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Shakespeare in Silence

Considering that much of the impact of William Shakespeare’s works lies in the beautiful poetry of his spoken dialogue, it might seem odd to find that hundreds of movies were made of his works during the silent film era. Or maybe not – while that gorgeous poetry is undeniably a cornerstone of the Bard’s cultural endurance, it must also be observed that those plays are overflowing with some extraordinarily visual – and visceral – scenes, packed to the brim with murder and battle and sudden death, and romance and sex and comedy, and all the things that generally make for a riveting story no matter how they’re told. Granted, to really make the leap from theater stage to silent screen, you need writers who can pare those plays down to the barest of essentials, and a director who can build a coherent narrative out of those stripped-down masterpieces.

images (1)That’s one of the reasons that the 1908 Percy Stow film version of The Tempest is so remarkable. Taking a three hour play and chopping it down to twelve minutes while still keeping a more or less recognizable thread of the story is quite a feat – though it still helps immensely if you’re familiar with the play. But what really makes the production stand out is how visually interesting the whole thing is to watch. Not content to simply film on a sound stage, Stowe takes the camera on location to film some scenes, and combines them with an interestingly designed set and some rather impressive special effects for other scenes. The result is a dynamic telling of the story that certainly doesn’t drag, but still manages to convey a lot of the story in its short running time. If the film has a drawback, it’s that none of Shakespeare’s text made it onto the title cards, but that’s a very small complaint indeed, given the ambitious nature of the production and how well it succeeds on other levels.

By contrast, when legendary filmmaker D.W. Griffith decided to bring The Taming of the Shrew to the screen, he went in completely the opposite direction, not even making an attempt to keep the story intact.  Instead, standing at the fountainhead of a great Hollywood tradition that continues to this day, he stripped out everything that was, to his mind, non-hqdefaultessential – like most of the plot -and opted instead to craft the play into something more to his liking. Like a slapstick comedy.

How well does it work? Well, that depends on how much you like slapstick – and how much of a stickler you are when it comes to Shakespeare. Working with about 10 minutes of film, Griffith doesn’t exactly stick to what little of the script he retained. The whole thing reeks more of the Keystone Kops than the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon.

But for all that, this is a very funny piece of film that careens along at breakneck pace. Silent movie icon Florence Lawrence, generally regarded as America’s first bona fide movie star (she was Canadian). makes for a beautiful, funny, and fierce Katherina, and honestly, you might find yourself too busy snickering at the pratfalls and comic brawling to really register the fact that there ain’t much Shakespeare in this Shakespeare adaptation. And hey – it’s only ten minutes or so.

Not quite as wild as The Taming of the Shrew, and not quite as visually interesting as The Tempest, but still quite a lot of fun to watch, is the 1909 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which marks that play’s first appearance on the silver screen. Like The Tempest, the makers of this delightful diversion Midsummer-Nights-Dream-1909-Image-14wanted to cram as complete a story as possible into a 12-minute running time, but this production opts for detailed intertitles in order to explain the plot as opposed to the rather terse intertitles of the earlier film. Strangely, this version also ditches the fearsome fairy king Oberon in favor of a new character, Penelope, to quarrel with Titania and send Puck about his mischief.

Why did they make the change? Could they find no suitable actor for Oberon? Were they trying to accommodate the inclusion of a producer’s niece? Or was the idea of a husband, as a prank, magically tricking his wife into an adulterous affair to teach her a lesson a bit too, ah, European? Alas, we shall perhaps never know.

But the real delight in the film is 13 year old Gladys Hulette. As Puck she is charming, playful, and delightfully naughty. It’s a star-making performance, and indeed she did graduate to a rather successful leading lady career in silent film, although most of her body of work has unfortunately been lost to time and bad storage techniques. In point of fact, no complete version of this film is known to exist, with most available versions cut off about a minute or so too soon, ending on Bottom telling the wild tale of his night of romance with the fairy queen while stuck with a jackass’s head. Hopefully, a more complete version will turn up in somebody’s basement or attic – I’m just dying to know how the story turns out.

Sir Frank Benson’s 1911 film of Richard III, which he starred in as well as directed, was one of a series of filmed performances of Shakespeare’s plays that included Julius Caesar, The Taming of the Shrew, and Macbeth, though the rest of these films seem to have been lost to the sands of time. It’s a shame, because this film is well-acted and easy to follow, thanks to concise intertitles that even retain choice quotes from the play’s text to embellish the action on screen.  Of particular note is the interesting handling of Richard’s bad dream the night before the fateful Battle of Bosworth Field, where he is tormented by the ghosts of those he has murdered, thanks to his guilty conscience and the magic of some decent special effects.

Though this is far from being a complete presentation of the play,  clocking in at less than half an hour, the longer running time does allow for a few narrative flourishes and more engaging set pieces than the shorter films that preceded it, giving the whole affair what must have seemed at the time a bit of an epic flair.

