Monday, August 22, 2016

Third Coast Review: New on Blu-ray Review - The Spiders

Third Coast Review published my review of Fritz Lang's epic action / adventure The Spiders, which will be released on blu-ray tomorrow, Tuesday, August 23. Here is the link to the review:

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Film Review: The Spiders

"The Spiders"
**** (out of ****)

You hear a movie is called "The Spiders" and you may think it is a monster movie with human size spiders attacking people because of some scientific experiment gone wrong. But that is not what Fritz Lang's "The Spiders" (1919) is about. The Spiders is the name of an underground criminal organization.

"The Spiders", which was once believed to be a "lost film", is in many ways the precursor for the action / adventure genre we know today. Considering this German silent film was made in 1919 it is not difficult to see how amazingly influential it has been throughout the history of cinema.

Originally intended to be a four-part movie serial (only two were filmed) the first part, called "The Golden Sea", follows a young, wealthy yacht racing champion, Kay Hoog (Carl de Vogt) who finds a bottle with a message inside it, from a Harvard professor. While in Peru, the professor has found a lost Inca civilization and their hidden treasure. Fearful he will be captured and offered as a human sacrifice, to please the Gods, the professor writes his whereabouts on a map and ask whoever finds his message, inform Harvard of his findings.

Kay is immediately intrigued by this scenario, decides he must go to Peru and find the treasure. He tells his story however at a dinner party where the beautiful (and do I need to mention dangerous) Lio Sha (Ressel Orla) is also in attendance. It is clear from her facial expressions Lio would also like to find the treasure. It is quickly revealed Lio is the leader of "The Spiders" and she and her right hand man, Dr. Telphas (Georg John) will go to Peru in an attempt to beat Kay to the treasure.

 Danger follows Kay wherever he goes; The Spiders break into his home and steal his map, he is chased by a gang and shot it and finds himself in a hidden cave, surrounded by his would-be killers. Without Kay would we have Indiana Jones or Batman? The amateur turned detective or the rich playboy who seeks adventure and still finds time for romance, when saving a lady from a giant python.

We even get the cliche romance of two people, from different worlds, taught to see one another as enemies, who find love. It is a story as old as "Romeo & Juliet" and the basis for so many movie romances, many of which "The Spiders" beat to the punch.

Although movie serials had existed before the release of "The Spiders", we can also see the influence this would have on the once popular form of entertainment, creating cliffhanger after cliffhanger for our hero. "The Spiders" could have been broken down into more than two-parts, which run more than an hour long.


Then there are the massive sets created for the movie, which may not recall Mr. Lang's own films, but instead one of his American contemporary's films, Cecil B. DeMille, with larger than life sets and women in revealing clothing.

The second adventure in the series, called "The Diamond Ship", serves as the basis of every "revenge" movie you have seen, with our hero, Kay attempting to dismantle the Spiders organization and kill Lio. Both Kay and Lio are searching for a special diamond that will allow the holder to rule Asia.

Between the two stories, "The Golden Sea" works slightly better in the way it introduces us to this world and these characters. We are struck with wide-eyed fascination learning about The Spiders and the interaction between Kay and Lio. There is also more for us to root for.

Still, because of the running time, both movies are compact with action and espionage (in fact Mr. Lang would direct a movie called "Spies" (1928), which did much for secret agent movies) so the viewer is never bored. In one sequence in "The Diamond Ship" Kay discovers an underground city, underneath the Chinatown district, and faces the fear of being exposed by someone from The Spiders.

"The Golden Sea" was Mr. Lang's third movie however his first two films are considered lost. These may be the best examples of Mr. Lang's earliest work for audiences to watch in order to see Mr. Lang's emerging style.

Mr. Lang would go on to make some highly influential silent films in Germany; "Metropolis" (1927), "Woman in the Moon" (1929), and "M" (1931) before coming to America, where his style shifted to more psychological film noir. Some of these movies are considered classics today but Mr. Lang never found great success in America as he did in Germany. Because of this, unfortunately, a great many of his films are ignored by movie fans, thus Mr. Lang's name does not live on as strongly as it should have.

"The Spiders" is an excellent example of Mr. Lang's gifts as a visual storyteller. It is one of the highlights of his career. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Third Coast Review: Noir City Film Festival in Chicago

The Music Box Theatre and the Film Noir Foundation will bring to 8th annual Noir City Film Festival to Chicago, starting August 19th.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Film Review: Roseanne For President

"Roseanne For President"
*** (out of ****)

As we are in the midst of a president election year, in which one of the two major political parties has nominated a candidate considered a reality television star, here is a documentary about another celebrity's bid for the presidency.

