Tag Archives: silent film

Häxan – Review

1 Feb

For this review, let’s get a little weird, and by a little weird I mean a lotta weird. I’ve recently had the odd experience of watching a movie called Häxan, a 1922 Swedish-Danish film made by Benjamin Christensen. I’m not even gonna try and think of things to say about this movie, and instead I’m just gonna write whatever jumps into my mind about it. So without further ado, let’s dive into some insanity.

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To call Häxan a documentary would be a hilarious mistake, even that’s if Christensen originally intended to make. At the beginning and throughout the films are paintings and historical tidbits about witchcraft in order to better explain the topic that is being explored. Everything in between that are fictionalized scenes of witches holding ceremonies in the woods, cooking up potions in their homes, and the church torturing and burning those who are accused of such atrocious deeds. There’s a very memorable depiction of the devil (played by Benjamin Christensen himself). While a lot of it is fictionalized, it’s important to remember that Christensen put in a lot of time for research, which means beyond all the extravagant costumes and effects is some truth.

For a movie that’s about 94 years old, a lot of what I saw really blew me away. There are certain silent movies that floor me when it comes to their special effects, and Häxan is certainly one of them. There’s one excellent scene in particular that shows witches flying over a city, which was done by filming a model of a city that was rotating and the superimposing the “witches” over what they already shot. There are also some costumes that succeeded at supremely giving me the willies. With all of these effects and costumes and outlandish sets made this the most expensive Scandinavian film to be made at the time.

There’s so much fun to have with Häxan with all of the costumes, history, and creativity that Benjamin Christensen put into it. It’s also pretty fun to know that when this movie was first released, it was banned in America for the scenes of torture and nudity. All of these scenes are so laughably tame by today’s standards, but it was clearly a very controversial movie back in 1922. Now, I can admit that Häxan certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, I think the amount of people that would really like some of this tea is pretty limited. If you’re interested in silent film or film history in general, Häxan certainly is a trip down the rabbit hole.

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The Passion of Joan of Arc – Review

11 Sep

So, for this review, we are going waywaywayway back to 1928. At this point, film making is still relatively new. Edison’s actuality films have been around for a while, and we are well into the golden age of silent cinema. Film makers like F.W. Murnau have been taking the medium and turning it into a very expressive work of art that can be used for more than just simple entertainment purposes. One of the most important film makers, whose goal seemed to be achieving just this, was Carl Theodor Dreyer. I have already reviewed on of Dreyer’s movies, Vampyr, and can easily call it my personal favorite. In many people’s eyes, however, The Passion of Joan of Arc is considered his masterpiece.

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Joan of Arc (Maria Falconetti) stands trial for declaring that she has been sent by God to remove the English from France. The judges try to intimidate her with condemning words, false letters from King Charles VII, and eventually the threat of torture. Her fear of burning at the stake forces her to sign the confession, stating that she was lying the entire time. Later, in her prison, she is rethinking everything that she has done and recants her confession. This leads to an intense scene of her execution by fire and the riot amongst the public that this causes.

When executed properly, silent films can be even more powerful than modern day dramas that implement a lot of dialogue to convey the emotional intensity of a scene. Dreyer didn’t have this luxury and was forced to use other means to show just how straining physically, mentally, and spiritually this whole trial was for Joan. As a starting point, Dreyer had actual transcripts of the trial that had been meticulously recorded. This provided a lot of information that makes the film as good as it is. One outstanding instance of historical accuracy that can now be used as one of the greatest lines of dialogue in the film goes as follows: “Are you in a state of grace,” asks one of Joan’s judges. She replies with, “If I am, may God keep me there; if I am not, may He grant it to me.”

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Dreyer is really good with set design and moving the camera around in these sets. At the time, camera movement was not as fancy as it is today, but somehow Dreyer managed to completely step out of the box and create highly artistic and fluid motion. The sets in The Passion of Joan of Arc are almost completely bare and white. There are occasional shadows that evoke religious imagery, which is nice, but the set design is an excellent example of minimalism. The exterior scenes were also shot in a man made town square that had many of different mechanisms that had to be adjusted so that Dreyer could move the camera about and got the shots that he wanted. One exterior shot that really caught my attention was a extremely low angle shot looking straight up with people sprinting by the camera. It seemed like an incredibly daring shot, but looks fantastic nonetheless. Another great example of camera work is when the camera moves close to Joan and her judges in moments of intensity. That brings us to the close ups.

It is said that the producers of this movie were none to happy with Dreyer and the finished product. They spent a lot of money in making sure that the sets were large and starkly beautiful. Well, viewers don’t get too much time to admire the sets with all of the close ups that Dreyer uses. The amount of close ups was pretty much unheard of at this point. Not only that, but none of the actors were wearing make up.  That leaves a lot of close ups on actors that are completely natural, and lets face it, some of her judges are pretty freaky looking without make up. Dreyer firmly believed that the eyes were the window to the soul, which makes his decision to cast Maria Falconetti as Joan even more perfect. The close ups on Falconetti are mesmerizing, with her eyes seeming to look through the screen and straight into the viewer’s heart. This is one of the best performances ever put to film, and words really can’t do it justice.

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The Passion of Joan of Arc is an essential piece of film history that acts as a major foundation for making film into a legitimate means of artistic expression. For film standards in 1928, this is movie is extremely inventive and progressive. Moving away from what was considered to be a traditional film of the time, Dreyer creates a meticulous spiritual journey that we must travel with Joan. It’s beautiful, haunting, and will completely overwhelm you by the time that the final image burns into your mind.

