dawtrina

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Reviews

The Holding
(2011)

Nobody seems to get this one.
I don't tend to review many films here at IMDb, because I run my own review site, Apocalypse Later. However I felt I should chime in on this one as none of the other reviewers seem to have got the point of this film and I didn't want potential viewers to be put off by their comments.

Yes, there are similarities to The Stepfather. Certain scenes are overt homages to it. No, it's not a rip-off or a remake or anything similar.

This is a feminist take on that whole genre of horror movies. The strong characters are the women, all of them. The men are only physically strong, but otherwise weak. That the 'stepfather' character gets ludicrous towards the end isn't weak writing. It's making a point. The only man in the picture with any strength is the one who's too old to do much that's physical.

There's also a blurring of the roles of 'killer' and 'victim'. Traditionally, Aden would be just the killer, but it's shown that he's a victim too, not to elicit any sympathy from us but to highlight that his failings are because he's not strong enough to be anything else. He can't break the cycle. Traditionally, Cassie would be the victim but she's anything but here. Even when she's playing that role for necessity's sake, she's the strong one in the scene. She just can't match Aden physically so she doesn't try.

I'd really like to see what female horror fans have to say about this film, especially those who have been subjected to abuse and found a way out. I'm male, but it seems to me that this would be an empowering film for abused women, far beyond its value as a horror/thriller that doesn't follow convention. I've seen it twice and felt that it played even better the second time through as I picked up on certain details that I'd missed first time round.

Prästänkan
(1920)

The most surprising Dreyer yet.
Over the mountain wander Sofren and Mari. Sofren is a student of theology come to apply for the vacant position of parson in this rural Norwegian village. Mari is his fiancée, but not yet his wife because her father won't allow it until he becomes a real parson. Luckily for him, his two competitors from Copenhagen aren't particularly up to the task. The first looks like a cross between John Lennon and Bill Gates and bores his audience to sleep, so much so that even the man tasked with keeping everyone awake drops off; and the other is a bloated fool who keeps them amused only because Sofren has stuck a feather to the back of his head.

So Sofren it is: the five bearded elders tasked with the decision don't have much of a task after all, given that he's young and dynamic and can think on his feet. However, there's a catch, for there must always be a catch. The local custom is that the parson's widow comes with the job. This wasn't for any religious reason, merely a practical one because someone has to take care of her, after all, but this particular parson's widow, Dame Margarete Pedersdotter, has outlasted the previous three parsons only to be handed over each time to their successors 'like a piece of furniture'.

And just as Sofren had no problem outsmarting his rivals, who run for the hills the moment they see Dame Margarete anyway, the parson's widow outsmarts Sofren. Eager to retain her position running the parson's house, she persuades him subtly to propose. There's mention that she may be a witch but she really accomplishes it with a herring and a bottle of schnapps. So Sofren becomes the parson and Dame Margarete becomes the parson's wife once more, mistress of her whole domain. And with this setup, with Mari introduced into the mix as Sofren's sister rather than his fiancée, naturally hilarity ensues.

Well hilarity is a strong term, given that this is a Swedish silent film from 1920 and a Carl Theodor Dreyer movie to boot, but it's a lot closer to hilarity than I'd have ever imagined for one of his films. I've seen a lot of them, having been utterly stunned by The Passion of Joan of Arc and fascinated into finding as much of the rest of his work that I could. This was the second film Dreyer directed, but the eighth of his fourteen feature length movies for me. It's the first to invoke laughter, which comes about mostly in a subtle way but with some stooping to pantomime, such as the scenes where Sofren prances around in an elaborate Satan suit after he becomes convinced that his wife is a witch.

It's constructed well, with strong performances and memorable characters, varied shots and varied expectations. It looks good, whether inside or out, and there's a lot of use of the common silent film masking technique that turns the screen into a small circle to highlight what we should be looking at. As would fit a story built around a folk custom, there's a great deal here that speaks to customs and folklore, from dances to rituals to beliefs. Quite which Scandinavian culture or cultures this applies to, I'm not sure, given that it's a Swedish film set in Norway but based on a Danish story, but they're fascinating.

And backing up Dreyer's direction, Dreyer being a man who controlled his films as surely as Dame Margarete controls her household, are a number of memorable performances. Einar Röd plays Sofren as something of an imp. We rarely see him in church, this being one of the least religious religious films I've ever seen. Instead we watch him try all sorts of hare brained schemes to try to see his Mari, always coming up short but learning something in the process, there very much being a lesson here in and amidst the comedy. Greta Almroth is a wholesome but frustrated Mari, reminding a little of Elsa Lanchester.

Best of all is Hildur Carlberg as Dame Margarete, dominant throughout but always human. Born as far back as 1843, she was 76 when she made this film, her third and last. With a memorable face with many lines showing her age and a memorable gait that would have made her a prime candidate for a major role in a zombie movie, it's sad that she wouldn't make any more. She died two months before this film was released. I wonder if they nailed a horseshoe above her door and sprinkled linseed oil on the ground to ensure she didn't come back to haunt her house.

