Classic Movie Review: M (1931)


Title: M
Release Date: May 11, 1931
Director: Fritz Lang
Production Company: Nero-Film A.G.
Summary/Review:

Continuing with German cinema, this film by Fritz Lang (who also directed Metropolis) is a thriller/procedural drama that basically invented the noir genre.  Peter Lorre, an actor I’ve always liked in his Hollywood films, had is first major role as the serial killer of children, Hans Beckert.  Depicting a serial killer on the silver screen and the way the story unravels is strikingly modern, and is about 30 years of Hollywood doing something similar.

The film begins with chilling sequences of children chanting about murder and then Beckert luring away a girl while whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”  In the panic that follows, people turn on one another with suspicion, and the police crack down on the criminal underworld.  The city’s mob bosses decide that they also need to track down the murderer, and the scenes of cops and criminals preparing for a manhunt are intercut, with it being deliberately hard to tell which group is which.

Beggars are able to track down Beckert who then hides in the office building.  The criminals seek him out using all the means at their disposal, including rather comically drilling a hole through the floor to access a locked office on a lower level.  Once they’ve captured Beckert, the criminals put him on a mock trial. These scenes feel didactic as Lang’s characters overtly explain the moral message to a sick society, which is a weak way to conclude the film.  The command at the close of the film to watch our children seems torn out of the present day manual of helicopter parenting.  Nevertheless, the film on the whole is a compelling drama.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Blue Angel (1930)


Title: The Blue Angel
Release Date: April 1, 1930
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Production Company:  Universum Film A.G. | Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

Here’s another German film that’s a kind of weird morality tale about how women are the devil or something like that. I found it more enjoyable than Pandora’s Box, though.  Marlene Dietrich is completely captivating  as the cabaret performer Lola Lola, and not surprisingly this film made her a big star.  The Blue Angel was intended to be a vehicle for renowned German theater and film star Emil Jannings, but he gets overshadowed by Dietrich.

This is one of the first German talkies and the direction seems to revel in sound, especially early on when the camera focuses on a clock ticking and the bell ringing the hour, or when Jannings’ Professor Roth opens a window allowing the sound of children singing on the street to enter, and then closes the window again to make silence.

The story starts with Professor Roth teaching at a preparatory school, where he gets little respect and they play pranks on him.  He catches the boys circulating postcards of Lola Lola, prompting him to visit the cabaret that night in order to catch the boys going there.  Instead he finds himself captivated by Lola Lola.  After a few visits, he asks her to marry him, and surprisingly she says yes.

It’s not really clear what Lola Lola sees in Professor Roth.  Maybe she wants someone who will protect her, maybe she’s charmed by his old fashioned devotion, or maybe she just takes pity on him. Over the next few years though, it becomes clear that Roth won’t be her only man.  Roth becomes envious of her flirtation with other men and that he is financially dependent on her,  and he becomes angry and abusive.  The culmination of the film sees the troupe return to Roth’s hometown, and the townspeople come out en masse to see Roth – now performing as a clown – humiliated.

This movie is depressing, and tragic in the sense that the demands of toxic masculinity lead to Roth’s downfall.  Nevertheless, it is a well-acted and well-made film, and seemingly ahead of its time.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Pandora’s Box (1929)


Title:  Pandora’s Box
Release Date: January 30, 1929
Director: G. W. Pabst
Production Company: Süd-Film
Summary/Review:

This German film is deeply weird and severely misogynist.  American actress Louise Brooks plays Lulu, a young woman who is passionate and sexually confident and of whom the film tells us is “thoughtless.”  But really it’s a morality play that would have us believe that a woman with an independent streak will bring everyone around her to ruin.

Brooks is a captivating actor and without someone of her capability in the role, I don’t think this movie would be worth watching.  She’s a great silent film star because she can say so much with her face.  I found myself pondering for a long time who she reminded me of, and then finally I hit upon Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag who also conveys so much with a look.