The Artist – Review

8 Apr

In the beginning of cinema, film makers and the studios that backed them had the distinct challenge of telling a story without the use of dialogue, and relied on the talent of the actors and the use of montage. This was a magical time for movies that serves as the genesis for the films we know and love today. There are people who are turned off by the idea of silent films, and that’s the reason why I feel that Michel Hazanavicius’ Academy Award winning feature The Artist was a bold move that reflects his love of film and successfully captures an important and unique time in film history.

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George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the king of the silver screen. At the premier of his latest picture, a random fan, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), bumps into him leading to a front page headline. This chance encounter changes Peppy’s life as she begins rising through the Hollywood ranks, and getting bigger and better parts. Soon, the studio that Valentin works decides to start producing only “talkies” leaving Valentin in the dust. As Peppy’s career takes off, Valentin’s plummets to the lowest depths that the actor has ever experienced.

The Artist is a truly remarkable film that just goes to show that silent film still has the same power that it had 80 to 100 years ago. Like I said, this is a very magical time in the history of film, and Hazanavicius has recreated the feeling of the time and the mood of classic Hollywood films. This is a comedy, a drama, and a romance that isn’t just an homage to a simpler time, but also a great stand alone piece that is highly artistic, but never condescending. People with no prior knowledge to the time period will still have a great time, although if you’re a fan of these types of films you will probably better appreciate everything the film has to offer.

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Being a silent actor is not an easy thing to do because you have to rely on how well you can physically convey something. In this respect, every single actor in this movie knocks it out of the park. Dujardin deserves his Academy Award for Best Actor. His character is pompous, yet likable and even though he doesn’t talk, I understand his character very well and got very emotionally attached. I can say the exact same thing about Bejo’s character. While Dujardin’s character communicates to the audience with his over the top body movements, Bejo is very good with her face. What I mean by that is that she has a very broad smile and eyes that can switch the tone to sadness. Let me reiterate, this type of acting is very difficult and these two actors are absolutely superb. Oh, I almost forgot. Keep your eye on the puppy in this movie. Please.

The production design is beautiful. Shown in a 4:3 aspect ratio, the audience is from the very beginning thrown through time. This certainly is the farthest thing from IMAX. The title screen also completely mimics the titles of the time. I was smiling from ear to ear before the narrative even started. The sets are elegant and occasionally over the top. One great scene in particular shows a stair case from an angle that you don’t usually see in movies. Finally, what would a silent film be without its soundtrack? The soundtrack is more than appropriate. It’s almost eerie how well the music sounds in relation to the film. I loved it.

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The Artist is a magical film. I know, I know. That sounds completely corny, but as a person who has dedicated most of his life to film, it’s really a wonder to watch. In a culture that has become jaded by dialogue driven movies, it was so refreshing to see a silent film sweep all of the major awards, but also deserve every award it got. From the acting to the production design, this is a perfect movie. It’s easy to find faults in movies, but The Artist is absolutely flawless.

Vampyr – Review

12 Jan

An unusual feeling washes over me during each viewing of Vampyr. It’s a feeling I get after waking up from a bad dream and I start piecing together everything that happened, even though it doesn’t make too much sense. Like my bad dream, this film follows a different sort of logic. It’s a type of logic that only exists to disorient and confuse. Vampyr may not have the best plot or characters, but that’s not really what the movie is about. It’s about a superstition brought to life or it’s about a man experiencing a real life nightmare. Whatever it is, it can not be forgotten.

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Allan Grey (Julian West), a man very interested in the paranormal, arrives in the village of Courtempierre and finds a lot more than he thought he would ever come across. Dancing shadows lead Allan to a mansion where the master of the house (Maurice Schutz) is shot and his daughter is afflicted by a mysterious ailment. Grey begins reading a book left by the deceased master in which he learns of the vampire, a evil being who survive on the blood of the living. Matters are made worse when the village doctor (Jan Hieronimko) arrives and corrupts the young woman even more. Allan is forced to face the terror to save the girl and her family from the curse of the vampire.

From the very beginning of the movie, the viewer is bombarded with strange imagery and creepy figures who serve a purpose unknown, and will never be figured out. Like the purposes of these mysterious figures, the whole universe of the movie is hard to figure out. The story starts almost immediately, and we along with Allan have to slowly try to piece together everything that is happening. Too bad it’s like trying to piece together a nightmare that you had when you were sick with a 102 degree fever.

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I find the special effects in this movie much more interesting than the big blockbuster films of today. For 1932, these effects are out of this world. The most impressive scene is a party of dancing shadows that seem to fill an entire wall. To this day, I can not figure out Dreyer pulled this off so well. The other effects are also brilliantly executed, including one character having an out of body experience that was shocking the first time I saw it. I don’t know if I would call this a “special effect”, but to create the otherworldly atmosphere, a thin layer of gauze was put over the lens. That would be easy to fix in post production nowadays, but back then I can certainly recognize the ingenuity.

Speaking of ingenuity, let’s talk about the camera work. The panning and tracking shots are so precise and interesting, especially compared to the quicker editing style of the 20s and 30s. Instead, Dreyer prefers the long shot method and instead of cutting he simply pans to or tilts. It certainly fits better with the slow pace of the movie and is easy to love. This is also a very early sound film, and this is both good and bad. It’s bad because the audio when someone (rarely) talks sounds pretty terrible. I will say that it does kind of add an unintended creepiness to the entire movie.

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I would put Vampyr in my top 5 favorite movies for a number of different reasons. It’s creepy atmosphere has held up great for the entire 81 years it has been around, and the audio/visual advancements that this movie displays are beautiful. If you aren’t a fan of silent films or films that have a pretty loose plot, than Vampyr probably isn’t for you. If you can enjoy these kinds of movies, than Vampyr is one of the best of its kind.