Keeping It Straight: A Few More Films to Pass the Time

ANOTHER CLASSIC SILENT FILM, A FEW WOODY ALLEN MASTERPIECES, AN OFTEN OVERLOOKED ROBIN WILLIAMS GEM AND SARAH PALIN AS PRESIDENT

METROPOLIS (1927) Director - Fritz Lang. Alfred Abel, Brigitte Helm, Gustav Frolich

The recent discussion here of ABEL GANCES NAPOLEON elicited many e-mails about other classic silent films, and leading the list was the marvelous film METROPOLIS that is finally available in as close as we will ever see to what director Fritz Lang envisioned.

Metropolis is an amazing city, skyscrapers reach for the clouds, the people are wealthy, well-fed and prosperous, and cars speed across highways suspended in the sky. But there is a dark secret to the city that many of its residents are unaware. Deep within the caverns below Metropolis are the workers who maintain the machines that keep the city above pulsing with life and energy. The son of the founder of Metropolis, Freder Fredersen (Frolich), sees a beautiful young woman and a group of children at the entrance to the Eternal Gardens and before he can meet her she is ordered to leave and return to the ghetto below. Freder follows and finds to his horror the workers are forced to labor like robots while being exploited. He attempts to have his father change and provide a more equitable life for the people who keep the city alive. Of course Joh Freddersen (Abel) refuses. Maria (Helm) tries to raise the morale of the workers by telling them a man who will "use both hands and head with a heart" will lead them to a better future.

As the two work separately to change the lives of the workers, the elder Fredersen puts in action a plan that would eliminate the workers altogether by replacing them with robots. Unfortunately, his "scientist" has created an evil twin for Maria who leads the workers on a strike, resulting in the destruction of the machines and the city beneath the ground.

The film, written and directed by Lang, began production in 1925 and filming continued for 310 days with the script calling for carefully executed miniatures along with multiple full-scale floods that brought more than 36,000 extras to the sets at the Neubabeslberg lot of Germany's Universum Film AG (Ufa). When premiered at the Ufa-Palast am Zoo theater in Berlin on Jan. 19, 1927, METROPOLIS had a run time of 153 minutes. And then the Americans stepped in - the ever bottom-line conscious accountants at Paramount insisted the film be cut from fourteen reels to seven for American release and in the process effectively destroyed Lang's vision. The horribly less than coherent METROPOLIS opened in March of 1927 and met with mixed - and confused - reviews and was quickly overshadowed by the release of THE JAZZ SINGER (the first "talkie) later that year.

Over the years, METROPOLIS moved into that sad category of "public domain" and quickly copied 16mm versions, running from 88 minutes to 97 minutes, appeared on VHS and DVD, further muddying what is truly one of the finest science fiction films of the twentieth century.

Over the ensuing years, film archivists around the world worked to find missing footage and on Feb. 15, 2001, a 124-minute restoration appeared at the Berlin Film Festival with a new score by Bernd Schultheis. The restoration was released on DVD and met with great success as aficionados greeted the additional footage. But still the film was not complete.

Summer 2008 - an amazing discovery was made in a private film archive in Buenos Aries, Argentina. A 16mm "safety-reduction-negative" made from the original 1927 35mm print was found containing almost a fifth more of the original film than had been previously seen. On Feb. 12, 2010 at the 1,600 seat Friedrichstadr-Palast in Berlin, a capacity audience viewed the 148-minute restoration, along with 2,000 people braving the cold to watch on a giant screen erected at the Brandenburg Gate. Thunderous applause greeted the end credits in Berlin as it did at the American showing on 25 April at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

That version is now available for the true film buff on the two-disc set, THE COMPLETE METROPOLIS, released by Kino International. The set includes the original 1927 film score by Gottfrie Huppertz performed by Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra, along with a 50-minute documentary on the restoration of the film. This is the one I highly recommend for anyone wanting to see the film created by master director Fritz Lang.

METROPOLIS ROCKS

For those who remember the Bonnie Tyler song "Here She Comes" from the Giorgio Moroder "METROPOLIS" release in 1984, that version is also available on DVD. Highly truncated to 83 minutes, this version is nonetheless desirable for its use of contemporary (1980s) rock and disco in the film. Another recommendation for true film buff.

