Category Archives: National Cinemas

National Cinemas: The Adventures of Prince Achmed

This being the second of two new reviews of 1926 films for the National Cinemas month on German Cinema (replacing a much longer essay I had planned to finish the month off with, but since it has been many months since September now I decided to formally use that essay for another purpose and not align it with the National Cinemas project, which I can now put to rest). 

So yes, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was not the first animated feature length release. That title is usually claimed a full eleven years earlier by a Lette Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed, but even here we find ourselves in murky waters. At least two other full length animated features are known to have existed and since been lost to the briny depths of film history, so in truth, neither Snow White nor The Adventures of Prince Achmed deserve the “revolutionary” claim they are often afforded. None of this really matters though; they are both stellar, all-time releases important less for their singular status (although rest assured, Achmed is indeed a singular film for other reasons) than for how sterling they are as art and storytelling even today. They are stupendous films, great when they were released, yes, but they would be as great still if they were released just today. Continue reading

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National Cinemas: Faust

This being the first of two new reviews of 1926 films for the National Cinemas month on German Cinema (replacing a much longer essay I had planned to finish the month off with, but since it has been many months since September now I decided to formally use that essay for another purpose and not align it with the National Cinemas project, which I can now put to rest). 

Eighty-nine years later, I don’t suspect that anyone really needs to let you know how gorgeous Faust is – it’s a German fable-horror film from the 1920s directed by FW Murnau – it’s gorgeous because of course it is. Sometimes, however, a film reviewer likes to state the obvious. Faust didn’t revolutionize film like Murnau’s previous Nosferatu or The Last Laugh or his latter Sunrise (all released in a snugly period of seven years; am I the only one who misses when filmmakers actually did stuff like make films without taking five or six years off in between projects?). But “it didn’t revolutionize film” is not exactly a fair argument against a film, or else we’d pretty much just be talking about the 1920s and Citizen Kane from now on.

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National Cinemas: The Killer

Edited June 2016

In the annals of action cinema, only a few directors regularly serve up meaningful main courses. Few really claim even one all-time classic, and if you increase the limit to two, you’re really counting on one hand. Thankfully, Hong Kong malevolence maestro John Woo has enough panache in his step and off-kilter edge in his frame to cover a full crash course on the genre. Perhaps the only action director whose demented fugue bathes his entire (pre-2000) canon in a gusto that marks his films as individual slices of a larger action opera, this only speaks with more fluency to Woo’s  oddly existential, personalized take on a genre typically reserved for more corporate penthouses. He’s a full-on longitudinal case study in hyperbolizing and electro-shocking violence and elevating it to an oblong poetry of human flesh and human desire trapped in perpetual motion, always searching for the next potential soul to take, or, for his ennui-addled protagonists, the next soul to find.

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National Cinemas: House of Flying Daggers and Kung Fu Hustle

House of Flying Daggers

I suppose that, at some level, Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers is a marital-arts action picture, and a pretty terrific one at that. The thing is, and this is no surprise for someone who knows a thing or two about Zhang Yimou’s history as a dramatist who uses color, framing, and motion to define mood and texture, it just doesn’t feel like an action film, and it functionally has almost no interest in being one. Yimou is a great director of action, but not necessarily an action director, if that makes sense; he takes what would be action in another film and transforms the excitement into a far different beast, much less about what is happening and who is defeating/ battling who than the motion of the filled-in spaces on screen and their battle with the empty spaces dancing around them. House of Flying Daggers is an exciting film, but its excitement is far too abstracted, too cognitive and distanced and reflective, to fit comfortably into the bounds of “action” as it is conventionally defined.
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National Cinemas: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

The first thing to note about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the most important: it is very proud of what it is, and makes no attempt to hide it. Lee’s film is a melodrama, unambiguously and unashamedly, and Lee directs with painterly flourish to match. He showcases the splendor and dignity of the work with magnificence and a sense of illustrious eminence, positioning it as part classical Hollywood epic (Lee is after all a highly Americanized director) and part Chinese mythmaking fable. Nothing about Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is played at the level of naturalism, and all of it enhances the opulence of a production which wears its honest drama on its sleeves. Continue reading

National Cinemas: In the Mood for Love

Here, in its final month, is where the National Cinemas project functionally comes undone and reaching for something a little broader becomes preferable, if not essential. You see, it is notoriously difficult, for reasons that exist far outside the world of film, to determine the nationality of many films with partial funding from mainland China. The greatest difficulty comes into play when Hong Kong is involved, and at the risk of avoiding the issue, the debate over Hong Kong’s nationality is very much a topic I am not sufficiently informed in to make my own decision on what shall qualify here. For this reason, this month will include films where the primary language is within the broadly defined group of Chinese languages, including Cantonese, Mandarin etc, and where the funding comes from any combination of the nations of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Not necessarily the best solution, I know, but for the time being It’ll have to do.

If one is to search for designated auteurs in the modern era (and we have precious few in an increasingly arid well), there are a few names that routinely pop up, but chances are that Wong Kar-wai is right up there. Hong Kong’s shining light, he is one of the few Chinese directors to escape the essentialism of international demands for a career in chop sockeying (although even then talented minds like Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou have essentially transformed that genre into humanist poetry of color and geometry, so there’s to the talent of Chinese filmmakers to turn pigeonholing into a subversive strength).

Kar-wai’s films are classicist dramas, worldly and weary and aware of their international status in their almost mythic exploration of sighing human drama. They seem like they could have come right off the boat from 1950, but they also know a breathier modern quality, a sense of liveliness never lost to Kar-wai’s all-seeing eye. They reflect an old-school filmmaking mentality seldom seen today, but they are uniquely primed for modern-day China, works equally comfortable with their intimate world in a specific locale and the wide-reaching humanity they dance with and caress in their very specificity. He’s a maker of masterpieces, he is, and if you want to discuss Kar-wai’s intricate perfectionism and impressionist color-as-emotion collages that are at once judiciously composed and free-flowing with spur-of-the-moment zest, you really must begin with the man’s all-time masterpiece among masterpieces, and the best work of cinematic art produced in the still young century to this day: 2000’s In the Mood for Love. Continue reading

National Cinemas: The Wages of Fear


The Wages of
Fear, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s famed French-Italian white-knuckle thriller was and is almost incomparable as an exercise in hair-raising. It is so well edited, choreographed, acted, and composed that one almost wishes to reduce it to the level of thriller alone (not that, with this skill, it would be “reducing” per-se). Yet Clouzot was not, nor was he ever, simply content to thrill. His scabrous films simply used the conventions of thriller cinema to chill to the bone, to indict and valuate, to scare, to hope, and to leave nothing in their wake. His 1953 work is absolutely one of the most thrilling films ever released, yet this does the texture of the piece a disservice. If it is Hitchcockian, and Hitch is the director Clouzot is almost always compared to, then it evokes Hitch on all his levels, not simply thrilling but tacitly provoking and confronting society’s very base construction and the nastier aspects of the human condition under a thin membrane of sharply composed set pieces. Continue reading