Classic Movie Review: Sátántangó (1994)


Title: Sátántangó
Release Date: 8 February 1994
Director: Béla Tarr
Production Company: Mozgókép Innovációs Társulás és Alapítvány | Von Vietinghoff Filmproduktion (VVF) | Vega Film | Magyar Televízió | Télévision Suisse-Romande (TSR)
Summary/Review:

Sátántangó is an epic Hungarian film set at the fall of communism that depicts a series of events that occur when the charismatic Irimiás (Mihály Vig), who had been believed dead, returns to an isolated village.  It also 7 hours and 19 minutes long. The movie consists of 12 parts and is structured like a tango, 6 moves forward and 6 back.  Director Béla Tarr wanted his audience to view the film in entirety with no intermission, but there was no way I was going to do that.  So I turned it into a Netflix series, watching one segment per day over twelve days. I expect that people will hate that I watched the movie this way, but I don’t care.

The film is famed for being made up of various long takes including impressive tracking shots such as the opening sequence when a herd of cows walk through the mud in a desolate village.  There are also long shots where the camera rests on an empty space with no action, a still life of sorts, until at last a person moves into the frame.  This could be considered padding to make up the movie’s length, but I find that the focus on the ordinary, combined with the frequent absence of music and minimal dialogue, make it so you focus on and absorb the mundane details.

One of Sátántangó‘s most notorious sequences depicts an abused child, Estike (Erika Bók), finding a way to find some control over something in her life by torturing and poisoning her cat.  I had to skip ahead through some of this segment, because animal abuse, even when it’s simulated is not something I can bear to watch.  There are also some funny parts of the film, including a gathering in the local bar where the villagers dance sloppily to accordion music while one man walks around with a cheese roll balanced on his forehead.  But most of this film is pretty bleak, and there are many, many, many long shots of people and groups walking down long, muddy roads for extended periods of time.

This movie is universally held in high-regard, and I cannot deny the brilliance of the filmmaking and ambition behind this movie. I suppose anything I’d have to say about why I don’t like it would sound gauche.  So I’ll just say that I feel like this movie should be shown at an art museum, projected on a large wall of an otherwise empty room.  People can wander in and out and experience the film for as long as they like. It’s clearly a work of art.

If you’d like to know what it is like to watch Sátántangó in a single sitting in a cinema experience, you can watch this humorous video I found:

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Napoléon (1927)


Title: Napoléon
Release Date: April 7, 1927
Director: Abel Gance
Production Company: Gaumont
Summary/Review:

Napoléon may have been more accurately titled Young Napoléon since it was intended to be the first of six movies about the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. This is the evident in the sheer amount of time spent depicting Napoleon as a child at a military school leading his classmates in a snowball fight. The film also depicts Napoleon escaping from Corsica during an uprising there and his rising up the ranks of the French revolutionary army. I do not know a lot of detail about Napoleon’s life, but this movie feels more like hagiography than biography and can get very cheesy in its patriotic set pieces. There are certainly far too many scenes of Napoleon just sitting and brooding for a silent film to handle.

Stylistically, the movie lives up to its epic protagonist. Like Intolerance, filmmaker Abel Gance had the budget for a cast of thousands and made sure to use them whenever possible. The use of lighter cameras also allowed for fluid camera movement used to great effect much like in Sunrise, made the same year. It also reminds me of Man With A Movie Camera since Gance used a lot of experimental techniques such as fast cutting, multiple exposures, and split screen images. Parts of the movie were filmed on location and the title cards are proud to let us know they were filmed on the actual historic sights. Most famously, the movie employed an early widescreen approach by having the final reel projected from three projectors onto three side-by-side screen, an effect many cinemas couldn’t support on time and is pretty much lost on me viewing the movie on an iPad.

