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The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916)
Silent Historical Epic Deserves to be Better Known
This silent epic should be much better known than it is. It is based on the plot of an opera of the same name, describing a real revolt in Naples in the 17th century. The title character, Fenella, is the fictional mute sister of Masaniello, one of the key historical figures in that revolt. Fenella is played by ballerina Anna Pavlova, in her only full-length film. Unfortunately, Pavlova's broad acting style is better suited to ballet or opera, playing to the crowds in the back, rather than to the more intimate medium of film. On the other hand, she was one of the most famous dancers of her day, and this film is one of the very few records left to modern audiences to see her in motion.
Despite her top billing, the film does not hinge on Pavlova, and for the most part, this is really a beautifully made film. This was a Big-Budget picture when it was made -- the ornate costumes and sets are stunning. The scenes of the revolt are chaotic, real, and compelling.
Some of the actors, including Pavlova, as well as a few of the supporting roles, are guilty of the sort of overly theatrical acting associated with early movies. For the most part however, the acting is natural. I was particularly impressed by Douglas Gerrard, playing a nobleman who seduces and abandons Fenella in favour of his aristocrat fiancée.
Surprisingly, the film also works as a "silent musical". The early part of the movie includes a number of dance numbers showing a variety of styles, and not just those featuring the film's "star", Anna Pavlova. I would recommend this film for all of its parts.
They Won't Believe Me (1947)
Nice twist on the noir trope of the anti-hero being caught for the one thing he didn't do. The movie begins with the main character on trial for a murder he claims to be innocent of, explaining what "really happened." The story builds suspense as you wait to discover how he came to be in that position.
The cinematography is also attractive, more outdoor shots, instead of the usual dark alleys associated with noir movies.
So This Is Paris (1926)
Beautiful, Funny Romp
An extremely witty comedy, and lovely to watch. Monte Blue (Dr. Paul Giraud) in particular is great at silently mugging without becoming too ridiculous. The dialogue in the cards is funny and well-written. I love older movies in part because I am a fan of period dresses, and this film has some beautiful sets and costumes.
The story is about two married couples, all who secretly begin flirtations with the spouse in the other couple. The opening credits list a "French play" as the source of the movie but title aside, the action could in fact be set anywhere.
My only disappointment is that I would have wished for better music for the renowned dance party sequence. The version I saw had the Charleston played by an organ on the soundtrack (uncredited score by Ben Model). This probably came close to what 1926 audiences would have heard, but somehow seemed too refined for the mammoth, raucous, dance party shown on screen.
A Brilliant Film for any Decade
Wow. This film was so impressive.
The story begins as a well-crafted ghost story and turns into so much more. The movie begins by showing us the tragic ends of our characters and then goes back to see the downward path that brought them there. Even so, while the foreknowledge of their eventual fates creates pathos, the storyline is never predictable and often surprising. The acting is believable and moving, with a subtlety not always found in the silent era. The special effects, which seem to be done entirely using double exposures, are extremely convincing. Audiences must have been wowed 100 years ago.
Universal film about family affection and misunderstanding
This is a beautiful quiet film about people who care about each other deeply, but without any awareness of each other's point of view. It is this affection for each other that makes the film universal.
Other reviewers have focused on the clash between traditional pre-war Japanese values, and the influx of modern (for 1951) values. In a way, this can be seen in the way some family members go about organizing marriage for their presumed dependants, based on their own core values, without ever consulting the affected parties. For me, the real theme of the film is that this is not done out of pride, or any need to control others, but purely because none of the characters ever imagine that their own values are not universal.
This theme is played out repeatedly throughout the film. Married and unmarried women cannot stop championing to each other that their situation is better, to the point of driving a wedge between friends. A child assumes his desire for a particular toy will be taken up by all the adults around him. The family patriarch settles into his own contentment, oblivious to the fact his wife is unhappy because she is still mourning a lost child.
In the end, most of these divides between points of view are not resolved. Some get their way, others do not. But life continues, with every character still loving everyone else. It is this strong family bond that makes the film universal. My personal favourite in the Ozu universe.
A movie about a real-life Choice
Your reaction to this film will likely depend on your own values. The individuals shown in this film have come to where they are through personal and financial loss, and must perform sometimes degrading, low-income, seasonal jobs to survive, while contending with pity, incomprehension, and even anger from those still within mainstream society. Yet their lifestyle is a conscious choice. Most of the "performers" in the film are true nomads who have made this choice in real-life.
My husband considered the film depressing, because he could not bear to live in the conditions lived by the people in the film. What he, and others, saw is a film about a woman forced into a "homeless" nomadic lifestyle by economic hardship, scraping by. I found the film uplifting, because in my view, this film was about a lifestyle choice being discovered and eventually embraced, despite the pressures from mainstream society to return to their fold.
Beautiful Images, Minimalist Plot
While most people seem to love or hate this film, I have mixed feelings. It is a beautiful, slow-paced film, about emotion rather than actions or events. Limite is full of beautiful black and white film images that are beautiful to look at, as long as one is willing to just sit back and enjoy the scenery. Eventually however, the scenery becomes too repetitious. I think a more experienced filmmaker would have edited the film down a bit, but instead every artistic shot was kept.
The scenario (plot is too strong a word) involves three people adrift in a rowboat. The three have each cut themselves off from the world, and we see in their memories their separate paths to isolation. The memories are not the structured flashbacks normally used to advance a narrative, but instead shown as flashes of imagery, closer to the randomness of true human memories. The process works well for the first half, building an atmosphere of isolation for Woman # 1 and Woman # 2. However, the film begins to drag with Man # 1, whose backstory is oddly more complex.
If you enjoy a film that is a little different, experimental, or just like watching beautiful imagery, you might enjoy letting this film wash over you.
The General (1926)
A Physical Comedian at His Very Best
One of my new favourites as soon as I saw this. It is rare that I can sit at home with a laptop, and still laugh out loud watching a film. Keaton's acrobatic stunts are breathtaking and beautifully timed. I was wishing I had a working knowledge of steam engines, but it seemed that the actions are based on the way a train really worked, not on contrivances to further the plot or create a gag.
I know some people object to the film because Keaton's character is on the side of the Confederate army. This is a technicality; Keaton is not taking sides. The Union soldiers in the film are never shown as villains or buffoons. In fact, the movie works all the better because his adversaries are intelligent, competent men. The film would work equally well whichever side Keaton took, however the real-life incident which inspired the film involved Union soldiers stealing a Confederate train, so that is the plot. As there would have been survivors on both sides alive in the theatres when this film was made, a degree of neutrality would have been expected.
I recommend leaving the history aside, seeing the armies as representing "Side X" and "Side Y", and just enjoy watching Buster Keaton perform at the height of his art.