#110 - Saturday Night And Sunday Morning
1928 - 2010
Howdy, folks. The Electric Theatre is a little different this week. Instead of looking at a new release currently in cinemas, we’ll be checking out two movies. One of them is a major restoration you’ve probably heard about and will be receiving a limited theatrical run over the next few months before making its long-awaited debut on Blu-ray and DVD in November. The other premiered in the UK months ago and is finally making its way to American shores this Friday, again in select cities. As Mr. Letterman would say, I just pray to god your city is selected.
COMING TO THEATRES
The Complete Metropolis
As I sat down to write this, I assumed that none of you would need to be sold on the greatness of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Shot in 1927, it is inarguably one of the most influential motion pictures of all time. But while all of you are no doubt aware of the film, there’s a decent chance that some of you have been reticent to actually watch it. I’m a huge fan of silent pictures myself but not many people share my enthusiasm for them. I understand that. Most silents use an entirely different cinematic language than we’re used to and for many of us, our first exposure to them is via a scratched and faded print with a pre-recorded tinkly piano score that veers between forgettable and obnoxious. Believe me, I’ve sat through many of them myself and I sympathize. But set aside all your preconceived notions about silent film. Metropolis is a silent movie for people who hate silent movies.
The look of the movie has been widely admired and imitated over the years but if you’ve only seen still images, you’re not getting the whole effect. Lang was shooting and, perhaps more importantly, cutting film like no one else at the time. Metropolis has never been a short film and now, with 25 minutes of footage restored, it’s longer than we’ve ever seen it before. Even so, it’s a remarkably fast-paced movie. Lang employs quick cuts, kaleidoscopic montages and a camera that swoops and lurches at unexpected moments. A sequence with the mad inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) stalking and terrorizing the beautiful Maria (Brigitte Helm) with a flashlight is as fraught with tension as any equivalent scene in a modern movie. Some of the performances do suffer from overdramatic silent acting, especially Gustav Frohlich as the young hero. But Helm is remarkable throughout and some actors, such as Alfred Abel as the brains behind Metropolis, are strikingly subdued.
The film was already considered a classic, so it’s slightly surprising how much the restored footage enhances the experience. Before, Metropolis was a visual triumph with just enough story to get its idea across. Now, it’s a fully realized narrative. We understand more of the characters’ motivations and the plot’s missing pieces have at last been bridged. The restoration is not able to make this lost footage shine like new but the most familiar scenes have a clarity I thought impossible. It transports you back to the 20s and makes you understand what it must have been like to see this for the first time.
If you have a chance to see Metropolis with live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra, by all means do so. In fact, if you have the chance to see any silent movie with the Alloy Orchestra, don’t hesitate. I’ve seen them twice now and these guys alone can redefine the way you think about silent movies. Even without live music, a big screen is still the best way to experience Metropolis. The size and scope of this film is enormous and can best be appreciated in theatres. Keep an eye out for it and, no matter what you think of silent movies, go. It’s one of the most thrilling and exciting nights at the movies you will ever experience. (* * * *)
For over forty years, Michael Caine’s secret weapon has been his voice. He seems to be one of the few actors genetically incapable of doing any voice other than his own natural cockney accent. On the few occasions he’s tried, it’s usually rather embarrassing. But within that somewhat limited range, Caine’s voice can be soft-spoken, shy, suave, sophisticated, genteel, educated or hard as nails. As the title character in Harry Brown, 77-year-old Michael Caine is still very much in command of that remarkable instrument and using it in a way we haven’t seen in years.
Harry is a widower living on his own in a South London Council estate being overrun by drug-dealing gangs. When his only friend is brutally murdered, Harry realizes that the police aren’t going to be of much help. So Harry, an ex-military man who has tried to block out that chapter of his life, calls upon his old training to bring the young punks to justice.
Directed by Daniel Barber from a screenplay by Gary Young, Harry Brown has drawn comparisons to Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. But apart from both films being about old codgers who get swept up into gang violence, the two movies have very different messages and agendas. Where Eastwood’s movie is a meditation on violence, non-violence and generation and cultural gaps, Harry Brown is a more conventional thriller, albeit a top-notch thriller. Young’s script hits most of the notes you expect it to follow, although he does give it a bit more resonance than usual. Barber’s direction is expertly handled. He gives the film a somber, muted tone from the beginning and stages Harry’s acts of vigilantism with such skill that you’re never entirely sure what’s going to happen.
But the movie belongs, lock, stock and barrel, to Michael Caine. Harry Brown is a late-in-life gift for the actor and he brings depths of gravity, sorrow and rage to the screen. Not many actors could pull off a role like this, balancing moments of helpless frailty with scenes of brutal violence. It’s a remarkable performance, one that elevates Harry Brown from a passable time-filler to a must-see tour de force. After years of supporting roles and grandfather figures, it’s a welcome reminder that Michael Caine can hold his own against anybody. (* * * ½)
TALES FROM THE QUEUE
I hate to admit it but years of watching horror movies have left me fairly desensitized to movie violence. It takes a lot to make me flinch. Inside, the 2007 French horror movie from Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, did the trick. I winced, I squirmed and I was altogether horrified by the events transpiring on screen. It’s almost one of the best horror movies I’ve seen in years. Almost, but not quite.
Sarah (Alysson Paradis) is a very pregnant young photographer who miraculously survived a car crash that took the life of her husband. On the verge of going into labor and still mourning her loss, she finds herself stalked by a mysterious woman in black (Beatrice Dalle). It isn’t clear who she is but what she wants is obvious: she wants that baby and will stop at nothing to get it.
The movie starts extremely well, building tension and establishing its claustrophobic mood early on. Co-directors Maury and Bustillo film even the most horrific violence with a perverse elegance that reminded me a bit of early Cronenberg efforts like Shivers and The Brood. Paradis is good but Beatrice Dalle is a revelation, giving a terrifying, primal performance. Most of the film is intelligent, controlled and genuinely frightening, so it’s all the more disappointing when things go off the rails in the final twenty minutes or so with a series of increasingly irrational decisions and outrageously shocking violence. It’s almost as if Bustillo (who also wrote the script) and Maury felt they needed to end the movie as spectacularly as possible. I understand the impulse but in ratcheting up the shock value, they threw credibility and character out the window. As long as I believed in the characters and cared about them, I felt their pain. But when I stopped believing in them (right about the time someone performs an emergency self-tracheotomy), I stopped reacting to the violence the same way. It became just another bloody make-up effect.
Maury and Bustillo have talent and most of Inside displays a confidence rarely seen in first-time filmmakers. With a bit of work on the third act, this could have been a modern horror classic on par with Audition. I’m very interested to see what these guys tackle next. They will either mature into first-class horror filmmakers or they’ll push the envelope so far that it falls apart completely. I’m rooting for them to follow the first path. (* * *)
Thanks to John Wao for this week’s TFTQ recommendation! As always, be sure to send over your suggestions for underrated and rarely seen flicks from around the globe. From the very beginning, TFTQ has followed a strict “Do Ask, Do Tell” policy.