Rosabel

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Reviews

The Third Clue
(1934)

This movie puts the "Guff" in "McGuffin"
Not a bad movie, a little derivative of Wilkie Collins's 'The Moonstone', with its tale of Indian jewels taken from an idol, and pursued by sinister Hindu priests out to recover them.

As other reviewers have pointed out, so much of it takes place in the dark, it's difficult to clearly see what is going on. There are multiple secret passages and sliding panels leading to an underground crypt containing (I suppose) the treasure. Despite 3 separate forays through the bookcase, behind the wall and down the steps into this hidden lair, there is never a payoff. The trail always ends at a massive iron chest that nobody can move or open. We assume the Indian jewels are inside, but we never actually see them.

This makes the jewels the most McGuffiny of McGuffins - they're the object of everyone's search, the motive for all the activity in the movie, but they matter so little the movie ends before anyone actually finds them! Until the very end, I thought the movie was going to pull a switch and have the chest turn out to be empty, the jewels having been stolen long ago, but it just ends with all the bad guys dead and the young lovers reunited.

La fin du monde
(1931)

Confusing yet exhilarating
I have a love-hate approach to this movie. What I love about it is the sheer insane ambition of it all. The End of the World! And not one of those cheating films where right at the last minute something happens, the danger is averted and we never get to see the catastrophe we've been building toward. No, Gance goes all the way, with collapsing buildings, screaming crowds, boiling oceans, lava flows and worldwide mayhem. Though most people scoff at the 1930s-era special effects, I find them oddly endearing. The blurry comet hurtling through space has a sort of odd mystery about it that today's HD special effects have to forego. Today's SF producers have to have scientific accuracy; Gance was able to make a poet's vision of astronomy.

But what I hate about the film is the truly awful acting and writing. Early American talkies also had that stagy, declamatory style of acting, simply because nobody had done it before and they were learning on the job. The dialog is incredibly slow and the emotional delivery zigzags from flat to extreme, often within the same scene. Gance plays the saintly Jean Novalic, and delivers most of lines gazing soulfully upward - he's so holy, doves perch on him as he's dying! His performance alone is MST3K-worthy, but Colette Darfeuil as Genevieve is a good match for him. She veers from kittenish coquette to screeching drama queen, and from devout acolyte to corrupted vamp. It's hard to know just WHAT Gance wanted from this actress, or what her character was supposed to be. She seems to be an amalgam of several different women, and is completely unbelievable.

Victor Francen is a bit more comfortable before the camera, but he also suffers from the bizarre screenplay. He's believable as the single-minded man of science, but he's also supposed to be a political idealist, media mogul and action hero.

It would be unfair not to point out that the movie is materially injured by its editing history. Gance lost control of the project when it was only partly completed, and the movie was taken out of his hands and severely edited. Like Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis', what exists today is just a partial version of what Gance intended, and much of it makes little sense, even after several viewings.

The problem was that Gance was TOO ambitious; it wasn't enough for him to make a film about the end of the world, he wanted to make deep reflections on the state of mankind and prescribe a utopian solution. There's just too much crammed into this movie. The science fiction story about the comet really occupies less than a third of the movie. There are at least 3 other subplots: 1) a love triangle between the two brothers and Genevieve, later supplemented by Schomburg's seduction of the heroine. 2) A political theme, with a world war threatening and the governments of the world hurtling towards military conflagration. And 3) something to do with world stock markets and military/industrial speculation. Instead of eliminating some of these complicated subplots, the people who replaced Gance just half-heartedly pruned them, so we have fragments of subplots which seem to come out of nowhere and then slip back out of view.

The love story is particularly sketchy, yet it's the driving force for a lot of the plot. We can believe that Jean and Genevieve are in love, because we see a few scenes of them talking to each other and discussing their future. But it's a real surprise to find that Martial is also in love with her; he's a lot older than she is, and we never even see them interact until Jean basically hands her over to his brother in his will, and orders them to eventually get married. I think Genevieve is supposed to be the sort of character who is attracted to these two steely saints, but can't live in the rarified air of their idealism, and ends up falling back into the sinful fleshpots represented by Schomburg. She's such a flimsy character, it's hard to understand why so many men are deeply interested in her.

The conclusion at least is satisfying. The infamous orgy scene isn't that shocking, but when it's broken up by a procession of religious penitents, the whole thing becomes almost hallucinatory. One starts to wonder if this can really be happening, even in a film as crazy as this one. The music, canting camera angles, blurred lenses - it all reaches a wild climax in the great hall where human beings form a United States of Mankind before the comet strikes and wipes out all but a saving remnant of humanity. After all this sweaty insanity, the coda, with human beings returning to their various faiths and beginning again with primitive agriculture, is a bit of an anticlimax, but it's not likely that anything could compare with Gance's wild vision of the apocalypse.

Parlor, Bedroom and Bath
(1931)

Infuriatingly pointless
I was so annoyed by this miscast mess of a movie I could hardly watch it to the end. It's astonishing to think that the people who made this film, all professionals in charge of the great, grand, omnipotent entertainment machine that was Hollywood, had not a single clue among them of why Buster Keaton was a great star in the 20s. He was hardly an unknown when talkies came along; the writers, directors and producers were surely very familiar with his work. Yet when it came time for THEM to put to use this accomplished artist, they could think of nothing to do with him but to stand him next to some towering Amazons and then titter, "Look! He's SHORT! Haha!" Keaton HAD made use of his slight stature for comedy purposes in his own films, but always in a subversive manner. His adversaries (usually men, but sometimes women, as in "My Wife's Relations") fatally underestimate him because of his size and blank expression, and end up paying the price when he triumphs despite them. The joke was always that THEY thought that he was a shrimp and a dummy; WE always knew that Buster was the smartest one in the room. His plans may not always work out the first time, but in the end he'd show them all and win. "PBB" turns the tables and tries to enlist us on the side of the sarcastic bullies, and it just doesn't work.

The worst part of the movie is the way it treats Elmer's contrived "courtship" of Angelica. Having her taller and more confident that he is would not necessarily be a deal-breaker. I don't think a little thing like physical discrepancy would be enough to overwhelm Buster Keaton, if he were playing his traditional role of innocent, good-hearted, yet resourceful suitor. In "Spite Marriage" he was mismatched with an experienced woman of the world, and ended up winning her affections in spite of the odds. But Angelica has no good qualities to make us want to see her settle down with Elmer. Despite her good looks and money, she's a selfish, shallow cow. Buster Keaton's women were almost always nice, sweet girls we were glad to see him win in the end, or else they were violent harridans we were happy to see him escape from. In this movie, there's no happy ending for poor Buster. I kept hoping to the end that he'd manage to escape, that there would be some other girl waiting for him (couldn't be Nita because she was married, perhaps Polly, who at least had brains), but no. The movie doesn't even really end - it just sort of stops, leaving us to assume that Elmer is trapped into a loveless marriage with the horrible Angelica. I found it left me antagonized and depressed at the same time.