"Roseanne For President" (2016) follows the famous comedienne Roseanne Barr as she seeks the nomination of the Green Party as their 2012 nominee.

As the revealing documentary begins we hear Ms. Barr give a campaign speech. There are two lines she says which are so striking given the campaign cycle of this election. Ms. Barr declares "I'm not running as a publicity stunt" and " to chose the lesser of two evils is no choice at all". What makes these statements standout is the Republican candidate for president, Donald Trump, began a political campaign widely viewed by the media, and perhaps some in the public, as a publicity stunt. A campaign that was only about him and his ego. The second statement reflects the public, the country's mood about the two major party candidates; Hillary Clinton and Mr. Trump. The majority of voters say they do not like either candidate. Ms. Barr's statement would surely resonate with the public today.

Which leads one to wonder, why was "Roseanne For President" released at this point in time, during a presidential election? Why not release it after the 2012 election? Is the populist appeal for this documentary meant to resonate with voters today? Is "Roseanne For President" meant to give attention to third party candidacies? Perhaps it will shine a light on the Green Party.

It may come as a spoiler to those that don't pay attention to politics but, Ms. Barr did not receive the Green Party's nomination, Dr. Jill Stein did. While the fight for the nomination was seen as nothing more than a novelty in the eyes of the media, for Ms. Barr it was a serious fight. She says repeatedly during the documentary that she cares about the working class people. She also goes on about her celebrity and the success for her show and how with her as the Green Party nominee she was help the party expand, due to her name recognition. As it becomes apparent Dr. Stein will win (she is also this year's Green Party nominee, who hopes the disenfranchised Bernie Sanders voters will join her campaign) Ms. Barr is shocked. How could a woman no one has even heard of (Dr. Stein) be beating Ms. Barr, a famous person!

You may be skeptical but "Roseanne For President" is actually a clever, insightful and humorous look at American politics and our political system. This documentary seems to have foreshadowed where we are today. Though Ms. Barr does not share the views of Mr. Trump, what does it say about Ms. Barr that she felt just because she is a celebrity she deserved the nomination. Does that not sound like Donald Trump? Ms. Barr feels she was the victim of a rigged system. A system filled with out of touch delegates. Ms. Barr even goes as far as saying she will not vote for Dr. Stein.

Who knew Green Party politics could be so nasty!

"Roseanne For President" is also a look into the life of Ms. Barr, showing clips of her early stand-up comic years and clips of her television sitcom. In fact the documentary suggest Ms. Barr's sitcom was ahead of its time. dealing with the working class, race relations and homosexuality, at a time when television shows and network executives considered it risky material. These may account for some of the best moments in the documentary.

The documentary juxtaposes clips from Roseanne's television show with her campaign. In one scene we see all the awards she has won as she is home, making her bed. The message. Ms. Barr is a regular gal, like you and me. And that becomes the ultimate message of the movie. People feel left behind in our political system. There are issues people care about that are not being addressed by our establishment politicians. It is everyday citizens that should run for office. We are the ones that know what is it like to make a living surviving paycheck to paycheck.

How serious was Ms. Barr's candidacy? Who knows. She didn't seem to have much of a platform. But we do learn something about Ms. Barr and politics watching "Roseanne For President" and for that it is worth seeing

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Big Picture: You Said A Mouthful Review

My review of "You Said A Mouthful" (1932) starring Joe E. Brown was published by the on-line film magazine The Big Picture, as part of their Lost Classic series.

Third Coast Review: Silent Summer Film Festival

Third Coast Review published my article on the 16th annual Silent Summer Film Festival in Chicago, hosted by the Silent Film Society of Chicago. Here is a link to the story:

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Third Coast Review: New DVD Reviews

Third Coast Review published my reviews of new DVDs being released by Kino Lorber; Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man (2015), State of Control (2016) and Foodies (2014)


Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Big Picture: Orchestra Rehearsal Review

The on-line film magazine, The Big Picture, published my review of Federico Fellini's "Orchestra Rehersal" (1978), as part of their Brilliant Failures section.


Friday, July 22, 2016

Third Coast Review: 6th Annual French Film Festival

Third Coast Review published my article on the 6th annual French Film Festival at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago as well as other French films playing through the city.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Film Review: Orchestra Rehearsal

"Orchestra Rehearsal"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

Life is a song in Federico Fellini's "Orchestra Rehearsal" (1979).

Growing up the son of a musician it wasn't unusual for me to travel with my father when he performed with various orchestras. I would sit back stage and watch the musicians as they rehearsed and as everyone scrambled on the big day of the performance.

