Film Review

The Jazz Singer (1927) poster

Poster now with 50% less racism!

‘The Jazz Singer’! We’ve done it – we’ve breached the ‘talkies’. Sort of. If there are two things that ‘The Jazz Singer’ is known for, it is the tremendous step forward of recorded sound, and the use of blackface. Thanks Hollywood: is every major breakthrough going to be accompanied by racism? Well, ‘The Jazz Singer’ is actually not what you’d expect at all. It’s not got sound throughout, and the blackface is in a few short scenes for (arguably) an understandable reason, but we’ll get onto all that in a bit.

The film follows the story of a young Jewish boy who is the son of a prominent Cantor. While his father wants him to spend his life singing prayers, but the boy’s true passion is Jazz. After a confrontation, the boy is banished, and runs away to pursue a career in show business. Fast forward ten years, and young Jakie Rabinowitz has changed his name to Jack Robin, and is preparing to perform in his Broadway debut, but trouble on the home front draws him into a confrontation with both his father, and his own racial identity.

That’s where the blackface comes into the picture. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ this is not, and while a modern audience would be well within their right to call the film out on the gratuitous use of blackface, it, understandably, wasn’t criticised at the time. The blackface is used to show Jack forsaking his own Jewish heritage and becoming part of the larger American culture, as well as becoming unrecognisable to his own family and friends. Sure, this wouldn’t fly today, and it isn’t the sort of thing to be encouraged, but the film uses it to not pass judgement or criticise any race in particular, but as a noticeable message communicating a theme to its audience.

On a less controversial note, let’s get onto that recorded sound. As I mentioned, it doesn’t run throughout the entire song, and there are still long moments of silent cinema with title-cards galore, but each of the nine songs in the film show the actors singing and have well synced sound running in time with them. On a few small occasions, the actors finish a song and continue to speak with sound, which does feel revolutionary and fresh, especially after watching so many purely silent films recently. On the whole, the sound – even just the ambient sound of applause or someone banging on a table – is exciting and makes you appreciate how far film has come over the last century.

The acting is all phenomenal, with Al Jolson making a truly strong and commendable performance, along with May McAvoy, appearing both powerfully confident and innocently young. Directed by Alan Crosland, the film is an adaptation of the 1922 stage play ‘The Day of Atonement’ by American short-story writer, playwright, and later screenwriter, Samson Raphaelson. All comes together to make a truly powerful piece of cinema which captures you imagination in startling ways, and tells a terrific story.

At the end of the day, ‘The Jazz Singer’ holds up for the most part. While the blackface will (and rightly should) turn off many modern day viewers, the story is powerful and moving, as it struggles to honestly tell the tale of a man finding his place in the world, casting aside his family and his heritage, and discovering a new life in a new time. And for the film to take the first tentative steps away from silent cinema, it tells a parallel story of film itself growing and changing, and adapting to the changing times.

4/5 – Love It
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Age of Ultron poster

Some of the best moments in Cinematic History look just like this poster…

And so we begin possibly the most exciting year in movies for decades. ‘Jurassic World’ is set to remind us how terrifying dinosaurs are, ‘Spectre’ is set to bring back Bond’s most powerful nemesis, and ‘The Force Awakens’… well, do I even need to explain? First and foremost, perhaps, is ‘The Avengers: Age of Ultron’, which takes us back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe once more, to put a close on Act Two, and take the third highest grossing movie and most important cinematic moment of the last few years to new heights.

But does ‘Ultron’ surpass the first ‘Avengers’ film? In a word: Yes. The first ‘Captain America’ movie had a fairly simple plot, which had its sights set on the end goal for the entire runtime. In ‘The Winter Soldier’, there are twists and turns throughout, which blur the lines of what the final confrontation will be, and make the whole experience more fresh and engaging. So too, with ‘Age of Ultron’. Whereas ‘Avengers Assemble’ had a very simple plot of “get the crew together, get them to fight together, get them to fight the bad guy”, ‘Age of Ultron’ begins in medias res, with the entire crew of the Avengers battling their way to one of the final Hyrda bases to take back Loki’s stolen staff.

