Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre [Star Theatre]

(USA 1901)

Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre is a silent film that records the demolition of the Star Theatre at Broadway and 13th in the East Village more than a hundred years ago. F.S. Armitage shot the whole thing from across the street over the course of a month using time-lapse photography. The finished product is sped up in really fast motion. Then it’s put in reverse so that what just happened is taken back.

Hard to believe, but Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre, which is not even two minutes long, was shown commercially in theaters. I can’t imagine anyone being all that interested in it, but mmmkay. To be fair, I suspect the technique was revolutionary for its time. Theaters were given the gimmicky option of setting the order to either Building Up then Demolish, or Demolish then Building Up. So, the words “Demolishing” and “Building Up” in the title can be rearranged and still be accurate.

Obviously, this film offers no narrative other than knocking down a building. One cool thing: all the work is done by hand. Another thing: New York City apparently didn’t give any thought to public safety, as I don’t see any barricades; the sidewalk and street are open to traffic.

Archival footage tends to spur research on my part, and this is no exception. The building in the foreground is a Roosevelt project from 1893 that was just restored ten years ago (http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2010/12/893-roosevelt-building-839-841-broadway.html). It looks pretty much the same today (https://www.google.com/maps/place/841+Broadway,+New+York,+NY+10003/@40.7341524,-73.9913362,3a,75y,106.41h,100.81t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sdooWdqOlfZTAhAuf6Kjx-Q!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!4m5!3m4!1s0x89c25998fb0fefb9:0xe2533a21e4f56d2f!8m2!3d40.7342965!4d-73.9912195). Even better, the Star Theatre was owned and operated by James W. and Lester Wallack, brothers who created what was regarded as the best theater company in America at its time (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wallack%27s_Theatre). Today, a Regal Cinema stands where the Star Theatre did.

The Library of Congress has a better print online, so watch that one.

In 2002, the United States Library of Congress deemed Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company

Distribution: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company

2 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube / Library of Congress) C

https://www.loc.gov/item/00694388

It [It: Chapter One]

(USA 2017)

I’ve started a few Stephen King novels during my life, but I’ve never finished reading any of them. I have, however, seen enough movies based on his books to know what I’m getting into.

It is director Andy Muschietti’s take on King’s 1986 novel, which incidentally came out on my 16th birthday. Scary. It tells the story of a group of bullied junior high outcasts who go after a deranged clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) one summer, the Summer of 1989, after he kills stuttering Bill Denbrough’s (Jaeden Lieberher) little brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), the fall before.

Pennywise lives in the sewer of their small town (Derry, Maine) and resurfaces every 27 years to prey on children through their worst fears.

The screenplay, written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, is only part of the book — presumably to allow for a sequel. It starts out well enough in the same sweet nostalgic way as, oh, Stand by Me. Muschietti gets deatils of the time period mostly right: the Cure and New Kids on the Block were big in ’89 (even though the former’s “Six Different Ways” was two albums and a compilation earlier), and the reference to Molly Ringwald fits. He goes full on Steven Spielberg, however, about halfway through, turning It into The Goonies with the kids’ “losers club” and all the action switching to a dark cavernous underground sewer. This is to say, It gets cheesy after awhile.

The kids are all decent actors, and they keep It moving along. Sadly, though, there aren’t any real surprises here. More creepy and icky than outright frightening, Muschietti relies greatly on special effects; they’re good and a lot of work went into them, but they get tiresome after awhile. Plus, some editing would’ve been a good idea; It is too long.

As It is, it’s not a stinker. However, I wasn’t moved by It, either. It is a big budget Hollywood movie aiming to be a blockbuster, and that’s It.

With Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Beverly Marsh, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Nicholas Hamilton, Jake Sim, Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, Stephen Bogaert, Stuart Hughes, Geoffrey Pounsett, Pip Dwyer, Elizabeth Saunders, Ari Cohen, Anthony Ulc, Javier Botet, Katie Lunman, Carter Musselman, Tatum Lee

Production: New Line Cinema, Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, Vertigo Entertainment, Lin Pictures, KatzSmith Productions

Distribution: Warner Brothers

135 minutes
Rated R

(ArcLight) C

http://itthemovie.com

Footnotes [Sue quell pied danser]

(France 2016)

The second film of a holiday double feature date, Footnotes [Sue quell pied danser], is a cute little Marxist musical about the trials and tribulations of the working class in rural France. The story follows millennial Julie (Pauline Etienne), who snags a job at a factory for a high end shoe designer, Jacques Couture. The job has potential to become permanent, which sounds good to her — she was “downsized” from her job at a shoe store before that, and it took awhile to find another one.

