4 Shots From 4 Inaugural Oscar Winners: Wings, Sunrise, The Last Command, Seventh Heaven

4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking.

Today is the 90th anniversary of the very first Academy Awards ceremony!

On May 16th, 1929, a private dinner was held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, California.  The dinner was largely meant to celebrate the establishment of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  The brainchild of Louis B. Mayer, the AMPAS was founded to help mediate labor disputes between the studios and the unions.  As almost an afterthought, it was decided that AMPAS would also give out annual awards to honor the best films of the year.

12 awards were handed out on May 16th, before an audience of 270 people.  The entire awards ceremony took 15 minutes.  That’s quite a contrast to what the Academy eventually became.

In honor of that 15-minute ceremony, here’s….

4 Shots From 4 Films Honored At The Very First Oscar Ceremony

Wings (1927, dir by William Wellman) Won The Outstanding Production Awards

Sunrise (1927, dir by F.W. Murnau) Won Best Unique and Artistic Picture

The Last Command (1928, dir by Josef von Sternberg) Won Best Actor — Emil Jannings

Seventh Heaven (1927, dir by Frank Borzage) Winner Best Actress — Janet Gaynor

Along with her performance in Seventh Heaven, Janet Gaynor was also honored for her work in Street Angel and Sunrise.  Emil Jannings was honored for his work in both The Last Command and The Way of all Flesh,

Here’s what else won at the inaugural Oscar ceremony:

Best Direction, Comedy Picture — Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Knights

Best Direction, Drama Picture — Frank Borzage for Seventh Heaven

Best Original Story — Ben Hecht for Underworld

Best Adaptation — Benjamin Glazer for Seventh Heaven, based on the play by Austin Strong

Best Art Direction — William Cameron Menzies for The Dove and Tempest

Best Cinematography — Charles Rosher and Karl Struss for Sunrise

Best Engineering Effects — Roy Pomeroy for Wings

Best Title Writing — Joseph Farnham for Fair Co-Ed; Laugh, Clown, Laugh; and Telling the World.

Cannes Film Review: The Silent World (dir by Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle)

In the history of Cannes Film Festival, only two documentaries have won the Palme d’Or.

The second documentary to win was Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which won in 2004 despite not being a particularly good film.  In fact, even by the standards of Michael Moore, it was deceptive and sloppy.  However, it was also anti-Bush at a time when the entire world was anti-Bush and that was enough for it to win.  (Hilariously, at the time, there was serious talk that Fahrenheit 9/11 would somehow keep Bush from winning reelection, as if anyone who was even thinking of voting for Bush would have ever bothered to sit through Moore’s film.)

Far more interesting than Moore’s screed is the first documentary to win the Palme, 1956’s The Silent World.  Narrated and co-directed (with Louis Malle) by the famed oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau, the film follows Cousteau and the crew of Calypso over the course of two and a half years, as they explore the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.  The film was one of those first to make use of underwater color photography, which at the time was quite revolutionary.  Chances are that, for many audiences in 1956, The Silent World was their first chance to see what the undersea world was actually like.

Unfortunately, Jacques and his merry band of divers spend a good deal of the documentary destroying stuff.  Watching the film, it’s obvious that the divers don’t understand the potential damage of their actions and Cousteau would go on to renounce a lot of the exploration techniques used in The Silent World but still, it’s hard not to occasionally cringe.  Watching the divers as they explore the underwater depths, you immediately notice that they seem to be rather grabby, snatching everything that they can off of the ocean floor.  When Cousteau feels that a coral reef is getting in the way of his research, he solves the problem with dynamite.  Then there’s the scene where the crew of Calypso kill several sharks that are eating the carcass of a baby whale.  (Cousteau explains that the shark is the diver’s natural enemy, which may be true but doesn’t excuse the slaughter that follows.)  Making all of this even worse is that the baby whale wouldn’t have died in the first place if it hadn’t been hit by the Calypso’s propeller.  Scenes like that leave you wondering if maybe it would be better for everyone is Jacques and his crew just went home.

And yet, at the same time, this documentary features scenes of underwater beauty that remains breathtaking even after 62 years.  The underwater camera captures schools of beautiful fish ducking out-of-the-way of the human invaders and, in the films most haunting sequence, we follow a diver as he explores a sunken ship.  In these moments, the beauty of the underwater world overwhelms you and you forget about your reservations about what’s going on with the crew of the Calypso.  In these moments, you embrace the beauty of it all and the world suddenly seems as if its full of limitless possibilities.