From there, the film blends together the weird mix of genres from each film, making something that is, once again, totally unique. From the fantastic party scene early on, showing off all the character and secondary characters (Falcon and War Machine, included), The Avengers themselves are at this point believable and interesting characters, with their inner rivalries becoming all the more interesting because you can be on two characters side at the same time.

Enter Ultron.

Ultron himself is a tremendous villain, balancing the wacky dialogue of Joss Whedon with the menacing presence of James Spader, but the greatest success of his character is his creation. The whole story throws a brilliant twist on the Frankenstein story, with Tony Stark being a commendable figure with a noble goal, but his creation begin just as evil and all powerful as most accidental monsters are. Similarly, Captain America’s opposition to the creation of Ultron in the first place is both justifiable and completely in line with his overall character.

Being a sequel to several different films, you already know all the characters, and can almost predict their reaction by this point, but it also makes it more difficult to see any of theses characters as villains. You know that Stark is not a bad guy, despite his meddling in the wrong place, because we’ve seen four films of him doing that and getting good results. Similarly, Captain America doesn’t come across as a kill-joy, because we’ve seen him be the voice of reason and fairness in three previous films.

To that end, the film does a fantastic job of taking the spotlight off Thor, Cap, and Iron Man, and shifting it to Hulk, Black Widow and (surprisingly) Hawkeye. They understandably took a back seat in the first film, yet here they have important sub-plots which actually make you care about the forgotten Avengers. If you had told me last week that Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye would be the emotional heart of the film, I would have laughed in your face, but he really pulls it off. Mainly by being the least powerful character, but also the one with the most to lose.

Going back to the subject of sequels, however, highlights another way the film shines. While there is plenty of ground laid for the upcoming two-part third Avengers film, this does not feel like it is bridging the gap. It’s not a sequel to anything really – its another films that happens to continue the story of the larger Marvel Universe, and it could work as a stand-alone film very well. While references and in-jokes may be lost, and the characterisation wouldn’t come across in the same way, ‘Age of Ultron’ simply works as a damn good movie.

On the technical side, there are a huge number of tracking shots, and I’m always a sucker fro tracking shots. The Projects sequence from ‘True Detective’ and the New Year’s Eve scene from ‘Boogie Nights’ stand up as some of my favourite screen moments, but ‘Age of Ultron’ could top them all. For a start, the film begins with a huge tracking shot of the entire Avengers crew diving in and out of one-another and watching each others backs as they push through a huge battle with Hydra, and without wishing to spoil anything, one of the final climactic moments turns out to be a slow motions continuous take of the Avengers playing king-of-the-hill against and endless onslaught of robots. While the introductory sequence seemed a little bit too CGI, it wasn’t anywhere near as noticeable as ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’, because you’re watching super heroes move in ridiculous, inhuman ways, and not a close up of a ‘Total War’ game. Oh, and the sequence concludes with all the Avengers on screen at once, leaping forward in slow motion.

‘The Avengers: Age of Ultron’ seriously kicks arse. While it a noticeably long film, you will struggle to get bored; in part due to the tremendous performances from everyone involved. While the Big Three are of course, a joy to watch, the stand out performances were Johansson, Ruffalo and Renner, who each reinvigorated their characters with emotion and depth they hadn’t had until now. Honorary mentions go to Andy Serkis (always a pleasure to see him with a mouthful of scenery) and both Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen as the Maximoff twins, proving that they are not only great actors, but that they’re chemistry truly was the best thing about them in ‘Godzilla’.

And finally, it stands to reason to commend Joss Whedon for knocking it out of the park again. As long as he continues to make exciting and interesting films this good, I’ll forgive him for not making another ‘Firefly’ film.
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Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) poster

Once a murderer, always a- Nah! He’s a great guy, really…

Things are really picking up steam now – we’re a week away from the end of the silent era of Hollywood Cinema, and we’ve already taken a look at one of the most ground-breaking films of the silent era. But before we bid farewell to silent film, there is one final entry, in the form of 1927’s ‘Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans’.