Waterloo
(1929)

Interesting, pro-German take on the Napoleonic Wars
Quite an interesting movie, though I saw it without the benefit of a musical score, making it all too easy to riff. My husband is a big Napoleon fan, and was continually exclaiming that the extremely pro-German slant of the film was completely contrary to the actual history. But he did admit that it hit a lot of historical plot points correctly, only in a rearranged order, or with some compression of time, which is not unusual in a movie. The Battle of Ligny in particular is not often portrayed on film. One problem with the movie is the question of time; it's almost impossible to know how much time is elapsing between events. We go from the Congress of Vienna to Napoleon on Elba, to Napoleon returning to France, to a panicky call- up of allied forces, to scenes of Napoleon advancing through France (entirely on foot, it appears). How long did all this take? A week? Three months? We're never told. I suppose that the original audience must have learned this history in school, and it wasn't thought necessary to spell out the details, just as a modern American film assumes that the audience has some knowledge of American geography, and doesn't find it necessary to explicitly state the distance between, say, Washington and New York. It's just assumed that the audience will roughly know where they are on the map.

Naturally, the real hero of the story is the Prussian commander, Blucher. Napoleon is a menacing, though intermittent, presence in the first half hour, and then disappears entirely for the next hour. Wellington has even less screen time until we get to the actual battle of Waterloo, and despite his nickname of "The Iron Duke", we see him on the verge of cracking under the pressure until a message from Blucher FINALLY makes it to him, and steels him to hold out until rescue comes. The scenes of the Prussians creeping through the woods towards the battlefield remind me of "Siegfried" - the Germans really did love those shots of tall trees with shafts of hazy light slanting down; it's only proper that this image should be evoked again to portray another German hero.

The Blackheath Poisonings
(1992)

Disappointing conclusion spoils meticulous Victorian atmosphere
I was reasonably entertained by the first two parts of this Victorian mystery. The set decor was very detailed, and I especially liked the Victorian warehouses used for exterior shots of the toy factory, as well as for Roger and Isabel's slummy love nest. But I simply could not get deeply involved in the mystery because of my dislike of pretty much every character. My lack of sympathy for "free-spirited" Isabel left my with a purely academic interest in seeing if she could beat the rap. Screwing her sister-in-law's husband while they're all living under the same roof is so barbarously selfish and cold, it didn't really matter to me if she was hanged for a murder she didn't commit. I would have been happy to see such a worthless woman removed from the world by pretty much any means.

The character of the police inspector seemed very exaggerated in his mannerisms. The usual excuse for this sort of thing is that he has a razor-sharp mind and no time for social niceties (à la Sherlock Holmes). So it was very perplexing to me that he seemed to completely fall apart in brain when Paul came to him with information about George's transvestite activities, and made a plausible case for George being the murderer. The police ALREADY knew that George was a transvestite, but it was not information they had shared with anyone else. When someone comes along who knows information that only the police know, they usually pay attention. So why did they suddenly turn stupid and act as if this were some tall tale Paul had just concocted to get Isabel off the hook? Especially as the case against Isabel depended upon the clerk IDing her as the veiled woman who bought poison from him? They should have realized that there was another possible culprit, who would have had access to Isabel's shoes as well.

But it hardly mattered, because the whole "George masquerades as Isabel" plot was so ludicrously far-fetched, it was hard to take the mystery seriously by that point. It could have worked if they'd cast an actor for George who was reasonably similar in size to Isabel - I would hope the original novel covered that plot hole by making them not so different in size. But the filmmakers couldn't resist going for the lurid thrill of making George a grotesquely fat pig, with jiggling titties, hanging jowls and bee-stung lips.

The "mystery" turned out to be so lame, I'd already drawn the conclusion that George was the woman on the common, almost as soon as it was revealed that he owned the corset (which hardly looked big enough to fit him, anyway). It's disappointing that mystery writers today seem to think that twisted sex is the only really exciting motive for anything anymore. No matter how much they set the scene with financial problems, wills, professional jealousy and ambition, they throw it all away at the last to show us a pervert in a tizzy. It's becoming downright boring. I could hardly believe that the final poisoning and Paul's confession were the actual conclusion - I kept hoping that there would be a REAL twist, and we'd discover, as Isabel steamed away to freedom, that she really WAS guilty of at least one of the murders, and that Paul had committed a crime to free a guilty woman. But alas, the program ended in a flat, drab anticlimax, with the stupid inspector closing the file with no particular concern to find out who might have murdered George.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
(2003)

Shocked by disappointment
I loved the first two LOTR films, and was keyed up almost beyond endurance to see ROTK the first week it opened. When the film was over, I was stunned by the depth of disappointment I was feeling. In fact, I went back and watched the movie again a few days later; I could not believe that it really had been as bad as I'd experienced. The fault must have been mine, I thought; I'd been too wound up to really take it in. With a cooler head, I'd be able to enjoy it and the magic would work again, as it had with the previous two movies. Alas, no. The movie was just as bad as I'd thought, and it somehow managed to posthumously poison my pleasure in the other two movies as well. I've never been able to enjoy any of them since.

I came to really hate Peter Jackson, especially after watching all the "making of" interviews on the dvds. I believe he is an undisciplined, self-indulgent egomaniac, and these characteristics progressively took over as the film series continued. Fellowship of the Ring was the best of the lot, and I feel it's because it was a gamble. Now that the series is over, people forget that before FOTR premiered, there was no guarantee that the film would be a success. LOTR was a notoriously difficult book to adapt, and many worried that it couldn't be done. In that atmosphere, Jackson and his co-writers were at their most deferential to the original Tolkien text, and almost humble in their approach to such a daunting task.

After FOTR was a big success, they became more confident in their own skills, and felt bold enough to try a little rewriting for The Two Towers, even while assuring fans that it was only a little strategic reorganizing, and the original story would be preserved in ROTK. By that point, however, Jackson was so deluded by the sycophantic flattery that surrounded him on all sides, he was convinced that the fans would adoringly accept anything he filmed, simply because it was the product of such a genius. ROTK could not contain both Tolkien's story and Jackson's ego, and guess which won in the end? The story flopped all over the place, with Saruman's storyline simply chopped off and left unresolved, while Jackson wasted time indulging in invented scenes back in Rohan, when the story should have moved decisively to Gondor. That, however, was not the part of the story that interested him, so we had to have more loving photography of carved dark wood beams and animal-skin rugs, plus a vastly overdrawn love connection between Eowyn and Aragorn. When Jackson finally had to tear himself away from this romantic Viking paradise and turn to Gondor, he revenged himself on the story by turning Gondor into a sterile, dead cement city, full of cowards and idiots.

Worst of all, I felt that by ROTK Jackson was even getting sloppy on what had been a trademark of the films until then - set design and scale. For a scene where Gandalf and Pippin are on a balcony, looking towards Minas Morgul, he had both actors on the same set, with Pippin merely kneeling at the balcony, while Gandalf towered over him. However, the brain can quite clearly calculate that the scale of the balcony in relation to the bodies of both characters is wrong - in FOTR, Jackson would have built a larger-scale model of the balcony for Pippin, to keep up the illusion that he was a smaller figure in a setting made for people of Gandalf's size. This time, he couldn't be bothered, as if he felt that he'd paid his dues being accurate in the first two movies, and now he should be free to play around and have fun.

That was amply demonstrated with the stupid green goblins, the endless battle scenes, the noise, the shaking camera, and the labored "humour" in every Gimli scene. What annoyed me the most, however, was that Jackson seemed to have no grasp of what Tolkien thought was important. In the movie, only the "stars" are able to act (and yes, that includes the Hobbits), whereas Tolkien showed that nobility, courage and heroism are EVERYONE's business. In the books, the individual soldiers of Gondor had personalities, felt connected to the greater cause, and debated how best they could do their duty. In Jackson's movies, Aragorn and Gandalf do all the fighting, while crowds of women blubber helplessly and soldiers blunder about uselessly. This is why his removal of the Scouring of the Shire was both execrable and inevitable. Jackson can't recognize any drama in ordinary people in ordinary settings facing crisis and either failing or rising to the occasion - to him, the Shire is just dumb peasants who were too stupid not to leave home for adventure, and there's nothing more to be expected of them. Tolkien's whole theme was that adventure and crisis are NOT the sole property of noble heroes, but that it can touch anyone, and how we react when it does is as important as Aragorn's struggle with Sauron or Denethor's descent into madness.

Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage
(2005)

An intimate and touching story
Unlike the grand canvas of 'Der Untergang', 'Sophie Scholl' is an intimate struggle on an almost miniature scale between the forces of good and evil, freedom and tyranny. Instead of famous names like Hitler, Goebbels, Speer et al., the characters in this story were, at the time, mere nobodies - a boy and girl and a few of their friends (who barely figure in the story) versus the mundane machinery of the local Gestapo. They weren't bomb-planting conspirators, just young people writing pamphlets, and yet this was enough to merit the death penalty. The film does a good job impressing the viewer with how quickly they were grabbed, convicted, and their lives snuffed out - the whole thing was hustled along in about 3 days. The same efficient machinery that murdered millions in concentration camps ground them up like sausages, without a hitch or hesitation.

At the time, their deaths must have seemed like the most futile waste imaginable - the war went on for years more, and it must have seemed, even to those sympathetic, that they had been as thoroughly obliterated as a blade of grass under the treads of a tank. It's never discussed in the film, but as Sophie and her brother were caught and taken away to their doom, I kept remembering the faith with which they embarked on their mission. "The whole university will rise up," said Hans adamantly, certain that once the students read their pamphlet, the lovers of truth and freedom would mobilize and put a stop to Hitler's madness. Yet when they were caught...nothing. The students stood by, cowed and submissive, and there was no uprising. Hans and Sophie must have been bitterly disappointed, but their reproaches were all to the representatives of the Nazi regime that interrogated them, not to the people who did not share their courage and clarity.

Behind That Curtain
(1929)

Walk...softly...Talk...slowly...Go...nowhere
This film is of historical interest, as the first appearance on film of the Charlie Chan character, even though he doesn't appear until about 50 minutes into the movie, and is in only 3 scenes. But as a movie, it is almost intolerably bad. The actors were obviously very unsure of themselves, making the transition from silent to sound movies. I've seen Warner Baxter in silent films, and he was by no means as frozen as he was in this movie. Now and then he relaxes, and his dialog becomes a bit more natural, as it would be a few years later in a film like "42nd Street". But here, he seems flummoxed by the need to actually MEMORIZE lines - there are several moments where he speaks hesitantly, for all the world as if he just couldn't remember the line, and can no longer just say whatever he wants, as one could in a silent film.

Baxter is not the worst offender - the character of Mr. Galt (destined to play the melancholy role of "The Body") speaks so slowly and with such exaggerated pronunciation, is just terrible. Many of the actors appeared to be falling back on stage performance techniques, with loud emoting and over-enunciation, and as a result they over-powered the camera - or they would have, if their loud, artificial voices hadn't been combined with near-immobility. Everyone seems afraid to move - they plant themselves in one spot, then roar out their lines.

The camera-work is also very unimaginative for the most part, with one notable exception - the camel caravan traveling over the desert was quite beautifully photographed. It's probably not a coincidence that the scene was purely visual - when the filmmakers could fall back on the more familiar silent movie techniques, they seemed much freer and imaginative. The new technology, by contrast, introduced awkwardness and seemed burdensome.

The plot and the script were both very lame. The murderer is revealed very quickly, and mystery is replaced by a love triangle and a romance. Eve, the heroine, overacts horribly, with lots of head-bobbing and wriggling to convey her anguish. Her motivation is completely unbelievable - married to a murdering psychopath who has every reason in the world to kill her, she persists in fleeing from the police, and refusing to help convict him, even when her own life is at stake, and the police have hard evidence anyway, and there is no chance he can escape justice.

The script does deserve some credit for treating a theme like adultery in a rather surprisingly hard-edged way. There's no softening of the despicable betrayal, or of the heroine's painful discovery that her husband has been sleeping with their Indian maid - she even finds the latter's earring in her own bed! She has her own moment of temptation later on, but resists with the time-honored line, "After all, he IS my husband!" It's a good reminder that the '20s were by no means a strait-laced decade - the tasteful expunging of sex in the movies came later. But then the movie ruins it by having Eve shrinking from divorcing her cad of a husband (one of my favorite lines, by the way: "Are-you-going-to------DIVORCE------me???") because she is afraid of the scandal. Divorce wasn't THAT big a scandal in the '20s, especially among the rich. Eve is always veering between put-upon, shrinking damsel in distress and unpredictable, capable woman on her own. The movie would have been far better if she had been portrayed as a strong, modern woman throughout, but that Eve would never have been so stupid and sentimental as to leave a murderer roaming the streets.

Flying Virus
(2001)

Baby saw a bad, bad movie
This is without a doubt the worst movie I have ever seen outside MST3K. In fact, it would have been a perfect candidate for Mike and bots to snark on, and I can only hope that the Film Crew might discover it one day and give it the appropriate treatment. The writing is terrible, and the film doesn't even TRY to make any of the characters likable. From sullen, duck-billed Gabrielle Anwar to scruffy, chip-on-the-shoulder Craig Sheffer, to Rutger Hauer, who looks astonishingly like Michael Moore in this film, there is not one character I wouldn't be happy to see stung to death by killer bees. Ann Bauer is supposed to be a sexy reporter who has men falling like ninepins everywhere she goes, but she absolutely no chemistry with anyone in the movie, neither her loathsome soon-to-be ex-husband or the laughable Lothario, Scotty. Anwar mutters her dialog half the time, and Sheffer seems to think that grumbling sarcasm denotes strong masculinity.

These two characters are supplemented by Hauer's Ezekiel, some nutcase American commando who lurches about waving a pistol in one hand and a little black book in the other. One guess what THAT is supposed to be, and I don't think it's the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice. There is also a U.S. State Department official named Scotty, who mysteriously seems to be running the entire Brazilian Amazon, with just one office and no secretary. According to this movie, Brazil has no real government, because Americans have moved in to eradicate native tribes, carpet-bomb nice upper-middle class towns, set up military no-go areas and take home all the oil. I'm guessing they picked on the State Department to run this operation, because trying to pin it to the better-known CIA and Department of Defense would have been too unbelievable.

This movie gives the term "ugly American" a whole new level of meaning. The must insulting suggestion is that American soldiers don't seem to know how to shoot when confronted by loincloth-wearing bushmen armed with spears and bows and arrows. Wave after wave of machinegun-toting American commandos are mowed down by flying spears and flaming arrows before they can manage to get off a single shot. Of course, they obligingly stand upright and go running across clearings even though they are surrounded on all sides by bushes and buildings, so it makes it a bit easier for the natives to take aim. And boy, can they aim! Every dart kills a soldier, and every flaming arrow hits a can of gasoline, causing an explosion which kills a few more Americans. I guess in basic training, these guys were told that if their clothes catch fire, they should go flailing across country, until they find another barrel of gasoline to catch hold of for support. It's like watching 4 Denethors charging across the screen.

"Oil" seems to be the magic word here, which smooths away inconvenient facts and excuses the most ludicrous plot device, in this case, killer bees that will ethnically cleanse the Amazon of inconvenient natives so Americans can systematically rape the land. Actually, I think the writers deserve an award for their restraint: they managed to get through the entire movie without once using the word "Bush".