In those moments, you can understand why The Silent World not only won an Oscar for Best Feature Documentary but the coveted Palme d’Or as well.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Atlantic City (dir by Louis Malle)

(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1981 best picture nominee, Atlantic City!)

Welcome to Atlantic City, New Jersey!

It’s a city with a storied past and an uncertain future.  It’s a place where old men on street corners can tell you stories about meeting Bugsy Siegel in the lobby of an old hotel that’s just been demolished.  The decrepit remains of old Atlantic City co-exists next to half-completed luxury casinos and hotels.  It’s a place where business deals are celebrated in the Frank Sinatra Suite and where a woman trying to make a very important phone call might find herself being serenaded by Robert Goulet.

It’s also the home of Lou (Burt Lancaster).  From the minute we first see Lou, it’s obvious that he’s a man past his time.  He walks up and down the worst streets of Atlantic City, dressed in a gray suit and trench coat.  With his white mustache and his coolly professional manner, he looks like he belongs in an old movie and not hanging out in his shabby apartment or drinking in the local bar.  When Lou was younger, he was acquainted with all of the big names: Siegel, Luciano, Costello, Lansky.  Of course, he wasn’t ever much of a mobster.  He used to run numbers.  If pressed, he’ll tell some interesting stories but it’s not difficult to tell that he’s lying.  (At one point, it’s mentioned that Lou’s Mafia nickname was Numbnut.)  Now, Lou is an old man.  Much like a condemned Atlantic City hotel, he’ll soon be due for demolition.  He spends most of his time taking care of Grace (Kate Reid), the widow of a mobster.  When he’s not responding to Grace’s demands, he watches his neighbor, Sally (Susan Sarandon).

Sally is originally from Canada.  She came to America looking for a better life and ended up working as a waitress.  Under the strict tutelage of Joseph (Michel Piccoli), Sally is learning how to be a blackjack dealer.  Someday, she hopes that she’ll be able to move out of her apartment and into a communal house on the beach.  Until then, she works hard every day and then returns to her apartment, little realizing that she’s being watched by Lou.

And then David shows up.

David (played by Canadian character actor Robert Joy) is Sally’s estranged husband.  Sally knows that David can’t be trusted but she reluctantly allows him and his pregnant girlfriend (Hollis McLaren) to stay with her for a few days.  David has stolen a large amount of cocaine from the Philadelphia mob.  David wants to sell it but he quickly discovers that no one in Atlantic City is willing to deal with someone who they don’t know.  Fortunately, for David, he runs into Lou.  Lou, looking for a chance to be a real gangster and also wanting a chance to get closer to Sally, agrees to help David sell the cocaine.  Unfortunately, for David, two hit men from Philadelphia have traced him to Atlantic City and are determined to not only get their cocaine back but to also kill David as well.

It may sound like the set up for a standard crime thriller but Atlantic City is actually a thoughtful meditation on getting older, falling in love, and dealing with the fact that things change.  Lou is a relic of the past, looking for one last chance to make his mark before, like the older buildings on the boardwalk, he’s demolished and forgotten about.  Sally and David are the dreamers, hoping to build a future in America.

Louis Malle directs at a leisurely pace.  Those looking for a hyperkinetic gangster film will be disappointed.  There’s only two acts of violence in Atlantic City and Malle presents both of them in a low-key, matter-of-fact fashion.  Instead, Malle focuses on exploring the lives and dreams of the film’s characters and Burt Lancaster rewards that attention with an absolutely outstanding performance as a dignified man who knows his best days are behind him but who still refuses to give in to defeat.  It’s one of Lancaster’s best performances and he was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for best actor.

Atlantic City was nominated for best picture but lost to Chariots of Fire.

Short Horror Film Review: Spirits of the Dead — William Wilson (dir by Louis Malle)

Directed by Louis Malle, William Wilson is the second part of the 1968 anthology film, Spirits of the Dead.  All three of the stories were adapted from the work of Edgar Allan Poe.

William Wilson is one of Poe’s best known and most highly regarded stories.  It’s also one that has been adapted into several films, perhaps most famously as the silent German film Student of Prague.  So, how did Louis Malle do when it came time to direct his own version?

Malle’s William Wilson opens with the title character (played by Alain Delon) running through the cobblestone streets of a gray city.  As we shall soon learn, the time is the early 19th century.  William Wilson is an officer in the Austrian army, assigned to an occupied Italian village.  Wilson, with blood on his head, rushes into a church, ducks into a confessional, and tells the priest that he has just murdered someone.