While not a best picture, ‘Sunrise’ was honoured at the first ever Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, which looked back at films from 1927 and 1928. There, it won the Award for Best Unique and Artistic Quality of Production, on the only occasion that award has ever been given out. Janet Gaynor also won the award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, which was attributed to this film, and a number of other works over the course of her career. The movie was also able to win Best Cinematography. Furthermore, before we get into it, it is worth mentioning the director: F. W. Murnau.

If that name means anything to you, you probably know that Murnau was the man who directed 1922 German film ‘Nosferatu’. In 1926, Murnau chose to emigrate from Germany to America, moved to Hollywood, and began working at the Fox Studio. Here, he immediately began work on ‘Sunrise’, an adaptation of the novel ‘Die Reise nach Tilsit’ (‘The Trip to Tilsit’), by German novelist Hermann Sudermann, who passed away a year after the film’s release.

The film follows the story of a man in the midst of an affair with a woman from the city. She has asked him to sell his farm and move with her to live in the city, but he must first drown his wife. When the time comes, he finds himself unable to do it, and the couple begin a reconciliation process as they travel around the city, before returning home to (hopefully) begin their life together anew.

One thing is for sure; ‘Sunrise’ is e beautiful movie. The German Expressionism of Murnau’s early work makes its way into the film to give the occasional distorted scene, and there is a great use of the overlaid shots (used tremendously in ‘Metropolis’) to show the inner thoughts of the characters and really draw you into their mind. Finally, one scene in particular appears to be the grandfather of green screen technology, even though Blue Screen would not be fully invented for three years, and it would be decades before it was fully recognised as a film-making technique.

Murnau surely brought great performances out of his actors. Certainly, Gaynor’s work was phenomenal, and she was thoroughly deserving of her award, but George O’Brien puts in stellar work as a broken man, down on his luck, and desperately trying to recover his love and life. Margaret Livingston plays The Woman from the City, whom the man is willing to kill his wife for, and her interestingly complex portrayal makes a character that could seem cartoonish evil, come across as more real and believable.

While the movie is likely to make you tear up on a number of occasions, it is the sort of film that requires you to push a few nagging thoughts from your head to truly enjoy. Firstly, why is the woman taking back her husband? Didn’t he try to murder her early in the film? Wasn’t he having an affair before deciding to try and murder her? Did they honestly leave their baby at home for the whole day? Seriously, didn’t he try to murder her at the beginning?

That said, this is a film about two people falling in love all over again. It is a film about coming to terms with the city, and learning that it isn’t an ominous and dangerous place, but an exciting and advanced new world. It is a film that is so simple, it just has to work. ‘Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans’ is not about the bleaker parts of life, but the special and honest moments instead, and the true beauty of love. And for that, this simple little film has to be seen, for drawing so much from the silent era, and blending it seamlessly into a picture that is at once moving, and imaginative.

4/5 – Love It
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Metropolis (1927) poster

‘My name is ‘Metropolis’, king of films:
Look on my robot, ye Mighty, and replicate!’

With the age of sound fast approaching us, let’s take a look at a silent film which takes the epic scope of the early Griffith movies, adds in the grand architecture of Lon Chaney’s movies, and the revolutionary styles of German expressionism. Well, that’s the review for ‘Metropolis’ out of the way – time for lunch.

Okay, okay, okay…

Released in 2027, ‘Metropolis’ follows the story of a social uprising in the science fiction urban dystopia of the title. The film was directed by Fritz Lang, who would later direct ‘M’ (which we’ll cover in the future), based on a screenplay written by himself and his wife. At the time of its release, it was the most expensive film at the time of its release, costing around 16 million USD adjusting for inflation. Now we have to take a closer look at the film.

In an age when your average Hollywood blockbuster would cost you hundreds of millions of dollars, ‘Metropolis’ still holds up very well for its use of practical effects and miniatures. Scenes of the giant skyscrapers separated by scattered freeways and biplanes making their way from place to place conjure a city that is real very much alive. In the same way you feel this life and depth to the city, you can really feel the weight of all of this pressing down upon the workers who live in the bowels of the urban sprawl. A place where gardens and theatres are perched atop a skyscraper, the ground itself conjured images of a slum, and deep beneath the earth are the factories which keep the city alive.