Unless you’re a film buff or particularly interested in French history, I don’t think many people are going to be up to watching this long, silent, epic. Nevertheless, it does deserve credit for its place in film history and innovations that would not become commonplace for decades after its release.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Intolerance (1916)


Title: Intolerance
Release Date: September 5, 1916
Director: D. W. Griffith
Production Company: Triangle Film Corporation
Summary/Review:

This 105-year-old epic officially becomes the oldest feature film I’ve watched in its entirety, replacing Broken Blossoms (by the same director), which I watched in a high school film class. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for the movie-going public at a time when feature length films had existed only for a decade. Movies were as likely to be shown in storefronts as in theaters with many shorts running continuously as viewers wandered in and out. Now audiences were being asked to commit 3-1/2 hours to watching four different stories cut together in a single narrative.

Of course, Intolerance only made the “AFI 100 Years … 100 Movies” list because D.W. Griffith’s preceding film from 1915, The Birth of a Nation, recognized for its innovation in filmmaking was rightly also deemed to be racist a.f.  Intolerance was not an apology from D.W. Griffith for his depiction of leering Black men and inspiring the Ku Klux Klan to reform, but instead he felt that the criticism of his film and NAACP-lead protests were intolerant of him!  So, it appears that Griffith was not only a pioneer in filming techniques and creating feature length films, but he also may have invented the “You’re the real racist” trope used by white supremacists to this very day. 

Intolerance features four intertwined stories about “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages.” A recurring motif features a woman (film superstar Lillian Gish in what’s basically a cameo) rocking a baby in a cradle who symbolizes The Eternal Motherhood

  1. The main story is set in the present day and tells of the travails of a working class woman known as The Dear One (a fantastic performance by Mae Marsh). Her life is turned upside down by the forces of Puritanical moral reformers (misogynistically described in a title card as woman who go into philanthropy because men no longer consider them attractive). She and her husband, The Boy (Robert Harron), lose their jobs, have their baby taken away, and The Boy is wrongly convicted for murder, among other trials. There are some surprisingly progressive aspects to this segment as well, such as a depiction of National Guard troops firing on unarmed striking laborers (a criticism of the Ludlow Massacre of 1914) and appeal to abolish prisons.
  2. The modern American story is the only one with a cohesive storyline, but the Ancient Babylon story is the one that Griffith lavished money and attention on. Massive sets were built in central Hollywood (later recreated as a shopping center called Hollywood & Hollywood that I wandered through on my visit to Los Angeles in 2007) and cast thousands of extras for elaborate dance and battle scenes. The theme is the religious divide that lead to the fall of Babylon to Cyrus of Persia in 539 BCE, but really it’s all about the spectacle.  Kudos to The Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge) for being another strong female character and a great performance in this segment.
  3. Significantly less screen time is given to the French Renaissance story which depicts the French monarchy’s massacre of Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572.  I had trouble following the story here but scenes were few and far between.
  4. The shortest segment is the story of Jesus of Nazareth (Howard Gaye) that incorporates only a small number of Gospel stories, such as the miracle at the wedding at Cana, Jesus forgiving the woman for adultery, and a brief glimpse of the crucifixion.

The movie does have an amazing amount of spectacle, especially when you consider that it was made 105 years ago, and is worth a watch for that alone.  But Intolerance is also a bit of a slog, and not very coherent. Compared with other silent films I’ve watched, this one is way over-reliant on title cards (some of them even have footnotes!!!) and great acting performances by the likes of Marsh and Talmadge are lost in the shuffle. I’d say that mostly this is a movie to watch if you’re interested in film history, but I doubt it will entertain anyone otherwise.

Classic Movie Review: Saving Private Ryan (1998)


Title: Saving Private Ryan
Release Date: July 24, 1998
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: DreamWorks Pictures | Paramount Pictures | Amblin Entertainment | Mutual Film Company
Summary/Review:

This is another movie I’ve meant to see since it came out that I’ve procrastinated.  The epic war movie tells the story of a group of Army Rangers sent behind enemy lines to find a member of the 101st Airborne Division who parachuted into Normandy on D-Day.  Their mission is to bring him home because he is his mother’s only surviving son after his three brothers die in military action elsewhere.