Sadly, we’ll never know what silent Shakespearian gems we’re missing out on, as so many have been lost or destroyed, as it is with far too many of the movies from film’s infancy – an estimated 90% of films made before 1929 are forever lost to us. But what survives gives us an interesting insight into the early days of cinema, when artists struggled against the limitations of the technology available to them to deliver some dazzling entertainment to the public.

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James Horner: August 14, 1953 – June 22, 2015

james-horner

The Anachronism (2008)

Director: Matthew Gordon Long

Writer: Matthew Gordon Long

Staring: Katarina Watt, Ryan Grantham, Rita Kim

On a sun-dappled summer day, a science expedition propels two children toward an enigmatic encounter with a strange visitor in a fantastic machine.

Observations on The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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So, I finally got to see it, and it was awesome! But I mean, anything with Orcs in it has got to be good, right? And a dragon. François Truffaut would agree with me. But let me tell you ten things:

1) The movies were all enjoyable, and I understand that Bilbo’s only been gone for 30 months, but the series felt like it lasted 30 years.

2) In any given film featuring Hobbits, you can always seem to depend on the admittedly very useful eagles to arrive in the film about two hours too late to do anybody any real good. I mean, if you’re going to go to war with all the Orcs in the world, and you have access to giant eagles that can dive-bomb the enemy with freakin’ grizzly bear payloads, wouldn’t you think that would be a pretty good opening gambit?

"About 50,000 good guys would still be alive if theyd only gotten here a half an hour sooner."

“About 50,000 good guys would still be alive, Bilbo, if they’d only gotten here a half an hour sooner.”

3) Speaking of which, if Galadriel can have an Exorcist-style conniption and flip out and kill all evildoers within a 50-mile radius like the vengeful willy-pete of justice, why didn’t she go to to the mountain battle, too? ‘Cause then it would have been The Battle of Everybody Getting Their Asses Handed to Them by Galadriel. Was she recharging?  Could they hook her up to one of those portable jump-starters (but a magical one, of course, because wizards)?

4) Oddly, considering that it’s a movie called The Hobbit, the Hobbit probably had less screen time than anybody else. Huh.

5) Can somebody explain to me where the handicapable orc leader got that bat’leth that he jammed up his forearm? Cause that was seriously badass, except, I guess, when he wants to unscrew something or play his drum set to unwind.

6) Those bats are bred for only one thing. No, Legolas, not war. They’re bred to show up for about two minutes and swoop through the scene and not really do anything at all. Which makes sense, because they’re bats. You can’t train bats. They have rabies. They’re like the opposite of eagles: The bats show up on time but accomplish exactly nothing at all. It’s a trade-off.

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7) So who has the MacGuffinstone now? Is it still in play? Did the Dwarves get it back? Does Bard still have it? If so, what is he going to do with it? Did I miss something?

8) I know people were complaining about Legolas being in the movie, and I get that, because he didn’t really do anything worth mentioning except to go and confirm that, yes, they did have war bats, and then show up to kill some CGI in a stunning display of acrobatic badassery. But that’s not necessarily an argument against his being in the movie. Legolas should be in every movie, as a matter of principle. When Mad Max: Fury Road finally comes out later this year, I hope Legolas is in it. Terminator Dontmakenosense? Legolas. Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2? Definitely.

9) It’s pretty awesome that the spectacle of a bunch of Dwarfs riding goats into battle can simultaneously look endearingly comical and yet undeniably badass. And yet, they were completely overshadowed by the unbearable awesomeness of Thranduil riding into battle on a Goddamn moose.

10) I think I have a bit of a crush on Tauriel.  But she’s still not as pretty as Legolas. Nobody is.

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Also, if we can revisit these guaranteed improvements to An Unexpected Journey, I think numbers 7 and 10 could also apply to The Battle of the Five Armies.

Five 2014 Movies I Haven’t Seen Yet… But Really Want To

I watch a lot of movies.  I mean, a lot.  In fact, this entire blog is a monument to the fact that I spend a good chunk of my free time watching movies.  But even so, I can’t see everything I want to.  Sometimes I just didn’t make it to the theater for one reason or another, like with Gone Girl or A Walk Among The Tombstones (I’m sorry Lawrence Block, I love you, I really really do, but life got away from me).  I’ll see them sooner or later, and hopefully, it will be sooner.  But there are other films that I just didn’t get an opportunity to see, and that’s what this post is about.   Some of these were in extremely limited release, some of these played only at film festivals, and some weren’t released in the US at all.  Here are five I’d eventually like to see.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

a-girl-walks-home-at-nightI’m not sure how to describe this one to you.  If Jim Jarmusch directed a feminist spaghetti western noir adaptation of an Anne Rice vampire novel, that might come close. However you describe it, Ana Lily Amirpour’s ridiculously stylish debut film, “the first Iranian vampire Western,” looks like it would be well worth the price of admission.