The cinematography for the film was especially pioneering, as many occasions show layered and patchwork mixtures of various images to reflect the bustling business of the higher world. One scene showing a character’s first venture into the land of the rich and powerful evokes the images of montages showing off wealth and splendour. In a similar vein to ‘A Page Of Madness’ using the editing to give you a look inside the broken psyche of the characters, ‘Metropolis’ uses it to show the wonder and amazement of the characters surrounded by bright lights and loud costumes.

While the expressionistic and exaggerated style is great for the story and themes, the costumes and props work as a great indicator of the time. While the majority of the costumes are the standard 1920s attire, the scenes in the laboratory during the creation of the robot “Hel” strike a tremendous balance between the magical imagery of ‘The Thief of Bagdad’, and the super-serious science of ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’. It is a brilliant balance of science and fiction, making the story feel both real and fun. But the design of the robot itself was so spot on, that it is no wonder the film stands the test of time.

The robot of ‘Metropolis’ is one of the most recognisable images when people look back at the works of silent cinema, and it is obvious why. While Lon Chaney was creating visually unique and interesting make-up techniques to give his performances more of a visual edge, the robot was designed in such a way that everyone has seen it in one way or another. Whether you are a fan of ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Mass Effect’, science fiction has been forever reimagining itself, but paying homage to the iconic design, in either C-3PO or the physical manifestation of EDI, the roots of ‘Metropolis’ and its design can still be found today.

It is perhaps this reason that ‘Metropolis’ should be required viewing over everything else. While the story, themes, characters and music all hold up brilliantly, it is the iconic power of this silent epic which continues to resonate today.

5/5 Build Shrines To It.
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The General (1926) poster

Pictured here: The entire film.

With Chaplin often considered the very best of silent comedy, Buster Keaton often goes all too as forgotten or overlooked. Now, following on from a tremendous performance by Chaplin in ‘The Gold Rush’, I’m taking a look at a piece by Keaton that was considered a tremendous flop, and apparently lost him the approval to make most of his creative decisions in his films. Is ‘The General’ bad, though? Well, Orson Welles (the man often credited with making the greatest film of all time), described the film as “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made” – so it must be pretty good.

Last time we looked at a piece by Buster Keaton, my biggest complaint was that it was too short and wavered around in the story department. On this occasion, those point were worked out perfectly. The film feels the right length, and the story is condensed enough to allow the film to revolve almost entirely around two long chase scenes. While I was annoyed by ‘Sherlock Jr.’ taking such a long time setting up a scenario that wasn’t sufficiently resolved, ‘The General’ sets up everything it needs to in the first few minutes, and the action kicks off almost immediately.

The action takes place almost entirely on a moving train, with Keaton’s engineer character running backwards and forwards trying to keep the engine running, while also avoiding traps and, later, setting them. The craziness of the stunts in the film makes the tension artificially heightened, with Keaton not solely performing brilliant physical and slapstick comedy, but also doing so on a moving train, often jumping from carriage to carriage at high speeds. One of the biggest surprises was just how much comedy could come from a single character in a single location (admittedly a moving one) and with a single goal. At first, anything that ends up posing some form of harm to the protagonist ends up resolving itself without him noticing, and later, it turns out that many of his comical errors work out for the best in the end.

One of the most beloved things about Buster Keaton is his character’s simplicity. No matter what the situation, he is the little man trying to do good. This is part of the reason I was disappointed by ‘Sherlock Jr.’, as his powerful alter ego takes over for the majority of the screen time, and we don’t get a chance to see him battle for his success. In ‘The General’, Keaton is always the little man that could, and spends his time working flat out to achieve his noble goal while proving that he may not be the most competent man in the room – although he is always the best man.