In reality, Saving Private Ryan is really three movies.  The first part, and the most famous, is a verite style dramatization of the D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy. It follows several American troops as they are initially repulsed by the German firepower but team together to break through the lines.  Characters are largely anonymous here and we don’t know who will play a part in the rest of the movie and who will die.  At the end of the battle we see that a soldier named Ryan is among the dead.  This is followed by several scenes on the home front where the military brass give hokey speeches about saving the only surviving Ryan child and we see his mother react to the tragic news. I would’ve have cut this part out and stayed with the troops in Normandy as the sappiness really drags.

The second movie begins when a team is organized under Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) to retrieve Private Ryan.  The characters in the team are largely war movie archetypes although they’re portrayed by good actors that gives them a bit of life.  There’s the cynical guy from Brooklyn (Edward Burns), the loyal second in command (Tom Sizemore), the devoutly Christian sniper  from the South (Barry Pepper), the medic (Giovanni Ribisi),  the Jewish guy who takes out his anger on Germans (Adam Goldberg), and the naive youngster with no battle experience who’s brought along as a translator (Jeremy Davies).  Along their journey they meet up with other Allied troops and participate in skirmishes.  They argue about the value of risking their lives to save one man and whether they should kill or release a German captive.

Finally, they find Private Ryan (Matt Damon before he was famous) in the French town of Ramelle where he and his fellow paratroopers are guarding a bridge against German crossing, and the third move begins.  Ryan refuses to leave and thus Miller decides to have his group provide reinforcement as they improvise ways to defend the bridge against a much larger German force, or destroy it. An epic battle ensues.

I found this to be a perfectly competent, well-made war film with strong acting, special effects, sound design, and cinematography.  But I don’t see it as one of the 100 greatest films of all time or even the best movie about World War II.  Too often their are effective set pieces but not enough time getting to really know and care about the loosely-sketched characters.  Moral quandaries are discussed but then brushed away with easy answers.  And the movie attempts to be a universal story of front soldiers facing the difficult decisions in war but then indulges in glurgy American patriotism.

I’d like it and I’d watch it again, but Saving Private Ryan is more Very Good than All-Time Great.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Seven Samurai (1954)


Title: Seven Samurai
Release Date: 26 April 1954
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Production Company: Toho
Summary/Review:

In 16th-century Japan, a village of farmers faces the threat of repeated raids by bandits. The village elder Gisaku (Kokuten Kōdō) suggests that they hire samurai to defend themselves against the bandits.  Realizing that the farmers will only be able to pay in food, he notes that the will need to find hungry samurai.

The farmers are initially unsuccessful but they meet a skilled and generous rōnin, Kambei (Takashi Shimura) who takes leadership and recruits additional samurai to the cause.  The team brings together the various skills of an archer, Gorōbei (Yoshio Inaba), a swordsman, Kyūzō (Seiji Miyaguchi), and Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), who is less known for his fighting than for his good sense of humor that keeps up morale.  Two more oddball selections fill out the team: Katsushirō (Isao Kimura), a young and unskilled samurai who attaches himself to Kambei, and Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a hot-tempered and manic figure who may not even be a samurai.

The seven samurai train the farmers to defend themselves, build defenses around the village, and put together a plan to defeat the bandits.  Despite this, the farmers make it clear that they consider the samurai only a step above the bandits, making an uneasy alliance.  One of the farmers tries to protect his daughter, Shino (Keiko Tsushima), by cutting her hair to disguise her as a boy.  Nevertheless, Shino and Katsushirō end up having a romance that forms a major subplot of the movie.

Kurosawa directs a fantastic movie to look at, innovating several techniques to capture the action scenes from all angles.  He had an entire village built as a set and it really feels lived in with the geography made clear.  And does anyone film in the rain as well as Kurosawa? The movie is over 3-1/2 hours long but it goes by swiftly due to the good storytelling.  And it certainly is a very familiar story because it has inspired all manner of movies where a group is brought together to achieve a goal.  Just remember, it came first!

Rating: ****