The movie also uses a hoary old cliché, which is that natives are well-meaning but disorganized. They need a white man to turn them into a potent force, and this shows up in the shape of the mysterious leader of the 'Shadow People', an American doctor named (I kid you not) 'Savior' (Duncan Regehr), who righteously lectures Ann on America's polluting ways, citing this as "one small example of your government's policy of sacrificing the environment for corporate greed."

Half the idiocy takes place on the ground, and the other in the air on a bee-infested passenger jet where Ann's husband Martin gets to prove what a hero he is. He is accompanied by Easily-Led Captain ("You're in charge out there"), Feisty Black Stewardess, Nerdy Kid, Surfer Babe and Bill Maher Wannabe. Everyone else is just ethnically diverse background chorus.

The Phantom of the Opera
(2004)

Not good at all
I've never seen the stage musical, and I can only imagine that the live performance has some special atmosphere that has inspired its longevity and the devotion of its fans. This movie alone would leave me completely mystified as to the musical's popularity. It's rare that a movie can plod through over 2 hours without EVER quickening my pulse or raising my interest. As far as I'm concerned, the best moment in this film was right at the beginning, when the old chandelier was hoisted into the air and the opera house was transformed from a dust-covered, shabby wreck into a vibrant, red-and-gold vision. There was a true moment of spookiness as a mysterious wind swept the gray present away and brought to life a brightly-colored, lush past (even though it seemed copied from the transformation scene at the end of Disney's 'Beauty and the Beast').

First problem - this story is NOT taking place in the famous Paris Opera House where Gaston Leroux set the original story. Instead, it's something called the Opera Populaire, definitely a cut below in terms of Art. So what we have is a sort of Frenchified Savoy Opera, while the audience is still dressed to the nines and drawn from the highest levels of society, which leads to a basic disconnect from the very beginning. It's hard to believe in Christine as a great artist whom the world takes seriously when her opera company is staging lewd burlesques and tasteless spectacles. In the book and earlier movies, the story revolved around several performances of Gounod's 'Faust'. But since all the music has to be written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and it's a basic rule that you shouldn't put a great opera in the middle of your crappy opera, all serious music is eliminated and Christine sings wishy-washy ballads. A further problem is that the Phantom's score of 'Don Juan' doesn't sound any better than the crap 'Hannibal' and 'Il Muto' presented earlier in the movie, so HE doesn't impress as much of a genius, either.

The two managers sing in a sort of fake Gilbert and Sullivan style, which increases my feeling that at times I was watching an overblown 'Topsy Turvy' - if you're going to do this sort of thing, you should at least find a witty lyricist. Thank goodness for DVD subtitles, because without them I wouldn't have had the faintest idea what Carlotta was screaming during her "diva" song.

I agree with those who have already commented on the Phantom's very minor facial deformity - Christine's expression throughout the unmasking scene is so unchanged, I thought she was sharing my perplexity at his reaction. What's the big deal? He's not THAT bad - look, she isn't even scared! I thought that maybe there was some psychological point being made here, that a nearly-normal looking man could be so mentally scarred that he would THINK that he was hideous and hide himself away, but eventually I came to the conclusion that nothing so deep was being attempted. The actress just couldn't convey emotion.

Docteur Petiot
(1990)

Compelling art film
I discovered this film after reading the book that inspired it. It is not a strictly biographical film; it is "loosely based" on the facts. But I found it a compelling and eerie exploration of evil and madness, and Michel Serrault gives an unforgettable performance as Dr. Petiot.

There are many memorable images in this movie; Petiot traveling through the night like a vampire, his black cloak flapping behind him, is almost iconic. There are also several touches of expressionism - Petiot's crooked silhouette mounting the stairs leading from the cellar where the butchered remains of his victims await cremation, reminds me of some scenes from 'Nosferatu'.

But I found the primary appeal of this movie to be aural. The soundtrack is loaded with ominous sounds, starting with the foreboding music of the opening credits, accompanied by wordless wailing. Petiot lives and runs his medical practice in a complex with many small shops, and there is a persistent background noise of knives being sharpened somewhere, as well as a peddler playing eerie tunes on a saw. There are animal noises as well - the concierge keeps a goat, unseen cats howl - and later in the film we see hapless cattle being herded through an underpass. The whole atmosphere is unsettling, with overtones of violence and slaughter.

Not only animals, but human voices are often heard - the screams of Gestapo victims, Petiot's patients in his waiting room, monitored by a listening device, just the same as the suspected collaborators after the war are monitored in their cells. Even the action of the film is often arranged so that we hear the voices of the participants without seeing them - when Petiot goes to see Mme Kern, we hear her singing as she works, her voice echoing in the theater, before we ever see her. And even when she does appear, she is often filmed from behind, her voice calling out to her husband, whose voice calls out to her in conversation. Disembodied voices echo in large halls, and their owners, when seen at all, are photographed at a distance, so we cannot actually see them speaking. This is a ghost story, and these are the voices of ghosts - many of them Petiot's future victims.

Yet Petiot himself is often only a voice; his frightening laughter echoes as he retreats from the camera, throwing comments behind him or into the air to nobody. In a way, he is as much a ghost as those he murders. He is always frantically busy, scurrying from appointment to appointment, never at rest. But his activity is that of a machine - lifeless and imperturbable. It is interesting that among all the horror and danger of occupied Paris, Petiot alone is unafraid; he is amused, enthusiastic, angry, irritated, contemptuous, but never afraid, unlike those real people he lures to their deaths. It is no surprise that he boasts of his mechanical inventions, including a perpetual motion machine (a true detail from the book - he did claim to have invented many machines); he is a sort of perpetual motion machine himself. And mechanical imagery is everywhere in the film, from the opening giant wheel in the movie house, to Petiot's bicycle (with its squeaking wheels echoing the sound of sharpening knives), to the Victrola he keeps winding up to play music before he makes a kill. Even his routine with his victims is mechanical - write a note to your wife, let me disguise you before you leave, you need a vaccination, Barcelona, Casablanca, Dakar - like a well-oiled machine, the routine is always the same, just as the record is always the same.

Maeder, the author, says that it was the clockwork perfection of his crimes that weighed so heavily against Petiot at his trial. His system was as smooth and efficient as a Nazi concentration camp, and this may be why the movie invents a subplot of Petiot's involvement with the French Gestapo and the occupying Nazis. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work as part of the story, because it's very hard to figure out just what Petiot is doing for the collaborators, or what is going on when he ends up at their headquarters in the middle of the night. Disposing of bodies? Hiding stolen goods? It's hard to say, and harder to believe; it's not likely the state would turn to a freelancer like Petiot.

But it does remind us of the duality of evil people; Petiot is a robber and a murderer, but he is also a devoted father and husband. Just as we learned that Hitler loved dogs, and that Nazis guilty of the worst war crimes could also be loving fathers and family men, so we have to recognize that Petiot could commit unspeakable horrors and yet also function normally. His insanity is easily camouflaged by the insanity and horror of the wartime situation in Paris; when killing, robbing and disappearing are happening all around, nobody pays attention as Petiot tosses more corpses on the pile.