The story, for what it’s worth, has kind of a perils of Lulu plot as each scene leads to another level of degradation. Lulu goes from a mistress to a stage performer to marrying her reluctant lover to an accused murderer to a fugitive in an illegal gambling den to prostitution to a victim of Jack the Ripper.  There are some interesting scenes, particularly during the backstage scenes of her variety show, where performers go on and off the stage entering and leaving Lulu’s drama in the backstage.  This movie also broke ground with a prominent lesbian character, Countess Augusta Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), who helps Lulu escape imprisonment.

The movie is kind of bland melodrama and I can’t really recommend watching other than for film history research.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Metropolis (1927)


Title:  Metropolis 
Release Date: January 10, 1927
Director: Fritz Lang
Production Company: UFA
Summary/Review:

One of the earliest science fiction feature films,  the list of movies influenced by Metropolis is quite lengthy.  Set in a futuristic city of high towers and massive machinery, the city of Metropolis is ruled by the wealthy industrialist Joh Fredersen.  His son Freder enjoys an idyllic life until a woman named Maria invites him to come below the surface to see how his “brothers” are suffering.

Freder witnesses the grueling life of the workers on their machinery, and how the dead are casually disposed of after one of the machines explodes.  Unable to convince his father to improve conditions for the workers, Freder rebels and joins Maria in trying to lead the working people to a more equitable Metropolis.  Meanwhile, Fredersen enlists the inventor Rotwang to use a robot to impersonate Maria and discredit her with the workers. Rotwang has his own plans and various conflicts and tragedies occur before the film’s conclusion.

The dystopian world of Metropolis is all the more chilling considering this is a German film made just years before Hitler’s dictatorial regime came to power. I found it hard not to wonder if the actors in this film, especially the children, ended up becoming Nazis.  From a filmmaking perspective, it’s hard not to see why it’s so influential as the cinematography, set design, and special effects are spectacular.  Story wise, the film comes across a bit stiff, more of a preachy Socialist parable than a human story one can engage with.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Nosferatu (1922)


Nosferatu movie poster

Title: Nosferatu 
Release Date: March 4, 1922
Director: F. W. Murnau
Production Company: Prana Film
Summary/Review:

This German Expressionist horror film has a strange history.  It was based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, but since the filmmakers never got permission for the adaptation, the Stoker estate sued and ordered all prints of the film destroyed. Obviously some prints survived, but they were released in various “bootleg” editions.

I’m not sure which version I ended up streaming, but the title character is known as Count Orlok in all the film reviews I’ve read, but they straight up call him Dracula in the version I watched.  Similarly, the heroes are known as Thomas and Ellen Hutter in the literature, but the version I watched called them Jonathan and Mina Harker. I guess that’s the advantage of silent film is that one can just rename all the characters with minimal effort.  At any rate, this is a long way of explaining why I’ll be using particular names for characters in my review.

The story begins in a German town where Jonathan (Gustav von Wangenheim) works in real estate for the creepy Renfield (Alexander Granach), who is secretly a minion of Count Dracula.  Renfield sends Jonathan to Transylvania on the pretense that the Count wants to buy a house in their town.  Jonathan entrusts Mina (Greta Schröder) to some friends for safety, but she has premonitions about his travels.

In Transylvania Jonathan meets the locals who are frightened of the Count and the things that happen after dark.  Wangenheim does a good silent movie acting job of showing his derision of their superstitions.  Jonathan finally arrives at the Count’s castle and meets the Nosferatu (Max Schreck) who he treats warmly despite his chilling appearance and comments about Mina’s lovely neck.  Jonathan ends up being held captive and Wangenheim now does a great job of acting terrified.

Jonathan escapes and the Nosferatu follows him to Germany. One of the interesting aspects of Dracula-lore I wasn’t aware of is that Nosferatu has to be transported in coffins with soil from the burying grounds of the victims of Black Death.  So when he arrives in Germany he brings the plague AND feasts on the blood of the town’s citizens.  It’s up to Mina to make the sacrifice to offer herself to the Nosferatu to keep him feeding until daylight.  This film actually introduced the concept of a vampire being killed by sunlight.