Flight
(1929)

Flight (1929) Frank R Capra
It's the big New Years Day football game and they bring on Lefty Phelps to stir everything up. He does so by running the wrong way and scoring a winning touchdown for the other team, which means that everywhere he goes everyone laughs at him. The first person he meets that doesn't (or rather does, but takes it back) is a marine corps flight instructor, Panama Williams, and so Lefty signs up for the marines. From then on, we get the same old marine story that we've seen many times before, with most of the same twists and very few differences. There's hope, there's failure, there's adventure, there's redemption, there's a love triangle. What there isn't is anything new.

The last one of these I saw was The Flying Fleet, also from 1929, which is an obvious comparison as it isn't far off being exactly the same film. The chief difference is that The Flying Fleet was made with the sanction of the US Navy, making it a lot more authentic if a little more like a hiring commercial. It also provided a lot more planes and a lot more aviation sequences, which can hardly hurt a film like this. There was also a major star, Ramon Novarro, along with Anita Page as the love interest and a young man called Ralph Graves.

In Flight we have Ralph Graves too, as the main character Lefty Phelps, and he co-wrote the story too. Given that The Flying Fleet came out in January and Flight in December, it would appear that Graves merely rewrote the script from the earlier film to make his own, the only real addition being the whole Wrong Way Corrigan bit. This was actually inspired by a college football player Roy Riegels, whose own famous wrong way run was in the 1929 Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, meaning that Graves wasn't even subtle enough to vary the details. Given that Corrigan's famous flight was in 1938, when he flew from New York to Ireland instead of Long Beach, maybe he took inspiration from this film! Certainly it would appear that his wrong way flight was deliberate, whatever he might have said officially.

The most obvious thing about this film is that it would have made a much better silent film than a sound film, hardly something unusual in 1929 when the studios were getting used to the new technology. Both the leads had long careers in the silents (Holt was even one of the founders of the Academy), but those careers foundered in the sound era because neither of them were any good with their voices. They looked the part all right but sounded all wrong: not just their tones but their inflections and everything else. They would have sucked royally on radio and they couldn't survive long in sound film. Both of them would be back in planes again, and zeppelins too, for Capra's Dirigible in 1931, but that had a different plot at least and is far superior. I haven't yet caught Submarine, the first of the three films they all made together (Graves, Holt and Capra) but it would be interesting at least as it's a silent.

Anyway Lefty fails miserably as a student pilot, but stays in the marines through Panama's influence and becomes his mechanic. They go off to Nicaragua to fight the rebels, and of course Elinor Murray, the girl they both love, finds her way there too as a nurse, meaning that the whole love triangle gets a chance to come to a head. No, this one is not particularly subtle in the slightest, and in fact gets embarrassingly unsubtle more than a few times. You could write the rest of the story yourself. If I hadn't seen The Flying Fleet, I'd have thought a lot more of this one, though a lot more still doesn't mean much in this instance.

Fatty's New Role
(1915)

A Change of Pace for Fatty
This time out Fatty is a amiable tramp and of course it's not difficult to make him look the part. He sleeps in a barn and tries to get himself a free breakfast and drink at Schnitz's Bar but gets thrown out. He's long gone but when the 'friends' of the owner read in the paper that a man has been causing havoc in bars after being thrown out, they play a jape on him that would land them in a secret CIA jail nowadays. They cook up a fake terrorist plot suggesting that his bar will be visited by a bomb at three o'clock.

Needless to say Fatty returns arrives back at three o'clock with a little money and chaos ensues. Talk about changing times! This is a film that not only couldn't be made today, if it was tried it would get the term 'plot device' banned. It certainly wouldn't be seen as comedy, but an anti-American attempt to throw scorn on the country's record on handling domestic terror threats.

As a film it isn't bad and is actually enjoyable for its lack of pace. The usual suspects are all here, with their outrageous facial hair: Mack Swain as Ambrose Schnitz, the bar owner, Edgar Kennedy, Slim Summerville and many of the rentacops of the era like Al St John. None of them get to kick anyone else's ass, literally or figuratively, and that seems like a real treat. I'm just sorry I missed Luke the Dog, as he was apparently in there somewhere, and he would have been my favourite actor in the film.

Visages d'enfants
(1925)

Child Actors Who Sadly Disappeared from Our Screens
We're in Saint-Luc, a picturesque village in the Upper Valais, and everyone is heading to the Mayor's house to commiserate with him as he mourns the death of his wife. The mayor is Pierre Amsler, played by Victor Vina, but the real lead is his young son Jean, portrayed by Jean Forest. Forest had debuted three years earlier in Crainquebille, a decent expose also directed by Feyder who had apparently discovered Forest on the streets of Paris. By this time though, he's a full twelve years old and with four films behind him, so almost an old hand in the business!