Running Scared
(2006)

Dark, sick and very entertaining
I went to see this movie for only one reason: it had the very gifted John Noble in it, and his work is very difficult to come by outside Australia. However, despite the fact that he has only one scene near the end, I found the entire movie deeply engrossing and entertaining. I never found myself bored or impatient for a moment, even though mobster movies are not a genre I particularly enjoy or am even very familiar with. The story careens along at breakneck speed, and though it logically gives rise to the "Oh, great, what else can possibly go wrong next?" objection, it has so much energy and drive the question never arises. For such a violent movie, I found only one moment when I felt squeamish, when one character goes all Mike Tyson on another guy's ear.

I was really dreading the pedophile segment, which so many other posters have found disturbing and upsetting. However, I found it to be completely different from what I'd been expecting, and frankly found it absolutely hilarious in a dark and sick way. The couple are relentlessly sunny and upbeat, like a demented Ozzie and Harriet, hiding their perversion in plain sight, with a children's alphabet-block decorated Welcome mat right at their front door! I just found the contrast between the polished normality of their appearance and the fiendish evil lurking in the background to be some of the blackest humor I'd ever seen. It reminded me of the Edward Gory story "The Loathsome Couple", as did the illustrated credits sequence at the end.

Tosca: In the Settings and at the Times of Tosca
(1992)

Magnificent
This unique production of 'Tosca' brings together the intimacy of film and the genuine excitement of live performance. There's something compelling about actual, live singing that just can't be duplicated by lip-synching, no matter how accomplished. Usually the trade-off is that a live performance has to take place in the artificial environment of the stage, and we have to give up the 360° view that's normal to film. In 'Tosca', we have a real live opera taking place like a movie. It very often works; the only complaint I have is that there was a little too much in the way of photography from strange angles. There were a lot of shots of the singers looking up from waist level - too much, in fact. A little of this goes a long way, and is artistically satisfying; too much becomes oppressive. I started noticing how often I was looking up the performers' nostrils. I suspect that this was only partially due to artistic considerations; I think that the low angles were also intended to conceal the presence of cameras and lights, and since this was a live performance, it showed a lot of ingenuity. However, photography has its own grammar, and shooting from a low angle inevitably brings with it an emotional charge that didn't always match the action being portrayed. It's one thing to photograph Scarpia from below when he's standing on Cavaradossi's platform, sizing up the situation and devising a plot to trap Tosca - he's powerful and dominating, and it makes sense that he should be towering over the scene. But it makes no sense to photograph Tosca from the same angle when she's collapsing in grief as she listens to Cavaradossi's screams.

The three main performers are all excellent. This was the third and last of Domingo's filmed versions of Tosca, and while he's in good voice as usual, he seems a little stout and stolid for the role. He looks much less like a revolutionary artist than like a respectable burgher. As an actress Malfitano is awfully good, and her big eyes are full of expression. Her Tosca is not a strong woman - she's a sensitive, highly-strung artist, and no match at all for Scarpia, who can afford to play games with her because he knows that his victory is inevitable. The way she stumbles across the darkening room when Cavaradossi is dragged away to be executed is heartbreaking; she's like a drowning butterfly. Raimondi's Scarpia is a masterpiece - a bottomless well of cruelty and selfish appetite, and yet also unspeakably attractive and exciting. The first time he makes a move on Tosca, in the church, he hovers over her like a vampire; every emotional surge in Tosca produces a wave of excitement in him, and by the end of Act II, the two of them are like a fireball rolling downhill. Unlike most Scarpias, he at least gets a kiss out of her before the end, and she's left so shaken she can hardly walk to the table to pour herself a drink to steady her nerves. It obviously isn't just disgust and horror that she's feeling; he's really stirred up something in her, and she's as terrified of her own feelings as she is of him. When she stabs him, it really is as if she's beyond thinking - he convulsively drags her along with him in his death throes, and expires in a blood-soaked, hysterical coital nightmare. It's no wonder that the third act portrays Tosca as verging on, if not actually tipped over the edge into insanity. Her death is perfect, and the way I've always imagined it - bloodied, dust-covered, and hair wild, she's like a hunted animal with no escape. This 'Tosca' has some of the most satisfying moments opera can provide.

Don Giovanni
(1979)

A multi-level reading of a complex opera
A fascinating film that seems to be operating on several levels at once. It was hard for me sometimes to just listen to it as an opera, because I felt that there were so many messages being imparted through the sets, landscape and especially the extras who continually move about the scene as the main characters sing and act their stories. Others have observed that the common people are present everywhere, and yet just ignored by Don Giovanni; he even conducts his attempted seduction of Zerlina with half a village standing on the steps and watching. As an aristocrat, he doesn't even acknowledge the existence of these underlings, and can do what he wants without worrying about their opinion or their interference. Nor is this just the behavior of a bad man; Don Ottavio is much the same during one of his arias (I think it is 'Il mio tesoro') when he is walking about declaiming as peasants dot the lawn, taking their afternoon siesta. Perhaps the point is not so much to accuse anyone of being deliberately cruel, as to underline how absolutely divided the aristocracy is from the common people. Not only do the aristocrats ignore the commoners, the commoners seem to be pretty oblivious to the aristocrats, too. No matter what Don Giovanni gets up to, the work of the peasants just goes on - he may wander down to the kitchen once in a while to give a little speech and pinch a serving wench, but it makes very little difference to anyone if he's present or not. The whole of this society seems as artificial and fragile as Don Giovanni's lace sleeves; this is a world that is almost at the limit of its ability to hold together under the weight of its contradictions.

Ruggero Raimondi is a terrific Don Giovanni - handsome, graceful and charming, but with a hardness in the line of his mouth and his eyes that creates a very disturbing feeling of danger. Zerlina, though attracted, seems to sense that there is something wrong about him, though she isn't quite sure where to attribute the feeling of fear he inspires in her. Teresa Berganza was my favorite of the 3 main ladies; Edda Moser seemed very grim after her opening scene, and Kiri Te Kanawa reminded me irresistibly of Madeleine Kahn in "Young Frankenstein", especially with that tall silver-powdered hairdo. The silent servant played by Eric Adjani was another one of the puzzles that I felt this movie kept posing me. He seems to be a younger version of Don Giovanni, and one who is present almost as Don Giovanni's spirit, when the actual man is not there. During moments of crisis, he almost always watches Don Giovanni, not the action that is taking place outside him, and only Don Giovanni seems to really look at him. In the finale, he is almost like Banquo's ghost, sitting in Don Giovanni's chair until the master confronts him, and when the Commendatore's statue appears, Don Giovanni almost seems to bid him goodbye as he passes. I think the servant is Don Giovanni's conscience, the age when Don Giovanni, as a young man, cast him off and turned to evil. Now he follows him like a ghost of himself, observing but unable to influence.

Casanova
(1927)

Light and airy as a champagne bubble
'Casanova' shows Mosjoukine at his most light-hearted - like the great artist he was, he makes everything seem easy. This movie is episodic in structure, almost like a collection of short stories. Casanova bounces from one adventure to another, going from Venice to Austria to Russia and finally back to Venice again, and always in the service of women, as he puts it in a letter to a man he's good-naturedly robbed. In the end, all his romancing catches up with him, and he's forced to choose between two women - the scene where they both confront him reminds me a little of Moliere's Dom Juan, though Mosjoukine's Casanova is far more innocent. He delights in tricking and robbing men, especially the pompous and undeserving, but the moment he realizes that he has hurt a woman, his heart is crushed, and he surrenders to his enemies. Mosjoukine always demonstrates great sensitivity to women and I think this is at the root of his only unconvincing moment in the film. When he meets a young girl who is disguised as a boy, he's just too aware of her as a woman to be able to play the role of someone who's fooled into thinking that he's dealing with another man. But apart from this, Mosjoukine's performance is flawless. Rudolf Klein-Rogge, as the half-mad Czar Peter, is also brilliantly funny, marching around barking orders for his soldiers to recover from typhoid, and complaining that the business of state keeps distracting him from his fat, plain mistress. He also accomplishes the rare feat of upstaging Mosjoukine in their one scene together, when Casanova gives the Czar a manicure, and where they play off each other like a seasoned comedy team. Their by-play is so natural, and almost under the radar (the scene is mostly filmed in a kind of medium long shot, not at all focusing on them), it makes me think that they might have been ad-libbing. Klein-Rogge is obviously very comfortable playing comedy, and it would have been nice to see him do more in this vein. The music by Georges Delerue for the restoration of 'Casanova' is perfectly suited to the light-hearted freedom of the piece, and makes the whole experience a joy.