The movie is terrifically atmospheric and spooky.  Some of the filmmaking conventions that may seem laughably outdated today are countered by the eeriness of silence, scratchy film, and uncanny production values.  I’m not a big horror fan or have much interest in the Dracula story, but this film was worth watching for its part in the history of one of the world’s great legends.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Detonators by Chad Millman


Author: Chad Millman
TitleThe Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice
Narrator: Lloyd James
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2006)
Summary/Review:

This work of history unravels an overlooked incident in American history: the Black Tom explosion.  This munitions depot on a spit of land on the New Jersey side of New York Harbor was detonated by German saboteurs on July 30, 1916, before the United States had entered the World War.  Debris from the explosion damaged the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge and shattered windows in Manhattan, so it is surprising that it is not a more well-known event. Millman traces the actions of the network of German spies who caused the explosion.  But the better part of the book is dedicated to the legal efforts to hold Germany responsible for the explosion and the series of legal proceedings that occurred over decades until Germany was forced to pay legal damages in 1939, just before another war was about to begin.  The book is plodding at times, and the explosion occurring so early in the book makes the rest feel anticlimactic, but it is a fascinating incident in American history that deserves greater awareness
Recommended booksThe Day Wall Street Exploded by Beverly Gage
Rating: ***

World Cup Round of 16 Rooting Interests and Predictions


After an exciting round of group play, the knock-out rounds for the 2014 World Cup begin today.  Below I’ve listed the teams I’m rooting for and the teams I expect to win (not always the same) for each game.

28 June 2014

Brazil vs. Chile

This is a tough call.  I have a soft spot for Chile and they acquitted themselves well in group play, but I’ve always liked Brazil and it would be tragic if the host nation exited the tournament this early (especially after having to endure all the corporate, government, and FIFA corruption).  That being said, I expect Brazil will have no problem winning this game and probably advance at least to the semifinals.

Supporting: Brazil           Prediction: Brazil

Colombia vs. Uruguay

Colombia is one of the most exciting teams in the tournament with the most feverish fans.  Uruguay did well in group play, but aren’t going to go far without their bitey star Luis Suarez.  Colombia is an easy team to support and pick for the win.

Supporting: Colombia         Prediction: Colombia

It’s interesting that four of the five remaining South American teams are essentially playing for one semifinal spot.  I expect that Brazil will advance from this group of four, but the Brazil versus Colombia quarterfinal has the potential to be an exciting match.

29 June 2014

Netherlands vs. Mexico

Mexico is our biggest rival, but I’ve been swayed to their side this World Cup for several reasons:  CONCACAF regional pride, the performance of goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, the exburance of coach Miguel Herrera, and their exciting style of play in a tough group.  I adopted the Netherlands in 2010 as my team to support after the US elimination (mainly because I had just visited Amsterdam that year), but the karate chop performance of the final kind of took the bloom off that rose.  Still, the Netherlands look like a dominant side that may advance all the way to the final again, and will be hard for Mexico to beat.

Supporting: Mexico          Prediction: Netherlands

Costa Rica vs. Greece

Costa Rica’s team is the surprise of the tournament, giant-killers in what should’ve been the toughest group.  It’s hard not to like Los Ticos.  Greece are also surprise members of the final 16.  However, they haven’t shown a lot of skill in the group stage.  I expect another Costa Rica win.

Supporting: Costa Rica     Prediction: Costa Rica

An all CONCACAF quarterfinal would be a thrilling thing, but I expect that the Netherlands will progress to the semifinals from this group of four.

30 June 2014

France vs. Nigeria

I tend to root for the underdogs, so I have to favor Nigeria here, but France is looking like one of the top teams in the tournament, so I don’t have much hope for the African side.

