Movie Review – “Wings” (1927)

 

 

If some films age like wine, while others age like wet bread, then William A. Wellman’s “Wings” is just about the finest vintage a movie can get. Released in 1927, “Wings” was the first film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture (technically, it wasn’t called the “Best Picture” Oscar yet, and they had a similar award that same year that went to “Sunrise: A Tale of Two Lovers, but this film still won the award) and I feel in many ways it is just as historically significant as other films from that era like “The Birth of a Nation” and “The Jazz Singer,” except with far less insulting racism. Watching this film over 90 years after its release, I can say this film not only holds up, but is just as engrossing as many action films made today.

“Wings” tells the tale of two young men, Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen), from a small American town who immediately enlist in World War I when they get the chance to fight for their country. Both are assigned to the air force, where they learn to become pilots and very quickly become two of the best pilots fighting for their side. Meanwhile, Mary (Clara Bow) is madly in love with Jack, who barely even gives her the time of day, and eventually decides to join to the war in her own way, by being an ambulance driver.

“Wings” was the only silent film to win Best Picture (until “The Artist” bucked that trend in 2011), but the film still has a very effective use of sound, as well as color. The only noises we hear throughout the film are the sounds of engines, mostly those of a biplane, and the sound of gun fire. It works in the opposite way of the comedic sound effects of a late Charlie Chaplin film – it draws your attention, making the spectacle of war feel far more real than it ever felt before. While the film uses lots of colored tints and lenses, the color that sticks out is the burning yellow flames of a crashing biplane, making that carnage stand out even more.

 

 

But what’s truly impressive about “Wings” is its camera work and how it perfected filming airplanes in motion. We might take shots of multiple airplanes flying in formation for granted these days, but in 1927 when cameras weighed hundreds of pounds and were mostly never in motion during a shot, that makes the cinematography of this film even more impressive. There were no miniatures or fake explosions in this film – if a plane rams into the ground with the pilot still inside, that really happened.

Multiple aerial dog fights are shown throughout this film, all with beautifully crisp camera movement, always using the vast emptiness of the sky to its advantage. On top of that, there are loads of shots within the cockpit of Jack and David’s planes, which Charles Rogers and Richard Arlen had to film themselves, since the camera was so heavy they couldn’t carry another person. So while they were flying the plane and acting at the same time, they also had to be the camera men too.

“Wings” is the most impressive and awe-inspiring movie of its time, mastering techniques in the 1920s that are still dangerous today. Everything about this film feels authentic, helped by William A. Wellman’s superb direction and experience in aviation. It has the utmost respect for those who served and the hardships they went through, no matter what they did during the war. I strongly recommend this, not just to film or aviation buffs, but to those who want to see an example of how you don’t need talking or much of a story to have a wonderful movie.

Final Grade: A-

 

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Movie Reviews – “The Sheik” (1921) and “Son of the Sheik” (1926)

 

 

Imagine if “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” combined with the creepy factor of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and you’d probably be left with something like these two films “The Sheik” and “Son of the Sheik.” Both of these films propelled its star Rudolph Valentino into the realm of living legends at the time, having previously been known for the tango scene in “Four Horseman.” But what Valentino had was a very strange aura of sex appeal – he wasn’t macho or damaged, but he was brave and vibrant, almost brooding, like James Dean.

Both of these films follow Valentino’s titular Sheik, an Arab leader that roams the deserts of North Africa along with his faithful soldiers, taking what they want along the way. In the first film, the Sheik kidnaps a young, independent woman from London and attempts to woo her so that he may win her heart. The second film follows the Sheik’s son (also played by Valentino, who also reprises his role as the Sheik), as he attempts to do basically the same thing his father did, only this time he tries to win the heart of a woman that wronged him.

In other words, like “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” these films’ version of romance is to have men kidnap women that they find attractive, hold them against their will, and just wait until they ultimately fall in love with their captors. Because Stockholm Syndrome is the greatest form of love!

Ultimately, I couldn’t get into either of these films, mostly because of how these romances are formed on such terrible barbaric acts, yet they try to play it off like the Sheik was acting purely out of love and that he was doing the right thing, when he most certainly was not. Valentino’s performances only make this even creepier when he has this face that looks like he’s one bad day away from becoming the Joker.

 

 

I would say that “The Sheik” is slightly better than “Son of the Sheik,” if only because of how the title cards make the desert feel far more alive than it should, with very detailed descriptions to give this pile of sand its own character. It also uses tints of different color to effectively describe the mood and tone of a scene, while “Son of the Sheik” is entirely black-and-white. While that film has double the Valentino and some better comedy, all charm and charisma he had at that point was thrown out the window when he fell in love with the woman that ruined his life for good reason.

I’m not sure if I would recommend these films to anyone outside of film buffs who want to see how Rudolph Valentino became a big star in the 1920s. They’re not bad movies, but they are uninteresting and dull movies. While the Stockholm Syndrome romances made these ones feel icky, they just feel like uninspired action set pieces of the silent era.