Il turco in Italia
(2001)

It's Rossini and it's fun - what more do you want?
This is a very light-hearted production of a lesser-known Rossini comic opera. It is a live performance, with all the drawbacks that that entails - some singers are less audible from certain positions on-stage, but there is a lot of movement, so such a problem tends to be short-lived. The moving about can occasionally get noisy, too - characters stepping on and off the raised stage almost always make a loud thump, perhaps because microphones were located near the front - I seldom noticed it if people were walking around in the background. The sets are a bit goofy, but bright-colored and amusing; the chairs look particularly uncomfortable.

For the most part the singing is quite good - Raimondi, who is by far the best actor, has a nice strong voice as Selim, and can sing as fast as anyone. The duet between Selim and Don Geronio in Act II, which culminates in a blistering patter song as the two threaten to murder each other, is the highlight of the opera. Paolo Rumetz is good as Don Geronio, though I think that maybe the role was originally intended for an older man - I get the impression that Geronio and Fiorilla are supposed to be a ridiculous May/December mismatch, with a feeble old man unable to control his young, lively wife. Still, this Geronio may not be old, but he does come across as a perpetually fogged simpleton, yet kind-hearted enough not to lose the audience's sympathy. Cecilia Bartoli is a fine singer, but her Fiorilla seems so much tougher than Geronio that it's hard not to feel sorry for him. I think she might be trying too hard to be brilliant and fascinating - her singing part is a difficult one, so she's got a lot to handle, but her facial contortions can be a bit off-putting. She might have done better just to relax and sing instead of trying to act so much. Reinaldo Macias is not the strongest tenor I've heard, but he's not a bad actor, and he bears an astonishing resemblance to a young Jean-François Balmer. It's quite delightful to see him simply lapse into bliss every time he catches sight of his own reflection in the polished knob of his fancy walking stick. This is one of those productions one may not want to watch from beginning to end all that often, but it is a lot of fun nevertheless.

Surrender
(1927)

Just not very good
It's hard to focus on just what is the biggest problem with this film. I'd have to start with the casting. Ivan Mosjukine made only this one film in the U.S. - he was a huge star in Europe, but this vehicle did not succeed in making him one in America. I tend to think that he was so gifted, he could do absolutely anything, but here he was clearly miscast. He could play a villain or a lover, but the one thing I think he just could not do was believably play a man who would force himself on a woman. It just wasn't in him - you can tell throughout every film he made that the guy just really loved women, and by all accounts the adoration was reciprocated. Scarpia he ain't, and without a feeling of threat or danger, the plot falls apart. Mary Philbin, as his love interest, is not particularly good, either, but this is probably less a question of casting and more one of her acting ability. She can look merry and she can sob hysterically, but for anything in between, her expression is a sort of pained sullenness. The story wasn't absolutely lacking in dramatic possibilities, after all - maybe with a more fiery leading lady, Mosjukine might have been able to meet her with more passion himself, but she is just utterly inert, even during the love scenes.

There are a few nice things in the film - the portrayal of traditional Jewish village life seems pretty respectful (though I speak as an outsider). It's even rather funny, as two brothers march down the street arguing, and the titles are written in Hebrew, liberally sprinkled with exclamation marks! The way the crowd turns on poor Lea at the end is a bit unbelievable, though I don't think the intention was anti-Semitic; more a reflection on how people in mobs tend to act irrationally, which was hardly a unique theme at the time. Still, I have to think her father might have done a better job telling off the hypocrites in the crowd, who a few hours before were weeping and begging her to sacrifice herself to save them, then as soon as they're safe, start reproaching her and turn her out of town. The ending is a bit perplexing - obviously, in the intervening years, the Russian Revolution has come and stripped Constantin of his princely rank, so we see him dressed as a peasant when he comes back to reclaim his love. But the story is supposed to be taking place in Austria, not Russia, so what's with the 'Comrade' business at the end? And even if he's no longer a prince...uh, she's still Jewish and he isn't, right? And wasn't that the whole problem to begin with, rather than their respective classes? Or are we to suppose that the Communist Revolution (in another country) also managed to obliterate all religious differences as well? Or is everything alright because her father is dead now? It's hard to say - this looks like a "Love Conquers All" happy ending slapped on without any very clear thinking of how it could really come about. And since Ivan Mosjukine had to flee Russia BECAUSE of the Russian Revolution, I have to wonder just how he felt about playing a "reformed" Russian prince who is set free by Communism to finally be united with his beloved? That might have contributed a bit to his obvious unease in this project.

Kean
(1924)

Splendid performance by Mosjoukine
It is fitting that Ivan Mosjoukine, the first great male superstar in European film, should get to play the great English theater superstar, Edmund Kean in this adaptation of Dumas's play. This is fiction, based on historic characters, and not an attempt to present a real biography. It's an ecstatic portrayal of an artist trying to keep his balance between a world of social boundaries and moral rules, and the unlimited, revolutionary freedom of his art. Poor Kean tries to live in both worlds at once; he is in love with a titled lady whose social position is too high above his own, and in his work he can give voice to his passions and longings through his performance of Shakespeare. The two finally collide in the middle of a disastrous performance of 'Hamlet', where Kean breaks through ALL the boundaries at the same time - voicing his love, and his hatred of injustice, and even of the limitations of his art. When he breaks the 4th wall and accuses the Prince of Wales, he also breaks the play and ends up broken himself. Mosjoukine is his usual wonderful self in this film. Naturally, in a movie subtitled 'The Madness of Genius', he has some good opportunities to do his famous mad-scene acting, particularly with those brilliant eyes. His manic dancing and drinking in a tavern are wonderfully energetic and driven, and it's only a wonder that all the people around him didn't come away from the scene with scorch marks. Mosjoukine is always a wonderful and vulnerable lover - in the scene where he's told that his boyishly impulsive gesture of sending roses to the woman he loves has been rejected and ridiculed, his reaction is just a marvel of controlled acting. He's feeling anguish, grief, rage and humiliation, and the viewer watches breathlessly as the seconds tick by and he holds them all in balance, so that we can't predict which one is going to win out. Is he going to collapse in tears or explode in rage? It's impossible to know until it happens. Despite the high drama of much of the film, as this is Mosjoukine, comedy is never very far away. There is a scene where he tricks his creditors and manages to elude them, which makes him so happy he actually dances a little jig on screen. His own high spirits are always infectious and leave you smiling and hoping he'll win. The movie even throws in a funny little joke, showing the two main women in the story in their respective bedrooms fantasizing about Kean, just as the women in the audience watching the movie doubtless fantasized about Mosjoukine. This is a fine, exuberant showcase for Mosjoukine's splendid acting talent.