It’s this careless innocence that allows the film to get away with an awful lot. Every time he gets off the train for one reason or another, you can bet that the train will begin moving again and force him to chase it down. You can also bet that it’ll be funny every time, either because the humour has been raised to the right level, or because Keaton always has some tremendous reaction to every situation. There is also the fact that, in the second half, Keaton is making a getaway with the female lead, and the pair’s dynamics are a joy to behold. By this point, Keaton has gone through all this before, and has a chance to play the straight man to Marion Mack’s comic relief. On the one hand, seeing her taking a break to sweep the floor of the train or turning herself into a damsel in distress by trapping herself on the train is a little cringe worthy – but on the other hand, a recurring joke of her picking the smallest pieces of firewood to stock the engine is always hilarious.

At the end of the day, ‘The General’ is a true, rip roaring adventure that cleverly plays on the ideas of staging and character, and is able to make a thoroughly tremendous chase scene into an entire movie. The film is defiantly worth watching, as it is one of those films that you will never have seen anything like it before.

4/5 Love It

A Page of Madness (1926) poster

The creepy clown tradition seems to run pretty deep…

And so, Japan. Back before their popular culture had taken over the entire world and their film industry had settled into the mould of mass-producing constipation-curing horror movies, they were taking drastic measures to differentiate themselves from other film industries around the world. In a similar vein to Germany’s love-affair with the expressionist approach, in 1926, director Teinosuke Kinugasa dove head-first into the fight against naturalism in films.

‘A Page of Madness’ follows the story of a janitor working at an insane asylum, who is married to one of the patients. The couple’s daughter arrives to tell them about her recent engagement, and the family begin to delve into their deepest, most haunting secrets and memories. Well, at least that’s what Wikipedia thinks.

One of the biggest problems with ‘A Page of Madness’, is that the original film print was lost for around 45 years, and when it was discovered in the 70s, a third of it was missing. Another problem is the lack of any title-cards, as the theatrical version would feature a narrator in – similar to Chaplin’s ‘The Gold Rush’, only live. Without a real sense of the story, and the fact that it is cut rather short, it should seem strange that this film even makes it onto the list. And in all honesty, the film is a bit of a mess, in the story telling regard.

But, that does not bring it down as a waste of time. In some cases, like ‘The Birth of a Nation’, the story can actually be the most harmful thing for a movie. I’m not suggesting that it’s not necessary – my favourite part of films is usually the storyline – but in some cases, a lacklustre script can be used as a great way to showcase a style, theme or technology. Everyone can appreciate that the script for ‘Avatar’ was pretty shoddy, but the draw of the film is the one-of-a-kind CGI work and special effects.

The biggest strength for ‘A Page of Madness’, therefore, is its fantastic work is setting a tone. For the opening sequence, a slideshow of maddening footage is cut together quickly and efficiently, causing a sweet sense of insanity. The use of shadows, set design and staging, create the illusion of the asylum being more than just a physical place – the characters are trapped within a labyrinthine prison located in their own minds. The simple act of putting it on screen, shoving it in the audience’s face, forcing them to look, thrust you into that same mind-set. The creaking, moaning musical accompaniment also helps to build this atmosphere of insanity, which wears away at you after a while.

‘A Page of Madness’ becomes a chore to watch – and not in the way you might be thinking. It isn’t boring like ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’, it isn’t oppressively vile like the second act of ‘The Birth of a Nation’, but it is maddening in its own right. It’s the sort of onslaught of images, music and general motifs that brings you to the point of insanity yourself, and really forces you to connect with some of the characters on a deep and emotional level. The film is raw, thought-provoking, and dangerous, with a sense that it will never end – helped in a large part of you not really knowing where the story is going.

When that end does come, after only an hour, it is exhausting. It’s the sort of film where you need to take a long walk outside after you finish it. But it certainly works from an artistic perspective. On the one hand, this film felt like it was physically assaulting me. On the other, I had no idea what was going on, or why I should care – this did help quite a bit with setting up the former. I honestly don’t know whether it is worth watching. I think I will again, one day, when the scars have healed, but in the meantime, I don’t really wish to set myself up with that level of torture again. But it is an experience, certainly, and I suppose that in order to full acquaint yourself with the honest power of film, then ‘A Page of Madness’ will give you an experience you aren’t likely to forget for a long time.

3/5 – Watch It

The Gold Rush (1925) Poster

Written, directed, produced by, and starring ‘The Walking Film Studio’.

