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Archive for August, 2018

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pandoras-box-1929-poster-1000x750SPOILER WARNING – this article contains spoilers for a ninety year old movie, and a three thousand year old myth – SPOILER WARNING

I think everyone knows the story of Pandora’s Box from Greek mythology.  Pandora  was created by various gods on the orders of Zeus to punish humanity after Prometheus stole the secret of fire.  She was given “a shameful mind and deceitful nature” and had the power to seduce and felt compelled to do so.  The gods gave Pandora a gift of a pithos (a jar, mistranslated as box a few thousand years later) containing all the evils of the world.  She could not resist the temptation, and opens the jar/box thus releasing evil on the world.  In some versions of the story, a dove remains representing hope (more on that later). Pandora

So why am I telling a well known story from around 8th centuries BC?  I have just watched G W Pabst’s 1929 masterpiece Pandora’s Box at the MAC in Birmingham, thanks to the BFI in what they describe as ” New 2K DCP of the 2009 restoration of Munich Film Museum’s definitive cut, with score by Peer Raben”.

For those who don’t know, Pandora’s Box tells of the rise and fall of desirable and seductive but naive young dancer Lulu (Louise Brooks). origonal poster

Both an artistic and technical masterpiece, the film draws on the contemporary (German) studio realism, and French (Impressionist) as well a recalling earlier Expressionism.  There are numerous standout scenes, the backstage at cabaret performance is a master class in editing.  But all this disappears into the shadow of the film’s star Louise Brooks, with her iconic haircut, hypnotic eyes and enchanting smile.  Made during the final death rattle of silent cinema, Pandora’s Box Premiered less than two years after The Jazz Singer (1927).  At 23 Brooks gives a career best performance, but like the silent movies she appeared in her time was up.  Her career was all but over two years later. lulu

Today’s screening started with a caption explaining that no known original negatives survive.  This definitive restoration is made up of three early prints.  This made me look into different versions of the film.

Wikipedia describe a French version: the film was significantly re-edited, making Alwa’s secretary and the countess become Lulu’s childhood friend. Lulu is found to be not guilty at her trial, and there is no Jack the Ripper character, as the film ends with Lulu joining the Salvation Army.

IMDB describes an American cut: the film was released in a heavily censored 90-minute version, with a happy ending. This ending – in which Lulu joins the Salvation Army – was so unconvincing that when the film played in New York, its distributors placed a disclaimer at the beginning, emphasizing that they were not responsible for the censorship forced upon them, and they apologized for what was termed “an added saccharine ending.pandoras box louise brooks Alice Roberts

The current version isn’t the first attempt to restore the film, an attempt was made in the 1980’s but was around 20 minutes shorter than the original version.  This could be due to missing scenes, or running it at 24 frames per second, not 20.

I have seen the film three times before, the first time was in the early 90’s, I think possibly the American cut described above.  It therefore came as something of a surprise on my next viewing when Jack The Ripper entered the story.  My most recent viewing came on DVD five or six years ago, the same or similar to the cut I saw today, it sounds like this version described on IMDB: A 133-minute version, distributed by Janus Films from Film Museum München, was broadcast in America on the IFC channel in 2006. It has an unidentified orchestral score, including a 2-minute overture at the start, and it listed the credits in German, some of which were translated into English. With German inter-titles and English subtitles. This version was released on a British Region 2 DVD).Louise Brooks Lulu

The final act sees Lulu living in destitute squalor in London with Alwa and Schigolch.  Encouraged by Schigolch, and with only the weakest of protest from Alwa, Lulu resorts to prostitution.  Her first customer is Jack the Ripper, who appears to be fighting a losing battle with his sanity and urge to kill.  As he climbs the stairs to Lulu’s lodgings we see Jack drop his knife, but in the closing scenes he spots a knife (in true Chekhov’s gun style we saw Lulu us it earlier).  This is the last we see of Jack or Lulu.  Why don’t we see her die?  Is it the sensibility of the time and the censors, or did she survive?  As long as we don’t see her die, there is hope! pandoras box lulu and jack

The only time I have discussed the film or its meaning at any length was after seeing it at university.  I went into the debate knowing less than nothing.  Those who hadn’t seen the film before knew nothing, I knew less than nothing as I went in thinking I knew the film having seen it a couple of years before, but the rug was pulled from beneath me as I saw a different version.  Others came with an agenda to argue; sexual, feminist, political, socio-political. It was suggested that Lulu was punished for her wicked ways, or at least her refusal to conform to social norms.  Or that she was punished for her sexual liberation and ambiguity.  Those that argued on both sides saw this as a positive and a negative, does the film condemn or lament her? I wouldn’t argue with any of these, but I read it a different way, as mentioned above, as a message of hope.  Lulu, made mistakes, and refused to conform, but no matter how low things get, there is always hope, if she could be the one woman who encountered and survived Jack the Ripper, she could survive.  To be fair and give context, to this argument, I was in a class where truth and reality came a distant second to how well you argued your point, and as a cock eighteen-year-old I revealed in disagreeing with everyone else in the room.  However, two further screenings and twenty years later, I still see a glimmer of hope. 