His character is old enough to know something about death and what it means, but his younger sister doesn't have a clue. He walks with his father behind the coffin to see her buried, grieves for her and watches his father's tears with sympathy, while young Pierrette plays with her cat and whatever else she can find. Forest is very good here, all young pillar of strength until he collapses at the graveside, but he's ably assisted by some rapid fire montage work by the editors. This was originally released in 1925 so I wonder if it was before or after Battleship Potemkin with its groundbreaking sequence on the Odessa Steps.

Jean is obviously very attached to his mother, to the degree that he visits her grave every Sunday and sees her portrait come to life and smile at him. However his father feels bad that in the absence of a wife his house and children are being neglected, so he marries again, his new wife being Jeanne Dutois, a young widow who can't pay her rent. This impacts Jean not just because he has a stepmother but because he acquires in the process a stepsister, Arlette, and that leads to plenty of conflict.

The story is solid, very much in the European vein of slow and serious stories full of character development, and that's a good thing. There's decent camera-work too, Feyder and his cinematographers also making plenty of use of the gorgeous countryside to frame his story. It's supposedly France but it was shot in the Swiss Alps and you just can't go wrong with the Swiss Alps as a cinematic background! Feyder seems to be always great when filming in crowds or in public and this film is no exception to that rule. The accompanying 2004 soundtrack by Michael Coppola is great if not awesome, and in fact there's very little bad to say.

The only downside to me was pretty minor, and that was in what seemed to be a little clumsiness in the delivery of some of the actors early on: all adults, I should add, as the children are simply superb. I'm not talking about the traditional overacting of the silent era as this would have been seen as an underplayed film on those grounds. I think it just took a half hour or so for everything to get moving properly, because the film, as you'd expect from the title, is about the kids and maybe the adults had a harder time getting into the story when there were no kids around.

I can't fault any of the scenes that have children in, whether they be between Jean and his stepsister, played by Arlette Dutois, or with adults like Henri Duval as his uncle or Rachel Devirys as his stepmother. It's only early scenes between Vina and Duval or Vina and Devirys that don't quite carry the same weight. Thankfully the children are present for almost the entire film and these scenes are hugely impressive and yet very subtle, often without the benefit (or the distraction) of title cards.

I got drawn into this one far more than into Crainquebille and, to be honest, got lost in the magic of it. By the time the end arrived, which seemed far too soon even though the film is nearly two hours long, I'd forgotten about all of that minor downside entirely. What amazed me most is that none of the three children had long careers in the film industry, stunning given their performances here. According to IMDb, this was Arlette Peyran's only film, and Pierrette Houyez only made three. Jean Forest, the star of this film, went on to appear in ten in all, but switched to a career in radio. What a shame!

By the Sun's Rays
(1914)

Fascinating
Lon Chaney made eight films in all for director Tod Browning and it would have been more, had he lived longer, because Browning had cast him as Count Dracula in the role that ended up with Bela Lugosi. So far, The Unknown is my favourite but I've only seen half of them, if you can count what's left of London After Midnight as a complete film. As a stills reconstruction it's fascinating, but it isn't enough to even rate as a movie. By the Sun's Rays does still exist, thankfully, even though it was their first collaboration and was made in 1914, no less than thirteen years before London After Midnight. As such it's a historic piece of film, no doubt about it.

In fact this is so far back that Chaney isn't even top billed. M J MacQuarrie, whoever he is, has the starring role as 'John Murdock, the Detective'. Chaney has to settle for second on the bill, as 'Frank Lawler, the Clerk', but he stamps his authority on the film in about half a second flat, shifting around in character like a chameleon while everyone else is just there. Lawler is obviously a bad man, leaving the Deep River Mining Co offices to orchestrate a robbery of their departing gold shipment, and it's the job of the good guy detective to catch him.

Unfortunately for M J MacQuarrie, there are only two reasons to watch this film. Chaney is one and Chaney and Browning together is the other. By the time detective John Murdock arrives to look into how the bandits are getting their information, it's already Chaney's film, literally as well as figuratively as we're five minutes into a film that only has a ten minute running time. MacQuarrie seems perfectly adequate in the part until Chaney walks onto screen at which point we simply forget who he is or why he's there. Chaney may be a little too much of the silent era villain but he's still amazing to watch.

For Browning's part, I get the impression that there's more going on here than was the norm at the time. To be fair, I'm not really well versed in anything except slapstick from 1914 but this is still a notch or two above what I expected. Beyond the focal characters, there are plenty of others doing a lot more than just sitting around taking up screen space, for a start. It's also hardly the most detailed and deep plot ever put on screen, even in a ten minute short, but it compares well to things like the low budget westerns John Wayne was churning out in the thirties before he became a star. Given that it was made a couple of decades earlier in the year Charlie Chaplin made his first film, that's saying something.

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