So far in this history of film, I’ve taken a look at some good movies – great even. I’ve taken a look at some rubbish, and sometimes offensive movies. And I’ve taken a look at a film by Charlie Chaplin, a man who has gone done in history as one of the greatest forces in Silent Cinema. For good reason, too – his 1921 film, ‘The Kid’, was a beautiful piece of emotional storytelling and intense silent comedy but it was this film, ‘The Gold Rush’, which Chaplin made to be his masterpiece.

Now, I have to be honest about something here, straight off the bat: I did not watch the 1925 original. Instead, I watched the 1942 re-release of the film. This different version featured a musical new score and a narration by Chaplin himself. I say this here, because (spoiler alert) I’m about to heap praise upon the film, and a large amount of it comes from this technological innovation from nearly two decades later.

Reacquainting us with The Little Tramp, ‘The Gold Rush’ follows the story of Chaplin’s most beloved character during the Klondike Gold Rush from 1896 – 1899. The action takes place in a small cabin near a gold mine, and then later in a small boom-town at the foot of the mountain. Similarly, the story first involves the greed and humour of three very different people in a confined location, before later following the Little Tramp’s pursuit of love once he leaves the mountain.

The story is solid. The action moves at a great pace, and there is little chance to become bored throughout the running-time of the film. This may have something to do with the aforementioned re-release, for which the film was edited a second time to help the flow. The Chaplin’s own narration also helps with this – the action becomes easier to follow with the powerful voice of the leading man guiding you through it. It also relieves you of those pesky title-cards, which continues to contribute to the flow.

It shows that Chaplin wanted to be remembered by this film, as it is perhaps the most visually impressive of his films. A shot toward the end of Chaplin and Mack Swain trapped in a small cabin that teeters over the edge of a cliff is spectacular, and, given the time in which it was recorded, is especially impressive. Whether you’re watching the small house rock from side to side, or seeing the two people sliding from one end to the other, or even out of the door towards the gaping abyss that hangs below them, it is a stunning sequence.

The second half of the film is, as I said, following the story of The Little Tramp as he attempts to win the heart of a young dance-hall entertainer, who at first views him as just a funny little man and a walking joke. This perception shifts into a curiosity, and later into full blown appreciation, admiration, and love. The story is sweet; it is sombre; it heart wrenching; and it is beautiful. The whole thing builds to a perfect finale, in which Chaplin tries to throw a curve-ball and suggest a final, unfortunate misunderstanding – but it all turns out fine at the end of the piece.

At the end of the day, Chaplin achieved what he set out to do. He created a masterpiece. It may not carry the same raucous hilarity of Buster Keaton’s work, but it is a very different film. ‘Sherlock Jr.’ was a piece of comedic stunts and clever set-pieces that served to heighten the plot; it was comedy first, story second. Chaplin’s own ‘The Kid’, was a situational story, for which a lot of the heart came from the relationship between the characters. ‘The Gold Rush’ is the story of a man. Is he the richest man? Is he the most handsome? Does he really know what he’s doing? No. But he is arguably the best man. A man with class, honour and respect – and a certain amount of perseverance. The film is his triumph, and I am glad to have witnessed it.

Not only would I say this film is required viewing, I would say that it is the sort of film that, should aliens ever come to visit and demand proof that the human race is worth saving from extinction, we should show them. ‘The Gold Rush’ is a genuine achievement, and more than worth your time.

5/5 – Build Shines to it.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) poster

Duuur Dun. Duuur Dun. Dur Dun Dur Dun Dur Dun…

So far, it has been a pretty well accepted fact that Hollywood silent horror movies are, more or less, pretty bad. Germany has, so far, been entirely where horror has been allowed to bloom during the silent years, yet that hasn’t stopped the US from trying. Horror movies can do so well in a silent setting; where it is all about striking visual design and haunting musical scores. And we’ve already seen that Hollywood was able to figure out how to make decent movies, so let’s give them another chance with the horror genre…

As we learnt from ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, Lon Chaney was a true juggernaut of his day. Not only was he an accomplished actor, but he was a tremendous make-up artist, who pioneered the way for a lot of the special effects make-up we see today in films. And straight off the bat, the make-up work he did on ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ is fantastic. He creates a haunting, wraithlike image of a murderous and tormented spectre, which chills me to the very core. On the other hand, part of what made ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ so good, was that Chaney’s athletic and energetic performance gave real life to the titular character, whereas in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, his dramatic (and admittedly operatic) performance makes his character laughable.