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After a rather lean June, normal service is resumed in July with ten movies, none of which disappointed.  Only one can be movie of the month, here are the contenders.

Leave No Trace – Debra Granik’s long awaited follow-up to Winter’s Bone.  A quieter and more subtle movie than her previous film, but like Winters Bone its strength lies in a combination of taught direction, and fantastic performances, here from Thomasin McKenzie and the always reliable Ben Foster.Leave No Trace

Sicario 2: Soldado – Sicario is one of my favourite movies of recent years.  I was sceptical as of a sequel especially without director Denis Villeneuve and star Emily Blunt.  On a positive note, writer Taylor Sheridan is back.  Looking back at the original film, while Emily Blunt is the audiences way into the story and gives the strongest performance, Josh Brolin and particularly  Benicio Del Toro are the most interesting characters.  While not as good as the original, it is still an excellent movie with Del Toro excelling in what has morphed into the leading role.Benicio Del Toro

Hereditary – Superior horror that relies on tension and suspense rather than jump scares.  The centre of the movie is Toni Collette’s sensational performance.  I’m not sure the greatest or defining horror of the era tags are earned but it certainly has more to offer than most movies of the genre. Hereditary

Ocean’s 8 – The latest instalment in the Oceans franchise swaps the original cast for an all female one.   As a con/heist movie it offers nothing new to the genre, but that really doesn’t matter when the stars are as charismatic and watchable as Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett.  I would certainly be happy to see oceans nine and ten. Ocean's 8

Whitney – I wouldn’t call myself a Whitney Houston fan, I liked her earlier pop records from the late 80’s but never go got the whole diva, greatest singer in the world  claims of her mid career.  The second film about her in as many years, I didn’t see the Nick Broomfield film so learnt a lot here.  A solid film with some startling revelations but not as compelling as  Amy (2015), Janis: Little Girl Blue (2015) or even Kevin Macdonald’s Marley (2012). Whitney-UK-poster

Mary Shelley – The story of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin from just before she met Percy Shelley  upto and including the publication of Frankenstein.  An atmospheric and involving story that takes a few liberties with the facts as you would expect, and to quote Mark Kermode, ” there are plenty of “chubby, herm!” moments”.  Elle Fanning is always interesting to watch. Mary Shelley

The First Purge – The original Purge film was an interesting concept that did really well.  As you would expect for a Blumhouse Production, the first sequel expanded on both the idea and the scope of the film.  The third film was had run out of ideas so largely repeated the second film.  This latest film is a prequel going back to the origin of The Purge.  There is an interesting plot point that is very contemporary and prescient, but other than that, like part three, they have run out of ideas.  Unless someone has an interesting way direction to take the story, The First Purge should be the Last Purge. The First Purge

Hotel Artemis – Drew Pearce’s feature debut is a high concept sci-fi built on great characters, played by a fantastic cast.  A little more than the action film the trailer promises, it has more than a hint of High Noon. It is also often very funny usually because of Dave Bautista.  I could have done without Charlie Day. Hotel Artemis

First Reformed – Paul Schrader is back on form with a film in the transcendental style that he has spoken about so much in the past.  Ethan Hawke is on career high form at the heart of the film.  Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a religious Father Toller’s (Hawke) crisis is an existential one, not religious.   Not widely released, but worth searching for.   First Reformed

Mission: Impossible – Fallout – Back for the sixth instalment of the franchise, and breaking with tradition it has a returning director, frequent Tom Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie.  Despite the near two and half hour runtime you don’t get a moment to breath.  The plot that initially seems complicated is actually very simple, and also totally superfluous, this is all about the spectacle.   Possibly the best of the series, if not it comes a close second. Mission Impossible Fallout

Of the ten, four make the shortlist: Sicario 2: Soldado is better than many previous winners.  Mission: Impossible – Fallout comes close as proof that a big budget franchise movie can still be a great film.  Ultimately, Leave No Trace comes a close second to the haunting First Reformed. First Reformed poster

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