Wilson goes on to tell the story of not just his life but also the life of his Doppelganger, who is also named William Wilson and who is just as virtuous as the first Wilson is corrupt.  All of his life, the first William Wilson has just wanted to be evil in peace and every time, the Doppelganger has shown up and ruined things.  The Doppelganger first showed up when Wilson was a young boy and he’s proceeded to always pop up wherever Wilson may happen to go.  When the first Wilson was enrolled in medical school and wanted to dissect a village girl, his Doppelganger had to show up and stop things.  When the first Wilson beat the famous courtesan, Giuseppina (Brigitte Bardot), at cards and won the right to whip her, the Doppelganger had to show up and let everyone know that Wilson had cheated.  Is the Doppelganger real or is he just a figment of Wilson’s imagination?  Is Wilson just evil or is he crazy as well?  Wilson isn’t sure but he does know that a well-placed dagger is one way to determine the truth…

Reportedly, Malle agreed to direct William Wilson because he was trying to raise the money to direct a far more personal film, Murmer of the Heart.  As such, Malle didn’t have a personal stake in William Wilson and made several compromises to keep the film’s producer happy.  As a result, William Wilson often doesn’t make much sense.  For instance, how does Wilson go from being merely decadent to suddenly trying to dissect a living human being?  Though the idea of Wilson cheating at cards is taken straight from Poe’s original story, Brigitte Bardot’s lengthy cameo still feels out of place.

That said, Malle was a good enough director that, even if he was detached from the end result, his segment of Spirits of the Dead is always watchable.  The film’s best moments are the ones that simply study Alain Delon’s fascinating face.  Delon feels miscast as the virtuous Doppelganger (who, let’s just be honest, is kind of a prig) but he is dangerously compelling at William Wilson.  The coldness of his eyes tells us everything that we need to know about who William Wilson is.

William Wilson is technically better than the 1st part of Spirits of the Dead, Roger Vadim’s Metzengerstein, but it’s never as much fun.

Criterion Collection Viewing: Week 2

For those that might not have heard of the Criterion Collection, it is a DVD/Blu-Ray distribution company that acquires, restores and beautifully packages “classic”, “important”, foreign and American films with a focus on art-house and hard to find releases. I’ve been a fan for quite some time and recently had an urge to explore their collection more deeply. You can find my post for my first week of viewing here. 


“Le Feu follet” (‘The Fire Within’) is an introspective depiction of a man nearing the end of his rope. It is directed by Louis Malle (Zazie dans le metro) and stars Maurice Ronet as Alain Leroy, a depressed recovering alcoholic who spends his time in a clinic, even though his detox has long been over. He stays because he can’t bring himself to face the real world in fear of what he might become. On a large mirror within his room are the worlds July 23. Surrounding it are pictures of a beautiful woman. She is his wife, Dorothy, who couldn’t stand his drinking and lives in New York, where he had lived before his alcoholism. But life, love and his demons became too much so he returned to France to get treatment.

The film opens with him in bed with an old friend. He attempts to star into her eyes, to find a connection, a fleeting moment, that first gaze. But alas he finds nothing. She begs him to return to New York, but he can’t for he has other plans. Later in the day his therapist pleads with him to reach out to his wife, to re-enter the world. This too is a task that he finds hard to do. Bored, he hums to himself and walks around his room. He finally sits down at his desk, opens his briefcase and removes a gun. “Life…” he says as he holds it to his mouth “…flows too slowly in me. So I speed it up. I set it right…”…but not quite yet.  Moments later as he gets into bed he declares “I kill myself tomorrow.” Suddenly the date on the mirror gains new meaning. He plans to end his misery, and had been planning to for some time.

But before he does the next morning he takes one last trip to Paris. Whether it is to say one last good bye to those he knew or find reasons to go on he doesn’t seem too sure. Sadly he finds no answers among friends, they have changed or their actions seem more pointless, unremarkable or dull as ever. One has settled down, rooted himself with a wife and children and finds interest and solace in the mythology of civilizations long lost. Another lives carefree with poets and thinkers, but seems bored and has her regrets. The last bunch he visits, though wealthy and important, are also leading lives that contain little happiness and have relationships that are falling apart.

His misery continues to grow as the memories of the man he once was, a life he now sees as wasted, all flood back. Instead of reconnecting, the hole in his soul just grows larger as he feels less and less able to connect with or “touch” the world around him. It is truly a sad and thoughtful experience. The sort that makes you think and make your own self evaluations. All of this is supported by fantastic dialogue and a wonderful lead performance and I really loved every minute of it. Highly recommended.