Luckily for the film, it took the same approach that other silent-era Hollywood blockbusters did, and focused on the grand set design and music, as well as having a competent director behind the camera. This is no ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’; instead, it has the grandeur of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ or ‘The Thief of Bagdad’, while also taking atmospheric and stylish lighting cues from the cinema of Weimar Germany. The Paris Opera House is a strikingly impressive set that drips with elegance and importance, while also having the atmospheric sense of foreboding that helps to make the film stand out as a horror picture.

The musical score helps with this – the encroaching sense of evil lurking in the shadows is suggested through the music, even if there is nothing deliberately horrifying happening on screen. Similarly, the visual horror comes more from what is suggested that what is seen. Similar to ‘Nosferatu’, shadows and silhouettes are used with a striking and terrifying purpose to communicate the horror to an audience, and allowing their imagination to fill in the blank spaces. Once this nerve-racking tension has been created, the film drops the audience in otherwise mundane situations with a heightened sense of dread. One scene in a flooded labyrinth of tunnels beneath the opera house reminded me of ‘Jaws’ for all the right reasons.

When the ending to the film finally comes, it comes in two ways. While you have the traditional Hollywood ending of a courageous hero saving the day and rescuing the girl, there is an even darker ending suggested in the final moments. In a final attempt to rid the city of the Phantom once and for all, the residents of Paris band together and chase it through the streets with touches and pitchforks, in display of mob-justice highly reminiscent of the French Revolution – despite it ending a couple of centuries beforehand. Yet, as the Phantom himself is a ghost of the Revolution, it enforces the idea that the people are the true villains of the picture, and the Phantom is merely a physical reminder of atrocities committed by those people in the first place. The film ends with the unnerving idea that the wrong people won, and perhaps the cycle is destined to repeat itself again in the future.

For its tense and creepy atmosphere, its pioneering and horrifying make-up, and its understated but worrying ending, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ proves that Hollywood was capable of making horror movies in the Silent Era. While it may not have the same visual flare of ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ or take the same route of creative adaptation as ‘Nosferatu’, it plays to its own strength and highlights a lot of what really worked in the Silent Era for Hollywood. For anyone looking for an old, true thrill ride, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ is a great film to watch, and certainly comes with a recommendation.

3/5 Watch It

Battleship Potemkin (1925) Poster

“Shhhh! Keep it down, cannon!”

Propaganda Films; they are made to showcase the views of filmmakers either for or against particular topics. While it’s true that almost all films will have some sort of message behind them, propaganda movies are less subtle about it. Well, usually. ‘Battleship Potemkin’ was released in 1925 and had far less impact on the world than ‘Birth of a Nation’, yet it still happens to be in direct support of a political movement. So, without further ado, let us take a look at the first Russian movie on our list…

In 1917, Russia left the First World War to embark upon their own bloody crusade of cultural and social revolution. The one of the biggest problems with ‘Battleship Potemkin’, therefore, is that it was made in support of a government that had been in power for eight years by that point, and fails to take any risks with the concept. The purpose of the film is to glorify the struggles of the sailors aboard the titular Battleship, and show the tremendous brutality of the Tsarist government. The few character that appear in the film are honourable caricatures subjected to horrific conditions, who are forced to fight back for the rights they deserve.

As the sailors of the Potemkin prepare for their own revolution, the stakes are high and the tension is at a fever pitch. The setting helps the characters through its constrained and claustrophobic environment, as a huge number of sailors struggle for space aboard a ship in the middle of the ocean. ‘Battleship Potemkin’ is all about imagery, so it helps that (for the most part) the images on screen are striking and emotional. Unfortunately, aside for the intended visual ideas, the film is a mess.