Unbeknownst to Julie — or anyone else in the factory for that matter — the company’s ruthlessly corporate CEO, Xavier (Loïc Corbery), plans to move production to China because it’s cheaper. The factory manager, Félicien (François Morel), is trying to dissuade him. The gals on the production line read about it in the paper, though, and plan a strike. In her first week on the job, Julie finds herself pushed to pick sides, which gets in the way of her budding romance with charming and strapping delivery driver Samy (Olivier Chantreau).

More London Road (https://moviebloke.com/2016/09/21/london-road/) than La La Land (https://moviebloke.com/2016/10/13/la-la-land/), Footnotes is pleasant and entertaining even if it doesn’t quite take off. Cowriters-directors Paul Calori and Kostia Testut keep it light, obviously borrowing from classic Hollywood musicals of the ’40s and ’50s. The songs are about crappy jobs, taking pride in one’s work, making ends meet, organizing into collective bargaining unit, and striving for a better life. The lyrics are fun, but the samba-flavored tunes are otherwise bland and forgettable. So is the choreography, which except for one scene (it involves bright Kinky Boots red shoes) is clumsy and lackluster.

Come to think of it, so are the sets. As would be expected, much of the action takes place in big industrial spaces. Nothing is done to emphasize anything about them; they stay in the background. It’s a huge contrast to a movie like Office (https://moviebloke.com/2015/12/09/office-hua-li-shang-ban-zu/), which went over the top highlighting the size and scope and efficiency of the office building where it took place, and even had at its center a huge clock as if to say “time is money.” Nothing like that here. Frustratingly, the decision Julie makes at the end totally throws off what the story gets at and seems to build toward the entire time.

I wanted to love Footnotes. I didn’t. A little more pizzazz would’ve been a huge improvement.

With Julie Victor, Clémentine Yelnik, Vladimir Granov, Laure Crochet-Sernieclaes, Elodie Escarmelle, Nuch Grenet, Eve Hanus, Valérie Layani, Valérie Masset, Michèle Prélonge, Sophie Tabakov, Yasmine Youcef, Jazmin Londoño Castañeda, Paul Laffont

Production: Loin Derrière L’Oural, France 3 Cinéma, Région Rhône-Alpes, La Banque Postale Image 9

Distribution: Rézo Films (France), Monument Releasing (USA / Canada), Longride (Japan)

85 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C

https://www.footnotesfilm.com

The Great Train Robbery

(USA 1903)

The Great Train Robbery is another early narrative film produced by Thomas Edison and directed by Edwin S. Porter. Unlike Life of an American Fireman earlier the same year, this one looks like a movie: it has a title card, a cast that acts (even if it’s humorously overdramatic), and a more complicated plot — though it’s still pretty simple.

The focus is clearly on telling a story, and on that level it works: a bunch of bandits (Gilbert M. ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson, Justus D. Barnes, John Manus Dougherty Sr., Frank Hanaway, Adam Charles Hayman) rob a passenger train and are pursued over it. The action is parsed out more thoughtfully, no doubt for dramatic effect. The settings change, and a lot more characters are involved. Plus, the very last scene is clever — it’s a bit Hitchcockian.

In 1990, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Great Train Robbery “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With A.C. Abadie, George Barnes, Walter Cameron, Donald Gallaher, Shadrack E. Graham, Morgan Jones, Tom London, Robert Milasch, Marie Murray, Mary Snow

Production: Edison Manufacturing Company

Distribution: Edison Manufacturing Company, Kleine Optical Company

11 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) C

Kill, Baby…Kill! [Operation Fear] [Operazione paura]

(Italy 1966)

“Something in this town is supernatural. Tell me, why did they abandon the church? I’m scared. I almost think the devil’s here.”

— Monica

The second offering of a Mario Bava weekend double feature, Kill, Baby…Kill! is one of the director’s more commercially successful films. Many commentators have pointed out its influence on the horror genre and praised Bava’s gothic sensibilities, visuals, and use of irony. All good, I agree. Still, none of these things means Kill, Baby…Kill! is a great — or even a good — film.

In the early 20th Century, a coroner, Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), is en route to a remote village in Transylvania to perform an autopsy on a woman who died under mysterious circumstances. In a church — an abandoned one, no less, no doubt to provide a metaphor. The carriage driver, warning that this place is messed up, will only go to the edge of the village, not inside it.

Dr. Eswai finds the police inspector (Piero Lulli) at a local inn, where he is given instructions. When none of the superstitious and rather wan locals volunteer to help him with the autopsy, Monica Shuftan (Erika Blanc), a nurse of some sort who grew up there and just happens to be visiting the graves of her parents, steps up to assist.