* * * * *

THREE BY WOODY ALLEN

Woody Allen has long been recognized as a cinematic genius and his works as a director far eclipse his early (although very funny) comedic film roles. Be it drama, romance or comedy, Allen has a flair for bringing his characters to life and there is hardly an actor working today who would turn down an offer to appear in a Woody Allen film. Here are three films that I have enjoyed multiple times.

THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1984)

Starring Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello

Cecelia (Farrow) is a waitress trapped in a loveless marriage to a brute (Aiello) and spends her free time going to movie matinees to escape her drudgery-filled life. One film she becomes enamored with is "The Purple Rose of Cairo" that features a bunch of the typical 1930s "devil-may-care" rich types who travel the world indulging themselves at every turn. Each day Cecelia watches the film and wishes she could be with them. Then one day the leading man, Tom (Daniels), steps from the screen and the fun and pathos begin.

This movie raises so many questions of reality and fantasy, but does so in a highly surreal fashion. The switching of scenes, from reality to fantasy (movie) made me realize where movies can take us as viewers. Cecelia finds solace in the world of movies and comes up against the decision of which is better - the perfect world of the movie, or reality, where things are never certain.

Jeff Daniels does a terrific job in a dual role, playing Tom Baxter and Gil Shepherd. One an actor, the other a "real-life" guy. Mia Farrow is appealing as always and Danny Aiello is an actor who gets your attention no matter what role he is playing.

RADIO DAYS (1987)

Starring Mia Farrow, Julie Kavner, Diane Weist, Michael Tucker, Jeff Daniels, Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts, with narration by Woody Allen

Allen shines as he takes us back to the years 1938 to 1942, where life was tough for the average family, mobsters still ruled the world and radio provided an escape for virtually everyone into a world of super-heroes and late night musical shows from high class locations.

This is one of those films that rank on my favorites list for its amazing evocation of a time when radio transported us to "those thrilling days of yesteryear" or kept us glued to the set as the fate of child trapped in a well held our attention. Minor things are shown in the film that add an air of authenticity, for example, watching performers drop script pages to the floor as they finish with them rather than turning a page and causing the rustle of paper to be broadcast and break the spell. The film is not autobiographical, but more in the nature of the great Jean Shepherd and his stories of a life he never actually knew, but dreamed of.

The entire cast was perfectly selected, but for me the standout was Mia Farrow as dim-bulb Sally White, who transforms herself into a radio personality and flower of the White Way by taking speech lessons. Diane Weist as the forever love lost Aunt Bea is a compelling performance, along with that of Danny Aiello as a not-too-bright hit-man.

Of course, it is the era itself this film celebrates. Faithfully, and lovingly, it is recreated with a skill that points up its absurdities at the same time it makes one hopefully nostalgic. A highly recommended film for an evening of excellent entertainment.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011)

Starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy, Kathy Bates, Adrian Brody and Carla Bruni

Before getting into the plot of the film, I would like to mention the amazing filming of Paris in this movie. Woody Allen not only knows the city, but shows his love of it with scenes that bring out the beauty of the city in the daytime, in the dark of night and in the mystique of a rainstorm. Paris is a place that must be seen to be appreciated and those scenes of the city make that almost possible without leaving your living room.

Midnight is a magical time no matter where you might be, but midnight in Paris is truly magical as writer Gil (Wilson) discovers when he finds he can visit a period of the city that has entranced him. Gil is visiting Paris with his fiancé and her parents - a family full of vapid people with no appreciation of ... well, just about anything.

One night Gil, while roaming the streets, finds himself lost and is swept up by a car full of fun-loving socialites from a time gone by. He finds himself visiting and meeting with luminaries from the Golden Age of arts and letters in the city.

All of the performances are outstanding - thanks to Allen's expert direction - with Adriana (Cotillard) virtually stealing each scene she is in with her carefully delivered lines and beautiful eyes making the viewer appreciate the special time and place of Paris. Wilson does a very good job at inhabiting what could have become an annoying Allen cliché and moves the story with a perfect balance of sight, sounds, and insightful dialog. Unlike many of Allen's leading men, Wilson displays an innocence, allowing us to see his adventures in a fresh light. This one is highly recommended.

TRUE ROMANCE (1993)

With Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken, Bronson Pinchot, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Rappaport, Saul Rubinek, Conchetta Farrel and James Gandolfini.

Two decades later TRUE ROMANCE is one lavish, gritty, exciting film that is a true masterpiece of the action film genre, written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott, that almost never stops - and those stops offer an inviting opportunity to catch your breath before we are off and running once again.