Musicians, in particular classically trained musicians, are funny creatures. There are a lot of egos in an orchestra. Everyone feels they are an extremely talented musician. Their talent is not being properly acknowledged. They are artists. When you sit down and observe musicians you will notice they are rather pretentious, especially those in an orchestra.

But, can an orchestra be used as a metaphor for life? The legendary Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini seems to think so. "Orchestra Rehearsal", which runs approximately 70 minutes, was originally intended as a made-for-television movie. It comes to us at a time when the great Fellini was seen to have lost his talent. His best films were behind him; "La Strada" (1954), "La Dolce Vita" (1960), "8 1/2" (1963).

"Orchestra Rehearsal" usually gets lost in the shuffle and is ignored by the general public. "Orchestra Rehearsal" is not a bad movie but it is a movie which lacks a definitive point-of-view. It is not difficult to see Fellini and "Orchestra Rehearsal" are making a social commentary and are using the orchestra as a metaphor but to what end? What is Fellini ultimately telling us?

The movie begins as musicians slowly enter a church, which dates back to the 13th century, where they will begin their rehearsal. A television crew would like to make a documentary on the orchestra. Immediately some of the musicians are upset. Union rules they cry out! They are not being compensated for the documentary. Why should any of them participate?

Soon though many of the musicians volunteer to be interviewed. Each musician speaks passionately (or pretentiously) about their instrument and why it is so vital to the rest of the orchestra. Is that not how it is in real life? Each person has a role, a function in society and to help us get through the day we pretend what we are doing is important. Some foolishly take pride in their job. They defend the company they work for as if their employer would ever do such a thing for them (let alone remember their name). Their job, their function, provides a great service.

As each musician speaks we suddenly notice a conflict between the musicians (society) and the conductor (the leader). The conductor likes to see their role as the person in charge but has limitations put on him. In the case of "Orchestra Rehearsal" much of that limitation is due to union rules. One musician protest when asked to play a few bars as he notes, he has already played the bars twice. A third time would be in violation of union rules, the entire section of the orchestra must play together.

The movie also has fun with union delegates negotiating over the phone. We can never hear the person on the other end but we hear the delegate say things like, "even if you need one clarinetist, I'm sending four. And you must accept it." At one point the delegate even says he is sending someone over who doesn't do anything but the person must accept it. Union rules!

The question becomes, why are we union bashing? What is the point? What is the alternative? If unions are bad, what is the better solution? For this Fellini and "Orchestra Rehearsal" have nothing to say. The movie hits on politics, unions, society, class warfare. We can even interpret the orchestra as a metaphor for a movie set. Each person on a movie set assigned a task, doing their job, with a director (conductor) trying to bring everything together. The problem is, when you try to make a movie comment on everything in the end it says nothing.

Without much rhyme or reason the musicians revolt against the conductor. They will not continue to make music for others. The music is theirs. They will no longer be exploited. Instead of a conductor the musicians will use a metronome. The conductor is replaceable. An unnecessary figure.

Is the lack of a point-of-view in "Orchestra Rehearsal" the message? We live in a society where people are revolting and protesting and they don't know why? Is the message we live in a world which is in a contest battle between dictatorship and freedom? Do the musicians represent different countries? Different personalities in society? Does the orchestra represent Europe? Perhaps the European Union. The answer is probably yes to all of the above but "Orchestra Rehearsal" feels too subtle to make any major statement.

Fellini was known for making movies which presented characters as caricatures of society. "Orchestra Rehearsal" could have used more comical exaggeration. It would have helped satirize the issues it presents. It should have also limit its focus.

As it stand now "Orchestra Rehearsal" doesn't have any real characters. The movie doesn't give the musicians any personality truly distinguishing one from another. Everyone say their lines and then disappear from the rest of the movie. There is no coherent plot to follow. Perhaps the movie relies too heavily on its metaphor that it willing to sacrifice plot and characters.

I have never been convinced an orchestra is a good metaphor for society. There have been other movies since "Orchestra Rehearsal" that have tried to use music and the orchestra as a representation of society and Europe specifically. The Hungarian filmmaker Istvan Szabo tried it in "Meeting Venus" (1991) as well as the brilliant Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda with "The Conductor" (1980). Both movies I believe fared a little better than Fellini's film precisely because they didn't take on as much as "Orchestra Rehearsal".

Fellini was one of the grand masters of cinema. His films should be watched repeatedly. But, "Orchestra Rehearsal" is a mid-level movie, not the work of a master storyteller. It is however better than other movies Fellini was releasing at the end of his career.

If you chose to see "Orchestra Rehearsal" only do so after you have seen his early classics from the 1950s and 60s.