outstanding.  I’ve watched several films that are 3+ hours and most of them slow down at points or come to a grinding halt altogether, but there is no hyperbole in saying that this film feels almost brisk in its pacing.  The richness of the characters and the tightness of the story is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a film from this era.  Of course we have one of cinema’s true masters, Fritz Lang, to thank for these distinctions, seeing as he crafted a perfectly entertaining film that feels like a product of its time and yet includes moments and elements that still feel fresh or have yet to be outdone.  If I had to assign a genre I’d call it a hybrid of cat-and-mouse, pulp-gothic-horror, and thriller, and it’s one that should be discussed far more often when arguing the all-time greatest films.

The threatening gaze of Dr. Mabuse

The last point I’d like to talk about is the silent performances by the  actors in this film.  I’m currently in the middle of reading a book by film theorist Bela Balazs in which he discusses the propensity of actors in silent films to use their bodies and facial expressions to convey hints of humanity and expression from within.  Watching this film turned on a light bulb to what Balazs’ point is.  The startling way with which Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Dr. Mabuse) uses one raised eyebrow and a tilt of the head to convey danger and fear is something no current actor could ever do, and not because our current actors are less talented as a whole but because the skill of using such facial expressions to convey emotion has completely eroded since the invention of sound.  Balazs purports the theory that intertitles, and dialogue currently, should be ancillary tools used to push the story along;  it’s the bodily and facial expression where the film exhibits its meaning and truly connects with the audience.  Words can be deceiving, but actions tell no lies.  If for no other reason, and believe me there are plenty, I hope many of you check out this film and other silent films and can come to appreciate what film used to be and see the way it has influenced what we watch in cinemas and in our homes right up to this very day.

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If You Could Study Anything About Film….What Would It Be?

August 15, 2012 7 comments

I’ve been given a rare opportunity by my film professor, a professor whose opinion and depth of knowledge I truly admire, to study independently under his supervision for the next 4 months.  A little back-story: the last two film classes I’ve taken, Film Since the 1940’s and Film Theory, were taught by this same professor, who is admittedly hard and makes his classes difficult for the casual student who might view film classes as an easy A.  He takes the art-form seriously, which is easily my favorite element of his teaching style.  He has a certain reverence for film and wishes to protect the sanctity of the medium from those of lower intelligence or those who don’t take the analytic process seriously.  If nothing else his classes teach you to see film, and in many ways the world, in a way you’ve never looked at them.

Here’s the kicker to my situation: I get to choose my own topic.  As he stated to me, choose a topic, genre, author, etc, that I really want to deeply examine and be an expert in.  In essence, I get to choose any topic on film and study it in-depth, and have it count as college credit.  I seriously can’t think of anything that would be more exciting as a huge film fan.  The problem is, what the hell should I choose as my topic??  Think about the possibilities. I could choose to study a particular director out of the many many directors I admire and love, I could choose a certain genre of film, a specific time-period, an aspect of the film-making process, a technological movement, a  film theorist and his theories on the medium, the films of a particular country, or perhaps even a single film that demands the attention of 4 months worth of study.  Seriously, I’m over-the-moon ecstatic about this opportunity and excited to start the studying and analysis.

This post is, ideally, a call for help!  If you were in my shoes and you could study an element of film, any element, what would it be?  Leave your personal selection or a suggestion in the comments section.  I have til next week to begin a dialogue with the professor about my topic, so until then I’ll be thinking up ideas.  But I could use some ideas that I might not otherwise have thought of on my own.  So, if you have an idea feel free to suggest it!  Plus, it’ll be cool to find out what other people find most interesting or the one topic of film they’d like to study the most.

What do you think??

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Quick Review: The Dark Knight Rises

I have literally just gotten out of the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises  and I feel compelled to write a quick review of the film. Here’s my take: it sucks. Sounds kind of harsh, I know, and my reception is definitely a victim of expectation, but it isn’t just a bad Batman movie, it’s a bad movie in a cinematic way.  It lacks narrative cohesion, an intelligent, terrifying central villain with any depth, back-story or goal, and lacks a good Batman story.  The only good thing about the film was the character of Det. John Blake, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who acts as a sort of idealistic, younger amalgam of Batman and Commissioner Gordon.  The dichotomy of the Batman-rage and the patience and intelligence of Gordon was the shining star amongst the dying lights of the previous characters.