Tosca
(1976)

Fine production, a little cold
I saw this production of Tosca when it was first broadcast on PBS in the 70s. I remembered little of it (I was pretty young at the time) except for the finale to Act I. When I finally saw it again recently, I was pleased to see that my lone memory of this Tosca was reasonably accurate - a splendid church, booming bells, chanting chorus, and a very tall, handsome dark-haired villain pretending to be pious while plotting evilly. Unfortunately, the rest of the film did not prove to be as memorable for me. Milnes is a very interesting Scarpia - I like the idea of playing him as a younger man, not a grotesque old lecher. Tosca quite clearly notices him and has some conflicted feelings; he's often very close to her, even brushing against her, and she doesn't pull away or try to repel him - she's not flirting, but she does seem drawn to him, and it takes some effort to recollect herself and break away. Unfortunately, I don't find either Milnes or Kabaivanska very good actors; they're singers, even when they don't physically have to do the work of singing on the spot (the voices were recorded separately). Milnes's Scarpia just isn't sinister enough. This Scarpia seems to see his pursuit of Tosca almost as a game; he even smiles when she flees across the room from him and he pursues her. It undercuts his motivation - an evening's fun and games just isn't reason enough for his bloody-minded determination to send Cavaradossi to his death. I miss the darker shades of Scarpia I've seen in other portrayals; this one doesn't seem to be driven by inner demons, and it makes it hard to understand why he does what he's doing. There is one good moment when the attractive facade breaks and we get a glimpse of something ugly underneath: when Tosca asks him "Quanto?" - "How much? What's your price?" It's insulting, and meant to be, and while Milnes is smiling smugly as he responds, "Gia, me dicon venal" - "Oh yes, I know what they say about me - that I take bribes," his expression gradually changes to one of rage, even while his words remain light. He DOES feel the insult, and I got the very strong feeling that he'd make Tosca pay for it once he gets his hands on her. But apart from that one moment, he is quite gentlemanly - he doesn't manhandle her, in fact he barely even touches her, which takes away from the sense of danger and ordeal that Tosca is facing. Though I must say, he does have a way with a riding-crop when he first enters in Act I; there might be some sado-masochistic overtones there, but they're not strong enough. Milnes's singing is quite unique; he has a very individual way of attacking verses from all sorts of unpredictable angles. It makes him very exciting to listen to. Plus, he can sing question marks; I've never heard anyone else do it just like that. The camera-work is fine, except for some bizarre shakiness at the big climax to Act II. Oddly enough, I didn't particularly like the "natural" style of filming this movie, even though the setting was beautiful. It seems to me that once you take an opera off the stage, there has to be some concession to the inherent artificiality of the art form; just shooting it like a movie somehow left me feeling uninvolved and out in the cold. Something more stylized would have matched better with the musical performance we were experiencing.

Live from the Metropolitan Opera: Tosca
(1985)
Episode 3, Season 9

Very beautiful stage production
I'm no great opera expert, but I like Tosca, and am trying to see as many versions as possible. I prefer the 2001 film version by Benoit, but this one is still very fine. I realize that as a stage production, it would have to be quite different from a "movie" of the opera, and though it has its necessary limitations, it also has some quite lovely compensations. The set design is stunning; the conclusion of Act I is like seeing David's painting of Napoleon crowning Josephine brought to life. Even seeing it on TV is spectacular - I can only imagine what it was like to actually be there in the theater. (I hope they used real incense and not dry ice - it's not often you can almost *smell* an opera through the screen!) Placido Domingo is really great as Cavaradossi - he's so virile and appealing, you really can imagine him being ready to fight his way past opponents when he and Angelotti escape from the church. Cornell MacNeil is not my idea of Scarpia, but I find his performance grows on me the more I watch it. I was spoiled by Ruggero Raimondi's excellent acting when he played Scarpia, and MacNeil is a bit stolid in comparison. He is a little too jolly to be frightening; Raimondi brought out truly scary undertones of rage and disappointment in the character, whereas MacNeil is more of a politician and a bon vivant. He is suitably repulsive, though, when he actually caresses Tosca - you do get a feeling that the ordeal she's facing is unendurable, and it provides a nice buildup to the violence that follows. Hildegard Behrens is likewise a bit stiff through most of the opera, though I think part of it, again, is just the necessary limitations of live performance. What with having to face towards an audience and do all the exertion required for singing, it's just not reasonable to expect really energetic fighting, struggling and racing about. But it's all compensated by her terrific acting at the end of Act II. From the moment she whirls about and stabs Scarpia, Behrens is just blazing with fury and passion. She practically screams at him 'Questo e il baccio di Tosca!' and I almost thought she was going to lunge forward and stab him again. I was so spellbound by her performance throughout that passage, when it was all over and quiet again, and she'd managed to pry from his dead fingers the safe-conduct for herself and Mario, it was a jolt to hear her SING the words, 'E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma!' I was so drawn into the drama at that point, I'd forgotten I was watching an opera.

Les couleurs du diable
(1997)

Not a great movie, but Raimondi is a great villain
This movie is a modern version of the Faust legend, with the hero, Nicolas, a young painter who accepts the help of a mysterious stranger, Bellisle, who promises to provide him with the inspiration that will turn him into a success. This consists of bringing the painter into contact with real-life experiences of death in various forms, and it works - Nicolas's morbid paintings of violent death attract a following and soon he is a commercial success. But it soon becomes clear that Bellisle is not merely maneuvering Nicolas into a position where he can witness tragedies that were bound to happen anyway; he is in some way setting up the situations that his protegé will use for inspiration, and eventually Nicolas himself becomes drawn into the crimes as a protagonist. It's not perfectly clear who Bellisle actually is; another painter, also one of Bellisle's clients, tells Nicolas that he doesn't really exist. Is he the devil, or is he somehow Nicolas's ambition, embodied as an amoral, conscienceless force, using and using up everyone around him as fuel for his insatiable appetite for fame and success? Wadeck Stanczak is not terribly convincing as the tempted painter, Nicolas. An actor like Anton Walbrook would have been great in such a role. Stanczak has the bohemian look down alright, though his long hair is annoyingly neat throughout (a REAL painter would look scruffier, especially after being up all night watching murders and suicides). But his acting range is limited; he really has only 2 speeds - pouty tantrums when he wants to show us the "artistic temperament", and a wide-eyed Candide gaze, when he wants us to remember that he's really not a bad guy, he's just fallen in with a rotten crowd. I never feel his genuine corruption, which takes all the tension out of his struggle with Bellisle. Joseé Quaglio, who plays an older painter who has already succumbed to Bellisle's bargain, is much more convincing at showing the moral ruin and despair that accompany such corruption. The main reason for watching this film is to see Ruggero Raimondi, who is fast becoming my favorite European actor. What a pity he's wasted his life singing opera, when he could have become one of the great charismatic screen villains! He's a perfect Mephistopheles in this movie, with those piercing dark eyes and arrogant smile; it doesn't hurt that he's either very tall or Stanczak is quite short - in any case, he looms over his victim like an amiable executioner. His voice is rich and expressive; I watched closely at the beginning because his French is so fluent I thought that perhaps he was being dubbed by a native French-speaker, but in fact that is his voice. I noticed a charming Italian accent from time to time, when he spoke forcefully - like all truly great villains, Bellisle never has to raise his voice. Poor Nicolas doesn't really stand much of a chance against such an antagonist; Bellisle really needed a more passionate character to be a believable opponent.

