Thursday, February 18, 2010

Pandora's Box (1929)

This post is part of the Film Preservation Blogathon, a wonderful project that has already yielded a great number of fascinating and passionate articles on film preservation from some of the web's best film bloggers. The Blogathon is being headed by The Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films, and the master list of contributed articles can be found on both sites. This week-long endeavor is in support of the National Film Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to a very important cause, and I highly encourage everyone to offer a donation here. As they put it:

The National Film Preservation Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. They work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.
The NFPF will give away 4 DVD sets as thank-you gifts to blogathon donors chosen in a random drawing: Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 and Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986.

Considering this blog is strictly film reviews, I probably shouldn't spend too much time getting anecdotal about film preservation and engaging in hero worship about someone who had no creative ties to the film in question, but screw it. Film preservation is too important a cause to rush through, and without the work of James Card and like-minded film archivists, I would not be able to write about G.W. Pabst's 1929 silent masterpiece starring Louise Brooks today.

When I mentioned “like-minded film archivists” above, it was mainly in reference to Henri Langlois, whose Cinémathèque Française was tirelessly devoted to film preservation and whose screening of Louise Brooks films in the 1950s helped spark renewed interest in her career in France. A lot has been written about Langlois, especially in terms of his relation to French New Wave filmmakers, and he certainly deserves the many gushings of praise that have been placed alongside his name, but he'll have to settle for a simple hat tip here as I shift my attention to James Card, the first curator of the George Eastman House's film collection, one of Langlois' contemporaries and a personal hero of mine.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine's Day Double Feature: Wings of Desire (1987) and City of Angels (1998)

As a child, I had a strong belief in guardian angels. This became especially prominent after one night when I thought I saw a ghost sitting next to my bed. The description I gave to my parents vaguely aligned with that of my dad's brother, Stephen, who died at the age of eight. My dad floated two possibilities about the sighting: (1) I was having a dream and thought it was real, or (2) Stephen was watching over me. I believe the former now, but the latter gave me great comfort. This childhood belief and sense of comfort reemerged while watching Wim Wenders' West German celestial romance Wings of Desire. While my response to the film was immensely personal, the film's highly revered place in the cinematic canon affirms that it's a pretty universally engrossing and thought-provoking experience.

The film's greatest strength is its patience. It is a romance, but it takes its time before introducing the love story and only revisits it sporadically throughout, with the two central lovers sharing very little screentime together. It is a color film eventually, but apart from a few brief snatches of color, the first hour and a half are shot in gorgeous black and white by veteran cinematographer Henri Alekan. All the necessary information about how angels interact with the human world and vice versa is revealed, but it is always revealed organically, never with rushed exposition. While much of the action revolves around angel Damiel (played by Bruno Ganz, probably best known for his turn as Hitler in Downfall and the great many YouTube clips the performance spawned), the central role of the film belongs to West Berlin, as Wenders lets the camera float freely around the city, capturing its diverse inhabitants in the midst of their daily lives. One bit of information revealed early on is that these peoples' thoughts can be heard by angels nearby, and the angels may offer a comforting hand on their shoulder. Wenders revels in this connection between and angels and humans, devoting many scenes, including this bravura sequence in a library, to simply capturing it in passing. The film also intermittently follows Peter Falk playing himself during a film shoot in Berlin and the sideplot pays off tremendously in a touching and hilarious scene.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Up the Academy (1980)

“You really shouldn't go the extra mile when you have a specific destination.” - Alfred E. Neuman

That quote wasn't used in Up the Academy, Mad Magazine's first and only attempt at a feature film, but the main reason I use it here is simple: I wrote it. During my stint as an intern at Mad, I was asked to come up with some potential Alfred E. Neumanisms and that one made it in. Needless to say, I'm quite proud of it. I also included the quote because when applied to creative endeavors, it's terrible advice. Up the Academy is an unfortunate example of what happens when you follow it.

Mad Magazine's specific destination was to achieve the same crossover success into film that National Lampoon had with Animal House, but their contributions were minimal. They simply put their name over the title and featured a creepy masked actor as Alfred E. Neuman in the opening and closing credits. The writers commissioned for the film used Animal House as a guide as well, but added nothing new to its raunchy anti-authority formula. Mad, however, did make sure to go that extra mile when distancing themselves from the film, printing a particularly vicious take-down of the film and shelling out $30,000 to have the publication's ties to the film cut for cable airings. In a similar admission of embarrassment, actor Ron Leibman had his name removed from the credits despite a rather sizable role.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Food, Inc. (2008)

Of the many films that made their way to the theaters last year, there were only two that I was afraid I would be unable to handle. One was Antichrist, which earned that slot thanks to my strange aversion to violent genital mutilation. The other was Food, Inc. My trepidations going into this expository documentary about food production stemmed from my longstanding germophobia. In order for me to swallow food without panic, my hands and anyone else's around me cannot touch the food. It's an obsessive-compulsive trait that is as irrational as it is overwhelming, and the mental gymnastics required by my eating process involves a strict policy of “ignorance is bliss” regarding the food's journey to its package or my plate. A film documenting that process, especially one meant in large part to expose its unsafe practices, could result in my voluntary starvation, or more likely, a psychosomatic stomachache that lasts a couple days.

My only solace going into Food, Inc. was the expectation that its main targets would be red meat and chicken, two foods my germophobia has kept me away from for years. Sure enough, much of the film's most damning footage takes place in slaughterhouses and chicken farms. Director Robert Kenner doesn't shy away from presenting images of the slaughter, and while those moments are tough to watch, in some ways the footage of these animals in their living environment is more harrowing. The only industrial chicken farm the filmmakers were granted access to was a squalid mess of feathers and feces, and even if the birds had room to walk, they would be unable to, as years of genetic engineering has yielded chickens whose slow bone growth is unable to support their unnaturally massive body weight.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Welcome to Thoughts of Stream

This is a blog devoted to films available to stream instantly on Netflix. Because Netflix constantly makes additions to this option, by no means will this ever be comprehensive or even come close to highlighting the selection, but I do intend to be as diverse as possible with my film choices. Little-seen indies, familiar Hollywood titles, foreign gems, foreign trash, documentaries, silent films, horror movies, romantic comedies, direct-to-DVD teen raunchfests, tender coming-of-age dramas, anything from any era. As long as it has that blue "Play" option, I'll click it and write about it here. Ideally, these reviews will serve as a helpful guide and companion piece for anyone who logs onto Netflix with time to spare but no idea what to watch.

That's about the best introduction to this project that I can give at this point. I'm still mulling over certain details like a rating system (for now, I'll probably do the out-of-five stars method) and the frequency, length, and format of my posts, and chances are they'll change over time. (And just to clear the air, I am in no way affiliated with Netflix. Hell, I don't even have an account, just a close friend who trusts me with access to his account. Of course, this means that depending on my friend's whims, this grand experiment could end abruptly at any point.) I do plan on making film selections that are in some way timely, perhaps coinciding with a film release or other events that would be of interest. Considering the Academy Award nominations were announced this week, I figured spotlighting one of the nominated films would be fitting, so my inaugural post will be on the Best Documentary Feature nominee, Food, Inc.