I refuse to go into details, but suffice to say there is a structure that consists solely of plot points that pop up as a mere convenience or as “ooohhhh” moments, but rarely as cohesive developments.  I mean, coming off of The Dark Knight, how do you screw it up this bad?  It just has no soul, no feel, and no direction.  This could be considered a snap-judgment, but me and the party I viewed this film with were completely disappointed with the result.  It doesn’t use the heart and soul of the previous films, that of Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, and Lucious, save for sparing moments and brief interludes in a 2 hour 44 minute epic that could have included a few musical numbers and some “Family Guy” cut-aways and STILL felt as empty and soulless as the film I just watched.  I didn’t have one single “Holy shit!!” or even a “Ohhh I see what they’re doing there” moment, because everything they did was spur-of-the-moment and without any real set-up.  This film felt like a series of cut-aways, additions and non-sequitors that simply didn’t add up.

The Dark Knight Rises is bar none the worst of the series, and I’d go as far to say it’s not a good film by any standards.  Total let-down from a series, character, and director that had so much promise.  Dammit, this feeling sucks.

Categories: Quick Review

Ranking Jason: Happy Friday the 13th!

July 13, 2012 2 comments

Happy Friday the 13th!  I know this relatively inane holiday occurs about twice a year, but being a fan of movies, and horror in general, it means something more to me.  As a child of the 80’s, I grew up on the adventures of Mr. Jason Voorhees.  My introduction, I believe, came from bits of Part IV, followed by the entirety of Part V and Part VI.  Since then, I’ve seen and had a strange affinity for the slasher films of my youth.  I’ll never shake them, much like Sylvester Stallone, Tom Hanks, and Michael J Fox flicks.  They’re quite simply a part of my upbringing, for better or worse.

So, to commemorate the holiday, I’ll rank the films:

1. Friday the 13th

The original of any series is almost always the best, and the reason why there’s sequels.  This one is no different.  Plus it had Kevin Bacon and only a child version of Jason.

2. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives

Some great, ridiculous kills, a Frankenstein-like resurrection, and the best ending of all the films.  The Tommy character was the best character to face Jason in the entire series.  I can watch the ending just by itself and be happy.

3.  Friday the 13th Part II

The burlap sack!  The ending here is also pretty great, with Jason’s mother’s severed head featured prominently.

4.  Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter

Corey Effing Feldman.  It’s pretty great on all fronts, and could have seriously served as the ending of the series.  I’m happy it didn’t, but I kinda wish it did since this would have ended it pretty well.

5.  Friday the 13th Part VIIThe New Blood

Includes the series’ best kill (sleeping bag!), and a battle for the ages: Jason vs a telekinetic girl.  Has a Carrie-esque slant.  Also features Bernie from Weekend at Bernie’s (he ends up the same way in this film as he spends that entire film).  Plus,  this is Kane Hodder’s first turn as the unkillable killer.

6.  Friday the 13th Part III

Gets points for being the film where Jason first dons the iconic hockey mask, then loses major points for being presented in amazingly in-your-face, awful 3-D.  Has a pretty cool ending though.

7.  Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhatten

Jason tails a yacht full of horny teenagers, winds up in Times Square,  punches a guys head off, then gets liquidated by sewer acid or some crap and turns into a crying baby in the end. Huh??

8.  Jason x

I don’t have any real endorsements for this, except to say it’s moderately fun if you’re a fan of the series, especially for the hologram flashback and Uber-Jason.

9.  Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning

Features a character who isn’t Tommy from the previous film, or the following film, and a killer who isn’t Jason in the ENTIRE SERIES.  The biggest cop-out I’ve ever seen, and it still pisses me off.  Moving on.

10.  Jason Goes to Hell

I won’t even dignify this entry with any positives. Utter trash.  Bring on Creighton Duke!

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The Criterion Question: What’s Your Favorite Criterion Film?

July 10, 2012 3 comments

For cinephiles and movie buffs the Criterion collection is an unending source of quality films and films that might otherwise never have been made available to the general public.  They have a truly noble cause: to bring daring, classic and rare films to the masses through extreme diligence and unrivaled dedication to excellence.  I personally like to keep track of every Criterion Collection film I’ve seen (I’m at 161 so far).  But, recently, something got me thinking.  Their catalogue of films includes several of the greatest films ever produced in the history of cinema, and features films from directors from a sundry cultures, backgrounds, eras, movements, and styles, all revered by both critics and scholars worldwide.  To pick your favorite film from a particular studio (Warner Bros, Universal, MGM, et al) would be a tough undertaking,  but an attainable one.  So I ask you this: What’s your favorite film from the Criterion Collection?

I can’t make this a poll because the Criterion Collection includes nearly 600 titles, so I’ll just pose this broad question.  Which is your fave?  I’ll mention mine in comments or maybe come up with a post about my favorite in particular.  Maybe some fellow bloggers will take this idea and make their own Criterion favorite post.

What’s your fave??