Set in a shadowy Iranian town called Bad City, which seems to be populated exclusively by the worst kind human flotsam than can wash up in a wretched hive of scum and villainy, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night tells the story of a lonely nameless vampire (Sheila Vand) who skateboards around the city while she stalks its most despicable inhabitants.  One night while on the prowl, she encounters Arash (Arash Marandi), a handsome young man whose dreams of escaping Bad City and quaint notions of romance and honor have made him something of a laughingstock among his friends.  An unlikely romance blossoms between the two, but is love even possible in a city as dark and depraved as Bad City?

 

Frank

frank-2014-film-posterI have a friend who really likes Michael Fassbender, and I kind of picture her anguished expression if I ever told her that he made an entire film and never showed his face in it once.  But she probably wouldn’t be too devastated, since she actually appreciates his acting, too, and from all accounts Frank is one of Fassbender’s most epic performances to date.

Actually, it would probably take no less than an actor of Fassbender’s calibre to pull off a character who lives in a paper mache head.  Frank, the leader of an experimental art band called  the Soronprfbs, invites aspiring songwriter Don (Domhnall Gleeson) to join the group, but Don soon begins to realize that he will never be able to measure up to Frank’s own inherent genius and talent.  Unless, that is, he can experience the same types of hardships and tragedies that everyone assumes the mysterious Frank must have had before forming the band.  The film plays out as part satire and part buddy comedy, and throws cold water on the argument that any particular artist’s genius is a product of mental illness.  It’s been praised by critics as being endearingly quirky and thought-provoking, as if Michael Fassbender in a paper mache head wasn’t enough of a hook, and the cast, which also includes Scoot McNairy and Maggie Gyllenhaal, is fantastic.

 

Wild Tales

Wild_Tales-742190384-largeThis darkly comedic anthology film features six stories of violent revenge.  To know me is to know how much I love stories of violent revenge.  Wild Tales is right up my revenge-fueled alley.

The first story, “Pasternak,” follows a group of passengers on an airplane slowly discovering that they all know and have wronged a man named Pasternak.  And then the realization sinks in that they’ve already all fallen into Pasternak’s cunning plan for revenge.  “Las Ratas” (The Rats) opens with a loan shark who stops at a small roadside diner only to be confronted by the waitress, whose family he ruined.  The cook concocts a plan for revenge on her behalf that goes horribly wrong. “El más fuerte” (The Strongest) features two men driving along a highway who become embroiled in the world’s most brutal case of road rage.  “Bombita” (Little Bomb) shows not only how a simple parking violation can ruin a man’s life, but why you should never piss off a demolitions expert. In “La Propuesta” (The Proposal) a kid suffering from affluenza accidentally runs down a pregnant woman with his dad’s car, then runs away from the scene of the accident without helping her.  His father devises a plan to pay their gardener to take the blame, but it might wind up costing more than anybody could have imagined. And finally, in “Hasta que la muerte nos separe” (Until Death Do Us Part) a young bride discovers her husband’s infidelities at their wedding reception and, while looking for comfort from one of the kitchen staff, commits a little adultery of her own.  What follows is one of the wildest wedding receptions in history, but in the end, they may be a pretty well-matched couple after all.

 

It Follows

It-Follows-posterMy wife is much more into the horror movie scene than I am, but I can appreciate a good one when it comes along, and It Follows seems to qualify. Granted, there’s no shortage of movies warning us about the very bad things that can happen once teenagers start up with the rumpy-pumpy, but this one has been really racking up rave reviews from the handful of film festivals that have featured it.

19-year-old Jay has a delightful date with a young fellow only to find that their sexual encounter has left her infected with a shapeshifting demonic entity that will stalk her relentlessly and will eventually kill her unless she stays far out of its reach.  The only way to rid herself of the presence is to sleep with someone else in order to pass it on.  I hate it when I get the demon clap.

Described at Cannes as a mash-up of Jacques Tourneur-style atmosphere and  John Carpenter-style coming-of-age angst, I’ve been trying to avoid hearing too much about it before I see it.  But what I’ve heard makes this movie sound like one that I will thoroughly enjoy.

 

Song of the Sea

song_of_the_sea_poster-620x826-poster-for-song-of-the-seaThe Secret of Kells was such a beautifully written and animated film that I hoped more would follow from Tomm Moore. Song of the Sea, featuring the voices of Brendan Gleeson and Fionnula Flanagan, looks every bit as wonderful and magical.  It’s not just an adaptation of the Irish/Scottish legend of the selkies, mythological creatures who live as seals in the sea but shed their skins to live as human on land once they’ve found love – until the siren call of the sea lures them back.

The film starts after the legend has ended, and concerns two siblings, frustrated Ben and mute Saoirse, who live in a lighthouse with their father.  Their mother abandoned them years ago, leaving their father distraught, but the pair discover that the stories she told them are true, and that Saoirse is, like her mother, a selkie.  Together, they embark on a journey through the magical creatures and places that are part of their heritage, hoping to find out where in these disparate worlds they belong.  It looks endearingly sincere and every bit as dazzlingly animated as Kells, and it’s one on the list that I’m most looking forward to.

Here’s a few others that I’m looking forward to catching at some point in the near future:

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