Final Grades:

“The Sheik” – C

“Son of the Sheik” – C-

 

Movie Review – “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” (1921)

 

 

Born to a half-French, half-German family, Julio (Rudolph Valentino), the son of an Argentinian cattle baron, is forced to reconsider his decadent and uncommitted way of life with the advent of World War I. “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” is a continent-spanning epic that drew in a worldwide audience and was one of the first films to try its hand at the anti-war genre, as well as the anti-German sentiment at the time of its release.

The film established Rudolph Valentino has a bonafide star, giving him the nickname of the “Latin Lover,” after his famous tango sequence early on in the film, making Valentino has well known in the Hollywood as other action stars such as Douglas Fairbanks.

 

 

“The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” has a vast ranges of sets and locations, including the high-society Paris and the South American pampas, even a full scale World War I battlefield of a French village being attacked by German soldiers. The visuals truly do compete with anything that D.W. Griffith had created up to that point with “Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance” helped even further with a booming live soundtrack and orchestra.

With all that being said, “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” moves at a snail’s pace its interesting scenes are few and far between. While the visuals and color filters are impressive for the early 1920s, the story has not aged as well as one would imagine, but gets better when viewed through the time capsule of World War I. Not a great movie, but one worth checking out just for the history and attempt to make an epic that spans multiple continents in the 1920s.

Final Grade: C-

 

Movie Review – “Nanook of the North” (1920)

 

 

A long time ago I said that unfunny comedies were the hardest films to review, since there was little to say outside of how the jokes didn’t work. That was before I realized that documentaries could be reviewed as well.

 

I find films fun and harmless to review and talk about, because they are recreations of life, but not perfect replicas of reality. Most of the time, movies are imaginative attempts to make the impossible seem like they could happen and not meant to be taken too seriously. But documentaries are the exact opposite of this philosophy – it takes the possible and makes it seem like it could never happen.

 

There is little to say about a documentary outside of “Yup, that sure happened,” without repeating exactly what the movie already said. But then a review becomes a written transcript of the film.

 

So bare with me while I take a look at the first documentary, “Nanook of the North.”

 

Released in 1920 by Robert J. Flaherty, a man who fully admitted he had no filmmaking experience prior to making this film, “Nanook” follows a family of Eskimos as they do their best to survive the harsh arctic climate and make a living of the little food and supplies they have. Flaherty had been making this film for years and took several trips up through the northern most parts of Canada, after spending a lifetime fascinated by the lives Eskimos lead.

 

 

 

Since this is the first feature-length documentary, the rules of filmmaking had not been established yet. Since documentaries as supposed to be as close as possible to reality, the filmmakers are to do as little as possible with their environment. But Flaherty openly admitted that many of the scenes in “Nanook” were staged, like the opening scene were Nanook and his family come into port and five family members, including a baby and a puppy, are all laying inside their small canoe.

 

As such, it is difficult to call this a documentary when so many scenes were done for dramatic effect, rather than what Eskimos would actually do.

 

There’s also a strange shift in narrative near the end of the film. The first fifty minutes follow Nanook and his family (though most of them were not related, these were just the most photogenic Eskimos), as they fish, hunt for walrus and build igglos. But suddenly, there’s a fight among Nanook’s dogs for dominance and there is a focus on the dogs from that point on. While Nanook skins a seal, they continually cut to the dogs who are growling for some of the seal meat, leading in to another fight amongsts the dogs that delays the Eskimos and gets them caught in a big snow storm. The title cards even admit that it’s the dogs fault.

 

For a film that wants to show all the hardships of living in the arctic, there is a big focus on dogs by the end of the film.

 

Overall, “Nanook of the North” is a strange documentary that would set the ground work for every documentary to come. It’s like “Birth of a Nation,” which took the many aspects that filmmaking had established up to that time and combined it, giving us the best that film could bring us up to that point. For 1920, “Nanook” is a massive achievement, even if many scenes were staged. For that, it earns my respect.

 

Final Grade: C+

 

Movie Review – “The Jazz Singer” (1927)

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It is strange that two of the most important movies of all time are also uncomfortably controversial. 1915’s “The Birth of a Nation” is the first feature-length film, as it was the first “film” rather than just a short 20-minute picture, yet the film portrays the African American community as evil, soulless barbarians who must be stopped and the KKK are the heroes of the film. Similarly, 1927’s “The Jazz Singer” is the first movie to feature sound and active dialogue, yet its main character is a white-male in black-face for most of the film.

But I give “The Jazz Singer” far more leyway than “The Birth of a Nation.”

In the 1927 film, Jackie Rabinowitz (Al Jolson) is a struggling singer trying to make it make it big outside of being a Cantor. He makes it big when a young woman on Broadway hears him sing and tells him to perform for their latest jazz show, on the condition that sing in black-face and have his name changed to Jack Robin. Much to the dismay of his traditionally Jewish family, with his father believing that he shouldn’t sing outside of a Synagouge, Jack takes the job but is disowned by his father.