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Gut-Punch Theater: Dancer in the Dark (2000)

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Having seen more than few of Lars Von Trier’s films now, I’ve become a devoted fan and eagerly anticipate news of upcoming projects (Nymphomaniac namely).  If nothing else, he makes films unlike any other director and imbues a certain amount of flair to each one.  None have been anything less than fascinating to watch, although some are more difficult to watch than others.  Antichrist is a key example of a difficult film that, if anyone avoided due to edgy subject matter and shocking visuals, they would miss out on a slice of unique filmmaking. As Stan Brakhage taught us, an image is merely light reflecting off matter. It’s our own minds that assign meaning to the images.

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Dancer in the Dark is a film less centered around stunning visuals, as have become trademarks of Von Trier’s recent work, though the visual style seen here is used for a specific purpose, but instead focus’ on character and story.  I would categorize the film, if that’s possible, as the most realistic dramatic musical ever.  I know the terms “musical” and “realistic” rarely collide as the very basis of musical numbers lie somewhere outside of reality, but that’s how I think of it.  The musicals numbers are a variation of the reality presented here, and it works for this story perfectly.  A touch of genius to the shoot a musical like this.

On the other hand, forget anything you know about musicals, including finger-snapping tunes and jaunty dance numbers, and remember this is a drama first and foremost.  And I mean DRAMA.  This man knows how to take the most innocent creature on the planet, a naive, nearly blind, single, immigrant mother, and rake her over the coals in every way possible way, thus stripping the audience of any semblance of hope and leaving us feeling as raw as a fresh wound.  I can’t and won’t go into the plot for various reasons, but I swear to you, by the last five minutes of running time, I had tears streaming down my face.  But they’re tears you’re not ashamed of, man or woman.  The film engulfs you with a feeling of total and utter heart-break, like you yourself are sitting there helpless to stop the events of the film from happening.  I really have never felt anything like that before in a film, like the title of this article, it’s a gut-punch and a total dismemberment of your soul.

That being said, I think this is a tremendous achievement in film.  Truly brilliant and engaging.  I’m a better person for having seen it.

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100 Film Facts About Me

June 5, 2012 5 comments

Having been engrossed with all varieties of cinema for about 4 years now, I’ve learned a thing or two about my preferences, tastes, and habits.  Certain cinemas strike me in deep, thought-provoking ways, while others make me happy and excited. And some do all the above.  So I’ve compiled a list of things I’ve learned about myself through my adventures in film.

Here we go:

1.  I’ll watch any Japanese film in existence

2.  There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think “I’d love to watch Once Upon a Time in the West RIGHT NOW”

3.  I can’t find one Alfred Hitchcock film I haven’t enjoyed

4.  I watch Brick at least once a month

5.  Most days I want to be a samurai….

6.  …the rest of the days I want to be Clint Eastwood

7.  I always forget how great The Warriors is until I’m 5 minutes into it, then I grin from ear to ear

8.  I want Roger Deakins to light my house

9.  The Criterion Collection logo at the start of a film is more exciting to me than any Michael Bay action sequence

10.  I may not love every Lars Von Trier film, but I want to watch EVERY ONE OF THEM

11.  I associate Krzysztof Kieslowski with a mood and a state of mind

12.  I want Ennio Morriconne to score my life

13.  The Social Network should have won Best Picture

14.  More people need to see Blood Simple.

15.  I have a replica Maltese Falcon on my shelf  in between casts of Jay and Silent Bob

16.  I’ve seen films from 24 countries

17.  I want to know why more Kenji Mizoguchi films aren’t available on DVD….

18.  ….also Edward Yang

19.  I want my daily conversations to consist of Ingmar Bergman-ian monologues

20.  In this blog post James Cameron says Godard had cinema all backwards, which might be the funniest thing I’ve ever heard