“Vampyr” is a surreal and chilling film by Carl Theodor Dreyer, a director who also made one of my all-time favorite films “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. “Vampyr” is a turn in a very different direction stylistically compared to that film. Here is not only his first use of sound but also whereas ‘Passion’ is a serious and easy to follow depiction of the trail and execution of Joan of Arc, “Vampyr” is a haunting tale of vampires and ghosts that blends dream and reality.

Dreyer does a fantastic job in establishing a very eerie atmosphere right from the start and it only continues to grow stronger through his brilliant use of lighting and shadows. One scene in particular was as admirable as it was creepy where human shadows are seen walking along the walls, with no actual actors to be found on screen, to represent ghosts. These ghosts are the prisoners of a vampire, who is terrorizing a local family.

When watching one must remember that the perspective of the film is through that of a young man who visits the village, and winds up trying to help the family. The often hazy and dreamlike look of scenes bring into question the ‘sanity’ of this character, especially towards the end during a premature burial sequence that makes us question what is happening. Dreyer purposely shot the film very grainy and foggy to create this distortion.

The whole experience is absolutely hypnotic though challenging. Some might find the film to be a bore, or too art-house for their tastes. These complaints would be justified because it is a strange and enigmatic film. With that said, even those who can’t get over the lack of heavy dialogue, slow pacing and editing would be stupid not to admire the technical feats and just utter bizarreness of it all. Recommended.

“The Exterminating Angel” by Luis Bunuel is a unique and often surreal assault on the bourgeois that is truly hard to explain. Its plot involves a group of upper class socialites who attend a dinner party, but when it starts to get late and time for everyone to depart none of them can seem to exit the room. It is through this simple action, their imprisonment, that Bunuel begins to dissect human behavior in a society that places etiquette and status over humanity. Their inability to leave, as if on a subconscious level none wish to be the first to go, represents the importance they place on other opinions and not wanting to be rude over all else. This sets the stage for Bunuel’s grand experiment. Locked up together we watch how they slowly lose their sanity and we see their true savage nature emerge. They are helpless without their servants, who left without explanation before the party. The whole film is a truly interesting experience, at times slow but still entertaining. It is hard to know what to take away from the whole thing. Bunuel himself said there was no true explanation for the events in the film, but his social commentary is pretty clear at times.  Recommended to those interested, but not a must watch.

“Zazie dans le metro” was Louis Malle’s new wave “comedy”, and I use the term lightly, about a young girl’s journey through Paris while visiting her uncle.

Malle employs every possible comedic gag in the book which quickly grew tiring. It is all very sporadic and loony. If looked at as if the hijinks are nothing more than the overzealous perspective of Zazie, who views the adult world as a carnival, then maybe it makes sense and is even a brave and cynical farce. Sadly it is hard to see things that way and even harder to sit through because the shtick gets old so fast. It is just way too hectic and fractured to keep ones attention and never really funny or insightful enough to even recommend.

Malle directed one of my top ten favorite films, ‘Au revioir les enfants’, which is completely different in tone and style, so I was really let down. This is perhaps the first in the series that I strongly cannot recommend.

“The Phantom Carriage”, starred and directed by Victor Sjostrom, was a film that heavily influenced Ingmar Bergman. So much so that he would end up casting Victor as the lead in my all-time favorite film ‘Wild Strawberries’, something I did not know until after I saw this and totally blew my mind in the best possible way.

As for the film, well it is somewhat simple. At the end of every year, the soul of the last person to die must take the reins of the Phantom Carriage, becoming Death. For the next full year that soul must walk the Earth collecting the bodies of sinners. The film opens on New Year’s Eve as the main character gets into a fight which leads to his untimely death. He is unfortunately the last person to die. Before he has to take Death’s place he is forced to visit those he wronged and we view his past mistakes and sins, most of which were perpetrated under the influence of alcohol. It all leads to a somewhat predictable but uplifting finish that sort of turned my off.

Based on its story and acting alone I wouldn’t have been impressed with the end result but on a technical level the film is a marvel. Double exposure was used with multiple layers to allow ghosts and Death to walk in three dimensions, behind objects in the foreground yet seen as transparent in front of objects in the background.  For a film that came out in 1921 it truly is remarkable. For this alone I’d recommend it, but its eerie, though unremarkable, story and tone and influences on directors like Bergman make it a must watch.