As I said, this the first “talkie,” to which every film between 1928 and now owes everything to. The only scenes that feature any audio though are when Al Jolson is singing, with the rest of the film remaining silent with title cards are exaggerated silent-era acting. While some might find this distracting, “The Jazz Singer” makes it work due to the dual nature of Jack’s character living in two different worlds – One filled with overbearing parents stuck in tradition that remains silent, and another that is loud, vibrant and full of life and sound.

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It is fitting that the only time we hear Jackie is when he is singing, because that seems to be the only time he feels alive. While this was probably done due to technical limitations and still learning how this whole “sound” thing worked, the choice to go back-and-forth between silence and singing works well for “The Jazz Singer.”

Still, there’s no denying this film hasn’t aged well. The black-face is always off-putting, but understandable for the times since that was a common practice among Broadway performers in the 1920s. I’d say only watch this one if you’re interested in film history and wish to witness the first talkie.

Final Grade: C+

 

Movie Review – “Steamboat Bill Jr.” (1928)

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If you love classic cinema, this question is bound to come up – Who is funnier? Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton?

This answer always varies from film buff to film buff. Chaplin was more emotional in his comedy and love to have exaggerated body movements, like a Looney Tune. Keaton, on the other hand, was far more story-driven and was known for his stone-face expression, like all these crazy shenanigans had no effect on him. Chaplin was known for his sketches and segments, while Keaton was a stunt-man, pulling off insane jumps and moves that had audiences reeling and terrified back in the 1920s.

Both certainly had their strengths over the other, and it was easy to see why the two of them were the leaders in silent comedy. While I consider myself a bigger Chaplin fan than a Keaton fan, there is something to admire about the stunts that Keaton was able to pull off, most coming either “The General” or this film, “Steamboat Bill Jr.”

This is where Keaton perfected the famous cyclone sequence, where an entire town is destroyed by a storm and Keaton is stuck right in the middle of it. His bed is blown throughout the collapsing city, while he is later forced to move against the hurricane-force winds, while a large truck comes barreling the other direction. But perhaps the most notorious part is when the side of large stone building is about to fall right on top of Keaton, only for him to be standing exactly where the window is.

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As with every other Buster Keaton film at this time, there was no trick photography with this segment. That was a real building falling down on top of the real Buster Keaton. No wires if anything went wrong, no editing to make sure Keaton wasn’t in danger, and no stuntman.

This scene has been parodied so many times that it has almost lost all meaning, but this is something to be truly admired. To pull off large-scale stunts like this, creating a miniature town only to have it be torn apart by a gigantic windstorm, in 1928 when nothing to that scale had been done before, says a lot when people are still parodying it. Almost 80 years later, and we’re still impressed by Keaton’s skill as a comedian and a stunt-maker.

However, outside of the cyclone sequence, “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” does not have much else going on for it. There are a few other cute comedic sequences, like Keaton trying on a bunch of different hats and his strict father turning down every hat his son liked, but that’s about it. Nothing too impressive about the rest of the film, but it is worth it for the final cyclone scene.

Final Grade: B

 

Mini-Review – “Pandora’s Box” (1929)

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If there was one genre of film that silent German cinema was best at, it was tragedy.

Tragedy in film often works best when witness someone’s life literally fall apart by the choices they make and not listening to it, and watch how the world goes from loving them and adoring what they’ve accomplished, to tossing them away like a moldy piece of bread. Several German films captured this perfectly, like “The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari” and “Faust,” but now I can say that “Pandora’s Box” joins that group.

For a long time, I thought “Pandora’s Box” was a fantasy about the literal box given to Pandora that contained the world’s evils, but the film is actually about a young woman, Lulu (Louise Brooks), a temptress who enjoys using her ability to woo any and every man she comes across. Lulu isn’t afraid to flaunt this power over men in front of other men she has seduced, which leads to many of her men becoming jealous and resorting to dirty tactics to keep Lulu, which does not always work out in her favor.

Very quickly, the title of the film becomes clear – Lulu is Pandora’s box. She tempts men to do terrible and evil things, just for the sake of lust and jealousy. To win her over and be with her is to become one with your inner evil, whether you know it or not. Lulu convinces a man twice her age to marry her after the two are caught at his son’s gala event. But even during their wedding reception, Lulu sneaks off to make out with several different men, including the groom’s son.

Personally, I hated Lulu from the moment the film started. That is, until we reach the final act and we see Lulu at her lowest point.

After everything that has happened to her and all the people she dragged down with her, she cannot give up her lifestyle. She is living in an attic with a broken window and snow pouring into her only living space, with week-old bread that is almost frozen, and here she is getting ready to “go out on the town.”

Suddenly, everything became clear – She cannot change who she is, a temptress. She has accepted this lifestyle and willing to live it to the end. Even if she’s dirt poor and on the run from the police, that’s not going to stop her from conquering another male. And in the end, she pays for that.

That’s what makes “Pandora’s Box” a fascinating silent tragedy that is certainly worth checking out. Rather than relying on seduction through words and physical touch, this film is entirely about Lulu’s look and movements, yet she is able to do so much through that alone. While it is a bit slow at the beginning, it picks up near the end and has a great climax when Lulu’s fate becomes clear.

Final Grade: B