21.  I enjoy Ichi the Killer way more than I should

22.  When I mention Kicking and Screaming I want people to think of Noah Baumbach, not Will Ferrell

23.  Peeping Tom  is immensely under-appreciated in the horror genre

24.  Just assume I’m talking about the original, not the remake

25.  My thoughts now have subtitles

26.  My Criterion Collection AK100 box-set is my most treasured film item

27.  On that note, Akira Kurosawa is the greatest of all time

28.  A Nightmare on Elm Street scared me until I was 25 years old

29.  Quentin Tarantino is the worst part of any movie he acts in

30.  My dreams aren’t as surreal as a Luis Buñuel film

31.  Every time I think about the deaths of Brandon and Bruce Lee I want to scream

32.  The longer the take, the better

33.  Episodes I-III do not exist as far as I’m concerned

34.  I found In the Realm of the Senses to be…..interesting

35.  Koreyoshi Kurahara’s The Warped Ones  is incredible in ways I can’t describe

36.  I haven’t enjoyed one M. Night Shymalan flick. Yup, even that one

37.  My “good mood” film is L.A. Confidential

38.  I could watch Orson Welles sip iced tea in a rocking chair for 3 hours

39.  My guilty pleasure is Sylvester Stallone movies

40.  I may have blacked-out the first time I saw Brigitte Bardot in Contempt

41.  I hated Chicago

42.  I have gambled on the Oscars

43.  Michael Haneke is a type of genius I will never fully understand

44.  Stanley Kubrick was pretty good too

45.  No Country for Old Men There Will Be Blood

46.  I dislike almost every remake, reboot, and re-imagining

47.  I believe in the “show, don’t tell” principle

48.  I haven’t truly enjoyed a Quentin Tarantino flick since Jackie Brown

49.  I think Jean-Luc Godard was a pleasant balance of brilliance and insanity

50.  The Wire is probably better than 95% of all films in existence

51.  While I may not agree with Luis Buñuel’s religious point of view, I’ve still managed to enjoy every movie of his I’ve seen

52.  For a Few Dollars More is the most purely entertaining film Sergio Leone ever made

53.  Hugo Weaving’s performance in V For Vendetta is drastically underappreciated

54.  Spider-Man does not hold up well

55.  The Burmese Harp was so amazing all I could do was cry

56.  Stop reading this right now and watch Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

57. …seriously, how great was that?

58.  Fritz Lang and Stanley Kubrick are the most diverse filmmakers in the history of film

59.  I don’t care that the music in The Sting isn’t authentic for the era portrayed. I really don’t

60.  I slightly prefer The Godfather to The Godfather II

61.  Ranking Rocky’s: I IV III Rocky Balboa V

62.  I still like Tom Cruise

63.  River’s Edge is one of the 10 best films of the 80’s

64.  The theme from Stripes is permanently burned into my brain

65.  Here’s the ranking everyone wanted: Yojimbo A Fistful of Dollars Sukiyaki Western Django

66. A Hard Day’s Night is more fun than any other film ever…

67.  …except maybe Evil Dead II

68.  I wouldn’t mind living in Zombieland

69.  I wish Christopher Walken was the voice of my inner monologue

70.  From a theoretical stand-point, I think Andre Bazin had it right

71.  Watching Spaceballs when you’re 7 and watching it at 30 are two very different experiences

72.  My seasonal viewing traditions: Christmas – National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Easter – The Ten Commandments, 4th of July – Jaws, Halloween – Halloween/Trick ‘r’ Treat, First Day of Summer – Summer School, St. Patrick’s Day – State of Grace/The Boondock Saints, Thanksgiving – Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Any Friday the 13th – Friday the 13th

73.  I think Claire is, indeed, a fat girls name

74.  It’s impossible to deny the sheer energy of Hairspray, and I love it

75.  I’ve only seen one sneak-preview: Serendipity

76.  I used to say “you’re so fuckin’ money!” at an annoyingly high rate

77.  I don’t find Will Ferrell funny at all

78.  I saw Sin City in the theater twice on opening night

79.  The “crab walk” sequence from The Exorcist still eludes me

80.  All About Eve is the ultimate bitch movie

81.  The Samurai Trilogy  is the official trilogy. There, I said it

82.  David Fincher > Christopher Nolan

83.  I don’t ever want to watch Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left again

84.  I still don’t fully understand 2001: A Space Odyssey

85.  Irreversible was the most uncomfortable film viewing experience I’ve ever had

86.  I’ve never watched Black Hawk Down at less than maximum decibels

87.  Gary Oldman deserves something better than an Oscar for his role in True Romance

88.  I can’t bring myself to watch Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom

89.  The mother’s song and the suicide scene in Sansho the Bailiff always gives me chills

90.  If I had a choice, I’d  want John Cassavettes to direct a movie about me, as only he could turn a slow, mundane, nuanced existence into a film

91.  The ironing scene with Juliette Binoche in Code Unknown is so perfect I can’t even describe it

92.  My film tastes tend to frighten and/or bore my friends

93.  Human Centipede 2 is the worst movie I’ve ever seen. This will never change

94.  “A Film By Steven Spielberg”  before a movie no longer excites me

95.  Toshiro Mifune has the greatest on-screen presence in film history

96.  I can’t believe Andrew Sarris tried to pawn off his “auteur theory” as a rightful companion to les politiques des auteurs 

97.  The moment when Orson Welles’ “Harry Lime” first appears in the doorway in The Third Man is a Top 10 film moment for me

98.  I actually believe the tagline for The Exorcist: it is the scariest movie of all time

99.  I didn’t think Louise Fletcher’s “Nurse Ratched” was THAT great in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (unpopular opinion alert!!)

100.  Film has been around for over 100 years, and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer.  This is my favorite aspect of film: the unending possibilities of an art-form I love so dearly

Thank you to anyone who read the whole thing. It took me quite some time to extrapolate the peculiarities I have as a unique film viewer.  Whether you agreed or disagreed with some of these points, I do hope you enjoyed them.

Any thoughts?

 


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