During the autopsy, Dr. Eswai is puzzled to find a silver coin stuck in the woman’s heart. It’s a practice to thwart a local ghost that visits villagers in their sleep and puts a hex on them, making them commit suicide in ghastly ways — like jumping from heights and impaling themselves on iron posts.

Dr. Eswai runs into a creepy young thing in a white dress. He soon learns she’s the ghost of seven-year-old Melissa Graps (Valerio Valeri), who died 20 years before. She’s the little bugger who’s been freaking out everyone in the village for the last two decades. The doctor and Monica sense a spark, but first they must deal with this Melissa situation.

Romano Migliorini, Roberto Natale, and Bava all contributed to the screenplay. The story is unoriginal and silly, complete with cringeworthy dialogue and an actual sorceress (Fabienne Dalì). There’s an odd dub thing going on, too.

This being a Bava picture, though, Kill, Baby…Kill! works on primal instinct, here fear. Plus, it has its share of arresting visuals. The colors are vivid, though the palette is heavy on brown and green. The sets have a grimy, dilapidated medieval appearance to them, giving the look of a ghost story. There’s a cool scene where Dr. Eswai chases after Monica through a series of doors that keep taking him back to the same rooms — it’s delightfully dizzying.

Overall, Kill, Baby…Kill! is okay. It’s got Bava’s unique fingerprint all over it, and it’s fun to watch. It’s just not spectacular. Blood and Black Lace grabbed me; this did not, at least not for long. I hate the title — they should’ve kept Operation Fear.

With Luciano Catenacci (Max Lawrence), Micaela Esdra, Franca Dominici, Giuseppe Addobbati, Mirella Pamphili, Giana Vivaldi

Production: F.U.L. Films

Distribution: Internazionale Nembo, Distribuzione Importazione, Esportazione Film, Alpha (Germany), Europix Consolidated Corp. (USA), Astral Films (Canada), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

85 minutes
Rated PG

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C

Whitney: Can I Be Me?

(UK / USA 2017)

Whitney Houston certainly needs no introduction, and I don’t need to remind anyone about her drug-fueled decline or her sad death five years ago. I saw her perform once when she toured for her first album, but I was never a fan. Still, I observed her career from the sidelines and know all her hits (and misses). To borrow from one of her songs, she almost had it all. Almost.

Co-director Nick Broomfield said that with Whitney: Can I Be Me?, he wanted to show another side of the story: “There was very little attempt to really understand where this was coming from or what it was about. I would like a lot of people to feel that there was a whole other way of looking at this.” (http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/features/whitney-houston-documentary-director-speaks-out-she-was-so-judged-w497676 ). It’s a good idea: fair and balanced, OK.

For better or for worse, Broomfield, who shares a directing credit with Rudi Dolezal for his footage from Houston’s 1999 My Love Is Your Love World Tour, takes a decidedly conventional and low key approach here. He eschews TMZ-like sensationalism, which is refreshing, even admirable. However, the finished product rings incomplete.

Broomfield shows Houston’s dirty laundry. We learn that she used drugs from adolescence. She wasn’t particularly polished. Her mother pushed her, hard. Her label, Arista, had a grand plan for her, and it specifically excluded drawing a black audience. Her BFF Robyn Crawford, who stayed involved with Houston’s career until the aforementioned 1999 tour, was (and still is) a lesbian, which led to rumors. Houston and Bobby Brown were in love, but it didn’t stop him from cheating on her — apparently, he preyed on Houston’s entourage. Crawford and Brown didn’t get along, which created tension. There was also that thing with Houston’s father that happened at the end of his life.

We gets hints and glimpses of what led to Houston’s downfall, but in the end the whole thing is shallow. Like her image throughout her career, Whitney: Can I Be Me? presents a sanitized or at least downplayed picture. Broomfield could’ve dug deeper. He was getting there with Houston’s former bodyguard, David Roberts, who claims that he was repeatedly ignored when he warned everyone around her that Houston was on a fatal trajectory. This documentary falls short; it’s flat and has nothing, shall we say, so emotional. It doesn’t reveal all that much. As a result, it isn’t all that moving.

Another biographical documentary about Houston is in the works (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/apr/28/kevin-macdonald-official-whitney-houston-documentary ) ( http://www.whitneyhouston.com/news/director-kevin-macdonald-whitney-houston-documentary/ ). So, there’s more to come. Let’s hope Kevin MacDonald’s version is more compelling.