An amazing cast of - at the time - not-quite unknowns makes this film pulse with energy. From the over-the-top and yet outstanding performances of Gary Oldman as Drexel Spivey to the menacing nuance of Christopher Walken as Vincenzo to the viciousness of James Gandolfini as Virgil, the film keeps the viewer locked down for two solid hours of first class action. And throughout, the frantic actions of Christian Slater (Clarence) and Patricia Arguette (Alabama) keep you wondering what can happen next - and then it does.

There are many different levels that make this film work, from the love story where we begin to believe the quirky couple is unconditionally bound together, to an almost film noir aspect where we begin to care about the couple, to the extremely harsh and violent action scenes that include slight touches of humor to take the edge off. With nearly a dozen talented stars - some just reaching out for stardom - TRUE ROMANCE really provides the best bang for the buck (pun intended) seen in many years.

If you are a true film buff, you will want this wonderfully wicked movie for your library and the best out there is the two-disc Special Edition released in 2002.

ROBIN WE HARDLY KNEW YOU - Goodbye and thanks for the laughs.

POPEYE (1980)

Dir - Robert Altman. Starring Robin Williams, Shelly Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley, Richard Lambertini, Donald Moffat, Linda Hunt and Bill Irwin

With the passing of Robin Williams, I noticed one of his films were rarely mentioned. That would be his first starring role as POPEYE, a film that hinted at the great talent lying within the comic genius that was Robin Williams.

POPEYE (Williams) rows into the dock of the architecturally skewed town of Sweethaven, where "Flags are waving wet people from the sea, safe from democracy, sweeter than a melon tree" (the sets were built in Malta, where they still stand today as an open-air museum and entertainment complex. The set also appears in a REMINGTON STEELE episode). Popeye is immediately set upon by the bicycle riding taxman (Moffat) who demands a landing tax, a dock tax and an asking-a-question tax. This is the Popeye world of Robert Altman, a utopia run by a bully named Bluto and a surrealistic look at humanity dealing with its basic emotions and needs.

There are many excellent sequences throughout the film, including Popeye's first dinner with the Oyls, which is pure Altman, featuring overlapping dialogue and his brand of humor. The fight scene in the diner is another outstanding set-up that must be viewed multiple times to truly appreciate everything that is taking place. And the hands down best has to be the engagement sequence, with Olive escaping from home as she sings "He's Large," meeting Popeye and finding Swee'pea, while Bluto destroys her house.

Was this Robin Williams "best" film. Of course not, but it is the film that brought his magic to the big screen and began his honing of a skill that would be appreciated far beyond the silver screen.

IRON SKY (2012)

Cast - never mind, you wouldn't know any of them

Sometimes a film is so, uhh, bad you can't help but watch to see if it can possibly get any worse. IRON SKY - set in 2018 - gives us President Sarah Palin (told you it was bad), who in an attempt to win her re-election bid sends a pair of astronauts to the moon - one of them is black, giving rise to the poster "Black to the Moon!" (Honestly, it gets worse). When the astronauts reach the moon, one of them tops a rise and discovers a giant moon base where Helium 3 is being mined. As he stares in disbelief a figure rises up and shoots him - the figure is a Nazi storm trooper (Warned you). Yes, we have stumbled upon a Nazi base stashed safely away on the "dark side of the moon." (Sorry, Pink Floyd) where they have been working since 1945 to return and take over the earth.

The surviving astronaut is taken to the Uber Fuehrer and as his helmet is pulled from his head the Nazis discover he is BLACK! Nazis (and some right wing politicians), knowing that blacks are totally inferior, are more than puzzled by this turn of events. Not wanting to give away too much of the plot - honestly, you gotta check this one out for yourself - I will say that the black guy teams up with a hot, blonde Aryan Nazi chick to thwart the advance of the "Narzis" (thanks for that one Mel Brooks) on the earth with their space Zeppelins (no kidding - space Zeppelins).

The film was produced by an amazing cross section of production companies from all around the world and was filmed in Frankfurt, Germany; Queensland, Australia; New York City; and Lielahti, Finland. Designed as a "dark comedy" it misses the point on so many levels - and yet you can't stop watching!

I will give kudos to the dedicated CGI crew who turned out some astounding special effects - considering the total budget for the film was only $10 million.

Overall a good way to waste time on a Saturday evening when everything else on TV sucks and your annoying uncle has just "dropped by." Thanks to my buddy Bill for providing this gem for my film library.