Supporting: Nigeria         Prediction: France

Germany vs. Algeria

Algeria is the other surviving African team who’ve drawn tough European competition in Germany.  I’ll root for Algeria, but expect Germany to make it at least to the semifinal.

Supporting: Algeria          Prediction: Germany

There’s an opportunity for an all-African quarterfinal coming out this group of four, but it’s more likely that European neighbors Germany and  France will meet to decide a spot in the final four.

1 July 2014

Argentina vs. Switzerland

I’ve not been impressed by Argentina who  won a weak group by basically holding out for a Lionel Messi wondergoal.  On the other hand, Argentina has enough talent that should be able to advance as far as the semifinal without breaking much of a sweat.  I haven’t got much of a sense of Switzerland, but I’ll be rooting for them just so that USA would have a more potentially beatable side in the quarterfinal, should it come to that.

Supporting: Switzerland       Prediction:  Argentina

Belgium vs. United States

Sure, Belgium is a dark horse to win the World Cup, and sure they won all three of their group matches.  Sure, the United States has struggled and only just made it out of group play.  But Belgium played in one of the weakest groups, while the United States faced down three challenging opponents without ever throwing in the towel.  I believe that we will win.

Supporting:  United States       Prediction: United States

While I think that the United States can make it to the quarterfinal, Argentina is the prohibitive favorite of this group of four.  Still, Iran held Argentina scoreless for 90 minutes, so maybe someone can pull of a miracle win.

Book Review: Doing Germany by Agnieszka Paletta


AuthorAgnieszka Paletta
TitleDoing Germany
Publication Info: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2013)
Summary/Review:

This is a book I idly picked up from a Kindle sale, because I enjoyed travelling to Germany.  What a surprise that the author declares early on that she never had any interest in visiting German.  As a Polish-Canadian, moving back and forth between the two nations, Paletta’s real love is Italy.  She only ends up in Germany after meeting the man she calls M in a Cracow nightclub, falling in love, and deciding to move into his Munich apartment for three months.  That three months turns to years as the couple are engaged, married, do a lot of house shopping, and have a child.  Along the way, Paletta records the cultural adjustments of living in Germany.  Her stories are episodic, a bit gossipy in tone, and she seems unusually wed to traditional gender stereotypes.  I could offer criticisms, but forget that.  Everyone thinks that they can write a book about their travels and life abroad, but few do, so good for her.  And Agnieszka seems like a fun person who’d I’d like to hang out with, perhaps to go dancing.  So it’s a breezy travel/memoir/life adventure story, and I’ll leave at that.

Favorite Passages:

“I can also relate to keeping one’s roots and traditions alive and not changing your culture just because you’ve changed borders. Canada is great that way – it promotes multiculturalism. Germany is more like the US: once you cross the border, you’re expected to drop everything and mould yourself into a citizen of your new homeland.”

“Unlike on that typical bike, you don’t sit leaning forward; you sit up like a lady, much like in a chair. Therefore, you don’t crane your neck to look up; your head is as God meant it to be – straight on. It makes cycling dignified and comfortable.”

“M tells me it’s impolite to stare and talk to strangers here. You don’t ask how their day is going, how they are feeling. Basically, you don’t intrude because it’s none of your business. So like, they’re not trying to be rude or cold, but polite. They say good morning or God bless you but not how are you – that’s a private matter and none of their business.” (Note from Liam: this is probably why I like Germany.  They follow the same rules as Bostonians).

Recommended books: My ‘Dam Life by Sean Condon
Rating: **1/2

Song of the Week: “Dying Breed” by Marissa Nadler (Stefan Biniak Private Edit)


Marissa Nadler is a singer-songwriter from Boston, but I’d not heard of her before now. In fact, “Dying Breed” is not a new song, but one she released back in 2007.  Luckily, German DJ Stefan Biniak is more up to date on Boston artists and has added the perfect groove to her vocals in this remix.

What musical discoveries have you made recently? Let me know in the comments.