With David Roberts, Cissy Houston, John Russell Houston Jr., Bobbi Kristina Brown, Bobby Brown, Robyn Crawford

Production: Lafayette Films, Passion Pictures, Showtime Networks

Distribution: Showtime (USA), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (UK), Arsenal Filmverleih (Germany), Eagle Pictures (Italy), Periscoop Film (Netherlands)

105 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C

http://www.sho.com/titles/3433528/whitney-can-i-be-me

Letters from Baghdad

(USA/UK/France 2016)

“We rushed into the business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme.”

—Gertrude Bell

According to the promotional poster for Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum’s Letters from Baghdad, the so-called “Queen of the Desert” and “female Lawrence of Arabia” Gertrude Bell “was as controversial as the history she made.” Well, that certainly sounds promising!

Born into a wealthy family, Bell immersed herself in the Middle East in the early 20th Century and used her talents as a writer and a schmoozer to intimately acquaint herself with the area, its people, and their culture (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gertrude_Bell). Her contacts with influential expats and various Arab leaders combined with her knowledge of the culture led to an appointment as a British officer during World War I and a direct hand in drawing up the borders of modern Iraq.

Tilda Swinton gives Bell her voice, reading off camera Bell’s actual writings about events that occurred on her many trips and the people she met. In Bell’s own words, Swinton offers history, observations, and even some Victorian Era dish. Bell had at least as much influence as T. E. Lawrence a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia (played here by Eric Loscheider in a staged “talking head” interview made to look like old footage).

Bell’s life and the impact of her deeds a century later make for an interesting story. Painstakingly researched, Krayenbühl and Oelbaum pull from diverse source material—letters, diaries, photos—to show what cities like Baghdad and Damascus were like a hundred years ago. They do a great job humaninzing Bell, getting into personality flaws and personal disappointments. In both respects, Letters to Baghdad works really well.

Not everything works as well as it could, though. Some important items are treated superfically. For example, they mention the tension between the Sunni, Shia, and Kurds even back then, but Krayenbühl and Oelbaum don’t delve into it. They touch on Bell’s reasoning for the borders she devised, but they don’t give much critical assessment to it. I left with the distinct feeling that I didn’t get the whole story. Another problem: the staged interviews give a lot of information, but they’re cheesy.

I found myself glancing at my watch about halfway through Letters from Baghdad. It’s a well made documentary, but it’s not as enthralling as it promises to be.

With Ammar Haj Ahmad, Helen Ryan, Rachael Stirling, Robert Ian Mackenzie, Christopher Villiers, Lucy Robinson, Elizabeth Rider, Michael Higgs, Joanna David, Michelle Eugene, Paul McGann, Pip Torrens

Production: Between the Rivers Productions, Letters From Baghdad, Missing in Action Films

Distribution: Vitagraph Films (USA)

95 minutes
Not rated

(Landmark Century) C

http://lettersfrombaghdadthemovie.com/about/

Wonder Woman

(USA 2017)

Director Patty Jenkins aims to do for Wonder Woman what Christopher Nolan—and I suppose to a lesser degree Tim Burton—did for Batman: take an iconic comic book superhero that got campy over the years and return it to its darker roots, producing something dramatic, perhaps weightier, and far more artful. Jenkins doesn’t entirely pull it off with Wonder Woman, but she’s on the right track. I see a sequel or two in the near future, so she’s got time to get there.

To Jenkins’s credit, Wonder Woman is not what I expected. Aside from a nod or two—and that goddamned tiara—all the cut-rate kitsch of the ’70s TV series is gone. This Wonder Woman means business even if she’s still, shall we say, absurd.

Jenkins goes back to the beginning: young Diana (Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey) lives on Themyscira, a hidden island inhabited by war-ready buff goddesses. Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana’s mother, shields her from the strident ways of her subjects. It all has to do with an old score Ares (David Thewlis) seeks to settle—yes, that Ares, the son of Zeus and the god of war. General Antiope (Robin Wright), Hippolyta’s sister and Diana’s aunt/mentor, isn’t having it: she recognizes Diana’s potential and trains her on the sly. Diana blossoms into a beautiful woman (Gal Gadot) with serious supernatural power.

Diana stumbles upon Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a drowning American pilot whose plane crashes off the coast of Themyscira. She rescues him, unwittingly exposing the island to an invasion by German forces. Persuaded by the awesome power of Diana’s Lasso of Hestia, Steve confesses that he’s a spy in the “war to end all wars”—World War I. Spider-sensing Ares is behind it, Diana embarks with Steve on a mission filled with romance, adventure, and espionage in an effort to track down the god and stop the madness.