Frau im Mond
(1929)

Excellent, despite some slow patches
The new Kino DVD release of 'Woman In The Moon' is a great addition to anyone's Fritz Lang collection. Once again, the new music composed for the film adds tremendously to the experience. I was astounded by how ahead of its time this movie was in terms of its science, and it was no surprise to read that Ufa had a team of science consultants working with Lang to supply realistic details. The use of the rotation of the Earth to provide extra impetus to the rocket, the way the booster rockets were discarded as the spaceship moved further out of the Earth's atmosphere - having grown up watching real moon launches in the 60s, it was astonishing to see the actuality echoed by fiction decades earlier. There was clearly a lot of attention to detail; they even figured out ways of conveying weightlessness in space, which were pretty advanced for the time. The special effect of trying to pour a bottle of wine without gravity was both funny and impressive. The movie is not one of Lang's great masterpieces, and I agree with other comments that point out that it tends to slow down in places. Lang always did like making long, long movies, and when he settled down to tell a story, he could really take his time getting everything perfect. When this involves people just sitting or standing in a room talking, it can get a little tiresome - in one scene, Helius is trying to get through on the phone to his partner Windegger, and it takes so long he has time to snip to pieces a big bouquet of flowers on the table in front of him. I swear, it seems to be happening in real time; if there were something exciting happening in the meantime somewhere else it might have passed more quickly, but we just keep cutting between a scene of a man impatiently holding a phone to his ear and snipping at flowers, and a scene of people sitting at a dinner table listening to a speech. Not even Lang can make this gripping, though I think he was defiantly determined to try. On the other hand, there are places where it works well. The long buildup to the rocket launch is terrific - I would have enjoyed it if it were even longer. The hangar in the darkening scene, lit with jumpy spotlights as the moon begins to rise, the slow, smooth monumental sliding of that massive machinery as the rocket glides forward to its launch position, dwarfing the human beings walking alongside it, and all the beautiful changes of camera angle to draw in the viewer, are very moving. I can see why the Nazis liked Lang and wanted to get their claws into him; if they could have harnessed him to make THEIR kind of movies, he'd have been a real prize for them, another Riefenstahl. 'Woman In The Moon' wasn't a hit at the time, mainly because Lang (as usual) wouldn't listen to the studio heads who wanted some concessions to the coming of sound technology, so it was a dinosaur silent movie when the public was engrossed with something new. But it is definitely worth watching, and its strong points are worth sitting through some tedious slow patches to enjoy.

Tosca
(2001)

An opera movie that can draw in the non-fan
I was intrigued by the very passionate comments I'd read about this movie, and was curious to see it. I'm not an opera fan, but have a special interest in Tosca, and remember seeing a PBS performance of it twenty or twenty-five years ago. I found this version unexpectedly entertaining; the things that might repel typical opera fans seemed to work well for me, maybe because I could link them to other film performances I'd seen, and made this film not so purely "opera". The outdoor shots, always with a rather shaky moving camera, reminded me of crime reconstructions I'd seen on TV, and also of the dreamlike atmosphere in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". They weren't long enough to annoy, and gave a sense of urgency to the film. I didn't even mind the lyrics spoken by the performers, while their voices sang in the background; once again, the non-opera aspect of it was appealing, perhaps because I wasn't completely resolved on seeing *only* an opera. The three main performers all had strong points. Roberto Alagna was good enough as Cavaradossi; I'm not experienced enough at opera to find the faults in his voice that other writers have, though I did notice at one point that he couldn't quite hold his own against the orchestra. I just found his acting to be a little weak for the hero; I'd expect a revolutionary to be a bit more fiery, and he should be able to give Scarpia a run for his money during their confrontation. Perhaps this was the director's interpretation; it would be natural for Cavaradossi to be scared when hauled before Scarpia, but he seemed a bit pathetic when he should have been proud and defiant. Even I could tell that Angela Gheorgiu has a beautiful voice, and never tired of hearing her sing. Her acting was not always to my taste, though; I thought her Tosca came across as coquettish in her scene with Cavaradossi in the church, and I would have preferred a more open-hearted and sincere Tosca at such a moment. She reminded me too much of a professional actress there, and I found her a bit artificial. Her best scenes were with Ruggero Raimondi, and I'll agree with everything everyone else has said about his performance - he was fantastic. That aria at the end of Act I certainly sets the pulse racing, and it's extremely sexy, though the performer is acting almost entirely with his eyes. As unlikely as a Tosca-Scarpia pairing would be, it was really believable in this film, and Gheorgiu really was able to convey conflicted feelings of attraction and repulsion for this terrible man. Raimondi has a real gift for bringing out her best acting - his acting ability is never in question, but she isn't always as convincing. This may not be anyone's "definitive" version of Tosca, but it is quite unique.

Dr. M
(1990)

Chabrol's tribute to Fritz Lang
I quite liked this movie, and intend to watch it a few more times in order to peel off a few more of the layers of meaning Chabrol has woven together. I think most people would find the movie incomprehensible if they didn't know that this is a quasi-remake of Fritz Lang's 1922 masterpiece, "Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler". The "Dr. M" of the title is Chabrol's way of indicating that we are once again in the presence of the bad doctor - not just *a* villain, but THE villain, the ultimate bad guy, genius and madman. Marsfeldt/Mabuse is a pure nihilist in this outing; he's not trying to conquer the world, but to destroy it. His total contempt for humanity drives him to eradicate life wherever he can; he doesn't even bother with Hitler's excuse that he's clearing away the deadwood to make way for a master race. Marsfeldt wants nothing but death and destruction for their own sake. As usual, the plans of the criminal mastermind are disrupted by emotion - in this case, Marsfeldt's weakness for his adopted daughter, Sonja, which prevents him from eliminating her when she becomes a danger to his plans. Alan Bates plays the avuncular father-figure with a compelling creepiness; on the surface he's kind and concerned, but you can't help noticing that every time he touches her, his fingers seem to sink into her flesh like claws, and he kisses her with far too much intensity, leading Sonja to slightly shrink away every time he approaches her. His performance is the best, but Benoît Régent is also good as the high-strung Stieglitz, trapped in a job that's killing his soul, yet unable to disappoint his friend and partner Hartman by leaving. In the end, everyone is guilty to some extent, and only by acting and refusing to yield to despair are Sonja and Claus able to thwart Marsfeldt's plan.

Dom Juan ou Le festin de pierre
(1965)

An unusual film of the Moliere play
I have been looking for this movie for almost 25 years, ever since seeing it during a university course on 17th century French literature. Despite not being one of my favorite plays, the movie made quite an impression on me, and had several memorable scenes. It was filmed in a "natural" style, out of doors and not in a theater, which perhaps didn't work quite as well as it was intended to; the rather fantastic aspects of the "haunting" at the end might have been more dramatic in a more stylized setting. But the actor playing Dom Juan carried the production very well, and is my chief memory of the film. He had a sort of controlled fury that I was probably too young at the time to understand very well, but which definitely left a mark. The way he tosses alms to a beggar he's failed to tempt into blasphemy; 'Pour l'amour de l'humanité' there was a bitterness in the words that still leaves me pondering them, many years later. And just before the climax, when he strides furiously across the grass to the building (maybe a conservatory?) where he will meet nemesis, the director adds the touch of having Dom Juan throw down his sword as he goes, voluntarily disarming himself before his fateful dinner with the statue of the dead Commander. This is a movie I'd be eager to see again, despite not being terribly easy to understand.

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