“Elevator to the Gallows” was a competently directed crime thriller, and also Louis Malle’s first feature film. It stars Maurice Ronet (“The Fire Within”) as Julien Tavernier who is having an affair with his boss’s wife Florence, played by Jeanne Moreau. Together they plan to kill her husband and run away together. Julien manages to achieve this goal and make it look like a suicide. He seems to be in the clear and ready to leave but notices he left a piece of evidence that could be used to realize it was a murder. He runs back into the building and takes the elevator, but halfway up it shuts down. That is because the building is closed down, with no knowledge of him still being inside, and the power shut off. While he is stuck and trying to figure out a way to escape, a flower girl with knows Julien and her criminal boyfriend steal his car and under his name check into a hotel. The two end up getting into trouble that leads back to Julien, and as the police search for him he is still stuck inside the elevator. The result of it all is an at time suspenseful and well-acted thriller that just has some really stupid moments and takes more than a few missteps at the end which really hurt it. One of those missteps is by far one of the stupidest decisions and changes in attitude I’ve seen in two characters in a long time. Sadly it isn’t clever enough to be entertaining and make up for this. What is worse is that it could have been a lot better. Don’t recommend.

“Solaris” is a haunting and poetic exploration of our consciousness and human nature. An enigmatic, visually hypnotic and beautiful science fiction film that has been called Tarkovsky’s response to “2001: A Space Odyssey”.

In the film an oceanic planet was discover and named Solaris. A space station was sent into its orbit to study its unusual surface. When they can’t seem to find anything remarkable on the planet, and after a pilot dies flying over the surface, the agency running the research begins plans to pull the plug. But lately the transmissions they have been receiving from the three remaining cosmonauts stationed above Solaris have been mysterious and nonsensical. It is decided that Kris Kelvin, a scientist and psychologist, be sent to the station to evaluate the mental and emotional crises the men aboard the station seem to be experiencing; and report back on whether the progress being made over Solaris and the state of the crew is in a condition that warrants a continuation of the whole program. Before he goes he spends his last days at his fathers, which holds many memories of his childhood and wife, who committed suicide years before. While there Kris has trouble connecting with his father, even though by the time Kris returns his father will likely be dead, so he leaves with no real goodbye.

When he arrives on Solaris the crew is in worst shape than he expected. One of them, an old acquaintance of Kris, had killed himself sometime before Kris’s  arrival. The other two, Dr. Snaut and Dr. Sartorious, can’t seem to provide any logical answers. They speak of hallucinations that are all too real, and warn him to remember he is no longer on Earth. Kris does not know what to make of it all; that is until he experiences it firsthand. That night he awakes to find Hari, his ex-wife who killed herself years before, sitting in the chair in front of his bed. Shocked, but not willing to lose himself, Kris speaks with her. He is unsure if he is dreaming, if it is simply a hallucination or some sort of alien entity. His first instinct is to get it off the ship, so he tricks her into a spacecraft and blasts her off the station.

Snaut explains to him that his actions were of little use and on the next night Hari reappears. To his best knowledge Solaris seems to be a living entity with the ability to rematerialize memories. The results are not human, but possess some memory of who they were. Perhaps the most shocking fact about them is that they cannot be killed. Burn their blood and it regenerates itself, when Hari cuts her hand the wound vanishes minutes later. Sartorius believes the only way to rid themselves of these “guests” is by blasting Solaris with heavy radiation, though they agree that this option be a last resort.

Kris tries to keep control around Hari but the memories of her and the regrets he has that resurface, not being there for her or expressing his love when he had the chance, cause his mind to slip, putting more of himself into the recreation of Hari. This only makes it harder to decide whether they should continue to try communicating with Solaris or destroy it.

“Solaris” is one of those films that leaves the viewer with so many questions and it isn’t all easy to digest and yet remains unbelievable mesmerizing. In its exploration of love, conscious, reconciliation, science and regret it becomes a deliberately slow moving and meditative experience. For nearly three hours I could barely move, I was transfixed by the story and the questions it asked. Can we escape our irretrievable past? Are we trapped by our guilt and sins? It is fascinating how Tarkovsky explores this idea of how easily we lose our grip on who we are when faced with the presence of an unknown and superior force and begin to focus our attention inwards causing the unremarkableness and inconsequentiality of being human to become so apparent compared to the rest of the universe. It really is an interesting counter argument to Kubirck’s “2001:  A Space Odyssey” and its evolution of man even against a force superior to our own.

It could easily become a new favorite upon another viewing. With that said I can’t recommend it to everyone. It is exactly the sort of foreign art-house film that can easily polarize and be labeled pretentious. If you have any interest in it, or more specifically if you want to explore Tarkovsky’s filmography, I’d recommend starting here.


As always thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed the reviews. Please leave any comments (good or bad) below.