Wonder Woman starts out all Xena: Warrior Princess, silly and weird in a geeky softcore straight guy “lesbian porn” way that no doubt would appeal to the likes of Wayne and Garth. Thankfully, it moves in another direction once Pine shows up about 40 minutes in. I found myself enjoying Wonder Woman more as the story got to Europe—that storyline is more believable even if it too is silly. The battle scenes are decent with some Hollywood excess and humor thrown in. I love how the theme of gender equality is the star of every scene—neither subtle nor heavy-handed, it’s simply a given.

For all its perks, Wonder Woman is ultimately a typical blockbuster that emphasizes form over substance. If nothing else, it surprises, which is always a plus. Frankly, though, I could’ve kept going completely oblivious to the fact that Wonder Woman is more than Lynda Carter. She was more a lot more fun.

With Danny Huston, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Doutzen Kroes

Production: DC Entertainment, Atlas Entertainment, Cruel & Unusual Films, Rat-Pac Dune Entertainment LLC, Tencent Pictures, Wanda Pictures

Distribution: Warner Brothers, Karo Premiere (Russia), NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), Roadshow Entertainment (New Zealand), Roadshow Films (Australia), SF Studios (Norway), Tanweer Alliances (Greece)

141 minutes
Rated PG-13

(ArcLight) C

http://wonderwomanfilm.com

24 Hours in the Life of a Clown [Vingt-quatre heures de la vie d’un clown]

(France 1946)

But where are the clowns? Send in the clowns. Okay, don’t bother, two of them are in this short by the great French director Jean-Pierre Melville. 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown [Vingt-quatre heures de la vie d’un clown] is just that: a day in the life of Beby, a clown who lives in Montmarte. A multitude of fedoras costar.

In between performances at Circus Medrano, Beby walks the streets of Paris, sleeps with his little dog (but not his wife), reads fan mail, drinks at a café, and puts on makeup with his friend and fellow clown Maïss. Interestingly enough, this is not the only short to feature Maïss, who later appeared in Rodolphe Marcilly’s Centaures et pastiche in 1953.

Who knew clowns pray?

24 Hours in the Life of a Clown holds historical and artistic significance as Melville’s first film. It highlights his style, albeit in its infancy, playing with light and dark. His approach is tongue in cheek, and his “narration” (this is not a “talkie”) strongly suggests Melville knew well that his hoary little film is silly.

Still, it’s interesting if only for the scenery, all 1940s drab and threadbare, and the documentary feel of it. Beby’s apartment reminds me of the one in Eraserhead.

Production: Les Films du Panthéon

18 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C

The Strike [Siréna]

(Czechoslovakia 1947)

Based on the novel Sirená by Marie Majerová, a communist and feminist Czech author prolific before World War II (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Majerová), Karel Steklý’s The Strike follows the Hudcový family during a mine workers’ strike outside Prague in the late 19th Century. Hudec (Ladislav Boháč) is a sort of foreman at a mine. His job makes him miserable, which is apparent from his drinking. He finds himself caught between the mine’s owner and the discontented, sorely underpaid workers that include his son Rudolf (Oleg Reif). Hudec tries to straddle the line between the two but ultimately joins the workers when pushed by his determined wife, Hudcová (Marie Vásová), who seems like she’s always hungry. The cost is devastating, especially for their preteen daughter Emča (Pavla Sucha).

Though not as elegant, The Strike recalls Metropolis (https://moviebloke.com/2015/09/12/metropolis/) both thematically and visually. Jaroslav Tuzar’s stark and grimy cinematography nicely highlights the plight of the workers, and it looks great in black and white. Nothing here is nuanced, though: the narrative is coarse and blunt, the acting is total amateur hour, and the moral is in-your-face. Still, The Strike is remarkable for its earnestness; the workers plotting a revolt, their riot, and the town police and corrupt mayor (Josef Benátský) standing behind the mine over the workers certainly all ring true and timely. It kept my interest all the way through.

I never heard of Steklý or The Strike or anyone involved with this picture until I saw it 70 years after its release. I’m not sure it ever enjoyed international distribution—I can’t find a trailer for it—and I can guess why: a dour postwar propaganda film, it likely would have turned off audiences with its Reefer Madness-like approach to capitalism and communism that seems to argue for the latter. Viewing it today, I saw it as an eerily accidental warning of what happens when the middle class disappears.

With Josef Bek, Josef Dekoj, Nadezda Gajerová, Vera Kalendová Bedrich Karen, Lída Matousková

Production: Ceskoslovenský Státní Film

Distribution:

77 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) C

Nitrate Picture Show