The acting in the film is stale, and past the half-way point in the film, I can barely remember what happened. A scene involving a massacre had at least some level of interesting visual flare, yet it lacked the true detail of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ or the expressionist nature of ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’. Apart from the overwhelming importance of the acts on screen, the film has little to offer in the way of characters or context. Instead, it wildly leaps from scene to scene with blistering ferocity and settles on… not a lot.

It’s a wonder as to just who this film was made for. It was released during the power struggle following Lenin’s death, yet it doesn’t fall heavily in favour of any of the potential candidates for leadership. The original introduction written by Trotsky was cut from the film when Stalin gained power, but other than that, what does the film actually say? The Bolsheviks are good and the Tsarist suck? Russia learnt that in 1917. Anyone who thought differently was dead by this point. Perhaps a level of bias comes into this, as I am A, Not Russian, and B, Not a Russian in 1925.

Perhaps at the time it was good to indulge in a little political wish fulfilment; re-watching the Odessa Steps Massacre and pretending that your side didn’t commit plenty of atrocities of its own must be one of the main selling points for the film. As we learnt from ‘The Interview’, a terrible film can become widely popular if you mercilessly bastardise the right people. But this film is not worth your time.

2/5 Miss It.

Sherlock Jr. (1924) poster

Pictured here: the protagonist for the first half of the film…

So my biggest complaint with last weeks film, was that it was too long. Without wanting to entirely give away the point of this review in the opening paragraph, the opposite is true of this film. One again, we move back from one genre into another, and encounter yet another giant of the silent cinema years – this time, it’s Buster Keaton in the 1924 silent comedy, ‘Sherlock Jr.’

As with Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Kid’, I went into ‘Sherlock Jr.’ wanting more than just the comedy of the film to hold up. For one, it is difficult to judge a comedy on whether it is good or not, as different people have different senses of humour. The thing about the work of Chaplin and Keaton, however, is that their work was made to appeal to a large audience of all ages. And while trends and styles can change easily and quickly, the work of these silent cinema masters was built to stand the test of time. While certain jokes or characters may not age particularly well, silent comedy has to rely on slapstick and more obvious visual cues.

The important thing about this, is that the film doesn’t have to explain itself – what happens is funny because it looks funny or happens in a funny circumstance. When a character ends up sitting on a motorbikes handlebars for half a journey across town, only to discover that no one is driving the bike, the situation is hilarious. This is helped by the characters expression of both shock and recognition, as if this same thing has happened to them a hundred times before. As previously stated, it was important for more than just the comedy to grab me in the film, as I was working on the assumption that if the comedy didn’t win me over, there better at least be a decent plot or characters to keep me interested.

Luckily, this was the case, and I fell in love with the smarter-than-average yet accident prone detective, his loyal side kid and his engaging love interest. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was for the majority of the film to take place within another film entirely. As the film starts, Keaton is studying to become a detective while working in a cinema. When he ends up framed for a crime he didn’t commit, instead of solving the crime (as one might expect) he returns to his job at the cinema and day-dreams about being a heroic movie detective, based very strongly on Sherlock Holmes. From there, he engages in elaborate comedy based on him climbing into the cinema screen itself, and then being his own personal hero.

The film is undoubtedly sweet and light-hearted, and certainly kept me interested, but this was in part due to the fact I never had a chance to become disinterested. While preparing the film for release, Keaton discovered that audiences found the film to be too long, and ended up cutting it down to under an hour. Personally, I want to know what was cut, as it does seem that whatever it was wasn’t important; the film is polished down to a mirror shine, with nothing working out of place.

My best guess is that something related to the characters in the real world was removed, as it seems that more was built-up there than for the film to abruptly end after a secondary plotline has wrapped up. It felt a bit like if ‘The Wizard of Oz’ had spent an entire third of its runtime on the Kansas storyline before anyone travels to Oz, and, after establishing that a very important story is in progress, Dorothy goes to sleep and begins her Oz travels, and then the film ends while she’s still there. I didn’t hate it in any way, yet, perhaps, without detracting from everything that had already be accomplished so well, the film could have devoted just a little bit of time to tying up its own loose ends.

3/5 Watch It